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

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[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”. 

Craig French is a former deacon and member at Christ the Word (PCA) in Toledo, OH. He and his wife Tai have four daughters.