"Christ Became Poor:" Preexistence, Poverty, and the Patristic Reception of 2 Cor 8:9

"The question concerning the identity and divinity of Christ is one born and raised in controversy."[1] Much of this ancient and modern debate centers on the variants of 'low' and 'high' Christology and subsequently most modern commentators have centered their attention on Pauline texts such as Phil 2:5-11, 1 Cor 8:4-6, 15:20-28 and Col 1:15-20[2]—among others.[3] Although modern New Testament scholars have also pursued understanding ancient economics and poverty in relation to Paul's thought,[4] the terrain is ripe for integrative theological reflection on reception history in light of both his Christology and ancient conceptions of poverty. The goal of this essay is simple: to assess the patristic reception of an often-overlooked Pauline text (2 Cor 8:9) with intent to synthesize a modern reading informed by earliest Christianity.[5] To accomplish this, I will begin by briefly surveying modern scholarly opinion on 2 Cor 8:9, and then I will provide an additional survey of the economic topography that modern scholarship has unearthed in relation to Paul's own theology before evaluating the reception history of Paul. As I will show, the patristic consensus of 2 Cor 8:9 is fertile ground for modern interests in merging ancient poverty and Pauline Christology into a coherent theological worldview.[6]

1. Incarnation or Not?: Modern Scholarship on 2 Cor 8:9

In recent New Testament scholarship, a debate has emerged concerning this specific text, and whether or not Paul is alluding to the incarnation of the Son. A well-known representative of a 'non-incarnation' reading of 2 Cor 8:9 is James Dunn. He believes that "the most obvious way to take 2 Cor. 8:9 is as a vivid allusion to the tremendous personal cost of Jesus' ministry and particularly the willing sacrifice of his death."[7] Hence, for Dunn, Paul is about the historical life of Jesus as opposed to Jesus' forsaking divine rights in a preexistent state of equality with God the Father. Calvin J. Roetzel also seems reticent to affirm a form of preexistence in 2 Cor 8:9, as he thinks the relationship between Phil 2:6-11 and 2 Cor 8:9 are "faint."[8] He does affirm preexistence in the Philippians text but seems to object to a similar reading in the text under discussion. He offers several reasons why, including a lack of commentary on the exaltation of Christ to the Father, and also a lack of Christ becoming 'poor' in Phil 2:5-11.[9] Similarly, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor states, "such a meaning [incarnation of 2 Cor 8:9], however, has no basis either in Paul's theological perspective or in the immediate context."[10] For Murphy-O'Connor, the text under question refers to "the radical impoverishment" of Christ as human.[11] Christ, in essence, is the ideal human being for this view, and thus the incarnation is placed outside the scope of interpretive options. There are objections to these arguments. For instance, the phrasing of Phil 2:7a (ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών) appears to contradict Roetzel's claim, as slaves in the ancient world were not known for being wealthy. Indeed, wealth itself was restricted to the elites.[12] Also, Paul's referring to Christ as becoming a δούλου emphasizes in a holistic way the poverty he was "born" (2:8a: γενόμενος) into. The exchange of status symbols thus makes Roetzal's claim highly unlikely.[13] Also, Murphy-O'Connor relies too much on equating "image of God" and "form of God," an exegetical fallacy that has been persuasively challenged.[14] Despite their well-constructed arguments, Dunn and Murphy-O'Connor appear to be within the minority of New Testament exegetes. Most modern commentators[15] on the Greek New Testament have pushed back against this thesis, and Margaret Thrall is the best representative. She states that the "traditional interpretation [i.e. the preexistence son becoming poor through the incarnation] of the verse is preferable to the other possibilities suggested,"[16] and Dunn's 'non-incarnational' option is indeed excluded by her critique. Thrall concludes:

[Christ's] self-impoverishment in the whole event of incarnation was for the spiritual enrichment of believers. We have the same principle of interchange as in [2 Cor] 5:21. The riches are not further defined, and are probably to be understood in a comprehensive sense as all the blessings of eschatological salvation.[17]

In summation, the incarnational reading of 2 Cor 8:9 appears to be the preferable option amongst modern exegetes, illustrating continuity with the history of interpretation, especially as we now consider the socio-economic context of the ancient world.

