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Propositions & Questions (for Fred Sanders) on the Trinity

Some Propositions on God, the divine essence, the Trinity, and the covenant of redemption

  1. God is pure act (actus purus). His will is identical to his essence. Since God is simple, his power is his wisdom is his love is his eternity is his knowledge, is his will, etc. There is not one thing in God and another. All what he is is his essence.

  2. God’s will must not, in the first instance, be thought of as something that he does towards others, outwardly. Primarily, and most fundamentally, God’s will refers to his internal works (opera ad intra). He wills himself necessarily; he is the final end and highest good as he wills his own glory. This glory does not change in any way, regardless of whether there is a creation or non-creation of God-glorifying creatures.

  3. The Son “depends” on the Father to be the Son in the same way the Father “depends” on the Son to be the Father. The Father’s begetting of the Son is necessary, not free or voluntary. Besides the fact that the three persons are all essentially God (i.e., the share the same, undivided essence), the act of the Father’s begetting and the begottenness of the Son are necessary relations because of their personhood. What is not necessary in these relations is any form of subordination, as if subordination is as axiomatic as begottenness or spiration.

  4. God wills of himself and is not induced by others to will whatever he wills. The will of God the Father, Son, and Spirit is one. If there is one nature / essence in God – as there is – then there is only one will.

  5. When we speak of the eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) we are speaking not of God’s necessary will. The covenant of redemption presupposes God’s free decision to create and redeem. Thus, we speak of the eternal covenant of redemption as an “agreement” between the Father, Son, and Spirit.

  6. If we speak of “agreement” we might imply a multiplicity of wills: The will of the Father in proposing; the will of the Son in accepting; and the will of the Spirit in completing. Thus, from the moment of the covenant of redemption (not of time, since it is eternal), “there is a new habitude of will in the Father and Son towards each other that is not in them essentially. I call it new, as being in God freely, not naturally” (Owen). But these “wills” are truly the will (singular) of God who, with one mind, orchestrates the plan of redemption without any proper acceptance between, for example, the Father and the Son. “Acceptance” is anthropomorphic language to help us, just as dividing the attributes – since speaking of attributes in the plural is technically incorrect – is a way to help us conceive of God because we could not do so otherwise.

  7. Because we speak of eternal does not mean we speak in relation to God’s ad intra necessary will. The eternal covenant of redemption refers to the ad intra Trinitarian grounding of the ad extra work of salvation. But as noted, the covenant of redemption is not necessary like eternal begetting is necessary. If there were no creation, there would be no covenant of redemption, but there would still be eternal (necessary) begetting.

  8. As God, the Son is equal to the Father and in no way subordinated. As man he is necessarily subordinate. As the God-man and Mediator, he has voluntarily submitted himself to the Father.

  9. Divine persons differ from human persons insofar that human persons do not exist within another. The three persons of the Trinity are enhypostatic, existing mutually in one another (circumincessio). This communion between the three persons has reference to the co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration of the three persons (circumincessio); each person shares in the life of the other two persons.

  10. The generation of the Son is both eternal and perpetual (aeterna et perpetua).  By virtue of the fact that the Son’s generation is hyperphysica (beyond physical), the Reformed orthodox could argue against the Socinians that eternal generation is not a movement from nonbeing (non esse) into existence (esse), but rather the consequence of an unchanging activity in the divine essence. Again, this is necessary.

  11. The Father communicates the whole Godhead to the Son, “for Essentiae communicatio facit omnia communia; the Godhead being Communicated by the Father, all things of the Godhead…only the distinction of the Persons excepted” (Goodwin). The classic Reformed position on the eternal generation of the Son includes the communication of the divine essence from the Father to the Son.  However, there is no generation of a new essence.  Hence, the Son’s deity, being communicated from the Father, is not derived from another essence, but is identical to the Father’s essence and therefore the Son is a se.  On this point, the majority position differs from Calvin’s. We may argue that although the Son is from the Father, he may still be called “God-of-himself,” that is, “not with respect to his person, but essence; not relatively as Son (for thus he is from the Father), but absolutely as God inasmuch as he has the divine essence existing from itself and not divided or produced from another essence (but not as having that essence from himself).  So the Son is God from himself although not the Son from himself” (Turretin). Turretin is making the distinction between aseitas personalis, a trinitarian heresy, and aseitas essentialis.

  12. We affirm that the three persons work as one. However, there is a manner of working (modus agendi) that corresponds with the interpersonal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In ad extra works, the Father acts through the Son and the Spirit. The Son is the means of action (medium actionis), as he works from the Father (a Patre). Finally, the Spirit works from both as the limit of activity (terminus actionis). He works from the Father and the Son, which relates to double procession.

Some Questions For Fred Sanders

This then leads me to ask some questions regarding some comments from Fred Sanders’ very helpful post in relation to some of these issues.

