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Up to this point I’ve not attempted to make any contribution to the Trinitarian debates that have been cascading across the internet (and beyond) for the past several months. My public silence on the issue—and I’ve talked at length in private with many individuals—has been owing to three factors.

1. I was on study leave for a good chunk of the summer and simply haven’t had the time to put pen to paper (as it were). Time is always an issue when it comes to these kinds of debates, especially when the discussion is constantly growing and incredibly technical.

2. I am not an expert in fourth century-Patristic thought, nor am I an expert in Trinitarian theology more broadly. My area of academic interest and specialization has focused on Late Reformed Orthodoxy of the seventeenth century, through the Scottish Kirk of the eighteenth century, into the origins of Old Princeton in the nineteenth century. Not irrelevant to the debate, but not at the heart of it either. I have been trying to sit back and learn from theologians and historians who know more than I do.

3. There are friends and people I respect on both sides of this debate. Does that mean we should never enter the fray when friends are involved? Of course not. But if we’re honest, most of us (though not all!) are more cautious about throwing elbows if we think we might hit someone we know. Let’s not forget—and I’m speaking to myself here too—that on the other side of the internet connection are real people who often feel the barbs and the snark and the accusations more than we realize. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize. It does mean we should pursue the mind and heart of Christ at all times, especially when we criticize.

So why I am writing something now? For the simple reason that I am hearing from more people in my own congregation who want to know what to make of this kerfuffle over the Trinity. Twitter demands to “say something!” mean little to me. Honest theological questions from my church family mean a lot.

Opening Reflections: Now and Then

I won’t try to summarize the debate—there have been hundreds of posts and tweets and comments back and forth—except to say from the outset that I think there are important ways in which some proponents of the “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), or “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS), or “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) are out of step with the Reformed tradition.

This is what I wrote in my (now out of print) book Freedom and Boundaries:

The Father and the Son share the same essence and rank, and yet in their relationship, the Son submits to the Father while the Father never submits to the Son. No inferiority. No inequality. Yet, different roles. Granted, complementarians sometimes speak too quickly about the “eternal subordination of the Son.” It is better to say that there has always been an “order” (taxis) in the Trinity—an order not of rank, but of well-arranged relationships. The Father sends the Son, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit, and the relations are not reversible. Mutuality and equality exist in the Trinity alongside a divinely instituted order. Calvin writes, “For even though we admit that in respect to order and degree the beginning of divinity is in the Father, yet we say it is a detestable invention that essence [being] is proper to the Father alone, as if he were the deifier of the Son.” With the Trinity as our model, then, we understand that authority and God-given order in the church, or, headship and submission in marriage, are not inconsistent with equality of personhood. (61)

I’m somewhat pleased with this paragraph, which I first wrote back in 2003 or 2004 when I was 26 or 27 years old (the book was later published in 2006). On the one hand, if we are talking about the economic Trinity—the activity of God and the work of the three Persons in creation and redemption—we can certainly say (as I did) that the Son submits to the Father, while the Father does not submit to the Son. We should not cry foul every time we see the word “submission.” That point notwithstanding, I have never been comfortable with the language of eternal subordination, and I’m glad I said so in print ten years ago

On the other hand, the biggest thing I would change is steering clear of the Trinitarian analogy altogether as a defense of complementarianism. I do think there is an important point to be made from the God-Christ parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:3—namely, that headship does not imply ontological inferiority. But even here we should be careful to note, as Carlton Wynne recently brought to my attention, that there is an “economic” expression of the Son in view in verse 3 (“Christ”), not an immanent or ontological expression. On balance, I would no longer try to use the Trinity “as our model” for the marriage relationship, both because it is not necessary for complementarianism to be true and because the metaphysical inner workings (if that’s the right term) of the ineffable Trinity do not readily allow for easy lifestyle applications. In fact, it is striking how the New Testament often grounds ethical imperatives in the gospel (e.g., marriage as an outworking of Christ and the church), but never in the eternal “ordering” of God.

Furthermore, I do not think the talk of “roles” is the best way to speak of the eternal distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity. There is a way that “role” can be an appropriate term, if we mean that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not interchangeable in the work they accomplish and in what they accomplish. But I’m more skittish about “role” language than I used to be. It can too easily undermine important doctrines like:

  • the simplicity of God (the idea that God is not the composite of parts and that whatever each Person is singly, the whole Trinity is together),
  • the unity of the divine will (the idea that though God exists in three Persons, the Triune God does not have three separate wills—a necessary doctrine if the three Persons share the same nature, since “will” is a property of nature not of persons),
  • and the inseparable operations of the Trinity (the idea that the external works of the Trinity are indivisible, that each Person is operative in all God’s external works).

Traditionally, the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished—and they are distinct (which suggests three hypostases) not different (which would suggest another ousia)—is not by roles or by eternal relations of authority and submission, but by paternity, filiation, and spiration. To put it another way, the Father is the Father (and not the Son or the Spirit), the Son is the Son (and not the Father or the Spirit), and the Spirit is the Spirit (and not the Father or the Son) by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father, the Son’s generation from the Father, and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.

I’ll come back to the significance of this language at the end, but first—with the theology of the preceding paragraph in mind—let’s try to get a sense for how the Persons of the Trinity have been described in the Reformed tradition.

The Trinity in the Reformed Tradition

Obviously, it would be beyond the scope of a blog post to canvass the entire Reformed tradition and its explanation of the Trinity. Instead, I want to focus doctrinally on the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished and focus historically on a few Reformed representatives. To that end I’ve chosen five theologians from five different centuries: Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) from the sixteenth century, Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) whose Christian Theology came out at the end of the seventeenth century, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) whose systematic theology was published at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) from the nineteenth century, and Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) from the twentieth century. Why these five? For starters, because I have them on my shelf! But also because they come from different regions (German, Swiss, Dutch, American), over different centuries, and represent two different streams of Reformed theology in America: the Dutch tradition through Berkhof (who condensed and summarized Bavinck, with roots in à Brakel) and the Old Princeton tradition (which came to fruition in Hodge, who was influenced by Francis Turretin and Turretin’s successor in Geneva, Benedict Pictet).

1. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1591)

In his explanation and defense of the divinity of Christ, Ursinus raises and refutes a number of “sophisms of heretics against the eternal Deity of the Son” (200-201). The eighth sophism is that “The Son has a head and is less than the Father. Therefore he is not one and the same essence with the Father.” To this Ursinus replies, “The Son has a head in respect to his human nature, and his office as mediator. These things, however, do not detract any thing from his Divinity.” Similarly, in responding to the eleventh sophism, Ursinus argues that “The Father, therefore, is greater than the Son, not as to his essence, in which the Son is equal with the Father, but as to his office and human nature.” And later, he adds, “Inequality of office does not take away equality of nature of persons.”

This discussion of the Son’s divinity flows from Ursinus’s analysis of the Trinity. Ursinus asks a question we will come back to throughout this post: “How are the three Persons of the Godhead distinguished?” They are distinguished, he answers, in two ways: (1) by their works ad intra and (2) by their mode of operating ad extra.

The first point has to do with the way in which the three Persons relate to one another. As one God, the three Persons are distinguished not by essential properties (characteristics related to essence) but by their personal properties (sometimes called “incommunicable properties); namely, that the Father exists of himself, the Son is begotten eternally from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. In this sense, there is an “order” in the Trinity. The Father is the first person because he is the fountain of divinity. The Son is the second person because the Deity is communicated to him from the Father. And the Spirit is the third person because the Deity is communicated to him from the Father and the Son. None of this means that the Son or the Spirit became God; generation and procession are from eternity (135).

The second point about ad extra, which has to do with how the three Persons operate out of themselves toward their creatures, follows from the first point about ad intra. Ursinus argues that while all the works toward their creatures come by the common will and power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet at the same time there is an order to their inseparable external operations. The Father works by the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the Son and the Spirit do not work by themselves. In their external operations, the Father sends the Son, and the Son works through the Spirit, sending him from the Father. In other words, the Son and the Spirit were “sent into the world, not because they began to exist where they did not exist before; but because they accomplished in the world what was the will of the Father, and showed themselves present and efficacious according to the will of the Father” (137).

2. Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology (1696)

In distinguishing between the three Persons of the Trinity, Pictet explains that we are determining what can be said of the Father that cannot be said of the Son, and what can be said of the Spirit that cannot be said of the Father and Son (and so on). Like Ursinus, Pictet relies on generation and procession to make these distinctions: “The Father is said to have begotten the Son; but the Son is no where said to send the Father. The Spirit is said to proceed from the Father, and to be sent by the Son; but no where is the Father said to proceed from, nor the Son to be sent by, the Spirit” (99).

Pictet is careful to safeguard the equality of the three Persons even in the midst of these distinctions. Eternal generation (which Pictet claims no mortal can fully comprehend) distinguishes the Son from the Father, but it does not make the Son something less than the Father. “Again,” Pictet writes, “if the Son is said in any passage to be inferior to the Father, and to work by the power of Father, such passage only shows that there is something in Christ besides the divine nature, viz. the human nature, according to which he is inferior to the Father, and also that there is a certain order of operation between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and a kind of economy; but it by no means proves that Christ, as God, is inferior to the Father” (107). The Father is placed first because he begets the Son and together with the Son sends the Spirit, but he is not before the Son or the Spirit in age or time, nor does he excel them in dignity, glory, majesty, or power. In short, the three Persons share the same perfections (101).

3. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700)

According to à Brakel, there is more to Nicene orthodoxy than an affirmation of a shared essence. All three Persons of the Trinity must be described as having not only co-essence (homoousia), but also co-equality (isotes) and co-existence (emperichoresis). The Persons are distinguished from each other, but not different: “They coexist as one God, in simplicity of Being” (1:145).

So how, then, are the Persons to be distinguished? à Brakel lists five ways: (1) in personal properties, (2) in names, (3) in order, (4) in the manner of existence, and (5) in the manner of operation. Of these five distinctions, the first is the most important because it is the foundation for the other four. In keeping with the Reformed (and orthodox) tradition, à Brakel relies on the personal properties to distinguish among the three Persons of the Godhead. “This one divine Being subsists in three Persons, not collaterally or side-by-side, but rather the one Person exists by virtue of the other Person either by way of generation or procession” (1:141). Or again, “the Father generates; the Son is generated; and together with the Father sends the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, whose manner of operation is described in Scripture as ‘breathing’” (1:147). The way in which the three Persons operate in the world, the order in which they are named, and even the names themselves (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) find their basis in paternity, filiation, and spiration/procession (1:161-62).

Given this emphasis, à Brakel makes sure there is no confusion about the nature of generation and procession. “The words ‘generate’ and ‘proceed’ neither suggest superiority or inferiority nor the transformation from nothing to something, for all this is an eternal relation” (1:174). The Father may operate of his own existence, the Son from the Father, and the Spirit from the Father and the Son, but this does not imply dependence or imperfection among the members of the Trinity (1:175). Over and over à Brakel reminds us that we are dealing with mysteries that cannot be fully explained and must not be understood by way of human analogy.

One other point bears mentioning. In his explanation of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), à Brakel asks how there can be a transaction between the Father and the Son since they are one in essence and have one will and objective? He says in reply, “As far as Personhood is concerned the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. From this consideration the one divine will can be viewed from a twofold perspective. It is the Father’s will to redeem by agency of the second Person as Surety, and it is the will of the Son to redeem by His own agency as Surety” (1:252). On the one hand, then, à Brakel allows that we should not so emphasize the one will of God as to erase the eternal covenant made between the Father and the Son. At the same time, it is striking that à Brakel never describes the pactum in terms of authority and submission. Rather, the Father and the Son commit to the same objective by means appropriate to their own personal properties.

4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871-73)

Hodge also distinguishes the three Persons—which he insists are “one God, and therefore have one mind and will”—according to their personal properties. “Paternity, therefore, is the distinguishing property of the Father; filiation of the Son; and procession of the Spirit” (1:461). These are the facts of Scripture, Hodge asserts, and affirmed by the ecumenical creeds, although no attempt can be made to fully explain these mysteries.

Like Ursinus, à Brakel, and Pictet, Hodge is eager to safeguard the equality of the three Persons, making clear that they share the same essence and the same “infinite perfections” (1:460). Hodge differs, however, in employing the word “subordination” to describe the ordering of the Son and the Father and the ordering between the Spirit and the Father and Son. This subordination “does not imply inferiority,” but only “concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and the Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit” (1:461). The sameness of essence precludes all notions of priority and superiority as to being and perfections among the three Persons, but “it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation” (1:464). Hodge goes so far as to say, “We have here the three essential facts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity; namely, unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination without any attempt at explanation” (1:467). Clearly, Hodge believes in some kind of subordination of the Son and the Spirit. Whether he means the same thing as contemporary proponents of the term, and something different from the earlier Reformed tradition, is a question we will come back to at the end.

5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938)

There is little in Berkhof’s explanation of the Trinity that should surprise anyone familiar with the Reformed tradition. He affirms that there is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence, and that in this Being there are three Divine Persons or individual subsistences (87). On this latter point, Berkhof helpfully reminds us that there are not three individuals in the Godhead, alongside of and separate from each other, but rather “personal self-distinctions within the Divine essence” (87). Perhaps this is why theologians in the Reformed tradition tend to talk of order and operations instead of roles and relationships. The first pair of terms suggests self-distinctions, while the second pair suggests separate individuals.

Berkhof affirms that the three Persons are “marked by a certain definite order.” This is not an order pertaining to time or essential dignity, only to subsistence and operation. From here, Berkhof makes the same points Ursinus made four centuries prior about unbegottenness, generation, and spiration ad intra and the unified but ordered works of creation and redemption ad extra. In other words, Berkhof argues that the three Persons are distinguished not by essence or perfections, but (1) by their personal properties and (2) by the way in which the works of the Triune God are presented to us in Scripture as coming from the Father through the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Summarizing the Reformed Tradition

Although there are important differences among the five authors selected, the substance of the doctrine is remarkably similar across the centuries, so much so that I think we are safe to highlight a number of points as being central to the doctrine of the Trinity in the Reformed tradition.

  1. The three Persons are distinguished by their personal properties: by the Father’s paternity (or unbegottenness, or agennesia), the Son’s generation (or filiation), and the Spirit’s procession (or spiration, or being sent).
  2. We are right, therefore, to speak of a certain order (taxis) in the Trinity. In this way, in a very qualified sense, some have spoken of the Father being greater than the Son, or the Son being subordinate to the Father.
  3. This language, however, if used at all, is always carefully guarded so as not to undermine the unity of the Persons as having one essence and one will and sharing in all the same perfections. There can be no dependence or contingency in the immanent Trinity.
  4. The three Persons are also distinguished by their economic, voluntarily willed modes of operation: in the one work of the Triune God, the Father works by the Son; and the Son works, together with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.
  5. The doctrine of the Trinity, though clearly revealed in Scripture and affirmed in the ecumenical creeds, is mysterious and beyond human comprehension.

So where does this leave us concerning the current debate over the eternal subordination of the Son? While I think the accusations and recriminations have not always been fair or balanced, I do think there are several ways some of my friends on the eternal subordination side of the debate (and I realize those in favor of ESS or ERAS or EFS do not all make the same points) are decidedly out of step with the Reformed tradition, and perhaps more broadly out of sync with the totality of what Nicea meant to affirm and protect.

Evaluating Eternal Subordination

Let me mention three specific areas of concern, all of which have been hinted at already.

First, I question whether the language of roles and relationships is the best way to describe the distinctions among the three Persons of the Trinity. The theology surrounding the Trinity is technical and complex. Many of the words in question—like “subordination” and “roles”—can be used in ways that are orthodox. We should listen to each other carefully and not assume the worst. At the same time, unless we have good reason to do otherwise, it is best to stick with the theological vocabulary that has served the church for centuries. “Role” is a word with connotations of the theater and a part to be played. Roles tend to be things we take on or enter into. My wife and I can have different roles in marriage because we are different individuals, each with a unique individualized nature. Once I was not a husband, but now that I am I take on a certain role in the marriage relationship. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by contrast, are personal self-distinctions (subsistences) within the Divine essence. They exist from eternity in each other, not separate from and alongside each other. This makes the language of roles less appropriate when talking about the inner dynamics of the Trinity from all eternity.

Second, even when the language of subordination is used in the Reformed tradition, it is not used in the way some ESS proponent imagine. Wayne Grudem, for example, often points to Hodge as evidence for widespread and longstanding belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. But Hodge clearly limits his use of “subordination” to the mode of subsistence and operation. The word does not imply authority for Hodge, but simply a sub-ordering (i.e., an ordering under) in which the Father is the first person of the Trinity, the Son the second, and the Spirit the third. Hodge is saying nothing different than Ursinus or Pictet or à Brakel did before him. They all argue for a certain order in the Trinity related to personal properties ad intra and operations toward the world ad extra. None of them equates order (or sub-order) with roles of authority and submission. The error is, no doubt, an honest one, but it’s simply not the case that taxis means in the Reformed tradition what it means for Grudem.

Finally, and most crucially, I find that some proponents of ESS answer Ursinus’s question—“How are the three Persons of the Godhead distinguished?”—in a way that is foreign to, and really at odds with, the Reformed tradition. All five representatives (Ursinus, Pictet, à Brakel, Hodge, and Berkhof) answer that question by starting with the same foundation: paternity, generation, and procession. Not incidentally, this is the explicit teaching in both the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession Article 8) and even more clearly in the Westminster Standards (WLC 9, 10). The distinctions among the three Persons only hold in place if the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This Scriptural and creedal formula is the sine qua non of Trinitarian theology, at least when it comes to distinguishing among the Persons of the Godhead.

And yet, this is not how many of the proponents of ESS distinguish among the three Persons. In his Systematic Theology, Grudem argues, “The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation” (emphasis original, 251). So far this sounds a lot like the usual business about ad intra and ad extra. But then instead of talking about subsistences or modes of operation, Grudem argues that the distinctions among the three Persons can be summarized as “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Grudem may not explicitly deny the Nicene language of “begotten” and “proceeds” (though in a subsequent edition of his Systematic Theology he argues that we should no longer retain “eternal generation” in modern theological formulations), but he assumes “subordination in role” simply says the same thing and says it better. Because Grudem equates the personal properties of Nicea with authority and submission within the immanent Trinity, he insists that without eternal subordination you cannot even have a Triune God (251). Without the doctrine of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father in role or function, Grudem maintains, “we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son” (245, fn. 27). It seems that Grudem—whom, it should be said, has been a blessing to me and my church in many of his writings—is either unfamiliar with the way in which the Persons are distinguished in the Reformed tradition or finds the tradition inadequate. He prefers what these representatives of the Reformed tradition decidedly do not: to distinguish among the Persons of the Trinity by the means of eternal subordination instead of eternal generation. This is not a small switch.

Likewise, Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock (I’ve met Gavin before, and Owen is a friend) follow in Grudem’s footsteps when they write: “There is order. The Father is the Father because He sends the Son. The Son is the Son because He submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send Him. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission” (The Grand Design, 93). To be fair, this is not a book about the Trinity per se, and I know Owen and Gavin do not want to reject eternal generation, but I still wish they had worded things differently. Setting aside whether the Son submits to the Father from eternity or not, it’s the word “because” that is most problematic. The Father does send the Son, and the Son does submit to the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. But Owen and Gavin, perhaps unwittingly, are answering Ursinus’s question in a way that the Reformed tradition would not. The Father is the Father because of unbegottenness; the Son is the Son because of filiation; the Spirit is the Spirit because of procession. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of paternity, generation, and procession, which is not another way of saying the three Persons must be distinguished on the basis of authority and submission or there is no Trinity.

In a similar vein, it seems to me Bruce Ware (whom I also respect and appreciate) argues that eternal submission is the Son’s unique personal property in addition to eternal generation (One God in Three Persons, 237-248). This is better than rejecting the language of paternity, filiation, and procession, but still a deviation from the Reformed tradition. It is one thing to point out that the Son’s willing submission is, on some level, an expression of his filial identity (as Scott Swain puts it), quite another to bring eternal subordination into the life of the immanent Trinity and nest it with (or replace altogether) the traditional personal properties.

Obviously, there is much more that could be said about the doctrine of the Trinity, from Augustine and the Fathers, to the Reformed tradition, to the revival of Trinitarian interest in recent decades, to the detailed arguments for and against the eternal subordination of the Son in journals, books, and blogs. I make no pretense of having the last word or anything close to a definitive word on the subject. But as I’ve studied the words of some ESS/ERAS/EFS proponents more closely and have read from the Reformed tradition more deeply, I’ve come to see there is a gap between the two that is more significant than may seem at first glance.


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30 thoughts on “Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within the Reformed Tradition”

  1. Steve Myers says:

    Kudos to Kevin Young for reaffirming the correct doctrine of the Trinity. The ESS/ERAS/EFS arguments are a distraction. Does Paul not say “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity?” Should we not invest our time in bringing the kingdom here on earth and bring glory to Him?

  2. Andy Chance says:

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  3. Gregg Sawyer says:

    So much meat lately, Kevin. I may have to go on a Daniel 1 diet! Bless you, sir.

  4. Ron Maness says:

    I can smile again. I consider myself part of the TGC “church family”, due to the amount of time I spend there, and the impact TGC has had on my life and ministry over many years. So the long silence was hurtful, and I am so glad it has been broken by a strong affirmation of Nicene orthodoxy on the Trinity, and a detachment of the Trinity from complementarianism. Thanks so much Kevin. I can smile again.

  5. Suffenus says:

    For the love of Trinitarian clarity, Owen Strachan and Denny Burke, please, Please, PLEASE….quit circling in those Southern Baptist chariots. Defending complimentarianism at the expense of Trinitarianism is not a winning proposition.

  6. Jeremy B. says:

    Honestly, I had long grown tired of the whole thing. I could never understand why others took issue with the ESS perspective, and now I do. Very helpful post, Kevin!

  7. Neville Briggs says:

    This debate has been raging for centuries, and what good has it done. The apostle Paul wrote that if he could understand all mysteries and all knowledge and did not have love, he was nothing.

    I think that if we could figure out another trinity, Love the Lord your God, love your neighbour as yourself, love one another as Christ loved us, then we could file the “Trinitarian” debate in the basement among the cobwebs where it belongs.

  8. Renee Byrd says:

    I consider myself Reformed but totally don’t get complementarianism. My belief that Jesus wasn’t eternally subordinate to God but only was while on earth should be no reason for a 9 Marks church to kick me out. You all talk about the roles differ and that there is no patronization intended toward women, but as a woman, I certainly feel patronized by many of the comments I’ve read by men on various Reformed sites. Being kicked out of Sunday school before getting kicked out of church for questioning biblical inerrancy was, to me, an abuse of patriarchy, was oppresive. My question to my teacher was “do you believe people go to hell for not believing in biblical inerrancy?” My Sunday school teacher’s answer: “yes.” My reply: ” well, C.S. Lewis is burning in hell then.” I believe I got kicked out for daring to question him, and I liked this guy. My husband and I hung out with him and his wife. I looked up to him as the most knowledgable person about the Bible at that church (very smart guy), which is why I asked him such a difficult question to begin with. I wasn’t being smart or insubordinate. I really wanted to know. My pastor wouldn’t even accept my repentance except through my husband. This humiliation of women needs to stop in churches-because I know it has to be happening elsewhere too. Men, because of the fall, are not going to “rule” in a manner that respects women as shown in my real-life example. Thanks for your detailed response, though.

  9. BSMason says:

    Awesome post; thank you so much!

    My only concern is that while I do agree mostly, I think, with your assessment of Hodge and Berkhof, I do think ESS/EFS/ERAS does nevertheless find some footing with them, especially Hodge. E.g., from Hodge’s Sustematic Theology 1.5.6,

    “…Augustine effectually excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity by teaching the numerical sameness of essence in the persons of the Godhead. This does indeed preclude all priority and all superiority as to being and perfection. But it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation. This is distinctly recognized in Scripture, and was as fully taught by Augustine as by any of the Greek fathers, and is even more distinctly affirmed in the so-called Athanasian Creed, representing the school of Augustine, than in the Creed of the Council of Nice. There is, therefore, no just ground of objection to the Nicene Creed for what it teaches on that subject. It does not go beyond the facts of Scripture. But the fathers who framed that creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond those facts. They endeavoured to explain what was the nature of that subordination.”

    He goes on to ascribe to the Nicene Fathers the following: “While denying to the Father any priority or superiority to the other persons of the Trinity, as to being or perfection, they still spoke of the Father as the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself…”, including that the Father has priority, prerogative, and preeminence. Hodge even held that the virtue of the Reformers is that they maintained the above subordination, viz., in subsistence, but refused to speculate as to its root and precise meaning.

    This is towing the line very dangerously; at best. On second thought, I don’t think he is towing it at all. The passages he seems to have in mind (in context) to defend this subordination of subsistence are all passages ascribed by the Pro-Nicene Fathers to the Son in His flesh, not to His subsistence as Son(see https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/surprised-by-orthodoxy-responding-to-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-using-the-pro-nicene-fathers/, especially section 4 and 5). The Pro-Nicene Fathers (and Calvin) exactly coincide with what you have noted in Ursinus, Pictet, and a Brakel. But Hodge seems to depart thoroughly (there is more in Hodge to verify this) and I don’t think many current Nicene scholars would at all agree with is historical assessments.

    I am concerned that the slide in Trinitarian doctrine began longer ago then I am even comfortable admitting. We see such pure continuity, especially in the history of interpretation of the relevant passages, up until not too long before Hodge (see for example Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Calvin [5.a., 5.e., 5.g., and 5.n in the link above] on 1 Cor. 11:3). If I had to hazard a guess, it appears that the development of Trinitarian doctrine, even thorough attention to it, had hit a lull post Reformation, continuing so for a very long time, while doctrines such as the pactim solutas were explored and incorporated vigorously. It may be possible that the language of the latter, used loosely without the rich mooring of the Pro-Nicene Trinitarian doctrine, began to eclipse the received language of the former. I am confident you would have a better explanation.

  10. BSMason says:

    Rereading my earlier comment, I wrongly implied that Hodge himself held to what he was, rather, ascribing to the Nicene Fathers and Augustine. In Hodge’s argument, he wants to maintain the subordination of the Son as to subsistence without bringing along the baggage he (wrongly, IMO) sees in the Fathers by not trying to explain it further, but rather accept it as scriptural. I do not see that I can correct my poor writing to remove the implication. I apologize.

  11. Timothy Durey says:

    Thank you for writing with humility, wisdom, graciousness and truthfulness. I appreciate your study and also the length of time it took you to write this article!

    That said, in reading this article, I’m still confused because I personally don’t see “practically” a difference between generation and subordination in terms of relationship. Maybe I define subordination differently than has been historically understood? Also, I have problems with words like “eternally begotten” because while people describe what they mean by it (and I affirm their meaning), I think the wording isn’t helpful.

    Could that be the case here where people are meaning different things by the words that they’re using? Are the arguments raised from both sides not understanding the differences in semantics?

    Also, DeYoung quoted from a man who spoke of a New Testament passage hinting at the eternal relationship, but then I don’t believe I saw DeYoung pick up that idea later. It was the idea that Jesus gives everything to the Father. Does that indicate a type of submission?

    So, all this said, I do appreciate the article. I appreciate DeYoung’s communication for truth. I appreciate hearing some more clarity between “generation” versus “submission.” However, in practice, I’m not seeing how the two different sides actually disagree and I wonder if there are semantics issues going on.

    Anyone want to help me out with bringing clarity to any of this? (And maybe dumb down some words or phrases for me.)

  12. Hakam Adam says:

    I felt as if I understood much of this, but I am unclear — not having been aware of the recent debate mentioned — what exactly it is that ESS etc holds, which is in contrast to the position explained above. If I could ask Mr. DeYoung, as a non-seminary-trained person, to explain:
    1. It almost seemed as if you were describing begottenness in such a way that it implied an essential subordination, and described Grudem’s view as implying an eternal economic subordination. Since subordination, ad intra, would be from eternity, and begottenness is likewise from eternity, are you not simply describing two facets of the same thing, since it would seem that eternal begottenness would necessarily logically imply an eternal economic subordination?

    2. If the Trinity can be distinguished on the basis of procession and filiation, but that it is incorrect to refer to their economic submission, doesn’t that require, at least hypothetically, that filiation/procession could be the case without authority and submission also being the case? I don’t see how such a hypothetical could be conceived, so how is the disagreement, then, not a distinction without a difference?

    3. On that last point again, I think I understand you to be saying that subordination doesn’t refer to authority, in orthodoxy. Nevertheless, would it not imply it? Or is it the case that Grudem is saying there is not, in fact, an eternal subordination but that submission is logically subsequent (but how; I doubt he could be saying this without you calling him a heretic, because he would then be practically saying that the Son became submissive, which denies the Trinity’s eternality and immutability.

    Apologies if I’ve mischaracterized a position, in which case I submit that I not only partially, but completely, fail to understand the reason for disagreement of the two sides.

    Thanks to anyone who attempts to explain, especially Mr. (Pr.?) DeYoung.

  13. Hakam Adam says:

    Looks like I wasn’t the only one with this same thought. Mr. Durey also asked the same thing at nearly the same time.

  14. Patrick says:

    Excellent post. Very informative. As a baptist, ill had that james petigru boyce agreed with the historic reformed position in chapter 14 of his Abstract of Systematic Theology pp 123-139

  15. Phil Heaps says:

    I was very interested to read this post, as the subject is one on which I have been reflecting for some time.
    I wonder if I could add some thoughts.

    The most basic Biblical data regarding the first two persons of the Trinity is that they are Father and Son. Thus what we are as human fathers and sons in some way reflects the original Father and Son. But there are also elements of human experience that reflect our humanness, rather than the fundamental concept of ‘Fatherhood’ or ‘Sonship’ (F/S). For example, as a father I exist prior to my son. This reflects biological necessity rather than the essence of F/S.

    In my limited knowledge, it seems that, at a very early stage of Trinitarian doctrinal development, a defining element of F/S was assumed to be ‘begetting’. (If monogenes in e.g. John 3v16 is taken as ‘only-begotten’ this would provide Biblical support for such an approach.) But, as is clearly evident in the little that I have read, this concept of ‘begetting’ naturally evoked ideas of causality, derivation, origin and the like, which were then adopted, refined or refuted. Thus Kevin (is that the right etiquette? I’m not a blogger!) helpfully summarises:
    “Traditionally, the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished… [is] by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father, the Son’s generation from the Father, and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.” This is the starting point of so much Trinitarian doctrinal development, but I would gently suggest that it needs to be questioned. (Yes, I am aware of how arrogant that sounds!)

    What if the concept of begetting is one of those elements of F/S which reflects human necessity rather than the divine reality? Certainly it is not self-evident that ‘begetting’ is of the essence of F/S, particularly an Eternal F/S. Are there more explicitly Biblical categories that help us understand what it means, essentially, to be a father, or to be a son? I think this question tends to be under-explored because ‘begottenness’ is taken for granted as the defining element. Certainly it merits careful thought by others more capable that I am.

    But here are some suggestions:
    1) To be a father is to have a son (or daughter, in the human context!). I.e. the Father never acts independently.
    2) To be a father is to love your son (Ps.103v13, Lk.11v11-13)
    3) To be a father is to take the lead. This is the ‘order’ which Kevin mentions a number of times: there is an asymmetry in the relationship. John 5 is very helpful here: a father involves his son (v20), entrusts things to his son (v26, cf. 2Cor.12v14), initiates (1Jn.4v14).

    On the other hand, what does it mean to be a son? It certainly doesn’t mean that the Son had a beginning. (Every human son has a beginning, but then, so does every human father!). Biblically,
    1) To be a son is to have a father. The Son is defined by his relationship to his Father, just as the Father is defined by his relationship to his Son.
    2) To be a son is to be like your father. (NB: John 8v41+44, Phil 2v22). (a) There is an inevitable resemblance: fathers and natural sons share the same nature, as C.S.Lewis said so powerfully in ‘Beyond Personality, ch.2’. (b)
    But there is also an intentional resemblance. Sons imitate their fathers, and delight to be like them (John 5v19, Eph 5v1).
    3) To be a son is to lovingly respond to a father’s initiative. The Father loves the Son and the Son returns that love. The Father sends and the Son goes.

    I would suggest that these avenues are more self-evidently Biblical and applicable to the relations within the Trinity than the concept of “begetting”, despite the pedigree of that concept. Certainly it is something worth exploring.

    I have not explored what this means for the Holy Spirit; you have to crawl before you walk! Most fruitful here is the relationship between Speaker, Word & Breath. But I do think there is less to be said.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful, and God-honouring, and would welcome feedback. I realise they are some way from the subject of Eternal Subordination and the like, starting a lot further back.

    Warmly in Christ.

  16. I think Neville has painted a correct picture for us to follow…..love of CHrist… love for each other, equality amoungst all believers. Renee’s post shows exactly what leglalism does it discriminates against women and silences any voices of disagreement especially by women. My heart goes out to Renee…spiritual abuse is alive and well in many churches. My words to Renee is go somewhere else to worship where Christ is the head of the local Church and dont look back

  17. Chad Hendley says:

    I have been struggling with this as one who has been strongly influenced by Grudem and others. What I have read from Grudem and Ware in their official online responses, I find it difficult to argue with their biblical logic. But I have not read what apparently are their more problematic formulations in especially Ware’s book. (More quotes in pinpointing their accused misformulations would be helpful.)

    Most responses that I have seen (including this one), take issue with G & W’s formulation contra the creedal formulations (which both Grudem and Ware affirm), but I’ve seen no one (in my opinion) fairly tackle their Scriptural arguments. Such a handling would help me greatly.

    Another thing I am struggling to grasp is how one can so strongly distinguish between the generational state (Father, Son, Spirit–Unbegotten, Eternally Begotten, Eternally Proceeding) and the economic function each one plays in redemption. That is, (please correct if wrong) that the Son incarnate became incarnate (in submission to the Father) precisely because he is the eternally begotten one rather than unbegotten. (Unless we are willing to say that in eternity past, the economic functions could have been swapped). Their economic functions are un-exchangeable because they act undividely and eternally according to how they relate generationally (I’m probably making up terms here, but I hope it’s clear). The functions/roles/relations cannot be exchanged because they are tied to the subsistences of unbegotten, eternally begotten, eternally proceeding.

    Is it wrong then to say that the Son eternally submitted because–by virtue of the fact the He is eternally begotten as opposed to unbegotten–his function economically could never be otherwise. (e.g. The Father could not have become incarnate in submission to the Son) Indeed, why would we not trace these relations into eternity past IF they are tied to the subsistence of each Person? This is truly confusing me, perhaps someone could clarify.

    For example, above DeYoung states disapprovingly, “Because Grudem equates the personal properties of Nicea with authority and submission within the immanent Trinity, he insists that without eternal subordination you cannot even have a Triune God (251).” While not necessarily embracing Grudem’s conclusion, this statement of DeYoung seem to imply that (for him) the personal properties are not strongly related to the economic functions of authority and submission. To hold this dichotomy rather than see how they are integrally connected does not make sense to me.

    Thanks in advance for helpful responses.

  18. Dan says:

    Neville, I agree, if only God would have just left out of his Word those things that we can safely consign to the cobwebs. Fortunately you’re here to clear that up for us. Thanks.

  19. Neville Briggs says:

    Hello Dan. I am sorry if I appear to be adopting an authority that I don’t have. That is not my intention.
    The argument about the substance of the trinity has been around since the early days of the church.
    My understanding, which may be incorrect, is that the argument has never been resolved and has never seemed to be of any benefit to living out the Gospel of reconciliation and healing.
    My analogy of the basement was just a way of expressing the view that it is reasonable to think that the unending argument about the trinity is futile. ( Paul wrote to Timothy , “avoid futile arguments” )

    If I am wrong, perhaps I could be corrected.

  20. Dan says:

    Neville, 1) I truly appreciate the tone of your response. That it, it seems to me, very helpful in any discussion, so thanks. 2) Paul says avoid futile arguments but I don’t think this is a futile argument. God has revealed himself to be a Trinitarian God so if we worship a god who is not trinitarian we’re not worshiping God (even if we say we are). Likewise what we’re talking about here is informing our theology, which is informing our practice of life as seen in the complmentarian discussion (and I am a complementarian even if I don’t think the trinity is necessarily the grounds for it). But you’re right, good theology should inform and refine our practice (or at least make us think more highly of God). I would disagree that it has never been of any benefit in living out the gospel, i.e. if God isn’t trinitarian I don’t think he can be both just and the justifier of the unjust for starters…

  21. Neville Briggs says:

    There are two discussions that I am wary of; one is eschatology, the other is the substance of God ( or the trinity ) because they seem to always become the main features of disputes, splits and cults. from Arius to Charles Taze Russell .
    Paul wrote about Christ to the Colossians and said ” In Him , bodily, lives all the fullness of all that God is “. So I hold to that thought.

    Isaiah says ” Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given and His name shall be called, Wonderful Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace”

    Philosophical analyses of the trinity seem to be adding to the scripture something that is an unauthorised addition. Isn’t Sola Scriptura, a pillar of protestant theology.

  22. It would seem the debate here can be simply put to rest as Neville as pointed by Paul and Isaiah. If you want to know what God looks like and His character look to Christ. In my life I simply see the out working of the triniity as From God the Father through God the Son by God the Holy Spirit. God wants us to move on from the cross of salvation (being saved) to being Christ to others.

  23. A. Amos Love says:

    Hmmm? – Is this “Trinity” in the Bible?
    About 14 paragraphs down the page…

    “To put it another way,
    the Father is the Father (and not the Son or the Spirit),
    the Son is the Son (and not the Father or the Spirit),
    and the Spirit is the Spirit (and not the Father or the Son)
    by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father,
    the Son’s generation from the Father,
    and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.
    ————

    Have some questions about this.

    I can find scriptures that say…

    (1) There is only one God.
    (2) The Father is God.
    (3) The Son is God.
    (4) The Holy Spirit is God.

    BUT, I can NOT find scriptures that say…

    (5) The Father is NOT the Son.
    ….. The Son is NOT the Father
    (6) The Son is the NOT the Holy Spirit.
    ….. The Holy Spirit is NOT the Son.
    (7) The Holy Spirit is NOT the Father.
    ….. The Father is NOT the Holy Spirit.

    And, I can find scriptures that seem to refute 5, 6, and 7.

    Scriptures that say…

    1 – The Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus.
    2 – Jesus is called the Everlasting Father.
    3 – And, John the Baptist only knew OT prophecy…
    And, was preparing the way for the LORD, Jehovah our Elohim….
    Our Father. Our Redeemer. Our Saviour.

    And Jesus showed up. – Hmmm?

  24. A. Amos Love says:

    Hmmm?

    1 – Is the Holy Spirit the Father of Jesus?

    Mat 1:18
    Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise:
    When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph,
    before they came together,
    **she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.**

    Mat 1:20
    …for that which is conceived in her **is of the Holy Ghost.**

    Luke 1:35
    And the angel answered and said unto her,
    **The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee,**
    … that holy thing which shall be born of thee
    shall be called **the Son of God.**

    2 – Is it Jesus, The Son, who is called the Everlasting Father in Isaiah 9:6?
    If not Jesus, who is Isaiah 9:6, referring to as Everlasting Father?

    Isaiah 9:6
    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
    and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
    and **his name shall be called**
    Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God,
    **The everlasting Father,** The Prince of Peace.

    3 – John the Baptist only knew OT prophesy.
    And he was to prepare the way of Jehovah our Elohim.
    And Jesus showed up. Wouldn’t that mean – Jehovah = Jesus?

    Isaiah 40:3
    The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
    Prepare ye the way of the LORD, { Jehovah }
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Elohim)

    Mat 3:3
    For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying,
    The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord…

    Wasn’t John the Baptist looking for the LORD, { Jehovah }?
    And Jesus showed up? – Jehovah = Jesus?

    4 – In the OT, Jehovah, and Jehovah Elohim, is also Our Father.
    And Jehovah is not only our Father, Jehovah is also Our Redeemer and Our Saviour.

    If Jehovah is Our Father, Our Redeemer, and Our Saviour?
    And Jesus showed up? Jesus = Father?

    Isaiah 64:8
    But now, O LORD, { Jehovah } thou art **our father**…

    1Chronicles 29:10
    …Blessed [be] thou, LORD God { Jehovah Elohiym } of Israel **our father**…

    Isaiah 63:16
    …thou, O LORD, art ** our father,** ** our redeemer;** thy name is from everlasting.

    Isaiah 43:3
    For I am the LORD { Jehovah } thy God, (Elohiym) the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior:…

    Isa 43:11
    I, even I, am the LORD; { Jehovah } and beside me there is NO Saviour.

    1 – Seems The Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus.
    2 – Seems Jesus is called the Everlasting Father.
    3 – Seems John the Baptist was preparing the way for
    Jehovah our Elohim, our Father. Our Redeemer. Our Saviour.

    And Jesus showed up.

    This “Trinity” (A word NOT found in the Scriptures. Hmmm?)

    Is quite difficult to explain and understand.

    Is this “Trinity” in the Bible?

  25. Jesus on the subject of who is God: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you [Yahweh, Christ’s Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).” That should settle it – shouldn’t it?

  26. Randy Buist says:

    that we use ‘three persons’ to describe Yahweh shows how little we know. only Jesus was ever known as ‘person.’ the fact that KDY has a submissive view of marriage shows how little he understands our public witness to the world. for all the study and use of theological words, it rings hollow to a world that wants to know the goodness of the kingdom.

  27. The critical issue in all this from my understanding is this. Christ said follow me and do the things I do and great things than these because go to my father. Christ point to love….always upwards to the Father and outwards to others. Thus we are to be relational with Christ and with people in love through action. Such debates as this can distract us form this truth.

  28. Tom Pickett says:

    I’m trying to get hold of a copy of Freedom and Boundaries at a reasonable price (Amazon starts at $75!). Any plans to reprint or a second edition? ebook?

  29. Mallo says:

    I had long grown tired of the whole thing. NFL Snapback Hats I could never understand why others took issue with the ESS perspective, and now I do. Very helpful post,

  30. Ray says:

    I have trouble with the whole trinity concept. I was raised with a lot of Jewish influence. Christians claim to warship the God of Israel, but Israel has never proclaimed a three in one God. What is wrong with this picture? Should the coming of Messiah change who we believe God to be?
    I believe that Jesus is literally the son of God, in the same manner that you are the son of your own father. Fathers and sons can be similar, but not identical. I have yet to find the phrase “God the Son” in my bible. (that doesn’t seem to bother most people). In fact, if Jesus is God, you do not have a savior. Why do I say this? People always talk about what Jesus accomplished for us. What did he have to accomplish to become our savior? He had to fulfill the law. He had to walk every day of his life without sin. If he even blew it one time… If Jesus was God, and we know God can not sin, there would have been no way he could fail. No contest. Nothing accomplished. BUT, if he was indeed the son of God, a man tempted in all things and did not sin based on his own free will, well, now you got something! I am familiar with all the verses that are used to support the tritheism doctrine, but at the end of the day I have to accept what makes the most sense to me.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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