A Letter to Professors Grudem and Ware
June 20, 2016
I am pleased to share another guest post from Liam Goligher, with a request where maybe we could move forward:
Professors Ware and Grudem,
Thank you for your quick, gracious and clear responses to my recent posts. I have no desire to cause either of you hurt or harm, and grieve that you have felt I did. If I may, I will for this reason avoid heightening the tension by focusing on my own account of the faith once delivered to the saints and inviting your critique.
Our view of God is the very highest hill on which we must be prepared to die for the gospel. That view is articulated in creedal and confessional Christian churches in terms of the Nicene - Constantinople Creed of 381AD. These creedal deliverances are exegetical conclusions, the church’s way of formally expressing its submission to Scripture. Others have cited spokesmen from the 350”s arguing for some kind of authority/subordination within the Trinity, and there is no doubt that there were subordinationist strains among some of the fathers (and as you know every possible articulation of the Godhead was considered and examined under the microscope of the Word before being rejected). Tertullian spoke of the Father as ‘all being’ and the Son as a ‘tributary,’ but he also distinguished between the incarnation of the Son and the Son’s eternal generation. Novation taught that He ‘always existed in the Father.’ The councils of Nicea 325 and Constantinople 381 affirmed the full deity of the Son and (381) of the Holy Spirit.
It is the ecumenical councils themselves (as secondary standards) that become the test of the orthodox understanding of God. John Calvin as a young man famously pulled away from using Nicene language, but with the maturing of his theological understanding he returned to this most basic mooring and gladly resumed using the language of the classical Christianity.
God ad intra
We agree that God, as He is in Himself, is a holy mystery. The Westminster Confession says ‘There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory’ (2.1). The Baptist Confession of 1689 adds ‘whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself (2.1)… not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations’ (2:3). God as He is in Himself is a simple being – not made up of bits or parts – He is one God. He is incomprehensible and immense to us as creatures. It is this doctrine of incomprehensibility that has often been raised by correspondents flowing from this debate. Yet we find it everywhere in Scripture, He asks us, “To whom will you compare me?” (Isa.40:18). What God is, in His divine essence, is not at all like what we are. There are limits to our human comprehension, ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!’ (Romans 11:33). It was Eunomius, an Arian, who argued that there is nothing in God that is not perfectly known and comprehended by the human intellect, but this view was rejected by the church. Will we ever comprehend God as He is in Himself (in se)? No, not ultimately, for we are creatures and He is the Creator, and He extends beyond all our categories. Calvin said, His essence is incomprehensible; so that His divinity wholly escapes all human senses.’ This should at least give us pause before we read patriarchy back into the inner being of God (or anything else drawn from the creaturely realm, realizing that at best it is only analogously true of God) for when we do so we are acting as if we think Him to be entirely like ourselves, only bigger perhaps.
Though God cannot be known in His fullness, yet we can know Him by special revelation; we may know Him truly but not fully. The Bible teaches and the church maintains both the unity of the divine substance (what it means to be one God) and the distinction of the persons (what it means to be God in His inter-Trinitarian relations). ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One’ and yet we are to baptize in ‘the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ When we meditate on the inner life of the Triune it is incomprehensible to us. Yet we may dwell on the One or on the Three; what God is as one God and what God is as three in mutual relations within the Godhead. We may also dwell on His being as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is unbegotten; the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The personal names of ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Spirit’ refer to relations of origin rather than relations of authority (we must not read human paternity back into divine paternity; much less human patriarchy back into the eternal God, for He is not altogether like us). The divine ‘name’ is the ‘name of the Father, and the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit (Matt.28:18).
The fathers were very anxious to affirm that the Son was ‘begotten not made.’ The Father and the Son are ontologically related to one another in that the Father is only the Father in relation to the Son and the Son is only the Son in relation to the Father; the divine persons exist as who they are only in relation to one another. The Father only exists eternally by giving Himself wholly as Father in the begetting of His Son. Read prosopologically, Psalm 2 records a divine conversation before the dawn of time when the Father addresses the Son and says, ‘Today I have begotten you’ (this method of exegesis is favored by Jesus, Peter, Hebrews, and the fathers). Psalm 110 makes the same move. When David begins: “The LORD said to my Lord.” he is reporting a conversation that was past tense to David’s own location in history. In that conversation the first LORD is undoubtedly Yahweh the covenant God of Israel; the most high God. Then the Most High designates a second person ‘my Lord’ (Adonai (MT) a word used to vocalize the unpronounceable covenant name Yahweh). In the LXX both are designated kurios, Lord. The second Lord in the text can be distinguished from the first Lord but is identified with Him. Both are divine but are distinguishable.
