The Trinitarian Debate: Some Reflections and Cautions

Ian Hamilton
First a confession, I rarely read blogs--especially Christian ones. My reason is simple; blogs are no kind of forum for engaging in thoughtful, reflective, analytical and measured theological discourse. No doubt some do it wisely, even brilliantly; most do it carelessly, a-historically and ineptly. However, I have made an exception with the explosion of blog comments and rejoinders relating to the question of eternal subordination. It is not my intention to pass any comment on the substantive issue of God the Son's eternal subordination, or otherwise, to his Father. I do, however, wish to make three, hopefully helpful comments.

First, it should be a non-negotiable rule, a canon of Christian discourse if you like, that if a brother has a concern about another brother's theology, he should first speak with him personally and certainly out of the public gaze. There may come a time when it will be necessary to make the concern public, but that should be a last resort not a first strike. It is only too easy with social media to let our fingers and not our heads rule our contributions to theological discussion. Truth matters and matters deeply. But it is only by "speaking the truth in love" (αληθευοντες δε εν αγαπη) that we grow up into Christ the head.

In no sense am I denigrating passionate debate or seeking to downgrade the importance of doctrinal accuracy. I am, however, pleading for theological debate between brothers that is courteous without being anodyne, passionate without being derogatory, Catholic spirited without being partisan.

Second, doctrines as weighty and freighted with the theological reflections of two thousand years of church history as eternal subordination is, should not be subject to proof texting from the Church Fathers or the magisterial Reformers. It is the easiest thing to cull church history and find quotes from eminent theologians that support your particular conviction. But theology has never been done in an historical vacuum and it is imperative that the historical contexts of theological debates and doctrinal formulations be properly understood--Nicea and Chalcedon being cases in point--before quotations are extrapolated and used to defend one's position. I have always found it fascinating that the Chalcedonian formulation revolves around four negative adverbs (ἀσυγχύτως ἀτρέπτως ἀδιαιρετως and ἀχωρίστως). The formulators were apparently more comfortable saying what was not true of the hypostatic union than they were saying what actually was true of the union. I am not saying that only the Academy's experts should engage in these profound discussions and that the rest of us should view theology as a spectator sport. I am saying that we need to be far more knowledgable than most of us are before we bless the church with our insights and pronouncements.

Thirdly, a healthy appreciation of two statements of Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics should stand guard over our involvement in theological debate: "Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics,"1 and "The incomprehensibility of God and the unknowability of his essence...became the starting point and fundamental idea of Christian theology."2 When Paul wrote his magnificent doxology in Rom.11:33-36, he was acknowledging that God was beyond him--that he was out of his depth as he explained the "Gospel of God." When we have said all that we feel capable of saying, we left to exclaim in adoring wonder, "Oh the depths!" If our theology does not lead to doxology, it is not Christian theology.

Christian theology is anchored in and flows out of two foundational truths, that God is Three and yet One, and that Jesus Christ is the God-Man, one Person with two natures (which doctrine John Owen calls "the glory of the church"). Here more than anywhere we are out of our depth. "We speak," said Augustine, "only so that we may not remain silent." What we speak is to be shaped wholly, and ultimately alone, by God's infallible word. I have used the word "ultimately" to make a point. Sola scriptura does not mean, and never did mean in the Christian tradition, nuda scriptura (the view of the Jehovah Witness heresy). The Reformers who most passionately espoused sola scriptura, did so within the Christian tradition, reading and evaluating what the church in earlier generations wrote and taught. It is remarkable, for example, how often Calvin quotes Augustine in his Institutes (over 400 times).

Perhaps these are simply the musings of a social media Luddite. Maybe I need to "get with it and move with the times." Maybe. Or maybe Reformed Christians need to resist the immediacy of today's social media and rediscover the rigor and joys of theological colloquy, listening and learning, as well as pronouncing.

1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 29.

2. Ibid., 36