The name John Calvin has always been associated with controversy and debate. The antithetical structure of his famous Institutio makes quite plain that Calvin was never satisfied with simply stating the truth until he set it plainly over against the errors so prevalent in his day. During his life and long after his death, nearly every distinctive “Calvinistic” doctrine has been subjected to relentless debate. Whether it his doctrine of natural revelation, Scripture, predestination, free will, original sin, union with Christ, the sacraments, or the church, scholars and theologians continue to fiercely debate his views. Even the validity of the moniker “Calvinist” to describe Calvin’s views has come under scrutiny. This phenomena was not limited to the 16th and 17th century, but has continued unabated to this very day. It should be no surprise that one of the most vigorous historical-theological debates in the recent scholarly literature concerns “Calvin and the Calvinists,” that is, Calvin’s general theological relationship to the “Calvinists” who came after him.
Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity is no exception to this general pattern. Controversy surrounding his views began already in his own lifetime. In fact, Calvin was forced to return to his development and defense of this Patristic doctrine throughout his career. An “unholy trinity” of anti-Trinitarians (Pierre Caroli, Valentinus Gentilis, and Michael Servetus) was a continual theological thorn in his flesh, either accusing him of heresy or propounding heretical views in and about Geneva. A central issue that arose from these 16th century polemics was the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. What precisely were Calvin’s views on the subject? Did it represent a distinctive break with Patristic and Medieval orthodoxy? If so, what is the precise nature of Calvin’s distinctiveness?
Different answers have been given to these questions over the past four hundred years. Broadly speaking, two schools of interpretation have emerged. One school views Calvin’s teaching on eternal generation as being in substantial continuity with his Patristic and Medieval predecessors and Reformation successors, while the other tends to view him as making some kind of distinctive break with past interpretations of the doctrine—a break (it is argued) that was not always consistently implemented by his successors. Both schools of thought tend to agree that Calvin embraced a form of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, but they disagree as to how he defined it. Specifically, the main area of dispute concerns Calvin’s acceptance or rejection of the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation.
This doctrine, as classically defined in Reformed theology, states that God the Father, by an eternal personal act, by necessity of nature, generates the person (not the essence) of the Son by communicating to him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead, without division, alienation, or change.
All generation involves the communication of essence. A parent communicates their essence or nature to their children when they give them birth (generate/beget). Likewise, in eternal generation, God the Father communicates his divine essence to the Son, by which the Son possesses the same essence (homoousion) with him. Although the idea of communication of essence is common to both human and divine generation, they are not entirely the same. The main difference consists in the fact that in human generation, only a part of the essence of the parent is communicated to the child; in divine generation, the whole essence is. It is important to underscore that on this construction, it is the person of the Son that is generated, not the essence. The idea of communication of essence is not in any way intended to mean that the essence of the Son is begotten, derived, or somehow separated from the essence of the Father. It is the self-same essence of the Father that is communicated or shared with the Son by means of eternal generation.
Clearly, Calvin did not articulate this doctrine of eternal generation in this more advanced and precise form. But did he affirm the substance of what it teaches? In this article, it is our intention to prove that a strong case can be made that he did. As noted above, two different answers have been given to this question over the past four hundred years. Before we turn directly to Calvin’s corpus, it is important to survey, as briefly as possible, the history of interpretation on Calvin’s doctrine of eternal generation. Our interest here is not in the development of the doctrine of eternal generation in Reformed theology per se, but only in specific reflection on Calvin’s views. It is noteworthy that as early as the late 16th century, disagreement had arisen as to the precise nature of Calvin’s views on the subject. This survey will show that our thesis stands in line with a distinct school of thought on Calvin’s views of eternal generation that was fairly well-established (at least in outline) only a few years after his death. After this historical survey, we will examine three lines of evidence from Calvin’s works that we believe lend strong support to our thesis. Finally, we will conclude with an examination of two common objections concerning Calvin’s views on eternal generation and the Nicene Creed.
Explicit discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of communication of essence began in the 16th century among Lutheran and Romanist polemicists, many of whom attacked Calvin’s Trinitarianism as heretical (most notably, Pierre Caroli). Robert Bellarmine, however, exonerated Calvin from the charge, arguing that there were indications in his Institutio that he affirmed both the idea the Aseitas of the Son and communication of essence in eternal generation. Others were not so kind, insisting that his conception of the Aseitas of the Son compromised the orthodox doctrine of eternal generation. Thus it appears that the first analyses of Calvin’s views on communication of essence were forged in the midst of sharp polemics. Many Roman Catholics and Lutherans (eager to find fault with Calvin’s theology), often alleged that he rejected the doctrine of communication of essence, thus further confirming the unorthodox nature of his theology. Bellarmine’s exoneration of Calvin in this context is extremely important, in our opinion. While it would have been extremely advantageous polemically to brand Calvin a heretic (especially to Romanist eyes), he actually argues against the general consensus of his own party.
Very likely in response to these polemical attacks, many of Calvin’s contemporaries and immediate successors self-consciously sought to clear him from the charge of heresy for his alleged rejection of the doctrine of communication of essence. For example, Josiah Simler (speaking representatively for Reformed theologians) insisted that “we do not deny that the Son has his essence from God the Father, but we deny that the essence is begotten.” This does not mean that the Son has a part of the Father’s essence, or that there are two different divine essences. Rather, the Son has the whole Divine essence in common with the Father. In human generation, the son derives a part of his being from his father, and thus becomes a separate substance. But in the divine generation, “not part but the whole essence” is communicated (communicatur) by eternal generation (generantis). It is precisely in this context that Simler mentions the name of John Calvin (nomino Ioannes Calvinus), who refuted the former error against the likes of Servetus and Valentinus Gentilis. It is clear from the context that Simler sees himself standing in line with Calvin in affirming both eternal generation and communication of essence.
