What Kind of Incarnation? Mapping the Contemporary Options

He had not lost His former being, but He had become what He was not before; He had not abdicated His own position, yet He had taken ours.

-Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate 3.16

Advent is well under way and Christmas is nearly upon us. So Christians around the world are giving special attention to the glorious mystery at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. But what does it mean for God to become incarnate? How can a single individual be both God and man?

Even among those who agree upon the basic grammar of Christology enshrined in the Chalcedonian Definition–namely, that Christ is one person in two distinct but inseparable natures–there is often confusion and disagreement about what kind of incarnation we are talking about. What would it even mean for God to become incarnate? In what follows, I briefly map out some of the major options provided by contemporary theologians and philosophers in answer to this question (these two books have been especially helpful to me in thinking through these issues).

Kenosis vs. Krypsis

Many Christians assume that in order for God to become incarnate, he must surrender something–if not the possession of his divine attributes, at least the exercise of certain divine attributes (such as omnipotence or omniscience). After all, how can Christ be genuinely human, if at the same time he possesses all knowledge and all power? How can he be temporally and spatially located, if at the same time he is timelessly eternal and omnipresent?  It must be the case, on this reasoning, that the Son divested himself of certain divine attributes in order to become incarnate. This so-called kenotic theory of the incarnation–which takes its name from Phil. 2:7, he “emptied” (ekenosen) himself–remains popular among many Christians and has witnessed a revival of interest among academic theologians in recent years.

But the kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was (e.g., see the Hilary quote above). It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.

Transformational vs. Relational Models

Closely related to this first pair of options is a second set of categories, namely, what Jonathan Hill has termed transformational vs. relational models of the incarnation. In the transformationalist approach, as one might guess, the Son is transformed into a human being either by becoming a human body or a human soul. The most problematic version of transformationalism can be found in the heresy of Apollinarianism, which maintained that the Son simply replaced the human soul in Jesus Christ. But kenotic models can also be seen as a subset of the transformationalist approach, since, in kenoticism, the Son has restricted himself, as it were, to the constraints of an ordinary human life.

In contrast, relational models understand the incarnation in terms of the Son acquiring a particular relation to a particular human nature. This human nature is complete (body and soul) and would have constituted a distinct human person had it not been assumed by the Son. But since it is assumed by the Son from the moment of conception is does not constitute a distinct human person (anhypostasia) but is given its personhood in the hypostasis of the Son (enhypostasia). On the relational account, then, the Son need not surrender anything, nor undergo any kind of transformation in terms of his divine life, in order to assume a discrete human nature.

Abstractism vs. Concretism

The final set of categories tracks closely with the previous two. This final typology concerns the question, what kind of human nature did Christ assume? Did he assume a concrete human nature–complete with both body and soul–as the relational model suggests? Or instead did he merely assume a set of abstract properties that are common to human nature?  In other words, did he assume a human nature, viewed as a concrete particular, or did he assume human nature, viewed as an abstract universal? Alvin Plantinga appears to be the first to suggest this terminology (abstract vs. concrete human nature) but the positions go back much further (perhaps even to Chalcedon, as Plantinga suggests). As the tradition of the undivided church continued to clarify and expound upon Chalcedon, it became apparent that the orthodox position demanded something much closer to concretism, since the sixth ecumenical council affirmed that Christ has not only two natures but also two wills and two energies.

Conclusion

These sets of categories are obviously related. The first factor in each is related to the others. In other words, kenoticism, transformationalism, and abstractism can be understood as distinct ways of describing the same basic approach to the incarnation. Likewise, krypsis, relationalism, and concretism appear to hang together as a coherent model of the incarnation. If we were to state these contemporary options in terms of ancient Christological heresies, we might say that the first approach is eager to avoid Nestorianism (the two persons heresy) but perhaps skirts too closely to Apollinarianism (an incomplete incarnation). The second approach would run in the other direction: keen to avoid Apollinarianism but running the risk of Nestorianism. For my own part, I think the second approach–the kryptic-relational-concretist model–is the most consistent with both Scripture and the Christian tradition; can successfully avoid the charges of Nestorianism; and is superior to the first model in terms of broader dogmatic considerations. But that is an argument for another day!

