June 24, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part One of Five)

The throne [θρόνος] of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His slaves [δοῦλοι] will serve Him. (John 22:3b; HCSB)
My wife, Karen, is a close and careful reader of Scripture, and some of our greatest joys occur when we discuss the proper interpretation of the authoritative Word of God. Karen is also a close reader of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Trinity, since she is writing a thesis on that subject under the supervision of Gerardo Alfaro. Bonhoeffer's innovative if incomplete ruminations on the Trinity have shaped the contemporary discussion in a profound, if largely unrecognized, way.

One particular question with which we have been struggling is exactly how creation in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) is to be seen in our marriage. What does it mean that there is an analogia relationis (Bonhoeffer's term) between the triune God and his image in humanity, especially in the relation of a man and his wife? Little were we to realize that a conversation with parallels to our own questions about Trinity and relation would explode in controversy on the web in recent weeks.

We bring forward this essay as a small contribution to that huge and fruitful, if sometimes tense, discussion. Before beginning, please allow a few caveats.

First, this is not intended to be an academic presentation, though it draws on academic work we performed together and individually. We have opted to speak freely in summary rather than with scholastic detail in order to allow the general reader some access to this discussion.

Second, the issue of authority is not our foremost concern with regard to the Trinity. Malcolm recently wrote a book, God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits, in which he lightly touches on the current issue. His foremost concern, demonstrated at length there, is knowing who God is through his revelation so we might worship him truly. Likewise, Karen studies the Trinity, not for speculative anthropological reasons but to help her lead women and children to worship God in mind, heart, and deed.

Third, determining the exact method one should follow in moving from theology (including the doctrine of the Trinity) to anthropology (including the relations between man and wife) requires contemplation. We only touch upon aspects of that movement here and refer the reader to Malcolm's contribution to a forthcoming book edited by Keith Whitfield. B&H Academic plans to publish Whitfield's Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application in time for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in November of this year. Malcolm's essay stresses that the direction of theological anthropology moves from theology to anthropology with utmost care and eschatological openness.

Finally, to extend our second point, we again note that Trinity and gender is not our primary concern. Worshiping God truly and with joyous hearts is our primary concern. Because we believed entering this conversation might detract from that service, we have been reluctant to enter it. We fear a reader's hasty preconceptions will categorize us as being "with them," whoever "they" are. Evangelicals have divided between egalitarians and complementarians, and the conversation has been so heated that whole agendas appear at work to build up one position or tear down the other. Moreover, these two major parties have further divided among themselves, with accusations of going beyond orthodoxy. We lament all unnecessary divisions and ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to treat each other with the love and generosity our Lord exemplified and commanded (John 13:34-35).

With those caveats, we now turn to an explication of the Trinity in light of some of the recent conversations online.

The Two Primary Complementarian Positions

Both Wayne Grudem and Mark Jones have summarily cited Malcolm as supporting their respective yet opposite positions in the recent internet controversy. Actually, we find positive aspects in both of the complementarian positions. Our hope is to help provide a positive way forward. In order to reach that goal, we must summarize the two major positions as we perceive them. If we have not represented your position correctly, we beg your forbearance and would gladly stand corrected.

The Eternal Relations of Authority Position

Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, Owen Strachan, and Mike Ovey are among the primary proponents of what has been variously called Eternal Functional Subordination, Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, Eternal Submission of the Son, etc. We will classify these under the name of Eternal Relations of Authority (ERA). We offer four summative statements to characterize the positive position of this accomplished set of conservative evangelical theologians:

1.     Their primary method is to construct an understanding of the Trinity from the biblical ground up.
2.     The primary analogy they have chosen to organize the complex biblical witness about the immanent relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the biblical text is a relational analogy, that of personal "relations of authority."
3.     The ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) of the Nicene tradition is affirmed. God the Father and God the Son, along with the Holy Spirit, share the same nature.
4.     Most ERA proponents seem to operate from a modern Calvinist perspective.

The Other Complementarian Position

The initiating proponents of this position include such theologians as Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman, but many others have weighed in. (From inside conservative evangelical circles, still other complementarians have joined in the critique of the ERA position, but without condemnations. Egalitarian evangelicals such as Scot McKnight and Michael Bird have also stepped forward with comments. Beyond evangelicalism, patristic scholars such as Lewis Ayres and Michel Rene Barnes have supported this other position.) We tossed around different terms to classify this second position, but settled on the primary descriptive term, "other," though "classical" could be used with justification. We offer four summative statements to characterize the positive position of this accomplished set of conservative evangelical theologians:

1.     These theologians seek to construct a biblical theology of the Trinity, but with an ear sensitive to the theological exegesis of the classical tradition.
2.     The primary analogy they have chosen to organize the complex witness of the biblical text regarding the immanent Trinity is the Cappadocian and Augustinian language of "eternal generation" with regard to the Son and "eternal procession" with regard to the Holy Spirit. This theological analogy is relational, but differs from that of the ERA theologians. Where the ERA theologians stress relations of authority, the others use the ontological language of "relations of origin" and "modes of subsistence" or simply "ordered relations" (τάξις, taxis).
3.     The ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) of the Nicene tradition is affirmed. God the Father and God the Son, along with God the Holy Spirit, share the same nature. Also receiving major emphasis is the divine attribute of simplicity.
4.     Many of these proponents also operate from a modern Calvinist perspective. Some follow B.B. Warfield's disjunction between the immanent Trinity and economic Trinity, while others lean toward a modified version of Karl Rahner's identification between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Some appeal to the Augustinian presentation of the Trinity with its psychological analogy or love analogy. Some appeal to the Reformed covenant of redemption. Others appeal to Calvin's origination of the Son from himself as God (αὐτόθεοϛ, autotheos). In various ways, the traditional emphasis on the unity of the three persons is thus emphasized.

From these descriptions of the opposing positions, it should be evident that, alongside their obvious agreement regarding gender complementarianism, there is much agreement regarding the presentation of their doctrine of the Trinity. Both the ERA complementarians and the other complementarians agree there is a threeness and oneness in the biblical witness to God. Both affirm the Nicene tradition's appeal to the one οὐσία (ousia, often translated as "essence," "nature," "substance," or "being") of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both positions appear to affirm there are three persons (ὑπόστασεις, hypostaseis) in the Godhead, though this has been typically implied. Next, we turn to the crisis between the two groups, which we believe is focused upon whether describing the relations between the three persons, and particularly between the Father and the Son, as eternal relations of authority is orthodox.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

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