Thoughts about Another Evangelical Controversy

Thoughts about Another Evangelical Theological Controversy

Somehow I missed this one for a long time. Apparently, a new controversy is breaking out among evangelical theologians. Actually, it’s been going on for some time—apparently largely in the pages of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (a publication to which I don’t subscribe and which I rarely read).

Recently InterVarsity Press asked me to preview a forthcoming book by Australian evangelical theologian Kevin Giles who has written at least two books about the controversy over the subordination of the Son of God to the Father. We’ve discussed that here before. I agree with Giles’ scholarship and argument on that one—that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of deity and authority. And I agree with him about the new controversy.

The forthcoming book is The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. According to Giles, several influential evangelical theologians have argued over the past several years that the Nicene Creed is wrong to say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. He lists among them Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Millard Erickson, Paul Helm, William Lane Craig and Mark Driscoll. (Is Mark Driscoll and theologian?) Apparently this is not an entirely new idea. Some scholars argue that the Old Princeton theologians Charles and A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield also questioned the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.

Giles mentions among supporters of the eternal generation of the Son Andreas Kostenberger, Robert Letham (who writes the Foreword to Giles’ book) and Keith Johnson. Giles claims that his book is the first “extended countercase” to the denial of the eternal generation of the Son.

Revealing to me about myself is my initial reaction to the controversy. My first inclination is to give the benefit of the doubt to the Nicene Creed! So much so that I am opposed to the filioque clause that was added to the Latin version of the Creed sometime in the seventh or eighth centuries. (Please don’t jump in and claim to know exactly when; I’ve read many books on the subject and nobody knows for sure. My historical theology professor in my Ph.D. work was an expert on the subject and rattle off the top of his head several possible scenarios of when and where it was added and why.)

However, I have argued for a long time, and probably always believed, that Scripture trumps tradition. Therefore, if someone could prove to me that Scripture contradicts the Creed’s affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father I would deny that affirmation.

My conclusion from reading Giles’ book is that he makes a very strong case for keeping the clause in the Creed and for believing in the eternal generation of the Son. I have argued for it here before—when we discussed the controversy over subordination of the Son to the Father. As Giles rightly points out, these are separate issues. The fact that the Son is generated by the Father, meaning that he derives his deity from the Father, has absolutely nothing to do with hierarchy of authority within the Trinity.

An interesting side bar that Giles doesn’t mention is that this same controversy over the eternal generation of the Son cropped up around Arminius in the first decade of the seventeenth century. In his Sentiments he spends a great deal of time defending himself against a charge of Christological heresy. Critics claimed that he denied the deity of the Son of God by saying that he derives his deity from the Father. Of course, his critics were apparently ignorant of the fact that the Nicene Creed says as much when it affirms the generation of the Son from the Father.

Giles goes into great detail demonstrating the biblical support for eternal generation. But he admits that nowhere does Scripture explicitly say it. It is rather a necessary deduction from what Scripture says about the Son’s relationship with the Father. John 1:14, of course, would seem to be a proof text for it. But Giles does not rely on any proof text or string of them. Instead, he examines why the early church came to pronounce it in the Nicene Creed of 381. It was to counter Arianism and semi-Arianism. The Arians were arguing that John 1:14, together with some verses in Proverbs about “Wisdom,” proves that the Son of God was created by the Father. Athanasius and the Cappadocians, especially, argued that the Son’s “begottenness” is not in time but eternal. Otherwise, Athanasius argued in De Incarnatione, the Father would have become Father with the creation of the Son.

I’m not interested here in revealing all the ins and outs of Giles’ argument which I find convincing. Rather, I’m interested in making two observations.

First, I find it interesting that some of the opponents of eternal generation of the Son are the very people who are the quickest to criticize any evangelical who dares to tamper with tradition. Who’s a postconservative now?

Second, a real strength of Giles’ book is his section on “’Doing’ Evangelical Theology” (Chapter 2). There the Australian theologian makes an excellent case for a more profound method of evangelical theology that one finds in, for example, Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grudem and many other conservative evangelicals seem to think that theology is just a matter of collating Bible verses. That is, gather all the Scripture passages dealing with a particular subject and synthesize them and voila! you have your doctrine. Giles rightly emphasizes the importance of hermeneutics including theological hermeneutics—listening to the voices of tradition and paying attention to why a certain consensus developed.

The fact that the “eternal generation of the Son” is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture is a poor reason to jettison it, is Giles’ point. We should not and cannot simply jump from the twenty-first century to the Bible paying no attention to all that happened in between. Especially the church fathers command our attention even if they are not infallible like Scripture itself.

This is similar to my response to my Calvinist critics who keep coming at me with the accusation that I do not engage in “exegesis” to defend my rejection of Calvinism. To me, the burden of proof is on them, not me or other non-Calvinists because full blown Calvinism, TULIP, is unheard of before Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva (as principal of the Genevan Academy). Sure, some elements of Calvinism’s distinctive scheme can be found as far back as Augustine, but before Beza the only theologian I know of who taught limited atonement, for example, was the monk Gottschalk (d. about 868) who spent much of his adult life in prison for it. I don’t know anyone who even dares to claim that any Christian theologian before Augustine believed in double predestination.

So, for historical reasons, I judge that the burden of proof is on the Calvinists and I do not think they have come even close enough to supporting their high Calvinism from Scripture to feel the need to counter it with “exegesis.” Their own “exegesis” is so twisted and convoluted that I find it almost laughable. And non-Calvinists have sufficiently provided Scriptural support for the traditional view that I feel no need to repeat it. (For you Calvinists, just go to www.evangelicalarminians.org if you really want to find detailed Arminian exegesis undermining Calvinist “exegesis.”)

My point here is that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has to be decided by theology and not by counting proof texts. That means taking into account Scripture, tradition, reason and experience and not just catenas of proof texts. It means taking into account the good and necessary consequences of beliefs as well.

Giles argues that denial of the eternal generation of the Son has the good and necessary consequence of making it difficult to distinguish the Father and the Son. That is, it leads to modalism.

Now, personally, I don’t find this to be an extremely important controversy. I’m not quite sure why it stirs up so much heat except for those who are confessionally committed the Nicene Creed as authoritative. But I hope they would be consistent and cut out of the Western versions the filioque clause which clearly was not there at Constantinople in 381.

Nevertheless, I will stick with the eternal generation of the Son for both biblical and traditional reasons. I think it makes the best sense of John 1:14. In fact, I can’t think of an alternative reading of that verse because, of course, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the reference to him being the only begotten of the Father cannot refer to his earthly beginning. But more importantly, I see no reason to throw out the considered theological conclusions of the fifth century church fathers about something so central to their project of defeating the Arians.

  • Jeff Martin

    I would argue John 1:14 does not add anything to the eternal generation argument. Monogonos means only-born, whereas monogenes, used in John means simply, only or it could also mean unique. In fact the definition “unique” makes sense when talking about Abraham’s son, where the NT calls him his only son, well he is certainly not his only-begotten, but he was his unique son according to the promise, and some commentators would go so far as to give a meaning of “favored” – s in this way it emphasizes Jesus’ kingly stature

    • rogereolson

      Giles discusses both words and their uses in great depth and detail. I don’t think it’s worth it to get into that here, but I do recommend looking at the book when it is published.

  • Bev Mitchell

    This “it’s all about God” perspective, as a ‘good’ and necessary consequence, leads to confusion that is, amazingly, gnostic and Arian at the same time! A strong Trinitarian view does not allow us to avoid the challenge to allow the Spirit to work in and through us in the here and now. This is a bother. Better to have God, up there, making all the decisions, and humanity, including Christ, down here subordinate and obedient because we have no other choice. Is this too strong? Is there a solidly Trinitarian, rigorously theological, pulpit ready discussion on these matters in print? To answer my own question, and to see if I really have any idea what I’m talking about before posting this, I had a look at Bloesch. See his section “Restating the Trinity” in Chapter 7 of “God the Almighty. Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love”. Bloesch gives a succinct warning then proceeds to what must be one of the best, pulpit ready, developments of the doctrine in print.

    This should have been my first step!

    From Donald G. Bloesch

    “Denial of the Trinity finally leads to deism, pantheism, polytheism or agnosticism.”

    “The Father does not have ontological superiority over the Son and the Spirit, but he does have existential priority in that his existence is the presupposition of the existence of the Son and the Spirit. In his operations the Father represents an originating source of his other modes of activity. In his essence, Father, Son and Spirit are one. We can say that the Father is the initiator of action, the Son is the culmination of action and the Spirit is the power of action………The Father’s initiation is not independent of the Son and Spirit but together with them………The Father is not over and above the Son and Spirit but in, with and for the Son and Spirit. He is, however, over and above the Son in the Son’s incarnate state.” 

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for bringing us back to Bloesch. He has been my theological mentor (mostly through his writings) since 1975 when I first discovered him. In my opinion, he was the best evangelical theologian of the 20th century. (Which is not to say I agreed with him about everything.) Very balanced, full of common sense, devout, biblically committed, intellectually humble and yet acute. I wish his successor was somewhere on the horizon.

  • J.E. Edwards

    You said, “My point here is that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has to be decided by theology and not by counting proof texts. That means taking into account Scripture, tradition, reason and experience and not just catenas of proof texts. It means taking into account the good and necessary consequences of beliefs as well.”
    However, it does seem from some arguments here that reason and human sensibility trump everything. If we want to see which path leads in the right direction, we must take the path that turns us toward God in tragedy. We can have this sterile academic discussion until eternity, but do I turn to God and run to Him in tragedy in hard times? Or, do I tell myself He had nothing to do with this, so let’s put our best face forward and work through it? There is so little discussion of Scripture here that it starts to become a labyrinth of human sensibilities and reasoning. So why would I move away from the Scriptures to cling to my sensibilities? Seems pretty dangerous to me.

    • rogereolson

      Nobody is suggesting “turning away from Scripture.” The problem is that Scripture nowhere clearly spells out exactly what God’s role is in EVERY tragedy. To claim God is the cause of EVERY tragedy is extra-biblical as is the claim that God is NEVER the cause of ANY tragedy. Scripture seems to rule out both extremes. A very good case is made, for example, by Greg Boyd in Satan and the Problem of Evil that the biblical evidence suggests Satan, rather than God, is the primary cause of tragedies in the world.

    • John Inglis

      Because scripture can only be understood via the “sensibilities” that God gave us, and one purpose of giving us these sensibilities is for understanding scripture. There is no such thing as direct apprehension of the truths of Scripture without using one’s sensibilities. Except for an estatic experience, we only have access to God through the sensibilities that we use to read and understand Scripture.

      I suggest that the Calvinist approach is one that is far more embedded in late rennaissance and modern ways of thought than is Arminianism and that it is too restrictive and limiting on how God can create and how he can interact with his creation. God is much more powerful than the limited understanding of Calvinism allows. For example, one of the limiting restrictions is the portrayal of a God that is so weak that he must meticulously (and thus directly) control every movement of every atom and every human decision by predestining to be a particular way. Another example is making God so weak that he cannot create an eikon / image of himself that has a free volition like he does (where free is understood as the power to choose otherwise). Another example is having one so weak that he cannot know what a human will or might do in the future except by predestining it.

      Furthermore, part of Roger’s argument, as I understand it, is that the existing proof texts for either side cannot (or at least do not) break the stalemate. Consequently, one must bring to bear the larger and broader understanding of scripture as a whole (i.e., biblicial theology, systematic theology, etc.). When we do this, we find that Calvinism is inconsistent with these approaches to Scripture and so less likely to be true or accurate.

      It is also inaccurate to portray Arminianism as lacking in the resources to allow one to turn to God and run to Him in tragedy in hard times. Indeed, I believe that it’s resources are superior–as one can see from reading the David B. Hart quote provided above.

      regards,

      John

      • J.E. Edwards

        I’m not representing any side (Arminian or Calvinist). Classic Arminianism and Calvinism both have a high view of God’s sovereignty. I don’t think the arguments here for Arminianism do a very good job of representing it in its classic form. As far as Calvinism goes, I believe they wouldn’t put the weakness on God’s part but in man’s. In relation to Scripture, as far as being able to read words and comprehend sentences, most normal healthy people have no problem with that. As far as the Bible being a book of words and sentences that make up thoughts we shouldn’t have a problem there either. What I mean is that the Scripture has it’s own logic. No other book makes the claims it makes. This book asks us to believe things that no sensible person should believe. As a matter of fact, why do we believe this book and not the claims of the Koran or the Book of Mormon? Does this make sense? The Bible appeals to us to believe crazy things that we cannot begin to explain and sometimes understand. Yet we choose to believe them, even if we cannot with human sensiblilty comprehend them. So, that being said, when it comes to things of Scripture, I must be willing to lay down many human sensibilities to embrace what Scripture says (Prov. 3:5) That’s not a contradiction, paradox or anything else but faith. Roger may call me a fundamentalist again, but if that’s how he sees it, so be it….as long as he doesn’t accuse me of being a hyper-fundamentalist:) We simply cannot make everything in the Scripture line up with human sensibilites. I’m not sure what you fella’s mean by proof texting either. If someone lays out Scripture in its context to make a point, how can it be written off as a proof text? Trust me I’ve heard many a preacher make the Bible say what he wants, but simply appealing to Scripture doesn’t make it proof-texting.

        • rogereolson

          Appealing to Scripture isn’t necessarily “proof-texting,” but focusing on a single passage (or even a few) while ignoring the whole witness of Scripture (canonical interpretation) is proof-texting. I really wonder how you can claim that arguments for Arminianism here don’t do a very good job of representing it in its classic form. Are you an expert on Arminianism in its classic form? It’s awfully simplistic to say that Scripture has its own logic. Logic is logic (e.g., the law of noncontradiction). If you don’t approach Scripture with that in mind you can literally make it say anything (and many people do).

          • J.E. Edwards

            Point taken on “proof-texting”. However, I am not an expert on Arminianism. The point I am trying to make is that the Arminianism I see here doesn’t always reflect the Arminius/Wesleyian view. It, at times, tends to drift toward the Greg Boydsian open theism point of view. I truly believe Wesley would be appalled by some of the claims Boyd makes. I know you aren’t an open theist, nor would I accuse you of being one. That said, isn’t the “good and necessary” result of SOME Arminians and open theist view? I thinks it’s interesting that Calvinism must have a “good and necessary” working out, yet to say that of Arminianism leading to open theism isn’t good and necessary doesn’t help this discussion very much.
            As far as Scripture having it’s own logic, that seems obvious. I know you know these things, so I don’t want to be or sound condescending, but just the life of Jesus coming in human form, dying on a cross for all the sins of the world and rising again makes that point. The Bible is full of things that are not sensible to fallen humans. That will never line up with our natural logic apart from the Word of God itself and the Holy Spirit to give understanding. If that’s too simplistic, I don’t know what else we will do.

          • rogereolson

            When you say “not sensible” you are talking about something different than when I saw “illogical.” There’s a difference between something being above our ability to explain and something being absolutely, logically absurd. I don’t think there are any logical absurdities in the Bible. But when I look at Calvinism I see several. One is the claim that God is good and loving by nature but also refuses to save some he very easily could save because salvation is all his doing. Those two claims held together seem logically absurd to me. Some Calvinists admit it (e.g., Edwin Palmer, author of The Five Points of Calvinism–one of the books by that title).

        • Robert

          J.E. Edwards wrote:

          “I’m not representing any side (Arminian or Calvinist). Classic Arminianism and Calvinism both have a high view of God’s sovereignty.”

          So what are you representing? You certainly have an agenda.

          “In relation to Scripture, as far as being able to read words and comprehend sentences, most normal healthy people have no problem with that. As far as the Bible being a book of words and sentences that make up thoughts we shouldn’t have a problem there either.”

          This is not making much sense here; we all understand that the Scripture contains words and sentences. Not sure what the supposed problem is here.

          “What I mean is that the Scripture has it’s own logic. No other book makes the claims it makes.”

          Ok, so the bible makes certain claims.

          “This book asks us to believe things that no sensible person should believe.”

          This comment makes no sense from a Christian perspective.

          Christians believe God to be rational and so what he does is rational, intelligible and often comprehensible. Put another way, if God declares something and we understand it, we can believe it and trust in it because of both God’s perfect moral character as well as his rational nature.

          “As a matter of fact, why do we believe this book and not the claims of the Koran or the Book of Mormon? Does this make sense?”

          We do not accept the claims of these other purported revelations because we believe they are not revelations from the true God, the claims are false, the claims often contradict what Scriptue properly interpreted presents, and we have the revelations from the true God in the bible.

          “The Bible appeals to us to believe crazy things that we cannot begin to explain and sometimes understand. Yet we choose to believe them, even if we cannot with human sensiblilty comprehend them.”

          Alright if you are claiming that the bible presents some truths that transcend human reason,that is true. There are definitely things that we cannot fully understand, things that go beyond our ability to rationally grasp them. But saying the bible sometimes presents things that transcend human reason is very different from saying that: ““This book asks us to believe things that no sensible person should believe.”

          “So, that being said, when it comes to things of Scripture, I must be willing to lay down many human sensibilities to embrace what Scripture says (Prov. 3:5) That’s not a contradiction, paradox or anything else but faith.”

          No, when it comes to scripture we realize that the bible presents some things that transcend human reason. We also realize that the bible presents things that are both intelligible and rational and so should be accepted rationally. You do believe that God expects us to use our minds to discern what is true, don’t you?

          “Roger may call me a fundamentalist again, but if that’s how he sees it, so be it….as long as he doesn’t accuse me of being a hyper-fundamentalist:) We simply cannot make everything in the Scripture line up with human sensibilites.”

          The term “fundamentalist” refers to a certain mentality or mind set towards the bible or other sources of authority.

          “I’m not sure what you fella’s mean by proof texting either. If someone lays out Scripture in its context to make a point, how can it be written off as a proof text? Trust me I’ve heard many a preacher make the Bible say what he wants, but simply appealing to Scripture doesn’t make it proof-texting.”

          Some people who are intent on proving or defending or supporting their view, will hit you with a string of bible verses meant to “prove” their view. They are not interested in properly interpeting each bible verse according to proper rules of interpretation (including the actual context of the bible verse) and often their scriptural proof ignores and contradicts the context from which the passages were taken. They don’t care, they are only intent upon “proving” their view by using the bible to support their what they want to believe to be true (like your “many a preacher [who] makes the Bible say what he wants”).

          There is a difference between offering bible passages as evidence of your view and proof texting from bible passages. One of my friends calls it shot gun interpretation because it is like being hit by a shot gun’s many pellets. The person just throws all these verses at you to “prove” his view. What usually gives away this kind of “proof texting” is that upon more careful review the verses they use to “prove” their view do not do so and are often taken way out of context. Non-Christian Cults practice proof texting, but unfortunately professing Christians can indulge in it as well if they are not careful with scripture.

          Robert

          • J.E. Edwards

            Robert,
            Your comment,”This comment makes no sense from a Christian perspective.” Lost people do not have a Christian perspective. You didn’t become a Christian UNTIL you were influenced by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, and THEN you rejected the claims from Mormonism, Islam, etc. That’s my point there. Do I have an agenda?? If anything it’s persuasion. Not necessarily to come where I or anyone else is, but to think through these things better. Roger’s book “Against Calvinism” really settled for me (in a lot of ways) what I believe about so-called limited atonement, but that doesn’t mean I am going to reject all the claims Calvinists make and embrace all the claims Arminians make. You see, I believe many claims Calvinism makes but that doesn’t mean I must accept double predestination any more than an Arminian must accept open theism. I don’t have to embrace everything every Calvinistic person who came before me embraces. C.H. Spurgeon is one of my heroes and I love his perspective on Calvinism. Some people say he is confusing, but that is ONLY if you choose a side. Then we will chew our own leg off (so to speak) to defend our point of view. Human sensibilities and logic are pretty much the same thing. Why? Because if something is illogical we won’t see it as sensible. That is why many things in Scripture are both insensible and illogical to us as fallen humans, especially before we became believers. Now I know that many will say this is just defending what I want to believe…in a sense it is. This isn’t a slam, just an opinion from my perspective, but the direction I lean causes me to trust God in a more child-like way. I won’t say the other perspective doesn’t cause them to, because if it does, why would I want them to change? Thanks for the interaction.
            God bless,
            J.E. Edwards

          • rogereolson

            I have an idea what Robert will say, but I’ll jump in with my own two cents’ worth. If you take this approach to logic, what can you say to someone who holds an illogical world view or theology (e.g., a non-Christian religion or a “Christian” cult)? What would you say to someone who said to you “I believe in the resurrection of the body AND in reincarnation?” Would you never appeal to logic to help that person see how impossible that is? Do you really think it’s possible to believe in both unconditional individual election AND conditional individual election? Most of the world, including most Christians, will press you to explain yourself if you go around expressing contradictory beliefs. That doesn’t both you? I think you’ll find that most people won’t take what you say seriously if it seems illogical. Basic logic is built into our minds by God; it’s part of the image of God–to be suspicious of blatant contradictions. But too often we get comfortable with our own while pointing out others’. That’s one of my complaints about Calvinism. The leading conservative evangelical Calvinists are always harping on what they see as contradictory beliefs in Arminianism but unwilling to see their own contradictions.

    • Robert

      J.E. Edwards wrote:

      “However, it does seem from some arguments here that reason and human sensibility trump everything.”

      Can you provide examples of this since you speak in the plural (**some** arguments) here?

      I think you are confusing the perspective of considering biblical texts, reason, logic, personal experience, etc. together (i.e. cf. the Wesleyan quadrilateral), with placing reason over everything, making reason “trump everything.”

      Using reason (which is both inevitable and inescapeable because God designed us with minds and expects us to use them) is not at all the same as believing that reason trumps everything.

      It also appears that you are a calvinist who is merely here to attack Roger and his theology. I gather this from your comments in multiple threads. Your comments are always full of some subtle chiding comments and attacks. I also believe from seeing your comments that what really bothers you is that Roger challenges, attacks and rejects calvinism. So you apparently want to defend your theology by attacking Roger and his.

      “If we want to see which path leads in the right direction, we must take the path that turns us toward God in tragedy.”

      I believe most here would agree with you on this. I would only add that we ought to be turning to God all the time, whether things are going well or we are in the midst of a tragedy.

      “We can have this sterile academic discussion until eternity, but do I turn to God and run to Him in tragedy in hard times?”

      Another example of your subtle digs.

      If you think that all that is going on here is “***this*** sterile academic discussion” and that bothers you, then why are you posting here?

      “Or, do I tell myself He had nothing to do with this, so let’s put our best face forward and work through it?”

      Who here is saying that?

      So our only options according to you are calvinism in which God predestined every event OR a stoic response in which we tell ourselves that God had nothing to do with it and we are on our own and just have to tough it out? Seems to me you leave out a lot of other options. Such as admitting we don’t know whether or not God was behind it. Focusing instead on bringing comfort to those who are suffering. Instead of telling people that God’s “fierce fingers” did it to them: not even trying to attempt to speak for God or know His mind and instead focusing on helping those who suffer.

      “There is so little discussion of Scripture here that it starts to become a labyrinth of human sensibilities and reasoning. So why would I move away from the Scriptures to cling to my sensibilities? Seems pretty dangerous to me.”

      I have noticed that you have been posting at Roger’s blog lately. You always seem to add some little subtle attack of some kind and your words suggest that you are a calvinist who wants to attack Olson. Your attacks are usually not overt but nevertheless clearly present.

      If “there is so little discussion of Scripture here that it starts to become a labyrinth of human sensibilities and reasoning” why are you repeatedly posting here then?

      Do you really think you are going to refute Roger here with your attacks?

      Do you really think that others are going to reject Roger’s theology based on **your** attacks?

      One of the things you apparently do not understand is that in this forum and format people are really not going to get into extended exegesis of particular biblical texts. There is nothing wrong with the extended analysis of biblical texts; it is just that blogs like this one are not focused on that.

      You also present yet another false dilemma when you state: “So why would I move away from the Scriptures to cling to my sensibilities?”

      Is that our only two choices: either move away from the Scriptures and cling to our sensibilities OR move towards the Scritpures and away from our sensibilities?

      What you seem to leave out is the possibility that our sensibilities will in fact often line up with the Scriptures.

      For example the Scriptures present a strong view of marriage and family. And most Christians’ moral “sensibilities” are very pro-family and marriage. Or take a negative example. The bible strongly condemns adultery. Most Christians that I know have strong moral sensibilities in line with this negativity towards adultery.

      Furthermore, isn’t it true that the more we mature as believers the more our moral sensibilities ought to be lining up with the Scriptures?
      So this contrasting of the Scriptures and our moral sensibilities is a false dilemma.

      But I think I know where you are coming from. When our moral sensibilities suggest to us that calvinism and its claim that everything is predestined is false. THAT bothers you.

      And so you want to separate and contrast the Scriptures (according to your calvinistic interpretation) and our moral sensibilities. I also find your false dilemma to be in conflict with the Scriptures that teach that the law of God is written on the human heart. So again for most Christians our moral sensibilities are not going to contradict the Scriptures.

      Robert

      • J.E. Edwards

        Robert,
        It is not my intent to dig at anyone here. I apologize for anything that may be taken that way. It’s very difficult for the subtlety of communication to come through a computer keyboard to your eyes. To call what I have posted as an attack seems a little much. If Roger thought I was attacking him I’m sure he would say so, or wouldn’t respond to my posts. I wouldn’t call myself a Calvinist. I would definitely lean in that direction in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t make anyone a Calvinist. You said this,”What you seem to leave out is the possibility that our sensibilities will in fact often line up with the Scriptures.” I’m not disagreeing with that at all. I’m saying that the thing that influence our sensibilities to believe what is written in Scripture ultimately comes from outside of us (the Holy Spirit). If you notice, I haven’t listed a lot of Scripture for fear of being accused of proof-texting. I’m not asking for extended exegesis, but some Scripture texts alongside an argument isn’t too much to ask, is it? I’m not saying that normal, healthy humans cannot read and comprehend the words in a Bible. Yes, the moral law of God is written on our hearts (believers and unbelievers). Yet why are we convinced and others aren’t? Not in the sense of election et al, but why are we not Mormons or Muslims, etc? Why do I believe the gospel? Because of the very literal words of it (read or spoken) and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 10:17). That never changes, before or after a person believes. That said, the most offensive thing about Scripture is the gospel itself. Why would I want to think I’m that bad of a person? Why would I need someone to save me? That is not sensible to fallen humans, until the word of God and the Holy Spirit convince me. We have to stop being either/or thinkers. Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? Arminian or Calvinist? Simplistic or not Scripture has it’s own logic.

        • rogereolson

          Go back into the archives and find my essay on why I believe the Bible.

  • Jim Gifford

    Hi Roger,

    This is an important controversy. There is a reason that three of Giles’ opponents in the crosshairs are Grudem, Ware, and Driscoll. Grudem and Ware lead the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in Louisville, KY and Driscoll is the popular YRR spokesperson for their theology. The reason for the debate is complementarianism, and a complementarianism that wants to take its roots into the Trinity ad intra.

    The CBMW wants to ground complementarianism in the Father-Son relationship. They are proponents of ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son). It is hard to maintain ESS while holding to eternal generation. Eternal generation implies equality. So if EG is jettisoned, ESS becomes the option. Therefore, if there is a subordination between Father and Son, there can be subordination in male-female relationships.

    This has been the battle line for a few years now. There is the CBMW on one side and egals like Giles and Erickson on the other. It boils down to ESS vs. EG.

    Jim G.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I realize that. But it seems to me affirmation of EGS could more easily be used to defend ESS. I’m not clear about why they think ESS is linked with denial of EGS when they believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. Maybe you can explain that.

  • James Swift

    Dr. Olson,

    Thank you very much for the post. Very interesting.

    Have you read John Zizioulas on this issue? I’ve been reading Communion and Otherness and he makes a strong case for eternal generation.

    • rogereolson

      I have read something by Z., but I’m not sure if it was that book. It’s been a while. I was mainly interested then in Z’s ideas about deification which are not accepted by all within the EO churches.

  • Fred

    Dr. Olson,

    This is beside the point of the post but it got me wondering. I use specific Bible verses to support my own views on various topics. But, many times I only have one or two. So, I have wondered, at what point does it stop being merely a list of proof-texts and become a theology? Or, is that even a good way to think about it? If I could, provide, say, 20 verses to support a particular position, would that be a good basis for a theology? How can we help people bridge the gap between proof-texting and developing their theology?

    Below are your statements that triggered my thoughts. Again, feel free to forgo any comments to stay with the conversation but it may be an interesting topic for the future.

    “But Giles does not rely on any proof text or string of them. ”
    “My point here is that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has to be decided by theology and not by counting proof texts.”

    • rogereolson

      An excellent book on this subject is I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. I believe good theology is always a conversation between Scripture, tradition, reason and experience with Scripture being the norming norm and tradition being the normed norm. Reason and experience are tools of interpretation. The Arians of the fourth century could list lots of Scripture passages to support their denial of the deity of Jesus, but the church fathers used Scripture and reason to defeat them. For example, theology asks “If the Son is not eternal, doesn’t that mean the Father was not always ‘Father’ but became Father when the Son was created?” Also, “How can a creature save creatures?” They argued for the deity of the Son of God, equal with the Father, from soteriology.

  • Eric Miller

    First off, I agree that this is not a big controversy. While I reject the idea of the “eternal generation of the Son”, I think this should be a “light-hearted” debate, not a salvation or test of fellowship issue. However, in response to the very question of 1 John 1:14, (which I asked of Dr. Jack Cottrell) he said :

    In Luke 1:35 “the Most High” probably refers to God the Father; thus this verse seems to say that the conception of Jesus is attributed to both the Holy Spirit and to the Father. He is called “the Son the Most High” in v. 32, and the “Son of God” in v. 35. So I don’t see a problem here. From another angle, the prophecy in Psalms 2, “This day I have begotten you,” is cited in Acts 13:33 as referring to Jesus’ RESURRECTION from the dead–an act which in other places is equated with begetting and/or new birth. Thus I still don’t see any solid Biblical basis for eternal Sonship as part of the ontological Trinity.

  • John T. “Jack” Jeffery

    Here are my “go to” works on this subject that confirm your conclusion as the only one that does justice to the Scriptural testimony concerning the Lord Jesus Christ (listed alphabetically):

    John Gill, “A Dissertation concerning the Eternal Sonship of Christ; shewing by whom it has been denied and opposed, and by whom asserted and defended in all ages of Christianity”, in Sermons and Tracts (Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, n.d.; from 1814 original by W. Hardcastle, London), VI:178-221; on Providence Baptist Ministries at http://www.pbministries.org/books/gill/Sermons&Tracts/sermon_17.htm [accessed 12 MAR 2012].

    John MacArthur, “Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ”, on Grace To You at
    http://www.gty.org/Resources/articles/593 [accessed 12 MAR 2012].

    J. C. Philpot, The Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ (Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, n.d.); on The Highway at http://www.the-highway.com/Sonship_Contents.html [accessed 12 MAR 2012].

    Richard Treffry, An Inquiry into the Doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of our Lord Jesus Christ
    4th ed. (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1865); on Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?id=TYwTAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=treffry#v=onepage&q=&f=false [accessed 12 MAR 2012]

    W. E. Vine, The Divine Sonship of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., n.d.; 1984 reprint from Pickering & Inglis, London, original).

    Other sources might be added from works on Dogmatic, Systematic, and Historical Theology.

    See also the sources listed on Monergism at http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Jesus-Christ/Eternal-Sonship/ [accessed 12 MAR 2012].

  • Greg D

    “The fact that the “eternal generation of the Son” is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture is a poor reason to jettison it.”

    So, we just make up doctrines to refute heresy? Sounds a bit paradoxical. I myself could never reconcile the fact that the Nicene Creed states that Jesus was “begotten”. Ironically, the KJV also renders John 3:16 with “begotten” whereas some of the newer translations correctly state “unique”. Arguably, the Greek “monogenes” means, “unique” not begotten. And, Jesus is indeed unique rather than begotten. The eastern orthodox Church makes it clear in their English version of the Nicene Creed that Jesus is begotten, but not made. Is Jesus subordinate to God? Yes, all throughout the Gospels Jesus clearly submits to the Father’s will, while at the same time He is one (and equal) with the Father. What an amazing mystery that I’m willing to leave as is.

    • rogereolson

      “Begotten, not made” was clearly the intent of the original (381) Nicene Creed. Giles discusses the Greek of John 1 thoroughly. I recommend you read his book when it is published. To suggest that the fourth century fathers simply “made up” the doctrine is absurd.

    • John Inglis

      Your “argument” (Olson’s or other theologians’ doctrines, including eternal generation, are made up) is only an assertion unless you provide evidence of some kind for it. I don’t see him, or others, doing or claiming to do such a thing.

  • Dana Ames

    Dr. Olson,
    I wonder if you noticed that your list of people against whom Giles is arguing contains folks who tie the subordination of women to the subordination of the Son.

    When I think about that, I am truly frightened, because it seems that Christology and theological hermeneutics are being sacrificed to uphold certain beliefs about gender and the relationship of men and women.

    Dana Ames

    • rogereolson

      But the irony is that some of those people (who deny the eternal generation of the Son) hold to the eternal subordination of the Son. Wouldn’t it fit their complementarian trinitarianism better to affirm the eternal generation of the Son? Unless there’s a connection I’m missing I at least have to give them credit for now allowing their complementarianism to determine stand on this subject.

      • Dana Ames

        Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.

        I don’t know much, but I do think that Trinitarian theology among many Protestants nowadays is quite weak; many don’t know or don’t understand the great 4th century thinkers, and the EO contribution in later centuries seems to have been entirely ignored.

        Thank you for your work – on many fronts.

        D.

  • Pingback: Another Reason I’m Not Neo-Reformed -They SO Easily Proof-Text Themselves Out of Orthodoxy… | shelboese.org

  • Scott H

    Dr. Olson,

    “The fact that the “eternal generation of the Son” is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture is a poor reason to jettison it, is Giles’ point. We should not and cannot simply jump from the twenty-first century to the Bible paying no attention to all that happened in between. Especially the church fathers command our attention even if they are not infallible like Scripture itself.”

    My high church friends tell me that all the church fathers thought Mary was sinless and all the church fathers bought into the bishop system. Is that true (or at least approximately true)?

    Suppose it is (at least approximatley) true. When combined with what you say in the quoted passage (which I find to be pretty compelling), should it motivate us to adopt the relevant views about Mary and the bishop system if Scripture doesn’t decide the issue one way or another?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know what is meant by “the bishop system.” I don’t find the medieval or contemporary Catholic episcopacy in the church fathers. Nor do I find there full-blown Mariology. However, some evangelicals have argued that we need to rediscover Mary.

      • http://highroadkokko.blogspot.com Bruce Kokko

        Perhaps by ” the Bishop system” is meant the tripartite system of bishop, elders, deacons that was first articulated by Saint Ignatius in his letter to the Magnesians (6,7) around AD 110.

        Anyway, Prof. Olson, thank you once again for standing on orthodoxy.

  • Margreet

    “Now, personally, I don’t find this to be an extremely important controversy. I’m not quite sure why it stirs up so much heat except for those who are confessionally committed the Nicene Creed as authoritative.”

    I’ve only come across this controversy in the context of how women are seen in some Christian circles, making the connection between Jesus’ eternal submission to the Father and the wife’s submission to her husband (conveniently forgetting about mutual submission among all believers). In that sense this discussion is important, as it has very practical implications for both men and women.

    • rogereolson

      But not necessarily. Some of those who deny the eternal generation of the Son are egalitarians (e.g., Millard Erickson).

  • Bob Brown

    The “only begotten” refers only to The Word’s humanity does it not? The Word was in the beginning with God and was God. This new human form The Word took upon Himself made Him “the First Born of Creation”. I believe that a lot of the controversy has to do with the language that speaks of The Word in human flesh who was submitted to the Father and lived as we must, as a creature. Jesus was fully God and fully Human. Arians get confused by the Scriptures that show The Word living, praying and talking to God as Father….as He lived as a human, thus denying His Divine nature.

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    Roger, thank you for this post. I hope to read Giles’ book.

    My big concern is that the divine persons designated as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same abilities, which evidently includes the abilities to execute the roles of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. For example, I see that the Son and Holy Spirit would have been fully capable of executing the role of Father. Given that philosophical concern combined with the lack of explicit biblical support for the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit, I reject the doctrine of eternal generation.

    I also doubt that Giles will convince me that the doctrine of eternal generation is needed to avoid modalism. I additionally do not think that the doctrine of eternal generation is needed to avoid tritheism. I am content with my model of relative identity and the general partnership model of the Trinity, and I wait to hear from peer review about my latest version of it.

    • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

      Roger Olson said: “Nevertheless, I will stick with the eternal generation of the Son for both biblical and traditional reasons. I think it makes the best sense of John 1:14. In fact, I can’t think of an alternative reading of that verse because, of course, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the reference to him being the only begotten of the Father cannot refer to his earthly beginning. But more importantly, I see no reason to throw out the considered theological conclusions of the fifth century church fathers about something so central to their project of defeating the Arians.”

      If I may, I also want to address your insistence that “monogenes” refers to eternal generation because the Holy Spirit, not the Father, conceived the Son. If that is the case, then why is not the Holy Spirit an eternal Son of God? For example, you reject the Filioque. So then why is the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father any different than the Holy Spirit’s eternal relationship to the Father? What is the logical difference between the Father eternally generating the Son and the Father eternally preceding the Holy Spirit? And if there is no difference, then how is Christ the only Son?

      • rogereolson

        The traditional answer (given by the Cappadocian fathers) is that the Father eternally generates the Son and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. I’m not really interested in debating this; I just don’t think the arguments against it (i.e., the eternal generation of the Son) are convincing. I’ll stick with my beloved Cappadocian fathers. :)

    • John Inglis

      Given the truism that everyone has to start somewhere, and given that Christianity has now been around for 2,000 years with a great deal of thought having gone into many of these issues, isn’t it the case that it is insufficient to have an alternate explanation for the relationships among the Godhead, one also has to have cogent reasons for rejecting what the body of Christ has determined is true?

      • rogereolson

        I would think so.

  • http://soulfirekoeln.de Tobias Sänger

    I find this entry somewhat confusing, in that you first insist that scripture trumps tradition, but then you criticize Grudem for only looking up Bible verses and commend Gile for instead listening to the historical consensus.

    As someone who follows Oden in his paleo-orthodoxy, I think that to say ‘scripture trumps tradition’ brings up the question ‘scripture as interpreted by whom?’ Don’t we ultimately mean ‘my interpretation of scripture trumps traditional/historic interpretations’?

    • rogereolson

      Of course. Even Oden means that. What else can it mean? The question, however, is how “my interpretation” is formed. (No one else can form “my” interpretation of Scripture. IF I am convinced a certain interpretation of Scripture is right, then it is I who have that interpretation.) I can’t believe that even Oden thinks that someone else should do all his thinking for him. The question is what sources and norms we take into account in forming our own interpretations of Scripture.

      • http://notoutofreach.wordpress.com Tobias Sänger

        I think Oden goes further than that. He makes it clear that he does not want to make any new contribution to theology, but wants to ‘simply listen’. He wants to receive and pass on.
        His expressed goal is “To seek quite simply to express the one mind of the believing church that has been ever attentive to that apostolic teaching to which consent has been given by Christian believers everywhere, always, and by all-this is what I mean by the Vincentian method.”

        • rogereolson

          But, of course, given the plurality of voices even among the church fathers, even Oden has to make some choices. Hopefully he also believes Scripture trumps even the early Christian consensus if there’s a conflict.

  • CGC

    Sources at monergism (hmmm) . . . Here might be an issue that more traditional Calvinists and Arminians agree upon. But I suspect Roger, you are a synergist like the Eastern Orthodox tradition rather than a monergist. Am I right about that?

    • rogereolson

      I call mine “evangelical synergism” because it is Protestant. I am a synergist who believes in justification by grace alone through faith alone. So far as I know that is true only of Wesleyan and non-Wesleyan Arminians.

      • Timothy

        There was a discussion by Kevin DeYoung about whether it was right to speak of synergism in relation to sanctification. He obviously did not want to as monergism was the preferred language (as he is a fervent Calvinist). However he felt compelled to accept the use of synergism in relation to sanctification but argued that the language was not really suitable for the subject. I think this exposes a faultline in Calvinist thinking that may have wider implications. The inappropriateness of the language for sanctification implies that perhaps the Calvinist view has inconsistencies that even they cannot entirely ignore. But may it be that the language is indeed inappropriate whether employed in the service of Calvinism or Arminianism? Should arminians avoid the terminology too?

        • rogereolson

          We should avoid it without qualifications. Throughout much of church history “synergism” has been interpreted as cooperation between the person’s free will and God’s grace as if salvation were a “50/50″ division of duties. But monergism always means that God is the sole actor in salvation. So, I call myself an “evangelical synergists” to designate my commitment to salvation by grace through faith alone.

  • JoeyS

    “First, I find it interesting that some of the opponents of eternal generation of the Son are the very people who are the quickest to criticize any evangelical who dares to tamper with tradition. Who’s a postconservative now?”

    This is old news, IMO. These are the same folks who wanted to lambaste Bell for citing Origen by citing Emperor Justinian’s council (called by him because the Church wouldn’t do it) that called a sect of Origen’s later followers heretical. Ask them to affirm the Council of Chalcedon and see who raises their hand. They cite history when it is convenient but have no real love or respect for it.

  • http://campusrenewed.wordpress.com/ Charles Yu

    Prof. Olson,
    This is my speculation on why complementarians are undermining eternal generation:
    1. One of their main arguments is that the relationship within the Trinity has both equality and hierarchy; Thus, woman and man can be equal while giving man priority in government.
    2. Eternal generation suggests inequality within the Trinity which serves as the basis for subordination.
    3. The subordination of the Son on the basis of eternal generation undermines the case for the possibility of having both equality and hierarchy in a relationship.

    • rogereolson

      Interesting. It would be good to know if any of them have actually said something like that. It’s a good guess, though.

      • Kyle Carney

        On itunes, you can download free Wayne Grudem teaching through his systematic theology. You can choose to just download the podcast episodes covering the Trinity. I can’t remember which one, but in it he basically gives the reasoning above and says the winner of the battle will win the complementarian/egalitarian debate. I believe the reasoning about their stake in the argument is laid out correctly above here.

  • Yvonne Wilber

    Thanks for the head’s up on Giles’ new book. His previous work has helped me wrestle with the distinctive problems women have as leaders in this current climate and its “Christianity (with) a masculine feel” (John Piper at the recent God, Manhood, and Ministry conference.)

    Add John Feinberg to the list of theologians who reject eternal generation: “In sum, it seems wisest to abandon the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. They are shrouded in obscurity as to their meaning, and biblical support for them is nowhere near as strong as supposed” No One Like Him p. 492.

  • http://christianchildrensbooks.net Fred Karlson

    Understanding that a lot of scriptural talk about God is analogical and not literal helps me to understand why the Nicene Creed formulated the teaching of the Son’s eternal generation. Father and Son were terms and still are that fit most human cultural contexts. In addition, a son usually succeeded the father. This is particularly important for the concept of Messiah with the citation of Psalm 2 in the NT with definite Messianic overtones.
    While there is no direct mention of eternal generation of the Son in the Bible, there is the mere designation of the Father-Son relationship. Would it be better to call the doctrine “eternal sonship” as my theology teacher taught in order to conform with the current understanding of the the Greek word “monogeneis?” The argument is that there should be a double nun here if it were to mean “only begotten,” while the Greek word only has a single nun. But did the second nun drop off? Liddell and Scott give “only begotten” for monogeneis with one nun. So where’s the beef?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t have any beef with nuns! :) Seriously, it appears the Greek is open to debate. See Giles’ book when it is published.

  • Tim F

    If by 325 and 381 Christians had gotten Jesus’ relationship to the Father so wrong, what on earth makes us think we have a better shot at it?

    • Tim F

      One more thing: are these Calvinists even aware that Arius and other subordinationists of different varieties made biblical cases much like their own that the church condemned as wrong readings of Scripture? It’s pretty funny, I think, that the heretics were often the ones who read Scripture too literally (e.g. Arius on the Son) and were condemned, and now these guys who read Scripture as a set of propositions are finally circling back to these heretical views, especially after all their heresy hunting in the ETS. They must have no sense of irony.

      • rogereolson

        Quick correction: They aren’t denying the deity of the Son; they are denying the “eternal generation” of the Son from the Father. That is, they are denying the “monarchy of the Father.”

        • Tim F

          Ah, yes, I should have got that. My fingers moved to critique before my mind fully engaged.

          Arius technically didn’t deny the divinity of the Son either. He was just a lesser divinity. The Son is the first creature, a divine creature, but a creature for Arius. Arius was even okay with the homoiousios language.

          I have one question now that I have my mind properly engaged: How does one deny the eternal generation of the Son and not end up in tri-theism? In other words, the point of eternal generation is to name the Father as the “source” and unity of the Trinity, at least in my reading. Deny this relation and one would have to completely rethink how the divine nature is shared amongst the persons without positing the nature as some fourth thing within the Godhead. Said differently again, the Father being the source and unity of the Godhead, without ontological superiority, assures that the divine nature is not “behind” the persons in some hidden god beyond the trinity.

          • rogereolson

            That is exactly one of the reasons given in EO literature for holding to the monarchy of the Father. Good insight.

  • John Inglis

    For those interested in how the eternal generation debate is relevant (or not) to the complementarian/egalitarian debate, I recommend the interaction between Giles and Letham at:

    http://journal.equip.org/articles/is-the-son-eternally-submissive-to-the-father-an-egalitarian-complementarian-debate

  • Brian Peterson

    I’d love feedback on this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngqBzoMaMis

    This video goes with the pages at http://www.christian-history.org/TrinityYT … The Scriptures, the early Christians, and the Council of Nicea all give a consistent view of the Trinity. That view is somewhat different, especially in terminology, than the common doctrine of Catholics and Protestants. I also show that the doctrine of the Trinity did not develop over time. It did not change until AFTER the Council of Nicea.

    • rogereolson

      This is why I ask my students not to just say “God” when referring to Jesus. This is a habit many Christians have developed sometime during Sunday School. For example, some will say “When God was told his parables….” It’s true that Jesus is God, but the word “God” when used as a proper name for a person should be used for the Father. Jesus is usually referred to in the New Testament and early Christian literature as the Son of God or the Word of God. The danger in simply referring to all three persons equally as “God” when that is being used as a proper name is modalism. And, of course, modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds, just as semi-Pelagianism is the default doctrine of salvation in most American Christians’ minds.

      • CarolJean

        Dr Olson,

        Why do you think that modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American minds?

        • rogereolson

          That’s my experience from teaching theology to Christian students in three Christian universities over almost 30 years. And from teaching theology to adult Christians of all ages in numerous church settings over the same time period. Most, if not educated in the doctrine of the Trinity, think the Trinity is like H2O.

          • Mark

            Roger, what empirical evidence do you have from “your experience” that would substantiate your truth claim that “modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds?” You see, Carol who wrote you just above is a Oneness Pentecostal and as Carol knows, Modalism isn’t even the “default doctrine” of those who claim to be modalists as a general rule. She began a thread at CARM titled, “Modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity to most American Christians” using your unsupported assertion here as proof of that statement. I on the other hand have had quite a bit of “experience” myself and in 35 years I have yet to meet one person who claimed to be a Trinitarian, and was not completely ignorant of Bible and doctrine, who did not believe that the Son actually existed with the Father before the incarnation, a claim which a modalist would never make. So again I ask, in your “experience” how were you able to gather the empirical evidence from “most American Christians” that enabled you to determine that their default doctrine was “Modalism,” and what precisely was this evidence?

          • rogereolson

            A modalist can believe that the Son existed with the Father before the incarnation–as one mode or manifestation of God (e.g., as the “Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament narratives). My opinion that modalism (however inconsistent it may be) is the default doctrine of the Trinity (if you can call it that) for most American Christians is based on thirty-five years of teaching theology (which I did before I actually took it up as a full time career). Almost all my students have said that they were taught the Trinity using the H2O analogy which I judge to be modalist.

  • John Inglis

    From Giles:

    “Obedience Center Stage. When we come to Eunomius, the Cappadocians’ arch neo-Arian opponent, the obedience of the Son comes onto center stage. In his Confession of Faith, he professes,

    We believe in the one and only true God…he has no sharer of his Godhead or participator of his glory, nor joint possessor of his authority.

    And we believe in the Son of God…He is obedient in creating and giving being to things that exist, obedient in all his administration, not having received his being Son or God because of his obedience, but from his being Son and being generated as only-begotten God, being obedient in words, obedient in acts5 (emphasis added).

    Athanasius and the Cappadocians vehemently opposed this teaching. They would not concede in any way that the Son was eternally obedient to the Father. With the Father and the Spirit, the Son reigned as Lord.”
    ***
    If authority is an attribute of deity, like omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence, then each person of God must have the same authority, at least intrinsically, as they existed before time. It seems to me that only if authority is not a necessary attribute of deity can there be such a thing as eternal subordination. That is, authority is ontological if the prior is true, but not if the latter is.

    It seems to me that (most) complementarians see authority as role as being something that is not a necessary attribute of God, but one that accrues to God when he creates–because the maker is de facto authoritative over what he creates (when the maker is omnipotent, non-omnipotent Gods get unseated by their creations).

    If that is the case, then God is authoritative not because he is God qua God, but because he is omnipotent-God-who-creates. If authority is not eternally inherent and essential to God’s essence, then one person of God can be eternally subject to another person because he/it is subject in his personhood but not in his essence (because it is irrelevant to essence; not ever a part of essence).

    But if authority is essential to what God is, to what is common and binding among all three persons, then each person of God must be equally authoritative because each equally has the essence of God. If so, then there can be no eternal subbordination because authority in this sense is ontological and not role based.

    That is, I can see subordination as being either ontological or not ontological, and if we then look at the Biblical description of God (apart from the male/female issue and the complementarianism issue) we find a God described who is in his essence authority. Authority apart from whether, and before, he creates. That is, authority is ontological (God is in essence monarchical). If authority is ontological then there cannot be eternal subordination.

    If I am even close to being in the ballpark in understanding the issues, then it seems to me that the two sides are ships passing in the night because they are approaching the issue of authority from different directions. The ontologists starting from the nature of God’s essence, and the complementarians/subordinationists starting from a post creation standpoint that does not consider authority outside of its capacity to be a role function. Then they proceed by using different terminology, or the same terminology with different meanings. This confusion and ship passing is part of what I saw when I read the Letham – Giles interaction. It certainly seems to me that Giles is the more clear thinker on this issue (apart from whether he is right) and that he gets this essence / role difference.

    ***
    Am I even in the ballpark?

    • rogereolson

      I agree that Giles both gets it right and is much clearer. Another point I have tried to make here (to those who believe in the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father’s authority) is that IF God is one God there can only be one will in God. As all the orthodox church fathers affirmed, the Father, the Son and the Spirit share one will. If you import three wills into the Godhead you do have tritheism or Arianism. Where there is one will there cannot be authority over or obedience to. That’s illogical.

      • John Inglis

        Good point (re “will”). I had not thought of, or known about, that issue before.

  • John Inglis

    It is worth noting that T.F. Torrance insists on the homoousion of the Spirit. Torrance uses the Cappodocian Fathers, though re obviously prefers Gregory of Nazianzus to Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea. Torrance rejects all subordinationist ideas and tendencies. Torrance also argues that the Spirit proceeds from the Father’s being, not merely the Father’s person. If he is correct then, as others have noted, the procession debate (from father alone or father and son) is bypassed. For Torrance, the procession of the Holy Spirit is from the whole spiritual Being of God the Father which the Holy Spirit has in common with the Father and the Son.

    Torrance says, “[because / since] there is no separation between the Activity and the Being of God in the Trinity or in the Incarnation or in the work of the Spirit, that carries theology consistently forward from ‘the economic Trinity’ into ‘the ontological Trinity’, for what God is in the economy of his saving operations towards us in Jesus Christ he is antecedently and inherently and eternally in himself as the Triune God.” (from “Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics”)

    I think that the doctrine of perichoresis, which was the work of John of Damascus in the eighth century, also militates against subordinationism. According to this doctrine, there is a mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity and the mutuality of the indwelling would seem to make impossible any possibility or even hint of eternal subordinationism.

    Similarly, Moltmann writes, “the divine life cannot be consummated by merely one subject at all. It is bound to consist of the living fellowship of three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is found in the unity of their tri-unity”.

  • John Inglis

    It has taken me much reading and reflection to understanding the issue of eternal generation of the son on its own terms and then also as it relates to subordinationism (I realize I had some initial confusion about the two). The three prior December blogs on the subordination issue have been helpful, as were the links to the Trinity Statement, etc., and references to books.

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad. Thanks for the affirmation. This is really why I do this blog. I learn a lot from people like you, too.

  • John Inglis

    The Theopedia summarizes the view of one Reformed scholar who rejects eternal generation: “Reymond discusses his objections in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Departing from orthodox Reformed theology of the Trinity, Reformed theologian Robert Reymond is rather emphatic in his rejection of eternal generation and procession. For Reymond, it is clear that Father, Son, and Spirit relate in covenant; he places distinctive emphasis on the equal self-existence of each person and the arbitrariness of the roles enacted by them. The subordination in their roles in salvation indicate nothing about what they are ontologically; and therefore, the name “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is not a revelation of who God is, but rather only a revelation of God’s purposes.”

    • rogereolson

      Wow. That is such a departure from traditional theology. Again, I ask, who’s the postconservative now? So he’s saying the economic Trinity does not reveal anything about the immanent Trinity? It sounds that way. It’s just one little step from there to modalism IMHO.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Roger,
    Thanks for entertaining my thoughts. I know this is getting long. I would still open the Scripture with those folks you mentioned. I know I could never persuade them, only God’s word can. Just like it can in this conversation…on both sides of the issue. I guess when everything else is stripped away, I would lay God’s sovereignty and the free will of man next to each other and leave them that way. Isn’t a big part of this discussion that Calvinists don’t try to reconcile these two, and simply accept it. Whereas, those outide of a Calvinistic understanding seem bent on trying to bring these two together. That is a really simplistic look, but if everything is stripped away this is really what we have. In the end, the Calvinistic side sees the fallen nature of man has a greater effect on us than others do. That the extent of sin is worse than we like to admit. Sin’s power on us has affected our moral capacity, not necessarily our mental and physical capacity, in the things of God and the gospel. (I’m sure you’ve heard all this before). If we can’t come together on the effects that sin has had on us this discussion will continue on as it is. To say Calvinists and Arminians see the extent of our depravity the same hasn’t looked in deep enough.

    • rogereolson

      Have you even read any real Arminian theologians on total depravity? It seems to me that you just want to cast aspersions on Arminians and Arminianism without really engaging us in honest, thoughtful dialogue (like I do with Calvinists like Mike Horton). As for Calvinists simply laying God’s sovereignty and human free will next to each other and leaving them that way…what does that even mean? There are so many interpretations of “God’s sovereignty” and “the free will of man” that I don’t even know what they mean unless someone explains them. All Calvinists I know of (who even claim to believe in “the free will of man”) believe in compatibilism which, IMHO, is not free will.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Thanks, bro. I don’t think I’ve been trying to hide anything, I just hate to get bogged down in extreme, either/or thinking. I don’t know how to be more honest and thoughtful, but in the future I will try:) (sorry for the late response…been on spring break) God Bless.

  • http://rti.myfineforum.org/index.php Ask Mr. Religion

    Roger,

    I have watched the evolution of your theology since the early days of the old Theologos Yahoo Groups web site. While you feel free to wax eloquent about what Calvinists really think, but fail to express publicly, I cannot help but wonder why you don’t turn that intellect of your inward. Your flirtation with open theism does not escape notice and why you simply don’t come out and claim to be an open theist is bewildering. Why not do the right thing and be as honest as you claim the Calvinist should be?

    AMR

    • rogereolson

      That’s scary–that you think you can read my mind! But, I’m not scared because you obviously can’t. :) I am not and never have been an open theist. I don’t know what you mean by “flirting with” it. If you mean I have defended my open theist friends as not heretics, well, I certainly have good company (among non-open theist evangelicals) there. Even Christianity Today published an editorial calling for further dialogue about it. What I have said is that I have found most of open theism’s critics haven’t really read a single serious book by an open theist and, if they have, they haven’t understood it. Oh, and yes, I have said that most of the arguments against open theism would, if valid, work against Arminianism as well.

    • John Inglis

      From your website, Mr. Religion, concerning your exposition of the 9th commandment and your quoting with approval of the following:

      ” (1) First, in heart a man may fail,

      [1] By suspecting others unjustly; this is called evil surmising (1 Tim. 6:4), or as it is in the original, evil suspicion; which is when men are suspected of some evil without ground, as Potiphar suspected Joseph, or it is jealousy, when this suspicion is mixed with fear of prejudice to some interest we love, so Herod was jealous when Christ was born, and the neighboring kings when Jerusalem was abuilding. There is, I grant, a right suspicion, such as Solomon had of Adonijah, and wherein Gedaliah failed in not crediting Johannan’s information about Ishmael’s conspiracy against his life.

      [2] By rash judging and unjust concluding concerning a man’s state, as Job’s friends did; or his actions, as Eli did of Hannah, saying that she was drunk, because of the moving of her lips; or his end, as the Corinthians did of Paul, when he took wages, they said it was covetousness, and when he took it not, they said it was want of love (see Rom. 14:4 and 2 Cor. 12:4, etc).

      [3] By hasty judging, too soon passing sentence in our mind from some seeming evidence of that which is only in the heart, and not in the outward practice, this is but to judge before the time, and hastily (Matt. 7:1). ”

      Be as you would have others be.

      John Inglis

    • John Inglis

      Also from your website:

      “Finally, I post below a direct quote from the Puritan Board which I agree with fully as a useful guideline:

      We have a general problem that many of us are going too far in our criticisms and violate the 9th Commandment in the process. Let me remind us all that the 9th Commandment is not merely violated when we’ll only be convicted by a jury of our peers for libel or slander but is violated whenever we don’t do everything in our power to uphold the good name of our neighbor. Remember that Christ commands that we love our neighbors: we are required to uphold the good name of our enemies and especially honor those who name Christ. Impossible with men but we are supposed to be children of God.

      It’s also good to remember that you can’t charge a person with holding to all the implications of his statements. Men aren’t omniscient, and that’s reflected in the fact that what we say or write often implies conclusions we would repudiate if we realized it. So you can criticize a man for his espoused positions and point out that it logically involves some worse error but you can’t criticize the man for espousing that more grievous error without additional evidence. “

      • rogereolson

        If only Calvinists would stick to that when talking about Arminians.

