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 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


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,


Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Guest Post by Bruce Ware

The following is a guest post by Dr. Bruce Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Clarifications and Declarations in a Humble Endeavor to Know the Trinitarian God Rightly

Bruce A. Ware

“. . . Let him who boasts, boast in this, that he understands and knows Me . . .” (Jer 9:24)

I’m grateful to Matthew Emerson, Luke Stamps, and Luke Wisley for allowing this guest posting on their blog site. While the discussion of Trinity of recent weeks has been productive in many ways, there remains for me one distressing element. Much of the discussion has been made within the context of charges of unorthodoxy regarding myself and others committed to the position that we see the Bible indicating eternal relations of authority and submission within the Trinity. Several issues have been raised by a number of writers, and I wish here to clarify just how I see our position as consistent with the pro-Nicene tradition and with Scripture. While much more can be said, I am hopeful of providing enough to see the lines of thought that could be developed further in another context. I’ll address five main issues raised, as I have seen them discussed over these past weeks.

  1. Issue: How can one uphold the inseparable operations the pro-Nicene theologians found indispensable along with the notion that the Father, Son, and Spirit each acts in distinct ways as indicated repeatedly in Scripture (e.g., Father sending, Son going, Spirit empowering)?

Response: I gladly affirm my commitment to the doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because each person of the Trinity possesses the identically same divine nature, each uses the same power and relies on the same knowledge and wisdom in conducting the various works that each does. So, there cannot be a separation or division in the work of the One God since each person participates fully in the One nature of God. But this does not preclude each person accessing, as it were, those qualities of the divine nature (e.g., power, knowledge, wisdom) distinctively yet harmoniously, according to their own hypostatic identities as Father, and as Son, and as the Holy Spirit, such that they bring to pass one unified result accomplishing the one work of God. In this way, the personal works of the Father, Son, and Spirit may be distinctive but never divided; each may focus on particular aspects of the divine work yet only together accomplish the one, harmonious, unified work of God. Each work of the Trinitarian persons, then, is inseparable, while aspects of that one work are hypostatically distinguishable. Inseparable, but not indistinguishable—this accounts for the full biblical record of the works of God which are unified works done by the one God, yet always carried out in hypostatically distinguishable ways.

Khaled Anatolios offers assistance on this issue when discussing the position on divine agency advanced by Gregory of Nyssa. Anatolios writes that Gregory ruled out the notion of the Trinitarian persons functioning as separate agents, working independent of one another. But, he continues,

the notion of an altogether undifferentiated agency in which each of the persons partakes in exactly the same manner is also implicitly but very clearly ruled out by Gregory’s consistent strategy of using three different verbs to distribute the common action distinctly to the three persons. . . . [T]he typical pattern for that distribution is that every action issues from the Father, is actualized through the Son, and is completed by the Spirit. There is thus an ineffable distinction within unity in divine co-activity such that the one divine activity is completely effected by each of the persons and yet is distinctly inflected between them. Every activity that is originated by the Father is equally yet distinctly owned by Son and Spirit [Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011) 231].

I affirm what Anatolios suggests, that we can understand Trinitarian co-agency neither as “altogether undifferentiated” nor as divided and independent. Rather, all divine action is performed by the Father, Son, and Spirit in an undivided yet distinct manner, as inseparable while also being hypostatically distinguishable.

  1. Issue: Closely related is the next question, regarding the will of God as this pertains to the one and undivided divine nature and the three distinct persons. Can there be a will of authority (from the Father) and a will of submission (from the Son) without conceiving of separate and separable divine wills?

Response: In short, my answer is yes. But the issue is anything but simple. I would suggest that we affirm what the church Fathers did, that “will” as a volitional capacity is a property of the divine nature. So, in this sense, each of the three persons possesses the identically same will, just as each of them possesses the identically same power, and knowledge, and holiness, and love, etc. Yet, while each possesses the same volitional capacity, each also is able to activate that volitional capacity in exercising the one will in distinct yet unified ways according to their distinct hypostatic identities and modes of subsistence. So, while the Father may activate the common divine will to initiate, the Son may activate the divine will to carry out, e.g., “from” the Father, “through” the Son—as has often been affirmed in Trinitarian doctrine following the pattern in Scripture itself (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6). Given this, one might even speak of one unified will of God, as the volitional capacity common to all three, along with three “inflections” of the unified divine will (borrowing Anatolios’s wording), or three hypostatically distinct expressions of that one divine will, or even three distinguishable acts of willing which together bring to light the fullness of that one unified will—all of which express the particular ways each divine person activates that common will as expressive of their particular personhood and distinctive yet undivided personal action. This way of understanding the will of God—one will that is the volitional capacity of nature, along with distinct activations or inflections of willing from each of the three divine persons—is akin, then, to how we should understand, for example, the love of God. Love is a quality or attribute of the divine nature and as such is common to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet the Father’s expression of love for the Son is distinctly the Father’s, as the Son’s expression of love for the Father is distinctly the Son’s, and the Holy Spirit’s expression of love for Father and Son is distinctly his—one common attribute of love with three expressions or inflections of that capacity of love through each of the three Trinitarian persons.