2. The Economic Landscape of the Ancient World

The economic terrain of the Greco-Roman world was largely contingent upon who controlled what. Walter Scheidel and Steven Friesen have demonstrated "that the vast majority of the population lived close to subsistence but cumulatively generated more than half of overall output [of wheat]."[18] As the Roman Empire was the largest force in the ancient during the time of the New Testament, it stands to reason that this economy affected the majority of early patristic sources, at least implicitly if not explicitly as we shall see. Juvenal writes, "most people who lived in Rome could not afford to own a house and therefore lived in rooms or apartments that they might own or rent" (Satires 3.193-202).[19] An economic elitism seems to lie at the heart of the ancient Roman economy,[20] with a majority of the population living at or beneath the level of subsistence:[21] this also includes Paul and a vast majority of first-century Christians.[22] When we talk about poverty, then, we are not talking about merely symbols of status, but of actual life and death.[23] The issue of poverty as a self-imposed state in "Late Antiquity and early Byzantium" is also reflected in the literature, [24] which is a concept that will be explored later. For instance, Schachner writes concerning this period, "Chosen poverty was an ideal to follow one's quest for spirituality and eternal salvation."[25] Thus, when patristic writers interpret Paul's epistles, they are indebted to their socio-economic context, and this comes out quite clearly in their reception of 2 Cor 8:9. The scope of poverty is nearly universal and concentrated. The self-impoverishment of the Son of God will now be examined through the lens of Paul's earliest recorded interpreters.[26]

3. Impoverishment and the Son of God: The Patristic Reception of 2 Cor 8:9

The majority of allusions or direct citations of 2 Cor 8:9 come from a later period, as the literature from the Apostolic Fathers does not appear to contain any direct reference to the text in question.[27] The records of the early Apostolic Fathers are silent regarding any citing or alluding to this text as far as can been seen, although there are deep echoes of the Trinity therein.[28] The majority of references recorded are in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. We begin with Gregory Thaumaturgus.

For the rest of my paper, enjoy it here.

NQ

[1] Chris Tilling, Paul's Divine Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 1.

[2] For a reframing of several of these texts, see Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[3] For a fascinating exploration of Paul's divine Christology that does not focus on the standard biblical texts, see Tilling, Paul's Divine Christology.

[4] C.f. Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), Justin J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) and David J. Downs, The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul's Collection for Jerusalem in its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[5] For an excellent and expansive treatment of Pauline soteriology through a patristic lens, see Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). The scope of my proposal is far more modest, although my intent is similar. 

[6] The totality of Patristic evidence on this verse cannot be displayed. I have limited myself to key representatives and interpretations that appear to be consistent, revealing an interpretive thread that links all of these sources together.

[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 292. It must be said that this 'non-incarnational' view may not represent Dunn's personal view, only his view on what Paul said and believed.

[8] Calvin J. Roetzel, 2 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 46.

[9] Roetzel, 2 Corinthians, 46.

[10] Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Theology of the Second Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 83.

[11] Murphy-O'Connor, Theology, 83.

[12] C.f. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival, 99

[13] It also may be said that the human life of utter impoverishment of Christ (the emphasis pressed by both Dunn and Murphy-O'Connor) does not necessarily rule out his incarnation. Indeed, contra Murphy-O'Connor (pp.83-84), it highlights the 'emptying' of the Son, who forgoes his divine status on behalf of those who are indeed impoverished. Murphy-O'Connor has missed the entire point of ancient theories of economics and status, and how this plays in Christ's self-abandonment of his status.

[14] See D. Steenburg, "The Case against the Synonymity of Morphē and Eikōn," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (1998): 77-86; Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 121-122.

[15] C.f. Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 215-217; Raymond C. Collins, Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 171-172; George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 406; Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 578-579; Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians (Vol. 40: Waco: Word Books, 1986), 263-264; Mark A. Seifrid, The Second Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 330.

[16] Margaret E. Thrall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 534.

[17] Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 534.

[18] Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire," Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61-91, 62-63.

[19] Reference found in Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 63.

[20] This appears to be the case in Corinth during Paul's time. The social context of the Corinthians should be contrasted by their "pride in their economic status," per Hans Deiter Betz, 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 63.

[21] Longenecker, Remember the Poor, 45.

[22] See specifically Steven J. Friesen's table (1.3) in his article "Injustice or God's Will?:" Early Christian Explanations of Poverty" in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (ed. Susan R. Holman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 17-36, 29. Paul's placement in Friesen's "poverty scale" (PS) in section 6 appears to best explain the data in the New Testament.

[23] See the documentation in Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival, 53-57.

[24] Lukas Amadeus Schachner, "Social Life in Late Antiquity: A Bibliographic Essay" in Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity (Edited by William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado. Volume 3.1. Boston: Leiden. 2006), 48-50, 48.

