On Removing the Descent Clause from the Creeds

Amazon.com

I have recently been reading Catherine Ella Laufer’s Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013). Much of the book is an historical overview of the ways in which the descent clause has been understood, from its inclusion in the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds through the Medieval and Reformation periods to its re-interpretation in Moltmann and Balthasar.

The last chapter, however, moves beyond historical explanation to theological formulation. While I do not find every point of her subsequent formulation compelling, Laufer begins her task by asking a crucial question: “What consequences would there be if the [descensus] clause were removed [from the Creeds]?”

This is not a hypothetical question, but rather a response to explicit suggestions that “He descended to the dead [or hell]” be removed from both Creeds that contain the clause.[1] And it is a question asked with the right criteria in place; Laufer agrees that any theological affirmation must be grounded in Scripture and must not be in conflict with other creedal affirmations.[2] With those guardrails in place, here is her answer:

What consequences would there be if the [descensus] clause were removed [from the Creeds]? Two most serious ones: an incomplete incarnation and a pseudo-resurrection could result. If there is no affirmed belief that Jesus descended to the dead but only that his body was entombed, then it is quite consistent to hold to the Apollinarian view that Christ’s person comprised divine intellect ‘within’ a human body. Bodily death would presumably free the divine intellect to return whence it orginated. . . . Moreover, without the descensus clause the resurrection is called into doubt. . . . Without it, Christ need not truly die upon the cross, for without the descent, the entombed body can merely be in a coma; without the descent, resurrection easily becomes revivification (181-82, emphasis mine).

In other words, without affirming that Jesus descended to the dead, we are left with the possibilities that a) the Son only assumed a human body and not also a human soul and/or b) Jesus’ didn’t actually die, but was revived from a com-like state after being placed in the tomb. The descent clause, at the very least, affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do, with his body ceasing to function and his soul departing to the place of the dead. It also affirms, via affirming Jesus’ human soul departing to the place of the dead, that Jesus was really and truly dead, not just in a coma.

While there is more that can be positively stated about the meaning of the doctrine, the descent clause functions, at the very least, as twin guardrails. It protects us against both Apollinarianism and denying that Jesus actually died at the crucifixion.

[1] Perhaps the most well known, at least among evangelicals, is Wayne Grudem’s argument for excising the phrase. See his “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS 34 (1991): 103–13.

[2] e.g. Affirming the descensus in such a way that it contradicts the affirmation of, say, double judgment in the Athanasian Creed is not appropriate.

A Sucker Punch From TFT

Thomas_F._Torrance

If you are an underliner like me, when you read T. F. Torrance, your page gets pretty marked up. Even when I don’t agree with the great Scottish divine, it’s hard not to be impressed by the intricacies of his thought. Here’s a gem I found while reading Torrance on Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God. The line in bold jumped off the page and sucker punched me.

Thus one of the outstanding marks of Calvin’s theology is that he is able to hold objectivity and personalism closely together, whereas in much modern theology they tend to fall apart with disastrous consequences. As Calvin saw it, it is only when we allow the Truth of God to retain his own majesty in all our knowledge of him, and when we allow God himself to preside in all our judgments about him, that we may be truly personal ourselves and have personal relations with one another, whereas he who ceases in this way to speak with God unlearns even the art of speaking with his neighbor. (from “Knowledge of God and Speech about Him according to John Calvin,” in Theology in Reconstruction).

Responding to Bruce Ware with Charitable Criticism

By Matt Emerson and Luke Stamps

This past week, we were pleased to post two responses from Bruce Ware regarding some of the recent criticisms leveled against him and other proponents of eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS). It should be obvious to anyone who has frequented this blog over the past month–since the first shots were fired in the Trinity debate–that we have some serious concerns with ERAS as it has been expressed by Ware, Wayne Grudem, and others (although we should be careful not to conflate these different writers’ views on every point). But at the same time, insofar as we have perceived that Ware and others were making a good faith effort to show how their positions fit within Nicene orthodoxy, we have tried to speak with charitable judgment and to avoid the hyperbolic terms others have used. This doesn’t mean that ERAS positions are impervious to critique–even serious cautions about their implications–but it does mean that we treat those attempting to demonstrate their orthodoxy in a different manner than those who high-handedly renounce orthodoxy. This isn’t, as some have suggested, simply “tone policing.” It is a matter of fairly, accurately, and charitably listening to, representing, and then critiquing our brothers’ perspectives.

As is evident in Ware’s posts, his main concern has been to assuage questions about his orthodoxy, particularly related to issues surrounding the divine will and the equality of the divine persons. Here we wish to offer some rather brief remarks in which we hope to affirm what is worthy of affirmation, question what needs further clarification, and critique what is worthy of critique. In doing so, we hope to model the approach we’ve tried to take with this debate throughout – offering fair critique of ERAS from historical and biblical perspective, while also doing so in a way that accurately and charitably represents the opposing view. [We should note that we are mainly interacting with Ware’s two recent posts, not everything he has ever written about the Trinity or gender relations].

1. Affirming What is Worthy of Affirmation

A. Humility

First, we want to thank Ware for his humility and charity in responding. This is especially important given that, for many of us involved, Dr. Ware is our elder, and, in Luke’s case, a former professor and teaching elder in a local church.

B. Engagement

Second, Ware has actually engaged the issues at hand. While we still disagree with how he parsed some of his points (see below), Ware did not side step or throw out red herrings. Instead, he took the challenge head on and attempted to demonstrate what has been called into question – his orthodoxy.

C. Orthodox Affirmations

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ware has explicitly affirmed his assent to the unity of the divine will, inseparable operations, and the eternal processions. While we still have questions about how he arrives at these doctrines and how they cohere with ERAS, it is vital that we continue to acknowledge and appreciate that Ware has affirmed these components of classical Trinitarianism.

2. Questioning What Needs Clarification

A. Distinct Activations of the Divine Will?

Perhaps the biggest question we have, and one that has been rightly asked by others, is how Dr. Ware is affirming the unity of the divine will while also arguing that each person “activates” that will in a unique sense. We understand that there is precedent, not only in the Cappodocians (on Anatolios’ interpretation) but also in John Owen (as has been noted by Matthew Barrett) and other Reformed thinkers, to speak of distinct inflections or expressions of the one divine will–that each person of the Godhead relates to the numerically singular divine will in distinctive ways according to their distinctive modes of subsistence. But this is not exactly the way that Ware speaks about the three persons and their relationship to the divine will. It seems that, for Ware, the three persons are using the one divine will almost like a common piece of equipment. He even speaks of three “distinguishable acts of willing which together brings to light the fullness of that one divine will.” But this simply pushes the question back a step. Under what conditions are the three persons activating the divine will distinctly? Doesn’t this way of speaking imply that the three divine persons possess distinct volitional equipment of their own, so to speak, by which they utilize the shared volitional equipment? For what it’s worth we have similar questions about certain renditions of the Reformed pactum salutis that speak of the divine persons as distinct “centers of self-consciousness” or distinct “agents of willing.”

B. Simplicity

This question has been raised by others as well, but we wonder how Ware’s language of distinct but harmonious acts of willing squares with the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity. It also appears that Ware has redefined somewhat the classical trinitarian terms, “person” and “nature,” such that “authority” is no longer an attribute shared equally by the three persons in the one divine essence, but is instead a relational property possessed by the Father and also, with respect to the procession of the Holy Spirit, by the Son. This again raises questions about the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God’s being is identical with all of his attributes. We’d be interested to know where Ware now stands with regard to this crucial affirmation of classical Christian theism.

3. Critiquing What Needs to Be Critiqued

A. The Biblical Warrant for Eternal Generation

Since I (Matt) have written about the biblical basis for eternal generation at length and in summary fashion, we can be brief here. We take it that the biblical basis for the eternal processions is very strong, not simply based on one or two slam-dunk proof texts but on the basis of specific biblical texts understood in the context of broader biblical judgments about the eternal trinitarian relations. We suspect that Ware’s hesitancy about the biblical basis for the eternal processions stems from a significantly different theological method than the one we find most compelling (more on this below).

B. Problems with Social Trinitarianism

We are not certain if Ware would describe his position as a version of social trinitarianism, but many of his affirmations seem to point in that direction. As we hinted at above, to speak of what one divine person could/would do with respect to another seems to imply that the persons have their own discrete psychological-volitional equipment, as it were. In our view, this language places too much strain on the unity of the divine will, even in the nuanced way that Ware has spoken about it (distinct inflections in the one divine will). It is also ill-advised to speak about the possibility of the Father working unilaterally apart from the Son and the Spirit even in terms of a hypothetical scenario, since to do so would introduce contingency to the relations within the Triune God. The tradition as maintained, and more importantly Scripture demands, that we speak of the eternal relations of origin as a necessary feature of God’s inner life. Likewise, Scripture demands that God’s economic work be understood as one and inseparable. So, to speak about the Father “humbling” himself in his choice to work through the Son and by the Spirit is, in our view, to come too close to seeing the divine persons as distinct agents–as distinct psychological-volitional subjects who simply cooperate perfectly with one another.

D. Problems with Theological Method

We suspect that many of these questions about and critiques of Ware’s position arise from differences in theological and hermeneutical method. As we have noted here before, Ware and other ERAS proponents (though not all) seem to subscribe to a biblicist method (note that this is a descriptive and not a pejorative term). This method seeks to understand and explicate Christian doctrine primarily, and sometimes exclusively, through reflection on the biblical text and, as much as possible, without the influence of superimposed external grids, such as traditional doctrinal formulations. This is not to say that biblicists find tradition unimportant or that they never make appeals to the tradition. But it does seem that their desire is to theologize, as much as possible, via direct reflection on Scripture. While there is much about this approach that we can appreciate, we have argued for a more confessional hermeneutic here, one that sees tradition as derivatively authoritative. In other words, insofar as tradition (and particularly Creeds and confessions) are derived from Scripture, they should be seen as faithful summaries of and guides to understanding God’s Word to us. They are always subject to Scripture, but, in the case of the Nicene Creed in particular, they have been tested and found faithful to Scripture for the last 17 centuries. So, for us, the ecumenical creeds (and, in a somewhat different respect, our own specific ecclesiastical confessions) have a kind of controlling function in our biblical exegesis. Any major revisions to the creeds or any major redefinition of their terms would require much more than our own private interpretation of the biblical text.

E. “Form of God”/”Form of a Servant” and Ad Intra/Ad Extra Distinctions

Many of our questions and criticisms of ERAS might be assuaged if its proponents moved closer to the classical “rule” which distinguishes texts that speak of the Son of God as such from texts that speak of the Son of God Incarnate. As we have stated before, ERAS hinges largely on biblical passages that have been classically understood to speak of Christ in his incarnate state, and not of the Son of God simpliciter. So, John 6:38; 1 Cor. 11:3; and 15:28 should be read according to this “rule,” a rule which is given explicit biblical warrant in Phil. 2:5-11.

Similarly, it would help matters greatly for ERAS proponents such as Ware to make a clearer distinction between what we can say about God’s life ad intra and what we can say about God’s work ad extra (first planned in the eternal decree and then worked out on the stage of redemptive history). Even if we can speak about a certain kind of “obedience” in the eternal covenant of redemption (we still have questions about this) and though we certainly speak about the obedience of the Son in his incarnate state, it is a mistake, in our view, to read these ad extra realities back into the ad intra relations of the Trinity in too close a fashion. The Trinitarian missions do reflect and extend the Trinitarian processions. It is fitting, for example, that the Son is temporally sent from the Father since he is eternally generated from the Father. But it would be a category error to assume that everything that obtains in the Son’s incarnate state also obtains in the Son’s eternal life in the immanent Trinity. We consider submission one of those uniquely economic roles taken on by the Son.

F.  Inseparable Operations and Appropriation

The quotations from Ware’s book that seem to have caused the greatest stir are his affirmations regarding the Father’s supremacy over the Son and Spirit and the analogy he draws from this to God’s supremacy over (but calling of) his creatures. And rightly so. These are, in our opinion, among the most problematic portions of Ware’s book. Ware has sought to clarify these statements by once again emphatically reaffirming the consubstantiality of the the divine persons: they each possess “the identically same divine nature.” His statements about the Father’s supreme glory within the Godhead were, on his account, references to the Father’s unique personhood and work–not to any distinction in nature–and were an attempt to get at the truth of biblical passages that seem to assign ultimate glory to the Father (Phi. 2:11; 1 Cor. 15:28). We are grateful for Ware’s consistent denial of Arianism and his repeated affirmation of the homoousion. But at points we wonder what role these biblically-formed doctrines play in his exegesis of specific texts, like the ones cited above. It is a mistake, in our view, to interpret passages that speak of a distinctive glory and supremacy assigned to the Father in such a way that it would exclude the other Trinitarian persons who share in the one supremely glorious divine essence (e.g., John 17:5). Another way of putting this is to say that we have to hold the doctrine of appropriation (which seems to be what Ware is speaking to here) in much closer connection with the doctrine of inseparable operations. Even when the Father is the one who is spoken of as performing or receiving a particular action (as final glory is assigned to the Father in Phil. 2 and 1 Cor. 15), we must always return to the fact that it is the one triune God who is working inseparably in the economy and to whom all glory must be rendered. We doubt that Ware would disagree with this, but at times it seems that, for him, inseparable operations simply means that the three divine persons work in concert, albeit through one volitional capacity. But the traditional notion is much stronger than this. Traditionally, inseparable operations, which is simply a corollary of monotheism, has meant that in every external act of the Triune God, there is only one acting and one willing (not three), even when this one act may terminate upon or be appropriated to one or the other members of the Trinity. We appreciate the clarifications that Ware has made regarding the shared divine essence of the three trinitarian persons, but to speak about the Father being supreme over the other persons in their ad intra relations simply skirts too close to major trinitarian error. We think Ware needs to rethink how he formulates the doctrine of appropriation vis-à-vis the doctrine of inseparable operations in order to avoid confusion on this point.

Conclusion

We love Bruce. He is an admired theologian and a dear friend. We respect his attempt to show the coherency of his ERAS position with Nicene orthodoxy. We are grateful for the affirmations he has clarified in this effort: the unity of the divine will, the inseparability of trinitarian operations, and the eternal relations of origin. In our view, Bruce is not a heretic nor is he teaching any kind of high-handed heresy. At the same time, we continue to have serious objections to some of his formulations, and we would wish to point both him and our fellow evangelicals to the time-tested formulations of the classic, pro-Nicene tradition and its reception in patristic, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation thought. It is our prayer that our (no doubt flawed) attempt at some charitable criticism of his views will help to move the discussion forward as we all seek to know the ineffable mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.

An Open Letter to Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman, and Todd Pruitt on Trinitarian Equality and Distinctions – Guest Post by Bruce Ware

 

The following is another guest post from Bruce Ware. We are happy to give Dr. Ware a forum to clarify his views. We will be posting our own response to his posts in the next few days.

An Open Letter to Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman, and Todd Pruitt on Trinitarian Equality and Distinctions

Bruce A. Ware
Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

July 2016

Dear Liam, Carl, and Todd:

One thing I admire highly about you and some others in this recent discussion on the Trinity is the deep conviction and passion for truth I’ve seen evidenced. I share those same deep commitments to know, and uphold, and guard the truth, and have always sought, to the best of my ability, by God’s rich grace, to develop convictions that are faithful to Scripture. I do sense that one thing dispositionally different between us is that your “go to” standard for truth seems to be the creeds and confessions, whereas I go first and foremost to Scripture while also having a deep respect for and a longing to be faithful to both the ecumenical creeds and our own tradition’s confessional documents. But sola Scriptura reigns in my heart, to be sure, and for this I make no apologies whatsoever.

Now, to get to the concerns raised by Todd Pruitt in his latest posting. I agree wholeheartedly that words matter. One is responsible for what one says and writes. But here’s one problem with what was quoted. The broader context of my quoted statements was not provided to the readers of Todd’s blog article, and the context makes a significant difference in how rightly to interpret my statements that highlight the supremacy of the Father. Those comments on the Father’s supremacy come from my chapter, “Beholding the Wonder of the Father,” which begins as follows:

The Christian faith affirms that there is one and only one God, eternally existing and fully expressed in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Each member of the Godhead is equally God, each is eternally God, and each is fully God—not three gods but three Persons of the one Godhead.  Each Person is equal in essence as each possesses fully the identically same, eternal divine nature, yet each is an eternal and distinct personal expression of the one undivided divine nature. . . . [W]hat distinguishes the Father from the Son and Spirit is not the divine nature of the Father.  This—the one and undivided divine nature—is also possessed equally and fully by the Son and Spirit.  Therefore what distinguishes the Father is his particular role as Father in relation to the Son and Spirit and the relationships that he has with each of them.  In light of the equality of essence yet the differentiation of role and relationship that the Father has with the Son and Spirit, how may we understand more clearly the distinctiveness of the Father in relation to the Son and Spirit?  We turn in this chapter, then, to explore this question, and through this exploration, to marvel more fully at the wonder that is God the Father (pp. 43-44).

If one reads correctly what I am saying in this chapter, the full deity of the Father, Son, and Spirit is affirmed clearly and unequivocally. As I do many times in this book, I stress the importance of the unity of God by underscoring the one eternal and undivided divine nature that is possessed fully by the Father, fully by the Son, and fully by the Spirit. So, at the level of deity, worth, and intrinsic glory, they are fully equal. But then at the end of these opening words to the chapter, I also make clear that now my focus will be directed, not to the one commonly possessed divine nature, but to the differentiation of persons and roles that we see with the Father, Son, and Spirit. The context, then, for discussing the supremacy of the Father has nothing to do with a supposed supremacy of the Father’s nature—which, then, indeed would be Arianism or some variant form of heresy.  Any supposed supremacy of the Father in nature, or in deity, is ruled out both by what I quoted above, and also from the previous chapter of the book in which I outlined the historical, orthodox Trinitarian position that I embraced.  Rather, this is a hypostatic supremacy of relationship (he’s eternally Father of the eternal Son) and role (e.g., he sends the Son) – period! Nothing more, and nothing else.

