Ware responds about the Trinity, and so do I

Bruce Ware has written another response in defense of his position concerning the eternal relations of authority and submission between the Father and the Son in the immanent Trinity. He has written it in the form of an open letter to Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt all of whom have strongly criticized Ware’s view. I would like to offer a few
more thoughts on what Ware has written (his letter can be found here).trinity-893221_960_720

First, Ware states that he ultimately wishes to be faithful to Scripture as the ultimate authority, and for this I can only applaud him. That said, it is clear throughout his letter that he desires to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy established by the ecumenical creeds and that indeed his think that his position does so. He states, however, that “among those things that distinguish the Father, from the Son, and from the Spirit, is an eternal relation of authority and submission which again reflects their eternal modes of subsistence and is shown in all of the works of the Trinitarian persons as depicted repeatedly throughout the whole of the Bible” and that this “should not count against my orthodoxy”.

I would contend that the first part of this statement militates against the second for the simple fact that in orthodox Trinitarian theology, the only thing that distinguishes the hypostases of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their immanent relations is their modes of origination. This is convincingly demonstrated by Stephen Holmes in his book “The Quest for the Trinity”. Quite simply, if Ware holds that there are multiple “things that distinguish the Father, from the Son, and from the Spirit” among which “is an eternal relation of authority and submission”, then this view falls outside the bounds of orthodoxy. This does not necessarily mean that his view is not biblical, because Scripture will always stand authoritatively over tradition. But it certainly isn’t orthodox.

Second, he still has not, in my opinion, successfully refuted the charge that his position raises the spectre of tritheism on the basis of the necessity it implies of assigning two distinct wills to the Father and the Son in order to speak of their eternal relations of authority and submission in any meaningful way. As others noted, I found his explanation (found here) of each of the hypostases (i.e. persons) ‘activating’ the single divine will in differing ways to be equally problematic for the simple fact that it seems to treat the divine will as though it were an impersonal thing, almost like an instrument or a tool, to be taken up and utilized in differing ways.

Perhaps I am misreading him on this, but it seems to be the implication of the way in which he articulates the ‘activation’ of the divine will by each of the three hypostases. One ‘activates’ only that which in some way is external to oneself and is not already operative. But this would imply a disjunction (rather than a mere distinction) between the single ousia (the being of God to which the single divine will belongs) and the three hypostases (who activate that will differently). To me, this objectification of the divine will seems more beholden to substance metaphysics than to the God self-revealed in Jesus Christ.

Third, I would say that his position fails to integrate an adequate Christology into the discussion. It seems to run the risk of a docetic Christology (i.e. Christ only appeared to be human) by treating the biblical examples of Christ’s submission, obedience, and glorification of the Father as purely revelatory of his eternal relation to the Father. As the Protestant tradition has historically affirmed, however, Christ’s obedience is properly understood as his vicarious work on our behalf, his active righteousness by which we are justified and sanctified in him. I would argue that according the New Testament, Christ relates to the Father in submission and obedience not because of his eternal relation to the Father but because of his incarnate relation to us; in this way he offered up to the Father vicariously on our behalf the perfect human life by which we are justified and sanctified through union with him.

As Paul teaches in Romans 5, Christ’s incarnate submission reflects the fact that he is the last Adam whose obedience overcomes the effects of the disobedience of the first Adam and brings justification and life to those over whom sin and death had previously reigned. Thus, in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s prayer to his Father “Your will be done” is not indicative of eternal Trinitarian relations but constitutes instead his undoing and reversal of Adam’s rebellion in the garden of Eden where he in effect said, “My will be done”. To paraphrase something that T.F. Torrance was fond of saying, this account would reveal how Christ descended into the depths of our corruption and through his vicarious obedience bent our rebellious wills back to God. Even when encountering a text such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 (to which Ware points as evidence of Christ’s eternal submission), it is important to remember that after the resurrection when our redemption will be fully realized, Christ will still forever be the incarnate “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). This, I would argue, is a better way of understanding the way in which the Christ relates to the Father in the economy of salvation and henceforth into eternity.

