Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son

Article excerpt

Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son. By Brannon Ellis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, viii + 250 pp., $135.00.

Brannon Ellis has written a valuable book on Calvin's view of Christ's aseity and should be commended for the lucidity and clarity of his argument for its importance. Ellis holds the position of Associate Editor of Academic and Reference at InterVarsity Press, USA, as well as Project Editor for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. He was co-editor along with Daniel J. Bush for John Webster's The Grace of Truth, and has various other works forthcoming.

Throughout the book Ellis argues that Calvin maintained a pro-Nicene, or classical, stance on the Trinity throughout all the debates he faced during his lifetime. This stance emphasized the distinction between essential and relational language about God, and indeed further developed that classical trinitarian position. However, Calvin's understanding of the Son's aseity became a minority position even within the Reformed tradition, and Ellis aims to rehabilitate Calvin's arguments for the sake of consistent trinitarian language and thoroughly trinitarian theology. Although he focuses on Calvin, he hopes to serve contemporary trinitarian dialogues as a whole by bringing consistency to their language as well as by suggesting some constructive, positive implications resulting from Calvin's position. This involves a correction and evolution of Warfield's view of Calvin, among other things.

In the introduction, Ellis describes the context in which Calvin's trinitarian debates took place, the current state of the question, and the contribution of his own work. Chapter 1 begins to explore Calvin's position, starting with the 1559 Institutes. In Chapter 2, Ellis defines Calvin's relationship to Nicea (or "classical" trinitarianism, to use Ellis's term) as one of complex solidarity in that Calvin took a pro-Nicene stance while diverging from most other classical trinitarians in his exposition of the Trinity. The third chapter details the role of eternal generation in the classical trinitarian stance. Ellis moves on to survey various approaches to trinitarian language (ch. 4), and describes the classical and mainstream Reformed approaches as that of tension in distinction (ch. 5). In the sixth chapter Ellis turns to the "minority report" within the Reformed tradition and argues that this report is most faithful and consistent with respect to Nicene trinitarianism. In closing, Ellis moves beyond description to prescription, constructively developing his major themes, such as the divine name "I AM" (which he understands as denoting YHWH's aseity) and a covenantal ontology.

The argument begins by surveying the 1559 Institutes, examining Calvin's "complex solidarity" with classical trinitarianism, and detailing how eternal generation relates to classical trinitarianism. Ellis continually emphasizes that Christian theology arises from and must be faithful to God's self-revelation in Scripture, which means that conformity to Scripture must guide his discussion of the Trinity and aseity, just as Scripture was the norm for Calvin. It is for this reason that the author rejects attempts to explain the "how" of the Trinity, as well as attempts to argue from reason to the Trinity. For Calvin, God gives himself to be known, and that revelation is about who God is, not an explanation of how God is three and a unity, nor a revelation that human reason could reach on its own. Ellis provides a prime example of how just such a chastened theological approach can yield positive, substantial contributions to its field.

Furthermore, Calvin advocated, and Ellis reaffirms, a position that carefully distinguishes between essential and relative language about God, in which the persons of the Trinity are distinct in subsistent relationships, order, and operation (relative language), while they have a common nature (essential language). …

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