A number of others, from some of the Fathers on, have spoken in similar ways.  For example, James Petigru Boyce, the founding president of Southern Seminary where I have the privilege to teach, writes, “[T]here is also a subordination of office or rank still more plainly taught [in Scripture]. By virtue of this, the Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son send the Spirit. . . . The order of this subordination is plainly apparent from the scriptural names and statements about the relations.  The Father is unquestionably first, the Son second, and the Holy Spirit third.  This is their rank, as well because of the mode of subsistence, as of its order.  Hence they are commonly spoken of in this order, as the First, Second and Third Persons of the Trinity” (Abstract of Systematic Theology, 155).  Of course, Boyce is not saying that the Son’s or Spirit’s nature is subordinate, but that their respective personal rank (Boyce’s word, no doubt referring to the eternal taxis or ordering of the Trinitarian persons) and actions follows their mode of subsistence.

So, does the Father have a kind of supremacy of personal relations that is not a supremacy of nature? Is he rightfully the recipient of ultimate glory that attaches to his personhood and work, not to the one and undivided divine nature he commonly possesses with the Son and Spirit and not in a way that diminishes the fully shared glory of Father, Son, and Spirit in the immanent Trinity? I believe the answer to these questions from Scripture is, yes. Prior to the quotations Todd gave from my book, I had written at some length about Paul’s statements in Phil 2:11 and 1 Cor 15:28 both of which indicate some kind of special glory that is rightly ascribed to the Father specifically at the very moment that every knee bows and every tongue declares that Jesus Christ is Lord—“. . . to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11)—or at the very moment that all of creation is placed in subjection to the Son—as the Father is singled out to receive highest honor as the Son places himself in subjection to his Father who subjected everything to the him, the Son! (1 Cor 15:28). The Father is rightful recipient of the ultimate glory from the work of the Son, which Christ himself acknowledged when he said, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). The language of supremacy, then, attaches to who the Father is qua Father and thus in his personal relation to the Son and the Spirit, and to his role as Father in designing the work (i.e., “the work which You have given Me to do” – John 17:4) that the Son carried out in complete faithfulness and obedience.

Some might wonder, but are these not expressions of the glory of the Father while the Son is in his incarnate state (even when raised and ascended) so that they might just as well be said of the Son in his deity? Allow me two responses: 1) At the level of the Son’s deity, there is fully shared glory because the Trinitarian persons fully share the divine nature. As I’ve stressed often, there simply is no distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit when considering each of them as divine. As God, they possess the identically same divine nature, and hence are equally fully divine, possessing identical divine attributes, and are of equal infinite worth and glory. But in these texts the reference is to the distinct and particular hypostatic identity of the Father, who sent the Son, and whose plan and purpose was accomplished by the Son. The distinction of person, with the hypostatically particular role the Father has in planning and executing the work of salvation through his Son, is the basis in all of these texts for a particular kind of glory that is rightly directed to the Father as Father. 2) Tied to this first point is the observation that one might have expected, instead, that these expressions of glory be made to the one Triune God. But they are not. They are instead deliberate expressions of glory to the Father qua Father that are tied, not to his intrinsic deity per se, but to the outworking of the particularity of his role as the eternal Father of the eternal Son, executing his eternal plan inseparably through the agency of His Son, all expressive, of course, of the eternal modes of subsistence that mark the persons of the Godhead distinctly.

Interestingly, later in my book I also write about Jesus’ promise of the coming Holy Spirit where he says that when the Spirit comes, he will not speak on his own initiative, but, as Jesus says, “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (John 16:14). Does this not also speak of a particular glory that attaches to the Son as Son that is not rightly given to the Spirit as Spirit? After all, do we ever hear Jesus speak of himself glorifying the Spirit, as we hear in this text of the Spirit glorifying the Son? Now, if this statement of the Spirit’s glorifying of the Son were a reference to the nature of the Son vis-à-vis the nature of the Spirit, we would have to conclude that Jesus considered the Spirit inferior in his very being, and this indeed would be false. But that is not the point of what Jesus says. He clearly has in mind the personal relations between the Son and the Spirit. Just as Jesus did not speak on his own initiative, but spoke what the Father gave him (John 8:28), so now the Spirit will likewise not speak on his own initiative but will speak what Jesus gives him (John 16:14). And in both cases, this leads to a glorifying of the One who gives the word and work to the other, a particular glory of the Father vis-à-vis the Son, and a particular glory of the Son vis-à-vis the Spirit, that is distinctive and exalted. No doubt, these personal relations are tied to the divine plan and the triune God’s work ad extra. Yet God’s ad extra work is consistent with the way the divine persons relate to each other and their mode of subsistence from eternity. Once again, what is at issue here is not about distinguishing supposed differences in the deity of the Father, Son, and Spirit since they all equally possess the identically same divine nature, but it is about distinguishing who they are in their persons, the work each is responsible to do, all of which flows out of the modes of subsistence from all eternity.

Allow me also to comment briefly on quotations made by Todd that speak of the Father not working unilaterally but rather choosing to work through the Son and the Spirit. My point here is very simple: since the Father is omnipotent, there simply is nothing that could hinder him by nature from doing anything he would choose to do. Of course, this is purely hypothetical, and I acknowledge that my wording here could be made more precise. I did not intend to suggest that the Father ever would act in such an independent manner, or could act independently, strictly speaking, in light of the Trinitarian union of persons. Indeed, he acts always and only inseparably with the Son and the Spirit. Still, the point is that while he acts inseparably, he also wills with the Son and Spirit to act in full accord with them, and he intends in this to put the Son, in particular, in the place of ascendant exaltation. So, indeed, the work of God is inseparable, as the church has long held, but the work of the one God is also hypostatically distinguishable. As Calvin has said, “It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: 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 . . . . The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 1:142-43]. In all of the ad extra workings of the one God, although the Father grounds the beginning of the activity, he acts inseparably through the Son and by the Spirit thus reflecting their unique mode of subsistence and in ways that magnify all three divine persons, but in particular, the Father designs to shine the spotlight on His Son by the Spirit, which is his purpose, as the Father, from the very beginning (Eph 1:9-10).

I wish to be as clear and precise as possible, in light of the severity of charges made by all three of you. I uphold unequivocally, unreservedly, and with deep conviction, the full deity of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. The Son is fully homoousios with the Father, and even though not declared explicitly in the Constantinople (A.D. 381) revision of the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), I believe that the Holy Spirit is likewise homoousios with the Father and the Son. Each is equally God because each possesses fully the one and undivided divine nature that renders them co-equal and co-eternal, unified in their being as the One God, equal in power and glory as each is fully God. Furthermore, I embrace the eternal modes of subsistence—viz., the Father’s eternal paternity, the Son’s eternal generation, and the Spirit’s eternal procession—that alone grounds the Father as the eternal Father of the eternal Son, and the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and the Spirit as eternally coming from and united with the Father and the Son. In addition, I also hold with equal conviction that Scripture and creed both insist on the distinction of persons in which the Father is first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, according to their appropriate modes of subsistence, and as evidenced then by the fitting ways in which they relate to one another and work in the world as displayed repeatedly in Scripture. Both full equality of nature and distinction of persons are necessary to uphold rightly the doctrine of the Trinity, and I affirm both with great joy and conviction.

That I also hold that, among those things that distinguish the Father, from the Son, and from the Spirit, is an eternal relation of authority and submission which again reflects their eternal modes of subsistence and is shown in all of the works of the Trinitarian persons as depicted repeatedly throughout the whole of the Bible—that I hold this also simply should not count against my orthodoxy since these relations of authority and submission have nothing to do with how the divine persons share and possess fully the divine nature, but rather have to do only with the outworking of their eternal personal relations. As I have said many times, because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, the Father always acts in ways that befit who he is as Father, and among the expressions of this is the exercise of hypostatically distinctive fatherly authority. Because the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, he always acts in ways that befit who he is as Son, and among the expressions of this is the exercise of hypostatically distinctive filial submission.   Is it not clear that these proposed relations of authority and submission are tied not to the one undivided divine nature in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are exactly and indistinguishably equal, but rather they are expressive of their respective hypostatic identities, which in turn flow out of their respective eternal modes of subsistence? Now, we may disagree on this proposal of eternal relations of authority and submission, but this disagreement should not be placed in the categories you have suggested.

