Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Augustine wrote that "In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable" (De Trinitate 1.3.5). That is a weighty sentence and worth remembering. In medicine precision matters and we care about it a great deal. In theology it matters even more.
Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears new book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, has a truly grandstand opening. In unpacking the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity they reason that:
Our longings for love, unity in diversity, communication, community, humility, peace, and selflessness are in fact - by design - longings for the Trinitarian God of the Bible and a world that is a reflection of the Trinity. (p. 12)What follows, or, more perhaps more appropriately given the subject, what proceeds from this, in the rest of the chapter is a straightforward, robust, well applied articulation, anchored in Scripture, of the truth that:
The Trinity is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- who are each fully and equally God in eternal relation with each other (p. 13).Now it would be fair to say that most of us find it easier to defend from Scripture the truth that there is only one living and true God, that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead, and that each of these persons is fully God ("which means that they share all the divine attributes, such as eternality, omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence" as Driscoll and Breshears helpfully put it) than we do to explain it. Moreover, we find it easier to demonstrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is found in Scripture than we find it to explain the relationships between the persons that distinguish them as distinct persons.
We know that Father is different from the Son because he is the Father. We know that the Son is different from the Spirit because he is the Son. But this difference is not found in their attributes as God. The Father, as God, is not more eternal than the Son is. The Son, as God, is no less self-existent than the Father is. The Spirit is no creature but is as omnipotent and omnipresent as the Father and the Son. Each person may be described as very God. These truths are articulated by Driscoll and Breshears, and the corresponding heresies of Modalism (one God playing three successive roles), Arianism (one God, with Christ and Spirit lacking deity) and Tritheism, suitably smacked down.
How then are we to distinguish the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit from each other? Well, historically, this has been done by speaking in terms of their personal properties. The Westminster Larger Catechism sets this out as follows:
Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?These are the historic categories that Christians have reached for to state clearly, but not exhaustively, and with a self-confessed inability to adequately explain just how it is so, that the Father is “unbegotten,” that the Son is “begotten” and that the Spirit (who is neither “unbegotten” nor “begotten”) “proceeds,” from the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Son is therefore eternally begotten, and the procession of the Spirit is an eternal procession. These are eternal acts beyond our capacity to understand. You cannot find a point in time before they occurred. The Son was not begotten at a point in eternity past so that he became the Son.
A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.
Although Driscoll and Breshears deal with the personal properties of the Son and Spirit in the book my comments here will be restricted to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This is an important theological conviction for us to hold to, as I hope to show in due course. This is what Driscoll and Breshears say about it (I've broken up the paragraphs for ease of reading):
As the doctrine of the Trinity developed, theologians struggled to explain the eternal relationships of the Trinity. What differentiates Father from Son and Spirit? Using philosophical methodology, they worked backward from God's economic working in the world to define his eternal relationships.
The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary. Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son." Theologians extended this begetting in history back into the eternal Trinity and posited that the Son is eternally begotten of or generated by the Father.
The whole attempt to define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided. (p. 27)The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God can be found in the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the Reformed Confessions. To jettison a doctrine that has a remarkable theological pedigree on the grounds that it has insufficient Scriptural support and is misguided is a significant claim, and one that needs to be carefully looked at and weighed.
Let me raise some preliminary questions about these statements.
- Is the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity eternal, or is it temporal?
- When Scripture speaks of the Son being begotten is it only talking about his human sonship and nature derived from Mary? Is this when he was begotten by the Father?
- Has he always been the Son, or did the second person of the Trinity become the Son of God only when he became incarnate as Driscoll and Breshears seem to imply in the statements above?
I'm not entirely sure what to make of the statement that “The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary. Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son.” It strikes me as a sentence that doesn't precisely convey what the authors believe about the eternality of the Sonship of Christ. Are they really suggesting that there is one generation of the Son, and that this consists in his being begotten by Mary? Do all the references in Scripture to the Son being begotten by the Father refer to this?
We ought to speak of God creating the humanness of the Son from the substance of Mary, but we should avoid any implication that Christ's Sonship was begotten from the substance of Mary. Jesus is not referred to as the only begotten Son because of Mary, but because, unlike us, he is the natural Son of God.
Things are cleared up a little later on in the chapter when our authors helpfully say that “God the Father and God the Son were proverbially face-to-face in eternity past” (p. 34) and of the “unity and love that exist eternally between the Father and the Son” (p. 30). From these last two statements it seems clear that they do hold to the eternal Sonship of the second person of the Trinity in addition to his eternal pre-existence and deity.
Evidently then, the identity of the Son as the Son did not begin in a outhouse in Bethlehem. This is important. The principal casualty in the tinkering with the eternal Sonship of Christ, for tinkering there has been throughout church history, is the eternal paternity of God. If the Son is not eternal, then the Father has not been the eternal Father, and before we know it the mutual love of the persons of the Trinity has been evacuated of its eternal depth and richness. We are left with persons, but can no longer speak of how they relate to each other in eternity, and we cannot say with any confidence therefore that this relationship is one of eternal love. This error is one that, even with their rejection of eternal generation, Driscoll and Breshears clearly avoid.
Driscoll and Breshears affirm that the Son is in eternal relationship with the Father, and the Spirit, but, that we know nothing, and can say nothing, concerning the nature of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. They are not willing to affirm that he is the Father's only begotten Son, “begotten, before all worlds.” Although the first person of the Trinity has revealed himself as the Father, and the second person of the Trinity is revealed to us as the eternal Son of the Father, and although the first person is said to have begotten the second person in Scripture (there is explicit Scriptural warrant for this in Hebrews 1:5 and elsewhere, there are nine references given in footnote 66 on p. 27), we are warned that any attempt to define this eternal relationship is misguided.
There are yet more questions to ask. What “philosophical methodology” did these theologians use as they worked backward from what the Trinity has done in time to work out what the Trinity is like in eternity? We are not told. What are we to make of the words of Jesus in John 5:26, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself,” as passage that Driscoll and Breshears do not refer to or discuss.
In the next post I will take up the three reasons why Driscoll and Breshears think that the attempt to "define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided."