This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series: Eternal Submission of the Son
- Grudem: the case for eternal submission of the Son
- Eternal submission: Liam Goligher says “No”
- Eternal subordination not a novel doctrine
- Some theses on the Father and the Son
- Eternal Submission of the Son: the main issues
- Subordinationism: what is it?
- Trinity: unity AND diversity
- Aimee Byrd: confused, or what?
- Is the Son eternally subject to the Father?
In the middle of 2016, Liam Goligher fired the first volley in a skirmish prompted by Wayne Grudem’s and Bruce Ware’s advocacy of the doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESF).
I offer some extracts from Goligher’s piece, along with a few comments of my own.
Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the Godhead? Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)? All of the questions above are under debate in the evangelical church today.
These questions are certainly attention-grabbing. But they are also extraordinarily provocative. Who on earth, for example, regards the Trinity as ‘no more than a social program for the world and the church’?
Goligher presents a range of quotes – mainly from classic creeds and confessions – that set forth the orthodox view of the Trinity. The first is from the Nicene Creed:
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of light, very God of very God”
This quote, along with the others,
highlight what is at stake in the teaching of some contemporary evangelical scholars and pastors: they are presenting a novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture. This is serious. It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity – a deity in whom there are degrees of power, differences of will, and diversity of thought…
They are presenting a novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.
Unfortunately, Goligher does not specify the way or ways in which the proponents of ESF depart from Nicene orthodoxy. Nor does he explain why he regards their exegesis of the relevant biblical passages as faulty, but simply asserts that
what they have done is to take the passages referring to the economic Trinity and collapse them into the ontological Trinity.
Further: Goligher does not state who he accuses of
tell[ing] women what they can or cannot say to their husbands, and how many inches longer their hair should be than their husbands!
They, like the Pharisees of old are going beyond Scripture and heaping up burdens to place on believers’ backs, and their arguments are slowly descending into farce.
They are building their case by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions.
With much rhetorical flourish, but little substance, Goligher complains:
If they are right, then Paul is wrong when he writes that Christ “took the form of a servant” and became man in order that He might become “obedient to death,” because for these new teachers, his obedience in his humanity is simply an extension of his eternal obedience. It means the writer to the Hebrews is wrong because Jesus did not “learn obedience” since He had spent eternity “obeying” His Father. Jesus is wrong because, when He says, “I and the Father are one,” He means so only in a modified sense. And John is wrong when He says that “the Word is God,” for, by definition, if He is a servant bound to obey, then He must not have as much Godness as God the Father has in His Himself.
And, of course, this is the thin end of the wedge:
Let there be no doubt at this point; departure from the faith starts with incremental adjustments to received doctrine, those adjustments eventually lead people away from the faith altogether.
Rather beautifully, Goligher pleads that
In the repose of their eternal life, the divine persons shared one mind, one will, one power, because there is but one God (and not three) with one divine nature (Phil.2, Col.1, Heb.1), one divine splendor, and one divine being. The relations are signaled by the names ascribed to them: The Father begetting the Son (Psalm 2, John 1), the Son being the begotten, and the Spirit proceeding as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. These eternal relations, absolutely considered, pertain to being: the Son and Spirit share the very nature of God as God – they are essentially identical (though relatively distinct). Within this eternal life, there was distinction without primacy and order of being without priority of life or authority. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. There is only one God and we baptize in the threefold name of that one God.
From eternity God the Trinity, the One who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of His own good pleasure, without any external pressure or internal need on His part, willed one will and chose to become our Father, through the Son, in the Spirit to the praise of His glorious grace (Eph.1). The divine will of Father, Son and Spirit then caused everything to exist ex nihilo, out of nothing; space and time, darkness and light, stars and planets, heaven and earth, Angels and humans. First, there was God alone in the blessed repose of His Trinitarian fullness, and then by His decree (a simple willing on God’s part) there was God and everything that is external to God, all creation both material and spiritual. Scripture delights to praise ‘the counsel of His will’ by which everything exists and is sustained. What drove the creation was His intention to share the bliss of the divine life with elect sinners – through the decree of the Father, by the work of the Son, in the love of the Spirit. The relations of the eternal Trinity would determine the way God would reveal Himself to creatures. The Father would elect a people to give to the Son; the Son would voluntarily choose to become both a servant and a man in order to become our mediator; and the Spirit would act to enfold us into the divine life and love.
