The Trinity Debate and the History of Interpretation


One of the lessons I’m learning from this intramural evangelical Trinity kerfuffle:

Evangelicals (myself included) have a lot of remedial work to do in the history of interpretation.

What do we learn when we read biblical commentaries, polemics, and theological treatises from the patristic, medieval, and Reformation eras?

Rarely are our “simple,” “straightforward,” and “plain” readings of Scripture simple, straightforward, and plain.

Evangelicals are a people of the book, and rightly so. I’m not arguing for the displacement of Scripture with tradition. Nor am I arguing against the Reformation doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity (though I do believe it has to be carefully nuanced). The point is, as Matt has already argued in this space, the Fathers were no less committed to grounding their theological concepts in the text and narrative of Holy Scripture. The pro-Nicene Fathers believed that the homoousion was manifestly consistent with the biblical portrayal of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. They also believed that the oneness of God was irrefutable. There are not three gods but one God whose external works are invariably carried out in an inseparable unity. And so they read specific New Testament texts in light of these more general, but no less biblical, theological constraints.

We need to keep this in mind when we read certain texts in the New Testament that sound as if they stand in some tension with Nicene orthodoxy. For example, what do we make of Paul’s teaching that “God is the head of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11? Does this text necessitate some kind of authority and submission structure in the eternal life of God? Well, before we reach that conclusion and seek to make room for eternal submission in the immanent Trinity, perhaps we should stop to read how orthodox interpreters in the past have understood this passage. Perhaps we could start with one of our “own” interpreters: the great Reformer John Calvin, who wrote about this text:

God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Source:

So Calvin reads the headship of the Father over Christ only in terms of the incarnation, not in terms of the divine persons’ eternal triune life. His is a reading explicitly dependent upon the church’s consensus that the Son is “of one essence with the Father.” Calvin believes that to make the Son subordinate to the Father would be to threaten their coessential Godhead. Now Calvin may be wrong about this. Calvin is not sacrosanct; his voice is not inspired. But he is hardly alone in interpreting the text this way, and he can’t be said to be motivated by some late modern egalitarian bias against authority/submission relations. His voice deserves to be heard before we jettison or recalibrate received Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Another example: Christ’s words in John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Does this passage teach, as some have argued, that the Father and the Son possess two distinct personal wills quite apart from the incarnation? The Christian tradition has, of course, affirmed the distinct human will of Christ, which he assumed in the incarnation, but does the Son also possess a discrete divine will which is distinct from the Father’s? Perhaps taking John 6:38 in isolation from the rest of the New Testament and from the theological parameters set forth above (monotheism and the homoousion) one could make a case for distinct divine wills. But again, shouldn’t we consult the history of interpretation to see how the great luminaries of the past have dealt with this text before we suggest an interpretation that is out of step with the pro-Nicene tradition (the unity of the divine will was a non-negotiable for the orthodox during the fourth century controversies).

Take for example, the interpretation of Gregory of Nazianzus. I quote it at length and it will need some unpacking:

Let [the heretics] quote in the seventh place that the Son came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of Him that sent him. Well, if this had not been said by himself who came down, we should say that the phrase was modeled as issuing from the human nature, not from Him who is conceived of in his character as the Saviour, for his human will cannot be opposed to God, seeing it is altogether taken into God; but conceived of simply as in our nature, inasmuch as the human will does not completely follow the divine, but for the most part struggles against and resists it. For we understand in the same way the words, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless let not what I will but thy will prevail.” For it is not likely that he did not know whether it was possible or not, or that he would oppose will to will. But since, as this is the language of him who assumed our nature (for he it was who came down), and not of the nature which he assumed, we must meet the obligation in this way, that the passage does not mean that the Son has a special will of his own, besides that of the Father, but that he has not; so that the meaning would be, “Not to do mine own will, for there is none of mine apart from, but that which is common to, me and thee; for as we have one Godhead, so we have one will.” (Oration 30.12)

