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”


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).


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.


What Makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On Method

I know some grow weary of debating the doctrine of the Trinity, and I understand that frustration. Social media and the blogosphere are not the best platforms to sort out a doctrinal debate as significant as our understanding of the Trinity. I do not intend here or in future posts to continue “debating” with anyone; instead, I hope to provide some constructive arguments for how we, as Protestant evangelicals  (and, for me, free church Southern Baptists) should go about formulating and articulating doctrine. I also hope in subsequent posts to use this method to demonstrate the inherent biblical nature of the classic doctrine of the Trinity, especially with respect to the doctrine of eternal generation.

The basic question at stake is, “What makes a doctrine biblical?” That question is of course important to Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike, but it is particularly important for us Protestants, affirming as we do sola scriptura. What I would like to do here is articulate an appropriate theological method that is faithful to sola scriptura in a robustly theological and historical manner (which, by the way, is how the Reformers originally articulated the idea). In contrast to a stark biblicism that sees theology as essentially an individual project whereby the reader exegetes a handful of passages and then makes theological conclusions, this method is, I think, more careful to understand that theology is not autonomous, it is not presupposition-less, it is not a-historical, it is not merely a matter of proof-texting or collecting a handful of texts, and it is not unmoored from other Christians’ reflection throughout space and time. With that said, then, what does an evangelical theological method look like?

(Note that this is a sketch and not intended to be exhaustive.)

