Results tagged “Godhead” from Reformation21 Blog

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.

Editorial Note: Our friends, Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher, have raised concerns about the Trinitarian theology employed by some scholars who support gender complementarianism (see thisthis and this posting). Ref21 is pleased to publish a response from Dr. Bruce Ware.  While letting Dr. Ware speak for himself (and not as representing any official position of the Alliance), we hope this reply will clarify both the issues and the specific views held by our fellow evangelicals.

Postings in recent days by Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman have sought to spotlight what they perceive to be possible departures from orthodoxy by those evangelicals who affirm an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons. The charges in these postings are serious but in our judgment false. They accuse us of things that we explicitly deny and they do not represent our view fairly. Some brief reply seems appropriate. 

First, what is never stated by Goligher or Trueman (perhaps just an oversight?) is this: those who affirm the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son uniformly and adamantly affirm also the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature. There is no hint of Arian subordinationism or of tri-theism in what is being proposed by advocates of this intra-Trinitarian relationship of authority and submission. One may, if one chooses, level the charge that our view entails a denial of homoousios, or that it implies tri-theism, or the like. But be clear, such supposed entailments or implications are not only denied but are strongly refuted by advocates of our view. We stand fully with the early ecumenical councils in embracing all that they say about the eternal deity of the Son and the full unity and co-eternality of the one God who is three. And we reject all forms of ontological subordinationism in affirming the full, unqualified, co-eternal deity of the Son, with the Father and the Spirit. 

Second, positing an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons does not conflict in any way with this orthodox heritage, because the issue here is how the three persons function as Father, Son, and Spirit, not whether one has a nature that is superior to or inferior to another (the latter, of course, is flatly denied). At the ontological level, there is absolute equality of deity as all three share fully in the one and undivided divine nature. But at the functional level, in the roles that each carries out, they can be - must be! - distinguished from one another. To take the most obvious example, only the Son - not the Father, nor the Spirit - embraced the role of becoming incarnate. So, yes, while there is an inseparability of operations among the Trinitarian persons, this does not, and cannot, mean that the Trinitarian operations are not distinguishable from one another. Distinguishable, yet inseparable - this is not only consistent with the pro-Nicene heritage, it is demanded by Scripture. 

Third, one of the ways Scripture presses the distinction among the roles of the Trinitarian persons is by highlighting the ultimate authority of the Father, and the willing submission of the Son and Spirit, in all that God does. To cite here just one text, consider the opening of Hebrews: 

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Hebrews 1:1-2). 

The primacy of the Father (in role, not in nature!) is evident by noting the subject and verb in each of the clauses: 

God . . . spoke long ago to the fathers (1a) 
God . . . has spoken to us in His Son (2a) 
God . . . appointed [the Son] heir of all things (2b) 
God . . . made the world [through the Son] (2c) 

It could not be clearer or more precise that it is the Father specifically, not God generically or another other member of the Trinity, who does all of these activities through the agency of the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, what this brief text demonstrates is the primacy of the Father, in relation to his Son, in eternity past ("through whom he made the world"), in the incarnation ("in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son"), and in eternity future ("whom He appointed heir of all things"). Interestingly, this text also shows the primacy of the Father over the work of the Spirit in its opening declaration ("God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways"), assuming as Hebrews even states several times (e.g., Heb 3:7; 10:15), that the Spirit is the Trinitarian person most directly associated with moving the prophets to speak what they did. Yet here we see that the Father directed the Spirit, who in turn directed the prophets. 

What we see, then, is this: Because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, the Father always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Father such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses Fatherly authority; the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father correspondingly always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Son such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father. The Bible's discussion of the roles and functions of the Trinitarian persons points to this repeatedly. The Father sends and the Son goes. The Father plans and the Son executes the plan of the Father. The Father designs and the Son implements the design of the Father. One never finds the reverse. One never sees the Son commanding and the Father obeying, the Son sending and the Father going. There is a stubborn irreversibility in the outworking of the Trinitarian roles, along with other clear, unambiguous teaching that the Son is fully equal to and one with the Father. 

To press this point a bit further, notice that the Father elects us in the Son (Eph. 1:4-5), creates the world through the Son (John 1:2, 1 Cor 8:6, Heb 1:2), sends the Son into the world (John 3:16), and delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27), while the Son after his Ascension sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35), receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33), makes intercession before the Father (Heb 7:25), receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev 1:1), and will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28). Again, not one of these relationships is ever reversed - the Son does not elect us in the Father, does not create the world through the Father, does not send the Father into the world, does not delegate judgment to the Father, nor does the Father sit at the right hand of the Son, or bring intercessory prayers to the Son, or receive revelation from the Son to give to the church, or become eternally subject to the Son. 

We agree that the actions of any one divine person involves the other Trinitarian persons in corresponding ways. But whenever Scripture specifies actions that occur between two or more members of the Trinity, the position of greater authority is always held by the Father, while the position of submission to that authority is always held by the Son and the Spirit. This principle is simply inviolable in Scripture. 

God the Son, then, is both God and Son. As God, he is fully equal with God the Father, in that both Father and Son possess fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. As such, the equality between the Father and Son (and Spirit) could not be stronger - they are equal to each other with an equality of identity (i.e., each possesses fully the identically same divine nature). As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father's will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish. The eternal Son, God the Son, is both fully God and fully equal to the Father, while he is fully Son and eternally in a relationship of Agent of the Father, carrying out the work and implementing the will of the Father in full submission and obedience to all that the Father has planned. God and Son, i.e., fully God (in nature) and fully Son (in person)--this is who this Second Person of the Trinity is as Hebrews, John, and the New Testament declare. 

Fourth, none of this glorious Trinitarian theology is being devised for the purpose of supporting a social agenda of human relations of equality and complementarity. I do believe there is intended correspondence, indeed. But that is a far cry from saying that we are "reformulating" the doctrine of the Trinity to serve our social purposes. God forbid! Let God be God, regardless of what implications may or may not follow! And may our sole aim be to know the true God through his self-revelation in Scripture--the one and only true God, who is God only as he is Father, Son, and Spirit. 


Bruce A. Ware 
Professor of Christian Theology 
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary