When I wrote The Forgotten Trinity in the late 1990s I sought primarily to prepare believers to love the doctrine Biblically, and to be able to communicate it to those outside the faith. I was blissfully unaware of coming controversies that would impose new standards of language and terminology, and thankfully so. I fear trying to fit into all the parameters being bandied about today would have resulted in a significantly less communicative and helpful work.
Today we have folks telling us that we must adopt their particular emphasis upon issues that are four or five steps removed from the farthest reach of the light of Scriptural revelation, far out into the darkness of speculation. Rather than the wisdom of “where Scripture makes an end of speaking, so should we,” many feel it necessary to create a framework of “if this, then this” statements that are then extended far into the dark and silent realm of God’s very inmost being. One would think that if we were meant to have dogmatic beliefs about the inward life of the Trinity that we would be provided with sufficient light to do so with consistency and confidence. One can surely argue that there are certain statements that could be made about extra-biblical conclusions that, being only one step removed from biblical revelation, would follow and should be believed in light of their possible negation and the result that could have upon positive truths. But what happens when we take a set of such statements and build out even farther from the light of revelation into a new realm of statements? And then when we repeat the process? Are we not putting ourselves in a position of adding to what God, by His Spirit, wisely chose to reveal to us of Himself and His glorious existence? Is this not the foundational error of every ecclesiastical system that denies sola scriptura and claims some kind of voice of inspiration and special insight? We all know where that leads.
Back in 2016 or so a dispute arose amongst conservative and Reformed theologians and writers regarding such issues as the nature of “eternal generation” and its meaning, concepts of “eternal submission” and whether this means subordination, and other topics related to the identity of Father, Son and Spirit prior to creation itself and the light that we receive from observing their personal relationships with one another in the drama of redemption. It took about two rounds of blog posts before the anathemas were flying thick and heavy, sadly, with numerous tribes setting up their camps and catapults and preparing to “cancel” anyone who did not join their camp, and quickly.
Of course, the Lord always brings good out of even our foolish tribalism, and many were brought to consider more deeply the great truths of Scripture as a result, for which we can be thankful. I commented on the dispute, but I refused to join the “anathematize those who disagree with you” movement, preferring the “If you have sound argumentation and biblically sound reasoning, why not express it and leave the rest to God” approach. Besides, the issues were far beyond the knowledge of the vast majority of Christians, and hence to all of a sudden weaponize them so that you are sending men you spoke with at conferences five years ago to hell for eternity seemed just a bit extreme.
And while that particular eruption of controversy has died down (though some are stoking the fires yet again just over the past few weeks), now we get to join with it the new fascination with Thomistic theology, so called “natural theology,” and an impressive emphasis upon a particular extended definition of simplicity, one where not only does it become problematic to even express exactly how Father, Son and Spirit interact or love, but now we have to affirm that God’s wrath and God’s love and God’s omniscience and God’s omnipotence are all “one” in some never to be clearly defined fashion. And how any of this is forced upon us by the clear light of inspired Writ, well, no one really knows.
I note in passing that as churches are being closed around the world, hatred of those who would dare stand against the growing darkness of totalitarianism is rising to a fever pitch, Christians are investing their time in arguing over terminological issues once again. I know, I know, the difference between homoousios and homoiousios is only one letter. But that is not where we are right now, and these issues do not rise to that of Nicea.
So back in the late 90s, when I wrote my book, I regularly emphasized the fact that the Triune God is free to act and create and engage in providential oversight of His creation as He sees fit. There are no external forces that constrain His actions. Father, Son and Spirit together act in perfect harmony so as to bring about the ultimate goal, that of self-glorification through the great drama of creation and redemption, focusing upon the Incarnation and the Cross, and the creation of a graciously elected people to God Himself through their intimate union with the God-man, Jesus Christ. God acts in perfect harmony with His nature, of course, but that is not a constraint, but a necessity. Further, in what has been called the Covenant of Redemption, the Father, Son and Spirit in eternity past covenanted together to take the roles they did in working out that intended self-glorification. Does Scripture explicitly state this reality? No, but it is the result of observing the harmony of Father, Son and Spirit in the accomplishment of that redemption, and the reality that their roles were fixed prior to creation itself (and hence in eternity).
