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.

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).

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.