June 23, 2016

The Trinity debate in 200 words

by Jesse Johnson

I’ve been asked by several people to explain the current Trinity debate in a way that someone without seminary training can understand. In other words, no Latin allowed.  I want to do that today because I sense a frustration in many people that read blogs but feel left behind. So here is my attempt to simplify the issues (in 200 words!) so that you read the Scriptures with these categories in your mind.

As I understand things, there are basically three views in dispute (with thanks to Dr. Michael Svigel for this chart explaining them):

The incarnational subordination view holds that the second member of the Trinity is submissive to the first beginning at the incarnation, or “in the state of His humiliation” (Goligher’s words). In other words, before the incarnation there was no submission within the Trinity. This is the view I see Trueman and Goligher defend.

The economic subordination view holds that there is submission in the Trinity before the incarnation, but only in relationship to others outside of the Trinity—so the Son submits to the Father in matters of creation and redemption, but there is no submission between the Father and the Son as they relate to each other. This is the view that I see Mike Riccardi lean to on TheCripplegate here.

The eternal subordination view teaches that there is submission in the Trinity not only in matters of creation and redemption, but also in how the Son and the Father relate to each other—so the Son has always submitted to the Father, as it is an essential part of their relationship, but in such a way that does not alter their equality of being. This is the view that Grudem and Ware hold, and which I defend here.

That was 200 words, but allow this footnote: I think that all three of these views are within the camp of orthodox Christianity. In other words, to borrow a phrase, this is a theology debate about good theology.

And this second footnote:

I hope people don’t feel frustrated at their ability to keep up with this debate–its not your fault! Unlike previous theological disputes of consequence, the recent debate on the Trinity has been played out in real time on blogs and social media for the world to see. Christians follow pastors on Twitter and Facebook. They read their pastor’s blogs, and they read their favorite pastor’s blogs—and often those two are not the same. Pastors love to talk about the Trinity, so this debate has been front and center.

Previous iterations of a debate like this would have been played out in private—or at least in academic journals available in seminary libraries. There would be sessions at conferences, and then rebuttals at other conferences months later, followed by clarifications in a journal or perhaps a book a year after that.

In contrast (and as Wyatt chronicles here), this debate played out in real time. This controversy broke on a blog called “The Housewife Theologian,” for example. As it unfolded, it gave the appearance of people talking past each other, because it is impossible to keep up. Once something new is published, a thousand people read, and hundreds respond, and so forth.

What is missing from this is thoughtful deliberation, but of course at some point the medium becomes the message, and this is the world we are in.

Speaking of the medium becoming the message, I recognize that there are other issues that come up in this debate (read the end of Wyatt’s post for a helpful summary of them).

I hope you read these posts, and that they cause you think deeply about the nature of God, and that the cause you to grow in how you treasure the mystery of the Trinity.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jon45Solas

    “As it unfolded, it gave the appearance of people talking past each other, because it is impossible to keep up.”

    I think that there was a bunch of actual talking past each other in addition to the appearance thereof. 😉

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  • Jane Hildebrand

    Jesse, thank you for sympathizing with those such as me, a deer caught in the headlights throughout this discussion. And although this is far beyond my pay grade to understand, I do have one question.

    If we have few scriptures to draw from regarding the eternal relationship within the trinity, are these differing conclusions based upon statements from the early church fathers and creeds? And if so, are we to conclude they were inspired and without possible error?

    • Geo Philips

      Well, there is differences on interpretation of the few Biblical passages that talk about the Godhead and the relationships within the Trinity.

      But you are right in that we can see a denominational difference in how much value is ascribed to the creeds and that has played a role as well in this debate, even though no one is talking about it on the surface.

      At the end of the day, all three views are within the bounds of orthodoxy as Jesse said, however, they might not be within the bounds of ‘Nicene’ orthodoxy.

      • Zachary

        Not Niceness orthodoxy, but orthodoxy nonetheless? This slippery logic is shared by jw’s and mormons alike.

    • Great question. There are many passages that deal with this issue, and you are right that a weakness of this debate so far has certainly been exegetical. Perhaps that’s owing to how it started–mainly it started through accusations not about scripture, but about creeds. In fact, one of “incarnational”view’s main issues with eternal submission people is that they can be too quick to move past the creeds. One of the main issues eternal people have with the incarnational people is they can seem to be using the creeds to avoid interacting with the key passages.

      Trueman/Goligher don’t say the creeds are inspired, but they ask the question this way: are the creeds essential to being a Christian theologian today? Or is Grudem implying that you don’t need to believe Nicene Christianity any more? (FWIW, the answer to that question is NO :)).

      • Jane Hildebrand

        Excellent answer to my question, Jesse. Thank you!

  • Jason

    Jesse, you write a blog about a topic and, in the footnote, give me something to think about regarding another. Namely, how our modern media shapes how we discuss things (or at least is a reflection of how most prefer to discuss things).

    I’m also glad you made the three distinctions. I had basically seen two sides forming, and it’s always good in these sort of discussions for nuances to not be glossed over. Often times, in debating, the “two camp” mentality leaves the truth in the middle of the crossfire.

    • Right. And I think that’s Mike’s point in his post. That middle way sure seems like a good place to be. Even Goligher’s most recent post which argues strongly for incarnational, he seems to make an appeal for Grudem to *at least* use the language of the middle view. As someone who holds the third view, I could be persuaded by others that the middle view is safer, more historic, and ultimately a good place for unity as well.

  • Andy Snider

    Hi Jesse, thanks for taking time to summarize this. Since you and I have enjoyed many fruitful discussions, sometimes from different perspectives, I’ve got a question for you:

    I’m a pastor helping to shepherd a medium-small congregation here in Austin, TX. How will taking one side or the other in this debate help me to shepherd our flock more faithfully? Put differently, how will researching, prepping, and teaching others the “right” view in this debate bear the fruit of the Spirit in our congregation? Yet again: does having the “right” view of intra-Trinitarian subordination have a sensible connection to worshiping Christ, walking with Christ, or working for Christ? As you know, I have a fair grasp of the debate you’ve summarized. And I can’t find any reason why I should be interested in it at all. Other than the basic issues on which all agree (the Son submits to the Father, resulting in redemption and example to follow, etc.) it seems “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” What have I missed?

    • A Dr. Snider sighting!!!
      This is probably the second most common question people ask me (the first being “can you explain the debate” but that is always followed by “why does this matter again?”)
      I’d say two things: 1. I find it helpful in my thinking to connect God’s plan of salvation to his nature as a savior (which connects to his self-love). So for me, this doctrine helps me think more highly of salvation through the lens of God’s love. 2. I think there is going to be implications to the egalitarian/complementarian debate down the road.
      So the short answer is–probably nothing immediate to be gained, but a practical way to help you think rightly of God and a long term possibility of implications in women teaching in church.

      • Andy Snider

        Hmm. Well, maybe, but I’m still not there on either point. First, I really don’t think that Trueman, et al. think any “more highly of salvation through the lens of God’s love” than Grudem, et al., or vice versa. And second, as the debate itself demonstrates, trying to root complementarianism in intra-Trinitarian relationships is at best inconclusive (I used to caution against stuff like that in class) due to the mysteriousness of the Trinity itself. Grudem and others have much better arguments for complementarianism than to press this particular point, and Trueman and his camp (oh, how I hate that word) have no business questioning the obvious orthodoxy of others based on such an arcane point of doctrine that is exegetically indeterminate—however historically attested it may be. So unless there’s a stronger argument for why it matters, my answer to those who ask me will continue to be, “Just ignore it. Machen’s Warrior Children are at it again. Deciding whether ‘I am of Trueman’ or ‘I am of Grudem’ is not worth your time because it will not equip you to worship Christ better, walk with him closer, or work for him harder.”

