Dr. Liam Goligher Responds to Dr. Mike Ovey
June 14, 2016
Well, Dr. Liam Goligher's first guest post on Housewife Theologian has generated a lot of discussion and reaction from around the world. I'm pleased to share this follow-up by Liam, one that particularly addresses a question raised by Dr. Mike Ovey:
It has been my privilege, over some years, to know Dr. Mike Ovey of Oak Hill Theological College. At a time when there was a full on assault against penal substitutionary atonement within the evangelical camp in the United Kingdom, he and colleagues wrote the decisive academic book on the subject and were kind enough to reference my attempt at a popular defense of the doctrine. We were in the same corner then and no one (except Mike I imagine) knows how upsetting it is to now find ourselves in opposite corners in this debate. In fact I had written privately to Mike asking advice on how to reply to those who would attack my post! I say this to confirm what he says at the beginning of his post that we have had nothing but friendly relations over the years and that there is no prior animosity behind our differences. That being said, it appears our differences are great, and that on the doctrine of the Trinity.
It is the believer’s privilege and passion to meditate on and delight in the Divine Three in One; contemplating their majesty, admiring their beauty, confessing their unity. I’m sure Mike would agree that we can think of no greater joy than to join in the worship of this great and glorious Lord. Speaking for myself, it is a particular joy to contemplate the mystery of the eternal life and love of the Eternal Trinity; their mutual delight in each other; the eternal love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father in the Holy Spirit. In that eternal repose there was one mind, one will, one love, one power shared equally by the divine persons in perfect unity and identity of being. It is in this contemplation of God that I need both the Bible and the language of the church. I need the carefully crafted words of the church’s creeds to keep me from misunderstanding God or misrepresenting Him. In this regard what one or two theologians said about God in the 350’s AD while debates were going on, is not as important as what is found in the ecumenical creeds like the Nicene-Constantinople Creed of 381 AD.
This God taught Israel to say ‘The Lord our God is One.’ There are distinctions of course. The NT writers, and Christ Himself, noted that OT prophets like David and Isaiah, when ‘in the Spirit,’ were party to conversations within the Godhead from the deepest past of pre-temporal ‘time’ (anthropomorphism if ever there was one). The fathers referred to this as prosopological exegesis, in which the prophet, using language scripted by the Holy Spirit, speaks in the prosopon, the character, the persona of a divine participant in the drama of redemption (See Matthew Bates, The Birth of the Trinity). The prophet could, in the Spirit, hear conversations before and after his own location in history. In Psalm 2 David hears the Father say to the Son at from eternity, ‘Today I have begotten you.’ As the church meditated on this and other texts, it realized that the Father (as the principle) generates, the Son is generated and the Father and the Son spirate the Holy Spirit. These actions are not understood to be distinct in themselves, but with respect of the persons they are distinct; the action by which the Father generates the Son, and the action by which the Father and Son spirate the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the pure act of God (actus purus). Within the Trinity 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. Aquinas was building on the Greek fathers and Augustine’s teaching when he conceived of the persons of the Trinity as subsistent relations, that is, they subsist or exist as who they are only in relation to one another. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as the One in whom the Father begets the Son in love, and He proceeds from the Son as the One in whom the Son loves the Father who has begotten Him. The Holy Spirit is the product of the Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father.
This takes us deeply into the nature of God as He is in Himself and leaves us speechless in worship as we contemplate this One who is Three and the Three who are One. This knowledge can only be made known to us by the One who knows the deep things of God, the Blessed Holy Spirit (1Cor.2). ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is One,’ says the Shema, and Jesus says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ This confession is made explicit by the early church which proclaims with Paul (as Richard Bauckham exegetes it) in this carefully formulated statement in 1 Cor.8:6, a) but for us there is one God, the Father, b) from whom are all things and we for Him, c) and one Lord, Jesus Christ, d) through whom are all things and we through Him. Every word of the Shema is used and rearranged to enfold the Son and Lord (lines a) and c) above) into the affirmation of one God. Lines b) and d) above divide up between God and Jesus another Jewish monotheistic formula which relates the one God as Creator to ‘all things.’ Later the apostle ascribes to the one God honor for ‘from Him and through Him and to Him are all things’ (Rom.11:36). Such a move makes the eternal Son distinct yet identical to God. He is ‘before all things;’ by Him ‘all things exist;’ and in Him ‘all things hold together’ (Col.1:16, 17). As a friend wrote me today, ‘One God’ and ‘One Lord’ isn’t saying ‘one red jelly bean’ and ‘one blue jelly bean.’ It is identifying two persons with one divine being, one divine operation ad extra.
We see a similar move in Isaiah. In ch6 Isaiah famously sees ‘the Lord High and Exalted’ with the angels worshipping Him as the Lord God the Almighty. John tells us that he saw the eternal Lord of glory Himself, the Lord Christ. Yet, later in Isaiah, we find the term used again prospectively of the Servant, ‘he shall be high and lifted up and exalted.’ Jesus quotes from both Isa.6 and 52/3 in John 12, but which is it? Is He high and lifted up or will he be high and lifted up? What happens between these two affirmations, one that He is and the other that He will be? It is His appearance as a Servant empowered to obey to the point of death! The acted parable of John 13 has Him coming from God and returning to God as He lays aside His garments and leaves His place to take on the badge of the servant and wash His disciples’ feet as a sign of salvation (“if I wash you not you have no part in me”). The answer of John 17 is that Christ moved from the glory He had with the Father before the world was, to be incarnate and obey and accomplish the work, to being received back in public acknowledgement of His achievement as the eternal Son and effective Mediator into that selfsame glory. In Revelation we find Him as the Lamb sitting in the midst of the throne receiving the full worship of the adoring creatures and people; the whole heavenly host.
