When I first started out seriously studying my faith, I had a number of interactions with Calvinists, many of whom were on the presuppositionalist side of the apologetic spectrum. I continued those efforts to some extent by interacting on the Called to Communion blog, which is dedicated to Reformed-Catholic dialogue. Unlike the dialogues I have had with Orthodox Christians, though, these dialogues never seemed particularly edifying for me, because I couldn't get my head around why people had been Reformed in the first place. There are historical reasons for it, of course; I'm American, and England and Scotland brought Reformed theology to America at its very founding. Indeed, as I will mention below, there is good reason to view Reformed political theory as the core of what made America what it is, including the religious pluralism that has made me free to practice my Catholic faith in the country. But as a specifically Christian theology, it never really made sense to me.
What follows is my analysis of Calvin's theology as a fundamentally anti-Nicene theology. Especially because I have no personal connection with the Reformed faith, I am indebted to my friend Perry Robinson, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Reformed Christianity and who pointed out, among many other things, Calvin's identification of Christ with the "predestined man" of Augustine. I am sure that we would disagree on a number of conclusions about Thomism and Scotism, but even in disagreement, I have benefited greatly from dialogue with him.
One of the influences that caused me to take a more pessimistic view of the situation was Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation ("TUR"). As I will discuss below, I question "the Scotus Story" that inevitably leads to a parade of horribles culminating in all of the evils of modern society. Michael Horton's review of the book summarizes it well: "Once you know the Scotus Story, everything else falls into place. The Reformation is the carrier of modern ‘disenchantment.’ Tearing the fabric of the sacramental tapestry, the reformers pushed the logic of metaphysical univocity, voluntarism, and individualism to its obvious conclusions." I am concerned that this unwisely discards an entirely legitimate Christian metaphysics, as shown by the work of Jared Isaac Goff and Fr. Christiaan Kappes, establishing that St. Bonaventure took his own univocal metaphysics from the Greek Fathers, especially St. John Damascene. But TUR's critique, much like Fr. Louis Bouyer's critique in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (also a victim of the Scotus Story), is both accurate and devastating in successfully attributing Protestantism to medieval nominalism. Unlike Gregory, I do not believe that modern developments in science, politics, and society generally were wrong, but I do believe that TUR is correct about the theological damage it has created.
I've used the title "dead end theory" here to differentiate Calvinism from successful theories that provide an explanatory bridge until anomalies require a better one. One might think of this as St. John Henry Newman's idea of development and corruption as modified by Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in response to heresies, although the latter would obviously need to be highly qualified in this context. A "dead end theory" is like Newman's corruption; it fails as a Christian explanation because it negates essential dogmatic facts for the Christian kerygma that Jesus Christ is God. Many dead end theories result in heresies, including Lucian of Antioch's Arianism, Eunomianism, Eusebius's homoianism, and Mar Diodore's and Mar Theodore's anti-Apollinarian theory of the person that led to Nestorianism. It is, however, not necessarily the case that dead end theories always lead to people being accused of heresies.
There are also other theories that are successful in some respects, although ultimately failing when confronted with a challenge that requires explanation. Especially in the early Church, there were many theories that affirmed the dogmatic facts while being underdetermined or erroneous in some respects. The clearest example concerns the divinity of the Spirit; there were many binitarian theories that did not deny the Spirit's divinity outright but did not provide any basis for affirming the divinity of the Spirit. Another example is Origen, who provided much of the early metaphysical basis for Trinitarian thought but whose explanations concerning the pre-existence of souls were not compatible with the Christian doctrine of creation. Gregory of Nyssa's theology of apokatastasis is yet another example of a theory that has explanatory power but fails when pushed too far. I would be inclined to put Augustine's theory of the massa damnata in this category as well. Many of those problems were based on traducianism, the believe that the soul was inherited from one's parents along with the body, which I do not believe is a coherent account of the existence of human souls in the image of God. The point is that not every wrong path forces us to backtrack, but some do. Calvin leads to one of those dead ends.
II. Essential Dogmatic Facts
In terms of the dogmatic facts that a successful theory must explain to affirm Christ is God, this is basically the content of the first seven ecumenical councils. One sign of a failed theory is that it can accept only the first four, because, as I will outline below, the acceptance of the first four logically entails the latter three. No consistent account of the dogmatic facts given in the first four councils will deny the last three, meaning that one cannot consistently believe both that Christ is God and accept less than seven ecumenical councils. The linchpin that holds all of these councils together is the pro-Nicene position that defines Christian monotheism: numerical unity of divine nature if and only if numerical unity of divine operation. This principle adopted between Nicaea and Constantinople shows that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, so that any of them being revealed performing characteristic divine operations shows that the Person is also One God. The use of this principle is documented by Michel Rene Barnes in The Power of God and extensively applied in the "new canon" Augustinian scholarship on the Trinity, particularly in works by Barnes and his frequent collaborator Lewis Ayres. This doctrine is traditionally understated as inseparable operations, although a more technically accurate description would be identical operations. The recent work by Adonis Yidu, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology provides an excellent exposition of the doctrine in the context of specific theological topics.
The pro-Nicene principle necessitates as a consequence of Nicaea (the identity of nature of the Father and the Son) the next six ecumenical councils:
1. The Holy Spirit is one God with the Father and the Son, because He does what only God can do (Constantinople I)
2. The man Jesus Christ is the Word of God, one Person with two natures, having two operations (wills) with respect to each of his two natures (Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III).
3. Divine worship of the man Jesus Christ is permissible because (1) worship is directed to persons and not natures and (2) Jesus Christ is the same person as the Word of God who is God (Nicaea II).
To consistently proclaim that Jesus is God, once must accept these dogmatic facts, which are applications of the pro-Nicene principle. There are some who verbally differ with these formulations but who can conceptually account for them, as appears to be the case with Miaphysite Christology. There are many who inconsistently believe Jesus is God, generally due to a defective understanding of divinity itself, and these are called Christian heretics. There are some who venerate Jesus but who deny these principles at such a fundamental level that their belief does not even rise to level of calling Jesus divine, which beliefs do not receive the Christian name at all. These include Islam (particularly if viewed as originating from Christian heresy) and Mormonism.
As a Catholic, I believe that Eastern Orthodox Christians share this faith that Jesus is God. With respect to the other religious beliefs, the Catholic doctrine is that they are true to the extent that they can accept this faith that Jesus is God and false to the degree that they do not. We generally do not speculate as to why people might hold false beliefs and whether God will or will not save them, and this article is not intended to express an opinion on that issue. It is strictly an analysis of Calvin's theology concerning whether it can consistently proclaim that Jesus is God, including all of the relevant dogmatic facts outlined above. It is also not an appeal to the authority of the ecumenical councils; it is based on the dogmatic facts about Christ as an object of monotheistic worship that those councils have outlined above.
III. Nominalism and Voluntarism
As noted above, affirmation of univocity does not in itself require nominalism. Traditionally, the problem of divine being has been resolved in Christian thought by the Neoplatonic concept of participation, which was extensively developed by St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Maximus the Confessor. In the West, this Christian Platonism was developed in the Franciscan tradition, including Bl. John Duns Scotus. A parallel Aristotelian tradition was reflected in St. Thomas Aquinas, which conceived of God as ipsum esse subsistens and used the analogia entis to relate our mode of being to God's own different mode of being. Rather than viewing either of these traditions as a failed theory, which is the Scotus Story does, I view them as successful alternative explanations for the same set of dogmatic facts. Importantly, despite the univocal notion of being, the Neoplatonic tradition maintains its own distinctive notion of divine infinity and simplicity that assures divine transcendence. In particular, both Thomism and Scotism preserve the transcendent concept of the Good (reinterpreted from Neoplatonism to Aristotelianism in Aquinas's case), which informs their respective metaphysical paradigms. Thus, neither Thomism nor Scotism necessarily runs into the problematic dynamics that Gregory and Bouyer outline.
The same cannot be said of nominalism. To understand the situation, I will turn to a helpful critique of Fr. Bouyer by Silvianne Aspray in her metaphysical analysis of Peter Vermigli:
First, nominalism is a notoriously under-defined term, both generally, and in Bouyer’s work itself. According to Bouyer’s primary definition of nominalism, as described above, it is characterised by a radical empiricism, coupled with a metaphysics of singulars. However, he also seems to use nominalism interchangeably with William of Ockham’s thought. Historians of the period disagree over whether this equation is appropriate, given both the convergences and divergences between Ockham and other thinkers of the time, such as Gabriel Biel and Pierre d’Ailly, and given also that none of Ockham’s contemporaries would have called him a nominalist. It is moreover contested whether and how nominalism as a concept reaches beyond epistemology into ontology. Bouyer clearly assumes the latter, taking it for granted that the univocity of being is a characteristic of nominalism. All of this suggests that – in contrast to Bouyer’s seemingly self-evident use of the concept – defining or understanding nominalism is far from evident. It can be neither useful nor desirable, however, if one’s hermeneutic lens cannot be delineated properly.
Aspray's criticism is valid; the problem with the Scotus Story generally and Bouyer's account specifically is that it does not focus specifically on the effect of Ockham's rejection of nature as an explanatory concept. Aspray identifies two distinctives that seem more serviceable in defining the constellation of thought around nominalism: a univocal understanding of being and an ensuing new notion of causality. But Aspray here is relying on André de Muralt, Jean-François Courtine, and Olivier Boulnois specifically, and that suggests too much influence by the Thomist rejection of univocity and acceptance of the Scotus Story. This is confirmed by Aspray's own question about univocity: "Is 'being' thought to be a neutral category, applying to both God’s as well as created being, or is there a pre-eminent Divine Being in which all other being participates?" But Scotus is definitely not a nominalist, nor, for that matter, are Gregory of Nyssa or John Damascene. All of those theologians present a univocal account of being with a robust account of participation and divine transcendence, which belies the notion that univocity and participation are at odds with one another. Speaking of Scotus specifically, Richard Cross helpfully notes in Duns Scotus on God that "[i]t is not that Scotus is not happy with the language of participation; it is simply that he -- like Aristotle -- does not regard it as anything other than an ambiguous way of talking about relationships that can more perspicuously be talked about in other ways."
What we instead need to identify is the problem with Ockham's metaphysical account, which both excludes participation and contradicts the dogmatic facts. Aspray reaches the right conclusion for the wrong reasons when she says "By contrast, when 'being' is seen as neutral and univocal, and human beings no longer participate in the Divine qua being, their causal relationship to the latter changes. God and human beings, when possessing being univocally, can share in an action in such a manner as to divide its portions. God’s share in an action performed by a human person can be to concur to it, hence the new concept of framing Divine and human causality in terms of concursus. Or, alternatively, if God’s and the human person’s intentions do not coincide, their respective actions can interfere or compete with each other." This conflict results in the consequences to which Bouyer and Gregory each point, and Aspray aptly summarizes them as follows: "Human actions can be seen as taking something away from what is rightfully God’s in a kind of zero-sum game. In consequence, Bouyer argues, both the Reformers and their Catholic counterparts were often trapped in false dilemmas: 'either a grace that saves us … without affecting us, or a grace that saves us with our independent collaboration, so that, properly speaking, it is we who have to save ourselves'; 'either a God who is all while man and the world are literally nothing, or a man and a world having real powers and value, though limited, and a God who is no more than the first in a series.'"
Thus, the truth to the Scotus Story appears to be less about Ockham following Scotus and more about Ockham's denial of real natures leaving him unable to avoid these potential pitfalls in Scotus's thought. By removing universals from Scotus's metaphysics, Ockham's super-voluntarism is unconstrained by his predecessors' metaphysical restraints. Once he has reduced the idea of nature to a creation of the mind, Ockham is left with no metaphysical tool but raw divine power, which shows itself most explicitly in his divine command theory. This meant that the only stability and coherence given to creation was the fact that God had ordained it in an act of will, so that it was governed by His potentia Dei ordinata. That this metaphysical theory is inadequate for Christianity is evidenced by Ockham's inability to give a satisfactory account of dogmatic facts like the Trinitarian relations or the Incarnation, which explicitly hinge on the concepts of nature and person. While Ockham's attempt at Christian theology may be an impressive and audacious metaphysical theory, it is a failed Christian theory, which motivated Bouyer's disdain for it.
Ockham's failure is not even limited to problems stemming from Scotist metaphysics; his own nominalism is just as significant. Paul Thom's The Logic of the Trinity traces the use of philosophical and logical concepts in the context of the Trinity from Augustine to Ockham, and it points to a critical break in metaphysics with the Western tradition. Specifically, Ockham rejected relations as a category, limiting himself to substance and quality (p. 164), which was an absolute repudiation of Augustine's metaphysical doctrine of the Trinity. Thom notes the problem (and, incredibly, this is an understatement): "The impact that Ockham's account of relatives would have if incorporated into the theory of the Trinity is drastic." Thom points out that Ockham "found a way of avoiding these unacceptable positions," but that way was by following the problematic dynamic we have already identified in the divine power being its own explanation. Ockham eradicates both the Thomist (subsistent relations) and Scotist (formal distinction) accounts for relational distinction in the Trinity (pp. 173-75), expressly applying his razor to the formal distinction between divine attributes. In the end, "[Ockham's] view is that there is but one divine attribute and it is the divine essence." While Thom is charitable concerning Ockham, pointing out that he always backed away where he perceived himself to conflict with Catholic doctrine, Ockham's peculiar view on the independence of theology and philosophy removed the safeguards of the dogmatic facts (including the Trinity itself) against his philosophical theories.
I do not say that Ockham intended to break from Augustine, whose authority he clearly acknowledged. More likely, the condemnations of Aristotle in 1277 left both Ockham and Scotus free to criticize Aristotelian philosophy as they felt necessary to do in the metaphysical area. But Scotus maintained the essential features of Trinitarian dogma, and Ockham did not. Analyzing the potentia Dei in the terms that he did was the end of Ockham's ability to consistently proclaim that Jesus was God.
IV. Ockham and al-Ghazali
Ockham's repudiation of Aquinas and Scotus and his separation of theology and philosophy bear a startling resemblance to al-Ghazali's rebuke against Avicenna in Islamic philosophy, and I do not believe that this is a coincidence. It is unquestionable that Avicenna was a direct influence on both Aquinas and Scotus; I've even seen it claimed (with varying levels of seriousness) that St. Thomas got his best ideas from Avicenna. There is certainly a good argument for St. Thomas having been inspired by Avicenna in his concept of the analogia entis and perhaps even the essence-existence distinction, although I have been convinced by Stephen Brock and Ralph McInerny that the latter was anticipated by Boethius. The reception of Avicenna is a specific example of how the dogmatic facts of Christianity informed the use of philosophy by Christian theologians. And there is a simple reason for why Avicenna was influential, which is that Aristotle was not concerned with the metaphysical origin of the universe or with divine will in creation. Christian theologians using Aristotle were reliant on people like Avicenna and Plotinus who had thought about those specific metaphysical issues in the context of Aristotelian philosophy.
As one example, Muhammad Legenhausen compares Avicenna and Aquinas is his article "Ibn Sina’s Arguments Against God’s Being a Substance" in Substance and Attribute: Western and Islamic Traditions in Dialogue. This is a particularly interesting point of comparison because the use of substantia for the divine essence is one of the oldest applications in Western Christian metaphysics, dating back to Tertullian and explained in Aristotelian terms by St. Augustine. Dr. Legenhausen confesses some perplexity about why Aquinas refuses to follow Avicenna in saying that God is not a substance, although Legenhausen does recognize that Aquinas's view must stem from the Christian usage of the term even though Aquinas himself recognizes that there is metaphysical baggage that St. Jerome called "poison." What Legenhausen has missed (or at least has not mentioned) is the modification of the category of substance by St. Augustine, which Thom outlines at length and tracks through centuries of application by the later theologians. Thus, Aquinas is faithfully following the Christian metaphysics of his predecessors as an alternative to Avicenna's conclusions.
It is not different for Scotus. Cross acknowledges Scotus's debt to Avicenna's philosophy in Duns Scotus on God, and it is difficult to image Scotus's philosophy of individuation and univocity without acknowledging some debt to Avicenna (even though Avicenna himself had an analogical concept of being). But as with Aquinas, the influence of Augustine in Scotus' Aristotelianism was palpable, particularly in the area of Trinitarian relations, a subject that Cross covers in depth. And again, once can follow that development from Augustine through Scotus in Thom's treatment. The example of Scotus again shows that Augustine's metaphysical category of relation, essential to his theology of the Trinity, conditioned the Christian reception of Aristotelian philosophy.
Without those Trinitarian safeguards from St. Augustine in place, Ockham's metaphysics was not consistently Trinitarian, which left his Aristotelian metaphysics essentially identical to that of Islamic monotheism. Having a univocal concept of being and no real metaphysics of relation or participation while denying Avicenna's version of the analogia entis, Ockham was left in exactly the same philosophical position as al-Ghazali's criticism of Avicenna in The Incoherence of the Philosophers. The comparison between Ockham and al-Ghazali is not original to me; it has been noted in comparative religious studies for longer than I have been alive. I only note the parallel in that Ockham followed the criticism of Aristotelianism to the point of contradicting even Augustine's Christian metaphysics, which effectively left Ockham with no grounding in the Christian tradition.
Ockham's similarity with al-Ghazali is apparent in his sharp separation of philosophy and theology, putting theology above reason in the cases of seemingly contradictory beliefs like the Trinity and relying on the divine will and freedom as the sole basis for metaphysical explanations. With respect to that similarity, there is a fascinating recent dialogue in the Muslim community that follows the same lines as TUR in blaming societal decline on the fall of metaphysics. Hamza Yusuf attributes this societal decline to Ockham's influence in much the same way that TUR does, citing in particular the rejection of Averroes's reclamation of Islam's philosophical heritage. The response by Abdurrahman Mihirig is a must-read in my view, because it argues that al-Ghazali and Ash'arism, not Ockham, is the reason for the rejection of Averroes and Aristotelian metaphysics. Mihirig asserts that Yusuf's critique is based on "a quasi-Thomist assessment on the emergence of modernity, which holds that it was ultimately caused by the introduction of nominalism by the likes of William of Ockham." He notes that "The Catholics, who saw their Aristotelian-Thomist worldview obliterated, laid the blame on philosophical nominalism and especially William of Ockham." But following Ockham's own standard of parsimony, there is an even simpler explanation for the connection here: both Muslims and Christians suffered the effects of the same anti-Aristotelian critique, as made by al-Ghazali in Islamic philosophy and Ockham in Western philosophy.
It is fair to say Ockham's interpretation of the potentia Dei absoluta and the potentia Dei ordinata was a key feature of the via moderna in the absence of the metaphysics found in the via antiqua. Yet another parallel can be seen with Islamic philosophy in the distinction. Ockham's distinction corresponds to God's "decretive will," which is his secret and inscrutable will with respect to creation, as distinguished from his "prescriptive will," which gives his commands to creation. The identical distinction is found in Islam between Allah's generative will (irada takwini) by which Allah creates and the legislative will (irada tashri’i) by which Allah commands. Notably, there are the same debates over predestinarianism in Islam, which are the sorts of "false dilemmas" and "zero-sum games" associated with Ockham's nominalism. The chapter on al-Ghazali in David Burrell's Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective provides an intriguing contrast with Aquinas's "situated freedom" as differentiated from Ockham's background in Scotus on this point.
V. The Via Moderna to Protestantism
Incandela (p. 152) observes that "Ockham performed a valuable service in cutting through the haze of Scotistic subtleties to reveal the issue for what it had become: a clash between the wills of God and man," the zero-sum game that Bouyer first identified. In the context of that competitive struggle between God and man, it is easy to see why Augustine's anti-Pelagian polemics would immediately become relevant. Yet Ockham lacked without any of the metaphysical tools that Augustine deployed, including the view of evil (including reprobation) as a privation. Ockham's account of the divine will completely dominated this new discussion on Pelagianism.
Incandela recounts Ockham's position with regard to Pelagianism that God could make a voluntary decision (potentia Dei ordinata) to make natural action meritorious, even though it had no intrinsic merit contra Pelagius. The Dominican Robert Holcot, a follower of Ockham, then used the category of "covenant" to say that God had bound himself to reward the free acts of creatures. Incandela concurs with Heiko Oberman that these views are technically Semi-Pelagian in terms of the creature's original initiative rather than fully Pelagian, but one can immediately see why they would be viewed as denials of the Augustinian doctrine of grace. Thomas Bradwardine, still firmly in the context of the Ockhamist dichotomy between divine and creaturely will, responded with his own anti-Pelagian texts. This was the genesis of the schola Augustiniana moderna, which had applied Ockham's razor to excise key elements of Augustine's metaphysics. Gregory of Rimini, who was himself a nominalist, then brought the same ideas to the University of Paris, which made them extraordinarily influential for later generations. It is worth noting, as Muller does in Christ and the Decree, that neither Bradwardine nor Gregory of Rimini were Scotists; their voluntarism came from Ockham directly. Opposed to the modern Augustinian school was the more scholastic via moderna exemplified by Gabriel Biel and Pierre D'Ailly.
The theological problem was exacerbated by its intersection with medieval politics. This was likely because medieval canonists had appealed to the ideas of divine power in their understanding of papal power, turning a speculative theological issue into a real and pressing controversy of papal and political authority. That served as the crucible for deploying nominalism and its concept of potentia Dei in societal issues. Di Cristo's article cited above covers Pope John XXII's struggle with Ockham well, but that is the tip of a scholarly iceberg including works by Brian Tierney and Francis Oakley particularly. I commend Pope John XXII and His Franciscan Cardinal by Patrick Nold for a thorough examination of the subject, But regardless of the substance of that controversy, the influence of the via moderna exploded almost immediately because of it. This raised the stakes in the theological debate within nominalism considerably.
That this was the milieu for Protestantism is difficult to dispute; everyone one of the characteristic Five Solae came from this Ockham's metaphysics. Matthew Barrett's analysis of Luther's dispute with Biel gives an example of how the nature-grace distinction played out, and it is apparent that this was within the context of one of Bouyer's "false dilemmas," pitting Luther's Augustinian nominalism versus Biel's scholastic nominalism. Sola gratia emerged from those conflicts over Pelagianism. Sola Scriptura was likewise from the nominalist primacy of revelation, with Ockham following Scotus's non-traditional position that the object of faith did not need itself to be supernatural. Imputed justification (sola fide) was a purely nominalist metaphysical concept with the legal category stripped from the underlying metaphysical basis in participation in the divine nature. The consequences of that metaphysical move were solus Christus, which denied the participatory metaphysics of the Sacraments, and soli Dei gloria. The latter excluded veneration of the Saints, one of the dogmatic facts that follows from the worship of the Person of Jesus Christ as God, as a result of the zero-sum interaction between God's action and that of the Saints. This zero-sum account plays particularly into Calvin's iconoclasm and his definition of idolatry. All of it comes from Ockham's nominalism, exactly as TUR and Bouyer said.
This is not to say that the time period was entirely devoid of continuity with the Christian tradition. Suarez was the last great schoolman, even if his metaphysics was somewhat nominalistic, and St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Francis de Sales were faithful exponents of the Catholic tradition in the Counter-Reformation. But even Catholics were drawn into the nominalist re-rereading of the tradition, as the struggle between Molina and Bañez on grace and predestination revealed. It is telling that both Thomism and Scotism survived those clashes to be vibrant as Christian metaphysics in the present day. By contrast, Molinism continues to be debated only within the same "clash of wills between God and man" that Incandela identified, and the nominalist metaphysics has only survived by its effects, not having any real school that claims it.
VI. Calvin's Quixotic Quest for Revival
If the schola Augustiniana moderna was a failed attempt to revive Augustine as a nominalist, Calvin's project could be seen as the same for the Gospel as a whole. This project was doomed from the beginning; divine sovereignty was never metaphysically thick enough to carry the explanatory weight that Ockham was trying to pile on it. And when it broke under the strain, there was no question that the theology would fall into Christian heresy. For that reason, Calvin is the perfect case study for why the nominalist reinterpretation of the Christian tradition cannot be consistently Christian.
In this respect, I would distinguish Calvin's anti-Nicene theology from Lutheran theology, which was similar to Ockham in the desire for fidelity to Catholic dogma despite an inherently problematic metaphysical paradigm. Where both Ockham and Luther would often balk at drawing heterodox conclusions and defend the orthodoxy of doctrines like the Real Presence in the Eucharist, Calvin lacked this fundamental restraint. Thus, although Ockham and Luther may have been inconsistent with the dogma, they were trying to remain in continuity rather than to reform it by disagreement. By contrast, Calvin attempts to reconstruct the missing pieces of Trinitarian relations and participation in a nominalist paradigm that ends up significantly contradicting the Nicene faith.
All of these commentators provide excellent summaries of Calvin's theology on the relevant points. Yet none of them have any defense against the charge that Calvin's metaphysics of the divine will is nominalist, and not a single one of them defends Calvin on the pro-Nicene principle of numerical unity of the divine will and divine essence. This is likely because there is no coherent defense to be given. To be fair, the critique to which they are responding is the Neo-Thomist critique that basically blamed Scotus for everything that came after, which incidentally included Calvinism. To rebut such "grand narrative" style accounts, whether anti-Calvinist (Bouyer, Gregory, Incandela) or pro-Calvinist (Vos), it is only necessary to point out that Calvin was more Thomist than Scotist on issues like predestination or secondary causation, a task that Muller and Raith in particular have performed quite ably. Raith (p. 12) says it as follows: "One must not approach Calvin's theology through the a priori lens of Platonism or Scotism or Thomism and then read Calvin through that particular lens. Rather, one must engage Calvin's theology and only then discern points of contact that exist between different strains of thought." But none of them actually respond to Calvin's metaphysical use of divine will, a definite point of contact with Ockham. Even if we move from what Raith calls "any simple trajectory that too easily links Calvin's thought with Scotus's," Calvin's theology cannot be coherently reconciled with Nicaea any more than Ockham's could.
VII. Calvin on the Trinitarian relations
In particular, without the metaphysical category of relation as an explanatory category, Calvin must recast the inner-Trinitarian relations as intersubjective relations of will, which violates the pro-Nicene principle of unity in will. This directly follows Ockham's eradication of the inner-Trinitarian relations of the Persons as the real metaphysical category underlying the distinction between the Persons, leaving Ockham with the divine will (identified with the divine essence) as the only explanatory principle. Rather than the orthodox Nicene position that the unity of the Persons is constituted by the monarchy of the Father, from whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds, Calvin sees the unity instead in terms of the alignment of will between them, taking the metaphorical Old Testament image of the "divine council" quite literally.
This is evident from Calvin's doctrine of predestination, which Muller calls Calvin's "keystone of a doctrinal arch" in Christ and the Decree and for which Muller offers the following passages as the "central definition":
We call predestination God's eternal decree (aeternum Dei decretum), by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition, rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. [Inst., III.xxi.5]
As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable counsel (immutable consilio) those whom he had determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this counsel was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the food of life to those whom he has given over to damnation. Now among the elect we regard the call as a testimony of election. Then we hold justification another sign of its manifestation, until they come into the glory in which the fulfillment of election lies. But as the Lord seals his elect by call and justification, so, by shutting off the reprobate from knowledge of his name or from the sanctification of his Spirit, he, as it were, reveals by these marks what sort of judgment awaits them. [Inst., III.xxi.7]
Horton describes this "compacting with Himself" as "[t]he intratrinitarian covenant of redemption made in eternity" that "realizes itself through the mutual working of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit." He cites Bavinck's statement in Reformed Dogmatics that "Here the basis of all covenants was found in the eternal counsel of God in a covenant between the very persons of the Trinity, the pactum salutis (counsel of salvation)." Girolamo Zanchi even has an entire theological treatise titled On the Triune Elohim that would be one of the most amazing collections of orthodoxy Christian belief but for taking the divine council in a tritheistic sense ("How could those to whom he spoke hear and collaborate each in their own way to make man in their own likeness unless they were substances subsisting through themselves and understanding?"). In short, this notion of the eternal decree as a compact among the Persons of the Trinity is not an idle metaphor; it a core concept of Calvinist theology.
But the idea of God "compacting with Himself" is also a clear warning; it is metaphysically absurd for the Trinity to make an intra-Trinitarian compact when they have a numerically identical will. The only distinctions in the Trinity are relations of origin, and their unity is constituted in having the same divine essence and the same divine will, demonstrated by the performance of characteristically divine activities. The divine power is numerically one just as the divine essence is numerically one; it is not corcordance of will but identity of will. The idea of the Persons "coming to agreement" in concordant fashion is simply not Trinitarian; it is tritheist. Calvin's account thus has the Person concreted by mode of activity rather than mode of existence. That we should see anthropomorphic and polytheistic expressions of a "divine council" in the Old Testament is not unusual, since it would be the idiom of the surrounding culture, but it clearly violates Nicene monotheism to take these references as anything other than a metaphor for consubstantiality. We can also note in passing Calvin's localization of divine transcendence in the secret decretive will ("the just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment"), likewise characteristic of the super-voluntarist attempt to explain everything directly by the divine will.
I should say at this point that not every intersubjective account of the Trinity must be anti-Nicene. There are Nicene "social Trinitarian" models, such as the speculative theology of John Zizoulas, that use the metaphysical relations of origin and their eternal activities (perichoresis) as the basis of the intersubjective account. But these accounts do not equate the Persons with their agency and voluntary fellowship (operations of will), referring instead to the consubstantial activities of indwelling and interpenetration resulting from identity of nature. It is Calvin's denial of nature as the metaphysical basis of unity among the Persons and placement of that unity instead in the concord of the will among individual agents that makes the orthodox path inaccessible. Calvin must replace the unity of nature with something else: koinonia in the sense of voluntary and intimate fellowship. And that defective concept, at the root of Calvin's most fundamental doctrine, is not confined to the eternal decree; it extends to the doctrine of the Trinity itself.