        • Scott Christensen

          Andy (Dr. Snider!), thanks for articulating what I have thought about this debate. As one who has often been accused of being abstruse and impractical (true many times), I have struggled to see where the benefits lie in this debate beyond disputes about matters so unclear (1 Tim 6:4; Titus 3:9)

          • Fibber MaGee

            Apparently you and Andy didn’t read Mike’s original post where he said that responses like these were unwelcome. 2 Peter 3:18 and littered throughout Proverbs are scriptures telling us to seek knowledge. What do you call this? Last night I read a biblical and scholarly piece from Grudem that really helped me make sense of the Trinity in a way I never understood before. Mike and Jesse have invested some real effort into this and you guys are saying it’s pointless? I say thank you to men like this who serve others for the glory of God.

          • Andy Snider

            Fibber, my more specific comments below address this, more or less. In any case, my comment was not addressed to Mike but to Jesse. But I hope Mike would agree that the theologian should always be willing to be asked to explain why his work matters to the church. It’s a question that must never be out of bounds.

          • Fibber MaGee

            I agree and I think Mike’s new post covered it.

        • How about this answer: “Theology is life”?

          • Andy Snider

            hahaha! Yes, that’s a great answer. And it means you agree with me!

        • Well, except knowing god is important to worship. Better to worship with a slightly better understanding of God rather than a slightly less beneficial understanding. That, and I only think it feels esoteric because evangelicals know all insider words for justification, but less so for Trinitarian theology.

          I would ignore the Trueman/Grudem thing and take this as opportunity to know more about God to help you know and love him.

          • Andy Snider

            Wyatt—as my comments so far imply, I do not think this debate increases our knowledge of God. It is primarily speculation that extends beyond the points on which we already agree (as I noted above). It seems you agree since you also recommend ignoring the debate. And your comparison w/ justification is interesting: there are debates over more speculative formulations there, as well. I’m familiar with one or two of those also, as you know 😉 But there’s something more abstract and abstruse about intra-Trinitarian relationships because we’re talking about the being and nature of God himself (where justification deals primarily with his acts). Even when you’ve learned the language, it’s “out there,” man. In my opinion, anyway.

            And by the way, I don’t want to suggest that we ignore the *questions* in this debate. There’s value in thinking hard and speculating based on what Scripture makes more clear. But debates that make declarations like this and create camps like these are an ugly bruise on the Body of Christ.

          • Scott Christensen

            I agree with Andy’s response to Wyatt. I do want to add this though. I have the deepest respect for Jesse and Mike. I have learned a great deal from their posts on Cripplegate (as with everyone else who posts on the blog including Wyatt) and I believe both have struck the right kind of balance and shown appropriate respect for one another and others in this debate. I may not agree with the precise value they place on taking a position in the dispute but that is not to impugn them for having made entirely pointless arguments. Being appropriately sharpened in theological debates is perhaps one of the useful things here. Semper Reformanda. However, determining what is really important takes some finer wisdom so as to avoid what Andy has said. If I were to enter myself into this debate I would handle it the way Jesse and Mike have.

          • bs

            Andy, where does this leave Athanasius and Augustine? And, for that matter, the anti Nicene people they argued against?

          • Andy Snider

            bs, your question is rather broad, so my broad answer is that I would apply the same thinking (that I’ve applied in this comment thread) to Christians of any age.

          • I think what “bs” is saying is, this question and those related to it (e.g., modes of subsistence, eternal generation and procession, how to properly distinguish the three Persons and the one Being of the Trinity) occupied the ministries of some of Christianity’s most revered and able thinkers literally for centuries, while they defended biblical Trinitarianism against various heretical attacks. Asking the question, “What does it matter?” seems dismissive of those efforts, calling into question, for example, the legitimacy of Athanasius’s and Augustine’s devotion of their lives to working against the Arians and semi-Arians. Something on the order of, “Come on, Athanasius. Does agennetos vs. agenetos really help us worship Christ better, walk with Him closer, or work for Him harder?” Obviously he thought so. So I think what “bs” is getting at is: how can you be so dismissive of this discussion without being dismissive of the work that the church did on these issues over the centuries of the formulation of orthodoxy?

