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The Splendor of the Trinity in Undivided Light

7 December, 2009

In his Institutes, John Calvin quotes a statement from church father Gregory Nazianzus on the inseparable unity of the Trinity, the Triune God who is as wholly one in one respect as he is wholly three in another:

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. (Institutes 1.13.17)

This quote of Gregory by Calvin is well known, not primarily for what it says about God, but as a sort of window into Calvin’s personal interests, since Calvin prefaces the quote by saying, ‘that passage from Gregory vastly delights me’. But I think it’s most important to understand, not so much that Calvin was vastly delighted with this passage, but why this passage was ‘vastly delightful’ for Calvin, and why we should be delighted with it as well. Here is what Gregory had to say in a fuller context than Calvin’s quote, which explains why Calvin was so enamored of it:

[B]efore all, keep I pray you the good deposit, by which I live and work, and which I desire to have as the companion of my departure; with which I endure all that is so distressful, and despise all delights; the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. This I commit unto you to-day; with this I will baptize you and make you grow. This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of Three Infinite Ones, Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because Consubstantial; One God because of the Monarchia. No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light. (On Holy Baptism, 40.41)

This beautiful passage is the culmination of Gregory’s instruction and exhortation to those about to receive baptism, and his most ardent desire for their lives (as it was for his) is that they would seek out and defend the true and saving knowledge of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t esoteric speculation or an optional academic add-on. It’s the faith of our baptism and the faith in which we are nurtured as disciples of our Lord (Matt 28:19). For more from Creed or Chaos on what Calvin elsewhere called ‘the chief article of our religion’, explore here.

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