The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

Though the three most influential Reformed confessions (Westminster, Savoy, 2LCF) begin with Scripture, it may surprise the reader to learn that neither confession begins with Scripture as a stand-alone authority. In contemporary discussion revolving around the doctrine of sola Scriptura, too often is the authority of God mixed up with the authority of Scripture. Unwitting or not, the consequence of such a confusion not only insinuates Scripture stands alone as a non-derivative source of knowledge, but it also obscures the influence of theology proper in accounting for the nature of God’s Word. God’s Word is authoritative precisely because it derives from the chief Authority, God Himself. But if Scripture is unhinged from its divine cause, then its very nature falls into question. Inevitably, we begin to subject Scripture and its meaning to various other prejudgments rather than understanding the doctrine of God as the seat and determining agent of what Scripture is.

The current fight for sola Scriptura appears not to be a fight for that doctrine classically understood, but a fight for a particular modern understanding which unwittingly blurs the Creator-creature distinction. Is Scripture creature? If it is, it has a Creator and thus must be understood in light of that Creator. Is Scripture not creature? Well, then, it would be Creator (and we will go ahead and assume this option is off-limits to all of us). Divorced from a robust theology proper, our doctrine of Scripture will slowly but surely erode. If Scripture is caused, then it must be viewed in light of its cause. If we perceive it to be uncaused, with no determining ontology (God) in the background, then it becomes anybody’s wax nose. If there is no immutable cause, then why think the meaning of Scripture is anything but fluid?

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

At this point, it would be helpful to note that the Second London Confession (1677) explicitly grounds the doctrine of Scripture in God Himself. It reads:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (1.4).

Noteworthy in this paragraph is the transfer of Scripture from the hands of men (or any church) into the hands of God Himself. The negative influence of the Papacy is, of course, behind this paragraph more than any other prevalent institution during the 17th century. Perhaps the church of England, controlled as it were by the monarch, falls within its purview as well.

The central detail is the sufficient reason for why the Scripture ought to be received, that is, because it proceeds from God. The explanation for why we ought to receive Scripture is not the creature but the Creator. The explanation of Scripture’s authority and thus our obligation to receive it is found outside Scripture itself, namely in the God who authored it. And though human institutions may serve as a means to increase our interest in and appreciation of Scripture (cf. 1.5), the sufficient reason for receiving Scripture is its divine Author.

Even though ch. 1 of the confession is purposed to elucidate the doctrine of Scripture, par. 4 can’t help but to bring the doctrine of God into it—a move which apparently anticipates ch. 2. Apart from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Scripture is rendered void—being detached from the cause that makes it what it is. This is why the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God come first in the confessional order—they are the principles of the faith. Scripture is the principle of knowing God unto salvation. God, however, is the principium essendi, or the principle of Being which explains the nature or ontology of Scripture in the first place.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Because God is the cause of Scripture, we are automatically summoned toward a theological interpretation of it. All texts must be interpreted in light of the One who inspired them. Not a single biblical text stands in isolation from its divine Author. Moreover, there is no consideration of a single text in isolation from the context of all the other texts. Knowledge of God, therefore, will shape how we understand the shape of the biblical canon and its particulars. This knowledge comes from two distinct places. 

First, nature bears the inescapable fruits of divine knowledge such that all people know God. Genesis 1:1 resonates even with the first-time Bible-reader because they have been created with the habitus to know God. More than this, throughout the course of their lives, they have discerned Him through His works (Rom. 1:18-20). Hence, Francis Turretin enlists natural theology as a preparatory help in one’s approach to revealed theology. For Turretin, natural theology is useful, “as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures.”[1]

More pertinent to our purpose, however, is the question of how to prioritize theological data derived from Scripture, and how the clearest parts of Scripture illuminate obscure passages. The Second London reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).” Clearer texts help us to understand less clear texts. Similarly, the divine cause of Scripture should temper our understanding of the creaturely language utilized by Scripture. Texts about the creature should not determine the meaning of texts about the Creator.

This is not to say God’s works as recorded in Scripture teach us nothing about God. Certainly, God’s works reveal God to us. But in spite of God’s works acting as a medium of divine revelation, we must understand that neither these works nor our apprehension of them condition God as He is in Himself in any way. As Dr. Richard Barcellos notes, “Though we learn of God in the economy, God’s external or outer works, we cannot account properly for those works without a theology of the One who works prior to accounting for them.”[2] Quoting Dr. John Webster, he writes, “God’s outer works are most fully understood as loving and purposive when set against the background of his utter sufficiency—against the fact that no external operation or relation can constitute or augment his life…”[3] And finally, Barcellos helpfully observes, “Without allowing first place to theology proper, we cannot make sense of the cosmological assertions of Scripture, nor, in particular, its anthropomorphic language pertaining to divine action…”[4]

Divine sufficiency accounts of Scriptural sufficiency. Apart from distinguishing between the ontology of the Creator and the ontology of the creature, throughout our Scriptural exegesis, our Scriptural exegesis cannot be expected to either yield or preserve a consistent Creator-creature distinction. This is why Biblicist accounts of Scriptural meaning tend toward numerous forms of heresy—from pantheism to patripassianism to Arianism. On a consistent Biblicist hermeneutics, nothing should be allowed to influence biblical interpretation, not even God Himself who is the very Author of the Bible. On this account, the creature will inevitably have priority, and God will slowly but surely be recrafted into man’s image instead of the other way around.


The Creator-creature distinction is that in light of which we ought to read Scripture. If our exegesis yields conclusions which effectively drag God into His economy, we should retool our exegetical approach in order to avoid such a miscalculation. Scripture must be understood in light of its Author. And though Scripture reveals its Author to us, it also reveals His works. Biblical revelation of God’s works must be tempered by biblical revelation of God Himself. This theological interpretation will not only preserve theology proper, but it will preserve the integrity and objectivity of Scripture and its purpose. Moreover, it will protect us from ourselves. If left to ourselves, we would perceive Scripture to be a wax nose. But if accountable to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our biblical interpretation, seeing all of Scripture in light of its divine cause, we will be led to uphold an orthodox doctrine of Scripture as well.


[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

[2] Barcellos, Richard, Trinity and Creation, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020), 13.

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

John Calvin on John 17:5

John Calvin on John 17:5

Recent discussion centered around the nature of the incarnation of the Son has driven some to investigate the interpretational tradition of John 17:5. Christology is one of the most difficult loci of Christian theology, and so we should approach it humbly, not approving of error, but also striving patiently and lovingly with our brothers when we believe they’ve misspoken. 

Presently, there seems to be a great deal of difficulty accounting for the Son’s assumption of a human nature and, as a result, the things the Son does in that human nature. Case in point, Christ’s prayer for the glory He had with the Father “before the world was” in John 17:5.

The issue seems to be the prima facie grammar of that singular verse. But behind the grammar lies the theological assumptions (or lack thereof) of the language used to speak of God in Himself: self-existence, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity. It’s as if some come to texts like John 17:5 and drop all their theology proper at the door, allowing for contingency, mutability, passibility, and complexity in the Son’s divine nature.

On its face, John 17:5 seems to insinuate Christ once had a glory that He did not have as He prayed, a glory that He prayerfully demands to resume upon the fulfillment of His Father’s will. Because of the confusion arising from this particular reading of John 17:5, I thought it best to revisit the traditional way in which the sense has been understood by the likes of John Calvin. Calvin is often at variance with other commentators, so I do not take him to be the end-all. But for all of Calvin’s novelty, e.g. John 5:20, the commitment to the fundamental Christology shown below remains continuous between him and others. I will survey Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as his direct commentary on John 17:5, making my own comments as needed.

The Theology Behind Calvin’s Exegesis (The Institutes)

When reading a 16th century Bible commentator, like Calvin, it is important to have some grasp of the categories he was working with. For this, we need to visit his Institutes, in which he writes concerning the Person of the Son in whom, at the incarnation, two natures are united without conversion or confusion—

When it is said that the Word was made flesh, we must not understand it as if he were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh, but that he made choice of the Virgin’s womb as a temple in which he might dwell. He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For we maintain, that the divinity was so conjoined and united with the humanity, that the entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.[1]

Key here is the phraseology, “that the entire properties of each nature remain entire.” Though “divine prerogatives” appears to be a term increasingly utilized in postmodernity (though there are uses in the 17th century), if it is to be used it must be included within the scope of what Calvin terms “properties of… nature.” In this case, the Person of the Son would not “lay aside” any properties or prerogatives proper to the divine nature as has recently been claimed. Instead, the Son qua God would maintain those prerogatives, though such (divine) prerogatives are neither proper to nor exemplified in the Person of the Son according to His human nature. In the same place, Calvin articulates what would later be termed partitive exegesis

They sometimes attribute to him qualities which should be referred specially to his humanity and sometimes qualities applicable peculiarly to his divinity, and sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not apply specially to either.[2]

We see this parsing between divine and human natures united in the one Person elsewhere in Calvin when he writes—

Again, his being called the servant of the Father, his being said to grow in stature, and wisdom, and favour with God and man, not to seek his own glory, not to know the last day, not to speak of himself, not to do his own will, his being seen and handled, apply entirely to his humanity; since, as God, he cannot be in any respect said to grow, works always for himself, knows every thing, does all things after the counsel of his own will, and is incapable of being seen or handled.[3]

Thus, Calvin believes that what is proper to the divine nature ought to be appropriated to the Person of the Son accordingly, and likewise in terms of the human nature, while yet some things apply generically to Christ’s Person on the hypothesis of the communicatio idiomatum, e.g. the authority of Christ which is predicated of His Person. Nevertheless, creaturely traits must be referred to the creaturely nature, and divine “traits” to the divine.

John Calvin on John 17:5

Now that we have seen some of Calvin’s key assumptions, especially his partitive language, we are better equipped to observe and speak to his actual commentary on John 17:5. He begins by writing:

The glory which I had with thee. He desires to be glorified with the Father, not that the Father may glorify him secretly, without any witnesses, but that, having been received into heaven, he may give a magnificent display of his greatness and power, that every knee may bow to him. (Philippians 2:10)[4]

This is a glory to be manifest as a result of the finished work of Christ. Our Lord speaks of this glory in Luke 24:26, “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” This is a “display of his greatness” according to His human nature since, according to the divine nature this glorious greatness in the Person of the Son was never diminished or laid aside whatsoever. He concludes:

Consequently, that phrase in the former clause, with the Father, is contrasted with earthly and fading glory, as Paul describes the blessed immortality of Christ, by saying that he died to sin once, but now he liveth to God. (Romans 6:10)

Thus, a heavenly glory which Christ procured according to His human nature. He goes on:

The glory which I had with thee before the world was. He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him, but only that he may appear in the flesh, such as he was before the creation of the world; or, to speak more plainly, that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed. 