In the 17th century, discussion of Calvin’s conception of eternal generation continued, especially with reference to his analysis of the Nicene Creed. In 1605, the Roman Catholic apologist Matthew Kellison chastised many of his British countrymen (including William Whitaker) for embracing the Nicene phrase “God of God” with respect to the Son as well as the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation. He argued that Calvin “in diverse places avoucheth that Christ is not God of God, as the Nicen councel calleth him,” and that he “denieth that by eternal generation God the Son hath his essence from his Father.”
Similar arguments appear to have been propounded at the Westminster Assembly. We know from Daniel Featly’s published speeches at the Assembly that he was moved to defend the Nicene Creed from the charge that it was out of accord with Calvin’s Trinitarianism. We also know that after the Assembly, Francis Cheynell also felt the need to clear Calvin from the charge that he and Beza rejected the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation (see our discussion below). However, the scanty nature of the evidence allows us only to conclude that some kind of debate took place among these British divines with regard to Calvin’s views on eternal generation and communication of essence, without being able to precisely define the terms of such debate. It is noteworthy that none of these 16th or 17th century writers examine Calvin’s works on this subject in any kind of systematic detail to demonstrate their point.
Of relevance to this debate on Calvin’s views at Westminster is the Assembly’s published decisions regarding the “three Creeds.” On December 7, 1646, the House of Commons requested the Westminster Assembly to send them their completed work on the original Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. In that document, Charles Herle, Henry Robrough, and Adoniram Byfield state that the Assembly had “proceeded onely to the finishing of fifteen Articles” (2). While they were not able to touch all thirty-nine before the order for a new confession of faith came before them, this quotation makes it evident that these fifteen articles were considered “finished,” and as such were sent to the House of Commons at their request. Included in these fifteen “finished” articles is article 8, “Of the Three Creeds”:
The Creeds that go under the names of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius Creed, and that which is commonly called The Apostles Creed, are thorowly to be received and believed, for that they may be proved by most certain warrant of holy Scripture (7).
We emphasize again that this article was included among the other fourteen “finished” articles included in the document. While it is clear that the Assembly was engaged in vigorous debate on this point, this document suggests that at some point the debate had been resolved, and the minority opposition failed to win the day. In other words, evidence exists that the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, with their “full” doctrine of eternal generation, were apparently (at some point) officially accepted and approved by the Westminster Divines (the “excepters” notwithstanding).
In the early 20th century, Calvin’s Trinitarian views were examined in characteristically programmatic fashion by B. B. Warfield. Warfield argued against the compatibility of communication of essence with Calvin’s view of the Son as αυτοθεος. His argument is largely indirect, and rests primarily on Warfield’s deductions from Calvin’s understanding of the Son’s Aseitas. Furthermore, Warfield is quite open about the fact that one of his interests in examining Calvin’s conception of eternal generation is to vindicate (or at least draw a connection between) the construction of his Princeton teacher and predecessor, Charles Hodge.
Warfield argued that with respect to the patristic doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, Calvin “seems to have drawn back from the doctrine…as it was expounded by the Nicene Fathers.” The latter, according to Warfield (following the secondary sources of Sheldon and Shedd), taught that the eternal generation was something which is “always occurring, a perpetual movement of the divine essence from the first Person to the second, always complete, never completed.” This was an idea that Calvin clearly repudiated (Institutes, 1.13.29). Thus Calvin’s position is that of one who “affirms the eternal generation of the Son, but who rejects the speculations of the nature of the act which they called ‘eternal generation.’” Not only this, but Calvin (as Warfield later writes) seems to have rejected “the entire body of Nicene speculations”: “…it would seem at least very doubtful if Calvin…thought of this begetting as procession as involving any communication of essence.” Thus Warfield sees Calvin as not only rejecting the “Nicene speculation” regarding the time of the Son’s eternal generation, but also the idea of “communication of essence” concomitant with it.
But the influential character of Warfield’s work should not cause us to overlook other analyses of Calvin’s understanding of eternal generation in the 19th century. For example, in 1850, Richard Field argued that Calvin “willingly acknowledged to be true” the Nicene declarations that Christ “hath his essence and deity communicated unto him by eternal generation from the Father.” Though not nearly as comprehensive as Warfield, Field provides extensive quotations from the primary sources of Calvin, Bellarmine, Beza, Kellison and others to demonstrate his point.
Still, Warfield’s thesis has wielded great influence in the 20th century, especially among Presbyterian and Reformed scholars. For example, Lorraine Boettner (a student of Warfield’s) argued that the Scriptures “do not teach the doctrine in question,” and that “This, apparently, was also the position held by Calvin” (citing the final sentence of Institutes, 1.13.29). Likewise John Murray argued that Calvin’s understanding of the Aseitas of the Son “ran counter to the Nicene tradition” in rejecting the Nicene fathers’s (including Athanasius’s) interpretation of the phrase “very God of very God.” As we shall argue below, we believe that both Murray and Boettner were mistaken in their analyses, but both fairly clearly indicate their dependence on Warfield’s analysis for their interpretation of Calvin.
In more recent years, heated discussion has arisen over the views of Dr. Robert Reymond, who appeals to Calvin as a precedent for his own rejection of the idea of (a continual) communication of essence. The first edition of Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith was significantly revised in a second edition, especially the section dealing with the Trinity in general, and the eternal generation of the Son in particular. In both editions, however, Reymond not only expresses strong reservations about the compatibility of the doctrines of the Aseitas of the Son and communication of essence, but goes so far as to assert that Calvin explicitly rejected the latter doctrine. According to Reymond, “John Calvin contended against the subordinationism implicit in the Nicene language” (1st ed., 327). This is changed in the second edition to read, “…John Calvin contended against all subordination of the Son to the Father with respect to his divine essence” (2nd ed., 326). In an explanation of an extensive quote from Warfield, he states that “Calvin rejected that body of speculation in the Nicene tradition of the doctrine of the Trinity which would have included…the ancient Fathers’ conception of a continuing ‘generation’ and ‘procession’ entailing the ongoing communication of essence…” (2nd ed., 333). Again, he argues that “with Calvin…Christians should not believe that Father, through an eternal act of begetting in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is begetting the Son’s essential being out of his being” (2nd ed., 335).
