Monday, July 18, 2016

"Who's Tampering With the Trinity?"" by Millard Erickson

This issue is not merely an unimportant hairsplitting exercise among ivory-tower thinkers. Potentially it has far-reaching implications for other areas of theology and for the practical life of Christians and of the church. Indeed, if theological conclusions are being driven by what may be primarily nonbiblical considerations, then the doctrine of biblical authority has been compromised, and one may expect to see modifications other doctrines as well. Further, if the view held on this doctrine represents a tendency to depart from the orthodox position in this area, one may expect the departure to increase, as a second generation of theologians in that movement takes the position to its next logical step.

Beyond that, however, there are definite practical issues, How do we worship, and how do we pray? Should praise and prayer be directed only to the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit, as at least some gradationists insist; or should these activities be directed to each member of the Trinity, in relationship to particular areas of their work, as the equivalentists claim? The distinctions fo authority have other, practical distinctions. Should our understanding of the human relations we have mentioned be governed by our conclusion on this doctrine, and if so, what should that conclusion be? (21)

In recent weeks, the theological world, particularly among the Reformed, has been engaged in a heated Trinitarian debate. The accusations have not been over orthodoxy and heterodoxy, though some have made such comments, but over how each Person of the Trinity relates to the others in the Godhead and whether, in particular, the submission, or subordination, of the son is eternal or limited to his ministry on earth.

Though it sounds like theological hairsplitting, and at times it may be, it is not. The implications are crucial and although the debate has been heated recently, this conversation has been ongoing for several years.

In light of these events, I recently picked up a book that has been sitting on my shelf for such a time as this by Millard Erickson, one of my favorite systamticians, entitled Who's Tampering With the Trinity: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate. For theologians interested in this debate, I highly recommend this resource.

Erickson seeks to accomplish two things. First, he surveys the the debate highlighting the arguments, in as fair a way as possible. Secondly, Erickson makes his case for what he perceives the more biblical option.

One of the problems with this debate is deciding on labels and Erickson offers his own suggestion into what the two sides should be called. His terms are appropriate enough and so I will use them in this review. On the one side is the Gradation view which argues that the Son's submission to the Father is eternal. On the other side is what Erickson calls the Equivalence view which argues that the Son's submission to the Father was limited to his ministry on earth. He summarizes both in the following paragraph:
Here then are two quite diametrically opposed positions on one basic issue: the eternal authority relationship of the Father and the Son (and for that matter, the Holy Spirit as well). The former position maintains that eternally the Trinity is characterized by a hierarchical authority structure: the Father is supreme, possessing supreme authority, and the Son and the Holy Spirit obey his commands, or submit themselves to them. The latter position contends that eternally the Trinity is characterized by an equal authority structure in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess equal authority with one another and the submission or obedience of the Son and the Spirit to the Father is a temporary functional submission, for the purpose of executing a specific mission of the triune God. (19)
In spite of uncharitable (to put it mildly) comments made toward the Gradationists, Erickson makes it clear that this debate is not a question of orthodoxy. Both views are well within the bounds of biblical Christianity. He writes:
In this case, the disputants are evangelicals and even conservative evangelicals. Both parties hold to the supreme authority, divine inspiration, and the inerrancy of the Bible. They hold to the full deity of Christ, his bodily resurrection and second coming, and salvation by grace. They believe there is one God existing in three persons, and these three - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - are, as to their nature or their being, fully and equally God. There is one point of understanding of the Trinity on which the two parties disagree quite strongly, however; namely, the relative authority of the three persons. (17)
As to his second goal in the book, Erickson lands on the side of the Equivalence rather strongly. Much of the book surveys the debate through the lens of Scripture, history, philosophy, and practical theological and in each category, Erickson finds the Gradation view lacking. Regarding these chapters, the historical survey I found largely unhelpful. Erickson will ultimately conclude that the Gradationists are too Eastern in their understanding. Largely, however, it seems that we are, once again, asking a theological question that previous generations did not consider as deeply. The philosophy chapter is difficult for anyone without any real interests in philosophy. For those wanting to grasp a basic understanding of the issues, stick to the chapters on Scripture, theological implications, and practical theology.

I will not interact with all of Erickson's arguments (for a fuller critique, click here). A cursory search online will do that for the reader by more trained and qualified theologians. However, a brief word regarding his conclusion is in order. After stating definitively that both sides "fall within the boundaries of traditional orthodoxy," (257) Erickson warns:
Having said this, however, I do have a concern, and a significant one. Although the stated doctrine of the gradationists is orthodox, I believe that it contains elements that logically imply an unorthodox dimension of the doctrine of the Trinity. I have in mind here the idea of ontological equality combined with the eternal and necessary supremacy of authority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit. As I have argued in the philosophical chapter, I believe this is an unstable position. For if one member always and everywhere is functionally superior to the other, then there must be an ontological basis for this difference. In other words, while explicitly rejecting the idea of ontological subordination, this view actually implies it and thus contains an implicit ontological subordination. (257)
The author then goes on to share that his concern is not regarding the current generation of Gradationists, but the next generation or two of Gradationists. As is often the case in theology, the generations that follow will slip into dangerous territory the original founder(s) never intended.

Erickson's concern, if I am reading him right, regards the Gradationists emphasis on the distinctions within the trinity. Such an emphasis will have dangerous implications in the future and on that point (and others he makes regarding the Gradationists) I agree. Yet Erickson fails to look at himself in the mirror. The Equivalence are guilty for erring on the other side: equality. The Trinity is an equal-distinction and both must be central to our theology. It seems to me, and perhaps I am wrong, that both sides are making their case to emphasize one over the other.

I do not see this debate as a splitting of hairs, but I do believe we are failing to fully understand the mystery and paradox of Scripture. Could it not be that both sides, to a certain extent, are correct. Could this debate not be similar to the sovereignty-human agency debate where we ultimately have to affirm both by faith? My inclination is to conclude that the Son's submission to the Father is eternal, yet I am not convinced by all of the arguments of the Gradationists and I suspect somewhere in the middle is where we ought to land.

In the end, however, for those wanting to know precisely what this debate is about and is lost in the endless array of blogs and twitter comments, I can think of nowhere better to turn than this volume by Erickson.

For more:
"Making Sense of the Trinity" by Millard Erickson: A Review 
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