When we think of John Calvin, we rarely tend to consider his prolonged involvement in Trinitarian disputes. Calvin usually brings us thoughts of Reformed soteriology, a doctrine of salvation, which later came to rival that of the Remonstrants. But this doesn’t even come close to enveloping the full scope of Calvin’s work.
Throughout his time at Geneva, Calvin was involved in a Trinitarian kerfuffle referred to as the Autothean controversies. The Genevan reformers had a unified desire to preserve Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology while emphasizing the orthodox notion that the Son is God in Himself. The Son, Calvin thought, could properly be said to be autotheos. Calvin writes:
Before he clothed himself in our flesh, this eternal Word was begotten from the Father before the ages. He is true God, one with the Father in essence, power, majesty—even Jehovah, who has always possessed it of himself that he is, and has inspired the power of subsisting in other things (Confessio de Trinitate, 706).
This drew controversy, especially from a man named Pierre Caroli. Caroli had originally been invited into the fellowship of men like Farel, Varet, and even Calvin himself. Soon after, however, Caroli came out against Calvin, denouncing him as an Arian (probably because of Calvin’s view of the divine processions). An Arian is a person who denies the deity of the Son. Contemporary examples of Arianism are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refer to Jesus as God-like, but not God Himself.
Later, Caroli would call Calvin a Sabellian since Calvin rightly affirmed the aseity of the Son. A Sabellian can also be called a modalist. This position holds that God merely plays the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God works as the Father, then as the Son, then as the Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity are not seen to be real Persons according to the Sabellian. Like Arianism, this is a damnable heresy.
Caroli, therefore, accused Calvin of two punishable errors. In fact, Caroli himself referred to Calvin’s “errors” as capital offenses. In 16th century Geneva, this langauge would have been akin to calling for one’s death. Caroli saw Calvin as worthy of capital punishment. But, what was Calvin doing? Was he actually guilty of Arianism or Sabellianism? Should have he been burned at the stake? I tend to think not.
Classical Christian theism holds that whatever can be properly said of one divine Person can also be said of the other two. If the Father is eternal, so is the Son and the Spirit. If the Spirit is omnipresent, so is the Father and Son. The three divine Persons share equally in the divine essence. The Son lacks nothing which can be properly said of the Father. Thus, if the Father is God in Himself, so is the Son and the Holy Spirit. Calvin was simply being consistent with Nicene creedal language, such as, “… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.”
Caroli’s case against Calvin quickly fell apart. The good lawyer wasn’t about to be duped by someone who—though with noble intentions of doctrinal preservation—demonstrated an apparent ignorance of historical Trinitarian development. Calvin responded to Caroli’s attacks as follows:
Certainly, if the distinction between the Father and the Word be attentively considered, we shall say that the one is from the other. If, however, the essential quality of the Word be considered, in so far as he is one God with the Father, whatever can be said concerning God may also be applied to him, the second person in the glorious Trinity. Now, what is the meaning of the name Jehovah? What did that answer imply which was spoken to Moses? I AM THAT I AM. Paul makes Christ the author of this statement (Letters, 55-56).
Calvin was probably referring to Paul’s citation of Isaiah 45:23 in Romans 14:9, 10. Other biblical examples where Jesus is identified with Yahweh would be John 12:41 read with Isaiah 6:1, and Hebrews 1:10 read with Psalm 102:25. This means it is properly stated that Jesus is Yahweh.
Though Caroli called for Calvin’s death, the Genevan giant’s life was preserved and his case for the Son’s aseity was made in the strongest sense possible. For more on Calvin’s Trinitarian theology, check out Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son, by Brannon Ellis.