The Battle for God – Part 4

 Volume 28, Issue 4, May 2022

Since publishing the first three parts in “The God Debate” series, I have read Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity and the most recent issue of The Master’s Seminary Journal, both of which strongly defend Classical Theism and were critical of Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (EFS). In addition, two other current books have given me some insight that will necessitate another related paper.  These latter books are companions: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew by Hans Boersma and Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew by Scot McKnight.  As a result, I want to offer two more papers on the current subject.  This one will bring some additional clarity to the debate by defining more precisely some critical words and terms and drawing a conclusion.  I will follow up with one more article offering a caution related to the hermeneutics interwoven throughout this discussion. Both of these papers will be rather technical in nature, and many of my readers may lack interest; but given the serious issues concerned, I believe the papers will be of value for those following this particular theistic war.

Clarity and The Great Tradition

Matthew Barrett, a professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is deeply concerned that the evangelical community has entered into a period of Trinity Drift[1] in which the doctrine of the Trinity has been distorted beyond recognition.  The enemy of Classical Theism (which he routinely terms The Great Tradition) is social trinitarianism, whereby the Trinity is twisted to conform to the unique views of numerous perpetrators.  Thus, the Trinity is massaged, shaped, and manipulated to fit the agenda of various ideologies, be they political, ecumenical, ecological, sexual, or cultural. In social trinitarianism God is a community, or at least its members function as a community,[2] with each member of the Godhead having a separate will.[3] While social trinitarianism has long been found within liberal theological circles, it has now moved into evangelical ranks, as Barrett sees it, via the popularity of eternal functional subordination (EFS)[4] and promoted by theologians such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Their position comes under extensive fire throughout Simply Trinity but especially in chapter eight.[5]

Barrett believes the Nicene Fathers got the Trinity right when they taught that the Father is the source of origin (paternity), the Son is eternally begotten (filiation), and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and Son (spiration).[6] These are the only distinguishing marks within the Godhead.[7] “The Father is the principle in the Godhead… Unbegotten,” but this does not imply a hierarchy or priority of the Father in relation to the Son and the Spirit.[8] This is what Barrett calls “The Great Tradition,” and the rule of faith.[9] The Great Tradition is grounded in the Nicene Creed[10] and reinforced by the pro-Nicene Church fathers, and often labeled Classical Theism. Craig Carter explains: “The view of God as the one, simple, perfect, immutable, impassible, eternal, self-existent First Cause of the universe—the teaching of the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries and the confessions of the Protestant churches of the Reformation—has recently come to be called “Classical Theism.”[11]


As we continue to examine the issues that divide classical and mutual theists, it would be valuable to make certain we are not talking past one another by carefully defining key words and terms at the center of the debate.  Some of these have already been addressed in the first three related articles, but here we will expand on their meaning.

  • Begotten, which means to come forth or proceed, has long been part of the vocabulary of the church. After all, the most well-known verse in Scripture informs us that God “gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16 NASB). Many modern translations however, have chosen to drop the word “begotten” and translate the Greek monogene as “only” (ESV), or “one and only” (NET, NIV and HCSB). These translations recognize the uniqueness of the Son, in that He is the only one of His kind, the only Son of God, unlike anyone else. However, the pro-Nicene theologians took its meaning much further. To them the Son is not only unique, He is also eternally begotten, or eternally generated. “Generation alone is what distinguishes the Son as Son.”[12]

“This is basic Trinitarianism,” Phil Johnson claims. “The Father begets the Son; the Son is begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. Thus, the distinctive personal properties are known as paternity (the Father); filiation (the Son); and procession (the Holy Spirit). Those properties are what give definition to the personhood of each. In fact, those are their only distinguishing characteristics. Aside from those properties, all three Persons share the same attributes and prerogatives.”[13]

More, the Son is not generated in time but from the Father from all eternity.[14] Barrett is convinced that if the Son is not eternally begotten, we have no confidence that we can be born again.[15] Yet, the exact meaning of begotten as related to the Son is hard to nail down.  Wayne Grudem writes, “The nature of that ‘begetting’ has never been defined very clearly, other than to say that it has to do with the relationship between the Father and the Son, and that in some sense the Father has eternally had a primacy in that relationship.”[16] It is because of this lack of precise understanding of the meaning of begotten that some have fallen back on monogene meaning merely unique.  Nonetheless, while there remain mysteries concerning exactly what it means that the Son was eternally generated, it seems to be the best understanding of the word and idea. It should be mentioned in light of the present discussion, that at one time Bruce Ware questioned the biblical support of eternal generation, and he still puzzles over just what it means but has now come to embrace it.[17]