These illustrations emphasize the unity and identity of the Son with the Father. Both are high and exalted; both are responsible for ‘all things’. Both share the glory of eternal deity. The Lord our God is one. This was the insight of the Trinitarian theologians. There is no doubt that Athanasius and Hilary talked about a monarchia of the Father, but they did so in a way that does not entail the sort of subordination being argued for in Mike’s piece. The real problem with the position as represented by Grudem, for example, is that they deny the classical hypostatic differentiation of the Son as eternally begotten and the Spirit as eternally proceeding. Therefore, to avoid modalism, they must talk about eternal submission or subordination. But if this typifies the Son and the Spirit, how do they distinguish the Son and the Spirit? They also deny inseparable operations, which they have to do if they are going to have subordination of the will of the Son to the Father. This runs into the problem with the classical affirmation that there is one will in the triune God.
There is implicit in the subordinationist view a denial of the unity of God defined in terms of singularity and simplicity. Jesus echoes the language of singularity when He says ‘I, I am;’ we find that self-designation particularly in Isaiah in setting God apart from the idols of the nations. In fact, in using the expression repeatedly as He does in John’ gospel He is repeating the self-designation He gave to Moses and Isaiah. But God is also described in terms of simplicity. It means that God has no parts; that He is identical with His attributes; that He is love and holy and righteous and life and love. It’s not that He has those things but that He is those things. ‘God is what He has, and there is nothing within Him that is not wholly identical to Him’ (Gavin Ortlund). Augustine said God is pure essence without accidents. In God is everything and everything is one. God is everything He possesses. He has a distinct and different and infinite life of His own within Himself. Every name used of God refers to the same divine being, but each time from a particular angle, the angle from which it reveals itself to us in His works. God is therefore simple in His multiplicity and manifold in His simplicity (Augustine). Bavinck writes: The divine being is not composed of three persons, nor is each person composed of the being and personal attributes of that person, but the one uncompounded (simple) being exists in three persons.’ The eternal subordination of the Son challenges the simplicity of God. The very ideas of functions and roles within the Trinity ad intra are inconceivable, they are subsistent relations fully in act.
Some challenge us for the ‘special’ language we use when discussing the Trinity; why should that be? ‘The Trinity is about persons in relation in a certain taxis, not about people in relationships with certain roles. What is the difference between persons and people, relations and relationships, taxis and roles? Every time we say “three persons” instead of “three people,” we are registering in ordinary language our sense that the matters on the God side of the equation are high and lifted up’ (Fred Sanders ). In Himself He is incomprehensible. This should give us pause for thought before we make any univocal connections between God and ourselves. We must remind ourselves that there is a category difference between God and His creation. God does not belong to reality as we conceive of it. He is outside of our reality; He is apart from us in terms of being and above us in terms of power and authority and exaltation. Gavin Ortlund quotes Anselm’s prayer “You, although nothing exists without you, do not exist in a place or time; rather, all things exist in you. For nothing contains you, but you contain all things.” Any relationship between God and creation must be analogical.
Perhaps this is where the misstep began; thinking about how to find in God something that provides us with more ammunition for our gender views. Egalitarians did that with their flattening out of differences between the persons and talk of a ‘divine dance’ (which appears to be a ‘round’ with no principle); and now some complementarians have chosen the same route. I think that is what has made the arguments against women’s ordination seem so irrelevant; because they have shifted away from the clear texts of scripture and have been placed in the nature of the Triune God. That was a fatal move because it was wrong. And I think that this move has set back our argument 50 years.
Better to see the matter in the economy where undoubtedly Christ, in the covenant of redemption (meaning, in eternity of course), and in the decree of God encompassing creation, election and redemption undertook to take into Himself our humanity and take into Himself the form of a servant (Isaiah’s great Servant of the Lord). There He voluntarily placed Himself into a covenant of works relationship with the Father as the second and last Adam and the true and faithful Israel on behalf of God’s elect. In that capacity He bought His human will into alignment with the Divine will (in the economy, the will of the Father) in order that His obedience and blood might be counted to those who believe. Were Christ by nature a Servant (as EFS folks suggest) then the wonder of His condescension is lost; that He who was rich should become poor; that He who was Lord should become servant; that He who gave the law should be made under the law; and that He who had ‘life in Himself’ should give up His life to death for His people. ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.’ Such divine humiliation draws forth from the believer such gratitude and worship at the enormity of the move He made for our salvation.
Mike your post asked ‘should I resign?’ I have to say that I did not have you in mind when I asked the question; but it remains a good question. I asked it when a young man came up for ordination. He was thoroughly orthodox but believed in ordaining woman though he promised not to teach it. Should he be ordained? I believe not and argued that what one believes comes out whether one intends it or not. And if our church believes, as it does so far (and may God be pleased to keep us obedient to that Scripture) that women should not be ordained: then it follows that he should not be ordained to preach in our church (PCA). Well, if that were the case in terms of ordination how much more when dealing with Nicene Christianity. I would say to a person who has taken vows to believe the creed (and the articles of religion), go to your presbytery or bishop and ask whether he/they think you have shifted and then let them decide.
Dr. Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Window on Tomorrow (Christian Focus, 1994), The Fellowship of the King (Carlisle, 2003), The Jesus Gospel (Milton Keynes, 2006), and Joseph—The Hidden Hand of God (Fearn, 2008). Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children (Louise, Ruth, David, Sarah, Andrew) and nine grandchildren.