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Topic: Public Square

Whose Position on the Trinity is Really New?

June 9, 2016

I returned from vacation on Monday night, June 6, only to find that an article on Mortification of Spin, a website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, had accused me of presenting “a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.” I was surprised to read that I was “constructing a new deity,” that I was “reinventing the doctrine of God,” and that my view was “more like Islam than Christianity.”

In addition, I discovered that to hold my view of the Trinity is “to move into unorthodoxy” and “to verge on idolatry” and to advocate belief in “a different God.” The author recommended that holding my view of the Trinity should “certainly exclude” me and any who held my view “from holding office in the church of God.” Apparently those who had entrusted me to serve as a professor of Bible and theology for the last 39 years had made a dreadful mistake!

Who was accusing me of no longer being worthy of a teaching office in the church? It was none other than Liam Goligher, Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the historic church that had previously been led by my friend, Philip Ryken, and before that by my longtime friend, James Montgomery Boice.

My supposed doctrinal error was this: I had written that “I hold to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.” Because of this, Goligher wrote (in a second post) that I and others, who held my view, were “reinventing God.” He claimed that anyone who says “there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity” has “moved out of Christian orthodoxy” and has moved or is moving “towards idolatry.” He concluded that “what is at stake” in this controversy is “our own and our hearers’ eternal destiny.” Strong words indeed.

Then on Tuesday another article on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ site, Mortification of Spin, warmly commended these earlier posts by Liam Goligher and then implied that I and the leaders in the Gospel Coalition and CBMW who hold that the Son was eternally subject to the Father had strayed from “Nicene orthodoxy” and “Chalcedonian Christology” and that we were now “outside of the boundaries of the consensus of the confessions of Reformation Protestantism” and also “outside of what has historically been considered orthodox Christianity in its broadest sense.”

Who was claiming that I had denied the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. and the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 A.D.?  It was none other than my friend Carl Trueman, professor of church history at my own alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (M.Div., 1973). Apparently, even Westminster Seminary itself had made a mistake in awarding me an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 2011!

I am thankful that Prof. Bruce Ware of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville has written a clear and persuasive response to these blogs, showing that both he and I, and others who hold our view, wholeheartedly affirm the full deity of the Son as well as his eternal submission to the Father. As Ware eloquently explains, we hold that he is eternally God (equal to the Father in his being and in all attributes) and that he is eternally Son (subject to the authority of the Father in the personal relationships within the Trinity). He is God the Son. I eagerly affirm Dr. Ware’s post, and these four observations are merely supplemental to what he has already written.

Four Observations

(1) Claiming that we deny what we affirm: One would think that when a writer claims that I deny the doctrine of the Trinity as defined in the Nicene Creed he might at least be expected to mention that in my Systematic Theology, which has been in print for 26 years, I emphatically and extensively affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as defined in the Nicene Creed, including the full deity of the Son, who is of the same nature (homoousios) as the Father (see pages 231-257 and 543-563). I believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.” (Nicene Creed, 325 AD, revised, 381 AD, in the Received Text of the Protestant churches).

In addition, Bruce Ware and I and several others have continued to affirm the full deity of the Son in subsequent writings [see especially One God in Three Persons, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke (Crossway, 2015)], but these authors fail to mention that. They are saying that we deny what we explicitly affirm, without mentioning that we affirm it.

(2) Wrongly claiming that this is a novel view: When Goligher and Trueman write that we are “reinventing God” and that our view is a “revision of the doctrine of God,” they imply that we are advocating a novel view, one that Bruce Ware and I have newly invented to support a complementarian view of the relationship between men and women.

But they strangely fail to mention that many of the most influential evangelical theologians in the past have also held that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Here are some examples:

2002: John Frame (professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando):

“There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role be compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination? The biblical answer, I think, is no.” (The Doctrine of God (2002), 720; see also his Systematic Theology (2013), 500-502).

Do Goligher and Trueman think that John Frame has also moved into unorthodoxy and denied the Nicene Creed, so that he is no longer worthy of a teaching office in the church? 

1938: Louis Berkhof (professor at Calvin Seminary 1906-1944; his Systematic Theology was perhaps the most widely-used text for Reformed theology through much of the 20th century):

“The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship . . . . Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity.” (Systematic Theology, 88-89).

Do Goligher and Trueman think that Louis Berkhof had also moved into unorthodoxy and was not longer worthy of a teaching office in the church?

1907: A. H. Strong (president of Rochester Theological Seminary; his Systematic Theology was for many decades perhaps the most widely-used text for evangelical Baptists):

“…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation . . . The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman’s soul is worth as much as man’s; see 1 Cor 11:3.” (Systematic Theology, 342).

Would Goligher and Trueman say that A. H. Strong had also constructed “a new deity,” and was actually teaching “a different God than that affirmed by the church throughout the ages and taught in Scripture”? Had A. H. Strong also denied the Nicene Creed? Was Strong’s teaching also “more like Islam than Christianity”? Was Strong not worthy of a teaching office in the church?

1871-1873: Charles Hodge (the great Princeton theologian whose Systematic Theology, 100 years after its publication, was still the required text for at least one of my theology classes as a student at Westminster Seminary):

“The Nicene doctrine includes … the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority….The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ….The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.” (Systematic Theology, 460-462).

Do Goligher and Trueman think that Charles Hodge himself had abandoned orthodox Christianity, denied the Nicene Creed, and was not worthy of a teaching office in the church?

1559: John Calvin:

Regarding Calvin, church historian Richard A. Muller, in his massive Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics writes that “Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons . . . But he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence” (Vol. 4, p. 80).

Do Goligher and Trueman want to say that John Calvin had denied the Nicene Creed and was not worthy of a teaching office in the church?

4th century AD: Nicene fathers: What do the early church fathers at the time of the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) and its revision at Constantinople (381 A.D.) teach about the eternal submission or subordination of the Son to the Father?

Historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893), author of the eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1910), editor of the standard reference work Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1931), and also editor of the 23-volume series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers wrote this about the Nicene fathers:

“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed.” (History of the Christian Church, 3:680).

Philip Schaff is not alone in his assessment of historic Christian orthodoxy and the Nicene Creed. Historian Geoffrey W. Bromiley, author of the textbook Historical Theology (1978), editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, translator of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and translator of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, wrote:

“Eternal generation …. is the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. “Generation” makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). “Eternal” reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued …. Nor does his subordination imply inferiority …. the phrase …. corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being …. It finds creedal expression in the phrases “begotten of his Father before all worlds” (Nicene) and “begotten before the worlds” (Athanasian).” —Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Eternal Generation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 368).

Do Goligher and Trueman think that the Nicene fathers themselves were advocating belief in “a different God” than that taught in Scripture, and had moved into “unorthodoxy,” and were denying the very Nicene Creed that they authored? This seems highly unlikely, but then they also claim that we deny the very things that we affirm, so it is difficult to know what they would say about the Nicene fathers.

I could go on, but there is no need at this point to multiply quotations from theologians throughout the history of the church and many others more recently. If Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, CBMW, and the Gospel Coalition are outside the bounds of Trinitarian orthodoxy, then so are John Frame, Louis Berkhof, A. H. Strong, Charles Hodge, John Calvin, and even the Nicene fathers themselves! At this point, their accusation simply collapses into nonsense

(3) Failure to show that any major theologian has denied the orthodoxy of our view: There is another striking omission from the articles by Goligher and Trueman. They have quoted no major theologian in the history of the church who ever said that affirming the eternal submission of the Son to the Father is contradicting orthodox Trinitarian theology. Where is the historical support for their novel claim?

But let me be clear. I’m not asking for more quotations from theologians who say that Arianism is contrary to Scripture, for I also strongly affirm that Arianism is contrary to Scripture. What I am asking for is a quotation from any major theologian in the history of the church who has claimed precisely what Goligher and Trueman are claiming, namely, that it is unorthodox to affirm both the full deity of the Son and the eternal submission of the Son to the Father in terms of relationship. Their failure to quote any major theologian in history in support of their view leads one to strongly suspect that their accusation is really the historical novelty, not our repeated affirmation of strong Trinitarian belief.

(4) Failure to adequately account for the clear pattern of biblical teaching on inter-personal relationships within the Trinity: Goligher and Trueman simply fail to account for the repeated testimony of Scripture, and Scripture must be our final guide in this matter. As I have written elsewhere, there is an abundance of Scriptural teaching on the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son in terms of relationship (not essence). The names “Father” and “Son” themselves would certainly have implied such a relationship in the ancient world in which Scripture was written, for fathers of families still had familial leadership even when relating to adult sons (see Gen. 49:33; 50:16-17; Luke 15:18). In addition, here is a clear summary of Scriptural teaching from Bruce Ware’s reply to Goligher and Trueman:

“Notice that the Father elects us in the Son (Eph. 1:4-5), creates the world through the Son (John 1:2, 1 Cor. 8:6, Heb. 1:2), sends the Son into the world (John 3:16), and delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27), while the Son after his Ascension sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35), receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33), makes intercession before the Father (Heb. 7:25), receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev. 1:1), and will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28). Again, not one of these relationships is ever reversed – the Son does not elect us in the Father, does not create the world through the Father, does not send the Father into the world, does not delegate judgment to the Father, nor does the Father sit at the right hand of the Son, or bring intercessory prayers to the Son, or receive revelation from the Son to give to the church, or become eternally subject to the Son.

“We agree that the actions of any one divine person involve the other Trinitarian persons in corresponding ways. But whenever Scripture specifies actions that occur between two or more members of the Trinity, the position of greater authority is always held by the Father, while the position of submission to that authority is always held by the Son and the Spirit. This principle is simply inviolable in Scripture.”

But Goligher and Trueman fail to account for this consistent one-directional pattern of Scriptural teaching. Would they suggest that Scripture itself is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, as they define it?

Finally, their articles lead me to think that perhaps it is time to forego intemperate accusations of heterodoxy.

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