Calvin’s words here are crucial, “He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him…” In other words, this glory is a glory the Son always possessed and never laid aside, but prayed that He might enter into it according to His human nature at His exaltation. This exaltation was not an exaltation according to His divine nature, but according to His human nature. After all, how could the Person of the Son be exalted according to His divine nature if the divinity never underwent humiliation?

This becomes plain when Calvin says, “that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed.” This is nothing more and nothing less than a prayer for an incarnate glorification of the divine Person of the Son according to His incarnate human nature. In other words, the Person of the Son never laid aside any glory in the divine nature. According to His human nature, however, all that principally and necessarily pertains to humanity, apart from sin, must be ascribed to Him. Calvin goes on—

This is a remarkable passage, which teaches us that Christ is not a God who has been newly contrived, or who has existed only for a time; for if his glory was eternal, himself also has always been. Besides, a manifest distinction between the person of Christ and the person of the Father is here expressed; from which we infer, that he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.

The Son, eternally God, of one essence/nature with the Father, assumed the fulness of a human nature. Features of creatureliness (not divinity) are appropriated to the human nature and not to the divine, e.g. walking, praying, ignorance, etc. Furthermore, Calvin notes the distinction between the Persons of the Father and Son, and also the manner of distinction, “he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.” In His Institutes, he further elaborates—

The worthy doctors who then had the interests of piety at heart, in order to defeat it is man’s dishonesty, proclaimed that three subsistence were to be truly acknowledged in the one God. That they might protect themselves against tortuous craftiness by the simple open truth, they affirmed that a Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God, or (which is the same thing) in the unity of God.[5]

He further adds, “In each hypostasis the whole nature is understood the only difference being that each has his own peculiar subsistence.”[6] The “peculiar subsistence” or the “peculiar property” of either Person is “unbegottenness (Father),” “begottenness (Son),” and, “spiration (Spirit).” These are termed the eternal “relations” of origin. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it this way, “the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son…” (2.3).

Calvin adds further detail, “when we denote the relation which [the Son] bears to the Father, we correctly make the Father the beginning of the Son.”[7] By “beginning” it is here intended that the Father is the eternal “generator” of the Son, whilst the Son is eternally “generated” of the Father. Thus, for Calvin, it is in this way we distinguish between Father, Son, and Spirit, “But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.” Hence, the Athanasian Creed, “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time.” And Chalcedon, “but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”


It can readily be seen that Calvin understands Christ’s praying in John 17:5 as according to His humanity, not His divinity. Some, thinking it a compromise of Trinitarian doctrine, worry that if the Son does not pray here according to His divinity, distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead are lost. However, the Persons in the Godhead are not, and have never been understood to be (save in recent history), distinguished in virtue of inner-Trinitarian communication, distinct centers of consciousness, distinct wills, etc. The Persons are not distinguished according to relational interaction between the divine Persons. Such would entail process and, thus, change in the Godhead.

Fixed thoroughly within the tradition of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Calvin shows us that the Persons are distinguished according to their manner of subsistence, i.e. the relations of origin, which constitute what he called the “peculiar properties” of each—unbettonness (Father), begottenness (Son), and spirations/breathed forth of Father and Son (Holy Spirit).

Therefore, according to Calvin, Christ prays according to His human nature in John 17:5, and the divine Persons remain sufficiently and really distinguished in virtue of the relations of origin. The Father is distinguished by unbegotten begetting, the Son by begotten begottenness, and the Spirit by spiration of both Father and Son. The divine Person of the Son prays to the divine Person of the Father, not as the Son eternally subsists in the divine nature, but as He subsists in the human nature from the time of the incarnation onward. Thus, to borrow the words of Matthew Henry, “Though as God he was prayed to, as man he prayed.”[8] 


[1] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 8012.

[2] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8012.

[3] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8027.

[4] Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 621-22.

[5] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1692.

[6] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1993.

[7] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2008.

[8] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1779.

John Gill’s Christology

John Gill’s Christology

God is far beyond our ways such that man must strain the outer limits of his language just to flick the hem of His robe (if that). For this reason, the commonality of human error in thinking and speaking about God, while not right, is nevertheless understandable. Take any given hour of the day, it is doubtful any of us could manage to count all our theological errors in either thought or deed, either explicit or implicit. Without God’s grace, we would be doomed.

Notwithstanding, in proportion with the grace God gives, it is of monumental importance that we take much care in our theological efforts, confessing our errors when we have opportunity. What we think about God is everything.

Basic Heresies

Before we examine the words of the good doctor John Gill on the incarnation as they appear in his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity,[1] we will need to prepare the reader for the orthodoxy therein, that it might be all the more appreciated. As far as I can tell, Gill implies the falsehood of at least four heresies: (1) Anthropomorphitism; (2) Patripassianism/Modalism; (3) Kenotic theory; and (4) Arianism. I briefly describe each immediately below— 

(1) Anthropomorphitism: A heresy that holds that what is properly said of the creature, and especially man, may be properly said also of the divine essence. Extreme and obvious examples of this heresy would be the claim that God has a physical, anatomical or celestial body. More subtle versions exist in the affirmations of change (motion), complexity (or composition), etc. in the divine essence. Assigning any of these things to God beyond metaphor or analogy confuses the Creator/creature distinction.

