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.

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”

Nicaea_icon

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).

Cappadocians

The Cappadocians. Image from bktheologian.wordpress.com.

 

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.

 

The Trinity and Theological Method

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve most likely seen the debates on the blogosphere and social media about something called the “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son and God the Spirit to God the Father, or, alternatively, “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). To my knowledge and in my reading, the former is posited by the likes of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, while the latter is a phrase used by Owen Strachan  and Gavin Peacock in their new book on complementarianism. These theologians believe Scripture teaches that the Son (and, by extension, the Spirit) eternally submits to the Father. This submission therefore occurs not only in the act of salvation, and particularly in the incarnation, but in the inner life of God as he has existed from eternity. In Ware, Grudem, and Strachan’s understanding, this relationship is what distinguishes the three persons of God; they are all equally God in essence, but differ from one another as persons through how they relate to one another, and particularly in the Son and Spirit’s submission to the Father.

It is no secret that this is a departure from the traditional means of distinguishing between the persons; Ware and Grudem cast doubt upon the traditional doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit (I do not know where Strachan is on this). In the Christian Tradition, and in fourth century pro-Nicene theology, the pro-Nicene theologians, like Ware et al., affirmed that the three persons are homoousios – that is, they each share in the one divine essence. But unlike Ware et al., instead of distinguishing between the persons via relations of submission and authority (an idea to which the Fathers were allergic, to say the least), the pro-Nicene theologians argued that the persons are distinguished via their eternal relations of origin. The Father eternally begets, or generates, the Son, and the Father and Son (in the Western tradition) both spirate, or process, the Spirit. This is eternal, so it is not the same as creation, and it is a communication of the divine essence, not a creation of a new god or a hierarchical relationship where one turns into three. Both Ware and Grudem posit EFS as a more clear, biblical means of distinguishing between the persons, rather than through eternal relations of origin.

All of this has been summarized far better and far more clearly elsewhere; I’d recommend Darren Sumner’s post for a more detailed summary of the issue. My point here is not to provide more of the same but instead to bring to light a point that I think has been overlooked. Owen, in his rejoinder this morning, asked that we “reaffirm Scripture as our authority and avoid a New Scholasticism,” because, ” philosophy and history must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology.” Amen to that. I am not sure if Owen is here saying that proponents of the traditional distinctions between the persons are relying on philosophy and history instead of exegesis and theology, or if he is merely cautioning all of us going forward. In any case, he is right that exegesis and scripturally-derived theology, for Protestants, always trumps history and philosophy. But there is more to be said on this point.

First, the pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries were profoundly biblical in their doctrinal formulations. If you’ve read Athanasius or the Cappadocians or Cyril or Augustine you will know that when they talk about, say, the eternal relations of origin, or the taxis of the Trinitarian persons, they do so under the assumption that what they say must be derived from Scripture. Further, they do so with particular theological assumptions in place, namely, that the scriptures have a particular shape, or economy, to them that dictates how we read passages that speak about the Son. Does a passage refer to the Son in his humanity, or in his divinity? This is not an a-scriptural assumption; the Fathers took care to show that this “rule” is a scriptural one (e.g. their use of Phil. 2:5-11). So when Owen says exegesis and theology rule the day, I say “Amen!” But I also want to note that so did the Fathers, and so do modern day defenders of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity.

The second point worth mentioning here is the relationship between exegesis, theology, and history. While the former two are most certainly the norma normans non normata, history and tradition  cannot and should not be merely cast aside – yes, even for us Protestant evangelical Baptists. The weight of tradition should at the very least give us pause in our hermeneutical endeavors when we think that exegeting a single passage, or a handful of them, can overturn almost two millennia of doctrinal teaching, and particularly when that teaching relates to theology proper and historic Trinitarian orthodoxy.