Naming God: Calvin and LaCugna on the Trinity

by John Drury

            The nature and name of God was a persistent problem in the early centuries of the Christian church.  The doctrine of the Trinity offered a timely solution.  The 16th Century Protestant Reformer John Calvin and the 20th Century feminist theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna faced this problem anew.  The disparity of their contexts does not disallow dialogue between their content.  After an overview and comparison of their arguments, I will attempt to assess the value and implications of each one’s approach to the doctrine of the Trinity.

I. Overview of Arguments

A.        In Book I, Chapter XIII of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains the doctrine of the Trinity and defends it from Scripture.  The issue at stake is that some where denying the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.  He is writing “against false accusers” who claim to be Christians but do not confess Christ to be God (Calvin 124).  Although the terms of the doctrine of the Trinity are not found directly in Scripture, they can be used as a test to “tear off the mask of [the] turncoat” (127).

1.         In order to construct this doctrinal test, Calvin first explains the basic affirmations and distinctions of traditional trinitarian theology.  God is one in essence (122).  Yet in God there are three hypostases, or persons (123).  Each is God, yet there remains only one God.  Although he acknowledges the subtle differences between the East and West, he chooses not to be “such a stickler as to battle doggedly over mere words” (126).  He appeals to Augustine’s “more moderate and courteous” approach that allows for diverse speech within a basic agreement (126).  Calvin contends that amid the necessary philosophical distinctions between essence and persons, the “natural names” of Father, Son, and Spirit are most important (127).

2.         For the remainder of the chapter, Calvin defends from the pages of Scripture the confession that God is both one essence and three persons.  Such an appeal to authority is directed against contemporaries such as Servetus and the Jews.  The Son is shown to be present at creation (129).  Christ appears as the divine angel throughout the Old Testament (132-134).  The apostolic testimony and the work of Christ confirm his divinity (134-138).  The divinity of the Spirit is also confirmed from Scripture (138-140).  Even the principle of unity and distinction is found in Scripture (140-146).

B.        Over four hundred years after Calvin, Catherine Mowry LaCugna discusses the Trinity from a totally new perspective.  Whereas Calvin was constructing a doctrinal test by means of explanation and Biblical defense, she draws on trinitarian reflection in order to construct a theology supportive of feminist concerns (LaCugna 84).  In “God in Communion with Us: The Trinity,” LaCugna asserts that a personal, egalitarian trinity is the best option, arguing that it (1) draws from original Greek theology, (2) critiques the subordination of women, and (3) offers guidelines for appropriate God-language. 

1.         LaCugna purposes to be a faithful feminist.  She promises that the “insights of trinitarian theology should free our imaginations without forcing us to abandon our tradition” (106).  However, there are problems in the tradition.  The doctrine of the trinity has been abused to legitimize and perpetuate the subordination of women.  This problem is especially the case for Latin theology.  She claims that Greek theology, on the other hand, aids the feminist cause.

            What is different about the Greek theologians?  By distinguishing between hypostasis and ousia and fatherhood and Godhood, the Cappadocian fathers “made person rather than substance the primary ontological category” (86).  Since to the Greek mind persons “are defined by their ‘relation of origin,’” God is confessed to be primarily a relational being (87).  Furthermore, the equally shared monarchy of the trinitarian persons “contained the seeds of a radical social order” (87).

            In contrast, Latin theology placed substance over personhood (88).  “Augustine began with the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit according to the divine substance” (88).  Augustine’s human analogies of the trinity “had the effect of locating God’s economy not in the history of salvation but within each human person” (88).  This kind of abstraction and individualism depicts God as detached and self-sufficient (89).  Latin theology, therefore, projects blatant patriarchal values onto God (91).

2.         True trinitarian theology, however, critiques patriarchy.  LaCugna’s second point of attack is against the theology of complementarity, which claims women are subordinate to men by God’s design.  This claim finds legitimization in the subordination of the Son to the Father (94).  Because of this, LaCugna accuses the theology of complementarity of the heresy of Arianism (98).  The persons of the Trinity are equals, and therefore created the sexes as equals.

3.         Having critiqued the substance metaphysics of Latin theology and the subordinationism of the theology of complementarity, LaCugna’s concludes with an discussion of six common strategies for God-language.  She critiques each on the basis of their consistency with the doctrine of the Trinity and their potential to thwart patriarchy.

II. Comparison and Contrast

            What similarities do Calvin and LaCugna have?  What are their differences?  To determine their points of contact and departure, I will ask two questions of each of them.  First, what doctrine of trinity do they think is best and why do they think so?  Second, what implications are drawn from this doctrine for naming of God?

A.        Calvin confesses that God is both one essence and three persons.  He works with both Latin and Greek sources (126), which prevents him from placing an emphasis on either essence or personhood.  Along with LaCugna, he critiques subordinationism as a misunderstanding of the “relation” (128) and “order” (143; 154) of the egalitarian Trinity. 