A Model to Imitate

huvb

I’m reading through von Balthasar’s seminal work on the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As the translator Brian Daley points out, this is a unique work, “combining historical interpretation with constructive argument” (11). Daley explains that von Balthasar intends “not to be a detached observer of Maximus in his own milieu” but to be both a critic and “an advocate, an impassioned promoter of the synthetic view of God and creation that he perceives in this seventh-century scholastic and monk, precisely because he sees there many elements of the theological synthesis he hopes to offer to his own world” (16).

In other words, von Balthasar is engaged in theological retrieval–not merely historical investigation as an end in itself, nor even merely historical theology as an detached enterprise–but retrieval for the sake of renewal, as Timothy George puts it. That’s a model worth following.

And as von Balthasar seeks to demonstrate, Maximus is one of the great luminaries of the shared Christian past worthy of imitation. As he introduces the life and theology of Maximus, von Balthasar reaches an almost poetic crescendo:

We search, with our lanterns, for models to imitate, but we do not like to look for them in the distant past. Here is one who seems extraordinarily contemporary: a spiritual world-traveler, who continued to work quietly while the waves of the Persian armies and the still more threatening waves of Islam drove him ever further from home and while ecclesiastical and political integralism captured him, put him on trial, attempted to seduce him, condemned him, and banished him, until–at the southern end of what was to be Holy Russia–he died a martyr (27-28).

In a destabilized world and in uncertain times, we need sturdy, reliable models from the past, not to dust off as ancient artifacts to be admired, but as living conversation partners (think, communio sanctorum), who inspire faithful obedience in our own time and place. Retrieval for the sake of renewal. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs this now more than ever.

David Bentley Hart on Analytic Philosophy

Speaking of the analytic philosophical tradition, here’s part of David Bentley Hart’s take(down):

I should probably note here that, in the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, the issue [of God as Being or Reality] tends to be complicated on the one hand by the methods and conceptual rules generally preferred by analytic thinkers, and on the other by the lack of historical perspective that those methods and rules often encourage. The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably the greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

The Experience of God, p. 123

Thoughts? Reactions?

Vanhoozer, Taylor, and the Prospects of Analytic Theology

I missed this back in May, but Kevin Vanhoozer has an insightful review of Charles Taylor’s latest book, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, over at the Gospel Coalition website. Vanhoozer explains that Taylor is a “post-analytic” philosopher in that he has come to reject the reductionism of the analytic philosophical tradition. Specifically, Taylor has come to believe that the “designative” theory of language associated with analytic philosophy–namely, that language merely designates or labels objects in the world–is an insufficient account of humanity’s use of language. Language does not merely map out the objective world; it also communicates “the significance that things have for us.”

Anyway, enough of this review of a review. What stood out to me in Vanhoozer’s post was his conclusion, where he applies Taylor’s insights to theological formulation and in particular to analytic theology:

Taylor thinks that contemporary analytic philosophy is still indebted in various ways to Cartesian philosophy and to the goal of using language to set forth an accurate description of the natural world and of seeing meaning as “something down-to-earth, and nonmysterious” (117). Is the task of Christian theology simply to designate the realities to which it refers in unambiguous propositions? Should we not follow the way the biblical words and themes and genres go, to trace them out and preserve them and penetrate them better? Put differently: to what extent is the canon a sine qua non of Christian consciousness, the mind of Christ?

Just when you thought it safe to go into the water of analytic theology, we must now ponder the value, and perhaps the necessity, of post-analytic theology.

I’ve expressed appreciation for analytic theology in the past, and I still think some interesting work is being done in this emerging field. But Vanhoozer, via Taylor, puts his finger on some questions I have been mulling about the movement for the past couple of years.

Part of what drew me to analytic theology several years back was Oliver Crisp’s use of it to explicate and defend classic Christology. I still think that work is incredibly helpful, but the pressing question I’ve been asking lately is, how is language functioning in these kinds of examinations and defenses of Christian doctrine? Does it signify what God is actually like in some kind of rigorous, precise, and objective way? Or does it simply give us the grammar to speak about and reflect upon God in ways that are faithful and fitting to the biblical economy?

The latter seems more likely to me now. This doesn’t mean doctrine is merely a function of the community or that it has no objective referent. But it does mean that we need a healthy dose of apophaticism in our theologizing. Theology should never have as its goal the desire to render its great Object non-mysterious.

#TISsowhite? Reflections on Daniel Kirk’s Broadside

Daniel Kirk has a post that has been making the rounds this week in which he connects the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement with something he calls the “problem of whiteness.” Leaving aside questions about whether or not we can speak of TIS as a singular coherent “movement,” let’s consider the thrust of Kirk’s argument. As I understand it, Kirk appears to be arguing that the TIS movement, unlike other “situated” readings (such as feminist, African American, and LGBT readings), has failed to own up to its own “revisionist” approach to Scripture and that this failure is owing to the general “whiteness” of the movement–presumably TIS advocates are mostly white males who are not accustomed to locating their scholarship within a particular perspective. As Kirk puts it:

White, western theology has sat at the center of biblical interpretation for so long that all of our debates can only be about what the text “really” says. And when we know that the text doesn’t say what it must we create a theological paradigm (reading in light of the rule of faith) that enables us to say that everyone has to agree with us even when we’re disagreeing with the text because the people who gave us the text used our paradigm to pick which books belong.

The problem of whiteness in theology and theological interpretation is that it has sat at the center for so long, it has been “the right answer” for so long, that it is dispositionally incapable of recognizing that it only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.

As I see it there are at least three false dichotomies apparent in Kirk’s argument.

1. Kirk falsely pits the New Testament against subsequent orthodoxy.

Kirk seems to be assuming that TIS advocates don’t know the difference between the fourth century and the first. He assumes that “ruled” readings must necessarily be anachronistic–that we must “make Paul or Matthew into a proto-Trinitarian.” But, of course, no one actually makes that mistake. No TIS scholar of which I am aware would argue that the NT authors were Trinitarian in the same way that, say, Athanasius was Trinitarian, homoousios and all.

But quite obviously Kirk is making the opposite mistake in driving a sharp wedge between the NT and the trinitarian doctrine that organically grew from it in the earliest centuries of the church. He is, to use David Yeago’s categories, conflating theological concepts with theological judgments: “the same judgement can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms, all of which may be informative about a particular judgement’s force and implications.” So it is possible, and perfectly permissible as an academic argument, to suggest that Paul could be rendering the same judgment about the status of Jesus Christ that the Nicene Fathers did, even if he did not (for obvious historical reasons) utilize their precise conceptual language.

2. Kirk falsely pits the acknowledgement of our situatedness against the quest for truth.

Another problem with Kirk’s argument is that he seems to assume that TIS proponents are unaware or else unwilling to admit their own theological presuppositions. But I don’t see how any reading of the main texts of the TIS movement–including the evangelical ones–could be interpreted in this way. It seems to me that the TIS movement, in all of its various manifestations, is characterized by just the opposite: a broadly “postmodern” sensibility, a focus on the interpretive role of the community, a valuing of interpretive pluralism (within certain constraints), and an appreciation for premodern exegesis (with its more open-ended hermeneutic). Ironically, one of the main burdens of the TIS movement has been to show the limitations of the supposedly “objective” readings of the modernist historical-critical method.

But again, Kirk makes the opposite error. The real problem for Kirk seems to be the quest for “right” readings of the biblical text. This is where the “whiteness” charge comes in. TIS proponents, to the degree that they seek “the right answer,” are simply the product of a “white, western, and hegemonic” power play. But interpretive pluralism need not imply a kind of radical relativism: an anything-goes, wax-nose approach. There is truth to be had in interpretation, even if our access to it is always conditioned by our historical and cultural context. Acknowledging our theological presuppositions does not eliminate the possibility of better and worse readings of Scripture. However we want to conceptualize this dynamic (the hermeneutical circle, critical realism, etc.), there is a dialectic between the reader and the text that somehow does not leave the reader stuck in the mire of his own prejudices. Real advance toward the truth is possible.

3. Kirk falsely pits the rule of faith against listening to minority voices.

Kirk is right to call TIS opponents to consider their own prejudices and to embrace hermeneutical humility. Further, his piece serves as a helpful reminder that we should listen to minority voices in biblical and theological scholarship. White scholars of all theological stripes can be indicted on this front to one degree or another. Thankfully, recent decades have witnessed several attempts to remedy this error.

But Kirk makes an interesting and erroneous assumption in driving this point home. He argues that Western voices “create[d]” the theological paradigm of the rule of faith in order to exercise control over the marketplace of ideas. Apparently orthodoxy “only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.” As a friend pointed out on Twitter, another irony lies in the fact that the rule of faith was developed largely in non-Western contexts: places like northern Africa and modern-day Turkey. Further, the TIS movement has been eager to retrieve perspectives from Eastern Fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, even Origen.

But in any event, it seems that one of the implications of Kirk’s argument is that the rule of faith, embodied in the Creeds of the church, is the unique creation and preserve of white western men. But what an insult this is to our trinitarian brothers and sisters in the majority world! The African bishops of the Anglican and Methodist churches, the evangelicals of China, and the Pentecostals of Latin America would surely be surprised to learn that they have embraced the trinitarian faith only because of white western colonialism. A true appreciation for our situatedness would acknowledge that only in a western liberal academic context could we make such a condescending assumption as to equate the ancient, trinitarian rule of faith with latter-day “whiteness.”

The Son Will Be Subjected to the Father? Thomas and Calvin Weigh In

Awhile back, during the heat of the summer, Matt posted some quotes from St. Basil and St. Augustine on the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

In what sense will the Son be subjected to the Father? Does this verse teach a final submission of the Son of God as such to the Father ? Or are we to understand this subjection in terms of Christ’s humanity rather than his personal divine identity? As Matt pointed out, Basil and Augustine pick up on clues in the biblical text itself that point in the direction of the latter interpretation.

I was interested to hear from a couple of my favorite interpreters on this text as well. So I tracked down what Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had to say. Here’s Thomas on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 (emphasis added):

But on the other hand. If the Father subjected all things to the Son, the Son is less than the Father. The answer is that the Father subjected all to the Son as man, as has been stated, and so the Father is greater than the Son. For He is less according to his humanity, but equal according to His divinity. Or it might be said that even the Son Himself as God subjected all things to Himself, because as God He can do all that the Father does: “We await a Savior who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:20)….Therefore, he says, when all things are subjected to him. As if to say: God has not yet subjected all things to Christ, but when all things shall have been subjected to Him, namely, to Christ, then the subject Himself according to His humanity will be subjected to Him, namely, to the Father: “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28), and even now Christ as man is subjected to the Father, but this will be more manifest then.

And Calvin (again, emphasis added):

But Christ will then restore the kingdom which he has received, that we may cleave wholly to God. Nor will he in this way resign the kingdom, but will transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity, because a way of approach will then be opened up, from which our infirmity now keeps us back. Thus then Christ will be subjected to the Father, because the vail being then removed, we shall openly behold God reigning in his majesty, and Christ’s humanity will then no longer be interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God.

So it’s clear that Thomas and Calvin agree with Basil and Augustine: the Son’s subjection to the Father in the eschaton is a function of his humanity. There are clues in 1 Corinthians 15 itself that point in this direction (e.g., as Basil points out, the subjection spoken of is somehow a future and not a present reality; so it can’t be describing some eternally fixed relation of Father and Son in their immanent relations). But, as Thomas and Calvin seem to be appealing to, there are also Christological commitments grounded in the text of Scripture that must guide our interpretation of this particular text. We know from John’s gospel that there is some sense in which the Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28). But we also know from other texts that the Son possesses the same “glorious divinity” as the Father and that he has the same power to subject all things to himself (Phil. 3:20). The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that, along with the Father and Spirit, the Son is the very God to whom all things will be subjected and who will finally be all in all.

