Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?

In responding to the subordinationist debate on the Trinity, Erickson gives us much more than a snapshot of the current battle. He gives us a model on how to do systematic (or missional, if you are in the PCA) theology. He examines biblical, historical, philosophical, theological, and pastoral implications for both views. He is generally stronger on 1,3,4, and 5. The historical section is a little weak.

Erikson says Hodge taught a gradational view of the Trinity, as did Augustus Strong. Hodge did no such thing. Hodge (and to a lesser degree Strong) emphasized the “order” in the Trinity, but an epistemological order–from the Father through the Son in the Spirit–does not imply a gradation or a submission. Or if it does we need to see an argument to the effect.

And this is partly why Ware’s position is so tricky. When Ware highlights a certain order or “taxis” in the Trinity, he is not wrong. But when he says, “This means submission” he is beyond the evidence.

The main problem with Ware is that he is almost right. His problem is that he doesn’t let the early reflections on the Trinity anchor him so he wouldn’t fall in error. It’s not enough, as Athanasius noted, to say the Son (or Spirit) is homoousios with the Father. We must also note that the Trinitarian relations are homoousion. This is what keeps the Greek Patristic reflection from slipping into error. They are able to say there is a certain taxis in the Trinity without lapsing into subordinationism: the homoousion safeguards them.

Similarly, Grudem isn’t entirely wrong. He asks, “If not for x (Grudem’s view) how can the Persons be distinguished? This problem stems from the assumption of extreme divine simplicity. Given the essence’s identification with the attributes, how can one really speak of this or that? Traditionally, the Western church distinguished the Persons by calling them “relations of oppositions.” Grudem (correctly) doesn’t take this route. But he thinks the Persons are distinguished by roles and functions, rather than by modes of origination (as the Fathers said).

The Biblical Evidence

The problem with “son-language:” the ancient fathers were hesitant, pace Bruce Ware, to read human concepts of fatherhood/sonship back into the eternal Trinity. It bordered close to idolatry. It’s one thing to say that the “Fatherhood of God” is the archetype from which all fathers are derived. That’s true. It’s quite another thing to define Fatherhood of God by the derivative.

Further, “Son” doesn’t always mean “lesser in authority.” Jesus is called “The Son of Man.” Does that mean Jesus is inferior to the idea of men? Jesus is called the Son of David. Does that mean he is inferior to David?

Erickson mentions it but doesn’t develop it. Let’s go back to the order of the Trinity: From the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. According to the gradationist model, with each term there is a diminution of authority. Logically, then, the Holy Spirit should be the bottom-rung. But if that is the case, then why is the Holy Spirit “casting Jesus” (εκβαλλω) into the wilderness (Mark 1:12)?

Philosophical Considerations

Ware says that the hierarchical structure of authority is part of the essence of the Trinity (Ware 2005, 21), that it “marks the very nature of God.” Erickson points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if authority over the Son is an essential attribute, the the subordination of the Son is essential. This means they are neither homoousion in essence or in relation (Erickson 172).

With regard to Grudem Erickson examines his argument:

G1: Differences of person require different roles
GC: Therefore, distinctions of persons require differences of authority

Erickson points out that Grudem is missing a key premise: “Differences of role require differences of authority” (185). And since they have not proved this (and if they had, they would be semi-Arians, given Ware’s earlier claim), then they must forfeit the debate.


(1) Erikson seems to think that if you hold to the eternal generation, you have to hold to it literally in order for it to make sense, yet no Father ever said this.
(2) He is aware of Giles’s use of dyotheletism to criticize th EFS position, but he doesn’t like it.

Aside from these criticisms, the book is compelling, succinct, and occasionally fun to read.


Getting caught with their pants down

Seven years ago when i was exploring other Christian traditions and reading heavily in the early fathers (and all the leading monographs), I came to the conclusion that if you don’t make Triadology (or its correlate Christology) central, you risk getting your whole theological method wrong.

A number of Conference Calvinists said, “Nuh-uh.”

Well, here we are today.  My thoughts on the current fighting on the Trinity regarding complementarianism:

  1. CMBW (or complementarian advocates on the Trinity) say you shouldn’t exalt the Fathers over the Bible.  Well, it’s not the simple.  As Torrance pointed out, once you terms like Ὁμοουσιον become enshrined in Christian discourse, you can’t go backwards. Ὁμοουσιον safeguards the ontological structure and identity of of the essence.  If you jettison this doctrine, you risk jettisoning everything that goes with it.
  2. As it stands, the complementarians/EFS guys are wrong.   But they aren’t 100% wrong.  It is wrong of them to read roles and functions into the eternal being of God.  You end up with Arianism.  Since God’s being is simple and identical among the Persons, it just doesn’t work.  If the Son’s being is eternally subordinate and the Father’s isn’t, then by definition they don’t have the same Being.
  3. But they have noticed something.  There is a difference of taxis in the Trinity.  That’s what the Fathers call “monarchia.”
  4. Neither side has really come to grips with that.
  5. I suspect one of the reasons is that the Evangelical world only has two categories for the Trinity: Ontological and Economical.  The Fathers had a third category:  The Person.
  6. But the real reason is we just don’t talk about the Trinity, and if we do we don’t let the full import of Athanasius’s ontology change how we do everything.   For one, it’s hard.  Athanasius’s most important work is Contra Arianos.  It isn’t On the Incarnation.  And the former work is quite demanding.  You won’t get invited to TGC conferences speaking on an Athanasian metaphysics.


