Sunday, June 26, 2016

Trinitarian designations

1. Part of the recent controversy over the (alleged) eternal submission of the Son concerns the significance of Trinitarian designations. To what extent should we draw metaphysical inferences from Trinitarian designations? Consider some typical characteristics of fathers:

i) Fathers are physical

ii) Fathers used to be babies

iii) Fathers come into being

iv) Fathers die

v) Fathers have fathers

vi) Fathers have mothers

This should serve to illustrate the hazards of unbridled extrapolations from theological metaphors. Up to a point it's proper to draw inferences from theological metaphors, but there needs to be controls on the exercise. Consider two checks:

i) Study the usage of fatherhood and sonship as theological metaphors in Scripture 

ii) Consider how God's transcendent attributes delimit the scope of the metaphor

2. Why does Scripture use "father", "son", and "spirit" to designate the persons of the Trinity? 

i) Father and son are interrelated metaphors. Familial metaphors. 

I've suggested that Scripture uses sonship to signify representation, which–in turn–involves two related concepts:

a) Resemblance

b) Agency

This has the added advantage that it dovetails with another theological metaphor: royal succession. 

ii) Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the first two persons of the Trinity both had fatherly characteristics. Even if that were the case, it's antecedently unlikely that Scripture would employ paternal designations for two persons of the Trinity. In a book that combats polytheism, to speak of two fathers in the Godhead would be very confusing. So even if (ex hypothesi), the first two persons of the Trinity were fatherly, we'd expect Scripture to use two different designations. 

iii) Nicene Christology tries to draw a parallel between the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit. Although that creates a nice symmetry, fatherhood and spiration are not cognate metaphors, unlike fatherhood and generation. The symmetry involves an illicit extension of the familial metaphor to something in a different domain. 

iv) Having used familial designations for the first two persons of the Trinity, we might expect Scripture to make consistent use of familial designations for all three persons of the Trinity. Presumably the reason it doesn't is because fatherhood and sonship exhaust the theologically suitable metaphors for the Godhead. Once again, in a book that combats paganism and polytheism, Scripture could hardly designate the third person of the Trinity as "wife" or "mother" or "daughter". That would evoke all the wrong associations.

So, when it comes to the third person of the Trinity, Scripture uses a metaphorical designation that belongs to a different category than the family. Why does Scripture designate the third person of the Trinity as the "Spirit"? 

Like fatherhood and sonship, this is a flexible metaphor. The designation signifies at least three things:

i) A spirit is an incorporeal person 

ii) The Spirit is the agent of inspiration 

As such, "breath" is a natural metaphor for the spoken word. Scripture as divine speech. 

iii) Breathing is a vital sign. Expiration is a synonym for death

As such, "breath" is a natural metaphor for the agent of spiritual rebirth or spiritual renewal. 

The fact that Scripture employs a theological metaphor to designate the third person of the Trinity that's categorically different from the interrelated theological metaphors employed to designate the first two persons of the Trinity should warn us to be wary about the metaphysical inferences we draw from Trinitarian designations. After all, surely this doesn't mean the third person of the Trinity is a different kind of being than the first two persons of the Trinity. 


  1. Steve

    I appreciate the post. I think it's somewhat breakthrough and would help advance discussion for those with humble ears.

    It drew mere here:

    Do you find the Father's communication of essence to the Son the only way we may interpret N as it was originally intended? It seems to me that we aren't locked into that interpretation. It might even be the wrong one? What about the generation of the Son while upholding his being God in himself? Letham argues that Calvin wasn't departing from N. Warfield says the same. The theology seems to have Gregory the Theologian's stamp.

    And if we allow only for the communication of person as opposed to essence too, eternal generation can simply be understood as putting forth and underscoring the eternal dispositions and ordering of roles in the Trinity. Whether those dispositions are will-assumed or whether they're essential properties of persons would be another discussion. I favor the latter, even strongly.

    1. i) To take a comparison, it's arguable that Calvin and Reformed churches interpret the "descent into hell" differently than what that article originally meant. So there's precedent for Reformed churches doing the same thing with respect to the Son as "begotten" before all ages, &c.

      ii) I just don't see any basis in exegetical or philosophical theology to say the Father communicates the person of the Son. I think that's tweaking a flawed paradigm. Better to ditch the paradigm.

  2. Regarding ii, I'm more interested in the historical precedence of eternal generation of the Son as opposed to essence. From there I think the paradigm is salvageable if we don't press it to mean something unintelligible. I don't think this is akin to tagging a term with new meaning but rather preserving an old term with what is and was an intelligible meaning, simply a taxis of roles.

  3. i) I'm just not qualified to comment on Gregory of Nazianzus.

    ii) I affirm a taxis of roles vis-a-vis the economic Trinity.

    iii) I think the monarchy of the Father, the Father as the fons deitas, eternal generation of the Son, and eternal procession of the Spirit are part of the same flawed paradigm.

    I don't think the Son (or Spirit) derives his existence, whether in relation to the person or deity, from the Father. I don't think that's exegetically warranted. I don't think the prooftexts succeed.

    From a philosophical standpoint, moreover, it's totally opaque to me how the Son could be inderivative in relation to his deity but derivative in relation to his person.

    I do think Calvin's authotheos marks a signal advance over Nicene Triadology. But I think it's an improvement on a flawed paradigm.

  4. This ambiguity (to me anyway) I find both in Dabney and Berkhof lends credence to the paradigm dilemma. They both state most clearly that the personal subsistence of the Son is generated but not the Son's essence. Yet they are both quick to add that in or through the generation the essence is *communicated.* They seem to want to deny generation of essence (agreeably to me) while upholding that it's nonetheless communicated, and not just communicated but communicated through generation (less agreeable to me without clarification).

    I don't know what has greater potential. Abandoning the paradigm or agreement on what the paradigm actual entails. Either way, we may recite the creed but on this issue I think there is little catholic agreement over what we might be confessing.

  5. So what is the alternative to the eternal generation paradigm? How can we distinguish the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if not by their origins (unbegotten, begotten, spirated)? Would it have been possible that the Father or Spirit become incarnate, or was incarnation "proper" to the Son? Was the Father eternally the Father ad intra, or were there just three "persons" of one being who then ordered themselves in relation to creation ad extra?

    1. "So what is the alternative to the eternal generation paradigm?"

      One alternative is to stick with what God has revealed about himself. Not go beyond that.

      "How can we distinguish the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if not by their origins (unbegotten, begotten, spirited)?"

      i) If you mean "distinguish" in terms of epistemology, we distinguish them based on the fact that God has revealed the existence of three distinct persons in the Godhead. Even if eternal generation and procession were true, that's not something humans can ever perceive. That would be an indiscernible distinction. Not something we can use to pick them out in a police lineup (as it were).

      ii) If you mean "distinguish" in terms of metaphysics, there's no reason to suppose creatures should be able to identify the individuating principle that differentiates the persons of the Godhead. That might well be incomprehensible to human intellect.

      At best, we can offer models and metaphors to illustrate how something can be one in some respect, but more than one in another respect.

      "Would it have been possible that the Father or Spirit become incarnate, or was incarnation 'proper' to the Son?"

      i) Are you asking whether it's metaphysically impossible for the Father or Spirit to become incarnate? I don't see why divine omnipotence would be limited in that regard.

      ii) No doubt it as proper for the Son (since it happened that way), which doesn't mean it would be improper for the Father or Spirit.

      Indeed, unless it's metaphysically impossible for the Father or Spirit to incarnate themselves, there are possible worlds in which the Father is Incarnate, as well as the Spirit. That follows from modal metaphysics.

      BTW, that's analogous to medieval speculations about whether a divine Incarnation would occur absent the Fall.

      "Was the Father eternally the Father ad intra…"

      Scripture indicates that divine Fatherhood and Sonship are preexistent states. The Son comes into our world from his own "world". His identity as Son is prior to his entrance into our world, and he returns to what he always was. The Incarnation doesn't change what he already was, but adds a new relation. There's continuity as well as discontinuity.

      "…or were there just three 'persons' of one being who then ordered themselves in relation to creation ad extra?"

      i) That's a false dichotomy. The division of labor in the economic Trinity is voluntary. In that regard they ordered themselves.

      ii) However, the NT often treats the sonship of Christ as a divine title. That only makes sense if it traces back to the immanent Trinity.