James White is Teaching Heresy

James White used to be my favorite theologian. I remember stumbling upon him before I was even saved, during that time when God had first planted a desire to voraciously consume His Word and seek out those who claimed to believe it. It was one of his debates with a Roman Catholic (on Sola Scriptura, ironically enough), and that debate helped to reinforce my already nascent suspicion that the Catholic Church is a sham and led me deeper into Protestant thought. After God translated me from the power of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son, my appreciation of James White’s work continued to grow to the point where I would not miss an episode of the Dividing Line, and it was largely by his influence that I began to seek out a Reformed Baptist church — which church is now my happy home.

I do not have a desire to say that a man who has had such a positive impact on me is teaching heresy. After the initial concerns I had when I heard him refer to the Trinity as three centers of consciousness, I was delighted to see that the Reformed Forum episode that he aligned himself with in his follow-up article carefully qualified itself by saying all such language is analogical and by stressing that the doctrine of perichoresis guards them from confessing anything other than one will in God and the total unity (not just harmony) of each “center” with the whole divine essence. And so, in our response episode we only said that such language was confusing and unhelpful rather than saying that there was anything heretical or even heterodoxical underlying it, which I didn’t think there was. However, my concerns reemerged when he openly began to attack the doctrine of inseperable operations — the doctrine that God, as an undivided being with one divine power upholding all things, acts as a single divine agent in creation through the Three Persons of the Trinity so that all Three Persons are always at work in every act of God. This denial alone, we will see, creates tension with the biblical affirmations of divine simplicity, the full-deity of each Person, and even monotheism, but James White has gone further and made statements that are at odds with Chalcedonian Christology and come too-close-for-comfort to the teachings of the kenotic heresy.

To be clear, I am not accusing him of being a heretic. When it comes to a doctrine as delicate as the being and subsistence of God, let him who has had made no ill-advised remark cast the first stone. One can say something heretical without fully thinking out its implications and its inconsistency with those orthodox doctrines that they indeed hold dear to their hearts. There is a certain amount of obstinacy that marks a heretic, where they will not only refuse to repent when their heretical assertions are pointed out but will make it known that they are not of the truth by casting aside the orthodox doctrines in favor of their error when push comes to shove. I do not say that James White is there. Nevertheless, heresy is heresy — a poison that must be publicly labeled and abhorred lest any of Christ’s sheep should drink and make shipwreck of their faith. We must warn that such teaching leads the soul to ruin and detracts from the glory of the Triune God and His work in creation and redemption, whose glory is the end of all things. And so, whatever debt or affection we may have to the man in question, I believe it behooves us to warn God’s people that these are not secondary issues and that it is not safe to follow a man in these matters as long he errs so seriously.

Kenosis?

In this Dividing Line, James White has vigorously denied teaching the kenotic heresy and has charged all his accusers with dishonesty (1:13:15). Whether or not there is a crucial distinction between his teachings and the teachings of the most prominent teachings of kenosis is not for me to say. I do not claim to have studied kenotic writings in any depth and so I will neither be accusing nor vindicating him of that specific charge. But what I will say is that, like the advocates of kenosis, James White is involving the attributes of the divine nature in the humiliation of the Son and so is likewise departing from Chalcedonian Christology. That is the heresy I am concerned with, and it’s a concern that can be firmly established from what he has been teaching lately. The following excerpt from that Dividing Line is illustrative and will be referenced throughout this post:

… you then have the very difficult challenging text where Jesus says that only the Father — not the Son, nor the angels in heaven — no man knows the day or the hour, only the Father in heaven… you could understand that as some people have understood that, as being only in reference to the human nature, I suppose. But I think it follows very much along the lines of what we just discussed; there are certain aspects of the glory of the Son that are veiled during the incarnation, and so at that point in time, in the incarnate state (it’s not that the Son did not know before the incarnation and would not know at His exaltation or anything like that)… there was some reason why at that point in time it was profitable for the Messiah the Son to not know. Those are His words, you’ve got to deal with them… if you have to look at the words written by Matthew and come up with an interpretation that could not have possibly been what Matthew intended or anyone Matthew wrote to intended and could not have been known for centuries, millennia after the point of writing… we’re no longer dealing with with the Scripture being any kind of meaningful foundation of our beliefs.

57:08-58:45

In no uncertain terms, James White understands the ignorance concerning the day or the hour depicted in Matthew 24 as an ignorance that not only exists in the Son’s humanity, but also in His Deity. As God, the Son knew the day and the hour before the incarnation and then chose to re-gift Himself that knowledge at His exaltation, but He did not have it during His humiliation. This construal conflicts with biblical orthodoxy in a wide number of ways. First, it paints God as a creature of time! He isn’t pictured here as the God who is superior to all and bound by none, but as a God who, like us, is traveling through a medium external to Him that the state and exercise of His attributes depends on, including His omniscience. This is in contrast to the declaration of the Son made during His humiliation (earthly ministry), saying that, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Note, He did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was,” but rather, “I am.” The past for us is ever-present to the eternal, timeless God. Therefore, it is absurd to imagine Him at one time knowing something and at another time not knowing something, when He is outside all moments of time and always experiencing everything that He is and has done. We may need time to do one thing and then another, shift from one thought to the next, but He can do all at once and time would be completely superfluous. His timeless independence is essential to His very nature as God, and is one of the attributes implied by the divine name the Lord assumes for Himself here.

