“It All Comes to Pass in the Spirit”: Basil on the Holy Spirit At Work in the Works of the Son

spiritu-sanctuOne of the main principles the Church Fathers used to establish the doctrine of the Trinity was to recognize that a unity of activities or “operations” between the persons meant a unity of being and identity. Early in the 4th Century theologians like Athanasius argued from this principle to establish the divinity and consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. If the Son is the agent of creation and salvation, then he shares this work with the Father. In which case, he must also share the same simple, indivisible nature with him. (And just as a side-note, this isn’t abstract logic-chopping, but the sort of reasoning Scripture points us to all over the place, but see especially 1 Corinthians 12:1-12, or Ephesians 1).

Of course, one of the nice things about having to hammer out those principles for thinking about the Son was that they were then close at hand when conflict about the Holy Spirit arose later in the 4th Century. It’s just that sort of argument that Basil of Caesarea appeals to in his masterful treatise On the Holy Spirit.  In it he’s arguing against the Macedonians (also known as Pneumatomachians, or “Spirit-fighters”) who, for all sorts of reasons, held that the Holy Spirit shouldn’t be ranked with the Father and the Son.

Against them, Basil levels a broad array of penetrating exegetical and theological arguments . But towards the center of the work, in chapter 16, he sets out to establish that “the Holy Spirit is indivisible and inseparable from the Father and the Son” by appealing to their inseparable operations. He traces the unity of their work in the work of prophecy and inspiration, creation, and even the final judgment of the Son. Probably my favorite section in the chapter (and maybe the whole book) comes in his description of the Spirit’s work in the Son’s ministry:

But when we speak of the plan of salvation for men, accomplished in God’s goodness by our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who would deny that it was all made possible through the grace of the Spirit?

Whether you wish to examine the Old Testament – the blessings of the patriarchs, the help given through the law, the types, the prophecies, the victories in battle, the miracles performed through righteous men – or everything that happened since the Lord’s coming in the flesh, it all comes to pass through the Spirit.

In the first place, the Lord was anointed with the Holy Spirit, who would henceforth be inseparably united to His very flesh, as it is written, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who … is my beloved Son,” and “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.”

After His baptism, the Holy Spirit was present in every action He performed. He was there when the Lord was tempted by the devil: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.”  The Spirit was united with Jesus when He performed miracles: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons … ”

Nor did the Spirit leave Him after His resurrection from the dead. When the Lord renewed mankind by breathing into His Apostles’ faces, (thus restoring the grace which Adam had lost, which God breathed into him in the beginning) what did He say? “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Is it not indisputably clear that the Church is set in order by the Holy Spirit? “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.” This order is established according to the different gifts distributed by the Spirit. (On the Holy Spirit, 16.39)

There’s much to comment on here, but I’ll keep my remarks brief.

First, see how he begins his discussion of the Spirit’s work in plan of salvation accomplished by God in Jesus Christ: the Old Testament. For Basil, the economy of salvation begins in the book of Genesis, not the Gospel of Matthew. He sees all of it–the Law, the prophets, and even Israel’s victories in battle–under the aegis of the Spirit.

Second, there’s a bit of what we might call a “Spirit-Christology” (but not an overwhelming one), that sees the Son’s work in the Incarnation as irrefragably bound up with the agency of the Spirit. You simply cannot explain Jesus’ ministry without the work of the Spirit–as the Spirit’s anointing was “in his flesh”, “the Holy Spirit was present in every action He performed.” He actually does a lot with this throughout the treatise as a whole, but the point here is, with their agency so tightly bound up, how can you even think of dividing the being of the Spirit from the Son (and therefore the Father)? (Incidentally, he shares this emphasis with Irenaeus of Lyon, if you want to do more digging in the Fathers).

Third, even though he’s going to turn to the final things in the next section, Basil chooses to end this segment on the economy of salvation with the establishment of the Church. Pouring out the gifts that create the Church is obviously a divine act of the Son and the Father. And so if the Spirit is seen as the one who distributes those gifts, this is only because he shares the divine glory and being of Father and Son.

It is for these reasons Basil is quite right to insist that offer glory “to the Father, with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.”

