Responding to Bruce Ware with Charitable Criticism

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

A. Humility

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.

B. Engagement

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.”

B. Simplicity

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.

Conclusion

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.

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12 thoughts on “Responding to Bruce Ware with Charitable Criticism

  1. How many folks weighing in on this issue have read philosophers William Hasker’s “Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God” (or William Lane Craig for that matter – or Brian Leftow)? I ask this because there seem to be a lot of confident assertions about what the Trinity can and can’t be without any serious thought given to the philosophical implications behind the assertions. In my estimation one is hard-pressed to find a view of the Trinity that affirms just one divine will that doesn’t collapse into some form of modalism. Nor does such a view fit with the testimony of the Bible.

    As it relates to there being only one will between the three persons, I want to quote Hasker who begins with Augustine.

    Augustine from book 15:

    “So here we are then with these three, that is memory, understanding, love or will in that supreme and unchangeable being with God is, and they are not the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit but the Father alone. And because the Son too is wisdom, begotten of wisdom, it means the Father does not do his remembering for him or the Holy Spirit his loving any more than the Father or the Holy Spirit do his understanding, but he does it all for himself; he is his own memory, his own understanding, his own love, but his being all this comes to him from the Father of whom he is born. The Holy Spirit too does not have the Father for memory and the Son for understanding and himself for love, because his is wisdom proceeding from wisdom, and he would not be wisdom if another did his remembering and another his understanding for him, and he himself only did his own loving. No, he himself has these three, and he has them in such a way that he is them. But its being so with him comes to him from where he proceeds from.”

    I am inclined to agree with William Hasker about Augustine here – “Frankly, it is difficult to see what more would have to be said, or that could be said, to make it clear that for Augustine each of the trinitarian Persons is, in Plantinga’s words, a ‘distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action.’ If this does not qualify Augustine as a pro-Social trinitarian, what more would it take?”

    This is important, for as Hasker points out, if Augustine and others aren’t read this way then, “the Trinity developed by the fourth-century pro-Nicenes is not something that can be built upon without collapsing into incoherence or unintelligibility.”

    There needs to be a coming together between theologians and historians with the rigors and clarity of analytic philosophy. There are way too many untested and undefined words, concepts, etc. at play in these discussions. Too many scholars don’t know what they don’t know (it is a given us lay folks don’t).

  2. Pingback: Blogstorms, digital teacups: New Calvinists and Nicene Trinitarianism « The Patrologist

  3. I just want to thank you, not only for the helpful content in your response, but also for the gracious and respectful spirit in which it was given. Unfortunately, some of those expressing disagreement with Dr. Ware and Dr. Grudem have done so at times with what seems to me a sarcastic, caustic, and arrogant spirit, that I don’t think is particularly serving the honor of the Lord and the truth they are purposing to defend. May further critique exemplify what you have modeled.

  4. Matt and Luke, thank you for the light and clarity you have brought to this debate, not only theologically, but also in terms of how we should approach these specific theological differences among brothers.

    Here’s a question: What is the standard by which we define Nicene orthodoxy? Shouldn’t it be the Nicene Creed of 381? It is now clear that Bruce Ware affirms every word of the creed. Is it fair for Goligher et al to judge Nicene orthodoxy according to the broader theological trajectory of Nicea and not by the Creed that was intended to serve as the boundary of orthodoxy? In other words, shouldn’t we view the Creed as setting boundaries of orthodoxy within which there is freedom to explore different models?

    I have always heard that Chalcedon did just that with the Person of Christ. So, for example, I think that I could argue (similar to the way Goligher and Trueman have) that Martin Luther is outside the bounds of Chalcedonian orthodoxy because of his understanding of the communication of attributes. In my understanding, the Lutheran doctrine of the Person of Christ swallows up his humanity in divinity and borders on Eutychianism. However, I have to distinguish between Luther’s clear affirmation of his commitment to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and what I would perceive to be the logical consequences of his theology, which, at the very least, rub the wrong way when I compare them to Chalcedon.

    Anyway, any insights you have on this train of thought would, I’m sure, be helpful to me. Thanks again for handling all of this so well.

    • Hey Aaron, these are good questions. This is one of the reasons there is such a dichotomy of approaches, I think. Luke and I may post something on this in the near future.

  5. As I mentioned in a previous tweet I wanted to thank you for what I think has been one of the best and most carefully tempered responses to this present furore thus far. I think that I would agree with most if not all of your cautions in regard to Dr Ware’s postion.

    However one area I which I do find somewhat problematic is the idea of the creeds on the one hand being seen as, “faithful summaries of and guides to understanding God’s Word” (a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree) and the idea that they, “have a kind of controlling function in our biblical exegesis.”

    Perhaps it is the mere wording of control here that I’m a little uncomfortable with but I worry about the idea that a creed/confession controls our exegesis of the Scripture. Does this not lead down a dangerous rabbit hole in and of itself? I accept what you say about “any revisions to the creeds or any major redefinition of their terms would require much more than our own private interpretation of the biblical text.” but surely the onus should be on the creeds accurately reflecting what the Scripture is judged to say as the ‘norming norm’. Wasn’t it Schaff who said “All creeds are more or less imperfect and fallible. The Bible alone is the rule of faith (regula credendi), the norma normans, and claims divine and therefore absolute authority; the creed is a rule of public teaching (regula docendi), the norma normata, and has only ecclesiastical and therefore relative authority, which depends on the measure of its agreement with the Bible. Confessions may be improved (as the Apostles’ Creed is a gradual growth from the baptismal formula), or may be superseded by better ones with the increasing knowledge of the truth.” (sorry for the long quote)

    Now I’m not advocating the sway of any “private interpretation”, or promoting the idea that Dr Ware is necessarily correct in his assertions regarding ERAS. We certainly need to be cognizant of the significance of any action to refine or amend any creedal or confessional statements, but we must surely, at the end of the day, be willing to norm any of our subordinate standards by the Word of God. I find the idea that approaches to understanding this issue using the Scripture first being deemed as mere ‘biblicism’ less than helpful.

    As always happy to be enlightened in my understanding :)…

  6. If we speak of “generation,” “origin,” and “procession” without compromising simplicity, is there something that makes you two more concerned that speaking of “obedience” compromises the singular divine will? I am curious especially since the latter can get parsed out in terms of the grammar of the former. “Obedience” is open to misunderstanding, requires theological disciplining, and may require being satisfied with a largely apophatic understanding, but all the same could be said about “generation” etc.

  7. Dr. Emerson,

    Could you please expand a little more on your point about “a more confessional hermeneutic”? Are you saying (as a plain reading to me seems to imply) that one should publicly hold fast to beliefs affirmed in a creed or confession even as his own careful study of scripture leads him to privately change that belief?

    To give a more specific example: the confession I hold to is the 1689 London Baptist. If through careful study of scripture and after thorough counseling with my pastor I became convinced of the rightness of paedobaptism, should I then continue to in practice hold to exclusive creedobaptism?

    I’m trying to understand your critique of what you call a “biblicist method” as it seems to me the only possible way conducting Christian life without having a practical theology divorced from one’s actual beliefs.

  8. Pingback: Established by Creation: Nine Reasons for Biblical Complementarity | Via Emmaus

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