Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within Reformed Tradition

I do not think the talk of “roles” is the best way to speak of the eternal distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity

Traditionally, the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished—and they are distinct (which suggests three hypostases) not different (which would suggest another ousia)—is not by roles or by eternal relations of authority and submission, but by paternity, filiation, and spiration. To put it another way, the Father is the Father (and not the Son or the Spirit), the Son is the Son (and not the Father or the Spirit), and the Spirit is the Spirit (and not the Father or the Son) by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father, the Son’s generation from the Father, and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.

 

Up to this point I’ve not attempted to make any contribution to the Trinitarian debates that have been cascading across the internet (and beyond) for the past several months. My public silence on the issue—and I’ve talked at length in private with many individuals—has been owing to three factors.

1) I was on study leave for a good chunk of the summer and simply haven’t had the time to put pen to paper (as it were). Time is always an issue when it comes to these kinds of debates, especially when the discussion is constantly growing and incredibly technical.

2) I am not an expert in fourth century Patristic thought, nor am I an expert in Trinitarian theology more broadly. My area of academic interest and specialization has focused on Late Reformed Orthodoxy of the seventeenth century, through the Scottish Kirk of the eighteenth century, into the origins of Old Princeton in the nineteenth century. Not irrelevant to the debate, but not at the heart of it either. I have been trying to sit back and learn from theologians and historians who know more than I do.

3) There are friends and people I respect on both sides of this debate. Does that mean we should never enter the fray when friends are involved? Of course not. But if we’re honest, most of us (though not all!) are more cautious about throwing elbows if we think we might hit someone we know. Let’s not forget—and I’m speaking to myself here too—that on the other side of the internet connection are real people who often feel the barbs and the snark and the accusations more than we realize. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize. It does mean we should pursue the mind and heart of Christ at all times, especially when we criticize.

So why I am writing something now? For the simple reason that I am hearing from more people in my own congregation who want to know what to make of this kerfuffle over the Trinity. Twitter demands to “say something!” mean little to me. Honest theological questions from my church family mean a lot.

Opening Reflections: Now and Then

I won’t try to summarize the debate—there have been hundreds of posts and tweets and comments back and forth—except to say from the outset that I think there are important ways in which some proponents of the “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), or “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS), or “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) are out of step with the Reformed tradition.

This is what I wrote in my (now out of print) book Freedom and Boundaries:

The Father and the Son share the same essence and rank, and yet in their relationship, the Son submits to the Father while the Father never submits to the Son. No inferiority. No inequality. Yet, different roles. Granted, complementarians sometimes speak too quickly about the “eternal subordination of the Son.” It is better to say that there has always been an “order” (taxis) in the Trinity—an order not of rank, but of well-arranged relationships. The Father sends the Son, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit, and the relations are not reversible. Mutuality and equality exist in the Trinity alongside a divinely instituted order. Calvin writes, “For even though we admit that in respect to order and degree the beginning of divinity is in the Father, yet we say it is a detestable invention that essence [being] is proper to the Father alone, as if he were the deifier of the Son.” With the Trinity as our model, then, we understand that authority and God-given order in the church, or, headship and submission in marriage, are not inconsistent with equality of personhood. (61)

I’m somewhat pleased with this paragraph, which I first wrote back in 2003 or 2004 when I was 26 or 27 years old (the book was later published in 2006). On the one hand, if we are talking about the economic Trinity—the activity of God and the work of the three Persons in creation and redemption—we can certainly say (as I did) that the Son submits to the Father, while the Father does not submit to the Son. We should not cry foul every time we see the word “submission.” That point notwithstanding, I have never been comfortable with the language of eternal subordination, and I’m glad I said so in print ten years ago

On the other hand, the biggest thing I would change is steering clear of the Trinitarian analogy altogether as a defense of complementarianism. I do think there is an important point to be made from the God-Christ parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:3—namely, that headship does not imply ontological inferiority. But even here we should be careful to note, as Carlton Wynne recently brought to my attention, that there is an “economic” expression of the Son in view in verse 3 (“Christ”), not an immanent or ontological expression. On balance, I would no longer try to use the Trinity “as our model” for the marriage relationship, both because it is not necessary for complementarianism to be true and because the metaphysical inner workings (if that’s the right term) of the ineffable Trinity do not readily allow for easy lifestyle applications. In fact, it is striking how the New Testament often grounds ethical imperatives in the gospel (e.g., marriage as an outworking of Christ and the church), but never in the eternal “ordering” of God.