A Patristics Primer

I spent the past few days on Facebook debating soon-to-be-Socinians in the CBMW on why you shouldn’t tinker with the Trinity.  Some friends have asked me for a primer on basic Patristics texts.  This is more or less an impossible request but I can start to lay the groundwork.  If you devote at least a good six months to working through these issues, you will begin to see why tinkering with the Trinity must end badly.

Primary Sources

Hilary of Poitiers, “De Synodis.”  St Hilary explains how the early Fathers had to break the back of certain categories before they became acceptable.

Athanasius.  Contra Arianos.  This work is very difficult to read but it is his best work.

Gregory of Nazianzus.  On God and Christ: Five Theological Orations.  The best thing ever written on Trinitarianism.

Gregory of Nyssa.  “Great Catechism” and “On Not Three Gods.”  Advances the argument that the Trinity is one mind, will, power, and energy of operation.  This is why Gospel Coalition types won’t engage me when I ask them how many minds are in the Trinity.

Basil.  On The Holy Spirit.

Pseudo-Dionysius.  The Divine Names.

Basic Trinitarianism

Letham, Robert.  The Holy Trinity.  Letham has a number of blind-spots but he covers the material better than any.

Lacugna, Catherine.  God for Us.  She is a liberal Jesuit and that comes out in her writing, but she does a fine job on the Cappadocians.

Torrance, Thomas.  The Trinitarian Faith and One Being: Three persons.  The two best texts by a modern on the Trinity.  Torrance has few equals.  And no, his so-called “neo-orthodoxy” does not come out in this.

Intermediate Issues

McGuckin, John.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy.  Excellent survey of Cyril’s thought and he makes the argument that Chalcedon, far from being a Western council, specifically made Cyril the standard for Christology.

———–.  St Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography.  Just fun.

Beeley, Christopher.  The Unity of Christ and In Your Light We See Light.

Advanced Issues

Barnes, Michel.  The Power of God.  Explores Gregory of Nyssa’s use of “dynamis” in Christology.

Farrell, Joseph.  God, History, and Dialectic.  Be careful but some good analysis.

Photios.  Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps the Filioque can be salvaged, but not by positing the Father-Son as a single cause.

Jenson, Robert.  Systematic Theology, vol. 1.

Philosophical Foundations.

Perl, Eric.  Theophany: Dionysius’s Philosophy.

Gould and Davis (eds).  Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of JP Moreland.   Some outstanding essays on what it means for universals to be exemplified.

Maximus the Confessor.  The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.

Moreland, J. P. Universals.

Cooper, John. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting.

Morris, Thomas.  The Logic of God Incarnate.  This is tough and I am not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, but it is an important study nonetheless.

Plantinga, Alvin.  Does God have a Nature?  Yeah, yeah, classical theism and all.  Plantinga’s arguments can’t simply be brushed aside.

Person and Nature in Gospel Coalition

This is a thought experiment based on reading a report on the Gospel Coalition‘s use of Trinitarian theology to undergird a certain view of husband-wife relations and authority.  For starters, let’s say that egalitarianism or complementarianism is true or false based on the respective merits of the case.

As I understand it, the Gospel Coalition-type guys (Ware, Grudem, maybe Piper) say that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father.  But equal in essence.  This means women are subordinate to men yet still fully human.

While one likes to make fun of the Gospel Coalition, and I probably will, they aren’t entirely off–well, yes they are but they almost made a very good argument.  So here is where they run into problems:

“Eternal” denotes relation, which is a category of essence. Therefore, to say that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father as a relation is to say that the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father, which is a no-go.  But of course, they want to say that the Son and Father are equal in essence–their complementarianism demands it.

They need a more robust hypostatic theology.  Person and Nature aren’t the same thing, as St John of Damascus said.  Therefore, the hypostasis of the Son can derive from the monarchia of the Father without a dimunition of essence.  (Note I didn’t say subordinate to, just because that has bad connotations).

Of course, if pressed these guys will say they believe in the hypostases as the three persons of the Trinity.  Maybe so, but they don’t let this correct insight help the rest of their theology from going off the rails.

In Your Light We See Light

Christopher Beeley gives a fine summary and exposition of Gregory’s key orations. Beeley argues that Knowledge of God is a two-fold dialectic of purification and illumination. Our knowledge of God is intimately rooted in who God is. In the sense of God’s grandeur, he cannot be fully known or mastered (95). God isn’t different from us in degree, but kind. He is fully beyond time and space (Or. 2.5; 76).


Gregory’s epistemology: anything that can be understood, and all language, is mentally ‘embodied,’ so that we are incapable of transcending the corporeality of our knowing (99-100). This is the negative way of saying we know God. The positive is by the concept of “illumination.” God’s being/light overflows and fills us. This is a dynamic process in which we grow.

Jesus Christ: The Son of God

Gregory’s Christology is connected to the theosis tradition (116ff). As Beeley notes, “We have been created in a state of dynamic movement towards God” (118). Gregory is primarily interested in the dynamic economy of Christ’s divinity. Beeley has a fine explanation of Kenotic Christology: Kenosis and condescension are relative, not absolute terms. They describe the shape of Christ’s assumption (127).
The Holy Spirit

Like his Christology, the Holy Spirit is soteriological in character. Since the Holy Spirit deifies and is not deifies, then he is God, full stop. Gregory is drawing upon Origen’s Spirit-Letter dichotomy (166).

The Spirit is involved in the self-revelation of the Trinity. “The sequential self-revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reflects an increase in the power and intensity of that revelation, so that each successive stage prepares the recipients for the next one” (171).

The Trinity

Gregory is more interested in the theology of the divine economy than he is in consubstantiality. “Economy” refers to God’s governance. Monarchia of God the Father: Gregory anchors each person in the unique role of God the father as source and cause (204). It is the ground of the divine unity. In response to Meyendorff, Beeley notes that the first principle of the Trinity is not simply “personhood” but hypostasis + divine essence (212).


The book is top-notch scholarship. While it can’t stand alone as a text on St Gregory, if read in conjunction with McGuckin it will give the student a firm foundation in Patristic studies.

Are there then two Trinities?

I originally wrote this when some Neo-Torrancians were making hit and run attacks against McCormack, so it was initially a defense of McCormack.  My own position has changed much, so I will go ahead and offer the conclusion:

(5) McCormack’s actualism borders on Origenism.

(5*) Notwithstanding, McCormack read Barth correctly.

The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner now-famous rule–The Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity–has created an uneasy tension in Western theology.  The ontological Trinity is usually defined as “God in himself” apart from any God-world relation.  The economic Trinity is God’s deciding and acting to save the world in Jesus Christ (and it doesn’t matter which confessional gloss you put on this).  

I understand the resistance to Rahner’s Rule.  If we identify the two formulations, then it makes the God-world relationship necessary and this is clearly wrong.  On the other hand, if the E/T and I/T aren’t identical, then we have two Trinities–and this, too, is wrong.  Sure, one could salvage the doctrine by saying that the assumption of human nature doesn’t affect the divine nature (though one wonders if it would affect the divine person?)

Q1: Is God in himself different from God-for-us?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at Leibniz’s Law:


For any x, and for any y, if they are identical to each other, then for any property P, P will be true of x iff P is true of y.

To put it negatively, if the two entities have different properties, then they aren’t the same thing.  

Q2:  Is there a Property that I/T has that E/T doesn’t?

There is a way to get around this, I suppose.  One could say that the action of begetting the Son isn’t a property.  I don’t think this works, though.  The early fathers specifically defined the identity of the Father (and the Persons in general) in terms of their specific properties.

But this is a definition of the properties of the Immanent Trinity, not the economical.  True, the Father does not beget the Son in time or with a relation to the world.   Thomas Aquinas came close to solving this problem by saying that the missions contain the processions.  This must be affirmed at the very least.  If we don’t affirm this, then the E/T becomes unhinged from the I/T and we have two trinities (and maybe six gods).

Barth took it a step further and said the missions contain the processions because the processions include the missions.

Q3: Does God pre-exist his act?

This is what bothers people about McCormack’s claim that for Barth (or maybe not for Barth; maybe we can just pretend this is a truth-claim) that election constitutes God’s identity.  It seems, so they read, that there is a hidden premise:

Q3*: If election constitutes God’s being, then did God pre-exist his decision to exist?

Admittedly, if this objection obtains it is a devastating one.  But McCormack said if this objection obtains here, then what happens when we apply it across the board

Q3’ Did the Father pre-exist the Son prior to the act of begetting?

Of course, Q3’ is unacceptable in theology.  People will say it is an eternal and spiritual act.  I agree.  This doesn’t mean that the claim election constitutes God’s being holds, but only that it is logically coherent (if you hold to eternal begetting/procession).

There is a precedence, of course, but it is a logical one, not a temporal or causal one.  Thomas Aquinas joins knowing and willing (and in a different way, so does McCormack, 2009, p. 121).  Both Thomas and McCormack join knowing and willing in the divine processions (though McCormack says that God’s self-knowing takes place in the event of revelation).  The only difference is that McCormack gives the missions a heavier logical role than otherwise, but even then he doesn’t actually identify the two (p.122).

Q4: Are my critics more McCormackian than I am? It would appear so.