This anti-Nicene notion of intersubjective fellowship stems directly from Calvin's concept of persona, which Edmondson summarizes as follows:
To grasp Calvin's understanding of Christ's person, we must first explore his understanding of the word persona, for we will find that Calvin typically uses the word not only in a manner unrelated to the psychological coloring with which we might shade it today, but also in a manner differently related to the medieval theological use of the term in its concern for metaphysical definition. Boethius' definition of persona as "an individual substance of a rational nature" orients the sense of this term around a concern for that substantial self. We when speak of personae under this construal of the term, we are concerned with their essence, abstracted from and preliminary to our understanding of their engagement with the world. But, in the classical Latin to which Calvin was committed, persona designated principally one's role or character in a play or office within the fabric of society -- not the role, character, or office that one simply filled, but that which one was, for one's role, character, or office defined one's significance within the outworking of the greater whole. Persona in this classical sense was focused primarily on one's activity within the surrounding economy, and then, only secondarily, on one's status as a substantial self or personage who fills this role.
This concept of "role" carries down to the ad extra acts of the Trinity, which in the Nicene unity of will are strictly one. Julie Canlis observes the unity of operation but misstates its origin when she says "the West tended to follow Augustine's opera trinitas ad extra indivisa sunt" as contrasted with what she views as Irenaeus's "economic trinitarianism." On the contrary, it is clear in the scholarship that the pro-Nicene concept of unity of operation was universal in both East and West. She notes Calvin's disagreement by saying that "Calvin did not deny Augustine's maxim (I.13.25), but it is not adequate to describe Calvin's Trinitarian [sic] theology either." She is correct in that Calvin has substituted concordance of wills for numerical identity of will, but she fails to identify it as anti-Nicene. Horton similarly states the personal plurality of roles when he notes "the recurring motif that every external work of the Trinity is done by the Father in the Son through the effective power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings us into union with Christ even as this same Spirit brought the Son into union with us through the Incarnation." Again, interpreted in terms of roles in the actions as opposed to appropriations, this would violate the pro-Nicene unity of the divine will.
This distinction also shows up in Reformed scholastics. Muller cites from Polanus in Christ and the Decree (p. 149-50). Polanus said that the Persons can engage in ad extra personal acts by "opera certo modo personalia, which, as works terminating upon created things, involve the whole Godhead and have as their principle and cause the common power of the divine persons but have as the terminus of operation (terminus operationis) one of the divine persons by reason of the internal economy of the Godhead. These latter acts such as the voice of the Father at the baptism of Jesus or the incarnation, mediation and atoning work of the Son, or the sanctifying work of the Spirit: considered inchoative, these are the common work of God; considered terminative, they are the work of individual persons." This can be given an orthodox sense according to appropriations and the relation in which creatures are placed to a particular Person, as Vidu explains in The Same God Who Works All Things. But it can only distinguish the work as relating to, not the work in itself. This distinction is helpfully illustrated by Vidu's response to Oliver Crisp's argument that the Incarnation must necessarily imply a distinction in action by the Son, implicitly making Polanus's argument here, which Vidu successfully shows is not consistent with Nicene identity of the will.
[Excursus on John Owen
I have some across a couple of additional works making reference to John Owen's approach to appropriation of roles, which is essentially the same as Polanus's. In particular, Matthew Barrett's Simply Trinity and Jake Rainwater's "An Appropriate Pact" in Credo magazine talk about appropriation within the Trinitarian acts. But appropriation is only permissible in how creatures think about the Trinity, not with respect to the acts themselves. Incidentally, Vidu makes this same mistake in his concept of terminus2, which I should have pointed out previously, but it does not detract from his analysis of what he calls terminus1 (i.e., terminating on a Person as object rather than subject).
I have reviewed their sources in the tradition on this point, and it is clear what the reason for the mistake is. Vidu cites Bruce Marshall in Trinity and Truth, who in turn appeals to St. Thomas's doctrine of appropriations (ST III, p. 32, a. 1, RO 1) to speak of an "immediate agent (the one whose role terminates the action)." Since St. Thomas's doctrine of appropriation is solely a question of how creatures think about divine actions, this is unsustainable, and there is no real explanation for why Marshall or Vidu thinks otherwise. Barrett has a much more interesting citation from St. Basil the Great's On the Holy Spirit, where Basil calls the Father the "original cause," the Son the "creative cause," and the Spirit the "perfecting cause." While this could be reconciled with later thinking, it seems more likely that this stems from "a certain Origenistic inheritance, by which the action of the Spirit in creation is limited exclusive to rational creatures" (Giulio Maspero, Trinity and Truth, p. 187, citing A. Meredith, "The Pneumatology of the Cappadocia Fathers and the Creed of Constantinople"). As Maspero recounts, that error was rectified by Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa, and it appears that Barrett has simply followed Basil's earlier mistake.]
The replacement of consubstantial relations with intersubjective communion is equally problematic for the ad intra acts, the Trinitarian processions. Where orthodox theology holds that these are eternal relations of origin (communication of essence) between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Calvin construes perichoresis in terms of interpersonal communion, which leaves him with no real metaphysical tools to account for personal origin and consubstantiality simultaneously. He ends up concluding that the Father begets the Son according to person but not essence and that this activity is not ongoing but completed. Paul Helm covers Calvin's struggles with these doctrines on pp. 53-57 of John Calvin's Ideas, but even he ends up perplexed as to what Calvin is trying to do. It turns out that Helm has said more than he knows when he cites a relevant observation by Gerald Bray in the Doctrine of God (p. 203): "Here it is a little surprising that Gerald Bray holds that since according to Calvin each person of the Trinity is autotheos, this ensures that the relations between them must must be voluntary, since no one person can claim the authority to impose his will on the others." Yet this is, of course, the problem; he has constituted the unity of the Trinity by voluntary fellowship among the Persons, so the consubstantial relations between them are inexplicable. Again, Calvin's Ockhamist metaphysics has put him at odds with Nicene orthodoxy.
Canlis documents Calvin's anti-Nicene concept of inner-Trinitarian relations in great detail. Canlis aptly describes the link between the work in the economy and the divine Trinity in Calvin's work as follows: "it is a robust theology of the communion, cooperation, and interrelationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the salvation and sanctification of humanity." That description is completely accurate, in that Calvin takes his economic tritheism into his immanent description of the Trinity. And Canlis likewise describes the result: "a crucial reorientation away from the standard reading of Augustine on the Trinity and thus away from some of the traditional 'Latin' emphases that had marked Western theology for centuries." And while she recognizes that the de Regnon thesis of the Latin essential Trinity versus Eastern personalist Trinity has been discredited, she appears to be oblivious to the fact that it was discredited in a significant way by the recognition of the pro-Nicene principle (unity of operation to unity of essence), exactly the same principle that Calvin rejects in this account.
Canlis approvingly cites Gerald Bray's statement in The Doctrine of God that "Calvin held to a doctrine which said that the three persons were coequal in their divinity and united with each other, not by sharing an impersonal essence, but by their mutual fellowship and co-inherence -- the Cappadocian doctrine of perichoresis in God, applied at the level of person, not essence." There could really be no better summary of Calvin's tritheism and his rejection of Nicene doctrine by putting unity at the level of personal fellowship. This Canlis contrasts with what she calls "Augustinian Trinitarianism, which renders the three members of the Godhead functionally indistinguishable," although what she is criticizing is really nothing but the pro-Nicene doctrine of numerically one divine will. Calvin's tritheist account similarly affirms distinct (as opposed to appropriated) acts of the Persons in salvation; "Calvin pioneered a Trinitarian [sic] model based on the mutuality of the work of the Son and Spirit." Canlis correctly observes that "[t]his is a significant departure from medieval ontology," but fails to see that Calvin's innovation is actually based on medieval ontology (Ockham's) and that the departure is of this medieval ontology from the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.
