The Trinity Debate: Where Do We Stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Father Have Power over the Son?

A quick post on Thomas Aquinas and the power of the Father in begetting the Son:

In the Summa 1.41, Thomas has a lengthy discussion about the “notional acts” in God. For Thomas, the “notions” are the five properties that make known to us the distinctions between the three Divine Persons: innascibility (ingenerateness), paternity, filiation (sonship), common spiration (common, given the filioque), and procession. So the notional acts are those internal operations in God by which the Father begets the Son and by which the Father and Son spirate the Holy Spirit.

At 1.41.5, Thomas raises the question as to whether or not these notional acts are connected with any power (potentia) in God. At first blush, it would seem that they are not, given that no active power can “belong to one person with respect to another, since the divine persons were not made.” But Thomas goes on to argue that since the notional acts exist in God there must be a “power in God with respect to these acts, since power only means principle of act.” Thus, he concludes, “we must attribute the power of generating to the Father, and the power of spiration to the Father and the Son; for the power of generation means that whereby the generator generates.”

So in some sense we can say the the Father acts with power with regard to the Son in his eternal generation. But in the next article, 1.41.6, Thomas asks what this power signifies–or where this power resides, as it were: in the personal relations or in the divine essence? Thomas answers that the power (and also the will) of the notional acts inheres in the shared essence. “Power” simply means the capacity by which an agent acts, and this capacity inheres in the essence of the agent. So it is with God. The Father begets the Son through the divine nature. The notional acts proceed from the divine essence: “The Son was not begotten from nothing but from the Father’s substance” (1.41.3).

So, for Thomas, the Father does exercise power with regard to the Son. But this power is only with reference to the Son’s eternal generation (not any kind of commanding and obeying), and it proceeds from the shared divine essence. This is all pretty granular stuff. But this is the great strength of the Scholastics: theological precision. This is tough sledding, to be sure, but it should caution us against drawing hasty conclusions about what voices from the past meant when they used terms like power, authority, and even subordination with regard to the Divine Persons.

Further Reflections on the Unity of the Divine Will

In my dissertation at Southern Seminary, I sought to provide a dogmatic defense of dyothelitism, the belief that the incarnate Christ possesses two wills–one divine and one human–against several contemporary monothelite (one-will) proposals. Though my thesis related principally to Christology, quite obviously this issue has massive implications for the doctrine of the Trinity as well (a point Mark Jones has recently driven home). I include a brief section of my dissertation here because I think it may be particularly relevant in light of the late Trinitarian dustup within evangelicalism.

One of the themes of this dissertation is the irreducibly dogmatic nature of the decision to be made between monothelitism and dyothelitism. No single biblical text or Christological theme can alone determine the matter. It is a systematic decision based on a variety of factors, including how much weight one gives to the ecumenical councils, how one understands the nature of Christ’s human nature, how one relates Christ’s volitional life to his soteriological task, and so forth. But perhaps the most pressing dogmatic decision to be made is trinitarian in nature: are we to understand the divine will as singular or plural? Is the Godhead monothelitic or trithelitic? This is simply another way of posing the more fundamental philosophical question involved in this debate: do wills belong to persons or natures? If wills belong to persons, then there are three wills in the Godhead, since there are three divine persons. But if wills belong to natures, then there can only be one divine will, since there is only one divine nature.[1]

. . . .

One other Trinitarian issue is worthy of comment. One of the most compelling theological arguments in favor of trinitarian trithelitism (three wills in the Godhead) is the desire to account for the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity. It seems that those who maintain, with the tradition, that the divine will is singular still need to explain how there can be real relations of love within a monothelitic Godhead. They would also need to explain how the divine missions are connected to the eternal relations of origin, why it is that the Son became incarnate and not the Father, and how the economy meaningfully reveals the immanent trinitarian relations.[2] More work needs to be done on these pressing issues, and only a few brief suggestions can be offered here.

First, contemporary theologians should avoid equivocation when comes to the trinitarian term “relation.” Relation does not equal relationship when it comes to the Trinitarian persons, just as person does not equal personality. Instead, the traditional understanding of “relation” is tied to the relations of personal origin, namely, unbegottenness, begottenness, and procession.[3] To distinguish the persons of the Trinity in terms of “relationships,” which require distinct personal wills, is to take a step away from Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Second, when it comes to the relationship between the economic and the immanent Trinity, perhaps we would do well to remember the Augustinian notion of the divine missions. For Augustine, the missions—the sending of the Son and the Spirit—are a part of the economy but they accurately reveal the eternal relations of the Godhead. The Son’s being-sent does not imply inferiority or subordination, but it does reveal the truth that he is from the Father from all eternity. Keith Johnson explains Augustine’s position,

In short, because sending merely reveals the generation of the Son, the Son is not in any way inferior to the Father. One of Augustine’s central insights is that the economic missions of the Son and the Spirit both reflect and reveal the natures of their eternal relation to the Father. The temporal sending of the Son reveals his eternal generation by the Father while the temporal sending of the Spirit from the Father and Son reveals his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. In this sense, the missions ultimately reveal the Father.[4]

So the taxis (order) of the economy reveals something that is true of the eternal relations, but not everything that obtains in one obtains in the other. The Son is eternally from the Father in his generation, and he is temporally from the Father in his being-sent. There is a fittingness to the sending of the Son, but this fittingness does not necessarily imply that the authority/submission structure that obtains in the economy should be read back into the immanent relations. Indeed, because of the doctrine of inseparable operations, we can speak of the Son as being involved in his “sending,” no less than the Father, a truth born out by several biblical texts (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6-7; Gal 2:20; John 10:18).[5] In sum, those who hold to a singular divine will can still explain the fittingness of the sending of the Son (and not the Father) without resorting to an eternal functional submission of one divine will to another.

Finally, one possible solution to the problem of relations in a monothelitic Godhead lies in a rare distinction drawn by some of the Reformed orthodox with regard to the divine will. Theologians such as Leonard van Rijssen distinguished the voluntas essentialis—that is, the singular will of the divine essence—from the voluntas personalis—that is, the necessary expression of the divine will in the ad intra eternal processions of the Godhead.[6] So there is only one divine will, but the three persons relate to it in distinct ways tied to their distinct personal properties. This distinction might provide a theological mechanism by which we can affirm both the singularity of the divine will and the reality of eternal relations of love in the immanent Trinity. In any event, it is clear that a theologian’s position on the monothelite-dyothelite debate has important entailments for his understanding of the volitional life of the Godhead.

[1]This assumes that there is at least an analogical relation between human and divine persons, an assumption buttressed by the Second Council of Constantinople’s application of Trinitarian categories to the incarnation. The person of Christ is none other than “one of the Holy Trinity.”

[2]Some of these concerns with the traditional view are expressed in Bruce A. Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012),13-38.

[3]Steve Holmes has demonstrated that these and these alone are the traditional distinguishing properties of the divine persons. See Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, esp. the summary on pp. 144-146.

[4]Keith E. Johnson, “Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son: An Augustinian Perspective,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 117.

[5]Ibid., 126.

[6]Richard A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 3:453.

The Trinity Debate and the History of Interpretation


One of the lessons I’m learning from this intramural evangelical Trinity kerfuffle:

Evangelicals (myself included) have a lot of remedial work to do in the history of interpretation.

What do we learn when we read biblical commentaries, polemics, and theological treatises from the patristic, medieval, and Reformation eras?

Rarely are our “simple,” “straightforward,” and “plain” readings of Scripture simple, straightforward, and plain.

Evangelicals are a people of the book, and rightly so. I’m not arguing for the displacement of Scripture with tradition. Nor am I arguing against the Reformation doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity (though I do believe it has to be carefully nuanced). The point is, as Matt has already argued in this space, the Fathers were no less committed to grounding their theological concepts in the text and narrative of Holy Scripture. The pro-Nicene Fathers believed that the homoousion was manifestly consistent with the biblical portrayal of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. They also believed that the oneness of God was irrefutable. There are not three gods but one God whose external works are invariably carried out in an inseparable unity. And so they read specific New Testament texts in light of these more general, but no less biblical, theological constraints.

We need to keep this in mind when we read certain texts in the New Testament that sound as if they stand in some tension with Nicene orthodoxy. For example, what do we make of Paul’s teaching that “God is the head of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11? Does this text necessitate some kind of authority and submission structure in the eternal life of God? Well, before we reach that conclusion and seek to make room for eternal submission in the immanent Trinity, perhaps we should stop to read how orthodox interpreters in the past have understood this passage. Perhaps we could start with one of our “own” interpreters: the great Reformer John Calvin, who wrote about this text:

God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Source:

So Calvin reads the headship of the Father over Christ only in terms of the incarnation, not in terms of the divine persons’ eternal triune life. His is a reading explicitly dependent upon the church’s consensus that the Son is “of one essence with the Father.” Calvin believes that to make the Son subordinate to the Father would be to threaten their coessential Godhead. Now Calvin may be wrong about this. Calvin is not sacrosanct; his voice is not inspired. But he is hardly alone in interpreting the text this way, and he can’t be said to be motivated by some late modern egalitarian bias against authority/submission relations. His voice deserves to be heard before we jettison or recalibrate received Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Another example: Christ’s words in John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Does this passage teach, as some have argued, that the Father and the Son possess two distinct personal wills quite apart from the incarnation? The Christian tradition has, of course, affirmed the distinct human will of Christ, which he assumed in the incarnation, but does the Son also possess a discrete divine will which is distinct from the Father’s? Perhaps taking John 6:38 in isolation from the rest of the New Testament and from the theological parameters set forth above (monotheism and the homoousion) one could make a case for distinct divine wills. But again, shouldn’t we consult the history of interpretation to see how the great luminaries of the past have dealt with this text before we suggest an interpretation that is out of step with the pro-Nicene tradition (the unity of the divine will was a non-negotiable for the orthodox during the fourth century controversies).

Take for example, the interpretation of Gregory of Nazianzus. I quote it at length and it will need some unpacking:

Let [the heretics] quote in the seventh place that the Son came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of Him that sent him. Well, if this had not been said by himself who came down, we should say that the phrase was modeled as issuing from the human nature, not from Him who is conceived of in his character as the Saviour, for his human will cannot be opposed to God, seeing it is altogether taken into God; but conceived of simply as in our nature, inasmuch as the human will does not completely follow the divine, but for the most part struggles against and resists it. For we understand in the same way the words, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless let not what I will but thy will prevail.” For it is not likely that he did not know whether it was possible or not, or that he would oppose will to will. But since, as this is the language of him who assumed our nature (for he it was who came down), and not of the nature which he assumed, we must meet the obligation in this way, that the passage does not mean that the Son has a special will of his own, besides that of the Father, but that he has not; so that the meaning would be, “Not to do mine own will, for there is none of mine apart from, but that which is common to, me and thee; for as we have one Godhead, so we have one will.” (Oration 30.12)

Gregory tackles two biblical texts here: Jesus’ words in John 6:38 (“not my own will but the will of him who sent me”) and Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26:39 (“not my will but thy will be done”). Gregory is convinced that we have to interpret these texts in different ways. We have to discern carefully the sense in which each of these statements relate to the incarnate Christ: do these statements of Jesus issue forth from “himself who came down” (that is, the person of the Son simpliciter) or “as issuing from the human nature” (that is, the person of the Son in and through his humanity)? For Gregory, Gethsemane must be interpreted as an instance of the latter. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is cast in the language “of the nature which he assumed.” In other words, Gethsemane points in the direction of the Son’s human will, which is ontologically distinct from (though functionally one with) the divine will. [It is interesting to note that, while Gregory predates the monothelite controversy by three centuries, he anticipates the very kind of exegetical argument later employed by the dyothelite party in the lead up to the Sixth Ecumenical Council. I think we are justified in seeing Gregory as a proto-dyothelite, as I argue in my dissertation.]

But Gregory is convinced that we cannot interpret John 6:38 in a similar fashion. Why? Because this statement “is the language of him who assumed our nature (for he it was who came down), and not of the nature which he assumed.” These words are placed, as it were, on the lips of the preincarnate Son, not merely the Son in terms of his human nature. So we have to “meet the obligation” of demonstrating the Son’s essential unity with the Father in a different way.

