The Role of the Spirit in Current Trinitarian Controversies
The year 2016 will almost certainly go down in the annals of church history as the year of the “Great Evangelical Trinitarian Controversy.” A debate, which had brewed for well over a decade through the publication of various books and articles, came to a head through a series of blog posts published in the summer of 2016. The defense of historic doctrinal formulations regarding the Triune God, the Person of Christ, inner-Trinitarian relations, and the implications of those relations for gender roles are among the more substantial issues at stake in the debate. The interconnectedness of the matters involved in the controversy makes just about any attempt to distill the essence of the debate into a summary form an extremely daunting task. However, there is one supremely important component of the debate that has been largely neglected—namely, the role of the Holy Spirit in the ontological (i.e., immanent) and economic inter-Trinitarian relations.
When the Trinitarian debate erupted in June 2016, certain Reformed theologians such as Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman, and Mark Jones wrote a series of ardent critiques of what has come to be known as the “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS) position,1 a position propagated by such notable evangelical theologians as Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and Owen Strachen. The former insisted that the ESS position severely undermines Nicene, Reformation, and post-Reformation formulations concerning the unity and equality of the three members of the Godhead.2 Several opponents of the ESS position have gone so far as to suggest that those propagating it have essentially espoused a form of tritheism.
The ESS position made its way into evangelical circles in 1994 through its appearance in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Although several theologians drew attention to it in the later years of the twentieth century, the debate itself made headway into the evangelical and Reformed world when Kevin Giles, an Anglican theologian, critiqued certain aspects of a lecture Bruce Ware delivered at the 2006 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). In that lecture, Ware asserted:
Scripture clearly teaches (and the history of doctrine affirms) that the Father and Son are fully equal in their deity—as each possesses fully the divine nature—yet the eternal and inner-Trinitarian Father-Son relationship is marked, among other things, by an authority and submission structure in which the Father is eternally in authority over the Son and the Son eternally in submission to the Father.3
In response, Giles charged Ware of disseminating a form of tritheism. He wrote:
To teach that the Son must obey the Father, and the Spirit must obey the Father and the Son, implies each has their own will. For all eternity the Son must submit his will to the Father’s will, and the Spirit his will to the Father and the Son. Three separated “persons,” each with their own will, is the error of tri-theism. . . . Dr. Ware publicly admitted he believed that each divine person had their own will.4
Although Ware did not explicitly state in his 2006 ETS lecture that he believes that each of the members of the Godhead has his own unique will, he seemed to imply as much when he said:
It is the Father’s prerogative to sanctify and send the Son into the world, and by this he demonstrates that the Son is “inferior” to the Father . . . the Son follows the Father’s command and submits to the Father’s will.
For some time, the ESS issue seemed to fade out of public view. Then in May 2015, Rachel Green Miller wrote two blog posts highlighting concerns she had with the ESS position and its implications for complementarianism.5 Her posts, in turn, brought the Trinitarian controversy into the blogosphere.
In June 2016, Aimee Byrd invited Liam Goligher to write two guest posts at the Mortification of Spin—a website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals—in which Goligher offered a stringent critique of the ESS position. These two posts then set off a chain reaction that intensified the debate at an alarmingly rapid rate. In the first of those posts, Goligher wrote:
To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo-tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God. On the other hand, to say, suggest, or speculate that God’s life in heaven sets a social agenda for humans is to bring God down to our level.
Those provocative words served as the stimulus for pushing the debate to the height to which it rose in the summer of 2016.
In his rejoinder to Goligher, Grudem wrote a post at Reformation21 in which he sought to defend the ESS position from a historical standpoint. In that post, Grudem appealed to various Reformed and evangelical theologians in an effort to lend historical support to the ESS position. During and after Goligher and Grudem’s interactions, many theologians weighed in on both sides of the debate with regard to the seemingly countless interrelated parts. While the overwhelming focus of the ESS debate has been on the eternal generation of the Son—and the relationship between the Father and the Son in the ontological and economic Trinity—our understanding of the personhood and personal properties of the Holy Spirit is equally at stake.
Many of the proponents of the ESS position have insisted that their belief that the Son of God is eternally submissive to the Father is based largely on exegetical considerations. As noble as that may sound, we must acknowledge at the outset that it is impossible to separate exegesis from systematic theology, and that it is impossible to detach systematic theology from church-historical developments of the doctrines into which our exegetical conclusions fit.6 As is true with regard to our understanding of the deity and personhood of the Son, we must establish a few of the major systematic categories that contain our exegetical conclusions regarding the divine personhood and personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit.
