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
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.
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.”
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.
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.