Reymond’s views have come under heavy criticism from two contemporary scholars, namely, Paul Owen and Robert Letham. Owen’s critique of Reymond deals extensively with Calvin’s writings on eternal generation, so it is especially noteworthy for our purposes. Owen correctly argues that Calvin’s comments in Institutes, 1.13.29 “should not be taken as an indication that Calvin rejected the statement of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed,” but rather “as rejecting the tendency to picture the ‘generation’ of the Son as an eternal act, as opposed to an eternally completed act” (270). Owen argues extensively that “Calvin regards his own version of the Trinity to be in continuity, not only with Augustine and the Council of Nicea,” but also with earlier fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and the Cappadocians (273). Though critical of Reymond’s interpretation of Calvin, Owen does not deal extensively and explicitly with the idea of communication of essence in relation to eternal generation, although the concept is implied throughout his discussion. Likewise, Robert Letham’s review of Reymond is highly critical of both his interpretation of the Nicene fathers as well as John Calvin. Like Owen, he argues for a basic continuity between Calvin and the Nicene fathers on eternal generation. But he does not isolate the doctrine of “communication of essence” as a key point of contention.
A more recent assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of communication of essence in eternal generation appears in the work of Richard Muller. Because of the influential character of his work, it is worthy of special attention. Muller maintains that the insistence on the aseity of the Son “became…the distinctive feature of Reformed trinitarianism.” Accordingly, “the concept of the Son’s aseity became a defining factor in [Calvin’s] understanding of the Son’s eternal generation: specifically, Calvin defines the generation of the Son from the Father as an origination of sonship, not of divinity.” In other words, the eternal generation of the Son involves only a bestowal of Christ’s peculiar personal property and does not have reference to the substance of the Deity. Furthermore, Muller contends that “the radical statement of the Son’s aseity found in Calvin’s trinitarian polemic is not echoed by all of the early orthodox Reformed theologians,” appealing specifically to various formulations of communication of essence to demonstrate this point.
Specifically, Muller examines the works of Ursinus and Polanus, apparently viewing the latter as more consistently “Calvinian.” It seems that the precise point of difference between the Calvin-Polanus position and that of Ursinus is the idea of a communication of essence in the eternal generation of the Son.
These formulations are, to say the least, quite distinct: where Ursinus speaks of a communication of Deity or Godhead by eternal generation, Polanus speaks more restrictively of a communication of Sonship or subsistence.
Where Ursinus affirms a communication of essence by eternal generation, Calvin-Polanus deny it (according to Muller). However, this polarization of Ursinus and Calvin does not seem to accurately reflect the testimony of the primary documents.
Muller argues that Polanus viewed eternal generation as “a ‘communication’ of existence or subsistence, such that the Son is begotten, but the divine essence that he has is itself not begotten.” This is does not seem entirely accurate. Though Polanus (with the rest of the Reformed) did deny that the divine essence was begotten, he did not view the eternal generation as merely a communication of existence or subsistence, but clearly affirmed that it involved a communication of essence.
And as the very divine essence itself is communicated to the Son: so omnipotence, knowledge of all things, ubiquity, and other essential attributes of the Godhead, are likewise by eternal generation communicated unto him.
Polanus, no less than William Bucanus, affirms both the aseity of the Son and communication of essence.
Muller seems to make a similar mistake in his treatment of the teaching of Zacharias Ursinus, which he seems to portray as standing in tension with Calvin’s understanding of the aseity of the Son (326). But as Warfield demonstrated (in a work frequently referenced by Muller), no such opposition exists between the two men. Ursinus, no less than Calvin and Polanus, affirms the aseity of the Son. Ironically, if this is correct, Muller’s treatment may leave us with a mild form of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis: Calvin’s consistent articulation of the aseity of the Son is compromised by at least some of his later successors. However, we believe that when Calvin’s understanding of eternal generation is rightly articulated, the supposed tension between himself and his successors on this point is significantly weakened if not eliminated.
It appears that most 20th century scholars have basically followed Warfield, contending that Calvin did not teach a communication of essence in eternal generation. However, H. E. W. Turner and Frances Young are notable exceptions. They argue that Calvin argued “vigorously against the view that the Father is the essentiator of the Son…and claims that the essence of God belongs to the one true God alone” (113). They also note that Calvin’s use of autotheos with reference to the Son was criticized by Romanist theologians as a denial of the Nicene Creed and the eternal generation of the Son. According to Turner and Young, however, “Calvin…denied neither.” For Christ may be from another “either by production or communication of essence.” In refuting the former view (production), Calvin “sometimes used language which might appear to exclude the latter [communication of essence], which he clearly accepted” (ibid.). Thus they distinguish between the views of Gentilis (eternal generation involves the production of a new essence bestowed upon the Son), and the traditional view (eternal generation involves the communication of the one divine essence from the Father to the Son). This is an extremely important distinction, and in our opinion, is the key to understanding Calvin’s apparently contrary statement on the matter.
Other similar proposals could be examined, such as those of Thomas F. Torrance and Paul Helm. But our survey is sufficient to show that since the 16th century, two distinct views have been taken regarding Calvin’s understanding of communication of essence. On the one hand, there are those who have placed a distance between Calvin’s views and those of his Patristic predecessors and Reformation successors. They have maintained that Calvin’s conception of the Son’s Aseitas either explicitly excludes or implicitly stands in tension with the idea of communication of essence as expressed or implied in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds and the early fathers. On the other hand, there have been those who have sought to vindicate Calvin from these charges, arguing that Calvin’s polemical writings on the Trinity have been misunderstood. Rather than refuting the Nicene conception of communication of essence in eternal generation, he was actually refuting the errors of Caroli, Servetus, and Gentilis. With regard to the latter of the three, Calvin was refuting Gentilis’s tritheistic understanding of production of essence in eternal generation, rather than the patristic idea of communication of essence.
