I’m going to selectively quote and comment some statements by Sam Waldron in his series on the Trinity. You can find the whole series here:
I’ve covered much the same ground in my response to Dale Tuggy, so I’ll skip over some of Waldron’s prooftexts.
Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? That is the name of a book that is perhaps the most recent installment of a major debate going on among “evangelicals” on the subject of the Trinity. The subtitle of the book identifies the debate in question: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate. In this book Millard J. Erickson attempts an even-handed evaluation of the debate over the Trinity as it relates to what is called the eternal subordination of the Son. In case you are new to this debate it is intimately related to the ongoing debate between “egalitarians” and “complementarians” on the relation of men and women in the home and in the church.
I think both sides make a mistake when they try to ground their respective positions in the immanent Trinity. As finite, contingent creatures, certain dependencies and asymmetries are inevitable in human social life. That’s not something we can properly extrapolate to the inner life of the Godhead.
I suspect that many evangelicals today would choke on the very first words of the Nicene Creed—if they are really thought about what they were confessing. Here is the first paragraph of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
How far many of us have drifted from historic Trinitarianism is revealed by how queasy these words make us feel when we think about. “Surely,” we think, “The Son is also the Maker of heaven and earth. And does the Nicene Creed really mean to say that there is some distinct sense that we are to identify the Father as God? Does this imply that the Son and Spirit are not God?”
That’s seminal unitarianism. And it doesn’t occur to Waldron that the monarchy of the Father paved the way for full-blown unitarianism during the English Enlightenment.
As long as the Roman church had temporal authority, it could forcibly contain the internal tensions in the Nicene compromise, but once the Roman church began to lose its grip, the incipient unitarianism inherent in Nicene subordination (i.e. the monarchy of the Father) could not be artificially restrained.
Calvin represents a midcourse correction. And that’s been reinforced by subsequent theologians like Warfield, Helm, Murray, and Frame.
If these kinds of questions and concerns come to us when we really think about what we are confessing in the Nicene Creed, it should make us wonder if we have really understood and whether we entirely hold the historic Trinitarian creed. So what are we missing?
I agree. But that cuts both ways. Maybe the Nicene creed is overdue for revision.
We are missing, first of all, that the creed is squarely biblical. In a number of important passages when the persons of the Trinity are being delineated the Father is given the personal name, God.
This happens in John 1:1-2: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The context of these verses it is to be noted is not the economy of redemption. Orthodox Christians read these verses as speaking of the period at the beginning of the creation of the world. One cannot read into them the incarnation and the economy of redemption in which The Son became a man. They are speaking of the Trinitarian relationships which existed before the creation of the world—at the beginning. In speaking of these eternal relationships describes one person of the Trinity as “the God.” (The Greek definite article is present in both occurrences of the prepositional phrase, “with God,” in these verses.) The Apostle describes the other person of the Trinity as “the Word.” So in these verses you have two persons: “the God” and “the Word.” Both of these persons possess the entire divine essence. The Word is as to His substance and being God. Yet in the language of these verses, He is not “the God.” Clearly, in some distinct personal sense the Father is God, while the eternal and divine Son is “His” Word. Thus, the Nicene Creed confesses and must confess: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
I think his exegesis of John’s prologue is obviously flawed. “God” is a synonym for the Father. A shorthand expression. The point is not to distinguish the Father as distinctively God, but to distinguish the Father from the Son, while affirming the deity of both parties.
In Jn 1:1-2,18, there’s a deliberate interplay between “God” as a proper noun for the Father, and “God” as a common noun for the Father and Son alike.
We may be troubled by passages that identify the Father as “the one true God.” Historic Trinitarianism was not. This was because it understood the doctrine sometimes called the monarchy of the Father. While each of the persons of the Trinity possess the entire divine essence and are from their standpoint of their essence self-existent, the same thing is not true for the persons of the Trinity. Each person is eternal but in Nicene Trinitarianism the persons of the Son and Spirit originate from the Father. Thus, later in the Creed it is affirmed that both the persons of the Son and Spirit eternally come from or are derived from the person of the Father. Of the Son it is affirmed that He is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
That’s a cause/effect relation. A Creator/creature relation.
Although he affirms that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, Augustine offers an important qualification. He notes that John 15:26 does not say, ‘whom the Father will send from me,’ but rather ‘whom I will send from the Father.’ By this, Christ ‘indicated that the source (principium) of all godhead (divinitatis), or if you prefer it, of all deity (deitatis), is the Father. So the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son is traced back, on both counts, to him of whom the Son is born’ (De trin. V.29, 174). Thus, although Augustine clearly speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one substance, he also affirms that the source and origin of deity (principium deitatis) is the Father.
That’s the locus classicus for the eternal procession of the Spirit. But in context, it has reference to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity.
The Lord Jesus Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father.” This affirms that there is an organic relationship between God the Father and God the Son similar to that of an earthly father-son relationship. Of course, it is not that Scripture and the Nicene Creed borrow the human father-son relationship after the fact to illustrate this Trinitarian relationship. It is rather that the human father-son relationship was created to illustrate this divine relationship in the Trinity. As with all human analogies for the divine, there are limits beyond which this analogy must not be taken. I will mention one of them below. Yet the Nicene Creed stresses that this analogy holds with regard to the point of begotten-ness. The Son is “begotten” of the Father.
By parity of logic, should we also say the earthly husband-wife, mother-son, mother-daughter, and father-daughter relationships were created to illustrate the inner life of the Godhead?
Eternal generation is also sometimes misunderstood as implying that the Son is created. But this is exactly and precisely what the doctrine does not mean. Because of His eternal generation, and diametrically opposed to the Arian doctrine, the Lord Jesus is “begotten not made.”
Quoting the Nicene creed does nothing to logically harmonize its claims. If the Son and the Spirit have their source of origin in the Father, then that makes them creatures. They may be eternal creatures, eternally caused, but they remain creatures all the same. The fact that the Nicene creed denies that implication does nothing to invalidate that implication. A denial is a not a disproof. It tells you something about the intentions of the Nicene Fathers. But a verbal stipulation can’t prevent the premise from entailing the conclusion.
Another natural objection to the doctrine of eternal generation which occurs in the minds of many is that this doctrine must mean that the Lord Jesus is not truly, really, and in the highest sense God.
But if, by Waldron’s own admission, “there is some distinct sense that we are to identify the Father as God” or “the God,” then by converse reasoning, there is some distinct sense in which the Son and the Spirit are not God or “the” God.
If, likewise, the Son and Spirit derive from the Father, then the Father is “higher” in the chain-of-being than the Son and the Spirit.
The fourth problem with this rumor is that it confuses two very different kinds of subordination. To put this another way, those who foster this rumor assume that there are only two kinds of subordination discussed in relation to the Trinity, when actually there are three. All Christians, including Erickson and the Egalitarians, believe that there is subordination in the economy of redemption. We may call this economic subordination. Their mistake is that they think there is only one other kind of subordination—subordination of essence or essential subordination. While they correctly see this kind of subordination to be wrong and false, they do not realize that this is not the kind of subordination implied in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed actually teaches a third kind of subordination. It is neither economic nor essential subordination.
If the Son and Spirit originate from the Father, then that’s a metaphysical asymmetry.
The most obvious evidence for the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is the biblical assertions that (1) the Son is begotten of the Father and (2) He is the only begotten Son of God. In the modern era difficulties have been raised with both these apparent supports for eternal generation.
As to # 1, let me say this. Psalm 2:7 asserts, “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’” This verse is quoted a number of times in the New Testament (Acts 13:3; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). Modern scholarship has noted that this language speaks of the enthronement of the Son of David as the King of Israel and is applied in the New Testament to the resurrection of Christ. It has concluded from this that there is no reference in it to a so-called eternal generation of the Son. While I am of the opinion that the historical sonship of Christ actually is intended to reflect and incarnate His eternal sonship, I grant that these verses are not clear proofs by themselves of eternal generation.
