K: JNWTS 29/3 (December 2014): 4-9

Confession on the Trinity [1]

by John Calvin

Translated by Casey Carmichael


In 1537 Pierre Caroli, minister of Lausanne and early worker for reform in Geneva and the Swiss canton Pays de Vaud, charged Guillame Farel, Pierre Viret, and John Calvin with Arianism. Caroli complained that the Genevan Confession of Faith (1537),[2] written by Farel and Calvin, failed to articulate explicitly the creedal doctrine of the Trinity; it contained no formal exposition of the Trinity. News of the accusation spread to Protestants throughout Switzerland and Germany. In order to remove suspicion of Trinitarian heresy, the church held two synods in Lausanne that year. At the first synod, after Viret demonstrated the Genevan ministers' orthodoxy from their new catechism[3] (which concisely taught the creedal doctrine without using technical terms), Caroli dismissed it, demanding subscription to the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian). Calvin refused, delivering a speech that was later published as the confession translated below. There Calvin showed the orthodoxy of the Genevan ministers on the Trinity and incarnation. On the basis of this confession, Calvin, Viret, and Farel were vindicated at the second synod, and Caroli was removed from office. Caroli became particularly disturbed that, in the confession, Calvin espoused Christ's aseity—that He has existed eternally from Himself. Therefore, Caroli continued to attack Calvin for most of the next decade. After Caroli disappeared from the scene, Calvin engaged in other disputes over the Trinity; but in these he opposed antitrinitarians (such as Michael Servetus and Valentine Gentile).[4]

In the first paragraph of this 1537 confession, Calvin lays out his method: the confession draws from Scripture alone and uses language that conveys Scripture's substance. He displays Trinitarian orthodoxy in the second paragraph and Christological orthodoxy in the third. He affirms the terms trinitas and persona in the fourth paragraph. In the final paragraph, "On Christ, Jehovah," Calvin explains Christ's aseity. Throughout this brief confession, Calvin demonstrates the harmony of his Trinitarian theology with creedal Christianity.        


When considering the majesty of God, the human mind by itself is entirely blind and cannot do anything else than envelop itself in innumerable errors, involve itself in trifles, and finally plunge itself in deepest darkness, if it tries to imagine God according to the weakness of its own capacity. We are confident that we will consider God's majesty with the peace and favor of all blessings, if we do not seek God in any place but His Word, do not think anything about Him without His Word, and do not say anything about Him that is not according to His Word. But if this sobriety and reverence is commended with familiar speech, with which many are accustomed to ramble without forethought, when some person undertakes to publish a public confession of his faith about this matter, not enough careful attention can be given, in both conceiving the ideas and considering the choice of words, so that nothing may be discovered in it besides the very truth itself of Scripture, reverently expressed in carefully chosen, solemn words. Therefore let no one be angry at us, if we arrange the confession, which we want to be approved by all godly people, in such a way that it is not patched together from various opinions of men but is carefully made to conform with the proper standard—Scripture. For what the apostle set forth ought to come to mind: faith comes by hearing, and hearing through God's Word.[5] Now if the confession of religion is nothing else than solemn affirmation of the faith mentally grasped, it must be derived from the pure source of Scripture, so that it may be firm and sound. But at any rate, we do not accept a confession that has been composed superstitiously and devised from words of Scripture only. Rather, we assert that it must be written in words that have the sense defined in the truth of Scripture, that have as little harshness as possible by which godly ears could be offended, and that do not ascribe anything to God unworthy of His majesty. Because we have devoted ourselves to hold to that method, we do not doubt that our devotion will be approved by all good and sensible men.