Second, James White’s interpretation contradicts Chalcedonian Christology. The creed states, “The distinction of natures [was] by no means taken away by the union [i.e., the incarnation], but rather the property of each nature [is] preserved” [1]. But omniscience is undoubtedly a property of the God who knows all things (1 John 3:20), and so it would not be the case that the property of each nature was preserved in the incarnation if the Son, as God, ceased to know something for a time (and, as already indicated, the very notion of God losing something “for a time” confuses the natures of Creator and creature). Now, James White denies teaching the kenosis heresy because he asserts that God the Son only veils His attributes without losing them during His humiliation. If this was all his theology amounted to, I would never accuse him of teaching a departure from Chalcedon. There is no question that those attributes are in a sense “veiled” by the human nature insofar as the divine nature can never infuse itself into the human nature. The human nature could not be omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent without ceasing to be a real human nature. As Tertullian says:

If the Word became flesh by a transfiguration and change of substance, it follows at once that Jesus must be a substance compounded of two substances — of flesh and spirit — a kind of mixture, like electrum, composed of gold and silver; and it begins to be neither gold (that is to say, spirit) nor silver (that is to say, flesh) — the one being changed by the other, and a third substance produced. Jesus, therefore, cannot at this rate be God for He has ceased to be the Word, which was made flesh; nor can He be Man incarnate for He is not properly flesh, and it was flesh which the Word became. Being compounded, therefore, of both, He actually is neither; He is rather some third substance, very different from either. But the truth is, we find that He is expressly set forth as both God and Man; the very psalm which we have quoted intimating (of the flesh), that God became Man in the midst of it, He therefore established it by the will of the Father,— certainly in all respects as the Son of God and the Son of Man, being God and Man, differing no doubt according to each substance in its own special property, inasmuch as the Word is nothing else but God, and the flesh nothing else but Man.

Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 27. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm

Given that this is the case, whenever we look upon Him in His humanity alone — which we always do when we look only at His visible nature, since it belongs to the divine nature to be invisible (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16) — then His divine attributes are veiled. This very truth is why the orthodox should have little difficulty with a verse like Matthew 24:36; if Jesus has two natures, assertions about Him will either be true of only one nature (e.g., “I thirst” [John 19:28]) or both because they are assertions that are predicated of the entirety of His Person, involving the exercise of both natures (e.g., “I am the way, the truth, and the life” [John 14:6]). And if it’s obvious that Jesus’ hunger and thirst are descriptive only of His human nature, should it not be equally obvious that any depiction of ignorance cannot be ascribed to the nature whose very essence is to know all things? So, it is quite accurate to say that just as Jesus’ eternal felicity is veiled by His human nature’s hunger, His omniscience is likewise veiled by His human nature’s ignorance, which could not know all things in itself without surpassing the finite capacity of a human mind altogether, making Him not truly man.

But all this is precisely what James White does not mean when he speaks of the “veiling” of the divine attributes. He does not speak of the divine attributes being obscured to us because we only see His humble humanity, but rather of the divine attributes being obscured to Himself in His Deity. In no unclear terms, James White tells us that Matthew 24:36 should be understood as teaching that the Son knew something before and after His earthly ministry but not during, and that this is not to be understood as only applying to His humanity. But what difference can be made between this kind of “veiling” and losing the attribute of omniscience? A mere veiling does not change the thing veiled but only prevents others from seeing it. James, in some places, speaks of the Son as not exercising His divine prerogatives during His humiliation, but even if we pass by the issue that this conception clearly makes God a temporal being who sometimes exercises a prerogative and sometimes does not (and also pass by the issue that God would need additional acts besides the act of His aseity to accomplish all that He does), it’s certainly the case that knowing about an event is not a prerogative to exercise or not exercise — you either have knowledge of something or you don’t. At best, you can be said to exercise your knowledge by applying, disseminating, or bringing it to the forefront of your mind, but in order to so exercise it you must first have it. If you once knew about an event (like the day or the hour) but no longer do, then, if words have any meaning, you have not simply “veiled” that knowledge but lost it, even if only for the time being. And so, this conception would require us to say that, in Christ’s earthly ministry, He lost the property of omniscience in His divine nature — which is really to say that He ceased to possess a true divine nature altogether, since omniscience is an essential property of the divine nature. He is now a metaphysical electrum, as Tertullian might say.

