Book Notice: Trinitarian Theology

On Monday, October 1, B&H Academic will release Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Trinitarian Application, edited by Keith Whitfield (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). This the first volume in the B&H Theological Review series, a series based on topics discussed at the annual B&H SBC Professors’ Fellowship at ETS. In the book, Bruce Ware (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Malcolm Yarnell (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), and Luke Stamps (Anderson University) and I offer three separate chapters outlining our different theological methods and the different theologies of the Trinity they produce. Additionally, each author (or set of authors in my and Luke’s case) responds to the other chapters in an attempt to further clarify the terms of and stakes in the debate. This book thus addresses the methodological issues involved in the so-called “Trinity Debate” of 2016.

Here is an excerpt from my and Luke’s chapter, summarizing our aims and argument:

This essay contends there is a way to be thoroughly biblical without succumbing to the drawbacks of biblicism, and one of the primary test cases for this methodological distinction is the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, we wish to articulate a canonical, confessional, and dogmatically informed evangelical theological method. We wish to retain the biblicist commitment to sola scriptura while at the same time operating with what might be called a “thick biblicism,” in which what counts as biblical encompasses something much more than simply collating “plain” readings of biblical texts. To put it simply, a canonical, confessional, and dogmatic theological method seeks to articulate Christian doctrine by understanding Scripture as a canonical whole, read in light of the Church’s consensual tradition, and with the aid of dogmatic reasoning. The method articulated below also situates the task of theology primarily in an ecclesial context in which the Spirit’s illuminating guidance is a nonnegotiable factor.

And regarding the Trinity and gender roles:

The relationship between a husband and wife is not univocally comparable to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. We acknowledge that passages like 1 Cor 11:3 connect the doctrine of God to gender roles, but we want to insist that this connection is made between human relationships and the economic missions of the three persons of the one God. The Bible does not ever posit or suggest a straight line between complementarianism and God’s life ad intra. Rather, the submission of a wife to a husband is comparable to the submission of the Church to Christ (Eph 5:22–32) and to the submission of the incarnate Christ to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). Because the economic missions are fitting given the eternal processions, it is not as if there is no connection at all, but the connection that exists is not a direct one. Rather, gender roles mirror or reflect the roles seen in the economic missions. Those missions, in turn, reflect and proceed from the eternal relations of origin. But the latter do not contain any hint of subordination, since, as we have argued, that would be ruinous for trinitarian monotheism.

For those interested in the issues surrounding the Trinity debate, we hope you’ll pick this up and find it clarifying. Right now B&H Academic will only have it available in ebook format, with a print version coming early 2019. The link will be on Amazon on October 1.

 

“Not a Brawler”: Polemics v. Pugilism in Theology

Polemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as, alternatively, “ an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another,” or, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy . . .”   – is sometimes required in theology. There have been, since the Garden, theological opinions that deserve strong rebuke. When required, we should not shy away from that particular task, however reticent we may be to engage in it.

But there are plenty of examples today of self-styled theologians – many of whom you can find practicing their “craft” on Twitter threads or long Facebook comments or various corners of the blogosphere – who engage in nothing but refutation. For them, the theological task is nothing more or less than telling others why they are clearly and dangerously wrong. Theology is take down. To say it a bit more charitably, there are those who remember their task to “guard sound doctrine” but forget the more constructive instruction to “pass on to faithful men what you have learned also.”

This kind of theological engagement suffers in at least two ways. First, it produces theologies that are completely reactionary to whatever is happening in our current cultural moment. Rather than theology being a pillar and buttress of truth, it becomes shifting sand – ironically, sand that shifts in exactly the same direction that the supposedly dangerous culture does, even if it comes to different conclusions than that culture. Theology in Scripture is firm, sound, a trustworthy deposit. *Exclusively* polemical theology is, on the other hand, tossed about by the winds, even while it intends to straighten everyone else’s sails. It sniffs around for silly myths rather than avoiding them.

The other way that this theology-as-polemics suffers is by producing pugilists rather than peaceable ministers of sound doctrine. In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul gives instructions regarding the qualification for an overseer (elder, pastor, bishop…). The penultimate characteristic listed in the first group (vv. 2-3) is “not quarrelsome.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “not a brawler.” Whether or not this particular qualification has physical confrontation or an intellectual disposition in mind (and, given the mention of “violence” in the immediately previous characteristic, one could choose either option, I think), the latter plausibly can be considered under it in terms of general application. A minister of the gospel should not be one disposed to quarreling, physically or intellectually. But theology-as-polemics produces bulldogs, not shepherds. It produces pugilism, not discernment. It produces violence, not love. And this pugilistic attitude leads, in turn, to viewing one’s interlocutor as an argument to be destroyed rather than a neighbor (and, often, a Christian sister or brother) to be loved.

 

Doctrinal Charity

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

A sermon of Matt Chandler’s has sparked a small fire in one corner of social media. In it, Chandler gives some examples of how the gift of prophecy might still operate today. Of course, his message assumes a continuationist position on gifts, a position that many American evangelicals view with suspicion. My concern in this post isn’t to argue for or against continuationism or Chandler’s application of it, but to address the negative reaction to it, a reaction that is, for me, emblematic of a larger problem within American evangelicalism – a lack of doctrinal charity toward those with whom we disagree.

In the last few days I’ve seen Chandler equated false teaching and false prophecy, and called a host of other unsavory things that I won’t repeat. Not to mention the potshots at his polity. The stated reason for these slanderous words is that Chandler is a continuationist and not a cessationist.

This kind of rhetoric reminds me of a few months ago when some Christians on social media essentially “farewelled” other Christians who voiced concerns about racial reconciliation in the Church. And that, in turn, reminds of the rhetoric used against Christians who feel that psychology and psychiatry can be used responsibly, even if subserviently, in Christian counseling as those who functionally deny the sufficiency of Scripture or who subvert biblical authority with secular authority. And all that reminds me of my Calvinist friends in seminary who were ready and willing to call Arminius a heretic, or my Arminian friends in seminary who were ready and willing to say that Calvin and the Calvinists believe in a different God because they affirm a particular view of election.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Christ. This is not in accordance with Paul’s description of love for one another in 1 Corinthians 13, whether in the verses quoted at the beginning or in v. 7 – “ Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Doctrinal clarity is important, but so are doctrinal charity and doctrinal humility. I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.

  1. We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
  2. We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
  3. We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
  4. We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
  5. Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.

Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Are Evangelicals Too Soft on Modern-Day Heterodoxy?

Andy Stanley’s Marcion-like (or maybe hyper-dispensational?) view of the OT has resurfaced and the outcry has already been well worn. This is nothing new for Stanley—it has been a trend of his for years (and years). However, I don’t want to address him specifically here. The defense of his teachings from some corners of evangelicalism is more intriguing to me.

Some of the initial reactions on social media and blogs focused on the supposed lack of engagement from Stanley’s critics. Statements like, “If you’d just listen to the whole sermon, you may not disagree as much as you think” and, “Everyone who speaks publicly as much as Stanley is liable to slip up or be imprecise at times” ran amuck. Neither of these defenses holds much water. Indeed, many of us have been paying attention to Stanley for years, and we know that (1) this is certainly consistent with his theology of Scripture and the OT; and (2) he is one of the most precise and gifted communicators on the planet, so while he’s entitled to some imprecision or slip-ups, he has been very clear and articulate on this over the years (as we just noted).

Again, innumerable responses have already been written about why his view is Marcion-like and foreign to the writers of the NT. Collectively, these all say it better than I could. But the underlying theological assumptions that lead people to defend Stanley on this subject are problematic.

These assumptions lead to the minimization of the theology itself. Many folks rushed to his defense, arguing that Stanley is merely trying to reach a new generation of non-believers who are put off by the “angry God of the OT.” Others, similarly, argue that his view of the OT is simply a matter of preference—his view is one perspective of many, and thus some theological fundamentalists just need to take a chill pill. Here’s why both are problematic.

1. Reaching lost people is viewed as the primary goal of Christianity.

There is no doubt that evangelism is an important call for Christians. Indeed, the last thing Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended to the Father’s right hand is “go and make disciples of all nations.” Stanley’s remarks are defended on the basis that he’s just trying to get people to darken the doors of the church so they can hear the gospel message and be surrounded by believers. Great Commission!

First, this shortchanges the Great Commission, because Jesus also told them to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” and to baptize them in the name of the triune God. His commission was one of not only making disciples but also maturing them in the content of his teachings. The core teaching of the OT was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4—teach your children God’s commandments from generation to generation. This was very much a doctrinal statement. Jesus consistently pointed back to the OT’s commands while explicating and fulfilling (not destroying or minimizing) their meanings doctrinally. Paul carried this on in several places, including his charge to Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (1 Tim. 1:13-14), which was certainly a statement about preserving right theology.

