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.

A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

In a previous post I argued that biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis, pays attention to patterns of biblical language, and is narratively shaped. The question that surrounds that post and peeks through the white spaces in between the words is whether or not the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is biblical. And the context of that question is of course the question of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), alternatively called Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) and Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS). (Even though EFS was the original terminology, I will stick with ERAS and ESS in this post given some of the recent arguments for moving away from “subordination” language among proponents of this view.) While some proponents of ERAS, including Wayne Grudem, would cast serious doubt upon the traditional doctrines of eternal generation (EG) and eternal procession (EP), and thus replace it with ERAS, others affirm the traditional relations of origin while also affirming ERAS.

David Yeago and “Patterns of Biblical Language”


The Nicene Creed. Image from Wikimedia



Given these two camps of ERAS proponents, I have one goal in this post with two different applications, one per ERAS view. My aim here is to articulate a biblical argument for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, with particular focus on the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. I hope to thereby, and in the first place, answer objections that EG/EP are not “biblical” through making a biblical argument for EG/EP. This argument will rely particularly on David Yeago’s argument in “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” that the Nicene Trinitarian formulations were “biblical” in the sense that they used appropriate conceptual terms (e.g. “homoousios”) to render accurate judgments about patterns of biblical language in Scripture. So, while “homoousios” is not found in Scripture, it does accurately judge the patterns of Scripture’s language that speak about Father, Son, and Spirit as God and as one God. Given this biblical defense of EG/EP, there is therefore no need for ERAS as a replacement doctrine that explains how God can be one God who exists in three persons. EG/EP can do and always has done that work in Trinitarian formulations. The second aim is perhaps more ambitious; I want to show that, in Yeago-ian terms, the patterns of biblical language point us away from ERAS, not toward it.

In other words, I want to use Yeago’s model to argue not only for our continued confession that that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally processed from Father and Son (yes, I’m Western), but also that ERAS is not a biblically warranted addition to an affirmation of EG/EP. I should also note that neither of these aims is accomplished through exegeting individual texts in an isolated fashion. Neither EG/EP nor ERAS have proof-texts, texts that we can undoubtedly point to as proof positives for those doctrines. So, contra Owen Strachan, 1 Cor. 11:3 is not a supporting text for ERAS; there is no textual warrant in that particular text for saying that “Christ” has no temporal marker and then from there concluding that the Son’s submissive relation to the Father is eternal. Rather, we must read particular texts in light of the narrative shape of Scripture and the patterns of language used throughout that economy. One final introductory matter is in order: I will have to do just a bit of Trinitarian legwork to begin, in order to demonstrate what I mean by “patterns” and “economy” and so forth. But most of my time will be spent on EG/EP and ERAS.

A Brief Overview of Trinitarian Formulation in the Early Church

We begin where the early church theologians began: how do we make sense of the fact that, in Scripture, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all spoken of in one sense or another as “God,” “Lord,” etc.? Further, how do we make sense of it in light of Israel’s foundational claim that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)? The early church asked these questions because they noticed patterns of language that forced them to wrestle with them. For instance, as Matthew Bates has argued in his recent The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford, 2015), the early church interpreters, as part of the ancient world and its pedagogical milieu, were accustomed to utilizing prosopological exegesis. This approach sought to identify the various voices in particular texts. When the early church theologians came to such texts as Psalm 110 or Psalm 39 (LXX) and saw different persons, both identified as God either in the text or elsewhere in Scripture via intertextual links, speaking to one another as God, they had to wrestle with the fact that multiple (namely three) persons were all identified as God and speaking to one another in an intra-divine dialogue. Another important pattern is identified by Wesley Hill in his recent Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015); he argues that early Trinitarian formulations were spurred on in large part by the relational way in which Paul talks about Father, Son, and Spirit. In Paul’s letters, and particularly in Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Cor. 8:6; and 1 Cor. 15:24–28, Hill notes that the Father is Father precisely because he has the Son, and both have this relation to one another because of the Spirit. In other words, each exists as God because of their relations to one another.

There are other patterns we could note here: Father, Son, and Spirit are each called by the same names and referred to with the same titles in Scripture (e.g. “Lord,” “Creator,” etc.; see, for instance, Basil, “On the Holy Spirit,” 8.17; Nyssan, “Ad Ablabius” and “On the Holy Trinity”); they each are described as acting in ways only God acts (see on this Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified”); and they are all three referenced in divine action in Christian worship, particularly in baptism (e.g. Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 18.41). Further, the early church saw that there was a vast chasm between Creator and creature, and so, contra the Arians etc., there could be no space for a mediatorial demigod (see e.g. Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 4).


The Cappadocians. Image from


The Son and the Spirit were either God or a creature, and, because of those other patterns of language, it was clear to the Fathers that biblically speaking, the Son and the Spirit, along with the Father, are God. One final piece is necessary here before moving on to EG/EP. The Arians, Eunomians, etc., posited that the Son was not God because he was spoken of as subordinate to the Father in texts such as John 4:24 (“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me.”) The pro-Nicenes, however, argued that these texts spoke of the Son within the economy of redemption. Scripture has a particular shape to it, a shape that centers on the incarnation of God in the person of the Son, and when it speaks of the Son as subordinate to the Father it does so only in an economic sense, i.e. only with reference to his taking on human flesh. For the pro-Nicenes, they saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified because they shared the same essence, an essence that included one will. For the anti-Nicenes, they saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified via relations of authority and unity of wills. They posited three distinct wills and subordination of the Son to the Father from eternity (see on this point Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea).

The Place of Eternal Generation and Its Biblical Warrant

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then, are one God subsisting in three persons. They share one essence (and, by implication, one will). How then do we retain both of these biblically based affirmations? The pro-Nicenes’ answer was EG/EP. The distinction between Father and Son is not in authority or being, as the anti-Nicenes posited, but in the manner in which they subsist in the divine essence. The Father, unbegotten, begets the Son eternally (without time; it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t start). They saw that Scripture speaks of the Son being generated from the Father and the Spirit processing from the Father and the Son. Since this is running long and will run longer I’ll focus on EG here; texts such as Proverbs 8 and John 5:26 were key. Proverbs 8 has come under fire in recent scholarship as a text that does not teach EG, and, because EG is in many ways dependent upon Proverbs 8, therefore many reject EG based on this understanding of Proverbs 8. I hope to have an essay out soon in an edited monograph on EG regarding precisely this text; in the meantime, I will simply say that the pro-Nicenes had much more compelling exegesis than we often given them credit. For instance, they argued that the Son is God’s Wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, and so it makes no sense for there to be another personified wisdom in Proverbs 8 that creates with the Father. Proverbs 8, and particularly vv. 22 and 25, must be speaking of the Son (on this particular point, see Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 2.5). How do we account for Proverbs 8 and its language about the Son, then? Well, for the pro-Nicenes, via EG on the one hand and the economy on the other. (This is admittedly a complicated issue; the early church disagreed on how exactly to interpret Proverbs 8. They tended to agree, however, that some of it spoke to incarnation and some to eternal generation. See, for instance, Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 20-22; Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 13; Nyssan, “Against Eunomius,” I.22).

Further, even beyond these particular texts, they saw that the scriptural pattern of speaking about the relations of the first and second persons of the Trinity are inherently related to generation. “Father” and “Son” are relational terms. If it means anything to be a son, it means to come from one’s father. This pattern of biblical language informed the pro-Nicenes not only about the Son’s divine nature but also about the manner of his divinity. Because he is the Father’s Son, his subsistence in the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son (Nazianzen, “Fifth Theological Oration,” 9). This is a thoroughly biblical affirmation, not only in that it exegetes particular texts but also in that it pays attention to patterns of biblical language. While this is not a thorough going defense of EG, I think it is enough to suggest that, rather than casting doubt upon EG, the biblical data actually provides us reason to affirm it, or at least pursue further understanding with a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion.

Against Eternal Submission

Now to my second aim: how does Yeago’s schema help us not just with defending EG but with defeating ERAS? Here I would posit three lines of argument. First, I’d say that many defenses of ERAS rely on a number of individual texts, exegeted individually. So, the argument goes, John 6:38 says the Father sent the Son, 1 Cor. 11:3 says that God is the head of Christ, and 1 Cor. 15:28 says that the Son will submit his kingdom to the Father. But a handful of texts does not a theological method make. How are these texts speaking of the Son? Is it in his humanity or his divinity? This decision is not and cannot be made via the most rigorous exegetical method, if that method excludes canonical, narrative, and dogmatic considerations.

Particularly important here is the pro-Nicenes’ economic understanding of Scripture; when a text speaks about the Son’s submission, it is talking about his incarnation. The pattern they saw in this regard is made explicit in Phil. 2:5–11. The Son, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be clutched, and so took the form of a servant. He became a servant in the incarnation, not before it (see Nazianzen, “Fourth Theological Oration,” 6). In other words, the pattern of Scripture is to speak of the Son’s submission only with reference to his incarnation, and this pattern is made explicit in the narrative of Phil. 2:5-11. Notice that Phil. 2 is not a prooftext for this notion of the economy of Scripture; rather, the whole of Scripture centers on the incarnation, and the life of the Son is spoken of in different terms with respect prior to and during or after the incarnation. Phil. 2 provides the explicit verse for that pattern, but the pattern is noticeable in abundant other places in Scripture. Thus to conclude that the texts cited in defense of ERAS – 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15:28, etc. – are about anything other than the Son’s incarnation would be to go against this pattern. Grudem concludes his less-than-two-page appendix, in which he casts doubt upon EG, the lynchpin of Nicene orthodoxy, by stating that while there is no biblical evidence to deny EG, there is also not much to support it either. The shoe is actually on the other foot. There is much biblical evidence to support EG, and very little, if any, to support ERAS.

Second, when we come to texts that seem to affirm ERAS, given, at the very least, the ambiguity surrounding those texts and whether they do in fact teach ERAS, we need to ask about the implications of such a view. I’ve already written about this in a previous post so I’ll make this brief: ERAS seems to require three wills in the Godhead, for how can one person submit to another without two distinct wills? This in turn questions the unity of God and his actions. And so on and so forth. (Luke has also already addressed the will issue.) Third, one must again ask about the patterns of biblical language. Some ERAS proponents point toward Father/Son language as necessarily entailing submission. But, as the pro-Nicenes noted, authority and submission is not always true of a Father/Son relationship. The only aspect of that kind of relation that remains constant is generation. Given the ambiguity surrounding a few select texts used to support ERAS, the implications of such a view, and the fact that the patterns of language do not support ERAS, it is hard to conclude that this view has biblical support. I should add, as a final point, there are those who would argue for ERAS based not necessarily on any particular text but on the relationship between the ad extra and ad intra. This post is already much too lengthy so I will have to articulate my argument about that in another post. Suffice it to say that I think the statement “the missions follow but are not equal to the processions” answers this objection, effectively tying together ad extra and ad intra without conflating the two. I will have more to say on this, and on what the pro-Nicenes had to say about the taxis, or ordering, among the persons of the Trinity in a later post.


Athanasius and Proverbs 8

Right now I’m researching the hermeneutical foundations for the patristic and medieval use of Proverbs 8 to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. One of the essays I’ve been working through for the last few days is Luise Abramowski’s “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius.”[1] My German is below poor, so I hope I’m understanding Abramowski correctly, but what I take the article to be saying is that a number of hermeneutical principles worked together to allow Athanasius to understand Proverbs 8:22-31 as teaching eternal generation.

  1. John 1:14, 16, etc. necessitate seeing Jesus as the divine embodiment of wisdom. In other words, Athanasius begins with the assumption that Jesus as the Logos is enfleshed Wisdom, and therefore that Wisdom must not be a creature (as the Logos is not a creature).
  2. This means that Proverbs 8:22-31 cannot refer to Wisdom as a creature.
  3. The genre of Proverbs, as paroimia, should be understood as either “Sprichwort” (Latin, proverbium; “proverb”) or “Gleichnis” (“likeness,” “allegory,” “parable”). In other words, the tentative nature of the language and message of Proverbs should give the reader pause before proceeding with any definitive interpretation, even of individual words.
  4. Regarding ktizein, there are verbal parallels that suggest it can mean something other than ontological creation (e.g. Prov. 9:1).
  5. It is important for Athanasius to identify the “person” speaking in each verse, and especially between the pre-incarnate Logos and the incarnate Christ (e.g. v. 22 vs. v. 25).
  6. Related to this last point, Athanasius found it highly important to understand individual passages in light of their placement in and reference to the biblical storyline, especially as it relates to the Word becoming flesh.

All of this led Athanasius to reject Arian subordinationism from this passage and turn to eternal generation as the alternative interpretive solution. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet, but I do find it interesting that, at least in my opinion, Athanasius seems to be operating with some fairly standard interpretive principles: pay attention to genre and context, pay attention to the biblical narrative, and pay attention to textual details and parallels. The one principle that I think gets people nervous nowadays is that Athanasius starts with the assumption that the NT (e.g. Hebrews 1) interprets Proverbs 8 as it was originally intended. Modern interpreters tend to prefer to isolate Proverbs 8 (or any OT passage) from its reception history, and especially NT reception. I’ll refrain from commenting on that, for now at least.

[1] Luise Abramowski, “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius: Die Drei Bücher Gegen Die Arianer (Ctr. Arianos I-III),” Communio Viatorum 42.1 (2000): 5-23.