The Trinity: Prosopologically Speaking (Response to Some Comments)

(This post follows up on The Trinity: Reflections without Recrimination by Tom Nettles.)

Are there necessary and fitting connections between God’s opera ad intra and his opera ad extra? I believe there are. Do the Father and the Son and the Spirit operate precisely in the same spheres and in the same ways in the opera ad extra? No. Is this because, as they exist eternally and necessarily as three persons in one God, these eternal personal distinctions operate ad extra in a way consistent with their existence ad intra? I would say, “yes,” and would see this as an expression of the divine simplicity, not a Unitarian simplicity, but a Trinitarian simplicity.

How does this differ from Liam Goligher’s explanation in a June 14 post? He writes:

“Better to see the matter in the economy where undoubtedly Christ, in the covenant of redemption (meaning, in eternity of course), and in the decree encompassing creation, election and redemption undertook to take into Himself our humanity and take into Himself the form of a servant.”

Did the Son, already anticipating his role as Christ according to Goligher’s use of language, undertake this out of harmony with his personhood or in harmony with his personhood, or in an absolutely indifferent manner having nothing to do with the perfect moral propensities of the unchanging divine nature? Neither disharmony nor indifference is possible, so the role undertaken was in harmony with his eternal personhood as the Son. One observer wrote, “A natural & voluntary eternal submission cannot be predicated as a personal property of the Son in relation to the Father,” and gave as his reason, “That relation is supernatural and necessary.” As many theologians do, I used the word “natural” for an internal Trinitarian prosopological relation. Obviously the relation is supernatural, if one speaks vis-a-vis the created order, but “natural” if speaking of personal relations within the one essence of deity. The comment’s reference to this being “necessary” is exactly the point of calling it natural. Further, if this is not a “personal property of the Son in relation to the Father,” pray tell me, along with love and equality of essence as mentioned in my article, why it is not? If one suggests that begottenness is the only property that can be ascribed to Sonship, he affirms only a mode of being and not attributes of being. Does simplicity really demand that we ascribe no properties to any person of the Trinity? And unless one wants to deny that God “works all things after the counsel of his will,” then any distinct provision (to use Rev. Goligher’s concept) by any person of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be naturally and voluntarily assumed as the fitting appropriation of the single will of God by that distinct personal subsistence. Neither the absolute unity of the divine will nor the simplicity of his internal being and operations is challenged or disrupted in seeking to be truly Trinitarian. Certain radical and rationalistic applications of simplicity drive the thinker toward an arid and lonely Unitarianism and make him squelch a fully-engaged and dynamic interaction with the data of Scripture.

We always are teetering on the edge of error on this issue no matter how guarded, chastened, and careful our language is. Every theologian has seen it in his day and, ironically, contributes to it while he seeks to escape it. None of us can say everything at once, and so the aspect of truth that we seek to emphasize may seem enlarged, out of proportion, and, thus, wrong. Calvin noted in his discussion of the expressions of “Trinity” and “Person” in Institutes I.xiii.3, “For thus are we wearied with quarreling over words, thus by bickering do we lose the truth, thus by hateful wrangling do we destroy love.”

The great confessionalist Princetonian, Samuel Miller issued caution in this sphere of doctrinal labor:

“On the one hand, if such absolute uniformity in the mode of explaining every minute detail of truth is contended for, with the rigor which some appear to consider as necessary; if men are to be criminated, and subjected to discipline, for not expounding every doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith in the same precise manner with every other subscriber who has gone before him; the church must inevitably be kept in a state of constant mutual crimination and conflict, and peace will be out of the question.” [Letter on “Adherence to Our Doctrinal Standards,” Doctrinal Integrity, Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989, 77]

Receiving both encouragement and warning from those candid admissions, I submit just a bit more analysis. Those who issue comments about this strain of thought share Liam Goligher’s concern that, “There is implicit in the subordinationist view a denial of the unity of God defined in terms of singularity and simplicity.” Again he asserts, “The eternal subordination of the Son challenges the simplicity of God. The very ideas of functions and roles within the Trinity ad intra are inconceivable, they are subsistent relations fully in act.” This is very similar to one of the complaints about my article, “to predicate a voluntary personal property is to divide the will, and to discard divine simplicity and substantial unity.” Interestingly, in Calvin’s refutation of Sabellianism, he observed, “To shatter the man’s wickedness the upright doctors, who then had piety at heart, loudly responded that three properties must truly be recognized in the one God” [I.xiii.4].

Without revisiting my preference for the word “submission” with all the reasons given in my article, none of the assertions set forth or arguments attempted have given any compelling reason that submission cannot be an eternal incommunicable property in the eternally generated Son. After giving a brief, and beautiful, statement on simplicity based on biblical synthesis, Liam Goligher affirms simplicity as meaning that “God has no parts” and is, thus “identical with His attributes.” I have accepted that for decades and do now reaffirm, joyfully and in the spirit of worship, divine simplicity. Goligher also cites and summarizes Gavin Ortlund and Augustine making affirmations in which I fully concur. One from Augustine states that “God is pure essence without accidents. In God is everything and everything is one. God is everything He possesses. He has a distinct and different and infinite life of His own within Himself.”

If it is true, and it is, that God is “without accidents,” then nothing resident within the dynamic fellowship and glory of the Godhead is a mere appendage, and even economic covenantal relations assumed “before the foundation of the world” speak of something that is essential, not accidental, in the being of Trinitarian relations. When we learn, therefore, that God the Father “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:3, 4), we find out something about the simplicity of God that includes the particular offices of each person of the Trinity in eternal relations. When we learn that God has saved us in accord with “his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9), we peer into eternity and see divine simplicity manifest in covenantal roles assumed in accord with essential attributes of the triune God, and non-accidental incommunicable properties of each person of the Trinity. When we learn that eternal life was “promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2), we may safely assume that all that was included in that promise to effect eternal life through the separate but equally divine and perichoretically effected operations of Father, Son, and Spirit are not assumed as accidents, something prosopologically extraneous, but in accord with immutable divine attributes that include the discreet operations of each person of the Trinity in the one indivisible operation of God. When we learn that Christ Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” that he assumed in eternity co-terminous with the existence of the eternal pactum salutis, the temporal evacuation of the display of the glory of his deity, and that his so assuming this principle of the incarnation was taken for himself alone and arising from an incommunicable property of his eternal existence as Son, we learn something about divine simplicity. While by perichoresis we receive the revealed truth that the Father “has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3), and that the “Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5:20), we at the same time recognize that by office peculiar to Himself, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63), and “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), and “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13), and that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God [and] that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5, 8), and that we are initiated existentially into divine mercy “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Knowing that by divine revelation, we concede that there is a particularity in the office of the Spirit fitting to him prosopologically in a way that is not so of the Son and the Father. Though only an ad extra manifestation, such operations reflect an ad intra potential of an eternal propensity in God.

Though ad intra God has no parts, he can, and in fact must, manifest his simplicity in parts as he deals with his creation which does consist of parts. Different moral states require distinct and justly operative acts of God toward each moral being in particular—mercy, grace and forgiveness toward some and wrath, fury, tribulation, and distress toward others—all of them as distributions of his simple goodness, their capability of partitive distribution in no way contradicting or compromising divine simplicity.

If we assume “grace” given us according to divine purpose before the foundation of the world in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 1:9), recognizing that “grace” does not operate ad intra but only ad extra, are we to assume that God is not really gracious because we know it only ad extra in the pactum salutis? When God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” do we object that God really is not merciful and gracious ad intra since only in ad extra relations is it possible for such properties of goodness to be displayed? When the Lord does pass before Moses and says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation,” (Deuteronomy 33:19; 34: 6, 7) do we object that mercy, grace, anger, and forgiveness should not be asserted as divine attributes because they operate only ad extra? Of course not.

We all have biblical sense enough to know, along with Jonathan Edwards, that God created the world so that original propensities of his nature that had no opportunity for manifestation in his eternal internal operations of perfect fellowship, knowledge, and love would flow out in the ad extra engagement with both the natural and moral order of the world he created. Every relation exhibited toward the world by each person of the triune God reveals something that formerly was potential as an original propensity of nature that now is manifest: “his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9, 10). In this context, therefore, I affirm that an original property of the Son, incommunicable to any other person of the Trinity, is submission. Such an immense operation of both revelation and manifestation of the announced “goodness” of God, to Moses, would have been absolutely unfitting unless this were eternally resident within the Son as the potential of a prosopological incommunicable property.

Perhaps this attempt at biblical/doctrinal synthesis is what one commenter noted as “Biblicism, distinct divine consciousnesses, and bad version of pactum salutis” or what another called, “serious mis-steps” arising from being “really misinformed” resulting in “a misapplication of the covenant of redemption.” I am willing to be convinced that Biblicism in such a matter is naively misguided, that the Son has no personal consciousness of his assumption of roles quite distinct from the Father and the Spirit, and that this “version” of the pactum salutis somehow is bad, misinformed, and misses the mark. So far, however, it seems to me that the Bible is filled with material that helps us sort out unique operations and properties of each person of the Trinity of which those persons are at least as aware as we are, and that this application of the covenant of redemption is a matter of divinely revealed truth.

Calvin helps unpack this issue:

Person,; therefore, I call a subsistence in God’s essence, which, while related to the others, is distinguished by an incommunicable quality. By the term subsistence, we would understand something different from essence. For if the Word were simply God, and yet possessed no other characteristic mark, John would wrongly have said that the Word was always with God. When immediately after he adds that the Word was also God himself, he recalls us to the essence as a unity. But because he could not be with God without residing in the Father, hence emerges the idea of a subsistence, which even though it has been joined with the essence by a common bond and cannot be separated from it, yet has a special mark whereby it is distinguished from it. Now, of the three subsistences I say that each one, while related to the others, is distinguished by a special quality. This relation is here distinctly expressed: because where simple and indefinite mention is made of God, this name pertains no less to the Son and the Spirit than to the Father. But as soon as the Father is compared with the Son, the character of each distinguishes the one from the other. Thirdly, whatever is proper to each individually, I maintain to be incommunicable because whatever is attributed to the Father as a distinguishing mark cannot agree with, or be transferred to, the Son. Nor am I displeased with Tertullian’s definition, provided it be taken in the right sense, that there is a kind of distribution or economy in God which has no effect on the unity of essence. [I.xiii.6].

Goligher cites Bavinck when he writes, “The divine being is not composed of three persons, nor is each person composed of the being and personal attributes of that person, but the one uncompounded (simple) being exists in three persons.” This is sublime, simple, and unalterably true as far as it goes. It cannot be set forth and understood, however, in such a way as to eliminate the reality of distinguishing, incommunicable qualities in each person of the triune God that give justification for the historically-embraced and biblically-justified appellation of “person.” In our efforts to avoid ham-fistedness in our vocabulary and explanations, we might employ such delicacy and overly-circumspect language that we miss the infinitely robust joyful fellowship of persons, continual manifestations of delight in the perfect knowledge of one another, all flowing from a truly Trinitarian expression of the single divine essence, the undivided will of God, and the perichoretic participation each person retains in the distribution of covenantal outworking. When the Son takes it upon himself, voluntarily, as a natural expression of his personhood as distinguished from that of the Father and the Spirit, to be submissive to the Father’s will, this is not accidental, but prosopologically consistent with full blown Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian, Pauline, Johannine, Petrine, Hebrews-like Christology, Trinitarian theology, and divine simplicity.

The ad extra relations of each person of the Trinity to the world, and by implication to each other, reveal eternal potentialities jointly expressive of the ad intra state of the divine being as well as incommunicable properties of each person of our Trinitarian God.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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