Triune Mutuality
November 15, 2021

I wrote the following essay some time back for some website or other. When I went searching for it recently, I discovered it was hard to find, so I'm re-posting it here, with very minor changes, to make it more readily available.

The recent Evangelical brawl about the Trinity has focused on the work of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, both of whom have denied the eternal generation of the Son and said that the Son is eternally “subordinate” to the Father.

On the first point, the critics are entirely correct, as both Ware and Grudem now admit. The debate concerning eternal “subordination” has been more chaotic and proportionally less illuminating. Some critics responded as if Ware and Grudem were Arians, teaching that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father, a being somewhat less than fully divine. Both vehemently deny this charge. Ware and Grudem are instead talking about a taxis of equally divine persons, and Grudem has produced an impressive catalog of reliable Protestant theologians who also talk of the eternal “subordination” of the Son. If nothing else, he has demonstrated his terminology isn’t novel.

To be sure, eternal subordination has taken some odd twists. According to Ware, it’s “not as though the Father is unable to work unilaterally, but rather, he chooses to involve the Son and the Spirit.” If this is what Ware means by “subordination,” then it runs contrary contrary to the orthodox (especially Cappadocian) insistence that, in all God’s works outside of Himself, the Father initiates, the Son executes, and the Spirit perfects. A Father who chooses to deploy the Son and Spirit is a Father who chooses to be Triune. That is not the God revealed in Jesus.

Ware has since clarified by calling his statement a “hypothetical”:

. . . since the Father is omnipotent, there simply is nothing that could hinder him by nature from doing anything he would choose to do. Of course, this is purely hypothetical, and I acknowledge that my wording here could be made more precise. I did not intend to suggest that the Father ever would act in such an independent manner, or could act independently, strictly speaking, in light of the Trinitarian union of persons.”

But the hypothetical indicates that there’s still room for clarification in Ware’s Trinitarian theology. The Father is not, even hypothetically, omnipotent in Himself, because a Father is not and cannot be a Father “in Himself.” One cannot speculate on what the Father would be like if He had no Son, since without His Son He would not be Father. Once we start talking about a hypothetical sonless being, we’re no longer talking about the Father of the Lord Jesus.

This highlights one of the main problems with talk of intra-Trinitarian “hierarchy”: its uni-directionality obscures the mutuality and dynamism of the relations among the Persons. Relations constitute each Person as the Person He is, and so mutual relations constitute the Trinity as Trinity. Mutuality couldn’t be more basic.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Father, as “first” Person, has some sort of primacy (“made of none; neither created, nor begotten,” as the Athanasian Creed puts it). Even if we accept that “primacy” is a felicitous formula, the Father’s precedence is immediately destabilized, because, as Athanasius insisted, the Father is “first” only by begetting a “second.”

A Sonless Father is as impossible as a Fatherless Son. Only thus is the Father eternally  Father, as opposed to a faceless Somesuch who becomes Father. (Note for later that Athanasius’s entire argument assumes a substantive, though qualified, analogy between divine and human relations.) The personal identity of the Father is as eternally “dependent” on the Son’s sonship as the Son is eternally “dependent” on the Father’s begetting. Whatever “hierarchy” exists within the Trinity has a self-cancelling quality, a quality that reverberates in human experience. As any attentive parent will tell you, inversion of hierarchy is the arc of family history: Long before children become parents, they begin to remake their parents. Wordsworth was talking about something else, but his line captures the point: “the Child is father of the Man.”

In the economy, mutuality among the Persons manifests itself in a dynamic mutual glorification. “Glorify thy Son together with Thyself, Father,” Jesus prays, “with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Jesus asks the Father to glorify Him with pre-creation glory, now as God-man, Logos-made-flesh. But Jesus prays for the Father to glorify Him so that “the Son may glorify Thee” (17:1). Given the Scriptural connection between the Spirit and glory, we may say that, in the economy, the Father and Son glorify one another in and by the Spirit. If the Father is glorious, it is with the glory by which the Son glorifies Him; if the Son is glorified, it is because the Father has glorified Him in the Spirit. There is not even a slightest sliver of a crack to begin speculating about whether each has glory “in Himself.”

On any account of Trinity, the Son who is fully divine receives from the Father, which means that there is such a thing as divine receptivity. God has and bestows glory, but when that truth is refracted Trinitarianly, we discern that God has, bestows, and receives glory. If we may, with caution, introduce “subordination” into our account of the immanent Trinity, there is such a thing as divine subordination, and we may follow Barth in concluding that humility is a divine attribute. Current debates aside, it’s hard to see how we can say anything less, once we affirm that Jesus reveals the Father: If you have seen Me, He tells Philip, you have seen the Father, because the Son does nothing except what He sees the Father doing. If the Son humbles Himself, it can only be because He’s taken cues from His Father.

