I am pleased to share two guest posts with you, written by Dr. Liam Goligher, on classical Trinitarianism, and why that matters. Stay tuned for Part Two on Monday!:
Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the Godhead? Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)?
All of the questions above are under debate in the evangelical church today. Some, whose instinct is to defend the differences between men and women, are following the egalitarians in redefining the Triune nature of God to defend their position. Egalitarians typically describe the Trinitarian as a divine dance. They use this as an argument for an undifferentiated humanity made in this God’s image. Now, some who pose as complementarian are proposing the idea of hierarchy or primacy within God as a being, God as He is in Himself. They teach that there has always been authority and subordination within the Trinity. This view poses a clear and present danger to our understanding of who the Christian God is. Contrast these few quotes:
“The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been…There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission” (Strachan and Peacock, The Grand Design).
“I hold to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father” (Wayne Grudem, http://www.waynegrudem.com).
“Former TEDS systematic theology professors Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware returned to the suburban Chicago seminary and argued the affirmative: relations of authority and submission do indeed exist among the persons of the Godhead. They pointed to a number of biblical texts that show that while the Son dwelt among us, he submitted to his heavenly Father. This was not the point of disagreement, however, so Grudem cited additional passages, arguing that they suggest the Son has submitted from eternity past and will submit for eternity future. He turned to Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29, and John 1:14 to argue: ‘The role of planning, purposing, predestining — the entire history of salvation — belongs to the Father, according to Scripture. There is no hint of any such authority for the Son with respect to the Father.'” (Christianity Today, Oct.10/08).
(Edit update 6/10 to expand Colin Hanson’s quote)
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of light, very God of very God” (Nicene Creed)
“In this Trinity none is afore, nor after another; none is greater or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).
Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist “in an inseparable equality of one substance” (Augustine).
“We believe with all our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God – eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty: completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good” (Belgic Confession).
“There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” (39 Articles).
“In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son” (Westminster Confession of Faith).
“The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are equal with the Father, ascribing to them such names, attributes, works, and worship as are proper to God only” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q11).
“The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made…” (1689 Baptist Confession)
“If there be one God subsisting in three persons, then let us give equal reverence to all the persons in the Trinity. There is not more or less in the Trinity; the Father is not more God than the Son and Holy Ghost. There is an order in the Godhead, but no degrees; one person has not a majority or super eminence above another, therefore we must give equal worship to all the persons.” (Thomas Watson)
“In deeds of grace none the Persons of the Trinity act by themselves. They are as united in their deeds as in their essence. In their love towards the chosen they are one, and in the actions which flow from that great central source they are still undivided” (C. H. Spurgeon).
It’s not hard to see who has moved! These quotes highlight what is at stake in the teaching of some contemporary evangelical scholars and pastors: they are presenting a novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture. This is serious. It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity – a deity in whom there are degrees of power, differences of will, and diversity of thought. Because, mark this, to have an eternally subordinate Son intrinsic to the Godhead creates the potential of three minds, wills and powers. What they have done is to take the passages referring to the economic Trinity and collapse them into the ontological Trinity.
What’s at Stake with this New Teaching?
I am an unashamed biblical complementarian. The original use of that word took its cue from the biblical teaching about the differences yet complementarity of human beings made in the image of God while not running away from the challenges of applying biblical exhortations for wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church. With only those two caveats, as Calvin told John Knox, women may be princes in the state, but not pastors in the church. But this new teaching is not limiting itself to that agenda. It now presumes to tell women what they can or cannot say to their husbands, and how many inches longer their hair should be than their husbands! They, like the Pharisees of old are going beyond Scripture and heaping up burdens to place on believers’ backs, and their arguments are slowly descending into farce.
They are building their case by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions. Out of that redefinition of God their teaching is being used to promote a new way of looking at human relationships which is more like Islam than Christianity; more concerned with control and governance than with understanding the nuances of the relationship of the Son with His Father in eternity on the one hand and how that differs from the roles they adopt in the economy of redemption on the other. They make this move by failing to distinguish between God as He is in Himself (ontology) and God as He is in Christ in outworking of the plan of redemption (economy).
Collapsing Who God Is in Himself Into the Economic Roles of the Trinity
They are in turn doing great dishonor to Christ. They collapse the intra-Trinitarian life of God into the roles adopted by the persons to accomplish our redemption. If they are right, then Paul is wrong when he writes that Christ “took the form of a servant” and became man in order that He might become “obedient to death,” because for these new teachers, his obedience in his humanity is simply an extension of his eternal obedience. It means the writer to the Hebrews is wrong because Jesus did not “learn obedience” since He had spent eternity “obeying” His Father. Jesus is wrong because, when He says, “I and the Father are one,” He means so only in a modified sense. And John is wrong when He says that “the Word is God,” for, by definition, if He is a servant bound to obey, then He must not have as much Godness as God the Father has in His Himself. Surely it has been the basic stuff of Christian preaching that Christ gave up status and place to take on our humanity and become obedient to death, even the death of the cross. Where is the glory in Christ’s humiliation and obedience that have been the theme of our songs through the ages? Let there be no doubt at this point; departure from the faith starts with incremental adjustments to received doctrine, those adjustments eventually lead people away from the faith altogether. So, we urgently need to see how far these men are moving.
The Intra-Trinitarian Life of God
At the heart of our confession as Christians is God the triune (theology proper) and the work of God (the economy). Before all worlds God existed in the Trinity of His sacred persons. In John 17, Jesus speaks of the glory which, as the Son, He shared with the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit before the world began. In His high-priestly prayer, the Son reflects on the bliss of that communion which He enjoyed within the interior life of the Godhead. In the repose of their eternal life, the divine persons shared one mind, one will, one power, because there is but one God (and not three) with one divine nature (Phil.2, Col.1, Heb.1), one divine splendor, and one divine being. The relations are signaled by the names ascribed to them: The Father begetting the Son (Psalm 2, John 1), the Son being the begotten, and the Spirit proceeding as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. These eternal relations, absolutely considered, pertain to being: the Son and Spirit share the very nature of God as God – they are essentially identical (though relatively distinct). Within this eternal life, there was distinction without primacy and order of being without priority of life or authority. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. There is only one God and we baptize in the threefold name of that one God. John Calvin, citing Gregory Nazianzen, says this beautifully, “We cannot think of the three without thinking of the one or of the one without thinking of the three.”
The Works of God
So, God in Himself (in se) is Trinity, but what about the works of God? From eternity God the Trinity, the One who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of His own good pleasure, without any external pressure or internal need on His part, willed one will and chose to become our Father, through the Son, in the Spirit to the praise of His glorious grace (Eph.1). The divine will of Father, Son and Spirit then caused everything to exist ex nihilo, out of nothing; space and time, darkness and light, stars and planets, heaven and earth, Angels and humans. First, there was God alone in the blessed repose of His Trinitarian fullness, and then by His decree (a simple willing on God’s part) there was God and everything that is external to God, all creation both material and spiritual. Scripture delights to praise ‘the counsel of His will’ by which everything exists and is sustained. What drove the creation was His intention to share the bliss of the divine life with elect sinners – through the decree of the Father, by the work of the Son, in the love of the Spirit. The relations of the eternal Trinity would determine the way God would reveal Himself to creatures. The Father would elect a people to give to the Son; the Son would voluntarily choose to become both a servant and a man in order to become our mediator; and the Spirit would act to enfold us into the divine life and love. We typically refer to this as the Pactum salutis or the covenant of redemption. This one act of willing and doing occurred simply and immediately without any effort whatsoever on God’s part – the inseparable operation of the persons: Father, Son (Word) and Spirit. In the Triune God the three ‘persons’ think as one, will as one, rule as one and act as one, and God does so from the perfect rest of His eternal life. The persons’ mutual indwelling and delight in each other is beyond our understanding. Their fellowship is unique and cannot be reproduced.
What I have written so far is classical Trinitarianism, or Orthodox Christianity. This is how the church has viewed God from the earliest days. This is the view of God enshrined in the creeds and confessions of the church. To shift from this is to move into unorthodoxy. To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo-tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God. On the other hand, to say, suggest, or speculate that God’s life in heaven sets a social agenda for humans is to bring God down to our level. The eternal life of God as He is in Himself is incomprehensible to us and impossible to reproduce except by analogy. The life of the Three-in-One cannot be replicated by creatures. To use the intra-Trinitarian relations as a social model is neither biblical nor orthodox. God is not a collection of people, but we are. He is the Creator and we are His creatures. The incarnate Christ sets an example of godly living as God in human flesh; He does not give us an example of the eternal life of God. The inner life of the Triune God does not support hierarchy, patriarchy, or egalitarianism. If you think about it for a moment, how could it? Here we have the perfect communion of divine persons who share the same nature and equality as God, while we are discreet and distinct beings. The life of God in Himself is utterly distinct from ours, which is graciously why He has created all things, and in Christ has taken on our flesh, in order to display to His elect people something of His life, relations and roles with respect of us.
God as He is in himself requires our faith and adoration, not our speculation.
Dr. Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Window on Tomorrow (Christian Focus, 1994), The Fellowship of the King (Carlisle, 2003), The Jesus Gospel (Milton Keynes, 2006), and Joseph—The Hidden Hand of God (Fearn, 2008). Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children (Louise, Ruth, David, Sarah, Andrew) and nine grandchildren.
*Originally published on June 3, 2016.