The Divine Personhood of the Spirit
Prior to the widespread influence of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, it was not uncommon for pastors and theologians to refer to the Holy Spirit as “the forgotten member of the Trinity.” While this is no longer so, Sinclair Ferguson has rightly insisted that for many the Spirit remains an “anonymous, faceless aspect of the divine being.”7 There are several reasons for a lack of understanding about the Person of the Holy Spirit: one is our own ignorance of the Scriptures and church-historical formulations; another is the fact that the Scriptures speak sparingly about the Third Person of the Godhead; and another is the fact that the Trinitarian debates of the early church were of a different nature when concerning the Son of God over against those that focused on the Spirit of God. Christological debates always centered on his deity and two natures. Pneumatological debates were over the personhood and relation of the Spirit to the other members of the Godhead. Herman Bavinck explained:
With reference to the second person, the crux of controversy was almost always his deity—generally speaking, his personhood was not in dispute—in the case of the Holy Spirit it was his personhood that primarily sparked the polemics. If his personality was acknowledged, his deity followed naturally.8
The same truths about the Spirit are taught in both the Old and New Testaments. However, while the opening words of the Old Testament make mention of the work of the Spirit of God (Gen. 1:2), the deity and personhood of the Spirit are not as evident from the preparatory revelation of the Old Testament. There are clear allusions to the divine personality of the Spirit scattered throughout the pages of the Old Testament; for example, in his dying speech, David acknowledged, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me” (2 Sam. 23:2). Impersonal forces do not speak—persons do. Additionally, when the Lord set the dry bones in the valley before the prophet Ezekiel, he commanded him to “prophesy to the Spirit . . . [and] say to the Spirit, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O Spirit, and breathe on these slain, that they may live”’” (Ezek. 37:9). Again, the Lord commanded his prophet to pray to the Spirit, not to an impersonal force.
In the New Testament, the divine personality of the Spirit comes to a full and clear light. Bavinck gave a helpful summarization of the teaching of the New Testament about the personhood of the Spirit when he wrote:
He is spoken of as a person. The personal [demonstrative] pronoun “he” (ἐκεινος) is used with reference to him (John 15:26; 16:13–14); he is called “Paraclete” (παρακλητος), John 15:26; cf. 1 John 2:1); “another Paraclete” (John 14:16), who speaks of himself in the first person (Acts 13:2). All kinds of personal capacities and activities are attributed to him: searching (1 Cor. 2:10–11), judging (Acts 15:28), hearing (John 16:13), speaking (Acts 13:2; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 14:13; 22:17), willing (1 Cor. 12:11), teaching (John 14:26), interceding (Rom. 8:27), witnessing (John 15:26), and so on. He is coordinated with the Father and the Son (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4–6; 2 Cor. 13:13; Rev. 1:4). None of this is possible, we think, unless the Spirit, too, is truly God.9
In addition to using the personal demonstrative pronoun when speaking of the Spirit, Jesus defended the divine personhood of the Spirit by appealing to the Spirit’s authorship of Psalm 110:1. While disputing with the Pharisees about his own divine nature, Jesus said, “David, in the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord,’ saying . . . ” In similar fashion, the writer of Hebrews appealed to the Spirit’s personal and divine authorship of Psalm 95 when he wrote, “As the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice . . .’” In both places, there is a revelation of the Spirit as a communicative divine person. Again, it is important for us to note that persons, not impersonal forces, speak.
If this were not proof enough, then the account of Ananias and Saphira lying to the Spirit serves to further prove both the Spirit’s personhood and deity. When the apostle Peter confronted Ananias, he said, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3). In the next verse, Peter acknowledges the deity of the Spirit when he tells Ananias, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). The apostle Peter, in no uncertain terms, refers to the Holy Spirit as God.
Divine Personal Properties
When theologians have sought to distinguish between the personal subsistence of the three persons who are one in essence, they have done so by employing the category of personal properties. These personal properties delineate the distinction between the subsistence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the Godhead. As Cornelius Van Til stated, “We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons.”10 The Father is the one who begets, the Son is the one who is begotten, and the Spirit is the one who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Begetting, being eternally begotten, and proceeding are merely properties by which the three persons of the Godhead are distinguished within the whole being of God. Personal properties do not, in any way whatsoever, diminish or divide the one essence, mind, and will of God. The personal properties of the members of the Godhead belong to the manner of personal subsistence of each person of the God who is one in essence. Likewise, the personal subsistence of each member of the Godhead is derived from the divine essence, not from the personal subsistence of one of the other members of the Godhead. The Son does not derive his existence from the Father. The Spirit does not derive his existence from the Father and the Son. The Son and the Spirit are both eternal in their divine existence; and, together with the Father, the Son and Spirit are the one true and living God. Again, Bavinck articulated this well when he wrote:
The generation [of the Son] is eternal generation (αἰωνιος γεννησις). . . . There was no time when the Son did not exist. . . . The Father is not Father before the existence of the Son but through the existence of the Son. . . . There is no separation: the Father does not exist apart from the Son. . . . The Father and the Son have all the divine attributes in common: the Son and the Father are one. It is not alongside but in God that we worship the Son. . . . The Son has the same wisdom, truth, and reason as the Father (αὐτοσοφια, αὐτοαληθεια, αὐτολογος . . .).11
Although this had already been formulated and articulated by the time of Origen, Bavinck noted that even “Origen calls into play the aid of subordinationism, and reaching back behind Tertullian, he again derives the Trinity from the person of the Father, not from the being of God.”12 That error was rejected by the time of Augustine. The ESS position returns to a form of subordinationism in the divine being.
A miscalculation here impacts our doctrine of the Spirit in the same way it affects our doctrine of the Son. The New Testament distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son as being the member of the Godhead who proceeds. He is the gift of God. As Augustine insisted, “The Holy Spirit . . . was already a gift also before He was given. . . . [A] gift may exist even before it is given.”13 Here, Augustine emphasized that the personal property of the Spirit is not an action of the Spirit. Rather, it is his distinguishing property. Though the work of the Spirit, in the economy of redemption, will involve an action that corresponds to the property he uniquely possesses, we must not speak of the personal property of the Spirit, in the being of God, as coterminous with his procession from the Father and the Son. Whatever God does in his works of creation, providence, and redemption—either in the decree (i.e., ad intra) or in time (i.e., ad extra)—must be understood to be analogous to the personal property of each member of the Godhead, rather than being identical with those properties. In other words, the Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son to the people of God in order to apply the finished work of the Son, because it is the “property” of the Spirit to proceed.
Reformed theologians have occasionally employed the moniker “subordination” when speaking of the order of the subsistence of the persons of the Godhead. When they have done so, however, they have spoken in terms of the taxis regarding manner of existence and manner of working outwardly, rather than with regard to the possession of the one divine substance. Geerhardus Vos wrote:
Although these three persons possess one and the same divine substance, Scripture nevertheless teaches us that, concerning their personal existence, the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Spirit the third, that the Son is of the Father, the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Further, their workings outwardly reflect this order of personal existence, since the Father works through the Son, and the Father and Son work through the Spirit. There is, therefore, subordination as to personal manner of existence and manner of working, but no subordination regarding possession of the one divine substance.14
Though acknowledging some priority in the order of the personal subsistence of the members of the Godhead, Vos clearly rejected any idea of subordination in the possession of the one divine substance. The members of the Godhead “are distinct as to their order and economy”15 but not according to the divine essence. Neither the Son nor the Spirit is subordinate to the Father in essence. There can be absolutely no subordination in the essence, intelligence, or will of the three persons within the Godhead. To insist that there is even functional subordination as to the will of the members of the Godhead is to put the biblical doctrine of the Trinity in a precarious position. It is because of their apparent confusion on this point that some have suggested that the ESS position falls into a functional tritheism.
The fact that each member of the Godhead has his own unique personal property does not, in any way whatsoever, destroy the unity and equality of the Godhead. Personal properties are not outward actions. They do not impinge on the essential deity of each member or the unity of the Godhead on the whole. Christian theologians have embraced the concept of perichoresis (i.e., the mutual and comprehensive indwelling of each person) in order to defend the full deity of each member of the Godhead while affirming the unique personal properties of each member. Charles Hodge explained the nature of perichoresis when he wrote:
As the essence of the Godhead is common to the several persons, they have a common intelligence, will and power. There are not in God three intelligences, three wills, three efficiencies. The three are one God, and, therefore, have one mind and will. This intimate union was expressed in the Greek church by the word perichoresis, which the Latin words “inextentia,” “inhabitation” and “intercommunio” were used to explain.16
The idea of perichoresis is essential for maintaining the distinction of personal properties among the three members of the Godhead, while affirming the essential unity of essence, intelligence, and will in the one God.
The Ontological (Immanent)/Economic Trinity
When we speak of God, we must do so in one of two ways: we must either speak of him as he is with regard to his being in himself (i.e., ontology), or as he is with regard to his acts toward his creation (i.e., economy). This crucial distinction allows us to maintain the Creator/creature distinction, the simplicity of God, the aseity of God, the immutability of God, and the equality of the divine persons. Additionally, this distinction allows us to speak of the voluntary submission of the incarnate Christ to the Father—as well as the willing procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son—in the work of creation, providence, and redemption. It is for this reason that theologians commonly distinguished between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. The first category refers to God in himself, and the second refers to God as he works toward that which is without.