The consequences are soul-altering. The difference between the Triune God and the multiple gods of polytheism isn’t mathematical. Trinitarian theology doesn’t distribute standard-issue Unitarian attributes among three divine Persons. Trinitarians worship and declare a God unlike any God human beings have or could conceive. As N.T. Wright has said, to say that Jesus of Nazareth is God is to say something remarkable about Jesus. It is also to make an astonishing claim about God. It’s not merely that Jesus is God or Godlike. The momentous truth is that God is like Jesus.

Ware, Grudem, and others have argued that Trinitarian theology illuminates sexual difference. Some critics have retorted that the Triune God is more than a social program (absolutely true), but others, fearing a slip into social Trinitarianism, have argued that the Trinity has no implications for our understanding of human relations.

Paul would beg to differ. 1 Corinthians 11:3 states three analogous relationships of headship: Christ : every man :: man : woman :: God : Christ. The relation of a man and a woman is analogous to the relationship of God to Christ. To argue that Paul refers to the relation of the Father to the incarnate Son implies that the incarnate Son’s relation to the Father is something other than the Son’s relation to the Father, and that implies that the incarnate Son is, in His Person, someone other than the eternal Son.

Jesus would beg to differ. Jesus prays that His disciples would be one as the Father and Son are one (John 17:21). Father and Son are one in a unity of mutual indwelling (“perichoresis”). And Jesus prays that a unity of mutual indwelling would characterize the community of disciples. Jesus wants the church to be an earthly, human analogue of the communion of Father and Son. He wants us to be a communal expression of Triune life.

Some critics of Ware and Grudem make the dictum that the Trinity has a “single will” the touchstone of orthodoxy. I’m dubious that this formula functioned as a test of orthodoxy in the patristic period, and the formula itself is dogmatically problematic. Consider the incarnation. Father, Son, and Spirit will as one that the Son be sent. It’s not as if the three come to a consensus after deliberation. Further, we should take to heart Lewis Ayres’ caution against speaking incautiously of “the Father who sends, the Son who is sent,” remembering that the Son comes of His own volition. Still: There is a distinction between the Father willing to send the Son and the Son willing to send Himself and the Spirit’s willing to be the agent by whom the Son is sent. Does the Father say, “I will that I be sent”? On the other hand, how could the Son not will that very thing?

One might evade this dilemma by saying that none of the Persons is capable of knowing, pronouncing, or being an “I.” If none can say “I,” none can say “I will.” This runs contrary to what is self-evident in the economy, where Jesus says things like “I and the Father are one” and where the Father says “I will glorify your name.” Unless the Father is capable of an “I Father” and the Son capable of “I Son,” we are left with the conclusion that the only “I” in the Trinity is the “I” of the one essence, a conclusion that is hard to distinguish from modalism.

Many in this debate have repeated Gregory of Nazianzus’s claim that we cannot think of the one without immediately thinking of the three, or of the three without immediately thinking of the one. When they begin to speak of “one will,” however, they leave Gregory behind. When it comes to will, it is oneness, the purest unity, all the way down. This cannot be correct. In speaking of God’s one will, we must talk, certainly in carefully nuanced fashion, of a single will that, like everything else in the Trinity, exists only as the will of distinct Persons.

Modalism lurks around another corner as well. Some have argued that the axiom of “one will” follows from the linkage of will and nature, which was an axiom of patristic Christology. The incarnate Son has two natures, and therefore two wills; if nature is the seat of will, then God, who has only one nature, must have one will. This raises serious difficulties. Will is a personal quality: Whose will is this one will? It cannot be the will of an undifferentiated divine nature, for no such nature exists. The only divine nature that is is the nature personalized as Father, Son, and Spirit. There’s no “extra” essence, nor any modalizable nature behind or beyond the three. God’s one nature-will is, necessarily, differentiated as the one will of the three who are one.

Behind this entire debate runs a fundamental question about the relationship between the gospel and the God of the gospel: Does the incarnation and history of Jesus disclose God as He is? Or,  is the economic Trinity so radically different from the immanent Trinity that we cannot draw any firm ontological conclusions from the economy? If we are to have any Trinitarian theology at all, we have to answer the first question with a firm Yes, and then do the hard work of figuring out what that means in detail. The alternative is a non-starter. If the Son’s entry into flesh distorts the Father-Son relation, then how can we see the Father in Jesus? If the history of Jesus doesn’t unfold the life of the Trinity, where can we find it? If God created the world to manifest His glory, why would we conclude that the creation cannot manifest His glory after all?

When theologians spread questionable doctrine, they need to be corrected and the church needs to be purified. Sometimes we need a brawl. But I fear the recent debate will have a chilling effect on Evangelical Trinitarian theology. After Nicea, theologians continued to write long treatises on the Trinity, and they didn’t confine themselves to mantra-like repetition of creedal formulas. Augustine had summarized Nicene orthodoxy by Book 5 of de Trinitate, and spent the remaining ten books expansively exploring, elaborating, speculating, wondering, worshiping. Evangelical theology would be ill-served if theologians were discouraged from following his example.

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