The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.3

In the last two posts I spent time showing that 1) Grudem and Ware's understanding of an authoritative hierarchy that is inherent in the Trinity are NOT in the creeds or the early church fathers. Their position is not the orthodox position. 2) I went into detail on why thier position is at best incoherent. It is not ok to hold to an incoherent position. Not understanding every detail about the mystery that is the Trinity is one thing, a lack of logical cohesion fails an important standard of truth.

Now, having briefly overviewed the particular way Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware conceive of eternal differences within the Trinity, it is time to consider some of the view’s more serious problems. My basic claim is that Although Grudem and Ware intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position. Basically, if we were to assume Grudem and Ware's position was not incoherent or illogical what would we have?

A Partative God?

It is difficult for Ware and Grudem to continue consistently affirming the doctrine of divine simplicity given the way they articulate the Son’s subordination to the Father. Linked to this problem is a key obstacle alluded to earlier, which is the appearance of what seems like two essences arising from the content of what they claim. Their difficulty comes in trying to maintain only one divine essence even though they also have what are called mere personal relations but function like personal essences. How does this problem lead to difficulty maintaining divine simplicity?  Consider the following detailed definition of the Doctrine of the Divine Simplicity:

According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter-form composition, potency-act composition, and existence-essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes. God is thus in a sense requiring clarification identical to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. God is omniscient, then, not in virtue of instantiating or exemplifying omniscience — which would imply a real distinction between God and the property of omniscience — but by being omniscience. And the same holds for each of the divine omni-attributes: God is what he has as Augustine puts it in The City of God, XI, 10. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS)... The simple God, we could say, differs in his very ontology from any and all created beings.[1]

God cannot be conceived of in parts. This means the Holy Spirit does not make up part of God nor does God hold various attributes in such a way that one member of the Trinity exemplifying something like omnipotence more fully than another.[2] God is such that what he has, he is. “Divine simplicity affirms not that God has a nature but that God is his essential nature.”[3] Augustine explains, “whatever is authentically and truly divine is said to be simple because its qualities and its substance are one and the same, and because it is not by participation that it is divine, or wise or holy.”[4]

Ware affirms there is one undivided divine nature, but undermines his statements to that effect with how he conceives of trintiarain distinction. In describing the authority-submission relationships among the members of the Trinity in the context of the future subjugation of the Son to the Father in 1 Corinthians 15:28, quoting Colin Gunton approvingly Ware explains:

[I Corinthians 15:28] has “implications for what we may say about the being of God eternally, and would seem to suggest a subordination of taxis—of ordering within the divine life—but not one of deity or regard. It is truly divine to be the obedient self-giving Son as it is to be the Father who sends and the Spirit who renews and perfects”…it is in the nature of God both to exert authority and to obey in submission. And since this is the eternal nature of God, we may know that it is beautiful and it is good, and because of this, we are prompted to marvel a bit more at the glory that is our Triune God.[5]

What is meant by the idea that distinctions within the Trinity have implications for the “being of God” or “God’s nature?” If one were to talk about the being of God—the Godhead, then one is referring to what he is—his divine essence because God is indeed identical to his nature. When Ware says that he is going to talk about the nature of God and that to submit is divine and to exercise authority is divine he is communicating this characterizes the divine essence. Unfortunately, he has also already made it clear that these are only supposed to be personal properties—because they apparently cannot be anything else. Despite intentions to the contrary, we end up with a view that is articulated in such a way that God has one essence that is composed of parts since God’s very nature is to be both submissive and authoritative when only the Father is characterized by supreme-authority otherwise he would not be the Father and only the Son is characterized by submission…etc. Or, that elusive second essence is again looming in the background. Perhaps the reason for the language of “God’s being” being used when speaking of the personal distinctions is that conceptually the category of essence is simply that difficult to avoid in the way Ware conceives of difference.

