Reading the Bible like a Trinitarian: Calvin on the Meaning of ‘God’
When we read ‘God’ in the Bible, what does it mean?
The great majority of people, it seems, including the great majority of Christians, would answer, ‘God the Father’–in other words, the Father of Jesus the Son. The fact that most of us are ‘functionally unitarian’ is closely tied to the assumption that according to the Bible God=God the Father, unless of course the Bible obviously and clearly calls Jesus or the Holy Spirit ‘God’. What I mean is that, because we read the Bible this way, we think and speak and pray this way too–in thought, words and prayer, ‘God’ nearly always means something along the lines of ‘God the Father’. But if we’re Christians reading the Bible, then we’re trinitarians, not unitarians, and we confess that the Son and the Spirit are no less ‘God’ than the Father, that they are in fact personally distinct from one another and yet together are the one ‘God’: we believe in a Triune God, as thoroughly one in one way as he is three in another.
This isn’t some philosophical construct imposed upon the simplicity of scripture, but the unified testimony of all the scriptures: there is only one true God, the Creator and Redeemer; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each God, each the Creator and Redeemer; yet Father, Son, and Spirit are personally distinct from one another and in intimate relationship with one another. How does the church summarize all this biblical testimony? One God in three persons, one according to essence and three according to persons. So how do we read the Bible in this way, the way it requires us to read it according to its own testimony?
Calvin, in contrast to the unitarian reading of the Bible that was becoming popular among the radicals of his day, read the Bible in a different, more nuanced way, which I believe is so important for practicing a deeply trinitarian reading and interpretation of the Bible. Calvin wasn’t the only one reading the Bible this way, of course — all the orthodox traditions of Christianity read the Bible this way — but his discussion is really helpful nonetheless.
For Calvin, since our Triune God is both fully one (as essentially God in his ‘being’) and fully three (as personally Father, Son, and Spirit), we must read the Bible in a way that is careful to respect which way the Bible is using the word ‘God’, whether according to the essence itself or distinguishing between the persons.
Sometimes the Bible says ‘God’ relationally, referring particularly to God the Father. Calvin therefore taught that when the Bible says ‘God’ in a context which is comparing him to Jesus or the Spirit, the word is used in a way that distinguishes one person from the others, and in this case ‘God’ means ‘God the Father’, as was the usual usage of the New Testament authors (especially Paul). Paul often refers to “God the Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ”, and he also often simply refers to “God” and “Christ”, meaning the same thing. The examples are numerous; read through some of Paul and you’ll see what I mean.
The important thing to understand here is that ‘God’ means ‘God the Father’ only when ‘God’ is personally distinguished from another person of the Trinity in the context of the passage. The Father is the first person of the Trinity, and he is the person from whom all our redemption flows, through the Son and by the Spirit. At the same time, this personal order doesn’t lessen the full ‘Godness’ of the second and third persons–the persons aren’t personally each other, but they are all fully and equally the same God. So even Paul often uses ‘God’ in a way that isn’t distinguishing the Father from the Son or Spirit (‘I thank my God concerning you’, for example), and in those passages he’s not referring to the first person as over against the other two.
Sometimes the Bible says ‘God’ simply, referring generally to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In these contexts, Calvin said, ‘God’ is used in a general way that is not distinguishing ‘God’ from another divine person in the surrounding passage. This is often the case in the New Testament, but especially the case in the Old Testament when the mystery of the triune nature of the God of the Bible was only very dimly revealed in hints and inferences and prophecies. So, in the full light of all the scriptures, we must understand ‘God’ in general to mean ‘the Triune God’–what other ‘God in general’ is there? And certainly we don’t want to say that God the Father is somehow more ‘God in general’ than the Son and Spirit?
So in Psalm 46, as but one of so many examples, ‘God is our refuge and strength’ must be understood and interpreted as something equally true of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three persons who in their unique personal ways as one God work all things together in unity for our salvation–the Triune God is our refuge and strength. The same Goes for ‘the LORD’ later in the Psalm–‘LORD’ is no more automatically a proper name for God the Father as ‘God’ is. But when ‘God’ (or ‘LORD’, etc.) is used to distinguish among the persons (as in Psalm 110, ‘the LORD said to my Lord’), God the Father is chiefly in view.
In sum: When any of the names of God are used in a general or unqualified sense, the Triune God is ultimately who the Bible is talking about. When any of the names of God are used in a personal and mutually related sense, one of the persons (almost always the Father) is who the Bible is talking about.
Calvin talked about this quite a bit in several different places (if you want the references, let me know), because of the problems he was facing in the problematic biblical interpretations of the antitrinitarians of his day. The antitrinitarians were arguing that, since the Bible so often distinguished ‘God’ from Jesus, the Father was properly the one true God and Jesus was…something else. The first part of their conclusion is very common today, and thank God that the second part of their conclusion isn’t more common! Calvin’s response was to read the Bible in the trinitarian way the Bible calls us to read it–or rather, to read the Bible in the way the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit calls us to understand and acknowledge himself as the one true God, our Triune Creator and Redeemer.