Furthermore, I do not think the talk of “roles” is the best way to speak of the eternal distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity. There is a way that “role” can be an appropriate term, if we mean that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not interchangeable in the work they accomplish and in what they accomplish. But I’m more skittish about “role” language than I used to be. It can too easily undermine important doctrines like:

  • the simplicity of God (the idea that God is not the composite of parts and that whatever each Person is singly, the whole Trinity is together),
  • the unity of the divine will (the idea that though God exists in three Persons, the Triune God does not have three separate wills—a necessary doctrine if the three Persons share the same nature, since “will” is a property of nature not of persons),
  • and the inseparable operations of the Trinity (the idea that the external works of the Trinity are indivisible, that each Person is operative in all God’s external works).

Traditionally, the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished—and they are distinct (which suggests three hypostases) not different (which would suggest another ousia)—is not by roles or by eternal relations of authority and submission, but by paternity, filiation, and spiration. To put it another way, the Father is the Father (and not the Son or the Spirit), the Son is the Son (and not the Father or the Spirit), and the Spirit is the Spirit (and not the Father or the Son) by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father, the Son’s generation from the Father, and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.

I’ll come back to the significance of this language at the end, but first—with the theology of the preceding paragraph in mind—let’s try to get a sense for how the Persons of the Trinity have been described in the Reformed tradition.

The Trinity in the Reformed Tradition

Obviously, it would be beyond the scope of a blog post to canvass the entire Reformed tradition and its explanation of the Trinity. Instead, I want to focus doctrinally on the way in which the Persons of the Godhead have been distinguished and focus historically on a few Reformed representatives. To that end I’ve chosen five theologians from five different centuries: Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) from the sixteenth century, Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) whose Christian Theology came out at the end of the seventeenth century, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) whose systematic theology was published at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) from the nineteenth century, and Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) from the twentieth century. Why these five? For starters, because I have them on my shelf! But also because they come from different regions (German, Swiss, Dutch, American), over different centuries, and represent two different streams of Reformed theology in America: the Dutch tradition through Berkhof (who condensed and summarized Bavinck, with roots in à Brakel) and the Old Princeton tradition (which came to fruition in Hodge, who was influenced by Francis Turretin and Turretin’s successor in Geneva, Benedict Pictet).

1. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1591)

In his explanation and defense of the divinity of Christ, Ursinus raises and refutes a number of “sophisms of heretics against the eternal Deity of the Son” (200-201). The eighth sophism is that “The Son has a head and is less than the Father. Therefore he is not one and the same essence with the Father.” To this Ursinus replies, “The Son has a head in respect to his human nature, and his office as mediator. These things, however, do not detract any thing from his Divinity.” Similarly, in responding to the eleventh sophism, Ursinus argues that “The Father, therefore, is greater than the Son, not as to his essence, in which the Son is equal with the Father, but as to his office and human nature.” And later, he adds, “Inequality of office does not take away equality of nature of persons.”

This discussion of the Son’s divinity flows from Ursinus’s analysis of the Trinity. Ursinus asks a question we will come back to throughout this post: “How are the three Persons of the Godhead distinguished?” They are distinguished, he answers, in two ways: (1) by their works ad intra and (2) by their mode of operating ad extra.

The first point has to do with the way in which the three Persons relate to one another. As one God, the three Persons are distinguished not by essential properties (characteristics related to essence) but by their personal properties (sometimes called “incommunicable properties); namely, that the Father exists of himself, the Son is begotten eternally from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. In this sense, there is an “order” in the Trinity. The Father is the first person because he is the fountain of divinity. The Son is the second person because the Deity is communicated to him from the Father. And the Spirit is the third person because the Deity is communicated to him from the Father and the Son. None of this means that the Son or the Spirit became God; generation and procession are from eternity (135).

The second point about ad extra, which has to do with how the three Persons operate out of themselves toward their creatures, follows from the first point about ad intra. Ursinus argues that while all the works toward their creatures come by the common will and power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet at the same time there is an order to their inseparable external operations. The Father works by the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the Son and the Spirit do not work by themselves. In their external operations, the Father sends the Son, and the Son works through the Spirit, sending him from the Father. In other words, the Son and the Spirit were “sent into the world, not because they began to exist where they did not exist before; but because they accomplished in the world what was the will of the Father, and showed themselves present and efficacious according to the will of the Father” (137).

2. Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology (1696)

In distinguishing between the three Persons of the Trinity, Pictet explains that we are determining what can be said of the Father that cannot be said of the Son, and what can be said of the Spirit that cannot be said of the Father and Son (and so on). Like Ursinus, Pictet relies on generation and procession to make these distinctions: “The Father is said to have begotten the Son; but the Son is no where said to send the Father. The Spirit is said to proceed from the Father, and to be sent by the Son; but no where is the Father said to proceed from, nor the Son to be sent by, the Spirit” (99).

Pictet is careful to safeguard the equality of the three Persons even in the midst of these distinctions. Eternal generation (which Pictet claims no mortal can fully comprehend) distinguishes the Son from the Father, but it does not make the Son something less than the Father. “Again,” Pictet writes, “if the Son is said in any passage to be inferior to the Father, and to work by the power of Father, such passage only shows that there is something in Christ besides the divine nature, viz. the human nature, according to which he is inferior to the Father, and also that there is a certain order of operation between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and a kind of economy; but it by no means proves that Christ, as God, is inferior to the Father” (107). The Father is placed first because he begets the Son and together with the Son sends the Spirit, but he is not before the Son or the Spirit in age or time, nor does he excel them in dignity, glory, majesty, or power. In short, the three Persons share the same perfections (101).

3. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700)

According to à Brakel, there is more to Nicene orthodoxy than an affirmation of a shared essence. All three Persons of the Trinity must be described as having not only co-essence (homoousia), but also co-equality (isotes) and co-existence (emperichoresis). The Persons are distinguished from each other, but not different: “They coexist as one God, in simplicity of Being” (1:145).

So how, then, are the Persons to be distinguished? à Brakel lists five ways: (1) in personal properties, (2) in names, (3) in order, (4) in the manner of existence, and (5) in the manner of operation. Of these five distinctions, the first is the most important because it is the foundation for the other four. In keeping with the Reformed (and orthodox) tradition, à Brakel relies on the personal properties to distinguish among the three Persons of the Godhead. “This one divine Being subsists in three Persons, not collaterally or side-by-side, but rather the one Person exists by virtue of the other Person either by way of generation or procession” (1:141). Or again, “the Father generates; the Son is generated; and together with the Father sends the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, whose manner of operation is described in Scripture as ‘breathing’” (1:147). The way in which the three Persons operate in the world, the order in which they are named, and even the names themselves (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) find their basis in paternity, filiation, and spiration/procession (1:161-62).

Given this emphasis, à Brakel makes sure there is no confusion about the nature of generation and procession. “The words ‘generate’ and ‘proceed’ neither suggest superiority or inferiority nor the transformation from nothing to something, for all this is an eternal relation” (1:174). The Father may operate of his own existence, the Son from the Father, and the Spirit from the Father and the Son, but this does not imply dependence or imperfection among the members of the Trinity (1:175). Over and over à Brakel reminds us that we are dealing with mysteries that cannot be fully explained and must not be understood by way of human analogy.

One other point bears mentioning. In his explanation of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), à Brakel asks how there can be a transaction between the Father and the Son since they are one in essence and have one will and objective? He says in reply, “As far as Personhood is concerned the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. From this consideration the one divine will can be viewed from a twofold perspective. It is the Father’s will to redeem by agency of the second Person as Surety, and it is the will of the Son to redeem by His own agency as Surety” (1:252). On the one hand, then, à Brakel allows that we should not so emphasize the one will of God as to erase the eternal covenant made between the Father and the Son. At the same time, it is striking that à Brakel never describes the pactum in terms of authority and submission. Rather, the Father and the Son commit to the same objective by means appropriate to their own personal properties.

4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871-73)

Hodge also distinguishes the three Persons—which he insists are “one God, and therefore have one mind and will”—according to their personal properties. “Paternity, therefore, is the distinguishing property of the Father; filiation of the Son; and procession of the Spirit” (1:461). These are the facts of Scripture, Hodge asserts, and affirmed by the ecumenical creeds, although no attempt can be made to fully explain these mysteries.

