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The brilliant confessional theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) once wrote a long and  influential essay arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in three statements:

  1.  ”There is but one God.”
  2. “The Father and the Son and the Spirit is each God.”
  3. “The Father and the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person.”

“When we have said these three things,” Warfield declared, “we have enunciated the doctrine of the Trinity in its completeness.”

But Scott Swain, Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), in his inaugural lecture below, points out that Warfield omits any mention of the so-called “personal properties” which distinguish the divine persons from one another, namely:

  1. The Father’s eternal begetting of the Son (“paternity”).
  2. The Son’s eternal generation from the Father (“filiation”).
  3. The Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father and the Son (“spiration”).

This is a somewhat surprising omission, Swain says, given that

The personal properties reflect a broad ecclesiastical consensus in interpreting the revealed names into which we are baptized. On the basis of the revealed names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” the church confesses that within the eternal depths of God’s being there is one who stands in the relation of a father to a son, one who stands in the relation of a son to a father, and one who is breathed forth in the mutual love of the other two.

It is not, however, an accidental omission:

It is the result of reasoned interpretive judgment. According to Warfield, the Son’s eternal generation and the Spirit’s eternal procession “are not implicates of their designation as Son and Spirit.”

Swain’s argument in his inaugural lecture proceeds in four steps:

  1. He summarizes Warfield’s biblical argument against the personal properties.
  2. He locates Warfield’s argument within the historical-theological trajectory of which it is a part.
  3. He responds to Warfield’s argument by (a) pointing to patterns of biblical teaching that challenge his interpretation and (b) by addressing what seems to be Warfield’s primary worry regarding eternal generation and eternal procession.
  4. He makes some observations on the importance of the traditional interpretation of the revealed names for trinitarian theology.

You can watch the entire lecture here:

In the conclusion, Dr. Swain argues that “The personal properties of paternity, filiation, and spiration further enrich and expand our understanding and experience of this “one seeking and saving love of God'” in these ways:

  • They help us see that the eternal covenant of redemption—the foundation of all God’s saving works in time—flows from and expresses the deep, mutual, and eternal delight of the blessed Trinity.
  • They help us see that the Father who has eternally begotten an eternally beloved Son also wills to bring many other sons to glory.
  • They help us see that, at the Father’s sovereign behest, the Father’s only-begotten Son has willed to become our kinsman redeemer, assuming our creaturely nature, satisfying our twofold debt to God’s law, in order that he might become the firstborn among many redeemed brothers and sisters.
  • They help us see that the Holy Spirit who eternally proceeds in the mutual love of the Father and the Son has equipped the Son with all things necessary for redeeming his brothers and sisters; and, that redemption being accomplished, the Spirit now applies the blessings of adoption to us, uniting us to our incarnate elder brother and welcoming us into the fellowship which the Spirit has enjoyed with the Father and the Son from eternity and which we, in, with, and by the blessed Trinity, will enjoy for eternity as well, to the glory of our great God and Savior: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Swain’s arguments here, I’m sure he’d be the first to say, should not dissuade students from reading and studying Warfield’s essay on the Trinity. In fact, if you want to do so, the best way is to download Fred Sanders’ annotated Warfield Trinity Study Edition.

Sanders writes:

One thing you may notice about the drift of the annotations: They start out with enthusiastic agreement and then tend toward disagreement. The reason is that, in my judgement, the early parts of the essay are magnificently helpful, while the conclusion swerves off course in a few ways. When I think of this essay, my immediate response is gratitude: the way Warfield describes the revelation of the Trinity in the economy of salvation and its canonical witness in Scripture is revolutionary. My first reading of it was an intellectual and spiritual event for me. I probably can’t even fathom all the ways this aspect of the essay has helped me put together my own approach to teaching the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that is transparently biblical and keyed to the main, central points of the gospel.

But if I reflect further on the entire essay as it stands—that is, not just on what it did for me, but more objectively on what it contains and on what others might therefore take from it—I wince to recall that Warfield bends his powers to keep the exegetical case from supporting the traditional Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit.

  • He pulls his punches on the meaning of the terms Son and Spirit;
  • he cordons off the economy of salvation as the only place where we can be certain that the second and third persons come from the first;
  • he gets stingy with how much is revealed in the order of operations among the three;
  • he overloads covenantal categories in order to bypass ontic categories;
  • he comes within a hairs-breadth of affirming a merely messianic sonship; and
  • for the life of him he can’t imagine how anybody could reconcile eternal relations of origin with absolute equality of persons. Never mind that the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith both instruct him otherwise; here he forges his own way ahead, and his overall trinitarianism fares the worse for it, more anemic than it needed to be after the vigor of his biblical proof.

For all that, I can’t stay mad at Warfield and his essay. I do recommend the essay itself, and I will continue to make constant use of the lessons I learned from it. One reason I’m making this annotated version available is to disseminate Warfield’s own work with a few helps. The other reason is to attach a little bit of cautionary guidance in the form of my longer notes, which I hope may help as a prophylactic against the devolutionary tendencies of some of his conclusions.


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53 thoughts on “What B. B. Warfield Got Wrong in His Doctrine of the Trinity”

  1. steve hays says:

    Actually, I think Warfield got it right. I agree with Paul Helm and John Frame on this issue.

    This debate is partly driven by the attempt by some complementarians to ground male headship in Nicene subordination. But that’s a bad move. Complementarianism doesn’t require a divine template. It only requires God’s design for human nature.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      I don’t think you’re right about the relationship between this issue and complementarian-Trinitarianism. It seems to me you have it backwards. Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware would be with Warfield here, and Sanders and Swain would be uncomfortable with the complementarian move. Kevin Gilles, an egalitarian, has also recently defended eternal generation, and I think done it well.

      1. steve hays says:

        Justin, surely you’re aware of the fact that many prominent complementarians are attempting to ground male headship in Nicene subordination. I can give a long list of names. I didn’t suggest these were logically interrelated. In fact, I denied that these were logically interrelated.

        Christians ought to affirm the eternal sonship of Christ. However, that’s a theological metaphor, and what that includes depends on the intended scope of the metaphor. To say it must the derivation of the Son’s existence is a radical claim. That makes the Son a sheer effect of the Father.

        1. Justin Taylor says:

          Hmmm. I’m not denying the presence of complementarians connecting the two (which is why I cited Grudem and Ware as being in that camp).

        2. Andrew says:

          What’s it a theological metaphor *for*?
          Athanasius and many others would say it wasn’t a metaphor but (to use Bloesch’s term) a catalogy. The derived, perfect and eternal equality of the Son is *true* sonship. It’s we who are the analogies and shadows.

          1. steve hays says:

            To be derivative is to be unequal. Pick one and stick with it.

            1. Andrew says:

              “To be derivative is to be unequal”
              Is it? So if I have some fire and set fire to something else, is the second blaze less hot or less truly fire? Is a human son less truly human than his father? I might concede your statement if you can nuance it more carefully (and the church Fathers such as Gregory Nazianzen would too), but not as it stands.

          2. steve hays says:

            You fail to distinguish between the order of knowing and the order of being. The question at issue is the degree to which human sonship is analogous to divine sonship. What is the scope of the comparison? Clearly many things that are true of human sons are false for the divine Son. So the question is where to draw the line.

            1. Andrew says:

              Indeed, though this is always true. God doesn’t see, love, speak or create like we do either. All we can do is follow the clues in the Bible and try to work out how our analogical experience is like and unlike His reality. Now obviously there are different kinds of trope. When God is called a “rock” it probably is a metaphor. But when we hear that God loves, or God has a Son, we have good reason to read that analogically – or catalogically – because God is the patér from whom all patria derive their name.

        3. Not according to scholastic theology. Aquinas, for example, lays great stress on the fact that fathership and sonship are only relations and that a father is as much a father by having a son as the son is a son by having a father. No one can be a Father without having a son (or daughter — in human reality) and a son cannot be a son without having a father. That’s why the Persons in God are to be identified with their mutual relations. For it is exactly this identification of Persons and relations excludes all causal relationships.

    2. I agree, Steve. The relationship between the Father and the Son isn’t the same as the one between myself and my wife. I believe Ephesians 5:22ff is the singular passage in all of Scripture to explain just what God had in mind when He instituted marriage. Rather than being a direct reflection of the Godhead, it is instead a reflection (or symbol) of the union between Christ and his “bride.” The spousal roles follow logically from that.

      1. **However: The hierarchy of the Godhead /supports/ complementarianism by demonstrating that submission doesn’t equal inferiority.

    3. David Graham says:

      Steve,

      I’m confused. Are you saying that the recovery of paternity, filiation and spiration are functions of trying to ground complementarianism in theology proper? If so, I strongly disagree. These properties, or “notes” as Thomas Aquinas called them, were formulated in a context that had nothing to do with theological anthropology. In fact, they arose within the classical framework of Trinitarian dogma, which, unlike contemporary revisions, did not identify the persons by the analogy of human society. And most of those who want to recover this classical approach (like Swain, I presume) are certainly aware of this. Thus, while I agree with you that debates over male-female relations need not and probably should not appeal to the Trinity, I don’t see how the classical personal properties undercut this conviction. I think Justin is right: you have it backwards.