[25] Schachner, "Social Life," 48.

[26] All of the sources I cite occur, most probably, before the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. The relevance of these sources is they are by prominent members of the early Christian community.   

[27] The text consulted was Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English. Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).

[28] C.f. Stephen M. Hildebrand, "The Trinity in the Ante-Nicene Fathers" in The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (ed. Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 95-107.

Humbleness is next to Christlikeness

In thinking about ministry (not that I want to be a pastor, but I'm keeping my options open), I've had a chance to listen to a lot of podcasts and sermons, most of which I enjoy. I was there for the 'fall' of Mark Driscoll, for example. I've seen pastors fall from grace constantly, and most of these 'falls' seem to reflect a growing unease with power. As someone who was raised in the church, fell away for a few years, and then came back a time later, it is quite clear to me that humbleness is not a virtue many take seriously. I hate typing that, and I doubt it applies to you, but it is enough of a problem to warrant a short post.

My father, for instance, is quite humble. He worked in ministry and ended up being burned quite badly, and in hindsight, humbleness was not a virtue that was exercised by those who fired him. More could be said, but being an insider lets one see all of the foibles and warts and narcissistic elements of humanity featured inside church walls. A worship pastor wants to be a lead pastor, a youth group director wants to leave because he or she thinks they know better, and so on an so forth. We've all seen this, and if you haven't count yourself blessed.

So, when I was thinking about pastoral ministry and how the local church functions in a community, I came across a text in James—leave it to James to drop a truth bomb on my lap. James 4:10 reads: ταπεινώθητε ἐνώπιον κυρίου, καὶ ὑψώσει ὑμᾶς: "humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exact you." In the Synoptic Gospels, the verb appears often with the pronoun ἑαυτὸν ("himself," "herself," etc). In Matthew 18:4, Jesus tells his listeners to "humble themselves" (ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν) as this child. A child, of course, is not humble in the sense we think; rather a child is not set in his or her ways, and is open and is not concretized as a recalcitrant sinner.  Matthew 23:12 is quite similar in its parallelism: ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται: "therefore whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted" (see also the Lukan parallel in 14:11 and in 18:14). Luke 3:5 speaks of the mountains and hills being "brought low."

Paul may have echoed this sentiment in 2 Corinthians 11:7 when he talks about humbling himself (ἐμαυτὸν) so that the Corinthians might be exalted. Of course, Paul is being a bit of a pillock there, as is his custom. In 2 Corinthians 12:21, Paul speaks of God ταπεινώσῃ him ("humbling").

In the famous so-called "Christ-Hymn" in Philippians 2, Paul speaks of the preexistent Christ "humbling" himself (ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν) by becoming obedient to death, and Paul himself knows how to be humbled (ταπεινοῦσθαι) in Philippians 4:12. Finally, the author of 1 Peter tells his readers to "humble yourselves" (Ταπεινώθητε). Throughout the New Testament, the verb ταπεινόω (tapeinoō) is used to refer to "humbleness" or "being brought low" and so on. I am reminded of several things.

First, humbleness does not come naturally to me. When I am lectured by someone who I know does not know as much as I do, I tend to puff out my chest and tilt my hat forward and attempt to put that person in his place. Usually, that only happens once in a while, but it is something I should work on.

Second, being humble requires a special move of the Holy Spirit and one's theological community. If one is acting in a self-righteous way, call them out kindly. It's for their benefit, and your community's benefit as well.

Third, you can actually humble yourself. Scripture says you can, so you should. I can humble myself, you can humble yourself, and we can all humble ourselves. Just make sure we give credit to God for the grace given to us.

I end this little post with a comment by John Wesley: "mock humility which teacheth us to say, in excuse for our willful disobedience, 'Oh, I can do nothing,' and stops there, without once naming the grace of God" (Outler, Sermons, 3:208).

NQ

The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.2

For part one of Allison's series, click here.

Earlier it became evident that although Grudem and Ware appeal to the creeds and early church fathers as though they proclaimed Ware and Grudem's view of authority relations within the Trinity, they don't in actuality. Grudem and Ware's position is far from the orthodox position. Nowhere in their citations of either Augustine or the creed is there an explicit connection made for the sending or originating relationship being an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is at best an implication that Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, though they appear not to be saying this is an implication (which is never worked out), but a direct communication of the idea in Augustine and the Creed.  However, the actual position of the early church, differing origination (the mere language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to), is not actually held by either of them. They hold to a different view.

