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In this final part of my series on the debate concerning the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), I will identify a few more of the issues that the debate has brought to the surface.

The Quest for a Deep Structure for Complementarianism

The emergence of the ESS position in its current form is in large part an attempt to provide a 'deep structure' for a complementarian position. It seeks to demonstrate that the biblical teaching concerning the complementarity of the sexes is not arbitrary, but is grounded in something beyond itself.

Unfortunately, this quest for a deep structure is, I suspect, often the flip-side of an ideologization of complementarity. What was once an organic part of Christian social teaching, practice, and imagination, recognized as naturally grounded and inseparably bound up with the broader fabric of Christian and human existence--a creational and empirical reality--has been reframed as a theory, ideology, or social programme. In the process it has been uprooted from the broader creational and scriptural context to which it belongs.

Having abandoned or lost much of its proper grounding--not least as people have sought to restrict its import as much as possible to the pulpit and the marriage bed--this more abstract ideology has needed to discover a new theological rationale for itself. In a context where it is under threat, it must defend itself against the charge that it is contrary to the general tenor of Christian teaching and imposes arbitrary expectations. ESS looks like a promising solution to this problem, yet ends up causing more difficulties and provoking more contention than it resolves. In the past, teaching about the complementarity of the sexes wasn't an 'ism' or ideology. Even when ESS was referenced in connection with it, considerably less weight was placed upon the analogy, and certainly not the sort of weight that would press theologians more in the direction of univocity.

The quest for deep structure is not entirely misguided. However, that deep structure is primarily to be found in the concreteness of nature itself as created by God. Scriptural teaching on the sexes is chiefly descriptive, rather than prescriptive or narrowly ideological. This natural deep structure is fitting to humanity's being in the image of God and in its reflection, representation, and bearing of God's creative rule within the world. That we are male and female is not in Scripture an arbitrary or indifferent fact, but something that fits us for the purpose for which we are created, for fellowship with God, representative service and rule of his creation, and manifestation of its beauty and delight. It also provides a symbolic framework that God uses for certain dimensions of his self-revelation. There are not, however, the sort of direct correspondences that ESS supporters advocate.

Accommodated but Real Revelation

Within these debates, there has been a consistent attempt among the critics of the ESS position to protect the Trinity from accounts which both break with the orthodox doctrine and which speculate and project into the divine nature. A robust Trinitarian theology will constantly expose the limits of our language and concepts of God and resist any straightforward reading back of God's accommodated self-revelation in the context of a fallen creation into his eternal being. God surpasses our understanding, our language, and our concepts.

Yet there are genuine dangers on the other side here. In resisting univocal accounts of God's eternal being and accounts which fail to take seriously the reality of divine accommodation (as God reveals himself to us under the conditions of creation and sin in a manner appropriate to the limits of our understanding), we should beware of dismissing the possibility and the fact of divine self-revelation.

The submission of the incarnate Son to the will of the Father should not be projected back into the eternal being of God. However, even when constrained within the limits of orthodox Trinitarian theology, some important relation remains. No, we cannot posit separate wills or centers of consciousness in God, nor speak as supporters of ESS do of authority and submission in the Trinity. Yet there remains a profound fittingness to the fact that it was the Son who became man, a fittingness that gives us some truthful apprehension of the eternal relation between Father and Son. Although this relation is not one of authority and submission and any notion of eternal obedience is excluded, the manner of the incarnation is revelatory of divine taxis.

Appropriate resistance to the careless employment of univocal predication can overshoot, leading us to resist analogical predication and the truthfulness of accommodated revelation. Indeed, an unprincipled apophaticism can be used precisely in order to escape the unwelcome force of accommodated revelation. The egalitarian side of this debate may be especially vulnerable to this, as the asymmetry of the divine taxis is perceived by some to be incongruent with egalitarian values. Likewise, masculine language and images for God are often resisted for similar reasons. Terms like 'Father' and 'Son' used of the Triune hypostases should not be collapsed into notions of human sonship and fatherhood, but nor should they be hermetically sealed off from each other. Some analogical--and revelatory--relation remains.

In their different ways, both radical apophaticism and univocal predication can involve the subjection of the doctrine of God to human categories and demands. The seeming humility of radical apophaticism can actually function as a wilful attempt to carve out realms of autonomy upon which divine revelation cannot infringe. Univocal predication, on the other hand, trespasses beyond the appropriate bounds of our creaturely state.

Structural Defects in Contemporary Evangelical Theology

These debates have exposed extensive structural problems in contemporary evangelical theology. The ESS position is not an entirely novel one, as many of its critics would like to suppose. It has been gaining prominence for a number of decades in evangelical circles. Its rise has doubtless been powerfully catalyzed by the gender debates, yet it cannot be entirely attributed to these and the position has appeared in various forms outside of contexts shaped by them. Many of the people teaching the ESS position do not regard themselves as theological innovators: they were taught the ESS position in their own theological training. It is important that we do not make them the scapegoats for an error that we have harbored in our midst for quite some time. The doctrine for the Trinity has suffered relative neglect in evangelical circles for quite some time; part of our task in recovering it must be the removal of the dust, cobwebs, and grime of error that have accumulated upon it.

Besides this exposure of Trinitarian error, serious and extensive cracks between the disciplines of systematic, historical, and biblical theology have been revealed. Systematic theologians struggle to handle Scripture and biblical theologians manifest a poor acquaintance with orthodox Trinitarianism and historical theology. These breaches between the disciplines must be addressed as a matter of some urgency.

Even among those who hold an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, that doctrine may be much diminished in its role within the broader firmament of Christian truth, not least on account of a failure to explore its capacity to illuminate and enrich our reading of Scripture. Rather than functioning as an integrating and coordinating doctrine, one of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that permeates and relates all else, it risks operating in a manner detached from the rest of Christian truth, chiefly concerned with maintaining its own integrity. Yet the true integrity of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be maintained where a commitment to pursuing its theologically integrating function is absent.

Should we take the various lessons of these debates to heart, I believe that they will have proved to be profoundly worthwhile, serving both the health and the growth of the Church in the future.

*This is the final post in a series that Alastair began running at Reformation21 last June. You can find the previous posts in this series here

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.

Subordination in Scripture: κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

Perhaps the text that is closest to the heart of the ESS (eternal subordination of the Son) debate is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The prominence of this text is in large measure due to the manner in which it supposedly provides the basis for a connection between the relationship between the Father and the Son and that which exists between the man and the woman. While this apparent parallel has previously provided for some a helpful analogy by which to resist the charge that complementarian theology maintains the inequality of the sexes, more recently this analogy has come to assume a greater theological centrality and to bear more theological weight.

As this text has increasingly become architectonically foundational to the complementarian edifice for many, a great deal of effort has been required to shore it up against challenge. Wayne Grudem stands out as someone who has particularly worked to reinforce and tighten the bond between each element of this complementarian use of the text: he has written at length on the relations of authority and submission between man and woman, has argued for such relations in the Trinity, and has extensively treated the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλή (typically translated 'head') in this and other key verses, insisting that it has the import of 'one in authority (over)'.

At such points, the exegete is at considerable risk of being blown off course by the crosswinds of the gender debates. I do not believe it accidental that gender debates have increasingly come to focus upon the questions concerning the meanings, not just of particular proof-texts, but of isolated words and phrases. Slight differences in translation are used to justify remarkably different accounts of appropriate relations between the sexes. Different sides of the debates can construct vast theological edifices upon the slender pinnacles of terms such asכנגדו עזר in Genesis 2:18 or התשוק in Genesis 3:16, for instance.

This can occur for various reasons. For some, it accompanies the attempt to kick the debate into the long grass of hopelessly contestable exegesis, thereby preventing Scripture from playing a deciding role in our conversations. When so many interpretations are floating around, Scripture can no longer arbitrate and personal choice--with its tendentious, eccentric, and often wilful readings of particular texts and terms--steps in to take its place.

For others, it results from the desire for incontrovertible readings that can decide the gender debates in our favour, or for proof-texts that will serve as a foundation for our systems. When our reading of Scripture is framed by controversy, we can easily be tempted to focus our efforts upon looking for unambiguous and explicit scriptural propositions, proof-text pillars for the superstructure of our theological positions. This quest is frequently misguided and unhelpful. It has the tendency to concentrate weight that should be more widely distributed. The strength of biblical teaching lies less in a number of large and visible proof-text trunks than in the deep and extensive root system of scriptural narrative and intertextuality beneath them. Cut off from this root system, proof-text trunks can easily be toppled. Furthermore, Scripture rarely forces its meanings upon those wilfully resistant to it, even though those with ears and hearts to hear will do so.

The need for a sturdy proof-text pillar for complementarian theology can put considerable pressure upon a term such as κεφαλή. I believe that such scholars as Grudem unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of this term, a multivalency that is important to Paul's argument in the immediate context (where more metaphorical senses of the term in verse 3 are purposefully brought into connection with literal senses of the term in the verses that follow). Literary word play and expansive breadth of meaning may not be especially welcome when we are looking for clear theological propositions. However, multivalency need not entail ambiguity: multivalency can bring a different sort of clarity, as it establishes illuminating relationships between concepts, realities, and images, rather than detaching them from each other and analysing them individually.

I mention this pressure for singularity and extreme clarity in the meaning of terms in large part because this pressure can produce a secondary impulse towards theological univocity when interpreting the statements 'the κεφαλή of woman is man' and 'the κεφαλή of Christ is God'. Where this impulse exists, a far closer relation between the headship of God with respect to Christ and the headship of the man with respect to the woman may be drawn than would have been drawn otherwise.

I have been persuaded by Andrew Perriman and others (including Gregory Dawes and Anthony Thiselton) that, in the metaphorical uses of the term under consideration, κεφαλή does not mean 'one in authority over' or 'source', but refers to 'the dimension of visibility, prominence, eminence, social superiority' (Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 33). Of course, in many of the instances of the use of the term, authority over may be contextually connoted, but this is not what the term itself actually means.

Even were we to take the description of the relationship between 'Christ' and God in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to apply to the eternal relations of the Trinity, this recognition may unsettle the ESS case at this juncture. Rather than claiming that the Father has 'authority over' the Son in the Trinity, it might be making a weaker claim about the priority of the Father, as the 'first person' of the Trinity, the one of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.

This shift in translation/interpretation may suggest further changes in our understanding of the relationships being discussed. When κεφαλή is interpreted as 'one in authority (over)' it typically functions as a polarizing term, setting one party over against the other in each of the pairings in 1 Corinthians 11:3: one party exercises authority over the other, who responds with submission. For instance, 'the κεφαλή of every man is Christ' would mean that Christ hierarchically exercises authority over every man. However, slightly shift the meaning of κεφαλή and suddenly, rather than place Christ over against every man, Christ may be set forth as the one preeminent among us: the firstborn of many brethren, the firstborn from the dead, the one Man who works on our behalf, the one who represents us in human flesh in the heavenly places, the one in whose name and power we act.

Although it is not my intention to explore this point here, it should also be noted that such a change may have important implications for the way that we conceive biblical teaching concerning relations between man and woman.

There is still undoubtedly an authority involved, but this change is a very significant one: κεφαλή becomes a term describing an empowering union, not just a hierarchical relation. The temptation to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 in terms of a chain of hierarchies is a real one. However, this temptation, as Francis Watson has observed, is challenged even by the ordering of the text itself, which disrupts any such chain by listing the pairings out of expected sequence.

In my next post, I will continue to reflect upon 1 Corinthians 11:3 and some of the other texts under discussion.
Most criticisms of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position have focused upon deficiencies in its Trinitarian theology. In my last post I commented upon some of the problems with the term and concept of subordination. Within this post, I will sketch some of the contours of Trinitarian theology, to make clearer some of the areas where it may be at risk of being compromised.

Perhaps the most basic distinction that frames such a discussion of the Trinity is that between the 'immanent' and the 'economic' Trinity and the related terminology of ad intra and ad extra. Darren Sumner makes some helpful observations concerning this distinction. The term immanent Trinity refers to God with respect to his own eternal life; the term economic Trinity refers to God with respect to his action in creation and redemption.

The economic Trinity, as Karl Rahner insisted, is the immanent Trinity: there aren't two different Trinities. God isn't lurking behind a mask, but truly is present and revealed in his work and word in creation. However, the economic Trinity is God revealed under the conditions of time, sin, and incarnation. God himself is present and known, but in a manner refracted by temporal realities. While we can be confident in God's presence with us and self-revelation to us, then, an understanding of the immanent Trinity--of God as he is in his own inner life, without respect to creation--cannot simply be arrived at through a retrojection from the ad extra works and revelation of God in the economy.

This distinction may not be quite so clear in the case of God's actions and determinations 'before the foundation of the world' or of those events that occur at or after 'the end' (for instance, as Christ delivers the kingdom to his Father). Some have unhelpfully used the language of 'eternity past' in this context. It might be more appropriate to speak of aeviternity, the higher, yet still created, time of the heavenly realm, which precedes, surpasses, and endures beyond terrestrial time. However, as Sumner stresses, this still pertains to the economic rather than the immanent Trinity. The same is true of the relation that existed between Father and Son before the Son took on the form of a servant in coming as a man. So, for instance, Jonathan Edwards can speak of a 'natural'--presumably immanent--order of the Persons of the Trinity, an economic order, and, further, the subordination that the Son came into by virtue of the covenant of redemption. These orders are congruent and fitting with respect to each other, but they are not to be conflated.

The immanent/economic distinction is blurred in the arguments of Craig Keener and others who don't seem to have a clear account of the eternal Trinity--the immanent Trinitarian self-existence of God beyond and above all created time, whether heavenly or earthly--operating instead only in terms of the aeviternal Trinity--the unending existence of the economic Trinity in a higher heavenly time, stretching out both before and after our terrestrial time. When God is so conceived, the immanent can easily collapse into the economic and God's being never truly exceeds the horizons of the cosmos he created.

The manner in which various ESS positions speak of the relations between the persons of the Trinity and of the persons more generally is a further area of concern for critics. Within the ESS position there often seems to lurk at least an incipient social Trinitarianism. Social Trinitarianism conceives of the persons of the Trinity as if they were three distinct subjectivities--three 'I's--in communion and speaks of their relations accordingly.

This is a significant departure from the Church's historic doctrine of the Trinity, within which the language of 'person' functions rather differently and does not carry the meaning that it does in popular parlance. The 'persons' of the Trinity are not three distinct centres of consciousness or agencies--which would suggest something resembling tritheism and undermine the oneness (and the simplicity) of God. The persons, or hypostases, are three instantiations of the one divine nature. However, most of the things that we would associate with personhood--knowledge, will, love, wisdom, mind, etc.--are grounded, not in the three hypostases, but in the one divine nature. In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term 'person', in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one 'person' with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though.

When the divine persons are conceived according to an analogy with human persons, there is a dangerous resulting tendency for the doctrine of the Trinity to become entangled with our social theory and agenda, often leading to projection of our social ideals into the Triune life of God. While this has been a huge trend in theology over the past hundred years (Jürgen Moltmann, John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, etc. all hold social Trinitarian positions, or positions that tend in that direction), it is something that theologians such as Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby [doc file] have strenuously opposed, demonstrating its departure from the tradition. As I've already noted, some prominent egalitarian critics of ESS such as Millard Erickson and Kevin Giles have advocated distinctly social Trinitarian viewpoints in the past and connected such visions to their egalitarianism (although Giles at least seems to have moderated his stance somewhat).

A number of the criticisms of ESS can be traced back to this point. For the ESS position to work, its critics suggest, it depends upon conceiving of the three hypostases as if akin to persons in the more modern sense of the term--as three distinct agents and centres of consciousness. Yet, from the standpoint of the tradition, this clearly will not do.

