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.

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 Creator/Creature Distinction and Gender Debates

Given the recent posts and Twitter conversations surrounding the topic, and also given that I taught a course this past semester on fourth century theological interpretation in the Eastern Fathers, I have classical Trinitarianism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to the debates on gender roles on my mind. While I am a classic complementarian and hold to classic Trinitarian orthodoxy (the three persons are one in essence and only distinguished ad intra via their eternal relations of origin), I do not see anywhere in Scripture where these two types of relationships ought to be or are related to one another.

This distinction is in fact rooted in the created order. To put it in terms the Fathers used in formulating Nicene and subsequent positions, there is an unbridgeable gap from the creature’s side between the creature and Creator. This divide, known as the Creator/creature distinction, is applicable here, I think. The relations between the persons of the Trinity ad intra  are totally other from relations between creatures, even creatures of the same kind (i.e. male and female human beings). The relations between the persons of the Trinity are mysterious and incomprehensible to finite creatures like us, and to compare them to the relationship between human beings, or  to the mechanisms of church polity, or any other type of human relationship is to bridge the Creator/creature distinction.

I hope that we’ll refrain from employing Trinitarian relations to bolster our positions on gender roles in the future.

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.