Like Ursinus, à Brakel, and Pictet, Hodge is eager to safeguard the equality of the three Persons, making clear that they share the same essence and the same “infinite perfections” (1:460). Hodge differs, however, in employing the word “subordination” to describe the ordering of the Son and the Father andthe ordering between the Spirit and the Father and Son. This subordination “does not imply inferiority,” but only “concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and the Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit” (1:461). The sameness of essence precludes all notions of priority and superiority as to being and perfections among the three Persons, but “it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation” (1:464). Hodge goes so far as to say, “We have here the three essential facts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity; namely, unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination without any attempt at explanation” (1:467). Clearly, Hodge believes in some kind of subordination of the Son and the Spirit. Whether he means the same thing as contemporary proponents of the term, and something different from the earlier Reformed tradition, is a question we will come back to at the end.

5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938)

There is little in Berkhof’s explanation of the Trinity that should surprise anyone familiar with the Reformed tradition. He affirms that there is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence, and that in this Being there are three Divine Persons or individual subsistences (87). On this latter point, Berkhof helpfully reminds us that there are not three individuals in the Godhead, alongside of and separate from each other, but rather “personal self-distinctions within the Divine essence” (87). Perhaps this is why theologians in the Reformed tradition tend to talk of order and operations instead of roles and relationships. The first pair of terms suggests self-distinctions, while the second pair suggests separate individuals.

Berkhof affirms that the three Persons are “marked by a certain definite order.” This is not an order pertaining to time or essential dignity, only to subsistence and operation. From here, Berkhof makes the same points Ursinus made four centuries prior about unbegottenness, generation, and spiration ad intraand the unified but ordered works of creation and redemption ad extra. In other words, Berkhof argues that the three Persons are distinguished not by essence or perfections, but (1) by their personal properties and (2) by the way in which the works of the Triune God are presented to us in Scripture as coming from the Father through the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Summarizing the Reformed Tradition

Although there are important differences among the five authors selected, the substance of the doctrine is remarkably similar across the centuries, so much so that I think we are safe to highlight a number of points as being central to the doctrine of the Trinity in the Reformed tradition.

  1. The three Persons are distinguished by their personal properties: by the Father’s paternity (or unbegottenness, or agennesia), the Son’s generation (or filiation), and the Spirit’s procession (or spiration, or being sent).
  2. We are right, therefore, to speak of a certain order (taxis) in the Trinity. In this way, in a very qualified sense, some have spoken of the Father being greater than the Son, or the Son being subordinate to the Father.
  3. This language, however, if used at all, is always carefully guarded so as not to undermine the unity of the Persons as having one essence and one will and sharing in all the same perfections. There can be no dependence or contingency in the immanent Trinity.
  4. The three Persons are also distinguished by their economic, voluntarily willed modes of operation: in the one work of the Triune God, the Father works by the Son; and the Son works, together with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.
  5. The doctrine of the Trinity, though clearly revealed in Scripture and affirmed in the ecumenical creeds, is mysterious and beyond human comprehension.

So where does this leave us concerning the current debate over the eternal subordination of the Son? While I think the accusations and recriminations have not always been fair or balanced, I do think there are several ways some of my friends on the eternal subordination side of the debate (and I realize those in favor of ESS or ERAS or EFS do not all make the same points) are decidedly out of step with the Reformed tradition, and perhaps more broadly out of sync with the totality of what Nicea meant to affirm and protect.

Evaluating Eternal Subordination

Let me mention three specific areas of concern, all of which have been hinted at already.

First, I question whether the language of roles and relationships is the best way to describe the distinctions among the three Persons of the Trinity. The theology surrounding the Trinity is technical and complex. Many of the words in question—like “subordination” and “roles”—can be used in ways that are orthodox. We should listen to each other carefully and not assume the worst. At the same time, unless we have good reason to do otherwise, it is best to stick with the theological vocabulary that has served the church for centuries. Role is a word with connotations of the theater and a part to be played. Roles tend to be things we take on or enter into. My wife and I can have different roles in marriage because we are different individuals, each with a unique individualized nature. Once I was not a husband, but now that I am I take on a certain role in the marriage relationship. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by contrast, are personal self-distinctions (subsistences) within the Divine essence. They exist from eternity in each other, not separate from and alongside each other. This makes the language of roles less appropriate when talking about the inner dynamics of the Trinity from all eternity.