Second, this view teaches people that Scripture is not sufficient for salvation and sanctification. Stanley can claim the inspiration of Scripture all day, but if he thinks the Bible needs defending or even editing (his statement about “unhitching” the NT from the OT gives this impression), then he denies its sufficiency. Reaching lost people with a half-Bible and teaching them to ignore significant portions doesn’t build confidence in God’s Word, and it represents a posture on Stanley’s part that the whole of Scripture really isn’t fully sufficient to give someone “wisdom for salvation” and “training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:15). Of course, “Scripture” to the NT writers was primarily the OT.

So while helping people move from spiritual darkness to spiritual light is a core component of biblical Christianity, the old saying “what you win them with is what you win them to” is especially relevant here. The 20th-century megachurch mentality of filling seats has already proven to produce loads of false converts, and this mentality is part of the reason why. When they’re given milk but never move onto solid food, they remain (almost literally) spiritual babies who never grow up to determine for themselves good and bad theology (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:12-6:1).

2. Heterodoxy is overlooked as mere preference.

Matt Emerson has rightly pointed out that we can’t judge all theological error based on its consistency with Nicaea. Yet church culture has been infiltrated by the larger culture around it, buying into a version of universal truth where everyone has a right to their theological opinion and no one has the right to judge another’s hermeneutic.

While I’m thrilled that many Christians see early creeds and confessions as important doctrinal parameters (we need more of that actually!), it becomes as solid as theological Jell-O when we assume that a few lines from the creeds encompass the entirety of orthodoxy and theological correctness. We then allow heterodoxy to run rampant in the church, excusing any theological statement or biblical position as a matter of “agree to disagree” simply because it doesn’t violate the literal wording of a particular creed.

Of course, the early church themselves wouldn’t have done this. The creeds were in some ways bare minimum requirements for orthodoxy, but they were also in response to certain major currents of heresy in the church. The sexual revolution and hermeneutical sloppiness of the past 100 years (both of which Stanley has overlooked or directly advanced) would’ve almost certainly produced councils had they been significant movements in that era. But we know, of course, that these views are modern novelties.

While I could make the case that Stanley’s view on the OT is an affront to proper interpretation of creedal language, it is heterodoxy at best and therefore still falls well below the standards of both traditional orthodoxy and scriptural warrant.

I’m not sure how a fractured Protestantism handles these issues in any official manner, but it’s high time we believe and advance a thicker orthodoxy that’s creedally informed, but more importantly scripturally coherent.

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

About eighteen months ago, in the summer of 2016, Wayne Grudem and others were put on trial via blog about their views on the Trinity. Grudem holds to ERAS, or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, wherein God the Son eternally, functionally (not ontologically) submits to the Father. This submission in the Godhead, for him and other ERAS proponents, grounds a complementarian view of gender roles. One of the primary accusations leveled at Grudem et al. is that they did not clearly and unequivocally hold to (at least) one aspect of classical Christian theism, the eternal relations of origin – and specifically ,the eternal generation of the Son – opting instead for ERAS to explain the distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. (Grudem, as well as Bruce Ware, have since publicly affirmed the eternal relations of origin).

While I strongly disagree with  Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, what puzzled me at the time and still does is why Grudem and Bruce Ware particularly were singled out for questioning and/or revising Christian theism in some way. If you read twentieth century theology, much of it consists precisely of that kind of move, and via a similar theological method as e.g. Grudem’s. For instance, a year before the Trinity debate, Scot McKnight posted Roger Olson’s blogged critique of divine timelessness, presumably in support of the latter’s comments. The quoted portion of Olson’s post begin by questioning “classical theism” in general and its (according to him) over-speculative nature, but the key paragraph begins like this:

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”

A year later McKnight was a vocal opponent of ERAS on Twitter and his blog, on the grounds that it departed from the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Now, perhaps in that year plus, McKnight came to appreciate the tradition more; I don’t know, that’s certainly possible. In any case I find the Olson post and the ERAS comments interesting in relation to one another.) Another example, this time in classical Christology: Nick Batzig recently posted about William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that Christ did not possess a human soul but instead only a human body and a divine soul, even referring to his position as “Neo-Apollinarianism.” We could also mention Moltmann’s Trinitarian rupture at the cross, or Pinnock’s open theism, or, relatedly, process theology, or Balthasar’s view of the descent as it relates to (departs from?) inseparable operations, the extra Calvinisticum, and other important pieces of classical Christian theism more broadly and classical Trinitarianism and Christology more particularly.

