What is God? Part II: When you don’t take God at face-value...

[Note from TB: We realize Craig French's posts on the Trinity aren’t typical Baylyblog entries, but I have found them very helpful and hope you will read them. Carefully—and following the links. Thank you, Craig, for your excellent teaching, here.]

In part one, I began discussing the inherent problem of starting with a theology of God by way of “essence” or “attributes” apart from hypostases (persons). In part two, I describe what I mean by God playing “dress-up” and show how this implies a disconnect from human sexuality and ordering under father-rule.  I take the ambivalence of many Reformed men (and outright mockery from R2k and Redeemerites) as prima facie evidence that men see no relevance to the Fatherhood of God from which human fatherhood derives.

I have two main goals for part two:

  1. Show where the Reformed are made susceptible to functional egalitarianism by focusing on the essence/attributes of God apart from hypostases, and
  2. Show how this undermines our apprehension of God and our human relationships.

It’s no coincidence that our Reformed seminaries churn out men ill-equipped to pastor souls in the midst of sexual immorality fueled by egalitarianism. Our seminaries are either outright feminist, or they are functionally neutered because discussion of theology proper centers on God’s attributes apart from hypostases. This leaves the door open to a God “transcending gender” because there is a “god” beyond and above the Trinity. This is a breach egalitarians have capitalized on by paying lip-service to the doctrine of the Trinity while they’re busy attacking it. Meanwhile our luminaries fumble about trying to respond while functionally accepting the “orthodoxy” of feminists. The breach has yet to be repaired...

It’s important to state again that egalitarians did not create the breach. They’re capitalizing on it.

Even some so-called “complementarians” fail to repair the breach as some reject the Nicene teaching that the Son is eternally begotten (Mark Driscoll, for example, thinks it is “misguided” and should be omitted). 

What many don't realize is that we have men today who are enlarging this breach—institutionalizing it through seminaries and publications while laying wreaths at John Calvin’s grave.

In Calvin’s day, there were anti-Trinitarian threats to the Church. Heretics viewed themselves as reformers. The Reformers fought against these heretics for the good of men’s souls. In fighting, Calvin sought to preserve the biblical truth that Jesus is God of very God, begotten—not made, and certainly not a lesser deity. He coined a term (or it was foisted upon him by the heretics): “autotheos”. Put simply, Jesus is fully God. 

The term “autotheos” has now been re-engineered by Reformed men rejecting Nicene (read: Biblical) teaching while falsely claiming John Calvin as their patron saint. (Here's an article providing a helpful corrective.) Autotheos re-engineered  teaches that the Son as God does not receive His divinity from the Father. He is “autotheos."

Notice the shift. Calvin taught the Son is fully God. The re-engineered “autotheos” teaches the Son possesses divinity in Himself and that this divinity is not received from the Father.

I’m not aware of non-reformed egalitarians adopting the term “autotheos” broadly (it is instructive to note that Lee Irons [1] is a proponent of the re-engineered “autotheos”), but Reformed men are increasingly adopting it and Reformed men aren’t fighting egalitarianism. In fact, you can bet a “learned” Reformed man will affirm “autotheos” to maintain his credibility before scholarly egalitarians. For those men who do fight against egalitarianism while rejecting eternal generation (like Mark Driscoll); they enter the fight already hamstrung …by themselves. 

Egalitarians aren’t offended by our rejection of eternal generation because it gels nicely with their understanding of the Trinity. Their enlightened Trinity is like, TOTALLY co-equal…so much so that the persons of the Trinity are mutually submissive. Hierarchy, according to the egalitarian, means superiority…and since the Son is as much God as the Father, He can’t possibly be subordinate to the Father. That’s just not reasonable. It’s at this juncture that many, many, many Reformed men, pastors, teachers (and more) nod in hearty agreement.

Our emphasis on attributes (and essence divorced from hypostases) is an easy entrance ramp to egalitarianism. Essence “divorced” from the hypostases is “god” beyond the masculine Persons of the Trinity. This is why moving from discussion of “attributes” to generation of the Son in a Sunday school class comes off clumsily (if it happens at all). It is far easier to move from a generic essence to manifestations (this is the heresy of modalism). The re-engineered notion of “autotheos” provides explanatory power of the essence’s ability to manifest as three equal persons by removing any notion of generation or spiration.

What of the Son’s begottenness? What of the filioque of the Spirit? You know, important stuff Calvin affirmed.

Yawn. Calvin isn’t useful here because he’s so boringly Nicene. Instead, the Reformed (functional egalitarian) will explain away the relevance of these teachings by saying “well, these terms tell us something of how the Persons interact, but they do not speak to how the Son and Spirit possess their divinity.”

Put bluntly: the relationship within the Trinity is a social construct. A mutual agreement between parties.

Mutual agreement…hmmm…sounds “covenantal." If at any point you find it difficult to garner agreement among Reformed men, append the word “covenantal." Head-nods and grunts of “hmm, yes, yes, of course!” will follow. Ralph Smith exemplifies this tendency in essays (like this one) and Paradox and Truth, and elsewhere. While he doesn’t necessarily affirm “autotheos” (although he may), there’s no room for generation of the Son, so if he doesn’t outright deny generation, his views unavoidably imply the denial. He places Trinitarian love in the context of “covenantal” agreement rather than the Father who begets His Son. While many haven’t heard of Ralph Smith, he is illustrative of what you can expect from places like Westminster Theological Seminary (Philly, at least) and other seminaries. Even if the term isn’t affirmed, the concept was present in Cornelius Van Til [2], and men successfully build their teaching and publishing careers upon Van Til.

Here are two diagrams illustrating errors resulting from re-engineered rejection of Nicea: 

rejecting Nicea

Note that this relationship roots each Person’s deity to “generic” essence. The Person of the Son cannot really be eternally begotten from the Father. The Spirit cannot really be filioque. It “secures” the equality of each person…and fits nicely with Presuppositionalist clichés that boldly claim to solve the philosophical problem of the one and the many [3]. Unfortunately, there are at least two potential errors highlighted by the diagrams above:

Error number one: A form of modalism I call “trimodalism." This is where the essence manifests itself as three persons simultaneously. Old-school modalism has “God” acting as the Father, then as the Son, then as the Holy Spirit. “God” takes on these “roles” at particular junctures like wearing a mask and switching out as needed (playing dress-up). Trimodalism has “God” wearing all three masks while acting out these roles simultaneously.

Error number two: Tritheism; which amounts to three gods making up the Trinity. In tritheism, “oneness” rests on mutual agreement. Each Person is fully God because each possesses generic essence. They are one in that they are in “agreement."

Whether the error takes the form of trimodalism or tritheism, the common denominator is that the relations of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are not essential. They are constructs.

As noted above, this dovetails nicely with egalitarianism. It also appeals to the rationalistic impulse amongst the Reformed. It is telling that some brands of Reformed theology emphasize the Trinity primarily as an “answer” to a philosophical problem called “the one and the many”.

I am not aware of anyone really struggling with the problem of the one and the many… But hey, we have a philosophical solution to a question no one cares about. Further, the solution (as posited) does not actually inform basic human relationships as God created us. It does not speak to masculinity or biological sex. It does not speak to procreation.

It cannot speak to them because it is an ethereal abstraction. It cannot speak to fathers and sons. It cannot speak to order in the home and the wickedness of disobedience to authority. It cannot speak to the good of procreation because it neuters Fatherhood by denying the Father’s eternal potency to beget. In short, the “solution” doesn’t have contact with the basics of our order which is supposed to reveal gob-smackingly obvious things about God and His design for human sexuality (Romans 1).

Our culture loves to talk about unity and diversity. Proof: sodomy is a way for men with the same biological parts to express physical union using different cavities. I just “proved” sodomy reflects the unity and diversity of the Trinity. Since the “solution” to the one and the many is rooted in philosophical abstraction, it can be used to affirm nearly any form of order, including unbiblical “order." Unbelievers can much more easily accept a Trinity where the term “Father” is merely a shell… but not the Father Who eternally begets… We hate the analogue to this (procreation). We hate unity that flows from authority.

Nicene Christianity requires the begottenness of the Son. Not made; begotten. If we “preserve” the deity of the Son by denying His begottenness, what does His Sonship and relationship to the Father reveal? Nothing.

