Gregory of Nyssa on Eternal Relations of Origin

As the early church began to formulate its language about the Trinity, they needed to explain how we can say that there is one God in three Persons and how those Persons relate within the Godhead. In order to fight against heresies like Arianism, the orthodox Christians established that there are eternal relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. In other words, there is a fitting way to explain the order (“taxis”) within the Godhead that does not imply that any of the Persons are inferior to one another or different from one another in divine essence. In On Not Three Gods, Gregory of Nyssa explains how this doctrine works:

If, however, any one cavils at our argument, on the ground that by not admitting the difference of nature it leads to a mixture and confusion of the Persons, we shall make to such a charge this answer;—that while we confess the invariable character of the nature, we do not deny the difference in respect of cause, and that which is caused, by which alone we apprehend that one Person is distinguished from another;—by our belief, that is, that one is the Cause, and another is of the Cause; and again in that which is of the Cause we recognize another distinction. For one is directly from the first Cause, and another by that which is directly from the first Cause; so that the attribute of being Only-begotten abides without doubt in the Son, and the interposition of the Son, while it guards His attribute of being Only-begotten, does not shut out the Spirit from His relation by way of nature to the Father.

But in speaking of “cause,” and “of the cause,” we do not by these words denote nature (for no one would give the same definition of “cause” and of “nature”), but we indicate the difference in manner of existence. For when we say that one is “caused,” and that the other is “without cause,” we do not divide the nature by the word “cause1322”, but only indicate the fact that the Son does not exist without generation, nor the Father by generation: but we must needs in the first place believe that something exists, and then scrutinize the manner of existence of the object of our belief: thus the question of existence is one, and that of the mode of existence is another. To say that anything exists without generation sets forth the mode of its existence, but what exists is not indicated by this phrase. If one were to ask a husbandman about a tree, whether it were planted or had grown of itself, and he were to answer either that the tree had not been planted or that it was the result of planting, would he by that answer declare the nature of the tree? Surely not; but while saying how it exists he would leave the question of its nature obscure and unexplained. So, in the other case, when we learn that He is unbegotten, we are taught in what mode He exists, and how it is fit that we should conceive Him as existing, but what He is we do not hear in that phrase. When, therefore, we acknowledge such a distinction in the case of the Holy Trinity, as to believe that one Person is the Cause, and another is of the Cause, we can no longer be accused of confounding the definition of the Persons by the community of nature.

Thus, since on the one hand the idea of cause differentiates the Persons of the Holy Trinity, declaring that one exists without a Cause, and another is of the Cause; and since on the one hand the Divine nature is apprehended by every conception as unchangeable and undivided, for these reasons we properly declare the Godhead to be one, and God to be one, and employ in the singular all other names which express Divine attributes.


This will appear in the forthcoming CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible.

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.

Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate

Ware and StarkeToday we are pleased to share the following guest post from Kyle Claunch, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary. Kyle also contributed the essay “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarianism in the Immanent Trinity” in the recent volume edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). This essay was recently quoted by Carl Trueman on the Mortification of Spin site. Here, Kyle offers some clarifications about his essay and its argument, clarifications which dovetail well with yesterday’s post on arbitrating the Trinity debate.

An Attempt at Clarity and Charity Without Compromising Orthodoxy

by Kyle Claunch

If you are reading this, I can only assume that you are current on the debate over the Son’s obedience to the Father (the ERAS debate) that is unfolding at break-neck speed in social media and the blogosphere. When dealing with questions of eternal relations in the Godhead, I fear that the speed demanded by social media and blog posts may result in more confusion than clarity, more heat than light. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of this particular iteration of the debate (the intra-mural battle between fellow reformed complementarians). However, developments this week have drawn me into the fray. I pray my comments here are clear, helpful, pleasing to God, and serve to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a recent blog post, Dr. Albert Mohler defended the orthodoxy of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. I found Mohler’s post to be helpful and demonstrated the appropriate support for two theologians whose work has benefitted the church in countless ways. Two statements made by Mohler are particularly relevant for this post. First, Mohler acknowledges that an affirmation of “separate wills in the Trinity” would be heretical. Second, Mohler asserts that the teachings of Grudem and Ware “do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it.”

Carl Trueman was quick to respond to Mohler’s claim. He noted that he could cite widely respected patristic scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes to demonstrate that indeed the ERAS Trinitarianism of Ware and Grudem is not consistent with Nicene Trinitarianism. Instead, Trueman quoted from my chapter in One God in Three Persons, the book co-edited by Bruce Ware (along with John Starke), as follows (brackets and bold print are in Trueman’s post):

“One often overlooked feature of such a proposal [on eternal submission of Son to Father as articulated by Grudem and Ware] is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity. In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills. This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it. According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity.