Second, even when the language of subordination is used in the Reformed tradition, it is not used in the way some ESS proponent imagine. Wayne Grudem, for example, often points to Hodge as evidence for widespread and longstanding belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. But Hodge clearly limits his use of “subordination” to the mode of subsistence and operation. The word does not imply authority for Hodge, but simply a sub-ordering (i.e., an ordering under) in which the Father is the first person of the Trinity, the Son the second, and the Spirit the third. Hodge is saying nothing different than Ursinus or Pictet or à Brakel did before him. They all argue for a certain order in the Trinity related to personal properties ad intra and operations toward the world ad extra. None of them equate order (or sub-order) with roles of authority and submission. The error is, no doubt, an honest one, but it’s simply not the case that taxis means in the Reformed tradition what it means for Grudem.

Finally, and most crucially, I find that some proponents of ESS answer Ursinus’s question—“How are the three Persons of the Godhead distinguished?”—in a way that is foreign to, and really at odds with, the Reformed tradition. All five representatives (Ursinus, Pictet, à Brakel, Hodge, and Berkhof) answer that question by starting with the same foundation: paternity, generation, and procession. Not incidentally, this is the explicit teaching in the both the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession Article 8) and even more clearly in the Westminster Standards (WLC 9, 10). The distinctions among the three Persons only hold in place if the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This Scriptural and creedal formula is the sine qua non of Trinitarian theology, at least when it comes to distinguishing among the Persons of the Godhead.

And yet, this is not how many of the proponents of ESS distinguish among the three Persons. In his Systematic Theology, Grudem argues, “The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation” (emphasis original, 251). So far this sounds a lot like the usual business about ad intra and ad extra. But then instead of talking about subsistences or modes of operation, Grudem argues that the distinctions among the three Persons can be summarized as “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Grudem may not explicitly deny the Nicene language of “begotten” and “proceeds” (though in a subsequent edition of his Systematic Theology he argues that we should no longer retain “eternal generation” in modern theological formulations), but he assumes “subordination in role” simply says the same thing and says it better. Because Grudem equates the personal properties of Nicea with authority and submission within the immanent Trinity, he insists that without eternal subordination you cannot even have a Triune God (251). Without the doctrine of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father in role or function, Grudem maintains, “we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son” (245, fn. 27). It seems that Grudem—whom, it should be said, has been a blessing to me and my church in many of his writings—is either unfamiliar with the way in which the Persons are distinguished in the Reformed tradition or finds the tradition inadequate. He prefers what these representatives of the Reformed tradition decidedly do not: to distinguish among the Persons of the Trinity by the means of eternal subordination instead of eternal generation. This is not a small switch.

Likewise, Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock (I’ve met Gavin before, and Owen is a friend) follow in Grudem’s footsteps when they write: “There is order. The Father is the Father because He sends the Son. The Son is the Son because He submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send Him. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission” (The Grand Design, 93). To be fair, this is not a book about the Trinity per se and I know Owen and Gavin do not want to reject eternal generation, but I still wish they had worded things differently. Setting aside whether the Son submits to the Father from eternity or not, it’s the word “because” that is most problematic. The Father does send the Son, and the Son does submit to the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. But Owen and Gavin, perhaps unwittingly, are answering Ursinus’s question in a way that the Reformed tradition would not. The Father is the Father because of unbegottenness; the Son is the Son because of filiation; the Spirit is the Spirit because of procession. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of paternity, generation, and procession, which is not another way of saying the three Persons must be distinguished on the basis of authority and submission or there is no Trinity.

In a similar vein, it seems to me Bruce Ware (whom I also respect and appreciate) argues that eternal submission is the Son’s unique personal property in addition to eternal generation (One God in Three Persons, 237-248). This is better than rejecting the language of paternity, filiation, and procession, but still a deviation from the Reformed tradition. It is one thing to point out that the Son’s willing submission is, on some level, an expression of his filial identity (as Scott Swain puts it), quite another to bring eternal subordination into the life of the immanent Trinity and nest it with (or replace altogether) the traditional personal properties.

Obviously, there is much more that could be said about the doctrine of the Trinity, from Augustine and the Fathers, to the Reformed tradition, to the revival of Trinitarian interest in recent decades, to the detailed arguments for and against the eternal subordination of the Son in journals, books, and blogs. I make no pretense of having the last word or anything close to a definitive word on the subject. But as I’ve studied the words of some ESS/ERAS/EFS proponents more closely and have read from the Reformed tradition more deeply, I’ve come to see there is a gap between the two that is more significant than may seem at first glance.

Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is used with his permission.