Sanders: “What’s eternal, and essential to the divine being, is Sonship, which means eternal generation and the filial generatedness that it entails. Is the obedience of the Son’s will to the Father’s commanding authority also eternal? That seems to me to be a fairly small question, and also one that needs an answer so nuanced it’s practically a change of subject.”

We agree regarding personal properties: begottenness and spiration. No debate there.

But then Sanders makes a move, by asking, “Is the obedience of the Son’s will to the Father’s commanding authority also eternal?”

For my part, we cannot distinguish wills between the three persons when we are speaking of ad intra necessary relations. There is one will. So when Sanders speaks of “obedience” surely he is making a move to God’s free willing whereby the triune God establishes that the Father sends the Son and the Spirit to accomplish redemption. Why the Son is sent has to do with the fittingness of taxis in relation to salvation, not because the Son submits to the Father. To suggest something is “eternal” does not solve the issue that we have with the ESS crowd because they are rooting subordination into the being of God in the same way that we root begottenness and spiration into the being of God.

I would like to ask how does Sanders get from necessary relations to speaking of the obedience of the Son’s will? If we grant a certain anthropomorphic character to the manner in which we speak of the pactum salutis, I think we can in terms of God’s free will (“new habitude between the Father and Son”).

I may be mistaken, but Sanders is jumping here from the eternal taxis to what it means in creaturely form (i.e., submission) without giving us the bridge that is either incarnational voluntary taxis or subordination.

Sanders adds: “As for his submission to the Father, I don’t know what they call it in the happy land of the Trinity, but when it lives among us it is rightly named obedience.”

What is the “happy land of the Trinity” in this context? See my points above. Of course when the Son, as God-man, lives among us it is rightly named obedience, but is it proper to speak of “submission” or “obedience” regarding the “inner life of the Trinity” in terms of the ad intra necessary will? I don’t think so.

Lastly, I don’t understand how we can say there is, a “immanent trinitarian analogate for obedience” (Sanders). How is this possible? Or, how can we metaphysically account for such a thing? If eternal generation is an analogate, the Son’s eternal nativity (that which analagously corresponds to the Son’s temporal obedience to the will of the Father) is passively understood (linguistically at least), yet his obedience to his father in the economy is active (as a man). Generation is the operation of the Father, it’s not something that floats between the Father and the Son – the Father generates and the Son is generated. We should take into account this “passive” versus “active” manner of speaking to show how analogies have their limits.


So my question at the end of this all, and given my Reformed doctrine of God view, is this: “How can the Son eternally submit to the Father if the simplicity of God is true, which means therefore that God has one essence and one will which is identical with his essence?” How is it possible in the necessary will for this to happen? People are making jumps, but I don’t know how they are getting there without bringing back into the necessary personal relations another will. Is the Son’s submission as axiomatic to our understanding of the Trinity as the Son’s begottenness or the Father as the fountain of the deity? Begottenness doesn’t require a form of subordination, nor does it require another will. But I’m afraid submission requires one or both of those, and this just will not do.


By Mark Jones

The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including Knowing Christ, God Is, Living For God (2020 Crossway).

15 replies on “Propositions & Questions (for Fred Sanders) on the Trinity”

Of course, all this would seem to indicate that there *is* eternal subordination between the persons of the Trinity – just not at the level of immanent subsistence.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is theology of the highest order succinctly stated and tightly argued. And in my opinion should settle the matter: if God is pure act, one essence, will, attribute, whence submission in the eternal trinity?

“How can the Son eternally submit to the Father if the simplicity of God is true, which means therefore that God has one essence and one will which is identical with his essence? How is it possible in the necessary will for this to happen.”

I understand that this is difficult, but I don’t think that it is unsolvable.
For instance, in Christ’s incarnation he has the divine will and the human will, but we know from the doctrine of impeccability that his human will, although free, can not not be obedient to the Father’s will (ie, the divine will). We do not have a problem understanding how both things can be true in the case of Christ’s human will. That the matter is difficult or complex is not a good argument.

I have read other scholars state that while there is essential one will in God, the persons of the Trinity (subsistence) are not exact replicas of one another – that each has its own manner of acting and relating to the other persons of the Trinity. The Father sends the Son in the pactum salutis – before time and the Son agrees.
Are you saying that the Son was not free just because he didn’t have a human will yet? I think there is an analogy to made that the divine will is surety that the Son could not not obey, but that that doesn’t mean that he was without agency in His person.

Honestly, I don’t think the “two wills” argument is a done deal.

“How can the Son eternally submit to the Father if the simplicity of God is true, which means therefore that God has one essence and one will which is identical with his essence?”

In the last paragraph a quote (“) begins but isn’t closed by another (“). I took the liberty of closing it. Anyway, it’s remarkable to me that some don’t recognize an ordering of the one undivided and divine will that affords justice to a plurality of persons yet without doing violation to one divine essence. Thomistic Trinitarian thought, which in one respect can be regarded as hyper-simplicity, collapses personal intratrintarian distinctions into the one divine essence. It is in the final analyses a move toward modalism. Ron DiGiacomo

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