This is the second of a miniseries from Andrew Moody & Mark Baddeley, responding to the current debate on trinitarian relations. See part 1 here.

Prejudice is very hard to overcome in theology. We are often prejudiced by our traditions; prejudiced in our defence of our own public statements; prejudiced by hidden agendas. In the current debate over trinitarian relations, some are saying that complementarians have allowed their views on human relationships to prejudice their understanding of the Trinity.

It’s difficult to untangle these or detect them in ourselves. I suspect that tribal loyalty plays a part in my response—as I suspect factional hostility is behind some of the sharpest critiques.

Our best practice is to work with the analogies that Scripture gives us, and that means that sexual relationships are supposed to be reflections of Christ and the church—not the Trinity.

But I’m pretty confident that I’m not motivated by a desire to bolster traditional gender relations. I believe that our best practice is, as much as possible, to work with the analogies that Scripture gives us, and (1Cor 11:3 notwithstanding) that means that sexual relationships are supposed to be reflections of Christ and the church—not the Trinity. The second person of the Trinity is God’s Son; not his wife.

An Aesthetic Prejudice 

Yet I do have another agenda as I seek to defend a relational order in the Trinity—an aesthetic agenda. The idea that creation arises out of the Father’s initiating desire to honour his Son; and that it is completed by the Son’s response seems beautiful to me. I want this to be true—and I have wanted it to be true since I first encountered the idea thirty years ago (years before I became a complementarian).

My wishing doesn’t make it true, of course. But already I’ve offered some scriptural evidence for it. In my last post I talked about how, in the biblical/Nicene framework, everything is “from” the Father and “through” the Son (1Cor 8:6)—and this includes the plan of salvation. The Father appoints the Son to be heir/head of creation (Heb 1:2; Eph 1:9-10).

But for some of those in the current debate, this sounds like a division of the godhead. If the persons are discernible willing agents who want things for each other, where is the “inseparable Trinity” with “one natural will,” proclaimed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council? The only orthodox possibility for them is that the sending and appointing apply only to Jesus as the official head of humanity. The verses tell us nothing about the Trinity.

In response to that challenge, I now want to make a series of observations concerning the will of God. Some of these points have been made elsewhere in the current debate; some are new. Unfortunately, this post will need to be a little more technical than the last, but I will try to keep the worst of it in the notes below.

1. Jesus Always Does the Father’s Will.

In my last post, I talked about how the biblical/Nicene approach helps us to see the connection between Jesus’ human and divine life. As a man he represents God as prophet, priest and king; as God’s Word he fully shares in every activity and aspect of God.

The same pattern helps us understand the will(s) of Jesus. In credal context “will” (theléma) means the set of wants that characterise a nature.[1]  So, because Jesus shares God’s nature, he always wants what his Father wants; always does what his Father does.[2]

Jesus does what his Father wants in his human life too. But when he’s a man living in a fallen world, Jesus’ conformity to the Father involves change, ignorance, trust and pain: the writer of Hebrews says that it was this suffering that taught him “obedience” (Heb 5:8).

So there is a difference between Jesus’ eternal and human life. But there is also a kind congruence.[3] Some theologians have been willing to call both “obedience” (though with careful qualification). Mark Baddeley will talk more about this in his forthcoming posts.

2. One Will, Many Decisions.

Yet God doesn’t just have a natural will. He also makes free decisions—to create the world, and save sinners, for example. How do the persons of the Trinity work here? We might be tempted to say that “the Trinity” acts as a single mind since there is only one will. But that would take us toward modalism—it would mean the Father, Son and Spirit were really one hypostasis—one willing agent.[4]

Some theologians have tried to address this is by imagining that God the Father makes these decisions—and that he makes them in Jesus. Jesus (as God’s Logos/Reason and Wisdom) simultaneously contains within himself: (i) all that the Father is; (ii) all that God might do; (iii) all that the Father has decided to do.[5]

But this tends to depersonalise Jesus—he becomes a faculty of God the Father, rather than an equal acting agent.

3. God’s decisions and the Covenant of Redemption

A better way is the approach found amongst the later Reformers (especially the Puritans). They envisage God the Father making decisions in counsel with the other persons. He proposes a course of action and the Son and Spirit assent to it. This model:

  • follows the pattern of Scripture where everything begins with the Father;
  • maintains the unity of will (the Son and Spirit happily agree, because the Father’s proposals are always in harmony with their common will);
  • takes the personhood of the Son and Spirit seriously;
  • shows how there can be genuine interpersonal interaction within the Trinity.

To some reformed writers, this agreement is something undertaken purely for sinners. The “Covenant of Redemption” involves the Son agreeing to undergo a strange humiliation for the sake of redemption. For those who think of it like this, the obedience and exaltation of Christ are things he experiences solely on our behalf. The agreement is an artificial emergency measure that doesn’t tell us anything about the Trinity.[6]


4. A Deeper Counsel

But not for all. As we’ve already seen, the way the Covenant is set up follows the Nicene format: it’s the Father who proposes; the Son who assents.[7] Moreover, several Puritan writers argued that there was also a deeper purpose behind the plan: a trinitarian purpose. Thomas Goodwin says that when God the Father set up history he surveyed all the “infinite more frames of worlds which he could have made” but picked one for the sake of “Christ and the glory of his person.” As he says immediately: “God’s chief end was not to bring Christ into the world for us, but us for Christ.”[8]

Jonathan Edwards similarly argues that the Father’s true purpose for his Son was to have a people who would know and glorify him:

And this is the way that God the Father intended to glorify his Son: the world was created that from thence Christ might obtain this spouse. This was God’s portion and inheritance, [his] first fruits, his jewel, [his] darling. This was the great gift of God to the Son in the eternal work of redemption, the great promise of God to Christ, the joy set before him.[9]

5. The Beautiful Order of the Trinity

Goodwin and Edwards tell us that Salvation History is ultimately about the persons of the Trinity—not us. And isn’t that what Scripture says? Our creation and redemption are part of the plan of the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus” who has worked out everything in conformity with the counsel of his own will (Eph 1:3,11). It was his plan to bring everything under the headship of his Son as Christ (Eph 1:9-10). It was his plan to save us through Christ and make us part of the “kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13).

This is the vision of the world that motivates me to argue for a Trinity of ordered relations. The long detour through complex theology is simply an attempt to show that the Bible means what it says. The persons of the Trinity love each other and honour each other through creating and saving us. There is initiative and there is response. There is unity and there is diversity. There is love that sends and love that answers.

There’s nothing heretical about this. It’s a faith worth living for and dying for.

Pictures: Sakthi Anath, cdamian (inset); flickr

[1] It is important to understand that talking about one natural will (theléma phusikon) is not the same as talking about one willing agent. Maximus the Confessor, hero of the 7th century “wills” controversy, speaks of willing individuals as modal expressors of a common will. This, of course corresponds to the relationship between the divine persons who are modes of subsistence of the one essence. Maximus the Confessor, Disputation with Pyrrhus,10; J. P. Migne, Patrologiae Graeca, 162 volumes (Paris: Migne, 1857-1866) 91.292D-293A.
Admittedly the terminology is more complicated than this but the general pattern is that thel… words pertain to nature and boul… words to counsel/choice.

[2] So Hilary of Poitiers explains how the this order in divine life means that the Son simultaneously acts “of himself” yet “not of himself” because his actions come from the Father abiding in him. De Trinitate 9.48; NPNF 2.9.172. Christoph von Schönborn offers a modern summary of the same idea: “It is no inconsistency, therefore, that the Father alone is the source and origin of the divine will, while nevertheless the Son himself personally wills the same. The Arians’ proof for the Son’s subordination, his obedient work, itself becomes now the mystery of oneness of will … the Son in his entire filial existence absorbs the entire will of the Father;” C. von Schönborn, God’s Human Face: the Christ-Icon (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 38.

[3] Augustine observes that passages such as 1Cor 11:3 and John 14:8 are partly about his life as a human and partly “with a view to the consideration that the Son owes to the Father that which he is;” De Fide et Symbolo 9.18; NPNF 1.3.329; Thomas Aquinas writes that “the Son is subject to the Father [only] in his human nature. For all that, one should recognize that the Son is said to be sent by the Father;” Contra Gentiles 4.8.10.

[4] So Maximus warns against turning the Godhead into “one person and three names.” Opuscule 3 52B, A. Louth & M. Conti, Genesis 1-11. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture ed. Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). “Deliberative desire,” he says, belongs to the hypostasis as the ability to will belongs to the essence; Opuscule 3, PG 91.48A-B. Thomas Aquinas makes the same distinction using different terms in Summa Theologiae 3.20.2.
Another objection to head-off here is the idea that the essence might dictate the free choices of God—therefore each person would always necessarily agree. Versions of this idea occur in Origen, Neoplatonism and in modern Panentheism. This would mean that God needed to create to to truly be (express) himself—a idea that seems very different from the God of the Bible.

[5] Thus Athanasius calls the Word God’s “living will … in him is stored those things seeming desirous (boulésis) to me,” Contra Arianos 3.63,65. Thus too Thomas Aquinas: “[T]he Father speaks himself and every creature by his begotten Word, inasmuch as the Word ‘begotten’ adequately represents the Father and every creature; so he loves himself and every creature;” Summa 1.37. In Eastern tradition these distinctions are expressed as logoi – forms and possibilities—which dwell in the Logos. In the West the same basic idea is expressed through the  terminology of rationes or ideas.

[6] Thus B.B. Warfield rejects eternal generation and sees the Covenant of Redemption as the reason for the order revealed in Scripture. Mark Jones seems to be thinking along the same lines in his response to Fred Sanders; https://calvinistinternational… (point 6).

[7] So Goodwin observes that it is the Father who initiates the Covenant of Redemption: “Now the Father was not only the contriver and designer … [The Son] is the second person, and all motions are to begin and come from the Father, who is the first person.” T. Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., Sometime President of Magdalene College Oxford, 8 volumes (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861), 5.22-23.

[8] From Goodwin’s Sermons on Ephesians; Goodwin, Works, 1.100.

[9] J. Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, ed. W. H. Kimnach; The Works of Jonathan Edwards Series 25; (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 117-18.