Finally Canlis summarizes how Calvin's entire theology is rewritten on the basis of tritheism, and I cannot improve upon her accuracy here:
To summarize, we see two significant innovations in Calvin's doctrine of the Spirit. First, he has shifted the primary bond between the human Jesus and the Father from divine substance to the divine person of the Spirit. This opens up a new realm for the Spirit's operation in the life of Jesus, where the Spirit has its own particular mission from the Father in conceiving, anointing, and empowering Jesus' mission. In effect, Calvin's approach here redeems us from confused readings of Chalcedon: rather than two naked natures coexisting without mingling, Calvin treats the whole person of Christ, who, by the Spirit, is kept truly human and truly divine. The Holy Spirit represents a new way of being in relationship -- the joining of two unlikes in a relationship of particularity and yet union. Second, and as a result, Calvin is enabled to shift the bond between God and humanity from a more Platonic view (based on an ontological similarity between divine and human) to the person of the Holy Spirit. Once again, an abstract "similarity" or "point of contact" is subverted for a person, anchoring human participation only in God himself, beginning with the self-gift of God to us in the person of the Spirit.
We must now be critical of the idea that Calvin received this teaching from Scripture. The Bible affirms that the Trinity is One God, which should require identity of divine will. The Nicene doctrine of homoousios is nothing but a restatement that God is One, which is then used to interpret anthropomorphic references in the Bible and other Biblical language, including references to the distinct acts of the Persons, in a way that preserves this unity. That interpretation is not reading Scripture in terms of philosophy, but rather allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture so that it can be reconciled as a whole. By accepting Ockham's philosophical explanation of persons in terms of operations of will and making divine unity into voluntary fellowship, Calvin has put his philosophical notion of persona in apparent conflict with with the Scriptural teaching that God is One. This leads to a divided, anthropomorphic picture of God "compacting with Himself" in a literal divine council, a philosophical error that the Scriptural teaching that God is One could have prevented. Calvin's understanding of divine sovereignty is similarly anthropomorphic, as shown by his account of the eternal decree and the ad extra acts, which fits into the nominalist "zero-sum" game between divine and human wills. This does not seem to be letting Scripture determine his idea of divine sovereignty but rather reading an early modern understanding of personhood into Scripture.
Needless to say, this anti-Nicene position leads to problems with all of the later councils. Canlis's assertion that other readings of Chalcedon are "confused" actually reinforces that Calvin's reading is anti-Nicene. His anti-Nicene notion of persona ends up being applied to both the Son and the Spirit.
VIII. The Person of the Mediator
Muller (Christ and the Decree, p. 36) criticizes the orthodox view as follows: "The man Jesus or, more precisely, his human nature was predestined to be the Son of God in incarnation. According to this formulation it is not the person of the mediator that is predestined but only the abstraction of the human nature which has no substance independent of the person." Muller's description of "abstraction" is simply a denial of enhypostasis; the anhypostatic human nature is absolutely real and concrete when enhypostasized in the Word of God. But Muller's comment is telling in terms of just how different the Calvinist understanding of persona is from Augustine's. Until concreted by activity, the person is not even real, merely an "abstraction." This concept of "role" defining the Person is shown clearly in that the Word of God is taking in His divinity a role appointed to Him by the divine council.
Calvin thus deploys his anti-Nicene concept of persona as activity to correct St. Augustine (Muller pp. 37 et seq.): "Calvin attempts to move beyond this doctrine to a conception involving the whole person of Christ, the concrete, historical mediatoris persona.... Calvin must depart from a doctrine which examines the predestination of an abstract humanity which does not exist apart from the person of Christ.... Since Christ is mediator, according to both natures, the election of his humanity correlates with the designation or self-designation of his divinity for the work of redemption. This correlation appears in the broader context of Calvin's Christology where the kenosis is considered as part of the status humiliationis and the status humiliationis is applied to the divine as well as the human nature." Muller describes the doctrine of Polanus as follows: "the subordination of Christ as mediator and as elect man stands as the foundation of the work of salvation." Edmondson similarly notes that Calvin speaks of Christ the person as serving in the role of mediator: "Christ's statement that he teaches what he has received from the Father should be understood in relation to his subordinate role as the Mediator, and not as he is the eternal Son and Wisdom of God, coequal with the Father."
Calvin's heterodoxy on this point was raised by the Lutheran Francesco Stancaro in a controversy that is summarized in Chapter I of Edmondson's Calvin's Christology. Stancaro (correctly) pointed out the orthodox doctrine that Christ's mediation was solely exercised by His humanity, on pain of subordinating the Son to the Father in His divinity. This is not to say that it was irrelevant that His humanity was the humanity of a divine Person, the significance of which St. Anselm and St. Bonaventure had already pointed out, but the Word of God was not uniquely acting according to His divinity or otherwise subordinated according to His Person in this role. In what Edmondson describes as a "dramatic break with the tradition," Calvin again deploys his concept of persona as activity based on the work of the Mediator. Edmondson notes that "in the midst of all this talk of natures, the implicit logic in Calvin's discussion is that mediation as an activity is carried out by a person, not by his natures, though this person certainly is only able to carry out this activity on the basis of his natures," thus explicating exactly why Calvin's anti-Nicene concept of persona leads to denying Stancaro's correct and orthodox conclusion. Edmondson correctly summarizes the problem as follows: "The subordination, then, which Calvin describes, refers not to the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son, but rather to a loving decision shared by the Father and the Son." He goes on to say that "[t]he Son's subordination through his condescension is not accidental to Calvin's theology, proceeding only out of his commitment to hearing how Scripture speaks of Christ and to the integrity of the complete person of Christ in his office of the Mediator." But apart from begging the question concerning the misreading of Scriptures by Christians for centuries, it admits that Calvin has departed from Nicene orthodoxy.
In this Christology, Calvin's equation of person with activity could be confused with Nestorianism, especially since it uses the term persona in a similar way to how the Nestorians saw the term prosopon. In both cases, the metaphysical concept is to create unity by unity of an entity's activities, so that both Calvin and the Nestorians use it as an explanation for the union of the two natures of Christ. But the Nestorians used this concept with respect to nature so that each nature must have its proper mode of expression (prosopon), which formed the prosopon of the union when they acted together. Calvin is instead using this concept of activity for persona, which has tritheist implications that the Nestorian doctrine does not. For Calvin, to be a person is to have a role, an activity, an office, as contrasted with the Cappadocian or Augustinian concept of hypostasis as a mode of existence. In taking this step, Calvin takes a step that Ockham had not taken, thereby moving beyond the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy.
In Calvin's theology, the person of the Mediator thus serves to constitute the unity of the activities of the natures in the same way that the prosopon of the union does for Nestorians. The office of the Mediator is in turn the result of the divine decree, meaning that the new personal role (and activity) constituting the unity of the natures is not the Word of God itself. Constituting the hypostatic union of Christ in something other than the Person of the Word of God is the defining characteristic of Nestorianism, as opposed to the frequently employed caricature of "two Christs." As Fr. Richard Price has pointed out "The Antiochene theologians Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, in quest of a clearer way to express Christ’s unity, were happy to talk of ‘one energy’ and ‘one will’ in Christ, despite the Antiochene emphasis on the completeness and freedom of Christ’s manhood." Just as Calvin used the inner-Trinitarian fellowship of will as the basis of union in the Trinity, so he relies on the activity of the Mediator to unite the natures in Christ.
