As the controversy over “eternal functional subordination” in the Trinity continues, the theology of Dr. Bruce Ware has come under particular scrutiny. Dr. Ware has so far responded to this scrutiny with two letters of sorts (here and here), wherein he makes certain helpful concessions but continues to articulate a confusing theological logic and attempts to maintain his basic theological distinctives. These have in turn elicited various responses, of which Dr. Mark Jones’s and Pastor Stefan Lindblad’s are the most helpful in highlighting points of remaining theological dissonance. At best, Dr. Ware seems to be making contradictory assertions, affirming an “essential” unity among the hypostases of the godhead but also affirming additional relationships (additional to filiation and spiration) of authority which allow for particular and hierarchical inflections of the divine will and energy. Dr. Ware even believes that he can ascribe a supremacy of “glory” to the Father over the Son and the Spirit without compromising the full and equal deity of each, and thus while there are some who are still hopeful that concord can be reached, it seems that the extent of the problem is actually greater than originally believed.
In our first installment, we attempted to contextualize this debate with regards to both the immediate conversation and the larger historical record. If the question is only about possible ways in which “subordination” might exist within the Trinity, then there are indeed several distinctions available. Very early on, Dr. Michel Barnes cautioned that “subordination” is an unhelpful term for identifying the foundational issues under dispute. Dr. Matthew Emerson has also explained how language about “priority” was used to signify taxis by the patristic pro-Nicene theologians. And, as we pointed out, with some help from Mark Jones, John Owen provides a means to affirm “eternal” obedience on the part of the Son within the pactum salutis. 1 Thus there is room for constructive dialogue in this area.
However, this debate has revealed deeper problems with Dr. Ware’s theology proper. Dr. James Dolezal had early observed idiosyncratic and troubling innovations made by Dr. Ware in response to proponents of Open Theism. Additionally, Mr. Chase Vaughn, a student at Calvin Theological Seminary, began identifying especially problematic statements in Dr. Ware’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance. These eventually made their way to the “Mortification of Spin” blog, where they further magnified the problems with Dr. Ware’s theology. In short, Dr. Ware’s theology proper goes beyond the mere question of whether there can be a “functional subordination” within the Trinity, even such a one capable of being described as “eternal.” He actually attempts to modify what the concept of “nature” or “essence” means and does for Trinitarian logic.
In this essay, we will highlight some of Dr. Ware’s most problematic statements, as well as how he attempts to explain them in a manner which he believes to be consistent with pro-Nicene theology. Ultimately, however, we believe his explanation proves incoherent, and we will demonstrate how Dr. Ware has actually created a parallel class of “essential attributes” which are applied distinctly to the hypostases in contradistinction to those “essential attributes” which belong to the common divine essence. This then moves Dr. Ware’s proposal beyond “paradox” into outright contradiction.
Dr. Ware’s most alarming statements have all had to do with the way he ascribes the Father’s supremacy as to suggest distinct essential attributes. For example, Dr. Ware has written, “God the Father receives the ultimate and supreme glory,” and “The Father is supreme over all, and in particular, he is supreme within the Godhead as the highest in authority and the one deserving of ultimate praise”(Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance. Crossway, 2005, 51, 52).
The reason that this is so problematic is that “ultimate and supreme glory” as well as that which would make one “deserving of ultimate praise” have historically been understood as essential attributes of the godhead. God is “deserving of ultimate praise” because of His deity, because He is God. Likewise, the reason that Jesus is worshiped, given glory, and said to be deserving of praise is because He is God. Thus, to say that one person of the Godhead is deserving of “more” glory or praise is to say that He, in some way, has more of the divine nature or deity. To be sure, Dr. Ware rejects this position. He maintains that, “each possesses the complete and undivided divine nature, which nature is comprised of all the attributes that are true of God. Every essential attribute of God’s nature is possessed by the Father, Son, and Spirit equally and fully” (ibid 46). Yet the opposition between these statements remains stark.
At this point, we should also point out that Dr. Ware allows for a way in which the Trinitarian persons can act individually and even apart from one another. Perhaps the most scandalous quotes from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were the following:
…though the Father is supreme, he often provides and works through his Son and Spirit to accomplish his work and fulfill his will. I am amazed when I consider here the humility of the Father. For, though the Father is supreme, though he has in the trinitarian order the place of highest authority, the place of highest honor, yet he chooses to do his work in many cases through the Son and through the Spirit rather than unilaterally. (pg. 55)
In many ways, what we see here of the Father choosing not to work unilaterally but to accomplish his work through the Son, or through the Spirit, extends into his relationship to us. Does God need us to do his work? Does God need us to help others grow in Christ? Does God need us to proclaim the gospel so that others hear the good news and are saved? The answer is an emphatic no. He doesn’t need any of us to do any of this. Being the omnipotent and sovereign Ruler over all, he would merely have to speak, and whatever he willed would be done…. No, the humbling fact is that God doesn’t need any of those whom he calls into his service.
…It is not as though the Father is unable to work unilaterally, but rather, he chooses to involve the Son and the Spirit. (pg. 57)
These statements are an actual rather than apparent contradiction of the doctrine of inseparable operations of God, and they really cannot be defended. They must be retracted.
Dr. Ware’s response to this criticism was unpersuasive. He wrote:
My point here is very simple: since the Father is omnipotent, there simply is nothing that could hinder him by nature from doing anything he would choose to do. Of course, this is purely hypothetical, and I acknowledge that my wording here could be made more precise. I did not intend to suggest that the Father ever would act in such an independent manner, or could act independently, strictly speaking, in light of the Trinitarian union of persons. Indeed, he acts always and only inseparably with the Son and the Spirit. Still, the point is that while he acts inseparably, he also wills with the Son and Spirit to act in full accord with them, and he intends in this to put the Son, in particular, in the place of ascendant exaltation. So, indeed, the work of God is inseparable, as the church has long held, but the work of the one God is also hypostatically distinguishable.
Instead of clarity, we see more problems. To begin, whatever Dr. Ware’s intention, he did not merely propose a hypothetical situation in order to illustrate a logical distinction. He actually wrote, “though the Father is supreme, he often provides and works through his Son and Spirit to accomplish his work and fulfill his will…” Notice clearly, Dr. Ware says that the Father “often provides and works through his Son and Spirit” (F,S,HS pg. 55). These are assertions of fact. The inseparable operations are not universal but rather particular. They are “often” true, but “often” means somewhat less than always, and it means this by definition.
More than this, however, Dr. Ware also says that the Father “chooses to do his work in many cases through the Son and through the Spirit rather than unilaterally” (pg. 55). At this point, Dr. Ware has subordinated the divine operations to the Father’s will, contradicting the doctrine of divine simplicity. Taken at face value, this implies further diversity within the divine nature.
Thus far we have highlighted what might be considered points of “tension” between aspects of Dr Ware’s writings. But is there a coherent sort of logic to be found? It would seem that there is. Earlier in Dr. Ware’s book, he explains his understanding of the divine operations. They are inseparable in the sense of a “harmony”:
And the three members of the Godhead work together in harmony. Not in unison, but in harmony. “Unison” expresses a form of unity, yet it has no texture and richness. “Harmony,” however, communicates the idea of unified expression but only through differing yet complementary parts. You have different voices in different pitches. One carries the melody, but just one. Others carry the strains of harmony to fill out and complement the melody. If you think that only one part matters, you are sorely mistaken. For again, to achieve the kind of textured and rich unity that harmony accomplishes, all the parts are important. Yet each part has to be an expression of the same score, the same composition, expressing the mind of the composer. (F,S,HS pg. 43)
While still confusing (given the larger body of writing), this passage is actually one of Dr. Ware’s clearer explanations. He is affirming that the divine operations are “differing yet complementary.” They are each sounding different notes, and their “unity” is then the sum of the diverse parts, a composite production.
Dr. Ware can summarize this by saying, “So, unity and difference, identity and distinction—this marks the triune nature of God most centrally” (pg. 43). While this is, no doubt, another case of imprecision, it is an important imprecision to notice. Because of it, the “nature of God” can be described as both unified and diverse. We must ask, can it also be true that God’s nature is “one” and “three?” And if one answers that in the affirmative, they have, in fact, affirmed that there can be one God and three Gods at the same time.
Later in Dr. Ware’s book, he returns to this point, comparing the Trinity to a human community:
God intends that there be a created community of persons in which there is an interconnection and interdependence, so that what one does affects another, what one needs can be supplied by another, and what one seeks to accomplish may be assisted by another.
