2. The Eternal Son of God in the Social Trinity

JITP.jpgSanders, Fred and Klaus Issler, eds.

Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology

Nashville, TN: B&H, 2007. Pp. xii + 244. Paper. $24.99.

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J. Scott Horell offers up a revised version of his 2004 JETS article “Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order” in this chapter.  He states as his three axioms for Christological study as follows [p. 44-45]:

  1. Speculations of trinitarian theology are not to supercede the metanarrative of divine revelation, particularly as revealed in Jesus Christ.
  2. Ontological equality of the members of the Godhead and reciprocal indwelling of each in the other does not necessarily preclude eternal relational order among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  3. Biblical revelation points beyond mere economy to the transcendent relationality, such that a univocal correspondence of the economic and immanent Trinity cannot be affirmed.

He begins this chapter by pointing out the rich trinitarian experience of the early Church and how this is reflected in the text of the New Testament.  I think that Horell is on the right track when he says that:

Powerful as it may be, as the early church understood, experiencing God as tripersonal is not the same as articulating precisely what God has revealed of himself. Neither Jewish theology nor Greek philosophy provided the conceptual frameworks, much less the right words, needed to express what the church fathers were seeing in the Bible’s witness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. [p. 46]

Horell notes the place and importance of both experience and tradition, but maintains that Evangelicals should always hold them in second place to Scripture (which raises questions concerning the tradition of the canon’s formation, but that’s an issue for another time).  Horell’s purpose is threefold in this chapter: (1) He wants to sketch a Biblical model of the “social Trinity”; (2) He wants to provide Biblical evidence for an eternal order in the Godhead; and (3) He wants to synthesize the two streams of thought into a coherent picture of an eternally ordered social Trinity.

All of the necessary steps are taken in defining terms such as ‘nature’: “the generic essence, universal property, or attributes of Godness manifest equally in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” [p. 49], and ‘person’: “a center of self-consciousness existing in relationship to others” [p. 52], but the most important of Horell’s definitions come when he defines what he means by “social model of the Trinity” and “eternal order.”  He says:

My definition of a social model of the Trinity is that the one divine Being eternally exists as three distinct centers of consciousness, wholly equal in nature, genuinely personal in relationships, and each mutually indwelling each other. I define an eternally ordered social model as the social model that, while insisting on the equality of the divine nature, affirms a “perpetual distinction of roles within the immanent Godhead. Within the biblical revelation, this entails something like the generous preeminence of the Father, the joyous collaboration of the Son, and the ever-serving activity of the Spirit. [p. 48, cf. 44; 56; 67-68; 76]

He does well to briefly survey the Biblical data concerning the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct centers of consciousness, the way in which they relate to one another, and finally their mutual indwelling of each other, thus achieving his first objective, which was to establish the social Trinity in Scripture.

He then moves on to survey the Biblical data which affirms a clear order within the Trinity, arguing against the position of certain theologians, such as Kevin Giles which sees any kind of eternal order as akin to Arianism.  He brands this model of social Trinitarianism as “egalitarian trinitarianism” and notes “two subgroups: those who accept the creedal and traditional language of begetting and procession–therefore some form of eternal distinction between the members of the Trinity–and noncreedalists who reject such terms and, therefore, have few criteria at all for distinguishing among the members of the Godhead in their eternal relations.” [p. 62]

He examines various “giving” passages which use the words didomai and paradidomai, noting the various ways in which the Father gives to the Son and the Son gives to the Father, while the Father gives both the Son and the Spirit to the world for the purpose of salvation.  He turns his attention to the Johannine language of comes/came from; sent by/from; goes forth; proceeds, etc, observing that it is the Father who sends and the Son and Spirit who are sent from the Father.  He then notes something that is often overlooked, and that is the presentation of the Son in the Apocalypse, which slowly unfolds to reveal his glory.  But in this unfolding, the exalted Son seated at the right hand of God still refers to the Father as “his God.”  The section is closed with a brief look at 1Corinthians 15:24-28 in which he observes that the Son is equal yet submissive.

Horell’s final section is a balancing act between the first two sections.  He notes the problems with “egalitarian trinitarianism” as being that it tends to blend or erase the eternal distinctiveness of the persons of God.  There is also the problem of its highly speculative nature, which honestly doesn’t account for the Biblical revelation.  The danger of going to the extreme with “functional subordination” is damaging the eternal fellowship of the three persons.  Horell says there is a risk of violating the “generous character of God seen in the many New Testament passages affirming the Godhead’s self-giving and reciprocity.” [p. 73]

I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, and I feel that Horell has made very important arguments concerning an eternal order (taxis) within the Trinity.  More importantly, I appreciate that his argument was grounded in Scripture, with supporting references to the Church fathers and various creeds.  This essay is worth the price of the book alone.


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