Glenn Butner on the Trinity Debate and Theological Method

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Glenn Butner of Sterling College. We discuss entering the 2016 Trinity debate (3:30), Trinitarian theological method (7:00), his new book on the obedience of the Son (16:05), why Jesus’s human submission to the Father matters (26:30), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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.

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.

Heresy Hunting and Eternal Relations of Origin

I’m a classic complementarian who affirms classic orthodoxy regarding the eternal relations of the persons of the Trinity (i.e. that the eternal relations of origin distinguish the persons, not a social schema). I also believe that what the Bible says about gender is enough to support complementarianism without comparing the relationship between male and female to the inner life of the Godhead. Additionally, I don’t believe the relations of the persons of the Godhead are comparable to relations between male and female. I therefore disagree with those who wish to bolster their position on gender with a social Trinitarian schema, whether it be from an egalitarian or complementarian perspective. I thus disagree with Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and other complementarians who attempt to support complementarianism via the doctrinal innovation known as eternal functional subordination. I disagree not only with tying in gender roles to God’s inner life but also with the social Trinitarian understanding of the relations between the persons of God upon which such a claim is based.

That being said, I’ve seen many on social media and on blogs willing to throw around phrases comparing Ware, Grudem, et al.’s position to heresy. This is unfair, careless, and a straw man. If you read Ware’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Grudem’s systematic theology, both of these theologians strongly and clearly affirm the unity of the Godhead in essence. According to them, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all equally and fully share in the one divine being. They are homoousions. They also, though, posit that the Son willingly and volitionally submits to the Father ad intra. While I have serious disagreements with this latter position, both biblically and historically, this is not a classic heresy by any means. It is an innovation, in my opinion, but one that incorrectly understands eternal relations rather than one that departs from classic orthodoxy regarding the unity of the Godhead.

I’m not sure evangelicals can disagree without someone throwing out a heresy bomb at some point, but we should at least give it a good old college try.