Results tagged “Trinitarian Controversy” from Reformation21 Blog

In the previous post in this series, I made some remarks upon the meaning of the term κεφαλή, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:3. Challenging the supposed meaning of this term among certain advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position is important. Not only does it unsettle the frameworks within which authority is conceived of more generally, it also checks a tendency in the direction of univocally applying terms to God and humanity. However, there remains more to be said.

In particular, granting, purely for the sake of argument, that κεφαλή means 'one in authority (over),' we still haven't determined over whom the Father would be in authority. The assumption that the term 'Christ' is interchangeable with 'Son' in the dogmatic sense of that term is unjustified, as the first term relates to the Son in his human nature, while the second (in the context of dogmatic theology) more typically relates to the Son in his divine nature.

This distinction is not a trivial one, as orthodox theology has readily confessed a submission and obedience proper to Christ in his human nature, a submission which is not appropriate to his divine nature. Calvin writes:

"God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."1

The question of whether a relation of authority and submission obtains between Father and Son in the eternal life of the Trinity is an important one, as our answer to it will frame our understanding of the work of the Son in the divine economy. Such an emphasis upon the oneness and unity of the divine will and authority protects us from the danger of slipping into conceiving of Christ principally as an obedient functionary of the divine will and authority, both of which are associated primarily with the Father. As a man, Christ stands on the human side of the Creator-creature relation, obedient to the will and subject to the authority of God. However, as divine, the will and authority of God is Christ's will and authority. In Jesus of Nazareth, we meet the authoritative God who wills to save. A robust doctrine of the Trinity allows us to retain the strength of this crucial emphasis.

This does not mean no economic differentiation between the persons can be spoken of here. As John Webster writes:

"Indivisibility does not disqualify personal differentiation or restrict it simply to the opera internae. It indicates that economic differentiation is modal, not real, and reinforces the importance of prepositional rather than substantive differentiation ('from' the Father, 'through' the Son, 'in' the Spirit). Modal differentiation does not deny personal agency, however; it simply specifies how the divine persons act. '[T]he several persons', Owen notes, 'are undivided in their operations, acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, because each person is God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations; and this ariseth from the unity of the person in the same essence.'"

Relating this to divine authority, we could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One--authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God's authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead.

This in turn can serve to clarify our understanding of the incarnate Christ's mission. Rather than understanding the Son's relation to the Father in terms of a framework of authority and submission, this suggests that we should think in terms of different modes of a single, undivided divine authority. It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.

The manner in which the Son brings about the authority of God in history is through the path of human obedience. As a man with a human nature and will Christ submits to and is obedient to the will of God. However, this obedience can only truly be perceived for what it is when it is seen against the background of the fact that he is the authoritative divine Son. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can command the elements, cast out demons, and heal the sick, exercising the authority of God as his own. He is the one who receives the Spirit without measure and the radiant and glorious theophanic revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are left in no doubt of the divine authority of Christ. The obedience and humiliation of Christ is the (paradoxically) authoritative work by which he overcomes human rebellion, reconciles humanity to God, and defeats Satan.

As we recognize this, it is possible to appreciate the work of Christ as revelatory of and congruent with the eternal relation between the Father and Son, without collapsing the necessary distinctions between the two and reading back Christ's human obedience and submission into the being of God. This obedience and submission exists on account of the revelation of the Father-Son relation within the framework of the Creator-creature divide. However, when we look closer, what is seen is not just the Son's self-rendering in obedience to the Father, but also the Father's exhaustive donation of authority to his Son.

This undoes any simplistic authority-submission polarity. God cannot be alienated from his authority nor give his glory to another. Yet God's authority and glory are found precisely in Christ, the Son who bears the divine name (cf. John 8:58; Philippians 2:9). The Father and the Son are mutually defining (as the names 'Father' and 'Son' suggest). The Father is glorified as the authority of his Son is confessed, as the Father is who he is only in relation to his Son (Philippians 2:11). The Son is the one through whom the Father's authority is effected; the Father is the one from whom the Son's authority comes: the authority of Father and Son is the one indivisible divine authority.

A further important passage for the ESS position is found in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, which speaks of the Son delivering up the kingdom to the Father in the end, and being subject to him. Once again, it is important to bear in mind that this reveals Triune relations in terms of the Creator-creature framework. This passage refers, not to the eternal relation between Father and Son, but to the culminating moment in the great drama of redemption, the moment when the submission of the Son arrives at its perfect completion. The submission of the Son in these verses is not a reference to the eternal unbroken relation between Father and Son in the Godhead, but to the climax of the work of the incarnate Son, when his mission arrives at its final telos, the reality of his authoritative obedience has been utterly fulfilled, and the complete divine authority he has effected is exhaustively related back to the Father as its source.