I close with a quote from someone both you and I respect very highly, one of the great evangelical statesmen of the 20th century, a pastor-scholar for whom we all have deep appreciation and gratitude. I would suggest that his articulation of the Trinity reflects essentially the same core understandings as the view I and others have put forward. Notice that it is the “members of the Godhead” (last sentence) that he says are related as evidencing both the full equality of the Trinitarian persons along with the subjection (I prefer the word ‘submission’) of Son to Father and Spirit to Father and Son. I embrace these comments on the glorious Trinity and pray that we can agree that such a view is fully orthodox, grounded in abundant biblical teaching, and instructive to all of us regarding who the Triune God truly is. Hear the words of the late James Montgomery Boice, cofounder and former president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA (1968-2000):

While each [Trinitarian person] is fully divine, the three persons of the Godhead are related to each other in a way that implies some differences. Thus, it is usually said in Scripture that the Father (not the Spirit) sent the Son into the world (Mk. 9:37; Mt. 10:40; Gal 4:4w), but that both the Father and the Son send the Spirit (Jn. 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). We don’t know fully what such a description of relationships within the Trinity means. But usually it is said that the Son is subject to the Father, for the Father sent him, and that the Spirit is subject to both the Father and the Son, for he is sent into the world by both the Son and Father. However, we must remember that when we speak of subjection we do not mean inequality. Although related to each other in these ways, the members of the Godhead are nevertheless ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory,’ as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says (Q. 6) [James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology, revised in one volume (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986) 115].

Amen, and Amen.

Your brother in Christ,

Bruce

Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Guest Post by Bruce Ware

The following is a guest post by Dr. Bruce Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

image.jpg

Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Clarifications and Declarations in a Humble Endeavor to Know the Trinitarian God Rightly

Bruce A. Ware

“. . . Let him who boasts, boast in this, that he understands and knows Me . . .” (Jer 9:24)

I’m grateful to Matthew Emerson, Luke Stamps, and Luke Wisley for allowing this guest posting on their blog site. While the discussion of Trinity of recent weeks has been productive in many ways, there remains for me one distressing element. Much of the discussion has been made within the context of charges of unorthodoxy regarding myself and others committed to the position that we see the Bible indicating eternal relations of authority and submission within the Trinity. Several issues have been raised by a number of writers, and I wish here to clarify just how I see our position as consistent with the pro-Nicene tradition and with Scripture. While much more can be said, I am hopeful of providing enough to see the lines of thought that could be developed further in another context. I’ll address five main issues raised, as I have seen them discussed over these past weeks.

  1. Issue: How can one uphold the inseparable operations the pro-Nicene theologians found indispensable along with the notion that the Father, Son, and Spirit each acts in distinct ways as indicated repeatedly in Scripture (e.g., Father sending, Son going, Spirit empowering)?

Response: I gladly affirm my commitment to the doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because each person of the Trinity possesses the identically same divine nature, each uses the same power and relies on the same knowledge and wisdom in conducting the various works that each does. So, there cannot be a separation or division in the work of the One God since each person participates fully in the One nature of God. But this does not preclude each person accessing, as it were, those qualities of the divine nature (e.g., power, knowledge, wisdom) distinctively yet harmoniously, according to their own hypostatic identities as Father, and as Son, and as the Holy Spirit, such that they bring to pass one unified result accomplishing the one work of God. In this way, the personal works of the Father, Son, and Spirit may be distinctive but never divided; each may focus on particular aspects of the divine work yet only together accomplish the one, harmonious, unified work of God. Each work of the Trinitarian persons, then, is inseparable, while aspects of that one work are hypostatically distinguishable. Inseparable, but not indistinguishable—this accounts for the full biblical record of the works of God which are unified works done by the one God, yet always carried out in hypostatically distinguishable ways.

Khaled Anatolios offers assistance on this issue when discussing the position on divine agency advanced by Gregory of Nyssa. Anatolios writes that Gregory ruled out the notion of the Trinitarian persons functioning as separate agents, working independent of one another. But, he continues,

the notion of an altogether undifferentiated agency in which each of the persons partakes in exactly the same manner is also implicitly but very clearly ruled out by Gregory’s consistent strategy of using three different verbs to distribute the common action distinctly to the three persons. . . . [T]he typical pattern for that distribution is that every action issues from the Father, is actualized through the Son, and is completed by the Spirit. There is thus an ineffable distinction within unity in divine co-activity such that the one divine activity is completely effected by each of the persons and yet is distinctly inflected between them. Every activity that is originated by the Father is equally yet distinctly owned by Son and Spirit [Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011) 231].

I affirm what Anatolios suggests, that we can understand Trinitarian co-agency neither as “altogether undifferentiated” nor as divided and independent. Rather, all divine action is performed by the Father, Son, and Spirit in an undivided yet distinct manner, as inseparable while also being hypostatically distinguishable.

  1. Issue: Closely related is the next question, regarding the will of God as this pertains to the one and undivided divine nature and the three distinct persons. Can there be a will of authority (from the Father) and a will of submission (from the Son) without conceiving of separate and separable divine wills?

Response: In short, my answer is yes. But the issue is anything but simple. I would suggest that we affirm what the church Fathers did, that “will” as a volitional capacity is a property of the divine nature. So, in this sense, each of the three persons possesses the identically same will, just as each of them possesses the identically same power, and knowledge, and holiness, and love, etc. Yet, while each possesses the same volitional capacity, each also is able to activate that volitional capacity in exercising the one will in distinct yet unified ways according to their distinct hypostatic identities and modes of subsistence. So, while the Father may activate the common divine will to initiate, the Son may activate the divine will to carry out, e.g., “from” the Father, “through” the Son—as has often been affirmed in Trinitarian doctrine following the pattern in Scripture itself (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6). Given this, one might even speak of one unified will of God, as the volitional capacity common to all three, along with three “inflections” of the unified divine will (borrowing Anatolios’s wording), or three hypostatically distinct expressions of that one divine will, or even three distinguishable acts of willing which together bring to light the fullness of that one unified will—all of which express the particular ways each divine person activates that common will as expressive of their particular personhood and distinctive yet undivided personal action. This way of understanding the will of God—one will that is the volitional capacity of nature, along with distinct activations or inflections of willing from each of the three divine persons—is akin, then, to how we should understand, for example, the love of God. Love is a quality or attribute of the divine nature and as such is common to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet the Father’s expression of love for the Son is distinctly the Father’s, as the Son’s expression of love for the Father is distinctly the Son’s, and the Holy Spirit’s expression of love for Father and Son is distinctly his—one common attribute of love with three expressions or inflections of that capacity of love through each of the three Trinitarian persons.

Apart from such a perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the three Trinitarian persons share in intimate fellowship, love, communication, and mutual support. While there is one divine will, there must also be what Anatolios refers to as “distinct inflections of the one divine will belonging distinctly to the three hypostaseis” [Retrieving Nicaea, 220, fn. 234] lest we propose, even unwittingly, some form of modalism or unitarianism. Terminology here is difficult, but if we are to undergird the genuineness of shared love and fellowship in the Trinity, and if we are to acknowledge the Trinitarian grammar of divine willing that is expressed from the Father, through the Son, and completed by the Spirit, then something along the lines of one unified divine will of volitional capacity along with three distinct yet undivided inflections or activations of willing by the three persons needs to be upheld. As a result, we can conceive, for example, how the Father can plan, purpose and will to send the Son (John 6:38; Eph 1:9; 1 John 4:10), and the Son accept and embrace the will of the Father (John 4:34). These are “distinct inflections” of the one and unified divine will, as seen from the particular hypostatic perspectives of the Father and the Son.

  1. Issue: Is the Son free in his willing to obey the will of the Father? Some might think that if the Son must embrace the Father’s will, then he cannot truly be free in accepting to do the Father’s will. This issue is raised by D. Glenn Butner, Jr., in which he dismisses the notion that the Father could genuinely will in an authoritative way and the Son in a submissive way since the Son cannot will other than the Father has willed. As he writes, “. . . the Son cannot submit to the Father because such submission requires freedom [“Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will,” JETS 58.1 (March 2015) 147].”

Response: But this objection only stands if the kind of freedom one is considering is libertarian freedom, i.e., the so-called power of contrary choice. That is, Butner’s criticism only works if the freedom by which the Son is said to “freely obey” the Father is one in which he can equally obey or disobey the Father, i.e., the Son has libertarian freedom which requires the power of contrary choice. But I have argued elsewhere that libertarian freedom is a failed conception that neither explains why moral agents choose precisely what they do, nor does it accord with the strong sovereignty of God we see throughout the Scriptures [God’s Greater Glory: the Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004) 85-95; and “The Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012) 212-230]. If we adopt instead the conception of freedom in which our freedom consists in our unconstrained ability to do what we most want, or to act according to our highest inclination—sometimes referred to as a “freedom of inclination”—then this problem is removed. The Son’s willing submission is his free and unconstrained expression of what he most wants to do when he receives the authoritative will of the Father, which is always, without exception, to embrace and carry out precisely what the Father gives him to do.

  1. Issue: Have the proponents of ERAS (eternal relations of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons) denied the Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son?