We believe and worship the one God whom Scripture proclaims to us. We also conceive Him as He is described to us there, namely of eternal, infinite, and spiritual essence, who alone has the power to subsist in Himself and from Himself, and who bestows it on all creatures. We reject the Anthropomorphites with their corporeal God and the Manicheans with their two gods.[6] Instead, we acknowledge, in the one essence of God, the Father together with His eternal Word and Spirit.  When we use this distinction of names, we do not imagine three gods, as if the Father were something other than the Word.  In addition, we do not understand these as empty epithets, by the operations of which God is described in different ways. But together with the ecclesiastical writers, in the most simple unity of God, we think that these are three persons [hypostases], that is, substances [subsistentias] that nevertheless consist of one essence [essentia] but are not mingled with each other. And so although there is one God, the Father together with His Word and Spirit, the Father is nevertheless not the Word nor is the Spirit the Word Himself.  And the firm testimonies of Scripture are found to support this way of thinking. For the Son is called Jehovah, the strong God, the God who must be praised forever, whom all God's angels worship, and whose throne has been firmly established forever. Moreover, all things are attributed to Him that can apply to no one except the one, true, eternal God. For as He is called our salvation, righteousness and sanctification, so we are taught to put all trust and hope in Him and to call upon His name; this very certain practical knowledge does not exist in any idle speculation. For the godly mind catches sight of and nearly touches the very present God, when it realizes that He has made him alive, illuminated, saved, justified, and sanctified him. Therefore, evidence must also be derived from the same sources, to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit. For what the Scriptures attribute to Him is very foreign to creatures, and we ourselves learn that from the sure experience of godliness. For it is He who, extending everywhere, upholds, imparts energy to, and gives life to all things, who, dwelling in the faithful, leads them into all truth, regenerates them, sanctifies them, and will make them alive to the full one day. Nor indeed, when Scripture speaks about Him, does it refrain from the title "God." For Paul inferred that we are the temple of God from the fact that His Spirit dwells in us.[7] Moreover, when Peter rebuked Ananias because he lied to the Holy Spirit, he was saying that he lied not to men but to God. [8] Now since it remains firmly established that God is one—not many—we have shown that the Word and Spirit are not different from the very essence of God. And indeed if we are baptized into the faith and religion of the one God, let us declare that we have on our side the God in whose name we are baptized. It is very clear from this that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are held together in the one essence of God. For we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And again, in Scripture a certain distinction is made between the Father and the Word as well as between the Word and the Spirit. For what is said is clear: the Father created all things through the Son, sent Him into this world, exposed Him to death, raised Him from the dead, and gave Him the name which is above every name. No one would dare to deny that, unless he should want to oppose the Word of God overtly. For the Father did not come down to earth, put on our flesh, suffer death, or rise again.  Further, even Christ indicated that He differed from the Spirit, when He promised that He would send a different comforter. Moreover, that difference overturns the most simple unity of God, with the result that one may therefore prove that the Son is one God with the Father, because He exists in one Spirit at the same time with Him. But the Spirit is not something different in quality from the Father and the Son, because He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. This is the summary: in that distinction we made above, we declared that the Father is with the Word in the eternal, spiritual, infinite essence of God, and we did not confound the Word with the Spirit. We condemn and detest the madness of Arius,[9] who stripped the Son of his eternal divinity, and that of Macedonius likewise,[10] who regarded the gifts of grace to have been poured out only to men through the Spirit; we also reject the error of Sabellius,[11] who denied any difference in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

We affirm that Christ has two natures; this uniquely relates to Him. For before He put on flesh, He was the eternal Word, begotten by the Father before time, true God, of one essence, power, and majesty with the Father, and Jehovah, who has always existed from Himself and breathed power to subsist into others. For He testified about Himself that He possessed the glory, in which He was glorified in the flesh, with the Father from the beginning, before the foundations of the world were laid. Paul teaches the same thing when he writes that He was in the form of God, understanding majesty by the word "form." Indeed, He himself proclaims His power in these words: "I and the Father are at work." To this end Scripture teaches the same thing everywhere that the world was created through Him, life was in Him, and many other things of that kind.  And it is not worthwhile to linger over the many other things here. For if He is God, He contains in Himself all things which belong to God. Accordingly, the Arians,[12] although they acknowledged God, very foolishly lied by denying the substance of God to the Son. Also, in the name "Word", we do not understand an inconstant and disappearing word, which is uttered in the air, and oracles and prophecies of that kind, which were pronounced by the fathers; rather, we understand the eternal wisdom existing in God, from whom all prophecies and oracles proceed. For the ancient prophets spoke no less in Christ's Spirit than did the apostles and whoever else delivered God's truth to people. Further, in accordance with the time appointed for the manifestation of our redemption, the Word became flesh, not because He turned into flesh but because He took on flesh from a virgin, so that He would be the true and real seed of David.  And He who was the son of God became the son of man. Moreover, in this way, we maintain that His divinity is united to His humanity, so that the whole quality of each nature remains its own, and yet from these two natures one Christ is formed. Therefore, although Scripture teaches that those qualities must be considered by us in a way that distinguishes one from the other (since sometimes it attributes to Christ what belongs to God alone and other times what belongs to man), it nevertheless expresses their union in the person of Christ—the foundation of so great a religion—so that they communicate them with each other at any time. Likewise, Scripture teaches that He had purchased the church of God with His blood (Acts 20:28) and that the son of man had been in heaven (John 3:13) even while He was living in the world (this figure of speech is called by the ancients ἰδιωμάτων κοινωνία,[13] communion of proper qualities). But above all things those passages most clearly describe the true substance of Christ, including both natures at the same time, and there are very many passages of this sort in the gospel of John. Therefore, we declare that Christ is true God and true man, the son of God, even according to humanity, although not by the manner of humanity. For that was clearly established and approved by the consensus of the ancient church. We renounce as God haters all those who have tried to overturn, diminish, or eclipse the truth of the divine majesty in Christ. We reject the Marcionites,[14] who attributed an image to Him for His body, and the Manichaeans, who dreamed He was endowed with heavenly flesh. And we do not approve of Apollinarius,[15] who removed half of His humanity. Finally, we condemn the error of Nestorius,[16] who, separating His divinity from His humanity, devised a double Christ.


Since we understand that those words "Trinity" and "persons" are mostly accommodating to Christ's church, so that the true difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be more clearly expressed and better presented in age-old debates, we do not deviate from these, to such an extent that we readily embrace them, whether they need to be heard by others or used by us. And so we approve what was previously drawn up by us, and from now on we will also devote ourselves, as far as we are able, to make sure that their use will not be abandoned in our churches. For we ourselves will also not refrain from them in the presence of what will be written, even in expositions of Scripture and sermons to the people, and we will teach others not to avoid them superstitiously. Moreover, if anyone holds fast to wrong-headed religion, so that he has not dared to use these words readily, although we solemnly declare that superstition of this sort is not approved by us, our zeal to correct him will not be lacking. Nevertheless, because this does not appear to us a sufficiently valid reason that some godly man, heartily agreeing to the same religion with us, may be spurned, we will tolerate his ignorance in this to such a degree that we will not throw him out of the church or stigmatize him as someone who thinks incorrectly about the faith. And meanwhile, we will not think it bad if the churches in Bern do not admit pastors to the ministry of the Word, who, they have learned, reject those words.


We maintain that Christ is Jehovah, who has always existed from Himself. Since that particle seemed to a certain extent unclear to some people, we will briefly explain the sense in which it was put forth by us, so that no one may be offended. When there is a discussion about the divinity of Christ, all things that are rightfully proper to God are also attributed to Him, because on that occasion it has reference to the essence of God alone, with mention of the previously noted difference, between the Father and the Son, for which reason it is truly said that Christ is the only and eternal God, existing from Himself. And that does not go against the view that has been passed down accurately by the ecclesiastical authors, namely, that the Word or Son of God exists from the Father and according to His eternal essence. For this defining of persons has a place where the difference between the Father and the Son is mentioned. Moreover, the name Jehovah is an utterance of divinity that includes the Father and the Spirit as much as the Son.  In this way Cyril,[17] who is very wisely accustomed to call the Father the beginning of the Son, nevertheless thinks as a proud, wrong-headed person in Dialogue 3 of On The Trinity,[18] unless the Son is believed to have life and immortality from Himself. He teaches that the same thing applies correctly to the Son, if it is proper to His ineffable nature that He exists from Himself. Indeed, even in Book 10 of Treasure[19], Cyril reasons that the Father does not exist from Himself unless the Son also exists from Himself. And what we just said should not upset anyone, that, by explaining our understanding of persons, we would declare what uniquely relates to Christ. For it is sufficiently agreed upon to have in view that difference for nothing else than the mystery of the incarnation, the specific account of which exists from the distinction of the Trinity. Otherwise, Jehovah would not be uttered in the same context if He does not have divinity distinctly from the Father.

