The Battle for God – Part 3

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Volume 28, Issue 1, January 2022

While debates concerning the nature of God can be traced throughout church history, often resulting in creeds such as Nicene (381), which established a standard of theological orthodoxy, battle lines in recent years have been drawn over the issue of submission of the Son to the authority of the Father. Those calling themselves classical theists maintain that the Son was subordinate to the Father only during His incarnation.  Others, sometimes termed theistic mutualists, believe that the Son has eternally submitted to the Father; yet in no way is this submission a sign of inferiority.  Their position has been labeled the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), or the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (EFS), and more recently Eternal Roles of Authority and Submission (ERAS).  Since much mudslinging between the classicalists and the mutualists has occurred, and since most Christians are unaware of the issues and why they are important, I have attempted in these articles to objectively lay out the arguments in an approachable manner.  Because of the complexity of the lines of reasoning, the emotional baggage on both sides, and the fact that some of the most brilliant evangelical theologians in the world are using terms referencing ancient creeds and confessions and drawing on support from past Christian giants, it is easy to be overwhelmed.  In trying to break down this divide into understandable language, the first two papers on “The Battle for God” have sketched the origins, referenced the accusations, and looked at some of the relevant doctrines. These doctrines included complementarianism, the will(s) of God, the duration of the Son’s submission, and the immutability and simplicity of the Godhead.  This article will address two more doctrines: inseparable operations and authority, and will conclude with what I perceive as the root of the division and a possible way forward.

Inseparable Operations

Bruce Ware contributed a chapter to a recent book in which he clarified his position (that of ERAS). There he defines inseparable operations as all three members of the Trinity working together in harmonious unity yet with a “hypostatic” distinction in the divine work.  For example, “Only the Father (not the Son or the Spirit) sends the Son into the World; only the Son (not the Father or Spirit) becomes incarnate, and only the Spirit (not the Father or Son) comes at Pentecost as sent from the Father and Son.”[1] Glenn Butner sees things differently.  Summarizing an extensive section (over 20 pages in his book) on inseparable operations, he writes, “The pro-Nicene dictum that all divine actions are from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit also provides warrant for claiming that redemption must be accomplished through the Son, whose ministries proceeded in the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] Keith Johnson writes with more clarity, “Inseparable operation means that all three persons are involved in every action of creation, providence, and redemption…It means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one will and execute one power…Whatever the Father does, the Son does as well… [The Trinity] is consistent in itself, indivisible in nature, and its activity is one.  The Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit; and thus, the unity of the Holy Trinity is preserved.”[3]

The issue is whether the members of the Trinity act in unity but distinctively or always as one.  If they act distinctively, does that break the unity of the Godhead? If they do not act distinctively, how do we understand the multitude of biblical assertions that seem to indicate that they do?  All agree that it was the Son who died on the cross, not the Father or the Spirit. How is the cross-work of Christ to be understood in relation to this debate?

I will say more on this dilemma below, but it is worth noting at this time that many do not see Scripture as the final arbitrator with regard to this doctrine. That might seem strange but, as Butner writes, “The New Testament never provides a fully developed theology of undivided divine works…nevertheless…this doctrine is a valid second-order reflection on the broad narrative of the Bible where the three persons are repeatedly shown to perform the same acts.”[4] Having concluded that the doctrine of inseparable operations is not drawn directly from Scripture, Butner falls back on the authors of the Nicene Creed who he claims understood that the Father, Son, and Spirit work indivisibly.  But even here he admits “the creedal statement itself is not explicit about the inseparable operations and powers…”[5] Thus this doctrine, which the classicalists believe must be held if one is to be orthodox, is not explicitly developed either in Scripture or the Creed; it is rather a second-order (a theological conclusion drawn from logic but not directly from Scripture) reflection by pro-Nicene theologians. This reflection seems to be a rather weak platform from which to hurl accusations of heresy. At least this is Bruce Ware’s concern when he writes the following:

I am aware that in some cases, this way of speaking [see quote above by Ware found under this subheading] may sound different than, even contrary to, how some in the pro-Nicene tradition prefer to speak of the triune persons given commitments to inseparable divine operations ad extra and one will in God.  But since the Bible is our sole ultimate and only absolute authority for knowing rightly who God is, we must listen carefully to how it speaks and only then seek to understand how this way of speaking may fit with how many of the early church fathers understood the divine will and action.[6]

As can be discerned, neither side has a monopoly on understanding these so-called second-order doctrines.