Response: The answer emphatically, and for all proponents of our view whom I know, is no. We have never denied this doctrine, and indeed we affirm it as declaring very important truths about the eternal relation between the Father and the Son, the eternal deity and unity of both the Father and the Son, and the eternal Fatherhood of the Father and eternal Sonship of the Son. Although I believe I could speak for all proponents of ERAS, it would be best here to speak for myself alone. For my 30+ years of teaching, I have believed and taught with great conviction that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, the Son the eternal Son of the Father, and that the Son, in possessing the identically same and eternal divine nature as the Father possesses, is homoousios with the Father. Where I have always hesitated is with biblical support put forth by others for the twin doctrines of eternal generation (Son) and eternal procession (Spirit), sometimes called the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence. Because of this, though I have never denied this doctrine, I have been reluctant to embrace it. I have craved biblical support and yet have not been convinced by what has been offered. John 5:26, for example, perhaps the most-frequently cited text in support of eternal generation, does not, in my judgment, teach this doctrine. The verse begins with “for” (gar) indicating it is explaining what was said in 5:24-25. There, those who believe in the Father are granted eternal life (5:24), and those likewise who believe in the Son are granted resurrection life (5:25). How is this? The explanation comes in 5:26 where the Father has life in himself, presumably to give to those who believe, and he has given the Son also life in himself, again presumably to give to those who believe. The subject is the gift of eternal life, not the ontological life of the Father and Son in the immanent Trinity. Well, this is not the place to conduct more exegetical commentary, but just to say that I have not been persuaded of this doctrine from the biblical texts cited in its support (yet, in light of what you’ll read below, I would be happy to be so persuaded!).

Doesn’t this mean you reject the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence, then? No, it does not, for reasons that have pressed more heavily upon me in recent years. Allow me to offer these two reasons for why I have come to accept it: 1) I have great respect for the history of this doctrine, knowing its near universal acceptance through the history of the church, and this provides strong reason to accept it as the heritage of the church to us now in the 21st century. 2) Also important to me is my long-standing commitment to what I see very clearly in the Bible, and that is the eternal Fatherhood of the Father, and the eternal Sonship of the Son. But then, if you ask the question, “just how is the One who is called ‘Father” in fact eternal Father? And just how is the One who is called ‘Son’ in fact eternal Son?” it is here that the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence offers the only real accounting or grounding available. While the Father is eternal Father, and the Son the eternal Son, the best way to account for these truths is by affirming what the church has taught, viz., that the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. So, while I remain unconvinced at present that specific texts in Scripture teach this doctrine, I accept and embrace it as the “church’s doctrine” and the only genuine explanation that grounds the Father as eternal Father, and the Son as eternal Son.

Now, does affirming the eternal modes of subsistence cause problems for our commitment to an eternal relation of authority and submission in the Godhead? Absolutely not! In fact, it only strengthens our view. Precisely because the Father eternally begets the Son, the Father, as eternal Father of the Son, has the intrinsic paternal hypostatic position of having authority over his Son; and precisely because the Son is eternally begotten from the Father, the Son, as eternal Son of the Father, has the intrinsic filial hypostatic position of being in submission to his Father. The eternal modes of subsistence, then, ground the eternal distinction between Father and Son (and Spirit), while the eternal relations of authority and submission then flow out from and are expressive of those eternal modes of subsistence. Honestly, eternal (ontological) modes of subsistence, and the eternal (functional and hypostatic) relations of authority and submission work like hand and glove.

  1. Issue: Finally, is it not the case that affirming the eternal authority of the Father over the Son, and the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, indicate both the superiority of the Father over the Son, and that the Father has a different nature than the Son?

Response: No, neither of these problems follows. Allow me to address each separately. First, the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons. And, since the Father is eternal Father, and the Son eternal Son, this manner of relating is likewise eternal.

Second, but can the Father truly have the same nature as the Son when the Father has eternal authority over the Son? Yes, indeed, because “authority” and “submission” do not define or characterize the one and undivided nature that the Father and Son (and Spirit) share fully together, nor should they be thought of as attributes of God, per se. Holiness, wisdom, and power, of course, are attributes of God, and these (and all other) divine attributes are possessed equally by the Father and the Son, since each possesses the same eternal and undivided divine nature. But authority and submission are ways of relating, not attributes of one’s being. Put differently, authority and submission are hypostatic and functional properties pertaining to the persons in relation to one another, not ontological attributes attaching to the one commonly shared divine nature. So, while the Father and Son are fully equal in nature, as each possesses the identically same and eternal divine nature, the Father and Son are also distinctive persons, with person-specific properties that express the ways in which they eternally relate as Father to Son, and Son to Father, including hypostatically distinct paternal authority and hypostatically distinct filial submission.

One caution is needed here. To say that a property of the person of the Son, qua Son before his Father, is to express a hypostatically distinct filial submission to his Father, is not to suggest in the least that his authority over all that is created is any less than the authority of the Father. Since the Persons of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally infinite, uncreated, self-existent, and eternal, while all things otherwise are by nature finite, created, dependent, and temporal, there is no division of authority among the Trinitarian persons over creation. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have equal divine authority over creation, while they also exhibit within the Trinitarian relations the authority and submission appropriate to their mode of subsistence and hypostatic identities.

To conclude, I wish to cite a statement of our position that for decades seems not to have caused quite the stir as we’ve seen in recent weeks. I affirm what I end with, and am grateful for the wisdom, insight, beauty, and biblical fidelity expressed here. May God grant all of us humility and tenacity to seek to know God as he has revealed himself to be.

Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other. The Son appears in the gospels, not as an independent divine person, but as a dependent one, who thinks and acts only and wholly as the Father directs. . . . It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son’s part, and find all His joy in doing His Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven. As in heaven, so on earth, the Son was utterly dependent upon the Father’s will [J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 54-55].

Amen.

Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate

Ware and StarkeToday we are pleased to share the following guest post from Kyle Claunch, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary. Kyle also contributed the essay “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarianism in the Immanent Trinity” in the recent volume edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). This essay was recently quoted by Carl Trueman on the Mortification of Spin site. Here, Kyle offers some clarifications about his essay and its argument, clarifications which dovetail well with yesterday’s post on arbitrating the Trinity debate.

An Attempt at Clarity and Charity Without Compromising Orthodoxy

by Kyle Claunch

If you are reading this, I can only assume that you are current on the debate over the Son’s obedience to the Father (the ERAS debate) that is unfolding at break-neck speed in social media and the blogosphere. When dealing with questions of eternal relations in the Godhead, I fear that the speed demanded by social media and blog posts may result in more confusion than clarity, more heat than light. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of this particular iteration of the debate (the intra-mural battle between fellow reformed complementarians). However, developments this week have drawn me into the fray. I pray my comments here are clear, helpful, pleasing to God, and serve to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a recent blog post, Dr. Albert Mohler defended the orthodoxy of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. I found Mohler’s post to be helpful and demonstrated the appropriate support for two theologians whose work has benefitted the church in countless ways. Two statements made by Mohler are particularly relevant for this post. First, Mohler acknowledges that an affirmation of “separate wills in the Trinity” would be heretical. Second, Mohler asserts that the teachings of Grudem and Ware “do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it.”

Carl Trueman was quick to respond to Mohler’s claim. He noted that he could cite widely respected patristic scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes to demonstrate that indeed the ERAS Trinitarianism of Ware and Grudem is not consistent with Nicene Trinitarianism. Instead, Trueman quoted from my chapter in One God in Three Persons, the book co-edited by Bruce Ware (along with John Starke), as follows (brackets and bold print are in Trueman’s post):

“One often overlooked feature of such a proposal [on eternal submission of Son to Father as articulated by Grudem and Ware] is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity. In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills. This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it. According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity.

By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. The model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons.”

In those two paragraphs, I say two things that seem to conflict with Mohler’s defense of Ware and Grudem: (1) The      ERAS position of Ware and Grudem seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the Trinity and (2) this entailment runs counter to the pro-Nicene tradition.

Only hinted at in the quoted portion above but discussed more fully a few lines later is the fact that the Nicene Creed articulates the eternal distinction between the divine persons in terms of eternal relations of origin – generation and procession. The ERAS model of Ware, Grudem, and others identifies the relationship of authority and submission as that which differentiates the persons within the one divine essence. Furthermore, although Ware and Grudem do not formally reject the language of eternal generation and procession, they have questioned whether the exegetical support from Scripture offered in justification of the Creed’s use of that language does in fact justify the language. To many, this concern over the exegetical basis for the language of relations of origin has been interpreted, unfairly, as a wholesale rejection of Nicene Trinitarianism.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state openly that I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary, where Dr. Mohler is president. You can imagine that I was greatly disquieted by the fact that my published words had been used to discredit the claims of the president of my seminary and the orthodoxy of my supervising professor! My concerns, however, go far deeper than self-interest. In this post, I hope to accomplish three things: (1) Provide clarification on my words and my assessment of the Trinitarian theology of Ware and Grudem; (2) ask two questions of those who wish to label ERAS proponents as heretics (and anyone else who might be interested to consider them); (3) make a final plea concerning charity and equity in theological discourse for the sake of gospel witness, especially in the matter of charging brothers and sisters in Christ with theological error.