      1. David Graham says:

        Just one more clarification. My comment above is a historical argument, But I also think there are good theological reasons to reject the conflation of the approach of complementarians and the classical account of personal properties.

        The point of the eternal relations of origination (paternity, filiation and so on) is merely to elaborate statement 3 supplied by Warefield: that F, S, and HS are distinct persons. The reason why personal property lingo is helpful and necessary is because it clarifies that the distinction is not merely historical, a function of the divine condescension rather than something true about God in himself. In other words, what is at stake is not theological anthropology but precluding a modalist view of the persons. If the Son is not “the one who is begotten” intrinsically and eternally, for example, then his distinction from the Father will be reduced to mere temporary appearance, a role played by a god who is a singular person in eternity. Thus, the problem with Warfield is not so much inaccuracy but imprecision; he doesn’t do enough to rule out heresy. Hence Swain’s concerns.

        1. “If the Son is not “the one who is begotten” intrinsically and eternally, for example, then his distinction from the Father will be reduced to mere temporary appearance, a role played by a god who is a singular person in eternity. Thus, the problem with Warfield is not so much inaccuracy but imprecision; he doesn’t do enough to rule out heresy. Hence Swain’s concerns.”

          On the contrary: it’s Swain, the Nicenes, and many theologians since that time who invite heresy by using language that implies the Son is /contingent/ upon the Father. If the Father “generates” the Son, then the Son lacks self-existence. But self-existence is a feature of deity; therefore if the Son is “generated,” then he’s less divine than the Father.

          Now obviously Swain, the Nicenes, et al, don’t think that way. But the problem is that they insist on using a term (“generate”) that /logically implies/ – whether they like it or not – contingency and inferiority of the Son.

          1. David Graham says:

            Okay, but the logical implication is precisely what’s up for debate. From the perspective of pro-Nicene theology, your position lacks imagination and, ironically, mirrors the theological method of the subordinationists. Both your position and theirs takes for granted the incoherence of both eternal order and divine equality, but whereas they sided with order, you side with equality. But can this dichotomy adequately take stock of the pressures of the NT texts? The Nicenes would say that in order to follow the inner logic of the biblical witness as a whole, we need to transcend the dichotomy altogether, even if this stretches our finite conceptualities to the breaking point.

            So with respect to “self-existence,” I agree that it is an eternal attribute shared by all three persons. But eternal generation by no means logically compromises this. On the contrary, it is the Father’s very self-existence that is communicated in the act of filiation and spiration, Moreover, one could argue that this is the only way to maintain true coequality in that it affirms that the self-existence shared by each is identical. After all, what would be the consequence of positing a self-existence peculiar to each? If the self-existence of the Son was “his own” in the self of exclusively belonging to him as an individual, irrespective of the triune relations, are we not then swimming in the waters of tritheism?

            To be clear, I think at the end of the day we share a common concern for biblical-theological faithfulness. But in terms of the logical implications of alternative proposals, which is really verging on heterodoxy here? From my perspective it was not the Nicenes, nor those like Swain and Sanders who want to retrieve their thought.

      2. steve hays says:

        I’m discussing the way some contemporary complementarians are grounding male headship in Nicene subordination. That’s easy to document.

  2. This is helpful. I think Warfield et al are too reductionist and miss much of what Scripture reveals about the distinct personal roles of the persons of the Godhead. I don’t think it’s just a complementarian strategy; I think it’s clear and helpful biblical theology. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son and the Spirit is the Spirit for a reason. Thank you!

  3. We need to always bear in mind the crucial distinction between (a) human formulations of revealed truth – and (b) what the Bible itself actually reveals. With that in mind, I want to state for the record that I heartily affirm the basic Trinity doctrine: one God in 3 Persons, coexisting and coeternal, all equal in divinity.

    That said, I have always taken issue with two of the ideas Swain raises:
    1.The Father’s eternal begetting of the Son (“paternity”).
    2.The Son’s eternal generation from the Father (“filiation”).

    Anyone feel free to correct me if I’ve misunderstood the language of either the ancients or modern-day theologians – but it seems to me that such language has the effect of saying that the Son is _dependent on_ the Father. Logically that would make the Son _inferior_ to the Father, lacking inherent eternality as a feature of deity.

    The roles of “Father” and “Son” don’t require such additional, extrabiblical notions; instead, it strikes me that the terms “begetting” and “generation” are being erroneously woven into our doctrine on the basis NOT of what Scripture actually states – but rather on what WE experience as human beings: begetting and generation!

    We need, instead, to pay attention to how the Scriptures nuance their terms “Father” and “Son,” so that we can discern just what roles the Father and Son are playing such that They have appropriated those titles for Themselves.

    1. Andrew says:

      But have you noticed how the Bible uses a host of images that rely on just this structure?
      Word, Image, radiance, stamp, son – these terms which we find in John 1, Col 1 and Heb 1 all point in the same direction. That is, the Son is equal with God because he comes from God and perfectly (naturally and eternally) shares in what God is.
      This doesn’t make him less than God, it just means he’s not the Father.

      1. steve hays says:

        You’re assume that refers to derivation rather than representation. A son can represent a father because no one is more like a father than his son. That’s the basic analogy. It’s not about derivation, but representation, based on commonality of nature.

        1. steve hays says:

          “Word, Image, radiance, stamp, son” all involve the principle of representation. That’s the common denominator.

          1. Andrew says:

            No necessarily. In Hebrews 1 the logic seems to be that Jesus is a new kind of representative because of what he *is* – ie. a son. His ontological status as son, stamp and radiance are what allow him to function as the ultimate representative.
            In John 1, Jesus again, is described as Word before his earthly mission. Word pertains both to his identity as God “in the beginning was the Word” and his role in creation – being the one *through whom* God creates.

        2. Andrew says:

          But on any normal reasoning the reason *why* a son is like his father is because he comes from him.

    2. David Graham says:

      Andy,

      1) The church fathers would have vehemently argued that they are simply carrying through the logic of Scripture. The NT uses Father-Son lingo, and it even uses the term begotten (though that is an arguable English translation). The personal properties are a way of thinking through what this might mean in light of other revealed truths (that God is one, that each of the three is fully the one God). You may disagree about their adequacy, but I don’t think they can be rejected simply for being extrabiblical. Are they any less biblical than your notion of “inherent eternity as a feature of deity”?

      2) There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying that the Son is dependent on the Father, as long as we very carefully clarify how that dependency is incommensurable with creature-Creator dependency. Indeed, the whole point of the famous “eternally begotten” and “not made” phrases in the Nicene Creed was to reject any kind of subordinationism that would make the Son less than what the Father is. At the same time, to be begotten is to affirm a certain kind of dependency: The Father is the source without a source, the Son is the one whose being is eternally given by/from (i.e. begotten of) the Father, and the Spirit is the one whose existence proceeds from both. To put it another way, the Father is the reason for the Son’s existence, but in an eternal, divine way, not in the same way that I cause my children to be. The Son is from the Father but not after him; he proceeds as one sharing his begetter’s identical being.

      3) I do appreciate your concern for the equality of the persons. Yet we have to ask ourselves, could we really speak of them as eternally different, which seems an obvious implicate of Scripture, apart from some of the distinctions made above? In other words, are there better alternative explanations that don’t lead to a gospel-denying modalism? I’m not sure there is.

      1. David Graham says:

        Just one more clarification. Everything said above is fully coherent with the “coequality” of the persons as understood within the consensus view of Trinitarian dogma up till the 20th century. Recently there have been those who have stressed the uniqueness of the persons in human terms and the unity of the Godhead in communitarian terms. This is an unfortunate trend. Yet a reactionary approach that ends up denying eternal order among the persons is an equally unfortunate trajectory. Co-equality traditionally (from the Fathers to the post-Reformed) pertained to what the persons were rather than who they were. They are each identical in nature, attributes, will, knowledge, etc., yet they are related to one another in different, ordered ways (Father as unoriginated origin, Son and Spirit as proceeding eternally from him). This was the view received as biblical and thus orthodox by the vast majority of churches.

  4. W_Nelson says:

    Seems ample room to get lost anthropomorphizing otherwise incommunicable/ontological attributes. Is Yellow round or square?

    “What can be shown cannot be said.”

  5. Nathanael says:

    “Anyone feel free to correct me if I’ve misunderstood the language of either the ancients or modern-day theologians – but it seems to me that such language has the effect of saying that the Son is _dependent on_ the Father. Logically that would make the Son _inferior_ to the Father, lacking inherent eternality as a feature of deity.”