As noted above, it is our contention that the latter position is essentially correct in its assessment of Calvin’s views. We propose to present what we believe are three fresh lines of evidence to support this position. We will present them in (what we regard as) their order of weight and importance, the first providing the strongest evidence, and the last providing the least strong. Our thesis is that while Calvin does not formally employ the language of “communication of essence” in a consistent manner to describe the eternal generation of the Son, he nevertheless affirms the substance of the doctrine. In so doing, Calvin stands in general continuity with both his Patristic (Nicene) and Medieval predecessors and 17th century successors.
The first line of evidence comes from Calvin’s confessional documents. There is at least one direct statement in a public confessional document where Calvin appears to affirm the substance of the doctrine. Calvin produced or heavily influenced a number of confessional documents in his long career at Geneva. Among these are two catechisms (1536/38, 1542/45). The first catechism (one version in French, another in Latin) is best described as a compendium of his 1536 Institutes. The 1536/38 catechism does not speak at length regarding the eternal generation of the Son in general, nor the idea of communication of essence in particular. There is only one comment on the article in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord”:
Besides all this, Jesus Christ is called Son of God—not, however, like the believers by adoption and grace merely, but truly and by nature. Hence, is the only and unique Son, to be distinguished from all the others.
The Genevan Confession adds nothing to this general statement. In fact, it does not even include a chapter on the Trinity or the Deity of Christ—to the ire of Peter Caroli, who on this basis accused Calvin and Farel of Arianism.
In 1545, however, Calvin’s catechism was modified, most significantly through its utilization of a question and answer format. More substantially, it also included an expanded explanation of the eternal generation of the Son:
46. M. Why do you call Him the only Son of God, seeing that God calls us all His children?
C. We are the children of God not by nature, but only by adoption and by grace, in that God wills to regard us as such (Eph. 1:5). But the Lord Jesus who was begotten of the substance of His Father (qui ex substantia Patris est genitus), and is of one essence with Him, is rightly called the only Son of God (John 1:14; Heb. 1:2) for there is no other who is God’s Son by nature.
In this question and answer, Calvin clearly utilizes the language of both the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds by affirming that Christ is “begotten of the
substance of His Father” (ex substantia Patris est genitus; engendré de la substance de son Père). The original Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. specifies that Christ was “only-begotten from the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father” (γεννηζέντα εκ του πατρος μονογενη, τουτέστιν εκ της ουσίας του πατρός; natum ex Patre unigenitum, hoc est, de substantia Patris). Likewise the Athanasian Creed declares him to be “God of the substance of the Father begotten before all words” (Deus est ex substantia Patris ante saecula genitus) which is nearly identical to the language of Calvin in his 1545 Latin edition of the Catechism.
The fact that this phrase appears in the 1545 edition of the catechism is especially important for our study. It appeared several years after Calvin’s troubles with Pierre Caroli, who had accused Calvin and Farel of heresy because of their refusal to subscribe (at his demand) to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. Furthermore, in the same year Calvin published a pamphlet against Caroli, in which he defended himself against his accusations. Calvin made it clear that in refusing to subscribe to the Creeds, he was not in any way depreciating them or casting them down. His use of the language of these Creeds in his 1542/45 Catechism further demonstrates this point and confirms the fact (noted by Irena Backus) that in his later works Calvin “made very sure he relied on the Nicene and post-Nicene terminology when defending the doctrine of the Trinity, and that he put it first while insisting on its complete unity with the biblical doctrine.”
It seems difficult for us to understand this language apart from the idea of communication of essence. It clearly was the way most of the Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers understood it. If Calvin were simply to limit the eternal generation of the Son to the bestowal of a distinct personal property without reference to the divine essence, to speak of the Son as being begotten “from the substance of the Father” is a very imprecise (if not contradictory) way of speaking. If all Calvin held was that the Father qua person bestows the personal property of “Son” through eternal generation, he would only be speaking of the Son being begotten “of the person of the Father.” As it is, he retains the Nicene and Athanasian language describing his generation “from the substance (substantia, substance) of the Father.” It seems to us that if Calvin rejected the idea of communication of substance or essence, this articulation of eternal generation would contradict his other teaching. In light of Calvin’s rigorous theological consistency, such a thought seems difficult for us to maintain. As it is, Calvin clearly utilized the very patristic language in his 1542/45 Catechism that had almost always been understood to involve the idea of communication of essence.
The second line of evidence is more indirect and consists specifically of those passages in Calvin’s corpus which seem to clearly imply the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation. The clearest of such quotations can be found in his Institutes, 1.13.8 to which we will limit ourselves for the sake of space.
Nor is this omitted by John: for before he descends to the creation of the world, he says, that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” We, therefore, again conclude, that the Word was eternally begotten by God (Sermonem extra temporis initium a Deo conceptum), and dwelt with him from everlasting. In this way, his true essence (vera essentia), his eternity, and divinity, are established.
Here Calvin argues directly from the eternal generation of the Son to his essential Deity. The one clearly logically implies the other: because the Son is eternally begotten by God, his true essence and divinity are established.
If Calvin only conceived of eternal generation with reference to the personal relations and properties of the Father and the Son, entirely in abstracto from their shared essence, it seems difficult to make sense out of Calvin’s argument. All one could conclude from the eternal generation of the Son is that the Son possessed a distinct personal property that differentiated him from the Father. In other words, one could only (by definition) establish on the basis of eternal generation the idea that the Son had his own distinct subsistence. One could (in the nature of the case) conclude nothing about his substantial Deity, because he would possess this irrespective and notwithstanding his personal relationship to the Father. However, Calvin does not argue in this fashion. For him, the eternal generation of the Son is proof of his essential Deity. Implied in this argument is the idea that eternal generation involves some kind of communication of essence. As is the nature of the Father, so is the nature of the Son. Like begets like. A Father who is God by nature will beget a Son who is God by nature.
