Craig Carter on the Church Fathers, Premodern Exegesis, and Platonism

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Craig Carter of Tyndale University College and Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:35), coming to a new understanding of classical Christian theism (7:00), theological growth throughout the years (12:30), interpreting Scripture with the church fathers (15:55), Trinitarian theology from the Bible to the early church (29:27), Christian Platonism (38:15), and more. Buy Craig’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

Alliterative Trinitarianism

Over the last month or so, I read back through Athanasius and the Cappadocians in preparation for ETS and for an essay on theological method and Trinitarian doctrine. As I’ve worked my way once again (perhaps the fourth time?) through these texts, an organizing scheme for part of their argument came to me . And of course, since I’m a Baptist, this scheme came pre-packaged alliteratively. The following four affirmations, concerning each of the three persons of God, function for the pro-Nicene theologians as some of the main arguments for the full, equal, shared divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Appellations – The pro-Nicene theologians were at pains to show that, while Father, Son, and Spirit each have different personal names, they all are called by the divine name and its synonyms in Scripture. Because Son and Spirit are both called (along with the Father) Savior, Creator, Majesty, etc., they are equally God.
  2. Activities – Similarly, Father, Son, and Spirit are each identified by Scripture as the persons who do what only God does – creates, redeems, judges, and sustains.
  3. Attributes – Father, Son, and Spirit are each called or identified as possessing attributes that are only possessed by God alone, either as superlative communicable attributes (goodness, mercy, justice, holiness, etc.) or divine incommunicable attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.).
  4. Adoration – The three persons of the Godhead each receive worship in Scripture, something that is only applicable to and received by God alone.

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.

Some Serious Questions About The Trinity

I posted these on Twitter earlier, but I think I’ll leave them here in a more permanent place.

We all need to ask some very serious questions at this point, it appears (although there are 2000 years of work addressing these already…).

  1. Are we now willing, given ERAS/EFS/ESS, to assert three wills in the Godhead? How does “submission and authority” occur in the life of God if not via distinct wills, one for each person?
  2. If yes to #1, are we now willing to either a) deny inseparable operations or b) so alter it that it is a matter of unity in agreement, not unity in action?
  3. If yes to #1, are we willing to so alter the doctrine of God that unity of essence does not equal unity of will?
  4. If yes to #1, are we now willing to posit monothelitism, the Apollinarian position that posits that the Son’s will in Garden is his divine will struggling  with and ultimatley submitting to the Father’s divine will?
  5. If yes to #4, are we willing to assert not only that there are three wills in Godhead but that, in the Garden, they are struggling with one another?

These questions are not merely speculative, only for theo-nerds, and application-less for the layperson. These questions are *vital.* For example, regarding the doctrine of salvation: if we assert monothelitism (Christ’s incarnate will is only his divine will) instead of dyothelitism (the incarnate Christ has two wills, human & divine) we lose the clear connection between Christ’s redemptive obedience and his healing of our *human* wills, returning them to obedience.

Think of your own heart: do you obey readily? Not in your flesh you don’t. Traditional Trinitarian and Christological doctrine says there is one will in the Godhead, two in Christ – human and divine. The *human* will of Jesus obeys *for us* and thereby redeems our own wills. You can obey because Christ, the second Adam, obeyed *in his humanity by his human will* and now restores your *human* will through his Spirit.

Another applicational point – when you contemplate God, who are you contemplating? An accurate portrait or a distortion? If God has one will, but you posit three, you are not contemplating God rightly. Vice versa, if God has three wills, but I posit one, I am not contemplating God rightly. That is no laughing matter, nor is it merely a third order question.

Let’s be very clear about what’s at stake in this debate – a right understanding of Christ’s salvific work and a right contemplation of God.

Heresy Hunting and Eternal Relations of Origin

I’m a classic complementarian who affirms classic orthodoxy regarding the eternal relations of the persons of the Trinity (i.e. that the eternal relations of origin distinguish the persons, not a social schema). I also believe that what the Bible says about gender is enough to support complementarianism without comparing the relationship between male and female to the inner life of the Godhead. Additionally, I don’t believe the relations of the persons of the Godhead are comparable to relations between male and female. I therefore disagree with those who wish to bolster their position on gender with a social Trinitarian schema, whether it be from an egalitarian or complementarian perspective. I thus disagree with Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and other complementarians who attempt to support complementarianism via the doctrinal innovation known as eternal functional subordination. I disagree not only with tying in gender roles to God’s inner life but also with the social Trinitarian understanding of the relations between the persons of God upon which such a claim is based.

That being said, I’ve seen many on social media and on blogs willing to throw around phrases comparing Ware, Grudem, et al.’s position to heresy. This is unfair, careless, and a straw man. If you read Ware’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Grudem’s systematic theology, both of these theologians strongly and clearly affirm the unity of the Godhead in essence. According to them, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all equally and fully share in the one divine being. They are homoousions. They also, though, posit that the Son willingly and volitionally submits to the Father ad intra. While I have serious disagreements with this latter position, both biblically and historically, this is not a classic heresy by any means. It is an innovation, in my opinion, but one that incorrectly understands eternal relations rather than one that departs from classic orthodoxy regarding the unity of the Godhead.

I’m not sure evangelicals can disagree without someone throwing out a heresy bomb at some point, but we should at least give it a good old college try.