When God the Son Became Like Us

Perhaps the most beautiful hymn in Scripture is not found in the Psalms, but in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, CSB)

This Christmas, we will sing hymns about Immanuel, “God with us.” We will sing of the virgin birth, the nativity scene, and the wise men. We will remember his perfect life and praise him for his sacrificial death. We know that his becoming a man was crucial for our salvation, and we’ll rightly worship him for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But the passage above—commonly called the “Christ hymn”—gives us a look at what it really means for God to be with us.

As Christians, we affirm the Trinity, and thus we affirm the divinity of God the Son. Jesus was no mere man, we know that. But Paul explains the depths of this truth to the Philippians. He tells them that Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead, “he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” As the God-man, he didn’t take advantage of his God-ness; rather, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”

In short, God the Son became a Son of Adam. Christ becoming obedient in the incarnation is crucial because God became man, a New Adam, to undo the curse of Adam that we all inherit (Rom. 5:12:-21). Adam’s sin touches every atom of creation and poisons us in a way that would make cyanide blush. We’re not obedient, no matter how hard we try. But the Son of God’s fleshly subjection and obedience to God the Father in the incarnation secures for us the subjection and obedience we reject in our flesh. The Son was not already in subjection to the Father, but rather became a servant in love.

The incarnation itself was a loving sacrifice—not merely because Christ died for us, but because he put himself in the position to die in the first place. As Hebrews 12 tells us, he went to the cross with joy. He could’ve called “twelve legions of angels” to help him escape arrest or to pull him down off the cross (Matt. 26:53), but he didn’t. As God, he has the power to still the waves and cast out demons—no piece of Roman tree could stop him. He doesn’t lay down his life when a Roman executor tells him to—he does so when he wants to (John 10:18). And he did just that, with joy.

God the Son didn’t simply carry eternal obedience with him into the world. He is an eternal Son, but he was not an eternal servant. He holds the same authority and power as the Father, because both are eternally God. He was sent into the world not because he’s been God’s servant for eternity, but because the triune God is not at odds with himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always in one accord. And their inseparable will is simple: to make all things new and to unbreak what Adam and Eve broke. So, in love, he became obedient to the Father, doing nothing apart from him (John 5:19-24).

Praise Jesus, Immanuel, for his truly indescribable grace. Lift your eyes to his throne. But remember that Christ left that throne to become something he’d never been, an obedient and perfect flesh-and-blood human being, because you and I are disobedient and imperfect people. God the Son for the first time experienced his own Father’s wrath, felt the excruciating pain of nails driven into his hands and feet, and even spent three days in a grave—not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17).

Basil and Augustine on 1 Cor. 15:28

In defending ERAS, many proponents point to 1 Cor. 15:28 as one of the primary texts that supports it (in addition to, say, 1 Cor. 11:3, John 6:38, and Matt. 26:39). In this passage Paul says,

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

The  explanation of this passage from an ERAS framework is that, given the Son’s (supposedly divine) future subjection to the Father in this passage, it must also therefore be true that the Son has always submitted to the Father, even before the Lord’s acts of creation and redemption.

This is not how the early church, and particularly the pro-Nicene theologians who formulated the homoousion and its subsequent developments in the Nicene period, read this and other such passages. For instance, Basil says in Against Eunomius of 1 Cor. 15:28 that,

“If the Son is subjected to the Father in the Godhead, then He must have been subjected from the beginning, from whence He was God.  But if He was not subjected, but shall be subjected, it is in the manhood, as for us, not in the Godhead, as for Himself.”

Note that Basil actually agrees with ERAS proponents in theory – if this passage speaks of the Son’s submission to the Father in his divinity, then it means that the Son has been subjected to the Father eternally. But Basil notes the temporal aspect of this passage (in other words, he’s being exegetically rigorous) and says that, given that the subjection takes place in time, it must therefore be referring to the Son’s actions in the temporal order, i.e. in his incarnate state.

Augustine speaks a number of times to this particular passage in De Trinitate, and expands on Basil’s understanding of the text as speaking to Christ’s submission in his humanity, not in his divinity.

