The Trinity and Theological Method

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve most likely seen the debates on the blogosphere and social media about something called the “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son and God the Spirit to God the Father, or, alternatively, “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). To my knowledge and in my reading, the former is posited by the likes of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, while the latter is a phrase used by Owen Strachan  and Gavin Peacock in their new book on complementarianism. These theologians believe Scripture teaches that the Son (and, by extension, the Spirit) eternally submits to the Father. This submission therefore occurs not only in the act of salvation, and particularly in the incarnation, but in the inner life of God as he has existed from eternity. In Ware, Grudem, and Strachan’s understanding, this relationship is what distinguishes the three persons of God; they are all equally God in essence, but differ from one another as persons through how they relate to one another, and particularly in the Son and Spirit’s submission to the Father.

It is no secret that this is a departure from the traditional means of distinguishing between the persons; Ware and Grudem cast doubt upon the traditional doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit (I do not know where Strachan is on this). In the Christian Tradition, and in fourth century pro-Nicene theology, the pro-Nicene theologians, like Ware et al., affirmed that the three persons are homoousios – that is, they each share in the one divine essence. But unlike Ware et al., instead of distinguishing between the persons via relations of submission and authority (an idea to which the Fathers were allergic, to say the least), the pro-Nicene theologians argued that the persons are distinguished via their eternal relations of origin. The Father eternally begets, or generates, the Son, and the Father and Son (in the Western tradition) both spirate, or process, the Spirit. This is eternal, so it is not the same as creation, and it is a communication of the divine essence, not a creation of a new god or a hierarchical relationship where one turns into three. Both Ware and Grudem posit EFS as a more clear, biblical means of distinguishing between the persons, rather than through eternal relations of origin.

All of this has been summarized far better and far more clearly elsewhere; I’d recommend Darren Sumner’s post for a more detailed summary of the issue. My point here is not to provide more of the same but instead to bring to light a point that I think has been overlooked. Owen, in his rejoinder this morning, asked that we “reaffirm Scripture as our authority and avoid a New Scholasticism,” because, ” philosophy and history must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology.” Amen to that. I am not sure if Owen is here saying that proponents of the traditional distinctions between the persons are relying on philosophy and history instead of exegesis and theology, or if he is merely cautioning all of us going forward. In any case, he is right that exegesis and scripturally-derived theology, for Protestants, always trumps history and philosophy. But there is more to be said on this point.

First, the pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries were profoundly biblical in their doctrinal formulations. If you’ve read Athanasius or the Cappadocians or Cyril or Augustine you will know that when they talk about, say, the eternal relations of origin, or the taxis of the Trinitarian persons, they do so under the assumption that what they say must be derived from Scripture. Further, they do so with particular theological assumptions in place, namely, that the scriptures have a particular shape, or economy, to them that dictates how we read passages that speak about the Son. Does a passage refer to the Son in his humanity, or in his divinity? This is not an a-scriptural assumption; the Fathers took care to show that this “rule” is a scriptural one (e.g. their use of Phil. 2:5-11). So when Owen says exegesis and theology rule the day, I say “Amen!” But I also want to note that so did the Fathers, and so do modern day defenders of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity.

The second point worth mentioning here is the relationship between exegesis, theology, and history. While the former two are most certainly the norma normans non normata, history and tradition  cannot and should not be merely cast aside – yes, even for us Protestant evangelical Baptists. The weight of tradition should at the very least give us pause in our hermeneutical endeavors when we think that exegeting a single passage, or a handful of them, can overturn almost two millennia of doctrinal teaching, and particularly when that teaching relates to theology proper and historic Trinitarian orthodoxy.


10 thoughts on “The Trinity and Theological Method

  1. Some snippets from a paper I wrote last year, which I think give us grounds for at least questioning the patristic formulation of EG:

    While Athanasius’ favorite text in support of the doctrine was Proverbs 8:25, Justin Martyr understood Proverbs 8:22 to be speaking of the Son’s generation–not his incarnation. He describes the Logos coming forth as the first of God’s creative acts. He then proceeds to recite vv. 22-25: “And it is written in the book of Wisdom: ‘…The Lord created me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He formed the earth, and before He made the depths, and before the springs of waters came forth, before the mountains were settled; He begets me before all the hills.’” He concludes that “the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created.” (Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 264.)