  • Inseparable operations explains that the Persons of the Trinity work inseparably in all things including creation and salvation. “Every act of God is the single act of the triune God.”[18] Barrett phrases it this way: “Every operation is from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit”[19] and “What the Father planned and the Son accomplished, the Spirit applied.”[20]

Peter Simmons expresses inseparable operations as such: “When one member of the Trinity acts, all three members necessarily act, even if Scripture does not always communicate the act of each Person in the terminus of the created order. Sometimes Scripture highlights one Person over the others (this is where the principle of appropriations comes in).”[21]

Ware affirms his commitment to this doctrine and writes, “In this way, the personal works of the Father, Son, and Spirit may be distinct but never divide; each may focus on particular aspects of the divine work yet only together accomplish the one, harmonious, unified work of God.  Each work of the trinitarian persons, then, is inseparable, while aspects of that one work are hypostatically distinguishable.  Inseparable, but not indistinguishable.”[22]

  • Divine appropriations further teases out inseparable operations for, while the external works of the Trinity are indivisible, yet a “particular work may be appropriated by a person of the Trinity in a way that corresponds to that person’s eternal relation of origin.”[23] With divine appropriations, the Father begins, the Son executes, and the Spirit perfects.

Simmons writes, “Therefore, while the…persons of the Trinity work inseparably… they nevertheless work distinguishably or discernably. Though we may see one person focused upon [a particular ministry], we must keep in mind—because of Inseparable Operations—that it does not exclude the other two persons, even if they are not the focus.”[24]

Mike Riccardi adds, “This does not mean, however, that the acts of the Father, Son, and Spirit can never be distinguished from each other. Just as the persons themselves must be distinguished but never divided from one another, so also their works, while never being divided, can be distinguished. This is the doctrine of appropriations, the necessary complement to the doctrine of inseparable operations. While no person of the Trinity acts apart from the other two, each divine act is appropriated, or attributed, to one of the persons in particular. Thus, as in the previous example, though the Son and the Spirit are not absent from creation, it is appropriate to ascribe the work of creation to the Father, from whom are all things (1 Cor 8:6). For another example, while the Son alone is the subject of the incarnation (John 1:14; Phil 2:6–7), nevertheless He is sent into the world by the Father (1 John 4:9) and is conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Thus, the persons of the Trinity work in neither unison nor in discord, but in harmony. The doctrine of appropriations ensures that they do not work in unison, because different acts are properly attributed to different persons. But the doctrine of Inseparable Operations ensures that they are never in discord, because their undivided acts are rooted in their undivided essence. In every act of God, all three persons of the Trinity must work in perfect harmony, or they are not one God.”[25]

Bruce Ware says, “I fully agree with the pro-Nicene doctrine of appropriation and find it biblical…Yet… believe that the appeal to divine appropriations falls short of expressing fully what Scripture indicates regarding the functional relations and operations of the trinitarian persons.”[26] “We must hear the Scriptures,” Ware declares, “for it does fill in the pieces divine appropriations misses.”

  • There is a difference between the immanent and the economic Trinity. “The immanent Trinity refers to who [sic] our triune God is in eternity, apart from the created order” (i.e. the ontological Trinity).”[27] “The economic Trinity, however, refers to how this triune God acts toward the created order (i.e. God’s external operations). The economic Trinity reveals God in external operations. It reveals something true about the Trinity’s eternal, immanent identity, but God’s identity is not dependent on His actions in history.”[28]
  • Impassibility “means God is not subject to emotional fluctuation” (p. 173).
  • Simplicity: Richard Barcellos writes, “God is without composition. He is simple.  He cannot be added to or subtracted from because He just is.  All additions or subtractions imply composition (or decomposition).”[29]

Sammons contributes this comment: “The simplicity of God means God is not made up of His attributes. He is not a composite being consisting of a little bit of goodness, a little bit of mercy, a little bit of power, and a little bit of justice. Simplicity teaches that God is goodness, mercy, justice, and power. Every attribute of God is identical with His essence. Meaning, one cannot be removed, diminished, or augmented without the very essence of God being impacted.”[30]

