ONE GOD IN THREE PERSONS
Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons,
Implications for Life
Edited by Bruce Ware & John Starke
Crossway. 265 pages. £14.99
ISBN 978 1 433 528 422
This fuels the argument concerning the roles of men and women in the home and in the church. The battle over the legitimacy of authority, in matters such as male headship in the family has now led right back to God, with questions concerning the relationships between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Pro-feminist, egalitarian theologians have recently tried to argue that any thought of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father inevitably undermines the true deity of the Son and leads towards the error of Arianism.
This book is a robust rebuttal of this charge. It is written by complementarians who believe that both the Scriptures and the fundamental creeds of the church have always taught that the Father, Son and Spirit are identical in essence and equal in status, but that there is a structure to their relationship. In particular they argue that the Son’s obedience to the Father during his incarnation is rooted in his eternal willing subordination to the Father.
The first chapter sees Wayne Grudem uncovering the doctrinal deviations into which evangelical feminists tend to fall. For example, some of them believe that the equality of Persons within the Godhead demands that any act of one Person of the Trinity must be equally an act of all three Persons. But that is not what is found in Scripture. For example, it is quite clear that the Son, not the Father, died on the cross for us. Again one feminist theologian claims ‘no title or task applied to God the Father is not equally applied to God the Son.’ But that is simply not true. For example, the Father is never portrayed as praying to the Son or interceding with him, but only vice versa.
The following chapter by Christopher Cowan looks in more detail at the relationship of the Son to the Father as portrayed in John’s Gospel. ‘John not only depicts Jesus as equal to God in his essential nature, but also displays him as the Son who fulfils a subordinate role to the Father’s authority’ (p 64).
Kyle Claunch then steers us through the admittedly difficult passage in 1 Corinthians 11.2-6 which includes the phrase ‘God is the head of Christ’. This comes in the context of Paul discussing male/female roles within the church. The writer argues that although ‘God is the head of Christ’ refers to Jesus in his incarnate state yet it does reflect the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son analogically. The passage does root male headship indirectly into the taxis or order of the eternal Trinity.
James Hamilton Junior looks at 1 Corinthians 15 in which we find Christ eventually delivering the kingdom to God the Father and ‘then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. He argues well for the classic understanding of the Trinity but unhappily decides that he must launch into some kind of defence of Pre-Millennialism which is really besides the point when it comes to the theme of the book.
Delving into church history
The book then takes a historical turn as Robert Letham reviews the writings of the church fathers concerning the eternal generation of the Son. He concludes: ‘If God’s revelation of himself in human history as the Father, the Son and the Spirit did not reflect who he is, but was merely a set of roles akin to those performed by an actor, singularities not indicative of who he is, we would have no true knowledge of God.’ Thus an order in human relationships does not in itself entail a breakdown in ontological unity and equality. You can have male headship and female submission with both man and wife being of equal worth, because this is how things are within the Trinity.
The best chapter for me was by Mike Ovey of Oak Hill College on True Sonship. He looks at church statements from the fourth century AD. He explores both Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers. Here we find that a true son is both of the same nature as the Father (unlike a creature) and is in submission to the Father (unlike a rebellious son). True sonship ‘refutes Sabellianism (that there is one Person who is God, but who, as it were, wears three masks) because a true father is genuinely distinguishable from his son and is not his own son; a true father-son relationship is not ultimately a reflexive relationship in which a father is his own son. For Hilary, further, the Son’s true sonship underpins the Father’s identity as true Father. This means that losing the notion of true Son undermines the repudiation of Sabellianism, Arianism (that the Son is just the highest created being), and the eternal character of the Father as Father (p 152).
Next Philips Gons and Andy Naselli take on some philosophical arguments used by egalitarians to try to argue for no order of authority within the Godhead. The duo show the arguments prove too much and lead logically to there being no possible differences between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – which is clearly untrue, not only from the fact that the Son is begotten whereas the Father is not, but from the very use of three different names for the three Persons of the one God.
Scott Oliphint then delves deeply into the doctrine of the simplicity of God and how this computes with respect to the Trinity itself. There is some truly mind-bending argumentation here, but he explains that the three-ness and the one-ness of God cannot actually be separated and we must leave room in the Godhead for truths which are beyond our capability to understand. ‘Mystery is the lifeblood of theology’ said Herman Bavinck.
Bruce Ware then finishes off the book with a chapter which covers some of the same ground as previous chapters and recalls public debates with leading egalitarian theologians, who evidently have often failed to respond to questions and challenges concerning their position.
The ‘equality’ agenda now dominates politics, law and most public debate. In order for churches to be truly grounded and equipped to stand for the truth in the face of what is in store in coming years, church leaders need to get to grips with the issues defended in this book and teach their congregations.