    Tertullian explains, “There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus in Hebrew: ‘In the beginning God made for Himself a Son.’ As there is no ground for this, I am led to other arguments derived from God’s own dispensation, in which *He [God the Father] existed before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the Son. For before all things God was alone—being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him but Himself.*” (Tertullian, “Against Praxeas,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 600 emphasis added.) He goes on to say, “He [God the Father] make [sic] Him [God the Son] equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things.” (Ibid., 601).

    Irenaeus understands Isaiah 53:8 to speak of the Son’s ineffable generation from the Father, though he did not express it eternally: “As for the prophet, he declares respecting Him, ‘Who shall describe His generation?’” Irenaeus is correct in reading Isaiah 53:8 Christologically. But ironically, it is not addressing the Son’s generation from the Father, but the Son’s resurrection from the dead, as vv. 7-9 describe the servant dying in his innocence. It often feels as though the Bible is like clay in the hands of the fathers: substantial but malleable.

    It is hard to imagine the fathers conceding exegetical ground for eternal generation as many modern defenders have. Many contemporary proponents have rightly dismissed a great deal of biblical grounding the church fathers utilized to construct this doctrine (Ps 2:7; Prov 8:25; Jn 14:28; 18:37). This is not a problem for them, however, since as Giles explains “[The fathers] thought it was a ‘biblical’ doctrine even if they had no text that specifically spoke of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son.” Take note of Giles’ noncommittal language when he argues that this is a biblical teaching: “Scripture implies,” “the Bible seems to be indicating,” and “Scriptures suggests.” It is unfathomable how a canonical suggestion becomes a doctrinal demand of orthodoxy. After taking the foundation out from under the feet of the fathers, proponnents of EG now asks us to stand on their shoulders. I refuse to live in a house built on clouds out of reverence for antiquity.

    In his treatment of the “greater” statement of John 14:28, Basil argued that “the Father is greater as the cause (aitia) and principle (archē)” of the Son. (Cited in Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 129). He believed that the Son has a timeless causal dependence (See Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrine (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012), 72.) Notice, even Gregory of Nazianzus distances himself from the other Cappadocians by showcasing his reluctance to use the words greater or origin (archē) to describe the subsistence of the Son. He writes, “I am afraid to use the word origin, lest I should make Him the Origin of Inferiors, and thus insult Him by precedencies of honour. For the lowering of those who are from Him is no glory to the Source.” (Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 375–6).

    To substantiate this claim further, and to prove this error is not limited to the Cappadocians only, notice Hilary writes, “Who, indeed, would deny that the Father is the greater; the Unbegotten greater than the Begotten, the Father than the Son, the Sender than the Sent, He that wills than He that obeys? He Himself shall be His own witness:—The Father is greater than I.” (Hilary of Poitiers, “On the Trinity,” in St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. E. W. Watson, vol. 9a, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second (NY: Christian Literature Company, 1899), 65)

    On the theology of the Cappadocians, Bray writes, “It is difficult to see what ‘cause’ can mean when speaking of an eternal person, and all too easy to reflect that word represents a lingering trace of pre-Nicene subordinationism, which held that there was a time when the Son (and the Spirit) did not exist.” (Gerald L. Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1993), 159). Note that Aquinas distinguishes the “Latins” from the “Greeks” by saying that the Latins do not attribute to the Son and the Spirit any kind of subjection or inferiority. In ST1, q33, a1, Thomas writes, “It is the custom with the Greeks to say that the Son and the Holy Ghost are principled. This is not, however, the custom with our Doctors; because, although we attribute to the Father something of authority by reason of His being the principle, still we do not attribute any kind of subjection or inferiority to the Son, or to the Holy Ghost, to avoid any occasion of error.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Kindle Edition, vol. 1 (Coyote Canyon Press, 2010), 164.) Interestingly, Aquinas goes on to argue that the term “cause” indicates that the Son was created, and, therefore, has a beginning. Said differently, for Aquinas, causation implies Arianism. Calvin elucidates, “Sometimes, indeed, [the orthodox fathers] teach that the Father is the beginning of the Son; sometimes they declare that the Son has both divinity and essence from himself, and thus has one beginning with the Father.” (John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Paperback, vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 143–4.)