Compounding the entire difficulty with divine simplicity is again how Ware and Grudem hold to omnipotence. They want to say, “each person of the Trinity has all the attributes of God, and no one person has any attributes that are not possessed by the others,”[6] but they articulate their position on subordination using ontology language that the Father by virtue of being the Father essentially and necessarily exercises authority over the Son and that the Son could not have authority over the Father. Why could not all members of the Trinity be equally omnipotent in Grudem and Ware’s system? Lewis Ayres gives an explanation of how other words such as rule and power were used in pro-Nicene theology in order to convey God’s nature and essence:

It is fundamental to all pro‐Nicene theologies that God is one power, glory, majesty, rule, Godhead essence, and nature. In summaries of pro‐Nicene Trinitarian theology found across the Mediterranean, and in countless asides in the course of exposition and polemical argument, the assertion that God is a unity in these respects is universal. Summary accounts of pro‐Nicene theology tend to focus on identifiably philosophical terms such as ousia, φύσις, natura, and essentia. It is, however, important to note that pro‐Nicenes use many other terms for the divine unity, drawn from a variety of (often scriptural) sources, whose metaphysical senses modern readers tend to miss. Thus, for example, terms such as ‘light’, ‘power’, and ‘glory’ should not be read as ‘merely metaphorical’…we should also add the terms carrying both philosophical and legal histories of usage: Damasus of Rome and Gregory Nazianzen, for example, both use terminology expressing the one rule and authority in the Godhead.[7]

In other words, one cannot just say the Father is necessarily and always the one with supreme authority because he is distinctly the Father. That is conveying that he is the one who is all-powerful and the Son is not. This is because the Son’s authority is limited—meaning he is not able to do something because he is constrained by his authority relationship with the Father, which itself is part of his very nature.[8] The Father ends up having a divine attribute entirely or to a greater degree than all other members of the Trinity so that he has a piece of the divine essence, and the Son and Spirit another. Or they all share a nebulous divinity essence and another personal essence that makes each person a particular divine substance. This latter option will now be explored in more detail.

Arianism or Tritheism? 

Thus far it has become more than clear that Ware and Grudem’s position is at best incoherent. Unfortunately, this incoherence has allowed for a plethora of statements that entail theologies that are less than orthodox. This is a serious problem(s) and not one that can just be retracted because Ware and Grudem assert their beliefs are not heretical. They want to defend against the erosion of traditional values, but at what cost? Whether preferable or not, the eternal subordination of the Son entails a different essence between the members of the Trinity in the form of what amounts to either the Son not being homoousion with the Father or a slip into tritheism with two essences: personal and divine.

 Much of Grudem and Ware’s efforts have been to distance themselves from Arianism. However, McCall has shown they do in fact end up with a Son who is subordinate in essence rather than merely function. This means that if they decide to continue referring to only one essence, then the Son is subordinate since “if we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God.”[9] Following McCall’s argument, they end up with a version of Arianism that does not believe the Son is merely a divine creature, but still has a different divine essence and is hierarchically ordered with   

eternal functional subordination as its corollary.[10]  

On the other hand, it is perhaps more helpful to take their articulation of the authority-submission relationship as conveying two entirely different essences: one essence that gives them divinity and another personal essence. At times it seems they are confident that if they just hold to a generic divine essence then each person of the Trinity will be equally divine, but they do not believe the divine essence can only be generic. For example, Ware states: “Their equality then, is not merely an equality of kind but an equality of identity. There is no stronger basis for equality than this.”[11]  However, it is still difficult to see how they actually can avoid tritheism by implication of the other things talked about where they end up describing two essences for each member of the Trinity if not one that ends up with Arianism any way. If they each have distinct personal essences then this means there are three individuals, each with their own will and centers of consciousness. This is a difficulty even partially recognized in the new book Ware edited: One God in Three Persons. Kyle Clauch explains, “in order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills” something one must avoid in order to not be “counter to the pro-Nicene tradition.”[12] Given how Ware and Grudem describe personal distinctions, they are not able to have a divinity in that it only exists within the triune persons. That is, there is a universal nature they all share, but they are separate divinities by virtue of their distinct personal essences. In sum, neither Grudem nor Ware are trinitarian heretics, but the content of what they argue strongly seems to entails such.