Apart from such a perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the three Trinitarian persons share in intimate fellowship, love, communication, and mutual support. While there is one divine will, there must also be what Anatolios refers to as “distinct inflections of the one divine will belonging distinctly to the three hypostaseis” [Retrieving Nicaea, 220, fn. 234] lest we propose, even unwittingly, some form of modalism or unitarianism. Terminology here is difficult, but if we are to undergird the genuineness of shared love and fellowship in the Trinity, and if we are to acknowledge the Trinitarian grammar of divine willing that is expressed from the Father, through the Son, and completed by the Spirit, then something along the lines of one unified divine will of volitional capacity along with three distinct yet undivided inflections or activations of willing by the three persons needs to be upheld. As a result, we can conceive, for example, how the Father can plan, purpose and will to send the Son (John 6:38; Eph 1:9; 1 John 4:10), and the Son accept and embrace the will of the Father (John 4:34). These are “distinct inflections” of the one and unified divine will, as seen from the particular hypostatic perspectives of the Father and the Son.

  1. Issue: Is the Son free in his willing to obey the will of the Father? Some might think that if the Son must embrace the Father’s will, then he cannot truly be free in accepting to do the Father’s will. This issue is raised by D. Glenn Butner, Jr., in which he dismisses the notion that the Father could genuinely will in an authoritative way and the Son in a submissive way since the Son cannot will other than the Father has willed. As he writes, “. . . the Son cannot submit to the Father because such submission requires freedom [“Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will,” JETS 58.1 (March 2015) 147].”

Response: But this objection only stands if the kind of freedom one is considering is libertarian freedom, i.e., the so-called power of contrary choice. That is, Butner’s criticism only works if the freedom by which the Son is said to “freely obey” the Father is one in which he can equally obey or disobey the Father, i.e., the Son has libertarian freedom which requires the power of contrary choice. But I have argued elsewhere that libertarian freedom is a failed conception that neither explains why moral agents choose precisely what they do, nor does it accord with the strong sovereignty of God we see throughout the Scriptures [God’s Greater Glory: the Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004) 85-95; and “The Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012) 212-230]. If we adopt instead the conception of freedom in which our freedom consists in our unconstrained ability to do what we most want, or to act according to our highest inclination—sometimes referred to as a “freedom of inclination”—then this problem is removed. The Son’s willing submission is his free and unconstrained expression of what he most wants to do when he receives the authoritative will of the Father, which is always, without exception, to embrace and carry out precisely what the Father gives him to do.

  1. Issue: Have the proponents of ERAS (eternal relations of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons) denied the Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son?

Response: The answer emphatically, and for all proponents of our view whom I know, is no. We have never denied this doctrine, and indeed we affirm it as declaring very important truths about the eternal relation between the Father and the Son, the eternal deity and unity of both the Father and the Son, and the eternal Fatherhood of the Father and eternal Sonship of the Son. Although I believe I could speak for all proponents of ERAS, it would be best here to speak for myself alone. For my 30+ years of teaching, I have believed and taught with great conviction that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, the Son the eternal Son of the Father, and that the Son, in possessing the identically same and eternal divine nature as the Father possesses, is homoousios with the Father. Where I have always hesitated is with biblical support put forth by others for the twin doctrines of eternal generation (Son) and eternal procession (Spirit), sometimes called the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence. Because of this, though I have never denied this doctrine, I have been reluctant to embrace it. I have craved biblical support and yet have not been convinced by what has been offered. John 5:26, for example, perhaps the most-frequently cited text in support of eternal generation, does not, in my judgment, teach this doctrine. The verse begins with “for” (gar) indicating it is explaining what was said in 5:24-25. There, those who believe in the Father are granted eternal life (5:24), and those likewise who believe in the Son are granted resurrection life (5:25). How is this? The explanation comes in 5:26 where the Father has life in himself, presumably to give to those who believe, and he has given the Son also life in himself, again presumably to give to those who believe. The subject is the gift of eternal life, not the ontological life of the Father and Son in the immanent Trinity. Well, this is not the place to conduct more exegetical commentary, but just to say that I have not been persuaded of this doctrine from the biblical texts cited in its support (yet, in light of what you’ll read below, I would be happy to be so persuaded!).

Doesn’t this mean you reject the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence, then? No, it does not, for reasons that have pressed more heavily upon me in recent years. Allow me to offer these two reasons for why I have come to accept it: 1) I have great respect for the history of this doctrine, knowing its near universal acceptance through the history of the church, and this provides strong reason to accept it as the heritage of the church to us now in the 21st century. 2) Also important to me is my long-standing commitment to what I see very clearly in the Bible, and that is the eternal Fatherhood of the Father, and the eternal Sonship of the Son. But then, if you ask the question, “just how is the One who is called ‘Father” in fact eternal Father? And just how is the One who is called ‘Son’ in fact eternal Son?” it is here that the doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence offers the only real accounting or grounding available. While the Father is eternal Father, and the Son the eternal Son, the best way to account for these truths is by affirming what the church has taught, viz., that the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. So, while I remain unconvinced at present that specific texts in Scripture teach this doctrine, I accept and embrace it as the “church’s doctrine” and the only genuine explanation that grounds the Father as eternal Father, and the Son as eternal Son.

Now, does affirming the eternal modes of subsistence cause problems for our commitment to an eternal relation of authority and submission in the Godhead? Absolutely not! In fact, it only strengthens our view. Precisely because the Father eternally begets the Son, the Father, as eternal Father of the Son, has the intrinsic paternal hypostatic position of having authority over his Son; and precisely because the Son is eternally begotten from the Father, the Son, as eternal Son of the Father, has the intrinsic filial hypostatic position of being in submission to his Father. The eternal modes of subsistence, then, ground the eternal distinction between Father and Son (and Spirit), while the eternal relations of authority and submission then flow out from and are expressive of those eternal modes of subsistence. Honestly, eternal (ontological) modes of subsistence, and the eternal (functional and hypostatic) relations of authority and submission work like hand and glove.

  1. Issue: Finally, is it not the case that affirming the eternal authority of the Father over the Son, and the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, indicate both the superiority of the Father over the Son, and that the Father has a different nature than the Son?

Response: No, neither of these problems follows. Allow me to address each separately. First, the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons. And, since the Father is eternal Father, and the Son eternal Son, this manner of relating is likewise eternal.

Second, but can the Father truly have the same nature as the Son when the Father has eternal authority over the Son? Yes, indeed, because “authority” and “submission” do not define or characterize the one and undivided nature that the Father and Son (and Spirit) share fully together, nor should they be thought of as attributes of God, per se. Holiness, wisdom, and power, of course, are attributes of God, and these (and all other) divine attributes are possessed equally by the Father and the Son, since each possesses the same eternal and undivided divine nature. But authority and submission are ways of relating, not attributes of one’s being. Put differently, authority and submission are hypostatic and functional properties pertaining to the persons in relation to one another, not ontological attributes attaching to the one commonly shared divine nature. So, while the Father and Son are fully equal in nature, as each possesses the identically same and eternal divine nature, the Father and Son are also distinctive persons, with person-specific properties that express the ways in which they eternally relate as Father to Son, and Son to Father, including hypostatically distinct paternal authority and hypostatically distinct filial submission.

One caution is needed here. To say that a property of the person of the Son, qua Son before his Father, is to express a hypostatically distinct filial submission to his Father, is not to suggest in the least that his authority over all that is created is any less than the authority of the Father. Since the Persons of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally infinite, uncreated, self-existent, and eternal, while all things otherwise are by nature finite, created, dependent, and temporal, there is no division of authority among the Trinitarian persons over creation. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have equal divine authority over creation, while they also exhibit within the Trinitarian relations the authority and submission appropriate to their mode of subsistence and hypostatic identities.

To conclude, I wish to cite a statement of our position that for decades seems not to have caused quite the stir as we’ve seen in recent weeks. I affirm what I end with, and am grateful for the wisdom, insight, beauty, and biblical fidelity expressed here. May God grant all of us humility and tenacity to seek to know God as he has revealed himself to be.

Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other. The Son appears in the gospels, not as an independent divine person, but as a dependent one, who thinks and acts only and wholly as the Father directs. . . . It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son’s part, and find all His joy in doing His Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven. As in heaven, so on earth, the Son was utterly dependent upon the Father’s will [J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 54-55].


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.