Endorsed by Guillame Farel, John Calvin, and Pierre Viret

We believe that this confession and explanation of our scrupulous brothers, Guillame Farel, John Calvin, and Pierre Viret, should satisfy Christ's churches.

Wolfgang Capito, Martin Bucer, Oswald Myconius, Simon Grynee[20]

[1] I translate from John Calvin, Confessio de Trinitate Propter Calumnias P. Caroli [Confession on the Trinity on account of the false accusations of Pierre Caroli] (1537), in Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, vol. 9, eds., G. Baum, E. Cunitz, E. Reuss, in Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 37 (Bronsigiae: Schwetschke et Filium, 1870), 703-710.

[2] Cf. "Geneva Confession (1536/37)", in James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (2008), 1:393-401 (hereafter RCET).

[3] Cf. "Calvin's Catechism (1537)", ibid., 353-92.

[4] For context I rely on the two extensive works on Calvin's Trinitarianism: Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 37-45; Benjamin Warfield, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity," The Princeton Theological Review (1909): 563-601; cf., Arie Baars, "The Trinity," in The Calvin Handbook, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 245-57; Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 65-69. For antitrinitarianism in Geneva, cf. "Confession of the Italian Church of Geneva (1558)" and "Lattanzio Ragnoni's Formulario (1559)" in RCET (2010), 2:111-16 and 161-80 respectively.

[5] Rom. 10:17.

[6] The Anthropomorphites attributed a human form to God; controversy surrounded this in Egypt (c. 400 A.D.). Cf. Eugene Teselle, "Anthropomorphisms" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, ed. Daniel Patte (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 54. The Manichaeans, followers of Mani (216-276 A.D.), taught a stark dualism between spirit and matter. Cf. Gunner Bjerg Mikkelsen, "Mani, Manichaeism," in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 757-58.

[7] Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19.

[8] Cf. Acts 5:3-4.

[9] Arius (d. 336 A.D.), presbyter of Alexandria, excommunicated in 318, taught that the Son was a created being and therefore different in essence from the Father. Cf. Eugene Teselle and Richard Vaggione, "Arianism" and Richard Vaggione, "Arius" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 70-71, 73.

[10] Macedonius (d. c. 360 A.D.), bishop of Constantinople (342-346 A.D.), denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Cf. "Pneumatomachi" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 966-67.

[11] Sabellius (3rd century), articulated modalistic Monarchianism, i.e., that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely three different modes of God's acting toward the world (creation, redemption, and sanctification). Cf. "Monarchians" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 830.

[12] Arians, named after Arius, denied that the Son was of the same substance with God the Father. Cf. "Arianism" in ibid. 

[13] Cf. "koinōnia idiōmatōn" and "communicatio idiomatum/communicatio proprietatum," Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985), 170, 72-74. 

[14] The Marcionites, followers of Marcion (d. c. 160 A.D.), sharply distinguished between the God of the Old Testament and of the New Testament; they also denied that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and being Gnostics, they made a strong division between matter and spirit. Cf. "Marcion" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 759.

[15] Apollinarius (c. 310-c. 390 A.D.), bishop of Laodicea, taught that Christ brought his body to earth from heaven, so that his flesh was principally heavenly. Cf. "Apollinaris, Apollinarius" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, 62.

[16] Nestorius (c. 351-c. 451 A.D.), patriarch of Constantinople (428-431 A.D.), removed from office and condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431), taught that Jesus's humanity and divinity were not joined by nature or hypostasis but by will, such that one could predominate over the other at any given time. Cf. Eugene Teselle, "Nestorius" in The Cambridge Dictionary of the Christian Church, 862.

[17] Cyril of Alexandria (c. 378-444 A.D.), Greek bishop, refuted Nestorius's Christology by affirming the complete divinity of Christ and thus the singularity of his personhood; his theology of the incarnation influenced the Councils of Ephesus I (431) and II (449), of Chalcedon (451), and of Constantinople II (553). Cf. John A. McGuckin, "Cyril of Alexandria" in The Cambridge Dictionary of the Christian Church, 297.

[18] Cirillus Alexandrinus, Thesaurus de sancta et consubstantiali Trinitate in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca.

[19] Ibid.

[20] I would like to thank Claire Bishop for assistance with the Latin and Amy Alexander for reading and commenting on the translation.