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What Augustine would say to Evangelicals about the Trinity and Subordination?

May 6, 2011

The past couple of decades have witnessed a sometimes intense debate within evangelicalism over the question of gender and whether or not there is a place for a wife’s submission to her husband. One of the central battle grounds in this debate has been the doctrine of the Trinity, as theologians have argued back and forth over whether or not it is permissible to have an “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of the Son to the Father. One side argues for EFS on the basis of (among other arguments) the passages in the Gospel of John in which the Son is said to be sent by the Father or to do the will of the Father. The other side argues that such passages refer only to the Son’s incarnate state with no reference to the eternal, immanent Trinity, and that in fact EFS is a tacit form of Arianism.

Both sides in this debate have argued that the church fathers are on their side, producing lists of passages from the fathers that would appear to support each position. The most recent contribution in this respect is Keith Johnson’s article in the new issue of Themelios titled “Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son: An Augustinian Perspective”. You can read his article in html form here, or as a pdf here. Johnson, who completed his PhD at Duke on Augustine’s Trinitarianism, is now the Director for Theological Education and Development for Campus Crusade and serves as a guest professor for RTS. In his article he persuasively shows that both sides of the recent debate have misread Augustine, and that in fact he cannot be taken to be supportive of either side.

The feature of Augustine’s Trinitarianism that he highlights is his notion of the inseparable operations of the Trinity (in Latin: opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). This theme is a fundamental feature of pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, and the absence of this theme from recent discussions on the Trinity shows the degree to which these church fathers have either been misread or ignored. These patristic theologians assume that because there is only one divine essence, that essence produces one, undivided operation or act. Therefore, everything that one person of the Trinity does, has in fact all three persons involved in it. In contrast, an excessive focus on the ‘roles’ or operations of the individual persons tends dangerously towards tritheism, unless it is balanced by insisting that whenever the Father works, the Son and Spirit are also working in the same act. The charge of tritheism is a serious one, since Christians have always understood themselves as monotheists, in keeping with the declaration of Scripture that there is only one God. Yet, the notion of unity of operation is precisely the principle that patristic authors use to distinguish themselves form tritheists (two clear examples are the Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria references below). Moreover, when they articulate this principle, they do not simply mean that the three persons ‘cooperate’ together, but that every divine act is an undivided act of the one, undivided essence. As I said before, this theme is a consistent principle in theologians who follow Nicaea, including Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria, and Augustine. I’ll stop summarizing now and will simply say that if you want to see this theme worked out in more detail, and its implications for the EFS debate, you should read Johnson’s article. He does a fine job explaining the notion of inseparable operations and its implications for recent evangelical debate over EFS, as well as pointing out that using the Trinity as an analogy for gender is inherently problematic.

If you’re interested in investigating this point further, here are some good starting points:

Augustine’s Sermon 52 is maybe the best, short introduction. You can download it as a pdf here.

Gregory of Nyssa’s On Not Three Gods, To Ablabius is a more extended discussion. You can read it online here.

Rufinus mentions this theme briefly in his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. You can read it here. Scroll down to section 10.

Another good, short taste is in Cyril of Alexandria’s Five Tomes against Nestorius, book 4, §1-2. You can read it online here. The two indented passages at the start of §1 and §2 are quotations from Nestorius that Cyril goes on to refute.

By the way, Johnson’s dissertation is being published later this year by IVP. Keep an eye out for it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael McClenahan permalink
    January 13, 2012 7:04 am

    Brilliant Matthew – can you send the link to every evangelical?

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