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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Ted Vial

Reformed Christians maintain the traditional Christian doctrine that God is a Trinity, three persons in one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  God the Father is the creator; the Son is God incarnate (born in the flesh) who, by his sacrifice on the cross saves humans from sin; the Spirit is the active presence of God in the Church and in history.  Calvin made the interesting argument in the Institutes of the Christian Religion that scripture's presentation of God as a Trinity is a way of combating human idolatry:  polytheists (those with more than one God) clearly do not worship the true God, but neither do those without the doctrine of the Trinity.  Jews and Muslims, for example, who are monotheists (believe in one God), are in danger of believing that they have captured the essence of God with this belief-the Trinity ensures that we worship just one God, but that we never make the mistake of forgetting that the nature of God is fundamentally a mystery to humans.

Calvin maintained the traditional Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine) defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  While it is difficult to conceive of a being both fully human and divine, Calvin believed this was the clear teaching of scripture (especially John 1:14).  It was also necessary for Calvin's traditional theory of substitutionary atonement-humans owed God an infinite debt for sin.  Only a human could pay the human-incurred debt, but because it was infinite it could only be fully dealt with by God.  Thus a God-man is in some sense necessary. 

For Calvin, as for Luther, the devil is not a metaphorical being but an actual being whose task it is to confuse humans and tempt them into damnation.  For example, in the controversy of the Lord's Supper, which was the main theological issue that kept the Lutherans and Reformed from uniting into one Protestant church, Calvin saw the hand of the devil stirring up dissension.  Similarly, angels are beings sent by God to do God's work, to protect humans, and to counteract the activities of the devil.           

Today, many Reformed Christians retain traditional beliefs in the devil and in angels.  For many, angels seem either uncomfortably pre-modern, or simply have no relevance to their belief system, and the devil is just a symbol of evil.  Surveys show that increasing numbers believe in angels (and heaven) but reject belief in the devil (and hell).  Still others have a belief in angels but, perhaps without being aware of it, instill them with qualities more in line with New Age religious movements than with those of traditional Christianity.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why did Calvin view God as all-powerful? What did this imply about daily life?
     2.    Why did Calvin use the imagery of God as a loving father?
     3.    Why does predestination monopolize the thoughts of many familiar with Calvin? Is this fair? Explain.
     4.    How does scripture shape a Presbyterian’s understanding of God? Why is the Trinity essential to the Presbyterian understanding of God?
     5.    Do Reformed Christians believe in angels? Explain.


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