Authority

A central issue laced throughout this debate is wrapped around authority.  If the Son is submissive to the Father, then that implies the Father has authority over the Son.  And if that is the case, does that not imply that the Father is superior to the Son, and thus Christ is less than God (i.e. Arianism)?  The same logic is true regarding the Spirit.  One author quotes from a children’s book Ware has written: “Scripture is clear that the Spirit’s role fundamentally is to elevate, extol, and honor the higher position and authority of the Son.”[7] But the classicalist recoils, saying that Nicaea recognized no levels of authority, except during the incarnation.

The mutualist, Dolezal claims, believes “the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father such that the Father has a unique power and authority to issue commands to the Son, and the Son, in turn, has the unique obligation to submit himself to the Father’s command.”[8] This seems in line with Ware’s conclusion: “The Father possesses the place of supreme authority, and the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father.  As such, the Son submits to the Father just as the Father, as eternal Father of the eternal Son, exercises authority over the Son.  And the Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son.”[9]

These are fighting words for the classicalist who simply cannot see how such rhetoric is not heretical. In plain terms, if the Father has authority over the Son and the Spirit, how is He not superior to them?  And if the Son and the Spirit have ideas, plans, and wills contrary to the Father’s, and they merely submit to His will, how is the unity and simplicity of the Godhead to be maintained and understood? On the other hand, from a mutualist’s point of view, what are we to do with the numerous biblical texts that clearly state the authority of the Father and submission by the other two members of the Trinity to His will?

Owen Strachan writes, “As I read it, Scripture presents such truth [concerning the eternal submission of the Son] while continually promoting the full ontological equality of the Father and Son; the Father and Son are coeternal and each fully a divine person.”[10]  Strachan provides numerous scriptural references supporting his thesis including: John 3:16-17; 4:34; 5:18-19; 10:17-18; 14:28, 31; Acts 1:6-7; 4:27-28; 17:30-31; 1 Cor 11:3; 15:28; Eph 1:7-10; Phil 2:5-11; and Rev 2:26-27. Concerning this list, perhaps the strongest reference is found in 1 Corinthians 15:28, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” Concerning this verse Strachan comments, “Everyone who believes Scripture must confess the Father’s headship over the Son to some degree.  It does no violence to the Son—truly God, truly man—to be ‘subjected’ to the Father in eternity future.  Clearly, this indicates that submission is not a negative reality with regard to the divine nature of Christ.”[11]

The Root of the Division and a Possible Way Forward

Why such division over ERAS and why such emotion?  Theologian Mike Bird warns of a “miniature civil war” among Calvinist complementarians about the Trinity and gender issues, concluding, “The root of the problem is that some Complementarians are willing to ditch Nicene Christology for Homoean Christology if it will give them a bigger stick to use to keep women out of the pulpit!”[12] I think such rhetoric is a deflection from the real discussion and an unnecessary layer of emotional baggage that clouds the debate.  As I stated in the first paper on this subject I believe it would be best to decouple ERAS from complementarianism.  Complementarianism does not need ERAS to booster its biblical base, although some have used ERAS in a supporting role.  The ERAS conversation has deeper and more significant biblical roots.

As I see it, the divide comes down to sources of authority.  The ERAS adherents look to Scripture and want it to be allowed to speak for itself apart from the framework of creeds and confessions.  The classicalists believe the creeds and confessions have accurately captured what Scripture means but never clearly articulated. Neither side is without problems. Let’s start with the classical theists.

It should be noted that “classic” in the term classical theism is referencing a classical or traditional understanding of the Godhead that stems from the Nicene Creed.  Classicalists would also see those in the past, as well as the present, who embrace their position as pro-Nicene, while they often accuse the mutualists of not standing in the pro-Nicene tradition. Whether they are right or wrong in their theistic dogma, it must be understood that their views do not emerge directly from Scripture, and this they admit. Rather, their classical position is a “second-order” or theological construct.  Dolezal admits, for example, that there is no single biblical proof text for the doctrine of simplicity, nor can one arrive at this doctrine by considering the biblical witness alone. It is not based on biblical proof-texts but on reason, deduction, and Aristotle’s metaphysical framework.[13] Dolezal complains, “Many Christian theologians and ministers retreated from the field of metaphysics altogether and retrenched themselves in their Bibles, assuming that the Bible’s teaching could be successfully preserved without committing oneself to a particular understanding of being.”[14] What Dolezal sees as a negative, others see as essential. Dolezal offers John Feinberg as someone who opposes his position, yet it is hard to find fault with Feinberg who suggests that “the lack of explicit biblical data for divine simplicity ‘should be disconcerting at the least, and a good argument against it at the most.’”[15]