What benefits can we possibly glean from sonship through “Son” only so-called? No benefits. Can we really become a part of the patria of God? In what sense? No sense. What we know of God is an unnecessary construct, after all.

Masks playing parts reveal nothing. A mask is a covering; a means for concealment. I fear that as Reformed men continue rejecting Nicene teaching we can expect our children to learn their fathers convey nothing of God except that He might be a hypocrite, too.

Apart from Fatherhood, we can never get to God because these anti-Nicene versions of the Trinity have a god beyond the Trinity. If the “one” hides behind three masks or unnecessary relational constructs, you can’t take Him at face-value. This is another reason why discussion of God must begin with the Father.

[1] Besides the “Reformed” innovation of “autotheos”, Lee Irons holds to an R2k version that would make some R2k proponents blush. It’s so extreme that he came under discipline by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church because he advocated, among other things, same-sex “marriage”. See http://www.upper-register.com/irons_trial/charges.pdf

[2] I’m not a fan of footnoting footnotes, but John Dahms points out in a footnote from JETS 37/3 (September 1994) page 351, that Van Til contrasts his position with Tertullian. While Tertullian had said “that the Son is ‘made a second in manner of existence – in position, not nature’ (Apol 21), C Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969) 104, states ‘A consistently biblical doctrine of the trinity would have implied the complete rejection of all subordination’” (my emphasis).

[3] I am not rejecting Presuppositionalism, per se. I am rejecting the following statement from Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology:

God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is a three-conscious being…the work ascribed to any of the persons is the work of one absolute person… It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing. Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter.  We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences.” (as quoted approvingly by Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Second Edition)

It's important to note that Van Til refers to God’s being (“essence”) as an “absolute” and single “person”. Many critics wrongly accuse Van Til of irrationalism and miss where he was so wrong. What Van Til’s assertion provides is a more coherent (humanly-speaking) mechanism for “God” manifesting trimodally. I think Van Til identified a problem (generic essence beyond the Trinity) but only managed to re-state the problem by providing a semantic “corrective”. 


I can't tell you how encouraging it is to see the analysis above coming from someone within the Reformed camp. I (who am only rarely, and then reluctantly, acknowledged as having any reformed  features to the faith I confess, teach, and defend) have been for the past 25 years in more or less constant controversy with almost anyone who self-identifies as Reformed, controversy concerning the bluntly masculine portrait of God in Holy Writ.

To dangerously oversimplify the work my wife and I have pursued since the early 1980s, I'd say that we began with this bluntly masculine presentation of God in the Bible -- as well as the bluntly feminine presentation of creation itself along with the Bible's presentation of specific feminine entities which the Bible sets forth as archetypes of femininity (Eve, Israel as God's wife, the Virgin Mary as the embodiment of Israel's nature and destiny and the new Eve, the Church as Christ's bride, New Jerusalem as the everlasting mother of the Redeemed).

From these data, we organized a Biblical theology of manhood and womanhood, converted it into curricula, and have distributed this to wide-ranging audiences across broadly evangelical Protestantism ...

...excepting those who identify strongly and aggressively as "Reformed."

In their case, there was candid rejection of our work, precisely because we took God's masculinity in the Bible at face value, as truth, as an abiding element in His self-revelation to His creation, which He intended (and intends still) for us to accept as truthful revelation of his essential nature.  According to endless Reformed pastors and academics with whom I debated this idea, such an idea is (as one of them put it) a swan dive into "the bottomless pit of anthropomorphism."

Instead, we were (and still are) constantly admonished by the Reformed (especially the Truly Reformed) that God is beyond our creaturely notions of sexuality, or gender, or whatever. God transcends all that, we are told.  Yes, He wishes us to think of Him as a Father, but (at best) this is only a metaphor. It has nothing to do with His essential nature.

Craig French's analysis above is utterly unlike anything I've come to associate with Reformed thinking in this area.  Like him (and for over 25 years), I've thought the Reformed are simply useful idiots for the religious feminists, most of whose academics arose from within the Reformed camp in the first place and still do so! French's analysis above sets out a cause for this which I'll let the Reformed citizens of this community assess. Aside from the cause, I thrilled that -- finally! -- someone within the Reformed camp recognizes that the camp itself has wandered way off from Nicene (read "Biblical") Christianity.

May Brother French's tribe increase!

Dear Bill, you have been faithful in teaching and defending this doctrine and it gives me great joy to have you encouraged in that work by a brother putting his shoulder to the plow with you.

With love to you and Barbara,


I agree with 95% of your post, so when I discuss the differences below, please understand that I fully endorse your effort to promote the Trinity. I would even add that without the Trinity we don't know how to organize our own family structure. And children growing up in a poor family structure, don't know what to vote for in a President. But Presidents and Fathers and CEOs draw their inspiration from our Heavenly Father, so that Democracy is not just "only fit for a Christian nation" as John Adams said, it is "only fit for a Trinitarian nation" as well.

Similar observations could be made for capitalism as well. But what I disagree with, is both your analysis of Cornelius Van Til, and the dismissal of the WTS which includes the theologian, Vern Poythress. Neither of them has minimized the Fatherhood of God, or the Eternal Begottenness of the Son. And Poythress has been extremely vocal in his support of complementarianism. 

But even more troubling than the broad brush treatment of WTS, was your concluding statement:

Apart from Fatherhood, we can never get to God because these anti-Nicene versions of the Trinity have a god beyond the Trinity. If the “one” hides behind three masks or unnecessary relational constructs, you can’t take Him at face-value. This is another reason why discussion of God must begin with the Father.

This is something that the Cappadocian Fathers were very explicit about. There is no primacy, no "must begin with" in the Trinity. (I'm assuming of course, that we are talking of the economic Trinity, because we'd never even get this discussion started if we were talking of the hypostases.) Even your discussion of "subordinationism" as revealed in the economic Trinity shows exaggeration and possible misrepresentation. The Son is NOT subordinate to the Father, any more than the wife is subordinate to the husband. That is Islam. Rather, she submits, as St Paul puts it, willingly, which is only possible if she is not subordinate. A private in an army does not willingly submit to his commanding officer--he follows orders. This is because his position IS subordinate.  One is a condition, the other is a choice.  

My own education on this topic (after graduating from WTS) was from Vladimir Lossky's book "In the Image and Likeness of God". If anything, Lossky traces the Trinitarian problems back beyond Reformed theology, back before the Enlightenment, before the Reformation, before Aquinas, before the Medieval Synthesis, all the way to the Great Schism. When "filioque" is allowed in the Nicene Creed, Lossky argues, the careful balance of the Trinity is lost, and the instabilities grow until you get the chaos of the Reformation. What you are pointing out with R2K is the instability that produced the Enlightenment, the Rationalism that promoted one person of the Trinity over the others. If the Son is the Word, is the Logos, then it is an overemphasis on the Son that produces the problems you list.

But don't make the opposite error and promote the Father as the first and best or only way to approach the Trinity. That is the equally dangerous path that leads through the liturgy and the papacy to Islam. (hyperbole of course!)

After all, if there are three Persons in the Trinity, there are three sides of this horse to fall off of, not just modalism or tritheism.

Fr. Bill,
your book, the Story of Sex in Scripture, has been very, very, very helpful to me. In my opinion, it is the book to start with on sex. I've never seen the notion of cosmic sex before...after the initial shock (which didn't last long), it started sinking in.

I did not dismiss WTS. You really can expect feminist pastors to come out of there. Their president, Peter Lillback, an ordained pastor in the PCA, ordained woman deacons prior to his arrival at WTS. His former church is still rockin' the lady deacons, too. 

A criticism is not a dismissal. If it makes you feel better, I really, really, really wanted to go to WTS Philly...I still think it would be great for a number of reasons...but that doesn't mean there isn't egalitarianism there. It's entrenched. That's why there are strong ties to Redeemer Inc. and a more overtly egalitarian offshoot from WTS in Texas now called Redeemer Seminary. I stand by this criticisms found in the comments here, for example.

But don't make the opposite error and promote the Father as the first and best or only way to approach the Trinity. That is the equally dangerous path that leads through the liturgy and the papacy to Islam. (hyperbole of course!)

I encourage the reader to review the post above and see where I promoted the Father as "the first and best or only way to approach the Trinity". Those are your words, not mine. The problem is not the overemphasis on the Son today. I'm willing to bet most evangelicals think of the Son primarily as Jesus or Jesus Christ; not the Son. Yet He pointed to the Father. For some reason, most of us are squinting at His finger. He described Himself as God's Son all the time. The disciple whom He loved was acutely focused on this truth of Jesus' Sonship which is of great benefit to us as sons. So by all means, start with the Son. If a man acknowledges He is the Son he immediately has the Father. By all means, start with the Spirit since that's who regenerates and fills us, this Spirit of adoption, who points to Jesus and you'll be led to the Father. Start there or end there but you have to get there. Many who do arrive there indirectly and struggle to explain the relevance of their arrival.

"I am not aware of anyone really struggling with the problem of the one and the many… But hey, we have a philosophical solution to a question no one cares about."

Just a friendly comment... the question of "the One and the Many" is a very serious problem in philosophy.  And many people have cared about the question; indeed, it's been a rather vexing issue since the beginnings of philosophy.  Cornelius Van Til argued that human-centered philosophy rejects the self-contained Triune God as a transcendental starting point, and therefore cannot account for the harmonious relationship of logic and fact, of unity and diversity, of the abstract and the concrete, in the created order.

None of this really undermines the substance of your article, but it makes me cringe when people a) make sweeping claims about fields outside their expertise (e.g., statements like "no one cares about the problem of the one and the many"), to the detriment of Christians who work diligently in those fields, and b) attempt to dismiss Van Til and his proteges as misguided rationalists or sophists.  

This is something that the Cappadocian Fathers were very explicit about. There is no primacy, no "must begin with" in the Trinity.

Rob, can you give specifics on where the Cappadocian Fathers said this? Because it sounds like you're saying they denied the monarchy of the Father. But there is a primacy (Athanasius called it monarchy) of the Father, as we see in 1 Cor. 15:28:

When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

And there is a sense in which we must begin with the Father, because

there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. (1 Cor 8:6)

We have the Spirit from the Father through the Son. It's not an ordering in time (as if the Father ever "gave" without giving the Son, or spoke without speaking through the Son)---but to say "There is no primacy, no 'must begin with' in the Trinity" obscures the glory of God the Father as Father---that He was particularly the One who gave; it obscures the glory of the Son as Son---that He is a true son who loves to obey his Father's will; it obscures the glory of the Spirit as particularly the One who was given to dwell in us.

No, each person of the blessed Trinity has his place. It is perfect and glorious!

Amen, Daniel.


I’m sorry I made you cringe. The reality is, unbelieving men pondering the problem of the one and the many aren’t generally concerned about it. I don’t think they’re on the brink of “intellectual repentance”. The average man isn’t giving it much thought and would fail to find it relevant to his circumstances…and it would be difficult to relate the importance of it with a call to repentance.

If it makes you feel better, I like Van Til…so much so that I’d like to see a reformulation of his concept of the Trinity to conform to the biblical witness. I think that’s the problem. Van Til offers only a concept that semantically “unifies” everything. Unbelievers rightfully criticize Van Tilians when they ask, “Why stop at Trinity? Why not quadrinity? What’s so magical about the number three?”

I don’t recommend taking cues from the world regarding our message, but sometimes an unbeliever’s question will underscore our weakness. Like unbelievers, many believers are wondering what particular use the doctrine of the Trinity affords us. Hence, the absence of the teaching and prevalence of egalitarianism in our circles. That’s why we should not approach the Trinity as a numerical profundity, and I think that’s what Van Tilianism boils it down to. I can’t be redeemed, sanctified, unified, nor resurrected by a number.

That is the equally dangerous path that leads through the liturgy and the papacy to Islam. (hyperbole of course!)

Dear Rob,

You can't get to Islam by emphasizing the fatherhood of the Father and the sonship of the Son, since Islam denies both. You would have to use the terms 'Father' and 'Son' as empty, meaningless words---but that's just what Mr. French is arguing against.



Add new comment