Proponents of the ESS position seem to err most significantly at this vital point. Instead of keeping the ontological relations distinct from—yet interrelated to—the economic relation of the members of the Godhead, they have conflated them. There is correspondence, but not uniformity, between the two categories. The error runs deeper when proponents of the ESS position—either explicitly or implicitly—have stated that each member of the Godhead has his own will. To suggest that the Son eternally submits to the will of the Father in the immanent Trinity is to deny the historic Nicene teaching that the three persons of the Godhead have one essence, mind, and will. Rather than speaking of three wills, it is only appropriate to speak of a tri-consciousness in the one divine consciousness. Cornelius Van Til captured this vital distinction when he wrote, “Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. . . . God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.”17 Suggesting that there is tri-consciousness among the members of the Godhead is not at all the same as saying that each member has his own will. It is merely to say that the Son knows himself to be the Son in distinction to the Father, and that the Spirit is conscious that he is not the Father and the Son. Failing to make this distinction is one of the most significant theological errors on the part of proponents of ESS/ERAS (“eternal relational authority-submission”).
In his 2006 ETS lecture, Ware conflated the ontological and economic categories when he said, “What distinguishes the Father from the Son and each of them from the Spirit is the particular roles each has within the Trinity—both immanent and economic—and the respective relationships that each has with the other divine Persons.” The problem with Ware’s position is that he suggests the Son—and by way of implication, the Spirit—is subordinate to the Father in the ontological (immanent) Trinity. To insist on any subordination in the interpersonal relations in the immanent Trinity is to justly open oneself up to the charge of tritheism. It is a move away from classic orthodox Trinitarian formulations into a sphere of novelty and—at best—heterodoxy. Furthermore, it is to blur the ontological and economic categories in such a way as to functionally make them null and void.
It is debatable whether or not proponents of the ESS position have fallen into a form of tritheism. However, of this much we can be sure: While there are a number of biblical doctrines that are of a secondary or tertiary nature, the doctrine of the Trinity is not one of them. There is no greater truth with which we may fill our minds than that which concerns the one true and living God who has revealed himself to us in his word as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we turn to his word, we find that blessed truth that has been articulated and defended by the church throughout the centuries—that each member of the Godhead is “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” We must stand against any insistence of subordination among the persons of the Godhead in his being. Not to do so is to jeopardize the self-revelation of the one true and living God.
Rev. Nick Batzig is pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Savannah, Georgia. He is the editor of Reformation21 and The Christward Collective. He blogs at Feeding on Christ and writes regularly for Ligonier Ministries. You can find him on Twitter (@nick_batzig) and Facebook.
- Proponents of the ESS position have also referred to it as either the “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or the “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) position.
- See Carl Trueman, “Fahrenheit 381,” http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/postcards-from-palookaville/fahrenheit-381#.WjQ1F7Q-dE7.
- Bruce Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead,” lecture presented to the Evangelical Theological Society National Meeting, Washington, D.C., November 2006; audio recording at http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=7384.
- Kevin Giles, “The Evangelical Theological Society and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Evangelical Quarterly 80.4 (2008): 338.
- Miller’s posts correspond with the release of God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). See Rachel Miller, “Continuing Down this Path, Complementarians Lose,” https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/continuing-down-this-path-complementarians-lose/; and “Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?” https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/does-the-son-eternally-submit-to-the-authority-of-the-father/.
- For a defense of the interdependence of various theological sciences in the interpretive process, see Moisés Silva, “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” in Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 251–69. Silva writes, “Sometimes we make the fact fit our preconceptions and thus distort it. The remedy, however, is neither to deny that we have those preconceptions nor to try to suppress them, for we would only be deceiving ourselves. We are much more likely to be conscious of those preconceptions if we deliberately seek to identify them and then use them in the exegetical process. That way, when we come across a fact that resists the direction our interpretation is taking, we are better ready to recognize the anomaly for what it is, namely, an indication that our interpretive scheme is faulty and must be modified. In contrast, exegetes who convince themselves that, through pure philological and historical techniques—they can understand the Bible directly—that is, without the mediation of prior exegetical, theological and philosophical commitments—are less likely to perceive the real character of exegetical difficulties.”
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 12.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt and John Vriend, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 311.
- Bavinck, 277–78.
- Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ:Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 229ff.
- Bavinck, 284–85.
- Bavinck, 285.
- Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1887), 95.
- Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 43.
- Bavinck, 284.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 461.
- Van Til, 229ff.