            You might say that Athanasius and Augustine were fighting actual Arians, not guys who held Grudem’s and Ware’s position. And that’s true. But I think the historical record shows that the Cappadocians and Athanasius and Augustine formulated these so-called speculative distinctions not because they were in their ivory towers with nothing to do, but because the only way to distinguish the biblical faith from the particular false teachers and propagators of error of the time was to press into these categories. Perhaps the discussion seems unnecessary today, since we don’t face the same challenges. But to call it “an arcane point of doctrine that is exegetically indeterminate” seems short-sighted if it figured so prominently in the safeguarding of orthodoxy against so pernicious an error as Arianism. I doubt if Athanasius or Augustine would agree with such a characterization.

            Therefore, perhaps just as Trueman and Goligher should have been more hesitant to dismiss Grudem’s and Ware’s position as heterodox until some brotherly interaction clarified some things a bit, we all should be more hesitant to dismiss the substance of the entire discussion as arcane and inconsequential until we can appreciate the historical challenges that forged the development of these doctrines in the first place.

            For my part, thinking through these issues over the last two weeks has been a truly blessed worship experience for me. Submissively searching into the deep things of God — trying to discipline my mind to understand essence and person, substance and subsistence, generation and spiration — has left me bowed before the incomprehensible God in wonder and gratefulness that this infinite and indescribable One would be mindful of a worm like me. And pondering whether Jesus’ pre-temporal “acceptance” of the terms of the covenant of redemption (or eternal Trinitarian plan of salvation) was submissive obedience versus free and voluntary initiation — at least for me — has been similarly devotional. I felt like I got a new vantage point of the sovereignty of the Son’s grace by considering that His “agreement” to His saving mission was a free and voluntary decision. Because I had held to EFS as a sort of default position, I simply hadn’t considered it from that angle before, and felt like it made a difference in my adoration of Him for His incarnation. Those are at least two movements in my experimental walk with Christ that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t engaged the discussion. I believe they’ve helped me to worship Him better, walk with Him closer, and work for Him harder.

            And then I think Wyatt’s point is as important as it is simple. If there is a right answer to this question, there’s also a wrong answer, so long as these positions are mutually exclusive, which they very much do seem to be. And while the wrong answer may not be so significant as to make a different god of God, it would still lead us to think of God not as He is — it would cause us to believe something false about God, which necessarily affects our knowledge and worship of Him. (And when you consider how the EFS position has been wrongly used to support certain anthropological issues, it can cause some to believe something false about other things as well.)

            Perhaps the average believer has no interest in such things and therefore finds them useless for worship, walking, and working. But perhaps that’s an unfortunate commentary on the average believer rather than the doctrines themselves.

          • bs

            Yes Mike, well said

          • Jon45Solas

            Nice bit of writing, Mike. You should blog or something. 😉

          • Karl Heitman

            Mike, “unfortunate commentary” is a very delicate and gracious way to put it. I vote for this comment to be a whole other post on its own. Bravo.

          • Andy Snider

            Mike, I don’t have the time or inclination to try to disentangle your response, which portrays me as dissing Athanasius and Augustine, of minimizing the importance of their fight against Arianism, as somewhat ignorant and anti-intellectual, and in the final paragraph, just immature. So there’s really too much there to deal with. But I did say this to Wyatt above: “And by the way, I don’t want to suggest that we ignore the *questions*
            in this debate. There’s value in thinking hard and speculating based on
            what Scripture makes more clear. But debates that make declarations like
            this and create camps like these are an ugly bruise on the Body of
            Christ.” In summary: the study is good. How you handle the conclusions is everything.

            A parting illustration of my concern: you may want to take note of Jesse’s response to Adam below, where Jesse advocates monothelitism. The people at the council of Constantinople in 681 believed they had good reasons for condemning this view as heretical, and the consensus of the church since then has followed the dyothelite view. Here’s an issue that strikes at the nature of the incarnation and the hypostatic union. Maybe Jesse’s a heretic. Or maybe the mono/dyothelitism debate per se isn’t all that important after all, once the clearer biblical affirmations regarding the deity and humanity of Christ are agreed upon. Again, the study is good and profitable, but how you handle the conclusion makes all the difference.

          • . . . your response, which portrays me as dissing Athanasius and Augustine, of minimizing the importance of their fight against Arianism, as somewhat ignorant and anti-intellectual, and in the final paragraph, just immature.