In the same vein, Glenn Butner states, “We cannot appeal to exegesis or biblical theology to resolve the debate on eternal submission.”[16]  Instead, he suggests we must turn to second-order reflections found in systematic theology, which draw on reason, tradition, experience, and “philosophy to provide conceptual clarity concerning who God must be or what God must have done… The situation Christians actually face is that the Bible does not explicitly explore the question of eternal submission.”[17] Butner does not believe that Scripture alone can resolve this debate, but he opposes eternal submission as “an interior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition and provides little conceptual clarity.” [18]

On the other side of the chasm stand ERAS scholars such as Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan, and Wayne Grudem. Bruce Ware, as already quoted above, believes that, since the Bible is our sole ultimate absolute authority for knowing rightly who God is, we must let it speak for itself.  He bases a recent biblical defense for ERAS on exegesis of Hebrews 1:1-2, showing that the Son’s submission to the Father cannot be reduced to the incarnation alone.[19] Ware summarizes his argument with a quote from J. I. Packer:

Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to him to play the Son’s part and to find all his joy in doing his Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding.  Thus, the obedience of the God-man to the Father while he was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the Incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven.[20]

Owen Strachan succinctly states his support of ERAS: “I believe based on numerous texts that the Son eternally submits to the Father.  The duty of submission in the biblical mind does not signal a diminished ontology.  It communicates a distinctiveness of person. The Son as Son submits to the Father; the Father as Father is head of the Son.”[21]  He then documents that many of the church’s finest theologians have held to some form of ERAS, including Philip Schaff, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Charles Hodge, Geerhardus Vos, Mike Ovey, John Frame, Louis Berkhof, Carl F. H. Henry, and J.I. Packer. If the supporters of ERAS are heretics, as some classicalists have espoused, then some of Christianity’s best biblical scholars are Arians, or some other form of heretic, and a lot of our finest are on their way to hell.  Few would want to push this hard, so maybe it’s best not to throw about the “heretic” word so loosely.

Strachan strikes a balance that I would support.  Whichever side of this argument scholars find themselves “there is room on this precise count, as on others, for charitable and principled disagreement.”[22] The doctrine of God, including the element being discussed in these papers, is often complex for even the sharpest of minds.  Ultimately the road to understanding the Godhead ends without perfect resolutions, and we must cry out “mystery”.  But that is not a cop-out; for did not Paul himself conclude one of his most intense doctrinal writings with these words: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways” (Rom 11:33)?

[1] Keith S. Whitfield, ed., Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, Bruce A. Ware “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” (Nashville: B&H, 2019), pp. 23-24.

[2] D. Glenn Butner, Jr., The Son Who Learned Obedience, a Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018), p. 57 (emphasis his).

[3]  Keith E. Johnson, “Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son: An Augustinian Perspective”, Themelios Volume 36, Issue 1 (May, 2011): 7-8, 10, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/trinitarian-agency-and-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-an-augustinian-perspective

[4] D. Glenn Butner Jr., p. 38 (emphasis mine).

[5] Ibid., p. 46.

[6] Keith S. Whitfield, ed., Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, Bruce A. Ware “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” (Nashville: B&H, 2019), pp. 27-28.

[7] Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God, (Wheaton: Crossway 2009).

[8] James E. Dolezal, All That is in God, Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), p. 132.

[9] Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway 2005), p. 21.

[10] Owen Strachan, “The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy,” To Reenchant the World, November 9, 2021, https://owenstrachan.substack.com/p/the-danger-of- equating-eternal- authority?justPublished=true, p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 4.

[12] Mark Woods, “Complementarianism and the Trinity: Is Wayne Grudem a Dangerous Heretic?” (Christian Today:    June 28, 2016).

[13] James E. Dolezal, pp. 44, 55.

[14] Ibid., p. 63.

[15] Ibid., p. 69.

[16] D. Glenn Butner, p. 6.

[17] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[18] Ibid., p. 196, (cf. p. 162).

[19] Keith S. Whitfield, Ed., Trinitarian Theology, pp. 27-44.

[20] Ibid., p. 60.

[21] Owen Strachan, p. 7.

  [22] Ibid., p. 13.

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