The Eternal Subordination of the Son: The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)

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In the previous post in this series, we began to consider some of the theological concerns that surface in the teaching of those who hold to a form of the ERAS/ESS position. In this post, we wish to consider these concerns in more detail. In particular, the ERAS/ESS position seems to demand that both Father and Son have different wills. However, according to the Nicene tradition, the Father and the Son have only one will, the will of the single divine nature. God's one will isn't just a matter of the unity, agreement, or coincidence of three wills of the divine persons, but is the single will that belongs to the one and undivided divine nature. There cannot be different acts of willing in God.

Mark Jones has dealt with this point thoroughly and perceptively, demonstrating just how devastating this problem can be for the ESS position. He quotes John Owen to show how affirming the singularity of the will of God need not be inconsistent with speaking of the will of a particular Person of the Trinity:

The will of God as to the peculiar Actings of the Father in this matter, is the Will of the Father; And the Will of God, with regard unto the peculiar Actings of the Son, is the Will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry Wills, but by the distinct Application of the same Will unto its distinct Acts, in the Persons of the Father and the Son.

An important further part of the picture, which helps to explain biblical suggestions of a diversity of will between the Father and the Son in his incarnation, is the teaching of dyothelitism. Christ has a divine and a human nature and a divine and a human will proper to those two natures. This is why it is appropriate to speak of Christ's obedience to the Father and why this does not entail a plurality of wills in God himself. Christ submits to and obeys the will of the Father--the single will of God--as a man with a human nature and will.

The traditional doctrine distinguishes the hypostases by eternal relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The claim that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father is the doctrine of eternal generation, and has been questioned or rejected by people on both side of the debate surrounding ESS. Keith Johnson discusses Augustine's doctrine of eternal generation in some detail. Johnson argues that eternal generation serves to explicate the Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son, maintaining with Augustine that the 'temporal sending of the Son reflects the Son's relation of being eternally "from" the Father' (31). The 'ordered equality' of the Father and the Son work in creation and redemption is ultimately grounded in this relation in the immanent Trinity.

This doctrine does not depend upon speculative arguments founded upon a few isolated proof texts, but upon reflection upon the broader shape of the revelation and acts of God in both the Old and New Testaments. It develops out of the conviction that God's ad extra work and word in creation, providence, and redemption involves the divine persons inseparably acting, each according to their distinct mode of personal subsistence. Although the economy should not uncritically be read back into an account of the immanent Trinity, God as he exists in himself is revealed in the manner of his work in the world. This doctrine of the Trinity seeks to maintain both robust confidence in the revelation and profound humility before the mystery.

Perhaps the difference between the approach of many of the critics of eternal generation and that of the orthodox to the doctrine might be compared to the difference between treating the biblical text as if a flat representation on a wall and treating it as if a stained glass window through which an uncreated light pours. As we gaze upon the surface of the text, we come to encounter an awesome beauty that lies beyond it. While the doctrine of eternal generation is not straightforwardly represented in the text, it is arrestingly visible through it.

At this point, the tradition would also challenge some of the egalitarian critics of ESS, who can dislike this suggestion of a stable relational order in the divine life, favouring notions of fluidity, interchangeability, or pronounced symmetry. Such an approach can push the doctrine of the Trinity into the realm of speculation, divorcing it from the biblical witness through which we see it. As Johnson observes, within such an approach, rather than the work of the Son revealing 'his filial mode of being "from" the Father for all eternity,' the temporal missions are reduced to 'simply willed acts that in no direct way reflect God's inner life.' As the economic Trinity clearly witnesses to a relational order that may not sit easily with certain of their relational ideals, some egalitarians may be tempted to do an end run around the economic Trinity into a speculative doctrine of the immanent Trinity, largely abstracted from the scriptural witness.

A final crucial point of Trinitarian doctrine that tells against ESS positions is the traditional insistence that the divine persons act inseparably. The acts of God are not subcontracted out to the persons individually. Rather, all of God does all that God does, in an indivisible manner. The Father works through the Son in the Spirit, but this working isn't such that it could be separated into three distinct roles in some divine division of labour. Rather, Father, Son, and Spirit act as a single agent in unified action. Fred Sanders discusses this point in connection with the baptism and incarnation of Christ. Keith Johnson demonstrates just how serious a problem this account of Trinitarian agency poses for ESS in this Themelios article.

This inseparability of action is 'ordered and irreversible,' and reveals the persons in their indivisible distinctness, rather than as interchangeable. As Jones observes, the undivided works of God 'often manifest one of the persons as their terminus operationis.' The principle of appropriation offers a fuller account of how each person of the Trinity can possess in a unique manner what is the common property of all. According to this approach, for instance, by recognizing the order of the Trinity, names, qualities, or works can be especially attributed to one person, albeit not to the exclusion of the others. So, for instance, as Thomas Aquinas argued (Summa Theologica III, Q.23, Art.2): 'Therefore adoption, though common to the whole Trinity, is appropriated to the Father as its author; to the Son, as its exemplar; to the Holy Ghost, as imprinting on us the likeness of this exemplar.' This account of divine action challenges people on both sides of the current debate.

As our doctrine of God lies at the centre of our faith, speaking with care and precision about the Trinity is a matter of paramount importance. As I will argue in my next post, within which I will grapple with the more Biblicist agreements in the current debate, a strong doctrine of the Trinity can greatly enrich our reading of Scripture.

Posted August 22, 2016 @ 4:15 PM by Alastair Roberts
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