            Calvin’s reliance on biblical language keeps him tied to the history of salvation.  This is comparable to LaCugna, who recommends, “metaphysical positions must be rooted in and derived from what we know of God as revealed in the economy of salvation” (91).  Calvin shies away from “too subtly penetrating into the sublime mystery to wander through many evanescent speculations” (144).  LaCugna also wishes to avoid “sophisticated metaphysics of the intratrinitarian relations” (90).

            Despite this superficial agreement on how the Trinity ought to be described, each have different criterion for deciding it is the best.  How does Calvin judge theological statements?  He turns to the Bible.  His purpose is to “seek from Scripture a sure rule for both thinking and speaking, to which both the thoughts of our minds and the words of our mouths should be conformed” (124).  This method assumes Scripture is a clear revelation (140; 145).  His ultimate value is to be faithful to this revelation.

            How does LaCugna decide what theology is best?  In contrast to Calvin, she judges theological statements on the basis of their sociopolitical consequences.  She favors Greek theology because it places relational personhood over autonomous substance.  She values personhood because it is capable of critiquing patriarchy whereas substance metaphysics fails to do so (91).  Her argument is structured so that she would favor Latin theology if it were only better equipped to battle patriarchy.

B.        In light of their respective theological convictions, how do Calvin and LaCugna go about naming God?  As a test case, I will ask what each thinks of the popular formulation “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” in contrast to the traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  LaCugna appreciates “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” as an effort toward inclusivity and emphasis on salvation history.  However, it is far too abstract and functional in light of her emphasis on the personhood of God (105). 

            Calvin does not explicitly endorse this formulation either.  He does, however, refer to the “Creator.”  He also names Christ the “Mediator” (133; 145; 148), “Word,” and “Wisdom” (129).  He offers no alternative name for the Spirit.  A potential alternative formulation may be found in the statement that “to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity” (142-143).  However, he warns us to “use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends” (146).  On the basis of his Scriptural criterion, Calvin gives supremacy to the revealed name of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

            LaCugna critiques the strategy of appeal to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as the unalterable revealed name of God.  To make such an appeal is to ignore the “conditioned character of biblical testimony and the patriarchal context of biblical writings” (102).  She recommends the addition of various images to counter exclusively male names (108).

III. Assessment

A.        What are the strengths of Calvin’s approach?  His method values faithfulness to the Biblical text.  He finds his criterion of judgment within the primary source of Christian faith. Why is this a strength?  First, it affirms the Christian tradition’s confession in the Bible as the Word of God.  Second, it is consistent with the method used throughout the ages and across the ecumenical church.  Finally, it respects the integrity of Christian theology as its own discipline.

            What are the weaknesses of Calvin’s approach?  It can rightly be charged with fideism.  The Christian takes by faith that the Bible is a trustworthy authority.  It may be asked, however, if any authority can be trusted without faith.  Nevertheless, the narrowness of Calvin’s approach tends to ignore contemporary problems like the sexism of theological language.  His use of masculine personal pronouns gives the impression that God is male.  His writing simply seems outdated.

            It must be noted, however, that Calvin’s method does not necessarily demand sexist language.  One is free to mine the biblical texts in search of a more balanced picture of God.  Calvin himself asks, “For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us?” (Calvin 121).  This principle of accommodation gives internal potential for updating his language without abandoning faithfulness to Scripture.

B.        What are the strengths of LaCugna’s approach?  Her concern for contemporary problems is certainly honorable.  Her method necessarily recognizes the context of both the biblical text and today’s church.  It must take into account critical alternative voices.  LaCugna’s theology is therefore ethically responsible.  Furthermore, she does this without abandoning traditional theology, for even her ethical criterion are rooted in the narratives about Jesus and the communion of the Trinity.

            What are LaCugna’s weaknesses?  There are two significant problems in her theology.  The first is internal to her argument.  She argues that Greek theology is the most promising for feminist concerns.  However, does an emphasis on relationship necessarily destroy patriarchy?  Could the relations remain “ordered” and therefore support the theology of complementarity?  LaCugna herself admits, “the Cappadocian emanation scheme, by which everything comes from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, looks, on first view, to be a pattern of subordination” (91).  Although she contends its purpose was to renounce subordinationism and affirm equality (92), no such societal change took place in the Greek churches.  Latin theology seems to more effectively rid the Trinity of subordinationism.  LaCugna could have critiqued Augustinian substance metaphysics without abandoning all Latin trinitarian reflection.

            Her second weakness is methodological and can be contrasted with Calvin’s strength.  LaCugna’s appeal to social consequences places an external criterion in judgment over the Bible.  Calvin’s system allows me to critique patriarchy from the moral vision of Scripture (cf. Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5:21).  But the text remains the standard.  For LaCugna, effectiveness in fighting patriarchy casts the deciding vote.  A method is only as good as its standard, so I am compelled along with Calvin to give primacy to the Bible in order to be faithful to my Christian confession.



Works Cited


Calvin, John.  Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 1.  The Library of Christian Classics Vol. 20.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.


LaCugna, Catherine Mowry, ed.  Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in   Feminist Perspective.  San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.




May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,

and the love of God,

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit

be with you all.

-- 2 Corinthians 13:14




Spring 2002