Sexual Identity and Theological Anthropology

In their recently released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink offer a view of biological sex and sexuality grounded in theological anthropology. They focus particularly on the connection between sex and the relational aspect of the imago dei, and do so in order to argue that our sexual nature (that is, that we are made as “male and female,” with a biological sex) is not limited to or only realized in marriage and procreation. While the family unit may be the “primary and prototypical manner in which this basic desire for bonding and solidarity is expressed” (285-86), it is nevertheless not the only way in which this fundamentally relational aspect of our humanity can be realized. van der Kooi and van den Brink differentiate, for the most part, between “sexual” and “sexuality,” the former denoting our human nature as “male and female,” the latter referring to sexual activities.  A few choice quotes in this regard:

Sexuality is not everything, and those who are hardly, or not at all, involved in sexual activities can be excellent and complete human beings (281).

Our sexuality [here they mean sexual nature] is not a kind of secondary embellishment of what is at root asexual. An asexual human being is an abstraction. We do not have a genderless or bisexual core that relativizes our male or female state, but from the very first God created as thoroughly physical, sexual beings: male and female God created us (282).

Admittedly, there are intrinsic differences between men and women, and neither persons nor societies will function optimally when they are ignored. But…much of what we consider to be typically male or female is undoubtedly culturally determined (283).

…it is not correct to regard procreation as the only purpose of our sexuality. If that were the case, a major part of humanity (including Jesus of Nazareth) would not be fully fledged humans (284).

This seems to me to be a very balanced section on sexuality and sexual identity. On the one hand, the authors acknowledge the “fact of nature” (284) of our sexual nature as human beings, and therefore that God made us male and female. In doing so, they also acknowledge that heterosexual marriage leading to procreation is the “prototypical manner” (286) in which this sexual nature is expressed. They also importantly, though, leaven the lump, so to speak, and say with Jesus that marriage is relativized in the eschaton, with Paul that singleness is a gift from God, and with modern studies in theological anthropology that we cannot reduce “male and female” to unbiblical cultural norms. They are also careful to speak about ways in which our sexual nature can remain relational, since it is part of the imago dei, without requiring sexual activity.

Unfortunately, though, the authors punt at the end of the section on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not uncommon for this book; on most of the major issues in theology, one is left asking for more of the authors’ own perspectives and arguments. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that it is intended to be an introductory textbook, but there are places where taking a stance seems to be required. In my mind this is one of them. I wish they had.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.


Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.

Guarding the Good Deposit and Ministering Sound Doctrine

As a Baptist, I am staunchly in favor of religious liberty for all and the individual freedom of conscience required for that collective liberty. I’m also in favor of congregational rule in local churches. And more generally as a Protestant, I definitely confess sola scriptura. This does not mean, however, that I’m against confessions and creeds or their derivative authority.

I’ve written elsewhere about what it means for confessions and creeds to have derivative authority – that is, authority that is derived from its faithfulness to Scripture, the ultimate authority – and how that relates to the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura. Here I only wish to highlight the fact that Scripture itself suggests that Christ’s ministers are to disciple believers via passing on sound doctrine. In other words, confessing sola scriptura does not negate the (derivative, secondary) authority of tradition, but rather it is in these supremely authoritative scriptures that we find an analogy to tradition’s authority in Jesus and the apostles commanding Christians to disciple believers precisely by carefully passing down a summary of their teachings.

1. Christ Passes on Sound Doctrine

I could go all the way back to the OT and Deuteronomy 34 here, but I’ll stick with the NT for now. Jesus conveys the importance of tradition and its role in discipling his followers in many places; here, I’ll highlight two. First, on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, Jesus schools his followers on how to read the Old Testament. We are not given the details of this discussion, but instead Jesus gives his apostles a “rule” to follow regarding how to read God’s Word. What we have in the NT is the administration of that rule via the apostolic deposit, i.e. the NT itself. The rule’s application has been inscripturated and thus serves as the rule itself – to be in accordance with Jesus’ rule is to be in accordance with the NT. Nevertheless, Jesus’ instructions here can serve as an analogy to the authority of doctrine. Doctrine is derivatively authoritative insofar as it is faithful to the inscripturation of Jesus’ rule – the Bible.

We also see Jesus commanding his disciples not only to baptize new believers but to teach all of Christ’s followers to obey “everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). This summary statement includes what the apostles later write under the inspiration of the Spirit in the NT. He was telling them to pass on what he had taught them, which I would venture to say included how to read the OT Christologically, what to believe about Jesus, and how to follow him. Of course, now that Christ’s teaching is inscripturated, Matthew 28 just is referring to the NT. There is no outside equally authoritative tradition. My only point here is that Jesus’ command gives analogous credence to the idea of holding believers accountable to a summary of Christian teaching.

This is a direct command from Jesus to pass on something that is not Scripture itself but rather a faithful summary – Jesus’ faithful summary! – of Scripture. We do not have the Luke 24 conversation recorded. Arguably, we do not have everything that Jesus commanded (John 20). These instructions are passed down via the NT, and our subsequent administration of it must find itself in accordance with this inscripturated application of the rule. In other words, Jesus’ rule, in both Luke 24 and Matthew 28, is administered in his inspired Word. Our job now is to make sure what we pass down is in accordance with this supreme authority, the inspired Word of God in the Prophets and Apostles.

2. Paul Commands Timothy and Titus to Pass On Sound Doctrine

In the Pastoral Epistles, we find numerous instructions by Paul to both Timothy and Titus to pass on what they have learned to others. For example:

…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

…the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:9-11).

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (1 Tim. 4:6).

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing (1 Tim. 6:2-4).

O Timothy, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (1 Tim. 6:20).

Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13).

By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:14).

…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15).

[An overseer] must hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

We could add to this references to “the faith” and either guarding it or departing from it, as well as the hymns (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:16) and references to trustworthy sayings. In any case, from the list above it is apparent that Paul had trained Timothy and Titus in sound doctrine and expected them to pass it on to those they were discipling, and so on (2 Tim. 2:2). He seems to be referring to a summary statement about who Jesus is, what he’s done, and how to know him. There also may be some hermeneutical guidelines (e.g. a rule of faith) a la Luke 24 in mind in these passages, especially when Paul references speculation and Jewish genealogies and myths. Of course, what Paul is referring to as “the good deposit,” “the faith,” “sound doctrine,” “the teaching,” etc. is what then became inscripturated in the NT. Once again, there is no inspired authority outside of Scripture. But our point here is that these instructions by Jesus and Paul give us analogies to the ministerial role of tradition subsequent to the writing of the NT.

3. Ministers Pass on Sound Doctrine

These examples demonstrate that both Jesus and Paul (and I’d argue we could include the other apostles) commanded Christians to pass on sound doctrine. There’s no time to expand on this here, but, to clarify briefly, they also are clear that this “deposit” is faithful to the Word God has already given to his people in the OT and to the Word he was giving at the time to the apostles. In other words, this “deposit” was only authoritative insofar as it was faithful to God’s inspired and inerrant Word, both as it already existed in the OT and was being written in what we now call the NT. Of course, that sound doctrine and teaching was subsequently inscripturated in the NT. We do not have any source of inspired authority outside of Scripture. But, by way of analogy, ministers are still called to pass on sound doctrine that is in accordance with Scripture.

Tradition, then, is not at odds with Scripture per se, but is rather the God-ordained means of stewarding the faithful summary of Scripture. Tradition is a steward, or minister, of Scripture’s main point. It is a minister of how to read Scripture. It does not stand over Scripture, but like any good minister is used to pass on what has been entrusted to it. In this sense, it is authoritative, but only secondarily and derivatively. We could say the same thing about pastors and congregations; the authority that God has entrusted them is ministerial, and only effective insofar as they are faithful to the ultimate authority, God’s Word.

Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

Incarnation Anyway?

A couple of years ago I read through Edwin Chr. van Driel’s important work, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. In it, van Driel explores the question, would God have become incarnate even if there were no sin from which to rescue humanity? Or, to state the question differently, in the eternal plan of God, is God’s decree to become incarnate in Christ logically anterior to his decree to permit the fall (supralapsarian)?

Van Driel admits that in the Western traditions, the answer to this question is (for the most part) decidedly, no. Calvin is representative on this point:

One such [vague] speculation is that Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed…But since all Scripture proclaims that to become our Redeemer he was clothed with flesh, it is too presumptuous to imagine another reason or another end. We well know why Christ was promised from the beginning: to restore the fallen world to succor lost men….In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf (Institutes 2.12.4).

But van Driel suggests that this line of reasoning begs the question in some important respects. Is it actually the case that Scripture gives us no reasons for the incarnation other than those tied to Christ’s work of sin-bearing atonement? For example, does Scripture not also speak of the incarnation in creational and eschatological terms that transcend (without occluding) the incarnation’s redemptive rationale?

But what would a scriptural case for the “incarnation-anyway” position look like? What Scriptures have proponents of this view marshaled as evidence for their position? Many supporters of the position have pointed to the sweeping Christological claims of Ephesians and Colossians with regard to Christ’s place in God’s creational agenda. Ephesians 1:10 maintains that God’s purpose in Christ was “a plan for the fullness of time to unite (anakephalaioo; recapitulate) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Likewise, Colossians 1:16 speaks of Christ—not just the Son of God as such, but the incarnate Christ—as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. So it appears that the incarnation has a creational, not merely a redemptive, dimension.

Van Driel also makes three interrelated theological arguments in favor of the incarnation-anyway position. He suggests that there are a number of goods that we would not have apart from the incarnation:

  • The superabundance of the eschaton. The eschaton (the final state) is not merely a return to the proton (the first state). It transcends Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden because it involves an eternal, permanently sinless, face-to-face encounter with God in the face of Christ.
  • The vision of God. Relatedly, when we are transformed in the eschaton, we will experience the beatific vision. But how so? First John explains that the glorified saints will be like Christ, because they will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our experience of God will not merely be one of intellectual contemplation, but we will see our God in his incarnate state. As embodied creatures, we will know God in an embodied way.
  • Divine friendship. As van Driel argues, “for friends, presence is what counts.” God is not content to remain at a distance, but he makes himself “maximally available” to his creatures. This he accomplishes finally and fully through the incarnation.

So we have these superadded gifts only in light of the incarnation. But do we really want to say that these eschatological goods are entirely contingent upon the presence of sin? Was the fall, then, actually a felix culpa, a happy fault, that was necessary in order for God to bring about these final purposes for his creation? This view is problematic for van Driel, because it seems to make God’s good purposes dependent upon evil. Instead, van Driel maintains that these creational purposes were intended by God all along, with the added necessity of redemption entering into the picture posterior to the decree to permit the fall (I use the word “posterior” rather than “after” because we must remember that the decree of God is eternal; it is not as if the fall took God by surprise and only then did he determine to send a Savior; the decree to permit the fall and provide redemption was willed “before the foundation of the world” no less than the decree to create. So we are not dealing with a temporal but a logical priority here).

So what are we to make of this case for the incarnation-anyway position? I admit that I find many of these biblical and theological arguments quite compelling. The New Testament, especially Paul’s cosmic Christology, does seem to teach what Myk Habets has referred to as the primacy of Christ–that the incarnate Christ is preeminent in all of God’s purposes, for creation and consummation no less than redemption. But it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of texts that speak of the incarnation do situate it in terms of God’s redemptive work. And there may be other problems for the incarnation-anyway position that I need to think through more carefully. But at the moment I am inclined to think that incarnation has primacy in the eternal decree of God. So perhaps–wonder of wonders–God in his infinite love determined to be Immanuel, God with us, all along.

“An Invasion of God”


Everything in Christianity centers on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin.

-T. F. Torrance

In other words,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

-1 John 1:1-4

Alliterative Trinitarianism

Over the last month or so, I read back through Athanasius and the Cappadocians in preparation for ETS and for an essay on theological method and Trinitarian doctrine. As I’ve worked my way once again (perhaps the fourth time?) through these texts, an organizing scheme for part of their argument came to me . And of course, since I’m a Baptist, this scheme came pre-packaged alliteratively. The following four affirmations, concerning each of the three persons of God, function for the pro-Nicene theologians as some of the main arguments for the full, equal, shared divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Appellations – The pro-Nicene theologians were at pains to show that, while Father, Son, and Spirit each have different personal names, they all are called by the divine name and its synonyms in Scripture. Because Son and Spirit are both called (along with the Father) Savior, Creator, Majesty, etc., they are equally God.
  2. Activities – Similarly, Father, Son, and Spirit are each identified by Scripture as the persons who do what only God does – creates, redeems, judges, and sustains.
  3. Attributes – Father, Son, and Spirit are each called or identified as possessing attributes that are only possessed by God alone, either as superlative communicable attributes (goodness, mercy, justice, holiness, etc.) or divine incommunicable attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.).
  4. Adoration – The three persons of the Godhead each receive worship in Scripture, something that is only applicable to and received by God alone.

Rightly Dividing Trinitarian Grammar

Theologians have often used the term “grammar” to refer to the vocabulary necessary to speak correctly about one doctrine or another. This is especially true with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity; this most important, most studied, most clearly defined doctrine has been passed down to us using particular terms that have particular content (and exclude other content). Included in this Trinitarian grammar are a number of important distinctions, ones that help us talk about the Trinity in a biblically faithful and dogmatically precise way. The list below is not exhaustive, but merely a foray into how the Church has rightly divided Trinitarian grammar for the last two millennia.

  1. Common & Proper. This is perhaps the most fundamental distinction, between what is common to the three persons of the one God in the divine essence and what is proper – unique – to each person. In classical Trinitarianism, the only characteristic proper to each person is their mode of subsistence in the divine essence. The Father is Unbegotten, the Son is eternally Begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is eternally Spirated from the Father and Son.
  2. Creator & Creature. This is the other fundamental distinction in Christian Trinitarian thought; what is properly (uniquely) predicated of a creature cannot be predicated of the Creator or vice versa. (This is a crucial distinction when it comes to the Son’s submission to the Father.)
  3. Immanent & Economic. The former refers to God’s existence apart from creation, including his decree. The latter refers to God’s existence, and particularly how the three persons of God relate, in the entire act of salvation, including the decree.
  4. Immanent & Transitive. These two terms refer to God’s action, the former referring to his internal activity – activity internal to God’s being, i.e. the eternal relations of origin – and activity external to God’s being, i.e. creation and redemption. While God’s action is one, and while both of these actions are therefore eternal, it is important to recognize that immanent activity is necessary and external activity is contingent.
  5. Necessary & Contingent. And that is the last distinction to be made (at least for this post). God’s immanent activity, namely the eternal relations of origin, is necessary for his being. It is just who he is. God’s contingent activity, though, the action of creation and redemption, is external to him, i.e. not necessary to his being. God does not have to take this action, and so whatever kinds of additional predications can be made about the relations that exist between the three persons in this external activity, they are contingent realities in God’s life, not necessary ones.

As you might imagine, the latter two distinctions have important implications regarding ERAS/ESS/etc. First of all, the distinction between necessary and contingent means that we cannot predicate of God’s immanent life what is only true in the contingent activity of creation and redemption. So, while some have pointed out that the Son submits to the Father in the covenant of redemption (if you accept such a doctrine), because that is part of God’s eternal but contingent activity, it is not appropriate to predicate an immanent submission of the Son to the Father.

Second, the distinction between immanent and transitive action is incredibly important. If God’s nature and his immanent existence include relations of authority and submission, that kind of relation necessitates transitive action. In other words, submission requires some external decision and activity in which one party submits to the other. This seems to undercut either the doctrine of aseity – God would be required to act in this case in order to be himself – or the eternal continuity of God’s being – God would change in his nature at some point (in his activity) and introduce a new kind of relationship in his immanent life.

These are the kinds of dogmatic questions I and Luke, among others, have continued to allude to in our posts about the Trinity and in subsequent public conversations. It is not enough to simply say that human father and son language in Scripture almost always includes an element of submission; one must also ask whether predicating what is true of human relationships of relations in God’s inner life is appropriate given these dogmatic considerations. I’d say the answer is, clearly, no.


Gregory of Nyssa and a “Community of Wills”?

In Against Eunomius I.1.34 (NPNF 5), Gregory says this regarding the Father and Son sharing in one nature:

So also the Father and Son are one, the community of nature and the community of will running, in them, into one. But if the Son had been joined in wish only to the Father, and divided from Him in His nature, how is it that we find Him testifying to His oneness with the Father, when all the time He was sundered from Him in the point most proper to Him of all?

At first glance this sounds problematic from the standpoint of proponents of dyothelite Christology and, correspondingly, one will in the Godhead. A phrase like “community of wills,” along with the analogy Gregory uses right before this of two men agreeing with one another, could be taken to mean that Nyssen is here implicitly affirming multiple divine wills. This is, in fact, just the kind of passage that twentieth-century social Trinitarians might point to in favor of their understanding of “person,” and in fact the Cappadocians are employed frequently in support of their position. But there are clear reasons to reject a “social Trinitarian” reading of Gregory, at least in this particular passage.

1. Elsewhere in Nyssen, as well as in other pro-Nicenes, God is one in every way. The *only* distinction that exists in the Godhead is the means of subsistence in the essence, i.e. the eternal relations of origin that distinguish the persons. Nyssen previously in “Against Eunomius” has spoken repeatedly of the fact that God is one in every conceivable way – power, authority, command, goodness, justice, glory, etc. The only way that the persons are distinguished is via eternal relations of origin (see e.g. I.1.22).

2. The context clearly affirms one will. Nyssen speaks immediately prior to this passage about God’s will in the singular. Again, this is in accord with the way Nyssen speaks elsewhere about God’s simple unity.

3. The analogy with the two men agreeing is not intended to be one to one correspondence. Nyssen makes this quite clear throughout his works on the Trinity, including “Against Eunomius.” We should not take his analogy here as anything more than that – analogous. Nyssen consistently affirms a healthy dose of apophaticism and the analogical nature of language elsewhere.

4. The syntax of the sentence makes clear that Gregory does not mean multiple wills in the Godhead. Here it is in Greek:

καὶ ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ὁ υἱὸς ἕν εἰσι, τῆς κατὰ τὴν φύσιν καὶ τὴν προαίρεσιν κοινωνίας εἰς τὸ ἓν συνδραμούσης

Note both clauses. The first clause has two singular nouns (“father” and “son”) taking a plural verb to describe them (“are”), but the predicate noun is singular. The plural persons of Father and Son are one. Of course, this is no different than Jesus’ affirmation in John 17. What about the second clause, the more troubling one for our purposes? To begin with, this is an explanatory clause about how Father and Son are one, as indicated by the κατὰ preposition. So Nyssen is at the very least not contradicting his previous statement, but expanding on it. When we look at this expansion of his explanation about God’s oneness, we find two singular nouns – “nature” and “will” – in the middle of a genitive absolute clause – τῆς … κοινωνίας. In other words, whatever “community” means here, it is defined according to (κατὰ) both nature and will. (I am dependent on Seumas Macdonald for insights into the syntax of this sentence). Nyssen is certainly not positing a “community of natures” in the way a “community of wills” would have to be taken for trithelitism. In fact, all that Nyssen really seems to mean here is that, while distinct in their personhood, Father and Son are one in essence and volition.

This, by the way, is the problem with “proof-texting” the Fathers. If one simply presses CTRL-F for “will,” several passages like this will pop up. If we read them cursorily and out of context, they seem to support a social Trinitarian view of the divine persons. But on further inspection, that could not be further from the truth.

HT: Seumas Macdonald and Ryan Clevenger for help with accessing the Greek of this passage.