Calvin does, therefore, end up in the same place as the Nestorians on the communicatio idiomatum. Helm (p. 77) says that Calvin's view that the communicatio is "figurative, metaphorical, or 'improper' ... coincides with Nestorius," citing JND Kelly's explanation that these terms are attributed to the "'prosopon of the economy,' i.e., the God-man Who united both natures in His single prosopon." Because Calvin's person of the Mediator is a role in which divinity and humanity perform distinct functions, there can be no real communication between the two in the metaphysical sense without confusing their distinct roles in the work in which they are unified. Moreover, because the roles are distinct, Calvin maintains that the divine operation cannot "fit" within the person of Jesus Christ, so that there must be an extra calvinisticum in the person of the Mediator, with its unity constituted by the work of mediation. Calvinist commentators, including Helm, repeatedly try to locate the extra within the patristic tradition, but they do not account for the fact that Fathers such as St. Athanasius are using the metaphysical concept of person as opposed to Calvin's anti-Nicene persona. Given Calvin's anti-Nicene confusion of person with operation, it is clear that the extra calvinisticum is only the result of his mistake. Contra Stancaro, Calvin thinks there is too much work for the human nature to do, and this extra work must be contained within the person of the Mediator's extra so that it can include the entirety of his mediating activity.
Just as Calvin's move of Trinitarian perichoresis from nature to Person excluded the consubstantial communion of the Persons, thus leading to tritheism, Calvin's denial of the reality of natures has excluded the possibility of perichoresis between the natures in the Person of Christ. As with the perichoresis within the Trinity, the perichoresis between the natures is essential to the coherence of the Chalcedonian dogma. Moreover, it is the metaphysical basis of salvation in the Nicene account; the divination of Christ's humanity is the mechanism for our own resurrection and glorification, becoming God-like in immortality and glory. As Donald Winslow says concerning St. Gregory the Theologian: "The unity of Christ's person, for Gregory, is theosis" (Dynamics of Salvation, p. 87). Calvin's defective concept of union by will has vitiated his concept of Christ's person as well; he cannot conceive of real perichoresis between the natures in the metaphysical unity of person without mixing or confusion.
IX. Participation and Union with Christ
Calvin's theology of salvation brings together all of his Ockhamist innovations in one place: (1) the zero-sum account of nature and grace (what Raith calls the "competitive-causal" account), (2) the tritheist divine council's eternal decree of predestination, (3) the person of the Mediator constituted by the work of mediation, and (4) the tritheist account of distinct operations for the Son and the Spirit in this mediation. The Thomist and Scotist antecedents at this point are irrelevant, because those systems never deny the metaphysical account of hypostasis or the identity of ad extra divine operations. Regardless of whether Scotus did or did not have responsibility for the nature-grace competition in (1), that was clearly the accepted understanding of Pelagianism in Calvin's mind at the time. Then Calvin, completely on his own, has discarded the traditional metaphysical concept of persona for an Ockhamist view identifying person with operation, resulting (2)-(4) as distinctive features of his theology that are determinative for later Reformed interpreters, even for Reformed scholastics such as Vermigli, Polanus, and Zanchi. (In fact, Muller's Christ and the Decree convincingly argues that every single significant Reformed interpreter follows Calvin's account of salvation in this regard.)
In brief, Calvin's doctrine centers around the concept of koinonia as voluntary fellowship between the Persons, each autotheos, in eternity. In their eternal and unchanging counsel, they compact with one another to create a universe that will demonstrate their attributes and to elect a portion of that creation to enter into koinonia with them by the work of mediation. Within that divine work of mediation, the Son has the office of Mediator to condescend to creation (kenosis, status humiliationis) in order to elevate creation into the koinonia on His behalf, thus serving as the paradigm of predestination and the elective will. The Spirit has the role of the effective power to bring the creatures into this koinonia with the Trinity through the Son. These roles correspond to their eternal actions in the koinonia, where the voluntary communion with the Father brings unity to the Trinity. Those roles, which correspond to justification and sanctification in the duplex gratia, are inseparable (being part of the same work) but not identical (contra Nicene orthodoxy). Regarding the distinct role (the secret power) of the Spirit on those engrafted into Christ to produce union, I recommend Mark Garcia's description in Life in Christ at pp. 125-140. Horton describes it likewise, quoting Calvin: "It is by 'the secret energy of the Spirit' that 'we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits. To sum up, the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.'" Notably, Calvin explicitly rejects Osiander's belief that all three Persons of the Trinity are present in any act of indwelling due to the inseparability of the operations.
Because Calvin accepts a univocal account of divine and human wills, the obstacle to this participation the divine koinonia is not in principle ontological but rather social/legal, in that we have not been invited into communion. Notably even the angels require "a peace maker, through whose grace they may wholly cleave to God," thus achieving the "proper condition of creatures, [which] is to keep close to God" (quoted from Calvin by Canlis). Adam and the fallen angels were originally invited into communion with God by the Mediator, an example of the pre-incarnate divine role, which would have been eternally effectuated by the Spirit. But they broke that communion by their sin, violating the harmony of will, which left Adam's progeny legally "uninvited" from Eden with an unpaid debt to divine justice. (Like Scotus, Calvin does not have a coherent explanation in the divine will for either Adam's fall or that of the demons, an endemic problem for super-voluntarist accounts that has never been resolved.)
While there is a huge amount of discussion in Reformed scholarship about the etiology of these beliefs, none of the scholars I have cited disagree about whether those are Calvin's beliefs. We have scrupulously followed Raith's caution to "engage Calvin's theology and only then discern points of contact that exist between different strains of thought." The differences from the sources are likewise agreed. Canlis correctly says that Calvin has broken from Augustine on the inner-Trinitarian perichoresis; she cites Bray saying the same with respect to the Cappadocians. Muller says that Calvin has shifted Augustine's predestination of the human nature to the person of the Mediator. Helm agrees with the assertion that Calvin's view of the communicatio idiomatum is Nestorian and agrees with Bray that the communion between three autotheos persons must be voluntary if none has authority over the others. What I have presented is just what Calvin believes and where he has broken from the tradition in believing it.
That participation-as-koinonia is Calvin's account of the unio mystica with Christ and the duplex gratia seems undeniable if these many scholars are correct. That this account cannot be reconciled with the patristic account of theosis, which is based on the perichoresis of the natures in the divine Person of the Word of God, is equally apparent. (As Dr. Minerd aptly puts it in the video clip linked above, "Christification is not theosis.") Canlis distinguishes "participation-as-infusion" or "Platonic participation" from Calvin's "Trinitarian [sic] participation," the latter of which she contrasts with "Osiander's low appreciation of the Holy Spirit" (i.e., the pro-Nicene view of identical operations). And while Canlis shows some points of harmony between Calvin and Irenaeus, even she must admit that "Irenaeus stood right at the junction between Middle and Neoplatonism, deftly using participation for his Christian purposes." She likewise traces the differences between Calvin's view and the mystical theology of ascent. Her conclusion is essentially identical to Garcia's critique of Tamburello (pp. 69-74) regarding Calvin's antecedents in St. Bernard, which maintains that the continuity would come at the price of interpreting the terms so broadly that one would sweep over the critical differences such as the ones Canlis identifies. Raith's analysis of Aquinas is similarly accurate, and he identifies exactly the same duplex gratia and the work of the Spirit as key elements of Calvin's theology, offering no real solution as to how they can be reconciled. Aspray's analysis of participation in Vermigli likewise follows the lines of the duplex gratia. Letham and Horton provide similar evaluations of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, and while there is some difference between their critiques, both end with the same model of the duplex gratia and koinonia.
At some point, we must let Calvin speak for himself. He doesn't believe in identical operations, although he does believe that the work of mediation is an inseparable operation, which is why the duplex gratia of justification and sanctification can't be severed. But if Calvin believed in identical operations as opposed to inseparable operations, he wouldn't have disagreed with both Stancaro and Osiander on that specific point when it was raised in the context of their separate disputes with him. He wouldn't have spoken of the decree on predestination as a compact that God makes with Himself. And while later Reformed thinkers may have differed from Calvin on some issue or other, these ideas of the eternal and immutable counsel as compact, the person of the Mediator, the distinct roles of the Son and Spirit in mediation, and the duplex gratia remain firmly embedded in this "clash of wills between God and man" that is super-voluntarism. This is an anti-Nicene theology from start to finish.
