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.

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.

Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate

Ware and StarkeToday we are pleased to share the following guest post from Kyle Claunch, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary. Kyle also contributed the essay “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarianism in the Immanent Trinity” in the recent volume edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). This essay was recently quoted by Carl Trueman on the Mortification of Spin site. Here, Kyle offers some clarifications about his essay and its argument, clarifications which dovetail well with yesterday’s post on arbitrating the Trinity debate.

An Attempt at Clarity and Charity Without Compromising Orthodoxy

by Kyle Claunch

If you are reading this, I can only assume that you are current on the debate over the Son’s obedience to the Father (the ERAS debate) that is unfolding at break-neck speed in social media and the blogosphere. When dealing with questions of eternal relations in the Godhead, I fear that the speed demanded by social media and blog posts may result in more confusion than clarity, more heat than light. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of this particular iteration of the debate (the intra-mural battle between fellow reformed complementarians). However, developments this week have drawn me into the fray. I pray my comments here are clear, helpful, pleasing to God, and serve to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a recent blog post, Dr. Albert Mohler defended the orthodoxy of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. I found Mohler’s post to be helpful and demonstrated the appropriate support for two theologians whose work has benefitted the church in countless ways. Two statements made by Mohler are particularly relevant for this post. First, Mohler acknowledges that an affirmation of “separate wills in the Trinity” would be heretical. Second, Mohler asserts that the teachings of Grudem and Ware “do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it.”

Carl Trueman was quick to respond to Mohler’s claim. He noted that he could cite widely respected patristic scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes to demonstrate that indeed the ERAS Trinitarianism of Ware and Grudem is not consistent with Nicene Trinitarianism. Instead, Trueman quoted from my chapter in One God in Three Persons, the book co-edited by Bruce Ware (along with John Starke), as follows (brackets and bold print are in Trueman’s post):

“One often overlooked feature of such a proposal [on eternal submission of Son to Father as articulated by Grudem and Ware] is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity. In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills. This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it. According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity.

By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. The model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons.”

In those two paragraphs, I say two things that seem to conflict with Mohler’s defense of Ware and Grudem: (1) The      ERAS position of Ware and Grudem seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the Trinity and (2) this entailment runs counter to the pro-Nicene tradition.

Only hinted at in the quoted portion above but discussed more fully a few lines later is the fact that the Nicene Creed articulates the eternal distinction between the divine persons in terms of eternal relations of origin – generation and procession. The ERAS model of Ware, Grudem, and others identifies the relationship of authority and submission as that which differentiates the persons within the one divine essence. Furthermore, although Ware and Grudem do not formally reject the language of eternal generation and procession, they have questioned whether the exegetical support from Scripture offered in justification of the Creed’s use of that language does in fact justify the language. To many, this concern over the exegetical basis for the language of relations of origin has been interpreted, unfairly, as a wholesale rejection of Nicene Trinitarianism.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state openly that I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary, where Dr. Mohler is president. You can imagine that I was greatly disquieted by the fact that my published words had been used to discredit the claims of the president of my seminary and the orthodoxy of my supervising professor! My concerns, however, go far deeper than self-interest. In this post, I hope to accomplish three things: (1) Provide clarification on my words and my assessment of the Trinitarian theology of Ware and Grudem; (2) ask two questions of those who wish to label ERAS proponents as heretics (and anyone else who might be interested to consider them); (3) make a final plea concerning charity and equity in theological discourse for the sake of gospel witness, especially in the matter of charging brothers and sisters in Christ with theological error.

Clarification of my assessment of ERAS

While my words were accurately quoted by Trueman, these two brief paragraphs do not tell the whole story of my assessment of the Trinitarian theology held by Ware and Grudem.

