The following article by Stefan Linblad* is a response to Dr. Bruce Ware's answers to those who have criticized his doctrine of the Trinity. It is an important contribution to the current debate.
The Glove Doesn't Fit
A few days ago, Bruce Ware offered a substantial reply to the recent criticisms voiced against the doctrine of eternal relational authority-submission (ERAS). Others, including Mark Jones, have penned thoughtful rejoinders to the post as a whole. I wish to concentrate on Ware’s comments about the doctrine of eternal generation (EG) – not because Ware tells the reading public for the first time that he affirms this as the “church’s doctrine,” nor because he does so having once labeled the doctrine with the shibboleths of speculative and unbiblical (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 162, fn. 3). No, rather, because Ware contends that ERAS fits hand in glove with EG. This glove, however, doesn’t fit. ERAS is not only inconsistent with EG, but Ware’s suggestion to the contrary also highlights (again) the questions and concerns about ERAS’s understanding of the homoousian, the divine unity, and related doctrines.
Ware says that he embraces EG as “the only explanation that grounds the Father as the eternal Father, and the Son as the eternal Son.” Though he remains concerned about biblical support, he is happy to affirm the church’s doctrine of the eternal modes of subsistence: the Father is the Father because he begets the Son, and the Son is the Son because he is begotten of the Father. Regretfully, however, he undoes these affirmations by positing that EG entails the idea that the Father “has the intrinsic paternal hypostatic position of having authority over his Son,” and the Son “has the intrinsic filial hypostatic position of being in submission to his Father.” EG entails nothing of the sort.
EG is concerned with how the Son can be said to have the whole divine essence, as does the Father and the Spirit, but in such a way as the essence remains undivided (avoiding tritheism) and the persons not confounded (avoiding modalism, Sabellianism, etc.). Francis Cheynell states the doctrine succinctly: “The divine persons are distinguished by their inward and personal actions. The Father did from all Eternity communicate the living essence of God to the Son, in a most wonderfull and glorious way” (The Divine Trinunity, 188-89). Because each person subsists ad intra, within the divine essence, the modes of subsistence are necessary, eternal, and immutable. The communication of essence from the Father to the Son thus precludes any division of essence, as well as the idea that any of the three persons are “before or after the others in time, dignity, or degree” (Zacharias Ursinus, Corpus doctrinae, 136). EG rules out any distinction of “degree, state, or dignity” among the persons subsisting in the essence (Lucas Trelcatius, Scholastica et methodica, 22).
To be in an intrinsic position of hypostatic submission seems to entail more than the Son’s subsistent relation to the Father, which is what EG propounds, but instead a degree or state of subsistence under the Father. If not, what does sub mean in submission? If I am reading Ware correctly, he wants to say that the Father and the Son subsist in these relative positions, states, or degrees within the Godhead. Yet, if Ursinus and Trelcatius are correct (and we could cite others saying much the same), the Son’s mode of subsistence as eternally begotten of the Father, as the consubstantial and co-equal Son of the Father, can in no way allow for a graded, ranked, or hierarchical relation under the Father ad intra. To suggest otherwise is to divide that which is indivisible, the divine essence.
What, however, of Ware’s suggestion that “the eternal relations of authority and submission…flow out from and are expressive of those eternal modes of subsistence”? This seems to be saying something different than that EG entails the Son’s intrinsic position of hypostatic submission. Maybe I’m parsing too much, and Ware intends the same thing by both statements. In any case, this presents us with another quandary, since the modes of subsistence are, according to Muller, the personal works of God ad intra, in themselves immanent, “since they do not issue forth from the Godhead” (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 212). If authority and submission are the intrinsic outworking or expressions of the modes of subsistence, Ware is attributing to the divine persons an ad intra egress that would necessitate that the Father and the Son undergo movement from unbegotten and begotten to authoritative and submissive, respectively. If, however, authority and submission are subsistent relations in themselves, that which makes the Father the Father and the Son the Son as to their personal subsistence in the divine essence, then, again, Ware has attributed to EG the very thing EG precludes.
