On the Biblical and Historical Doctrine of the Trinity: A Response to Wayne Grudem

Image: © Tavis Bohlinger

by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps

Wayne Grudem, Professor of Theology at Phoenix Seminary and highly influential evangelical theologian, has recently released the second edition of his best-selling Systematic Theology (Zondervan Academic, 2020). While many of us have read Grudem with benefit, assigned his textbook in classrooms, and recommended it to others, some of us have also expressed serious concerns about his treatment of doctrine of the Trinity. So, one of the big questions surrounding this new release was whether or not Grudem would qualify any of his previous teachings on the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father. Having read the revised chapter on the Trinity, it is apparent that Grudem has attempted to make a couple of noteworthy adjustments/clarifications: he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son (though on fairly narrow lexical grounds and without any significant reference to or defense of the eternal procession of the Spirit) and admits (in some sense) that there is one divine will (although it’s difficult to see how these admissions cohere with his broader understanding of the Trinity; more on this later in the essay). But rather than retract any of his former writings on EFS, he actually doubles down. He still believes the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father, not just in terms of his incarnate mission, but in the eternal life of God himself, even speculating (with only a little caution) that this relationship of subordination in function is precisely what distinguishes the persons as persons. 

To make sure we are not misrepresenting Grudem here, we note his own words, at the beginning of his section, “Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Father?”: “I have argued elsewhere that Scripture indicates a consistent pattern in which the Son always submits to the authority of the Father and that this aspect of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity has existed eternally.”1 It is clear from his subsequent sections that he is not revising his earlier position in any significant sense. For example, he goes on to make statements like, “There are several reasons to think that the pattern of the Son’s submission to the Father while on earth was a reflection of the fact that the Son has been subject to the authority of the Father before creation, and therefore eternally”2; and, perhaps most notably, 

To deny these unidirectional relationships between Father and Son is to fail to speak the way the Scripture speaks about the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. No single text or biblical teaching anywhere in Scripture suggests or teaches that the Father is ever, in any instance, under the authority of the Son or carries out any single action or set of actions in obedience to the Son. Every biblical text on this question shows the Father in the position of preeminence in authority, and the Son always and only carrying out the will of the Father.

Therefore, the consistent testimony of Scripture is that the Father, by virtue of being Father, eternally has authority to plan, initiate, lead, direct, command, and send, and this is a kind of authority that the Son and Holy Spirit do not have with respect to the Father. The Son, by virtue of being Son, eternally submits, joyfully and with great delight, to the authority of his Father.3

Thus, despite those who may protest that Grudem’s affirmation of eternal generation and one divine will should assuage his critics, it is obvious to those who read the chapter that these new affirmations do not actually change anything about how he arrives at his doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture or how distinguishes the divine persons primarily via eternal relations of authority and submission.

Grudem’s new chapter deserves a full response, and particularly one which presses in on the coherence of his affirmation of eternal generation with his reaffirmation of eternal functional subordination and with his view of the divine will, but in this post, we focus our attention specifically on his interaction with our contribution to the book Trinitarian Theology.4 Grudem registers three main objections to our criticisms of EFS. First, he claims that our case against EFS is “based not directly on Scripture or even on the creeds but on several fourth century writers, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.”5 Second, Grudem claims that our appeal to the church Fathers is partial and incomplete and omits prominent writers who allegedly affirm EFS.6 Third, Grudem worries that we are overconfident in our conclusions “about the relationship between the three persons and the one nature of God.”7

The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

Grudem’s first objection really entails two distinct arguments against our essay: 1) that we are insufficiently biblical and 2) that we are insufficiently creedal. On the biblical front, Grudem’s claim not only mischaracterizes the specific parts of our essay (we appeal to multiple Scripture passages throughout) but also fundamentally misses the methodological point of the whole. The purpose of our essay was to argue against a kind of “thin biblicism” that simply collates relevant verses of Scripture and then attempts to develop doctrines from them in a prooftexting manner. Indeed, this appears to be Grudem’s principal objection to our critique, since he protests that the disagreements we register about the unity of the divine will “are not direct disagreements with specific verses of Scripture.” 

Sometimes, yes, the implications of a specific verse of Scripture or set of verses may be sufficiently clear that they warrant certain doctrinal conclusions without much controversy. But other times – and this is the methodological point of the essay that Grudem misses – doctrinal judgments demand more than a simple appeal to the plain meaning of one or two (or ten) verses of Scripture. We have to put texts with other texts in the ultimate context of the whole canon of Scripture, as it unfolds redemptive-historically (and with due deference to the history of interpretation). Furthermore, doctrinal conclusions that can be clearly discerned from this interpretive process then serve, in turn, as a rule or guide for other interpretive maneuvers. So, for example, once we conclude from Scripture that the Son is uncreated, then any interpretation of, say, Col. 1:15 that would suggest that he is a mere creature is ruled out of bounds. More to the point, once we discern from Scripture that the Son is of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father, then any distinctions of will, authority, or power (which are aspects of the divine essence) are precluded. In short, biblically derived doctrine serves a regulating function in scriptural interpretation. Or, put differently, Scripture (including scripturally derived doctrines) interprets Scripture.

Biblical Data and Theological Method

We cannot rehash our biblical arguments here, as that would mean regurgitating most of the chapter. We encourage readers to read the essay for themselves, as well as our responses and rejoinders to both Ware and Yarnell, and hear the full biblical case for our position. Nevertheless, it may be helpful here to summarize our biblical case, both for the sake of clarity and to give actual examples of the methodological issues discussed above. First, over and over the OT declares that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). The fundamental affirmation of Scripture is that there is only one God. Second, in Exod. 3:14, God reveals his name, “I AM,” to Moses. This tells us that God exists in and of himself; that is, he does not rely on anything or anyone else to exist. He just is. For us and for most of church history, this affirmation has helped us understand that God is simple; that is, he is not made of parts, because that would mean he is dependent on something prior to himself to exist. Third, this one God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18–20). These three persons are fully equal and completely one in every respect in their attributes, actions, appellations (names), and adoration. It is important here to note that, while we could prove this from Scripture, this is also an implication of the early declarations of God’s oneness (Deut. 6:4) and his simplicity and aseity (Exod. 3:14). In other words, understanding the threeness of God, or how God is three, requires us to remember reflexively biblical statements about God’s oneness. 

Fourth, because these three persons are fully one in every respect, the only means of distinguishing them is via their eternal relations of origin: the Father is eternally unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father (e.g. Prov. 8:22–31; John 5:26), and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son (e.g. John 20:22; Acts 2:33; Titus 3:6). While we need to be careful about how we articulate this, and while it is ultimately a mystery which creatures cannot comprehend, the doctrine of the eternal relations of origin tells us that the only distinguishing factor among the three persons is how they relate to one another in the divine life, or, to say it slightly differently, how they each subsist in the divine essence via their relations to each other. 

Notice again that this affirmation has to be both buttressed and fenced by the earlier affirmations about God. In other words, if God is truly one and not made of parts, then the distinction between the divine persons cannot be found in differences in degree or possession of divine attributes, actions, appellations, or adoration. To say that God is one with one breath and then that, say, God the Father receives more glory or has more authority or has some kind of functional authority over the Son and Spirit is a theo-logical contradiction, one that is ruled out not only by its theo-logical incoherence but also by the biblical text itself. The only possible way to retain homoousios, to use Nicaea and Constantinople I’s terminology, is to distinguish the persons through—and only through—their eternal relations of origin.

Fifth, the second person of this one God, God the Son, took on a fully human nature, lived the only sinless life ever lived, died a penal substitutionary death on behalf of us creaturely sinners, and rose again from the dead on the third day (Phil. 2:5–11). This entailed obedience according to his human nature (“taking on the form of a servant,” he “became obedient” vv. 7 and 8). Sixth and finally, one must, therefore, read references to the Son in Scripture along the narrative grain of Phil. 2:7–8, namely, that the Bible sometimes refers to the Son in his “form of a servant,” i.e. according to his human nature. This includes references to his being tired, sleeping, eating, and all the other normal functions that come along with a fully human nature, and it also includes his obedience to the Father according to his human will. It can also refer to the Son in his “form of divinity,” or “form of God,” i.e. according to his divine nature. Augustine adds a third category to this schema, the “form of generation,” which includes references to both his eternal generation from the Father and also the economic missions that proceed from that eternal relation of origin (i.e. the “sending” language of John). This is a crucial point, and one missed by EFS proponents. For the Son to submit to the Father according to his divinity would entail a distinction in the wills of the Son and Father, or at the very least some kind of attempt to differentiate how the Son and Father “actualize” the one will, a position which is as innovative as it is contradictory in a theo-logical sense. Again, we have to read passages about the Son’s submission to the Father reflexively in concert with every other passage and/or biblical teaching that we’ve already discussed, and to posit a distinction in will in the Godhead would be to posit a contradiction with both the oneness (Deut. 6:4) and the simplicity and aseity (Exod. 3:14) of the Triune God.

These points are all included in our essay, responses, and rejoinders, even if here they have taken a different shape for the sake of (relative) brevity. To say, then, that we are making fourth-level inferences and not basing our argument on Scripture is a gross misreading of our material on this subject. The difference is not that Grudem is more attuned to the biblical data and we less so or barely at all; rather, it is a difference in how one reads the Bible to arrive at theological conclusions.