Third, there are also those in the 17th century who explicitly deny that Calvin rejected the idea of communication of essence. The most notable example of these theologians is Francis Cheynell, a member of the Westminster Assembly—and the only one to author a full-length, systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. He writes:
Calvin and Beza did not deny that the Godhead was from all eternity communicated to the Son by the Father; only they say,
- That the Godhead which is communicated is in it self, of it self truly, properly, essentially Divine; because the self-same Godhead is in the Father and the Son whole and entire in both.
- Because the Godhead which is communicated, is not begotten; the unbegotten Godhead is communicated to the only begotten Son by an eternal generation.
- Because the Godhead which is communicated, is not caused, produced, created by the Father, as Valentinus Gentilis dreamt…
He goes on to defend Calvin and others against those who say that “these reverend divines (Calvin, Beza, Viret, etc.) are guilty of Heresie, Blasphemy, Atheism” because they affirm the aseity of the Son. Furthermore, he directs his readers to Calvin’s works against Valentinus Gentilis, which he believes will show that Calvin’s true intention was to teach that Christ is “one God with his Father, and that the Godhead which is communicated to the Son by generation is an unbegotten Godhead, a self-Deity.” Clearly for Cheynell, an affirmation of the Son’s aseity and the notion of communication of essence in eternal generation are not contradictory.
Finally, there is the testimony of his contemporaries, both critical and sympathetic to Calvin’s system. Theodore Beza, who had firsthand knowledge of much of Calvin’s struggle with Caroli and (later) the anti-Trinitarians (Gentilis, Blandrata, Servetus), does not fail to articulate a doctrine of eternal generation that involves communication of essence: “The Son is of the Father by an ineffable communication from eternity of the whole nature.” At the very least, it seems somewhat odd that Calvin’s immediate successor would teach something so allegedly contrary to the distinctive views of his mentor (without comment or explanation), particularly considering the intense controversy surrounding it. This potential oddity is further intensified when we remember that Beza had firsthand knowledge of many of Calvin’s Trinitarian debates.
It is true that a handful of Reformed theologians, appealing to the aseity of the Son, seem to have explicitly denied the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation. Gisbert Voetius, in his Disputations, mentions only three: Keckerman, Trelcatius, and Maccovius. But as Warfield notes, even they would admit the idea, provided it be accompanied by certain important explanations. It is also noteworthy in this regard that Voetius himself takes issue with these theologians and argues that “these authors are to be excused because they took the word ‘communication’ too physically and had Valentinus Gentilis in view.” While acknowledging these minority voices, it is important to emphasize that the vast majority of Reformed theologians (too numerous to cite) affirmed communication of essence in eternal generation. Many of them (as Cheynell demonstrates) believed they were following Calvin in so doing.
From a more critical perspective, the great Roman Catholic polemicist, Robert Bellarmine, also read Calvin as teaching a communication of essence in eternal generation. This was noted by B. B. Warfield, but he dismissed his argument as resting on evidence that is “somewhat slender” and which “reduces to a single passage in the ‘Institutes.’” The passage, taken from Institutes 1.13.23, reads as follows:
What will they find, by which to distinguish him [i.e., the Son from the Father]? If the difference be in the essence (essentia), let them tell us whether he has communicated the same to the Son (annon cum Filio eam comunicaverit). But this could not be done partially; for it would be an abomination to fabricate a demigod. Besides, this would miserably dismember the Divine essence. The necessary conclusion then is, that [the Divine essence] is entirely and perfectly common to the Father and the Son (Patris et Filii sit communis). And if this be true, there cannot, in respect of the essence, be any difference between them. If it be objected that the Father, notwithstanding this communication of his essence (essentiando), remains the only God with whom the essence continues, then Christ must be a figurative god, a god in appearance and name only, not in reality; because nothing is more proper to God than TO BE, according to that declaration, “I AM hath sent me unto you.”
Questions can and have been raised about Calvin’s precise meaning in terms of the words “comunicaverit,” “communis,” and “essentiando.” Yet it seems noteworthy to us that this passage convinced Bellarmine (one of Calvin’s greatest opponents) that he affirmed communication of essence, even when it would be polemically advantageous for him to conclude otherwise. When read in light of his clearer statements in his 1542/45 Geneva Catechism, the evidence may be a bit thicker than Warfield and others have supposed.
In our judgment, these three lines of evidence provide strong evidence that Calvin embraced in full the Nicene doctrine of communication of essence in eternal generation. Not only does Calvin explicitly affirm the Nicene language used to express this truth, many of his contemporaries and successors (both friend and foe) denied that he rejected the concept. Still, as even many of these writers have recognized, there are certain places in his writings that have been construed as a rejection of the Nicene understanding of communication of essence. Therefore, it is fitting that we address some of these objections in order to confirm the thesis outlined above. Though these objections have been presented in various forms, the most significant ones can be essentially reduced to two heads.
This objection has been stated by various scholars. To take just one example, John Murray argued that Calvin was not “willing to accede to the interpretation of the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon…‘very God of very God.’” This is simply mistaken. Although Calvin did argue that this phrase was a difficult saying, he took his own interpretation directly out of Athanasius. As Calvin states in his Impietatis Valentinus Gentilis Detecta . . . (1561):
But the words of the Council of Nicea run: Deum esse de Deo. A hard saying (dura locution), I confess; but for removing its ambiguity no one can be a more suitable interpreter than Athanasius, who dictated it. And certainly the design of the Fathers was none other than to maintain the origin which the Son draws from the Father in respect of Person…
Calvin’s interpretation of the phrase “Deum esse de Deo,” perfectly accords with that of Athanasius. In fact, it was from him that Calvin derived his own understanding of the saying. 
