Defending the Trinity in the Reformed Palatinate

The Elohistae

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Benjamin R. Merkle
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Defending the Trinity in the Reformed Palatinate: The Elohistae, Benjamin Merkle, President of New Saint Andrews College, traces the scriptural defense of trinitarian theology among mid to late 16th-century Reformed scholars in order to demonstrate the exegetical “heterogeneity” of the Reformed tradition (24). The author’s verdict turns on the contrastive interpretations of the Hebrew divine name Elohim of John Calvin (1509–64) and Jerome Zanchi (1516–90). Whereas Zanchi suggested that the plural ending of Elohim revealed God’s triunity, Calvin argued that a trinitarian reading abrogated the plain and grammatical meaning of the text (104). This seemingly inconsequential disagreement follows from two distinct hermeneutical approaches to the Old Testament.

Beginning with the medieval interpreters, Peter Lombard and Nicolas de Lyra, the first chapter surveys the use of the Hebrew text in defending the doctrine of the Trinity. The chapter focuses on the “peculiarity” and “grammatical curiosity” of the biblical name Elohim, which serves as a fitting example of the “exegetical creativity” employed to establish the plurality of divine persons (4-5). Merkle demonstrates the overall continuity, though by no means uniformity, among medieval and early Reformation exegetes regarding the discrete disclosure of the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. Calvin’s “plain and natural reading,” however, brought disruption to the accepted theological reading of the Old Testament by dismissing many traditional proof texts (e.g., Gen 1:1–2). 

The second chapter considers one example of the anti-trinitarianism that emerged in the Reformed faith—the Palatinate in Heidelberg. In the summer of 1570, a dispute erupted at the University of Heidelberg concerning the doctrine of the Trinity which resulted in the arrest and banishment of several anti-trinitarian professors and students. Strikingly, the anti-trinitarians credited Calvin’s exegetical principles as the foundation for their suspicion and eventual denial of the doctrine. With the orthodoxy of its faculty under question, the university’s scandal demanded a convincing response. The defense was taken up by Jerome Zanchi, professor of theology at Heidelberg, in his treatise, De Tribus Elohim (1572).

The third and fourth chapters of Merkle’s book offer a brief overview of Zanchi’s life, followed by a close examination of De Tribus Elohim. Noting the marked contrast of Zanchi’s exegetical approach to that of John Calvin, Merkle writes, “the central argument of Zanchi’s work … was an argument which Calvin had explicitly scorned” (99). Zanchi believed that the Hebrew language was superintended by God to communicate divine knowledge. For this reason, Old Testament revelation surpassed that of the New Testament “in its accurate portrayal of the nature of God” (95). On the basis of the Shma in Deuteronomy 6:4, Zanchi argued that the Hebrew construction Jehovah Elohim was an “explicitly Trinitarian confession” (109). Jehovah denotes God’s unity; Elohim indicates the divine plurality of the triune personae. In contrast, Calvin was uncertain of the trinitarian inferences of Elohim and sought evidence of the doctrine elsewhere. 

The final two chapters consider the critical reception of De Tribus Elohim. The fifth chapter details the debate between Aegidius Hunnius and David Pareus. Hunnius, a Lutheran theologian, argued that Calvin’s reading of the Hebrew text inevitably led to Arianism. In response, Pareus sought, unsuccessfully, to reconcile Calvin and Zanchi by noting the possibility of “multiple, layered meanings” of biblical passages and the difficulty of maintaining a single referent of Elohim (147). The sixth chapter examines the controversy between Franciscus Junius and Johannes Drusius. Under the influence of Zanchi, Junius extolled the Hebrew language as “uniquely able to convey God’s message” and carried forward the trinitarian reading of Jehovah Elohim (167). Following Calvin, Drusius denied the linguistic viability of such a reading. These disputes convey the continued disparity between a grammatical and theological reading within the Reformed church of the late 16th century. 

Defending the Trinity demonstrates the exegetical diversity of the Reformed tradition from its earliest stage. The theological reading of Zanchi—a hermeneutic commonly attributed to the Lutheran orthodox—occurs alongside the grammatical reading of John Calvin. The study thus contributes to a longstanding discussion regarding Calvin’s influence upon the development of Reformed orthodoxy. From its inception, the Reformed faith exhibited a plurality that, at the very least, undermines the tendency to treat Calvin as the “yardstick of Reformed orthodoxy” (82; cf. 99). The descriptors, “theological” and “grammatical,” however, may inadvertently overstate the distinction between the two hermeneutical trajectories. It is worth noting, for instance, that Calvin approvingly cites Proverbs 8:22 against Servetus as testimony of the Son’s eternal generation from the Father (see Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.14.8). In this regard, Calvin considers the Hebrew Bible to be an abundant theological repository for the doctrine of the Trinity. That said, Merkle’s nomenclature rightly indicates Zanchi’s express emphasison certain syntactical, etymological, and morphological features of the Hebrew text. 

The book also elucidates the prominent role of scripture in Zanchi’s theological approach. The anti-trinitarian debate is rightly cast in terms of exegetical practice rather than “reason triumphing over dogma” (113). In so doing, Merkle calls into question the predominate portrait of Zanchi’s theology as one grounded in the philosophy and rationalism of medieval scholasticism. It is unfortunate, however, that Merkle’s appraisal of Thomas Aquinas is limited to the Summa Theologiae, which largely follows from his detailed exegetical work. As Gilles Emery explains, “the Summa does not do word-by-word analyses of specific scriptural passages, but rather gives us a theological synthesis of Thomas’s reading of the New Testament” (The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Oxford University Press, 2007, 364). The suggested contrast between the exegetical method of Zanchi’s De Tribus Elohim and the philosophical approach of Aquinas may be refined through further interaction with Aquinas’s commentaries on scripture. Overall, Merkle provides an instructive account of Zanchi’s theological method which situates this Reformed biblicist in relation to medieval scholasticism and early Reformation thought. 

Merkle’s careful analysis of Zanchi’s De Tribus Elohim and its reception may serve as a helpful introduction to the variegated “world of Reformed exegesis” (146). Defending the Trinity is recommended for readers interested in the history of scriptural interpretation and the development of trinitarian theology within the early modern Reformed tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent A. Rempel is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin R Merkle is a Fellow of Theology and Classical Languages at New Saint Andrews College, in Moscow, Idaho.


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