Biblical Data and the Exegetical Tradition

Regarding not just the biblical data but subsequent interpretation of it, Grudem alleges that we are less concerned with the Nicene Creed itself than we are with certain fourth century writers who defended it. More than that, he thinks that we have read our own beliefs about the implications of their writings into what they actually said. So, according to Grudem, we are dealing with “a fourth-level inference that the one will in God requires that there cannot be different expressions of that one will among the different persons in the Trinity.”8 There is Scripture, then the Nicene Creed, then the pro-Nicene fathers, then our inferences from their writings; hence, “fourth-level.” Grudem believes that our inference is not drawn by any of the fourth century writers but is instead our own twenty-first century innovation. This is, to be frank, an ironic accusation, given the fact that the experts in this area, that is, scholars of the Christian fourth century (such as Lewis Ayres,9 Michel Barnes,10 and Michael Haykin11) have actually claimed that it is EFS that is the innovation. 

But in any event, is Grudem correct that we have failed to ground our argument in the Creed itself and that we have misread what the fourth-century fathers said? In short, no and no. We argue explicitly for a “creedally ruled” interpretation of Scripture and appeal to the creeds throughout our chapter. But finding fault with our appeals to the pro-Nicene fathers instead of always appealing to the creed itself is a bit like finding fault with a constitutional scholar who appeals to the Federalist Papers in order to understand the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. It is true enough that the Nicene Creed does not explicitly mention the one will and one energy of the Trinity, as the Cappadocian Fathers do. But given these theologians’ influence on the framing of the Nicene Creed and the theology undergirding it (Gregory of Nazianzus was the bishop who presided over the first Council of Constantinople), it is perfectly reasonable to appeal to their work when discerning precisely what the term homoousios entailed in its original usage. For the original subscribers to the Nicene Creed, that the Father and Son share the same substance meant that they share the same will. Furthermore, the notion that one divine nature entails one divine will is hardly a parochial opinion of a few ancient writers. It was the consensus of the church from the mid fourth century through the medieval era and into the Reformation era and beyond (we quote John Calvin along similar lines). 

Additionally, we are hardly drawing some innovative inference when we resist Grudem’s notion that there are distinct “expressions” of the divine will that are unique to each divine person. Happily, Grudem wishes to affirm that there is only one divine will, just as there is only one divine nature.12 But he, like some other EFS proponents, seems to conceive of the divine will sort of like a shared piece of equipment that the three persons each have access to in order to carry out “functions” that are entirely exclusive of the other persons. Indeed, it is telling that Grudem begins his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, not with the oneness of God, where the biblical canon begins, but with the distinct “functions” that the persons carry out with regard to creation and redemption. Missing in Grudem’s entire treatment, as far as we can tell, is any explicit reference to the inseparability of trinitarian operations, which was a crucial component of the patristic doctrine and which is clearly grounded in the biblical witness. According to the doctrine of inseparable operations all of God’s external acts are carried out indivisibly by all three divine persons. While there is an ordering (Greek, taxis) in the works of the Trinity—from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit—these are three personal modes in one undivided willing and acting. There is no division of labor in the Trinity’s works; because God is one, God acts as one. For Grudem, the unity of the divine will seems to mean something more like “harmony” rather than numerical sameness. He speaks not about indivisibility but about “complete agreement” between distinct “expressions” of the divine will. 

To be sure, we do not wish to deny that the three persons are genuinely distinct, not only in terms of their modes of subsistence in the eternal bliss of the divine life, but also in terms of their modes of operation in the economy of salvation (again, the doctrine of taxis). Perhaps that is all Grudem means by distinct “expressions” of the divine will. But this language, and not our insistence upon the indivisibility of the divine will exercised towards creation, is the true innovation. In fact, the pro-Nicenes were distinguished from the subordinationists in large part via their disagreement over exactly this issue. For the pro-Nicenes, “unity of will” was unity of essence, but for the subordinationists, “unity of will” pertained not to a unity of essence but to a harmony or agreement of purpose.13 We are not accusing Grudem of adopting an ontologically subordinationist position, but we do want to point out, again, how innovative his method of argument is and how it ultimately aligns methodologically more with subordinationist theologians than with the pro-Nicenes. Nor do we believe John Owen, whom Grudem cites, or contemporary defenders of the covenant of redemption such as Scott Swain, will be of much help to Grudem’s position. Whatever one makes of the notion of a pactum salutis (we wonder whether this particular Reformed theologoumenon introduces more problems than it solves), it is clear in the extended quotation of Owen that Grudem provides that Owen has in mind the doctrine of appropriation: how the divine will is “distinctly considered” by us when we contemplate the eternal decree, and not any distinction “within” the divine will, as Grudem phrases it.14