    Some have tried to distinguish the Cappadocian view from Origen’s by arguing that they did not subject the second and third Persons of the Trinity to subordinate roles. I suppose such a statement can be made by way of verbal fiat, however, a cause is always greater than its contingency. One may call such reasoning Platonic, but labeling something does not disprove it. Even Torrance, an avid defender of eternal generation, in Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996), 178-9, is critical of the teaching of the Cappadocians that the Person of the Father is the source and cause of the Person of the Son and Spirit. Torrance insists that such language divides the divine Persons and implies subordinationism, since it conceives the Father as “uncaused deity” and the Son and Spirit as “caused deity.”

    Calvin’s most frequent criticism of the fathers was their incorrect exegesis of scriptural passages regarding the Trinity. Baars adds, “Calvin disregards nearly all scriptural proofs that were advanced in the early church and during the Middle Ages for the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.” (Arie Baars, “The Trinity,” in The Calvin Handbook, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis, trans. Henry J. Baron et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 248). For this reason, Warfield concludes, “The direct Scriptural proof which had been customarily relied upon for its establishment [Calvin] destroyed, refusing to rest a doctrinal determination on ‘distorted texts.’ He left, therefore, little Biblical basis for the doctrine of ‘eternal generation’ except what might be inferred from the mere terms ‘Father,’ ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit.’” (Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008), 272.)

    • Hi David, thanks for this. Unfortunately what I have in response is currently tied up in the “waiting for contracts/publishing” phase for an edited volume. Suffice it to say that I think the Fathers had more than ample exegetical warrant to articulate and defend the doctrine, not merely through exegesis of individual texts but through what David Yeago calls the patterns of biblical language. These patterns include both the names used for the persons and the economic shape of Scripture.

      • Certainly, such a case could be made. But my point is not just the fathers’ lack of biblical warrant for EG (and questionable exegesis), but the theological ramifications of their articulation, i.e., what I see as an affront on the aseity of the Son and the Spirit. In this recent dustup, EG is being put forth as the panacea for all of our Trinitarian woes.

        I agree with the adage: all theology begins with questions. By providing an answer to how God is eternally self-differentiated ad intra, however, the door has been opened to a host of more difficult questions. Which Person is the God of the Godhead? Is God’s rule limited to one person (Athanasius came to believe that the triune Godhead is the archē of the three Persons. Whereas the Cappadocians taught that the Father alone was the monarche of the Godhead.
        )? Was the Son’s essence communicated absolutely or relative to his relationship with the Father? Was this a volitionally contingent act? If the generation of the Son occurred by a free act of the Father’s will (as Jn 5:26 and 18:37 seem to suggest), then is there a hypothetical reality where the Son does not exist? Did the begetting take place in eternity past or is it a continuous perpetual generation? How is it that a cause is not greater than its contingency? How does one person who is a se (of himself) communicate asiety to another? If the Father begot by virtue of his position, as a natural emanation from his essence, then could he have begotten another Son?

      • Having carried on for years about “patterning” Scripture, I’m happy David Yeago has argued for the same theme and with much the same language. Much needs to be done here. Am glad Lewis Ayres is working on this. If we skip this, we’re no more biblical than the very biblicistic Socinians were.

    • When we consider whether the Father is the “monarche” of the other hypostaseis, we need to reflect on the Creed itself, where the “One God” is designated as “the Father almighty” and not the Trinity (or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). What gives the Creed an authentic Trinitarian shape is the “homousios” of the Second Article.

  2. Dave, thanks for the response. Unfortunately I do not have the time to respond in depth at the moment; watching 2 babies and a 2 year old. In any case, I think this can be sufficiently answered by saying:

    1. I do not think that the exegetical tradition supporting EG, taken as a whole, is questionable. Particular exegetical endeavors by particular theologians may well be mistaken, but that does not make the exegetical tradition whole cloth questionable. As I noted above, I find their interpretive rationales for EG (again taken as a whole) to be wholly biblical.

    2. You raise important questions, questions that have been asked and answered by many in the tradition. These are not questions that refute EG as much as they press us to further articulate exactly what we mean when we posit “EG.”

  3. Pingback: The Trinity Debate and the History of Interpretation | Secundum Scripturas

  4. Hi Matt,
    I like you response and the care you take on these issues. You mentioned trying to see things biblically in a holistic sense and talk about David Yeago’s patterns of biblical language. What holistic biblical patterns in scripture do you see as giving support to EG? I’m curious.

    • Hey Anthony, as I mentioned in my previous post, I hope to have an essay coming out on this soon in which I argue this point at length. Essentially, it comes down to patterns of biblical language – both in terms of the incarnation and in terms of divine names and titles.

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