        • John Inglis

          Yes, it’s good advice for all.

  • Praveen

    Out of debate and pondering both the nature of Christ was determined (Nestorians were expelled) – the first recorded split in the church
    (I personally think that the first split occurred when they rejected Paul’s gospel ( You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes 2 Tim 1:15). – the apostles major work was in Asia minor – his greatest letters – Ephesians, Colossians were to churches in Asia minor.
    I can trace it back to the Galatians controversy – one of his first books; Galatians were located in Asia minor.

    The so called second split happened because of arianism – that’s when the most esteemed St. Athanasius and others gathered to ponder and debate it
    Arian was expelled, Nicene creed was formulated.

    The formation of the new testament canon – was through debate and pondering. Of which Origen of Alexandria was the first.
    Next the cataloged was made by his eminent disciple Eusebius – books were divided into three categories – Universally accepted, doubtful of apostolic origin, and spurious (pseudo graphs). Luther appealed to this history within the Christian Church when he rejected the Book of James (besides his theological reasons).
    F C Baur of the tubegen school appealed to this tradition when he was determining the authorship of Pauline epistles.

    Christians have for centuries pondered and debated – approximated 2000 years. Now we have 33,000 denominations. No doubt the world considers us Crazy.
    You have one book – and everyone has an interpretation!!!!

    What I am saying is that there is nothing new under the sun. Things have been pondered and debated.
    Reformation with Luther occurred because he pondered and debated.

    I have a great and profound respect for Christian traditions and history – from which I have learned a lot.

    I am NOT saying they are always consistent in their interpretations, inferences, and conclusions- out of the top of my head I can think of a dozen.

    We read the apostles creed and the Nicene creed – they are the foundational creeds for- Oriental Orthodox, eastern, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Ethiopian, Lutheran – a world wide body of Christ (I AM NOT SAYING ALL ARE CHRISTIANS)- just the physical, visible “Church”, WITH AGE OLD DOCUMENTS.

    The problem with present day American Protestantism is that people like Driscoll think that they can figure things out by themselves.

    But only…. together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ – Ephesians 3.

  • http://sentimentsassuch.wordpress.com Brendan P. Burnett

    Ahhh… I often come to this blog to read some of these balanced and friendly musings on particular subjects. It’s so refreshing to read your work, Dr Olson. Somehow you stand apart from all the thrashing waves of controversy to give a balanced view on various things. These mini blog posts are second only to your books.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks!

  • Scott M

    What is funny as a Catholic, apparently these men (Grudem Ware, Driscoll) do not do there research on contemporary Catholicism. First of all, “Eternally begotten” was a poor English translation of the original Nicene Creed, therefore as of the first day of Advent of 2011 the Catholic Church re-translated the Nicene Creed (among other liturgical rites) into a more exact translation; the Christological section now reads: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…;” as opposed to the older version which stated, “Eternally begotten of the Father, God from God…” So, this whole controversy is now more or less a mute point. So, let them go and try to do away with some other 2,000 year old doctrine like Atonement for all or something…oh wait…

  • Mark

    A modalist does not believe the Son existed “with” the Father before the incarnation. What you describe are theophanies and there are a very few modalists who claim that God created a “form,” an angel suit if you will, in the beginning and it is in this “form” that he appeared in the OT. However, the Father and this “form” did not interact with each other on a personal level prior to the incarnation (if they had you would be talking to a confused Arian, not a modalist of any ilk.)

    Notwithstanding, the “H20” analogy while primitive and limited is still just that, an analogy which might help one illustrate an idea in the context of a fuller explanation. There is no single analogy that in and of itself would illustrate the Trinity. That said, even a neophyte could use an “H20” analogy to explain the concept of a single substance existing in three distinct ways simultaneously (persons) just as a modalist might use it to illustrate the idea of a single person manifesting in three different ways. The question to the one using the analogy is do the solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of “H20” relate personally to one another. So, if from your “experience” you have concluded anything other than the majority of Christians you have met (which is a far cry from “most American Christians”) in the course of being taught the doctrine of the Trinity, have heard the analogy of “H20” in a context which you apparently did not explore, then your conclusion would be a non sequitur at best. Certainly the assertion that modalism is the default doctrine most American Christians (indeed even the Christians you have met) is completely unsupported by any evidence from your “experience.”

    The thing I find most noteworthy regarding your baseless (and in my experience completely false) depiction of the majority of American Christians being modalists is the complete absence of any substantive understanding of the beliefs of the “majority” of Christians you have had “experience” with over 30 years. So I say again, in my experience of over 35 years I have yet to meet a single Christian who was not completely ignorant of the Bible and/or basic doctrine (the creeds for example) that did not believe the Son of God existed with His Father before the incarnation and then condescended to become man. Such a belief excludes modalism of any ilk.

    • rogereolson

      Our experiences are different. What’s your point? Except to say mine is wrong. How many Christians have you taught the Trinity to over 35 years? Mine would be in the thousands. I stand by my experience. I am not saying the majority are consistent modalists; the majority are anything but consistent when it comes to doctrine. But when asked about the Trinity (not pressed about the preexistence of the Son) most fall back on modalist imagery and language.

  • Mark

    Roger, thank-you for you response. My reason for being here and making these inquiries is back in my first post but let explain once again. Carol Jean who responded to your unsupported assertion that “modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds,” is a Oneness Pentecostal who posts at a popular apologetics board called CARM. She began a thread with your unsupported assertion as the title. Her point in beginning such a thread is to use a truth claim made by a Trinitarian Professor who has had vast experience in 35 years in the area of theology proper, the claim that “modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds,” to support the idea that “modalism” is the natural conclusion one would draw from reading Scripture rather than any sort of Trinitarian notions. In short her point would be that if one were to simply read the Bible they would be a modalist in their thinking. The obvious implication (and argument) is this: if your truth claim is accurate, modalism must be “untaught” to the American Christian mind and replaced with the Biblically extraneous doctrine of the Trinity. With that in mind my reason for being here is to discover if you have any empirical evidence upon which to base such a claim (which you admittedly do not) and in the absence of such evidence to try and understand why you would make such a serious claim regarding the church at large. I will then take that information back to the thread that Carol Jean started at CARM since the “Oneness Pentecostals” there naturally applaud your words with the attitude of, “I’ve known it all along.”

    My point in this discussion is part and parcel to my reason for being here. You have no empirical evidence to support your claim that “modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds.” Further, based on your answers you don’t even have a clear reason to make this same assertion regarding the people you have known “in your experience.” I take issue with your conclusion that anyone using the analogy of H20 is using “modalist imagery and language” without speaking to how the analogy was used in context of a broader explanation. As I explained previously, the analogy of H20 can be used by both Trinitarians and modalists in order to illustrate something that is “one” in one sense and “three” in another sense. However, neither will make any sense (pun intended) absent the context of the broader explanation wherein one determines in what sense H20 is being used to illustrate “one” and “three.” I find it extraordinary that you would label someone “modalist” in their thinking (inconsistent or otherwise) without first understanding the belief the person is attempting to illustrate with any analogy. I do appreciate your tacit admission that asserting “modalism is the default doctrine of the Trinity in most American Christians’ minds,” is based on your assertion that the majority of Christians in your experience have used the analogy of “H20” in describing the Trinity, and not on any substantive understanding of the belief that any of these people were actually trying to illustrate (and most certainly not by “pressing” them even in regard to something as fundamental as the preexistence of the Son of God).

    I will take your answers to my inquiries back to the thread Carol Jean began at CARM. I will point out that your truth claim is completely absent any empirical evidence and therefore to use such a claim as evidence that modalism is the natural belief one arrives at using the Bible is equally absent any evidence. With that in mind I would like to take just a moment to point out the obvious which I think is more often overlooked than not today. One no longer needs to publish a book to be read by thousands, the internet is open to the world. That is why an unsupported claim regarding modalism being the default doctrine in the American Christian mind can quickly become a viral quote among groups holding doctrines that are fundamentally heretical. You should not be surprised or offended if someone requests empirical evidence for such a truth claim.

    Blessings…

    • rogereolson

      Both you and she completely misunderstand my claim. I’m surprised and even a little shocked that what I said, given who I am, could be so completely distorted. I never said that modalism is the result of a “natural reading of the Bible.” I said that it is the default theology of most American Christians and, the context makes clear, I consider that evidence that the bible is NOT being read naturally or rightly and that churches are failing to teach the Trinity correctly. As for my alleged lack of empirical evidence–I reject that claim. It is based on my empirical experience of listening to thousands of Christians talk about the Trinity that way.


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