The Trinity Debate: Where Do We Stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 thoughts on “The Trinity Debate: Where Do We Stand?

  1. As a matter of fact, Carl Trueman has drawn my attention to an essay in which an EFS proponent does explicitly affirm three wills in God. Kyle Klaunch states in his essay from the collection of essays, One God in Three Persons, edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware (pp. 88-89):

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

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

    • “Seems to entail,” is important there. I don’t know of any who make that entailment explicit. They might have recourse to the kind of one-will/three-expressions language I suggested in the post.

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