(2) Patripassianism/Modalism: A heresy that suggests that in the suffering of Christ, which includes the whole of His humiliation, likewise the Father suffers. If the Father and the Son are one essence, and the Son incarnates, then incarnation is implied of the Father as well, or so it is thought. This heresy is usually considered a twin of Modalism if not identified with it, since it implicatively conceives of God as one Person. Justin Martyr addresses this heresy in his First Apology.

(3) Kenotic Theory: This is the heresy that must take for granted Anthropomorphitism in that it requires an “emptying” of either the Son’s divinity itself in whole or part, or the laying aside of certain prerogatives proper to His divinity in His incarnation. In kenosis, the Son’s divine and human natures are blended or confused such that what is proper to the creaturely nature is misappropriated to the divine nature, e.g. since the Son was humble in the incarnate state, and since the Son is God, He must have ceased the exercise of divine power or prerogative during His humility. We will see how Gill, with all the orthodox, avoid the Kenotic theory.

(4) Arianism: Arianism is perhaps the most famous heresy mentioned here, being the chief cause for the Nicene Council in 325 AD. Arianism conceives of the Son as a created being who is nevertheless God-like. For Arius, the Son was the first creation, but is altogether creaturely.

John Gill’s Christology & Why It Matters

In some corners of contemporary theological discourse, a well-meant effort to “just be biblical” is leading some to either adopt or neglect categories that imply one (or more) of the above four heresies. I thought it helpful, then, to reach back in time to an older mind than our own in order to gain a fresh perspective. To do this, I will quote Gill intermittently, making comments throughout to show how his language avoids the above mentioned heresies—

Nor by the Logos, or Word made flesh, are we to understand the divine nature, essentially considered, or the essence of God, as common to the three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit; for then it would be equally true of the Father and the Spirit, that they are made flesh, or become incarnate, as of the Son; as it must needs be, if the divine nature, so considered, was incarnated; or the human nature was united to it as such: such phrases are therefore unsound, unsafe, and dangerous… 

At this point, Gill is quite clearly protecting the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He says that the “Word made flesh,” or the Son’s assumption of a human nature, should not be applied to the divine essence properly so-called, but to the divine essence as it subsists in the second relation of origin, or the Person of the Son. This language avoids Patripassianism/Modalism because it consistently recognizes the real distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit, and the modal distinction between the divine essence and the Persons (more on this shortly).

…as that the man Christ stands in the divine nature; and that the human nature is united to Deity; this is not the truth of things; the human nature is not united to Deity absolutely considered; but as that in a distinct mode of subsisting, is in the second Person, the Son of God…

Continuing his negation, Gill denies that the incarnation is as “the man Christ stands in the divine nature,” which is to deny confusion of the human nature of Christ with the divine nature of Christ. We confess, in The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), that “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion… (8.2).” Gill then invokes the modal distinction which had been employed centuries before him, and is utilized by Francis Turretin just a century before. The assumption of a human nature is to be appropriated to God, not absolutely, but according to the second mode of subsistence in the order of procession, which is the Son of the Father.

Here, Gill avoids both Anthropomorphitism and Patripassianism by refusing to mix divine and human natures and by, once more, upholding the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In telling us the Son’s assumption of humanity was not “as that the man of Christ stands in the divine nature,” Gill avoids reading God’s works (the incarnation) back into the divine Being. He is careful not to apply what is proper to the human nature of the Son to the divine nature of the Son, and vice versa. Moreover, he once more distinguishes the Son from Father and Spirit by an invocation of the modal distinction, that the divine essence subsists in a distinct subsistence from the first and third subsistences is absolutely central in preserving orthodox theology proper while at once affirming an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation. It avoids Modalism and it assists in avoiding the predication of creaturely properties, in light of the incarnation, to the divine essence.

Gill furthermore avoids Kenotic theory because the divine and human natures, while understood to be united in the self-same Person of the Son, remain distinguishable. The assumption of human nature in no way implies a change in the Son according to His divinity. That which is proper to the human nature is appropriated to the human nature, and that which is proper to the divine nature continues to be appropriated to the divine nature, with not one iota of confusion.

…it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world, and by him speaks to men, in these last days, who is the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image of his Person; the Creator of angels, and the object of their worship and adoration; and who upholds all things by the word of his power, who partook of the same flesh and blood with the children, and has taken upon him and assumed to him, not the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham, he who was in the form of God, of the same nature with him, and thought it no robbery to be equal with God, is he that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state, was made in the likeness of man, and found in fashion as a man, or really became man.

Here, Gill avoids Arianism and Anthropomorphitism. Arius held that the Son was a creature. But here, Gill denies such by saying, “it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world,” by which he means all created things. If the Father made all created things through the Son, this would appear to preclude the Son Himself from being the subject of that creative act by logical necessity. Furthermore, Anthropomorphitism, the ascription of creatureliness to God (a blending of Creator/creature), is avoided when Gill tells us that this same Son who “upholds all things by the word of his power” also “assumed to him… the seed of Abraham (humanity).” The Son remains God—unchanged, unmanipulated—while also assuming human nature. Gill well understands that, in order to preserve the Creator/creature distinction, what is proper of the divine nature must be said of the divine nature, and what is proper of the human nature must be said of the human nature.

Lastly, Gill invokes Philippians 2, not to argue kenosis (as some have done), but to declare the deity of Christ, “and thought it no robbery to be equal with God,” whilst also affirming the assumption of human nature, “that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state…” He ends by using the common terminology, “or really became man.” But, in light of the above, Gill does not here mean that the divine essence literally became that which it was not before. To become is creaturely, because it entails change. Rather, by “become” he only refers to the assumption of a “true body, and a reasonable soul (The Baptist Catechism, Q. 25).”


Hopefully, the above interaction with John Gill has been helpful in understanding how important careful theological terminology is. Essence, nature, person, etc., terms like these allow the people of God to avoid teaching or implying the heresies mentioned above (and more). Much more could be said regarding Gill and countless of his predecessors. One thing, however, is for sure: We are at a time where we desperately need to return to the old paths in order to go forward (Jer. 6:16). Older isn’t always better, but oftentimes it is. This case is certainly no exception.


[1] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, New Edition., vol. 1 (Tegg & Company, 1839), 540.


Calvin’s Classical Theism

Calvin’s Classical Theism

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, is sometimes vague when it comes to theology proper. This is not to say Calvin had an underdeveloped doctrine of God. It is only to say that the doctrine of God was largely uncontested in his day (with the exception of some individuals, like Servetus), and so he most likely did not feel the need to invoke either language or length in treatment that may be expected in the Puritan age (corresponding with the rise of Socinianism). The question of source-material has also been asked concerning Calvin’s access or use of older sources. He does make brief, ultra-precise statements at times. For example, he says in the outline for Book I, ch. 13, “In this one essence are three persons, yet so that neither is there a triple God, nor is the simple essence of God divided. Meaning of the word Person in this discussion. Three hypostases in God, or the essence of God.”[1] 

The Institutes of the Christian Religion

He further elaborates on the doctrine of the Trinity by saying, “While he proclaims his unity, he distinctly sets it before us as existing in three persons. These we must hold, unless the bare and empty name of Deity merely is to flutter in our brain without any genuine knowledge. Moreover, lest anyone should dream of a threefold God, or think that the simple essence is divided by the three Persons, we must here seek a brief and easy definition which may effectually guard us from error.”[2] Furthermore, he states, “When we profess to believe in one God, by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of God is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant.”[3]

Speaking to the importance of understanding Father, Son, and Spirit to be identical to the divine essence, he writes, “If they reply that the Father, while essentiating, still remains the only God, being the possessor of the essence, then Christ will be a figurative God, one in name or semblance only, and not in reality, because no property can be more peculiar to God than essence, according to the words, ‘I AM has sent me unto you,’ (Ex. 3:4.).”[4] Calvin also teaches that the enumeration of God’s attributes or perfections are enumerated only in our conception of God. He writes, “in the enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in himself, but in relation to us, in order that our acknowledgement of him may be more a vivid actual impression than empty visionary speculation.”[5] This may be taken to imply the oneness of God’s attributes, or their identity with the divine essence.

He provides support for the doctrine of the Trinity, against “calumnies,” from Irenaeus, Tertullian, and even the “acknowledged doctors of the church.”[6] For Calvin, though there is controversy surrounding his understanding of the Son as autotheos, the doctrine of the Trinity is basically stated, “by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases…” The one God is the three Persons, Father, Son, Spirit. He further denies subordinationism when he writes, “John, declaring that he is the true God, has no idea of placing him beneath the Father in a subordinate rank of divinity. I wonder what these fabricators of new gods mean, when they confess that Christ is truly God, and yet exclude him from the godhead of the Father, as if there could be any true God but the one God, or as if transfused divinity were not a mere modern fiction.”[7] Calvin rightly indicates that he considers subordination in God to imply there is lesser and greater distinctions in the divine essence itself, a figment contrary to the Athanasian Creed on its face. He writes, “If they grant that the Son is God, but only in subordination to the Father, the essence which in the Father is unformed and unbegotten will in him be formed and begotten.”[8] He further explains, “We must hold, therefore, that as often as Christ, in the character of Mediator, addresses the Father, he, under the term God, includes his own divinity also.”[9]

In refuting the notion of manifold wills in God, Calvin writes, “These objections originate in a spirit of pride and blasphemy. Objection, that there must be two contrary wills in God, refuted. Why the one simple will of God seems to us as if it were manifold.”[10]

We may conclude from this that Calvin would not have permitted any real distinction in the divine essence. For him, negation of real distinction in the divine essence would entail that each divine Person is truly identified with the one divine essence. They do not merely possess or participate in the divine essence. They are the divine essence—not collectively, but essentially and identifiably. Furthermore, it may be seen that, for Calvin, this implies a single will in the Godhead. Subordination is denied, and a single divine will, proper (no doubt) to the divine essence, is expressly affirmed.

Exposition of Exodus 3:14

Now that Calvin’s systematics have been explored, albeit in a very limited and brief fashion, we might move on to his exegetical theology, asking the question, “How did he get there?” It goes without saying that we can by no means exhaust this question. This brief look is only intended to peak interest in the reader. Before we observe his commentary on Exodus 3:14, I should mention that Calvin has a surprisingly robust natural theology, and so was not shy to employ philosophical help in his articulation of revealed truth. For this reason, we should take for granted that Calvin employed such help in his Trinitarian theology through terms like “essence” and “nature.” He further allows for some analogy in nature to help cast light upon the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is an article unto itself.

Very early in his exposition of Exodus 3:14, he writes, “This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature.”[11] This shows us that Calvin had aseity in mind early on in his exposition. He joins in near universal agreement with the orthodox interpretive tradition as to its meaning of Exodus 3:14, that God is a se or self-existent. God is Being in Himself, He exists by His very essence. Therefore, He is the One who gives being to all contingent things, i.e. creatures. His next comment is crucial, but it follows seamlessly from what has already been said, “Nor does he predicate of himself anything common, or shared by others; but he claims for himself eternity as peculiar to God alone, in order that he may be honored according to his dignity.”[12] Here, Calvin denies the notion of participation in God, which is a notion to be understood in light of the limitation of act by potency.[13]

If God is His own “to be,” it follows God does not have love or have justice; He is identical with His divine attributes. God is love, God is justice, etc. If He were not, He would participate in these perfections, as if they were perfections distinguishable from the single, simple, and perfect essence of God. As it is, however, God does not participate, God just is. Conversely, creatures have love, they have justice and are not identified with those perfections. To the extent a creature is loving or just, that creature participates in those perfections which God Himself is. He is an image, reflection, imitator of the divine Being (imago Dei).

He goes on to list the incomprehensibility of God, which implies the need for analogical language in our God-talk, “Therefore, immediately afterwards, contrary to grammatical usage, he used the same verb in the first person as a substantive, annexing it to a verb in the third person; that our minds may be filled with admiration as often as his incomprehensible essence is mentioned.”[14] Elsewhere, Calvin puts analogical predicative revelation in terms of divine “lisping.” He says, “The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children?”[15] And, “Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”[16] Such language is nothing less than allusion to analogical predication.

A maxim which gained popularity during the time of the Reformation was finitum non capax infiniti, the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. It was a phrase the substance of which had been assumed long before. The infinite essence of God cannot be communicated directly to finite creatures. What can be communicated to finite creatures must, of necessity, be finite. Thus, the need for analogical predication, and even for understanding the analogical character of Scripture (with regard to God), became inestimably important in theology. The infinite God communicates to the finite creature through means it can understand, analogically. Analogical language is language of similarity through either attribution, metaphor, or proportionality. The latter is here in view. 

Analogical language is distinguished from univocal language which comprehends the thing signified, and equivocal language which uses the same word to signify completely different things. Analogical language recognizes that the creature participates, in some way, in the love of God and thus bears some similitude to the divine essence, though that similitude is exactly definable in light of the infinite essence of God.

Calvin then goes on to apparently affirm some form of Christian Platonism when he writes, “But although philosophers discourse in grand terms of this eternity, and Plato constantly affirms that God is peculiarly to on (the Being); yet they do not wisely and properly apply this title, viz., that this one and only Being of God absorbs all imaginable essences…”[17] Interestingly, this is exactly what Christians, influenced by the Neo-Platonists, would have done. Plato could account neither for the reality of the world of experience, nor for its meaningful correspondence with the forms or essences in the world of ideas. Aristotle first brought this criticism. But Christian theology caught on through the likes of Augustine, Dionysius, and Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Plato’s forms apparently subsisted in themselves without any explanatory principle preceding them, Christianity understood those forms to be found (in some way) in God.[18]

Calvin then mentions providence, the folly of dividing the deity through impious imagination, and then says, “Wherefore, in order rightly to apprehend the one God, we must first know, that all things in heaven and earth derive at His will their essence, or subsistence from One, who only truly is.”[19] In order to know God rightly, in other words, one must know God as Cause of all things. This article of knowledge Calvin appears to place in the beginning of his Institutes, prior to reaching the doctrine of Scripture.[20] Implies in his order is that such a knowledge of God is gained through nature rather than by faith, and thus might be included within natural theology.

Calvin concludes his exposition on Exodus 3:14 by considering how God, in His appearance to Moses, “teaches him that He alone is worthy of the most holy name (Jehovah),” and, “that Moses may have no doubt of overcoming all things under his guidance.”[21]


This is, by no means, an exhaustive commentary on Calvin’s thought concerning theology proper. But, at minimum, we should be able to conclude from the evidence presented that Calvin held to the classical (sometimes called the “over-extended”) formulation of divine simplicity. The Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—just are the one divine essence. There is only one will in God. And there is no subordination in God. Leaving aside the accidental issues which may throw Calvin into dispute, e.g. the autothean controversy, it may be safely concluded that Calvin held to a classical doctrine of God which departed neither from the Scriptures, the creeds of the ancient church, nor the more developed theology proper of the medievals, such as Aquinas. Calvin himself thinks of his trinitarianism as being in line with all the “acknowledged doctors of the church,” of which Aquinas was knowingly a part. There is very clearly, therefore, a continuity represented in Calvin with regard to the doctrine of God, not only with his medieval predecessors but also with his successors, the Reformed Scholastic Calvinists.


