Essay / Theology

Trinity Podcast Hosted by Zaspel

Here‘s a podcast organized by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance, in which he asks four theologians about recent controversy on the doctrine of the Trinity.

The four theologians are Mike Ovey, Scott Swain, Steve Wellum, and me. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, which you’ll probably appreciate more if you’ve been tracking recent online conversations. Wellum presses the need for careful and consistent distinctions between person and nature, and illustrates how those distinctions help us speak of the three and the one in God. Swain defends the creeds as ruled readings of scripture, and vouches for the biblical character of eternal generation. Ovey reports how the recent controversy sounds to him from the UK, where he has been arguing for the eternal subordination of the Son (see his recent book) in a way somewhat parallel to Bruce Ware, but apparently in reaction against very different opponents. Ovey’s different frame of reference gives the conversation a little more centrifugal energy than might be expected –opened a few more cans of worms in what I assumed would be more of a worm-corralling affair.

I describe the recent controversy as “a crisis in the looseness of social trinitarian ways of talking,” by which I mean that different theologians have used broadly social ways of talking about the Trinity and have generally given each other the benefit of the doubt regarding their full implications. Only when the language becomes as pointed as “eternal relation of command and obedience” does it become apparent that what seemed to be differences of emphasis might actually be distinct positions which mutually exclude one another. So in recent weeks there have been recurring “wait, what?” moment.

Here’s a snippet of how I characterize the recent discussion:

One of the strange things about this conversation is, I’m initially inclined to say, it is very difficult to talk about the difference, the ordered difference, between the Father and the Son. Now if we’re going to do that, the price of admission would be that everybody has to agree that there is one God, and that the Father and the Son are equal, coequal, coeternal. Once we’re there, then everyone can come into the room and we can have a discussion about the difference between the Father and the Son, and the distinction in their ordered unity.

And that seems like that would be safe, and then no one would be charged with subordinationism because the cost of getting into the conversation was already to forswear any form of ontological subordinationism. And then we can sit around and talk about, “what is the difference between the Father and the Son, that’s a very hard question, why does one send the other and not vice versa, how do you work that out?”

In fact what happens is that you get in the room, all having sworn that subordinationism is a damnable heresy long ago condemned by the church on the basis of scripture, but then you start talking, and you realize, “Wow, that’s a weird thing to think about the diffeerece between the Father and the Son,” and it seems to call into question even how we all got into the room having the conversation that excludes subordinationism.”

Fred Zaspel follows up on that later (just after the one-hour mark) by asking, “If we agree on the co-eternality and glory of the three persons, is the acknowledgement of a functional role of submission within the persons of the Godhead, is that beyond Nicaea? At what point do we cross the line and become non-Nicene?” My response is:

I can imagine a lot of ways of claiming to affirm Nicaea, and repeating the words of Nicaea, while in fact giving a false interpretation. You could check the boxes and get into the Nicaea room, but mean something different by ‘divine essence,’ in which case, none of the formulas you use and none of the interpretive cultures around the use of Nicaea would matter, if you mean something different by ‘divine substance.’ The extreme case you get into in apologetics is trying to converse with Mormons, who are saying a lot of orthodox sentences, but all in a context where the whole notion of being is a continuity of being between divine and human, and it totally changes the meaning of every sentence.

Head over to the Books at a Glance blog for the whole podcast.

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