Getting the Trinity Right Really Matters: A Review of Trinitarian Theology
In 2016, the theological landscape was set ablaze with debates surrounding the nature of the Trinity and its relation to human gender roles – debates which, to this day, have left their marks across the theological countryside. Charges of heresy were levied, theological methods were called into question, and theological giants were taken to the mats. The debates, regrettably, were mostly carried out through blog posts and tweet-threads. Now, several years have passed and a bevy of volumes are starting to emerge from the chaos.
One recent example of these post-debate volumes is Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, edited by Keith Whitfield (B&H Academic). In this book, Whitfield collates three essays from four Southern Baptist authors representing three models of trinitarian thought within the Evangelicalism broadly, and the Southern Baptist Convention specifically. Additionally, each of the contributors provide a response to the other essays.
Scoping out the terrain
In the introduction, Whitfield positions the 2016 Trinity debates in context, gives an overview of Southern Baptists and trinitarian theology, and sets the table for the contributing authors discussions. He also concludes the volume with a superb chapter which aptly summarizes the contributors essays and responses, and provides thought provoking questions to consider moving forward in trinitarian methodology.
In chapters one and four, Bruce Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributes an essay and response in defense of the ERAS trinitarian model (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission), a description which he prefers over similar descriptions such as EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) or ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) (11). Ware purports that there exists within the Godhead a structure of authority and submission which flows from the eternal relations of origin. Thus, in eternity past, the Son always submitted to the Father’s authority, and the Spirit always submitted to the Father and Son.
In chapters two and five, Malcom Yarnell, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, presents a model for understanding anthropology in light of theology proper. Yarnell argues that theology proper must precede anthropology because man is made in God’s image and bears his likeness. Chapters three and six are written by Matthew Emerson, Associate Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University, and Lucas Stamps, Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Anderson University, who contribute a joint essay and responses from the “Classical” or “Pro-Nicene” perspective. According to this model, the only criteria that distinguishes the persons of the Trinity in eternity past is their relations of origin — the Father begets the Son, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. Additionally, according to this model, there is no sort of functional distinction such as authority and submission within the Godhead.
Before engaging in the contributing authors’ essays, I want to first discuss the positive and negative aspects of the volume as a whole. Trinitarian Theology is an excellent example of what an edited volume can be for several reasons. Each contributor takes extra-precaution to ensure that the tone of their essays is defined by Christian charity and kindness — even in areas of disagreement. Considering the contentiousness of articles and tweet-threads during the initial 2016 dust-up, this spirit of charity and kindness is nothing to gloss over. Each contributor leads out in setting the example of Christian academic discourse.
Another positive of the volume as a whole is that each contributor, through both their position and response essays, clearly articulates their positions. They take pains to foresee and answer possible objections raised by the other contributors, while not trying to avoid difficult questions. Ware especially models this in his initial essay, providing the reader with answers to six possible objections to his proposed model (44-60).
The negatives of the volume as a whole are few. In fact, the only real negative is the order in which the models are presented. While it makes sense to place the essays on a spectrum — Ware/ERAS, Yarnell/Middle Road, Emerson and Stamps/Classic Trinitarianism — in execution, the spectrum approach comes across a bit disjointed. Ware and Emerson/Stamps have the most direct disagreements, so it would have been helpful for these chapters to be placed next to one another. That would leave Yarnell’s chapter, the middle road approach, for last. Yarnell’s chapter is largely dedicated to affirming what is good in both Ware and Emerson/Stamps models, specifically discussing anthropology’s relationship with theology proper, and it would have been an excellent way to conclude the presentations.
Moving on to the actual substance of the contributors essays, while there are some positive aspects of Ware’s essay and response — primarily his affirmation of the doctrine of eternal generation (which he previously questioned) and his care to derive his theology through exegesis — his defense of the ERAS position contains numerous problems. Biblically, there are at least two major problems with Ware’s arguments.Ware’s ERAS model is also stretched thin dogmatically. Ware does not provide a convincing defense against the charge that ERAS necessitates a denial of one divine will. Click To Tweet
First, Ware repeatedly cites passages that describe the economic missions of the Trinity, such as his extended exegesis of Hebrews 1:1-2, as arguments in support of ERAS. However, these passages merely describe the economic missions of the Trinity (in the case of Heb. 1:1-2, the Son’s role in creation — an economic work of the Trinity), and not the life the Trinity ad intra (25-44). As Emerson and Stamps argue, even passages like John 6:38, which speak of the Son submitting unto incarnation, need to be understood in terms of the economic plan of redemption (164).
Second, Ware misconstrues the divine names of Father, Son, and Spirit, as if these names not only support the notion of eternal relations of authority but submission as well (59). However, Emerson and Stamps are correct to counter that there is not a precise, exact analogical overlap between the divine Father/Son and human fathers/sons (an assertion bolstered by Yarnell’s discussion of analogical language in theology) (165). For example, the divine Son was eternally begotten, but human sons are created at a point in time. There is, in other words, notable discontinuity, and we should not project human functions, like submission, back into the immanent life of God. Additionally, Emerson and Stamps note that it is not entirely evident how “Spirit” fits into the Father-Son relational paradigm (165). The divine names of “Father” and “Son” do tell us about God, but it is unwise to use these names as support for ERAS.
Ware’s ERAS model is also stretched thin dogmatically. For example, Ware does not provide a convincing defense against the charge that ERAS necessitates a denial of one divine will. It appears that ERAS purports that there is a will of authority from the Father and a will of submission from the Son (and, presumably, a will of authority for the Son and a will of submission from the Spirit). Ware denies this charge, yet notes it is a difficult question (47). He rightly argues that “will” is a property of nature, and that each person of the Trinity has “distinct inflections” of the one divine will. Additionally, Ware argues that authority and submission are simply relational properties that exist between persons, and not proper to the divine nature (135). However, Emerson and Stamps rightly note that authority has traditionally been understood as an attribute of the divine nature and not a personal or relational property (118).
Even still, assuming that Ware is correct about authority simply being a relational property, it is not evident how this solves the “multiple wills” problem. The very concept of one person having authority over another in a relationship necessitates that the one in submission has a separate will than the one in authority. Otherwise, what does it even mean for the Father to have authority and the Son and Spirit to submit? It appears that ERAS requires a redefinition of what is meant by “authority” and “submission.” Additionally, it is unclear what sort of function would require such authority and submission other than the economy of redemption. Given these problems, Ware’s ERAS methodology stands exposed to the challenges of subordination and Tritheism. He denies both, but it has yet to be demonstrated if he can deny these challenges while remaining consistent to his ERAS methodology, and all that his methodology necessarily entails.
Turning to Yarnell’s contributions, I agree with Ware and Emerson/Stamps that there is much to be praised in Yarnell’s essay (and his response) (129, 170). Yarnell’s broad survey of trinitarian methodology in the Western tradition is supremely helpful in orienting his own methodology, as well as the discussions from the other contributors (64-82). Another highlight is found in Yarnell’s response essay, where he rejects ERAS based on his understanding of the doctrine of divine perfection as it relates to divine authority and power (148-155). The last highlight worth mentioning of Yarnell’s presentation is his discussion of the nature of theological language (67). Yarnell rightly notes that language about God is analogical, not equivocal or univocal — an assertion with massive import for the connection between anthropology and theology proper, and the broader discussion of the life of the Trinity.
Yet, despite his affirmation of analogical theological language, and his ultimate rejection of ERAS, Yarnell moves forward with a connection between the gender and the Trinity at the conclusion of his position essay (86-91). He engages with Gen 1:26-27 and concludes that relations within the Godhead are the basis for male-female relations (86-89) and continues to cite Hongyi Yang’s ERAS treatment of 1 Cor 11:13 (89-91). Given Yarnell’s discussion of analogical language, and his eventual dismissal of ERAS based on divine perfection in his response essay, Emerson and Stamps were right to question this theological move as inconsistent (171-172). Reinterpreting the Trinity in social categories may be convenient for a social agenda (like gender roles), but it's inconsistent with the biblical meaning, and Nicene reading, of trinitarian names. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, Emerson and Stamps provide the most compelling chapter for several reasons. First, they argue for a methodology that is Spirit-led and ecclesially located, exegetically grounded, canonically patterned, creedally ruled, and dogmatically guided (98-105). This methodology allows them to be “biblical” without falling into “biblicism” (97). In other words, they avoid a methodology, like Ware’s, that emphasizes biblical exegesis to the neglect of the orthodox Christian tradition. Specifically, their brief explanation for what it means to be creedally ruled and dogmatically guided is needed in this trinitarian discussion, especially as it relates to the Church’s doctrinal “tradition.”
Second, Emerson and Stamps’ discussion of social trinitarianism in their response essay compliments Yarnell’s historic analysis of trinitarian method by contrasting modern trinitarianism tendencies with classic, Nicene trinitarianism (158-161). This contrast demonstrates how ERAS relies on the former at key points, such as its redefinition of “person” and its reconception of the one divine will. Their rejection of social trinitarian models also serves as the basis for their rejecting a straight line from complementarian gender roles to eternal relations of origin, a straight line which is absent from Nicene, classical trinitarianism. The classical model of the Trinity, unlike the social model, does not redefine “person” as “personality,” nor “relation” as “relational” (161). Reinterpreting the Trinity in these social categories may be convenient for a social agenda (like gender roles), but it is inconsistent with the biblical meaning, and Nicene reading, of the trinitarian names.
The only negative aspect of Emerson and Stamps’ contribution is that the bulk of their positive construction of gender roles and the Trinity is contained to one paragraph at the end of their response essay (172-173). Considering that the recent Trinity discussions revolve around the Trinity and complementarianism, it would have been helpful had they had the chance to expand this section. However, this small issue does not detract from their overall model, which remains the most convincing means of understanding the Trinity.
The fervor of the 2016 Trinity discussions may have died down, but it’s impact will be felt in years to come by the lectures presented and the academic works written. In this regard, Trinitarian Theology is a timely volume that places several of the keenest Southern Baptist minds in conversation with each other over important methodological issues surrounding the Trinity and human relations. Any reader of this volume — Southern Baptist or not — is sure to be enriched by the clear, charitable, and rigorous work of these contributors, and drawn into a greater understanding of the Triune God we serve.