  1. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine relies on the illumination of the Spirit. Our ability to understand and interpret the Bible in its fullest sense – as the Word of God for the people of God – is dependent upon the Spirit who inspired it illumining our hearts as we read. We must start by asking for the Spirit’s help.
  2. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis.  The study of doctrine is grounded in exegesis. If we miss this point, we’ve missed the point of doctrine. In theology, we are attempting to understand what God has said to us in a systematic fashion – that is, in an orderly way, not just by working through individual books but by organizing these disparate texts in a way that demonstrates their coherent and unified message about particular topics. That task always begins with exegeting particular relevant texts. So, when we talk about the Trinity, for instance, we are in part asking about what the Bible says about God, and for this there are a number of texts where we need not only to repeat what they say but be clear about what is being said. 1 Cor. 8:6 is a good example. Understanding this verse requires the tools of exegesis (historical background, literary criticism, lexical knowledge, grammar and syntax, etc. etc.), and in turn our exegetical conclusions inform our theological stances. The key point to note here, though, is that “biblical” means more than just exegeting particular texts. There are a number of other ways in which we rely on God’s revelation to us in his Word to formulate doctrinal conclusions. Further, there are some (many?) doctrines that require more than just exegesis of individual texts alone. Therefore,
  3. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine pays attention to the patterns of biblical language. The latter phrase is taken from David Yeago’s excellent little essay, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma.” In it he argues that doctrinal decisions in early Christianity, and particularly as solidified in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, were a) reliant upon and in accordance with Scripture and b) doing so via paying attention not just to proof-texts but to patterns of biblical language. The theologians’ task was and is to use appropriate conceptual terms to render accurate theological judgments about these patterns. For instance, with respect to the word “homoousios,” it is not biblical in the sense that it is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the pro-Nicene theologians saw that the New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, individually and collectively, and that in doing so it continues to affirm Old Testament monotheism. How do we render an accurate judgment about this pattern of language – not just a judgment about an individual verse or a collection of verses, but a pattern – that testifies to the divinity of three person and to the oneness of God? Homoousios. Notice my emphasis here on “pattern” and not just collecting verses; while the Fathers would point to particular verses in noting these patterns, it was never just about individual verses themselves or just collecting them, but about the pattern of language noticed across these verses when seen together. So, for instance, the Fathers noticed that the Son is called by the same names as the Father (and the Spirit). This nominal pattern (among other equally biblical reasons) led them to conclude that the Son is God in the same sense that the Father is God. They share the same names. This is a pattern, not just pointing to a particular verse, or just collecting a few verses that seem to indicate Jesus’ divinity. No, it is more than that; it is attending to patterns and shapes. Speaking of shapes,
  4. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is narratively shaped. The pro-Nicene theologians, and indeed the New Testament writers and apostolic fathers like Irenaeus, saw that the Bible has a particular shape or structure to it. This structure, commonly known as the “economy” of Scripture, is centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel, the good news of God’s work of redemption. Notice that for us evangelicals, this is just a way of saying that the Bible is focused on the gospel – the evangel – of Jesus Christ. Particularly important in this regard for our purposes, though, is knowing how to speak of the Son in his incarnation versus in the life of the Trinity ad intra (immanent; before redemption; the life of God before creation). This was especially crucial in the fourth century, as the Arius, Eunomius, Asterius, and other anti-Nicenes used texts that spoke of Jesus’ submission to the Father to argue for the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. the pro-Nicenes countered that no, one must read Scripture in a way that pays attention to its gospel shape, especially when speaking about the Son. Does a particular text speak about the Son’s incarnate form or his life with Father and Spirit ad intra? (Luke Stamps has already noted just such a reading in Nazianzen.) I will come back to this in a future post, but it is worth noting here that for the pro-Nicenes a text speaking about the Son’s submission was always one which spoke of the incarnate Son, not of the immanent Trinity. This talk of the economy and reading according to the Bible’s structure was part of the rule of faith. This is because, for the Fathers and for us,
  5. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is a ruled doctrine. The rule of faith is notoriously difficult to pin down, but in my opinion Irenaeus’ hermeneutical method gives us a good example of what it looked like for many early Christian readers. For Irenaeus, the Bible should be read with three things in mind (see on this O’Keefe and Reno, Sanctified Vision): the economy of Scripture, the hypothesis of Scripture, and the narrative recapitulation in Scripture. The economy we have discussed. The hypothesis of Scripture is its main idea. Irenaeus compares it to a mosaic; we might use the analogy of a puzzle. Just like the puzzle box top gives us a picture of how the pieces are supposed to fit together and the picture they are supposed to collectively form, so the hypothesis of Scripture tells us what its big picture is and how its pieces (texts) fit together to form that picture. For Irenaeus, that picture is Jesus. Every text fits into the puzzle in a particular fashion to create and point to the big picture, which is of Christ. (I cannot take the time to go into this here, but this is because the Son is the ultimate revelation of the Father, and we know the Son through the Spirit’s inspiration of God’s Word. See here for more.) The third foundation is recapitulation. By this Irenaeus means that every story, person, event, etc. finds their culmination in the person and work of Jesus. This is essentially recognizing that the Bible is typological; stories are shaped and patterned similarly, and each of those patterns leads ultimately to the story of Jesus. Notice that these foundations are a) thoroughly Christological and b) thoroughly biblical. Irenaeus is relying on texts like John 5:46 and Luke 24:27, 44 to inform his method, but he also demonstrates its validity in actual interpretation (see e.g. his On the Apostolic Preaching). This rule was passed down and informed subsequent readers of Scripture, and likewise for us, then,
  6. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is informed by tradition. I know that some of my Baptist brethren may, if they haven’t already, be cringing at the mention of “tradition” and “Scripture” in the same breath, much less at the fact that I am doing so positively. But hear me out. Tradition is not inspired; Scripture is. Tradition is not inerrant or infallible; Scripture is. Tradition is not ultimate in authority; Scripture is. But to the extent that tradition is faithfully and accurately representing what God has given us in his Spirit-inspired Word, it is *derivatively* authoritative. Thus the Creeds, for instance, are *derivatively* authoritative; that is, they have authority only insofar as they accurately represent the ultimate authority, Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying, Father-revealing Holy Scripture. Scripture is ultimate; the Creeds derivative. But that brings us to the second term, “authority.” If the Creeds faithfully distill the teachings of Holy Scripture, then they have a derivative *authority.* They teach us what all Christians everywhere ought to believe about God, salvation, the Church, & the last things. Again, this is not equating them with or placing them on equal footing with Scripture. We must understand “derivative” as Protestants. But the Creeds have been tried and tested for almost two millennia. Their derivation from Scripture is seen ubiquitously by Christians throughout space and time. We should thus be incredibly cautious when we begin to think that we have a new exegetical point overturning them. The Creeds are not infallible, nor are they inerrant per se. But that doesn’t mean they should be seen as merely “valuable” but not “authoritative.” I am a Protestant evangelical Baptist. I believe in sola scriptura. But sola scriptura has never meant nuda scriptura or the rejection of derivative creedal authority, either in what we confess or in how we interpret Scripture. I think of tradition as guardrails. It’s there for a reason. Sometimes guardrails can be adjusted, or moved, but to ignore or do away with them entirely is not wise. Speaking of guardrails,
  7. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is refined by dogmatic, philosophical, logical, and experiential questions. Sometimes when we make judgments about patterns of biblical language, these patterns reveal rather clearly the judgment we ought to make. Other times, though, other kinds of questions have to be asked, namely those of the systematic and philosophical variety. Another way of saying this is to say that sometimes choices are presented to us doctrinally that need systematic and philosophical help to answer. Both Luke and I have written on this previously here, so I’ll point you there. Finally,
  8. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is worked out in an ecclesial context. No man is an island, and no Christian does theology apart from the rest of the body of Christ. As we pursue theological precision, we do so with the communion of saints throughout space and time. This means reading the Bible in an ecclesial, and especially a liturgical, context, and asking how other Christians have read the same passages and formulated their own doctrinal conclusions.