In any event, the quotations from the fathers that we provided clearly indicate that the unity of will they had in mind was a unity of energy/acting/operation, not merely a harmony of distinct expressions. Gregory of Nyssa clearly teaches that a distinction in energeia (activity, working) would entail a distinction in being: “For if there existed any variation in their energies, so that the Son worked His will in a different manner to the Father then (on the above supposition) it would be fair to conjecture, from this variation, a variation also in the beings which were the result of these varying energies (Against Eunomius, I.27). The Eunomians, to whom Gregory was reacting, were perfectly happy to affirm a unity of will in the weaker sense of harmony or agreement in purpose. Gregory is insisting on something much stronger than that: not merely the absence of disharmony but the absence of variation in activity of the divine persons.15

The Historical Doctrine of the Trinity

Grudem’s second objection to our essay, that our appeal to early Christian theologians is partial and incomplete, and namely that we leave out attestations to statements that seem to support EFS, is another example of his misreading of the pro-Nicenes and other figures from church history. Our response to this point is therefore related to the previous one, and is simply that Grudem is not reading the figures he cites in the appropriate context and therefore misunderstands what they are actually arguing. In fact, if one understands the terms “taxis16 and “partitive exegesis” and employs them while reading the sources cited by Grudem, the quotes tend to mean the opposite of what he thinks. Once again, taxis refers to the order of processions within the eternal life of God apart from creation (often referred to as God’s life ad intra or his immanent life) and the corresponding order of action in the divine missions (God’s activity ad extra, outside himself). That is, it refers to the eternal relations of origin, the only distinguishing personal properties of the divine persons: the Father is eternally unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. There is an order here, where the Father is in a relational sense primary, the Son secondary, and the Spirit tertiary, but this ordering is only related to the relations of origin. It is not an order that implies any kind of ontological or volitional distinction. This taxis in the immanent life of God is reflected in the divine economic missions, in which the Son submits to the Father according to his human will throughout his incarnation. Again, though, this is not to say that the Son eternally submits to the Father in a volitional sense, that is, via his own distinct divine will or distinct “activation” of the one divine will. To anticipate our critique below, the pro-Nicenes used the language of taxis in such a way that the terms “submission” or “subordination” or “subjection” could be used to refer to the Son’s begottenness of the Father, but this was not intended to convey subordination or submission or subjection in an ontological or volitional sense. 

The second important term, “partitive exegesis,” refers to reading strategy mentioned above related to Phil. 2:5-11. In order to maintain an orthodox (biblical and, derivatively, Nicene) doctrine of the Trinity, we must make distinctions between when Scripture is speaking about the Son “in the form of God,” that is, according to his divine nature; when Scripture is speaking about the Son “in the form of a servant,” that is, according to his human nature; and when Scripture is speaking about the Son “in the form of begottenness,” that is, according to his eternal relation of origin. This distinction is rooted in Phil. 2:5–11, where Paul makes the distinction between Jesus “in the form of God” and “in the form of a servant.” It is in the latter sense that Paul says the Son “became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” These were common distinctions in pro-Nicene articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity, and both taxis and partitive exegesis were employed liberally throughout their sermons and theological treatises to ensure they were speaking rightly about God the Son according to the statements in and shape of Holy Scripture.

Thus our primary criticism of Grudem’s historical defense of EFS is that he shows no awareness of these categories and thus misunderstands the sources he cites. Relying on Michael Ovey’s previous work, Grudem cites Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, and Chrysostom as favorable to his understanding of the relation between the Father and the Son. We will deal with each of these in turn.

First, he cites Hilary, who says:

That the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him is chiefly shown in the fact that He was subjected to Him to render obedience, … in that He then sat down at the right hand of God …; in that He is sent, in that He receives, in that He submits in all things to the will of Him who sent Him. But the subordination of filial love is not a diminution of essence.… God is nevertheless One, and the subjection and dignity of the Son are both taught in that by being called Son.… He is subject to the Father both in service and name; yet in such a way that the subordination of His name bears witness to the true character of His natural and exactly similar essence.17

Grudem offers no comment on this text, but if he read it in the context of both the fourth- and fifth-century debates and in the context of Hilary’s own work, he would see some obvious clues that this text does not, in fact, support his position. First, the opening phrase, “the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him” ought to clue the reader in to the fact that Hilary cannot possibly be talking about some kind of inter-personal, volitional submission in the immanent life of the Triune God here. If he was, he would have been anathematized, much like Arius, Eunomius, and others already had been for similar statements. This passage is not talking about an ontological or volitional distinction between Father and Son ad intra, but is instead making reference to the Son as Son as we see in both his eternal generation and in his submission according to his human will in his incarnation. In other words, one must reference both taxis and partitive exegesis in order to understand this passage correctly. Again, this was common in the pro-Nicenes, to use terms like “subordination” or “submission” to refer to the fact that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. Hilary makes this clear throughout De Synodis (the text Grudem and Ovey quote from). To give but two examples, Hilary says a bit later that, 

There is not one name of God applied to dissimilar natures, but a wholly similar essence belonging to one name and nature. One is not superior to the other on account of the kind of His substance, but one is subject to the other because born of the other. The Father is greater because He is Father, the Son is not less because He is Son. The difference is one of the meaning of a name and not of a nature (De Synodis 64, NPNF II.9, 21; emphasis ours).