X. How Should We Then Live?
Knowing truly what Calvin's theology was, I now offer the same question to Calvinists that the Reformed scholar Francis Schaeffer offered after his own critique of Western society: now that we see the problem, what should we do? Note that I am not disagreeing with these many distinguished Calvinist scholars on their conclusions; as far as I can tell, they are all exactly right. But if they are all right, then Calvin has denied the identical operations required by Nicaea, which means he cannot consistently say that Jesus is the One God.
For my fellow Catholics, I do not see much good in reading anti-Nicene theologians except as cautionary tales. I would put Calvin with Eunomius and Nestorius, his fellow "logic-choppers," as theologians that we should study only with extreme care and with a clear understanding of the threat they pose to belief in Jesus as the One God. The risks of failing to do so are substantial. Maurice Wiles chronicles the revival of Arianism among eighteenth-century British intellectuals in his book Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries. More recently, the German scholar Friedrich Loofs led a purported rehabilitation of Nestorius based on the discovery of the Bazaar of Heracleides, in which Nestorius articulated his belief that he had been vindicated by Chalcedon. This only reinforced the chimerical idea of an orthodox Antiochene Christology that had supposedly been balanced against the Alexandrian Christology of St. Cyril at Chalcedon, and it has taken decades of careful scholarship, such as that of Anthony McGuckin, to debunk that particular myth and to reaffirm Cyril's doctrine that Jesus Christ just is the Word of God. This is not to say that the exact philosophical exposition of the union has not been a subject of some discussion, as documented in Christopher Beeley's The Unity of Christ, but there was no orthodox Nestorian position being balanced at Chalcedon. The lesson is clear: there is a degree of temptation in following intelligent men who have made serious errors, all the while thinking that we are smart enough to avoid them.
From the pro-Nicene position, I would suggest that we take Calvin himself seriously: "Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen." I agree with him. The pro-Nicene Fathers who contributed to Constantinople I and those who have followed them to the present day were following Scripture in affirming the doctrine of identical operations. Calvin has not, which means he is not following the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture. He has introduced anthropomorphic personhood in early modern medieval philosophy into the sublime majesty of the One God.
Calvin's deviation from tradition is not without consequence. Even apart from the numerous problems that TUR documents, there has been tremendous fallout in theology from the conflict between the doctrine of persons and the divine simplicity. James Dolezal's book All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism bemoans the rise of "theological mutualism," in which personal relationship with God is held to be impossible unless God is somehow mutable in response to us. But Calvin has put the same kind of intersubjective fellowship in God with his account of persona and koinonia, so how ought one expect anything different? As a defender of divine simplicity, where is Dolezal's concern to defend identity of operations, which Calvin denies with his account of mediation and his duplex gratia? What about the Word of God being subordinated in His divinity and His person as an object of predestination? Calvin's anti-Nicene concept of person and his attacks on divine simplicity are responsible for the deviations Dolezal identifies even among his Reformed confrères; where is the criticism of Calvin? These are questions that scholars such as Muller and Helm, who have commended Dolezal's work, need to ask themselves, since they are the ones who have so accurately summarized Calvin's theology.
What I would like to see from Calvinists is to pick a side, so that we can all have honest discussions. There are anti-Nicene and anti-Chalcedonian churches that are the subject of ongoing ecumenical discussions, so it is not as if conciliar fidelity is a prerequisite to be taken seriously. Likewise, nominalism is hardly an unusual position to have in modern society, so to admit that Calvinism is not Thomist or Scotist or Palamite would hardly be a surprise to anyone. Only admit that your faith is not Irenaeus's or Augustine's or Anselm's or Aquinas's or the Cappadocians', and there is a reasonable baseline for discussion. And to be fair, Calvinism is the first truly modern religion, breaking from tradition in a way that not even Lutheranism did. Why not own that role and be openly critical of the entire idea of Nicene orthodoxy? Perhaps Calvin has, by discarding his theological past, returned to a Hebraic mode of thinking with Paul that was inherently more polytheistic, so that this is a return to what the Bible actually meant. What I don't understand is wearing a cloak of orthodoxy that simply doesn't fit, which doesn't serve the truth at all.
XI. Was It All Bad?
As pessimistic as I am about Calvinism as a theology, I cannot say that modernity as a whole has been a bad thing. Despite the protestations of some dyed-in-the-wool Aristotelico-Thomists, I do not believe that Aristotle's sciences are all that relevant to modern science except at a very high level, and that is a good thing. The early Christian Fathers were realistic about what philosophy could tell us and what human reason could hope to achieve. In responding to Eunomius, St. Basil the Great pointed out that we couldn't even comprehend the nature of corn, as recounted in Scot Douglass's Theology of the Gap. St. Augustine was likewise skeptical of human reason for much the same reason; we are extended in time, and as creatures experiencing this distension, we are limited. Even the Aristotelian St. Thomas recognized that even the small bits of truth we were able to extract were the result of laborious study, and he attributed predestination and Providence to the practical knowledge of God, which remains inscrutable to us.
Where I think that medieval philosophy went wrong was in seeing things that they shouldn't have been able to see based on the limits of human reason. There is certainly a "negative" meaning of desacralization that denies to God even the role that He should have in creation and that He has revealed to us. But there is an entire superstructure of explanation that one can build onto those metaphysical assumptions, far beyond what is strictly necessary to affirm what is revealed to us and what we can know in our creaturely capacity as limited beings, let alone what are strictly incomprehensible theological mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, divine eternity, or the exact mechanism of creation or Providence. Put another way, there is a sacred cosmos, which embraces God as the Creator and Jesus Christ as His Only-Begotten Son, and then there are sacred cosmologies that serve as explanatory paradigms in areas like science and culture that may be beyond the level of confidence that our finite reason can give us.
[Update: Since writing the piece, I have thought at greater length about the motivation for Calvin's political views, and I believe that his views on political sovereignty were actually based on a Christian theological perspective: rejection of idolatry of political sovereignty. This is, it seems to me, a real and valuable contribution to Christian theology, just as Luther's emphasis on justification was a real and valuable corrective to the excesses of nominalism in medieval soteriology. This was a new realization for me, and I wanted to give Calvin his proper due for having made this contribution.]
Those sacred cosmologies are, in my view, like the Trinitarian doctrines of the early Church. They have problems and anomalies that ultimately require them to be revised. They cannot explain everything they need to explain; alternatively, they may try to explain something that cannot be explained. We can accept St. Maximus the Confessor's idea of a sacred cosmos centered around the Incarnate Word without accepting his sacred cosmology in which animal death was something that came only after Adam's fall. We can accept a God Who orders the cosmos in His Providence without St. Bonaventure's celestial hierarchy extending all the way down to the motion of the planets. We can accept the hierarchy of sciences in their objects, down from theology studying divine revelation and metaphysics examining "being as such," without then looking to Christian dogma to explain biological science. We can accept divinely established authority in the Church without committing ourselves to integralism that rules out pluralism and religious freedom. That the Reformation forced the Catholic Church to confront the limits of Her explanatory paradigms was not a bad thing. I would argue that we are all better for it, culminating in recognition of Vatican II of the political right to religious freedom.
At the same time, we cannot disregard the fundamental basis for the sacred cosmos: the Father, His Only-Begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. And in that respect, I believe Calvin has gone much too far.