Posted on Wednesday, July 06, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A couple of weeks ago I raised the question of the ecumenical implications of the current discussion of Nicene Trinitarianism for evangelicalism.  Since then it has become clear that there seem to be three basic reactions to the debate from within the evangelical camp.  The theologians in the cross hairs of debate genuinely believe that they are in line with the tradition.  Leaders within Calvinistic evangelicalism know that this theology is wrong but yet, for whatever reason, want to keep it within the bounds of the movement.  And many seem unable to believe that good men whom they respect could be so wrong.



I noted in my own call for ecumenical realignment that the Reformed Baptists might well be seen by Presbyterian Nicenes as better partners for dialogue.  Well, here is an interesting quotation from a Reformed Baptist blog on the controversy:



In the recent controversy relating to the triunity of God, one wing of evangelicalism is now holding another wing doctrinally accountable, in brotherly love. But it is becoming clear that the common doctrinal foundation that was assumed to be shared, is not in fact shared. As a result, those being held accountable resent and oppose the accountability as an imposition of a foreign standard to which they have made no commitment. But the standard by which they are being measured is the faith of the church throughout the ages, and this on the doctrine of God. All is not well in evangelicalism, nor has it been.



You can read the whole thing here.  In the UK, Andrew Wilson (who incidentally happens to be co-author of this wonderful, powerful book on raising autistic children) has also offered some reflections on the significance of the debate for complementarianism, both theological and practical.



The way the debate has carved up reminds me in some ways of countless conversations with evangelical friends which I have had since arriving in the USA fifteen years ago.  They generally fall into one of the following two frameworks:



Conversation Type 1:



Friend: American Calvinistic Evangelicalism believes Doctrine A is vital but Doctrine B is really pretty negotiable.



CRT: Well, I too believe Doctrine A is vital but I also think Doctrine B is extremely important, especially as it actually stands in positive relation to Doctrine A.  So I guess I’m not a Calvinistic Evangelical.  But that’s ok.  We can still be friends.



Friend: You are a Calvinistic Evangelical!  And how dare you be so divisive as to claim that Doctrine B is extremely important?!



Conversation Type 2:



Friend: Why don’t you throw your lot in with one of the really big Calvinistic evangelical groups?  Don’t you believe in expressing Christian unity beyond your own congregation?  Isn't that good for the advancement of the Gospel?



CRT: Yes, I do, and I agree that it is good for the Gospel.  That is why I am a member of a confessional Presbyterian denomination – because I believe Christian unity should be expressed by confession and polity which has biblical sanction, is organized under elders, and has a formal ecclesiastical existence beyond that of the local congregation.



Friend: Denominations are divisive!  And how dare you insult the congegationalists and the Baptists!



It’s a funny old world.


Posted on Tuesday, July 05, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

When the Spin posted the first of Liam’s articles a few weeks ago, somebody asked me how I thought things would develop.  Based on past experience of such things, I predicted behind-the-scenes shenanigans to shut down the discussion; relentless criticisms of 'tone' pitched in a 'tone' far nastier and more personal than anything we might have written; a prolonged social media campaign of character assassination through the impugning of our motives and honesty; and attempts at the revision of classical terms to bring creedal language into line with the theology under scrutiny.  I was right on all points.


Anyway, as to the first: well, as of this moment we’re all still here. As to the second, self-awareness has never been a strong suit among militant social media types, Left and Right, and evangelical conservatives can tend just as easily in polemical contexts towards the 'taste is truth' position as their liberal opponents.  As to the third, I have repeatedly said over the years that character assassination and evil motives may discredit me as a person but are irrelevant when it comes to the intrinsic quality of any argument I happen to be making.  As to the fourth, I post below an article by Mark Jones, addressing Bruce Ware’s helpful clarification of his position in relation to Nicaea.


Mark Jones writes:


I am glad to see Bruce Ware speaking to specific points that have been addressed in recent weeks. Credit is due to him for engaging. I hope the initial rhetoric that some continue to lament can be put aside now in favor of engaging the issues at hand in more detail.

While I think Ware is doing his best to move in a more nuanced, orthodox direction, his piece left me confused at points and still unsatisfied that he has answered the various objections that have been made against his theology.

1. In point 1, Ware cites Anatolios, who is speaking of Nyssa, but I question whether he’s properly using Anatolios.

Less than ten pages earlier in the book Ware is using, it seems that Anatolios understands Nyssa’s trinitarian language to be focused on matters of biblical interpretation and economy, not the divine essence (more on this in my 6th point below).

If you read all of what Anatolios has to say on the topic, especially the pages prior to the quote that Ware uses, you will find that each person (ad extra) becomes the “subject” of the one divine will. We do not have one becoming the subject and the other the object, or two acting as subjects of the divine will, such as would be necessary on an ESS model. Ware builds authority-submission into ad intra relations, which means he has an object and subject view of the one divine will. No wonder that his student, Kyle Claunch, had interpreted Ware as holding to three wills (in a book edited by Ware).

In point 2 Ware speaks of “activating” the divine will. I’m not sure how he can retain divine simplicity with this type of language. This also has implications for divine immutability, which, if I am not mistaken, is another doctrine where Ware departs from the classical view.

2. In point one, I am still unclear how Ware relates “inseparable operations” (e.g., EG) with “appropriations” (e.g., economic works). It is one thing for Ware to affirm “inseparable operations,” but quite another thing for him to show us how he can retain the theology of “inseparable operations.” Perhaps my biggest discomfort with Ware so far is his inability to make his affirmations actually work or show some degree of coherency when he explains himself.

3. In point three I am at a loss as to what Ware is speaking about. Is he speaking about the one will of God? Or is his speaking about the Son’s human will? If the former, then he seems to run into the error of monothelitism; if the latter then he is assuming that Christ’s human willing in submission to the Father’s divine ad extra will is to be read back into eternal necessary relations. Either way, he’s in trouble. Given the context, I think he’s probably saying that the Son “activates” the one will of God in his response to the Father’s authority. If that is the case, his point is still incoherent for this reason, namely, that the Son freely wills what is good not because he is in submission to what is good, but because he (and his will) is good. (Again, divine simplicity is affected by this reasoning in my view).

Just before, in point 2, Ware seems to run into the danger of monothelitism. He writes: “As a result, we can conceive, for example, how the Father can plan, purpose and will to send the Son (John 6:38; Eph 1:9; 1 John 4:10), and the Son accept and embrace the will of the Father (John 4:34). These are ‘distinct inflections’ of the one and unified divine will, as seen from the particular hypostatic perspectives of the Father and the Son.”

But John 4:34 is speaking of Christ, according to his human will, not his “divine will.” So it seems to me that Ware is operating with the assumption that Christ has one will, not two, which would be an unorthodox view. How can those who support him not understand why we have serious reservations when he makes statements like this? At best he is unclear and speaking highly “improperly”; at worst he is holding to a view that was firmly rejected in the Early Church.

His third point on freedom is meaningless and distracting unless we grant at the outset that his categories of authority and submission are already true of eternal ad intra Trinitarian relations, rather than what is true in the area of free personal relations in the ad extra economy of salvation which involves the God-man’s submission to the Father, according to his human will.

4. In point 4 we find that, despite recent criticisms, Ware continues to build the model of authority-submission into the immanent Trinity. He even thinks that his model strengthens our conception of modes of subsistence. He assumes that eternal generation is practically synonymous with the Father having authority over the Son. He thinks modes of subsistence and eternal relations of authority and submission “work like hand and glove.”

Oddly, as far as I can tell, the Christian tradition has not embraced this view. I don’t even know how the “inflection” of the one will would work in the classical modes of subsistence. In fact, it can’t. That is why Ware has to build authority-submission into modes of subsistence. He has to try to make it work. But he doesn’t explain how the Son submits to the Father in modes of subsistence. If these two models fit like hand and glove it is hard to understand why no one else has come to this remarkable conclusion until recently.

There is a frustrating elision in his explanation from differentiation to the categories of authority/submission. This includes a very telling question he raises in 2: “Can there be a will of authority (from the Father) and a will of submission (from the Son) without conceiving of separate and separable divine wills?”

He asks can there be, but we respond, why must there be? Why this interest in that particular kind of relationship dynamic? It is clearly the case that he, like others, begins with the category of authority/submission and looks for something in the Trinity that could approximate, and ultimately, ground it. I think our thinking should be precisely in the other direction. He is not only toying with the tradition, but actually reinventing it with this move.

Ware seems to me to collapse eternal modes of subsistence with matters of taxis. The burden of proof for him is in demonstrating that the Trinitarian language of Father/Son is language for authority/submission rather than to express some other facet(s) of paternity and filiation, such as EG. He skips from one to the other because of the creaturely language of (one facet of) father/son relations.

In other words, Ware assumes that “father/son” means or equals “authority/submission” simpliciter. But “father/son” has to do with EG et al.; it is not automatically a “rule” category. Rather than just assume it because human father-son relations include authority dynamics (among other things), he has to justify why Trinitarian father/son is automatically a “rule” matter.

I think that Ware is working with a rather modern view of will. The Father-Son role accents responsibility rather than rule of authority. The assumption that Father-Son entails, immediately or centrally, an authority or rule category is actually rather modern. He needs to justify his leap.
We could also argue that Father-Son identities entail a conclusion that is at odds with eternality, viz., the conclusion that the Father must be older than the Son, since fathers are, by nature, older than sons.

5. It seems to me that Ware wants to make affirmations, but then he offers explanations that take away or implicitly contradict his affirmations. His supporters seem not to care about this.

In one case, can we even call the following an affirmation? Ware writes: “So, while I remain unconvinced at present that specific texts in Scripture teach [eternal generation], I accept and embrace it as the ‘church’s doctrine’ and the only genuine explanation that grounds the Father as eternal Father, and the Son as eternal Son.”

Indeed, I can understand why at this point in the controversy this is a good thing to “affirm” but in his other works Ware nowhere (as far as I can see) uses eternal generation to fulfill this function and in fact dismisses it as highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching – not simply that he is unconvinced that it is taught by specific biblical texts.  To give credibility to this claim of affirmation, it would seem that significant public reworking of his earlier Trinitarian writings must now take place. 

Ware is by no means a liberal. But I went to four liberal universities and it was not uncommon to hear liberal professors speak of affirming the church’s teaching even though the Bible doesn’t really teach that particular teaching. Again, Ware is not a liberal, but this type of affirmation has corollaries to the stuff I regularly heard from my teachers for years.  

6. I still do not understand why Ware does not speak in ad intra versus ad extra terms. That would help clarify his position. As it stands, we are still left guessing or filling in the blanks. It even causes him to use Anatolios in a way that is not entirely germane to the discussion.

I also do not quite follow what he means when he speaks of “functional and hypostatic.” He makes ontology more ultimate than hypostases. Suggesting the three persons are “eternal” but not “ontological” is quite a curious thing to do. One should never say that “hypostatic” is not an ontological category. Common and personal properties are ontological.

His reluctance is due to his not seeing “specific texts” which teach this, but what specific texts does he see teaching - on their own terms only! - any other truth of trinitarianism, including his own ESS/ERAS? Or any other doctrine? That’s not how theology works. I say this as one who agrees that John 5:26 is speaking about economy, not ontology.

Final Observations

Bruce Ware has affirmed one will; he has sort of embraced eternal generation.

But he has only affirmed those doctrines insofar as they work in subjection to his authority-submission model. That is to say, it appears to me that his authority/submission model is at the center of his Trinitarian metaphysics, and so he’s attempting to understand everything (aseity, essence, person, etc.) through that position. He will affirm one divine will or EG in light of this model, which, in my view, poses more problems than solutions. It is confusing stuff.

It is not only important to affirm orthodox doctrines, but also to know how those orthodox doctrines work, especially before critiquing them as Ware has done in the past. I’m not convinced yet that Ware has been able to make his model work. I’m not convinced that his view of God’s will is the same as the classical view of God’s will. I’m also persuaded that his view demands a form of Monothelitism.

Ware has many published statements that need to be retracted. His student, Kyle Claunch, also should take great pains to get that section, where he speaks of Ware affirming three wills, revised as quickly as possible since Albert Mohler has said that is a heretical view (see this post).

Returning to the tone: We are simply saying that raising issues of meaning and coherence should not cause others to call us “heresy hunters”, as Denny Burk did recently on Twitter. I have not called anyone a heretic. I am not in a position to even declare Bruce Ware or Wayne Grudem a heretic. That is left to the church.

I am in a position, however, to use my own knowledge of history and theology to question the coherence of the ESS/ERAS position.

So far, Russell Moore and Albert Mohler have both assured us that while they do not agree with Ware, his position is not heretical. Okay. Let us grant that. But I think that the authority-submission model built into the immanent Trinity is dangerous. Those associated with the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood need to publicly distance themselves from these errors if complementarians like myself are going to take them seriously. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in these wishes.

Posted on Sunday, July 03, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

One of the really encouraging things about the debate of the last few weeks is the number of Christians who have contacted various of us involved, wanting to know more about the classical, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  Over at his blog, Mark Jones has published a useful annotated bibliography which he has given permission for the Spin team to repost over here.  We hope it helps in cutting through the rhetoric and seeing what the church has taught over the years and why it is of great importance:


Annotated Trinity Bibliography


Donald Fairbarn, Life in the Trinity (IVP). This is a wonderful introduction to Christian theology in general, drawing largely on four patristic theologians.

Fred Sanders, Deep Things of God (Crossway). Shows how the trinity permeates all of our faith and practice.

Tim Chester, Delighting in the Trinity.

Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity (P&R).

Ryan McGraw, Is the Trinity Practical? (RHB).

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (IVP).

James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House).


I'd also add Warren Smith's essay on the Fourth Century in the Oxford Handbook of the Trinity as an intermediate level intro. Any pastors or profs who are not up to speed could read that and get up to speed J. Warren Smith, The Trinity in the fourth century fathers in The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (OUP).

Fred Sanders, The Triune God (New Studies in Dogmatics for Zondervan, forthcoming this fall). Offers an account of trinitarian exegesis, especially of OT.

Gilles Emery, The Trinity (CUA). Best intro to catholic doctrine and its terms.

David S. Yeago, "The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis" in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Shows how Phil. 2 leads to Nicene terms by talking about distinction between judgments and concepts.

Brandon Crowe/Carl Trueman, Essential Trinity (IVP).

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1.


Joseph Pohle/Arthur Preuss, The Divine Trinity (Scholars Choice). If Peter Escalante says this is really good it must be because Peter Escalante only recommends the best.

Gregory Nazianzus, On God and Christ (St Vladimir's Seminary Press). Includes his five theological orations and a couple key letters. Single most significant patristic starting point.

Basil, Against Eunomius (CUA). Key texts from later fourth century father.

Augustine, The Trinity (New City Press). Most full account of the trinity in the late patristic era.

Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (OUP). Best introduction to medieval and patristic terminology and distinctions.

Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea (Baker). Helpful history of key figures and moves.

John Webster, God Without Measure, Volume One: God and the Works of God (T & T Clark). Puts trinitarian thinking to use in both talking of God in himself and God in his works. Essays on "eternal generation," "it was the will of the Lord to bruise him," and "place of Christology in ST" are especially significant.

Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Blackwell). Engages narrative theology and post-metaphysical thought of the last 75 years by retrieving the exegetical and metaphysical account of Aquinas.

Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy (OUP). See also HTR review symposium edited by Sarah Coakley. The best map of fourth century debates. The final chapter maps issues of scripture and tradition methodologically as well.

Scott Swain, The God of the Gospel (IVP). Interacts with evangelical historicist approaches to theology and economy in Jenson and McCormack (pt 1) and then offers a catholic and Reformed alternative (pt 2).

Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans). Shows how NT appropriation of language of "lord" not only applies it to Jesus but also shows his "relations" to Father and Spirit, so that NT not only teaches a "high Christology" but a trinitarian Christology.

Allen/Swain, Christian Dogmatics (Baker Academic) - first four chapters address these issues reg. "knowledge of God," "divine triunity," "divine attributes," and "covenant of redemption."

Also crucial here are essays by Steven Boyer, “Articulating Order: Trinitarian Discourse in an Egalitarian Age” (Pro Ecclesia), Keith Johnson “Augustine, Eternal Generation, and Evangelical Trinitarianism” (Trinity Journal, Fall 2011), and Scott Swain/Michael Allen “The Obedience of the Eternal Son” (IJST, March 2013).

Boethius, "The Trinity Is One God and Not Three Gods," (Kindle) is a useful exposition of the logical foundations of the doctrine esp. in relation to Aristotle's ten categories of predication. But it is definitely not intro level--he says explicitly that it's for a very small audience (indeed, an audience of one! And that audience of one is not God but his father-in-law, so...).

John Behr, The Way to Nicaea.

B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox.

Francis Cheynell, The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Gregory of Nyssa, On Not Three Gods (Kindle).

