Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?

In responding to the subordinationist debate on the Trinity, Erickson gives us much more than a snapshot of the current battle. He gives us a model on how to do systematic (or missional, if you are in the PCA) theology. He examines biblical, historical, philosophical, theological, and pastoral implications for both views. He is generally stronger on 1,3,4, and 5. The historical section is a little weak.

Erikson says Hodge taught a gradational view of the Trinity, as did Augustus Strong. Hodge did no such thing. Hodge (and to a lesser degree Strong) emphasized the “order” in the Trinity, but an epistemological order–from the Father through the Son in the Spirit–does not imply a gradation or a submission. Or if it does we need to see an argument to the effect.

And this is partly why Ware’s position is so tricky. When Ware highlights a certain order or “taxis” in the Trinity, he is not wrong. But when he says, “This means submission” he is beyond the evidence.

The main problem with Ware is that he is almost right. His problem is that he doesn’t let the early reflections on the Trinity anchor him so he wouldn’t fall in error. It’s not enough, as Athanasius noted, to say the Son (or Spirit) is homoousios with the Father. We must also note that the Trinitarian relations are homoousion. This is what keeps the Greek Patristic reflection from slipping into error. They are able to say there is a certain taxis in the Trinity without lapsing into subordinationism: the homoousion safeguards them.

Similarly, Grudem isn’t entirely wrong. He asks, “If not for x (Grudem’s view) how can the Persons be distinguished? This problem stems from the assumption of extreme divine simplicity. Given the essence’s identification with the attributes, how can one really speak of this or that? Traditionally, the Western church distinguished the Persons by calling them “relations of oppositions.” Grudem (correctly) doesn’t take this route. But he thinks the Persons are distinguished by roles and functions, rather than by modes of origination (as the Fathers said).

The Biblical Evidence

The problem with “son-language:” the ancient fathers were hesitant, pace Bruce Ware, to read human concepts of fatherhood/sonship back into the eternal Trinity. It bordered close to idolatry. It’s one thing to say that the “Fatherhood of God” is the archetype from which all fathers are derived. That’s true. It’s quite another thing to define Fatherhood of God by the derivative.

Further, “Son” doesn’t always mean “lesser in authority.” Jesus is called “The Son of Man.” Does that mean Jesus is inferior to the idea of men? Jesus is called the Son of David. Does that mean he is inferior to David?

Erickson mentions it but doesn’t develop it. Let’s go back to the order of the Trinity: From the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. According to the gradationist model, with each term there is a diminution of authority. Logically, then, the Holy Spirit should be the bottom-rung. But if that is the case, then why is the Holy Spirit “casting Jesus” (εκβαλλω) into the wilderness (Mark 1:12)?

Philosophical Considerations

Ware says that the hierarchical structure of authority is part of the essence of the Trinity (Ware 2005, 21), that it “marks the very nature of God.” Erickson points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if authority over the Son is an essential attribute, the the subordination of the Son is essential. This means they are neither homoousion in essence or in relation (Erickson 172).

With regard to Grudem Erickson examines his argument:

G1: Differences of person require different roles
GC: Therefore, distinctions of persons require differences of authority

Erickson points out that Grudem is missing a key premise: “Differences of role require differences of authority” (185). And since they have not proved this (and if they had, they would be semi-Arians, given Ware’s earlier claim), then they must forfeit the debate.


(1) Erikson seems to think that if you hold to the eternal generation, you have to hold to it literally in order for it to make sense, yet no Father ever said this.
(2) He is aware of Giles’s use of dyotheletism to criticize th EFS position, but he doesn’t like it.

Aside from these criticisms, the book is compelling, succinct, and occasionally fun to read.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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