But as any confessor of divine simplicity knows, you cannot unravel one divine property without unraveling them all, because in God they are one. When defending the truths of the doctrines of grace, James White has rightly said to synergists that God does not foreknow things by passively looking down the corridors of time, but rather knows all things because He has decreed all things. God’s omniscience is a necessary consequence of His omnipotence. All things that exist have been created and are actively sustained by His sovereign hand — “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This is a foundation for the doctrine of inseperable operations. If it is of the essence of God to create and sustain all things that exist and transpire in creation, then we cannot say there is any outward exhibition of His power that all Three Persons are not actively engaged in, since all Three are the total and complete power of God. Even though some actions — or better yet, roles in the same action — terminate in specific Persons of the Trinity (hence the different prepositions given to their acts of creation and redemption in places such as Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, as James rightly points out), nevertheless there are not three powers or, as the Athanasian creed says, “Three Almighties,” but one power subsisting in Three Persons, and so all Three are always engaged in all their ad extra works. If it were otherwise, a given Person would be less than the full power of God that creates and sustains all things that come to pass. And so, given that the Son’s omniscience is a consequence of His creating and sustaining all things, it is easy to see that the logical result of denying the Son’s omniscience during His humiliation would be to deny His omnipotence as well. Otherwise, one would be forced to maintain the absurdity that the Son continued to govern and uphold all things without knowing He was doing it in either of His natures! I do not, of course, claim that James White has personally made this application or denies the omnipotence of the Son in the incarnation, but it would be a necessary consequence if we believe all that the Scriptures say. Whether realized or not, this assertion of the Son’s lack of knowledge would have deeper, even more troubling implications then what first meets the eye.

Finally, I would be remiss to move on from this excerpt without pointing out the unbiblical hermeneutic that prevents James White from accepting the simple, orthodox understanding of Matthew 24. He criticizes the orthodox understanding — namely, an understanding based on the principle that some statements of Christ apply only to His human nature and not His divine nature — because this interpretation “could not have possibly been what Matthew intended… and could not have been known for centuries, millennia after the point of writing” (58:18). For starters, James White’s critique ignores that Matthew is recording Jesus’ words in this passage. If we believe Matthew is faithfully recording our Lord’s words rather than intentionally crafting and obscuring them for his own interests, why would we make the meaning of them entirely dependent on Matthew’s understanding of them? Surely, if no one else, Jesus knows that He possesses fully intact human and divine natures in one person and can predicate things of Himself that are only strictly true for one of them (just as we do for things that are only strictly true for our bodies or souls). Further, there is an unbiblical presupposition that is brought in which treats the human author as the primary author and restricts the meaning to what the imagined, reconstructed original audience would have understood. This stems from a post-enlightenment hermeneutic (more than a millennium after the original composition, mind you) which is demonstrably not what Scripture engages in when interpreting itself, as I discuss in depth here. Again, whatever Matthew’s understanding would have been, if we understand that his words were given by inspiration of God, and that Matthew’s agenda was God’s agenda, and that Matthew’s audience was God’s audience — i.e., the Church throughout every age, which was to understand it through the sufficient material He has provided elsewhere in Scripture — then we again ask, surely God understands the hypostatic union and means to express that truth to His Church through His Word, right? Lastly, I reject the idea that Matthew — an Apostle who walked every day with the visible image of the invisible God — did not know a truth so basic as Christ being fully God and fully man, and that God the Son remained fully divine with all His essential properties during the incarnation. As we already saw, Tertullian confessed it with great clarity circa 200 AD and so did Hippolytus from roughly the same time period, which is virtually to say as early as we have extant writings on the topic. Were members of the early Church able to obtain such clarity about this scriptural truth so soon if the human authors themselves didn’t grasp it? No one denies that the Church’s precision in articulating doctrine is refined over centuries of combating heresy, but the basic truths of the faith were once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3), and it behooves us to guard this truth from the external pressure we face to inject the Hegelian tendencies of modern historiography into our conceptions of “doctrinal development.”

The Danger

It is heretical to deny the truths of Chalcedonian Christology, but this is not because that council has independent authority to bind the soul. The Church has recognized that departing from the truths of Chalcedon can be classified as heresy for a reason — a biblical one, the same biblical reason that motivated Athanasius to argue so passionately for the full, uncompromised Deity of the Son. The biblical reason is that without Christ being fully, truly, and properly God and man, there can be no salvation, “for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In order to represent us, be our substitute, and unite us to Himself, He must be fully man; in order to convey God, unite us to the transcendent I AM, and swallow the infinite cup of His wrath in a finite space of time, He must be none other than fully God Himself. As some theologians have said, Christ’s humanity was slain on the altar of His Deity at the Cross, which is to say that His Deity — while itself impassible and incapable of suffering — sanctifies and provides the infinite worth to the slaying of Christ’s humanity necessary to pay the infinite debt of our transgressions to God. The worth and glory of Christ’s divine nature was absolutely necessary for Calvary to be effectual for His people. And so, we can see that there is grave danger in saying, as James White argues in the second half of this episode, that John 17:5 involves more than Jesus merely praying to have glory in His humanity. This would imply that Jesus’ glory was obscured in His Deity the very moment when it was necessary to sanctify Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross! The very essence of God is glorious, and this glory does not depend on anything outside of Him — “who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” (Romans 11:35), so how could Christ’s divine nature lose this glory without Him ceasing to be very God? It is natural, I believe, and certainly much better to understand John 17:5 as showing Christ — who, in His humiliation, was not then being acknowledged and glorified as God by those who looked upon His humanity — praying that He might, in His humanity, receive such honor, glory, and exaltation as is fitting for the God-man. In this way, He would therefore be asking to in some sense share in that glory He always had in His Deity even before the world was, which would occur by virtue of being openly identified with that glory. The context of His prayer is the climax of His humiliation, and so the obvious fulfillment of His request is the end of this humiliation, i.e., the resurrection of His human nature from the dead and its enthronement at the right hand of the Father (unless we’re going to begin asserting that the divine nature died, rose again, and is spatially moved). This passage is meant to emphasis that, and not any loss of such glory in the divine nature, which is an impossibility if we compare Scripture with Scripture and allow the many places that clearly teach the timeless immutability of God and the unreserved identification of the Son with this God to guide our interpretation here. We must do this if we are committed to tota scriptura. If we are committed to this, we will not undermine the clear teachings of Scripture simply because we do not presently understand how to interpret a less clear passage in light of them. Even if there are readers who are not yet persuaded of either mine or other orthodox interpretations of John 17:5, they can rest assured that the full glory of God the Son that sanctifies Calvary’s sacrifice stands sure, and that their hope is by no means impaired while they patiently wait for more light on this passage. Jesus was fully God and fully man when He offered Himself up to the Father for them.