“Subject” here is clearly in reference to the Son’s begottenness, not to some volitional distinction from or subjection to the Father. If that isn’t clear here, it is just a few sections later, where Hilary says,

He will be safe in asserting the one substance if he has first said that the Father is unbegotten, that the Son is born, that He draws His personal subsistence from the Father, that He is like the Father in might, honour and nature, that He is subject to the Father as to the Author of his being . . . . (De Synodis 69, NPNF II.9, 22; emphasis ours).

We could add to these quotes others like them, as well as repeated statements from Hilary regarding the absolute oneness of God in every way – in essence, power, and glory, as he often puts it – except for their eternal relations of origin, the only distinguishing personal attributes and the only appropriate reference for God the Son as God ad intra submitting or being subject to the Father.18 Reference to the Son’s subjection to the Father was decidedly not a reference to volitional submission or subordination, as the quotes from Gregory in the previous section, and a close reading of Hilary or any other pro-Nicene would show.

Second, he cites Augustine, who says, “Hence, if true reasoning admits that the equal Son obeys his equal Father, we do not deny the obedience, but if you want to believe that he is inferior in nature by reason of this obedience, we forbid it.”19 Again, context tells us what we need here. Augustine is not giving a treatise on his understanding of the divine will, but replying to a specific argument of his interlocutor. A certain Maximus (and other subordinationists) were arguing that the names “Father” and “Son” imply that the latter is ontologically inferior to the former, and via a variety of means. In this particular case, the argument is that those names imply that the Son obeys the Father, and that this therefore entails ontological subordination. Augustine does not actually say here that the Son obeys the Father, but that if the names actually entail a relation of obedience, it does not imply ontological subordination. In other words, he turns the argument on its head rather than defeating it by some other means. This is, admittedly, an unusual tactic, as the typical strategy for the pro-Nicenes would have been to refer to the unity of the divine will (essence) and thus reject the idea of obedience within the Godhead entirely. But Augustine chooses here to instead engage the argument at hand on its own terms, showing that the logic does not work in the subordinationists’ favor. Elsewhere, and in his comments on 1 Corinthians 15:28 (a supposed “prooftext” to EFS proponents), no less, Augustine repeatedly states that submission of the Son to the Father occurs in the incarnation according to Christ’s human will and not within the Godhead.20 The quote cited by Grudem thus should not be taken as positive support for EFS but rather as a rhetorical debate point scored.

Third, he cites Chrysostom, who says, ““The Son also, though he did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also His liberty is greater.”21 There are a number of contextual clues that tell us this quote isn’t as straightforward as Ovey and Grudem take it. First, immediately prior to this paragraph, Chrysostom clearly couches this discussion within the economy of redemption. That is, he seems to be mainly referring to Christ’s submission ad extra (that is, in his economic mission in the incarnation according to his human nature, and thus according to his human will).22 Chrysostom makes this even more explicit by noting that he is responding not to those who would argue difference in substance between Father and Son but that the Son is under subjection to the Father. So what follows is, for Chrysostom, a refutation of opponents who want to contend that the Son is under some kind of subjection to the Father that would make him less than the Father. His first response, as already stated, is to refer us back to the economy of redemption, the (only) context for the Son’s volitional submission. Second, he also in the same paragraph makes clear that the Father and Son are of the same essence. Again, for the pro-Nicenes, “same essence” was a synecdoche for oneness in every possible way except for the eternal relations of origin. 

Chrysostom in the third place repeatedly makes use of the Creator/creature distinction throughout this discussion, concluding with this: “Again, thou hearest the word “Son;” do not thou in this case admit all particulars; yet neither oughtest thou to reject all: but admitting whatever is meet for God, e.g. that He is of the same essence, that He is of God; the things which are incongruous and belong to human weakness, leave thou upon the earth.”23 Finally, again, we need to make reference to both taxis and partitive exegesis here, as well as to the theo-logic of the unity of the divine will as well as the pro-Nicene context in which Chyrostom resides. All of these Trinitarian grammatical and syntactical points and theological contexts point to reading Chrysostom as referring to subordination of the Father to the Son first as what happens in a volitional sense in the economy according to Christ’s human nature and secondarily and analogously as what happens in the eternal relations of origin, namely that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. If anything, then, the phrase “as God” in the original quote ought to be taken as an attempt to maintain the unity of Christ’s person, rather than a declaration of something like EFS.