Stephen Holmes, Quest for the Trinity (IVP).

John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 1.

Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology, Volume 1.

John Owen, A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

John Owen, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway).

Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity.

T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God (T&T).

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1 (P&R).

Additional Titles

Edward H. Bickersteth, The Trinity.

James Dolezal, God without Parts.

Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (OUP).

Russell L. Friedman, Intellectual Traditions at the Medieval University: The Use of Philosophical Psychology in Trinitarian Theology among the Franciscans and Dominicans, 1250-1350 (BRILL).

Russell L. Friedman, Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham (CUP).

Stanley Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God.

Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (T&T).

Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (OUP).

Gerald O’Collins, The Tripersonal God.

Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Supreme Harmony of All (Eerdmans).

Joseph Pohle/Arthur Preuss, The Divine Trinity (Scholars Choice).

Fred Sanders, Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (B&H Academic).

Christoph Schwöbel, Trinitarian Theology Today (T&T).

Ralph Smith, Trinity & Reality (Canon Press).

Peter Toon/J.D. Spiceland, One God in Trinity.

Peter Toon, Our Triune God.

Alan Torrance, Persons in Communion (T&T).


I'm thankful for the help from my friends on some of these suggestions. Also, I do not endorse everything above in an unqualified way. That should go without saying. But even some men with whom I would disagree with on points can still make valuable contributions to my own learning. Reformed writers, historically, have quoted Roman Catholics, for example, if they felt the papist was saying something decent!

Posted on Friday, July 01, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Kyle Claunch has offered some thoughtful reflections on my use of his words in the current Trinitarian debate and indeed on the discussion as a whole.  I will not comment on his post in detail but there is one question which he raises to which I will offer a very brief answer:

Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?

Yes, of course we should.  But is that what we are dealing with in this discussion? 

Certainly, some concepts can be expressed using different words. For example, the conceptual content of the phrase ‘Trueman’s youngest sister’ is also quite accurately expressed by ‘the youngest daughter of Trueman’s parents.’  This is a simple point and does in fact impact the practice of confessional subscription.  Thus, in Presbyterian circles it is not uncommon in ordination exams, when asked if he subscribes to the Westminster Standards, for a ministerial candidate to respond ‘Well, I might not have chosen to express this or that doctrine using quite the same language as the Westminster Assembly; but yes, I do still agree with what the Confession’s words are saying.’

But when you say (as has been said by various theologians referred to in this ongoing debate) that eternal generation is meaningless or is only a point of discussion because the church happened to give it creedal status, or that it is highly speculative and not grounded in scripture; and when you then replace it as an intratrinitarian relation with, say, authority and submission, then I submit that you are not expressing the same concept in different words.  You are replacing one concept with a different one and your language reflects that.  The question at that point is not, first and foremost, the incomprehensibility of God but rather the basic meaningfulness of words and sentences.

Those who opposed inclusive language translations of the Bible on the grounds that some words are not replaceable with others, and those who went through the struggles in Southern Baptist circles about the danger inherent in separating the spirit of the Abstract of Principles from the letter, should be especially wary of  enlisting similar arguments to those of their erstwhile opponents in the service of their own understanding of the ecumenical creeds.

Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I am glad to see that Dr. Albert Mohler has entered the discussion of the Trinity and Nicene orthodoxy with a firm but measured and gracious piece on his blog.


Again, though, I believe some friendly clarifications are in order by way of response, in the hope that these will help focus and shape future discussion in a productive and amicable manner.


First, the debate is really not about Nicaea 325.  It is about the Nicene Creed as agreed at Constantinople in 381.  Thus, as I (and others) have noted before, the issues of inseparable operations and eternal generation are key to understanding whether one’s position is within or without the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy.   


Second, as to motivation, I cannot speak for all involved in the discussion but I myself have no desire to damage evangelicalism or to assert egalitarianism.  I simply want to know the precise status of Nicene orthodoxy in the American evangelical world – surely a reasonable question, given evangelical claims to represent historic Christianity – and, as a pastor, to counter the bad practical consequences of bad theology.  No more, no less.


Third, Dr. Mohler mentions specifically the allegation that Drs. Grudem and Ware are not Nicene and dismisses such a claim as nonsense.  That is a bold statement, particularly given the intervention of Lewis Ayres on the issue.  But rather than appear adversarial at this point, let me close by quoting an evaluative description of the theological positions of these professors from a book co-edited by Professor Ware and thus, I would submit, neither an especially hostile witness, nor likely to be an egregious and nonsensical misrepresentation of their views.  It is from the article by Kyle Claunch in the collection of essays, One God in Three Persons, edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware (pp.88-89, the bold font emphasis is mine):




"One often overlooked feature of such a proposal [on eternal submission of Son to Father as articulated by Grudem and Ware] is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity.  In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills.  This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it.  According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity.



"By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories.  Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence.  The model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons."

Posted on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I do not have the time to respond to all of Dr. Grudem’s Ref21 post.  His use of the sources is critiqued in detail elsewhere.  But as I am named in his piece, some remarks are in order.


There are a few strange moments.  For example, Grudem quotes Bruce Ware in support of his position.  Now, given the fact one of Goligher’s charges is that Grudem and Ware are both wrong on the Trinity, then it is surely no cogent counter argument to claim that ‘No, we must be correct because we agree with each other.’   


Grudem also makes a key statement about eternal generation which deserves attention:


‘But just what is meant by "eternal generation"? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words "paternity" and "filiation" provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean "existing as a father" and "existing as a son," which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with "eternal generation" until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If "eternal generation" simply means "an eternal Father-Son relationship," then I am happy to affirm it.)’



What can I say in response?  Well, many Christians struggle with the idea.  It is technical and to understand it requires some technical knowledge. But it is one thing as an ordinary Christian to have questions about this and quite another to redefine or reject it as someone who aspires to teach the church as whole on this point.  It is that which makes this comment of more moment and concern.  The creedal tradition is of course corrigible in light of scripture; but one must first understand that tradition in its fulness and its depth before one declares it to be inadequate or wrong or irrelevant or confusing.



First, a good explanation in ‘ordinary English’ can be found in the translation of Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II, pp. 308-10.   Bear in mind, however, that this is merely a distillation of the church’s teaching through the ages and no substitute for reading more deeply on the subject.



Second, to take ‘eternal generation’ as meaning simply ‘existing as a father’ and ‘existing as a son’ would be an error.  Such a view of generation is not even true of the created order.  To say that my sons came from me by way of generation is not merely to say that I exist as their father and they exist as my sons; it is to make a causal connection.   Nor by way of analogy is it true of the Father and Son in eternity.  Grudem is confusing a relation for a cause. 


Further, for Grudem to claim eternal generation is not defined requires him to ignore the history of the concept’s development in the third and fourth centuries and flies in the face of the testimony of the church and of the large literature on this topic since then. Again, it is incumbent on a teacher in the church, if he chooses to reject church teaching, to do so from a position of knowledge.  I refer the interested reader to the Cappadocians, the medieval scholastics, the Reformers, and the great theologians of the seventeenth century; and also to the scholarly works of such as Lewis Ayres, Steve Holmes, Gilles Emery, and Richard Muller on the history of Trinitarianism, and Kevin Giles (as endorsed by Robert Letham, of whom Grudem approves) on eternal generation.  These should more than adequately compensate for this deficiency in the recent interventions of Goligher and myself on the matters of eternal generation, paternity and filiation. 



And this brings me to a very basic but very important hermeneutical point which I emphasize to my students again and again: theological texts have contexts, synchronic and diachronic, and these contexts are critical to understanding their meaning.   


Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in discussions of the Trinity.   Indeed, of all theological topics, the Trinity has involved the development of the most specialized and finely-tooled conceptual vocabulary over extended periods of time.  The result is that it is very hard indeed to pull out isolated sound-bite quotations, slap them down on the page, and really have any idea what the authors are actually saying.  Where Trinitarianism is concerned, the doctrine simply cannot be tweeted with any hope of success, despite recent efforts to the contrary.   


Here’s an example I sometimes use in class: if one reads Tertullian on divine substance, directly connects this to later discussions of substance in the Middle Ages, and thereby assumes that he was orthodox on the issue by the standards of later years, one would be wrong.  Substance for Tertullian had a profoundly material aspect.  The same need for understanding terms in context applies to the word hypostasis – in 325 one was anathematized for holding to three hypostases, in 381 for not holding to three.  The reason?  The word underwent a fundamental change of meaning in the middle of the fourth century, a change crucial to understanding why the church uses the language she does.


Therefore, simply throwing out a handful of quotations from a small number of albeit respected theologians may have a certain rhetorical power but it is of no real use in clarifying the matters at hand. Whether all or some or none of them support Grudem, we cannot tell simply from the quotations.  After all, that which he quotes from Jonathan Edwards seems as it stands to say the exact opposite of what Grudem claims.   We need context – diachronic and synchronic – to understand what is being said in each case. Again, Hodge’s use of the language of subordination surely needs to be understood against the background of Turretin, whose Institutes was the textbook from which Hodge both learned and later taught theology.  His background – theological and linguistic -- was not that which Grudem blithely reads back into him.  To repeat: the Trinity cannot be tweeted.  


And just to return to where I started. Let us all reflect for a moment on the dramatic significance of Grudem’s claim about eternal generation.  What he is saying is that the church catholic has for over 1600 years been affirming theologically and liturgically, as the key ecumenical summary of its faith, a document – the Nicene Creed – which in one of its core and defining assertions is superfluous or virtually meaningless or confused (or a wax nose which means whatever any Christian chooses).  That is surely far more audacious than disagreeing with a selective concatenation of decontextualized quotations from Charles Ryrie and a few other evangelical luminaries.


It also brings me back to the point of my very first post: whatever else Dr. Grudem is advocating and however sincere his motives may be (which I do not question), it is not Nicene Trinitarianism.

Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Carlton Wynne, my neighbor in the Bowels of the Earth at Westminster, ST prof, and stalwart of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, offers some thoughts on the Trinity while I head off briefly to Ref21 to address LGBTQ matters.


Properly identifying the God of Scripture and his relationship to issues of male-female complementarity in marital, ecclesiastical or broader cultural contexts requires exegetical sensitivity and prolonged reflection on historic, orthodox trinitarianism. I do not intend to engage in either of those tasks here.

Instead, I hope to address, albeit indirectly, the specific question of whether “submission” (or “subordination”) properly characterizes relations among the persons of the Trinity and, if so, in what sense. To that end, I offer a common trinitarian distinction and a feature of Reformed federalism.

The distinction is between (a) the necessary and incommunicable personal properties that belong to the persons of the so-called “immanent” Trinity individually (namely, the Father’s paternity, the Son’s filiation, and the Spirit’s procession) and (b) the voluntarily willed missions that characterize intratrinitarian relations of the so-called “economic” Trinity (namely, the Son’s being sent by the Father and the Spirit’s being given by the Father and the Son in redemptive history).

Traditionally, in the Western church, the personal properties of the persons are said to be irreversibly “ordered,” constituted by the Son’s proceeding from (and, occasionally, confusingly, and in that limited sense, “subordinate” to) the Father, and the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son. But this order (taxis) does not denote the kind of authority and obedient submission one finds among the missions of the Son and the Spirit in redemptive history.

The feature of Reformed federalism is the added fact that the missions of the Son and the Spirit in the covenant of grace are rooted in an antecedent, eternal and intratrinitarian covenant (pactum). In this “counsel of peace,” or covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another as distinct willing agents in a way that does not contravene the single, simple will that they are as God and the Author of all divine works ad extra: the exhaustively divine Son, as Son, voluntarily wills to subject himself to the Father in order that he might merit and administer salvation to the elect, to the glory of the Father (cf. John 4:34; Gal 4:4; Heb 10:5–7); and the exhaustively divine Father, as Father, voluntarily promises to send and equip the Son in and with the exhaustively divine Spirit (cf. John 6:38, 10:36, 17:4; Acts 2:33). The “economic” relations among the persons established by this covenant are distinct from the personal properties of the immanent Trinity, and yet these same relations never began in time. They are as timeless as the covenant of redemption of which they are a piece.

Therefore, even though the irreversible order (taxis) of the persons, as they are distinguished by their individual personal properties, does not denote the authority and submission to the Father that one finds in the missions of the Son and the Spirit in redemptive history, there has, nonetheless, at least from the perspective of the covenant of redemption, always been authority and submission in the Trinity. This trinitarian matrix should give pause to those who reject any and all submission of the pre-incarnate Son to the Father, even by way of an eternal covenantal appointment, on the grounds that it allegedly denies the simple will of God; likewise, it should lead those who affirm the pre-incarnate Son’s submission to the Father to do so in terms of God’s voluntary decree alone.   

The point is this: it is important, when venturing to affirm or deny “submission” (or “subordination”) in the Trinity, to identify whether one is referring to (a) the eternal and necessary personal properties of the triune persons, on the one hand, or (b) the distinct and voluntary missions which those same divine persons agreed pretemporally to undertake by virtue of the covenant of redemption. When this is done, one is in a good position to discuss further how one understands each side of the distinction, as well as how the two sides relate to one another.  

Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

UPDATE: Professor Denny Burk (with whom I have always previously enjoyed a cordial relationship and who is a brother in Christ, whatever our disagreements on this issue) has contacted me to offer to delete the relevant Twitter discussion and to assure me that he in no way meant to call into question my integrity.    I am very grateful to Denny for this clarification.  I leave the original post as is because I am aware that others have raised the same concerns but ask that it be read in the context of his contact with me.


This morning I was alerted to a Twitter thread involving Professor Denny Burk and others which speculated that my motivation for raising the Trinitarian issue was driven by some kind of incipient feminism or desire to justify women elders or women teaching in the church.  I do not usually respond to such speculative personal criticism and have no time for Twitter as a serious medium for discussion, but as Dr Burk is a man of some stature in the evangelical world and as this exchange calls into question my integrity with regard to my ordination vows, I consider it appropriate to offer a brief reply.  



1.     I am not motivated by any ecclesiological, let alone feminist, purpose.  I am motivated by a desire to see bad teaching corrected so that both this generation and future generations will be saved from some of the erroneous positions of the past.



2.     Even if I were secretly motivated as claimed, then that would merely speak to my flawed character, not to any flaw in my argument.  



3.     My basic point remains: if you argue for EFS and/or reject (or even regard as negotiable) eternal generation, then you stand outside the bounds of the historic Nicene Christian faith as set forth at Constantinople in 381 and held thereafter by the church catholic. I understand that many hold these views sincerely, without realizing the historical/theological/creedal implications; but my point has been confirmed by both Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres.  The argument on that issue really is now closed, which may – if I might speculate a little myself -- explain why the polemic has now apparently moved in some quarters to character and motivation. 



When I was an undergraduate, my Ancient History professor once told the class that there were three ways to respond when your argument had been shown to be wrong.  The best was to concede the point in public and humbly change one’s mind.  The second best was simply to keep silent.  Not so humble as the first but at least the damage was limited.   The third option – and the one he said nobody should ever take – was to keep tenaciously clinging to the position which had been refuted. 



Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis.  But this is a crisis of its own making -- the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them.  And I speak for the whole MoS Team – and many others who have written to me over this past week -- when I say that Protestant evangelicalism can only really gain if it embraces the full riches of the historic Nicene Trinitarian Faith.



All Liam Goligher and I did was pull on a rope.  The next thing we knew, the whole ceiling came crashing down around us.   If that tells you anything at all, it is surely something about how well the ceiling was constructed in the first place.


Posted on Friday, June 10, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I am delighted (We are not worthy!) to be able to publish the following guest post from my friend and mentor, John Calvin, as a rejoinder to those who think 1Cor. 11:3 is a knockdown argument for eternal submission and its relevance to understanding male-female relations.  He also asked me to warn people about univocal predication and simplistic moves from the economy of salvation to eternal, intratrinitarian relations.


He says, that as Christ is subject to God as his head, so is the man subject to Christ, and the woman to the man.  Let us take notice of those gradations which he points out. God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren.


Posted on Thursday, June 09, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Wayne Grudem -- with whom I do share a cordial personal relationship (politics and now Nicene issues aside) -- has weighed in on the issue of the day.  Again, I am grateful for the measured but firm response.


To respond: I accuse no-one of rejecting the Nicene Creed of 325, as he states (at least in the version of the post available at 13:52 on Friday).  Nicene orthodoxy is actually defined at Constantinople in 381.  I simply state that those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381 -- which is the ecumenical standard of the church catholic, albeit in the West subject to the revision at Toledo.


If Nicaea 325 is the standard of Nicene Trinitarianism with which he and Bruce Ware are operating, then I understand why they think an appeal to the homoousion is sufficient.  But history and the church catholic say otherwise.  Eternal generation etc. etc. are also of critical importance, as Constantinople 381 indicates.