Soli Deo Gloria


Perichoresis in Aquinas: Fruit, not Foundation

Emery pic.jpg“Perichoresis” or, in Latin, circumincessio, has been a fairly traditional term in trinitarian theology since at least the time of John of Damascus. Before he applied it to the trinitarian issue, it was used to speak of the mutual interpenetration of the human and divine natures of Christ in the incarnation. But in trinitarian theology, it speaks of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. Scripturally, the taproot of the doctrine comes in Jesus’ discourses in John where he says things like, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and so forth (John 14:10-11). The point is that there is a “reciprocal interiority” of Father, Son, and Spirit in that they exist within the other persons in an unconfused, but ineffable unity.

In recent theology the concept has become sexy and made to do a lot of work in broader theological systems. For instance, in the work of types like Jurgen Moltmann, the perichoresis of the persons has been used to secure the unity of the Trinity in a social doctrine of the Trinity, while at the same time speaking to the God-world relationship. Colin Gunton has expanded it out as a “transcendental” that allows us to understand the deep, interpenetrating structures of reality. People have developed spiritualities, political and economic programs, and even marital models out of it, leaving theologians like Karen Kilby to wonder if the process of projection hasn’t been at work here.

In any case, as I was reading Gilles Emery’s exposition The Trinitarian Theology of Thomas Aquinas, he draws attention to the Thomas’ doctrine of perichoresis as something of a synthesis of his trinitarian doctrine as a whole. Given its contemporary importance, it seemed worth reviewing what this giant of Western trinitarianism had to say on the subject.

To be begin, it might seem like he has little to say, simply because neither the Greek term “perichoresis” nor the Latin term “circumincessio” appear in Thomas. But Emery notes that while the specific terms may not appear, a battery of other phrases demonstrate that the concept is deeply rooted in Thomas’ thought:

In presenting the ‘in being’ of the persons, he uses, rather, the expressions ‘union or intrinsic conjunction’, ‘interiority’, ‘intimacy’, ‘existing in’, ‘being in that which is the most intimate and most secret’ (this is how the Son is in the Father), ‘reciprocal communality of “in being,”’ ‘communal union’, etc. In every case, the communal presence of the persons excludes their confusion, because it is based in their real distinction. It rules out the ‘isolation’ of one person, since it implies a communal relationship of persons. The divine persons are not ‘solitaries’: they are ‘inseparables’. (302)

With that linguistic point out of the way, Emery shows that for Thomas, the communal immanence of the persons rests three main bases: their consubstantiality, their relations, and the processions. I’ll try to briefly review them following Emery’s discussion (pp. 302-308).

To begin, following the Fathers, especially Hilary, Thomas places the unity of God’s nature, or the consubstantiality of the persons, front and center:

As to essence, the Father is in the Son because the Father is his essence and he shares it with the Son without any change taking place in himself; therefore because the Father’s essence is in the Son, it follows that the Father is in the Son. Equally, the Son being his own essence, it follows that he is in the Father, in whom the same essence is present. (ST I, q. 42, a. 5)

It’s not just that the persons share the same kind of nature. In fact, they share the same concrete nature. According to his doctrine of simplicity, we have to say that each of the persons are the divine nature. And so, “the nature of the Father is in the Son, and conversely, the Father is in the Son and reciprocally” (Commentary on John, 10.38). The mutual immanence of the persons, therefore, rests on their unity of nature.

Second, the relations also play a role. Emery suggests that Thomas follows John of Damascus by way of his teacher Albert the Great here. The point is that the in itself, the idea or notion of relations include an inherent mutuality. “Likewise as to the relations, it is clear that each of the relative opposites is in the notion of the other” (ST, I q. 42, a. 5). Less abstractly, as realities naturally relating to each other, the notions of “Father” and “Son” are mutually-implicated and included within the other:

In God, the Son is also properly in the Father from the perspective of relation—and that in a more fitting way than amongst human fathers and sons—because it is by his relation that the Son is a subsisting person: his relation is his personality. (I Sent. d. 19, q. 3, a. 2, ad 1)

As Emery highlights, “It is not just that a relative reality cannot be thought without its correlative. It cannot exist as such without it…” (304). For Thomas, persons are “subsistent relations”—the relations constitute the persons. And this is one of the features that distinguishes divine personality from other forms, and makes true reciprocal interiority an exclusively divine property.