We could add to these readings of early church theologians a close read of the Reformation, post-Reformation, and at least some of the modern theologians that Grudem cites. We believe this is sufficient, however, to note that Grudem does not read historical figures in context or with reference to the Trinitarian grammar and syntax that explains many of their statements in a way that does not support EFS.

The Mysterious Doctrine of the Trinity

Grudem’s final objection is that we assume too much certainty in our articulation of the doctrine of God. Of course, we should heed Gregory Nazianzen’s warning in Oration 28 about human ability to comprehend God in himself. Nevertheless, this objection is rather facile both because it cuts both ways and because, contrary to Grudem, we stand not only on our own exegesis but also with the creedal, conciliar, and confessional consensus of historic Christian orthodoxy throughout space and time.

To focus on the Christian tradition is to take a step toward the Scriptures, not away from them, because, as Thomas Oden put it, the history of Christianity is largely the history of scriptural interpretation. The question is whether we will submit ourselves to the wisdom of tested interpretations and theological maneuvers that seek to interpret the whole of Scripture, or instead chart our own paths and assume we just know what the “plain sense” must entail.

It is true that we should approach the doctrine of God with humility and reverence. It is also true that our position does so alongside of the Great Tradition, whereas Grudem’s position is innovative and idiosyncratic. In our view, this should push Grudem to revisit his own certainty regarding his position rather than the other way around.


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  1. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 301). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  2. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  3. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 304). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  4. Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, “On Trinitarian Theological Method,” in Keith S. Whitfield, ed., Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018).
  5. The full context is worth quoting in full, as Grudem reiterates the charge that our argument is not based on the Bible or on direct quotes from the Fathers but from our own inferences: “Their objections are based not directly on Scripture or even on major creeds but on several writers, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, who defended the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century AD. While Emerson and Stamps affirm that we should have “a rigorous engagement with individual passages of Scripture in our doctrinal formulations,” the heart of their objection here is not that Scripture denies that the Son is eternally subject to the Father, but that “the pro-Nicene theologiansconsistently affirmed that there is in God one will, one wisdom, one power, and one authority,” and to prove that statement Emerson and Stamps appeal not to any Scripture passages but to the writings of various fourth century theologians who supported the Nicene Creed. I point this out not to disagree with these fourth century theologians (for I agree with them that there is one will in the nature of God) but to note that disagreements on this issue are not direct disagreements with specific verses in Scripture, nor even disagreements with the secondary authority of the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed (with which I fully agree), nor disagreements with the third-level consideration of the writings of respected fourth century theologians (for I agree there is one will in God), but are instead disagreements with the fourth-level inference that the one will in God requires that there cannot be different expressions of that one will among the different persons in the Trinity. But this is an inference that is not drawn by any fourth century theologian (to my knowledge) but drawn instead by twenty-first-century writers. In addition, it is important to remember that the writings of the early church fathers do not come to us with the same authority as Scripture or even the same authority as the early creeds. Charles Hodge says, ‘There is, therefore, a distinction between the speculations of the Nicene fathers, and the decisions of the Nicene Council. The latter have been accepted by the church universal, but not the former.'” (Grudem, W. [2020]. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Second Edition, p. 310]. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic. This is, frankly, a serious misrepresentation of our essay.
  6. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  7. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  8. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 310). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  9. “Patristics Scholar Lewis Ayres Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate on the Trinity,” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2016/06/patristics-scholar-lewis-ayres-weighs-in-on-the-intra-complementarian-debate/. Online: Accessed February 1, 2021.
  10. “Patristics Scholar Michel R. Barnes Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate on the Trinity,” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2016/06/patristics-scholar-michel-r-barnes-weighs-in-on-the-intra-complementarian-debate-on-the-trinity/. Online: Accessed February 1, 2021.
  11. Haykin stated that there is “not even a whiff” of subordinationism with respect to the inner life of God in the fourth century: https://www.facebook.com/michael.haykin.96/posts/1083872838311480. Online: Accessed February 1, 2021.
  12. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 310). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
  13. See, for example, Athanasius, Against the Arians, III.25.10; andKhaled Anatalios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011; repr., 2018).
  14. See Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 308). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic. For the position of Owen in context, see John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 12:497.
  15. Another example of this kind of argument, where variation in any of the attributes is denied, comes earlier in section 19: “Nothing which possesses wisdom or power or any other good, not as an external gift, but rooted in its nature, can suffer diminution in it . . . so that if anyone says he detects beings greater and smaller in the divine nature, he is unconsciously establishing a composite and heterogeneous deity and thinking of this subject as one thing, and the quality . . . as another. If he had been thinking of a being really single and absolutely one, identical with goodness rather than possessing it, he would not be able to count a greater or lesser in it at all (I.19).”
  16. On taxis, or the order of processions (and, derivatively, economic missions) within the Trinity, the Fathers took this to mean simply to indicate personal distinctions, not to imply inferiority, ontologically or volitionally, between the persons. See, for instance, Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius I.16; and Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto 18.44–45.
  17. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, citing Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis (“On the Councils”), 51. (NPNF, 2nd series, vol. 9, p. 18.)[17].
  18. See, for example, his exposition of the Eastern church’s response to the Council of Sirmium’s subordinationist Christology earlier in De Synodis, 15–28. NPNF II.9, 7–12. See also his discussion of the unity of Father and Son in terms of possessing the same will and in terms of explaining Christ’s subjection to the Father in the incarnation, which does entail volitional submission via Christ’s human will, in Book 8 of De Trinitate. See Saint Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity (The Fathers of the Church; trans., Stephen McKenna, C. SS. R; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954; repr., 1968), 273–320.
  19. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, citing Augustine, Answer to Maximus the Arian II, 18.3, as quoted in Ovey, Your Will, 74.
  20. Augustine, De Trinitate, I.15, I.20, I.28.
  21. Grudem, W. (2020). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Second Edition, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, citing Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily 26 (NPNF, 1st series, 12:150).
  22. “. . . when any thing lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression.” John Chrysostom. (1889). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. In P. Schaff (Ed.), H. K. Cornish, J. Medley, & T. B. Chambers (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (Vol. 12, p. 150). New York: Christian Literature Company.
  23. John Chrysostom. (1889). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. In P. Schaff (Ed.), H. K. Cornish, J. Medley, & T. B. Chambers (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (Vol. 12, p. 151). New York: Christian Literature Company.
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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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14 comments
  • Look the trinity did not exist until a declared heretic Tertullian dreamed it up. Don’t forget he was a Montanus! The Apostles weren’t Trinitarian’s nor were those they taught.