I personally do not subscribe to ERAS Trinitarian theology as articulated by Ware and Grudem. In my chapter in One God in Three Persons, “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity?” I lay out my understanding of the correspondence between the obedience of the incarnate Son to the Father and the role relationships of men and women as taught in the New Testament. I still believe that essay represents a fruitful way forward for those who believe that 1 Corinthians 11:3 does indeed establish some connection between gender complementarity and the Trinity but who detect some legitimacy in the trenchant theological critiques of Grudem and Ware.

Because my essay was published as a chapter in a book where many of the authors (Ware and Grudem included) advocate for the terminology of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity, I felt compelled to clarify that my proposal does not advocate the use of such terms. However, in keeping with the overarching theme of the book, my proposal does establish a connection between the obedience of the Son and gender relations, via a robust analogical divide between the incomprehensible Creator and the creation. In clarifying the differences between my proposal and that of Ware, Grudem, and some others, I felt it necessary to explain why I do not find the language of eternal authority and submission to be helpful. That is where the quotation from Trueman comes into play.

While I maintain that three distinct wills in the Godhead does run counter to the established language of the pro-Nicene consensus and the heritage that emerged from it, I have refused to call ERAS proposals heretical for two reasons. First, at the time of writing my essay, it was not entirely clear from the publishing record of Ware or Grudem that they were consciously rejecting the heritage of one will in the Godhead. It seemed plausible that there might be some nuanced explanation for how authority and submission might manifest itself in the Godhead with one will. Indeed I had hopes that my essay in this volume might spark just such a clarifying discussion. Hence, I said that their proposal “seems to entail” a commitment to three distinct wills in the Godhead. In fact, subsequent to the publication of the book, Ware has told me through private correspondence that he holds to one will in the Godhead, each person exercising the one divine will according to his hypostatic identity as Father, Son, or Spirit. I will allow Ware to speak for himself as to how he understands and articulates this.

Second, while I was concerned with the reluctance of some ERAS proponents to fully embrace the creedal language of eternal relations of origin (generation and procession), it seemed to me then, and still does now, that their contention was with the exegetical basis for that language and thus with the adequacy of that language to express clearly the orthodoxy they knew the Creed intended to establish. The council of Nicaea (and later Constantinople) used the language of eternal generation to preserve two non-negotiable truths: (1) the full eternality of the Son who shares fully the divine essence with the Father against the Arians who appealed to the language of generation in Scripture to defend their aberrant views of the Son and (2) the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son so as to avoid the error of modalism. That is, the language of eternal generation preserved the conviction that Paternity and filiation are eternal relations in the immanent being of God, not simply manifestations in the economy. I am fully aware that the doctrine of eternal generation does far more for Trinitarian theology than just to safeguard those cardinal truths, but I think all sides can agree that is the chief end of clinging to the church’s historic affirmation of eternal generation. After my extensive reading of Grudem and Ware and my extensive personal instruction under the teaching of Ware (not to mention a friendship forged in the fires of theological inquiry and pursuit), I knew these men to be tediously careful to articulate the full deity and eternality of the Son and his eternal sonship as Son of the Father from all eternity. Therefore, even if some ERAS proponents continue to express concerns with the exegetical basis of eternal relations of origin, it is unthinkable to me to apply the same “heresy” label to theologians who carefully preserve those cardinal truths as we apply to theologians who explicitly reject those truths. In other words, I cannot consider the likes of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, who raise critical questions about the terminology of “eternal generation,” as occupying the same contemptible theological space as those who reject the eternality and deity of the Son of God, even if I do not share their concerns with the use of the traditional terminology.

Indeed, this is why I wrote the words, “By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories.” I wanted to say that I do not view these theologians as abandoning the fundamental orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Trinity, as established by the first and second ecumenical councils of the church.

Two Questions for Those Making Accusations of Heresy Against Ware and Grudem

 1. Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?