The waters become murkier with Ware’s further claim that the Son’s mode of subsistence, and thus his position of submission, is functional and personal as opposed to essential and ontological. Although he is correct to say that the modes of subsistence are not essential divine attributes, he is incorrect to say they are not ontological. Cheynell warns, “When we describe the Divine nature, we should not abstract it from the three Persons; and when we describe a Divine Person we should not abstract him from the Divine Nature” (Divine Trinunity, 80). The Son’s mode of subsistence is concrete. He has the whole divine essence or nature, and he subsists within that essence, not outside of it. It is true that what is said of each person, concerning mode of subsistence, cannot be predicated of the essence. EG, for example, cannot be predicated of the divine essence, only of the Son. But EG is predicated of the Son concretely, in his subsistent relation to the Father within the essence. Muller explains that EG “is not…a movement of the Son from potency to actuality or from nonbeing…into existence, but an eternal and perpetual relation in the Godhead, an unchanging activity or motion that is in the divine essence according to its very nature” (Dictionary, 127, emphasis added).
Both the unity of the divine essence and the distinction of the persons within that essence are matters of ontology, of the divine being. Some, like Wollebius, define the divine persons as “the essence of God, with a certain manner of subsisting” (Christianae theologiae compendium 20-21). Modes of subsistence, therefore, are not functional relations at all. They are subsistent relations in the divine nature: the Father is relative to the Son as unbegotten, and the Son is relative to the Father as begotten. Functional categories cannot be introduced into the modes of subsistence without simultaneously redefining the classical doctrines of divine simplicity, actuality, unity, omnipotence, immutability, impassibility, and the like. If the Father and the Son “function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son,” does that not require some kind of change in the Godhead? If immutability is redefined only as constancy then Ware may be able to avoid incoherence, but on the terms of classical theism, the introduction of function into modes of subsistence ad intra is no small problem.
This very problem rears its ugly head when Ware insists that authority and submission are personal properties of the Father and the Son, respectively. In addition to the difficulty this raises for the unity of the divine will, it poses a broader dilemma regarding the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father. If divine unity is substantial and singular, then whatever is predicated of the divine essence is necessarily predicated of all three persons. If omnipotence is an essential attribute, then the Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, and the Spirit is omnipotent; and this omnipotence is independent of any ad extra relation to creation. But if the Son subsists eternally in a position or state of submission to the Father, is he omnipotent as is the Father? Ware clarifies that the Son’s authority over creation is in no way diminished by ERAS, but what of his authority, his power, his omnipotence, as self-existent, independent God? How can the Son have authority ad extra but not ad intra? More to the point, if the Father is supreme in the Godhead (see Ware, Father, Son, and Spirit, 50-51) does the Son really have the same fully actualized divine essence as does the Father? Is there but one simple divine essence? Perhaps Ware conceives of the unity of the divine essence as generic; the three persons share in the genus God. But that raises a host of questions about Ware’s conception of the essential attributes, not the least of which is divine simplicity and pure actuality. Nevertheless, as his explanation stands, the supposition of intrinsic positions or functions of authority and submission undermines the Son’s full consubstantiality with the Father.
EG, on the other hand, does nothing of the sort. EG, when left free of Ware’s entailments or expressions, upholds the homoousian. The Son is of the same essence as the Father because the Father necessarily, eternally, immutably begets the Son within the divine essence, without division of the divine essence. By virtue of this generation the Son personally possess the whole, undivided divine essence. He, therefore, subsists in the divine essence, not as submissive or subordinate, but as the fully divine Son of the Father. For which reason, despite his affirmations, despite his attempt at clarification, Ware’s version of ERAS not only remains shrouded in a cloud of theological incoherence, but contradicts the biblical and classical doctrine of EG. The novel glove (ERAS) does not fit the classical hand (EG).
*Stefan Lindblad is a Pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church (Kirkland, WA), and a PhD candidate in Historical and Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He co-edited and contributed to Confessing the Impassible God: (RBAP, 2015), and his essay “‘Eternally Begotten of the Father’: An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith’s Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son,” has been published in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan (RBAP, 2015). Stefan and his wife Jo have three children (Emily, Grace, and Owen).