  • The best book I can recommend on the subject is:
    Astonished at His Doctrine: The Godhead by Mark Strohkorb
    ISBN 0-9661628-1-1

    • We souls are eternally generated from the eternal God not just the Son but all sons And for that matter all eternal things or beings come from the father of all.
      That’s why the rebellious angels will suffer eternally
      All souls are eternal and the son of man Christ Jesus had a soul that was generated from the father that’s why he lives for ever.

      • Christ Jesus is from everlasting to everlasting. As is the Holy Spirit and of course, God the Father. You must be of the Jehovah’s Witness school of thought!

  • I’m afraid all this theorising abt the relationships within the Godhead seem to me like ‘theologians’ getting some kind of hedonistic kick out arguing abt how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Surely, all that necessary is that we accept that we experience God in three different ways in our daily lives and just get on with worshipping him and serving him in the power of his Spirit?!!

    • I wish it where that simple. Unless you affirm you believe a curtain way and confess it you can nether fellowship or have credentials with most so-called Christian organizations. And if curtain organizations had their way now as they have had in past you and I both would be exterminated. Many in these so-called Christian organizations living today would do the same as their hero John Calvin did to his friend Michael Servetus and those who would disagree with the Man-madeTrinitarian doctrine burn him and them at the stake.

  • John’s Gospel:”Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

    The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. (1993). (Jn 14:9–14). Washington, DC: National Council of Churches of Christ.
    This explanation by Our Lord of His completion of the Divine Mission indicates that Jesus, the Incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was explaining to His Apostles the external Mission of the Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as one Divine Being from the beginning had determined the role each would play. There is, in Christ’s human life a conformity and obedience to the Father in His human will. This is to be the revelation and exemplar for all to follow. It in no way indicates any subordination in His Divine Nature.

    • Where do you get that God is a personal Jesus himself said God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth John 4:24 King James Version
      God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
      The explanation of God as three divine persons is man-made Jesus never explained God that way

  • I think “doctrine” these days seems to be taking priority over the biblical texts and often it stands upon very shaky foundations, as with the article above; ie. “…Fourth, because these three persons are fully one in every respect, the only means of distinguishing them is via their eternal relations of origin:” this is simply not true. This is letting man’s doctrine dictate, which I dare say is riddled with half truths and is inevitably clouded by A HUGE AMOUNT OF “aren’t I clever??” that is pride and ego!! We must let the bible dictate to us if our doctrine is to be accurate. There are many distinctions between the Father, Son and Spirit stated plainly throughout the scriptures, so cancelling all these simply by saying; “…they are one in every aspect…” is a very poor, weak argument to say the least. In John 17 Jesus prays to the Father; “…May they be one as you and I are one” which at the very minimum, leaves the door open for stating that their oneness allows room for different roles. It is not “inferior” or “superior” necessarily, although Jesus does clearly state that there is none greater than the Father. You cannot confine Jesus submission to Jesus’ earthly ministry alone, either. “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been GIVEN to me” clearly demonstrates that Jesus received His authority, the Father did not. It is the Father alone who knows the day and the hour at which Jesus will return. Jesus says in Acts 1: “…It is not for you to know the times and the seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority”, note, this authoritative role of the Father’s is not just due to Jesus being incarnate!!I It is an an authority which the Father has that is already there, that the Son does not have to that degree. He does not say “the times and seasons fixed by our own authority”