Others have pointed to Calvin’s refusal to subscribe to the Nicene Creed as proof of his critical stance towards its formulations. Warfield is much more balanced on this matter, arguing that “Calvin refused to subscribe to the ancient creeds at Caroli’s dictation, not in the least because he did not find himself in accord with their teaching…” In book four of the Institutes, Calvin states that he unequivocally accepts all the ecumenical creeds (Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc) insofar as they deal with doctrines of the faith:
In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors—in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.
The only qualification Calvin gives to his embrace of these councils is that it relates “to the teachings of the faith.” Surely, the doctrine of eternal generation as formulated by those councils is to be included in this category. On this point, Calvin sees himself in direct continuity with the Nicene fathers, whatever his distinctive contributions in its articulation and defense may be.
In Institutes, 1.13.23, Calvin states that “…whoever says that the Son has been given essence (essentiatum) from the Father denies that he has being from himself.” This statement (and others like it) has been read by some as drawing a contrast between Calvin’s understanding of the Aseitas or αυτοθεος of the Son and the Nicene doctrine of communication of essence with its (implied) subordinationism.
As even Warfield admits, these passages are not dealing directly with the orthodox formulation of communication of essence, but with Valentinus Gentilis’s tritheistic interpretation of eternal generation, in which a part of the Father’s essence is “bestowed” upon the son.
When it is argued that “whoever asserts that the Son is essentiated by the Father denies that He is self-existent” (& 23), and “makes His divinity a something abstracted from the essence of God, or a derivation of a part from the whole,” the reference to Gentilis’ peculiar views of the essentiation of the Son by the Father, i.e., His creation by the Father, seems to preclude a confident use of the phrase in the present connection [i.e., as a rejection of communication of essence].
An examination of Calvin’s Latin proves useful here. In the above passage, Calvin does not have in view the idea that the Son’s nature is communicated (communicatio), but whether the Father essentiates (essentiatum) the Son’s essence such that the end result are two different gods: the Father and the Son. In fact, the terminology is taken right out of Gentilis’s book on the subject. As Calvin notes in the title of his work against Gentilis: “Impietas Valentini Gentilis detecta et palam traducta, qui Christum non sine sacrilega blasphemia Deum essentiatum esse fingit.” Notice the parallel between the Gentilis’s “blasphemous sacrilege” that Christ is “Deum essentiatum” in the title to Calvin’s work against Gentilis, and the assertion in the Institutes that whoever teaches that “essentiatum a Patre Filium” denies that the Son is God of himself. The concern in each statement is with Gentilis’s tritheistic conception of the Son’s essentiation from the Father, and not the Patristic idea of communication of essence by means of eternal generation.
These three lines of evidence will likely not convince everyone that Calvin affirmed a communication of essence in eternal generation. Indeed, scholars of very high caliber have come to quite different conclusions. Still, in our opinion, more evidence exists to support the hypothesis than is often supposed. A firm and conclusive study would have to take into account a detailed survey of Calvin’s anti-Trinitarian writings, nearly all of which remain in the original French and Latin. If a more careful study of Calvin’s corpus vindicates our interpretation of the evidence outlined above, we will have another tool with which to further dismantle the more extreme forms of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” theses that have so dominated historical studies for many years. This will only strengthen a growing consensus concerning the general continuity between Reformation and Post-Reformation orthodoxy as well as the church’s commitment to a Trinitarian theology that is at the same time fully biblical, Nicene, Athanasian, and Reformed. Ultimately, it will hopefully serve to enrich the church’s understanding of her blessed union with the eternally-begotten Son of God, who “having become with us the Son of Man…has made us with himself sons of God.”
 Ford Lewis Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1989) 18-23.
 See Richard A. Muller’s recent lecture entitled, “Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”?” available online at: .
 These controversies (and others) are concisely summarized in Wulfert De Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide (2008) 159-67.
 This definition is adapted from A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1991) 182. Cf. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1992-1997) 1:292-93; Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1852) 181-184. The doctrine explicitly appears (implicitly or explicitly) in several Reformed confessions, the Irish Articles being perhaps the most famous example: “The essence of the Father doth not beget the essence of the Son; but the person of the Father begetteth the person of the Son by communicating his whole essence to the person begotten from eternity” (Article IX).
 For a much more detailed delineation of the differences between divine and human generation as understood by the Reformed, see Turretin, 1:292-93; Ursinus, 181-84.
 The Latin term “Aseitas” (Greek: αυτοθεος) refers to the divine attribute of self-existence, and is literally rendered into English by the phrase “God of himself” (a-se-itas). Therefore, to ascribe Aseitas to the Son and the Holy Spirit is to affirm that they, together with the Father, possess the same self-existent Godhead. In other words, the Father did not create the Son or the Holy Spirit’s divine nature. That divine nature is always self-existent, without beginning or end. For a concise, detailed summary of this concept in Trinitarian theology, see Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (1985) 47.
 See the discussion in Roberto Bellarmino, Opera Omnia (1870) 334ff.
 These early critiques of Calvin are accurately surveyed in B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (1931) 252-58.
 Josiah Simlero, Responsio ad maledicum Francisci Stancari Mantuani (1563) fol. 15. The Latin reads: Non negamus Filium habere essentiam a Deo Patre, sed essentia genitam negamus.
 It is noteworthy that Warfield, in his analysis of Calvin on communication of essence (see below), mentions Simler’s own affirmation of communication of essence, but fails to mention his reference to Calvin and the harmony he sees between their views (Warfield, 274-75).
 Matthew Kellison, A Svrvey of the New Religion: Detecting Many Grosse Absvrdities Which It Implieth (1605) 138.
 The speeches can be found in Daniel Featly, Katabaptistai katapystoi. The Dippers dipt. Or, The Anabaptists Duck’d and Plung’d over Head and Ears (1651) 187-216.
