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‘“Fuisse in Forma Hominis” belongs to Christ Alone’: John Calvin's trinitarian hermeneutics in his Lectures on Ezekiel

  • John T. Slotemaker (a1)

Abstract

The present article examines John Calvin's trinitarian and christological interpretation of Old Testament theophanies in his Praelectiones on Ezekiel 1. The first section of the article treats Calvin's exegetical principles. It is noted that Calvin defends a strict set of rules for how to interpret Old Testament theophanies: in short, Calvin argues that if a passage presents the divine nature in the form of a human person, that given theophany must be interpreted as a representation of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God (i.e. Jesus Christ). In defending this position, Calvin examines in great detail various rules for how to interpret Old Testament passages which indicate a plurality within the divine nature (i.e. the Trinity). He defends his exegetical approach to these texts with numerous passages from the New Testament.

This examination of Calvin's exegesis is contextualised in two ways. First, it is noted that Calvin's exegesis of these passages is uncharacteristically more ‘strict’ in its trinitarian and christological reading than one finds in earlier thinkers such as Augustine and Jerome. For example, Augustine argued that Old Testament theophanies which present God in the form of a human being could be understood as the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. Augustine, in short, does not think one can definitively determine which member of the Trinity is ‘present’ in a theophany. Second, it is noted that this surprising development in Calvin's final work is the result of the rising threat of anti-trinitarianism in Transylvania. Thus, the article argues that the rise of Polish anti-trinitarianism not only contributed to Calvin's renewed interest in trinitarian and christological interpretations of the Old Testament, but it also pushed him to develop a more strict set of exegetical rules which govern how such passages are interpreted.

Therefore, the article presents a reading of Calvin which strongly suggests that any complete analysis of Calvin's alleged ‘Judaising’ must develop a historically nuanced methodology. While it is often argued that Calvin hesitates from interpreting Old Testament passages in a strictly trinitarian or christological way, it must be acknowledged that towards the end of his career he radically began to alter his exegetical rules/method given the renewed threat of the anti-trinitarians.

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1 Because the focus of this article is John Calvin's Lectures on Ezekiel, for purposes of clarity and ease of presentation I will adopt his language of Old and New Testament.

2 For quotations of Ezekiel I have used the Latin text recorded in Calvin's Lectures on Ezekiel in the Corpus Reformatorum and the translation of the Calvin Theological Society (see n. 10 below). For all other biblical references I have used the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims translation thereof. Thus, Biblia Sacra Vulgata, ed. R. Gryson (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), and The Catholic Bible: Douay-Rheims Version (Charlotte, NC: St Benedict Press, 2009). Daniel 7:9: ‘aspiciebam donec throni positi sunt et antiquus dierum sedit vestimentum eius quasi nix candidum et capilli capitis eius quasi lana munda thronus eis flammae ignis rotae eius ignis accensus’. Ezekiel 1:26: ‘et super firmamentum quod erat inminens capiti eorum quasi aspectus lapidis sapphyri similitudo throni et super similitudinem throni similitudo quasi aspectus hominis desuper’. I have often amended the translations of both the Calvin Theological Society and the Douay-Rheims edition of the Vulgate.

3 Augustine, De Trinitate 2.13, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 50 and 50A, ed. W. J. Mountain (Turnhout: Brepols, 1968), vol. 50, p. 97. ‘In huius perplexitate quaestionis primum domino adiuuante quaerendum est utrum pater an filius an spiritus sanctus; an aliquando pater, aliquando filius, aliquando spiritus sanctus; an sine ulla distinctione personarum sicut dicitur deus unus et solus, id est ipsa trinitas, per illas creaturae formas patribus apparuerit’. I have cited the translation of Hill, Edmund, The Trinity (New York: New City Press, 1991), p. 106.

4 Augustine, De Trinitate 2.34–5 (Mountain, 50, pp. 124–6, here p. 126). ‘Ipsa enim natura uel substantia uel essentia uel quolibet alio nomine appellandum est idipsum quod deus est, quidquid illud est, corporaliter uideri non potest’.

5 Augustine, De Trinitate 2.35 (Mountain, 50, p. 126).

6 Lewis Ayres is correct to note that the preceding Latin tradition tended to argue that it was the Son who was revealed in Old Testament theophanies. See Ayres, Lewis, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), p. 159, esp. n. 57. Augustine, in response to this tradition, insists in De Trinitate 2 that all three persons can, in theory, have been observed physically.

7 On the life of Calvin, see (alphabetically): Cottret, Bernard, Calvin: A Biography, tr. M. Wallace McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000); Gordon, Bruce, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); McGrath, Alister E., The Life of John Calvin (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1990); and Selderhuis, Herman J., John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, tr. Albert Gootjes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). On Calvin's thought, see: Helm, Paul, John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford: OUP, 2004); Muller, Richard, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: OUP, 2000); and Wendel, François, Calvin: Origins and Development of his Religious Thought, tr. Philip Mairet (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1997).

8 While the present article does not analyse Calvin's Lectures on Ezekiel within the broader context of the charge of ‘Judaising’, one implication of the following study is that any analysis of Calvin's ‘Judaising’ tendencies must attend to the historical development of his thought.

9 See de Greef, Wulfert, Calvijn en het Oude Testament (Groningen: T. Bolland, 1984); Parker, T. H. L., Calvin's Old Testament Commentaries (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 176223; Puckett, David L., John Calvin's Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); and Wilcox, Pete, ‘Calvin as Commentator on the Prophets’, in McKim, Donald K. (ed.), Calvin and the Bible (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 107–30. See also Muller, Richard A., ‘The Hermeneutic of Promise and Fulfillment in Calvin's Exegesis of the Old Testament Prophecies of the Kingdom’, in Steinmetz, David C. (ed.), The Bible in the Sixteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), pp. 6882.

10 Calvin, John, Praelectiones in Ezechielem, in Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia, 59 vols, ed. Baum, Guilielmus, Cunitz, Eduardus, and Reuss, Eduardus (Brunswick: Schwetschke, 1863–1900), vol. 40. The work is translated in Commentaries of John Calvin, 46 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), vols. 11 and 12.

11 For a useful description of this process, see Wilcox, ‘Calvin as Commentator’, pp. 108–15.

12 Muller, Unaccommodated Calvin, pp. 155–7, esp. 156.

13 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 52). ‘Hinc enim colligimus neque verum fuisse coelom quod adspexit, nec fuisse solium ex aliqua materia conflatum, neque etiam fuisse verum et naturale hominis corpus’ (CTS, 11, pp. 95–6).

14 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 54). ‘Poterat quidem nomen unum sufficere, sed quia adeo propensi sumus ad vagas et erraticas opinions, ideo similitudinem adiunxit adspectum’ (CTS, 11, pp. 96–7).

15 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 53). ‘Nunc quaeritur cur Deus induerit formam hominis tam hoc loco, hoc est, in hac visione, quam in aliis similibus’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

16 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 53). ‘Libenter amplector partum sententiam, qui dicunt hoc fuisse praeludium eius mysterii, quod tandem exhibitum fuit: quod Paulus magnifice extollit quum exclamat hoc magnum esse mysterium, quod Deus sit tandem manifestatus in carne’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

17 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 53). ‘Asperum est quod dicit Hieronymus, verba fieri de patre ipso. Nam scimus patrem nunquam indutum fuisse carne humana’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

18 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 53). ‘Si simpliciter diceret Deum hic fuisse repraesentatum, nihil esset absurdi: tollatur duntaxat omnis personarum mentio, hoc erit verissimum, hominem illum qui in soli sedebat Deum fuisse’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

19 John 12:37–40. ‘cum autem tanta signa fecisset coram eis non credebant in eum / ut sermo Esaiae prophetae impleretur quem dixit Domine quis credidit auditui nostro et brachium Domini cui revelatum est / propterea non poterant credere quia iterum dixit Esaias / excaecavit oculos eorum et induravit eorum cor ut non videant oculis et intellegant corde et convertantur et sanem eos’.

20 John 12:41. ‘haec dixit Esaias quando vidit gloriam eius et locutus est de eo’.

21 Isa 6:1. ‘in anno quo mortuus est rex Ozias vidi Dominum sedentem super solium excelsum et elevatum et ea quae sub eo erant implebant templum’.

22 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 54). ‘sed addendum est simul quod dicitur Ioannis 12. Cap. (v. 41) nempe quum Isaias vidit Deum sedentem in solio, vidisse gloriam Christi, et de ipso fuisse loquutum. Itaque quod iam citavi ex veteribus, aptiisime convenit, quoties apparuit Deus sub hominis specie, ita specimen aliquod obscurum dedisse mysterii, quod tandem manifestatum fuit in Christi persona’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

23 Dan 7: 9 and 12. ‘aspiciebam donec throni positi sunt et antiquus dierum sedit vestimentum eius quasi nix candidum et capilli capitis eius quasi lana munda thronus eis flammae ignis rotae eius ignis accensus / aspiciebam ergo in visione noctis et ecce cum nubibus caeli quasi filius hominis veniebat et usque ad antiquum dierum pervenit et in conspectu eius obtulerunt eum’.

24 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, cols 54–5). ‘Illic ergo statuitur Deus in summo gradu, deinde adiungitur Christus mediator’ (CTS, 11, p. 98).

25 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 55). ‘Sed quod ad praesentem locum spectat nobis sufficere debet, prophetam vidisse Deum duntaxat in persona Christi: quia non potest transferri ad patris personam, neque spiritus, quod dicitur de hominis similitudine’ (CTS, 11, pp. 98–9).

26 Phil 2:7. ‘sed semet ipsum exinanivit formam servi accipiens in similitudinem hominum factus et habitu inventus ut homo’.

27 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 55). ‘Iam ergo tenemus Pauli consilium, ubi dicit Christum habitu fuisse repertum tanquam hominem, quia scilicet fuit abiectus et contemptibilis in carne nostra. Sed hoc loco spiritus sanctus aliud docet, nempe apparuisse iam tunc Christum in forma hominis, quamvis nondum esset homo’ (CTS, 11, p. 99).

28 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 55). ‘Deus enim, ut satis notum est, aliquando corpora dedit suis angelis, quae postea evanuerunt’ (CTS, 11, p. 99).

29 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 55). ‘Summa igitur est, similitudinem corporis fuisse in solo adspectu, quemadmodum propheta dicit, non autem in essentia. Hinc autem colligimus ubi simplex fit Dei mentio, intelligi totam essentiam, quae communis est filio et spiritui sancto cum patre. Nam sub nomine Iehovah, absurdum esset intelligere solum Christum. Sequitur ergo totam Dei essentiam hic comprehendi. Interea quum inter se comparantur personae, soli Christo convenit, quod dicitur fuisse in forma hominis. Deus ergo totus apparuit prophetae suo, et apparuit in hominis forma: sed neque pater neque spiritus sanctus apparuit, quia in rationem venire incipiunt personae, ubi ostenditur quid peculiare sit vel proprium Christo’ (CTS, 11, pp. 99–100).

30 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 56). ‘hinc collingimus non debere essentiam Dei lacerari ac si pars una esset penes Christum, altera vero penes eius patrem’ (CTS, 11, p. 101).

31 1 Tim 3:16. ‘et manifeste magnum est pietatis sacramentum quod manifestatum est in carne iustificatum est in spiritu apparuit angelis praedicatum est gentibus creditum est in mundo adsumptum est in gloria’.

32 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 56). ‘Quum Paulus dicit Deum fuisse manifestatum in carne, certe illic non loquitur de secunda quadam essentia vel adventitia. Una est enim essentia Dei. Ergo tota deitas manifestata fuit in carne: sed ideo dicit Deum fuisse manifestatum in carne, sicuti dicit etiam Christus, Ego in patre, et patre in me est’ (CTS, 11, p. 101).

33 See n. 32, and: John 14:10–11. ‘non credis quia ego in Patre et Pater in me est verba quae ego loquor vobis a me ipso non loquor Pater autem in me manens ipse facit opera / non creditis quia ego in Patre et Pater in me est’.

34 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 56). ‘Et alibi quum docet totam plenitudinem deitatis residere in Christo, hinc colligimus non debere essentiam Dei lacerari ac si pars una esset penes Christum, altera vero penes eius patrem’ (CTS, 11, p. 101).

35 1 John 5:20. ‘et scimus quoniam Filius Dei venit et dedit nobis sensum ut cognoscamus verum Deum et simus in vero Filio eius hic est verus Deus et vita aeterna’.

36 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 56). ‘Ita quum Ioannes dicit in sua canonica Christum esse verum Deum, Hic est verus Deus et vita aeterna, inquit: certe blasphemia erit non tolerabilis, si dicamus verum Deum alium esse a patre. De quo enim hoc poterit praedicari, nisi de unico Deo? Iam si transfertur hoc a patre, desinet esse Deus. Si ergo Christus est verus Deus, sequitur non aliam esse eius essentiam, quam patris’ (CTS, 11, p. 101).

37 Acts 20:28. ‘adtendite vobis et universo gregi in quo vos Spiritus Sanctus posuit episcopos regere ecclesiam Dei quam adquisivit sanguine suo’.

38 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, cols 56–7). ‘Ita quum Paulus dicit ecclesiam esse redemptam Dei sanguine, certe illic nomen Dei simpliciter et sine adiectione ponitur. Dum ille nebulo restringit nomen Dei ad patrem, quomodo hoc conveniet cum Pauli sententia? Deus, inquit, redemit ecclesiam suo sanguine: si Deus redemit suo sanguine, ergo intelligi debet Deus ille gloriae, qui ab aeterno fuit, et quem celebrant Moses et prophetae’ (CTS, 11, p. 101).

39 Pak, G. Sujin, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (Oxford: OUP, 2009). See also Selderhuis, Herman J., Calvin's Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007). See the work of Hunnius, Aegidius, The Judaizing Calvin, tr. Paul A. Rydecki (Bynum, TX: Repristination Press, 2012), a translation of Calvinus Iudaizans (Wittenberg, 1593). See also, Puckett, Calvin's Exegesis of the Old Testament, pp. 4–7.

40 John Calvin, Commentarius in Genesin, in Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. Baum et al., vol. 23, p. 15. ‘Habetur apud Mosen םיהלא, nomen pluralis numeri. Unde colligere solent, hic in Deo notari tres personas: sed quia parum solida mihi videtur tantae rei probatio, ego in voce non insistam’. The work is translated in Commentaries of John Calvin, vol. 1.

41 Augustine, De Trinitate 2.34 (Mountain, 50, p. 124). ‘Non ergo inconuenienter creditur etiam deus pater eo modo solere apparere mortalibus’. Tr. Hill, The Trinity, p. 121.

42 See Hieronymus, Commentariorum in Hiezechielem Prophetam Libro Quatuordecim, in CCSL, 75, p. 23. ‘Hominem autem Deum Patrem debere intellegi multa docent testimonia’. Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, col. 53). ‘Asperum est quod dicit Hieronymus, verba fieri de patre ipso. Nam scimus patrem nunquam indutum fuisse carne humana’ (CTS, 11, p. 97).

43 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, cols 55–6). ‘Hoc etiam notandum est, quia fanatici etiam homines nunc novum errorem spargunt, quasi Christus esset alius Deus a patre, spiritus etiam sanctus sit alius deus. Fuit hic nebulo quidam Georgius Blandrata Pedemontanus, qui apud nos versatus est sub persona medici, et occultavit hic suam impietatem quoad potuit: ubi autem vidit se detectum, transfugit in Poloniam, et infecit totam illam regionem sua veneno. Est indignus qui nominetur, sed quia voluit acquirere nomen suis blasphemiis, sit sane famosus et appetit. Quoniam hic error latius nunc vagatur, et tota Polonia infecta est, ut iam dixi, hoc diabolico delirio: ideo qui minus exercitati sunt in scriptura, munire se debent, ne incidant in illos laqueos’ (CTS, 11, pp. 99–100).

44 See n. 43.

45 Bainton, Roland H., Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (1511–1553) (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1953); Friedman, Jerome, Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy (Geneva: Droz, 1978); Kinder, Gordon A., Michael Servetus (Strasbourg: Verlag Valentin Koerner, 1989).

46 Servetus, Michael, De Trinitatis erroribus libri septem (Hagenau, 1531); idem, Dialogorum de Trinitate libri duo (Hagenau, 1532); idem, Christianismi restitutio (Vienna, 1553). For recent editions of the first two works, see Servet, Miguel, Obras Completas II-2: Primeros Escritos Teológicos, ed. Alcalá, Ángel (Zaragoza: Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza, 2004).

47 See Michael Servetus, Declarationis Iesu Christi filii Dei libri quinque, in Obras Completas II-1, pp. 537–625.

48 Biandrata, Giorgio and Dávid, Francis, De vera et falsa unius Dei, Filii et Spiritus Sancti cognitione (Alba Iulia, 1568); reprinted in Bibliotheca unitariorum, vol. 2, ed. R. Dán (Utrecht: Bibliotheca Unitariorum, 1988).

49 Williams, George Huntston, The Radical Reformation, 3rd edn (Kirksville, MI: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), p. 1084.

50 See n. 43 above.

51 Calvin, Praelectiones in Ezechielem (CO, 40, p. 2*). ‘Satis enim fuerit pauca tantum attingere, quae ad has praelectiones magis pertinent. Quum 13. Calend. Februar. anni 1563 Ezechielem interpretari in Schola publica coepisset, quamvis assidue variis gravioribusque morbis afflictaretur . . . tandem circiter Calend. Febr. anni sequentis, ubi ad finem cap. 20 (exceptis quatuor tantum versibus) pervenisset, tum domi manere et fere semper in lecto decumbere coactus est’ (CTS, 11, p. xlvii).

52 Selderhuis, Herman J., Calvin's Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 284. Earlier in the work (p. 60), Selderhuis notes that ‘in his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin is vitally interested in the first person of the Trinity. Consequently Christology and Pneumatology lie on the periphery’.

53 See Muller, ‘Hermeneutic of Promise and Fulfillment’, p. 77.

54 Unfortunately, there is to date no study of Calvin's ‘Judaising’ which accounts for the breadth of his corpus. The majority of studies (e.g. Pak, The Judaizing Calvin) focus narrowly on a given set of texts. Pak's focus is eight of the traditionally ‘messianic Psalms’ – and, while such studies are valuable in their own right, a definitive study on the subject would need to attend to the historical development of Calvin's thought.

55 Dissertation 2 (CTS, 12, p. 417).

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