What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

It is obligatory to note upfront that Origen was and is a controversial figure. The debate over accepting his views as orthodox or useful is ongoing, including the veracity of the number of times he was anathematized, whether or not he actually taught some of the doctrines he was accused of teaching, the extent to which he influenced Arius, and whether one should be posthumously anathematized without the opportunity to recant. Some of these debates are discussed in following footnotes.

Despite this caveat, given his enormous (and positive) impact on early Trinitarianism, it is interesting to consider how his teachings influenced Trinitarian history. Most notably, he seemed to wrestle more fully than his predecessors with the ontological implications of the shared substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that would later define the orthodox Trinitarian affirmations. This is not to say that Origen was ultimately as clear on ontology as the Nicenes or even in agreement with them—only that he wrestled with ontological implications more than his predecessors.

So, was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian?

Holmes asserts, “It is fair to say that, by the beginning of the fourth century, many or most theologians leaned to one or the other of Origen’s tendencies” in reference to Origen’s tendencies to discuss both the unity and difference between the Father and Son.[1] Anatolios notes similarly that Origen influenced the Alexandrians with his idea of eternal generation and the Arians with his idea of real distinctions within the Trinity.[2] Wellum says plainly, “in terms of Trinitarian and Christological thought, many later orthodox theologians were highly indebted to him, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregorys.”[3] Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman notes,

Origen’s attempt to explain the incarnation of the Logos in terms of a pre-existent human soul was one of the first constructive Christologies, and anticipated many problems in later theology regarding the proper union of divine and human nature.[4]

Ayres acknowledges this point, while contending: “Origen directly denies that that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.”[5] However, Ayres also admits that Athanasius may have been influenced by Origen’s emphasis on “the closeness of Son to Father.”[6] Holmes agrees with the charge of subordinationism: “Origen … seemingly finds it impossible to speak of God’s activity in the creation without lapsing into subordinationist language.”[7]

Rutherford says that Origen believed Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all creatures” and “became incarnate while remaining God,” and that “the Holy Spirit is associated in dignity and honour with the Father and Son” and clearly not made or created.[8] For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he considers the multitude titles given to Jesus. He challenges the idea that “Son of God” is special or unique in relation to all of Jesus’s biblical titles, and instead aims to consider how all of the biblical titles paint Jesus not merely as “an expression of the Father occurring in syllables” but in regard to “what manner he has essence.”[9] Though she appears to lean toward Origen believing that the Holy Spirit was divine in some sense, Rutherford is careful to show that there is a debate surrounding whether Origen thought the Spirit was actually a creature or, if not, whether he was subordinate to the Father. Holmes has been more forceful regarding the ambiguity: “[For Origen,] the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”[10]

While it is fair to question whether his Trinitarian thought was a form of subordinationism, his wrestling with divine essence and hierarchy of origin and function was in many ways ahead of his predecessors, as well as a precursor for his contemporaries and successors. This does not mean that he was not engaged in language contemporary with his time, such as the use of angelomorphic Christology. However, Origen seemed able to distinguish between the various ways “angel” or “messenger” is used in the Bible as a title or designation and the idea of Christ having an angelic nature stricto sensu.[11] Gieschen notes that Origen sometimes refers to angels in the Bible as Christ or the Holy Spirit, but Gieschen’s point does not require of Origen a belief in “angel Christology.”[12]

Was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian? Since he predated them, technically neither. However, due to his proto-Trinitarian wrestling with ontology and economy, both sides of the Nicene debate found a resource in him.

[1] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 83.

[2] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 17.

[3] Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 276.

[4]  Lyman, Christology and Cosmology, 69.

[5] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 24.

[6] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 47.

[7] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 80.

[8] Rutherford, “The Alexandrian Spirit: Clement and Origin in Context,” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church, 41-43.

[9] Origen, Comm. Jn. 1.151.

[10] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 75.

[11] Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology, xxvi-xxvii.

[12] Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 195-96.

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

About eighteen months ago, in the summer of 2016, Wayne Grudem and others were put on trial via blog about their views on the Trinity. Grudem holds to ERAS, or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, wherein God the Son eternally, functionally (not ontologically) submits to the Father. This submission in the Godhead, for him and other ERAS proponents, grounds a complementarian view of gender roles. One of the primary accusations leveled at Grudem et al. is that they did not clearly and unequivocally hold to (at least) one aspect of classical Christian theism, the eternal relations of origin – and specifically ,the eternal generation of the Son – opting instead for ERAS to explain the distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. (Grudem, as well as Bruce Ware, have since publicly affirmed the eternal relations of origin).

While I strongly disagree with  Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, what puzzled me at the time and still does is why Grudem and Bruce Ware particularly were singled out for questioning and/or revising Christian theism in some way. If you read twentieth century theology, much of it consists precisely of that kind of move, and via a similar theological method as e.g. Grudem’s. For instance, a year before the Trinity debate, Scot McKnight posted Roger Olson’s blogged critique of divine timelessness, presumably in support of the latter’s comments. The quoted portion of Olson’s post begin by questioning “classical theism” in general and its (according to him) over-speculative nature, but the key paragraph begins like this:

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”

A year later McKnight was a vocal opponent of ERAS on Twitter and his blog, on the grounds that it departed from the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Now, perhaps in that year plus, McKnight came to appreciate the tradition more; I don’t know, that’s certainly possible. In any case I find the Olson post and the ERAS comments interesting in relation to one another.) Another example, this time in classical Christology: Nick Batzig recently posted about William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that Christ did not possess a human soul but instead only a human body and a divine soul, even referring to his position as “Neo-Apollinarianism.” We could also mention Moltmann’s Trinitarian rupture at the cross, or Pinnock’s open theism, or, relatedly, process theology, or Balthasar’s view of the descent as it relates to (departs from?) inseparable operations, the extra Calvinisticum, and other important pieces of classical Christian theism more broadly and classical Trinitarianism and Christology more particularly.

The point is that Grudem and others are not and never have been the only twentieth century theologians to question or to attempt a revision of aspects of classical Christian theism. Much of twentieth century theology consists of just such questions and attempts. And they do so on the same kinds of methodological grounds. Notice again the Olson quote above. To paraphrase, “I personally cannot find a text in the biblical narrative that speaks of God’s timelessness.” This sounds like the same kind of biblicist argument used by e.g. Grudem, in an appendix of his Systematic Theology, where he says of eternal generation that he cannot find a text in support of the doctrine.

Again, we could multiply examples here of similar methodology in twentieth century theology, wherein a theologian’s own reading of the Bible, perhaps in conjunction with philosophical categories and methods (e.g. Craig on Christology), trumps the traditional understanding of an aspect of the doctrine of God or of Christology. James Dolelzal’s recent work, All That Is In God, does some of that work, but even he limits his analysis to what he calls “Reformed evangelicals,” which for him is mostly a euphemism for Bruce Ware. This doesn’t tell the whole story, just like the Trinity debate didn’t tell the whole story. Classical Christian theism was, to use Dolezal’s paradigm, rejected, revised, or ignored by much of twentieth century theology, not only in Reformed evangelicalism but in mainline Protestantism, other parts of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy….you name the tradition and I’ll name you a major theologian who went the same route albeit on a different vehicle. (That includes confessional Reformed traditions).

All this is to say that I think evangelicals in particular could do with a revision of their understanding of tradition in general and of classical Christian theism in particular. It is my belief that many rejections of CCT arise from misunderstanding both the role of tradition within the evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura and of the biblical-theological and historical warrrant for holding CCT. We need to go back to the drawing board in evangelicalism in the way we teach theological method and how we relate our right and good commitment to the Bible’s ultimate authority to the faith once delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian Tradition. To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection. Theological retrieval is not repristinizing the past or muting the Bible with theological jargon; instead, it’s a demonstration of the inherently biblical support for dogmatic terminology and categories. In other words, “going back to the drawing board” consists firstly of a shift in how we think about theological method, and particularly what makes a doctrine “biblical.”

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.

When God the Son Became Like Us

Perhaps the most beautiful hymn in Scripture is not found in the Psalms, but in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, CSB)

This Christmas, we will sing hymns about Immanuel, “God with us.” We will sing of the virgin birth, the nativity scene, and the wise men. We will remember his perfect life and praise him for his sacrificial death. We know that his becoming a man was crucial for our salvation, and we’ll rightly worship him for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But the passage above—commonly called the “Christ hymn”—gives us a look at what it really means for God to be with us.

As Christians, we affirm the Trinity, and thus we affirm the divinity of God the Son. Jesus was no mere man, we know that. But Paul explains the depths of this truth to the Philippians. He tells them that Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead, “he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” As the God-man, he didn’t take advantage of his God-ness; rather, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”

In short, God the Son became a Son of Adam. Christ becoming obedient in the incarnation is crucial because God became man, a New Adam, to undo the curse of Adam that we all inherit (Rom. 5:12:-21). Adam’s sin touches every atom of creation and poisons us in a way that would make cyanide blush. We’re not obedient, no matter how hard we try. But the Son of God’s fleshly subjection and obedience to God the Father in the incarnation secures for us the subjection and obedience we reject in our flesh. The Son was not already in subjection to the Father, but rather became a servant in love.

The incarnation itself was a loving sacrifice—not merely because Christ died for us, but because he put himself in the position to die in the first place. As Hebrews 12 tells us, he went to the cross with joy. He could’ve called “twelve legions of angels” to help him escape arrest or to pull him down off the cross (Matt. 26:53), but he didn’t. As God, he has the power to still the waves and cast out demons—no piece of Roman tree could stop him. He doesn’t lay down his life when a Roman executor tells him to—he does so when he wants to (John 10:18). And he did just that, with joy.

God the Son didn’t simply carry eternal obedience with him into the world. He is an eternal Son, but he was not an eternal servant. He holds the same authority and power as the Father, because both are eternally God. He was sent into the world not because he’s been God’s servant for eternity, but because the triune God is not at odds with himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always in one accord. And their inseparable will is simple: to make all things new and to unbreak what Adam and Eve broke. So, in love, he became obedient to the Father, doing nothing apart from him (John 5:19-24).

Praise Jesus, Immanuel, for his truly indescribable grace. Lift your eyes to his throne. But remember that Christ left that throne to become something he’d never been, an obedient and perfect flesh-and-blood human being, because you and I are disobedient and imperfect people. God the Son for the first time experienced his own Father’s wrath, felt the excruciating pain of nails driven into his hands and feet, and even spent three days in a grave—not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17).

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.