Yet, Carter questions, “How can the Father, the Son, and the Spirit be one simple being? In a sense, the problem was not solved and can never be solved by human creatures, at least not if by ‘solved,’ we mean rationally comprehended.”[31]

While agreeing with simplicity, Ware does not believe it negates authority and submission within the Godhead and writes, “The Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son…Authority and submission describe merely the manner in which these Persons relate to each other, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son.”[32] In a departure from Classical Theism, he challenges the view that the Son’s submission was limited to the incarnation on the basis of the “mountain of biblical evidence of the Father’s role in planning, designing, sending, to be accomplished through the Son and Spirit, all of which take place long before the incarnation, indeed long before creation, in what might be called eternity past (e.g., Eph 1:4-5, 9-11; 1 Pet 1:20).”[33]


 Cater laments that “as the twentieth century unfolded…many Evangelical and confessional Protestant theologians flirted with the… option [of] adopting some form of theistic mutualism or theistic personalism. These terms signify attempts to modify or deny at least some of the metaphysical attributes of God as taught by Classical Theism, most commonly simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity.”[34] Drawing from James Dolezal, he defines ‘theistic mutualism’ as “a modification of Classical Theism in which God is conceived as being in a two-way relationship with creation such that God affects creatures and creatures, in turn, affect God.  Classical metaphysical attributes such as immutability, impassibility, and eternity are denied in theistic mutualism.”[35]

 Having studied this subject at length, I find myself primarily of the Classical Theistic persuasion.  The underlining arguments seem stronger, more in line with historic Christianity as expressed in the ecumenical creeds, and more consistent with the biblical data. Mutual theism runs the danger of dividing God into parts, being too influenced by social agendas, and pitting the will of the members of the Godhead against one another, even though ultimately the Godhead acts as one. But as noticed in the quotes by Bruce Ware sprinkled throughout this paper, while the mutualists may not define the views of the Great Tradition in precisely the same way, they are neither in full denial of these understandings.  The classicalists and the mutualists are not in lockstep in all areas, but in most cases they both are within the sphere of orthodoxy. Some would disagree with this conclusion as we will confirm in the next paper.

A Caution

I am troubled, however, not so much by the conclusions being drawn by Classical Theism but by the direction in which it seems headed, especially in regard to its adoption of patristic hermeneutics. I will follow up on this concern in Part Five.

[1] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021),   p. 21.

[2] Ibid., pp. 78-80.

[3] Ibid., pp. 148-149.

[4] Ibid., p. 91.

[5] Ibid., pp. 213-259.

[6] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[7] Ibid., pp. 60, 106.

[8] Ibid., pp. 171-172.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid., p. 37.

[11] Craig A. Carter, “Denying Divine Eternity: Can Evangelical Theology Resist the Temptation?The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 33#1, Spring 2022, p. 151.

[12] Ibid., p. 162.

[13] Phil Johnson, The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 33#1, Spring 2022, pp. 112-113.

[14] Ibid., p. 165.

[15] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, p. 180.

[16] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: 1994), p. 244.

[17] Bruce Ware, “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” Theological Models and Doctrinal Applications, Ed. Keith S. Whitfield, (Nashville: B&H, 2019),  p. 51.

[18] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, p. 227.

[19] Ibid., p. 293.

[20] Ibid., p. 290.

[21] Sammons, “The Doctrine of Inseparable Operations,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 33#1, Spring 2022,        p. 83.

[22] Bruce Ware, p. 45.

[23] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, p. 288.

[24] Sammons, p. 92.

[25] Mike Riccardi, “Triune Particularism; Why Unity in the Trinity Demands a Particular Redemption,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 33#1, Spring 2022, p. 164.

[26] Bruce Ware, p. 24.

[27] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, p. 112.

[28] Ibid., (cf., p. 116).

[29] Richard C. Barcellos, “Change in God Given Creation?” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 33#1, Spring 2022,     p. 27.

[30] Sammons, p. 88.

[31] Carter, p. 153.

[32] Bruce Ware, p. 52.

[33] Bruce Ware, p. 54.

[34] Carter, p. 148.

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

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel


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