Conclusion

James White is teaching heresy — not just erroneous doctrine — when he involves the divine nature in the humiliation of the Son and it should be recognized for the danger that it is. Nevertheless, I am in no way accusing him of doubting in his heart that Jesus really is and has always been fully God and fully man since the beginning of His incarnation, and so I reiterate that I’m not accusing him of being a heretic. But his teachings de facto jeopardize this truth, and the logical result of such teaching would strip away the hope of the saints and undoubtedly ascribes to God a creaturely nature. It is a teaching that I would entreat James White to turn from for the good of his audience and himself. I pray that I will one day be able to change the title of this post to James White is No Longer Teaching Heresy.

James, if you do read this, know that I wish to represent you as accurately as possible. If you or anyone else can demonstrate that I have not done so at any point, I will happily revise this post accordingly and list any retractions I have made up front after I have been made aware.

~Andrew Warrick

[1] https://carm.org/creeds-and-confessions/chalcedonian-creed-a-d-451/

Has God Changed?

A friend asked a simple question as part of a research paper. He asked if God of the New Testament was the same as God of the Old Testament. Below was my attempt to answer his question.

images

Many have made the claim that the God of the Old Testament is angry and judicial whereas the God of the New Testament is kind, loving, and tolerant. This can be heard in everything from biblical debates to comedy bits. There’s zero doubt that the claim is made. So far as this is concerned, it’s a non-issue. What we have to determine is whether there is any validity to the claim. It’s my position that there is not.

Malachi 3:6
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.

James 1:17
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Revelation 1:8
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

The Bible is clear that God is not one who changes. Even if one wanted to argue that the God of the Old Testament was a different God, the argument would fail since Revelation tells us that the God of the New Testament is the very one who existed at the beginning. Yet, when we compare the Old Testament to the New Testament, there appears to be a clear distinction. Of course, due to the law of noncontradiction, they can’t be different gods and the same God at the same time. It must be one or the other. When faced with a crossroads such as this, it’s always a safe bet to assume our finite human understanding is flawed whereas the Word of God is not. The plain teaching of Scripture should always force us to change our views on something we can’t seem to reconcile.

To begin, I believe many hold to an erroneous view of God when it comes to the Old Testament. Is He really an angry and mean God or are we simply failing to see His love, mercy, and grace? In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). After each day, He saw that it was good. He was satisfied. On the sixth day, after creating man, we see something special. Not only was it good, it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Man was the pinnacle of God’s creation. He made man perfectly upright to rule over creation. Sadly, this was not to last. By Genesis 3, we see mankind being tempted and falling into the first instance of sin. We see a curse being placed upon humanity. We see the fulfillment of what God promised would occur in Genesis 2:17. God promised that Adam would die if he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam knew this and he failed to shield his wife, the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7), from the enemy. What Adam didn’t know is that he would represent all of humanity thenceforth (1 Corinthians 15:22). However, this wasn’t referring to just a physical death but to a spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13). All of humanity is dead in sin and only Christ can make us alive again. We all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and deserve nothing but death, both physical and spiritual, as a result (Romans 6:23). Therefore, God would have been perfectly just to destroy the earth and all it contained upon the moment of sin entering into His perfect world. Man tarnished God’s creation and, as of that very moment, deserved nothing more than eternal torment as punishment for his actions.

Yet, over and over again, we see of God’s mercy. Many view the Old Testament Law as being harsh but, truth be told, even that was an act of mercy. God could have left humanity alone to perish but He chose to reveal to them His righteous standard. He chose to raise godly men to lead them. He chose to bless those who rejected Him and to bless them abundantly. He gave His people land and a promise of a Savior to come. Yes, He generally held them accountable for their actions but this was because the Law had not yet been fulfilled (Matthew 5:17) though it had been broken in full.

What we see in the New Testament isn’t a new God but a God who had decreed that the fullness of time had come (Galatians 4:4). Those who were born under the Law would now be redeemed from that very same Law. Whereas before they fell under the law of sin and death, now they fell under the law of the Spirit of life. The former Law was weak and could never save. It could only instruct man of a standard they were incapable of keeping in their current fallen form. That Law was in need of God, the same loving God of the Old Testament, to fulfill His Law by sending His own Son to die (Romans 8:2-3) as an atoning and substitutionary sacrifice (Isaiah 53:5).

Only when we have a proper understanding of fallen man’s condition can we truly understand the love and restraint God displayed throughout all of the Old Testament. In many ways, aside from knowing Christ is the epitome of God’s compassion, the compassion of God in the Old Testament may appear to exceed that which we see in the New Testament. Of course, we know this is only our human understanding because, as stated in the beginning, “there is no variation or shadow due to change” when it comes to God.