    Well the claim that the Son is from the Father and therefore somehow inferior to Him is precisely what the church fathers denied. Recall that John 5:26 says, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” The church fathers use this and other passages to deny that generation necessitates subordination. It may be that way in creatures but God is not a creature. God is both one and three so “it seems logical” is not sufficient when reasoning biblically about God.

    My rule of thumb is, when you’re thinking about going against the church fathers on the doctrine of the Trinity, don’t.

    1. steve hays says:

      “Well the claim that the Son is from the Father and therefore somehow inferior to Him is precisely what the church fathers denied.”

      The fact that they denied it doesn’t make their denial coherent.

      “Recall that John 5:26 says, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” The church fathers use this and other passages to deny that generation necessitates subordination.”

      Except that, in context, the “life” in view is communicable to humans . The Son confers eternal life on Christians. Therefore, you can’t consistently equate that “life” with divinity or divine essence, unless you’re a pantheist. If you think that refers to the generation of the Son, and if that’s extended to Christians, then Christians are consubstantial with God. Christians are just as divine as the Son, since you’ve defined the “life” in question as the Father sharing his essence with the Son, who, in turn, shares the same thing with Christians.

      “It may be that way in creatures but God is not a creature.”

      Except that you’ve made the Son a creature if his existence is the effect of the Father’s generation. A timeless creature, perhaps, but a creature nonetheless.

      “My rule of thumb is, when you’re thinking about going against the church fathers on the doctrine of the Trinity, don’t.”

      Since the church fathers weren’t apostles or prophets, perhaps you should get a new rule or new thumb.

      1. Well said, Steve. I would add that I interpret John 5:26 as referring /not/ to Jesus’ deity, but to his humanity. Moreover, since it says “the Father has /granted/ . . . ,” then the church fathers shouldn’t have used that verse to bolster their position — because it does the very opposite.

  6. Nathanael says:

    Augustine says, “So the Word of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, like the Father and equal to him in all things, God from God, light from light, wisdom from wisdom, being from being, is exactly and absolutely what the Father is, and yet is not the Father because this one is Son, that one is Father…Hence it is as though uttering himself that the Father begot the Word equal to himself in all things. He would not have uttered himself completely and perfectly if anything less or more were in his Word than in himself.” -On the Trinity 4.5.29

    1. See, there again, Augustine’s wording gives the impression that the Son is /dependent on/ the Father, which notion would be unbiblical. Instead, where Scripture speaks of Jesus having been “begotten,” I take that as referring to his /incarnation/ (see esp. Luke 1:35; Heb. 5:5; 10:5).

      1. Nathanael says:

        I’m glad we all agree that the Father and the Son are coequal. However, in rejecting the eternal generation of the Son and saying that all language of the Son being begotten refers to the incarnation you run into a problem with the way scripture describes the Son. The names used to describe the Son, like Word, Wisdom, Image, and indeed Son have in them the notion of from-ness: a son is from his father, a word is spoken by a speaker, wisdom is the wisdom of someone, an image is an image of an original. Now, not all of these can be passed off as describing the incarnation (Son and Word in particular) so the question is what to do with them.

        The answer given by the church fathers and put forth in the Nicene Creed is that the Son’s being from the Father is not grounds for seeing inequality but is rather the very ground of the unity and equality of Father and Son. Hence, the Son is said to be, “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light”. Now, if you can show a better way of holding together the scriptural witness both to the Son’s equality to the Father and his being from the Father I’d love to hear it. But as for me, I’m sticking with the Nicene Creed and 1500 years of trinitarian orthodoxy.

        1. steve hays says:

          “I’m glad we all agree that the Father and the Son are coequal.”

          Actually, we’re not all agreed on that. We see adherents of Nicene subordination who assert that that’s consistent with equality, in spite of the fact that if your very existence derives from another, if your very existence is contingent on another, then that’s essentially unequal. Just admit it.

          “saying that all language of the Son being begotten refers to the incarnation…”

          Two problems:

          i) If you’re alluding to monogenes, most modern Greek scholars deny that it means “only-begotten”. So I don’t know what you’re even referring to when you mention “all the language of the son being begotten.”

          ii) You fail to distinguish between sonship and generation. I, for one, don’t think all the sonship language refers to the Incarnation. Although some of the sonship language denotes the Davidic sonship of Christ, oftentimes the sonship language functions as a divine title, implying the deity of Christ. It depends on the context.

          “The names used to describe the Son, like Word, Wisdom, Image, and indeed Son have in them the notion of from-ness: a son is from his father, a word is spoken by a speaker, wisdom is the wisdom of someone, an image is an image of an original. Now, not all of these can be passed off as describing the incarnation.”

          i) For starters, you’re attacking a position that I, for one, haven’t taken. I haven’t said “sonship” and “image” categories refer to the Incarnation. I don’t know why you assume that’s the alternative to your own position.

          ii) “Wisdom” Christology is negligible in the NT. That’s not a major Christological category.

          Of course, God is wise. If Jesus is God, then Jesus is wise.

          And as far as wisdom goes, “wisdom” isn’t “from” someone. Rather, that’s integral to someone. It’s constitutive of who they are.

          Unless you mean how creatures exemplify divine wisdom in their design.

          iii) The “Word” is used as an economic title in Jn 1.

          iv) What Word, image, and sonship signify is representation. Words objectify thoughts. An image represents what it depicts. Sons resemble fathers (like father/like son).

  7. Andrew says:

    I think the real weakness of Warfield’s radical pactum salutis theory of trinitarian relations (the order derives from a pre-creation pact rather than the orders of subsistence) is revealed when we ask “how did God the Father save us?”
    Both Warfield and the traditional trinitarian can say that God the Father sent the Son but this becomes problematic for Warfield because he believes there is a more real version of the Trinity behind the revealed Trinity – and in that eternal Trinity the persons are peers. This means that the Father only acts as if he is sending the Son. Big problem.

  8. a. says:

    in any case, though we may come to fuller understanding, humbly, we acknowledge we can never fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity; but we comprehend the character of God – the only self-sufficient God; Who wants for and lacks nothing; Who is complete; Who was not lonely, not alone; and though He doesn’t need us, has decided to love us.

    “ I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me; I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God.”

  9. ChrisB says:

    It sounds like he’s not “wrong” so much as he doesn’t split all the hairs Swain thinks he ought to.

  10. steve hays says:

    According to the traditional doctrine of eternal generation, the entire reality of the Son derives from the Father. That’s a total cause/effect relation. The Son is the sheer, complete effect of generation.
    You need to stop and think how radical that dogma is.

    1. Andrew says:

      That’s not quite right. The Son doesn’t have a distinct *being* or *essence*. Rather the Father’s essence is *communicated* to him so they are one God.

  11. Nathanael says: “[I]n rejecting the eternal generation of the Son and saying that all language of the Son being begotten refers to the incarnation you run into a problem with the way scripture describes the Son.”

    Eternal Sonship and eternal /generation/ of Sonship are two different things. It’s one thing to say Jesus plays an eternal sonship role; it’s quite another thing to say he was/is “generated.” Steve is quite correct – and you’ve ignored the ramifications of what both he and I are saying – when he writes that the notion of “the Son deriv[ing] from the Father” is “a total cause/effect relation,” and that this notion is “radical”!

    Nathanael: “The names used to describe the Son, like Word, Wisdom, Image, and indeed Son have in them the notion of from-ness[.]”

    Very simply: please tell us how, in using the term “from-ness,” you can possibly avoid the logical conclusion that the Son is an “effect” of the Father – and therefore an inferior being?

    But beyond that – no, such terms /don’t/ necessitate “from-ness” anymore than our being the “dead to sin” means that, like a literal corpse, we’re unable to respond to sin’s temptations. As the saying goes: “All analogies break down.” What you’re doing is straining the Bible’s analogical language past the breaking point.

    Now, I have to immediate qualify what I just said. I do /not/ mean that Jesus “isn’t really” the Son of God, or that such language is “only metaphorical.” What I mean is that /not every element/ of human fatherhood or sonship is necessarily a feature of the Godhead just because “Father” and “Son” are used of two of Them.

    Despite the fact that a man and woman marry, have sex, and reproduce, it hardly follows that God the Son “marries” his “bride” (us) and has sex with that “bride” in order to reproduce. I’m uncomfortable even putting it that way, but I can’t think of a better way to convey what I’m arguing. Human marriage reflects the Christ-Church union; but obviously not every feature of human marriage is found in the Christ-Church union!

    Moreover, while a biblical argument can (perhaps) be made for an eternal Sonship of Christ – I challenge you to produce one verse that uses “beget” or similar wording /without/ specifically having the /Incarnation/ in view. In other words, if “eternal Sonship” is to be found in Scripture, it won’t use “generational” lingo to describe it.

    Nathanael: “The answer given by the church fathers and put forth in the Nicene Creed is that the Son’s being from the Father is not grounds for seeing inequality but is rather the very ground of the unity and equality of Father and Son.”