Isn’t this true in the Trinity? We have seen over and again that what one member of the Trinity does affects another. The interconnectedness and interdependence among the members of the Trinity is such that one is hard-pressed to think of any “work of God” which does not involve various members of the Trinity working together. For example, God the Father designs what the purpose of the created order will be. In this, he designs that his Son be the one who comes and redeems sinners. The Father designs it, but his fulfillment of that design depends upon the Son obeying the Father. And yet the Son obeying the Father depends upon the Spirit empowering the Son. There is an interdependence, an interconnection intrinsic to the very nature of God. (pg. 135)
In highlighting this illustration, we do not intend to say that Dr. Ware believes that God is exactly like a human community. Four pages later, he explicitly states that the divine unity is “greater” than any possibly unity shared by created natures. He denies that there are three natures. 2 However, he has made arguments which, if using pro-Nicene logic, would necessarily imply exactly that.
Consider this. Dr. Ware compares the Trinity to a human community and then immediately writes that “what one member of the Trinity does affects another.” What can this mean? The Father “does something” which then “affects” the Son? Pair this with his earlier distinction between harmony and unison, and the only meaningful conclusion that one can reach is that the persons of the Trinity participate in individual distinct activities which then create a larger unified activity after the other persons react to them. This impression is only further supported when we recall that Dr. Ware has written that the Father is “the Grand Architect, the Wise Designer of all that has occurred in the created order” (pg. 52), and that his entire purpose in ascribing this to the Father in particular is to show a “distinguishing aspects of the Father’s role and relationship vis-à-vis the Son and the Spirit” (pg. 46). And, once again, because of this distinction, the Father can be ascribed a greater amount of praise than the Son (pg. 52).
At this point, we have identified a sort of logic at work in Dr. Ware’s Trinitarianism. It appears to be very similar to that of “Social Trinitarianism,” where the divine hypostases are unified by a common purpose rather than an absolute essential singularity. This school of thought itself takes a variety of forms and has been subjected to well-known criticism over the last two decades. In a 2011 book review of Dr. Thomas McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology, Dr. Ware expresses clear sympathy for Social Trinitarianism. He writes “Some readers would find McCall’s favorable assessment of some version of social Trinitarianism problematic, but I stand with him in his positive (with qualifications) advocacy of this model.” To this he adds, “I agree that the Trinity is most clearly understood when the Persons of the Godhead are seen as distinct centers of consciousness and will. How one would understand the eternal relatedness within the Godhead if this were not the case certainly is difficult to conceive.”
This is hardly a sentiment unique to Dr. Ware. It is prevalent across the theological landscape, and within Reformed circles it can be found in the writings of Cornelius Van Til and others standing in the tradition of Westminster Theological Seminary. Yet it is still a sentiment that stands in tension to the earlier trinitarian tradition, whether it be Nicene, Augustinian, or even Thomistic. Dr. Ware goes further than this, however. In the same review, he affirms that the divine hypostases can posses distinct “essential” properties:
This leads me to my third response. An equivocation of sorts has occurred in how McCall frames his argument supporting his charge that Hard EFS denies homoousios. When McCall states in his premise (5) that: “If the Son has this property essentially and the Father does not, then the Son is of a different essence than the Father,” it is clear that McCall sees the possession of a unique property “essentially” as indicating a unique “essence.” But this confuses the meaning of the adjective “essential” and the noun “essence.” That “venerable distinction offered by the Cappadocians” surely had in mind properties of personhood that were “essential” to the Father being the Father (e.g., unbegotten), “essential” to the Son being the Son (e.g., eternally begotten), and “essential” to the Spirit being the Spirit (e.g., proceeding from the Father—as stated in the 381 Constantinople addition to the Nicene Creed), while also affirming that every property of the “essence” of God was possessed fully by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Spirit. But the distinguishing properties of the unique personhood of each Trinitarian person, while essential to who each is, does not constitute those properties as properties of the divine essence. No, they are properties (essential though they be) of the persons. Can it be otherwise? Can we say of the Father (or Son, or Spirit) that he has no essential (i.e, non-contingent, necessary) distinguishing properties of his personhood? If we can, then what marks the Father as the Father, or the Son as the Son, or the Spirit as the Spirit? Clearly, the distinction of the persons requires that there are distinguishing properties of each person, such that these properties of their unique personhood are essential to that personhood as opposed to being merely contingent or accidental. In short, it does not follow that because the Son has a distinguishing property, a property that he possesses in every possible world, one that he possesses with a de re necessity, and one that he possesses essentially—it does not follow from this that he therefore has a different essence from the Father, so long as that distinguishing property is one of his person and not a property of the common essence he possesses eternally and fully along with the Father and the Spirit.