Clarification of my assessment of ERAS

While my words were accurately quoted by Trueman, these two brief paragraphs do not tell the whole story of my assessment of the Trinitarian theology held by Ware and Grudem.

I personally do not subscribe to ERAS Trinitarian theology as articulated by Ware and Grudem. In my chapter in One God in Three Persons, “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity?” I lay out my understanding of the correspondence between the obedience of the incarnate Son to the Father and the role relationships of men and women as taught in the New Testament. I still believe that essay represents a fruitful way forward for those who believe that 1 Corinthians 11:3 does indeed establish some connection between gender complementarity and the Trinity but who detect some legitimacy in the trenchant theological critiques of Grudem and Ware.

Because my essay was published as a chapter in a book where many of the authors (Ware and Grudem included) advocate for the terminology of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity, I felt compelled to clarify that my proposal does not advocate the use of such terms. However, in keeping with the overarching theme of the book, my proposal does establish a connection between the obedience of the Son and gender relations, via a robust analogical divide between the incomprehensible Creator and the creation. In clarifying the differences between my proposal and that of Ware, Grudem, and some others, I felt it necessary to explain why I do not find the language of eternal authority and submission to be helpful. That is where the quotation from Trueman comes into play.

While I maintain that three distinct wills in the Godhead does run counter to the established language of the pro-Nicene consensus and the heritage that emerged from it, I have refused to call ERAS proposals heretical for two reasons. First, at the time of writing my essay, it was not entirely clear from the publishing record of Ware or Grudem that they were consciously rejecting the heritage of one will in the Godhead. It seemed plausible that there might be some nuanced explanation for how authority and submission might manifest itself in the Godhead with one will. Indeed I had hopes that my essay in this volume might spark just such a clarifying discussion. Hence, I said that their proposal “seems to entail” a commitment to three distinct wills in the Godhead. In fact, subsequent to the publication of the book, Ware has told me through private correspondence that he holds to one will in the Godhead, each person exercising the one divine will according to his hypostatic identity as Father, Son, or Spirit. I will allow Ware to speak for himself as to how he understands and articulates this.

Second, while I was concerned with the reluctance of some ERAS proponents to fully embrace the creedal language of eternal relations of origin (generation and procession), it seemed to me then, and still does now, that their contention was with the exegetical basis for that language and thus with the adequacy of that language to express clearly the orthodoxy they knew the Creed intended to establish. The council of Nicaea (and later Constantinople) used the language of eternal generation to preserve two non-negotiable truths: (1) the full eternality of the Son who shares fully the divine essence with the Father against the Arians who appealed to the language of generation in Scripture to defend their aberrant views of the Son and (2) the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son so as to avoid the error of modalism. That is, the language of eternal generation preserved the conviction that Paternity and filiation are eternal relations in the immanent being of God, not simply manifestations in the economy. I am fully aware that the doctrine of eternal generation does far more for Trinitarian theology than just to safeguard those cardinal truths, but I think all sides can agree that is the chief end of clinging to the church’s historic affirmation of eternal generation. After my extensive reading of Grudem and Ware and my extensive personal instruction under the teaching of Ware (not to mention a friendship forged in the fires of theological inquiry and pursuit), I knew these men to be tediously careful to articulate the full deity and eternality of the Son and his eternal sonship as Son of the Father from all eternity. Therefore, even if some ERAS proponents continue to express concerns with the exegetical basis of eternal relations of origin, it is unthinkable to me to apply the same “heresy” label to theologians who carefully preserve those cardinal truths as we apply to theologians who explicitly reject those truths. In other words, I cannot consider the likes of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, who raise critical questions about the terminology of “eternal generation,” as occupying the same contemptible theological space as those who reject the eternality and deity of the Son of God, even if I do not share their concerns with the use of the traditional terminology.

Indeed, this is why I wrote the words, “By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories.” I wanted to say that I do not view these theologians as abandoning the fundamental orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Trinity, as established by the first and second ecumenical councils of the church.

Two Questions for Those Making Accusations of Heresy Against Ware and Grudem

 1. Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?

Or, in the case of Ware and Grudem, should we not distinguish between questioning the exegetical basis of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of that tradition? Is there no difference between Arian denials of the full deity of the Son and Grudem’s and Ware’s concerns with the exegetical basis of the terminology of eternal generation/procession? Should no distinction be made between an explicit denial of divine essential unity and a Trinitarian proposal that we fear “seems to entail” three wills in the Godhead? Indeed, this distinction is observed by many who disagree with ERAS Trinitarianism but by no means wish to use the “heresy” label. For example, Luke Stamps argues cogently that a rejection of the eternal relations of origin (generation and procession) is a departure from the language of the Nicene tradition and that “we should be extraordinarily wary of abandoning it.” He goes on to say, “For [proponents of ERAS], the language of rank or order within the Trinity is not tied to relations of origin but to intrinsic relationships of authority and submission, command and obedience. Now, we need to be clear, this is not heresy. But it isn’t quite what the pro-Nicene tradition has handed down to us either” (bold print is my emphasis). Stamps seems to be operating with a conscious distinction between heresy (a rejection of the principle truths of Nicene orthodoxy) and what he perceives to be problematic but lesser departures from the traditional heritage. I find this distinction to be critical to temperate and charitable theological discourse and debate.

So, to those who insist on using the label of heresy to describe the ERAS position, is there not a place in our public discourse for a distinction like this one? If so, then we do well to make such a distinction explicit when charging a brother or sister in Christ with theological error. It would be immensely helpful and would calm the tone of some of the rhetoric if those using the label of heresy would acknowledge that they are not describing a rejection of the eternality/deity of the Son and his eternal filial individuality in relation to the Father. Furthermore, if the distinction is legitimate, it behooves us as Christian brothers and sisters to avoid declaring one another outside the parameters of the Trinitarian theology of the church catholic for articulating an ERAS position.

2. Do the warnings that stem from the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility apply to the language of the Nicene Creed in particular and the creedal tradition in general?

Does the sword of divine incomprehensibility cut both ways in this debate? A recurring accusation against Ware, Grudem, and other proponents of ERAS is that they fail to account for the infinite ontological gap between God as he is in himself and the revelation of God in the economies of creation and redemption. It is argued that Ware and Grudem draw too straight a line between the authority and submission found in created relationships – Jesus to the Father, wives to husbands – and the eternal relations in the Godhead. The critique may be fair, but does the critique apply to those who insist so vehemently on the language of the Creed also? After all, doesn’t the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility demand that we acknowledge that the language of eternal generation and procession is accommodated language drawn from the realm of the human experience of paternity and filiation? The fact that the Nicene Creed painstakingly qualifies the language of generation and procession to indicate that it is not the same as creaturely generation and procession does not mean that the Creedal formula dwells on the other side of the ontological gap between God and creation. Furthermore, does not our confessional and conscientious commitment to the authority of Scripture alone demand that all accommodated language apart from Scripture is subject to scrutiny, critique, and reformulation? I am by no means suggesting that the language of eternal relations of origin needs reformulation. In fact, I believe strongly that no such reformulation is necessary and that the overwhelmingly heavy burden of proof rests on those who believe that it does. But if the accommodated language of the Creed is unassailable under pain of being labeled a heretic and reckoned outside of the church catholic, then are we really taking the doctrines of divine incomprehensibility and Sola Scriptura seriously?

One Final Plea

The clarity of our gospel witness is paramount in this debate as in all things we say and do as Christian theologians, pastors, professors, and disciples. If indeed there is a legitimate distinction between questioning certain words of the Creed and departures from the theological orthodoxy of the creed, then it follows that our greatest vehemence should be reserved for theological ideas that actually undermine the Triune identity of the one true and living God and thus undercut the very foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theological discourse and debate done well builds the church of Jesus Christ and positions her to better withstand the onslaught of satanic ideologies that threaten to erode her foundation, thus destroying her witness. We must be wary that the methods of the old serpent, such as hubris and intemperateness, do not make their way, Trojan horse style, into the ranks of those whom the Lord has placed as watchmen on our walls.

I am not proposing that debate on this topic cease, nor am I suggesting that error falling short of the label of heresy should be tolerated without being refuted. I am, however, suggesting that all proposed theological error should be refuted with charges that approximate the seriousness of the error, no more, no less.

 

 

 

An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate

nicenecreedIn this debate, Stamps and I have been between a rock and a hard place. That is to say, both of us genuinely believe in the importance of affirming Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and clarified not only at Nicaea (325) but also at Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451). We therefore are sympathetic to the criticisms of the views of, say, Wayne Grudem, who casts doubt upon eternal generation and posits EFS (now ERAS) in its place. We take these criticisms seriously because we take Nicene Trinitarianism seriously.

On the other hand, the way these concerns were raised was and is not helpful, either. (I am thinking particularly Liam Goligher’s initial post that compared EFS/ERAS to Islam and insinuated that it is something akin to heresy, but also subsequent posts from others along those same lines.) I will come back to this in a moment, but here I will summarize and say that the rhetorical heat has not often given adequate consideration to the actual content of Grudem et al’s position. Note that this is not just a critique of tone per se, but more importantly a critique of the use of such tone without basis. (As counter examples, see both Fred Sanders and Malcolm Yarnell, who’ve been sympathetic to but also critical of ERAS, all while being fair and even.) I think, therefore, that while I am not satisfied with any ERAS proponents’ response, I also agree with e.g. Dr. Mohler’s call to refrain from using the label of “heresy” or its cognates.

Given these concerns on both sides, how can we all move forward?

1. The ERAS proponents need to take their interlocutors’ historical and biblical challenges seriously.

To be clear, from my perspective, the academic onus in this debate is on ERAS proponents. Contrary to Dr. Grudem’s initial proposal for this doctrine (see his various monographs) and his recent list of past and current theologians that supposedly support his view, a collection of historical and biblical proof texts for one’s position does not a doctrine make. If one reads the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicenes, and if one familiarizes themselves with the secondary literature (of which there is an ever increasing amount of late), it becomes very clear that Michael Haykin’s seemingly prophetic Facebook post from about two months ago, in which he said that “there is not even a whiff of subordination” in the pro-Nicene Trinitarian formulations, is entirely accurate. Further, the subsequent history of interpretation and dogmatic reflection relies on that 4th and 5th century language. And so when we hear “subordination” and “modes of subsistence” in later theologians, including those that Dr. Grudem cites in support, we must realize that they are using terms that originated in the 4th and 5th century debates and were used for very particular purposes, none of which were to speak of a differentiation in authority in the Godhead.

It is therefore not advancing the debate for Dr. Grudem to cite these sources when many of them clearly do not support his view once we consider the historical meaning of the terms, nor is it helpful for others who support ERAS, like Owen Strachan, to simply quote Dr. Grudem’s post and then refer to it as an irrefutable “murderer’s row.” It is also not advancing the debate to simply quote 1 Cor. 11:3 or 15:28, among other texts, as if simply pointing to one or two texts solves the entire issue. These texts have been thoroughly exegeted throughout church history, and not until the twentieth century have they been taken to refer to ERAS within the Christian tradition. I would encourage Dr. Grudem, Dr. Strachan, and others involved to take seriously the challenges made to their position, both on biblical and historical grounds. Additionally, ERAS proponents need also to address the dogmatic implications of their view, and particularly the issue of the unity of the divine will. Until they do, the hit pieces will keep on comin. But in that regard,

2. The ERAS opponents need to tone down the rhetoric and represent their interlocutors accurately.

Remember the 9th commandment, brothers and sisters.

“Heresy,” “heterodoxy,” “division,” and “ordinational revocation,” are very, very serious terms. They should only be used in the most obvious of circumstances. Here many will say, “but this is an obvious circumstance! Grudem et al have attempted to depart from Nicene Christianity!” To which I would say, no, not quite. Yes, it is true that (at least) Grudem has cast doubt upon eternal generation. And yes, it is true that, in its place, he has posited the innovative doctrine of ERAS. And yes, as a matter of historical accuracy, this is a departure from the development of Nicaea to Constantinople and (seemingly) a departure, therefore, from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

But here is where we should be (should have been) overly cautious. It is no small thing to accuse someone of heresy, or of not being a Nicene Christian. So what exactly is Grudem trying to do with this? Is he simply departing from Nicaea, and doing so without much concern for the seriousness of that departure?

Well, he certainly is not attempting to deny the homoousion. In fact, he affirms this wholeheartedly. A more accurate way of describing his project, then, is to say that he is attempting to affirm the spirit of Nicaea and the subsequent Creed, but through different means than eternal generation. He does so because he does not think there is anything in particular in the Bible that demands the affirmation of eternal generation (Grudem’s view is given in his ST, pp. 1233-34).

Now, some may fault him here and say that he has not read the Fathers’ exegetical warrant carefully, or used an appropriate theological method, or any number of other things. But, as Protestants who affirm sola scriptura, we can at least say that he is attempting to honor that confession by being semper reformanda, even if what’s in his sights to reform is the Nicene Creed. Additionally, we can also admit that he is casting doubt upon eternal generation not because he does not want to affirm the homoousion, but precisely because he does, just in what he sees as a more biblically warranted way.

This is not high-handed heresy. This is not even heresy per se, since it does not match any historical position. And it is not even “denying Nicaea,” because what Grudem is trying to do is affirm the Nicene Creed in what he considers to be a biblically faithful way. Now, I don’t really know what to call all that, but it is not heresy. It is not anti-Nicene, at least in spirit if not in letter. It is not something that automatically demands division among Christians, or among evangelicals more particularly.

So, what is the solution?

3. The answer to this Trinity debate is not division but sustained, charitable dialogue and disputation.

The truth is that if we really boil this down to what’s underneath it all, we’ll come up with two opposing methods. On the ERAS side, Grudem et al are biblicists. They want to see you prove a doctrine from the text and from the text alone, and if you cannot do it then they will not believe it. (That is an attitude that this Baptist can definitely appreciate!) On the non-ERAS side, there is a confessional hermeneutic informed by not just exegesis of individual passages but also the history of interpretation and creeds and confessions. As those who affirm sola Scriptura, the Bible always takes prime place in doctrinal authority. But there is also a derivative authority given to creeds and confessions, one that is reflective of the Bible’s content and therefore helps Bible readers to understand it.

Given this large methodological gap, the non-ERAS camp cannot expect to yell “heresy” or “non-Nicene” and see any results. If you were to charge Wayne Grudem with heresy (which, isn’t it ironic that this doctrinal lawsuit is being carried out by crossing ecclesial lines), or even with some lesser charge related to this teaching, what effect would that have? He does not approach defining heresy in the same way a confessional reader would. For Grudem, heresy is departing from the Bible, not the Creed per se. Now, one might respond and say the Creeds are reflective of the Bible, and that may be so (I believe that it is so). But my point is that, if Grudem thinks at some point the Creeds are not reflective of Scripture, he does not deem it heresy to find alternative means of getting to the spirit of the Creed’s confession.

Again, the answer, therefore, is not division but dialogue – even debate and disputation – but within the ranks of those committed to the absolute truthfulness of Scripture and the importance of historic orthodoxy. Yes, I would agree with non-ERAS proponents that the burden is on ERAS proponents to prove their view is biblical and historical. And yes, I find more affinity with a confessional hermeneutic than a biblicist one. And so yes, I would hope the fruit of this dialogue and debate would be non-ERAS proponents helping ERAS proponents to see the gaps in their exegesis, their theological method, and their understanding of the Christian tradition. Of course, an ERAS proponent would tell me it’s the other way around, and that I need to rethink my exegesis, my method, and my historical understanding.

But that is precisely what is needed – for us to talk to each other, not past one another.

 

A Summarized Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

Some have asked that I summarize my earlier post defending eternal generation and arguing against ERAS, and do so by sticking primarily to exegetical and biblical theological arguments. I want to say at the outset that none of what I say below is without deep, deep roots in the historical tradition, nor is it my own ingenuity (not a shock to those that know me well). It is, rather, reliance on the history of interpretation without the footnotes. See my earlier post for those. I should also say that this will be relatively brief; all of the harder stuff has been covered for 1600 years. In any case, here it goes.

1. One God in Three Persons

We have to take a step back before jumping right in to eternal generation and/or eternal submission to see how we get to affirming the Trinity in the first place. The twin biblical affirmations that there is one God (Deut. 6:4) and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each equally God because they share titles (Lord, God, Almighty, etc.), attributes (power, wisdom, etc.), and actions (creation, salvation) have to be reconciled. When we couple this with the radical distinction we see in Scripture between Creator and creature, there is no “mediatorial” option for Son and Spirit. Because they equally share in divine titles, actions, and attributes, and because there is no such category as a mediatorial being in the biblical worldview, the Bible demands acknowledging that these three are equally God while also acknowledging that there is only one God.

2. John 5:26 and “Life in Himself”

The question at this point, of course, is exactly how these three persons are distinct persons while also being one God. The testimony of Scripture is that they share equally in the essence of God – what makes God God is his essence, which is his authority, power, will, goodness, mercy, holiness, etc. So, for instance, Father and Son share equally in the creation and therefore in their authority over that creation (e.g. Col. 1:15-18). How, then, are they distinguished? Texts like John 5:26 give us a good start. The Father has life in itself, and gives the Son life in himself.

It is clear from the context that the Son is speaking of his equality with the Father in his divinity (namely in the actions of judging and raising the dead). Even if, though we want to say that he is expressing in this context how these characteristics work themselves out in his incarnate state, John 5:26 is set within the larger context of comparing the Father and the Son’s divinity. Further the phrase “life in itself” is hard to maneuver toward the incarnation. If this were referring to the incarnation, the text would be saying that the same kind of life the Father has, is now given to the Son in his becoming incarnate. How is that so? What exactly would it mean for the Father’s divine life to be the same as the Son’s incarnate life? It would make more sense, especially given the context, to say that the Father has life in himself – a characteristic that is only true of God – and has given the Son life in himself. The Father here communicates what it means to be God to the Son. 

3. Proverbs 8 and the Father’s Begotten Wisdom

Proverbs 8:22-31 is notoriously difficult, especially for modern readers. But when we think canonically, it becomes a bit clearer. Christ is clearly identified as the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and, synonymously, the Word or Logos of God (John 1:1-13). He is the one through whom the Father creates (Col. 1:15-18). For Prov. 8:22-31 to be speaking of anyone but the Son, therefore, would make little sense of this New Testament usage. Further, for the Father in Proverbs 8 to have some wisdom other than the Son would make little sense, either. We thus have to deal with Proverbs 8:22-31 that makes sense of how God can “birth” his Wisdom before time began and therefore before he actually creates anything. Now, with John 5 and Proverbs 8, we have two texts that give us “generating” language to speak of the relationship between Father and Son.

4. Names: Father, Son, and Spirit

Perhaps even more importantly than individual texts is the pattern of texts we see throughout Scripture, a pattern that consistently names these three as Father, Son, and Spirit. This points not only to their triunity but to the way that triunity exists, namely through a Father-Son-Spirit relationship. Now here we have to make a choice. What does it mean for their to be a Father-Son relationship? And this really is the rub. Does it mean, as the tradition has consistently argued, that the Father begets, or generates the Son? Certainly this is true of the analogy the language is using, human fatherhood and sonship. A son is typically a son through receiving his human essence via the father’s generation. But, on the other hand, another characteristic of many father/son relationships is that of authority and submission (so, today’s ERAS camp). So, how do we choose between the two? While I could give you the historical logic here (which, btw, did not include ERAS as an option), I’ll stick with my biblical guns and go to a particular text.

5. Phil. 2:5-11 and the “Form of God”/Form of a Servant” Pattern

Phil. 2:5-11 gives us explicit language with which to deal with not only passages that seemingly subordinate the Son, but also with how to adjudicate what Father/Son means by ruling out the ERAS option. This passage begins by noting that Jesus, prior to his incarnation, was “in the form of God.” This is not saying the Son was some sort of demigod, or lesser than God, but that he was in his essence, his form, truly God. Prior to his economic work of salvation as most fully seen in his incarnation, the Son is to be spoken of as in the “form of God.” But when he becomes incarnate, he takes on the “form of a servant.” Notice here that the point at which the Son becomes a servant – becomes submissive -to the Father, is at the incarnation.

Now, we have to of course deal with the eternal decree and, perhaps, the pactum salutis, but if we think of these as conditional, and not necessary, actions in God’s life – in other words, God didn’t have to save us and so his choice to do so is not fundamental to his eternal nature – then it is clear that the submission of the Son belongs to God’s life in the economy of salvation, his action of redemption, and not prior to it. There is no submission of the Son prior to his work of redemption. Therefore when we see texts that talk of Christ’s (or, in 1 Cor. 15:28’s unique case, the Son’s) submission (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3), Paul in Phil. 2:5-11 gives us the exegetical key. These passages are not, according to the “form of God”/”form of a servant” pattern in Phil. 2:5-11, speaking of the Son’s eternal life with the Father but of his submission to the Father in the economy of salvation.

There are of course more issues that need to be discussed here. I’m not trying to cover them all; Luke and I have attempted some of that in the many posts we’ve written over the last three weeks. But that’s about as succinct a summary I can give for the biblical case for eternal generation (and against ERAS).

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.

The Trinity Debate: Where Do We Stand?

So after a few weeks of online wrangling, where do we stand on the great Trinity debate within the ranks of evangelical complementarianism? I’ll try to be brief here, since much electronic “ink” has been spilt over this issue already. As I see it, there are three main problems with the eternal functional subordination (EFS) view:

  1. The eternal relations of origin. Some on the EFS side have denied or else refused to affirm the eternal relations of origin: the ingenerateness of the Father, the eternal generation of the Son, and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit. Historically, these relations of personal origin are the only distinctions we can draw between the divine persons in their inner life as God. The Athanasian Creed gives us the classical expression of these eternal relations:

    The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

    These relations, and these alone, distinguish the three divine persons. All other properties are shared equally and eternally by all three. There is numerically one divine essence, but there are three modes of subsistence (i.e., ways of existing, in accordance with the relations of origin) within this one divine essence. One of the problems with EFS, at least in some of its expressions, is that it seems ambivalent about these traditional distinctions. But when we abandon these time-tested categories, we need something else to put in their place. Hence, eternal relations(hips) of authority and submission. According to some EFS proponents, these relationships and these alone distinguish the divine persons–not the supposedly more abstract and obscure eternal relations of origin. For his part, Wayne Grudem has expressed an openness to being convinced of eternal generation, and it is clear that he believes that the Father-Son relation is eternal and necessary. So it should also be clear that he is neither Arian nor Homoian. But still, the tradition from the fourth century on has been quite clear on what is meant by the eternal processions: generation and spiration simply connote origin. The Son has his mode of subsistence in the divine essence from the Father. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has his mode of subsistence in the divine essence from the Father and the Son. This is the language of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. This is the language embraced by Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Bavinck. Most importantly, this is language that renders the same judgments about God as the patterns of biblical language. So we should be extraordinarily wary of abandoning it.

  2. The unity of the divine will. If there are eternal relationships of authority and submission within the inner life of God, wouldn’t this necessitate distinct personal wills? How can one person submit to the will of another unless the two possess discrete volitional equipment, as it were? A similar problem attends the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of redemption, it seems to me (although we need to make some careful distinctions here; EFS seems to be teaching a necessary, ad intra submission, while the covenant of redemption posits an eternal but ad extra and freely willed submission). Perhaps there are ways to get around this difficulty. Perhaps we can speak of there being distinct applications or expressions of the numerically singular divine will–applications that flow from the eternal relations of origin. To my knowledge no EFS proponents have explicitly posited three divine wills, but this is a problem all sides need to wrestle with. How can we speak of relations of love and shared glory and eternal decrees within the one divine nature? What are the implications of this debate for the volitional life of God and, downstream from here, for the volitional life of the incarnate Christ? Still and all, the pro-Nicene Fathers (and subsequent orthodoxy) were clear that there is in God one will, one power, one rule, and one authority (see Steve Holmes for ample evidence of this). In my estimation, models of the immanent Trinity (or even of the ad extra covenant of redemption) that create intractable problems for the unity of the divine will are more trouble than they are worth.
  3. The equal authority of the three divine persons. This is the real rub with EFS, it seems to me. Perhaps all EFS proponents will come around on the eternal relations of origin. Perhaps they are already prepared to affirm the unity of the divine will in the nuanced way suggested above. But the question remains: is there an eternal, necessary hierarchy in the ad intra relations of the triune God? This seems to be what EFS proponents are insisting on. So is this view biblical? Is it in line with the great creedal affirmations of the church? It all depends on what one means by “authority.” Opponents of EFS need to be clear: the orthodox tradition has not infrequently used the language of order, rank, principle, origin, authority, even subordination. But until recent decades, this language was always understood with reference to the eternal relations of originnot with reference to ad intra relationships of command and obedience. So, by my lights, there is an undeniable novelty to the ways in which EFS proponents speak of authority within the Godhead. For them, the language of rank or order within the Trinity is not tied to relations of origin but to intrinsic relationships of authority and submission, of command and obedience. Now, we need to be clear, this is not heresy. But it isn’t quite what the the pro-Nicene tradition has handed down to us either. The problem I see with defining the Father’s authority in terms of his command over the Son and Spirit is that it seems to imply that the Father stands in a higher position of authority over us than the Son or the Spirit does. If the Father’s authority is greater than the Son’s, then is the Son’s authority over us lesser than the Father’s? Further, isn’t authority, like power and sovereignty, an attribute of the divine nature? Again, the only property that distinguishes Father and Son is the opposing relation of ingenerateness to eternal generation. To take authority out of the shared divine essence, as it were, and to load it up into the personal relation of the Father over the Son and Spirit is a novelty and one with problematic implications (for divine unity, divine simplicity, etc.).

There are other issues besides–issues related to methodology, exegesis, social implications, etc. But as I see it, these are the major theological issues before us in this EFS debate. As we have tried to make clear on this blog from the beginning, it is eminently unhelpful to throw around heresy accusations flippantly. There are some interesting and important questions about Nicene orthodoxy in this debate, especially related to the eternal processions. But all sides are affirming both the essential unity and the eternal distinctions of the divine persons. So let’s have this debate with candor but also with charity, with honesty but also with patience. I agree with the assessment of Albert Mohler on this front: “This is a time for cool heads, fraternal kindness, and clear thinking — and for all of us, a good dose of both historical theology and theological humility.”