Letter and Spirit: From Constantinople to the Abstract of Principles

Kyle Claunch has offered some thoughtful reflections on my use of his words in the current Trinitarian debate and indeed on the discussion as a whole.  I will not comment on his post in detail but there is one question which he raises to which I will offer a very brief answer:

Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?

Yes, of course we should.  But is that what we are dealing with in this discussion? 

Certainly, some concepts can be expressed using different words. For example, the conceptual content of the phrase ‘Trueman’s youngest sister’ is also quite accurately expressed by ‘the youngest daughter of Trueman’s parents.’  This is a simple point and does in fact impact the practice of confessional subscription.  Thus, in Presbyterian circles it is not uncommon in ordination exams, when asked if he subscribes to the Westminster Standards, for a ministerial candidate to respond ‘Well, I might not have chosen to express this or that doctrine using quite the same language as the Westminster Assembly; but yes, I do still agree with what the Confession’s words are saying.’

But when you say (as has been said by various theologians referred to in this ongoing debate) that eternal generation is meaningless or is only a point of discussion because the church happened to give it creedal status, or that it is highly speculative and not grounded in scripture; and when you then replace it as an intratrinitarian relation with, say, authority and submission, then I submit that you are not expressing the same concept in different words.  You are replacing one concept with a different one and your language reflects that.  The question at that point is not, first and foremost, the incomprehensibility of God but rather the basic meaningfulness of words and sentences.

Those who opposed inclusive language translations of the Bible on the grounds that some words are not replaceable with others, and those who went through the struggles in Southern Baptist circles about the danger inherent in separating the spirit of the Abstract of Principles from the letter, should be especially wary of  enlisting similar arguments to those of their erstwhile opponents in the service of their own understanding of the ecumenical creeds.


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