“So there need be no hesitation from anyone in taking this to mean that what the Father is greater than is the form of a servant, whereas the Son is his equal in the form of God (I.15).

Note that Augustine here distinguishes between Christ’s humanity and divinity using the terms “form of a servant” and “form of God.” This tactic is employed in a number of other places, including other passages in which he discusses 1 Cor. 15:28. For instance, in Book I, section 20, he says:

So inasmuch as he is God he will jointly with the Father have us as subjects; inasmuch as he is priest he will jointly with us be subject to him.

And finally, in speaking about creatures seeing God face to face on the day of judgment, Augustine says in I.28,

This is to be a face to face seeing . . . when every creature is made subject to God, including even the creature in which the Son of God became the Son of man, for in this created form “the Son himself shall also be subject to the one who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28; emphasis mine).

The point is that, along with the other pro-Nicenes, Basil and Augustine eschew any hint of subordination within the Trinity, other than that of modes of subsistence (alternatively called taxis, or order). For the pro-Nicene theologians, there is no difference in authority, there is no submission, there is no functional subordination, except as it occurs in the humanity of the incarnate Son.

A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

In a previous post I argued that biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis, pays attention to patterns of biblical language, and is narratively shaped. The question that surrounds that post and peeks through the white spaces in between the words is whether or not the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is biblical. And the context of that question is of course the question of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), alternatively called Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) and Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS). (Even though EFS was the original terminology, I will stick with ERAS and ESS in this post given some of the recent arguments for moving away from “subordination” language among proponents of this view.) While some proponents of ERAS, including Wayne Grudem, would cast serious doubt upon the traditional doctrines of eternal generation (EG) and eternal procession (EP), and thus replace it with ERAS, others affirm the traditional relations of origin while also affirming ERAS.

David Yeago and “Patterns of Biblical Language”

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The Nicene Creed. Image from Wikimedia

 

 

Given these two camps of ERAS proponents, I have one goal in this post with two different applications, one per ERAS view. My aim here is to articulate a biblical argument for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, with particular focus on the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. I hope to thereby, and in the first place, answer objections that EG/EP are not “biblical” through making a biblical argument for EG/EP. This argument will rely particularly on David Yeago’s argument in “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” that the Nicene Trinitarian formulations were “biblical” in the sense that they used appropriate conceptual terms (e.g. “homoousios”) to render accurate judgments about patterns of biblical language in Scripture. So, while “homoousios” is not found in Scripture, it does accurately judge the patterns of Scripture’s language that speak about Father, Son, and Spirit as God and as one God. Given this biblical defense of EG/EP, there is therefore no need for ERAS as a replacement doctrine that explains how God can be one God who exists in three persons. EG/EP can do and always has done that work in Trinitarian formulations. The second aim is perhaps more ambitious; I want to show that, in Yeago-ian terms, the patterns of biblical language point us away from ERAS, not toward it.

In other words, I want to use Yeago’s model to argue not only for our continued confession that that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally processed from Father and Son (yes, I’m Western), but also that ERAS is not a biblically warranted addition to an affirmation of EG/EP. I should also note that neither of these aims is accomplished through exegeting individual texts in an isolated fashion. Neither EG/EP nor ERAS have proof-texts, texts that we can undoubtedly point to as proof positives for those doctrines. So, contra Owen Strachan, 1 Cor. 11:3 is not a supporting text for ERAS; there is no textual warrant in that particular text for saying that “Christ” has no temporal marker and then from there concluding that the Son’s submissive relation to the Father is eternal. Rather, we must read particular texts in light of the narrative shape of Scripture and the patterns of language used throughout that economy. One final introductory matter is in order: I will have to do just a bit of Trinitarian legwork to begin, in order to demonstrate what I mean by “patterns” and “economy” and so forth. But most of my time will be spent on EG/EP and ERAS.

