A reader writes to John Frame:
How central is the Trinity to your apologetical method? I am hesitating to make the question any more specific than that, because I don’t want to say anything that might get in the way of any insights you might have. Also, while we’re on the subject of the Trinity, I do have another question. I am concerned that I do not have a solid grasp yet on your teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are related perspectivally, but they are not merely perspectives on one another.
The least I can do in reply is to take a stab at answering your questions on the role of the Trinity in my writings.
I must begin by admitting to you that the Trinity was not my first thought in developing my triperspectival approach. The immediate sources were these:
- Van Til’s distinction between goal, standard, and motive in his Christian-Theistic Ethics.
- His distinction between God, nature, and self as the sources of natural revelation in his Intro to Systematic Theology.
- Ed Clowney’s pyramid diagram of the structure of the Church, following the biblical offices of Christ, prophet/priest/king.
- Various philosophical speculations on subject, object, and norm.
Then came Vern Poythress, who tied my triads to Kenneth Pike’s Tagmemic language theory (particle, wave, field, and other triads). That’s when it occurred to me that we had hold of something here that could be more than a bit of theological pedagogy.
Now with all these threes bouncing around, it was obvious that they might have something to do with the Trinity. Of course, as Van Tillians, we often talked about the Trinity as “the answer to the problem of the one and the many.” But what about the threenesses in creation, specifically? Well, of course it would not do to say simply that God is a triperspectival being. In and of itself that would be Sabellian, as you imply. The three persons of the Trinity are distinct from one another. Yet their distinctness is an odd kind of distinctness. Each person is “in” the other two (circumincessio, perichoresis). Each person bears the whole divine nature. Whatever one person does, the other persons also play a role (creation, redemption).
The traditional way of exploring the differences between the three persons is by talking about eternal generation/procession and the resulting “personal properties”: the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten but not processing, etc. But although I accept these formulations, they seem to be no more than metaphorical expansion of the names Father, Son, and Spirit. I think we must go on from there and see how the economic differences of the persons may indicate ontological distinctions.
Typically in Scripture the Father is the one who formulates the plan for nature and history. In his incarnate life, the Son commits himself to following that plan and that plan only. The Son is the one who enters history and accomplishes the father’s plan. The Spirit applies that plan, and the Son’s accomplishment, to the hearts of the elect. Recall John Murray’s book title, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.
Now so far I have spoken only of the economic Trinity. But how are the individual roles of the Trinitarian persons decided? Certainly it is not by chance that the Father took on the role of authority, the Son of accomplisher, and the Spirit of applier. As Einstein once said in a different connection, “God does not throw dice.” I believe that there is something about the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit that made it appropriate for them to take on the economic roles they did. This does not involve ontological subordination. The three persons and their three works are utterly equal, equally worthy of praise.
The three roles correspond to my “Lordship attributes.” The Father is authority (normative), the Son the accomplisher (situational; control—the mover of history), the Spirit the presence (existential). Each works “in” the other two, so that nothing happens without all three working together. But the involvement of each is distinct and appropriate.
Now of course this leads people to talk about “EFS,” eternal functional subordination. I do not intend to enter this controversy. (I retire in June, and I don’t intend to be much involved after that in academic theology.) But there is no reason to find ontological subordination in the relations I have described. Some may think that the association of the Father with “authority” places the other two persons in lesser roles. But that suggestion comes from our cultural habit of associating authority with superiority. That is not a biblical habit. Rather, Scripture considers service to be a mark of godliness, indeed of superiority (Matt. 20). So to say that the Son is appropriately the “servant” is not to say that he is less than the Father in any sense. Rather, his acceptance of the Father’s task to the point of death is a mark of his supreme dignity.
The EFS controversy was forced on the evangelicals by feminists. We should reply,
- The relations of Trinitarian persons are not a model for relations among the sexes among mankind. The proper model for these is the relation of Christ and the church (Eph. 5).
- The Bible does not give us an elaborate account of the relations between the Trinitarian persons, only a glimpse. Whether or not something like EFS is true, we are not justified in speculating about it. I am thankful that scholars are taking the Trinity far more seriously now than they did fifty years ago. But in their zeal to work out the implications of fine distinctions they often veer into speculation.
- The best reply to the feminist argument is, first, the point I made under (1.), and, second, that feminists in effect are saying that there are no distinctions within the divine nature beyond those historically defined in the church creeds. That is a dogmatism that we must resist.
In any case, I think you can see that the position I defend is something other than Sabellianism. Indeed, some might say that my lordship attributes divide the persons too much. To counter that, I need to repeat the circumincessio and the union of all three persons in God’s works ad extra.
I get into this a bit in my forthcoming work Theology in Three Dimensions (P&R) which is an introductory work. Vern Poythress also has a much more elaborate discussion of the Trinity, also forthcoming. The title he gave me (subject to change) is Perspectives Originating in the Mystery of the Trinity: A God-Centered Approach.
Anyhow, thanks for your interest.
God’s best Thanksgiving blessings on your studies and witness,