This paragraph is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows that Ware is not merely a “Biblicist” but does in fact attempt systematic distinctions. Secondly, it shows that he believes he is continuing to operate with pro-Nicene theological categories. But thirdly, it shows that he is doing so in a confused and illicit manner.
Dr. Ware is correct to distinguish between the properties of the divine essence and the properties of the divine persons, but he departs from pro-Nicene theology when he attempts to claim more personal properties beyond paternity, spiration, and filiation, and he collapses the very distinction he claims to uphold when he calls the personal properties “essential.” Dr. Ware acknowledges that there is “equivocation” at work here, but he claims that the equivocation is to be found in Dr. McCall. What he does not seem to realize, however, is that what he sees as “equivocation” is, in fact, the traditional distinction.
Dr. Richard Muller explains how “property” was used by the Reformed Orthodox 3 to demonstrate the distinction between the divine nature and the divine persons:
The orthodox discussion of the Trinity offers a direct analogue to the discussion of the divine attributes in the differentiation between proprietates essentiales and proprietates personales, the former category of “property” referring to the divine attributes that the persons of the Trinity hold in common and that identify them each as fully and equally divine, the latter category referring to the distinctive characteristics of the persons individually that serve to identify them as persons within the Godhead. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4, pg. 186)
Dr. Muller goes on to say that, “in God there are three proprietates— paternitas, filiatio, and spiratio” (pg. 187). Any other properties, then, must be proprietates essentiales, or “essential properties.” Quoting from Trelcatius, Dr. Muller adds, “the ‘proprietates‘ of the persons of the Trinity are the ‘charactersitica idiomata,’ or ‘limiting Attributes, which coming form the persons are not only limited in the persons, but also do limit the persons, both in themselves and among themselves'” (pg. 187).
This is important because Dr. Ware might suggest that he is simply adding a third category atop the “essential properties” and the “personal properties.” But, given the logic and intent of the distinction– to limit the persons and distinguish between them, we can see that what Dr. Ware is actually doing is adding additional properties to the proprietates personales. Instead of simply the traditional three, he is suggesting that the “roles and relationships” are also something like personal properties, and that these include supremacy, unique design, and diverse works. 4 Thus when he calls them essential personal properties, critics are entirely justified in seeing a tertium quid. Despite the protestations, the distinction has indeed been collapsed, and something other than the orthodox position is being argued for.
In the past, Dr. Ware has believed that it is sufficient to affirm a “both/and” approach to the Trinity. The three hypostases of the godhead are equal and fully God. They each possess the whole divine nature, and they do so fully and at the same time. Yet, in addition to this affirmation, Dr. Ware has also affirmed that the hypostases of the godhead possess distinct essential attributes proper to their subsistence, and among these are a hierarchical distribution of authority, will, and even glory. Additionally, the works of God are diverse, said to be a harmony with diverse effects within the Trinity.
But does this “both/and” paradox avoid outright contradiction? Only if it resolves itself in an unacceptable way. Dr. Ware has said, ““Equality of essence does not conflict with distinction of roles. In God, and among us, both must be embraced and honored” (F,S,HS, pg. 139). This seems to be the central thesis. Yet, among the distinction of roles articulated by Dr. Ware are properties which have heretofore been understood as properties of that equal essence. Thus while claiming a “both/and” affirmation, Dr. Ware is actually subsuming one into the other, even if he is unaware that he is doing so.
Some peace-seeking interlocutors have claimed that Dr. Ware is in the process of modifying this theology in light of this recent debate. For that we can only rejoice. It is good to see him now clearly affirm the eternal generation of the Son and eternal spiration of the Spirit, as well as the singularity of the divine will. It is also good to see him attempt to affirm divine simplicity and the inseparability of divine operations. However, seeing these affirmations is one thing. Harmonizing them with his earlier writings is another thing entirely, and it should be noted that these writings have been consistent in their errant theology for many years now. To point this out is not to “pile on” to Dr. Ware. It also does not violate the rules of irenic debate. Instead, it demonstrates that modification on his part will also require recantation of certain views, and this might take some time to successfully be able to do. Is Dr. Ware even aware of the extent of revision necessary? A decision will also fall to the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood whether they agree with the earlier errant views or not, and thus, whether they wish to continue to host them on their website.
We will proceed to the next “half” of this controversy, the relationship between the Trinity and complementarianism, in a future installment. For now, the particular items of theology proper deserve their own consideration, and the various parties should examine whether they are clear, in their own minds, about their trinitarian logic and its necessary implications. We hope that this essay has been helpful in advancing that process.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.