            I honestly wasn’t trying to portray you in any way at all. I was trying to ask genuine questions to understand what I believe to be more problematic implications of your position
            (which is shared by many). My point was, if the Nicene fathers got to commenting on eternal generation and the relationship of subordination between the Father and the Son because they were pressed to do so in order to articulate a biblically-faithful Trinitarianism against the teachings of Arianism, it seems dismissive, when that debate resurfaces in contemporary discussion, to suggest that it doesn’t matter. That seemed what “bs” was asking when he said, “Where does that leave Athanasius and Augustine?” I had the same thought, and just tried to articulate where that question was coming from.

            I’m sorry you took that as somewhat of a personal affront. It’s unfortunate—especially as you lament Trueman and Goligher as personally attacking Grudem and Ware (ugly bruises, and everything)—that you describe my genuine questions and concerns with your position as accusations and insinuations against your person.

            “I don’t want to suggest that we ignore the *questions* in this debate. There’s value in thinking hard and speculating based on what Scripture makes more clear. But debates that make declarations like this and create camps like these are an ugly bruise on the Body of Christ.” In summary: the study is good. How you handle the conclusions is everything.

            So at first blush, this sounds to me like, “We can ask the questions, we just can’t be dogmatic about the answers.” I don’t find that satisfying. But perhaps you’re just saying that when we come to whatever conclusions we come to, we ought not to call the other side heretics. I totally agree with that. But understand: saying that, and asking, “What does all this debate matter? How does it help me worship Christ better?” are two totally different things. The former is a plea for charity. The latter seems to me to be dismissive.

            A parting illustration of my concern: you may want to take note of Jesse’s response to Adam below, where Jesse advocates monothelitism.

            I may be misunderstanding, but I don’t see Jesse advocating monothelitism—the view that in the incarnation Christ had only one will, not both a divine and human will. When Jesse says, “It’s best to view them as having one will,” I believe he’s saying the Father and the preincarnate Son share one divine will, not that the incarnate Son has one theanthropic will. He goes on to say that will is a “necessary component of being”—i.e., will is a predicate of nature (being) and not merely of person. Therefore, to assign distinct wills to all three persons of the Trinity “might lead you to three co-existing gods.” Will is a predicate of nature, three wills means three natures, which means three beings/gods. Thus, since will is a predicate of nature and not person, and, since the incarnate Christ was one person with two natures, it would seem from what Jesse has said that he believes the incarnate Christ to have had both a divine will and a human will, which would place Jesse in the orthodox position of dyothelitism.

          • Andrew

            This is an excellent sentence, Wyatt: “I only think it feels esoteric because evangelicals know all insider words for justification, but less so for Trinitarian theology.” And there’s the teaching task of your & my generation. God help us.

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  • William Farley

    I am uncomfortable with your statement above. “I think that all three of these views are within the camp of orthodox Christianity. In other words, to borrow a phrase, this is a theology debate about good theology.”

    Yes, you can be a Christian and not believe in the eternal subordination of the Son, but what’s driving this is a radical demand for sexual egalitarianism. It is an attempt to diminish the biblical demand for submission to authority. In addition, the defenders of Incarnational and Economic subordinationism often marginalize, distort, or ignore crucial key scirptures to justify their position. It is the same old hermeneutic that has been used to defend female egalitarianism and now homosexual practice. I am deeply concerned, and i think all Christians should be. The hermeneutic used is a slippery slope that will lead to all kinds of further and more serious distortions.

    • Helk

      You’re right in that the debate has, in some circles, been drive or defined by how husbands and wives should relate. However, I agree that this is an intramural debate among Christians and as such is worth pursuing for its own merit, regardless of gender politics. How a man relates to his wife should not shape our opinion of the Trinity. The Trinity is a separate matter to marriage.

      • William Farley

        Helk: Thanks for your gracious comments, but that is not what is driving this debate. The demands of feminism are behind this theological manipulation. This debate was initiated and motivated by those Christians with a feminist agenda. See the website http://www.cbeinternational.org. This debate has a long history there.

