Is There an Application in this Text?

No.

Or at least, if what we mean by “application” is “something practical,” then the answer is often, “no, not immediately so.”

I was listening to the radio this morning and there was an ad for some kind of art foundation. The tag line was “art works.”

No it doesn’t. Art isn’t supposed to “work.” It’s not supposed to be immediately practical. Neither is theology or the Bible many times, for that matter. That’s because the arts are not supposed to be “practical.” They’re of a higher order, one that’s job (yes I’m using that ironically) is to point us to the true, good, and beautiful or how we’ve rebelled against it.

Of course, the Bible is transformational. Scripture’s purpose is to point us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father, and in seeing the Son we are transformed into his image (see 2 Cor. 3:17-18). In this sense every text is applicable, because every text calls us to respond to Christ in faith, whether for the first time or for our continued sanctification. But this is not the same thing as “practical.”

I’m afraid in our thinking on preaching, theology, art, and a whole host of other issues we have been taken in by that distinctly American philosophy, pragmatism. The truth of something is known through its usefulness and the results it engenders. This just isn’t the same as contemplating God for who he is and being transformed into his image.

None of this is an excuse for theologians to keep their heads in the clouds and ignore their ecclesial-rooted calling and audience. But it is to say that I think that many calls for theology to be made “practical” are many times influenced more by pragmatism than by a proper understanding of the role of theology (and the rest of the arts).

The Vincentian Rule and Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus

“[Which has been believed] everywhere, always, by all.”

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Vincent of Lérins’ famous 5th century maxim regarding what beliefs should be properly regarded as “catholic” (that is, to be confessed by all Christians) is commonly used to support or deny one doctrine or another. In Justin Bass’ monograph, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), he makes the argument that “Jesus Christ between his death and resurrection, by means of his soul, descended into the underworld in triumph for purposes that at least in the NT, are open for debate” (2). (The three purposes are “preaching tour, releasing the saints of the Old Testament, and a triumphant defeat of death and Hades,” 2.)

Interestingly, his first chapter is an implicit appeal to the Vincentian Rule, as he repeatedly notes how universally accepted this doctrine was in the early church, and indeed until the 15th century. A few choice quotes in that regard:

Whether the phrase descendit ad inferna was added [to the Apostles’ Creed in the late 4th or early 5th c.] to fight against Apollinarianism or not, it is clear from the Fathers’ writings, beginning with Ignatius, that they all believed that Christ descended into the underworld between his death and resurrection (7).

And:

“If we apply the external canons of textual criticism to the doctrine of the Descensus, then we will discover that it is very ancient (Ignatius AD 98-117; Marcion; Irenaeus’ presbyter), geographically widespread (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus of Lyons, Irenaeus’ presbyter, Justin Martyr, Marcion of Pontus, etc.) and therefore should be seen as bearing witness to the teaching of the autographs (the Apostles). Regardless of how imaginative the understanding of the Descensus becomes in the later centuries, the historical core of threefold purpose of Christ’s descent: preaching, releasing the saints of the OT, and triumphant defeat of Death and Hades is one of the best attested Christian doctrines from the second century (11, emphasis mine).

And finally:

…Zwingli’s Zurich colleague Leo Jud (AD 1482-1542) in a 1534 catechism and Martin Bucer (AD 1491-1551) were the first to argue that the Descensus meant merely that Christ descended to the grave (burial) and thus rejecting this doctrine of a literal descent after fifteen centuries of the church affirming it. … Plumptre rightly says, “We may quite sure that no Jew or Greek in the apostolic age would ever have thought that the words ‘He descended into Hades’ meant only that the body of Christ had been laid in the grave, or that His soul had suffered with an exceeding sorrow in Gethsemane on the cross.” … To equate the Descensus with Christ’s burial was nothing more than a pre-Bultmannian attempt to demythologize the NT text because Bucer and those who followed him could no longer accept an underworld beneath the earth (18, emphasis mine).