In sum, we saw that they were lacking clear reasoning for why “sending” had to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.

Problems

 Having briefly over viewed 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 as follows: 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.

Incoherence

The eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father should be rejected because, as it is currently expressed, it is incoherent. That is, there is a lack of cohesion in Grudem and Ware’s argument between the Son being eternally subordinate to the Father and trinitarian orthodoxy. I suspect they simply want to have it both ways yet are unable to provide an argument allowing for both. Worse yet, they do not seem cognizant of it. This is more than evident in the written back and forth between Ware and Thomas McCall.

In Which Trinity? Whose Montheism? McCall takes one chapter to critique eternal functional subordination.[1] Specifically, he wants to critique those who would make eternal functional subordination what God is ad intra. McCall allows for positions that teach the Son is always subordinate in his work in redemption as the incarnation in this possible world, indicating subordination itself is not what functions as the eternal distinguisher within the Trinity. McCall brings in the question of whether the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds in order to tease out the nature of the Son’s subordination. If one answers that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds, this means it is an essential property of the Son since it is necessary to the inner life of God and not just something that happens in relation to creation. If subordination ends up being something that is an essential property then it means there is something essentially different between the Father, Son and Spirit meaning they have difference essences.

How can Grudem or Ware get distinction within the Trinity if distinction must be necessary and yet not compromise the divine essence? If McCall is right they end up with a personal essence and generic essence of “kind” (i.e. divine) so that each trinitarian person has his own personal essence but also shares a divine essence with the others.[2] Whether or not they opt for having a second essence, their options from here are to base the personal essences in “origination relationship” (also known in terms of “generation” and “spiration”) or functional personal essences (i.e. having authority over). Since the latter (they do not subscribe to the former), they have articulated a Son who is in personal essence subordinate to the Father because of the argument summarized in the last paragraph necessitates that they are indeed speaking of essence or ontology whether or not they want to say the word “essence.”[3] According to Grudem, admitting the Son is not of the same essence as the Father is not an option because “If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God.”[4] Of course, this statement of Grudem’s does not anticipate a member of the Trinity with two essences! Grudem is trying to protect his view against Arianism rather than tritheism and so the risk stemming from two essences is entirely missed. McCall ends his critique wondering, “How someone might coherently affirm both homoousios and Hard EFS is far from obvious, and to say that such a position is internally strained is to put it rather mildly.”[5] How will Grudem and Ware reveal that they actually can coherently affirm homoousios and keep the authority-submission relationship?

Ware has recently given a direct response to McCall in the last chapter of One God in Three Persons. Still thinking in terms of there being only one essence in each divine person, he immediately defends against the notion that his view entails a denial of the homoousios. His first defense is simply to claim that if he has fallen into this error, then Athanasius and the Nicene fathers have too because they believe the essential personal distinguisher is being “begotten” and the conditions for this distinguisher are the same as subordination. They are both necessary personal properties and so if Ware’s position entails a denial of homoousios then so does Nicene orthodoxy.[6] Of course, he is not escaping from McCall’s argument; he is merely attaching his position to Nicene orthodoxy as a sort of theological trump card so that he cannot fail despite what is logically entailed by each stage of acceptance.[7]

If considered from the vantage point of one shared divine essence, submission-authority relationships already have by their very makeup a key difference from origination differences. Rather than being “strongly internally-related properties,” Ware and Grudem’s position has what amounts to a difference in omnipotence. [8]   McCall refers specifically to the Father being unable to do an action that is logically and morally possible such as becoming incarnate. It should be further noted that there is a difference in power-relationships between members of the Trinity in such a way that does not merely remain functional as much as Grudem and Ware would like it to.

Ware’s next rebuttal unfortunately only amounts to asserting that he is talking about “a property of the person of the Son, not a property of the essence or nature which the Son shares fully with the Father and the Spirit” and he is not referring to an attribute.[9] He does not seem to realize that McCall is claiming Ware’s understanding entails that he is actually talking about essence or nature ending in a different essence between the Son and the Father—Ware has to argue otherwise.[10] Ware is in a position where he can decide to posit two natures for each person of the Trinity or, say there is only one divine nature demonstrating how the Son can have the necessary subordinate personal property without it being essential and without it becoming a different essence from the Father. Instead, Ware gets angry with McCall for not providing this “solution” that it is really a personal property and insinuates McCall is trying to be deceptive when instead Ware has gravely misunderstood the force of McCall’s objection.[11]