But which of his opponents would not say ‘Amen’ to most – if not all – of that?
But Goligher’s concerns is to protect the unity of God at all costs – even at the cost of God’s threeness:
In the Triune God the three ‘persons’ think as one, will as one, rule as one and act as one, and God does so from the perfect rest of His eternal life.
To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo-tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.
Goligher concludes his first post by denying that our thoughts about intratrinitarian relations can be used to define God’s will for human relations:
To say, suggest, or speculate that God’s life in heaven sets a social agenda for humans is to bring God down to our level…To use the intra-Trinitarian relations as a social model is neither biblical nor orthodox.
But that is the very point that needed to be argued. To be sure, we should take great care in extrapolating from the biblical revelation of intratrinitarian relations to relations between men and women. But to say that it must never be attempted requires more than a simple, if forceful, assertion.
In his second post, Goligher argues convincingly for the full divinity of Christ:
Our Lord located Himself there when He used the emphatic “I, I am;” when He claimed power and authority normally attached to God Himself (e.g. to have “life in Himself;” to “forgive sin;” to be the locus and focus of worship (Jn. 4); to speak as God to Israel (Matt.5-7); to be ‘one’ with the Father); and when He spoke of the “glory” He shared with God the Father before all worlds began (Jn.17). He was the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush; and who appeared to Isaiah (when the prophet had a vision of the heavenly temple, the council chamber of God). To hear Him is to hear the Father; to know Him is to know the Father. From all eternity, He was ‘face to face’ with God; His sonship is utterly unique.
I can’t see a Grudem or a Ware uttering anything other than an ‘Amen’ to that. Or to the following:
The language of Psalm 110 makes it quite clear that when the Son speaks to the Father, He speaks as God to God, as Lord to Lord. Jesus quotes that psalm in Mark 12 where He claims to be Lord, and is completely understood by the rabbis as claiming to be the ‘Son of the Most High’ that leads to their charge of blasphemy. In other words, the Pharisees understood Jesus’ claim to be Son as an ontological claim.
Or to this:
It was this Son who humbled Himself (notice the voluntary nature of the movement in Phil.2) by taking “the form of a servant” by being found ‘in fashion as a man.’ He did not ‘empty Himself’ of deity or of ‘all but love’, but He humbled Himself and emptied Himself by ‘taking’ something He never had before – servanthood (He took the nature of a servant) and humanity (He was found in fashion as a man).
Or to this:
Isaiah’s revelation of the Messiah. First, His divine identity is established – He is the Son “given” to us; divine titles belong to him: He is “mighty God, everlasting father.” The coming Son is ‘Immanuel,’ God with us. By the time we reach Isa 40 we are expectantly looking for the appearance and arrival of God Himself (“Behold your God”). And it is precisely at this point that we are introduced to the Servant of the Lord. Care is taken to locate the Servant alongside God – He too is “exalted, high and lifted up” with divine honors. John’s gospel makes it clear that the thrice holy ‘Lord God the Almighty’ of Isa.6 is the ‘Servant’ of Isa.52-53 (John 12). The movement from divine Son to divine Servant, from exalted Sovereign (ch6) to the despised and rejected Servant (ch52-53) is clear.
Finally, we come to the point of tension:
Only in His voluntary state as a servant do we read that ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1Cor.11:3). Only in the economy of redemption, in His state of humiliation, is this true.
To confuse Christ in His state of humiliation with the eternal Son as He was ‘with God in the beginning’ is to move beyond Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as historically understood.
All we have from Goligher is the mere assertion that the subordination of the Son to the Father was entirely limited to his state of humiliation. Mere assertion it may be, but he couches it in the strongest terms, and places his opponents outside the bounds of orthodoxy:
To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry.
Goligher, then, has ignored the scriptural and theological arguments mounted by Grudem, Ware and others. And he is not reticent about ascribing unworthy motives to these good men:
With the souls of men and women at stake, confusion or unwarranted speculation (in the interests of novelty or academic advancement) at this point is fatal. The church took so long to articulate its position on the Trinity and Christology because it recognized the danger of heresy and blasphemy. What we face in evangelicalism today is at best shoddy thinking and at worst ungodly thinking about the first principle of our religion – “Who is God?” The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ’s church. Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake – our own and our hearers’ eternal destiny.