This problem is keenly felt when talking about the wills of the Father and the Son. For eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) to exist, it would seem to be necessary to hold that the three divine hypostases are in key senses like persons in the modern sense of that word, which is not the orthodox position. It is to this problem and the question of the eternal generation of the Son that I will turn in my next post.

[Editorial Notes: Out of our respect for Dr. Wayne Grudem and a desire to continue the ongoing debate regarding Trinitarian distinctions, we are pleased to have Dr. Grudem respond to some recent criticisms that have been leveled at him. As we noted in Dr. Ware's post, the views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals or of Reformation 21].

Let me be clear as to what, from my perspective, the recent Trinitarian dispute is about. It is not about whether I (and others such as Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan) hold to the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed (325 A.D., revised 381 A.D.). I am happy to affirm both the full deity of the Son and that the Son is eternally "begotten of the Father before all worlds," provided that "begotten of the Father" is understood to refer to an eternal Father-Son relationship in the Trinity that includes no superiority or inferiority of being or essence. Up to that point, I think all sides agree.

But what kind of eternal Father-Son relationship is this? That is the point of difference. Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan and I have understood it in terms of the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son within their relationship. That seems to us to best account for the very names "Father" and "Son" as they would certainly have been understood in the ancient world, and also to best account for multiple passages of Scripture that show a consistent pattern of the Father who 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 comes into the world to do his Father's will, not his own (John 6:38), 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). These activities between the Father and Son are one-directional and they are never reversed anywhere in Scripture.

Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman have not provided an alternative explanation for these verses. However, they have claimed that our understanding of "begotten of the Father before all worlds" in the Nicene Creed is incorrect, and that instead of saying it implies an authority-submission relationship, we should say that it refers to the "eternal generation of the Son."

But just what is meant by "eternal generation"? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words "paternity" and "filiation" provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean "existing as a father" and "existing as a son," which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with "eternal generation" until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If "eternal generation" simply means "an eternal Father-Son relationship," then I am happy to affirm it.)

However, what is surprising to me, and I think quite uncalled-for, is that Goligher and (apparently) Trueman are insisting that those who disagree with their particular interpretation of the Nicene Creed should have no teaching office in the church.

My response is to say that I have simply understood the Nicene Creed in the sense that many widely-respected evangelical scholars have understood it, including the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, the great church historian Philip Schaff, and the highly regarded historian Geoffrey Bromiley (see the quotations at the end of this article). They all used the language of "subordination" of the Son to the Father in relationship, but not in essence or deity.

By way of further response, I have listed below some quotations from thirteen additional evangelical theologians from a broad spectrum of denominational backgrounds who affirm the eternal submission (or subordination, both terms are used) of the Son to the Father in relationship but not in deity or essence.

According to Goligher's and Trueman's standards, these thirteen that I list (along with the five others that I include at the end, for a total of 18) would also be excluded as guilty of heresy and deprived of any teaching office in the church. I strongly disagree with their conclusion, and I find their claim highly inappropriate. Personally, I am proud to stand in the in the company of these wonderful servants of God in the list below.

Finally, I want to reemphasize what I asked in my first article: Where in the entire history of recognized evangelical Protestant theology has anyone ever agreed with what Goligher and Trueman are saying--namely, that anyone who affirms both the full deity of the Son, and the eternal submission or subordination of the Son to the Father in their relationship, should "certainly" be excluded from "holding office in the church of God"? They have provided no answer.

Their claim that their interpretation of the Nicene Creed should be the only one allowed, not our orthodox Trinitarian belief, is what is unprecedented in the history of the church.

Here are the thirteen additional quotations, followed by the original five:

1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973). (Packer is probably the best-known living evangelical theologian, and is sometimes called "the gate-keeper of evangelicalism.")

"Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other....It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son's part, and find all His joy in doing His Father's will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven." Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.

2. Carl F. H. Henry (1982). (Henry taught at numerous evangelical seminaries and was often referred to as "the dean of evangelical theologians" in the last half of the 20th century.)

"The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son's subordination to the Father, and the Spirit's subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations" (God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.)

"Christians must . . . avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity" (p. 210).

3. Jonathan Edwards (1740). (Edwards (1703-1758) is commonly recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, theologian in the history of America.)

"1. That there is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another, in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affair of man's redemption. So that the Father in that affair acts as Head of the Trinity, and Son under him, and the Holy Spirit under them both.
2. 'Tis very manifest that the persons of the Trinity are not inferior one to another in glory and excellency of nature...

4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another, and so must be conceived of as in some respect established by mutual free agreement...yet this agreement establishing this economy is not to be looked upon as merely arbitrary...But there is a natural decency or fitness in that order and economy that is established. 'Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting: that as the Father is first in the order of subsisting, so he should be first in the order of acting...therefore the persons of the Trinity all consent to this order, and establish it by agreement, as they all naturally delight in what is in itself fit, suitable and beautiful. Therefore,
5. This order [or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra2 is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption...
6. That the economy of the persons of the Trinity, establishing that order of their acting that is agreeable to the order of their subsisting, is entirely diverse from the covenant of redemption, and prior to it, not only appears from the nature of things, but appears evidently from the Scripture..."
1062. "Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption," from Jonathan Edwards [1740], The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (WJE Online Vol. 20), Ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw.