Emery also highlights that their reciprocal interiority is not a flat one. At the level of the unity of nature, their interiority is the same. But when you look at it from the angle of the relations, their presence within each other implies a particular mode of relations, a mode of being which is distinct.

Which brings us to the third angle from which to consider perichoresis, which is that of the processions, or origin of the relations. In other words, the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. Now, one might think that the notion of procession might disrupt perichoresis, since linguistically and even conceptually it implies a “going out.” But Thomas clarifies by distinguishing divine procession from material procession:

In material things, what comes forth from another is no longer in it, since it comes from it by a separation from it in essence or in space. But in God, coming forth does not arise in this way. The Son came forth eternally from the Father in such a way that the Son is still in the Father from all eternity. And so, when he is in the Father, he comes forth. And when he comes forth, he is in him, in such a way that he is always coming forth, and always in him. (Commentary on John, 16:28)

It’s important to remember that Thomas follows after Augustine in thinking through the processions on analogy of mental self-presence. The Son is the mental Word which is conceived and dwells in the mind of the Father. Also, as the Love or bond between the Father and Son, the Spirit dwells within both from whom he proceeds. And so the eternal processions, along with the relations, and the consubstantiality of the persons ground their unity, their distinctness, and their mutual indwelling precisely as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.

Now, in context, Emery is keen to show in his analysis the way Thomas developed the mutual indwelling of the persons in Thomas in order to combat the dual errors of Sabellianism and subordination, as well as develop the notion of trinitarian action. The analysis is helpful and worth consulting, since I’ve only given a thumbnail sketch here.

What struck me, though, is the way that perichoresis is treated as a summary doctrine built upon and tying together the other threads of consubstantiality, relation, and procession. In Thomas, (and arguably the Fathers whom he follows) perichoresis is the fruit of the three other notions, not their foundation.

This appears to be a valuable approach towards thinking about and deploying the concept of perichoresis. In the first place, it helps pump the brakes against certain expositions treating perichoresis as a stand-alone formula or mechanism, which is supposed to do all the work in trinitarian theology. Trinitarian dogmatics cannot live by perichoresis alone. On the other hand, some of us may therefore be tempted to downplay, or ignore the concept by way of reaction against those formulations. To those, Thomas can help us see its place as a crowning summary concept, allowing us to appreciate the beautifully unifying the whole, and worship more fully the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Triune God by Fred Sanders

Triune God.jpgFred Sanders has written a book about the Trinity called The Triune God. Yes, he has already written one previously, The Deep Things of God (which you should have already read by now), and dissertation on it (which is too expensive for anyone to read), but this one is different. Coming as the second volume in Zondervan’s promising New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanders isn’t interested in giving a serviceable, “here’s the Trinity in OT, the NT, then the Fathers, now the Medievals, and here’s how to not be a heretic today” structure. Instead, Sanders says,

The goal of this book is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God. Its central contention is that the manner of the Trinity’s revelation dictates the shape of the doctrine: it draws its dogmatic conclusions about how the doctrine should be handled on the basis of the way the Trinity was revealed (19).

Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to construct trinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.

I will just come out and say that if you are anything approaching a theology nerd, serious student, or professor, I would highly recommend this work. Treat yourself for Christmas or something. Sanders is already known for his acumen in all matters trinitarian, but this book ought to solidify that reputation. And rightly so. This is a serious, top-shelf entry within the academic and churchly conversation around the doctrine of the Trinity. Sanders’ writing is clear, lucid, with an astonishing command of the height, depth, and breadth of the Christian tradition (Patristic, Medieval, Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant) of reflection on the Triune God.

That said, if you’re looking for an intro book on the Trinity, I’ll go ahead and recommend you pick up The Deep Things of God instead (which is coming out in a second edition, I hear).