[1] Calvin, John, The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 1580.

[2] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[3] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2009.

[4] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2118.

[5] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1152

[6] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2229.

[7] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2197.

[8] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2150.

[9] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2181.

[10] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 3524.

[11] Calvin, John. Commentary on the Pentateuch. Titus Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 15043.

[12] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15043.

[13] Cf. Clarke, Norris W., Explorations In Metaphysics, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 76-77.

[14] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[15] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[16] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[17] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[18] Craig Carter discusses “Christian Platonism” in his book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. One may also find help in Louis Markos’ book, From Plato to Christ.

[19] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[20] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 197.

[21] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

Limitation of Act by Potency

Limitation of Act by Potency

The following article is an engagement paper originally submitted to IRBS in fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. James Dolezal’s Foundations of Philosophical Theology class.

Contemporary Thomistic studies largely assumes the origins for Thomas’s doctrine “limitation of act by potency” is to be properly and neatly located in Aristotle’s corpus. According to W. Norris Clarke, however, such an assumption is misguided on account of needful language nevertheless absent from Aristotle’s own body of work. If indeed Thomas received limitation of act by potency from Aristotle, one would expect to find such a doctrine in Aristotle’s own words. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that very little substantial change actually took place from the time of the pre-Socratics to the time of Aristotle in the relevant areas according to Clarke.

Norris Clarke’s Brief Observation Concerning Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Assumption

Republished by contemporary scholars, such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, is the common assumption that Thomas received Aristotle’s conception of limitation of act by potency. Yet, to the contrary, Clarke asserts the following, “it is noteworthy that, despite the categorical assertion of Father Garrigou-Lagrange in the above quotation, neither here nor anywhere else in his numerous writings on this doctrine does he ever quote or refer to any precise text where Aristotle himself affirms the limiting role of potency with regard to act.”[1] Contrary to the common assumption mentioned above, the doctrine of limitation of act by potency does not appear in Aristotle. In point of fact, the post-Socratic philosophers appear to conceive of act as limited by its very nature, whilst potency is that which is infinite, or unlimited.

Speaking to Thomas’ own work, Clarke writes, “What is even more decisive, to my mind—and surprising, though I have never seen it reported anywhere—is the fact that throughout the entire extent of St. Thomas’s own commentaries on Aristotle, not excepting that on Book IX of Metaphysics, which deals exclusively with act and potency, there is not a single mention of potency as limiting act nor is there any occurrence of the classic formulas expressing the limitation principle which abound in his independent works.”[2] In other words, though the language of act and potency as categories find a comfortable seat in the Aristotelian corpus, the particular conception of act and potency wherein potency serves as the limiting principle of act is virtually non-existent in spite of Garrigou-Lagrange’s own thesis that, “Aristotle already taught this doctrine.”

Finitude and Infinitude in Anaximander

According to Clarke, “The term infinite (apeiron) first appears in Greek philosophy with the Pre-Socratic Anaximander, who identified it with the primal principle of all things: (1) The Non-Limited is the original material of existing things; further, the source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, according to necessity… (3) This [the Non-Limited] is immortal and indestructible.”[3] Already, the careful reader may catch the identification of the material with the infinite (apeiron). This would appear to imply a like identification of what would eventually come to be known as the “principle of potency” with infinity (since matter must receive form as potency to act).

If it is the case that matter, and thus potency, just are “the infinite,” then conversely, act would necessarily entail limitation. This is why Clarke goes on to say, “[The problem] ‘What is the first principle out of which all things are formed?’ gradually led them—if not Anaximander, at least his successors—to identify the infinite with the indeterminate, formless substratum or raw material of the universe, the primeval chaos of matter in itself, as yet unperfected by the limit of form.”[4] The indeterminate is unlimited because, according to the mind of Anaximander, to determine something is to place limitations upon it. That which is infinite cannot be determined, and that which cannot be determined cannot be perfect. Clark continues, “According to this conception the infinity is identified with the formless, the indeterminate, the unintelligible—in a word, with matter and multiplicity, the principles and imperfection—whereas the finite or limited is identified with the fully formed, the determinate, and there the intelligible—in a word, with number, form, and idea, the principles of perfection.”[5] The infinite, so it is thought, is mutually opposed to perfection, completion, etc.


Plato further develops upon the pre-Socratics by conceiving of what are now termed act and potency as “principles” termed “the limit” and “the unlimited.” Clarke observes the relationship of these two principles in Plato as follows, “According to the Platonic metaphysics, all realities below the supreme idea of the Good (or the One) are a ‘mixture’ of two opposing principles, the limit and the unlimited, which reappear with analogical similarity on all the levels of reality from the world of ideas to the half-real world of sensible things.”[6] Thus, the limit and the unlimited “exist” idealistically and phenomenally, that is, in the world of forms and in the world of “sensible things.” Plato, then, moves the classico-philosophical world toward a more nuanced doctrine of what would eventually come to be known as act and potency. Nevertheless—and this is no surprise, but worth mentioning—the limitation of act by potency doesn’t appear in Plato’s work.

