June 25, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part Two of Five)

Having defined the controversy between complementarian Trinitarians according to the positive positions each side takes, we now consider the particulars that have led to argument and anathema. We will then devote some attention to the theological strategies of the eternal relations of authority theologians. After reviewing the use of analogy in the debate, our final post will build on these judgments as it proposes a way forward.

The Eternal Relations of Authority and Its Detractors

The accusations that have been drawn up against the eternal relations of authority theologians have centered on their primary idea that the Father and the Son have distinct movements of authority. So, what is the problem with saying that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father? To set the ground, let us hear from at least one ERA theologian, arguably the primary leader among them, Wayne Grudem.

Grudem's Formula

For a quick introduction, consult Grudem’s shorter systematic theology, where he argues the language of generation or begetting was a "misunderstanding" in the early church later corrected by twentieth-century Greek scholarship (Bible Doctrines: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith [1999], 113-14). Deprived of the language of generation by modern scholarship, Grudem turned to a different terminology to arrive at "the only distinctions between the members of the Trinity" (117). 

The necessary distinctions now reside in "the way they relate to each other and to the creation." Thus, in order to maintain the oneness and the threeness of God, Grudem's slogan becomes, "ontological equality but economic subordination" or "equal in being but subordinate in role." Of course, economy refers to God's relation to creation, so in an apparent effort to retain the eternal nature of divine distinctions, Grudem adds that the divine persons exhibit an "eternal subordination in role" (my italics; 117, cf. 114n4).

The Attacks

If this is a proper reading of Grudem, then the traditional lines between economy and immanence, or between God's temporal relation to creation and God's eternal relation to himself, has been spanned. While the introduction of divine movement toward creation into the immanent Trinity is a difficulty that needs address, the detractors have focused attention elsewhere.

The opposing theologians have particularly wondered whether the ERA theologians are subliminal or at least developing Arians. Accusations that these complementarian evangelicals are teaching ontological subordinationism, homoianism, or homoiousionism (forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism) have raised eyebrows worldwide. 

However, because of the ERA theologians' early and sustained adherence to the ὁμοούσιον (homoousion), these particular accusations are difficult to prove. Moreover, surmising that the next generation may become Arian due to the loss of the classical distinction of modes of subsistence remains speculation and could be dismissed as fear mongering.

Most recently, the focus has shifted to concerns that at least one ERA theologian is teaching that God possesses three wills, two wills of which submit to the one will of the Father. If so, then the problem is pushed back into the depths of the sixth ecumenical council, where few Western historical theologians and most systematic theologians rarely travel. Logically, if God has three wills or three centers of operative decision-making, then the unity of God appears to be threatened. 

According to the orthodox dyothelite (two wills) position advocated by Maximus the Confessor and dogmatically decreed at Constantinople III (680-81), one will is attached to the divine nature and the other to the human nature in Christ. Dyothelitism developed in response to the idea that one will is located in the person of Christ, as the monothelites proposed. The patristic concern was that this compromised the two natures of Christ. The contemporary concern about three wills is a Trinitarian extension of that earlier Christological debate.

Yet others have become concerned that the ERA theologians affirm a form of social Trinitarianism in the vein of neo-orthodox theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton, who pictured three centers of operation in God. However, there has been no discernible rush on the part of the ERA theologians to identify with either the ancient monothelites or recent social Trinitarians. 

Moreover, critics of the ERA theologians must themselves answer the problem of how it is that God sufficiently loves himself in a threefold way if not with the three persons loving one another. This line of inquiry has resulted in the intriguing idea of Andrew Moody and Mark Baddely, through the Australian Gospel Coalition website, that there is an inner Trinitarian ordered beauty of willing proposal by the Father and of willing assent by the Son and the Spirit. Moody and Baddely hope their idea simultaneously avoids diminishing the divine persons and dividing the divine will. We look forward to evaluating their forthcoming contributions.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

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