4. Geerhardus Vos (1896). (Vos was professor of biblical theology at Princeton from 1892-1932, and his Biblical Theology was required reading in my classes at Westminster Seminary.)

"Although these three persons possess one and the same divine substance, Scripture nevertheless teaches that, concerning their personal existence, the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Spirit the third . . . . There is, therefore, subordination as to personal manner of existence and manner of working, but no subordination regarding possession of the one divine substance." Reformed Dogmatics, translated and edited by Richard B Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2012-2014, from hand-written lectures in 1896), vol. 1, p. 43.

5. Robert L. Reymond (1998). (Former professor of theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis Missouri.)

"We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will." A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 336.

6. Robert Letham (2004). (Letham is professor of theology at Union School of Theology, Oxford, UK (formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology) and adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.)

"The Son's submission to the Father is compatible with his full and unabbreviated deity. Therefore, we may rightly say that the Son submits in eternity to the Father, without in any way breaking his indissoluble oneness with the Father or the Holy Spirit, and without in any way jeopardizing his equality. Being God, he serves the Father. Being God, the Father loves the Son and shares his glory with him (John 17:1-4, 22-24). The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402.

7. Bruce Ware (2005). (Ware is professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Though he is a participant in the current discussion, I did not quote him in my earlier brief list, so I include him here.)

"...the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and hence, the Son stands in a relationship of eternal submission under the authority of his Father" Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway 2005), p. 71.

8. Norman Geisler (2003). (Geisler is a well-known professor of theology and apologetics who has taught at several evangelical seminaries and now teaches at Southern Evangelical Seminary.)

"One final word about the nature and duration of this functional subordination in the Godhead. It is not just temporal and economical; it is essential and eternal. For example, the Son is an eternal Son (see Prov. 30:4; Heb. 1:3). He did not become God's Son; He always was related to God the Father as a Son and always will be. His submission to the Father was not just for time but will be for all eternity." Systematic Theology vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 291.

9. Charles Ryrie (1986). (Ryrie was for many years professor of theology at Dallas Seminary.)

"The phrase 'eternal generation' is simply an attempt to describe the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity and, by using the word 'eternal,' protect it from any idea of inequality or temporality...Priority without inferiority as seen in the Trinity is the basis for proper relationships between men and women (1 Cor. 11:3)." Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 54, 59.

10-11. Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest (1987). (Lewis and Demarest taught theology for many years at Denver Seminary.)

"Alongside the essential equality of persons there exists an economic ordering or functional subordination. Paul implies that, within the administration of the Godhead, the Father has the primacy over the Son...and over the Spirit...And the Son has priority over the Spirit....the ordering relation is eternal and not limited to Christ's state of humiliation." Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 266-267.

12. Malcolm B. Yarnell III (2016). (Yarnell is professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.)

"John [in Revelation] has splendidly portrayed Christological monotheism in its eternal and historical dimensions...He has brought together the titles, the functioning, and the worship that indicate Jesus's equality with, yet subordination to, the Father in the one place where we can view them simultaneously, the eternal throne of God...

"There is an eternal subordination in John's portrayal of the three. God receives upon his throne the victorious Lamb through whom he sent to be a sacrifice. And the Spirit is sent from the throne into all of creation through the Lamb in order to reveal God and the Lamb. There is no hint here that the subordination of the Lamb and the Spirit is merely historical or merely functional. This is an eternal setting....There is eternal equality in John's portrayal of the three, too." God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 211, 217.

13. Mike Ovey (2016). (Ovey teaches theology and serves as principal at Oak Hill Theological College in London. Although I have only quoted published books for the first twelve authors listed here, I am adding a quotation from Mike Ovey's blog post on June 10, because his new book Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility has not yet reached me.)

After quoting Athanasius and Hillary of Poitiers in support, Ovey writes:

"I have to conclude against Liam that: 
1. There is historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son
2. The texts of scripture require us to recognise at the level of the persons distinguishable wills of Father and Son. 
3. The Son tells us in scripture that he reveals his eternal love for his Father by his obedience on earth, and this love at the level of persons includes on the Son's part eternal obedience. 
4. The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons. 
5. The eternal subordination of the Son does not entail Arianism, because the Son's obedience arises from his relation as son and not because he is a creature." (Cited from

Finally, for the sake of completeness, here are the evangelical theologians that I cited in my earlier article, plus the statements on the Nicene doctrine from Philip Schaff and Geoffrey Bromley:

14. John Frame (2002). (Professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando):

"There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role b e compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination? The biblical answer, I think, is no." (The Doctrine of God (2002), 720; see also his Systematic Theology (2013), 500-502).

15. Louis Berkhof (1938). (Professor at Calvin Seminary 1906-1944; his Systematic Theology was perhaps the most widely-used text for Reformed theology through much of the 20th century):

"The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship....Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity." (Systematic Theology, 88-89).

16. A. H. Strong (1907). (President of Rochester Theological Seminary; his Systematic Theology was for many decades perhaps the most widely-used text for evangelical Baptists):

"...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation...The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman's soul is worth as much as man's; see 1 Cor 11:3." (Systematic Theology, 342).

17. Charles Hodge (1871-1873). (the great Princeton theologian whose Systematic Theology, 100 years after its publication, was still the required text for at least one of my theology classes as a student at Westminster Seminary):

"The Nicene doctrine includes...the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority....The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ....The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit...and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal." (Systematic Theology, 460-462).

[Additional statement on 1 Cor. 15:28:] "We know that the verbally inconsistent propositions, the Son is subject to the Father, and, the Son is equal with the Father, are both true. In one sense he is subject, in another sense he is equal. The son of a king may be the equal of his father in every attribute of his nature, though officially inferior. So the eternal Son of God may be coequal with the Father, though officially subordinate. What difficulty is there in this? What shade does it cast over the full Godhead of our adorable Redeemer? . . . . The subjection itself is official and therefore perfectly consistent with equality of nature" (Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Wilmington, Del.: Sovereign Grace, 1972 reprint of 1857 edition), 185- 186.

18. John Calvin (1559):

Regarding Calvin, church historian Richard A. Muller, in his massive Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics writes that "Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons . . . But he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence" (Vol. 4, p. 80).

Here are Calvin's own words:

"It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity....The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:142-43.)

[Commentary on John 6:38, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me":] "Faith is a work of God, by which he shows that we are his people, and appoints his Son to be the protector of our salvation. Now the Son has no other design than to fulfill the commands of his Father." (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 252.

Interpretations of the Nicene Fathers (4th century AD):

Historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893), author of the eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1910), editor of the standard reference work Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1931), and also editor of the 23-volume series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. wrote this about the Nicene fathers:

"The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed." (History of the Christian Church, 3:680).

Philip Schaff is not alone in his assessment of historic Christian orthodoxy and the Nicene Creed. Historian Geoffrey W. Bromiley, author of the textbook Historical Theology (1978), editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, translator of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and translator of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, wrote:

"Eternal the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. "Generation" makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). "Eternal" reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued ....Nor does his subordination imply inferiority....the phrase....corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being....It finds creedal expression in the phrases 'begotten of his Father before all worlds'" (Nicene) and "begotten before the worlds" (Athanasian). Geoffrey W. Bromiley, "Eternal Generation," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 368).

In addition, Harold O. J. Brown (former professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), in his massive study of the history of Christian heresy and orthodoxy, concluded this about the language of "eternally begotten of the Father" in the Nicene Creed:

"Nicaea clearly affirmed that the distinction between the Father and the Son is not ontological or substantial, inasmuch as both are God. It did not clearly specify wherein that distinctiveness does lie. Inasmuch as it is not ontological, it must be relational, as the language of the Bible continues to assert even when we have stripped "begetting" of its ontological implications. At this point, in order to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, the language was allowed to carry its economic implications; that is to say, the Persons of the Trinity were seen to differ in the relationship of commissioner and commissioned, the one sending and the one sent (John 3:16, 14:16). Here, finally, the distinction was allowed to rest; the Son, under (sub) the orders of the Father is clearly subordinate in the relationship, although not by nature; the same holds true for the Holy Spirit." (Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 133.

Conclusion:  Are all 18 of those theologians (19 if you include me) really teaching a "different God" than found in Scripture, as Goligher claims? Should they all have been excluded from a teaching office in the church, as Goligher claims? Think of how much weaker the work of God's kingdom throughout the earth would be today without the teaching and writings of those 18 theologians, and without the continuing influence of the millions who were taught by them.   Therefore the accusations of unorthodoxy stated by Goligher and Trueman still seem to me to be unjustified, intemperate, and unprecedented in the history of the church.      
It has seldom received as public an airing as is now possible in the context of social media, yet controversy surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son position (ESS) is not new. Although it has not usually intruded upon the wider Christian consciousness and has largely been confined to theological books and the pages of scholarly journals, debates on the subject have been ongoing for well over two decades and, in slightly different forms, even further back.

The egalitarian theologian, Kevin Giles, has been one of the most persistent and prominent critics of the eternal subordination of the Son position, challenging it in a number of different books over the years: The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate (2002), Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (2006), and The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (2012). In his 2009 book, Who's Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate, Millard J. Erickson tackled the subject, also from an egalitarian perspective.

Further books have been written in defence or discussion of the doctrine. The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son (2012) brings together a number of writers from different sides of the debate. Bruce Ware and John Starke recently edited the book One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (2015), which offers various arguments for--diverse forms of--ESS (Steve Holmes' highly critical review and Fred Sanders' friendlier review are both worthwhile reading). Mike Ovey's Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (2016) is another recent book in support of the ESS position.

Many articles and reviews of books have been written on the subject. A few examples that I have seen referenced in the current debate include John Dahms, "The Subordination of the Son" (1994); Gilbert Bilezikian, "Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead" (1997); Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm Jr., "A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son" (1999); Craig Keener, "Is Subordination Within the Trinity Really Heresy? A Study of John 5:18 in Context" (1999); Scott Swain and Michael Allen, 'The Obedience of the Eternal Son" (2013); D. Glenn Butner Jr., "Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will" (2015).

One of the most striking features of this material is the diversity of positions represented, even among people presumed to be on the same 'side'. Under closer examination, this is not a debate that tidily separates out into two distinct camps. A wide range of positions on several interconnected questions are represented within it, yet the differences are not always where one might expect them.