Or, in the case of Ware and Grudem, should we not distinguish between questioning the exegetical basis of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of that tradition? Is there no difference between Arian denials of the full deity of the Son and Grudem’s and Ware’s concerns with the exegetical basis of the terminology of eternal generation/procession? Should no distinction be made between an explicit denial of divine essential unity and a Trinitarian proposal that we fear “seems to entail” three wills in the Godhead? Indeed, this distinction is observed by many who disagree with ERAS Trinitarianism but by no means wish to use the “heresy” label. For example, Luke Stamps argues cogently that a rejection of the eternal relations of origin (generation and procession) is a departure from the language of the Nicene tradition and that “we should be extraordinarily wary of abandoning it.” He goes on to say, “For [proponents of ERAS], the language of rank or order within the Trinity is not tied to relations of origin but to intrinsic relationships of authority and submission, command and obedience. Now, we need to be clear, this is not heresy. But it isn’t quite what the pro-Nicene tradition has handed down to us either” (bold print is my emphasis). Stamps seems to be operating with a conscious distinction between heresy (a rejection of the principle truths of Nicene orthodoxy) and what he perceives to be problematic but lesser departures from the traditional heritage. I find this distinction to be critical to temperate and charitable theological discourse and debate.

So, to those who insist on using the label of heresy to describe the ERAS position, is there not a place in our public discourse for a distinction like this one? If so, then we do well to make such a distinction explicit when charging a brother or sister in Christ with theological error. It would be immensely helpful and would calm the tone of some of the rhetoric if those using the label of heresy would acknowledge that they are not describing a rejection of the eternality/deity of the Son and his eternal filial individuality in relation to the Father. Furthermore, if the distinction is legitimate, it behooves us as Christian brothers and sisters to avoid declaring one another outside the parameters of the Trinitarian theology of the church catholic for articulating an ERAS position.

2. Do the warnings that stem from the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility apply to the language of the Nicene Creed in particular and the creedal tradition in general?

Does the sword of divine incomprehensibility cut both ways in this debate? A recurring accusation against Ware, Grudem, and other proponents of ERAS is that they fail to account for the infinite ontological gap between God as he is in himself and the revelation of God in the economies of creation and redemption. It is argued that Ware and Grudem draw too straight a line between the authority and submission found in created relationships – Jesus to the Father, wives to husbands – and the eternal relations in the Godhead. The critique may be fair, but does the critique apply to those who insist so vehemently on the language of the Creed also? After all, doesn’t the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility demand that we acknowledge that the language of eternal generation and procession is accommodated language drawn from the realm of the human experience of paternity and filiation? The fact that the Nicene Creed painstakingly qualifies the language of generation and procession to indicate that it is not the same as creaturely generation and procession does not mean that the Creedal formula dwells on the other side of the ontological gap between God and creation. Furthermore, does not our confessional and conscientious commitment to the authority of Scripture alone demand that all accommodated language apart from Scripture is subject to scrutiny, critique, and reformulation? I am by no means suggesting that the language of eternal relations of origin needs reformulation. In fact, I believe strongly that no such reformulation is necessary and that the overwhelmingly heavy burden of proof rests on those who believe that it does. But if the accommodated language of the Creed is unassailable under pain of being labeled a heretic and reckoned outside of the church catholic, then are we really taking the doctrines of divine incomprehensibility and Sola Scriptura seriously?

One Final Plea

The clarity of our gospel witness is paramount in this debate as in all things we say and do as Christian theologians, pastors, professors, and disciples. If indeed there is a legitimate distinction between questioning certain words of the Creed and departures from the theological orthodoxy of the creed, then it follows that our greatest vehemence should be reserved for theological ideas that actually undermine the Triune identity of the one true and living God and thus undercut the very foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theological discourse and debate done well builds the church of Jesus Christ and positions her to better withstand the onslaught of satanic ideologies that threaten to erode her foundation, thus destroying her witness. We must be wary that the methods of the old serpent, such as hubris and intemperateness, do not make their way, Trojan horse style, into the ranks of those whom the Lord has placed as watchmen on our walls.

I am not proposing that debate on this topic cease, nor am I suggesting that error falling short of the label of heresy should be tolerated without being refuted. I am, however, suggesting that all proposed theological error should be refuted with charges that approximate the seriousness of the error, no more, no less.