If we are going to use the Vincentian Rule as a case for orthodoxy, then it is fascinating how radically Protestants have departed from one of the most well attested and widely accepted doctrines of the early church.

(If you are interested in an historical and exegetical case for the descensus from a Protestant perspective, I cannot recommend more highly Bass’ book.)

Angelic Bodies, Human Bodies, and the Intermediate State

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I have just finished Paul Griffith’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco: Baylor, 2014). In it his aim is to explicate the novissimum, or last thing, of all creatures, animate (angelic, human, animals) and inanimate (plants, rocks, etc.). While there is much to commend and to critique, my purpose for reading is my continued research on Christ’s descent to the dead. And although, as Griffiths notes, the intermediate state is not properly a novissimum, it is intricately connected to each creature’s last thing and so he deals with it in this book, albeit more briefly than other topics.

Other than mapping the options for those persons in the intermediate state (heaven, hell, and purgatory [Griffiths is Roman Catholic]), the other main concern of Griffith’s chapter on this issue is to describe “the intermediate state . . . [and] the nature and capacities of the soul therein, understood as a kind of body, and as the only trace of the human remaining in the incarnate state” (178, emphasis mine). I highlight that middle phrase because it is my particular concern with the descensus: how can we speak of Christ’s soul descending to the dead, and in what way(s) is his own “intermediate state” instructive for understanding ours? Griffiths provides one avenue for answering those questions by arguing that disincarnate souls have bodies.

He bases this point on his understanding of both angels and timespace. Of angels, Griffiths says,

If the created order is by definition spatio-temporal, and if the LORD is by definition not, then angels, being creatures, must be located firmly within the created order, and that is best done by clarity about their spatio-temporality and (therefore) the fact that they are bodies. … We must say, if we are to think with the church, that angels lack bodies if by “body” is meant a solid, fleshly body like that of animals, including humans (angels are not incarnate; they have no caro; we must also say that they lack bodies if by that is meant the continuous extension in space of aggregated inanimate matter (angels are not in this way like rocks or bodies of water). We must also say that they are not eternal (angels are not the LORD), which is the same as to say that they are part of the created order, and thus temporal in some sense, and that they can, again in some sense, occupy or appear in space. And if spatio-temorality implies body…then there must be a sense in which angels have bodies, or are embodied (120-21, emphasis mine).

This is a foundational truth for Griffiths (and indeed, for the Tradition) – the Creator/creature divide means only God is unbound by space and time. Angels must, therefore, be located within timespace (even if it is in a different manner than other creatures), and this entails having a body of some sort. Griffiths goes on to describe angels as “permanently disincarnate animate bodies,” and says this about them:

 … In ordinary English usage, terms like “body,” “flesh,” “matter,” and “mass” are not clearly distinguished, and we affirm the existence of many kinds of thing (electrons and quarks, for instance) whose capacity for spatio-temporal location is very unlike that of enfleshed animate bodies. … “Body” names capacity for spatio-temporal location, and thus for availability and responsiveness to other creatures with spatio-temporal location…. Bodies come, however, in many kinds.

In other words, all creatures have bodies of some sort, precisely because they are creaturely – they are located in timespace. But there are different kinds of bodies. To speak in logical terms, all creatures are embodied, but not all creatures are enfleshed. “Flesh” is a subset of “body.” Continuing in this vein, Griffiths says that,

Angelic bodies, according to this definition [located in timespace], have mass, but not, or not necessarily, matter. … “Mass” … names, in the discourse of physics, a body’s resistance to acceleration by force acting upon it (inertial mass), and its gravitational attraction to other bodies (gravitational mass). These may be properties of bodies without matter, which is to say bodies consisting only of energy … [T]o speak of a body’s mass, then, is another way of speaking about its availability and responsiveness to other bodies, without necessarily attributing to them the weight and aggregated extension in space characteristic of animate fleshly bodies. Angelic bodies, I should think (in this like the bodies of the separated souls), are bodies whose mass is immaterial… (122).

In other words, angels are embodied much like quarks and electrons are embodied, albeit as animate rather than inanimate.

The key phrase for my purposes is “in this like the bodies of the separated souls,” for in his chapter on the intermediate state, Griffiths explicitly compares again the permanently disincarnate animate bodies of angels with the temporarily disincarnate animate bodies of souls that have been separated from their fleshly body by death. In other words, according to Griffiths, separated souls exist as embodied and locatable, albeit in a different type of embodiment than the one they experienced prior to their death in their fallen enfleshed existence and than the one they will experience at the general resurrection of the dead and their subsequent novissimum.

Where are they? Griffiths says,

Asking where they are in this sense is like asking where an electron is at the moment: a malformed question. The best answer to it is that they are, disincarnately, more or less intimate, depending on their state – those in hell very much less, those in heaven very much more – with the locus-tempus that is the LORD (181).

This understanding of both spatio-temporality and of angels and separated human souls as “bodies,” albeit unenfleshed ones, has obvious implications for both our understanding of the intermediate state and of Christ’s descent. I am still working through the ramifications but nonetheless found Griffiths’ approach worthy of attention.

Blog Name Change

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So the three of us have decided to change the name of the blog. It’s been a long time coming I guess. “Secundum Scripturas” (Latin for “according to the Scriptures”) has served us well over the years as a call to remember the foundational role of Scripture in all of our theologizing. But, alas, it is a Latin phrase. And while I’m tempted to quote Max Fischer (“Is Latin dead?”), we felt like the switch to an English title would help our less Latin-inclined readers and those with whom they might share our posts.

I suppose we could have just translated the phrase and called the blog, “According to the Scriptures.” That would have captured some of the emphases of the blog. But we are also keen to explore here the intersection of biblical interpretation, on the one hand, and dogmatic theology, on the other. So we decided to adopt the title “Biblical Reasoning” to capture both sides of this project. For those who are familiar with the writings of the late John Webster, you will recognize this phrase as the title of one of his most influential essays. First published in the Anglican Theological Review (90:4) and then in The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), Webster’s essay seeks to articulate a vision of Christian theology that locates both Scripture and theological reasoning in the context of the divine economy: God’s redemptive and revelatory activity in the Son and the Spirit. In this understanding, Christian theology “has its origin in the Spirit-sustained hearing of the divine Word,” which in turn prompts “the rational contemplation and articulation of God’s communicative presence,” on the part of the created, fallen, and redeemed intellect.

We do not claim to speak for Webster or his legacy, but we have been profoundly influenced by the framework he has articulated for a truly theological interpretation of Scripture. The phrase “biblical reasoning,” then, expresses in plain terms what we aspire to here: using our created and redeemed rational capacities to contemplate and elucidate the revelation of the triune God in Holy Scripture.

The domain name secundumscripturas.com will not change. So there is no need to update RSS feeds or anything like that. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more reflections on biblical and systematic theology, which we hope will still be, by God’s grace and as far as we are able, “according to the Scriptures.”

#NeverTrump – Responding to Wayne Grudem

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via nevertrump.org

Yesterday Wayne Grudem posted his argument that Donald Trump is a “good candidate with flaws,”  that voting for Trump is a “morally good choice,” and that abstaining from voting for Trump is handing the White House to Hillary Clinton. Notice that there are basically two lines of reasoning: that Donald Trump is a good candidate, and that not voting for Trump is a vote for Hillary Clinton, effectively allowing her to become President. I’ll deal with both of these in reverse order.

1. Not voting for Trump is handing the White House to Hillary Clinton, which would be a disaster. 

Grudem says that he is writing,

because I doubt that many “I can’t vote for Trump” Christians have understood what an entirely different nation would result from Hillary Clinton as president, or have analyzed in detail how different a Trump presidency would be.

He goes on to note that the Supreme Court, via Clinton’s nominations, abortion laws, religious liberty, Christian businesses and colleges, and our ability to dissent would be adversely affected by a Clinton presidency. Given this scenario, Grudem’s conclusion is that

But the most likely result of not voting for Trump is that you will be abandoning thousands of unborn babies who will be put to death under Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court, thousands of Christians who will be excluded from their lifelong occupations, thousands of the poor who will never again be able to find high-paying jobs in an economy crushed by government hostility toward business, thousands of inner-city children who will never be able to get a good education, thousands of the sick and elderly who will never get adequate medical treatment when the government is the nation’s only healthcare provider, thousands of people who will be killed by an unchecked ISIS, and millions of Jews in Israel who will find themselves alone and surrounded by hostile enemies. And you will be contributing to a permanent loss of the American system of government due to a final victory of unaccountable judicial tyranny.

I share many of Grudem’s worries about a Hillary Clinton Presidency, especially with respect to the Supreme Court, religious liberty, and abortion. While I think his rhetoric about liberal government is exaggerated, and unfortunately gives the impression  that all political positions are equally clear and explicit in the Bible such that a Christian supporting fiscally liberal policies is as unthinkable as a Christian supporting abortion, I do think he is right that Clinton’s extreme views on abortion, combined with her tepid (at best) support of religious liberty, do not bode well for the future of our country, particularly when it comes to the Supreme Court. I am #NeverHillary…but I’m still just as much #NeverTrump.

2. “Trump is a morally good choice, and a good candidate with flaws.”

Given this agreement that a Clinton presidency probably promises a grim future, why don’t I agree with the parallel line of Grudem’s analysis, that we must therefore vote for Trump?

Let me begin by saying this: I really can’t blame anyone for how they vote in this election, given how bad our choices are. As I’ve said many times, vote your conscience. If you conscience leads you to believe that, regardless of who is the GOP candidate, Hillary Clinton must be stopped, then that is your prerogative. (And the reverse is also true, by the way.) But if we are going to make that argument, we need to do so without papering over the very real problems – ones equally morally problematic to Clinton’s, albeit different ones – with Donald Trump. Unfortunately this is what Grudem does when he calls Trump a good candidate and voting for him a “morally good choice.”

Grudem seems to rely on two basic arguments: Trump has character flaws, but most of the criticism he has received is a function of the liberal media out to get him; and Trump’s policies are better for the American people.

Regarding the latter, we need to be clear: Trump himself has not articulated a shred of policy, other than  “I’m going to build a wall” and “I’ll bring back torture and kill the families of terrorists.” Well, I guess there’s more: he’s going to back out of NAFTA, which will somehow solve our economic problems (it won’t; it’s not even close to enough money) and he’s not going to honor our NATO agreements. He also doesn’t have a basic knowledge of the Constitution (when asked if he’d defend Article I of the Constitution, he said “I’ll defend Article One, Article Twelve, I’ll defend the Constitution”; there are only seven articles). Any policy on his webpage is almost assuredly not written by him, and he has demonstrated no knowledge of how to govern or articulate policy. I’ve watched virtually every debate and many of Trump’s press conferences, and this is obvious for those who listen to the man talk. I’m not talking how FoxNews spins it in Trump’s favor, I’m talking about listening to the actual words that come out of the man’s mouth. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Many have responded to this by saying that he’ll surround himself by good people who do know what they’re talking about, but by Trump’s own admission he doesn’t admit that he’s wrong and doesn’t say he’s sorry. When Mike Pence, who tucked tail and ran as soon as big business came after him on the Indiana RFRA, tells him he’s wrong on something, are we really supposed to believe that Trump, who’s spent his life as a strong man, really will listen to anyone else?

Further, how are we to know that Trump will actually govern conservatively once in office? Grudem asks this question, and immediately brushes it of because no one else in Presidential history has governed by doing a 180 on their candidacy’s platform. But I think we can all agree that we’ve never seen a candidate like The Donald. Further, Donald held liberal views  on abortion, guns, governmental oversight, among other things, as recently as right before he announced his candidacy. He has actively supported the Clintons, President Obama, Mike Bloomberg, etc. until right before his candidacy. Are we to expect that a man who says he’s never wrong and that has exhibited a penchant for saying what needs to be said to please people, has actually turned from beliefs he’s held his entire life?

In any case, policy and flip flopping aren’t really the issue here. The main problem with Grudem’s post is that he calls Trump a “morally good choice” and a “good candidate with flaws.” He intimates that Trump mostly just gets a bad rap by the liberal media, and that, although he’s brash, he’s not as bad as it seems.

I say this with the utmost respect for Dr. Grudem, who has helped me tremendously in my Christian life – this is simply incorrect. Grudem has, for reasons I do not know, papered over the very real, serious moral problems with Trump’s candidacy.

Let’s start with a favorite axiom of conservatives, at least since the Clinton years: “character matters.” Trump has painted a dishonest picture about his business acumen. He has ramrodded people with his business scams, especially Trump University. He is a womanizer, and one who’s businesses include a strip club. He has mocked a journalist for having a disability. He repeatedly stoops to the level of conspiracy theories, shouting people down when they’re talking, and playground tactics on Twitter when he’s challenged. In other words, he acts immaturely when faced with opposition. He is not just a candidate with some moral indiscretions. He’s a bad candidate, and he’s not just flawed, he’s morally bankrupt. If “character matters” applied to Bill Clinton, then surely it applies to Donald Trump.

But wait, there’s more. Trump isn’t just personally bankrupt; his campaign is built on appealing to implicitly racist ideas. He has implied that all illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. He has used implicitly white supremacist language and images, repeatedly retweeted white supremacists on Twitter, and been reticent to disavow white supremacist leaders. Those such as David Duke, a former Klan leader and known white supremacist, say Trump’s convention speech – one filled with vitriolic language about immigrants, Muslims, and other “others” – is exactly what he would have said. Further, his reliance on “law and order” as a speech slogan pulls on a well-known race-baiting dog whistle. “Law and order” has many times been used as racial code for “put all the blacks and browns back in their place.” If you don’t believe me, look it up; Richard Nixon and George Wallace both famously used it in their campaigns. Trump’s campaign relies on race-baiting and fear-mongering about those who are different than his almost entirely white, predominantly male support base.

And finally, Trump is a strong man. He has called for *and stood by* killing the families of terrorists. In other words, he’s advocated repeatedly for killing women and children in war. That is a war crime. He has advocated expanding torture.  He has called for Russia to hack Clinton and the FBI. That is the definition of sedition.  (Some claim he was joking; when put in context with other statements that dismiss things like the Geneva Convention, I highly doubt that.) He has also praised the leadership of Putin, and recently was non-committal on whether or not Russia was wrong in their military action against Crimea. He has vaguely threatened the Speaker of the House when he was reticent to support Trump as the nominee. He has threatened the press and withheld their credentials repeatedly. He said repeatedly in his campaign speech that he “alone can fix it!” This is not democracy, it is authoritarianism.

Now, someone might say, but he’s just joking, or being hyperbolic, etc. The problem is that, even if that were true, when we peel back the rhetoric to the points being made we still get the same character issues and immaturity in the face of opposition, the same race-baiting, and the same strong-man style of leadership.

Again, I understand the problems with Clinton. I even understand how someone might say that they feel morally obligated to stop her from entering the White House. But let’s not do so by painting an inaccurate picture of Trump, and let’s not do so in such a way that calls into question the moral fortitude of those who abstain from voting for him or even voting to stop him.

On Removing the Descent Clause from the Creeds

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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

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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.

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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.