For instance, the doctrine of eternal generation is a complicating facet of the debate, cutting across apparent party lines. As I observed in my previous post, Grudem and Ware question this doctrine and tend to place the weight of divine self-differentiation upon eternal relations of authority and submission, quite a significant move and departure from the position taken by various other complementarian advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son. Kevin Giles has argued forcefully in favour of eternal generation, yet his fellow opponent of ESS Millard Erickson rejects the doctrine, in part on account of the connection drawn between it ESS in certain circles.

Reading some of the earlier articles in the debate is informative. Kovach and Schemm argued that ESS was the majority viewpoint among evangelical theologians in the twentieth century. In his response to Goligher and Trueman, Grudem also maintained that the ESS position had a strong evangelical pedigree. That both Charles Hodge (in 1871-1873, see his treatment of the Trinity in sixth chapter of the first volume of his Systematic Theology) and A.H. Strong (in 1907, see 619-620 of his Systematic Theology) appear to advocate some milder form of the position--and the latter compares it to relations between the sexes--tells against the claims of those asserting that the position is entirely a novelty of recent vintage, arrived at in order to support a theory of gender relations (a point upon which Giles agrees).

Nevertheless, the more modest stipulated definition Hodge provides for his use of the term 'subordination' in §2.A.4 of his chapter on the Trinity sets his account apart from the position of such as Grudem, who questions eternal generation and greatly elevates the themes of obedience and authority/submission. Besides, even a milder ESS position was not uncontroversial in the 19th century and most of the critics of ESS are not prepared to grant either that it flows untroubled within or naturally develops out from the Nicene tradition.

The slipperiness and equivocation in the use of key terms in these debates is a matter to which I will return. For now, I will observe that both the intense accenting of this doctrine and the proximity to theological anthropology into which it has been drawn do seem to represent more recent developments. Perhaps hairline fractures in poorly articulated doctrines of the Trinity have become more apparent and pronounced as those doctrines have been employed as heavy load-bearing ones in recent gender debates.

Craig Keener is also an interesting case: he is an egalitarian who argues for the subordination of the Son, and who observes--at the time of writing his article--that many other egalitarians he knows share that position, while some of his complementarian friends reject it as heretical. Like Andrew Perriman, Keener firmly resists accounts of gender roles derived from the Trinity, yet has an affinity with the more 'biblicist' and narrative-focused readings of the relationship between Father and Son offered by many complementarians (both Keener and Perriman largely sidestep the 'eternal' dimension of the subordination, as their interest is in the New Testament narrative).

The towering figure of Karl Barth has been an occasional and confusing presence in this debate. In Church Dogmatics, IV.1.202ff., for instance, Barth seemingly draws some of the connections that ESS advocating complementarians have drawn, speaking of God's inner life as involving a 'First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility' (202). Barth also speaks of the wife as 'second and subordinate' and suggests that this relation can be clarified when seen in light of the Trinity. He also speaks of a 'twofoldness' of humanity that is 'a reflection of this likeness of the inner life of God Himself' (203).

Barth's account of subordination in the Trinity was highly contested among his theological successors, not least in disagreements between Colin Gunton and Thomas Torrance on the subject. Barth's connection between the obedience of the Son in the economy and his eternal generation is taken up by Swain and Allen. In his essay in Advancing Trinitarian Theology, Darren Sumner defends Barth's account of obedience and subordination in the Trinity, while demonstrating the problems with a selective adoption of Barth on this point. Barth's approach only works within the context of his broader theological framework, a framework that would not be welcomed by most evangelicals. Josh Gillies discusses Barth further here. The work of Bruce McCormack, who develops Barth's actualist Christological ontology in the direction of a Reformed kenoticism, should also be mentioned here (along with a warning that his approach cannot be appropriated piecemeal in support of a complementarian ESS position).

The examples of Giles and Erickson can provide a sense of some further complexities of the debate. As I've already noted, Erickson rejects the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, while Giles staunchly defends it. Although he now seems to be rather more reticent in advocating such a doctrine, seemingly preferring to advocate a 'communal' Trinitarianism, Giles has formerly aligned himself with Erickson's social Trinitarianism: 'The Trinity is a communion of three persons, three centers of consciousness, who exist and always have existed in union with one another and in dependence on one another.' He has also presented such a doctrine of the Trinity as grounding an egalitarian social agenda, appealing to both Jürgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff (see The Trinity & Subordinationism, 101ff.). Such a position would fall under many of the same strictures as ESS.

Finally, more subtle differences in Trinitarian theology can sometimes surface in this debate between complementarians and egalitarians, even when both deny ESS. Characteristic of some forms of egalitarian Trinitarianism seems to be a minimalistic account of Trinitarian taxis and of the relationship between the economic missions and the processions of the immanent Trinity. Erickson, favourably cited by Giles, writes:

"There is no permanent distinction of one from the other in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons" (The Trinity & Subordinationism, 103).

It should be borne in mind that it is not only complementarians who are at risk of reading their ideals of community and relations into and out from the Triune life of God.

Within my next post I will outline what I believe to be some of the principal questions that need to be addressed in the current debate.

On Fatherhood Divine and Human


In my experience, one of the principal delights of growing older -- more than adequate compensation for hair loss, aches and pains, and other unpleasantries associated with the art -- is seeing one's family increase through the addition of children (and, presumably, grandchildren, though I'm far from that stage). Last Thursday morning I had the pleasure of holding in my arms for the very first time my newborn son Austin. Austin is our third child, and our first boy (not counting our dog, who bears a striking similarity to me, at least behaviorally, despite our lack of shared genetics).

Children, of course, provide numerous joys (and, to be fair, numerous anxieties). One of the more easily overlooked of those joys, I think, is -- at least for a Christian father -- deeper appreciation for the reality and depth of God's own fatherly love, both as such is realized in the immanent Triune life of God, and as such is realized in God's relationship to believers. Within the inner life of God, after all, there is (eternally) a Father and a Son, and God has revealed himself (in time) as the adoptive Father of those whose salvation has been purposed from eternity and accomplished in time through the Spirit's application to them of the Son's saving work (cf. Matt. 3.17 & Eph. 1.5). Becoming and being an earthly father, I believe, grants experiential insight into God's sentiments toward his adopted children as well as God the Father's sentiments toward his proper Son, and so also experiential insight into the profound sacrifice involved in God the Father's gift of his only-begotten Son for our salvation (John 3.16).

Scripture itself provides us some license to gauge the depth of God's (parental) love for us by taking stock of human (parental) love: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Isa. 49.15). The truth posited in this verse is of course accessible to all, but the nursing mother will feel the point made in a particular way. Yet, it is possible to get a bit carried away in this regard. It is possible to start thinking God's relationship to his elect children, or even God the Father's relationship to God the Son, is itself somehow modeled upon the earthly phenomenon of fatherhood -- as if human fatherhood (and, correspondingly, human sonship) were the architectural plan to which the relationship between Father and Son in the Godhead must conform, however grander the actual building might be in comparison to the drawing.

The third-century Alexandrian priest Arius got carried away in just this regard, at least in terms of his rhetoric. Arius's basic thesis -- namely, that the Son of God is essentially a creature (rather than the Creator) -- stemmed from other considerations, but in the interest of defending his position, he explicitly appealed to the analogy between divine and human fatherhood. And, apparently, his argument struck a particular chord with certain parents. In his Four Discourses against the Arians, the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius tells us that Arius made it his habit to approach "silly women, and address them in turn in this womanish language: 'Had you a son before bearing? Now, as you had not, so neither was the Son of God before His generation.'" Arius's reasoning, in other words, was that since, say, Austin's birth occurred at a point in time (7:37 a.m. last Thursday, to be precise), and that since prior to his birth (or really conception) Austin was not, God's Son too must have been born (as it were) at some precise moment and, prior to that, not have been per se.

Athanasius reckoned that "words so silly and dull deserve no answer at all." Nevertheless, in addition to marshalling an impressive number of biblical texts and theological arguments in defense of Nicene orthodoxy (which judged the Son "true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father"), Athanasius responded to said words, largely out of concern for "the silly women who are so readily deceived by them."

In response to Arius's argument, Athanasius didn't shy away at all from the designation of the second person of the Trinity as "Son" or as "begotten." He simply pointed out, firstly, that human fatherhood is modeled upon divine fatherhood (rather than vice versa): "For God does not make man His pattern; but rather we men, because God is properly, and alone truly, Father of His Son, are also called fathers of our own children." Thus warning signs are posted along the pathway of attempts to elicit essential truths about the relation of God the Father to God the Son from the relation of human fathers to their sons.

But Athanasius goes further by, secondly, showing how the analogy between divine fatherhood and human fatherhood properly understood (i.e,. in conformity with catholic and biblical Christian truth) actually supports Scripture's broader identification of the Son as eternal and divine. "If they inquire of parents concerning their son," he writes, "let them consider ... the child which is begotten. For, granting the parent had not a son before his begetting, still, after having him, he had him, not as external or as foreign, but as from himself, and proper to his essence and his exact image, so that the former is beheld in the latter, and the latter is contemplated in the former." Athanasius's point is that sons, by the very nature of sonship, share in the nature of their fathers. Like begets like. Humans, who are temporal by nature, beget humans. Despite my younger daughter Geneva's earnest hope, revealed when asked before Austin's birth whether she anticipated a brother or sister, that "mommy's belly" had a "baby puppy" in it, my wife gave birth to a human being last Thursday. Austin was born at a point in time -- and so is, by definition, a temporal creature -- because his mother and father are themselves temporal creatures who were born at specific points in time.

What human sonship properly implies for non-human sonship, then, is not the temporality of the one born, but the begotten one's participation in (or possession of) the very same nature as the one who has begotten him. If an eternal (and divine) being begets, then, he necessarily begets an eternal (and divine) being; the begetting of a temporal being by an eternal being would be as implausible as the birth of a "baby puppy" to a daughter of Eve. And if the begotten One is himself eternal (like his Father), then his "birth" cannot have occurred at any moment; that birth itself is eternal (which is precisely what the Nicene Creed affirms).

The doctrine of the Son's eternal generation from the Father (and, correspondingly, the Father's eternal generating of the Son) has fallen on hard times of late. Several notable evangelicals have openly rejected the doctrine, suggesting that it lends itself to subordinationism (the position that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father). Ironically, subordinationism is the very thing the Nicene doctrine of the Son's eternal generation, so well expressed and defended by Athanasius, was intended to subvert. Perhaps better awareness of historic debates surrounding Christianity's historic doctrines -- buttressed if necessary by some personal experience in fatherhood -- would generate (no pun intended) greater reservation in rejecting this and other creedal Christian truths.