    Which makes precisely zero sense because it’s contradictory to the language the Nicenes chose to use in their formulation. You can /assert/ divine equality all you want – but the term “equality” simply doesn’t jive with the terms “beget” and “generate.” In the context of Trinitarian dogma, “equality” means a sharing of the divine essence, including /self-existence/. But if the Son is “generated” by the Father, then the Son /cannot/ be self-existent like the Father, but is instead /contingent/ on the Father – and therefore They are /unequal/.

    Nathanael: “Hence, the Son is said to be, ‘begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light’.”

    Except that the Bible doesn’t say that. Anywhere. Wherever the Bible speaks of Jesus having been “begotten” (or an equivalent Eng. trans.), it refers to his incarnation (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). These verses are of course citing Psa. 2:7, which is in the context of a Davidic psalm labeling the Israelite king the “Son” of Yahweh. (**I’ve left out those verses using /monogenes/, since it doesn’t refer to literal generation.)

    Nathanel: “Now, if you can show a better way of holding together the scriptural witness both to the Son’s equality to the Father and his being from the Father I’d love to hear it.”

    Easy: Jesus is “from” the Father in the sense that the Father /sent him/ into the world – i.e., ordered Jesus’ incarnation and earthly mission – so as to be our Saviour. So when Jesus says in John 16:28, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father,” he’s hardly talking about “eternal generation”; he’s talking about his /messianic mission/. If the phrase “from the Father” referred to preincarnate generation, then the phrase “going to the Father” would logically have to mean becoming UNgenerated!

    There is no verse of Scripture on “from-ness” (to use your term) that /doesn’t/ refer to Jesus’ messianic mission.

    Andrew says: “Both Warfield and the traditional trinitarian can say that God the Father sent the Son but this becomes problematic for Warfield because he believes there is a more real version of the Trinity behind the revealed Trinity – and in that eternal Trinity the persons are peers. This means that the Father only acts as if he is sending the Son. Big problem.”

    Not necessarily. Yes, God reveals Himself as the Father sending the Son – and both of Them, in turn, sending the Holy Spirit. But I seriously doubt such language requires us to draw ontological conclusions about the Godhead. This would only be the case if you could find a verse that reveals a preincarnation feature of the Godhead using the “Father” and “Son” language. I don’t think it can be done, frankly.

    1. Nathanael says:

      “Please tell us how, in using the term “from-ness,” you can possibly avoid the logical conclusion that the Son is an “effect” of the Father – and therefore an inferior being?”

      If you cannot understand my denial of this premise my suggestion would be to go and read the church fathers. Arius and Eunomius used the premise “generation entails inferiority” to deny the equality of Father and Son but Athanasius, et al. denied that the conclusion followed with the eternal generation of the Son because God is simple and His generation of the Son is not like human generation (see also Augustine quote above).

      But, you ask, is this comprehensible? It depends. Is God being both three and one comprehensible? After all, it is a denial of the commutative property. I admit that eternal generation is a profound mystery but given that I believe that God’s actions actually reveal God it is the most consistent way to hold together the revelation that the Son is sent with the revelation that he is equal to the Father.

      Now, your solution of denying that the Son is from the Father in any sense except the economic sending in the incarnation causes an epistemological problem in that the actions of God do not reveal God. You even end up appearing to deny that “Father” and “Son” refer properly to any relations in the Godhead. But this makes God virtually unkowable and disconnects God’s economy of salvation from God. I don’t see how you could give a reason why the Son became incarnate rather than the Father or the Spirit.

      Look, my position is simply that of the church fathers, medieval schoolmen, reformers, and the majority of folks after the Reformation. Virtually every Christian throughout the world and throughout the history of the church has confessed the Nicene Creed and hence the eternal generation of the Son (“begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God”). If you wish to reject the teaching of the universal church you can but please at least read some Gregory of Nazianzus or Basil of Caesarea or Gregory of Nyssa or Athanasius or Augustine first. At least try to understand why the nicene fathers believed as they did before you reject them.

      I don’t believe I can explain nicene theology in a comments section but I’ve given it a try, for whatever it’s worth.

      1. David Graham says:

        Nathanael,

        Thanks for this. I think you’ve made some excellent points. It’s unfortunate that, despite the resurgence of premodern thought in evangelical theology, Nicene trinitarianism still seems so badly misunderstood. I mean, I can respect those revisionists who are well-versed in historical theology (a Moltmann or a Jenson), But to reject Nicene orthodoxy because of its apparently obvious logical subordinationism…that’s a bit like criticizing Donald Trump for being too politically correct!

      2. Andrew says:

        Well said, Nathanael.

  12. Doug says:

    Would Trinitarian belief be considered an “essential” of the faith?

  13. Hopefully this will be my last post on this subject (though I invite Steve to chime in!), since I think we’re likely arrive at an impasse here anyway.

    Andrew says:

    Your analogies don’t apply here because they’re missing an essential feature of deity: self-existence; not being contingent on any other person or power. If Jesus “derives” from the Father, then Jesus is /contingent/ rather than self-existent.

    I don’t see any way out of that logical conclusion – other than to baldly assert that words like “derive” and “generate” don’t actually mean “derive” and “generate” as in normal English. And if that’s the route we take, then we’re following Alice down into the rabbit hole.

    > When God is called a “rock” it probably is a metaphor.

    “Probably” . . . ?

    We do /except/ where the analogies break down. Because they most certainly do. Hence the well known saying: “All analogies break down.”

    The Son definitely /is/ equal to the Father because he “shares in what God is” – but nowhere does the Bible state or even imply that the Son is equal to the Father /because/ he “comes from” the Father. The “from” language is /always/ in an incarnational and/or missional context.

    If I’m mistaken here, cite the verse that proves me wrong.

    You’re mistakenly assuming that “sonship” language “must” include the idea of generation or derivation. But that is to wrongly /equate/ the human experience of father-son multigenerational siring with the /divine/ experience of being divine. We’re all agreed that God created us “in His image” – but we’re also agreed (I should hope!) that this /doesn’t/ mean human beings are exactly like God in all respects! This is precisely why theologians speak of God’s “communicable” attributes vs. His “INcommunicable” attributes.

    “Deriving” and “generating” fit with human nature precisely because human beings are multigenerational: one generation generates the next. Since humanity /doesn’t/ share all attributes with God – why should we assume that reproductive generation is something we share with the Godhead?

    Which doesn’t logically require him to be “generated” by the Father. Again: the Nicenes springboarded off the language of Scripture by inserting their own /non sequiturs/.

    This is only the case with human beings because one generation generates the next. But the divine nature is simply /not/ like that. As I’ve already stated in another post, you and other pro-Nicenes are assuming that when Scripture uses an analogy for the Godhead, the Godhead “must” parallel every single feature of that analogy. But analogies /don’t/ require exhaustive parallelism.

    David Graham says:

    You’re absolutely right – but without knowing why you’re right. The reason my position “mirrors” the subordinationists is because both I and they can readily see what is self-evident: the logical implication of the terminology used by the Nicenes.

    The difference between me and the subordinationists, however, is something you also overlook. I reject the Nicene formulation because of the logical implication of their terminology: that it inadvertently lends support to subordinationism, which I also reject!

    In other words, the Arians /liked/ the language of the Nicenes because they correctly perceived what that language implies. But I /reject/ the language of the Nicenes for that very same reason: because it logically implies subordinationism.

    How are you defining “order”? Do you mean (a) orderly rather than chaotic, or (b) /sequential/ order, as in this-before-that?

    If you mean (a), then your statement is false. I’m arguing strictly about the verbs “generate” and “beget,” and what they logically imply in the context of normal English (presuming those are accurate renderings of the original language[s] of Nicea). Of course I side with the Nicenes against the Arians – but would point to the Nicenes’ own choice of terminology as being an unfortunate contributor to the problem!

    But if you mean (b), then your theology is incoherent. Or, to put it differently, the Nicene term “beget” /logically implies/ sequence, which in turn implies that the Father is noncontingent while the Son is contigent. This is likewise the implication of the Nicene Creed’s term /ek/, “out of” (in the line “begotten of the Father”), again implying that the Son’s being is derived from the Father’s.

    What “pressures”? No verse of Scripture uses “begotten” of the Son with respect to his preincarnate state; therefore no verse “pressures” me to accept the Nicene formulation. What this tells me is that the Nicenes just couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory way of expressing the dual nature of Christ. Was the Son submitted to the Father’s authority in eternity-past? That can certainly be argued with scriptural support – but without requiring the word “begotten.”

    In other words, an authority-hierarchy doesn’t require derivation of one person from another.

    If the Nicenes had simply remained silent where Scripture is silent, this specific issue would never have arisen.

    Only if we take Humpty Dumpty’s approach to language in /Through the Looking-Glass/. In everyday speech to say that one thing “generates” another /automatically/, with no controversy whatsoever, means that the second thing’s existence is /contingent/ on that of the first.

    If we then apply the very same term to the Godhead – but suddenly alter the definition of “generate” – then rather than illuminating reality, we obscure it with gobbledygook. Apparently Humpty Dumpty would’ve fit right in at Nicea.

    Said no Bible verse ever.

    False. It affirms the very opposite. Again: if one thing “generates” another, then the second thing MUST be contingent on the first – and therefore CANNOT “share self-existence” with it. For if the second thing had self-existence, it wouldn’t /need/ to be generated by the first thing.

    To reiterate: the Nicenes assert two opposing ideas that they /believe/ can coexist only because they’ve chosen to use ordinary terminology in a decidedly nonordinary way. If they’d simply chosen alternate terminology – or remained silent where the Bible is silent – we wouldn’t have run into this problem.

    Why would it be “peculiar to each”? It’s simply a shared divine nature. The operative word there is, of course, “shared.” There’s no /biblical/ need to use or entertain the word “peculiar.”

    Only if we supposed that any of his attributes are “exclusively” his own and “irrespective” of the other Members of the Godhead. But why are you assuming that a non-Nicene formulation “must” be thinking in terms of exclusivity and irrespectiveness?

    We have enough biblical revelation to assert with confidence that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit /share/ the divine nature – but not enough biblical data to comprehend /how/ they share that nature, or what specifically the “sharing” looks like.

    Why can’t we be satisfied with that? Why do we have to go /beyond/ Scripture – and, in some cases, logically contradict it – in order to turn our speculations into systematic theologies?

    Except that they weren’t. They were instead assuming that an analogy must be exhaustive.

    “Begotten” is only used in an incarnational context.

    It means precisely /nothing/ for those other revealed truths /if/, in fact, such terminology is nowhere used by the Bible when describing those other revealed truths. If it’s only ever used with respect to the Incarnation – then it’s only about the Incarnation.

    That’s not “my notion”; that’s just biblical revelation (Deut. 33:27; Psa. 90:2; 93:2; 102:24-27; Jer. 10:10; Hab. 1:12; Rom. 1:20, 23; 1Tim. 6:16; Heb. 9:14; 13:8; 1Jn. 5:20; Rev. 1:8).

    If eternality is an attribute of Yahweh, and if both the Father and the Son are Yahweh – then the Son possesses the very same eternality as the Father, rather than /deriving/ that eternality from the Father. Again: logically, the derived is contingent upon the underived. But contingency and self-existence cannot both be held by the same subject.

    Again: you can /say/ that – but it doesn’t change the ordinary meanings of those terms. The ordinary meanings of those terms militate against what you just asserted.

    And again: nowhere does Scripture speak of any sort of “dependency” by the Son upon the Father in a /pre/incarnate circumstance. All such language is /consistently/ used in the context of the Incarnation.

    But qualifying themselves is inferior to what they should have done: either be silent where Scripture is silent, or use /different terminology/ to express themselves on this point. If they’d used better terminology in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to qualify themselves by denying in the next breath the ordinary meanings of those words.

    Again: “begotten” is a term borne of the analogy with human fatherhood/sonship that inherently implies /contingency/. But contingency /cannot/ coexist with noncontingency.

    I have no quibble with the verb “proceeds” with regard to the Holy Spirit – but the prior language re. the Father and the Son necessarily implies that the Son’s existence is /contingent upon/ the Father’s. But since the Bible repeatedly speaks of Yahweh as being noncontingent (e.g., “from everlasting to everlasting”), and since the Son is Yahweh – then the Son must be noncontingent. But “begotten” necessarily implies contingency. Therefore “begotten” (when defined in the ordinary way) /cannot/ apply to the preincarnate Son in his normal, eternal state.

    Automatically, unavoidably implying contingency (unless we’re defining terms arbitrarily like Humpty Dumpty).

    This is Humpty Dumpty doublespeak; gobbledygook. In the first part of your sentence, you’re asserting one thing; in the second part, you’re denying the ordinary meaning of the words you just used in the first part. Therefore your sentence as a whole conveys precisely nothing.

    Why not instead use appropriate language in the first part – so that you don’t need a second part to qualify and redefine the first? Just use the right words in the first place!

    Said no Bible verse ever.

    Absolutely: use the terms of Scripture, in the same /context/ and with the same /nuance/ in which and with which Scripture uses them. No more; no less. So if the Bible uses “begotten,” for example, in an incarnational context – then don’t yank it out of that context and try to wedge it into a PREincarnate context where Scripture /never/ uses it.

    I should think this would be obvious to any objective interpreter of Scripture. But hey . . . (Shrug)

    Unfortunate choice of words there: “unoriginated,” applied uniquely to the Father, logically implies that the Son and the Holy Spirit are “originated” – and thus contingent beings.

    And yet nowhere does Scripture attest to it outside an incarnational context.

    That’s probably because they were attempting to convey two concepts that – if ordinary word-meanings are retained – contradict each other. Incoherence cannot be communicative. Hence being “badly misunderstood” is inevitable.

    Nathanael says:

    I agree with Arius and Eunomius that the term “generation” /does/ “entail inferiority” – which is precisely why Athanasius and co. should have (a) used different terminology to describe the eternal, ontological nature/relations of the Father and the Son, or else (b) remain silent where Scripture is silent. (And where Scripture is silent, is there any good reason to turn human speculation into official dogma???)

    Warfield appears to have gone the latter route, which I think is the wisest. In casual conversation I speculate about the divine nature on a regular basis – but I don’t actually /teach/ or /subscribe to/ those speculations as doctrine!

    False. “My solution” (i.e., what the Bible actually says, vs. human speculation) acknowledges God’s freedom in revealing what He wants, and concealing what He wants. In other words, pro-Nicenes want to know things about God’s being that Scripture simply doesn’t reveal. And rather than be satisfied with that, they take incarnational language and retroactively apply it where the Bible itself never applies such language.

    But that methodology doesn’t reveal anything about God at all. It only reveals human imagination.

    By contrast, “my solution” /does/ reveal something about God: it reveals (not on its own, but in conjunction with the full range of biblical data) (a) multiplicity within the Godhead; (b) God’s missional stance toward fallen humanity; (c) God’s wisdom in having the Son pay, through his death, the price for sin due to the Father – implying that the Father has authority over the Son; and (d) God’s wisdom in having believers spiritually united with his Son, such that he is our representative, and we will be glorified with him. Christ’s exaltation is a preview of our own.

    To reiterate all of that in the language of John 3:16: “God loved the world _in this way_” (not “so loved,” as in “this much”). In other words, the commissioning of the Son reveals God’s love for sinners, as well as His economy in dealing with their sin.

    And you’re saying all of that isn’t a revelation of anything about God…?

    Now why couldn’t the Father or the Spirit have become incarnated rather than the Son? Well, (a) the “sonship” language – while NOT paralleling /everything/ in a human father-son relationship – indicates that the Father has higher authority in the Godhead (and, less confidently but reasonably, that the Son has higher authority than the Spirit). (b) If redemption cannot be provided by sinners themselves, nor even angels, but only God – then it’s purely logical that the Higher Authority within the Godhead would be the Judge, while the Lesser Authority would be the Redeemer. Logically, if anyone’s holiness needs to be satisfied in payment for sin, it would be the holiness of the highest possible authority over the creation. Therefore the Father /could not/, logically and morally, be the Redeemer.

    But why the Son rather than the Holy Spirit? I would argue that (a) Scripture just doesn’t address this question; and (b) the Son is called the “Son” precisely due to the role Christ plays in making /us/ “sons” of God. Christ represents us so that we may be his “brothers,” adopted into sonship by the Father.

    If the Holy Spirit had played this role – then He wouldn’t have been called the “Holy Spirit”; He’d have been called the “Son.”

    WHY does Jesus play his peculiar role and the Holy Spirit another role? Scripture doesn’t say.

    But here’s a question for you: If Scripture simply doesn’t address this or that subject, why is it that so many theologians insist that our theologies address that subject in a dogmatic fashion?

    That’s fair – but it seems to me that they imported the Bible’s incarnational terminology into a /non/incarnational context. Relatedly, as I’ve already asked a couple of times in this thread: where does Scripture itself use “generational” language re. the Godhead in a /non/incarnational context?

    ChrisB says: “It sounds like [Warfield]’s not ‘wrong’ so much as he doesn’t split all the hairs Swain thinks he ought to.”

    Here, here!

    Doug says: “Would Trinitarian belief be considered an “essential” of the faith?”

    Absolutely – insofar as particular biblical statements are concerned. Not necessarily formulated in the same way as the Nicenes formulated it. Here’s the simplified way I normally formulate it:

    1. The Bible teaches there is but one God.
    2. The Father is God.
    3. The Son is God.
    4. The Holy Spirit is God.
    5. These Three are all God, yet distinct from each Other.

    1. Webmaster: Please delete my above post. I used in the wrong way, thus rendering the total post very confusing. Thank you!

  14. Hopefully this will be my last post on this subject (though I invite Steve to chime in!), since I think we’re likely arrive at an impasse here anyway.

    Andrew says:

    [[ Is it [unequal to be derivative]? So if I have some fire and set fire to something else, is the second blaze less hot or less truly fire? Is a human son less truly human than his father? I might concede your statement if you can nuance it more carefully (and the church Fathers such as Gregory Nazianzen would too), but not as it stands. ]]

    Your analogies don’t apply here because they’re missing an essential feature of deity: self-existence; not being contingent on any other person or power. If Jesus “derives” from the Father, then Jesus is /contingent/ rather than self-existent.

    I don’t see any way out of that logical conclusion – other than to baldly assert that words like “derive” and “generate” don’t actually mean “derive” and “generate” as in normal English. And if that’s the route we take, then we’re following Alice down into the rabbit hole.

    [[ When God is called a “rock” it probably is a metaphor. ]]

    “Probably” . . . ?

    [[ But when we hear that God loves, or God has a Son, we have good reason to read that analogically – or catalogically – because God is the patér from whom all patria derive their name. ]]

    We do /except/ where the analogies break down. Because they most certainly do. Hence the well known saying: “All analogies break down.”

    [[ Word, Image, radiance, stamp, son – these terms which we find in John 1, Col 1 and Heb 1 all point in the same direction. That is, the Son is equal with God because he comes from God and perfectly (naturally and eternally) shares in what God is. ]]

    The Son definitely /is/ equal to the Father because he “shares in what God is” – but nowhere does the Bible state or even imply that the Son is equal to the Father /because/ he “comes from” the Father. The “from” language is /always/ in an incarnational and/or missional context.

    If I’m mistaken here, cite the verse that proves me wrong.

    [[ In Hebrews 1 the logic seems to be that Jesus is a new kind of representative because of what he *is* – ie. a son. His ontological status as son, stamp and radiance are what allow him to function as the ultimate representative. ]]

    You’re mistakenly assuming that “sonship” language “must” include the idea of generation or derivation. But that is to wrongly /equate/ the human experience of father-son multigenerational siring with the /divine/ experience of being divine. We’re all agreed that God created us “in His image” – but we’re also agreed (I should hope!) that this /doesn’t/ mean human beings are exactly like God in all respects! This is precisely why theologians speak of God’s “communicable” attributes vs. His “INcommunicable” attributes.

    “Deriving” and “generating” fit with human nature precisely because human beings are multigenerational: one generation generates the next. Since humanity /doesn’t/ share all attributes with God – why should we assume that reproductive generation is something we share with the Godhead?

    [[ In John 1, Jesus again, is described as Word before his earthly mission. Word pertains both to his identity as God “in the beginning was the Word” and his role in creation – being the one *through whom* God creates. ]]

    Which doesn’t logically require him to be “generated” by the Father. Again: the Nicenes springboarded off the language of Scripture by inserting their own /non sequiturs/.

    [[ But on any normal reasoning the reason *why* a son is like his father is because he comes from him. ]]

    This is only the case with human beings because one generation generates the next. But the divine nature is simply /not/ like that. As I’ve already stated in another post, you and other pro-Nicenes are assuming that when Scripture uses an analogy for the Godhead, the Godhead “must” parallel every single feature of that analogy. But analogies /don’t/ require exhaustive parallelism.

    David Graham says:

    [[ From the perspective of pro-Nicene theology, your position lacks imagination and, ironically, mirrors the theological method of the subordinationists. ]]

    You’re absolutely right – but without knowing why you’re right. The reason my position “mirrors” the subordinationists is because both I and they can readily see what is self-evident: the logical implication of the terminology used by the Nicenes.

    The difference between me and the subordinationists, however, is something you also overlook. I reject the Nicene formulation because of the logical implication of their terminology: that it inadvertently lends support to subordinationism, which I also reject!

    In other words, the Arians /liked/ the language of the Nicenes because they correctly perceived what that language implies. But I /reject/ the language of the Nicenes for that very same reason: because it logically implies subordinationism.

    [[ Both your position and theirs takes for granted the incoherence of both eternal order and divine equality, but whereas they sided with order, you side with equality. ]]

    How are you defining “order”? Do you mean (a) orderly rather than chaotic, or (b) /sequential/ order, as in this-before-that?

    If you mean (a), then your statement is false. I’m arguing strictly about the verbs “generate” and “beget,” and what they logically imply in the context of normal English (presuming those are accurate renderings of the original language[s] of Nicea). Of course I side with the Nicenes against the Arians – but would point to the Nicenes’ own choice of terminology as being an unfortunate contributor to the problem!

    But if you mean (b), then your theology is incoherent. Or, to put it differently, the Nicene term “beget” /logically implies/ sequence, which in turn implies that the Father is noncontingent while the Son is contigent. This is likewise the implication of the Nicene Creed’s term /ek/, “out of” (in the line “begotten of the Father”), again implying that the Son’s being is derived from the Father’s.

    [[ But can this dichotomy adequately take stock of the pressures of the NT texts? ]]

    What “pressures”? No verse of Scripture uses “begotten” of the Son with respect to his preincarnate state; therefore no verse “pressures” me to accept the Nicene formulation. What this tells me is that the Nicenes just couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory way of expressing the dual nature of Christ. Was the Son submitted to the Father’s authority in eternity-past? That can certainly be argued with scriptural support – but without requiring the word “begotten.”

    In other words, an authority-hierarchy doesn’t require derivation of one person from another.

    If the Nicenes had simply remained silent where Scripture is silent, this specific issue would never have arisen.

    [[ So with respect to “self-existence,” I agree that it is an eternal attribute shared by all three persons. But eternal generation by no means logically compromises this. ]]

    Only if we take Humpty Dumpty’s approach to language in /Through the Looking-Glass/. In everyday speech to say that one thing “generates” another /automatically/, with no controversy whatsoever, means that the second thing’s existence is /contingent/ on that of the first.

    If we then apply the very same term to the Godhead – but suddenly alter the definition of “generate” – then rather than illuminating reality, we obscure it with gobbledygook. Apparently Humpty Dumpty would’ve fit right in at Nicea.

    [[ On the contrary, it is the Father’s very self-existence that is communicated in the act of filiation and spiration ]]

    Said no Bible verse ever.

    [[ Moreover, one could argue that this is the only way to maintain true coequality in that it affirms that the self-existence shared by each is identical. ]]

    False. It affirms the very opposite. Again: if one thing “generates” another, then the second thing MUST be contingent on the first – and therefore CANNOT “share self-existence” with it. For if the second thing had self-existence, it wouldn’t /need/ to be generated by the first thing.

    To reiterate: the Nicenes assert two opposing ideas that they /believe/ can coexist only because they’ve chosen to use ordinary terminology in a decidedly nonordinary way. If they’d simply chosen alternate terminology – or remained silent where the Bible is silent – we wouldn’t have run into this problem.

    [[ After all, what would be the consequence of positing a self-existence peculiar to each? ]]

    Why would it be “peculiar to each”? It’s simply a shared divine nature. The operative word there is, of course, “shared.” There’s no /biblical/ need to use or entertain the word “peculiar.”

    [[ If the self-existence of the Son was “his own” in the self of exclusively belonging to him as an individual, irrespective of the triune relations, are we not then swimming in the waters of tritheism? ]]

    Only if we supposed that any of his attributes are “exclusively” his own and “irrespective” of the other Members of the Godhead. But why are you assuming that a non-Nicene formulation “must” be thinking in terms of exclusivity and irrespectiveness?

    We have enough biblical revelation to assert with confidence that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit /share/ the divine nature – but not enough biblical data to comprehend /how/ they share that nature, or what specifically the “sharing” looks like.

    Why can’t we be satisfied with that? Why do we have to go /beyond/ Scripture – and, in some cases, logically contradict it – in order to turn our speculations into systematic theologies?

    [[ The church fathers would have vehemently argued that they are simply carrying through the logic of Scripture. ]]

    Except that they weren’t. They were instead assuming that an analogy must be exhaustive.

    [[ The NT uses Father-Son lingo, and it even uses the term begotten (though that is an arguable English translation). ]]

    “Begotten” is only used in an incarnational context.

    [[ The personal properties are a way of thinking through what this might mean in light of other revealed truths (that God is one, that each of the three is fully the one God). ]]

    It means precisely /nothing/ for those other revealed truths /if/, in fact, such terminology is nowhere used by the Bible when describing those other revealed truths. If it’s only ever used with respect to the Incarnation – then it’s only about the Incarnation.

    [[ Are they any less biblical than your notion of “inherent eternity as a feature of deity”? ]]

    That’s not “my notion”; that’s just biblical revelation (Deut. 33:27; Psa. 90:2; 93:2; 102:24-27; Jer. 10:10; Hab. 1:12; Rom. 1:20, 23; 1Tim. 6:16; Heb. 9:14; 13:8; 1Jn. 5:20; Rev. 1:8).

    If eternality is an attribute of Yahweh, and if both the Father and the Son are Yahweh – then the Son possesses the very same eternality as the Father, rather than /deriving/ that eternality from the Father. Again: logically, the derived is contingent upon the underived. But contingency and self-existence cannot both be held by the same subject.

    [[ There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying that the Son is dependent on the Father, as long as we very carefully clarify how that dependency is incommensurable with creature-Creator dependency. ]]

    Again: you can /say/ that – but it doesn’t change the ordinary meanings of those terms. The ordinary meanings of those terms militate against what you just asserted.

    And again: nowhere does Scripture speak of any sort of “dependency” by the Son upon the Father in a /pre/incarnate circumstance. All such language is /consistently/ used in the context of the Incarnation.

    [[ Indeed, the whole point of the famous “eternally begotten” and “not made” phrases in the Nicene Creed was to reject any kind of subordinationism that would make the Son less than what the Father is. ]]

    But qualifying themselves is inferior to what they should have done: either be silent where Scripture is silent, or use /different terminology/ to express themselves on this point. If they’d used better terminology in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to qualify themselves by denying in the next breath the ordinary meanings of those words.

    Again: “begotten” is a term borne of the analogy with human fatherhood/sonship that inherently implies /contingency/. But contingency /cannot/ coexist with noncontingency.

    [[ At the same time, to be begotten is to affirm a certain kind of dependency: The Father is the source without a source, the Son is the one whose being is eternally given by/from (i.e. begotten of) the Father, and the Spirit is the one whose existence proceeds from both. ]]

    I have no quibble with the verb “proceeds” with regard to the Holy Spirit – but the prior language re. the Father and the Son necessarily implies that the Son’s existence is /contingent upon/ the Father’s. But since the Bible repeatedly speaks of Yahweh as being noncontingent (e.g., “from everlasting to everlasting”), and since the Son is Yahweh – then the Son must be noncontingent. But “begotten” necessarily implies contingency. Therefore “begotten” (when defined in the ordinary way) /cannot/ apply to the preincarnate Son in his normal, eternal state.

    [[ To put it another way, the Father is the reason for the Son’s existence . . . ]]

    Automatically, unavoidably implying contingency (unless we’re defining terms arbitrarily like Humpty Dumpty).

    [[ . . . but in an eternal, divine way, not in the same way that I cause my children to be. ]]

    This is Humpty Dumpty doublespeak; gobbledygook. In the first part of your sentence, you’re asserting one thing; in the second part, you’re denying the ordinary meaning of the words you just used in the first part. Therefore your sentence as a whole conveys precisely nothing.

    Why not instead use appropriate language in the first part – so that you don’t need a second part to qualify and redefine the first? Just use the right words in the first place!

    [[ The Son is from the Father but not after him; he proceeds as one sharing his begetter’s identical being. ]]

    Said no Bible verse ever.

    [[ [A]re there better alternative explanations that don’t lead to a gospel-denying modalism? ]]

    Absolutely: use the terms of Scripture, in the same /context/ and with the same /nuance/ in which and with which Scripture uses them. No more; no less. So if the Bible uses “begotten,” for example, in an incarnational context – then don’t yank it out of that context and try to wedge it into a PREincarnate context where Scripture /never/ uses it.

    I should think this would be obvious to any objective interpreter of Scripture. But hey . . . (Shrug)

    [[ They are each identical in nature, attributes, will, knowledge, etc., yet they are related to one another in different, ordered ways (Father as unoriginated origin, Son and Spirit as proceeding eternally from him). ]]

    Unfortunate choice of words there: “unoriginated,” applied uniquely to the Father, logically implies that the Son and the Holy Spirit are “originated” – and thus contingent beings.

    [[ This was the view received as biblical and thus orthodox by the vast majority of churches. ]]

    And yet nowhere does Scripture attest to it outside an incarnational context.

    [[ It’s unfortunate that, despite the resurgence of premodern thought in evangelical theology, Nicene trinitarianism still seems so badly misunderstood. ]]

    That’s probably because they were attempting to convey two concepts that – if ordinary word-meanings are retained – contradict each other. Incoherence cannot be communicative. Hence being “badly misunderstood” is inevitable.

    Nathanael says:

    [[ Arius and Eunomius used the premise “generation entails inferiority” to deny the equality of Father and Son but Athanasius, et al. denied that the conclusion followed with the eternal generation of the Son because God is simple and His generation of the Son is not like human generation ]]

    I agree with Arius and Eunomius that the term “generation” /does/ “entail inferiority” – which is precisely why Athanasius and co. should have (a) used different terminology to describe the eternal, ontological nature/relations of the Father and the Son, or else (b) remain silent where Scripture is silent. (And where Scripture is silent, is there any good reason to turn human speculation into official dogma???)

    Warfield appears to have gone the latter route, which I think is the wisest. In casual conversation I speculate about the divine nature on a regular basis – but I don’t actually /teach/ or /subscribe to/ those speculations as doctrine!

    [[ Now, your solution of denying that the Son is from the Father in any sense except the economic sending in the incarnation causes an epistemological problem in that the actions of God do not reveal God. . . . I don’t see how you could give a reason why the Son became incarnate rather than the Father or the Spirit. ]]

    False. “My solution” (i.e., what the Bible actually says, vs. human speculation) acknowledges God’s freedom in revealing what He wants, and concealing what He wants. In other words, pro-Nicenes want to know things about God’s being that Scripture simply doesn’t reveal. And rather than be satisfied with that, they take incarnational language and retroactively apply it where the Bible itself never applies such language.

    But that methodology doesn’t reveal anything about God at all. It only reveals human imagination.

    By contrast, “my solution” /does/ reveal something about God: it reveals (not on its own, but in conjunction with the full range of biblical data) (a) multiplicity within the Godhead; (b) God’s missional stance toward fallen humanity; (c) God’s wisdom in having the Son pay, through his death, the price for sin due to the Father – implying that the Father has authority over the Son; and (d) God’s wisdom in having believers spiritually united with his Son, such that he is our representative, and we will be glorified with him. Christ’s exaltation is a preview of our own.

    To reiterate all of that in the language of John 3:16: “God loved the world _in this way_” (not “so loved,” as in “this much”). In other words, the commissioning of the Son reveals God’s love for sinners, as well as His economy in dealing with their sin.

    And you’re saying all of that isn’t a revelation of anything about God…?

    Now why couldn’t the Father or the Spirit have become incarnated rather than the Son? Well, (a) the “sonship” language – while NOT paralleling /everything/ in a human father-son relationship – indicates that the Father has higher authority in the Godhead (and, less confidently but reasonably, that the Son has higher authority than the Spirit). (b) If redemption cannot be provided by sinners themselves, nor even angels, but only God – then it’s purely logical that the Higher Authority within the Godhead would be the Judge, while the Lesser Authority would be the Redeemer. Logically, if anyone’s holiness needs to be satisfied in payment for sin, it would be the holiness of the highest possible authority over the creation. Therefore the Father /could not/, logically and morally, be the Redeemer.

    But why the Son rather than the Holy Spirit? I would argue that (a) Scripture just doesn’t address this question; and (b) the Son is called the “Son” precisely due to the role Christ plays in making /us/ “sons” of God. Christ represents us so that we may be his “brothers,” adopted into sonship by the Father.

    If the Holy Spirit had played this role – then He wouldn’t have been called the “Holy Spirit”; He’d have been called the “Son.”

    WHY does Jesus play his peculiar role and the Holy Spirit another role? Scripture doesn’t say.

    But here’s a question for you: If Scripture simply doesn’t address this or that subject, why is it that so many theologians insist that our theologies address that subject in a dogmatic fashion?

    [[ At least try to understand why the nicene fathers believed as they did before you reject them. ]]

    That’s fair – but it seems to me that they imported the Bible’s incarnational terminology into a /non/incarnational context. Relatedly, as I’ve already asked a couple of times in this thread: where does Scripture itself use “generational” language re. the Godhead in a /non/incarnational context?

    ChrisB says: “It sounds like [Warfield]’s not ‘wrong’ so much as he doesn’t split all the hairs Swain thinks he ought to.”

    Here, here!

    Doug says: “Would Trinitarian belief be considered an “essential” of the faith?”

    Absolutely – insofar as particular biblical statements are concerned. Not necessarily formulated in the same way as the Nicenes formulated it. Here’s the simplified way I normally formulate it:

    1. The Bible teaches there is but one God.
    2. The Father is God.
    3. The Son is God.
    4. The Holy Spirit is God.
    5. These Three are all God, yet distinct from each Other.

  15. Robin Reeve says:

    Hi all,
    Thanks to all of you for that very interesting and essential debate!
    First, forgive me if I don’t express myself in the best English: my main language is French.
    Second, I am not a specialist in systematic theology – I teach OT and hebrew in my seminary, so I hope the following lines won’t seem too clumsy.

    I confess the Nicene creed, even though I reckon that the mystery of Trinity makes difficult the formulation of the relationships within God.

    There are two aspects which mustn’t be mixed up: God’s nature and his persons.

    The filiation and spiration are – please correct me – about the relations between the persons.
    When it comes to the nature of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, all are “autotheos”, God by themselves.
    None derives his essence from another, and all fully share the same essence (with all the attributes which describe it).

    So, following what I have stated, the Father, Son and Spirit differenciations are relational.
    If the interrelations between the persons of God are expressed by notions like “begotten” or “generated”, they are not ontological, but relational.
    After that, I reckon that those notions keep a great part of mystery and that is where I have open questions.

    I am aware of the debate between complementarians and equalitarians, but I don’t think that we should found our idea of how God wants men and women to interrelate upon a too narrow application of the relations between the persons of the Trinity. So I will keep away from that debate.

    Now I am stepping on a fragile road, as I am trying to push my reflexion about the relationships between the persons of God.
    Could we say that, as much as the Son is the Son because of his eternal generation by the Father, that the Father is the Father because of it too?
    I mean that both Father and Son mutually differenciate themselves: neither can be without the other.
    The same could be said of the double procession (or spiration) of the Spirit.
    This can fully preserve the ontological equality of the three Persons, while differenciating them.

    Of course, this begs the question of what exactly differentiates them.
    After what I have read, no human analogy is fully satisfying and, whatever further explanations or images we use, we are left with the confession of a (bright!) mystery.

    Another aspect of Trinity is the order between the Persons.
    I am facing a riddle, so if some comments could help me sort things out, I really would be grateful.
    If the order is hierarchic, it could lead to a differenciation of wills in God: the Father wills, so the Son obeys (which would imply a differenciated will).
    As much as Jesus incarnated clearly has two wills (human will submitting to God’s will), I think that classic Trinitarian faith confesses one will in God.

    So could we consider that what the Father wills, the Son wills simultaneously?
    Which can lead to the notion that God, as a Trinity, decided to create the world and to redeem it?
    The Father sent the Son, not because the Son submitted to the (differentiated) will of the Father, but because the Holy Trinity, in its perfect wisdom, organised itself so that the Son would incarnate himself and carry out our salvation.
    This would avoid making the Father more God than the other persons, when it comes to the expression of the will.

    Please see in my thoughts and questions a sincere quest to understand the interrelations between the Persons of the Trinity.

    Thanks in advance for the input.

  16. Acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity logically leads to the theory of trinitarian relations of Thomas Aquinas, or otherwise the very names “Father”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit” will become arbitrary and senseless. Yet there is important evidence tha trinitarian interpretation of the NT is a huge misconception, as was pointed out by James Dunn, in his important work: Christology in the Making

    1. Geert ter Horst says:

      [[ Acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity logically leads to the theory of trinitarian relations of Thomas Aquinas, or otherwise the very names “Father”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit” will become arbitrary and senseless. ]]

      I don’t claim to be as familiar with Aquinas’s formulation as I should be, but if this blog–
      http://www.aquinasblog.com/16-trinity.html
      –accurately summarizes it, then I’d have to staunchly /disagree/ with Aquinas.

      I don’t see why Trinitarian doctrine logically necessitates Aquinas’s formulation – which, IMO, overlooks the very strongly personal interaction between the Members of the Godhead as seen in the New Testament. Again, if that blog is correct, then Aquinas’s version of the Trinity is /exactly/ parallel to a human being’s knowledge of, and “relationship with,” oneself – which, if applied to the NT interactions between the Members of the Godhead, would be patently ridiculous. Sure, I have self-knowledge, but if I were speaking to myself as Jesus does to the Father (especially in Gethsemane), it would mean I was /insane/.

      So no: Aquinas’s formulation simply cannot account for the full range of biblical data.

      {{ Yet there is important evidence tha trinitarian interpretation of the NT is a huge misconception, as was pointed out by James Dunn, in his important work: Christology in the Making ]]

      The bottom line is abundantly clear from the full range of biblical data:

      1. There is one God, whose name is Yahweh.
      2a. The Father is Yahweh.
      2b. The Son is Yahweh.
      2c. The Holy Spirit is Yahweh.
      3. These Three are referred to as, in some sense, “individuals,” and are depicted as interacting with one another in a way that goes FAR beyond any sort of “self-talk” in which I as a human being might sanely engage.
      4. Therefore Yahweh is 3-in-1.

      This is the unavoidable logical conclusion of biblical revelation. We either accept that as part of God’s total self-revelation in Scripture — or we chuck the Bible out the window and subscribe to some other religion or philosophy.

      1. Aquinas’ conception of the Trinity is based on the requirement of maintaining the Unity of the Divine Substance, which completely denies a plurality of Gods and internal composition. A plurality of Gods leads to external causal relations between them, and thus destroys divine sovereignty. Internal composition has as similar effect, since in a whole there always relations of dependency between the parts. Thus no part of a presumed ‘divine whole’ can truly be God for dependency excludes divinity. That’s the reason why Aquinas holds that the only ‘solution’ of the trinitarian problem is to be found in the identification of the divine persons with their mutual relations of Fathership, Sonship and Spiration. These relations are not causal. The Father doesn’t cause the Son, for the Father can never be Father without the Son. While in created reality a person is distinct from his relationship of fathership or sonship, this cannot be so in God, since there’s nothing else in God except the dvine substance and the relations. The divine persons must therefore be identical with their internal relationships.

  17. Andrew says:

    Hi Robin Reeve,
    Great observations and questions. I perceive that you have been reading your Calvin with that comment about “autotheos”.

    You are quite right to say that “none derives his essence from another, and all fully share the same essence”. But it is also true to say that the Son receives the Father’s essence, because that it what sonship is. True fatherhood and sonship always involve a communication (or prolation cf. Tertullian) of a single essence, not a derivation of one essence from another.

    “Could we say that, as much as the Son is the Son because of his eternal generation by the Father, that the Father is the Father because of it too?”
    Yes, exactly. This is what the Fathers and Scholastics have always maintained. The dependence of the Father and Son is like a sun and its radiance: without the sun there is no radiance; without the radiance it is not a sun.

    “So could we consider that what the Father wills, the Son wills simultaneously?”
    Yes, but the doctors would want to maintain that will follows the same pattern as essence. There is one will of God which issues from the Father and is wholly expressed in the Son. Thus they want exactly the same, yet it is also true that the Son does the Father’s will.

    So Basil says: “…[the Son’s] will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand …[the Father] giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son. He shines forth from the Father, and does all things according to the likeness of Him that begat Him.
    (Basil, On the Holy Spirit Chapter 8)

    This fits with what Calvin says too, of course:
    …to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things; to the Son wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of action belong to the Spirit. (Institutes, 1.XIII. 18)

  18. Andrew says:

    Hi Andy,
    I sympathise with your suspicion that we have reached an impasse. I’m sure none of us will believe we have convinced you if you do not respond – and vice versa ;-) I’ll just respond to a couple of your points.

    Your analogies don’t apply here because they’re missing an essential feature of deity: self-existence; not being contingent on any other person or power. If Jesus “derives” from the Father, then Jesus is /contingent/ rather than self-existent … nowhere does the Bible state or even imply that the Son is equal to the Father /because/ he “comes from” the Father. The “from” language is /always/ in an incarnational and/or missional context.

    Now I won’t press Hebrews 1, though I remain convinced it does link equality with derivation. But there’s more to be said here. Aseity is not simply a matter of self existence, it’s also about the source of the acts of God: is there one source of divine action/power/will or more? If there’s more than one aseity (ie. if the persons each have their own) then we have more than one God.

    Now you might try to resolve this by saying that there is one aseity which is expressed or manifest in the three persons. That could work. But what is important to note is that the NT consistently resolves it in a different way. Instead of imagining a fourth super-person (or meta-person) behind the three persons it has God the Father himself in that place working through the Son by his Spirit.

    Thus we see God creating through his Son/Word (John 1; Col 1; Heb 1). Thus Paul says in 1Cor 8:6 that “all things” come from God the Father and “through” the Lord Jesus. If Richard Bauckham (and others) are right this is Paul’s reinterpretation of the Shema (Deut 6:4). For Christians, the one God of Israel is God the Father expressing himself through his Son.

    So I’m trying to make two points:

    1. Both the orthodox approach and anti-Nicene trinitarianism make the persons in some sense logically subordinate to a single divinity that the persons share. That means it can’t be inherently problematic to be God through participation.

    2. Making the Father the source of divine sending is just as problematic as making him the source of the divine essence. If the Son relies on the Father to direct him then he is not a se as to his acting (and of course if he doesn’t rely on the Father then the Father is redundant).

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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