By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. The model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons.”

In those two paragraphs, I say two things that seem to conflict with Mohler’s defense of Ware and Grudem: (1) The      ERAS position of Ware and Grudem seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the Trinity and (2) this entailment runs counter to the pro-Nicene tradition.

Only hinted at in the quoted portion above but discussed more fully a few lines later is the fact that the Nicene Creed articulates the eternal distinction between the divine persons in terms of eternal relations of origin – generation and procession. The ERAS model of Ware, Grudem, and others identifies the relationship of authority and submission as that which differentiates the persons within the one divine essence. Furthermore, although Ware and Grudem do not formally reject the language of eternal generation and procession, they have questioned whether the exegetical support from Scripture offered in justification of the Creed’s use of that language does in fact justify the language. To many, this concern over the exegetical basis for the language of relations of origin has been interpreted, unfairly, as a wholesale rejection of Nicene Trinitarianism.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state openly that I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary, where Dr. Mohler is president. You can imagine that I was greatly disquieted by the fact that my published words had been used to discredit the claims of the president of my seminary and the orthodoxy of my supervising professor! My concerns, however, go far deeper than self-interest. In this post, I hope to accomplish three things: (1) Provide clarification on my words and my assessment of the Trinitarian theology of Ware and Grudem; (2) ask two questions of those who wish to label ERAS proponents as heretics (and anyone else who might be interested to consider them); (3) make a final plea concerning charity and equity in theological discourse for the sake of gospel witness, especially in the matter of charging brothers and sisters in Christ with theological error.

Clarification of my assessment of ERAS

While my words were accurately quoted by Trueman, these two brief paragraphs do not tell the whole story of my assessment of the Trinitarian theology held by Ware and Grudem.

I personally do not subscribe to ERAS Trinitarian theology as articulated by Ware and Grudem. In my chapter in One God in Three Persons, “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity?” I lay out my understanding of the correspondence between the obedience of the incarnate Son to the Father and the role relationships of men and women as taught in the New Testament. I still believe that essay represents a fruitful way forward for those who believe that 1 Corinthians 11:3 does indeed establish some connection between gender complementarity and the Trinity but who detect some legitimacy in the trenchant theological critiques of Grudem and Ware.

Because my essay was published as a chapter in a book where many of the authors (Ware and Grudem included) advocate for the terminology of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity, I felt compelled to clarify that my proposal does not advocate the use of such terms. However, in keeping with the overarching theme of the book, my proposal does establish a connection between the obedience of the Son and gender relations, via a robust analogical divide between the incomprehensible Creator and the creation. In clarifying the differences between my proposal and that of Ware, Grudem, and some others, I felt it necessary to explain why I do not find the language of eternal authority and submission to be helpful. That is where the quotation from Trueman comes into play.

While I maintain that three distinct wills in the Godhead does run counter to the established language of the pro-Nicene consensus and the heritage that emerged from it, I have refused to call ERAS proposals heretical for two reasons. First, at the time of writing my essay, it was not entirely clear from the publishing record of Ware or Grudem that they were consciously rejecting the heritage of one will in the Godhead. It seemed plausible that there might be some nuanced explanation for how authority and submission might manifest itself in the Godhead with one will. Indeed I had hopes that my essay in this volume might spark just such a clarifying discussion. Hence, I said that their proposal “seems to entail” a commitment to three distinct wills in the Godhead. In fact, subsequent to the publication of the book, Ware has told me through private correspondence that he holds to one will in the Godhead, each person exercising the one divine will according to his hypostatic identity as Father, Son, or Spirit. I will allow Ware to speak for himself as to how he understands and articulates this.

Second, while I was concerned with the reluctance of some ERAS proponents to fully embrace the creedal language of eternal relations of origin (generation and procession), it seemed to me then, and still does now, that their contention was with the exegetical basis for that language and thus with the adequacy of that language to express clearly the orthodoxy they knew the Creed intended to establish. The council of Nicaea (and later Constantinople) used the language of eternal generation to preserve two non-negotiable truths: (1) the full eternality of the Son who shares fully the divine essence with the Father against the Arians who appealed to the language of generation in Scripture to defend their aberrant views of the Son and (2) the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son so as to avoid the error of modalism. That is, the language of eternal generation preserved the conviction that Paternity and filiation are eternal relations in the immanent being of God, not simply manifestations in the economy. I am fully aware that the doctrine of eternal generation does far more for Trinitarian theology than just to safeguard those cardinal truths, but I think all sides can agree that is the chief end of clinging to the church’s historic affirmation of eternal generation. After my extensive reading of Grudem and Ware and my extensive personal instruction under the teaching of Ware (not to mention a friendship forged in the fires of theological inquiry and pursuit), I knew these men to be tediously careful to articulate the full deity and eternality of the Son and his eternal sonship as Son of the Father from all eternity. Therefore, even if some ERAS proponents continue to express concerns with the exegetical basis of eternal relations of origin, it is unthinkable to me to apply the same “heresy” label to theologians who carefully preserve those cardinal truths as we apply to theologians who explicitly reject those truths. In other words, I cannot consider the likes of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, who raise critical questions about the terminology of “eternal generation,” as occupying the same contemptible theological space as those who reject the eternality and deity of the Son of God, even if I do not share their concerns with the use of the traditional terminology.

Indeed, this is why I wrote the words, “By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories.” I wanted to say that I do not view these theologians as abandoning the fundamental orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Trinity, as established by the first and second ecumenical councils of the church.

Two Questions for Those Making Accusations of Heresy Against Ware and Grudem

 1. Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?

Or, in the case of Ware and Grudem, should we not distinguish between questioning the exegetical basis of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of that tradition? Is there no difference between Arian denials of the full deity of the Son and Grudem’s and Ware’s concerns with the exegetical basis of the terminology of eternal generation/procession? Should no distinction be made between an explicit denial of divine essential unity and a Trinitarian proposal that we fear “seems to entail” three wills in the Godhead? Indeed, this distinction is observed by many who disagree with ERAS Trinitarianism but by no means wish to use the “heresy” label. For example, Luke Stamps argues cogently that a rejection of the eternal relations of origin (generation and procession) is a departure from the language of the Nicene tradition and that “we should be extraordinarily wary of abandoning it.” He goes on to say, “For [proponents of ERAS], the language of rank or order within the Trinity is not tied to relations of origin but to intrinsic relationships of authority and submission, command and obedience. Now, we need to be clear, this is not heresy. But it isn’t quite what the pro-Nicene tradition has handed down to us either” (bold print is my emphasis). Stamps seems to be operating with a conscious distinction between heresy (a rejection of the principle truths of Nicene orthodoxy) and what he perceives to be problematic but lesser departures from the traditional heritage. I find this distinction to be critical to temperate and charitable theological discourse and debate.

So, to those who insist on using the label of heresy to describe the ERAS position, is there not a place in our public discourse for a distinction like this one? If so, then we do well to make such a distinction explicit when charging a brother or sister in Christ with theological error. It would be immensely helpful and would calm the tone of some of the rhetoric if those using the label of heresy would acknowledge that they are not describing a rejection of the eternality/deity of the Son and his eternal filial individuality in relation to the Father. Furthermore, if the distinction is legitimate, it behooves us as Christian brothers and sisters to avoid declaring one another outside the parameters of the Trinitarian theology of the church catholic for articulating an ERAS position.

2. Do the warnings that stem from the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility apply to the language of the Nicene Creed in particular and the creedal tradition in general?

Does the sword of divine incomprehensibility cut both ways in this debate? A recurring accusation against Ware, Grudem, and other proponents of ERAS is that they fail to account for the infinite ontological gap between God as he is in himself and the revelation of God in the economies of creation and redemption. It is argued that Ware and Grudem draw too straight a line between the authority and submission found in created relationships – Jesus to the Father, wives to husbands – and the eternal relations in the Godhead. The critique may be fair, but does the critique apply to those who insist so vehemently on the language of the Creed also? After all, doesn’t the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility demand that we acknowledge that the language of eternal generation and procession is accommodated language drawn from the realm of the human experience of paternity and filiation? The fact that the Nicene Creed painstakingly qualifies the language of generation and procession to indicate that it is not the same as creaturely generation and procession does not mean that the Creedal formula dwells on the other side of the ontological gap between God and creation. Furthermore, does not our confessional and conscientious commitment to the authority of Scripture alone demand that all accommodated language apart from Scripture is subject to scrutiny, critique, and reformulation? I am by no means suggesting that the language of eternal relations of origin needs reformulation. In fact, I believe strongly that no such reformulation is necessary and that the overwhelmingly heavy burden of proof rests on those who believe that it does. But if the accommodated language of the Creed is unassailable under pain of being labeled a heretic and reckoned outside of the church catholic, then are we really taking the doctrines of divine incomprehensibility and Sola Scriptura seriously?

One Final Plea

The clarity of our gospel witness is paramount in this debate as in all things we say and do as Christian theologians, pastors, professors, and disciples. If indeed there is a legitimate distinction between questioning certain words of the Creed and departures from the theological orthodoxy of the creed, then it follows that our greatest vehemence should be reserved for theological ideas that actually undermine the Triune identity of the one true and living God and thus undercut the very foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theological discourse and debate done well builds the church of Jesus Christ and positions her to better withstand the onslaught of satanic ideologies that threaten to erode her foundation, thus destroying her witness. We must be wary that the methods of the old serpent, such as hubris and intemperateness, do not make their way, Trojan horse style, into the ranks of those whom the Lord has placed as watchmen on our walls.

I am not proposing that debate on this topic cease, nor am I suggesting that error falling short of the label of heresy should be tolerated without being refuted. I am, however, suggesting that all proposed theological error should be refuted with charges that approximate the seriousness of the error, no more, no less.

 

 

 

A Summarized Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

Some have asked that I summarize my earlier post defending eternal generation and arguing against ERAS, and do so by sticking primarily to exegetical and biblical theological arguments. I want to say at the outset that none of what I say below is without deep, deep roots in the historical tradition, nor is it my own ingenuity (not a shock to those that know me well). It is, rather, reliance on the history of interpretation without the footnotes. See my earlier post for those. I should also say that this will be relatively brief; all of the harder stuff has been covered for 1600 years. In any case, here it goes.

1. One God in Three Persons

We have to take a step back before jumping right in to eternal generation and/or eternal submission to see how we get to affirming the Trinity in the first place. The twin biblical affirmations that there is one God (Deut. 6:4) and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each equally God because they share titles (Lord, God, Almighty, etc.), attributes (power, wisdom, etc.), and actions (creation, salvation) have to be reconciled. When we couple this with the radical distinction we see in Scripture between Creator and creature, there is no “mediatorial” option for Son and Spirit. Because they equally share in divine titles, actions, and attributes, and because there is no such category as a mediatorial being in the biblical worldview, the Bible demands acknowledging that these three are equally God while also acknowledging that there is only one God.

2. John 5:26 and “Life in Himself”

The question at this point, of course, is exactly how these three persons are distinct persons while also being one God. The testimony of Scripture is that they share equally in the essence of God – what makes God God is his essence, which is his authority, power, will, goodness, mercy, holiness, etc. So, for instance, Father and Son share equally in the creation and therefore in their authority over that creation (e.g. Col. 1:15-18). How, then, are they distinguished? Texts like John 5:26 give us a good start. The Father has life in itself, and gives the Son life in himself.

It is clear from the context that the Son is speaking of his equality with the Father in his divinity (namely in the actions of judging and raising the dead). Even if, though we want to say that he is expressing in this context how these characteristics work themselves out in his incarnate state, John 5:26 is set within the larger context of comparing the Father and the Son’s divinity. Further the phrase “life in itself” is hard to maneuver toward the incarnation. If this were referring to the incarnation, the text would be saying that the same kind of life the Father has, is now given to the Son in his becoming incarnate. How is that so? What exactly would it mean for the Father’s divine life to be the same as the Son’s incarnate life? It would make more sense, especially given the context, to say that the Father has life in himself – a characteristic that is only true of God – and has given the Son life in himself. The Father here communicates what it means to be God to the Son. 

3. Proverbs 8 and the Father’s Begotten Wisdom

Proverbs 8:22-31 is notoriously difficult, especially for modern readers. But when we think canonically, it becomes a bit clearer. Christ is clearly identified as the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and, synonymously, the Word or Logos of God (John 1:1-13). He is the one through whom the Father creates (Col. 1:15-18). For Prov. 8:22-31 to be speaking of anyone but the Son, therefore, would make little sense of this New Testament usage. Further, for the Father in Proverbs 8 to have some wisdom other than the Son would make little sense, either. We thus have to deal with Proverbs 8:22-31 that makes sense of how God can “birth” his Wisdom before time began and therefore before he actually creates anything. Now, with John 5 and Proverbs 8, we have two texts that give us “generating” language to speak of the relationship between Father and Son.

4. Names: Father, Son, and Spirit

Perhaps even more importantly than individual texts is the pattern of texts we see throughout Scripture, a pattern that consistently names these three as Father, Son, and Spirit. This points not only to their triunity but to the way that triunity exists, namely through a Father-Son-Spirit relationship. Now here we have to make a choice. What does it mean for their to be a Father-Son relationship? And this really is the rub. Does it mean, as the tradition has consistently argued, that the Father begets, or generates the Son? Certainly this is true of the analogy the language is using, human fatherhood and sonship. A son is typically a son through receiving his human essence via the father’s generation. But, on the other hand, another characteristic of many father/son relationships is that of authority and submission (so, today’s ERAS camp). So, how do we choose between the two? While I could give you the historical logic here (which, btw, did not include ERAS as an option), I’ll stick with my biblical guns and go to a particular text.

5. Phil. 2:5-11 and the “Form of God”/Form of a Servant” Pattern

Phil. 2:5-11 gives us explicit language with which to deal with not only passages that seemingly subordinate the Son, but also with how to adjudicate what Father/Son means by ruling out the ERAS option. This passage begins by noting that Jesus, prior to his incarnation, was “in the form of God.” This is not saying the Son was some sort of demigod, or lesser than God, but that he was in his essence, his form, truly God. Prior to his economic work of salvation as most fully seen in his incarnation, the Son is to be spoken of as in the “form of God.” But when he becomes incarnate, he takes on the “form of a servant.” Notice here that the point at which the Son becomes a servant – becomes submissive -to the Father, is at the incarnation.

Now, we have to of course deal with the eternal decree and, perhaps, the pactum salutis, but if we think of these as conditional, and not necessary, actions in God’s life – in other words, God didn’t have to save us and so his choice to do so is not fundamental to his eternal nature – then it is clear that the submission of the Son belongs to God’s life in the economy of salvation, his action of redemption, and not prior to it. There is no submission of the Son prior to his work of redemption. Therefore when we see texts that talk of Christ’s (or, in 1 Cor. 15:28’s unique case, the Son’s) submission (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3), Paul in Phil. 2:5-11 gives us the exegetical key. These passages are not, according to the “form of God”/”form of a servant” pattern in Phil. 2:5-11, speaking of the Son’s eternal life with the Father but of his submission to the Father in the economy of salvation.

There are of course more issues that need to be discussed here. I’m not trying to cover them all; Luke and I have attempted some of that in the many posts we’ve written over the last three weeks. But that’s about as succinct a summary I can give for the biblical case for eternal generation (and against ERAS).

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.

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.

Hermeneutics and the Eternal Generation of the Son

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a paper with the same title as this blog post at the Southeast Regional meeting of ETS in Birmingham, AL. I’m also presenting the same paper at the ETS Far West Regional meeting in LA in April. I’ve never presented the same paper at two different conferences, so it will be interesting to get feedback in Birmingham and then tweak (rewrite?) the paper for the April conference. I was only planning on presenting in LA, but I’ll take any excuse to go to Sweet Home Alabama and get some good BBQ.

Here’s a paragraph from my introduction explaining my aim and thesis:

This paper seeks to explore and compare the hermeneutical presuppositions and methods of, on the one hand, early Christian interpreters who saw the doctrine of eternal generation taught in Proverbs 8 and, on the other hand, modern interpreters[1] who do not see the doctrine here. What makes the difference in interpretation? It is surely not exegetical rigor – both the pre-modern and modern interpreters have rigorously explored the text with every available interpretive tool.[2] And in the not uncommon case that one assumes modern exegesis is more rigorous and scientific than pre-modern interpretation, it should be noted here that modern commentators cannot come to an agreement on the passage’s meaning, either as a whole or in determining what specific verbs mean (e.g. qana, v. 25). This is in spite of a general commitment to a method (historical-critical, or its close cousin, historical-grammatical for evangelicals) and a conclusion – the passage does not teach eternal generation.[3] In other words, the issue has to lie elsewhere, and I propose here that the difference between those who affirm eternal generation, both in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, and those who deny it is their theological and hermeneutical foundations. This paper will compare and contrast the aforementioned interpreters’ approaches in order to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.


[1] In using the term “modern” I mean post-Enlightenment, which includes both modern and postmodern readers. While the latter tend to eschew the objectivism and scientific positivism with which moderns approach the text, postmodern readers still tend to retreat to modernistic exegetical methods in their interpretation.

[2] Thus this paper is not an exegetical defense of eternal generation from Proverbs 8, but rather an argument that those who see the doctrine taught here have legitimate theological and interpretive rationales for doing so.

[3] One notable exception is Richard M. Davidson, “Proverbs 8 and the Place of Christ in the Trinity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17.1 (2006): 33–54, but even here it should be noted that he does not use the language of eternal generation but only hypostatization. His focus is more on the incarnation language in the passage than on the relationships between the persons of the immanent Trinity. See also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104.1 (1985): 3–11.

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.