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The Evangelical Application of ‘Orthodoxy’

May 4, 2017

It’s nothing new that liberal-progressive Christians are speaking out about matters such as human sexuality and personal hurt experienced within churches.  And it’s nothing new that Evangelical leaders have circled the wagons and gone on the attack not only against individual Christians (such as Jen Hatmaker) but also against the right of these women and men even to speak and to teach publicly. Denny Burk (SBTS) makes some noteworthy points in his May 3 post (“It is not ‘character assassination’ for the church to be the church”) with respect to the church as an institution which bears certain responsibilities in the world — not the least of which is teaching the truth about Jesus Christ and the triune God.

Burk’s basic claim is that the case of those Christians arguing for same-sex relationships is not simply irregular or novel but in fact unorthodox:

They are asking the rest of the church to accept their point of view as within the orthodox stream. The problem is that their teaching never has been, is not, and never will be within the orthodox stream. It will always be a mark of those who have fallen away from the faith.

Implicating the case for same-sex relationships with apostasy is serious business.  More pointed — and distasteful — are the comments from Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option), who quoted Burk at length when he wrote this week of “a crisis of authority within the church.” Those self-appointed teachers, columnists, bloggers, and tweeters, Dreher believes, deny the authority of Scripture and tradition as they lead the flock marching out of the front doors of the church. The borders of orthodoxy must be defended.

To grasp this pro-institutional case, though, one must contort rather severely in order to peer around the elephant in the middle of the room: Christian institutions hold no hegemonic power in the modern era.  This has been the great challenge facing the church since the Enlightenment.  Institutions no longer hold sway over individuals, and to simply reassert the institution over the individual in the modern period is at best historically naive.  For progressives search for authentic expressions of Christian existence in this world, the argument-from-institution is a non-starter.

Burk and Dreher would be right to lament this state of twenty-first century western culture, and to make the case on theological grounds that the church of Jesus Christ does and ought to possess some kind of authority over Christ’s followers (even if this is the authority of the shepherd and not the magistrate).  But that doesn’t seem to be what is behind these reactions to liberal-progressive Christian voices.  Why aren’t these voices listening to institutional authorities and submitting to their guidance? (Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that some ecclesiastical authorities, such as the Episcopal churches, do in fact lend support to their views.) Because that is not the world we live in.

Disappointed that Jen Hatmaker is teaching something contrary to the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention?  Tell it to Immanuel Kant.

~ # ~

More to the point, though, is Burk’s invocation of the language of “orthodoxy.” With its companion term “heresy” (invoked in Dreher’s post title) this word has a specific and historical cluster of meanings.  And the word’s meaning is not what Burk appears to be suggesting — at least not for Protestants.

Orthodoxy (literally “right belief”) is determined through different processes for different Christian traditions, processes deeply tied to their respective ecclesiologies. Among the Eastern churches what is most decisive for identifying and clarifying the church’s teaching on various matters is the fraternity of bishops, exemplified by church synods and councils and particularly by those councils whose judgments rise to the level of ecumenical (universal) reception.  (There were seven such councils in the east between the fourth and eighth centuries, which focused primarily on Christian teachings about the Trinity and the person of Christ.) Here “orthodoxy” refers to what the councils have decided upon; “heresy” is what those bodies have specifically identified as contrary to the Christian faith.

Catholicism too highly regards the councils of bishops. But to these they add the Catholic Church’s designated teaching office (the Magisterium) and, ultimately, the authority of the Pope himself.  (This priority of the bishop of Rome was, of course, the chief point of contention in the East-West split.)  “Orthodoxy” thus has more broad application in the Catholic context, as the Church holds certain theological and structural reasons (grounded on Matt. 16:17-19) for affirming that “right teaching” is simply what the Church teaches.

It will come as no surprise to those with even a passing knowledge of the sixteenth-century Reformation that Protestant ecclesiology does not — cannot — accommodate this view of orthodoxy and the church’s teaching authority. Martin Luther’s rejection of this principle is the very reason that the Protestant churches exist today.  (After he posted the 95 Theses in 1517 in opposition to the sale of indulgences, among the first replies that came from Catholic defenders was Sylvester Mazzolini’s argument that indulgences cannot be wrong precisely because the Church says they are right.) While the ecumenical councils are to be heard and respected here too, historically for Protestants right belief is determined by the Word of God and not by institutional authorities.  (This Word ought to be read and interpreted within the community of faith, to be certain — the Reformers were no fans of the sort of private interpretation that has come to characterize the contemporary West.)

In less than a decade after Luther’s formal break with Rome, however, Protestant groups came to recognize that at a number of important points they were interpreting Holy Scripture differently from one another. Philip of Hesse’s efforts in 1529 to promote a unified Protestant Church failed largely over Luther and Zwingli’s competing understandings of the Lord’s Supper. Which view is “orthodox” — the doctrine of real presence and what has been called Christ’s “consubstantiality” with the bread and the wine?  Zwingli’s memorialism that is born from a strictly non-literal reading of Matt. 26:26?  Or something else?  (Both in their own ways broke with tradition.)

The decisive centrality of the Word of God thus stands relativized, historically and practically speaking, by the simple fact of interpretive pluralism.

From this arises the astonishing diversity of Protestant churches over the last five centuries. This diversity comes from Protestant ecclesiology: individual churches and denominations confess their core convictions but themselves bear no power to declare a universal Christian “orthodoxy.” Protestants have no Pope and no Magisterium.

The question we are left with, then, is just what Burk and Dreher mean when they invoke the word “orthodoxy.”

~ # ~

What counts as “right belief” and teaching, then? Protestants such as Burk and (I presume) Dreher have two lines of argument open to them. First, and somewhat benign, is that understanding that is shared with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: “orthodoxy” refers to the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils.  “Heresy” refers to the teachings those councils rejected — e.g. that Jesus is a created being, that his two natures are mixed together, or that he cannot be worshiped by means of icons.

This definition simply does not apply to these authors’ present use of the term “orthodox.” Both of them have invoked this historically loaded word in the context of same-sex relationships. But no church council recognized by Protestants has ever taken up this question, let alone issued a pronouncement upon it.  “Orthodox,” in this first sense of the word, is irrelevant to the conversation — and to invoke it in this context is misleading.

The second line of argument is much more likely to be what Burk and Dreher intend in their use of the term. If a Protestant understanding of right belief is determined by the Bible, “orthodoxy” might simply refer to what the Bible teaches. And these authors give evidence that this is their intent.  Burk writes:

The entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church has spoken univocally about homosexuality. Faithful Christians have always believed what the scriptures teach about this. Homosexuality is sexual immorality and is therefore sinful (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). We understand that this is an unpopular point of view today, but it is nevertheless what the church has always believed and confessed.

Burk is presumably aware that it is not Scripture itself that is being contested by the current wave of Christians arguing for same-sex relationships, but rather the traditional interpretation of Scripture. These are two very different things, and history is scarred by conflations of “truth” and “my understanding of the truth.” Theological speech points to divine reality and must seek to do so with the highest fidelity; but it is not itself a divine reality.

At this stage of the argument there are only two paths left open to Burk and others. The first would be to acknowledge the perhaps uncomfortable realities of interpretive pluralism, attempting to make the very best case for one’s own exegesis of the passages in question (but forced finally to acknowledge the limitations of human interpretation). This is not the path taken, of course, since it gives away the ballgame by acknowledging at least the possibility that one’s own interpretation of words such as arsenokoitai may be less than flawless.

Burk, then, opts for the second path and the only one that remains open to him: opposition to same-sex relationships is “what the church has always believed and confessed.” The appeal is to the long history of tradition, with an allusion to the fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lérins. Vincent’s most-quoted dictum is that true catholic teaching is “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (Communitorium 2.6). “Orthodoxy” thus refers not simpliciter to what the Bible teaches, but more to how the majority tradition has tended to interpret it over the centuries.

Vincent’s words have proved profoundly important to Eastern and Catholic doctrines of teaching authority. The Catholic Church rejects the intimation that the Church ever changes its positions or invents new teachings, but only that doctrine develops in such a way that new circumstances prompt the church to clarify “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This claim to a deep and universal continuity of belief is fundamental to Catholic ecclesiology.

The Evangelical appeal to tradition by means of an article so central to Catholic teaching therefore ought to surprise. Dreher illustrates this point when he observes that “an orthodox Catholic would be more likely to find Christians who agreed with him on key moral issues at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary than on the faculty of Boston College.” The suggestion seems to be that conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals are closer on social issues such as homosexuality (and their corresponding biblical interpretations) because they possess a shared value of tradition.

But it should be said that this cannot be severed from the churches’ respective ecclesiologies. The two groups reach these common convictions by different routes, since the tradition of the historic church (including anything that might be deemed a consensus of scriptural interpretation) performs radically different functions in their respective theologies. There is more to this than simply esteeming one’s theological ancestors; to invoke Vincent and the history of interpretation on homosexuality as the standard of “orthodoxy” is to make certain claims about church authority which heretofore have been largely foreign to the Protestant churches.

~ # ~

Contemporary evangelical churches exist in a particular space carved out by modernism, in which they both champion the individual, her piety, and her free exercise of religious conscience and also warn against the corrosive habits of religious individualism. Institutions, their traditions, and their historical memory are of great importance to the future of Christianity — but we have to do better than merely reasserting ecclesiastical authority over and against those believers with whom we disagree.  Otherwise, out of the very effort to protect historic Protestantism, we risk losing something vital to it.

In the twenty-first century it’s also time for Evangelicals to concede that a person’s location outside of the structures of institutionally ordered ministry is beside the point. “Submit to your bishop” doesn’t fly with Protestants, and it shouldn’t. Like Martin Luther, our consciences too are “captive to the Word of God.” Like John Wesley, “the world is [our] parish.”

But the word “orthodoxy” means something. Among Protestants it ought to be used in ways that are neither repressive nor historically simplistic, but which elevate speakers and teachers of all dispositions to the cause of the gospel in the world — that “faith once delivered to the saints.”

A Memorial For Prof. John Webster

October 27, 2016

The following is a guest post by Dr. Timothy Baylor (University of St Andrews), one of John Webster’s last doctoral students.  Tim delivered this reflection at John’s memorial service in St Andrews this past August, and has graciously shared it with us.

John devoted his life to the teaching of theology. And not just any kind of theology, but to what he called “theological theology” — a vision that placed the heralding of God and his works at the very center of the theologian’s work. John once said that the whole of his career was about reminding theologians what they are responsible for — namely, bearing witness to God. And John did this throughout his career by his publications, his institutional leadership, and his mentoring of students.

Perhaps most of us who gather in this sanctuary today have at some time counted ourselves among John’s students, in one respect or another. I had the joy of being one of the more than 70 PhD students which John mentored over the course of his long career in academic theology, starting with him in Aberdeen and then concluding my work here in St Andrews only five days before his sudden departure.

Even to those who knew him only casually, John’s devotion to teaching was always evident. John was recognized as a teacher’s teacher and as a gifted mentor of intellectuals. During his time at Aberdeen, the University had him address the faculty on the art of PhD supervision. I remember one conversation with a newly appointed Lecturer in History who, when I told him I was studying under Professor Webster, said that he didn’t know much about his work, but that he had heard John was supposed to be some kind of “teaching guru.” And that was about right.

John really did give exceptional attention to his students. For being such an accomplished senior scholar, he was remarkably generous with his time. In fact, while many PhD students had to chase their advisors to make their meetings each semester, during the first year of my studies with John in Aberdeen, he asked to meet with me for an hour each week to discuss my research and to talk over what I was reading. I finally asked him if we could meet only every-other week instead, because I found that I could not formulate questions quickly enough to make full use of his time.

This was only one of many ways in which John gave to his students. Every one of John’s students has a story of receiving some lengthy, detailed email from John hammered out at 3:30 in the morning, carefully answering their question or interacting with their ideas. It was not at all uncommon to receive very thoughtful feedback from John within days of sending him a very lengthy piece of writing. On one occasion, he returned to me some very helpful notes along with a profuse apology for not responding in a timely fashion to an article that I had sent him only a week earlier.

Practices like these are notable because it is so far outside of the norm in modern universities, where academics are commonly saddled with many urgent administrative tasks that often obstruct or delay meaningful interaction with their students. It is even more impressive given that John was doing the same for people who were not his students at all! In the days immediately following John’s death, as tributes to him came in from around the world, I was struck by the numbers of people who had never studied under John, but who expressed gratitude for some lengthy correspondence which they had enjoyed with him, and which they no doubt found clarifying or encouraging.

I have often thought that John might have been more prolific and productive as an author had he guarded his time more jealously. But then, the fact that this was such a decisive pattern over the course of John’s career just indicates that he did not see his writings as the most fundamental part of his legacy — John invested his energies in his students and in creating institutions where theological theology could operate freely and thrive.

In his final book published earlier this year, John described teaching as “a particular kind of fellowship, one which intends the communication of goods and the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellencies.” This really captures how John thought of his work as a teacher. John labored to instill intellectual and moral excellencies in his students. In the realm of theology, this involves certain kinds of spiritual formation, and John made it a point to urge the importance of reverence and fear of God for the work of any theologian. To him, the academic work of analysis and criticism was all one with the life of faith and piety.

But having been his student myself, I can say that John’s manner of working as a teacher really was to initiate “a particular kind of fellowship” with his students. John was, of course, a very private man and so he was not often chummy with his students, though he would often discuss what he had been doing in his garden, or last night’s Blue Jays game. But while he never brandished about his accomplishments, it was always clear to us that John was our superior. The sheer scope of his knowledge meant that he would always have to assume the role of our example, a role that he carried with his characteristic humility and light-heartedness.

But there really was a special kind of fellowship that we had with John. He accorded us a level of respect that, while we did not always earn, nonetheless made us rise to the occasion as responsible participants in a larger academic conversation. In this way, he taught us to take our own thoughts and opinions seriously — seriously enough to evaluate, to criticize, and to reformulate them.

This meant that he sometimes offered pointed criticisms of the work of his students, because he expected that we were capable of more. But, on balance, he was far more liberal with praise. He took visible pleasure in the work of his students, especially when he felt he had learned something new from them. Earlier this year, one of John’s students submitted to him a paper on the theology of Karl Barth — a topic on which John was, perhaps, the world’s foremost authority. John’s reaction was to tell the student that he wished he had written it himself, a really wonderful comment that indicates just how free John was of any necessity to protect his own legacy or reputation. Nothing delighted him more than making esteemed colleagues out of students.

But the very nature of academic theology, as John practiced it, meant that mentorship could never be a strictly professional relationship. God is the highest good — the One who makes all things good. And so, two people cannot talk about their beliefs about God without grappling over their greatest hopes, their highest ideals and their most deeply held convictions. Conducting conversations like these over the course of three, or four, or sometimes five years, a certain kind of intimacy is bound to develop. You come to know a person and what moves them — what inspires them and brings them joy. In some cases, you come to adopt their point of view, and maybe even trust their judgment more than your own. And in this respect, teachers can be far more than educators, even taking on a kind of parental role.

And this is, in part, what has made John’s absence such a source of sorrow for so many of his students, like myself. You have the feeling of being an intellectual orphan — of being deprived of counsel and wisdom upon which you have come to depend. Of course, were John here today, he would be the first to point out that we cannot be orphaned in the ultimate sense. For since Christ has died for our sins and is risen from the dead, he has not left us alone in this world but has promised to us his Spirit to guide us into all truth. And it is, indeed, sufficient for us. Yet, certainly, it makes our sense of loss no less real.

In the weeks before his death, John spoke about the systematic theology that he had been preparing so painstakingly. He told me that he had been working on the first of five volumes, particularly on a portion dealing with the place of tradition within the church. John said he was surprised at how much he had to say about the importance of tradition. He planned to depict it as an act of God’s generosity to creatures.

Tradition, you see, is an act of giving. In the church, it is the act of handing on the deposit of faith — the gospel — from age to age, and from one generation to the next. This is an act in which God also gives. The church’s labor to pass on its faith to each new generation both represents God’s ceaseless generosity to us, and is also a real means of God’s self-giving. Because it is through the witness of our Fathers and Mothers that we receive the wealth of the good news.

As we pause today to remember John’s life, we mourn the loss of a trusted advisor and friend. Yet we also remember the good that we have received from God through John’s life. I believe I speak for all of his students when I say that John’s friendship was truly a gift. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to learn from him, and to accept from his hands the deposit of faith as a Father in the Lord, count ourselves to have received richly from God himself. In this way, our lives continue as part of John’s legacy — that gift he gave to others. And if God is pleased, this legacy shall continue, though only by the generosity of his grace.

Theology after John

August 25, 2016

After the passing of John Webster earlier this year there were a plethora of tributes (many of them excellent, especially here and here). What with this and the service of remembrance coming this weekend in St. Andrews, there probably isn’t much need to add to those – other than to echo amen; rest in peace. That said, this summer some of us have found ourselves mulling over a question we really didn’t anticipate but find ourselves sadly asking nonetheless. It’s a question personal and theological at once, namely: What does it mean for you to do theology after John? 

It’s a personal question because, if you knew him or read him closely, he likely left an indelible mark on your life simply by the way he went about his work. But it’s a theological question too. It’s about legacy – not in the sense of hagiography or fame (especially not in this case) – about reflecting on the imprint John may have made on theology; on the way it’s done; on the things it does.

j20webster201_black20and20whiteFor me, theology after John comes back to the typical but immeasurable things that good supervisors do – he gave me my chance, guided me in my topic, helped me see dead ends before I hit them, and supported me at wits’ end. More particularly, John unassumingly nurtured me in the un-anxious, constructive sort of theology that one learns (and I needed to learn) to do when one is given the time and space to read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV carefully. That’s a gift I cannot now imagine my life without.

Beyond this there are all the off-the-cuff remarks in supervisions and seminars – which John would likely not have remembered if you had asked him, but which for me were like vital rudder-readjustments for a ship adrift at sea. I started out trying to write about these at length but realized you kind of had to be there – and be me – for them to really seem that important. The point is that John had plenty he could have been doing (and we’re all ruing the writing projects we wish he’d finished) but he met with us, a lot (at peak he would see each of us for an hour per week). I’m not sure how standard that is, regardless I’m thankful for it.

But what about the question more broadly: What impression does John leave on theology? I suspect there are several ways one might answer that. Answers could even take the form of constructive critiques or outstanding questions. Likely many would have to do with the compact, methodical way John went about integrating and explicating various doctrines.

What I want to mention is simply this: John read him some serious Bible.

You see this, if you’re paying appropriate attention, in his writing. Those who judge something ‘biblical’ based upon a scatter-gun approach to referencing (see Ps. 119:57; Prov. 14:3; Mt. 7:21-23; 23:24; 1 Cor. 13:1) might think John’s writings to be damningly sparse – but you’d never catch him citing verses for no discernible reason. Quite the contrary: often enough the biblical quotations that dot his essays carry such a density to them that every word appears to have informed what came before.

You see this in something like the title of his essay on ‘soteriology and the doctrine of God’, quoted from Isaiah 53:10: ‘It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.’ You realize what a loaded line that is. You realize this is a guy who reads his Bible, and when doing so – be it in morning prayer or in the study – he pays attention. The other day I ‘caught’ a student in our library ‘just’ reading the Bible and when I jokingly questioned her she said ‘reading Barth makes me read the Bible.’ Well, its that way with John as well.

We saw hints of this in our systematic theology seminar too. Judging from how many people I’ve heard telling the story, one of the most lasting memories of John from Aberdeen was the term we spent reading Karl Barth together. Rather frequently someone would wonder ‘where Barth got this from’ – usually with a bit of reasoned speculation about the genealogy of the idea (i.e., ‘Hegelian undertones’). Invariably at some point all eyes would turn to John for his opinion, and more often than not his hands would go to his forehead and he would humbly (almost sheepishly, given how ‘un-academic’ it might sound) say something like: ‘I think Barth just thinks he’s getting it from the Bible!’ It wasn’t to ward off critique, of course, it was simply a reflection of his own first instinct that theology is going to involve a lot of exegesis. Come to think of it, it was the only moment he really ever seemed kind of flabbergasted with us.


King’s College Chapel (where they’ve obviously turned the chairs back around from morning prayer)

But for me what makes this legacy ‘stick’ is simply my memory of morning prayer in King’s College Chapel being introduced by John and by Brian Brock to the rich cadences and wonderful routine of the Book of Common Prayer. There were only a handful of us each morning, sometimes only two of us, but there John was, ready to take the first line in reading the Scriptures and saying our prayers. It wasn’t widely publicized. I was invited when I made an off-hand remark to him about my years dedicated to private devotions; how simultaneously thankful for them I was and yet how desperately I wanted spiritual practices which were not me inside my own head with God, alone. Turned out there was this modest time of scripture reading and prayer in the chapel each morning; it was how John started his work day, and we were welcome to come along. Now whenever I read his stuff I see how thoroughly that rhythm informed his theology. After John, hopefully also ours.

(If you’d like to offer an answer to this question, either in the comments or with a link or perhaps by a guest post, please let us know. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something wholly unique to him; what we’re after with this question is those particular characteristics of John Webster’s theology which we can see being important or positively contagious. It’s probably best answered over years and by many. For my part I’d like to thank Joe McGarry for spurring these reflections, and mention the wonderful essay by Ivor Davidson entitled in ‘John’ in the Festschrift Theological Theology, edited by Nelson, Sarisky, and Stratis.)


Models For Christology (An Experiment)

July 27, 2016
Jesus - Supper in Emmaus (Caravaggio, 1606)

What is the best way to describe the person (or person and work) of Jesus Christ?  What I’m thinking of here sits at the intersection of theological conceptuality and method, drawing upon Scripture, reason, and the best of the history of Christian thought.

There are a number of strategies for Christology, over-arching models which give structure to a systematic presentation of the doctrine.  I’d like to briefly work through these models as I see them, and then invite you to help fill things out with a bit of crowd-sourcing.  Consider this a public experiment.  What model(s) are missing that you think are comprehensive enough to stand on their own?  Are there alterations or nuances you would suggest to what’s below?

We should say that the very best doctrinal models accomplish a number of things.  They attend to the fullness of the biblical witness.  They accommodate atonement theory organically, uniting the doctrines of Christ’s person and his redemptive work in a straight-forward and meaningful way.  And they are expansive in their scope, offering the theologian significant (if not exhaustive) explanatory power.

With these goals in mind, which model(s) do you think is best?

Of course these models are not mutually exclusive.  They overlap extensively, and theologians throughout the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras usually invoke some or all of them to greater or lesser degrees.  This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t about abandoning any model.  What it is about is asking whether one of them is decisively better for structuring our exposition of the doctrine.

(1) The Titles of Jesus

The Bible is layered with titles referring to Jesus and his work on the earth, as different authors draw upon varieties of imagery, and cultural and religious values, to articulate his identity and mission. Jesus is called “Messiah” and “Christ” (the Anointed One); “Son of God” and “Son of Man” (both with deep roots in the Old Testament); “Rabbi” and “Lord;” “Lamb of God” and “Emmanuel” and “Logos” and more.  Whole books have been written about each one of these names.

A Christology which begins from the titles of Jesus has the advantage of staying very close to the biblical text, and perhaps the pride of place as the church’s earliest form of christological reflection.  One cannot pursue the task in this way and drift away from Jesus’ Jewish roots, and from prophecy and its fulfillment.  It seems to me that this line of inquiry also (at least potentially) does a fine job balancing so-called “high” and “low” Christologies, understanding Jesus as a particular human person and also in some sense a divine agent.

(2) Two Natures: Divine and Human

As the church moved into the controversies of the fourth and fifth century, articulation of Christ’s person took on a more philosophical tone.  In their reading of Scripture the fathers sought to affirm both his full humanity (the incarnation was not a hoax) and his full divinity (the incarnation was the presence of God!).  In shoring up the church’s teaching against Arius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and others, their Christology found expression in the metaphysical formula of the hypostatic union of two natures.

This macro-level model has a long and distinguished history (though it fell out of favor in some quarters after the Enlightenment), and so it feeds into centuries of Christian teaching on other topics.  Augustine described human nature as corrupted by original sin; Anselm draws upon nature language in his landmark atonement theory in Cur Deus Homo; Lutherans come to express the mystery of the Eucharist in terms of the sharing of these two natures’ properties; ad infinitum.  So this way of engaging Christology has going for it a long and rigorous history, the privilege of ecclesiastical confession, and a remarkable degree of conceptual precision.

(3) Three Offices: King, Priest, and Prophet

Perhaps most associated with John Calvin and the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, it should be said that the so-called munus triplex (three offices or the one, threefold office) has a longer history that.  This model takes its start from Christ’s work in its multi-dimensionality.  As King he exercises lordship over creation and cosmos, from the throne of heaven to the heart of believers.  As Priest he intercedes on behalf of sinners to God the Father, pleading their case and making the necessary sacrifice of atonement.  And as Prophet he teaches, both in the Galilean countryside and today through the ministry of his body as it is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Each of these offices comprehends a vital part of Jesus’ work, and by this work we understand who Jesus is — king, priest, and prophet, God, human, and the Mediator between the two.  No one office is sufficiently comprehensive; the totality of the “threefold” office is needed for a complete picture.  This model is steeped in biblical language, including the unity of the two testaments that is exemplified by the epistle to the Hebrews.  It also has the advantage of allowing no daylight between the doctrine of Christ’s person and that of his work.  He is who he is over us (King), among us (Prophet), and on our behalf (Priest).

(4) Two States: Humiliated and Exalted

Often mentioned in theology textbooks only as an echo to the three offices are the two states of Christ, the status duplex.  On the one hand Christ is described as the infinite God who has willingly reduced himself to finitude, humbling himself by taking on flesh in all its frailty.  On the other hand he is called exalted, honored by God the Father because of what he did (and who he is, as God the Son) and at the resurrection restored to that glory he voluntarily set aside.  The two states help to distinguish between his pre-incarnate and incarnate existence, closely following Phil. 2:5-11.

There is here a sense of movement, an exalted God coming down from above and then that same humble servant being lifted up in glory.  In this respect the status duplex fits nicely with the over-arching narrative of Jesus’ story as it appears in the New Testament, from the incarnation of the Word (John 1) to his eventual death (the nadir of this movement), resurrection, and ascension and heavenly session.  As a model for Christology it emphasizes the Son’s humble self-giving and his vindication by the Father, the depths of his obedience unto death and the heights of his glorification.

(5) Historical Jesus: Agency and Consciousness

Since the Enlightenment the modern period has seen a decisive shift in some quarters away from the dogmatic categories of the ancient church — hypostases, natures, communication of attributes, etc.  Without church authority to order their thoughts skeptics challenged the believability of the divinity of Jesus, turning instead to new explorations of his humanity and his place as a figure in the history of religions.  This broad model (if such a diverse range of thinkers can be reduced to a single ‘model’) has, especially since the eighteenth century, concerned itself with things such as Jesus’ historicity (the multiple “quests for the historical Jesus”) and his inner psychology, including questions of his consciousness and his self-understanding.

It should be said that, despite a typically uneasy relationship with ecclesiastical orthodoxy, this approach to the person of Christ has made fruitful contributions.  Christologies “from below” offer important points of balance to the ancient view “from above,” attending (in its better moments) to Jesus’ Jewishness, his place in the origins of the Christian faith, and the real profundity of the Son’s human life (and death).  They are also critical of the apparent distance between patristic and medieval concepts and Jesus as he appears in the gospels.  Even if its criticisms at times went too far, modernism has provoked Christian theologians to ask better questions.

We have identified five models
for structuring our exposition of Christology, that locus which is particularly concerned with the person of Christ and its (indispensable) intersection with his work.  Each has its advantages and, perhaps, its limitations.  Is there a model you have seen that I have not included here?  If you were to write a systematic Christology which model(s) would you favor, and why?

The Heart of the Matter for Eternal Subordination

July 7, 2016

There is a crucial aspect of the debate over Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) / Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS) which I attempted to draw attention to in my first post on the topic, and then again last week, but which has — at least in some quarters — continued to fall by the wayside.  As I’ve continued to read material old and new from all sides, I’ve become convinced that the entire matter finally hinges on this point.  It is the innermost basis for the objectors’ case against EFS / ERAS; and dealing with this point properly and rigorously would empower proponents to disarm objections and establish the orthodoxy of their view.

That point is the elementary distinction in systematic theology between God’s inner being (ad intra, or the “immanent” or “ontological” Trinity) and God’s being for creatures (ad extra, or the “economic” Trinity).

Both Ware and Grudem (as well as a number of their supporters) have made public replies to their critics during the course of this most recent debate.  They have pushed back on objections; suggested numerous figures from the history of the Christian tradition who also use language of eternal “subordination;” and sought to restate their intentions with clarity.  What they have not done in these posts is to articulate EFS / ERAS with respect to God’s life ad intra and ad extra, the immanent and the economic Trinity. (Ware’s July 4 post mentions the distinction briefly, but only in the course of his explanation as to why he thinks John 5:26 does not provide sufficient exegetical support for the doctrine of eternal generation.)

This has only left EFS / ERAS claims half-hewn and opaque, and invited further critique by those who, to be honest, have not had much to work with other than the apparent implications of what Grudem, Ware, et al have actually said.  That certainly has left plenty of room for legitimate criticism; but the whole enterprise has proved rather intractable in the absence of a common denominator.  Well-known conceptual tools such as “ad intra” and “ad extra” will provide just such a basis, so that we no longer need to reason from extrapolation and implication.  We must know what EFS / ERAS advocates are actually saying.

~ ~ ~

Let me explain why I think this set of concepts is absolutely necessary for the conversation to make any further progress.  First, some starting points I hope both sides would embrace as uncontroversial:

  1. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share the one divine essence, and so in essence they are equal.
  2. With respect to the economy of salvation, the Son submits to God the Father.  Many, many biblical passages demonstrate that the Father has authority and sends, and the Son submits to that authority and is sent.
  3. This submission entails the Son’s assumption of a human nature (including a human will, according to the conciliar tradition).  But economic submission is not limited to the Son’s humanity, since the Son submits and is sent by the Father even before Mary’s conception. (The history of interpretation of Phil. 2:5-7 is interesting here.  Is the subject of kenosis the eternal Son, or the incarnate Christ?)

In other words, there is no dispute that the Son submits to the Father in the economy, or in God’s life ad extra.  The thing under dispute — the only thing under dispute — is whether this submission also obtains in the immanent Trinity, in God’s life ad intra.  This is why specificity here is crucial.  But it is crucially absent from most of what Ware, Grudem, and their supporters have written.

The result is that opponents have come to believe that this is precisely the claim that EFS / ERAS supporters are making — that subordination also obtains in the immanent Trinity.  (As we will see below, their suspicions in this regard are entirely correct.)  But the ERAS distinction between “equal in essence” but “subordinate in roles” is drawing the line in the wrong place: this is not the immanent-economic distinction at all, because they say that what is entailed by “roles” is not merely God’s economic activity but God’s own inner life.  More on this in a moment.

It is at this point that the divine processions, and specifically the ancient doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, enters the conversation.  And, from the other side of the argument, supporters here invoke the Bible’s language of “Father” and “Son” as essential to who God is: God does not just take on this relationship in the economy, but from eternity God is and always has been Father and Son.  Of course these two sets of concepts are not opposed to one another.  But the competitive ways in which they are being used illustrates the fact that the debate is lacking a common denominator.

~ ~ ~

Until the proponents of EFS / ERAS are more explicit it is difficult to adjudicate precisely where they stand with respect to subordination and the immanent Trinity.  Since they avoid this language my goal here is to seek out an answer to the question of whether proponents do, in fact, predicate subordination of the immanent Trinity.  The immanent-economic and ad intraextra apparatus is absent from Ware’s and Grudem’s recent posts, from those of Owen Strachan, and from the relevant portions of Ware’s 2005 book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It receives slight attention from Michael Ovey by way of direct response to Liam Goligher. (Strachan’s post does include one use of ad intra, indicating that he does indeed affirm that the Son submits to the Father in the inner life of the Trinity, though this is not fully explained.)

I have, however, found the language used in a relevant passage in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994).  This, I think, is revealing:

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God.  But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Harper Collins, 1994), p. 251

At first blush it seems as though Grudem is predicating the subordinate relationship of Father and Son strictly in the economy: that relationship speaks to their respective “roles,” and not their shared essence.  However, a bit further in this quotation he concludes that this “economic subordination” is necessary in order for there to be a distinction of persons at all; without it “we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.”  If there is no subordination “in the economy,” according to Grudem, there is no eternal Trinity.

In short, then: When Grudem does make use of the classical immanent-economic distinction, he misuses it.  Either (a) he does not believe that subordination is restricted to the economy; or (b) he makes the triune being of God contingent upon the economy; or (c) he holds that God is eternally, but not ontologically, triune (a form of Modalism).

As I read the statement above, at least one of these options must be true of Grudem’s theology.  I think the reading he would favor is (a): though he uses the specifier “economic” here, he in fact means to reference the immanent Trinity — God in God’s inner being, without reference to creation or the drama of salvation.  God is, and always has been, Father, Son, and Spirit.

~ ~ ~

More explicit is this 2006 essay by Bruce Ware, which has been reproduced on the website for the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  [Thanks to Steven Wedgeworth for finding it.]  An extended version is published in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (ed. Sanders and Issler).

Ware states his thesis in this way:

[W]hile Scripture clearly teaches, and the history of doctrine affirms, that the Father and Son are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully the identically same divine nature, yet the eternal and inner-trinitarian Father-Son relationship is marked, among other things, by an authority and submission structure in which the Father is eternally in authority over the Son and the Son eternally in submission to his Father.

Ware is clear throughout this essay that “inner-Trinitarian” means the immanent Trinity. Subordination is not restricted to the economy, but is who God is in the relation of the divine persons:

[W]hat distinguishes the Father from the Son and each of them from the Spirit is instead the particular roles each has within the Trinity — both immanent and economic — and the respective relationships that each has with the other divine Persons.

The body of the essay sets out to demonstrate this from (1) the names “Father” and “Son”; (2) what Scripture says about the Son’s submission in the incarnation; (3) what Scripture says about the Son’s submission in “eternity past” and in “eternity future”; (4) acknowledgement of all of this by the ancient tradition (citing Justin, Novatian, Hilary, and Augustine).  Most of this materially is actually not objectionable, because Ware here is only demonstrating the undisputed case that the Son submits to the Father in the economy.  Even his arguments and supporting texts for “eternal” submission pertain only to the economy (as I have argued elsewhere).  That is because when theologians speak of the divine missions — of the Father sending and the Son being sent, and of the Son returning to the Father at the end of all things and being subjected to him (1 Cor. 15:28) — we are speaking exclusively of the economy of grace, the life of God ad extra.

Ware thus fails even to address, let alone to prove, his thesis that authority and submission are true of the “inner-Trinitarian” life, which I take to be the immanent Trinity.

But does Ware even wish to predicate submission of the immanent Trinity?  A number of confusing statements in Ware’s July 4, 2016 piece suggest that he might not.  This includes those things he believes pertain to God ad intra and which are strictly ad extra.  Consider the following:

… authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser.

Here elsewhere Ware seems to equate the immanent Trinity with divine “ontology,” and ontology strictly with the nature (or one, shared essence) of God.  Because authority and submission pertain to relations and not to nature, it would seem natural to conclude that Ware regards these as functions of the economy.  That would be reassuring; except that, if he follows the tradition, he must affirm that the distinction of three persons in God is also ontological and not merely economic (which would be Modalism).

In other words: “ontology” is not reducible to the one divine nature; it also includes the distinction of divine persons (and, traditionally, their manner of relating viz. generation and spiration).  Their manner of relating cannot be separated out from ontology, as if it were merely “functional.”  If relations are basic to the persons, and the persons are basic to the Trinity, then ERAS is arguing (obliquely) that relations are basic to the Trinity.

The only other possibility for them, it seems to me, would be Modalism.

Thus it seems fair for critics to conclude that Ware does intend to locate authority and submission in the inner life of God: they are basic to who God is.  It is conceivable that Ware has changed his mind on this point since 2006.  But this seems unlikely, since the overt affirmation of immanent subordination in God in that essay coheres so well with the rest of the more vague language (e.g. “in God” and “eternal”) of ERAS supporters.

That leads me to one final observation and objection regarding the language in which the ERAS case has been expressed.

~ ~ ~

The use of the term “eternity” and its cognates by EFS / ERAS proponents is particularly addling.  In the absence of the language of “immanent” and ad intra, it seems that the adjective “eternal” has operated as a way to stress that the submission of the Son is basic to the divine life — and not something assumed or taken up at some point in time (e.g. creation, or the incarnation).  In other words, many proponents appear to mean “the immanent Trinity” when they refer to these “eternal” relations of authority and submission.  As we have seen, Ware’s 2006 piece addresses the incarnation, “eternity past,” and “eternity future” and believes that in so doing he has made a comprehensive case for the “inner-Trinitarian” relations.

Because the language of “eternity” is not inherently specific in this regard, however, it is not absolutely clear that this is what they mean.  As I’ve explained elsewhere, it is possible for theologians to speak both of the Trinity ad intra and ad extra when speaking of eternity.  The immanent relations of procession (the Son’s begottenness and the Spirit’s spiration) are “eternal.”  But likewise God’s decision of election, as well as what Reformed theologians call the “covenant of redemption,” are also eternal (that is, they occur prior to the creation of all things, time included).  Therefore using the term “eternity” does not designate that one’s referent is now the immanent Trinity.

Clarity, then, is called for.  Proponents of eternal submission cannot claim that they are being misunderstood and misconstrued so long as they continue to use complex theological language in imprecise ways, and to avoid the theological grammar taught to every seminarian for generations.  That leads me to my conclusion.

~ ~ ~

Are EFS / ERAS supporters actually making the claims that their critics believe them to be making?  That the subordination of the Son to the Father is true of the immanent Trinity (if in a relational, not essential sense)?  There is a great deal of room to conclude that they are indeed.  But it also seems plausible that at least some are not speaking of the immanent Trinity at all — but only articulating the dynamic of authority and submission in the life of God ad extra and not intending any such implications of subordination in the inner life of the Trinity.  (That is my charitable reading, which Ware’s 2006 essay makes difficult to maintain.)

If this is just a misunderstanding, then it is their choice of language that has caused this confusion.  They will write of God’s inner life, of the Trinity itself, etc., of eternal and necessary relations, all while (I suspect) actually still talking about the economic Trinity.  They are incredulous at accusations of deviation from historic orthodoxy, though it is their own lack of care and precision that has brought all this about.

On the other hand, if Ware’s 2006 essay is actually the key to all of this — a rare moment when an advocate of eternal subordination confesses that this relation of authority and submission does indeed obtain in the immanent Trinity — then at least we can continue onward from that point of clarity, and have conversations about whether there is room for a relational subordination in the inner life of God within the confession of historic Christianity.

If this is what must be done for this discussion to go anywhere, then I call upon Professors Grudem and Ware (as well as other EFS / ERAS advocates) to please restate their teaching using these terms.  If the concepts are understood and used properly, it will bring an end to all doubt, suspicion, and speculative extrapolation from teaching that heretofore has been, for the most part, only implied.  This is the only way for clarity, and for peace in the church.

The Pactum Salutis, Divine Agreement, And Karl Barth

June 30, 2016

The question I consider here can be summed up this way: Can God agree with Himself?  What would it mean for God to agree with God?

The ongoing debate over the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son to the Father (also called ESS, “Eternal Subordination of the Son,” or more benignly ERAS, “Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission”) has opened up a number of related avenues for continued discussion. The conversation has stirred up questions of the will, wills, and willing in the Trinity; the relationship between God’s life ad intra and God’s activity ad extra; just what the ancient doctrine of eternal generation is, and why it has historically been regarded as crucial; questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and what adherence to the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople entails; and more.

In this post I’d like to pursue a topic of special concern to those of us in the Reformed tradition: the doctrine of the pactum salutis, the eternal covenant of redemption, an eternal agreement (“pact,” contract, or covenant) between God the Father and the Son by which the triune God determined to enter into the world and redeem sinners.  According to the divine missions the Father sends and the Son is sent.  The Father commands the Son to take on flesh and make atonement for sin, and the Son willingly obeys.

All of this, according to the Reformed scholastics, occurred in eternity and provides the basis for the temporal covenant of grace.  A classical statement comes from the Dutch theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), summarized here by W. J. Van Asselt:

The council of peace involves the triune God and has its own oeconomia — an economy with specific legal relationships.  To formulate it more precisely: the concilium pacis or pactum salutis describes a relationship among the three Trinitarian persons in a negotiated agreement (negotium) in which these persons act as legal parties who are mutually obligated to each other.  The Father functions both as the Lawgiver who requires that righteousness be rendered and that sin be punished in the person of the Son, and as the all-wise Sovereign, who appoints his Son as sponsor in order to reveal his mercy in his dealing with his creatures.

W. J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius: (1603-1669) (Brill, 2001), p. 230

John Owen (1616-1683), a contemporary of Cocceius, structures this Trinitarian covenant this way (as summarized by John Fesko):

Regarding the pactum salutis (or covenant of redemption), Owen explains that there are five characteristics: (1) the Father and the Son mutually agree to the common goal of the salvation of the elect; (2) the Father as principal of the covenant requires the Son to accomplish all that is necessary to secure the redemption of the elect — to do the Father’s will; (3) the Father promises to reward Christ for accomplishing his will; (4) the Son accepts the work given to him by the Father; and (5) the Father agrees to accept the Son’s work upon its completion.

John Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), p. 288; citing Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, 12.500-07

For the purposes of the discussions over EFS what is important is the pactum‘s description of the ways in which the Father and the Son relate to one another — not only that one sends and the other is sent, but that here the divine counsel is depicted as a plurality of acting agents.  “Legal parties” and “negotiated agreement” are the key terms in Van Asselt’s quotation above: within the Trinity there is an exchange, a compact that is formed by two parties following some negotiation and agreed upon by both, each with his respective role to play in the subsequent economy of salvation.

While I am by no means an expert on this era I think it is right to say that, for the Reformed scholastics (and their successors today), this pactum is by no means a mere metaphor for explaining the inter-Trinitarian relations.  It is not that the tradition imagined a fitting narrative to illustrate a divine mystery by way of legal-covenantal language.  No, the eternal agreement of these two “legal parties” is, I think, intended to be taken literally: the Father and the Son covenant with one another to accomplish the redemption of sinners.

~ ~ ~

Two aspects of this doctrine immediately give pause.

First, it is not clear that the scholastics have articulated a vision of the Trinitarian “persons” (hypostases) and the realization of their actions that is entirely in keeping with the ancient doctrine.  What is a “person?”  Boethius’ famous definition, so often quoted throughout the Middle Ages, is that a person is “an individual subsistence of a rational nature.”  In God that nature is one, and it subsists in three distinct but essentially and perichoretically united persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Reformed pactum poses a sort of over-againstness of the persons, identifying them as discrete subjects, each with his own agency.  They are distinct “legal parties” that can have dealings with each other just as, say, a man and his banker might.  On some accounts the Father and the Son have discrete minds (or consciousnesses), and thus are able to enter into an agreement in a way that would be impossible if the Trinitarian persons were in fact subsistences of a single subject.

Trifacial Trinity (Cusco School)It’s not clear that the Reformed view here deviates from classical Trinitarianism. But it does seem as though it is operating with an implicit notion of person that has advanced upon the medieval way of conceiving personhood (and, in particular, divine personhood) by positing multiple consciousnesses in God (prior to the incarnation of the Son).  It is on this basis that God can have interchange with God.

Second, and related to this, there is a more overt deviation from the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s declaration regarding the will of Christ.  This, too, is perhaps only implicit.  The Council determined as orthodoxy the teaching that Christ has two wills — one divine and one human — because the faculty of the will goes with a nature, not with a person.  Because God has one nature (or essence), then, God has one will.  And because they share the one divine essence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same will — not that they always agree on a course of action as three distinct agents, but that they possess one and the same faculty of willing.

The picture of the pactum seems to strain this nearly to the breaking point.  It does so by positing agreement between two parties, Father and Son, suggesting at least the theoretical possibility that they might not have agreed.  They might not have entered into such a mutual compact, because while they share the same intentions they do not share the same faculty of will.

Again, I’m not convinced that this is entirely fatal to the doctrine of the pactum salutis.  But the way in which a negotiated “agreement” appears to run against the grain of “one divine will” should give pause.

~ ~ ~

A number of potential solutions might be suggested here.  (a) One would simply be to reduce the pactum narrative to a mere illustration, a Sunday School lesson meant to give some insight into the different parts that the Father, Son, and Spirit play in the work of redemption (akin to those bad analogies still used to try and illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity).  The pactum is an imaginative extrapolation on the Son’s “sent-ness,” but shouldn’t be taken literally.

(b) Another is to press on to a full argument for three centers of consciousness in God.  Rather than a single Subject who subsists in three ways, God is a plurality of subjects who each has his own mind, thought world, and intention.  (“Subjectivity” here is a modern term that we may use to probe the character of oneness and threeness in the doctrine of the Trinity.) Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) was one who affirmed this view (along with three divine wills, Systematic Theology I, p. 326ff) — which of course entails its own set of problems.

(c) Still another (seen, for example, in Francis Turretin [1623-1687], Institutes 12.2) is to articulate the eternal pact as an undivided work of the whole Trinity, with each divine person undertaking “his own proper and peculiar mode of operation here, agreeable to this saving economy (1 Pet. 1:2)” (Turretin, 12.2.7; cf. Owen, Death of Death I.3).  This places any notions of multiple wills, of negotiation, and of agreement strictly in the economy (cf. 12.2.13).  Placing the maxim opera ad extra sunt indivisa front and center, it recasts the divine pactum such that the Father and Son are not legal parties who reach an agreement but the one God who is self-appropriating the various elements of the covenant and its execution.

This, I think, is probably the only way forward; but it does call into question whether this even qualifies any longer as the pactum salutis doctrine, which seems to trade on the notion of a negotiated settlement between two parties.

~ ~ ~

The key to the problem as I’ve tried to diagnose it, then, is how we will answer the question “What is a person?”  In God is a person a discrete subject, an “I,” with his own center of consciousness?  Or is a divine person an instantiation of the single Subject who is the one God, who enjoys one center of consciousness in the Godhead — though in a different way with respect to the Son and the Spirit?  (And what might this “different way” entail?)

Karl Barth chooses the latter, arguing for God’s (tri-personal) single subjectivity. He seems to have the majority of the tradition behind him, even with support to be found among the Reformed scholastics (cf. the language of modus subsistendi and τρόπος ὐπάρξεως).  This goes a long way in explaining Barth’s criticism of Cocceius and the pactum salutis doctrine:

The conception of this inter-trinitarian pact as a contract between the persons of the Father and the Son is also open to criticism. Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two divine subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another? This is mythology, for which there is no place in a right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as the doctrine of the three modes of being of the one God, which is how it was understood and presented in Reformed orthodoxy itself. God is one God. If He is thought of as the supreme and finally the only subject, He is the one subject. And if, in relation to that which He obviously does amongst us, we speak of His eternal resolves or decrees, even if we describe them as a contract, then we do not regard the divine persons of the Father and the Son as partners in this contract, but the one God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as the one partner, and the reality of man as distinct from God as the other.

When the covenant of grace was based on a pact between two divine persons, a wider dualism was introduced into the Godhead — again in defiance of the Gospel as the revelation of the Father by the Son and of the Son by the Father, which took place in Jesus Christ. The result was an uncertainty which necessarily relativised the unconditional validity of the covenant of grace, making it doubtful whether in the revelation of this covenant we really had to do with the one will of the one God. If in God there are not merely different and fundamentally contradictory qualities, but also different subjects, who are indeed united in this matter, but had first of all to come to an agreement, how can the will of God seen in the history of the covenant of grace be known to be binding and unequivocal, the first and final Word of God? The way is then opened up on this side too for considering the possibility of some other form of His will. The question is necessarily and seriously raised of a will of God the Father which originally and basically is different from the will of God the Son.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 65 (emphasis mine). For Barth’s full critique of this aspect of Cocceius’ federal theology, see CD IV/1, pp. 64-66.

The relation with which we have to do when we think of the basis, the ground and starting point, of redemption is not that of an agreement between the Father and the Son, Barth says, but that of the union of God and humanity.  This seems right to me.  The basis of redemption is not an inter-Trinitarian pact but God’s free election of grace, that eternal work of God internum ad extra by which God determines to be God for us, and to make us God’s people.  The content of this decision — that decision of the one Subject in his unified will — is that as Father God will send, as Son God will go, and as Spirit God will complete this work in the perfection of divine unity.

Those who have been following the current discussions over eternal submission may conclude that Barth is working through the same problem of willing and obedience in a somewhat modalistic way.  How does the Son obey the Father eternally, if they are one Subject with one will?  This is a larger topic which requires that, if we are going to hear Barth’s contribution to it, we reorient ourselves a bit into his way of thinking about the Trinity.  For further reading I’ll point you to CD Volume I/1, and to my essay on obedience in Barth’s Trinitarian theology in Advancing Trinitarian Theology (Zondervan, 2014).  But in this immediate passage on Cocceius, Barth does offer one important insight that we ought to attend to:

[In God’s free election of grace] even in His eternity before all time and the foundation of the world, He is no longer alone by Himself, He does not rest content with Himself, He will not restrict Himself to the wealth of His perfections and His own inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this free act of the election of grace there is already present, and presumed, and assumed into unity with His own existence as God, the existence of the man whom He intends and loves from the very first and in whom He intends and loves all other men, of the man in whom He wills to bind Himself with all other men and all other man with Himself. In this free act of the election of grace the Son of the Father is no longer just the eternal Logos, but as such, as very God from all eternity He is also the very God and very man He will become in time. In the divine act of predestination there pre-exists the Jesus Christ who as the Son of the eternal Father and the child of the Virgin Mary will become and be the Mediator of the covenant between God and man, the One who accomplishes the act of atonement.

He in whom the covenant of grace is fulfilled and revealed in history is also its eternal basis. He who in Scripture is attested to be very God and very man is also the eternal testamentum, the eternal sponsio, the eternal pactum, between God and man. This is the point which Coccejus and the Federal theology before and after Coccejus missed. (CD IV/1, p. 66, emphasis mine)

Thus there is a basis for a distinction of wills between the eternal Father and the eternal Son, for a relationship of command and obedience, because (and only because) Barth is convicted that the eternal Son is already Jesus Christ — the God-human.  Jesus Christ in his very person is the covenant, the pactum, not only the redeemer in time but also in eternity the very basis for redemption.  But that is a topic for another time.

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The point to focus on for the topic at hand is Barth’s conclusion that the pactum salutis doctrine is “mythology.”  It is a narrative which, in seeking to explain the eternal covenant of grace and the modes of personal appropriation in the Trinity, instead manages to pile on at least implications (if not material content) that deviated from the ancient, medieval, and Reformation tradition and muddied the waters of Trinitarian theology for the next four centuries.

If Barth is right in this judgment, then the doctrine can provide no comfortable solution for contemporary Reformed reflection upon the assertions of Eternal Functional Subordination.  The story of God the Father and God the Son negotiating a mutually acceptable arrangement for the accomplishment of redemption requires unacceptable alterations to the doctrine of God.  It also seems to play into the hands of EFS / ERAS supporters by allowing for multiple minds — one authoritative, one equal but submissive — in God.

What Is the Immanent Trinity? A Clarification for the Eternal Subordination Debate

June 16, 2016

I’ve continued to watch with some interest as the online conversation unfolds around the issue of the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” of God the Son (EFS), which some of its advocates also call the Trinity’s “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS).  (For those just catching up: Bring the Books has a good index of important posts, and Think Theology runs down 10 of the driving theological questions at issue.)

In my own entry from last week I offered a number of critiques about the EFS project — not so much to attack and deride it as heretical as to expose the structural flaws and historical naivete and to suggest further recourse for its proponents to improve their case (for example, giving up on the idea that EFS is not a novum but self-evidently Nicene).

As I’ve read some responses to that post and other entries into the conversation this week, it seems to me that the discussion could benefit from further clarity at a number of points.  Here I’d like to focus on the difference between what theologians call the “immanent Trinity” (God in God’s own inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the “economic Trinity” (God with respect to creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting toward the world).  Note that these are not “two Trinities,” but rather a conceptual distinction that regards our reflecting upon the nature of God.  Some disputants continue either to ignore this distinction, or to refer to it obliquely and incorrectly.  This lack of clarity hinders the discussion from producing much fruit, because the immanent/economic distinction in fact is absolutely crucial to the debate, both on the side of EFS advocates and as the grounds for those who oppose them.

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Let me take a stab at a typology here.  There are three ways in which one might argue that God the Son has a relation of subordination or submission to the Father:

(Type A) The incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, submits to his Father.  The New Testament is filled with statements that bear out this relation.  Jesus says that he did not come to do his own work but that of the Father who sent him (John 4:34, 6:38).  He prays in the garden “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  The NT authors praise Jesus for his obedience and lift up his humility as a virtue to be emulated.  Ad infinitum.

In fact the vast majority of the Bible’s statements regarding the Son’s relationship to the Father fall under this heading.  But we are not talking here about the immanent Trinity.  This is the sphere of the “economy” of grace, i.e. God’s outward activity in movement toward creatures, in fellowship with them, and for their benefit.

And so none of this is pertinent to the EFS / ERAS debate.  All Christians acknowledge the plain sense of Scripture that the Son submits to the Father in the economy.  The Christian tradition has generally invoked the language of reduplication — the Son submits “according to his humanity” — in order to be precise about how it is that this economic obedience has no bearing on the Son’s essential co-equality with the Father (Nicaea’s consubstantiality).

(Type B) Even before and apart from the incarnation, the Son submits to the Father in the secret fellowship of the divine counsel.  We might think of this as how Father and Son relate to one another in heavenly places, as the triune God witnesses sin and the Fall and the Son submits to the Father’s command to go into the world and make atonement.  The language of “eternity past” and “eternity future” has been invoked here (e.g. by Ware) — language which I think is unhelpful, betraying a muddled and overly linear idea of eternity with respect to created time. But here, too, the Bible appears replete with supporting statements.  Mark and Luke state that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55), and Paul says that at the end of all things even the Son Himself will be subjected to God (1 Cor. 15:28).  And we would grant that the divine counsel of election (which includes the pactum salutis in Reformed circles) is indeed an eternal event, in that election occurs before creation as the first of God’s works ad extra.

Once again, however — and this is key — we are not yet talking about the immanent Trinity.  If we are talking about God’s activity ad extra, even God’s decision-making with respect to creation, the Father’s sending and the Son’s being sent, we have once again planted ourselves in the sphere of the economy.

(Type C) In and from all eternity the Son has a relation of subordination to the Father, it is suggested, because He is “from” the Father.  This alone is the controverted point.

Needless to say, when theology speaks about the inner life of God the discipline has reached its most speculative.  It is exceedingly difficult to apply the revelation of Scripture to the doctrine of God here in a calm and unclouded way, since the authors of Scripture are usually so preoccupied with the economy of grace.  (Owen Strachan illustrates this difficulty by suggesting that 1 Cor. 11:3 attaches “no temporal limit” to Paul’s statement that God is the “head” of Christ, implying that it is an eternal relation. T. L. Arsenal picks this apart nicely.)  John’s prologue (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) and Jesus’ statement “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30) are examples of those exceedingly rare statements which seem to pertain immanently to the divine life.

Here, and only here, are we actually dealing with the immanent Trinity — God in God’s inward self-existence as Father, Son, and Spirit, God’s life ad intra, considered without respect to creation.  This is the sphere of the divine processions, the Father’s begetting the Son and, with the Son, spirating the Holy Spirit.  This is the realm of their perichoretic unity.  With respect to the debate over the Son’s subordination and submission, then, this is the only type that matters.  This is where the Father-Son relation is its most basic and unqualified.  All else pertains to the divine missions and the economy.

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Types A and B refer to the economic Trinity; only Type C refers to the immanent (or “ontological” Trinity), and so it is here that EFS / ERAS supporters run afoul of compromising the integrity and simplicity of God.

As I stated last week, the use of the adjective “eternal” by EFS / ERAS supporters tends to locate their claims in Type C — although it may also be that they have Type B in mind instead.  One can speak of certain of God’s economic activities as taking place in eternity (notably the event of election, cf. Eph. 1:4-5).  The problem, however, is that supporters do not distinguish between Types B and C … nor do they seem to want to do so.  Can the EFS / ERAS position sustain this distinction between God’s eternal being (immanent) and God’s eternal activity with respect to creation (economic)?  Would they allow for an ontological equality which in fact excludes submission or subordination in the inner life of God, even while permitting this in an economic sense from all eternity?

Adhering to these clear distinctions between immanent and economic might allow them to have their cake and eat it, too — to affirm the Son’s willing submission to the Father before the incarnation, during the incarnation, and still now in His heavenly session, but without pressing this relation back into the inner life of God (which, it seems to me, finally cannot escape the charge of Subordinationism).

One final word on the immanent/economic distinction in traditional systematic theology: Karl Rahner’s famous “rule” states that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa.  This was proposed in order to cut off a number of unsavory ideas, including the notion that God as God truly is remains hidden from us.  No, when we see God acting in the world we really do know God as God is!  The economy, and particularly the Christ event, provide a true revelation.

That said, the tradition has wisely maintained that it is reckless to read aspects of the economy backward into the immanent divine life willy-nilly. To observe something in human history (e.g. Jesus submitting to his Father) and then rush to apply that to the Trinity (e.g. the Son has an eternal relation of submission to the Father) is at best out of order, and at worst idolatry.  This would lead to my previous critique on EFS methodology as embracing a thinly-veiled natural theology.

Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate

June 10, 2016

The Theology Internets this week are buzzing with a new breakout of an issue that isn’t really new at all: arguments for so-called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) in the life of the Trinity, advocated by people such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and vocally opposed by theologians across the spectrum as dangerously speculative at best, and outright heretical at worst.  (Participants in the conversation this week include Carl Trueman, Liam Goligher, Scot McKnightDenny Burk, Ware, Grudem, and many others.)  There are many, many threads to pull here — related to Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), the eternal generation of the Son, social models of the Trinity, interpretations of 1 Cor. 11:3, gender relations and so-called “complementarianism,” etc.

The claim under debate is essentially this: There is within the life of God (and not strictly in the economy) an eternal relationship, or structure, of authority and submission.  The Son shares the essence of God the Father and so is not ontologically subordinate to the Father, but the Son is functionally so.

It’s interesting to see this debate taking place in the fast-moving and very public blogosphere, and also to see it involve a number of the principals of the EFS case.  In the past I’ve written a little bit about the tragic invocation of Karl Barth on this topic (with some specific observations about Ware’s methodology, which I’ll summarize below).  But rather than leaping into the deep end of this debate, or attempting to write something approaching anywhere close to comprehensive here, I’ll simply register a handful of observations that I hope make some contribution to clarity.  (My apologies for the length of this piece — it is not for the faint of heart.)

They pertain primarily to the history of Christian doctrine, and to the methods by which theologians studiously pursue their inquiry into the life of God.

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(1) As proponents of EFS suggest, there is a great deal of historical precedent for the notion of an “order” or taxis within the life of the Trinity.  It is a mistake, however, to understand such analysis in terms of the subordination of the Son to the Father, or the authority of the Father over the Son.  In the absence of the key distinction between “ontological” and “functional” subordination (to which I will return below) the fathers of the church would recognize such an interpretation of taxis as Subordinationist (that is, as the heresy condemned by the church).

What, then, is the language of “order” and taxis doing?  Historically it speaks not to hierarchy, rank, or authority-submission structures, but to the divine processions.  The Son is begotten by the Father.  The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son).  The Father is unbegotten, having life in Himself and proceeding from none other.  These are the relations of generation and procession; these alone distinguish the persons from one another in the inner life of God, and these are what the orthodox tradition mean when it refers to “ordering” in the Trinity.  The Son is from the Father.

Thomas Aquinas says that there is an “order” in God, and this is an “order according to origin, without priority” (Summa Theologica I q.42 a.3).  That leads me to my next point.

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(2) Extending this line a bit further: a relation of origination does not entail submission, or difference in rank or authority.  The Son’s being the one who is “begotten” does not, for the orthodox tradition, entail any form of subordination to the one who “begot” Him.  These descriptors of how Father, Son, and Spirit are related to one another, and how the latter two proceed from the Father, are simply expressions of their (eternal) relations.  But these relations, Thomas continues, are persons who together subsist in the one divine nature; therefore the order that exists in the Trinity cannot entail the priority (we might say “authority”) of one person over another:

Neither on the part of the nature, nor on the part the relations, can one person be prior to another, not even in the order of nature and reason. (Ibid)

John of Damascus also says:

All the qualities the Father has are the Son’s, save that the Father is unbegotten, and this exception involves no difference in essence nor dignity, but only a different mode of coming into existence. (Expositio Fidei I.8, emphasis mine)

The Father has no “superiority” in any way, John continues, “save causation.”

With respect to the economy, then, the fathers concluded that it is fitting that the Son is the one to be sent into the world to take on flesh, while the Father is the one who sends.  Here the divine missions reflect, or correspond to, the Trinitarian relations.  But the temporal obedience of the Son to the Father is not the result of a hierarchy innate to the Trinity, but of his free, self-giving obedience (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).

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(3) In the economy there is plenty of space to speak of the Son’s submission to the Father (according to the Son’s humanity).  The New Testament is full of this — e.g. John 5:19, Luke 22:42.  In the economy this is fully the result of the Son’s free self-submission, which the NT calls “obedience” (Heb. 5:7-8).

While this is not much of a point of dispute in the EFS debate, it is worth stating before we continue further.  What is at issue is the claim that this submission is present in the immanent Trinity, as well.  But Thomas clarifies:

Christ is subject to the Father not simply [in Himself] but in His human nature, even if this qualification is not added; and yet it is better to add this qualification in order to avoid the error of Arius, who held the Son to be less than the Father. (ST III q.20 a.1)

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(4) An historical critique: It is coherent to claim that the Son’s subordination to the Father is strictly “functional,” while maintaining their ontological equality and identity of essence.  This requires some working out, and it is certainly an innovation to press this beyond the economy and into the inner life of God.  For this argument to be successful it need not secure itself in the creedal tradition (acknowledging that it is new); but it does bear the burden of demonstrating full sympathy and coherence with the creeds, lest the proponents of EFS declare a willingness to abandon historic Christian orthodoxy.

I certainly don’t think that is what they want to do. What Grudem, Ware, et al have done thus far is to maintain that EFS is not an innovation but instead a fairly straight-forward reading of Nicene orthodoxy with respect to the dynamic of authority and submission.  (I detect even a hint of surprise that anyone — but perhaps the most militant anti-complementarians — would find this reading of the tradition to be heterodox.)  But the historians among us are clear on this point of consistency with the Nicene position: it just isn’t there.  The only path forward is to do the historical work to prove the historians wrong (which I believe cannot be done) or to acknowledge that EFS is an innovation.  The best case that could be made is for its continuity with the fathers.

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(5) A theological critique: If the idea of the Son’s “functional” subordination to the Father is at least potentially coherent (only needing some better historical work to show how it can also remain orthodox), pressing this “functional” subordination into eternity seems to be incoherent.  There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is the doctrine of divine simplicity (see Aquinas, ST I q.3): God is not made up of parts nor does God “have” attributes that are not identical with God’s nature (let alone the three persons having attributes different from one another).  According to the medievals God simply is each of God’s attributes — love, mercy, justice, etc.

If this is the case, in the immanent Trinity the Son cannot have an attribute of subordination (or “submissiveness,” if you like), while the Father has the different attribute of superiority (or “authority”).  Consider that same quotation from John of Damascus again: “All the qualities the Father has are the Son’s, save that the Father is unbegotten.”  The only difference between the divine persons is in their relations of origin, and the authority-submission architecture does not simply interpret these relations — it complicates it, adding certain personal characteristics that are derived from the divine relations (e.g. what we think “sonship” entails).  Divine simplicity does not permit this in eternity (that is, in the inner life of God), but only in the economy.

In God’s eternal repose God simply is.  God enjoys the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit in their mutual love and self-giving.  To speak of God’s life in eternity is not to speak of God’s activities (or “functions”) but necessarily to speak of the divine being itself.  Thus there is a crucial consequence for adding the qualifier “eternal” to the EFS position: “eternal” means that you are already talking about divine ontology, and so the important adjective “functional” is unwound and we are left with mere Subordinationism.  Logically — if one grants the traditional metaphysics of the ancient and medieval churches — we can have either “eternal subordination” or “functional subordination,” but “eternal functional subordination” is a contradiction in terms.

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(6) A methodological critique:  Where does this idea of an “authority-submission structure” within the Trinity come from?  Ware, for one, is clear about the path of his logic:

As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.

(Source, emphasis in original.  See further Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance [Crossway, 2005].)

It is the Bible’s identification of these two divine persons as “Father” and “Son” that Ware takes as his starting point for reasoning through the nature of their relationship.  Human fathers have authority over sons; in a right and godly relationship human sons submit to the authority of their fathers.

From the fact that they are revealed in terms of the father-son relation, Ware extrapolates that God the Father and God the Son have a relationship which corresponds to this human relationship.  By using these names Scripture suggests that they relate as human fathers and sons properly do; the language is implicitly revelatory in this way.  For some readers this may seem a perfectly fine way of reasoning.  For now I’ll table the full demolition (which ought to make reference to Sallie McFague’s work on language and predication) and just mark it with a label: natural theology.  The EFS mode of reasoning is what Barth decried as human projection misidentified with divine revelation.  Ware takes a human cultural construct and, mistaking it for revelation, reads it upward into the life of God by means of an analogia entis.

When he in turn derives from this divine relation a proscription for human gender relations, the circle is complete and the exercise in natural theology is made infinitely more egregious. Ware first reads the authority-submission structure from creaturely existence into the life of God; then he reads it back out again from God to human creatures — only now switching from the parent-child relation to male-female relations.  The procedure is entirely self-referential, a theological systole and diastole: Ware has derived from his doctrine of God exactly what he put into it.

~ ~ ~

Coda and Caveat.  This turned out longer than I meant it to be, but let me conclude with a significant caveat.  All of the analysis above presumes a traditional metaphysic for speaking of God’s essence, persons, and relations.  I presuppose all of this for the sake of discussion because, to a person, it is presupposed by all participants in the debate that I have read so far.

There are, however, other ways of thinking through the nature of God and God’s triune identity.  One example is found in the work of Karl Barth, which I explore a bit in an essay published in Advancing Trinitarian Theology.  The short of it is that when Barth speaks of God the Son’s obedience to the Father even in the inner life of God, Barth means something completely different by it.

Shored Fragments

Theology in the Far Country

Resident Theology

Theology in the Far Country


Theology in the Far Country

The Fire and the Rose

Theology in the Far Country

Inhabitatio Dei

Jealous is the night when the Morning comes

Faith and Theology

Theology in the Far Country


Theology in the Far Country

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