June 29, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part Five of Five)

A Way Forward?

Having surveyed the debate and noted the limitation of analogies between Trinity and anthropology, we now propose a way of approaching the eternal relations that may bring ERA theologians and their detractors closer together. This involves four proposals, two each for the two primary parties. Individual proposals may already be redundant to certain theologians on either side—if so, please accept these as fait accompli.

First Proposal

First, we ask the ERA complementarian theologians to grant other theologians freedom to describe the eternal distinctions of the divine persons in terms of "generation" (of the Son) and "procession" (of the Holy Spirit) rather than as relations of authority. Even if the biblical language of μονογενής (monogenes) indicates unique sonship rather than generation, the language of "Father" and "Son" must be granted as eternally true.

The revealed proper names for the divine persons indicate an eternal relation of shared nature, which real relation is denominated in the terminology of "generation." Among orthodox theologians, there is no materiality or composition intended thereby and the adjectival qualifier of "eternal" may be properly ascribed to the generative relation between the Father and his Son as distinct eternal persons.

Even if ERA theologians find the language of eternal generation extrabiblical (we disagree), this traditional terminology certainly encapsulates biblical conceptions regarding the Father’s sharing of the divine life with the Son. The use of "eternal generation" ought to be an issue of freedom between mutual proponents of ὁμοούσιος (homoousios). In his most recent comments to Reformation 21, a generous reading would suggest Grudem is already open to this first proposal.

Second Proposal

Second, we propose other complementarian theologians grant freedom to ERA theologians to prefer the language of "eternal functional subordination," "eternal relations of authority and submission," and "eternal submission of the Son." Those of us who are more classical in our language have legitimate questions regarding the implications of these newer terms. But, apart from direct contradictions of the unity of the three persons, we should believe the ERA theologians when they say they are not seeking to compromise the shared nature of the three.

For instance, let us hear them out regarding the structure of willing within the Trinity. But, if they as a group have not deemed it necessary to address that issue conclusively yet, we are compelled to wait patiently until they feel led by the Spirit to declare their view formally. Moreover, it just may be that the Spirit is leading the churches, through the ERA theologians, to recognize there is more theological development required beyond the ecumenical councils. This may especially be the case with regard to the "will," which has meanings developed not entirely from Scripture, which is a controverted term historically, and which is often used in contemporary conversations with widely varying meanings affected on all sides by anthropocentric individualism.

Third Proposal

Third, while we would counsel mutual allowance of preferred terms and patience regarding questions that go beyond current declarations, we also propose the ERA theologians consider a necessary connection of eternal relations of authority with the singular and undivided authority of the Godhead.

"Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut 6:4): Scripture uses numerous terms and images, such as "rule," "king," "lord," and "throne" to indicate divine authority. The term, "Lord," for instance, carries significant Trinitarian weight in the Bible. The Shema placed both the common name of God and the covenantal name together in the Israelites' wholehearted confession of loyalty to him (Deut 6:4-5). The covenantal name of Yahweh was later correlated with Adonai, "Lord," among the Hebrews. "Lord" thence came into early Christian usage. The fundamental Christian confession is "Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3). Paul specifically identified God the Father with the "Lord" Jesus Christ in a Shema-like statement (1 Cor 8:6). Paul also included the Holy Spirit in that divine Lordship (2 Cor 3:17). For Paul, there is only "one Lord," but if there is a particular placement of that authoritative term with one of the three persons, it resides foremost not with the Father but with the Son (Eph 4:5; 1 Cor 8:6).

When earlier theological exegetes such as John Calvin read these and like passages, they concluded the Son's eternal authority was equivalent to that of the Father. They were thus reluctant to countenance any eternal diminution of the Son's authority. For instance, when commenting upon 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, which says the Son will be "subjected" to the Father at the end, Calvin argued the Son's kingdom nevertheless has no end. He did not deny the Son's subjection to the Father, but located that subjection in Christ's "humanity" rather than in his "glorious deity." This partitive hermeneutic helps correlate 1 Corinthians 15:28 with other canonical passages such as Daniel 7:14, 27; Luke 1:33; Ephesians 1:22-23; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:18-20; and 2 Peter 1:11, which elevate and continue the Christ's complete authority into eternity.

Similarly, the creedal tradition supporting unified Lordship is substantive. It begins in the fourth-century Nicene Creed, which states of Christ that "his kingdom will have no end." Also important is the sixth-century Athanasian Creed, which locates divine authority in the divine nature, not once, but twice: "Likewise, omnipotent Father, omnipotent Son, omnipotent Holy Spirit—and nevertheless not three omnipotents, but one omnipotent." "Therefore Lord Father, Lord Son, Lord Holy Spirit—and nevertheless not three lords, but one Lord." More recently, article II of the Baptist Faith and Message declared that God the Father is "all powerful," the Son is "ever present Lord," and the Holy Spirit as "fully divine" also "empowers." But the Baptist confession located divine authority not compositely in the persons but indivisibly in the divine nature: Among the infinite "perfections" of the "one and only one living and true God" is that he is "Ruler of the universe."

A Possible Formula: If we were ERA theologians, we would suggest the language of eternal relations of authority explicitly follow linguistic rules previously detected in Trinitarian doctrines like eternal generation and divine glory. For instance, patristic orthodoxy used the terminology of eternal generation, not to suggest a diminution or composition in the divine nature the Father shares with the Son, but to emphasize complete participation. Through generation God the Father eternally shares his being entirely with the Son, without loss, division, or composition. The Father's begetting of the Son secures simultaneously the distinction between the persons and the unitary divine nature. The procession of the Holy Spirit is construed according to a similar if distinct set of rules governing procession.

Another instance may be detected in the Johannine doctrine of divine glory. Jesus begins his prayer to the Father in John 17 with two major ideas about the perfection of glory. First, the Father and the Son glorify one another (John 17:1). (And the Holy Spirit sovereignly glorifies the Son in John 16:14.) Second, the Father and the Son shared this glory "before the world was" (John 17:5). The divine attribute of glory is thus eternally one yet also dynamically moving between the persons. Perhaps, on the basis of a similar complexity in divine equality and differentiation, one could argue the eternal relations of authority originate with the Father and proceed toward the Son, in the dynamic of paternal headship and filial submission, but without ever diminishing the eternally perfect authority of the Son (and the Spirit).

In a few sentences immediately after Grudem's quotation from Malcolm's book, Malcolm stated, "the one who sits on the throne is the origin of all power; the Lamb is worthy to receive all power; and the seven spirits exercise all power" (God the Trinity, 218). The authority of God could similarly be seen as located in the headship of the Father, shared entirely and eternally with the Lamb, and sovereignly exercised by the Holy Spirit. The "eternal relations of authority and submission" exegetically detected by Bruce Ware could perhaps be correlated with the placement of divine authority in the singular throne shared between God and the Lamb (Rev 22:3b). Eternally, there is only one authority and it is located in the divine nature. The eschatological reorientation of authority and submission finds it fulfillment, not in a division of authority upon the singular divine throne, but in the divisible slavery of humanity (Rev 22:3b), whom the Son subjected through himself to the Father (1 Cor 15:28).

Fourth Proposal

Our fourth proposal is that other theologians retract any calls for the removal of the ERA theologians from their teaching offices. Yes, there are times when we must join the apostle Paul in ringing down anathemas upon those who proclaim a different gospel than that which the church received (Gal 1:8-9). Yes, there are times to stand for eternal truth in a shifty world, but this is not yet that time.

While we share Trueman and Goligher's questions about the implications of the eternal relations of authority approach to the Trinity, it is not clear the eternal gospel has been compromised. Theologians like Grudem and Ware have proclaimed the good news in their public ministries of teaching with long effort and much grace. Even if moments of ineloquence or indiscretion were discovered in their writings, though we know of none, who among us would dare claim absolute perfection in our own presentations of the holy dogmas of inerrant Scripture? Do we really believe these men have compromised the gospel of God and Christ? We think not.


Speaking of the gospel, that is how we would like to end this excursion from Trinitarian theology into theological anthropology. As Derek Rishmawy indicated early in this controversy, the debate itself could have positive benefits. One of the benefits is that it helps us arrive at theological accuracy. However, the major benefit of the controversy is not that it drives us back through considerations of historical theology into biblical theology, though these are necessary and good, but ultimately it drives us to consider the triune God in himself and in his activity toward his creation.

So, here is the main thing to see: The eternal Father sent his only begotten Son into this world in order to unite with our humanity. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification. The Father and the Son sent the eternally proceeding Holy Spirit into the world in order to convict us of sin and judgment and the righteousness available through faith in the Son. And through regeneration, the Spirit unites us with the Son of God, allowing us to approach the Father in the service of worship.

And that is what we, his redeemed slaves, will be doing for eternity: Worshiping the one enthroned Lord God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three persons yet one in essence, eternally sharing the divine perfections in the beautiful order of relations without division, without diminution, without composition.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

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