    Ultimately, at the end, Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father.

    Personally, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is too advanced, considering the amount of biblical material available. I think that the scriptures make it clear that there most certainly is a Trinity, and there is most certainly enough information within them to form a doctrine of the Trinity to an extent. It is when we go beyond what the scriptures say that we should be concerned. If it is not possible to reference scripture, and we need to reference a creed or ancient writer instead, then at that point we have to ask; did these particular writers go beyond the scripture?

  • Peter didn’t have a trinity, James didn’t have a trinity, John didn’t have a trinity and Paul didn’t have a trinity then I don’t need a trinity. You are right sir in that the trinity goes to far not in advancing the knowledge of God but rather confusing it. To demand adherence to the trinity is quiet shameful because it’s leading proponents can not explain it fully, leaving it to a mysterious unknown something or other. Is not enough to believe that God Himself created and sustains all things through His Logos and that His Logos created out of the seed of a woman who knew no man the man child Jesus the Christ and that through this man child God Himself exposed Himself to mankind that He had created through His Logos. He walked to up to His creation through the Christ sometimes God spoke through Jesus directly as in the calming of the storm and at other times it was the man child Christ Jesus that spoke. He healed the deaf, blind , holt and lame through the man child Christ Jesus. Where His created man could not reach up to the standard in order to have a contentious fellowship in communion withGod, God Himself came to redeem man by placing all authority in the Logos created man child the Christ so that through his death, not that of God Himself but the man child Jesus the Christ the old will God had with man could end and a new one began. The only image we will ever see of God is the man child Christ Jesus, he will be the lamp and God will be the light.

  • 1 Timothy 2:5
    2:5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human,

    • the man—rather “man,” absolutely and genetically: not a mere individual man: the Second Head of humanity, representing and embodying in Himself the whole human race and nature. There is no “the” in the Greek. This epithet is thus the strongest corroboration of his argument, namely, that Christ’s mediation affects the whole race, since there is but the one Mediator, designed as the Representative Man for all men alike (compare Ro 5:15; 1 Co 8:6; 2 Co 5:19; Col 2:14). His being “man” was necessary to His being a Mediator, sympathizing with us through experimental knowledge of our nature (Is 50:4; Heb 2:14; 4:15). Even in nature, almost all blessings are conveyed to us from God, not immediately, but through the mediation of various agents. The effectual intercession of Moses for Israel (Nu 14:13–19, and De 9:1–29); of Abraham for Abimelech (Ge 20:7); of Job for his friends (Job 42:10), the mediation being PRESCRIBED by God while declaring His purposes of forgiveness: all prefigure the grand mediation for all by the one Mediator. On the other hand, 1 Ti 3:16 asserts that He was also God.

      Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 407). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

  • Ps 110 Clearly expresses three distinct persons. David, the Christ, and Yahweh. Jesus affirms this himself (Matt 22). If you look at PS 110 in Hebrew, it says, “YHWH says to my adon”. In the OT, adon never refers to God, unless it is in the plural form of anoday (or anodai). So, as Jesus affirms, David speaking by the spirit calls Messiah his adon (lord) but not his God. YHWH is his God. This should also clue us to the fact that Jesus is/was not YHWH.

    Six times (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6 [ESV]) the Scriptures specifically and clearly declare that Jesus has a God. That is from Peter, John and Paul.

    BTW, if that person of God that we call Jesus only needed to become a man to accomplish salvation, why is he still a man?
    God can CLEARLY mediate to men as he did with Adam and Eve. God spoke to Moses face to face and so, does not need a mediator. Christ has functionally accomplished salvation, so why keep up this God/man ruse? That person of God clearly functioned for a long time (eternity in fact) as a spirit. Presumably was substantiated (in whatever way God may have been) as a spirit since before anything was anything. There is no biblical indication that Christ is ever going to be anything but – the descendant of David to sit on the throne forever (yes, forever Christ will be a man on the throne, subject to the only wise and eternal YHWH.

    1 Cor 15:27-28 27For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

    And that is how it ends, Christ in subjection to YHWH.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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