The point is that Grudem and others are not and never have been the only twentieth century theologians to question or to attempt a revision of aspects of classical Christian theism. Much of twentieth century theology consists of just such questions and attempts. And they do so on the same kinds of methodological grounds. Notice again the Olson quote above. To paraphrase, “I personally cannot find a text in the biblical narrative that speaks of God’s timelessness.” This sounds like the same kind of biblicist argument used by e.g. Grudem, in an appendix of his Systematic Theology, where he says of eternal generation that he cannot find a text in support of the doctrine.

Again, we could multiply examples here of similar methodology in twentieth century theology, wherein a theologian’s own reading of the Bible, perhaps in conjunction with philosophical categories and methods (e.g. Craig on Christology), trumps the traditional understanding of an aspect of the doctrine of God or of Christology. James Dolelzal’s recent work, All That Is In God, does some of that work, but even he limits his analysis to what he calls “Reformed evangelicals,” which for him is mostly a euphemism for Bruce Ware. This doesn’t tell the whole story, just like the Trinity debate didn’t tell the whole story. Classical Christian theism was, to use Dolezal’s paradigm, rejected, revised, or ignored by much of twentieth century theology, not only in Reformed evangelicalism but in mainline Protestantism, other parts of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy….you name the tradition and I’ll name you a major theologian who went the same route albeit on a different vehicle. (That includes confessional Reformed traditions).

All this is to say that I think evangelicals in particular could do with a revision of their understanding of tradition in general and of classical Christian theism in particular. It is my belief that many rejections of CCT arise from misunderstanding both the role of tradition within the evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura and of the biblical-theological and historical warrrant for holding CCT. We need to go back to the drawing board in evangelicalism in the way we teach theological method and how we relate our right and good commitment to the Bible’s ultimate authority to the faith once delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian Tradition. To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection. Theological retrieval is not repristinizing the past or muting the Bible with theological jargon; instead, it’s a demonstration of the inherently biblical support for dogmatic terminology and categories. In other words, “going back to the drawing board” consists firstly of a shift in how we think about theological method, and particularly what makes a doctrine “biblical.”

Wesley Hill on Paul, the Trinity, and Theological Method

I interviewed Wesley Hill awhile back about his fantastic book, Paul and the Trinity. Hill’s book is one of the best books I have read in years, and was the catalyst for my current Ph.D. dissertation. I posted it on my old blog, and am reposting the interview here because I think the Biblical Reasoning crowd will find it interesting and helpful. Hopefully, this interview will encourage you to buy it and read for yourself!

Brandon: How does Paul and the Trinity seek to correct misconceptions about Paul’s theology, particularly in regard to the Trinity?

Wesley: One influential misconception about Paul is that he doesn’t have anything distinctive to say about God. As the great Pauline scholar E. P. Sanders once said, “From [Paul] we learn nothing new or remarkable about God… it is clear that Paul did not spend his time reflecting on the nature of the deity.” Paul’s distinctiveness is thought to lie, rather, in his Christology. But my book tries to make an argument that Paul’s Christology is inseparable from his view of God, so that the relationship between God and Jesus is mutually constitutive for the identities of both. You can’t say Paul has a distinctive Christology without also saying Paul has a distinctive understanding of God.

Brandon: While he’s obviously not working with precise Nicene language or concepts, you argue that exegesis of Paul does not reach its full potential without Trinitarian theology. Can you explain that more fully?

Wesley: Trinitarian theology says that God is fundamentally and eternally relational. The Father would not be Father without the Son. The Son would not be Son without the Father. The Spirit would not be the love and gift that he is without the Father and Son who together give and receive him. My book is trying to make the case that that Triune relational “grammar” is a deep insight into Paul’s theology. Paul, too, well before the Council of Nicaea, understood what Kavin Rowe has called the “relational determination” of the divine identity.

Brandon: Do you believe that Paul’s understanding of the Trinity is more fully developed or unique than that of other biblical writers?

Wesley: I don’t think it is more fully developed than, say, the Fourth Gospel’s. Borrowing terminology from my colleague David Yeago, I would say that Paul has a unique conceptual apparatus for talking about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. He uses the reverential substitute “Lord” for the divine name YHWH, and he applies that title to God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit. But Paul thereby arrives at the same theological judgment as John, the author of Hebrews, and even the Synoptic Gospels, in my interpretation. There is clearly a wide variety of theological vocabularies in play in the New Testament, but in my view there is deep continuity among the various writers at the level of Trinitarian theological judgments.

Brandon: Which thinkers set the foundation for Paul and the Trinity?

Wesley: Kavin Rowe’s book Early Narrative Christology was very important for my work. It made the argument that Trinitarian concepts of “persons” and “relations” were the outgrowth of New Testament texts. The Gospel of Luke, in Rowe’s reading, portrays the “Lord” of the Old Testament and Jesus the “Lord” as “overlapping.” And yet Rowe also emphasized the irreducible distinction of the two in Luke’s narrative: Jesus carries out the mission given him by Israel’s God. This “doubling,” in which both profound identity and distinction are held together, is what later Nicene theology expressed with the language of one ousia (“essence”) and three hypostases (“persons”).

Brandon: There’s been a divide between systematic theology and biblical studies for centuries (insert Gabler joke here), yet Paul and the Trinity is a rich combination of the two. How can this integration move Pauline studies forward?

Wesley: Although it seems counterintuitive to many biblical scholars, reading the creedal, confessional, doctrinal texts of Christian history is, or should be, an exegetical enterprise, precisely because doctrines are exegetically derived. If doctrines came from Scripture, they should lead back to Scripture. In this way, we might say that Christian doctrines like the Trinity are retrospective: they are oriented toward the reading of Scripture; they are meant to take us back to reread the text. They are hermeneutical aids, if you like. Doctrines are not free-floating entities that improve upon the messiness of Scripture by replacing Scripture’s loose ends with a more straightforward, easy-to-follow summary. Rather, they are meant to prompt and enable deeper wrestling with biblical texts, including, as I argue, Paul’s letters.

Arguing from Silence in the Early Church

This summer Luke Stamps and I had a relatively brief interaction about penal substitution and its catholicity. One of the common objections to penal substitution is that it is not found in the early church’s theological reflection. While we gave some brief examples in our posts of where it might be found, at least implicitly, there is a larger problem with this kind of approach to the Patristic period. We often use the early church in one of two problematic ways: either to proof-text in support of our position or to make an argument from silence against a position we oppose. While methodologically speaking the former is a bit easier to confront, the latter seems more prevalent these days (at least in my reading). Our hermeneutics classes have warned us of proof-texting enough that I think it’s easier to reject that approach not just biblically but historically. What is harder to reject, but what is just as problematic, is citing the silence of the Fathers as proof that a doctrine isn’t biblically or theologically warranted.

This is methodologically suspect on at least two levels. Historically, it ignores the fact that Christian doctrines develop over time. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it worked out in all its loci all at once immediately after the last apostle passes away. It should be clear to those who have studied church history that the Patristic and Medieval periods are given over to working out the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Soteriology and ecclesiology are the focus of theological reflection in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, while anthropology and eschatology (to name just two) are being worked out in much more detail in contemporary theological discussions. To ask a second century apologist to speak about the Triune God with the same level of exactness as fifth century Christians is anachronistic. And to argue that a particular understanding of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution, or justification by faith alone) is not warranted because the Fathers do not mention it[1] is to miss the point that soteriology is largely assumed and not worked out with particular fervor or exactness until the Reformation. In other words, historically, this “argument from Patristic (or Medieval) silence” is an error of anachronism.

The “argument from silence” is also theologically problematic. For Protestants, the ultimate doctrinal standard is not a particular period in church history or how early or late a particular doctrine is widely attested, but whether or not a particular doctrine is faithful to Holy Scripture. While we certainly want to pay attention to any belief’s development, our assessment of it, if we are to be fully Protestant, should rest finally with whether or not it conforms to God’s Word. As Protestants, we affirm that the church can and does make mistakes, ethically, interpretively, and doctrinally. Just because the first, second, or third (etc) generations of Christians after the apostles believed something does not make it automatically true, nor does their lack of attestation to a belief make that belief necessarily false. Sola Scriptura demands that we make those judgments ultimately from Scripture, not via picking a particular period of church history as more important than another.

That said, there is a reason we often look to the Patristic period for validation of our beliefs – it is important both historically and theologically. Historically, it is most immediate to the apostles and their teaching. More importantly, perhaps, is that, theologically, the conclusions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon are accurate summaries of biblical teaching about the Trinity and about Christ, and therefore can be used (penultimate to Scripture’s authority) to assess whether or not later doctrinal developments are faithful to the good deposit of Scripture and the church’s summary of it in the three ecumenical creeds. So it is not as though I am arguing that the early church is unimportant in theological reflection. By no means! But I am saying that arguments from silence are not proper method, either historically or theologically.

[1] I’d argue they do, but it is still a very minor theme in their discussion of salvation when compared to its prominence in contemporary evangelical theology.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.

 

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”

Nicaea_icon

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.