Gregory tackles two biblical texts here: Jesus’ words in John 6:38 (“not my own will but the will of him who sent me”) and Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26:39 (“not my will but thy will be done”). Gregory is convinced that we have to interpret these texts in different ways. We have to discern carefully the sense in which each of these statements relate to the incarnate Christ: do these statements of Jesus issue forth from “himself who came down” (that is, the person of the Son simpliciter) or “as issuing from the human nature” (that is, the person of the Son in and through his humanity)? For Gregory, Gethsemane must be interpreted as an instance of the latter. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is cast in the language “of the nature which he assumed.” In other words, Gethsemane points in the direction of the Son’s human will, which is ontologically distinct from (though functionally one with) the divine will. [It is interesting to note that, while Gregory predates the monothelite controversy by three centuries, he anticipates the very kind of exegetical argument later employed by the dyothelite party in the lead up to the Sixth Ecumenical Council. I think we are justified in seeing Gregory as a proto-dyothelite, as I argue in my dissertation.]

But Gregory is convinced that we cannot interpret John 6:38 in a similar fashion. Why? Because this statement “is the language of him who assumed our nature (for he it was who came down), and not of the nature which he assumed.” These words are placed, as it were, on the lips of the preincarnate Son, not merely the Son in terms of his human nature. So we have to “meet the obligation” of demonstrating the Son’s essential unity with the Father in a different way.

So does this text provide evidence that the Son’s will is eternally distinct from the Father’s? Does it demonstrate that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father’s will and authority? Gregory does not think so. Indeed, he interprets it the other way around. So far from demonstrating a discrete will in the Son, this text shows that the Father and Son share one will. Gregory suggests that Jesus’ words are a kind of figure of speech—a way of speaking about a non-reality by way of negation. Gregory explains that Scripture often speaks in this way:

For many such expressions are used in relation to this community, and are expressed not positively but negatively; as, e.g., “God giveth not the Spirit by measure, for as a matter of fact he does not give the Spirit to the Son, nor does he measure it, for God is not measured by God; or again, “Not my transgression nor my sin.” The words are used not because he has these things, but because he has them not. And again, “Nor for our righteousness which we have done,” for we have not done any. And this meaning is evident also in the clauses which follow. For what, says he, is the will of my Father? That everyone that believes on the Son should be saved, and obtain the final resurrection. Now is this the will of the Father, but not of the Son? Or does he preach the gospel, and receive men’s faith against his will? Who could believe that? Moreover, that passage, too, which says that the Word which is heard is not the Son’s but the Father’s has the same force. For I cannot see how that which is common to two can be said to belong to one alone however much I consider it, and I do not think anyone else can. If, then, you hold this opinion concerning his will, you will be right and reverent in your opinion, as I think, and as every right-minded person thinks.

For Gregory, any reference to an eternally distinct will in the Son cannot be taken positively; it must be taken as a way of negatively expressing the unity of the one divine will. So Gregory, similar to Calvin, is reading a difficult text in light of orthodoxy. He is offering a “ruled” reading of John 6:38, one that takes seriously the homoousion and God’s essential unity.

Again, Gregory and Calvin may not be right. We might quibble with their interpretations. We might reconcile these difficult texts with Trinitarian dogma in different ways. My point is not that modern theologians and biblical scholars should simply mimic the history of interpretation (which would be an impossible task, given the lack of unanimity on many texts). My point is simply this: texts that seem to run counter to Nicene orthodoxy are not new. Christians down through the centuries have known about them and wrestled with their implications for God’s triune life. So shouldn’t we listen to their voices carefully and deferentially before we stake out on our own in search of new interpretations and doctrinal innovations? Perhaps many in the current debate have examined these historic interpretations and have simply found them wanting. But I confess that I don’t see much sustained engagement with the history of interpretation on this front.




5 thoughts on “The Trinity Debate and the History of Interpretation

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