Subject and Object in the Trinity

Subject and Object in the Trinity December 23, 2014

In a recent discussion of penal substitution in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Garry Williams responds to the criticism that penal theories of the atonement are un-Trinitarian because they make the Son an object to the Father. Williams stresses that Jesus is a “subject of the atonement,” the doer of the deed of reconciling the world to God, not merely a passive object. But can we say He was an object in any sense? Williams thinks so:

“he cannot be the object in an unqualified sense, because such an object does not will what happens to him. But might he not be the willing object? Might he not be the subject purposing what happens to him as the object? It should be obvious that we cannot on the basis of Trinitarian theology say that the Son can never be the willing object of the Father’s activity. Witness the description of the multiple activities where the Father is the subject and the Son the object in Scripture: ‘the Father loves the Son’ (John 3:35); the Father ‘sent the Son into the world’ (John 3:17); the Father ‘has granted the Son also to have life in himself’ (John 5:26); the Father set forth the Son as a hilasterion (Rom 3:25). No one can deny that the Father acts on the Son, provided we are clear that the Son also wills the action” (78).

Williams argues that the subject-object relation is reversible: “Just as the Son cannot be the object in an unqualified sense, but he can be the subject and the willing object, so the Father cannot be the object in an unqualified sense, but he can be the subject and the willing object. This emerges most clearly in the intercessory work of the Son and the Spirit. The Son intercedes with the Father for us (Rom 8:34). So, too, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Rom 8:26). The Father is the willing subject and object of the intercessory work of the Son and the Spirit. Furthermore, if we deny that the Persons of the Trinity can be at once the willing subject and object of one another’s actions, then we must deny not only penal substitution, but also the love of each Person for the others, and the sending of the Son, who comes willingly. Ultimately, the logical implication of the denial that one Person of the Trinity can act on another is the denial of the distinction between them, namely modalism” (79).

Garry Williams, “Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms,” JETS 50:1 (2007) 71-86.

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