So does this text provide evidence that the Son’s will is eternally distinct from the Father’s? Does it demonstrate that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father’s will and authority? Gregory does not think so. Indeed, he interprets it the other way around. So far from demonstrating a discrete will in the Son, this text shows that the Father and Son share one will. Gregory suggests that Jesus’ words are a kind of figure of speech—a way of speaking about a non-reality by way of negation. Gregory explains that Scripture often speaks in this way:

For many such expressions are used in relation to this community, and are expressed not positively but negatively; as, e.g., “God giveth not the Spirit by measure, for as a matter of fact he does not give the Spirit to the Son, nor does he measure it, for God is not measured by God; or again, “Not my transgression nor my sin.” The words are used not because he has these things, but because he has them not. And again, “Nor for our righteousness which we have done,” for we have not done any. And this meaning is evident also in the clauses which follow. For what, says he, is the will of my Father? That everyone that believes on the Son should be saved, and obtain the final resurrection. Now is this the will of the Father, but not of the Son? Or does he preach the gospel, and receive men’s faith against his will? Who could believe that? Moreover, that passage, too, which says that the Word which is heard is not the Son’s but the Father’s has the same force. For I cannot see how that which is common to two can be said to belong to one alone however much I consider it, and I do not think anyone else can. If, then, you hold this opinion concerning his will, you will be right and reverent in your opinion, as I think, and as every right-minded person thinks.

For Gregory, any reference to an eternally distinct will in the Son cannot be taken positively; it must be taken as a way of negatively expressing the unity of the one divine will. So Gregory, similar to Calvin, is reading a difficult text in light of orthodoxy. He is offering a “ruled” reading of John 6:38, one that takes seriously the homoousion and God’s essential unity.

Again, Gregory and Calvin may not be right. We might quibble with their interpretations. We might reconcile these difficult texts with Trinitarian dogma in different ways. My point is not that modern theologians and biblical scholars should simply mimic the history of interpretation (which would be an impossible task, given the lack of unanimity on many texts). My point is simply this: texts that seem to run counter to Nicene orthodoxy are not new. Christians down through the centuries have known about them and wrestled with their implications for God’s triune life. So shouldn’t we listen to their voices carefully and deferentially before we stake out on our own in search of new interpretations and doctrinal innovations? Perhaps many in the current debate have examined these historic interpretations and have simply found them wanting. But I confess that I don’t see much sustained engagement with the history of interpretation on this front.




The Grammar of the Trinity

I’ve been reading Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity lately. Here are some of the key terms.

Five notions

  1. Innascibility (unbegottenness)
  2. Paternity
  3. Sonship
  4. Common Spiration
  5. Procession

Four relations

  1. Paternity
  2. Sonship
  3. Common Spiration
  4. Procession

Three persons

  1. Father
  2. Son/Word/Image
  3. Holy Spirit/Love/Gift

Two processions

  1. Generation
  2. Spiration

One essence

  1. The one divine nature


Aquinas on Greek & Latin Trinitarianisms

Given the ongoing scholarly debates about the relationship between Eastern and Western versions of Trinitarianism, I found this quote from Thomas Aquinas interesting:

It is the custom with the Greeks to say that the Son and the Holy Ghost are principled [that is, that the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father as their principle or cause]. This is not, however, the custom with our [Latin] Doctors because, although we attribute to the Father something of authority by reason of His being the principle, still we do not attribute any kind of subjection or inferiority to the Son or to the Holy Ghost, to avoid any occasion of error. In this way, Hilary says (De Trin. ix): “By authority of the Giver, the Father is the greater; nevertheless the Son is not less to Whom oneness of being is given” (ST, 1.33.1).

A couple of things stand out to me. First, Thomas recognizes the importance of carefully parsing the distinct terms used across the linguistic divide and the differing contexts that inform their meaning. Earlier in the article cited above, Thomas notes that the Greek-speaking theologians are comfortable using the term “cause” (Latin, causa; would the Greek be aitia?) with reference to the Father’s place in the Godhead but that those in the Latin-speaking West prefer “principle”  (principium) since it is a “wider term” that avoids confusion. He does not quite argue that the two traditions are saying precisely the same thing with reference to the Trinity; he clearly prefers the clarity of the Latin terminology. But he makes an argument for this preference from semantic and contextual implications rather than from any fundamental point of disagreement.