Lastly, Ware accuses McCall of getting confused between adjectives and nouns. Ware clarifies he is talking about something “essential” not “essence.”[12] Of course, earlier he had also claimed:

Clearly, the distinction of persons requires that there are distinguishing properties of each person as opposed to being merely contingent or accidental, are true of them in every possible world, are held with a de re kind of necessity, and hence are essential to the distinctive personhood of each Trinitarian person.[13]

If he had followed McCall’s argument he would have realized that by reasserting that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds he was committing himself to subordination being necessarily and if subordination is a necessary property (de re), then he has this essentially, and if the Son has this essentially and the Father does not then he is of a difference essence than the Father. “Thus, the Son is heteroousios rather than homoousios.”[14] There is no confusion of terms in McCall’s work, just a progression of argument that Ware does not follow or answer for. Instead, his attempt at a defense amounts to saying other people are also guilty and crossly re-asserting his position again.

There is a final point of incoherence that is unresolved in Grudem and Ware’s trinitarian theology. Since their theology necessitates a difference that is hierarchically based, the Holy Spirit serves as a disruption to their all-encompassing categories of authority and submission. [15] In their scheme, the Father is no longer the Father if he is not in authority and the Son is not the Son if he is not subordinate to the Father and the Spirit it similarly not the Spirit if he is not subordinate to both the Father and the Son in the economy and for all eternity. Grudem explains:

So we may say that the role of the Father in creation and redemption has been to plan and direct and send the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is not surprising, for it shows that the Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and son relate to one another in a human family: the father directs and has authority over the son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son...These roles could not have been reversed or the Father would have ceased to be the Father and the Son would have ceased to be the Son. And by analogy from that relationship, we may conclude that the role of the Holy Spirit is similarly one that was appropriate to the relationship he had with the Father and the Son before the world was created.[16]

Similarly, Ware states:

This view holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons…the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[17]

The Holy Spirit’s distinctiveness is construed as doubly subordinate, just as a child is submissive to both her father and mother. The Spirit’s role, like the Father and Son is an eternal one perceived in the economy. The authority-submission relationship cannot be otherwise because it would mean that what makes each distinct is actually interchangeable. Curiously, Ware breaks these absolute categories he and Grudem have built up in admitting that in the biblical testimony the Son submits to the Holy Spirit. Uh oh.

Even though the Spirit is given authority over the incarnate Son, so that the Son follows the lead of the Spirit and performs his miracles in the power of the Spirit, nevertheless the Spirit knows that this authority is not permanent. And he knows that this authority is not over the eternal Son of the Father, but only over the Son incarnate.[18]

Rather than perceiving this move of the Holy Spirit as undermining his absolute authority-based understanding of trinitarian distinctions, Ware decides this is a special instance that only applies to the Spirit’s authority over Jesus’s humanity. Of course, he is not willing to allow this in the case of the Father exercising authority over Jesus, because such would undermine what makes each of the trinitarian persons distinct. This is inconsistent and instead of trying provide resolution, Ware arrives at an unusual practical lesson of not being bitter when one’s delegated authority comes to an end and for women to be happy working behind the scenes at church.[19] However, if the Holy Spirit serves as an exception to authority-submission relationships, then this is not an absolute distinction and the door is open for other possibilities. In sum, the Holy Spirit’s authority over the Son when he should be always submissive to the Son (lest he cease to be the Holy Spirit) derails their entire, mostly binary project.

Next time we will look more closely into potential entailments of Grudem and Ware's views. I say "potential" because on the whole their view appears incoherent. The point is that if it is not incoherent and thus should not be dismissed outright, depending on the direction they take we are left with some disturbing options. Do we end up with a partative God (the Holy Spirit is part of God, the Son another part...etc not the Holy Spirit is wholly God...etc) which threatens divine simplicity? Do we have a form of tritheism (one divinity composed of 3 distinct gods or individuals each with separate domains) or Arianism (Jesus is not truly "God" in the way we understand God, he is a lesser god with a different essence) entailed?

--AQ

 

[1] Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.,: Eerdmans, 2010), 175-188.

[2] Ibid., 95-97, 180, 201-202.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251.

[5]McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,188.

[6] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 241.

[7] In the backdrop is the problem of having two essences: a divine and a personal one. Does this entail heterodoxy? However, McCall and Ware are still assuming one essence is being discussed.

[8] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,180, 182.

[9] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 243.

