Archive Mark Jones Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Dat Old Debbel Tritheism?

So I do want to point out the virtual impossibility of talking about these things without “sounding like” we might be drifting toward a problem. If the Son is the one who made the actual decision, where did the unified divine will (that which makes decisions) go? If Jesus made this as a voluntary decision, does this mean He was a volunteer? Did the Father think of it first? Did Jesus come up with the same idea independently? Of course not, and I know that Jones is fully orthodox. But what does “the actual decision belonged to the Son” sound like? It sounds like dat old debbel tritheism. Or what could it easily be made to sound like by an uncharitable reader? I am not such an uncharitable reader, incidentally.

This paragraph by Doug Wilson (with many thanks for his kind words elsewhere in his article) was written in response to a quote from my book in Knowing Christ, where I wrote:

“The actual decision to assume a human nature, however, belonged to the Son. All that Jesus did for his people needed to be voluntary, not forced. This included the decision to take into union with himself a true human nature (body and soul). This decision may be termed ‘the decision’ in terms of its temporal, and ultimately eternal, significance for humanity” (Knowing Christ, p.  27).

This language in Knowing Christ is basically “language for dummies” who haven’t read the Protestant Scholastics. So, back in the good ol’ seventeenth century, Reformed theologians held to the principle of attributing ad extra works to all the persons of the Trinity.

However, divines such as John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, to name just two of many, argued that certain outward works – depending on what they are – are more peculiarly attributed to one of the persons.

This is also referred to as the doctrine of appropriations. Goodwin echoes this principle elsewhere: ‘In this will that common Axiome of Divines helps us, that what works all three Persons do towards us Ad extra, though they have all a joint hand in them, yet they are attributed more especially to one Person than to another; as Sanctification you know is attributed more especially to the Holy Ghost, Redemption to the Son, Creation to God the Father, though all Three Persons have a hand in it.’

That is to suggest that the persons all share a common prerogative, but often a certain work will be attributed to the Father, for example, in order to display his uniqueness. Both Goodwin and Owen wrestle with how this relates to the incarnation of the Son of God. So, for example, while some Divines attribute to the Spirit ‘the special Honour of tying that Marriage knot, or Union, between the Son of God, and that Man Jesus’, Goodwin believes that ‘that Action is more peculiarly to be Attributed to the Son Himself; as Second Person; who took up into one Person with Himself that Humane Nature’ (Heb. 2:16). Of course, Goodwin agrees that if they argue on the basis that the external works of the Trinity are undivided, there is no conflict. But, in Goodwin’s mind, it was ‘the Son’s Special Act … to assume [human nature]’. This is precisely what I say in the quote from Knowing Christ (p. 27).

Owen argues that it was an outward act (ad extra) of the triune God, ‘As unto original efficiency’. However, ‘As unto authoritative designation, it was the act of the Father …. As unto the formation of the human nature, it was the peculiar act of the Spirit …. As unto the term of the assumption, or the taking of our nature unto himself, it was the peculiar act of the person of the Son.’

Essentially, Goodwin and Owen are claiming that the undivided works ad extra often manifest one of the persons as their terminus operationis. In the above example, the incarnation terminates on the Son though the act is (singularly) willed by the three persons of the Trinity.

This is what I meant by the quote in Knowing Christ. If that is “dat old debbel tritheism” then that’s a serious problem for us all, not just me. I am having a hard time finding a Reformed theologian who would not speak this way.

If the Son did not decide to assume a human nature, then who did? God did, but, alas, dat old debbel [terminus operationis].

The big question for the subordinationists is this: “Why did the Son come down from Heaven?” Their answer is easy, but basically heretical: “He obeyed the Father because of an intrinsic principle of authority and submission within the Godhead.” That rubbish is vastly different from what our Reformed forefathers suggested in the 17th century about the Son’s decision to assume a human nature into subsistence with himself.

The freeness/willingness of the Son to assume a human nature is jeopardized by ESS.

Now on to my main point: Some chap named Bayly said about the MOS crew: “Second, until these guys and gal publicly affirm the eternal asymmetry of the Godhead flowing from God’s Archetypal Fatherhood, they have no standing to say anything about sexuality.” This is a statement charged with a lot of testosternone, it seems.

I laughed at this. Why? Because I have no clue what Bayly means by this. It is somewhat odd language to me. “Eternal asymmetry of the Godhead flowing from God’s Archetypal Fatherhood”?

If by “asymmetry” they mean it in an orthodox Thomistic sense (i.e., “source”) then obviously Carl Trueman, for example, would affirm this. But if “eternal asymmetry” is meant in some other (subordinationist) sense then why would Carl (or anyone of us) want to affirm this publicly? As Kevin Giles noted some time ago regarding this language of asymmetry:

“For my evangelical debating opponents the word asymmetrical is intended to indicate that the Father and Son (and men and women) have differing authority. In this usage the word is a synonym for hierarchically ordered, or differentiated in authority. It is, in other words, an obfuscating way of speaking of the eternal subordination in authority of the Son to the Father…In contrast, when rightly used in orthodoxy, the word asymmetrical speaks of the distinguishing and irreversible relations of the divine persons. The Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son is the Son of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father….the Father begets and sends the Son…In orthodoxy…divine differentiation never implies the subordination of one or more persons in the Trinity.” (Jesus and the Father, 51).

So which one is it? Obviously the MOS crew affirm the orthodox view; but I suspect Mr Bayly wants them to affirm something “subordinationist” before they can speak on sexual ethics. This is the same error that Grudem, Ware, Strachan, et al are committing by thinking they have the sexual ethic high ground because they go all the way back to eternal intra-Trinitarian relations.

In the end, we are told that we need to publicly affirm “the eternal asymmetry of the Godhead flowing from God’s Archetypal Fatherhood” to speak on sexual ethics? But that is sort of like saying, you need to say God Is to defend the existence of God.

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).

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