Category Archives: Trinity

Gregory the Theologian on Athanasius

“He was the first and only one, or with the concurrence of but a few, to venture to confess in writing and with entire clearness and distinctness the unity of Godhead and essence of the three Persons and thus to attain in later days, under the influence of inspiration, to the same faith in regard to the Holy Spirit as had been bestowed at an earlier time on most of the Fathers in regard to the Son.”

Oration 21.33 as quoted in Athanasius (The Early Church Fathers), 24.

B”H

 

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Gregory the Theologian on the Divine Monarchy

29.2. The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the playthings of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these theological positions tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and thus to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that axiom which we hold in honor. It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one person, for it is possible for unity, if at variance with itself, to come into a condition of plurality; but we hold it to be made out of an equality of nature and a union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a consilience of its elements to unity (a thing which is impossible for created natures) so that though it is numerically distinct there is no severance of essence involved. Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; though without passion, of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Spirit the Emission; (I say this since I do not know how else this can be expressed in terms that wholly exclude material conceptions). But we shall not venture to speak of “An overspill of goodness,” as one of the Greek Philosophers dared to say, as if God were like a wine-bowl filled to overflowing, saying this in plain words in his oration on the First and Second Causes. Let us never look on this matter of divine generation as being involuntary, like some natural overflow, hard to be retained, for it is by no means fitting to our conception of the Godhead. Therefore let us confine ourselves within our proper limits, and speak of the “Unbegotten” and the “Begotten” and that which “Proceeds from the Father,” as in one place God the Word himself expressed it.

Oration 29 as reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 699.

B”H

On the Monarchy of the Father (with a bit about divine aseity thrown in for good measure)

I’ve been studying Trinitarian theology for a long time. One thing that always seemed self-evident was the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father. The Fathers of the church spoke of God the Father as principle (arche), source (pege), and cause (aitia). The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed refers to the Son as God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, and the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father (I reject the filioque for a number of reasons). It seems a given that the monarchy is a well established doctrine. 

I can remember early in my studies reading many an author who subscribed to Theodore De Régnon’s paradigm, which basically asserts that the Eastern tradition used the three divine Persons as its starting point for Trinitarian theology while the Western tradition began with the one divine essence, but the reality is a bit more complex than that. Nonetheless, even if we grant these starting points it still seems as though the doctrine of the Father’s monarchy is uncontroversial.

So here is how I understand the doctrine in its simplest form. The divine essence (ousia) is found in the Father’s person (hypostasis). The Father is Father from all eternity and begets the Son by an eternal generation so that all that the Father has (to include the divine essence) the Son has also. Likewise, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father by an eternal procession so that all that the Father has (to include the divine essence) the Spirit has also.

This means that from all eternity the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have shared the divine essence equally since the Father has never been without the Son and the Spirit. There is both an asymmetrical personal relationship and an essential equality in such an understanding of the Trinity. This essential equality allows us to speak of any divine Person as God because whatever the divine essence is exactly, they all have it.

This is one of the things I found problematic with a recent presentation by Dr. Beau Branson on the subject. He argues that the one God just is the Father and that the one God is simply one Person of the Trinity. I think this is mistaken for the reason stated above. I’ll grant that God as a title is generally reserved for the Father in the New Testament. I have no problem with referring to the Father as God and the Son and Spirit as Son and Spirit. But titles aren’t the issue. The issue is whether or not the Son and Spirit can be said to be God.

The answer is yes. It’s quite appropriate to refer to the Son and the Holy Spirit as God because the same divine essence that is found in the Father’s person is shared with the Son and the Spirit from all eternity. Each divine Person has never been without it. Each divine Person is as much God as the Father is God. Branson says that they’re of the “same species.” He says that the title God can be predicated of Son and Spirit but is only proper to the Father. Branson appears to believe in three divine beings, which as far as I can tell, is tritheism, but claims that there is only one God, the Father. His view is idiosyncratic. And trust me, I’ve tried to be as charitable as possible when listening to his presentation.

He also lays a lot at the feet of divine aseity, which he ascribes to the Father alone on the basis of the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession. If the Son is eternally begotten and the Spirit eternally proceeds then each is from the Father, which in turn means that each is not “from self” (a se). But the Father, Branson supposes, is a se since he is neither begotten nor proceeds. The problem with this as I see it is that divine aseity makes no sense as a personal property since the Persons of the Trinity have existed from all eternity. There is no Father without Son or Spirit.

Aseity has to be something proper to the divine essence, which I’d agree is grounded in the Father’s person, but has been shared with Son and Spirit from all eternity. This might not sound like a big difference, but it is. Divine aseity is rightly ascribed to any divine Person on the basis of their eternal existence. No Person of the Trinity has come into being therefore each Person of the Trinity is a se. But this does no violence to a doctrine of the Father’s monarchy. Nor does it necessitate some kind of “egalitarian” view of the Trinity. There is still plenty of room for order (taxis) within the Trinity.

That’s my spiel…

B”H

Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H

Help a Brother Out

UPDATE: Several kind folks sent along copies of the article. Thank you all! 

The other day Denny Burk referenced the article “The Obedience of the Eternal Son,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 15/2 (2013): 114-34. Does anyone have a copy of this article that they could pass along? I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

B”H

One Brief Thought on the Recent Eternal Functional Subordination Kerfuffle

I’ve typed plenty on the debate over eternal functional subordination over the years. Much of what I’ve said can be found in book reviews. Some can be found in dedicated posts to one point of the discussion or another. I’ll leave it to interested readers to search my blog and find all that I’ve said. But I want to repeat something since I keep reading the word “Arian” being used with reference to those who affirm some kind of eternal functional subordination, or eternal authority-submission structure, or eternal asymmetrical order of relation, etc.