An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate

nicenecreedIn this debate, Stamps and I have been between a rock and a hard place. That is to say, both of us genuinely believe in the importance of affirming Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and clarified not only at Nicaea (325) but also at Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451). We therefore are sympathetic to the criticisms of the views of, say, Wayne Grudem, who casts doubt upon eternal generation and posits EFS (now ERAS) in its place. We take these criticisms seriously because we take Nicene Trinitarianism seriously.

On the other hand, the way these concerns were raised was and is not helpful, either. (I am thinking particularly Liam Goligher’s initial post that compared EFS/ERAS to Islam and insinuated that it is something akin to heresy, but also subsequent posts from others along those same lines.) I will come back to this in a moment, but here I will summarize and say that the rhetorical heat has not often given adequate consideration to the actual content of Grudem et al’s position. Note that this is not just a critique of tone per se, but more importantly a critique of the use of such tone without basis. (As counter examples, see both Fred Sanders and Malcolm Yarnell, who’ve been sympathetic to but also critical of ERAS, all while being fair and even.) I think, therefore, that while I am not satisfied with any ERAS proponents’ response, I also agree with e.g. Dr. Mohler’s call to refrain from using the label of “heresy” or its cognates.

Given these concerns on both sides, how can we all move forward?

1. The ERAS proponents need to take their interlocutors’ historical and biblical challenges seriously.

To be clear, from my perspective, the academic onus in this debate is on ERAS proponents. Contrary to Dr. Grudem’s initial proposal for this doctrine (see his various monographs) and his recent list of past and current theologians that supposedly support his view, a collection of historical and biblical proof texts for one’s position does not a doctrine make. If one reads the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicenes, and if one familiarizes themselves with the secondary literature (of which there is an ever increasing amount of late), it becomes very clear that Michael Haykin’s seemingly prophetic Facebook post from about two months ago, in which he said that “there is not even a whiff of subordination” in the pro-Nicene Trinitarian formulations, is entirely accurate. Further, the subsequent history of interpretation and dogmatic reflection relies on that 4th and 5th century language. And so when we hear “subordination” and “modes of subsistence” in later theologians, including those that Dr. Grudem cites in support, we must realize that they are using terms that originated in the 4th and 5th century debates and were used for very particular purposes, none of which were to speak of a differentiation in authority in the Godhead.

It is therefore not advancing the debate for Dr. Grudem to cite these sources when many of them clearly do not support his view once we consider the historical meaning of the terms, nor is it helpful for others who support ERAS, like Owen Strachan, to simply quote Dr. Grudem’s post and then refer to it as an irrefutable “murderer’s row.” It is also not advancing the debate to simply quote 1 Cor. 11:3 or 15:28, among other texts, as if simply pointing to one or two texts solves the entire issue. These texts have been thoroughly exegeted throughout church history, and not until the twentieth century have they been taken to refer to ERAS within the Christian tradition. I would encourage Dr. Grudem, Dr. Strachan, and others involved to take seriously the challenges made to their position, both on biblical and historical grounds. Additionally, ERAS proponents need also to address the dogmatic implications of their view, and particularly the issue of the unity of the divine will. Until they do, the hit pieces will keep on comin. But in that regard,

2. The ERAS opponents need to tone down the rhetoric and represent their interlocutors accurately.

Remember the 9th commandment, brothers and sisters.

“Heresy,” “heterodoxy,” “division,” and “ordinational revocation,” are very, very serious terms. They should only be used in the most obvious of circumstances. Here many will say, “but this is an obvious circumstance! Grudem et al have attempted to depart from Nicene Christianity!” To which I would say, no, not quite. Yes, it is true that (at least) Grudem has cast doubt upon eternal generation. And yes, it is true that, in its place, he has posited the innovative doctrine of ERAS. And yes, as a matter of historical accuracy, this is a departure from the development of Nicaea to Constantinople and (seemingly) a departure, therefore, from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

But here is where we should be (should have been) overly cautious. It is no small thing to accuse someone of heresy, or of not being a Nicene Christian. So what exactly is Grudem trying to do with this? Is he simply departing from Nicaea, and doing so without much concern for the seriousness of that departure?

Well, he certainly is not attempting to deny the homoousion. In fact, he affirms this wholeheartedly. A more accurate way of describing his project, then, is to say that he is attempting to affirm the spirit of Nicaea and the subsequent Creed, but through different means than eternal generation. He does so because he does not think there is anything in particular in the Bible that demands the affirmation of eternal generation (Grudem’s view is given in his ST, pp. 1233-34).

Now, some may fault him here and say that he has not read the Fathers’ exegetical warrant carefully, or used an appropriate theological method, or any number of other things. But, as Protestants who affirm sola scriptura, we can at least say that he is attempting to honor that confession by being semper reformanda, even if what’s in his sights to reform is the Nicene Creed. Additionally, we can also admit that he is casting doubt upon eternal generation not because he does not want to affirm the homoousion, but precisely because he does, just in what he sees as a more biblically warranted way.

This is not high-handed heresy. This is not even heresy per se, since it does not match any historical position. And it is not even “denying Nicaea,” because what Grudem is trying to do is affirm the Nicene Creed in what he considers to be a biblically faithful way. Now, I don’t really know what to call all that, but it is not heresy. It is not anti-Nicene, at least in spirit if not in letter. It is not something that automatically demands division among Christians, or among evangelicals more particularly.

So, what is the solution?

3. The answer to this Trinity debate is not division but sustained, charitable dialogue and disputation.

The truth is that if we really boil this down to what’s underneath it all, we’ll come up with two opposing methods. On the ERAS side, Grudem et al are biblicists. They want to see you prove a doctrine from the text and from the text alone, and if you cannot do it then they will not believe it. (That is an attitude that this Baptist can definitely appreciate!) On the non-ERAS side, there is a confessional hermeneutic informed by not just exegesis of individual passages but also the history of interpretation and creeds and confessions. As those who affirm sola Scriptura, the Bible always takes prime place in doctrinal authority. But there is also a derivative authority given to creeds and confessions, one that is reflective of the Bible’s content and therefore helps Bible readers to understand it.

Given this large methodological gap, the non-ERAS camp cannot expect to yell “heresy” or “non-Nicene” and see any results. If you were to charge Wayne Grudem with heresy (which, isn’t it ironic that this doctrinal lawsuit is being carried out by crossing ecclesial lines), or even with some lesser charge related to this teaching, what effect would that have? He does not approach defining heresy in the same way a confessional reader would. For Grudem, heresy is departing from the Bible, not the Creed per se. Now, one might respond and say the Creeds are reflective of the Bible, and that may be so (I believe that it is so). But my point is that, if Grudem thinks at some point the Creeds are not reflective of Scripture, he does not deem it heresy to find alternative means of getting to the spirit of the Creed’s confession.

Again, the answer, therefore, is not division but dialogue – even debate and disputation – but within the ranks of those committed to the absolute truthfulness of Scripture and the importance of historic orthodoxy. Yes, I would agree with non-ERAS proponents that the burden is on ERAS proponents to prove their view is biblical and historical. And yes, I find more affinity with a confessional hermeneutic than a biblicist one. And so yes, I would hope the fruit of this dialogue and debate would be non-ERAS proponents helping ERAS proponents to see the gaps in their exegesis, their theological method, and their understanding of the Christian tradition. Of course, an ERAS proponent would tell me it’s the other way around, and that I need to rethink my exegesis, my method, and my historical understanding.

But that is precisely what is needed – for us to talk to each other, not past one another.


A Summarized Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

Some have asked that I summarize my earlier post defending eternal generation and arguing against ERAS, and do so by sticking primarily to exegetical and biblical theological arguments. I want to say at the outset that none of what I say below is without deep, deep roots in the historical tradition, nor is it my own ingenuity (not a shock to those that know me well). It is, rather, reliance on the history of interpretation without the footnotes. See my earlier post for those. I should also say that this will be relatively brief; all of the harder stuff has been covered for 1600 years. In any case, here it goes.

1. One God in Three Persons

We have to take a step back before jumping right in to eternal generation and/or eternal submission to see how we get to affirming the Trinity in the first place. The twin biblical affirmations that there is one God (Deut. 6:4) and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each equally God because they share titles (Lord, God, Almighty, etc.), attributes (power, wisdom, etc.), and actions (creation, salvation) have to be reconciled. When we couple this with the radical distinction we see in Scripture between Creator and creature, there is no “mediatorial” option for Son and Spirit. Because they equally share in divine titles, actions, and attributes, and because there is no such category as a mediatorial being in the biblical worldview, the Bible demands acknowledging that these three are equally God while also acknowledging that there is only one God.

2. John 5:26 and “Life in Himself”

The question at this point, of course, is exactly how these three persons are distinct persons while also being one God. The testimony of Scripture is that they share equally in the essence of God – what makes God God is his essence, which is his authority, power, will, goodness, mercy, holiness, etc. So, for instance, Father and Son share equally in the creation and therefore in their authority over that creation (e.g. Col. 1:15-18). How, then, are they distinguished? Texts like John 5:26 give us a good start. The Father has life in itself, and gives the Son life in himself.

It is clear from the context that the Son is speaking of his equality with the Father in his divinity (namely in the actions of judging and raising the dead). Even if, though we want to say that he is expressing in this context how these characteristics work themselves out in his incarnate state, John 5:26 is set within the larger context of comparing the Father and the Son’s divinity. Further the phrase “life in itself” is hard to maneuver toward the incarnation. If this were referring to the incarnation, the text would be saying that the same kind of life the Father has, is now given to the Son in his becoming incarnate. How is that so? What exactly would it mean for the Father’s divine life to be the same as the Son’s incarnate life? It would make more sense, especially given the context, to say that the Father has life in himself – a characteristic that is only true of God – and has given the Son life in himself. The Father here communicates what it means to be God to the Son. 

3. Proverbs 8 and the Father’s Begotten Wisdom

Proverbs 8:22-31 is notoriously difficult, especially for modern readers. But when we think canonically, it becomes a bit clearer. Christ is clearly identified as the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and, synonymously, the Word or Logos of God (John 1:1-13). He is the one through whom the Father creates (Col. 1:15-18). For Prov. 8:22-31 to be speaking of anyone but the Son, therefore, would make little sense of this New Testament usage. Further, for the Father in Proverbs 8 to have some wisdom other than the Son would make little sense, either. We thus have to deal with Proverbs 8:22-31 that makes sense of how God can “birth” his Wisdom before time began and therefore before he actually creates anything. Now, with John 5 and Proverbs 8, we have two texts that give us “generating” language to speak of the relationship between Father and Son.

4. Names: Father, Son, and Spirit

Perhaps even more importantly than individual texts is the pattern of texts we see throughout Scripture, a pattern that consistently names these three as Father, Son, and Spirit. This points not only to their triunity but to the way that triunity exists, namely through a Father-Son-Spirit relationship. Now here we have to make a choice. What does it mean for their to be a Father-Son relationship? And this really is the rub. Does it mean, as the tradition has consistently argued, that the Father begets, or generates the Son? Certainly this is true of the analogy the language is using, human fatherhood and sonship. A son is typically a son through receiving his human essence via the father’s generation. But, on the other hand, another characteristic of many father/son relationships is that of authority and submission (so, today’s ERAS camp). So, how do we choose between the two? While I could give you the historical logic here (which, btw, did not include ERAS as an option), I’ll stick with my biblical guns and go to a particular text.