~ Travis W. Rogers

Errors About the Trinity: A Classical Defense

There is perhaps no doctrine more frequently misunderstood or more difficult to comprehend than the doctrine of the Trinity. A large amount of our errors stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we cannot fully grasp it, and that the inner-workings of our almighty, infinite God are far beyond the capacity of even the best and brightest minds of men. It is a doctrine that we must receive to be true and shun any hint of deviation from, regardless of how much an alternative view might appeal to our fallen nature. Fortunately for 21st Century Christians, we have an abundance of riches that we may inherit from those who came before us – precious understandings of Scripture that have been tried, debated, and hammered out for two millennia by our Bible-believing forebears who have proven them to be in accord with the entirety of the Divine Revelation. Unfortunately for 21st Century Christians, of late there has arisen the most acute epistemological snobbery to ever infiltrate the ranks of many of the Church elite. These men treat their heirlooms like worn-out clothes, which may have fit once-upon-a-time but are now well out of fashion. They view their ancestors as barbarians to be pitied for their simplicity, and whose entire enterprise needs to be recreated from the ground up. My aim is to familiarize the reader with the jewels trampled upon by many prominent figures of our day, and to steer them away from the doctrines which contradict orthodoxy. I also aim to show that – while above our understanding – the classical doctrine of the Trinity is coherent, beautiful, and logically sound in the truth it proclaims.

The Litmus Test

Here at the Particular Baptist, we subscribe to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, and hold it to be an accurate summary of Biblical teachings. Concerning the Trinity, our confession speaks as follows:

“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

1689 LBCF 2.3

In this articulation of the Trinity, there is nothing peculiar to our confession. It’s merely an expanded form of the corresponding section in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which itself is little more than a summary of the Nicene Creed that has been universally accepted by the Church for almost 1700 years now. Rather than unpack the meaning of these affirmations at the outset, we will take the via negativa, and uncover their truths by examining the falsehoods that depart from them. Only in the context of the errors that prompted the development of our standard Trinitarian language can we fully appreciate the precision and depth found in our historic confessions.

Part I – Errors Concerning the Trinity

Aside from overt denial of the Trinity, there are only two primary ways of departing from the above truths among those who still insist to be “Trinitarian”: modalism and tri-theism. Anyone who explicitly adopted either of those views would immediately be labeled as a heretic by orthodox believers worth their salt, but there are many who hold to either modalistic or tri-theistic understandings of the Trinity who will still claim to be Trinitarian, and so they fly under the radar of many Christians. Indeed, there are likely even many genuine, born-again believers who honestly think they have orthodox views about the Trinity, but have conceptions that are more akin to these heresies simply because they have never been properly instructed. We must be willing to extend grace to those who struggle but are eager to learn, since a mature understanding of the doctrine is difficult to expect for babes in the Faith. Such Christians may believe in the Triune God of Scipture and simply fail to properly articulate Him. However, less gentleness is called for when dealing with seminary-educated men who make themselves out to be leaders. Those we will be rebuking in this essay are those who are fully aware of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and yet still deny it, all the while pretending to believe in the Trinity lest anyone call them what they are. We will first deal with the error of modalism.

1.1 – Modalism

Part of the reason why so many professing Trinitarians end up with modalistic conceptions is because they don’t really understand what modalism is. There’s a misconception that modalism is the belief that the Persons of the Trinity are one God taking on different roles at different times, and that He is never more than one Person at one time. However, this is indeed a misconception, and one that I’ve seen made even by popular teachers who should know better. There is nothing in modalism that precludes God from being different Persons (or, in their view, manifestations) at the same time. A Oneness Pentecostal who knows his stuff won’t flinch to see the Father and Son contemporaneously interacting with each other. What distinguishes modalists is their belief that the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are not real, eternal distinctions within the Godhead, but are rather the distinctions between the roles God plays in creation. Accordingly, you can have real interactions between the manifestations of God within creation, because in their view these are simply the distinct roles of the one Person intermingling. The key difference between Trinitarian theology and modalistic theology is NOT the fact that the distinct Persons of the Trinity simultaneously exist in creation, but that they are simultaneously distinct in eternity, within the Godhead Himself. The Bible says that Jesus shared His glory with the Father as a distinct Person “before the world was” (John 17:5), and that, in the beginning, the Word already was God and with God (John 1:1), and therefore the Word was/is distinct from God the Father outside of creation. And so, if you believe that the Trinity is something like the separating of a single beam of light as it travels through the prism of creation, I humbly encourage you to repent, because that is not true Trinitarianism, but modalism. Creation may magnify the distinctions between the Persons, but they already exist within the Godhead. Simply confessing that the Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit, and yet that all three are One God does not sufficiently distinguish you from modalism – you must confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in eternity. This is why the LBCF stresses that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,” because this affirms that the distinction is not temporal, but eternal. And so, a heretic like T.D. Jakes can throw Trinitarians all the bones he wants by saying he believes in the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but until he confesses that they are distinct within the Godhead, this concession means little.

1.2 – Tri-theism

The bulk of our concern in this essay will be combating tri-theism. This is because, unlike modalism, latent forms of tri-theism have ample support in the modern academy itself. If modalistic conceptions are common among lay people, at least they usually won’t be encouraged in that error when they turn for instruction. However, when the teachers themselves teach heresy, the danger is much greater. Not many will be surprised to see T.D. Jakes called a heretic, but would you expect that someone like William Lane Craig has embraced a fundamentally heretical view of the ontological nature of God? Unfortunately it’s true, and – as we shall see – he and many other such men have fearlessly abandoned a core tenet of the Christian faith confessed with unanimity for over 1800 years.

This error stems from a Jesuit by the name of Theodore de Régnon, who in 1892 began to write of an alleged fundamental difference between Latin-scholastic and Greek-patristic Trinitarian ontology. This misconception has grown to become an imagined divide between Eastern and Western Trinitarian thought altogether, rather than the specific Greek/Latin subcategories that de Régnon theorized. According to de Régnon, the basic difference between the two camps was that the Latins started with the divine essence and then proceeded to the Trinity, while the Greeks started with the Trinity and then proceeded to the divine essence. This distinction (which stands on specious grounds to begin with [1]) may seem harmless, but modern heretics have abused it to frame their abominations with historical legitimacy. Straining this perceived Eastern tradition, they feel comfortable to assert that the individual Persons of the Trinity have an ontological priority to the essence of the One God (which even de Régnon does not say the Greeks believed). Or, to translate tradesman-speak into English, what these theologians say is that God is the RESULT of the three Persons coming together, and therefore NONE of the Persons are themselves the One God; He is simply the combination of the Persons. In this view, God is composed of three distinct Beings, and therefore there is not really one, but three Gods! Make no mistake, friend, this is not monotheism, but tri-theism. Lest anyone think I’m misrepresenting them, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

“Father, Son, and Spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each so as to render plausible the judgement that they constitute a particular social unit … In such social monotheism, it will be appropriate to use the designator God to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, essences, and relations.”

Cornelius Plantinga, JR, “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” 68

Notice the author of that statement: Cornelius Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. This is not a theological liberal, but someone who claims to stand in the stream of historical evangelicalism. In Plantinga’s view, God is not One Being, but rather a social unit,” much like a cohesive community of like-minded individuals would be. The Father, Son, and Spirit do not each possess the whole, undivided Divine Essence as the LBCF asserts, but rather they are parts of the Divine Essence, and only the Trinity as a whole would rightly be called God. Therefore, Plantinga does not hold to a real, ontological monotheism, but rather a “social monotheism,” as he says. William Lane Craig is even more explicit in this:

“[My view] holds that while the persons of the Trinity are divine, it is the Trinity as a whole which is properly God … the Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods”

William Lane Craig, A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity

In Craig’s view, then, only the whole Trinity can be called God, and none of the individual Persons can be called God, but only divine beings. If only Dr. Craig was around to let the Apostles know this, who routinely refer to the distinct Persons as each God in their own right (e.g. John 1:1, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 21:28, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 45:7, etc., etc.)! And while Craig tries to dodge the label of tri-theist by insisting that each Person is not Himself God (which is already profound heresy), it is truly the height of semantic trifling to deny that his position imagines three Gods, especially when he and J.P. Moreland say that the three Persons are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will” [2]. Who cares if you call each Person God or not if you say each are distinct divine beings, who each have more of a right to be called God than any of the fictions dreamed up by pagans? In their attempt to fashion God after their own image, they imagine that the Persons of God are like the persons of men, and so each Person is an ontologically distinct being with His own mind and will (contrary to Scripture, which presents no division in the one Will shared by the Persons of the Trinity [e.g. John 5:19, John 16:13]). But in this pertinacity they plummet themselves into polytheism, since if the Persons of God were like persons of men in this respect, God would no more be one Being than three like-minded comrades would be one person, and no matter how tight their “social unit” might be, they would not be One God. And so with that, Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga have abandoned all Protestant confessions, Nicaea, the Apostle’s Creed, and the daily recited Shema, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). They depart from the first thing Jesus says when asked what the greatest commandment is (Mark 12:28-29). To pretend that these men are orthodox, evangelical Protestants when they aren’t even monotheists is to make orthodoxy mean nothing at all.

Part II – Defending Orthodoxy

Piecing together what we’ve said so far, the philosophically-minded reader may think that our rebukes of modalism and tri-theism have put us in a predicament. On the one hand, we’ve dismissed modalism for not recognizing a distinction of Persons within the Godhead, and on the other we’ve attacked tri-theism for arguing that there are multiple distinct Beings in the Godhead. So, what are we saying? Are we saying that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father within the Godhead, and yet the Father, Son, and Spirit are each simply the same One, undivided God? Our answer: Yes, and any departure to the right or to the left of this is heresy. It’s no concern of ours if this doesn’t fit into your realm of philosophical possibilities; what’s impossible for man is possible for God. He is by no means like us or anything else we’re familiar with. However, while the inner-workings of the Trinity are far beyond us, it is possible to demonstrate that these seemingly contradictory affirmations are, in fact, logically coherent. To the best of my ability, the remainder of this essay will be dedicated to proving just that.

2.1 – Divine Simplicity

We cannot properly explore the Trinity without first discussing another crucial aspect of God’s nature: namely, His simplicity. When we say God is simple, we don’t at all mean the same thing as when we might call a man simple. God is simple in the sense that He doesn’t have parts, and that everything in God is God. As Irenaeus put it in the 2nd Century:

“He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good— even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God. He is, however, above [all] these properties, and therefore indescribable.”

Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 2.13.3-4

This truth, confessed by Irenaeus at a time when the Church was still relatively pure from the later errors that would seep in, has been recognized by all branches of Christendom, and retained even by those who have apostatized on other doctrines. It was recognized by all of the reformers and all the historic confessions of faith. It became a universal doctrine of the Church because it’s a thoroughly biblical doctrine, grounded on God’s repeated emphasis of His Oneness, His pure self-identification with His Being, and the utter independence He asserts from all that is not Him. I’ve gone into a little more depth explaining this doctrine elsewhere, but here I will simply say that it’s a necessary consequence of God’s self-existence. If God was composed of parts that were not simply God Himself, then He would be dependent upon those parts to be who He is. Therefore, He would not be the utterly independent, self-existing Being we see in Scripture, but rather He would be dependent on that which isn’t in and of itself God, much like a car depends on nuts and bolts that aren’t the car itself.

The universal recognition of this doctrine is one of the reasons why the appeal to the East to lend an air of legitimacy to tri-theism is so unconvincing, because all of the Eastern theologians embraced a doctrine of divine simplicity that is completely incompatible with the musings of Craig, Plantinga, and Moreland, all of whom openly reject divine simplicity. And it’s easy to see why they must do so, for there is no room to have God be the sum of three Beings who are not God in light of His simplicity.

But the doctrine requires us to be even stricter than this, making our job more difficult still; if all that is in God is God, and the three Persons are each God, then it’s not only the case that a shared divine essence is uncompounded, but also that there are no additional attributes in any of the members of the Trinity that may differentiate them. How, then, is the Father not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, and the Spirit not the Father? Boethius answers this dilemma brilliantly.

2.2 – Actual vs. Relative Properties

When we describe something, there are multiple types of predication (i.e., there are multiple ways in which we can ascribe a quality to something). For the purpose of this essay, we’ll distinguish three types of predication: essential, accidental, and relational. Essential predication deals with the essence of something: namely, that which determines what a thing is on a fundamental level. E.g., to describe Bob as a person would be an essential predication, because Bob wouldn’t be Bob if he wasn’t a person. Accidental predication, on the other hand, occurs when we describe something that isn’t fundamental to the thing we’re describing; it’s something that could change without changing the nature of the thing we’re describing. E.g., describing Bob as having white hair is an accidental predication, since Bob would still be Bob even if he had blonde hair. Finally – and most importantly for our purposes – there is relational predication, which doesn’t directly describe the thing itself, but rather its relation to something else. E.g., describing Bob as the father of Joe is a relational predication.

Why is this relevant? Because, unlike essential and accidental predication (which together may be described as actual predication), relational predication doesn’t necessarily say anything about the thing it describes, but only speaks of a relationship that exists between that thing and something else. It may sometimes imply essential and accidental qualities (e.g. Bob being a father implies something about his age, gender, and hopefully character), but – in and of itself – relational predication doesn’t demand to be associated with any essential or even accidental qualities in the thing it describes. An example Boethius uses is a person being on the right or left of someone else. “Right” can be predicated of one person, but this doesn’t distinguish any of the person’s essential or accidental properties from the person on the left. A proof of this is that we can stipulate the person on the left suddenly vanishing from reality, and yet the person on the right remains exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is that he now can no longer be called the person on the right, and has lost that relative property.

So, what if – as we must confess – the Persons of the Trinity are only distinguished by relative properties, but not by any actual (i.e., essential or accidental) properties? I’ll let Boethius answer that himself:

“Wherefore if father and son are predicates of relation, and, as we have said, have no other difference but that of relation, but relation is not predicated with reference to that of which it is predicated as if it were the thing itself and objectively predicated of it, it will not imply an otherness of the things of which it is said, but, in a phrase which aims at interpreting what we could hardly understand, an otherness of persons … since the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but God has no differences distinguishing him from God, he differs from none of the others. But where there are no differences there is no plurality; where there is no plurality there is unity … Thus the Unity of the Three is suitably established.”

Boethius. De Trinitate, V

Notice that this is precisely what was said by the LBCF, the framers of which stood on the shoulders of the giants before them. The Persons of the Trinity are there said to be “distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations,” i.e., not by any actual, objective properties, but solely by the relations existing between the Persons who are identical in essence, and not distinguished by anything else like space or time. And if there is no distinction between things, and they are not separated by either space or time, then they are indeed one and the same, yet this would not invalidate any relationship between them if one existed. Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indeed distinct from one another, insofar as the Father is distinguished as the Begetter, the Son is the Begotten, and the Spirit is He that proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet they are all One and the same God. In Trinity, Unity.

2.3 – How God Can be Related to Himself

Mockers of the Faith view the idea of God’s self-relations as nonsensical. How can One and the same God be related to Himself in different ways, especially a simple God who has no parts that could have relationships between them? It would be permissible to stop here on the grounds that we, who have no idea what the divine nature is like in itself, have no basis for saying that He cannot be self-relating. But I believe it’s possible to go further, and to show that it’s not only possible, but even logical for God to be self-relating.

When I studied modern physics, I vividly remember my professor calling the Bohr model – that famous depiction of an atom’s electrons orbiting neatly around its nucleus – “a lie, but a pedagogical lie.” It’s a lie, because electrons don’t orbit like objects might on a macro-scale (they’re more like “probability clouds”), but it’s still pedagogical, because the lie reveals something true about the nature of atoms which we can learn from (i.e., the existence of electrons at different energy levels, which is analogous to an orbit). Similarly, in order to better understand the Trinity, it’s sometimes useful to resort to what could be called a “pedagogical heresy.” Much like the analogies frequently used by Athanasius, the following picture will be inadequate, and even heretical if taken too seriously, but it may nevertheless be helpful in understanding something true about the relations within the Trinity. Specifically, we will imagine what it would look like if the relationships within the Trinity emerged over time, starting with the Father and then proceeding to the Son and the Spirit. To be clear, they did NOT emerge over time, and all three Persons are eternally co-existent, but – because of the limitations of our time-bound brain – we will have to consider how the relationships would look temporally, and then we may be able to better understand how they exist logically.

Let’s begin by imagining a time when there was only God the Father (again, there was no such time, and if there were He certainly wouldn’t have been a father, but I digress). Imagine then that He decided to beget another God exactly like Himself – what would happen? If it’s a clone of Himself that He begets, there would be no difference between them, and in the absence of anything such as space or time to distinguish them (as would actually be the case), the action of begetting would simply result in Himself. No new Being was generated. However, just because He didn’t generate a new Being doesn’t negate the fact that He performed the action to generate a new Being; it just so happens that the product of that action was Himself. Therefore, we are still left with One Being, yet there was an action that took place that related Him with Himself. For that action, there was an initiator (a Begetter) and a result (the Begotten). Both the Begetter and the Begotten are the same Being, God, but in respect to the action, there is a Begetter and a Begotten that are logically distinct from each other, since there are logically distinct start and end points of the action. Thus, there is One God, and yet two relations or – as we’ve come to call them – Persons.

What if there was another begetting? Well, from the perspective of a time-bound pedagogical heresy, God could keep begetting Himself an infinite number of times, producing an infinite number of Persons. However, without time to distinguish one act of begetting from another, there could necessarily only be the one begetting that took place in eternity. Keep in mind that the Begetter and the Begotten are not separate Beings; if they were, it would be possible for the Begotten to do His own begetting, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. However, when they are One and the same Being, then the Begotten is simply the result of the action of the begetting, and the Begetter is simply He who begets. And so it’s impossible for the Begotten to do any begetting, because for God to beget is simply to be God the Begetter (remember, the different Persons are only the relations, nothing more). In other words, the Father is simply God begetting, and the Son is simply God being begotten, so they cannot interchange their roles. If the Son could be imagined to beget (which the careful reader will see is a contradiction), it would simply make Him the Begetter, and the result would be the Begotten. And with neither actual nor relative properties to distinguish these new two Persons from the first two Persons, we’re still left with only the original two, and there wouldn’t even be any multiplication of relations.

BUT besides the relationship of begetting, there is an additional potential relationship in the Godhead which we’ll call procession. There are two feasible ways to replicate: one way is to beget from oneself, and the other is to use that which one has received. And so the One who has received, the Begotten, may take what He received from His source to overflow into a third Person, who again is One and the same as the Begetter and the Begotten. This would not be the Begotten functioning as a Begetter because – unlike the Begetter – He did not take from Himself but from a logically distinct source, and so it’s a different relation with its own logically distinct result. This third Person would properly be described as He who is “proceeding from the Father and the Son,” as the LBCF states.

This model was inspired by that found in Pavel Butakov’s paper [3]

And so we have three Persons: One who can be described as “the from,” One who can be described as “the to and from,” and another who can be described as “the to,” as far as the direction of their relationships goes. Laid out like this, it’s apparent that there can be no other Persons. This is the beauty of the Trinity. What other possibilities are there but “from,” “to/from,” and “to” for the Divine Essence? We cannot multiply any more Persons without making them identical to one of these three categories. Therefore, the Trinity is the fullness of the Divine self-expression, fully complete within itself. And this Trinity does not emerge from the speculations of any philosopher, but was revealed gradually by the Living God Himself through His inspired, Holy Word. Do not cast these precious truths to the wind, reader; cherish them, and become heirs to great tradition of Bible-believing Christians before you.

Footnotes:

[1] D. Glenn Butner, JR. For and Against de Régnon: Trinitarianism East and West

[2] Moreland and Craig. Philosophical Foundations, 583.

[3] Pavel Butakov. Relations in the Trinitarian Reality: Two Approaches. This work provides an excellent exploration of the differences that do exist in some Eastern and Western Trinitarian models which resulted in the great Filioque controversy. He somewhat draws from de Régnon, but makes plain the deficiencies of that paradigm. The reader will notice that the distinctions that do exist do not result in anything like the tri-theism posited by Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga. However, the Western model is undoubtedly superior, as the article shows, and the Filioque can be found to have been supported even by some of the patristics that de Régnon would like to pit against the West. And that’s not to mention the biblical support for it (e.g. John 15:26)

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