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,


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

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  3. Dr. Ware,

    I realize that this is an open letter that is not addressed to myself, but I would like to make a few comments about it nonetheless.

    First, you state that ultimately you wish to be faithful to Scripture as the ultimate authority, and for this I can only applaud you. That said, it is clear throughout your letter that you desire to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy established by the ecumenical creeds and that indeed you think that your position does so. You state, however, 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” and that this “should not count against my orthodoxy”. I would contend that the first part of this statement militates against the second for the simple fact that in orthodox Trinitarian theology, the only (and that really does mean only) thing that distinguishes between the hypostases of the Father, Son, and Spirit is their modes of origination. This is convincingly demonstrated by Stephen Holmes in his book “The Quest for the Trinity”. Quite simply, if you hold that there are multiple “things that distinguish the Father, from the Son, and from the Spirit” among which “is an eternal relation of authority and submission”, then this view falls outside the bounds of orthodoxy. This does not necessarily mean that your view is not biblical, because Scripture will always stand authoritatively over tradition. But it certainly isn’t orthodox.

    Second, you still have not, in my opinion, successfully refuted the charge that your position raises the spectre of tritheism on the basis of the necessity it implies of assigning two distinct wills to the Father and the Son in order to speak of their eternal relations of authority and submission in any meaningful way. As others noted, I found your explanation of each of the hypostases ‘activating’ the single divine will in differing ways to be equally problematic for the simple fact that it seems to treat the divine will as though it were an impersonal thing, almost like an instrument or a tool, to be taken up and utilized in differing ways. Perhaps I am misreading you on this, but it seems to be the implication of the way in which you articulate the ‘activation’ of the divine will by each of the three hypostases. One ‘activates’ only that which in some way is external to oneself and is not already operative. But this would imply a disjunction (rather than a mere distinction) between the single ousia (of which the single divine will is a part) and the three hypostases (who activate that will differently). To me, this objectification of the divine will seems more beholden to substance metaphysics than to the God self-revealed in Jesus Christ.

    Third, I would say that your position fails to integrate an adequate Christology into the discussion. It seems to run the risk of a docetic Christology by treating the biblical examples of Christ’s submission, obedience, and glorification of the Father as revelatory of his eternal relation to the Father. As the Protestant tradition has historically affirmed, however, Christ’s obedience is properly understood as his vicarious work on our behalf, his active righteousness by which we are justified and sanctified in him. I would argue that according the New Testament, Christ relates to the Father in submission and obedience not because of his eternal relation to the Father but because of his incarnate relation to us; in this way he offered up to the Father vicariously on our behalf the perfect human life by which we are justified and sanctified through union with him. As Paul teaches in Romans 5, Christ’s incarnate submission reflects the fact that he is the last Adam whose obedience overcomes the effects of the disobedience of the first Adam and brings justification and life to those over whom sin and death had previously reigned. Thus, in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s prayer to his Father “Your will be done” is not indicative of eternal Trinitarian relations but constitutes instead his undoing and reversal of Adam’s rebellion in the garden of Eden where he in effect said, “My will be done”. Even after the resurrection when our redemption will be fully realized, Christ will forever be the incarnate “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).This, I would argue, is a better way of understanding the way in which the Christ relates to the Father in the economy and henceforth into eternity (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:28).

    • With respect to the one will, I sense an over emphasis on simplicity that undermines sound Trinitarianism. Is God only essence after all? Isn’t the Son all that the Father is except for being the Son? Indeed, the Trinity willed that the Son would become man, but didn’t only one of the three persons believe the proposition, “I will become man,” or put another way, personally will to become man? Didn’t the Father will He would not come in the flesh, whereas the Son willed that He himself would be born of a virgin? That’s not speculation but rather a good and necessary inference that enable us to do justice to the one divine will that is shared by three distinct persons.

      Regarding the question of submission you seem to suggest that it only applies to the economy of redemption. But when was the decision to submit made if not in eternity? And if in eternity, didn’t the Son’s actual emptying of Himself flow from the pre-incarnate determination to do so? Coming at this from a slightly different angle, was it dispositionally fitting that the Son come to earth?

      • Ron,

        You raise some good, thoughtful questions, and they probably merit a longer answer than I could provide here in the comment meta, but let me just say a few things by way of response. First, if you have discerned an over-emphasis on divine simplicity, I would say that this is something that you are reading in to my comments, because I do not by and large subscribe to classical theism as it represents a view of God largely drawn from Greek philosophy and natural theology (e.g. Aquinas is the usual example of this). Your reference to simplicity is not one that I, at least in terms of classical theism and its basis in substance metaphysics, would affirm. The reason why my view does not suffer from the problems that you raise is because of how I understand the one being/will of God not in terms of a monadic substance but simply as the perichoretic interpenetration of the three divine hypostases. The one being of God simply is the three persons in their eternal perichoretic relations. I actually detect in your description a tritheistic or at least a social trinitarian bent in the sense that you speak of the Son as believing the proposition “I will become man”. But to make such a proposition would imply that the Son possesses a center of consciousness distinct from that of the Father and the Spirit (for only in this way could he speak in terms of “I”). Yet this is precisely the kind of thing that the church fathers sought to avoid in their careful delineation of trinitarian theology. The term ‘person’ did not carry for them same kinds of connotations that it does today, and that is why come contemporary theologians actually do not like to speak in terms of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity but rather of ‘modes of being’. I personally don’t like this phrase because it can give the impression of modalism, but I understand why they use this language. It would anachronistic of us to take our modern understanding of what constitutes a ‘person’ and project that back onto the usage of ‘hypostasis’ in the early church.

        In terms of submission and the economy, I would simply affirm what has been the orthodox teaching on this, namely that the modes of relation between the persons of the Trinity in the economy reflect their mode of origin which, according to classical trinitarianism, is the only thing by which they are distinguished. In other words, like you say, it was ‘fitting’ that the Son become incarnate rather than the Father, not because of an eternal relation of authority and submission, but because of the correspondence that obtains between the Son being sent from the Father in time and the Son’s being begotten of the Father from all eternity. I would not, however, want to say that this correlates with an eternal relation of authority and submission between the two, for this would be to wrongly project Christ’s vicarious work in the place of humanity (his obedience to God) onto his eternal relation with the Father in eternity.

        If you’re interested, I have a blog post that explains these things with a bit more detail and precision:

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  5. In virtue of WHAT is the Father the “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?” His “personal nature?” But then what does THAT consist of if not a great-making property that makes one worthy of worship?

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