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.

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.

The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

Is Jesus Victorious Over Death? My thoughts on @FaithTheology at #LATC15

The Thursday night plenary address at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference was given by Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Charles Sturt University and blogger and tweeter extraordinaire. Myers spoke on “Atonement and the Image of God,” and in his paper he focused on the Patristic model of the atonement. Myers argued that, for the Fathers (and Mothers via Macrina), Christ’s experience of death is the mechanism of the atonement, and its primary accomplishment is the restoration of the image of God in human beings, which was lost in their collective fall into sin. This experience of death is not an action on Christ’s part but a passive experience of, as Myers referred to it, the point at which humanity is sliding into non-being (i.e. death). Because, via the hypostatic union, God the Son “touches” death by being united to the humanity of Jesus, the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. Further, because God does via the hypostatic union, the second Adam, Jesus, represents all humanity in this act and therefore heals all of God’s image bearers.

This very brief summary does not do justice to the intricacies of Myers’ argument, nor do I wish to argue his main point. I think that he is correct in his portrayal of the Patristic model of the atonement, in the sense that the main point for the early church is Christ’s role as the last Adam and therefore his ability, through his vicarious death, to take on the consequence of sin, death, and render it null and void. He thus heals humanity through his death for all human beings.*

The one point of Myers’ argument that continues to nag at me is his contention that, because the Fathers’ metaphysical belief about sin and death is that it is privation (not an ontological something, but simply the absence of good), they cannot be taken as giving a model of the atonement when they speak of Christ’s death as “victory.” They were careful to avoid Gnostic dualism, and so language about Jesus wrangling with sin and death as if they were endowed with being would be contrary to this anti-Gnostic understanding of Christ’s work. Victory language cannot be anything but metaphorical for the Fathers. Gustav Aulen, among others, is therefore incorrect to assume that the Fathers taught a “victory” model of the atonement since this would require a dualistic concept of good and evil, with God in Christ wrestling with evil in the Passion.

Myers’ point is well taken that the early church theologians were careful to avoid Gnostic conceptions of cosmology and metaphysics and that their metaphysical understanding of sin and death is that they are privation of the good and of life. I still am not convinced, though, that this restricts us, or the Fathers, or the New Testament, from speaking of Christ’s death as victorious over death and sin. Below I will simply list some texts, both from the NT and from the early church, that seem to emphasize Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I cannot see at this point how dismissing the word “victory” from our models of the atonement given these texts is plausible, even if I agree with Myers about the metaphysics of the early church (and Scripture) with respect to sin.

New Testament Texts

1 John 3:8 – “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Colossians 2:15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

Hebrews 2:14 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”

Acts 2:24 – “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”

Romans 6:9 – “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 – “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”

2 Timothy 1:10 – “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”

(Note also Revelation 19 and 20, where the Unholy Trinity, the Harlot, Death, and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire.)

Early Church Theologians

Cyril of Alexandria

Comm. Lk. 9:18-22 (Serm. 49) – “For that he utterly abolished death, and effaced destruction, and despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy, and took away the sin of the world, and opened the gates above to the dwellers upon earth, and united earth to heaven: these things proved him to be, as I said, in truth God.”

Odes of Solomon

Ode 42 – “Sheol saw me and was shattered / and Death ejected me and many with me.”

Melito of Sardis

On Pascha 102-3 – “I am the one,” says the Christ, “I am the one that destroyed death / and triumphed over the enemy / and trod down Hades / and bound the strong one / and carried off man to the heights of heaven; I am the one,” says the Christ.”

New Fragment III, 5 – “By the cross death is destroyed, and by the cross salvation shines; by the cross the gates of hell are burst, and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened”

Hippolytus of Rome

The Apostolic Tradition, 4, 4-13 – “Who fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people stretched out his hands when he was suffering, that he might release from suffering those who believed in you; who when he was being handed over to voluntary suffering, that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell and illuminate the righteous, and fix a limit and manifest the resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said/ “Take, eat, this is my body that will be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood that is shed for you””

Origen

Commentary on Romans, V, 1, 36 – “Thus by his own resurrection he has already destroyed the dominions of death”

Commentary on Romans, V, 10, 11-12 – “Then at the opportune time he binds the strong man (Mt 12:29) and despoils his powers and principalities (Col 2:15) and leads away the captives (Eph 4:8; Ps 68:18) which had been seized and were being held by the tyrant.
It was certainly in this way, then, that Christ also emptied himself voluntarily and took the form of a slave and entered the dominion of the tyrant, having become obedient unto death. Through that death he destroyed him who was holding the power of death, i.e., the devil (Heb 2:14r-15), so that he could liberate those who were being held fast by death. For when Christ had bound the strong man (Mt 12:29) and triumphed over him by means of his cross (Col 2:15), he even advanced into his house, the house of death in the underworld, and from there he plundered his possessions, that is, he led away the souls which the devil was keeping.”

I’ll stop here, but we could go on into the fourth century and beyond and continue to find such texts.

*I’m not saying  I agree with this model, but am only describing Ben’s description of it.