Well this turned out to be rather long. If I’d known it’d go over 2k words I might have just asked Derek Rishmawy to write it, or propose it as an article somewhere.

I’ll conclude by summarizing a Protestant evangelical Baptist method thusly: it is illumined by the Spirit, rooted in biblical exegesis, governed by patterns of biblical language, shaped by the biblical economy, guided by the biblically-derived rule of faith, guarded by biblically-derived tradition, refined by systematic and philosophical reflection, and located within the communion of the saints.


Adolf Schlatter on Theological Method

I stumbled across an essay on the theological method of Adolf Schlatter that is instructive to the theological task. One of Schlatter’s overarching points is the need for interpreters to take the proper time to actually observe what is in the text.  Here is one golden quote from Schlatter:

We will continue to see exegetical works appear that show how the author pored over commentaries about the text but left the text unread. We will see dogmatic treatises which reveal that the writer knows his dogmaticians, especially from his own school of thought, but that he has never seriously observed the religious matters that actually come to pass.

This quote is found is one of Schlatter’s points about the challenge of the theological task to integrate the details of the text into faithful construction of the whole, but coheres well with his overall point on observation.

Robert Yarborough has done us a service with his translation and commentary of Schlatter’s method. The entire essay is worth a read.


Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.

Sex, Beauty, and Songs

Today at the Gospel Coalition Andrew Shanks posted an article on the difference between Song of Solomon and erotica literature. Shanks points out that while Songs wants to celebrate marital love and beauty as expressed in human sexuality, erotica merely wants to celebrate and exploit sexuality.

I appreciate Andrew’s points there, and I hope this post doesn’t come across as me too harshly critiquing a fellow brother. But this post, and my reference to Andrew’s, are about much more than either of us individually. Instead, this post for me is about how evangelicals continue to read the Song of Solomon as not much more than a Christianized Kama Sutra. In my estimation it still seems like we are, as Christian readers of Songs, lowering the bar on the ultimate meaning of the book. Looking back to my series on theological method, Andrew’s article, along with much of evangelicalism, leaves out the bigger and more important hermeneutical question of how Songs points us to Christ and his gospel. I would say that perhaps Andrew merely wanted to focus on another aspect of Songs, not the primary one of pointing to Christ, but he makes this statement towards the beginning: “In his Song, Solomon’s primary goal is to describe love and beauty” (emphasis mine). This is commonplace in evangelicalism (think Driscoll’s sermons on the book). For many of us, Songs is primarily about the beauty of marriage, the intimate and physical connection that consummates it, the way to handle difficulty before and during it, etc. Don’t get me wrong – each of those things is important. Andrew’s point is important. Many other evangelical teachers’ points, that the book gives us a picture of what marriage ought to be and that we ought to emulate it, are important. But in my understanding these are neither the divine nor human author’s primary goals in any book of Scripture, including Songs. Rather, the Spirit’s, and through the inspiration of the Spirit the human author’s, primary goal is to show us Christ so that through seeing him we might see the Father. And it is only by seeing the Son in the power of the Spirit that we can then move on to understanding the implications for ethical living in areas like marriage and sexuality.