Who then is this One whom David calls “My Lord?” Mark 12 leaves no room for doubt. Jesus argues that since David hails the Messiah as Lord, then Messiah is not David’s son but God’s Son – His lineage is more exalted than that of David. In fact, Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University points out that verse 3 speaks of this Savior (David’s Lord) as having been begotten of God before even the morning star was created. The LXX reads, “With you is the sovereign authority on the day of your power in the midst of the bright splendors of the holy ones; from the womb, before the dawn-bearing morning star appeared, I begot you.” This Greek translation, which was favored by Jesus and the early church for its accuracy, says that before the dawn of time itself, the Christ was begotten, not created or made, and that His human birth, ‘from the womb’ would take place in an unusual fashion and that God is here giving a hint of what He was going to do – and all would be fulfilled when Messiah would be born ‘from a womb’ of a virgin.
Jesus’ enemies then knew precisely the point He was making; in fact this was the last straw in a series of claims that had his enemies whispering ‘blasphemy’ – that He, a mere man should claim to be God Most High. “According to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, it is the personal properties of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, specifically eternal generation and spiration, that explain the distinctions we are able to discern. When these personal properties are denied, the three persons are separated from one another, and tritheism makes its appearance.” (Bavinck II.292).
The homoousion (which you gladly affirm) was a way of further unpacking what it means for the Son to stand in relation to the Father (as begotten) rather than in relation to creation (as a creature). It is impossible to affirm the homoousian without affirming eternal generation. The specific lines in the creed that express eternal generation are “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” “begotten not made,” and also “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” More time is spent expressing this specific shape of personal differentiation among equals then expressing same substance. This affirmation of eternal generation steers us carefully between Arius (who said the Son was less than the Father), and Sabellius (who denied distinction of persons). The homoousian stresses eternal relations not eternal roles or functions within the Godhead. The very talk of roles and functions inside God’s one being is anachronistic; it is to read from the economy back into the ontology or into the immanent.
When Jesus speaks in John 5, He says, ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself, but only what He sees the Father doing’ (5:19), when He says this He is referring to mode of action and not being or nature, He acts from the Father. Then, so we don’t imagine that there is thereby inequality, He at once adds: ‘for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.’ And again, He states their equality by saying: ‘For just as the Father raises the dead and grants life, so the Son grants life to those whom He wishes,’ then, so we don’t deny that the Son is begotten, ‘as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself’ (5:23). He adds, ‘the Father Himself judges no one, but He has given all judgment to the Son.’ What the Father has, the Son has; what the Father does, the Son does; the ‘name’ of the Father, is the ‘name’ of the Son and the ‘name’ of the Spirit.
This led Gregory of Nazanzus to write in Oration 40, that each of the three Persons is fully God Himself:
…neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of three infinite Ones. Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; each God because consubstantial’ one God because of the Monarchia.’
Gregory taught that to subordinate any Person of the Three is to ‘overthrow the Trinity”: ‘For he [Arius] did not honor the Father, by dishonoring His offspring with his unusual degrees of Godhead. But we recognize one glory of the Father, the equality of the Only-begotten; and one glory of the Son, that of the Spirit. And we hold that to subordinate any of the Three is to destroy the whole’ (Oration 43;29). Calvin said that Christ was both ‘of the Father’ and ‘of Himself;’ ‘from the Father’ and ‘from Himself,’ and thereby HE asserts Christ’s self-existence, He has ‘life in Himself’ as does the Father (Calvin, Opera Calvini, VII.322; 323.4; XII.18). .
When we think of God ad intra we think of the Divine simplicity; the eternal generation of the Son and processions of the Holy Spirit; the inseparable operations of the Three; and the one divine will because there is but one God. There is no room for any kind of social Trinitarian model there. We need to bow to the mystery of God ad intra; in Himself He is immortal, invisible, incomprehensible and unapproachable. The will of the Trinity is one will, and the operations of the trinity are inseparable and indivisible. There is no hierarchy; and there are not three centers of consciousness. When we worship God in Himself we are reminded that He and we are different in kind; He is the Creator and Ruler of all things, and we are creatures. If there is to be any understanding of who God is and what He is like, then He must first make something outside of Himself and then relate to us at a creaturely level. This He has deigned to do.
God in the pactum salutis
What we call the economy is rooted in the eternal decree, where God freely wills that the Father send the Son to be Mediator and the Redeemer of God’s elect.
Is there any biblical evidence of the pactum salutis or covenant of redemption? In John 13-17 the preoccupation is with the glory of Christ. That theme begins in Jn.12:23-28, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified... Father, glorify your name. Then a voice came from heaven: I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ Immediately, we have two quotations from Isaiah (53&6) followed by the comment on both the Isaiah texts, ‘Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.’ The ‘glory’ is a descriptor of Jesus in His divine glory. In Isaiah 6 the prophet sees the Lord God Almighty ‘sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up’ the object of heavenly worship. In Isaiah 52 the Lord announces of His Servant, ‘he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted’ John identifies both these exalted figures with Jesus and His glory. In the first He sits eternally in heavenly splendor; in the second He is to be exalted (in the future) to heavenly splendor.
What has changed between Isaiah 6 and 52/53? The divine Lord has become the humble Servant and has obediently finished His task and will resume His state of exaltation. This leads immediately to the footwashing incident (Jn.13) and its location in Jesus’ knowledge that He had ‘come from God and was returning to God.’ This statement explains the significance of the acted parable: He leaves His place, puts on the servant’s towel and washes His disciples’ in a parable of salvation (“if I wash you not, you have no fellowship with me”), then resumes His garments and returns to His place. Now this movement of glory to glory and God to God is picked up at in John 17. There He speaks to the Father about glory shared (“the glory I had with you before the world existed”), times set (the ’hour has come’), promises made (“the people whom you gave me out of the world”), obligations undertaken (“the work you gave me to do”), and equality stressed (“All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them”). This snippet of a conversation confirms other Scriptures which hint at this eternal pact or covenant.
Does the idea of the pactum militate against God’s one will? Not if we can agree that the one Triune will decreed there would be something external to Himself and that in this external reality (the economy) His will be enacted according to the’ tripersonal manner of subsistence’ (Allen & Swain, Christian Dogmatics, 122) within the Trinity. John Owen expounds this:
‘Such is the distinction of the persons in the unity of the divine essence, as that they act in natural and essential acts reciprocally one towards another – namely in understanding, love, and the like; they know and mutually love each other. And as they subsist distinctly, so they also act distinctly in those works that are of external operation…The will of God as to the peculiar actings of the Father in this matter is the will of the Father, and the will of God with regard to the actings of the Son is the will of the Son: not by distinction of sundry wills, but by the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son’ (ibid. p121).
God ad extra
We must start our contemplation of God by remembering that He is immense, invisible and incomprehensible. We can never know God ad intra in all His fullness; we can only know Him ‘after a creaturely fashion’ through the work of the Mediator. In making the universe ‘out of nothing’ and in peopling it with creatures both angelic and human God then begins the business of revealing Himself to them. Here we move to the economy of redemption.
The move of the Son of God is highlighted in the gospel of John in a variety of ways. In John 1 the emphasis begins with the co-equality, co-eternity and con-substantiality of the Word and God, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is immediately followed by this enormous move: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only [begotten] Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God; the only [begotten] God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.’
His incarnation begins His life of active obedience to His Father. ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal.4:4). John 6:38 reads ‘For I have come down from heaven (He is speaking in the present, that is, in the economy), not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.’ Here Jesus stresses that in the economy of redemption, as the second and last Adam He has brought his human will and placed it under the will of the Father (which in the economy the man Christ Jesus is bound to obey). John frequently uses this language to emphasise the move ‘from God to God’ (Jn.13:1); He left His place (Jn.13) to take on the badge of the servant and wash His disciples’ feet. In Phil.2 He is already equal with God and is God but He empties Himself by taking the form of a servant in order to be obedient to death. In Hebrews 5:8 it says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
In His human flesh (acting as the second and last Adam, the true and faithful Israel, and the appointed and anointed Messiah) Jesus voluntarily placed Himself under the authority of His Father. The kingdom referred to in 1 Co.15:28 is one He holds, not only as the Son of God, but also as Messiah by virtue of his messianic appointment, obedience, and reward. There is another authority given to Him on account of His obedience. In Rev.5:9 He is given the throne precisely because He purchased people by His blood. There is a kingdom over which Christ reigns as Redeemer on the basis of the work of redemption He did on His people’s behalf. He reigns because of it; and it is this mediatorial kingdom which, one day, when it has achieved its goal; He will surrender to His Father.
In His work as Redeemer and Mediator He is most certainly subordinate to His Father. The Mediator is the Servant of the Lord; He is the Last Adam; and as long as He remains human His subordination is unavoidable. Yet in His exaltation, as Paul affirms in 1Cor.15:27, the only one not subject to Him is God the Father. Hence, in Rev.5:6 we see the Lamb where we expect to see God the Father – Lord of all; revealing and implementing the Divine plan for history.
Professor Donald MacLeod however points to complexity in the future unfolding of God’s purposes. The members of the Trinity seem to vie with each other for the privilege of serving. There is a subtle indicator of the relationship between the Lord and the Lord of Psalm 110, that is, the Lord God and the Lord Messiah: In v1, ‘The LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand.”’ In v5, the Spirit through the Psalmist says to the Messiah, “The Lord is at your right hand…” This is a unique insight into the inter-relationships within the Godhead as the Father comes to the aid of His Son in the battles with the world, the flesh and the devil. Jesus testified to this in John 16:32, ‘I am not alone, for my Father is with me.’ In Col.1:12 we find the Father actively involved in this kingdom work long before it is handed back to Him, as Paul urges the church to give thanks to the Father who ‘has rescued us form the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves.’ And in Heb.2:5ff the writer interprets Psalm 8 prosopologically as referring to the role assigned to the Son of man: “You made Him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under His feet.” The new creation will be ruled by the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
In my account thus far I have moved from what God is in Himself to what God in to us in Christ by way of the covenant of redemption. I believe that by introducing the covenant of redemption we might find ground on which we might possibly stand together for the gospel. But gospel unity is impossible if we don’t agree about the God of the gospel. Might you be willing to import your speech about God into the pactum rather than place it in God in se? This covenant flows from and fits with God’s character. In other words, it is the first of God’s works; while we really do see God manifest in this (and all His works), this is His work and not Him in ipse.