Surprised by Orthodoxy: Wayne Grudem’s ESS vs. the Fathers & Doctors of the Church

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[This post was originally published nearly 2 years ago on a different blog site, but has since been removed. So that my readers may still have access to this research, I have republished here under a different title.]

[…]the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox expressions), a least since Nicea (A.D 325). (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 14)

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Upon myself being surprised by Wayne Grudem’s “surprise” that Carl Truman and Liam Goligher would publicly accuse his work of not being consistent with Nicene Orthodoxy (see “Whose Position on the Trinity is Really New”), I thought it potentially fruitful, for the interested student, to compile in one place a hearty helping of Pro-Nicene sentiment.  As my eloquence does not compare with that of the Cappadocian Fathers or Augustine (or Grudem himself for that matter), I intend to get right to the meat and potatoes and not rehash the controversy or assess it Biblically; many others have ably done this already.

Rather, I have selected 13 points used by Grudem to defend his claim that the Son is and was in a relation of eternal submission to the authority of the Father, and have put them in apposition to many passages from the corpus of the Pro-Necene Fathers (and, of course, Calvin).  All of these points are present in his article, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father”, though my numbering does not correspond directly with Grudem’s.

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Some Questions re: Swain and Allen’s “The Obedience of the Eternal Son”: Part 1, Barth’s Challenge

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I must note at the outset: Swain and Allen explicitly reject ESS, EFS, and ERAS as presented by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Further, nothing below is meant to suggest that they have in fact adopted the Barthian program or are themselves “Barthians.” And I also must include the obligatory (and accurate), “I am no expert on Barth, but…”. I am far from it.

I have been mulling over Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen’s article “The Obedience of the Eternal Son” for quite some time now, having had mixed feelings. Plus, I don’t really see myself well positioned to critique such better lights as these. (In fact, if you haven’t read Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation by Swain and Allen, I would suggest clicking out of this article and ordering now.) Nevertheless, as proponents of Eternal Subordination of the Son seem to be finally adopting the doctrine of Eternal Generation, and are now beginning to use the doctrine as the basis for ascribing obedience to the Son in eternity, I’ve decided to at least ask few questions over the next couple of posts.

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“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 1: Theologia and Oikonomia

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[M]en have erred through a want of careful examination or consideration of the whole tenor of the Scriptures, and have endeavored to transfer those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation, and is eternal. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Bk. 1, Ch. 7.14)

In my earlier post, “Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the ‘Economic’ Trinity”, I noted how the revised Ligonier Statement on Christology included the phrase, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” apparently in response to the previous Summer’s Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) debate.  I noted that I was momentarily encouraged by this, but was then immediately struck by the fact that everyone on every side of the debate agrees with this statement as well!  Even the most visible proponent of ESS, Wayne Grudem, argues,

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Systematic Theology)

(Earlier in the text, Grudem defines the economic Trinity: “The ‘economy of the Trinity’ means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and […] to each other for all eternity.”)

While there is so much wrong with these statements, what I would like to note here is: (1) Grudem, while fully endorsing the Eternal Subordination of the Son, would also fully agree with the words of the Ligionier statement; (2) Grudem believes that subordination properly resides within the eternal Trinity as economically conceived; and (3), he believes that this is the position of the Nicene Fathers, that there is subordination in the “economic” Trinity but equality in the “ontological” Trinity.

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