The human author of Songs actually gives us clues that he is talking about much more than beauty, sex, and marriage by making explicit textual connections and allusions to Davidic, Temple, Garden, eschatological, and Lady Wisdom language elsewhere in Scripture. This is highly charged OT language – it encompasses the major facets of OT eschatological hope. It gives us a picture of the wise king and his virtuous bride in a restored garden. It follows the search for a wise king and virtuous woman in the Hebrew Bible order of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ruth. The mystery of marriage is that it a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22-32). There are abundant reasons for thinking this book is about much more than beauty or sex. But in the name of the historical-grammatical method, we focus on the physical to the detriment of its spiritual message.

I think we ought to continue to think through the way Songs confronts the sexual ethic (or non-ethic) of our day, as Andrew has. And once again, I am appreciative of that type of work. I think work on the moral sense of Scripture is vitally important. But our understanding and interpretation of Scripture must remember that the primary goal of both the Spirit and the human author is always to point to Christ so that by seeing him we might see the Father and be changed into his image.


Textual Method

Well after blogging for four days straight a week and a half ago, an unprecedented blogging feat for me, the law of averages kicked in and I haven’t written my final two posts on method.

I’ll try to get back into the swing of it with this post on textual method.

By textual method I mean that,

Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.

There are a few things to note here, and I don’t pretend that any of these posts or this outline of method as a whole are complete, but here I want to focus on the locus of interpretation. Modernity has pushed our focus to empirical evidence for everything, including exegesis. Can it be verified? Is your interpretation objective? Are you approaching the exegetical task without bias? As I noted in my previous post on pneumatological method, this arrogance in regard to our ability to objectively approach the text and grind out the correct interpretation is rooted in modernity’s god-like claims of omniscience and comprehensive comprehension of data. This is seen most prominently in how interpretation has shifted from being focused on the actual text to focused on the historical framework constructed around it. Biblical scholars in modernity began constructing vast amounts of historical struts and trellises on which to place the text before they interpreted it. There are, as with any historical event or development, myriads of reasons for this, but primary in my opinion is an Enlightenment distrust of religious texts and especially the inspired nature of the Bible and, therefore, the need to find some other “objective” measure for interpretation besides the (in their mind flawed) text.

Of course for conservative biblical scholars (like myself), the text is still inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy. But evangelical biblical scholarship has capitulated to much of modernity’s methods by adopting many of the tools of the historical-critical approach while rejecting its conclusions about the nature of the Bible. Again, nowhere is this more prevalent than the continued propensity to build historical frameworks on which the text is hung for interpretation.

There are a number of problems with this approach, but the most important are that a) it is a capitulation to modernity’s idolatrous and vainglorious pursuit of “the objective” and b) it shifts interpretation’s focus from the inspired and revelatory biblical text to the uninspired, limited, interpreted, and perspectival historical reconstruction. Christian interpretation ought to be humble in its approach to the text and realize that Christians are given only one enduring form of special revelation by God – Scripture. Historical frameworks are not inspired, and yet they are so often the arbiter of how we approach the text. Should this not be reversed? Shouldn’t we approach our finite historical reconstructions through the lens of God-given and authoritative revelation and not vice versa?

A couple of caveats as I finish here.

  1. This is not to deny the importance of history, and especially the historicity of the text. It seems nonsensical to me to affirm the inspiration of the human authors by the Holy Spirit and then treat the historical verity of their material as unimportant or secondary. No, the biblical authors are claiming something about reality that is rooted in history, and to claim otherwise seems to ignore the biblical authors’ intent in writing their material. The historicity of the text is of utmost importance when we talk about the authority of the Bible (and if you can’t tell by now, I’m an inerrantist; if you didn’t see that coming, you haven’t read much of my blog…).
  2. This is also not to deny the provisional benefit of historical background and worldview reconstruction in interpretation. We ought to, however, greatly mitigate our reliance on that reconstruction in our interpretation of the Bible. The Bible already gives us a worldview – starting in Genesis 1:1 – and many (most?) times it gives us the historical background necessary to understand the author’s message.

For an article on this type of approach, I’d recommend Bruce Ashford and David Nelson, “Meaning, Reference, and Textuality: An Evangelical Appropriation of Hans Frei,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28/2 (2010): 195-216.