The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Reconciling Scripture and Dogma

The proper authority of dogmatic theology is legitimized through the regular demonstration of its truth and power. This can only occur as the authority of dogmatic theology is consistently and repeatedly shown to arise out from and practically to strengthen and actualize the Scripture's own authority. At its best, dogmatic theology proves itself as it brings into focus and clarity elements of the scriptural witness that are unclear. It proves itself when it enables us to grasp the grand unifying themes and fundamental truths that give coherence to the whole of Scripture and strengths the grasp of those great truths upon us. Where such demonstrations are absent, dogmatics will implicitly frame itself as abstract and abstruse, self-referential and largely absorbed in problems of its own creation.

What is required is, I believe, a marked shift of posture from many dogmaticians in their relation to Scripture, and most particularly in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. The relationship that dogmaticians have all too often maintained between Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity has been one overly mediated by the 'proof-text'. The purpose of the 'proof-text' is primarily and narrowly the justification of Trinitarian doctrine itself. The concept and the practical functioning of proof-texts can encourage a perception of Trinitarian doctrine as akin to a large balloon tethered to the earth by slender cords, each of which must be guarded at all costs.

Such an approach focuses our attention upon isolated texts and concentrates our efforts upon the task of finding the doctrine in the Scriptures, conceived of as a collection of individual texts. However, this is, I believe, the wrong place and manner to look. As I mentioned in a previous article in this series, the doctrine of the Trinity isn't primarily seen at odd points in the text, but through the text in its entirety. It is not so much about particular pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, as it is about the picture on the front of the box. Although reflection upon individual texts is a necessary part of this recognition process, they are, as it were, only footholds on a climb to a commanding vantage point from which the whole terrain of biblical revelation unfolds as a vast and glorious vista beneath us.

The 'proof' of Trinitarian doctrine is not principally found in self-regarding moments, as it catches a passing glimpse of its reflection in the text. Rather, its proof is found as, regarded from the vantage point it offers, the greater realm of the Scriptures comes into view, and, conversely, as the heights of the doctrine of the Trinity are discovered to be a landmark from which we can get our bearings wherever we find ourselves.

It is crucial to appreciate that enjoying the full significance of this vantage point isn't a possibility for the dogmatician who is simply airlifted onto it. Rather, this vantage point is properly reached through a lengthy scriptural itinerary, a difficult and often visually obscured passage through the territory that only later unfolds beneath us. Appreciation of the significance of the vantage point that the doctrine of the Trinity offers belongs to those who have trodden the paths that lead up to it--paths marked out, signposted, and fenced for safety by former travelers---and who pay close attention to the warnings at its summit, where careless steps may cause people to fall to their deaths. Only the careful traveller who walks the full path can appreciate the power of the mutually revealing perspectives they have enjoyed in their journey.

At its best, what dogmatic theology holds forth is the greater grammar of the entire biblical witness. Without some apprehension of this grammar, all interpretation will fall short, as the broader import of the Scriptures become less coherent. In my earlier post, I noted the contrast between the relationship that Francis Watson draws between Trinity and creation and that in John Webster's paper on the subject. Watson's approach takes its bearings from a reading of Genesis 1, noting that there are three different modes of divine creative work and relation to the creation within that text: transcendence (divine authoring of speech), bodily involvement (divine fashioning), and dynamic indwelling (the empowering of God's life-giving breath). He observes that particular creative actions are at various points attributed to each of these modes of divine action. However, what might otherwise be nothing but a series of narrative peculiarities or conundrums are given a greater coherence when viewed from the vantage point of the reality of the Trinity that enables us to perceive features from above that weren't so clear on the ground. Watson remarks:

Traditional Trinitarian terminology helps to clarify this situation. Specific appropriations of a divine act to a divine person may be made, but only within the constraints of the principle that opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa ... and we are not to think of three separate agents who sometimes work in concert and sometimes separately. Thus every act of creation involves the word of command issuing from God's mouth, the wisdom or skill ... and the strength of God's hands, and the dynamic indwelling of God's breath.

While I do not agree with all aspects of the reading that Watson offers, this is precisely the sort of 'proof' that Trinitarian theology needs: the kind of 'proof' that is found in the pudding of broader scriptural interpretation, the kind of proof that allows us to see new features of a familiar territory as we are granted a new vantage point upon it. The doctrine is proved by the light that it sheds upon our reading of Scripture and, in turn, the reading of such passages sheds light on the doctrine.

It is heartening to see various theologians who are currently pushing against the polarization of exegesis and dogmatic theology, establishing a fruitful, mutually receptive, respectful, and illuminating dialogue between them. Wesley Hill's recent work, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, is one good example of a healthy dialectic of close historical reading of the biblical text and orthodox Trinitarian insight, in which both endeavors are enriched by their interaction.

The Trinitarian doctrines under discussion are significant precisely because, where they are misconstrued, the underlying grammar of the biblical narrative and of our faith more generally is distorted, whether subtly or not so subtly. What is really at issue here is not the legitimacy or accuracy of some artifact of dogmatic or creedal theology but, rather, the more pressing question of how we are to understand the relationship between the Son and the Father throughout our reading of Scripture and practice of our faith. Getting the doctrine of the Trinity wrong will lead us to tell the entire story incorrectly in important ways. It is quite unfortunate that this point has often been neglected or missed in the debates, leaving opponents of the eternal subordination of the Son position vulnerable to the charge of theological pedantry.

Within my next post, I will turn to some of the texts that have been at issue in the debate.