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The Council of Erina 2022

Yesterday I was privileged to attend ‘The Trinity Symposium’ held at EV Church. I thought I’d try and distill some of what (I think) was being said here. (And please, the “Council of Erina” thing is just a joke!!)

It’s worth also knowing that one of the driving questions being brought to the event was essentially, “What can we really know about God’s essence and characteristics from salvation history? E.g. If Jesus submits to the Father in the gospels, does that really mean that the eternal Son of God submits to the eternal Father outside salvation history? Or is submission just a during-Jesus’-33-years thing?”

First, Mark Thompson gave us a kind-of ‘rules of engagement’ as we approach talking about our Triune God. Mark’s key point was that biblical theology and systematic theology need to be done together, not played off against each other. I think his concern was that some theologians were happily engaging in biblical-theology (the exegetical activity of reading the whole bible as a single narrative of God’s redemptive work) but then kinda’ tapping-out after that – not really willing to make systematic dogmatic statements about God.

At the same time, Mark also warned of an over-reliance on the writings of man, including the church fathers. The holy scriptures are to be out foundation as God’s revealed word to us about himself. Our first instinct should always be to ask, “But what does the bible say about this?”

How do we do both these things together then? Mark encouraged an archaeological mindset, where we don’t create ideas out of the scriptures, but we dig deeper into the scriptures and seek to say things that hold all the scriptures together. His example was Christ’s power over nature and even death, while also experiencing hunger and tiredness. We dig deeper into scripture to hold these together; We go to places like John 1 and Hebrews 1 & 2. We see how the church Fathers sought to do this and we learn from them. And we use good biblical theological methods when we dig deeper to keep passages in their context. Thus doing both at the same time with humility before the God we seek to know from his word through his spirit.

Next, David Höhne took u through a bit of historical context setting; how we’ve ended up here – looking back at the past 80 years. This was basically done in two sections; Graham Goldsworthy’s biblical theology, and the wider trinitarian theology movement.

David wanted us to see that the model of biblical theology that Goldsworthy put-forth was deeply theological. Goldsworthy built it from a foundation of God as the triune communal God who speaks. Essentially Goldsworthy’s biblical theology is a theology of scripture revealed through the triune God. On top of this, a proper use of Goldsworthy’s methods/framework should not stop at good contextual exegesis, but take us further into “theology proper”. In other words, if you’re not doing systematic theology when you do biblical theology then you’re doing it wrong!

Against this understanding of Goldsworthy’s influence, David wanted do suggest there something similar going on in trinitarian theology. Just like Goldsworthy was starting with a clear sense of the triune God in eternal relationship as his foundation for his theology of scripture, trinitarian theologians were at the same time emphasising the three-ness of God as key to knowing him. Moltman was mentioned regularly as so emphasising the relational aspect of the triune God, that the one-ness only ever seemed to be a consequence of the relations. As though God is three beings who are in an eternal dance. Social trinitarianism… or tritheism.

I think David wanted us to see that while focusing on the relationality of God can be helpful (e.g. Goldsworthy) it can also be dangerous (e.g. Moltman). I think that’s what he was saying anyway :)

Next, Andrew Moody and Andrew Leslie spoke. I’m dealing with these together because, well, they were similar.

Both wanted to help bring clarity to what we meant when we use words. They both highlighted that so much of the issues with speaking about the trinity come back to human speech and human minds. We’re trying to use human words and created brains to speak about and comprehend that which is outside-creation and which needs to use words (and grammar) that don’t necessarily work in English. I.e. We need to be okay with lots of caveats, and not jump on one sentence without reference to the surrounding ones.

A few points they both made;

  • The church fathers all agreed that the son was subordinate to the father in eternity. Any suggestion otherwise is a plain misreading of the church fathers. Moody offered a great example of this from the Nicene Creed where the very structure displays an order, and the Son is eternally begotten from the Father.
  • While the persons are all 100% God in nature; they each “subsist” that nature in their own person. This is an idea I had either missed previously or forgotten – so I’m treating on thin ice as I try and describe it here. God is a generating God. “Generating” is part of God’s nature. But how does this nature subsist in the Son? Well the Son is eternally generated from the Father. And the Father eternally generates the Son (through eternally begetting him). And the Father eternally generates the Spirit (through eternal spiration). Generating, as a aspect of God’s being, subsists equally in the father, son and spirit. But it subsists in unique ways according to the person.
  • The submission of the Son was an expression of eternal conceding to the Father. They both seemed happy to say that since the will of God is an aspect of his being, he has one will. And that will subsists in each of the persons. And like generation above, the subsistence of that will is appropriate for the person. Hence, the Father’s will is the Son’s will, and at the same time, the Son is pleased to follow and concede to the Father’s will. Conceding to the Fathers will is not to say the Son has his own will, but rather an expression of the one will of God subsisting in the Son appropriately for his person.
  • The “eternal God” and the “economic God” are not two Gods. (The economic God is a phrase to describe God “as he works in and through creation and salvation history”). The God we meet in the economy of Salvation history is the God of eternity. We have access to the true God as he acts towards us. There is more to God, but it not out-of-line with how he has revealed himself. We can look at God in the economy and know that he is like that in eternity.

I’m kinda’ jumping between their talk and the panel discussion they had afterwards. And it’s worth stating that Both David and Mark said aspects of these points also.

A few more touchy discussions that were had between them all

  • What do we mean by “will of the Father” and “will of the son”… or “will” generally? This word seems rubbery and yet also seemed to bear a lot of the weight when trying to talk about eternal submission. At one point Moody suggested that in the garden, we see three wills at play; the natural and human will of Jesus that (rightly) doesn’t want to die; ‘take this cup from me’. The will of God the Father that his son be set forth as a propitiation for the salvation of the world; ‘your will be done’. And the will of the eternal Son who always obeys and concedes to his Father’s will; ‘yet not my will’.
    Personally I found this a bit confusing, and I wondered if we’re falling into the trap that Mark warned us about at the start, where we are overly quick to apply the church fathers without seeking to do the hard work in the scriptures first. I think I’d want to suggest that there was an element of temptation in the garden; while not explicit it seems to be a bookend to the temptation in the wilderness where the question put to Jesus from Satan is “Here, there is another way”, and in the garden, Jesus pleads with loud cries and tears to the one who can save him, essentially asking “Father, is there another way?”
  • Mark and Leslie had a slight disagreement about whether the essence of God is knowable. Leslie wanted to say that we know the essence of God through the Son and by the Spirit. However Mark raised concerns with that language as it makes out the essence to be relational; knowable. This would lead to a fourth person, behind the three. My understanding was that Leslie was wanting to hold forward the idea that we know the true God in and through the Son and the Spirit. I think using the word “essence” might have been unhelpful there, maybe we want to say that the essence of God is accessible instead?
  • There was further discussion about using words like eternal submission, especially if the will of the Son and the Father is the same will. What type of submission is that really? The point I took from this discussion was the sense that it is an ideal submission. It is the type of submission that we are being transformed into doing by God’s grace and through the Spirit’s work.
  • David also made a helpful point about a cultural tendency to rubbish any and all sense of hierarchy. But again, from the earliest church fathers, they all wanted to uphold the equality of the persons’ essence, while also upholding the order and hierarchy of the persons.
  • There was a bit of debate (or maybe confusion about what each other were saying) when it came to how we apply the relationship of the Son to the Father to our own relationship to God. While there was a strong push to rediscover the beauty of adoption theology, it didn’t feel like the panel were really saying the same things about exactly how we are like the Son to the Father, especially when it comes to our “will”.
  • Part of the background to the day was how some theologians have wanted to say there is no real submission between the eternal Son towards the eternal Father, and hence there should be no grounds for submission in the church. Mark wanted to say that these two thing are largely separate issues and should stand and fall on their own biblical foundations. However Leslie was happy to say that creation echoes the creator, and this is especially so in the family and in the church; the household of God. Since therefore there is a hierarchy within the subsistence of the persons (i.e. the Son is eternally generated from the Father) we can expect creation to echo such hierarchy. Mark then provided some biblical evidence for Leslie’s point from 1Corinthians 11, about what it does say (Christ is the model for both men and women in how to be a head and how to be submissive), and what it doesn’t say.

In writing this summary, I really really hope I haven’t misrepresented these guys. I probably have, and I’ve probably got some words wrong here too. But I thought I’d have a crack. Always happy to be corrected :)

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Making sense of the triune God

There’s a lovely, yet complex, simplicity to the Christian doctrine of God as trinity; There is one divine nature (being), and there are three divine persons; the Father, the Son and the Spirit. One being (not three beings). Three persons (not one person). While every illustration is flawed, here’s a small one…

Consider a single 50c coin. Hold one in your hand. One thing, and yet it’s also three things.

  • Its an alloy; a metal compound of tin and copper, etc.
  • It’s an image; an imprint having been stamped at the mint.
  • It’s currency; it’s worth something in Australian dollars, it’s legal tender.

But there are not three things in your hand, are there? There’s just one thing. One item. That’s similar to God’s being. God is only one being. One thing. If we ask “What is God?” the answer must be “One being”, or “One essence”, “One nature”.

But that one thing in your hand is also three things; metal, imprint and currency. And all of that thing is metal. All of that thing is an imprint, and all of it is legal tender. You can’t separate the legal currency from the metal, nor the imprinted-ness from the legal tender-ness.

This is analogous to the persons of God; The Father, Son and the Spirit. These three are all God. If we ask “Who is God?” The answer must be “The Father” and “The Son” and “The Spirit”.

One being. Three persons.

As above, there’s some serious issues with this illustration, but it’s just a little attempt to convey one idea about our God – not everything.