Now, the roles taken by Father, Son and Spirit were not, surely, forced upon them by external powers. I expressed this idea in The Forgotten Trinity by saying, “in eternity past the Father, Son and Spirit voluntarily and freely chose the roles they would take in bringing about the redemption of God’s people.” My point, of course, is that the Father did not force the Son, nor the Son force the Spirit, etc. The perfect harmony of the Trinity would be destroyed if this was not, in fact, a free act, one flowing from love rather than force, or, I might add, nature, as we will see below. So later I wrote, “Just as the Son voluntarily chose to take the role of Suffering Servant so as to redeem God’s people, so, too, the Spirit has chosen to take the role as Sanctifier and Advocate of the people of God.” It seems uncontroversial that the Godhead acts in harmony and freely, but, alas, many things were more simple in the 90s than today!
Some would seemingly suggest that each of the divine persons were constrained, in some fashion, by the nature of their previous relationship to one another, so that the roles they take in redemption are not freely chosen. Hence, it is argued, the Father had to take the role He took, and could not do otherwise; the Son likewise, and the Spirit likewise. Now, the Spirit is a bit problematic at this point, since most of the conversation is focused upon Father/Son motifs and what is “fitting” in light of the assumptions made about the concept of “generation.” There is precious little Scriptural witness upon which to operate when considering the Spirit’s specific “role” in eternity past. But it is argued that it had to be the Son who was sent, for it could not be otherwise.
We enter here upon dangerous waters, I believe. We know what God has done. We know that what He has done is to His glory, and that He has brought about His glory in the exact way Father, Son and Spirit chose to do so. But we have no basis upon which to theorize about what might have been, and, on that basis, say, “It had to be this way.” So, I have often heard it argued, “Well, obviously, the Father could not have given Himself, only the Son could do that.” I have always found this statement odd. Given how God has chosen to create it seems natural to us to see it this way, but we have very limited knowledge. Are we completely comfortable saying one could never envision a situation where a father gave himself in place of his son? Every objection we raise against some speculative alternate scenario is based upon realities that are a part of this creation, the only one we know, and hence the only one that can seem “possible” to us. But this only demonstrates the danger of such speculation in the first place. Is it not much better to assert the freedom of each of the divine Persons to act in perfect harmony and unity rather than to assert that their roles were pre-determined by a theory we have of their interpersonal relationships prior to our first possible knowledge?
Which brings us to one of the key problems in the current controversies: the idea that we can, in essence, “backwards engineer” eternity based upon what we see in creation. That is, “If truth X flows from what Scripture tells us about what Father and Son have done, and how they have related to one another in time, this must mean we can then extrapolate backwards into eternity and establish truth Y on that basis.” This is a tempting argument, to be sure. It can be forcefully argued by saying, for example, “If we do not follow this line, that means we would have one Father in the past, and a different Father now, or one Son in the past, and another Son now.” But, of course, that’s exactly what we have, at least in some senses. The Incarnation took place in time, and is not an eternal act. The Son has not eternally had a human nature, correct? So do we have a “different Son” now than in the past when He was the object of the worship of the heavenly host? Is the Son who is chased out of town by an angry mob the same Son who was worshipped in eternity past? The answer is yes, of course, but you see the contextual difference. And has the Spirit eternally directed glory away from Himself to the Son? How would we even know this?
There really seems to be no end to where backwards-engineering based upon temporal creation could take us when it comes to speculation about that which the Scriptures leave in silence. “But early church writers we really benefit from speculated about these things!” Yes, yes they did. But anyone who reads those men filters out a large amount of unprofitable speculation already in many areas, and it might be good to do so in this one, too.
If we moved back to a consistent theological paradigm for these discussions (sola scriptura, tota scriptura) they could be quite beneficial. If we would all adopt the agreed upon restriction to make dogmatic that which the Spirit did in Scripture, and engage in the rest with respect and a combined dedication to building up the body, glorifying God, and loving one another, we could very well lead many of our church members into a deeper consideration of the things of God. But if we are all standing on the parapets of our little theological castles with our green-goo anathema guns primed and ready to go, we should not be surprised if most common-sense Christians do not rush to join in the conversation.