The Trinity Wars 2016

So here is what happened. Liam Goligher made some strong charges against some theologians who have argued that, within God’s own being, the Son eternally submits to the Father, and the Spirit eternally submits to the Father and the Son (see here and here). According to Goligher, theologians who make this move have abandoned Nicene orthodoxy, promoted idolatry, and subsumed their doctrine of God under a social agenda by looking to the Trinity as an analogy on which to ground their understanding of men and women (for record, Goligher himself affirms the complementarian view of male headship in the home and in the church). Carl Trueman added his own contribution along similar lines. The two theologians who are probably most in the crosshairs of these charges are Bruce Ware, who responded here, and Wayne Grudem, who responded here. Denny Burk, who shares the Ware/Grudem perspective, also offered these words in response. Carl Trueman has made three brief responses to Ware, to Grudem, and on the question of 1 Corinthians 11:3. If you want to take the time to read all of that, go ahead. I’ll wait.

I have actually thought about this issue a bit in recent months. Here are some observations I have made and proposals I would offer:

(1) All parties to this conversation agree that the Bible teaches male headship in marriage and in the church. All parties have likewise affirmed that our doctrine of male-female must not exercise control over our doctrine of God. Therefore, whatever we say about the Trinity must not be motivated by a desire to have a good analogy for male headship in the context of male-female equality.

(2) All parties likewise agree that the Son is of the same substance (homoousios) with the Father, as affirmed at the Council of Nicea in 325. This means that, whatever the Father is, the Son also is, except for the fact that he is the Son (and the same goes for the Spirit). No one has proposed, but all in fact have explicitly denied, that the Son is in any way less than the Father in being.

(3) Where they part ways is on the question of how you differentiate between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If they are all of the same substance, what is it that makes the Father uniquely Father, the Son uniquely Son, and the Spirit uniquely Spirit? Historically, Nicene orthodoxy has affirmed that the eternal relations of generation and procession distinguish them from one another within God’s own being. The Father is distinguished by the fact that he is unoriginate, meaning he neither is begotten nor proceeds from any other. The Son is distinguished by the property of generation, meaning he is eternally begotten of the Father. And the Spirit is distinguished by the property of procession, meaning he eternally proceeds from the Father (according to the Eastern view) or from the Father and the Son (according to the Western view).

Ware and Grudem have questioned these traditional categories and have argued, instead, that we can distinguish between the Father, Son, and Spirit by their roles of authority and submission. As a former student of Bruce Ware, I know his motive for questioning the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. He doesn’t see them taught in Scripture, and he regards them as presenting problems for the orthodox understanding of equality of being among the Persons. Ironically, Dr. Ware (I can’t speak to Grudem’s motive here, though it may be the same) shies away from the traditional view of Trinitarian relations because he sees it leading in an Arian direction (i.e., an affirmation that the Son is less than the Father). But in fact, it is precisely Ware’s positing of authority/submission as new categories to replace generation/procession that has actually brought the (false) charge of Arianism against himself!

(4) Closely tied to the issue of authority and submission within the Godhead is the issue of how many wills God has. The tradition has long affirmed that God has one will, because there is one divine nature. This would entail, then, that in his incarnate state Christ has two wills, a human will and a divine will. This teaching was affirmed explicitly at the third Council of Constantinople in 681.

However, some have argued that notions of authority and submission within God’s own being imply that God must have more than one will. In order to submit to the Father, for example, the Son must submit his independent will to the will of the Father. This is known as a social model of the Trinity. My understanding is that Wayne Grudem explicitly denies this teaching, but Bruce Ware may be sympathetic to it. So there are even differences within this one perspective.

(5) My own proposal for how to understand these issues is as follows: I affirm the Nicene view of the relations within the Trinity. The Father specifically is the Father because of his unique property of begetting the Son from eternity. The Son is distinguished by the property of begottenness. The Spirit is distinguished by the property of procession from the Father and the Son (I take the Western view here). These relational categories, rightly understood, are the best theological resources we have to affirm the identity of being and distinction of personhood within the Trinity.

I also believe that the term “eternal submission” may not be all that helpful. It doesn’t actually get us to the heart of the issue, which is not whether or not the Son’s submission to the Father is eternal, but rather whether or not we should speak of authority and submission within the immanent Trinity (God in himself, as opposed the economic Trinity, which is God in relation to the world he created). Egalitarians have argued that the submission of the Son to the Father is only for the purpose of the incarnation. Complementarians have responded by saying it is an eternal submission. But I would argue that it is better to speak of authority and submission ad intra (within God himself, apart from creation) and ad extra (to the outside, in relation to creation).

In light of these categories, I think we definitely must say more than egalitarians have generally said, which is that Christ submitted himself to the Father for the purpose of the incarnation. It’s more than that. We are on more solid ground biblically if we speak of the submission of the Son to the Father within the covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption is a covenant within the Trinity, an agreement between Father, Son, and Spirit that encompasses the entire plan (of which the incarnation is the centerpiece) of our redemption. It is an “eternal” covenant in that it was enacted before time, and yet we cannot speak of it as being an essential component of God’s being. God might have chosen never to plan it that way. Therefore, properly speaking, we may affirm that the Son submits to the Father in the context of the covenant of redemption, and that this submission is eternal, but it is still ad extra as opposed to ad intra. However, the submission of the Son to the Father in the covenant of redemption (along with the submission of the Spirit to the Son and the Father) is not an arbitrary decision that might just as well have gone otherwise, as though the Son might just as well have sent the Father to become incarnate. It is, rather, based on the eternal relations within God. That is to say, the Son submits to the Father in the covenant of redemption precisely because he is begotten of the Father from eternity. There is a fitting correspondence, or analogy, between God ad intra  and God ad extra that is manifested in the categories of authority and submission ad extra, but we do not necessarily have any firm basis to affirm that those categories apply in the same way ad intra. Is there authority and submission within God’s own being, apart from the covenant of redemption? I don’t think the Scripture reveals that to us, so I feel no need to speculate on that question. There is definitely an order within God’s own being, and that order is manifested in the economy of salvation in terms of authority and submission, but that does not mean we must necessarily read those categories back into God ad intra. I would submit that these categories are much more theologically fruitful than a mere reference to “eternal submission,” which may not actually get us very far theologically.

I furthermore believe, in line with the tradition, that God has one will. As Kyle Claunch has argued, “It is preferable to say that, in the immanent Trinity, the one eternal will of God is so ordered that it finds analogical expression in a created relationship of authority and submission: the incarnate Son submits to the will of his Father” (“God Is the Head of Christ: 1 Corinthians 11:3,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce A. Ware and John Starke [Wheaton: Crossway, 2015], 91).

I really wish Goligher and Trueman would have been more measured in their critiques and less eager to pull the trigger on what seems to amount to heresy charges against their brothers. But I am thankful that these issues have been raised, and I hope that the conversation will lead to greater clarity in evangelical formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity.


3 thoughts on “The Trinity Wars 2016

  1. I agree with your distinction that within the Eternal Covenant of Redemption, the Son submits to the Father. This was consummated by His incarnation and human life of perfect obedience/submission, even to death on the cross. I am weary of people assuming the worse of other Christians who are honestly working out their understanding within the pale of orthodoxy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was wondering if you were going to comment on this.

    This post made me look back at our emails from last year when we discussed this. I knew we’d covered this ground before, but I’d forgotten the details. I believe what you’ve written above is the best understanding of the issue.

    What I’d love to see is people moving beyond this and considering how, without being afraid of slipping into the social trinity, the relationships of the Trinity speak to his image bearers – both individually and as a human family. The fear Trueman et al seem to project is that the doctrine of the Trinity will be contaminated by such attempts. To me, it’s the contrary. Human relationships will be enhanced by an understanding of the perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You think saying the above is the best understanding of the issue is too strong?

    I would totally agree that critique would strengthen it and possibly even disprove it! But I think introducing the covenant of redemption opens up all sorts of helpful angles. Let me lessen it to, “I like it.”

    Liked by 1 person

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