The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity

1. The Debate So Far
2. Survey of Some Relevant Material
3. Subordination

The fourth part of my series on the recent controversy on the Trinity and subordination has just been published over on Reformation21.

The manner in which various ESS positions speak of the relations between the persons of the Trinity and of the persons more generally is a further area of concern for critics. Within the ESS position there often seems to lurk at least an incipient social Trinitarianism. Social Trinitarianism conceives of the persons of the Trinity as if they were three distinct subjectivities—three ‘I’s—in communion and speaks of their relations accordingly.This is a significant departure from the Church’s historic doctrine of the Trinity, within which the language of ‘person’ functions rather differently and does not carry the meaning that it does in popular parlance. The ‘persons’ of the Trinity are not three distinct centres of consciousness or agencies–which would suggest something resembling tritheism and undermine the oneness (and the simplicity) of God. The persons, or hypostases, are three instantiations of the one divine nature. However, most of the things that we would associate with personhood—knowledge, will, love, wisdom, mind, etc.—are grounded, not in the three hypostases, but in the one divine nature. In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term ‘person’, in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one ‘person’ with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though.

Read the whole piece here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Doctrine of God, Guest Post, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity

  1. Andrew says:

    “It is to this problem and the question of the eternal generation of the Son that I will turn in my next post.”. Finally! 😉

    I’m looking forward to comparing / contrasting your discussion with Mark Baddeley’s ( and following).

  2. cal says:

    “In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term ‘person’, in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one ‘person’ with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though.”

    I think it’s worth distinguishing Zizoulas’ thought from some of the others because of his Eastern emphases. What interests me most is how he makes his criticism of “Latin” theology vis. the integrity of the Persons, threatened as they are when treated merely as relations (a valid concern).What keeps him from following other social trinitarians is a) his refusal to define person, even for Humans b) energies/essence distinction. In the wake of Eastern Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the monarchia of the Father, the distinction of the persons is never lost into some vague notion of divinitas, as per some Western theologian’s emphasis on the monarchia of the Trinity, most notably argued for by Torrance and Gunton. I’m inclined to agree with the East on this question, as it makes a lot more sense of the Biblical grammar than any appeal to perichoresis

    Any thoughts on this? Whether Zizoulas or the monarchia more generally? Maybe you’re getting to this and I’m jumping the gun.


    • I think Zizioulas makes some statements that set him apart from the more serious social Trinitarian problems out there. For instance:

      I have insisted that the concept of person, if derived from a study of Greek patristic thought, and especially from Cappadocian Trinitarian theology, should not be understood as an ‘individual’ in the sense of an identity conceivable in itself, an ‘axis of consciousness’ and a concurrence of natural or moral qualities, or a number that can be subject to addition or combination. That is so because, according to the Greek Fathers, none of the above characteristics can be applied to the divine persons. For the persons of the Trinity, according to the above Fathers, are not ‘individuals’, either in the psychological sense of a centre of consciousness, or in that a combination and concurrence of natural and moral qualities, or in the sense of a number that can be added or combined.

      However, the degree to which he employs the concept of ‘person’ as if it could be univocally used of God and humanity is a genuine concern. Indeed, Zizioulas’ project depends so heavily upon the relationship between the terminology of ‘person’ as applied to God and as applied to humans that it is hard to escape the problems here.

      As regards the monarchy of the Father, I strongly hold to an order in the divine life. However, I am wary that the approach of Zizioulas and others here moves in the direction of derived—even if nominally ‘equal’—divinity for the Son and Spirit. Deity is underived and, although being begotten and being spirated are passive in grammatical form, they are not passive in reality. The order of the Trinity notwithstanding, the Son is God of himself, not just of the Father.

      The alternative to the monarchy of the Father à la Zizioulas need not be the practical interchangeability of the persons and their relations in a perichoretic union, but can be an understanding derived from a robust account of inseparable operation and the doctrine of appropriation. God is pure act and so his being is personal, personal in three hypostases. However, this personal being is differently assigned to the three hypostases. The Father is the Source and the Author. The Son is the Father’s Word and Authority. The Spirit is the one in whom the Father authors his Word. All of the persons together and inseparably possess and actualize the one authority of God.

      Where Zizioulas’ account of the monarchy has issues is in its rather unilateral account of the personal actualization of the one divine nature. The problem is not a strong account of the distinction between the persons per se or an emphasis upon the personal character of the divine being, but a tendency to neglect the Son and the Spirit in assigning the personal grounds of the Triune being almost wholly to the Father. Rather, we should recognize that the Father as the Source and Author of the divine life is not thereby the sole ground of that life. We must insist and emphasize that the Son and Spirit each in their own way actualize the divine life and the Father could in no sense—not merely isn’t—be God apart from them.

  3. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for all your posts about the ongoing debate about the Trinity. I have followed the debate with interest but I have refrained from commenting because I thought that for me to comment would be a case of ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. However in relation to this a poem by Goethe has been on my mind and I decided to mention it here in a part-commenting, part-questioning mode, I suppose!
    I just found this link about Goethe’s ‘Ginkgo biloba’ poem:
    This poem was written by Goethe for his former lover, Marianne von Willemer. Goethe described the leaf of the ginkgo biloba as ‘Eins und doppelt’ (both one and two) and he seemed to suggest that he himself was also ‘both one and two’. I do not want to compare Goethe’s musings about himself with the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity, but I do like his questions about the leaf:
    ‘ Is it one living being that has separated within itself?
    Are there two that have decided to be known as one?’
    (My own translation, which is a bit different from the translation in the link above, and which some might want to improve on) My own tentative answer to these questions is that the leaf has two parts, but it is one leaf, and both parts of the leaf come from the same root and have the same essence. If the leaf had three parts, the same would be true – all three parts would be of the same essence. It seems to me that the three Persons of the Trinity are also of the same essence.

    A Jewish friend told me recently that she wonders if, in believing in the Trinity, Christians believe in three gods. So I thought, yet again, about Goethe’s poem and about one essence.

  4. Aaron Siver says:

    Hi Alastair,

    “… For eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) to exist, it would seem to be necessary to hold that the three divine hypostases are in key senses like persons in the modern sense of that word, which is not the orthodox position. It is to this problem and the question of the eternal generation of the Son that I will turn in my next post.”

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting Part 5. When is it expected to appear?


  5. I ran across this quote from Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho which would seem to indicate that Justin Martyr had a concept of the Eternal Submission of Jesus to God the Father. Take a look at it and let me know what you think.

    “Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavor to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things, — numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world — above whom there is no other God — has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.”

    • There is a lot in the writings of Justin Martyr and other ante-Nicene theologians that is quite inconsistent with Nicene orthodoxy. These were issues that the Church hadn’t yet hammered out at that point.

      • I would agree with that, but this quote and some others I ran across from ante-Nicene writers would seem to indicate that the idea of the eternal submission of the Son is not a modern construct for the purpose of proving complementarianism.

      • Yes, that is a claim that some of us have disputed. However, the teaching concerning eternal relations of authority and submission that one finds in Grudem and Ware is indeed novel and seems to be peculiarly connected to complementarianism.

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