 In his published speeches, Featly discusses two separate objections made to the “three creeds” described in the Thirty-Nine Articles “either at the Titles, or to the Creeds themselves” (Featly, 187). As to the latter, certain men (who are not explicitly named) objected to the phrase “God of God” in the Nicene Creed, apparently on the basis of Calvin’s conception of the Son as αυτοθεος, which they deemed incompatible with the idea that the essence of the Father was communicated to the Son in eternal generation: “But it hath been objected, if he be God of God, then he must have his essence communicated to him from the Father, and so be essentius a patre, essentiated, or natured from the Father” (190). But for Featly “this will not follow” (ibid.). Rather the Son is only “genitus a patre, begotten of his father, and so he is recipiens essentiam, or habens essentiam communicatam a patre” (ibid.). Moreover, he notes that this manner of speech is approved by Theodore Beza, who speaks of the Son, “a patre per ineffabilem totius essentiae communicationem ab aterno; the Sonne is from the Father by and unspeakable communication of his whole essence from eternity” (ibid.). Featly is clear that “we doe not deny that the Sonne hath his essence from God the Father, but we deny that the essence is begotten” (ibid.). Furthermore, Featly insists that this does not “in any way contradict Calvin his autotheos, God of himselfe” (190-91). He, along with many others in the Reformed tradition, viewed the doctrines of the Aseitas of the Son and communication of essence as complimentary rather that contradictory.
The proceedings of the Assembly of Divines upon the Thirty nine Articles of the Church of England (1647).
 As Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted (“New Taxonomies of the Westminster Assembly [1643-52]: The Creedal Controversy as Case Study.” Reformation and Renaissance Review : 82-106), it is true that on August 25, 1643 the Assembly “mooved that the determination of this 8th Article shall be put off till all the 39 be finished, & so it was concluded: & the assembly adjourned till munday” (cited in Van Dixhoorn, 98). Van Dixhoorn also accurately points out that the House of Commons, on October 13, 1647, excluded the eighth article on the “Three Creeds” from legal enforcement, and for this reason it was “left in an ambiguous legal position” (ibid.). But Van Dixhoorn fails (to my knowledge) to note the publication in 1647 of what the Assembly regarded as its “finished” word on the Thirty-Nine Articles, including the disputed eighth article on the “Three Creeds.” While the House of Commons may not have enforced it, there appears to be some evidence that the Assembly itself eventually resolved the issue of the “Three Creeds,” and accepted the eighth article prior to the publication of their “finished” (although in many respects “imperfect”) work.
 This is an important point to emphasize, as Warfield recognized that a great deal of Calvin’s statements in the Institutes and elsewhere which seem to reject the idea of communication of essence are actually directed towards the constructions of Valentinus Gentilis (see our discussion below).
 Warfield, 251-52. This is important to underscore. All attempts at descriptive historical research (including this present study) are not immune from being influenced by our own prescriptive theological proposals.
 Ibid., 247.
 Ibid., 250.
 Ibid., 257.
 Ibid., 257-58.
 Richard Field, Of the Church (1850) 43.
 Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (1985) 123.
 John Murray, “Systematic Theology.” WTJ 25 (May 1963): 141.
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (1998). Idem, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2001).
 It should be pointed out that Reymond doesn’t seem to distinguish between a communication of essence that is ongoing or continuing, and a communication of essence that is eternally completed. If he only has the former in view, it might be possible that he leaves room for Calvin to hold the latter. This distinction was the specific question that Peter Lombard raised in his Sentences (I.ix.10-15) to which Calvin refers. Should we say that “the Son is always begotten” (Filius semper gignitur), or that he always has been begotten (semper genitus est). Reymond seems (though we can’t be certain) to interpret all forms of eternal generation as involving an ongoing or continuous communication of essence. Calvin, although he abhorred such speculations, at least recognized the two positions as being distinct. Reymond and Boettner seem to interpret Calvin’s statements in Institutes, 1.13.29 as an outright rejection of communication of essence. We believe he is only rejecting medieval speculations as to the precise mode or manner of communication of essence.
 Paul Owen, “Calvin and Catholic Trinitarianism: An Examination of Robert Reymond’s Understanding of the Trinity and His Appeal to John Calvin.” CTJ 35 (2000): 262-81.
 Robert Letham, “Review of A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert L. Reymond,” WTJ 62:2 (Fall, 2000): 314-319 (esp. 318-19).
 Richard A. Muller, The Triunity of God (2003) 324.
 Ibid., 325.
 Ibid., 326.
 Ibid., 326-27.
 Ibid., 327.
 Amandus Polanus, The Substance of the Christian Religion (1600) 44-45 (cf. 43). See also Polanus’s expanded discussion in his Syntagma Theologiae Christianae (1615) 201-04.
 William Bucanus, Institutions of Christian Religion (1606) 15: “Ob. 5. The Essence of the Father is communicated to the Sonne by generation, therefore there is one Essence in the Father, another in the Sonne, because there is one Essence begetting, and another begotten. Answ. Wee must distinguish betwixt generation and communication: for the person begets and is begotten, but the Essence neither begetteth nor is begotten, but communicated.” In fairness to Muller, he does note that “Bucanus also speaks of the essence as communicated, but notes that it is not begotten” (327). But the citation he gives is from p. 11 of Bucanus’s Institutions, and does not account for the citation (given above) of p. 15 in which Bucanus explicitly affirms that communication of essence takes place “by eternal generation.”
 Against a similar attempt by the Lutheran dogmatician, Johann Gerhard, to polarize Calvin and Ursinus on this point, Warfield cites this passage from the latter’s Loci: “It must not be supposed, however, that Ursinus separated himself from Calvin as to the Self-existence of the Son as He is God: his language is: ‘the Son is begotten of the Father, of the essence of the Father, but the essence of the Son is not begotten, but, existent of itself (a se ipso existens), is communicated to the Son at His begetting (nascenti) by (a) the Father.’ ‘And what is said concerning the generation of the Son’, he adds, ‘is to be understood also of the procession of the Spirit’ (Loci, p. 524)” (Warfield, 262). Cf. Ursinus’s comments in his Scholasticae in Materiis Theologicis Exercitationes (1589) 239-40.
 In fairness to Muller, he does speak only of a “potential contrast” among the Reformed on this point (326), and also accurately notes that “definitions that speak of the communication of essence are not necessarily opposed to the notion of the Son’s aseitas” (327).
 See their entry on “Communicatio Essentiae” in Alan Richardson and John Stephen Bowden, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (1983).
 Thomas F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (1994) 4. Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (2004) 53-55.
 The phrase “general continuity” is used to indicate that while there are certain differences in the way in which Calvin presents the doctrine, the basic substance of his teaching on this subject is the same.
 James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Century in English Translation. Volume 1: 1523-1552 (2008) 372-73, cf. 425.
 Dennison, 474. The Latin reads: “M. Cur Filium Dei unicum nuncupas: quum hac quoque appelatione nos omnes dignetur Deus? P. Quod filii Dei sumus, non id habemus a natura, sed adoptione et gratia duntaxat: quod scilicet nos eo loc habeat Deus. At Dominus Iesus, qui ex substantia Patris est genitus, uniusque cum Patre essentiae est, optimo iure Filius Dei unicum vocatur: quum solus sit natura (Ioan. 1, 1 . Eph. 1, 3. Heb. 1 :1.) (Hermann Agathon Niemeyer, Collectio confessionum in ecclesiis reformatis publicatarum  130). The French of the 1542 edition is as follows: “46. M: Pourquoi l’appelles-tu Fils unique de Dieu, vu que Dieu nous appelle tous ses enfants? E: Ce que nous sommes enfants de Dieu, ce n’est pas de nature, mais seulement par adoption et par grâce, en tant que Dieu nous veut réputer tels (Éphésiens 1:5). Mais le Seigneur Jésus, qui est engendré de la substance de son Père et est d’une même essence, à bon droit est dit Fils unique (Jean 1:14; Hébreux 1:2). Car il n’y a que lui seul qui soit naturel” (the French text is available online at: ).
 “Calvino quidem et aliis propositum nequaquam erat symbola abiicere aut illis derogare fidem, sed quia sic aggressus erat cos Calorul, suspectam sibi esse corum fidem, donec symbolorum subscriptione eam probassent, nolebant in praeteritum tempus tali invidia gravari” (Ioannis Calvini Opera, [1863-1900] 7:315). “To be sure, for Calvin and the others, there was by no means an intention to reject the creeds, or to take credit away from them, but because Caroli had attacked them in this way (their faith was suspected by him until they had proved it by subscription of the creeds), they were not willing in the past to be oppressed by such odium.”
 Irena Backus, Historical Method and Confessional Identity in the Era of the Reformation (1378-1615) (2003) 180.
 It is important to note that certain portions of Calvin’s writings indicate he did not view his statement of the aseity of the Son as a radical development away from Patristic orthodoxy, but as standing in line with it. He would even affirm against Caroli “…that Athanasius made the Son autotheon” (CO, 9:268). Athanasius affirms both communication of essence and the aseity of the Son without contradiction. We believe the same was true for Calvin as well.
 Francis Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (1650) 232.
 Ibid., 233.
 Cf. the comment of Mark Jones (Why Heaven Kissed Earth: The Christology of Thomas Goodwin [1600-1680]  135, n. 81). Though unpersuaded by Cheynell’s argument, Jones notes that it is “fairly representative of how some have defended Calvin.”
 Cited in Warfield, 274. The same view was argued by Beza’s students in the Academy at Geneva (presumably with his approval): Theodore Beza, Propositions and Principles of Divinitie, propounded and disputed in the university of Geneva, by certain students of Divinite there, under M. Theodore Beza, and M. Anthonie Faius, professors of Divinitie (1591) 5-6.
 Warfield, 275.
 I have cited from Warfield’s translation (Warfield, 275, n. 132). The whole Latin passage reads: “& autores illi excusandi: quod putemus illos communicationis vocem physice nimis accepisse; & respexiste ad Valentin. Gentilem” (Gisberti Voetii, Selectarum Disputationum Theologicarum  1:465). I would note (as does Voetius) that Maccovius appears to have James Arminius, rather than Gentilis, as his chief target. See Johannis Macovii, Metaphysica (1668) 54-56.
 Warfield, 258-59.
 This citation is taken from the John Allen translation (1813).
 Murray, 141.
CO, 9:368. I have simply cited from Warfield’s English translation (Warfield, 249). Strangely, right after he quotes this passage, Warfield argues that Calvin’s position was “that of one who affirms the eternal generation of the Son, but who rejects the speculations of the Nicene Fathers respecting the nature of the act which they called ‘eternal generation’” (ibid., 250). If Calvin agrees with Athanasius’s own interpretation of the phrase “Deum esse de Deo,” how then can it also be said that he rejects his speculations (interpretation?) of the same idea? The same error is made by Reymond, who after quoting the same passage from Calvin, argues that “…it is quite clear that Calvin…was willing to be critical of the language of the Nicene Creed and doubtless some of the understanding behind it” (Reymond, 2nd ed., 328).
 Stephen M. Reynolds, “Calvin’s View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds” WTJ (1961, 23): 33-37. Willem Nijenhuis, “Calvin’s Attitude towards the Symbols of the Early Church During the Conflict with Caroli,” Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation (1972) 73-96.
 Warfield, 207.
Nam quisquis essentiatum a Patre Filium esse dicit, a se ipso negat esse.
 Reymond (2nd ed.), 327.
 Warfield, 259.
 Jean Calvin, Impietas Valentini Gentilis detecta, et palam traducta, qui Christum non sine sacrilega blasphemia Deum essentiatum esse fingit (1561).