Response to Bruce Ware concerning ERAS

Although I have not contributed anything to the debate concerning the eternal functional submission (EFS) or eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) between the Father and Son, I though that I would respond to some of the things that Bruce Ware just posted over at Secundum Scripturas in defense of his view. If you are not familiar with the contours of the debate, I would suggest that you go over and read Dr. Ware’s post before proceeding here. I am reposting here what I wrote in the comments section, taking cue from what Geoff Holsclaw said in the comment prior to mine (thanks to Bobby Grow for pointing me to the quotes from Anatolios and Butner):

Dr. Ware,

I agree with the important issues that Geoff has raised above, and I think that all of us who 017rublev troitsain some way have registered concerns with your position would appreciate further clarification on them. Having said that, I would like to add a few points of my own that I also find problematic. I do so not with the ultimate goal of being critical, but with the purpose spurning us all forward to greater knowledge, faith and maturity.

1) I find it perplexing, to say the least, that you cite Khaled Anatolios and his book “Retrieving Nicaea” in order to support your position. Regardless of what he might say with regard to “inflections”, he is most decidedly not arguing for ERAS but actually quite the opposite. On page 4 he states: “One can hold that the eternal Trinity is the subject of the economy of salvation without holding that the features of the ‘economic Trinity’ are exactly those of the eternal Trinity. In fact, the development of Nicene orthodoxy hinges on the insistence that, at least in one crucial respect, the ‘form’ or appearance of the economic Trinity does not correspond to that of the immanent Trinity. A strict and unqualified conflation of the economic Trinity with the immanent Trinity would entail that the subordination of the incarnate Son to the Father reflects the same order of subordination in the immanent Trinity. But a large part of the logic of Nicene theology consists precisely in overcoming this inference.”

Anatolios is not alone in opposing eternal subordination in the Trinity; both Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes have also weighed in decidedly against the ERAS position. Now these scholars represent the latest and the best of patristic scholarship, particularly on the pro-Nicene tradition. This, of course, does not offer the final word on the merits of ERAS itself, for only Scripture can do that. However, it does seem to indicate that claims that ERAS conforms to the pro-Nicene tradition should be immediately abandoned. The debate can and probably should continue on other grounds. However, as to the full orthodoxy of ERAS with respect to pro-Nicene theology, there should be no question: it is not. As Stephen Holmes has convincingly argued in “The Quest for the Trinity” (p.200), the only legitimate distinction that can be made in orthodox Trinitarian theology between the three hypostases of the Trinity is their mode of origin.

2) Anatolios’s quote raises another point that Geoff alluded to in his response, namely the issue of the relation of the immanent to the economic Trinity. In the quote above, Anatolios, in context, is countering certain versions of the so-called “Rahner’s rule” in which the economic Trinity is collapsed without remainder into the immanent, such that whatever is displayed in the economy can simply be projected back in an unqualified way onto the immanent Trinity. This is the theological move that you seem to make, one that is absolutely critical to your overall argument, for without it, the attribution of the Son’s submission to the Father in eternity cannot be made from any of relevant biblical texts without falling into pure speculation.

Once again, the pro-Nicene tradition was keen to preserve an appropriate distinction between the two. I think of Athanasius who in his tracts against the Arians (3.28-29) argued that the “scope” of Scripture and thus the proper “rule” for correctly interpreting it was the “double account” of Christ as the consubstantial Son of the Father and the incarnate Son of Mary. One of the significant errors of the anti-Nicene theologians, as Athanasius understood, was that they collapsed this “double account” into one such that when they observed the creaturely properties of Christ in the Gospel narratives, they projected them back onto the Son’s eternal being and inferred that he must have therefore been created. Now I realize that this is not the argument that ERAS makes. But I do want to draw attention to the fact that there appear to be some similarities in the modes of argumentation adopted by both the anti-Nicene theologians and the proponents of ERAS, viz., that there is an unqualified projection of the economy back onto the immanent Trinity. I say unqualified because, at least in regard to what you offer in this post, I do not see any justification for making this move without which your position does seem capable of survival.

3) I also find it perplexing that you cite Butner’s essay without adequately dealing with the argument that he makes vis-à-vis dyothelitism. On page 132, Butner articulates the heart of his argument as follows: “EFS is more in the line of what might be called polytheistic homoiousianism, whereby the Father and the Son have distinct natures, but each is still eternally divine. This problem is only clear when the metaphysics of dyothelite Christology are applied to the trinitarianism promoted by EFS. Many advocates of EFS affirm dyothelitism, the belief that Jesus Christ has both a human will and a divine will. Because Chalcedonian Christology insists that Jesus has two natures but only one hypostasis, dyothelitism as a development of Chalcedonian Christology necessitates the recognition that a will must be a property of nature in order for there to be two wills in Christ. To posit such terms as ‘obedience’ and ‘submission’ that imply a distinction of wills between the Father and the Son while affirming dyothelite Christology entails a distinction of natures between the Father and Son (and Spirit) resulting in tritheism. This ‘dyothelite problem’ leads me to conclude that EFS must be strongly opposed by evangelical systematicians in order to avoid the risk of tritheism.”

Butner raises a significant problem here that cannot be swept aside. If ERAS accepts the orthodox Christology of the church as pertains to the two wills of Christ, then it seems to fall into incoherency, for on the one hand it claims to affirm that the nature of God is one rather than three and thus avoid tritheism, yet it must affirm, along with dyotheletism, that wills are properties of natures. Yet it does not make sense to say that a single will can be both authoritative and submissive with respect to itself, and thus ERAS seems to require two wills (or at least two distinct centers of consciousness) and this unavoidably requires two natures on a dyothelite view. Your recourse to the concept of “inflections” of the single divine will does not seem capable of doing the heavy conceptual lifting that is necessary in order to avoid Butner’s charge, for it is difficult to conceive, in any meaningful way (rather than simply just asserting that it is so), how the the single divine will, even in hypostatic inflections, can be authoritative over and submissive to itself at the same time.

4) Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the respective hypostases of the Father and the Son manifest their modes of origin in functional ways, it is not clear to me why these ways should be characterized primarily in terms of authority and submission. Why should paternity and filiality be associated primarily with authority and submission respectively? Why not love? “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). A conception of eternal relations grounded more in relationships of mutual love rather than in authority/submission also has the advantage of greater harmony with Augustine’s influential position. To frame the relations of Father and Son in terms of authority and submission seems to me somewhat arbitrary and calculated to bolster a particular view of human interrelations (see below). It could of course be argued that relations of authority and submission do not necessarily exclude the possibility of love, but then again, neither do they demand it. From my perspective, this betrays a deficient view of God that conceives him primarily in legal rather than relation terms, precisely the kind of notion that God’s self-revelation as Father and Son (and Spirit) undermines.

5) Finally, I think that another significant issue lurking in the background that remains unstated throughout this entire post is the role that ERAS plays in supporting a complementarian view of male headship and female submission. I do not wish to enter into a debate about this particular topic, for I think that the merits of this view should be assessed in other ways. I merely want to address the fact that from what I know, ERAS seems driven, at least in part, by the desire to ground male/female complementarity in the eternal relations of the Godhead. Although purely analogical, this move further bespeaks a kind of ‘social Trinitarianism’ (see once again Stephen Holmes) that would appear once again to require a distinction of wills between the Father and the Son in order to make the analogy stick. If ERAS truly desires to affirm a single divine will as you say, then it would seem illegitimate, even by way of analogy, to use it as a means of defending complementarianism.

Once again, I write these things not in the interests of being unnecessarily critical, but rather because I believe that it is important for members of the body of Christ to hold each other accountable, especially with regard to essential doctrines such as the Trinity. Blessings.