        • bs

          Interesting William. Was that Augustine of Hippo’s motivation as well?

  • Adam

    I appreciate this post Jesse. As I am the person you described, I am in pursuit of greater understanding of God through theology, but do not yet have the mind of a seminarian. Forgive me, I’m sure this has already been covered in previous post on here, but as far as the economic subordination view, does this imply that by the Son submitting to the will of the Father mean that He had a different will than the Father?



    • Great question. Its best to view them as having one will, for reasons that quickly get complicated, but have to do with will being what is called “a necessary component of being.” In other words, three wills quickly might lead you to three co-existing Gods, rather than to one God who is three. So can it imply 3 wills? Yes. Should it? No.

      • Adam

        Got it. I guess this is where I get lost. If I want Mexican for dinner, and my wife wants Chinese, I submit and we get Chinese. But if we both wanted Chinese in the first place it doesn’t seem like either of us is in a position of submission because we were in agreement the entire time.

        • True. But notice in your example both you and your wife have wills, even when they are in agreement. Also, “submission” doesn’t equal “prefer.” So preferring your wife’s desires over your own is not the same thing as submitting to her.

          • Adam

            That makes sense, especially to your first point of us each having wills even when they’re in agreement. Thanks for providing some additional clarity!

      • Andy Snider

        *GASP*! Jesse Johnson is a monothelite! Ima go write a blog post now… 🙂

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    Thanks for taking the time to explain things further, Jesse. There were three of us “old Pyromaniac bloggers,” who were a bit confused, and this was even after reading almost all the articles concerning the debate. Fascinating debate……

  • tovlogos

    Thanks, Jesse — In John 10:30, where Jesus says: “I and the Father are on4e.” “One” is “hen”; and is neuter. I see this to mean they are the same
    in essence.
    In John 14:9 — “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Strong verses like these are straightforward. I notice there is no
    arrogance among the Father, Son and Spirit — that’s a human quality, as well as a demonic attribute. So, the “submission” between
    the Father and Son, without humanizing them, is beyond human understanding, I’ve met people that are offended by the fact that
    God should be glorified and worshipped. Others live to glorify Him.
    Once we are truly born from above, the way the “submission” works out temporally, is not a conflict of egos.

    • Right, and John 17 is probably the best place to go for that teaching. I”d like to blog on that next week, weather permitting.

      • Jon45Solas

        Is inclement weather more conducive for blogging?

  • John

    Thanks for this Jesse. Picking up on one thing you mentioned, I preferred the earlier way of discussing these things – articles and, after some further reflection/discussion, measured response articles! This is better than multiple blog posts on the same day that pass one another like ships in the night 🙂

  • Andrew

    Pastor Jesse, I read the blog post you linked to from Goligher (wow wow wow…what a fantastically worshipful account of trinitarian doctrine!). But your summary sentence seemed off the mark (“before the incarnation there was no submission within the Trinity”). Because the whole middle section of Goligher’s blog explains how the economy is rooted in the eternal decree in classical reformed orthodoxy. In the next type you offer (“economic subordination”), you introduce the idea submission in the act of creation – but this simply begs the question of the relation of the pactum to the act of creation. Not sure if I see the difference between the first and second type, once you correct the sentence I quoted. Any thoughts?

  • Zachary

    Mark 12:29

    • Amen brother. This is the heart of the Trinity.
      (also, I deleted the follow up comment that compared this doctrine to Islam/JW’s).

  • Zachary

    Orthodox Christianity will never waver from the nicene, biblical truth of the unity of God in perfect Trinity. To suggest and teach hierarchy within the Trinity is heretical. Look to history for example.
    The Arabic word for submission is islam. Jesus in the Quran is “one who submits to God”i.e. Muslim. Mormonism and The Watchtower explicitly teach eternal submission. Also teaching, that without submission, salvation is impossible. Submission is subversive to grace! The Trinity exists above hierarchy! “Jesus is God!” as my two year old daughter proclaimed to this then newly believing father six years ago. I remain convinced, I hope you are to. God is one. Revelation 22:12-16

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