5. Phil. 2:5-11 and the “Form of God”/Form of a Servant” Pattern

Phil. 2:5-11 gives us explicit language with which to deal with not only passages that seemingly subordinate the Son, but also with how to adjudicate what Father/Son means by ruling out the ERAS option. This passage begins by noting that Jesus, prior to his incarnation, was “in the form of God.” This is not saying the Son was some sort of demigod, or lesser than God, but that he was in his essence, his form, truly God. Prior to his economic work of salvation as most fully seen in his incarnation, the Son is to be spoken of as in the “form of God.” But when he becomes incarnate, he takes on the “form of a servant.” Notice here that the point at which the Son becomes a servant – becomes submissive -to the Father, is at the incarnation.

Now, we have to of course deal with the eternal decree and, perhaps, the pactum salutis, but if we think of these as conditional, and not necessary, actions in God’s life – in other words, God didn’t have to save us and so his choice to do so is not fundamental to his eternal nature – then it is clear that the submission of the Son belongs to God’s life in the economy of salvation, his action of redemption, and not prior to it. There is no submission of the Son prior to his work of redemption. Therefore when we see texts that talk of Christ’s (or, in 1 Cor. 15:28’s unique case, the Son’s) submission (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3), Paul in Phil. 2:5-11 gives us the exegetical key. These passages are not, according to the “form of God”/”form of a servant” pattern in Phil. 2:5-11, speaking of the Son’s eternal life with the Father but of his submission to the Father in the economy of salvation.

There are of course more issues that need to be discussed here. I’m not trying to cover them all; Luke and I have attempted some of that in the many posts we’ve written over the last three weeks. But that’s about as succinct a summary I can give for the biblical case for eternal generation (and against ERAS).

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.

Basil and Augustine on 1 Cor. 15:28

In defending ERAS, many proponents point to 1 Cor. 15:28 as one of the primary texts that supports it (in addition to, say, 1 Cor. 11:3, John 6:38, and Matt. 26:39). In this passage Paul says,

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

The  explanation of this passage from an ERAS framework is that, given the Son’s (supposedly divine) future subjection to the Father in this passage, it must also therefore be true that the Son has always submitted to the Father, even before the Lord’s acts of creation and redemption.

This is not how the early church, and particularly the pro-Nicene theologians who formulated the homoousion and its subsequent developments in the Nicene period, read this and other such passages. For instance, Basil says in Against Eunomius of 1 Cor. 15:28 that,

“If the Son is subjected to the Father in the Godhead, then He must have been subjected from the beginning, from whence He was God.  But if He was not subjected, but shall be subjected, it is in the manhood, as for us, not in the Godhead, as for Himself.”

Note that Basil actually agrees with ERAS proponents in theory – if this passage speaks of the Son’s submission to the Father in his divinity, then it means that the Son has been subjected to the Father eternally. But Basil notes the temporal aspect of this passage (in other words, he’s being exegetically rigorous) and says that, given that the subjection takes place in time, it must therefore be referring to the Son’s actions in the temporal order, i.e. in his incarnate state.

Augustine speaks a number of times to this particular passage in De Trinitate, and expands on Basil’s understanding of the text as speaking to Christ’s submission in his humanity, not in his divinity.

“So there need be no hesitation from anyone in taking this to mean that what the Father is greater than is the form of a servant, whereas the Son is his equal in the form of God (I.15).

Note that Augustine here distinguishes between Christ’s humanity and divinity using the terms “form of a servant” and “form of God.” This tactic is employed in a number of other places, including other passages in which he discusses 1 Cor. 15:28. For instance, in Book I, section 20, he says:

So inasmuch as he is God he will jointly with the Father have us as subjects; inasmuch as he is priest he will jointly with us be subject to him.

And finally, in speaking about creatures seeing God face to face on the day of judgment, Augustine says in I.28,

This is to be a face to face seeing . . . when every creature is made subject to God, including even the creature in which the Son of God became the Son of man, for in this created form “the Son himself shall also be subject to the one who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28; emphasis mine).

