Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe

Article by   February 2012
doctrine_driscoll_95.jpgMark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Crossway Publishers, 464 p).

One of the tricky things with writing book reviews is not repeating what other reviewers have already said. A very fine article has already been published on this volume here. I am in agreement with the points of weakness highlighted by Rev. Ferry in that review, and I am happy to simply adopt them as my own. See the link above for the particulars. However, one qualification is in order. I would regard my impression as somewhat more sanguine than that of Rev. Ferry's. The weaknesses he highlights are important and considerable. Nevertheless, the book's weaknesses are accompanied by many strengths which are generally overlooked in Ferry's review (more on strengths anon).

So, since Rev. Ferry has already done the heavy lifting for me, such good providence frees me up to do others things in this article. I thought I would take the opportunity to focus on one particular weakness highlighted by Ferry and attempt to stimulate a conversation with the Driscoll circle on that point of contention. All the points mentioned in the Ferry review are worthy of further discussion, but here I have chosen to focus on Driscoll-Breshears's doctrine of the Trinity. I think, given some current happenings among the so-called New Calvinists, this is an appropriate place to kick off a dialogue between the New Calvinists and the Old Calvinists (among whom I - though a mere 37 - regard myself an adherent). 

Positively, I was impressed when I saw that the book opens with the Doctrine of God. And here our authors refuse to present us with any kind of generic deity. There is no bare theism here. We are introduced immediately to the triune God. There is no vain attempt to establish the existence of a monistic and impersonal uncaused cause. Rather, we are unapologetically presented with the one God who eternally subsists in three persons. Well done!

However, in the same chapter, there is a pronounced weakness with which I would here like to take issue and develop during the balance of the remainder of my review. The weakness, on my view, is found in their denial of the personal properties (i.e., that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son). For instance, they regard the eternal relations as a matter of speculation: "The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided. First, God has given us no revelation of their eternal relations."(1) Furthermore, they reinterpret the Nicene Creed, saying that when it speaks about the Son as "begotten, not made," what it means is that "something begotten was of the same substance as the one who does the begetting. But the term 'begotten' could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use." (2) In addition to these two objections, they baulk at the doctrine of the personal properties by explaining that the term begotten "unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten. That could certainly lend support to the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God." These three reasons lead them to conclude that it is "best to omit the creedal terms 'begotten' and 'proceeds' from our definition of the Trinity." (3) 

As I understand these brothers, they are arguing that the Son does not derive his personal property as Son from the Father by way of eternal generation. Further, the Holy Spirit does not have the personal property of eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Old Calvinism, however, affirms the ontological personal properties. For instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith explains that "in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons...the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son."(4) Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism 10 asks, "What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?" To which it answers, "It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity."

It should be noted that the authors' denial of the personal properties within the Godhead affects not just the doctrine of the Trinity, but Christology as well. Their objections strike at the heart of who Jesus is. Is Christ eternally begotten of the Father or not? Is he the self-contained ontological Son or not? 

Not only is Christology affected but Pneumatology as well. Is the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit by virtue of his eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son or not? With these quesitons I mined, I think the denial of the personal properties made in this book is a serious error, and it is so for at least the following four reasons.

First, if the Son is not begotten of the Father eternally, then how is the Son differentiated from the Father? If one says that the Son is not eternally begotten of the Father, then in what sense can we say that the Son is truly, ontologically, the Son? Is "Son" simply a title which has no ontological reality standing back of it? In other words, to be properly called a "son" requires some kind of begetting. It requires having some kind of property proper to one's ontic status relative to the begetter. To deny this property seems to amount to nominalism.
Second, when the eternal personal properties are denied, another (ironically, opposite) error becomes a danger: tritheism. The personal properties not only provide for differentiation within the Godhead, but they also serve to keep the three persons in an eternal perichoretic unity. If each person of the Trinity is autotheos, but no eternal relations of generation and procession bind them together, then we are left with three separate essences; i.e., three gods. 

Third, their position pits economic references against ontological categories. In the history of doctrine, it is held that economic statements have ontological referents. So, when in John 15:26 Jesus says, "But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me", Jesus is referring to an economic procession of the Spirit. However, this is the case in time only because it is first the case in eternity. As Francis Turretin has helpfully explained, "the order of operating follows the order of subsisting." (5) In other words, what the triune God does in redemptive-history really relates to his ontological status. What happens in history is true only on the basis of what is first the case in eternity. 

Fourth, however one translates John 3:16 - unique son or only begotten son - the reference is clearly to the Son who is "in the Father's bosom" (6) before the creation of the World. He is the Son who transcends the world, which is the object of the Father's sending. Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5 may indeed be understood as a reference to economic events (i.e., the coronation of the exalted Son). However, that economic event may never be pitted against the ontological reality, which stands back of it. As Herman Bavinck as succinctly stated it: "the economic Trinity reflects the ontological." (7) Therefore, the Son is "begotten" in the economy of salvation only because he is first eternally and ontologically begotten of the Father. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is much that is good which accompanies this volume. To highlight just a few examples, there are fine sections on the doctrine of Scripture, idolatry, and instruction on stewardship. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend it for teaching doctrine in the church because of the shortcomings concerning the personal properties.

So, where is a lay Christian to go to learn his doctrine? The options are limited. If you can lift it without getting a hernia, you can work with Michael Horton's new systematic theology, The Christian Faith. Not without its own significant problems, it is a relatively dependable one-volume systematic theology. The other one volume option, if you're not afraid of getting an intellectual hernia, is Berkhof's classic and still very helpful Systematic Theology. Nevertheless, both of these volumes are still plagued by their cumbersomeness. Such is actually a good thing if you're training for the ministry, but not so much for introducing newbies to Reformed doctrine. I still think, therefore, that R.C. Sproul's Essential Truths of the Christian Faith remains the best out there for young or new believers. It's what an older Christian man used with me when I was first converted. And as my dad used to say about things other than Reformed books, "if it was good enough me, it's good enough for you!"  

Rev. James J. Cassidy is the pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ringoes, New Jersey and a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary.


1 Doctrine, 27.
2 Ibid., 28.
3 Ibid., 28.
4 WCF 2.3.
5 Institute of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 1:281. 
6 John 1:18.
7 Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1951), 296.

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