So what is his argument in this book? Well, it’s a rather complex one that I can’t fully cover here. But essentially its concerned that we go about doing trinitarian theology in a way that fits trinitarian revelation. How God has revealed himself as the One who is Three, ought to definitively govern the way we confess (in praise and print, and printed praise) God as the Three who are One. Theologians aren’t in the business of clarifying God’s muddle, but communicating God’s self-manifestation.

To do that, Sanders delves into issues like the nature of revelation. What does it mean for us to talk about the revelation of the Trinity, for instance? Well, it doesn’t just mean that God is incomprehensible and that he is beyond our understanding. That’s what the doctrine of incomprehensibility means. Instead, in keeping with the NT sense of “mystery”, the reality of the Trinity is of a truth temporarily “hidden, but now revealed” in history for us and our salvation.

But how is it revealed? Well, in the act of God sending God, in missions of the Son and Spirit, or the Incarnation and Pentecost. In these historical acts, God reveals himself as Triune. This means that strictly speaking, the New Testament isn’t the revelation of the Trinity. The New Testament is the inspired (and authoritative!) attestation of that revelation. The words of the apostles inspired by the Spirit are necessary to disambiguate the nature of the Word who comes in the power of the Spirit. There is a unity of word and act at that point.

Sanders touches on and attempts to untangle sundry other issues. For instance, the question of how to think about the relationship between God’s reality in himself and his revelation to us in history. In the 20th century it’s been popular to think of this in terms of the unity or identity of the economic Trinity (God seen in history-of-redemption) and immanent Trinity (God in himself apart from history). Sanders’ moves away from this formulation and, along with John Webster, champions the older formulation which speaks instead of God’s internal processions (the Father generating the Son, the Spirit being spirated by Father and Son), as the foundation of his historical missions (Incarnation and Pentecost). The latter reveals the former and the former is founded on the latter. (Incidentally, much of the hermeneutical muddle surrounding the Trinity debate this summer could be cleared up by working through this book).

When we think of the relationship between the Bible and the Trinity, Sanders helpfully covers a broad terrain. He forthrightly faces the problem of the fact that a good many classic proof-texts of the Trinity have been taken away by modern critical, or careful historical-grammatical exegesis. All the same, new reading strategies—which at times are the recovery of older reading strategies—has opened up new vistas for trinitarian exegesis.

For instance, looking at the Fathers and the New Testament authors, there has been a turn to recovering “retrospective prosoponic identification” or “prosopological exegesis”—the practice of rereading OT texts like the Psalms and identifying persons (prosopa) within them—as fruitful field within which we can toil. Think of Jesus appealing to Ps. 110 and asking the Pharisees who God is speaking to when David sings, “The LORD said to my Lord…” Texts like that are regularly appealed to in New Testament, and the Fathers deployed this mode of reading extensively. On that front the harvest is plentiful! But what about the workers?

Sanders covers all sorts of other ground, like what to make of so-called “Christophanies” (hint: something else), or how to go about spotting the trinitarian presupposition of Paul’s theology, and so forth. That said, you should know that Sanders doesn’t write a “definitive” work in this regard. He does plenty of Trinitarian theology and plenty of exegesis at key points, but often it is illustrative of a general point and not an exhaustive treatment of it.

This might seem like a drag at first. Part of you wants Sanders to work it all out across the Gospels, Paul, even Revelation. Or even though he touches on how to think of the Christophanies, it would be fun to see him work with a story like Abraham and the angel of YHWH at Mamre. But he doesn’t. Besides probably being limited by word-count, I suspect there’s something generous about Sanders’ reticence to give an exhaustive, run-down: it forms something of an invitation to others to discern the glory of the Triune God in Scripture alongside him.

So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?


Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Trinitarian Controversy: Why It’s Not Always Terrible and How to Go About It


I think I see Carl Trueman over there in the yellow.

If you’ve been following the theology blogosphere in Reformed circles over the last week or so, you’ll know there’s been a bit of a dust-up over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Multiple posts from a number of parties, both insiders as well as interested outsiders, have weighed in and things don’t seem to be slowing down.

Things are getting downright 4th Century out there.