[10] Ware does something similar in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 79. When describing the authority-submission relationship between the Father and Son he recognizes he cannot (or rather should not) be describing essence or nature so he simply asserts, “Since this priority cannot rightly be understood in terms of essence or nature (lest one fall into Arian subordinationism), it must be understood in terms of relationship.” Rather than get upset over other theologians, philosophers and historians saying his view entails Arianism, it behoves Ware to actually demonstrate why his view does not end up describing a difference in essence and with it Arianism rather than offering complaints. 

[11] Ware, One God in Three Persons., 243-244.

[12] Ibid., 246-247.

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,179-180.

[15] Although there is not enough evidence compiled in her short book on the destabilizing impact of the Holy Spirit on theology, Sarah Coakley’s at least provides a starting point for further research into this tendency. Cf. God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 249-250.

[17] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 237-238.

[18] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 128.

[19] Ibid., 129-130.

 

The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.1

 Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Using the Trinity to promote a social agenda is nothing new and often it seems there are more than enough ideologies to go around. If only we could all see the connection and enact whatever implication being promoted, then our society, government, church or family would be better off. It is not unusual to hear of appeals to the Father and Son relationship as a template for homosexual relationships[1] nor is it unexpected to hear the doctrine of the Trinity is being used to promote a particular type of egalitarian society within the church or at large, as is the case with Jürgen Moltmann.[2] In commenting on this broader tendency to use the Trinity to promote a social agenda Keith Johnson satirically remarks:

But why not argue that the threeness of God constitutes the blueprint for governmental structures with three “equal” yet “distinct” branches of authority: an executive branch (corresponding to the Father), a legislative branch (corresponding to the Word) and a judicial branch (corresponding to the Spirit, who is described in John’s Gospel as “Counselor”)? On this basis we could claim that the American government is an image of the Trinity![3]

It is not difficult to see why one might make a connection between the Trinity and whatever social program is in vogue or happens to align with an individual or group’s existing sentiments. Doing so not only provides another layer of authority for a social agenda otherwise lacking, it can on a less sinister level simply serve to make the Trinity relevant for one’s everyday life—the sentiment behind Karl Rahner’s project.[4] Not surprisingly, some evangelicals are rightly suspicious of groups that perceive a connection between the Trinity and another agenda they are passionate about.  For example, Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, both subordinationists in regards to the Trinity, helpfully share their concerns regarding the often-perceived link between subordination in the Trinity and gender:

We are suspicious of the fact that, generally speaking, most complementarians are functional subordinationists while, generally speaking, most egalitarians are in favor of co-equality in function…This partisan perspective leads us to infer that prior theological commitments on both sides have influenced the debate and discussion is not really about trying to describe the ineffable mystery of inter-personal relations within the Trinity as much as it is about trying to advance or obstruct a certain view of women.[5]

These sorts of tendencies to make improper connections between the Trinity and other aspects of life we wish to change should be firmly resisted. If not, at the very least such a link should inspire reservation if a precise link cannot be clearly demonstrated from Scripture or if it entails a rejection of the historic faith.

For years there has been a debate within evangelical circles concerning the nature of the Son’s obedience to the Father.[6] One perspective claims the Son’s submission to the Father is to be understood in terms of his incarnation, a role he enacts as a representative of humanity in the economic Trinity. The other position alleges the submission of the Son characterizes the Son as the Son in the immanent Trinity, meaning the Son is eternally subordinate—though merely in a functional manner. What is relatively new in this longer debate is that a movement comprised of gender “complementarians” has commandeered the latter of these positions in order to promote their own social agenda, in turn attracting responses from evangelical egalitarians.[7] As a result, it has become difficult to separate the initial discussion from various gender biases and yet such a connection is now prevalent and cannot be ignored. For this reason a multifaceted approach to the issue is needed, one that still focuses on the initial question concerning the nature of the submission of the Son, but also considers the new landscape of the discussion without reducing one position to the other.

Through several blog series adapted from a class paper it will be argued that although many evangelicals utilize the idea of an eternal functional hierarchy within the Trinity to legitimate a similar role-relationship between men and women, such a position entails an improper understanding of the Trinity. In this case, an improper understanding of the Trinity is conceived of as one that is wrongly construed to include gender, is incoherent, or at worst one that entails a heterodox understanding of the Trinity. Since it is the very connection being made between the Trinity and gender that will also be under consideration, I will be focusing primarily on the works of two main proponents of this connection: Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. The goal of the above thesis will be accomplished by first reviewing their positions on the Trinity, briefly highlighting some areas where I believe Ware and Grudem do not give a basis for their view. Second, I will be arguing against the affirmation that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father based off of four main concerns: 1) at best, the position as expressed is incoherent, 2) at worst it entails a rejection of God as simple, 3) and a different essence between the members of the Trinity in the form of what amounts to the Son not being homoousion with the Father or a slip into tritheism with two essences: personal and divine. Lastly, I will consider intuitions giving rise to an embrace of the eternal subordination of the Son, which are a version of Rahner’s rule and their position on gender.

Eternal Functional Submission: A Summary with Considerations

How do evangelicals such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem articulate their understanding of the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father? Ware refers to his view as, “eternal relational authority-submission” and offers the following description:

God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully and eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[8]

Ware is clear that he affirms basic Trinitarian orthodoxy. Each of the members of the Trinity shares only the one divine nature, meaning there is one God, not three. Further, this nature is undivided. He clarifies this further:

So we cannot say, for example, that the Father has the attribute of omnipotence, and that’s what distinguishes him from the Son and the Spirit. No, the Son and the Spirit each possesses fully the attribute of omnipotence by possessing fully the undivided nature.[9]

For Ware, if one of the Trinitarian persons did not fully have the attribute of omnipotence for example, then he would not fully possess the divine nature. Still, not only must there be one God, this God must exist in three distinct persons without compromising divine unity or personal difference within the Godhead. Historically, the church has understood this distinction in terms of a specific type of relation: differing origination or eternal generation.[10] Where Grudem and Ware differ from this understanding is that they choose what they perceive to be a different type of relation to establish the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity. When it comes to the Father and Son relationship, this amounts to “replacing eternal generation with obedience as the Son’s distinguishing personal property.”[11]

It is common for the different type of relationship characterized as a personal property to be articulated as a difference in “role” or function. It is crucial to note that role is not being used, to describe every day changeable jobs or functions, but rather something that is unchangeable and basic to personal identity. In the case of Grudem and Ware it is the distinguisher of the Son from the Father and women from men. Consider Grudem’s following explanation:  

Therefore the different functions that we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit performing are simply out workings of an external relationship between the three persons, one that has always existed and will exist for eternity. God has always existed as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These distinctions are essential to the very nature of God himself, and they could not be otherwise...This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase 'ontological equality but economic subordination,' where the word ontological means 'being.' Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say 'equal in being but subordinate in role.'...If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity[12].

For Grudem then, distinction is based exclusively in authority-submission relationships that are particular to each person of the Trinity. The Father could not be subordinate to the Son otherwise he would no longer be the Father and the Son could not be in authority over the Father, otherwise he would not be the Son. If this relationship were removed, then for Grudem there would be absolutely no inherent difference between the members of the Trinity and so there could be no Trinity.

Curiously, even though historically differences between the members of the Trinity have been based in differing origination, and not at least explicitly, in authority-submission relationships, Grudem and Ware strongly insist anyone who does not share their version of what distinguishes the members of the Trinity is deviating from orthodoxy. For example, under the lengthy heading “Arguments That Deviate from the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity: Denying the Trinity by Denying Any Eternal Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Grudem singles out Kevin Giles as an example[13] because he denies the Father always has authority over the Son even though Giles bases trinitarian distinction in eternal generation.[14] For a reason unstated, Giles is strongly disqualified from believing in eternal distinctions within the Trinity even though he does—a small detail even noted by Robert Letham in his forward to The Eternal Generation of the Son.[15] They are clearly at an impasse and Giles’ frustration is evident:

The Nicene fathers insisted that differing origination was the one safe way to indelibly differentiate the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) because this alone did not call into question divine oneness and equality or allow the subordination of the Son in the eternal life of God in any way. It is because the Son is eternally begotten of the Father that he is, as the Nicene Creed says, ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,  … one in being with the Father.’  Differentiating the Father and the Son on the basis of differing authority, all the pro-Nicene fathers clearly saw, entailed the sub-ordering of the Son, the essence of the Arian error.[16]

It is indeed difficult to miss that differing origination is how the early fathers perceived distinction within the Trinity and that it served as their trump card against heresy (as evident in the Nicene creed).[17] Interestingly, Grudem and Ware see differing authority as what is actually being presented in the Nicene Creed through the sending language. Grudem asserts:

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church's doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was 'begotten of the Father before all ages' and that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son.' Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church's doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicaea (A.D. 325).[18]

Similarly, Ware claims Augustine is actually endorsing his view after citing The Trinity, IV.27:

Notice two observations from Augustine’s statement. First, Augustine sees no disparity between affirming, on the one hand, the full equality of the Son to the Father, and on the other hand, the Son’s eternal position as from the Father, with the responsibility of carrying out the will of the Father. The claim of some egalitarians[19] that the functional subordination of the Son would entail his essential inferiority to the Father is here denied by Augustine. Second, notice that Augustine denies the egalitarian claim that all subordination of the Son to the Father rests fully in the Son’s incarnate state. To the contrary, Augustine affirms that ‘the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh.” In other words, the sending of the Son occurred in eternity past in order that the eternal Word, sent from on high from the Father, might make take on human flesh and then continue his role of carrying out the will of his Father.[20]

By appealing to the creeds and fathers as though they proclaimed their view of authority relations, Grudem and Ware give the appearance of having their specific position being the orthodox position. Oddly, nowhere in the creed nor in Augustine is the explicit connection made by them for us that the sending or originating relationship is an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is an interpretation Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, an additional step other theologians or scholars may not necessarily be willing to take.

Stranger is that the actual position of the early church—differing origination— the language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to—is not held by either of them.[21] Perhaps even though they are saying the creeds are expressing their view they mean to say that their view is entailed by the creed or Augustine’s appeal to differing origination? Or, are they merely ignoring the whole early understanding of origination and are instead entirely assuming the sending language only means the Father’s authority or priority is being demonstrated? At the very least it would seem they believe only their position is the truly orthodox position regarding distinction among members of the Trinity, but on what concrete basis? In sum, they are lacking clear reasoning on why “sending” has to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.

In the next post I will consider some of the more serious problems with Grudem and Ware's understanding of the Trinity. I will be arguing that although they intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position. Note that this is different from saying that they are heretics. Someone can hold to a view that entails more than what they actually hold. Still, if a view entails heresy, give it up immediately!

AQ

[1] Cf: Eugene F. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 201-203 and David McCarthy Matzko, “Homosexuality and the Practices of Marriage,” Modern Theology 13:3 (1997) 394-395.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 197-202.

[3] Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity & Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2011), 201.

[4] Kark Rahner, The Trinity (NY.: Crossroad, 1967), 10-15.

[5] Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: A Response to Recent Discussion,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son eds., Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 305.

[6] Documented in: M. J. Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel, 2009).

[7] Initially it was George Knight III who first introduced the link between gender hierarchy and the Trinity in his book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Woman (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1977), 33, 55-56. He argued that since the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father and yet still equal in essence, women can also be said to be equal in being yet functionally subordinate. A similar argument is frequently made by various complementarians (to be discussed in this paper). Although evangelical egalitarians are also known for responding to complementarian arguments, they are not on the whole basing their gender theology in the Trinity. They are not saying

that because the members of the Trinity are functionally and ontologically equal, women are too. It is not a position found in Christians for Biblical Equality’s statement http://www.cbeinternational.org/content/statement-men-women-and-biblical-equality, nor does it appear in the book Discovering Biblical Equality except though there is a response to complementarians using the Trinity towards the back of the book by Kevin Giles.

 

[8] Bruce A. Ware “Does Affirming an Eternal Authority-Submission Relationship in the Trinity Entail a Denial of Homoousios? A Response to Millard Erickson and Tom McCall” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 237-238.

[9] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton IL.: Crossway, 2005), 45.

[10] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2012).

[11] Swain and Allen, “The Obedience of Eternal Son,” in Christology Ancient and Modern eds., Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI.: 2013), 75.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1994), 251.

[13] This is an especially deceptive characterization because Kevin Giles has a whole book dedicated to defending “the doctrine of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son, so central to the doctrine of the Trinity.” He continues, “indeed, this is what the entire book is about...This doctrine sheds light on how the One God is self-differentiated for all eternity.” Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2012), 17.

[14] Wayne Grudem, “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminists Arguments about the Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 18-19.

[15] Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 9-10.

[16] Kevin Giles, An extended review of One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce Ware and John Starke, Pending Publication, 18.

[17] Even Wayne Grudem is at least aware that the early church had eternal generation in mind in the specific context of eternal relations and the creed. Cf: Systematic Theology, 246-245, 1233-1234. Ware also shows some knowledge that the early church thought of difference in terms of being begotten. One God in Three Persons, 241.

[18] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251-252.

[19] A reference to “egalitarians” is yet another reminder that Ware constantly has his mind set on gender as he discusses the Trinity, revealing a bias guiding his theology.

[20] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 80-81.

[21] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1233-34; Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 162 n. 3.