So Thomas and Calvin seem to be employing the classical “form of God/form of servant” hermeneutical rule. Is this text speaking of Christ in terms of his deity or in terms of his humanity? Answering that question with regard to any particular text demands appeal not only to the specifics of the text itself but also to broader Christological judgments that take into account the entire scope of Scripture. In short, Basil and Augustine, Thomas and Calvin provide us with commendable examples of the classic principle that Scripture interprets Scripture.

Random Thoughts on Place and Time

Being in one place doesn’t actually separate you from other places. It connects you to all places on the same good earth.

The only way to be separated from other places is to be dis-placed in abstraction from any concrete place (online worlds, commuter cities, back-patio neighborhoods, etc.).

Similarly, being in one time doesn’t actually separate you from other times. It connects you to all times in the same eschatological continuum.

The only way to be separated from other times is to be un-timed in abstraction from any determinate time (casting aside tradition, appealing to timeless principles, embracing a carpe diem hedonism).

Applying these thoughts to ecclesiology, the church is connected to the universal and the eternal precisely by being local and present.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Blog Name Change

name tag

So the three of us have decided to change the name of the blog. It’s been a long time coming I guess. “Secundum Scripturas” (Latin for “according to the Scriptures”) has served us well over the years as a call to remember the foundational role of Scripture in all of our theologizing. But, alas, it is a Latin phrase. And while I’m tempted to quote Max Fischer (“Is Latin dead?”), we felt like the switch to an English title would help our less Latin-inclined readers and those with whom they might share our posts.

I suppose we could have just translated the phrase and called the blog, “According to the Scriptures.” That would have captured some of the emphases of the blog. But we are also keen to explore here the intersection of biblical interpretation, on the one hand, and dogmatic theology, on the other. So we decided to adopt the title “Biblical Reasoning” to capture both sides of this project. For those who are familiar with the writings of the late John Webster, you will recognize this phrase as the title of one of his most influential essays. First published in the Anglican Theological Review (90:4) and then in The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), Webster’s essay seeks to articulate a vision of Christian theology that locates both Scripture and theological reasoning in the context of the divine economy: God’s redemptive and revelatory activity in the Son and the Spirit. In this understanding, Christian theology “has its origin in the Spirit-sustained hearing of the divine Word,” which in turn prompts “the rational contemplation and articulation of God’s communicative presence,” on the part of the created, fallen, and redeemed intellect.

We do not claim to speak for Webster or his legacy, but we have been profoundly influenced by the framework he has articulated for a truly theological interpretation of Scripture. The phrase “biblical reasoning,” then, expresses in plain terms what we aspire to here: using our created and redeemed rational capacities to contemplate and elucidate the revelation of the triune God in Holy Scripture.

The domain name secundumscripturas.com will not change. So there is no need to update RSS feeds or anything like that. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more reflections on biblical and systematic theology, which we hope will still be, by God’s grace and as far as we are able, “according to the Scriptures.”

A Sucker Punch From TFT

Thomas_F._Torrance

If you are an underliner like me, when you read T. F. Torrance, your page gets pretty marked up. Even when I don’t agree with the great Scottish divine, it’s hard not to be impressed by the intricacies of his thought. Here’s a gem I found while reading Torrance on Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God. The line in bold jumped off the page and sucker punched me.

Thus one of the outstanding marks of Calvin’s theology is that he is able to hold objectivity and personalism closely together, whereas in much modern theology they tend to fall apart with disastrous consequences. As Calvin saw it, it is only when we allow the Truth of God to retain his own majesty in all our knowledge of him, and when we allow God himself to preside in all our judgments about him, that we may be truly personal ourselves and have personal relations with one another, whereas he who ceases in this way to speak with God unlearns even the art of speaking with his neighbor. (from “Knowledge of God and Speech about Him according to John Calvin,” in Theology in Reconstruction).

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,

Bruce