However, this should alert us to the fact that Scripture is using idiomatic categories.
Monogeneis is used 23 times in the LXX and NT. In 19 of those occurrences the idea of begetting is clearly suggested by the context. It is used with son, daughter, and father. The other four occurrences are figurative and cannot be normative for the meaning of the word. The translation of the word merely as unique or only entirely loses the filial relationship it suggests. The word is never used and would never be used of an only uncle, aunt, brother, or sister, because it implies a unique relationship with one’s father.
But in that case, only-begottenness doesn’t imply the (eternal) generation of the Son, for both sons and daughters are begotten. For that matter, most fathers are begotten. Except for Adam, every father is someone’s son. So we need to take into account the limitations of the metaphor.
Another important evidence of eternal generation is the eternal sonship of Christ. The Scriptures clearly teach that the Christ was the Son of God before He came into the world and when He came into the world (John 3:16, 3:17; 10:36; Romans 1:3, 4; 8:3; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 4:9, 10, 14). Son is also the name chosen by the author of the Hebrews to designate the Son when He is speaking of His divine glory (Hebrews 1:2, 5, 8; 5:8; 7:3, 28). So that the point is not missed, a few of these references deserve a closer look.
i) Waldron is tacitly assuming that “sonship” language is synonymous with “generation” language. But that’s naïve.
We’re dealing with idiomatic categories. You can’t infer one idiom from another.
Both categories can have different connotations, different literary allusions. For instance, you have to consider what OT texts lie behind the respective categories. Each category may be part of a separate literary chain or theological motif, with its own canonical history. Two independent streams that eventually converge in the NT.
For instance, Waldron doesn’t consider the possibility that the “only-begotten” metaphor is intended to evoke associations with primogeniture. Cf. BDAG 658a(2). The rights of the firstborn. That is then applied figuratively to Christ as the royal heir. In that case, the point of the metaphor is not derivation, but prerogatives.
ii) Likewise, it’s possible to affirm the eternal sonship of Christ, but deny the eternal generation of Christ. That might seem arbitrary until we remember that these are idiomatic categories with distinct literary antecedents as well as different connotations.
The evidence is so clear that Christ is called the Son of God prior to His incarnation and resurrection that some frankly admit this. They, however, empty eternal sonship of much of its significance by the notion that this sonship only asserts the equality of nature between the Son and the Father. It is, of course, true that it does imply this as John 5:18 suggests when it says that He called “God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” What is not so clear is that this is all that being God’s eternal Son implies. In what other contexts would anyone conceive the really peculiar notion that sonship means only equality of nature?
i) One could counter that Waldron empties eternal sonship of much of its significance by denying the coequality of Father and Son.
ii) Incidentally, there’s a more straightforward argument for eternal sonship. If God is eternal, and the NT sometimes (indeed, frequently) uses “son of God” as a divine title for Christ, then combining those two propositions will yield the eternal sonship of Christ.
The opponents of eternal sonship may convince themselves that they have refuted it by offering several plausible reasons why Christ is called the Son of God before His incarnation which do not require that He is eternally generated by the Father. The problem with their argumentation is that it entirely forgets or neglects many related aspects of the biblical data. One such piece of data is the other name given to the Son of God before the creation of the world. According to John 1:1-3 before the creation of the world He is the Word of God.
i) In context, the “Word” (or Logos) seems to be an economic title for the Son in his creative role.
ii) In addition, if “sonship” is a divine title, then that’s indexed to the immanent Trinity. By contrast, creatorship is a contingent relation, not a necessary relation. God is free to create or refrain from creating. So that’s indexed to the economic Trinity rather than the immanent Trinity. It’s not essential to God that he be the Creator.