 Does one have to base eternal Trinitarian distinctions in authority-submission? Is there a better option? Perhaps we can avoid the problems that come with making subordination and hierarchy within the immanent Trinity something that is true in all possible worlds and say something like: “The Son will always submit to the Father in his role as representative of his creatures because in the order of origination he is the one generated. The one who is generated is always sent to bring about the glorification (or theosis) of creation. The glorification of creation involves creaturely submission to God.” Unlike authority-subordination relationships, origination relationships coinhere. They are an “intrinsically mutual movement of loving self-communication.”[13] Yes, there is a logical cause order or sequence, but not an order of authority and so one dos not run into the same problems with omnipotence talked about previously. If one wants to press the potential problems for degrees of deity with the monarche of the Father, one only needs to consider a more ecumenically arrived at option agreed upon even by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches:

All fourteen Orthodox patriarchs in the Pan-Orthodox Communion attended the meeting ratifying the “Joint Statement of the Official Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches,” issued on March 13, 1991. It announced that an “agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity” had been reached. They concluded that the monarchy is the divine triune being of God, not the person of the Father.[14]

In this ecumenical form of origination the Father is not the only source of the Son. Instead, “the Son is eternally begotten of the being of the Father and the Spirit proceeds ‘from the Father through the Son.’”[15] The divine nature flows from the father to the Son, but the divine nature is no longer considered exclusively the person of the Father’s passed down as the divine life meaning he is no longer the ultimate source of divinity.

Obstacles

Since the eternal subordination of the Son as articulated by Grudem and Ware has tremendous problems with coherence and entailments of various forms of heterodoxy (depending on how one interprets the actual content of what they say), why does this form of the view persist? Why not ground the submission of the Son in his origination and/or role as the incarnation? Why not ground trinitarian distinction in something else—even if one ends up deciding there are immanent distinctions but we are not yet entirely privy to what they are? I suspect there are other strong intuitions at work. It is not a great mystery that Grudem and Ware are preoccupied with defending their views on gender and that their conception of gender role relations looks suspiciously like the view of the Trinity they are championing.[16] At the same time there appears to be a certain kind of interpretation of the biblical data at work enabling their connection between the Son’s subordination in the economic and the immanent Trinity, but also a connection between the authority-submission relationships they perceive as part of gender distinctions and the authority-submission relationships in perceived in the Trinity. Seeing these connections more clearly will allow us to make more informed decisions when reading their biblical cases for hierarchy in the Trinity, the practical exercise of which is beyond the scope of this paper. At the very least, I hope to establish there is an improper connection being made between gender relations and the Trinity.

 

[1] Vallicella, William F., "Divine Simplicity", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/divine-simplicity/.

[2] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 45.

[3] K. Scott Oliphint, “Simplicity, Triunity, and the Incomprehensibility of God” in One God in Three Persons eds., Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 216.

[4] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Grace Monahan, (O.S.U) 11:10.

[5] Ware, Father Son and Holy Spirit, 85.

[6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 253. Cf., 252.

[7] Lewis Ayres, Nicea and its Legacy; An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 279-280.

[8] And he is not constrained in such a way that is merely by covenant agreement for the sake of salvation.

[9] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251.

[10] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2006), 133.

[11] Bruce Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism?, 14.

[12] Kyle Claunch, “God is the Head of Christ” in One God in Three Persons, 88.

[13] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (NY: T&T Clark, 1996), 133.

[14] Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 243.

[15] Ibid., 242.

[16] Wayne Grudem is the one who started the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987 in direct response to the emergence of Christians for Biblical Equality. In 1986 he had convinced members from the Evangelical Theological Society to join his efforts in creating a new organization “dedicated to upholding both equality and difference between men and women in marriage and the church.” He was also encouraged into his 37 (then 30) years of writing on gender by George Knight credited as the one who started “complementarianism” by legitimizing the equality in essence with subordination in role for women by an appeal to the Trinity. Wayne Grudem, “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate” JBMW, 14.1. Some of the many works he has contributed to include: Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, and countless articles. Bruce Ware has contributed to Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, One God in Three Persons both in which he connects those disagreeing with his view on gender to be generally allergic or resistant to authority period. He has done countless interviews and articles on gender, and served with JBMW