Results tagged “personal properties” from Reformation21 Blog

Many of you are no doubt aware of the current controversy within the Reformed complementarian community about the issue of grounding male and female roles of subordination in the inner-Trinitarian life of the Godhead. The desire to establish the rationale for how men and women relate to one another in how the persons of the Triune Godhead relate to one another certainly has the initial appearance of soundness and wisdom. But the reality is significantly more complex than a prima facie reading of the situation would reveal. Good men stand on both sides of this dispute and I do not claim to have read every last blog post or Twitter feed on the matter. I am not concerned with personalities so names will be left out of my musings. I do take a side in the controversy. I side with the classical consideration of the Triune nature of our great and glorious God that stems from the Nicene tradition (perhaps all sides of this debate could read Lewis Ayer's Nicaea and It's Legacy and ponder its detail?).

Discussion of the Trinity is necessary and hashing out the intricate issues is healthy. I am mindful of Saint Augustine's warning about dealing with the Trinitarian glory of our God. At the beginning of his monumental De Trinitate (On the Trinity) the bishop of Hippo Rhegius noted that there was nothing more treacherous than approaching the hallowed ground of Trinitarian theology. At the same time there is nothing more rewarding and soul-stretching. I do want to avoid turning meditations on the Trinity into a geometrical puzzle that needs solving. That is not my desire. I hope to shed a modicum of light on the present impasse. First I will say something about deriving guidelines of male-female relations from the inner-Trinitarian life of God. Second, I will offer a thought or two on the technical matter of subordinationism in theological formulations. Third, I want to say something about how the covenant of redemption relates to this discussion. Fourth, and finally, I want to conclude with a pastoral note.

I think there is a helpful way to draw implications for male-female relations from the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as long as we recognize certain limitations. The first limitation is the Creator/creature distinction. God is not just some bigger, better form of us. God is also incomprehensible. While we can have true knowledge about God and his ways with us, we never possess exhaustive knowledge of God. By definition only God has infinite, exhaustive knowledge of himself and his plan of redemption. Because God has revealed himself to us (in this case, he has revealed to us something of his Trinitarian nature) what we do know is true and not the product of our imaginations as long as what we think conforms to and is consistent with his revelation. Related to the above, our knowledge and theological language is analogical. That is, it is neither univocal (or identical with God's self-knowledge) nor equivocal (completely different from God's knowledge).

What can we say about how men and women are to relate to one another from the Trinitarian nature of God? I think we can say, as Paul does in 1st Corinthians 11:3 that Christ is the head of the husband, the husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. But we need to reckon with some distinctions as we seek to properly understand this text and apply it in our lives. Paul is talking here about Christ's relation to the Father as it exists in the economy of redemption. In other words, we are not talking about the relation of the Son to the Father outside of and apart from the execution of the plan of redemption in time and space. Christ is spoken of here as the God-man Mediator, not as he was in his pre-incarnate state. The wife submits to her husband as the God-man Mediator submits to the Father in the economy of redemption. This filial submission was voluntary for the purpose of redeeming a people for the Son's possession.

Second, we rightly seek to avoid subordinationist language when discussing the internal relations of the persons of the Trinity. John Calvin, I believe, furthered Trinitarian theology when he helpfully noted that the Son of God, considered as to his godness or divinity, is autotheos. The son as to his divine essence is co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. There is no subordination here. But as to his person the Son is derived from the Father and the Spirit is derived from the Father and the Son. Theologians such as Geerhardus Vos (Reformed Dogmatics 1.3.12.c & d) and Sam Waldron (Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith) discuss subordinationism and reject ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. However, they seem to allow for a kind of subordination of manner of existence and mode of operation. The mode of operation is what I have already referred to here as economic subordination for the purpose of redemption. The manner of existence subordination has to do with the fact that the Father is unbegotten and begets the Son, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is not begotten but proceeds. It is arguable whether applying the moniker "subordination" is appropriate for consideration of the personal properties of the divine persons or their ordering or taxis. The only seemingly appropriate use of subordination language regards economic subordination. This is what Paul describes in Phil.2:5-9 and what we see throughout the gospels as we see how Jesus relates to the Father. Why is this even an issue? If the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father, then he is a demi-god who cannot save us from our sins. It's that basic.

Third, I want to bring this conversation into contact with what our theology says about the covenant of redemption or pactum salutis or covenant of peace. The covenant of redemption is that covenant that the Father, Son, and Spirit entered into to save a people out of sin and misery. In this pre-temporal covenant (which we can see evidence of in John 17, for instance), the Son agreed to take to himself a "true body, and a reasonable soul" (WSC 22). This was a completely voluntary act on the Son's part. The Father did not arm twist or cajole the Son into becoming incarnate for our sakes. The Son determined to become incarnate and live a lowly life and die an excruciating death in order to glorify the Father (who in turn glorified the Son) and to redeem lost sinners. While the nature of the Son's personal properties does lead to his incarnation, to make the incarnation and work of redemption arise from the subordinate nature of the Son's relation to the Father is to verge on removing the voluntary nature of the Son's work. Undoubtedly there is more work to be done here or at the very least, more study of what the church has already said instead of thinking we need to reinvent the wheel every time we do exegesis or biblical theology.

Fourth, and finally, we need to be cognizant of the pastoral implications of this dispute. Theological controversy is not to be avoided simply because it is controversial. Jesus himself had an ongoing controversy with the religious leaders of his day. I have been interacting with more than a few laymen who do not know what to make of this current civil war in the ranks of Reformed complementarians. I have tried to stress that theological controversy can be healthy (I am, after all, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and so am gladly one of "Machen's warrior children") and that we should not be overwrought about doctrinal disputes as such. There are, of course, proper ways to conduct theological disputation. But I am not personally bothered by vehemence or the passionate presentation of an argument. However, we do need to reckon with how a dispute is seen by laity and even those outside the church. This controversy can lead to greater understanding of our great and glorious God if it is conducted in a biblical, godly way. We should focus on the issues rather than on personalities. I do need to note that we live in a day and age when we hate to challenge anyone's orthodoxy. I am not providing license to heresy hunters or discernment bloggers. But truth matters. Orthodoxy is not a dirty word. The nature of God's Triune being as it is revealed in Scripture is paramount.

In conclusion, while we can derive some conclusions about how men and women relate to one another by considering the role relations of the persons of the Triune Godhead, we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge. We need to use technical terms like subordination clearly and carefully and where we are nuancing our use it should be clearly stated that that is what we are doing. We need to reckon with how the covenant of redemption relates to this whole discussion. And we need to remember that this controversy is not just an academic disputation but has pastoral implications. We need to debate in a godly manner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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