The point is that, along with the other pro-Nicenes, Basil and Augustine eschew any hint of subordination within the Trinity, other than that of modes of subsistence (alternatively called taxis, or order). For the pro-Nicene theologians, there is no difference in authority, there is no submission, there is no functional subordination, except as it occurs in the humanity of the incarnate Son.

We Talkin’ ‘Bout Taxis: Nyssa on Order in the Trinity

I may attach a clever intro about Allen Iverson later, but for now let’s get to business.

First, I love Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and Owen Strachan. I do not think they are heretics. They are my brothers in Christ. They have each benefited me greatly. Given how this Tweet-Apocalypse started, I feel like it’s important to keep affirming that (along with my complemetarian convictions).

This is purely an academic-theological point, then, not a personally adversarial one: when Grudem et al use quotes about “subordination in modes of subsistence” within the Godhead ad intra as support for subordination in authority of the Son to the Father ad intra, they are taking “modes of subsistence” to mean something it does not mean. This term is a reference to the eternal relations of origin – that the Father begets the Son, and the Father and Son process the Spirit, eternally. Generation and spiration are references to how each person of the Godhead subsists in the one divine essence – the Father as Unbegotten, the Son as Eternally Begotten, the Spirit as Eternally Processed. A synonym for “modes of subsistence” is taxis, a word that denotes order or primacy within the Godhead. Historically these synonyms are used to refer to the order within the Godhead in relation only to generation and spiration. There is no sense in which these terms historically meant subordination related to authority or submission ad intra. To wit, Gregory of Nyssa in Against Eunomius I.16:

that is what [Eunomius] wants to do, in arguing to show that the order observed in the transmission of the Persons amounts to differences of more and less in dignity and nature. In fact he rules that sequence in point of order is indicative of unlikeness of nature: whence he got this fancy, what necessity compelled him to it, is not clear. Mere numerical rank does not create a different nature: that which we would count in a number remains the same in nature whether we count it or not. Number is a mark only of the mere quantity of things: it does not place second those things only which have an inferior natural value, but it makes the sequence of the numerical objects indicated in accordance with the intention of those who are counting. ‘Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus’ are three persons mentioned according to a particular intention. Does the place of Silvanus, second and after Paul, indicate that he was other than a man? Or is Timothy, because he is third, considered by the writer who so ranks him a different kind of being? Not so. Each is human both before and after this arrangement. Speech, which cannot utter the names of all three at once, mentions each separately according to an order which commends itself, but unites them by the copula, in order that the juncture of the names may show the harmonious action of the three towards one end.

Now, we can all agree that Grudem et al are not dividing the essence or positing ontological subordination. My point in quoting Nyssa at length here is to show that, for him (and for the other pro-Nicenes), number was a matter of relations of order, not of anything else.

Lest someone object that Nyssen only references essence and not authority here, Basil (upon whom Nyssen relied heavily) makes the connection between the two explicit in De Spiritu Sancto 18.44-45:

In delivering the formula of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, our Lord did not connect the gift with number.  He did not say “into First, Second, and Third,” nor yet “into one, two, and three, but He gave us the boon of the knowledge of the faith which leads to salvation, by means of holy names.  … For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity.  So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one.  How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods?  Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings.  The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided.  The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype.

The Fathers spoke of “number” as another synonym for taxis and “modes of subsistence,” and their point cannot be clearer – it is merely a means to speak of the differences with respect to eternal relations of origin, not differences with respect to authority and submission.

There is of course a fitting relation between the fact that the Son is generated and then is sent by the Father ad extra, but “fitting” does not mean “equal to.” The subordination seen in the incarnation is fitting given the Son’s generation, but the Son’s generation does not imply subordination in authority or submission with respect to authority within the Godhead.

This is what it means when we speak of “modes of subsistence” and “modes of action” that follow on them: the Son is generated, therefore it is fitting that he becomes incarnate. In the first there is subordination with respect only to modes of subsistence; in the latter there is subordination in authority within the economy of redemption.