A Brief Overview of Trinitarian Formulation in the Early Church

We begin where the early church theologians began: how do we make sense of the fact that, in Scripture, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all spoken of in one sense or another as “God,” “Lord,” etc.? Further, how do we make sense of it in light of Israel’s foundational claim that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)? The early church asked these questions because they noticed patterns of language that forced them to wrestle with them. For instance, as Matthew Bates has argued in his recent The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford, 2015), the early church interpreters, as part of the ancient world and its pedagogical milieu, were accustomed to utilizing prosopological exegesis. This approach sought to identify the various voices in particular texts. When the early church theologians came to such texts as Psalm 110 or Psalm 39 (LXX) and saw different persons, both identified as God either in the text or elsewhere in Scripture via intertextual links, speaking to one another as God, they had to wrestle with the fact that multiple (namely three) persons were all identified as God and speaking to one another in an intra-divine dialogue. Another important pattern is identified by Wesley Hill in his recent Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015); he argues that early Trinitarian formulations were spurred on in large part by the relational way in which Paul talks about Father, Son, and Spirit. In Paul’s letters, and particularly in Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Cor. 8:6; and 1 Cor. 15:24–28, Hill notes that the Father is Father precisely because he has the Son, and both have this relation to one another because of the Spirit. In other words, each exists as God because of their relations to one another.

There are other patterns we could note here: Father, Son, and Spirit are each called by the same names and referred to with the same titles in Scripture (e.g. “Lord,” “Creator,” etc.; see, for instance, Basil, “On the Holy Spirit,” 8.17; Nyssan, “Ad Ablabius” and “On the Holy Trinity”); they each are described as acting in ways only God acts (see on this Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified”); and they are all three referenced in divine action in Christian worship, particularly in baptism (e.g. Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 18.41). Further, the early church saw that there was a vast chasm between Creator and creature, and so, contra the Arians etc., there could be no space for a mediatorial demigod (see e.g. Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 4).

Cappadocians

The Cappadocians. Image from bktheologian.wordpress.com.

 

The Son and the Spirit were either God or a creature, and, because of those other patterns of language, it was clear to the Fathers that biblically speaking, the Son and the Spirit, along with the Father, are God. One final piece is necessary here before moving on to EG/EP. The Arians, Eunomians, etc., posited that the Son was not God because he was spoken of as subordinate to the Father in texts such as John 4:24 (“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me.”) The pro-Nicenes, however, argued that these texts spoke of the Son within the economy of redemption. Scripture has a particular shape to it, a shape that centers on the incarnation of God in the person of the Son, and when it speaks of the Son as subordinate to the Father it does so only in an economic sense, i.e. only with reference to his taking on human flesh. For the pro-Nicenes, they saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified because they shared the same essence, an essence that included one will. For the anti-Nicenes, they saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified via relations of authority and unity of wills. They posited three distinct wills and subordination of the Son to the Father from eternity (see on this point Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea).

The Place of Eternal Generation and Its Biblical Warrant

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then, are one God subsisting in three persons. They share one essence (and, by implication, one will). How then do we retain both of these biblically based affirmations? The pro-Nicenes’ answer was EG/EP. The distinction between Father and Son is not in authority or being, as the anti-Nicenes posited, but in the manner in which they subsist in the divine essence. The Father, unbegotten, begets the Son eternally (without time; it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t start). They saw that Scripture speaks of the Son being generated from the Father and the Spirit processing from the Father and the Son. Since this is running long and will run longer I’ll focus on EG here; texts such as Proverbs 8 and John 5:26 were key. Proverbs 8 has come under fire in recent scholarship as a text that does not teach EG, and, because EG is in many ways dependent upon Proverbs 8, therefore many reject EG based on this understanding of Proverbs 8. I hope to have an essay out soon in an edited monograph on EG regarding precisely this text; in the meantime, I will simply say that the pro-Nicenes had much more compelling exegesis than we often given them credit. For instance, they argued that the Son is God’s Wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, and so it makes no sense for there to be another personified wisdom in Proverbs 8 that creates with the Father. Proverbs 8, and particularly vv. 22 and 25, must be speaking of the Son (on this particular point, see Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 2.5). How do we account for Proverbs 8 and its language about the Son, then? Well, for the pro-Nicenes, via EG on the one hand and the economy on the other. (This is admittedly a complicated issue; the early church disagreed on how exactly to interpret Proverbs 8. They tended to agree, however, that some of it spoke to incarnation and some to eternal generation. See, for instance, Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 20-22; Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 13; Nyssan, “Against Eunomius,” I.22).

Further, even beyond these particular texts, they saw that the scriptural pattern of speaking about the relations of the first and second persons of the Trinity are inherently related to generation. “Father” and “Son” are relational terms. If it means anything to be a son, it means to come from one’s father. This pattern of biblical language informed the pro-Nicenes not only about the Son’s divine nature but also about the manner of his divinity. Because he is the Father’s Son, his subsistence in the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son (Nazianzen, “Fifth Theological Oration,” 9). This is a thoroughly biblical affirmation, not only in that it exegetes particular texts but also in that it pays attention to patterns of biblical language. While this is not a thorough going defense of EG, I think it is enough to suggest that, rather than casting doubt upon EG, the biblical data actually provides us reason to affirm it, or at least pursue further understanding with a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion.

Against Eternal Submission

Now to my second aim: how does Yeago’s schema help us not just with defending EG but with defeating ERAS? Here I would posit three lines of argument. First, I’d say that many defenses of ERAS rely on a number of individual texts, exegeted individually. So, the argument goes, John 6:38 says the Father sent the Son, 1 Cor. 11:3 says that God is the head of Christ, and 1 Cor. 15:28 says that the Son will submit his kingdom to the Father. But a handful of texts does not a theological method make. How are these texts speaking of the Son? Is it in his humanity or his divinity? This decision is not and cannot be made via the most rigorous exegetical method, if that method excludes canonical, narrative, and dogmatic considerations.

Particularly important here is the pro-Nicenes’ economic understanding of Scripture; when a text speaks about the Son’s submission, it is talking about his incarnation. The pattern they saw in this regard is made explicit in Phil. 2:5–11. The Son, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be clutched, and so took the form of a servant. He became a servant in the incarnation, not before it (see Nazianzen, “Fourth Theological Oration,” 6). In other words, the pattern of Scripture is to speak of the Son’s submission only with reference to his incarnation, and this pattern is made explicit in the narrative of Phil. 2:5-11. Notice that Phil. 2 is not a prooftext for this notion of the economy of Scripture; rather, the whole of Scripture centers on the incarnation, and the life of the Son is spoken of in different terms with respect prior to and during or after the incarnation. Phil. 2 provides the explicit verse for that pattern, but the pattern is noticeable in abundant other places in Scripture. Thus to conclude that the texts cited in defense of ERAS – 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15:28, etc. – are about anything other than the Son’s incarnation would be to go against this pattern. Grudem concludes his less-than-two-page appendix, in which he casts doubt upon EG, the lynchpin of Nicene orthodoxy, by stating that while there is no biblical evidence to deny EG, there is also not much to support it either. The shoe is actually on the other foot. There is much biblical evidence to support EG, and very little, if any, to support ERAS.

Second, when we come to texts that seem to affirm ERAS, given, at the very least, the ambiguity surrounding those texts and whether they do in fact teach ERAS, we need to ask about the implications of such a view. I’ve already written about this in a previous post so I’ll make this brief: ERAS seems to require three wills in the Godhead, for how can one person submit to another without two distinct wills? This in turn questions the unity of God and his actions. And so on and so forth. (Luke has also already addressed the will issue.) Third, one must again ask about the patterns of biblical language. Some ERAS proponents point toward Father/Son language as necessarily entailing submission. But, as the pro-Nicenes noted, authority and submission is not always true of a Father/Son relationship. The only aspect of that kind of relation that remains constant is generation. Given the ambiguity surrounding a few select texts used to support ERAS, the implications of such a view, and the fact that the patterns of language do not support ERAS, it is hard to conclude that this view has biblical support. I should add, as a final point, there are those who would argue for ERAS based not necessarily on any particular text but on the relationship between the ad extra and ad intra. This post is already much too lengthy so I will have to articulate my argument about that in another post. Suffice it to say that I think the statement “the missions follow but are not equal to the processions” answers this objection, effectively tying together ad extra and ad intra without conflating the two. I will have more to say on this, and on what the pro-Nicenes had to say about the taxis, or ordering, among the persons of the Trinity in a later post.