Briefly, the controversy is over a piece of teaching that’s been labeled “Eternal Functional Subordinationism.” Essentially, its advocates hold that much as we see the Son submitting to the Father in his historical, incarnate work as the Godman, it is appropriate to speak of the Son submitting, subordinating himself to, or obeying his Father in the eternal being of God. For this, they usually appeal to any number of texts in the Gospels and especially 1 Cor 11:3.

Now, some who advocate this position have done so while simultaneously rejecting the historic doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son. Others (more modestly) see it as a constructive, admissible development of that same doctrine. (As a side-note, I think that distinction is important).

Its critics have charged multiple things: first, it’s not Biblical; second, it’s not consistent with historic, Nicene Orthodoxy; third, it threatens the honor the Son, introducing hierarchy in the Trinity; fourth, it does goofy things to the doctrine of God’s will, the persons, and must slide into a form of social trinitarianism. Obviously, these charges apply more or less to more or less radical versions of the doctrine.

My point here is not to weigh in substantially on the various, complex issues involved. Actual theologians on both sides are doing that forcefully and clearly enough. (Though, for the record, I’m not an EFS guy and I’m very adamant about Eternal Generation. While some advocates are better than others, about the furthest I think I’m comfortable going down these lines currently is to speak of the filiality [sonliness] of the eternally-generated Son involving a proper secondariness, which works itself out in history in his faithful obedience.)

No, what I really want to do is put in a quick, good word for this sort of argument happening publicly around this issue.

On the Good of Trinitiarian Controversy

As this thing has started to kick off, there has been an understandable amount of hand-wringing. For one thing, some of the initial volleys seem to have been made with less than moderate care for language. Second, the doctrine has been taught by well-respected Evangelical theologians for some time, and academic arguments around it have been around for a while, so the outburst online seems to have taken some off-guard.

More generally, though, I’ve seen some confusion as to why all this sort of thing even matters. Isn’t the Trinity an incomprehensible mystery anyways? And isn’t all this so much logic-chopping, trying to fit God in a tight little box, instead of simply worshiping him? What does this sort of thing do for our communion with God, anyways? All it seems to do is stir up and bolster fleshly passion under the guise of questing for spiritual truth.

It’s true that sometimes these theological arguments can turn into so much fleshly posturing. There is such a thing known as “theological odium” that can be stirred up. But I don’t think that needs to be the whole of it.

Instead, I would suggest that these kinds of questions often assume an anti-intellectualist pragmatism that is all-too-common in popular, American Evangelicalism. Second, they also assume a kind of skepticism about God’s self-revelation that initially sounds like a healthy humility before the mysteries of God, but which I would suggest can be hiding a theological laziness that wants to excuse itself from listening carefully and attentively to the divine address of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. Such intellectual lethargy is directly contrary to the Father’s desire for worshipers who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24).

Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Levering nicely suggests for us why this requires that we delve into the technicalities of Trinitarian theology:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

In this light, I want to suggest three hoped-for outcomes for this theological dust-up about the Trinity.

1. Theological Study. First, my hope (and one that I think I have already begun to witness), is that—however it began—this sort of controversy would provoke a greater interest in studying reality of our Triune God among the teachers and preachers of the Evangelical Church. I think that’s already been increasing—there are any number of top-flight Trinitarian theologians in the Evangelical academy. Heck, the Trinity is the thematic topic for ETS 2016.

All the same, what is still needed is a sense among the pastorate that Trinitarian theology is not just something you learn in seminary in your Systematics 101 course and then dust off from time to time. It’s the bread and butter of what you do. Pastors, you are not primarily organizers, CEOs, psychologists, or event-coordinators—you are the public theologians of the respective congregations you’ve been called to.

2. Theological Preaching. Second, it’s fine to have pastors who can parse the processions of Son and Spirit with the pros, but it doesn’t do much good if none of this is making it past the pulpit into the pews. What I mean is that theological study becomes intellectual esoterica if doesn’t bleed into our regular proclamation of the Gospel as the good news of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Spirit to reclaim his creation, or, of the sanctifying Spirit who we receive by faith in Christ, who then conforms us to the image of the Son to the glory of God the Father. And so on and so forth.

Basically, when you scan over Romans 8, or Ephesians 1, or the Gospel of John, or pretty much any text in the New Testament (and the Old…), you should regularly be tripping over implications and applications. And our sermons should be reflecting that. In that sense, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday.

