Saturday, June 25, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part Two of Five)

Having defined the controversy between complementarian Trinitarians according to the positive positions each side takes, we now consider the particulars that have led to argument and anathema. We will then devote some attention to the theological strategies of the eternal relations of authority theologians. After reviewing the use of analogy in the debate, our final post will build on these judgments as it proposes a way forward.

The Eternal Relations of Authority and Its Detractors

The accusations that have been drawn up against the eternal relations of authority theologians have centered on their primary idea that the Father and the Son have distinct movements of authority. So, what is the problem with saying that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father? To set the ground, let us hear from at least one ERA theologian, arguably the primary leader among them, Wayne Grudem.

Grudem's Formula

For a quick introduction, consult Grudem’s shorter systematic theology, where he argues the language of generation or begetting was a "misunderstanding" in the early church later corrected by twentieth-century Greek scholarship (Bible Doctrines: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith [1999], 113-14). Deprived of the language of generation by modern scholarship, Grudem turned to a different terminology to arrive at "the only distinctions between the members of the Trinity" (117). 

The necessary distinctions now reside in "the way they relate to each other and to the creation." Thus, in order to maintain the oneness and the threeness of God, Grudem's slogan becomes, "ontological equality but economic subordination" or "equal in being but subordinate in role." Of course, economy refers to God's relation to creation, so in an apparent effort to retain the eternal nature of divine distinctions, Grudem adds that the divine persons exhibit an "eternal subordination in role" (my italics; 117, cf. 114n4).

The Attacks

If this is a proper reading of Grudem, then the traditional lines between economy and immanence, or between God's temporal relation to creation and God's eternal relation to himself, has been spanned. While the introduction of divine movement toward creation into the immanent Trinity is a difficulty that needs address, the detractors have focused attention elsewhere.

The opposing theologians have particularly wondered whether the ERA theologians are subliminal or at least developing Arians. Accusations that these complementarian evangelicals are teaching ontological subordinationism, homoianism, or homoiousionism (forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism) have raised eyebrows worldwide. 

However, because of the ERA theologians' early and sustained adherence to the ὁμοούσιον (homoousion), these particular accusations are difficult to prove. Moreover, surmising that the next generation may become Arian due to the loss of the classical distinction of modes of subsistence remains speculation and could be dismissed as fear mongering.

Most recently, the focus has shifted to concerns that at least one ERA theologian is teaching that God possesses three wills, two wills of which submit to the one will of the Father. If so, then the problem is pushed back into the depths of the sixth ecumenical council, where few Western historical theologians and most systematic theologians rarely travel. Logically, if God has three wills or three centers of operative decision-making, then the unity of God appears to be threatened. 

According to the orthodox dyothelite (two wills) position advocated by Maximus the Confessor and dogmatically decreed at Constantinople III (680-81), one will is attached to the divine nature and the other to the human nature in Christ. Dyothelitism developed in response to the idea that one will is located in the person of Christ, as the monothelites proposed. The patristic concern was that this compromised the two natures of Christ. The contemporary concern about three wills is a Trinitarian extension of that earlier Christological debate.

Yet others have become concerned that the ERA theologians affirm a form of social Trinitarianism in the vein of neo-orthodox theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton, who pictured three centers of operation in God. However, there has been no discernible rush on the part of the ERA theologians to identify with either the ancient monothelites or recent social Trinitarians. 

Moreover, critics of the ERA theologians must themselves answer the problem of how it is that God sufficiently loves himself in a threefold way if not with the three persons loving one another. This line of inquiry has resulted in the intriguing idea of Andrew Moody and Mark Baddely, through the Australian Gospel Coalition website, that there is an inner Trinitarian ordered beauty of willing proposal by the Father and of willing assent by the Son and the Spirit. Moody and Baddely hope their idea simultaneously avoids diminishing the divine persons and dividing the divine will. We look forward to evaluating their forthcoming contributions.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part One of Five)

The throne [θρόνος] of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His slaves [δοῦλοι] will serve Him. (John 22:3b; HCSB)
My wife, Karen, is a close and careful reader of Scripture, and some of our greatest joys occur when we discuss the proper interpretation of the authoritative Word of God. Karen is also a close reader of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Trinity, since she is writing a thesis on that subject under the supervision of Gerardo Alfaro. Bonhoeffer's innovative if incomplete ruminations on the Trinity have shaped the contemporary discussion in a profound, if largely unrecognized, way.