Plato goes on to identify the indeterminate with the “material cause,” or “pure matter.” Clarke observes, “The principle of illumination, on the other hand, is identified with the formlessness and indeterminacy of pure matter and multiplicity as such, and therefore with ‘otherness’ or non-being, as the source of unintelligibility and imperfection.” For Plato, “pure matter” does not appear to serve any sort of limiting purpose at all. To the contrary, that which is indeterminate apparently cannot limit since that which is indeterminate must be infinite, and thus limitless. Therefore, for both the pre-Socratics and Socrates’s greatest student, potency seems to be the least likely candidate in terms of finding a principle of limitation and thus individuation.


Aristotle continues the trend. For this reason, Aristotle cannot rightly be thought of as the progenitor of the Thomistic doctrine of limitation of act by potency. Characterizing Aristotle’s understanding, Clarke points out that, “No complete substance, therefore, can exist as actually infinite. The terms are mutually exclusive. For the perfect, which is but a synonym for the complete or finished, is precisely that which had an end, and the end, he says, is a limit.”[8] Being, then, cannot have an infinite “to be.” For that which is infinite cannot be circumscribed to the parameters of “being” since, if such were the case, the infinite would be determined—a sure and certain absurdity in the eyes of Aristotle.

Summing up his view, Clark recapitulates Aristotle’s own summary, “Nature flees from the infinite, for the infinite is unending or imperfect, and nature ever seeks an end.”[9] Following in the footsteps of Anaximander and Plato, Aristotle does not view what is now called “potency” as a limiting principle. For Aristotle, formless matter (potency) is infinite and thus diametrically opposed to limitation. Nevertheless, according to Clarke, Thomas is still able to appropriate Aristotle along with a major qualification. He writes, “St. Thomas takes over intact this perspective into his own system. But he adds to it another dimension, so to speak, in which the relations are reversed and matter also appears as limiting form.”[10] Whereas Aristotle and his predecessors view matter/potency as the infinite, boundless, and thus, unlimited, Thomas makes matter/potency the “limiting form.”

Further developing his observation of Thomas’s conception, Clarke continues by saying, “Whatever is capable of change of any kind—and only that—must have within it in addition to its present act a principle of potency, or capacity to receive a further act… Act, on the other hand, is always identified with the fully complete, the actually present. Pure act, therefore, is simply a correlative of the immutable, i.e., of pure actualized form, complete in all that is proper to is and incorruptible.”[11] Potency is capacity—a want or lack within a thing—which nevertheless represents what that thing could be. Potency, then, is the limiting principle. Act, contrary to the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle, is identified with that which is complete or perfect. The only question remaining is, What bridges the gap between Aristotle and Thomas? Is there some other source which may have helped Thomas develop this doctrine of limitation of act by potency?

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus would introduce and apply the metaphysics of the “One” in the baffling equation of infinity and limitation. The “One” would virtually function as a synonym for God, “a synonym for infinite: uncircumscribed (agerigraphos).”[12] Not of little importance, Clarke notes, “The first Christian texts calling God infinite do not appear till the fourth century, and precisely in those circles which are known to have been influenced by Neoplatonism.”[13] 

Neoplatonism casts the discussion of infinite and limited in terms of a higher metaphysic that looks above the formal object of the natural sciences, i.e. the material world. God, the infinite, now stands over and above the created essences, such that, “the old Platonic order or limited, intelligible essences, composed of form as perfecting limit imposed on the infinity of sensible or ‘intelligible’ matter, is still preserved. But their relation to the supreme One by emanation introduces a new dimension of function of the limiting principle, that of limiting what is above it as well as what is below it.”[14] Clarke clarifies thereafter, saying, “In this perspective all the intelligible essences below the One now appear as limited and hence imperfect participations of this supremely perfect and absolutely simple first principle, which somehow embraces within itself the perfection of all the lower determinate essences but is none of them in particular.”[15]

Therefore, with Neoplatonism came the philosophical precursors to a doctrine of limitation of act by potency to an extent not seen in Aristotle or those who came before him. If the “One” is infinite, and if all things below it are finite or limited, yet are by virtue of their imitation or participation in the “One,” that which is (act) is necessarily limited by that which is not but could possibly be (potency).

Concluding with Thomas Aquinas

In light of the above, Thomas reaches his monumental conclusion, “Act is not limited except by reception in a distinct potency.”[16] Such a conclusion, of course, while perhaps influenced negatively by Aristotle and his predecessors, is positively developed in light of the preceding, and more relatively recent, Neoplatonism. Act just is and is limited only by potency. But we must observe with Clarke that this language, however influenced by both Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, is actually neither properly so called. As Clarke puts it, “The final result of the fusion of the two theories into a single coherent synthesis can thus properly be called neither Aristotelianism nor Neoplatonism. It is something decisively new, which can only be styled, ‘Thomism.’”[17]

The pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle identified what amounts to act with determinacy and finitude. For them, “act” was mutually exclusive to “potency,” as limitation is mutually exclusive to infinity. Neoplatonism, however, saw the “One” as the infinite, created essences being limited and finite. This new relation paved the way for understanding the finite and the infinite in a more coherent way. Thomas understood God to be the infinite, or pure act, creation being composed of act limited by potency.


[1] Clarke, Norris W., Explorations In Metaphysics, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 67.

[2] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 68.

[3] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[4] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[5] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics,70.

[6] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[7] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[8] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[9] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[10] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[11] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 74.

[12] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[13] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[14] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76. Emphasis added.

[15] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76-77.

[16] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 80.

[17] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 81.