3. Focus on the Great Things of the Gospel. Third—and this is something of a corollary of the other two—I hope it turns our attention, at least for a short time, from the regular sorts of trivialities, gimmicks, and ten-second controversies about this or that tweet, towards our God and the great things of the Gospel.

In other words, I hope all this online warfare points us toward deeper reflection that leads to offline worship and wonder at the God who exists marvelously, ineffably, transcendently, and resplendently as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is something centering, something reorienting and sanctifying about having our meditations, our energies and passions, direction towards the ultimate reality at the center of all things.

On the Good Conduct of Trinitarian Controversy

I had intended to wrap things up here, but instead, I thought I’d also offer a few words, not only the good of Trinitarian controversy, but also on the “good conduct” of such controversies. Since I am not always great this myself, I picked up John Webster’s little essay, “Theology and the Peace of the Church” in The Domain of the Word.

Towards the end of the essay, Webster asks:

What, finally, of the conduct of theological controversy in the peaceful kingdom of Christ? Just as the church does not know after the fashion of the world, so the church does not dispute after the fashion of the world from whose eyes are hidden the things that make for peace (Lk. 19.42). Why the difference? Because the church does know what makes for peace.

And so he offers five principles for theological controversy within the church:

1. “First, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum .” Essentially, in Christ, we are sanctified and so our speech and motives reflect that reality, especially as we recall that “the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion.” It is not simply to win, to prove wrong, or score points—the goal is the health of Christ’s church.

2. “Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content is peace.” More simply, remember that you’re arguing about and towards a reality outside yourselves—the Triune God of peace. This should not become a mere contest of personalities, but should be aimed at right worship.

3. “Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity.” Of course, there are differences so large that sometimes the controversy is no longer within but about the church, but nonetheless, we must keep in mind that we are likely striving over a common object of love and that this love does unite us.

4. “Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make.” Essentially, God is infinite. And so while this doesn’t mean that we can’t get specific, and that he doesn’t have a determinate nature, we should still be careful to resist the notion that we can’t continue to learn and grow in our knowledge of him even from our opponents.

5. “Fifth, most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture.” Webster’s not advocating a bare Biblicism here, but warning against the kind of skeptical, naturalistic, pragmatism that leads us to throw our hands up in controversies of this sort. Jesus has taught his church through Scripture by the Spirit and he will continue to do so.

With principles like these in mind, then, I don’t think we should be dismayed if such controversies continue. Instead, let us pray that we grow deeper in our knowledge and love of our God who is blessedly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Webster on Mercy: Divine and Creaturely

God without measureJohn Webster is in the business of doing “theological theology”—theology that takes its beginning and end to be God and the works of God—and so, in one sense, there’s nothing surprising about finding rich, dogmatic reflection in the second volume of his stunning set of essays, God Without Measure. In another sense, it’s remarkable given that it’s a set of essays in moral theology—indeed, the subtitle is “Virtue and Intellect”, specifically those of human creatures.

For Webster, however, dogmatics considers the creature and the principles according to which it acts only in light God—his being and the order of reality brought into being and rescued from corruption in the economy of creation and redemption. In other words, to speak of creatures and our activities, we must always consider God and his works in and through the Son and the Spirit. As he expresses it in the first chapter, activity follows being. We act out of what we are and the very first thing we must recognize about ourselves is that we are God’s creatures (3).

Moral theology, then, is a grand exercise in the famous dictum of Pauline theology that imperatives follow indicatives. Taking his cue from a theological reading of the letter to the Colossians, Webster suggests that Christian ethics is a matter of “seeking” and discerning “where Christ is”, for ingrafted into his history and life, that is where our life is and the reality out of which we must act (Col. 3:1-4). Theology cannot separate Christology from ethics, then, nor displace the primacy of the “metaphysical…over the paraenetic”, nor must it conceive of the human vocation as one separated from Christ (26).

This structure comes out in the variety of essays ranging from human dignity, courage, to the nature of theology in the university. For myself, I was struck by it in particular by two insights in his essay on the work and virtue of mercy. One on the nature of divine mercy and the other on the limits of human mercy.

Saying Jesus is Saying Mercy

But to begin, Webster makes it clear that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ” (49). Jesus Christ is the reality that gives our reflection weight—not because he’s some symbol or exemplar, nor because he’s prophet or legislator of a moral truth beyond him. No, he himself is the concrete, historical, embodiment of the Word of God who “makes manifest the metaphysical and moral order of the entire creation” (51). So to speak of the history of Jesus Christ is to speak of the ultimate good and final end of creation, who clarifies, corrects, displays, and gives shape to the world as it is and as its meant to be.

Two more points before moving on. Webster makes it clear that to speak of Christ means to look back into the depths of God’s Triune life as he is the eternal Word of God, come at the command of the Father, in the power of the Spirit—to speak of Christ’s mercy is to speak of God’s mercy (52). What’s more, speaking of Christ means also looking forward into the lives of the people of God, since Christ coming as the mercy of God is aimed at reconciling and transforming the life of creatures, rendering them able to render mercy towards others (53). And this brings me to the two points that struck me.

Divine Mercy

First, Webster notes that God is intrinsically and unfadingly good—he is perfect in and of himself. This perfect goodness in himself is the ground for his goodness towards others—the relative (relating) goodness and love of God are his will to communicate goodness towards his creatures. Now, “mercy is the directing of God’s majestic goodness to the relief of the creatures in misery and wretchedness” (54). God’s mercy is God’s goodness at work to give us respite and liberation in our miserable rebellion and evil. Aquinas says that mercy is proper to God because it “involves the giving from one’s abundance to others” and “relieving their needs, a function especially belonging to a superior.”

Following this insight, Webster stops to draw out what it means for mercy to be proper to God. He urges us not to think that creaturely need is the cause of God’s mercy. No, rather, it is the occasion that brings to light God’s goodness in this particular situation of our misery. In other words, mercy is free act of God, but it is not an arbitrary one. Here he appeals to the distinction between an affection and a passion. A passion is an “emotion” that is forced, or drawn out of one under compulsion and by distress. An affection is a rational, free response consistent with who God is in himself. The upshot of this is that “God is not reduced to misery by creaturely wretchedness, so that his mercy is a relief of God’s ow trouble as much as that of the creature” (55). Quoting Barth, “God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in his own free power, in his inmost being…his compassionate words are not grounded in a subsequent change…but are rooted in his heart…” (56).

God does not have to be convinced to be merciful. God, in his goodness, simply is merciful. This is the free, stable, unshaking ground of the gospel of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ.

Human Mercy

Of course, this divine mercy is the source of God’s victorious conquest over our sin and rebellion, bringing us back into proper relations, or fellowship with him. This fellowship in the Son and Spirit transforms and renews us, bringing us into a new order—an order of mercy, in which we begin to understand ourselves as objects of God’s mercy. “God’s active merciful presence and rule establishes a creaturely kingdom of mercy” (59). Webster goes into detail about the relationship between God’s mercy and our mercy at this point because he says “we should remind ourselves that a great deal hangs on achieving a sufficiently fine-grained description of a theological account of human mercy, but also”—and this is the point that caught my eye—“the burden of expectation which we place on human mercy” (59).

Among other points that he makes, Webster struggles to capture the tension of our works of human mercy in the command, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). In the first place, they are the work of “God’s new creatures”, plucked up from misery, restored, renewed, and given a moral energy by the Spirit. They do not have to “strive to introduce grace into a world from which it is otherwise absent.”

That said, “because mercy is creaturely, it is limited.” Despite our new creation, we are still finite and we can only do what we can do, “no more.” This is important since it’s easy to become exasperated or hopeless at the limits to our efforts. Indeed, we can become merciless towards ourselves and others in our urgent drive to transcend the creaturely limits of our mercy. For this reason, it is so important that “creaturely mercy accept the restriction of its capacities without resentment or despair”, but instead, “venture its imperfect work cheerfully and hopefully, looking to God’s own encompassing mercy as its vindication” (61).

The work of mercy proceeds, then, because God is merciful and he is so towards his creatures in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria