Thursday, June 16, 2016

The immanent and economic Trinity, and roles and relations

Over at the Ref21 blog, Alastair Roberts has posted an update of the current debate within evangelical complementarian circles concerning the Trinity. My position seems to land me closer to Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, and against Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman. In fact, I wonder whether Goligher and Trueman actually accurately represented Ware's and Grudem's position, especially if they both deny what Goligher and Trueman are accusing them of.

It is to me extremely intemperate to use the word "subordination" when it comes to relations within the Trinity. To call Ware's and Grudem's position "Eternal Functional Subordination" seems to me to a misrepresentation of the issue. That said, I do not think the issues have been as clearly presented as it should have.

To begin, we need to understand the difference between the immanent and the economic Trinity. This is NOT speaking about two trinities, neither is it speaking about the Trinity undergoing changes between one mode and another. Rather, the immanent Trinity is the Trinity in His one essence, God ad intra, in Himself. The ecomonomic Trinity speaks about the one Triune God in His working, God ad extra. One is about being and the simplicity of essence, but in the other we are not speaking about being at all — not about what God is, but about what God does.

This distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity is a distinction, NOT a separation. But this distinction must be at the forefront in this debate, because it seems to me that the critics of Ware and Grudem do not seem to make that distinction clearly. We must start with this distinction if we want any clarity from this debate.

As God in His being, God is simple, which is to say that He has "no parts." This means that God is not made up of different parts so that we can remove an attribute of God and He remains, perhaps deficient and perhaps "not" God, but still existing. No! The doctrine of simplicity, to put it simply, is that one gets God and eveything of who He is, or one gets nothing. It is, to use computing terms, a binary choice, 1 or 0. God has no parts so everything He is is taken as a whole package and cannot be removed.

The simplicity of God means that one cannot separate any aspect of God from another. But this does not imply that God's attributes cannot be distinguished, or that the various relations of the Trinity cannot be distinguished. Distinction is not separation!

Another thing that comes from the immanent Trinity is that the persons of the Trinity are equal in every respect. The Father is equal to the Son and is equal to the Spirit in all respects, in the very essence of God. To use the language of Westminster Shorter Catechism Answer 6, the three persons of the Trinity are "equal in power and glory." There is no subordination among the persons of the Trinity, and thus Subordinationism, the teaching that the Son and Spirit are inferior to the Father, is rightly regarded as heresy.

So there is one nature, one essence, of the Triune God. Does that mean that there is one will, or three wills? It seems that it is both, in different senses. There is the one will of God. Yet the one will of God is differentiated into three wills of the three persons, which are to be sure unified. But one cannot say that the Father's will is the Son's will, but one can say that the Father's will and the Son's will and the Spirit's will is the one will of God. If that sounds confusing, that is because this is the Trinity we are talking about, where God the Father is not God the Son and is not God the Holy Spirit, but the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is one God. So likewise when we talk about the will of God and the wills of the persons.

The reason we get into the issue of wills is because it figures very closely in this debate. If God is both one and three, and His will both one and three, then we can speak and distinguish between the will of the Father and the will of the Son and the will of the Spirit, all while believing that there is one will of God. One does not have to flatten the will of the Father into the will of the Son or vice versa in order to insist on the one will of God! And because there is one will of God, it is impossible for the the Son to contradict the Father, but that is not the same as saying that the will of the Son is the will of the Father in every respect. Being different persons, there is a subjective component in them that distinguishes the wills without separating them!

So far, we are still in the Immanant Trinity, God as He is in His being. But now we move on to the economic Trinity, which is God at work, God ad extra. God in Himself is necessarily timeless, for He is immutable and cannot change. God ad extra however is God at work, and God's work changes. So we see that there was a time when God the Son was not incarnate, and there is the time when God the Son is incarnate, and now there is the time when God the Son is incarnated and exalted. God in His work does "change," not in His being but in His working, "energies" not "essence."

One aspect of such working is God in His covenants. And here we come to the Covenant of Redemption, the pre-temporal covenant in eternity past that God the Father made with God the Son through God the Holy Spirit. It is a covenant made in eternity past, and is worked out in time and its effect goes to eternity future. For all extent and purposes, it is eternal. It is also a free act of God, because it is not necessary for God to make this covenant, but He did it anyway. In this Covenant of Redemption, or pactum salutis, God the Father covenanted with God the Son through God the Holy Spirit AS EQUALS to accomplish the salvation of God's elect. But also in this covenant, God the Son, being coequal with God the Father, submits Himself to the Father in order to come down to die for the sins of many. Equal yet submissive, for the two are not necessarily contradictory. This submission of course is most clearly expressed in the Incarnation as marveled in Philippians 2:6-11, but it is reductionistic not to see this submission as already present in the Son agreeing to take on the role of the Servant in this covenant.

In the immanent Trinity, the persons of the Trinity are coequal. Yet the relations between them have a certain ordering or taxis (ταξις). The Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, and the Spirit proceeding. The relations do NOT indicate any superiority or inferiority between the persons of the Triune God. In the economic Trinity, the persons of the Trinity are also coequal, for there is no superiority or inferiority even as they enter into the pactum salutis. Yet here in this covenant, the Son took on the role of the servant, thus reflecting the order He took as the begotten Son. NOTE here, I said that the role of the servant reflected the relation of Him as begotten, not that the relation of Him as begotten is an inferior role of the servant.

If all these are true, and I don't see why they should not be true, then it follows that we must speak both of the equality of the persons, and also the inequality of the roles of the persons. The Servant of the Covenant is submitted to the Lord of the Covenant. Christ is of course both Lord and Servant of the Covenant of Grace, but exclusively the servant in the Covenant of Redemption. It is in this sense that we must speak of an eternal submission of the Son (again NOT subordination), not in the immanent Trinity but the economic Trinity; not concerning essence but works; not concerning status but service.

Therefore, it seems to me that Ware and Grudem seem to be more in the right than Goligher and Trueman. I do not say this lightly of course. It does strike me as odd how Goligher and Trueman do not seem to represent the position they are critiquing correctly. Perhaps there are some complementarians who do veer into outright Subordinationism, but if Ware and Grudem both deny that what Goligher and Trueman are critiquing are a correct representation of their own positions, perhaps it is time for Goligher and Trueman to pause and judge whether they have been too hasty in their denunciations? Of course, perhaps Goligher and Trueman are right, but then they should show us why, and try to represent their opponents' position in a way that Ware and Grudem agree is a correct representation of their position.

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