If it’s “eternal” then it ain’t “Arian.” It’s really that simple. Arians believed the Son to be a created being. Plain and simple. Yes, he was created “before” time (wrap your head around that one) but the Father existed “before” that. No one who believes that the Son has from all eternity been obedient or submitted to the Father is an Arian because they all believe that for as long as their has been a Father to obey/submit to, there has been a Son who obeys/submits.

That’s my spiel. And a huge thanks to Seumas Macdonald for his roundup of posts on the recent discussion. It saved me a lot of time and energy!

B”H

Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience

Leithart, Peter J. Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015. Pp. ix + 165. Paper. $17.99.

With thanks to Brazos Press for this review copy!

As I sit here at my desk thinking about what to write concerning Peter Leithart’s latest offering, I’m struck by how the end of the book has completely reshaped my view of its beginning. To start, I had assumed that this would be one kind of book and yet it ended up being another. I expected an apologetic for how “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation” (CCC 237), which I got, but not in the way that I thought I would.

Leithart spends 8 chapters talking about the physical world, personal relationships, time, ethics, love, music, logic, and language while employing the terminology and concept of perichoresis, i.e., “interpenetration” or “mutual indwelling.” It’s not until the 9th chapter that he really turns his attention to God and even there it’s not so much to speak about God qua God, but rather believers being in God. Well and good. Really good in fact.

But as I read through the book, taken by Leithart’s way with words, I couldn’t help but think, and write in the margins, that the things he was describing fell short in every way of the perichoretic relationship that exists in the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then I arrived at the postscript. Leithart had anticipated my objections; he said so right there in the final pages of the book. And yet he didn’t go back and revise the main contents before publication in order to allay my concerns. He left things as they were, waiting to address the issues that were so bothering me right at the end.

And now I can’t think about the book the same way I did while working through it from the beginning. It seems that Leithart was correct when he said, “there can be no present unless past and future inhabit it” (62). In the present of the past I viewed Leithart’s descriptions with suspicion. But in the future of the now past and then present he had anticipated all that I would disagree with and had an answer ready and waiting. Once that future became present I could no longer view the past in the same light. But all of these moments converged; they all inhabited one another.

Leithart tells us that we inhabit the world just as the world inhabits us. Things are what they are in relation to other things and without some sort of mutual indwelling nothing could ever be what it really is. This goes for parents and children; husbands and wives. It’s true of property and owners or the way we treat others. Language, music, and everything else all the way down the line until we get to the Creator of it all, the God who is Trinity.

Paul told the Romans that God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen and understood in and by his creation (Rom 1:19-20). Leithart has taken the time to get us thinking about how this is so. For years I’ve been leery about using certain (really any) analogies to describe the Trinity. I once wrote a book (never published because it was ultimately unpublishable) in which I panned the use of love, time, the universe, a family, or even eggs as analogies for the Trinity.

But I see those analogies in new light now. I’m still not convinced that they’re helpful in making sense of how God can be both one and three simultaneously, but perhaps they help to make clear, even if just a bit, how Father, Son, and Spirit can inhabit the same divine space. Leithart has helped me to understand that even if the analogies aren’t a perfect match (if they were then they wouldn’t be analogies) they can still help us say and know something of God. He rightly says that “there is no impropriety in calling God Rock, Sun, Father, or in suggesting that there are analogies between father-son relations and the eternal relation of the Father and Son” (152).

Past redeeming Trinitarian analogies for me, Leithart has got me thinking about the relationships I have with things I hold dear. For example, as I sit down to “get into” the word of God, the word of God “gets into” me. I bring certain presuppositions to the text, which influences my interpretation of the text, and yet the text manages to shape, refine, and at times completely overhaul those presuppositions. On the rare occasion that I read a Bible with notes or commentary I see how the comments illuminate the text while the text illuminates the comments.

The sermons I’ve preached have all been inhabited by my experiences but also by the books that I’ve read, other sermons I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had, or thoughts that I’ve pondered. And while it might not seem obvious how interpenetration works in such an instance I’d just say that as I’ve read, conversed, thought, and experienced, I’ve always had in mind, even if subconsciously, that this thing or that would make good sermon fodder. My sermons inhabited all of these things, even if in nuce.

But the real game changer has not been the redemption of Trinitarian analogies or even me thinking about how I inhabit the world and the world inhabits me. It’s in Leitharts all too brief comments on perichoresis in John’s Gospel; particularly Jesus’ high priestly prayer where he prays that his disciples be one “even as” Father and Son are one. I’ve discussed this passage with Unitarians aplenty and they’re quite fond of pointing out how the oneness that exists between Father and Son can’t be a oneness of substance or nature based on this passage. If it were then we’d also share in the divine nature and the Trinity would be a much larger number. And yet we are described as partakers of the divine nature. We are called into a relationship that has existed from eternity. It is “in Christ,” to use Paul’s language, that we can be one with each other and with Father and Son. Leithart brings this out much more clearly that I have, and he does so with an eloquence of speech that I simply do not possess.

So I’ve said all this to say that you should read this book. I can think of no plainer way to say it. Read this book. That’s all.