One particular question with which we have been struggling is exactly how creation in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) is to be seen in our marriage. What does it mean that there is an analogia relationis (Bonhoeffer's term) between the triune God and his image in humanity, especially in the relation of a man and his wife? Little were we to realize that a conversation with parallels to our own questions about Trinity and relation would explode in controversy on the web in recent weeks.

We bring forward this essay as a small contribution to that huge and fruitful, if sometimes tense, discussion. Before beginning, please allow a few caveats.

First, this is not intended to be an academic presentation, though it draws on academic work we performed together and individually. We have opted to speak freely in summary rather than with scholastic detail in order to allow the general reader some access to this discussion.

Second, the issue of authority is not our foremost concern with regard to the Trinity. Malcolm recently wrote a book, God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits, in which he lightly touches on the current issue. His foremost concern, demonstrated at length there, is knowing who God is through his revelation so we might worship him truly. Likewise, Karen studies the Trinity, not for speculative anthropological reasons but to help her lead women and children to worship God in mind, heart, and deed.

Third, determining the exact method one should follow in moving from theology (including the doctrine of the Trinity) to anthropology (including the relations between man and wife) requires contemplation. We only touch upon aspects of that movement here and refer the reader to Malcolm's contribution to a forthcoming book edited by Keith Whitfield. B&H Academic plans to publish Whitfield's Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application in time for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in November of this year. Malcolm's essay stresses that the direction of theological anthropology moves from theology to anthropology with utmost care and eschatological openness.

Finally, to extend our second point, we again note that Trinity and gender is not our primary concern. Worshiping God truly and with joyous hearts is our primary concern. Because we believed entering this conversation might detract from that service, we have been reluctant to enter it. We fear a reader's hasty preconceptions will categorize us as being "with them," whoever "they" are. Evangelicals have divided between egalitarians and complementarians, and the conversation has been so heated that whole agendas appear at work to build up one position or tear down the other. Moreover, these two major parties have further divided among themselves, with accusations of going beyond orthodoxy. We lament all unnecessary divisions and ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to treat each other with the love and generosity our Lord exemplified and commanded (John 13:34-35).

With those caveats, we now turn to an explication of the Trinity in light of some of the recent conversations online.

The Two Primary Complementarian Positions

Both Wayne Grudem and Mark Jones have summarily cited Malcolm as supporting their respective yet opposite positions in the recent internet controversy. Actually, we find positive aspects in both of the complementarian positions. Our hope is to help provide a positive way forward. In order to reach that goal, we must summarize the two major positions as we perceive them. If we have not represented your position correctly, we beg your forbearance and would gladly stand corrected.

The Eternal Relations of Authority Position

Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, Owen Strachan, and Mike Ovey are among the primary proponents of what has been variously called Eternal Functional Subordination, Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, Eternal Submission of the Son, etc. We will classify these under the name of Eternal Relations of Authority (ERA). We offer four summative statements to characterize the positive position of this accomplished set of conservative evangelical theologians:

1.     Their primary method is to construct an understanding of the Trinity from the biblical ground up.
2.     The primary analogy they have chosen to organize the complex biblical witness about the immanent relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the biblical text is a relational analogy, that of personal "relations of authority."
3.     The ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) of the Nicene tradition is affirmed. God the Father and God the Son, along with the Holy Spirit, share the same nature.
4.     Most ERA proponents seem to operate from a modern Calvinist perspective.

The Other Complementarian Position

The initiating proponents of this position include such theologians as Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman, but many others have weighed in. (From inside conservative evangelical circles, still other complementarians have joined in the critique of the ERA position, but without condemnations. Egalitarian evangelicals such as Scot McKnight and Michael Bird have also stepped forward with comments. Beyond evangelicalism, patristic scholars such as Lewis Ayres and Michel Rene Barnes have supported this other position.) We tossed around different terms to classify this second position, but settled on the primary descriptive term, "other," though "classical" could be used with justification. We offer four summative statements to characterize the positive position of this accomplished set of conservative evangelical theologians:

1.     These theologians seek to construct a biblical theology of the Trinity, but with an ear sensitive to the theological exegesis of the classical tradition.
2.     The primary analogy they have chosen to organize the complex witness of the biblical text regarding the immanent Trinity is the Cappadocian and Augustinian language of "eternal generation" with regard to the Son and "eternal procession" with regard to the Holy Spirit. This theological analogy is relational, but differs from that of the ERA theologians. Where the ERA theologians stress relations of authority, the others use the ontological language of "relations of origin" and "modes of subsistence" or simply "ordered relations" (τάξις, taxis).
3.     The ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) of the Nicene tradition is affirmed. God the Father and God the Son, along with God the Holy Spirit, share the same nature. Also receiving major emphasis is the divine attribute of simplicity.
4.     Many of these proponents also operate from a modern Calvinist perspective. Some follow B.B. Warfield's disjunction between the immanent Trinity and economic Trinity, while others lean toward a modified version of Karl Rahner's identification between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Some appeal to the Augustinian presentation of the Trinity with its psychological analogy or love analogy. Some appeal to the Reformed covenant of redemption. Others appeal to Calvin's origination of the Son from himself as God (αὐτόθεοϛ, autotheos). In various ways, the traditional emphasis on the unity of the three persons is thus emphasized.

From these descriptions of the opposing positions, it should be evident that, alongside their obvious agreement regarding gender complementarianism, there is much agreement regarding the presentation of their doctrine of the Trinity. Both the ERA complementarians and the other complementarians agree there is a threeness and oneness in the biblical witness to God. Both affirm the Nicene tradition's appeal to the one οὐσία (ousia, often translated as "essence," "nature," "substance," or "being") of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both positions appear to affirm there are three persons (ὑπόστασεις, hypostaseis) in the Godhead, though this has been typically implied. Next, we turn to the crisis between the two groups, which we believe is focused upon whether describing the relations between the three persons, and particularly between the Father and the Son, as eternal relations of authority is orthodox.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Book Excerpt)

Evangelicalism in America has amalgamated for scholars in the organization known as the Evangelical Theological Society. The two parts of its “doctrinal basis” concern the Bible’s truthfulness and God the Trinity. While some evangelicals have addressed the Trinity in terms of systematic theology and others have employed the Trinity in debates over gender relations, few monographs are dedicated to evaluating the biblical source material for the Trinity. This is an odd oversight for a people whose confession centers on only the Bible and the Trinity.

Anecdotal evidence, moreover, suggests such work should begin in earnest, for if a recent survey is correct, most evangelical Christians in the United States are not necessarily Trinitarian. One-fifth of American evangelicals claimed Jesus is the first creature created by God, and more than half claimed the Holy Spirit is a force and not a personal being. That survey gives some credence to Curtis Freeman’s controversial claim that “most Baptists are Unitarians that simply have not yet gotten around to denying the Trinity.” If evangelical scholars are Trinitarian, the people in the churches may not be.

In addition, there is some diversity among Christian scholars regarding whether the Trinity is a necessary doctrine. One well-known evangelical theologian, Roger E. Olson of Baylor University, says the doctrine of the Trinity is a true conclusion, but belief in the Trinity is neither necessary nor part of gospel proclamation. Another, R. Albert Mohler Jr. of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to the contrary classifies the doctrine of the Trinity as “fundamental and essential to the Christian faith.” Leaving to the side the issue of “theological triage,” which both theologians affirm, an evangelical equivocation regarding the Trinity remains.

In writing this book, we set out to answer these two questions: Is the doctrine that God is Trinity a biblical doctrine? Is it, moreover, a doctrine that is necessary to believe? The eight chapters in this book contribute toward the answers.

In the midst of engaging in the close theological exegesis of eight important biblical texts, it became evident that a Trinitarian reading of Scripture also required an evaluation of Protestant hermeneutics. The method of Bible study many evangelicals are taught to use must be substantially revised if the Trinity and the Bible are to coalesce. As a result, there arose the need to wrestle with interpretive method as much as Trinitarian exegesis. Indeed, we almost adopted the subtitle, “The Trinitarian Revision of Biblical Hermeneutics.”

Karl Barth observed this difficulty and opted to diminish hermeneutics out of concern that any interpretive criterion beyond the text necessarily distorts exegesis. While there is much to learn from Barth, and his call to enter “the strange new world of the Bible” warms the heart of this free churchman in his own friendly remonstration toward Protestant evangelicalism, we have opted to revise rather than repress evangelical hermeneutical method.

In the following study, comparison is made with the art of painting as a helping metaphor. This was deemed helpful on several accounts. First, it allows for a focused consideration of the various texts, treating each according to its own authorship, genre, and context. From a modern critical perspective, this properly takes the history and grammar of any text as a distinct phenomenon with utmost solemnity. Second, the appeal to art helps construct a bridge from the rationalism endemic among the practitioners of my own discipline in theology to the more holistic approach of the biblical writers. The critique of any work of literature requires both reason and imagination, but the theological interpretation of Scripture especially requires the graces of both logos and pneuma.

Third, the art metaphor allows this author to function as an appreciative if critical commentator upon each text as a great work of theological literature. Avoiding the extremes of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, we sought to weave a middle way through the judicious employment of both modern and premodern methods. Finally, the meticulous treatment of each text on its own later permits the epilogue to pursue a distinct canonical approach, as when art is gathered thematically for review in contemporary art galleries.

Order God the Trinity at LifeWayAmazonBarnes & Noble, or

(This post originally appeared in a slightly different format at my publisher's website, B&H Academic.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Textbooks for Spring 2016

During the past several years, the Lord has blessed me with many students to disciple in the theology of the kingdom of God. It is a great honor, immense joy, and spiritual burden for God and His people to entrust this servant with such a profound responsibility. However, in light of the large and growing classes--over 350 during this last semester alone--it has become necessary to streamline communication. Thus we will periodically resort to this blog to help. In answer to the many requests regarding the textbooks that we will be using next semester, please note the following.

If you are interested in one of the three Systematic Theology II courses, the books are projected to include:

1. Akin, A Theology for the Church, Revised Edition (2014)
2. Stott, The Cross of Christ
3. Duesing, White, and Yarnell, Upon This Rock

If you are interested in the Trinity course, while not finally determined as yet, we will most likely use 5 of these 6 books:

1. Augustine, The Trinity
2. Durst, Reordering the Trinity
3. Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations
4. Rahner, The Trinity
5. The Oxford Handbook on the Trinity
6. Yarnell, God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits

Thank you all for your prayers. And thank you, John Mann and Sean Wegener, for your invaluable assistance in shepherding these theologians.

Soli deo gloria

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another Discovery: Martin Luther's "Enflamed Dialogue" in French

Several years ago, through the providence of library research in Oxford, I discovered a piece that could only be described as "the first evangelical 'Sinner's Prayer' published in English." It was striking that such a prayer could have been published by William Tyndale, yet it was not included in the various authoritative collections of his works. Tyndale, of course, was the famous translator of the English Bible, a commentator upon Scripture, an early English Reformation controversialist, and a martyr for evangelical Christianity.

The Southwestern Journal of Theology, at the time edited by Doug Blount, kindly allowed space in its pages to discuss the background of the prayer and to bring a transcription of Tyndale's prayer back into print after a nearly 500-year hiatus. (See Southwestern Journal of Theology, volume 47, number 1, pp. 27-44.)

More recently, Thomas P. Johnston, Professor of Evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a gentleman who I helped hire for the faculty when I was their Academic Dean, has made another interesting discovery. The most recent issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology, an academic journal that Terry Wilder and I started, has an article by Johnston regarding his find.

Johnston discovered that Luther's conclusion of his Exposition on the Lord's Prayer, which Tyndale revised and published in English, had also been translated into French. The French translation, which precedes Tyndale's revision, was attached to Luther's 1519 L'Oraison Dominicale and was known as the Enflamed Dialogue. Johnston has provided an English translation of the French alongside my transcription of Tyndale's revision.

Moreover, Johnston argues that the French translation was given "both elegance and cultural prominence" in the Kingdom of France because it was put in verse form by Marguerite, the Duchesse of Angouleme and sister of the French monarch. Johnston believes this prayer was influential in the spread of evangelicalism in 16th-century France. French evangelicalism eventually swept up the leading second-generation Reformer, John Calvin, but was persecuted harshly during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre and was finally dispersed after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

A native Francophone, Johnston's passionate evangelistic heart for God and for people to know God comes through his comments upon Luther's Enflamed Dialogue in its French and English versions. Johnston's article, along with articles by Midwestern's new president, Jason Allen, and other members of that fine Southern Baptist faculty, including Jared Wilson, Michael McMullen, and Radu Gheorghita, may be found in pdf format here.