Second, Thomas’s words also have relevance for debates about subordinationism. Thomas admits that the Father has a kind of “authority” (auctoritatis) as the principle of the Son and the Spirit in their eternal relations of origin. But this authority in no way implies subjection (subiectionem) or inferiority (minorationem).   As the Hilary citation indicates, the Father is “greater” in terms of the eternal processions, but the persons proceeding are not lesser than the one from whom they proceed.

Torrance on the Vicarious Prayer of Christ

“At the end of the day when I kneel down and say my evening prayer, I know that no prayer of my own that I can offer to the heavenly Father is worthy of him or of power to avail with him, but all my prayer is made in the name of Jesus Christ alone as I rest in his vicarious prayer. It is then with utter peace and joy that I take into my mouth the Lord’s Prayer which I am invited to pray through Jesus Christ, with him and in him, to God the Father, for in that prayer my poor, faltering, sinful prayer is not allowed to fall to the ground but is gathered up and presented to the Father in holy and eternally prevailing form. At the same time, I recall that the Father has promised to send the Spirit of his Son, mediated through the name and vicarious humanity of Jesus, into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father; and I am assured that as I pray in the name of God’s beloved Son I am caught up with all my own infirmities within the inarticulate intercession of the eternal Spirit of the Father and of the Son from whose love nothing in heaven or earth, nothing in this world or in the world to come, can ever separate us.”

-Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

Read the Summa in Two Years

“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”

-C. S. Lewis

I am ashamed to admit that there are too many classic literary works that I have never read in their entirety. Too many epic novels, histories, philosophies, and political treatises have gathered dust on the shelf. Sadly, the same is true for many classic works in my own field of systematic theology. I could blame my education or culture, but what good would that do? Better to take responsibility and get busy, right?

For several years now, I have poked around in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, especially the questions on the Incarnation in the Tertia Pars.  Thomas has even made appearances in several things I have written. But there are large domains in Thomas’ magnum opus that I haven’t explored.

There may be other ways of scaling this Mt. Everest of Christian theology, but I’d like to read it all straight through (crazy, I know). So I put together a plan to read the Summa in two years. It involves reading one question each weekday, leaving the weekends open to catch up (or read ahead). Each question contains several articles and takes up about 5-10 double-columned pages in my copy. Given the density of Thomas’ thought, that’s a fairly heavy pace (for me anyway). But how else are you going to make it all the way through?

Here’s the plan:

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Summa Reading Plan

I’d like to start this plan in the new year, and I’m looking for accountability! If you’re interested, let me know. I may blog on it from time to time in this space. In preparation for the two-year journey, I am reading Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering’s introduction to Thomas’ theology. I’ll likely read other secondary literature along the way as well.

So, who’s in?

Do We Overuse the Word “Gospel”?

File this under the hashtag #confessyourunpopulartheologicalopinion, but I think we sometimes overuse the word “gospel.” Think of all the hyphenated adjectives we have invented with the word “gospel” on the front end (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-saturated, etc.). Think of how many organizations and local church ministry initiatives have been framed by the word “gospel.” Think of how often we use the word in sermons and Sunday School lessons and small group meetings, often without taking care to define precisely what we mean by the term.

Obviously the Greek term euangelion (“good news”) and its cognates constitute an important theme in the biblical story of redemption. It is rooted in the Messianic promises of  the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9, LXX). It is the title affixed to the climactic story of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It is used by Paul dozens of times to describe the core of his apostolic message. So I would never want to displace what Paul says is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). My concern is not so much with the concept itself but with how we employ the specific English word “gospel.”

As I see it, the word “gospel” exerts an outsized influence in our theological vocabulary. There are several potential weaknesses in the overuse of the word “gospel.”

  • It is a derivation of an Old English word. The word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means “good news.” What if we just translated euangelion directly into modern English as “good news”? What would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having good-news-driven ministries? It seems that nothing would be lost and much would be gained by simply providing a gloss of the term when we use it.
  • It can become cliche. This is actually true of any term. If you use a word often enough, without explaining its content, it becomes hackneyed. So maybe this point is not so much a knock on the word “gospel” per se as it is an encouragement for Christians to define carefully and consistently what we mean by it. Which brings me to a third potential weakness.
  • It is a disputed term. The gospel means many things to many people. It can be used as short-hand for individual salvation (God, man, Christ, response). It can be employed to speak of the overarching storyline of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). It can be used to describe the anti-imperial overtones of the church’s confession of the Lordship of Christ. It can be used to tease out the social and even political implications of the Christian message. It can expanded into a summary of the entire Christian worldview, as nearly everything important becomes a “gospel issue.” If we overuse the word “gospel” and under-explain it, we risk being misunderstood. We also risk becoming untethered from how the term is actually used in the New Testament. This point, like the last, may not be a direct criticism of the word “gospel” itself, since many important terms are disputed and in need of constant definition. But we can’t simply use the word and expect people to know what we mean by it.
  • It can unintentionally displace God’s activity in redemption. We often use the word “gospel” when what we really mean is “Christ” or “the Holy Spirit” or “God’s grace.”  The New Testament sometimes personifies the word euangelion and has it doing certain things (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17), but most often the NT writers speak of God’s agency in and through the gospel message. We don’t construct our theologies by simply counting verses, but it does seem instructive to compare the number of times Paul, for example, uses “Christ” (370x) versus “gospel” (~70x). Again, what would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having Christ-driven ministries? What if we strove to cultivate Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification? Don’t get me wrong. I still use the word “gospel,” and I am not on a campaign to have it retired. It is a beautiful word with a rich history in English-speaking Christianity. But I wonder sometimes if “the gospel” doesn’t sort of take on a life of its own that obscures the direct agency of the triune God in our salvation.

So what do you think? Do we overuse the word “gospel”? Do we do a sufficient job explaining in precise biblical terms what we mean by it? Do any of these potential weaknesses miss the mark?

Recovering the Study of Divinity

I recently came across a convocation address from over twenty years ago that is just as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. It’s Philip Turner’s 1992 inaugural address as dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School titled “To Students of Divinity.” Speaking from within mainline Protestantism, Turner points out the embarrassment that many experience even in the claim to study “divinity.”

The study of God (rather than religion) is not an occupation high on the list of priorities set forth in the development plans of most of our colleges and universities…We may, according to current wisdom, safely study the human phenomenon we call “religion.” That endeavor, after all, does not lie outside the parameters of scientific and humanistic study; however, the study of “divinity” is quite another matter. The actual study of God is a suspect undertaking.

Coupled with this embarrassment over the study of God is a hesitancy to emphasize the love of God. Indeed, Turner argues that even within the world of academic theology there is a tendency to invert the two great commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Nevertheless, I believe that, from the time of the Enlightenment to the present, one can read the history of the study of divinity as one in which the second commandment, which is like the first but not the first, has increasingly been made into the first and then the only commandment. The study of divinity has become, in short, less and less the study of God and more and more the study of us….One might express the version of the summary of the law as actually understood by many representatives of modern Western theology as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely, thou shalt love God as thyself.”

So what it is needed in the present moment is a restoration of the biblical order of loves. Keeping the first commandment first does not entail a denigration of the second, but rather gives to the second its appropriate shape and context. But how can such a reversal take place? How do we go about recovering the study of divinity– the pursuit of the knowledge and love of God? Turner suggests three main answers.

“What God asks us to put first, rather than last, in the study of divinity, is worship.” Putting God in his proper place of adoration and service will enable us to overcome the “destructive division” that is often placed between our heads and our hearts.

Next, the restoration of the first commandment will demand a “mastery of the tradition through which the teaching of the Apostles has come down to us.” Turner maintains that the study of divinity requires us “not only to master the Holy Scriptures of the Christian people, but also the history of their interpretation through the ages.” Only by recovering this great tradition will the contemporary church be delivered from the “collective amnesia” that has rendered it speechless about who God is and what he requires.

Finally, Turner suggests that a recovery of divinity is dependent not only on worship and tradition but also on Christian practice. “We cannot divorce either worship or study from an attempt to learn a way of life.” The recovery of divinity requires more than reading and speaking; it also requires an earnest attempt to the imitation of God in Christ. “[A]part from the way of life that imitates the life of God, our words about him are more like gossip than truth. We may use them, but we will most certainly misuse them because we have no real knowledge of what they mean.”

There are simply too many “underlineable” sentences in this this brief piece to mention here. You need to read the whole thing. If American Christianity in its various manifestations is indeed experiencing decline, then Turner’s prescriptions, it seems to me, would go a long way in helping to stop the slide.