A closer look at this passage reveals the mutually defining relation between Father and Son. All divine authority in the world is effected through the Son and without him no divine authority is effected--all things are put under him. Indeed, the Son's effecting of the divine authority is the precondition for the Father's being all in all. On the other hand, it is the Father who exhaustively authorizes the Son. The Father places all things under his Son; the Son renders all things up to the Father. Once again, the differentiation between the persons is, as Webster observed above, a modal or prepositional differentiation of a single divine property--the one divine authority and will.

Getting these points correct is very important, not simply for orthodox conformity to Trinitarian creeds, but for a clear understanding of the shape of the biblical narrative, and of the authoritative Saviour that we have in Jesus Christ. The creeds exist to serve and advance this clarity. Within my next post, I will offer some concluding reflections that we can take forward from these debates.

1. An excerpt of Calvin's commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3.

The debate that raged last year concerning intertrinitarian relations fueled my desire to go back and revisit Richard Muller's volume on The Triunity of God in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (a volume that I cannot commend strongly enough). In doing so, I happened across a brief yet important section in which Muller gives a survey of the history of the exegesis of certain passages of Scripture that deal specifically with the eternal generation the Son. Most interesting of all is Muller's treatment of Proverbs 8:23--a passage in which we hear the Wisdom of God saying, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was." The question about the identity of the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8 has been of no small significance in the history of theology. Is this merely a metaphorical personification of an attribute of God? Or, is it referring specifically to one of the Persons of the Godhead? These questions, of course, must be answered in light of the insistence of those, who--while rejecting historic orthodox Christianity--have heretically intimated that this verse speaks of the creation of the Son of God?

In the brief section in which he gives consideration to these questions, Muller concludes that the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 proves that this passage "does indeed refer to the second person of the Trinity 'under the name of Wisdom' and that the text does in fact indicate that the divine wisdom is 'begotten from everlasting.'" He then proceeds to explain the reasoning process of the Reformed when he writes:

"Solomon clearly intended to refer to the wisdom of God--although the text does not specify the phrase, the meaning ought to be obvious. This wisdom, moreover, was with God 'in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' (Prov. 8:22), which is affirmed in much the same way of Christ as divine Word in John 1:1. What is said of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, moreover, cannot be said of anyone other than the second person of the Trinity--and Christ is called the wisdom of God 'in Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς [specifically], 1 Cor. 1:30,' and is so called 'absolutely and simply' in Matthew 11:19. The whole chapter in Proverbs, moreover, clearly speaks of wisdom as a 'person.' As for the Hebrew word olam, the Reformed argument is precisely the same as presented with reference to Micah 5:2: the word can and should be rendered as 'eternal' or 'from everlasting'--particularly so in Proverbs 8:23, where 'everlasting, from the beginning' is explained by the phrase in the preceding verse 'the Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' and by the entire remaining passage (vv. 24-29), where clearly this wisdom is said to exist before the creation itself."1

Muller sets the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 as over against the teaching of The Racovian Catechism--a Socinian document that attempts to deny the eternal generation of the Son from Proverbs 8:23. Muller repeatedly draws on John Owen's Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, where Owen states, in no uncertain terms, that Proverbs 8 explicitly teaches the eternal generation of the Son of God:

"Our argument hence is: 'Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is spoken of, Prov. 8:23, under the name of Wisdom; now, it is said expressly there of Wisdom that it was ' begotten from everlasting:' and therefore the eternal generation of Christ is hence confirmed.' Our reasons are:--(1.) Because the things here spoken of can be applied to no other. (2.) Because the very same things are affirmed of Christ, John 1:1. (3.) Because Christ is the Wisdom of God, and so called in the Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς, 1 Cor. 1:30. (4.) That by Wisdom Solomon in- tended the Wisdom of God, and that that word may be supplied, is most evident from what is spoken of it. Let the place be read. (5.) Christ is called not only the "Wisdom of God," but also Wisdom absolutely and simply; and that not only Prov. 1:20, but Matt. 11:19.2

Further on in his treatment of the Deity of the Son, Muller shows that Calvin also taught that Proverbs 8 was speaking of the eternal generation of the Son. In Institutes 1.13.7 Calvin wrote:

"The Word was truly God...I know prattlers would easily evade this, by saying that Word is used for order or command; but the apostles are better expositors, when they tell us that the worlds were created by the Son, and that he sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb. 1:2). For we here see that word is used for the nod or command of the Son, who is himself the eternal and essential Word of the Father. And no man of sane mind can have any doubt as to Solomon's meaning, when he introduces Wisdom as begotten by God, and presiding at the creation of the world, and all other divine operations (Prov. 8:22)."3

All of this reminded me of what Jonathan Edwards suggested regarding Christ as the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8. In his somewhat controversial Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, Edwards drew similar exegetical conclusions as Owen:

"Christ is called 'the wisdom of God.' If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God's wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God's perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt. 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter."4

While much debate has surrounded the precise exegetical conclusions of Proverbs 8:23, of this much we can be sure: the Scriptures unequivocally teach the eternal generation and deity of the Son and the orthodox have always affirmed it to be as one of the most foundational and essential of all Christian doctrine.

1. Richard A. Muller (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 4: The Triunity of God (pp. 286-287). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

2. John Owen, Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, p. 244.

3. John Calvin (1997). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

4. Jonathan Edwards Unpublished Essay on the Trinity.

Trinity Debate Timeline

For some time now, we've received quite a lot of feedback from Alliance members who are seeking to more fully understand the "Trinity Debate" that has taken place this past summer. Below you will find a timeline of some of the most significant blog posts on the Trinity debate. If you would like a more comprehensive list, please visit Books at a Glance.

Rachel Miller wrote two posts on this topic before it picked up debate traction:

May 22, 2015: Continuing Down This Path, Complementarians Lose
May 28, 2015: Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father? Rachel addresses the danger of departing from orthodox formulations of the Trinity using Calvin and Matthew Henry commentaries. 
Liam Goligher's post on the Housewife Theologian blog launched the big debate, posted in two parts on June 3rd and 6th, 2016:

June 3, 2016: Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?

June 6, 2016
Reinventing God
June 7, 2016
Carl Trueman stokes the fire with his post Fahrenheit 381
June 9, 2016
Bruce Ware's Response to Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman
God the Son-at Once Eternally God with His Father, and Eternally Son of the Father
Carl Trueman's Surrejoinder to Bruce Ware
Wayne Grudem's Response
Whose Position on the Trinity is Really New?
Carl Trueman's Rejoinder to Wayne Grudem

Denny Burke adds a handful of additional remarks
A Brief Response to Trueman and Goligher
June 10, 2016
John Calvin weighs in

June 11, 2016
Mike Ovey
Should I Resign? On the eternal subordination of the Son

June 13, 2016
Michael Bird/Michel Barnes
Patristics Scholar Michel R. Barnes Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate on the Trinity
Michael Bird/Lewis Ayres:
Patristics Scholar Lewis Ayres Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate
Andrew Wilson
Eternal Submission In The Trinity? A Quick Guide To The Debate
Owen Strachan Responds to Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman
The Glorious Godhead and Proto-Arian Bulls
Aimee Byrd
A Plea to CBMW

Mark Jones
Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!
June 14, 2016
Liam Goligher Responding to Mike Ovey
Carl Trueman
Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)
June 20, 2016
Liam Goligher
A Letter to Professors Grudem and Ware

Wayne Grudem
Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father

June 21, 2016
Carl Trueman
Once more unto the breach... and then no more: A final reply to Dr. Grudem

June 23, 2016
Rachel Miller
The Grand Design: A Review

June 27, 2016
Ian Hamilton
The Trinitarian Debate: Some Reflections and Cautions
June 28, 2016
Albert Mohler
Heresy and Humility-Lessons from the Current Controversy
Carl Trueman
A Reply to Dr. Mohler on Nicene Trinitarianism
Liam Goligher
On the Word "Heresy"
July 1, 2016
Michael Bird/Lewis Ayres
Lewis Ayres on the Meaning of Nicene Orthodoxy
July 5, 2016
A Fulfilled Prophecy and Another Guest Post from Mark Jones
Liam Goligher
We Cannot but Speak
July 7, 2016
Todd Pruitt
Let's all be Nicene
August 10, 2016
My Take-Away's from the Trinity Debate

August 11, 2016
Aimee Byrd 
What Denny Burk Could Do

Aug 22, 2016
Kate Shellnutt
The Complementarian Women Behind the Trinity Tussle

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.