Thoughts on the Trinity and the Autotheocity of Christ

The divine nature of the Son is not derived from or communicated from the Father either temporally or atemporally, but is eternally existent in himself as God from all eternity (autotheos – God of himself). The divine nature of the Holy Spirit is not derived from the Father or the Son, but exists eternally in himself as God. Divine simplicity and perichoresis prevent us from falling into the error of tritheism (John 10:38; 14:10-11). The three persons are not three different “parts” of God, but three persons who cannot be separated from one other (but must be distinguished) and exist as one God. Each of the three persons share equally the one divine nature and all of the attributes of God so there are not three gods, but one God who exists eternally as three persons in eternal fellowship with one another (John 17:5, 23).

I would be in agreement with John Calvin that the Son of God possesses the divine nature in himself as God from all eternity and therefore it is unnecessary to have it eternally communicated to him from the Father. While Calvin still continued to use the language of the Nicene Creed, he redefined it to not include any concept of derivation of essence:

“But how will the Creator, who gives being to all, not have being from himself, but borrow his essence from elsewhere? For whoever says that the Son has been given his essence from the Father denies that he has being from himself. But the Holy Spirit gives the lie to this, naming him ‘Jehovah.’ Now if we concede that all essence is in the Father alone, either it will become divisible or be taken away from the Son. And thus deprived of his essence, he will be God in name only. The essence of God, if these babblers are to be believed, belongs to the Father only, inasmuch as he alone is, and is the essence giver of the Son. Thus the divinity of the Son will be something abstracted from God’s essence, or a part derived from the whole. . . . For what is the point in disputing whether the Father always begets? Indeed, it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from eternity” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Battles translation, 1:150, 159).

B. B. Warfield explains Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity this way:

“The point of view which adjusted everything to the conception of ‘generation’ and ‘procession’ as worked out by the Nicene Fathers was entirely alien to him. The conception itself he found difficult, if not unthinkable; and although he admitted the facts of ‘generation’ and ‘procession’, he treated them as bare facts, and refused to make them constitutive of the doctrine of the Trinity. . . . He was ready not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculations” (Calvin and Calvinism, 257).

The Son as God has all of the attributes of God which include aseity, self-sufficiency, and self-existence which Christ possesses equally with the Father (Exod 3:14; John 1:18; 8:58). Since Jesus is God, he shares with the Father all of his attributes. The one divine nature of God is underived and shared equally and completely by the three divine persons. If self-existence is an attribute of God, eternal generation would imply that Christ does not possess self-existence or aseity of himself. He would then owe his existence to the action of another, even if that action is eternally occurring. But Jesus is not a demiurge or emanation. He is the eternal Son of God who is God equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Eternal generation implies that the Son is not God in the same way the Father is God. Whereas the Father exists as God of himself or a se in Latin (where the word aseity comes from), the Son does not exist as God of himself, but exists a pater because the divine nature is communicated to him from the Father so that the Father is the fountain of divinity from whom the Son derives his divine nature. Thus, the deity of the Son in eternal generation is a derived or communicated deity that is not inherent in himself, but comes from the Father to whom he owes his eternal existence. Since the Son is not God in the same way that the Father is God, this results in a hypostatic subordination where the person of the Son is subordinated to the person of the Father. This is a relic of the subordinationism of Origen who was the first to teach eternal generation. Christ as autotheos and Christ as eternally generated or produced by the Father are mutually exclusive to each other in Origen’s theology (Origen, Commentary on John 2.2). But if the Son is God in the same way the Father is God, then he is not subordinate to the Father, but equal with the Father in nature and person while distinguished from him by means of the personal property of sonship which the Father does not possess.

Gerald Bray further elaborates on Origen’s doctrine of the Father alone as autotheos and how this relates to eternal generation:

“Origen believed that the Father was true God, or God in himself (autotheos), and taught that the Son was begotten in his image. This meant that he was like the Father in every respect, except that he had a beginning, or at least a source of some kind, which the Father did not have. The Holy Spirit was in turn made in the image of the Son, divine in every respect except that of ‘anarchy’ (‘unbeginningness’). For Origen the idea that God the Father could reproduce himself in this way was no surprise: it was a belief which he shared with his fellow Platonists, who spoke of emanations from the one. In deriving the Son and (indirectly) the Holy Spirit from the being of the Father, Origen in no way intended to minimize their power or authority” (The Doctrine of God, 126-27).

We distinguish between the persons of the Trinity on the basis of their redemptive work in history: the Father sends the Son, the Son dies on the cross, and the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit who regenerates, indwells, and applies the benefits of the work of Christ to those who believe (John 15:26). The Father elects and gives a people to Christ in eternity past, the Son dies for them, and the Spirit applies the work of redemption to Christ’s Bride. Yet all three persons are involved in each of these acts in accordance with their ordering within the Trinity (Heb 9:14). The economic Trinity is a reflection of the immanent Trinity, but the immanent Trinity is more than the economic Trinity. We can only know the immanent Trinity because of the economic Trinity. This is seen most clearly in the reformed doctrine of the covenant of redemption or eternal plan of salvation.

There is therefore a taxis, or ordering of roles within the Trinity. And this ordering is never reversed. The Son became incarnate rather than the Father because it is the duty of a Son to willingly submit to his Father and not the other way around. 1 Corinthians 11:3 teaches that the Father and the Son each have different roles with the Father as head over Christ while they are equal to each other. When Paul speaks of the Son as Christ in this verse, he is thinking of the Son with respect to both his humanity and his divinity. In the previous chapter, Paul speaks of the pre-incarnate Son as Christ before he assumed humanity which means that the term “Christ” cannot be limited to the Son’s role as human mediator (1 Cor 10:9). Similarly, husbands and wives have different roles in marriage but are nevertheless equal in Christ (Gal 3:28). The husband has authority over his wife in a way that is analogous to the authority of the Father over the Son. Role differentiation and equality are not mutually exclusive to each other. The Father has authority over Christ and the Son is eternally obedient to his Father. The human relationships of fatherhood and sonship were created to reflect the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. As a true Son, he submits willingly to the Father in accordance with his unique personal properties as Son. Therefore, submission is proper and not improper for the Son. And this is eternally true since the Son has always existed as the Son and the Father has always existed as the Father. The Son displays his love for the Father by his obedience to him (John 14:31). Because the Son eternally loves the Father, the Son is eternally disposed to obeying the Father. He always obeys his Father and there was never a time when the Son did not obey the Father because he has always existed as the Son. When we submit, we are imitating God the Son in his love for the Father. Micahel J. Ovey explains the relationship between the Son’s love for the Father and his obedience:

“The Son’s love is filial in that he loves the Father and reveals this by his obedience to his Father and his will. . . . The Son’s love is shown in his obedience. To remove the Son’s obedience is to remove the revelation of his love. Further, to remove the Son’s obedience eliminates the way by which Jesus himself refutes the charge that his claim to deity undoes monotheism [John 5:18-19]” (Your Will Be Done, 77).

The eternal distinction of roles and relationships which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have which distinguish them from each other are demonstrated in the work of redemption. The Father demonstrates his authority over the Son before the incarnation by sending him into the world and the Son willingly submits to the Father. This eternal relationship of authority and submission is demonstrated in eternity past, in time, and in eternity future (Ps 110:4; Isa 42:1; 48:16; Matt 20:23; 28:19; Luke 20:13; 22:29; John 3:16-17; 4:34; 5:19-22, 30, 36, 43; 6:37-39; 7:28; 8:26-28, 42; 10:18, 36; 12:49-50; 14:31; 17:4, 8, 18; 18:11; 20:11; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 3:23; 8:6; 11:3; 15:28; Gal 4:4; Eph 1:3-5, 9-10; Phil 2:11; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 1:2; 10:7; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 4:9, 14; Rev 1:1; 5:7). It is often objected to this view that all of the passages which speak of the obedience of the Son to the Father are only with respect to the Son’s human nature and could not be applied to the Son before the incarnation. But remember, the Holy Spirit never became incarnate as the Son did and therefore this response could never be used to explain those passages which teach the authority of the Father and the Son over the Spirit in the work of creation and redemption (Ps 104:30; Isa 48:16; John 3:34; 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:13-15; Acts 2:33; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:12). Many of these passages are speaking of a time before the incarnation as well. But even if these verses are only speaking with respect to the Son’s human nature, that still would not answer the question of why it is that the Son rather than the Father became incarnate. These distinctions I have listed are differentiations of role or function, not of nature or attributes. The Son’s obedience to the Father is with respect to his person, not his divine nature which is the same as that of the Father. All three persons of the Trinity are equal in power and authority since all three persons are fully God and God’s authority is infinite. When Scripture speaks of one person receiving authority from another, it is with regard to the inner-trinitarian economy of roles and relationships which reflect the personal distinctions that eternally exist between the persons.

Submission and obedience are not incompatible with ontological equality, otherwise, wives would be ontologically inferior to their husbands since they are called to submit to and obey them. The false assumption that is being made by both egalitarians and those who object to an eternal relationship of authority and submission in the Trinity is that obedience implies inferiority or subordination. Submission and obedience are not dirty words which imply that the one who obeys is inferior to the one who commands. Obedience in the Trinity is always voluntary and willing without any coercion or sin. It is only our godless culture which despises authority, submission, and obedience that have put this idea into our mind. The Son and the Spirit demonstrate the goodness of obedience by fulfilling the work of creation and redemption given to them by the Father.

The entire Trinity acts when any of the three persons act since they are in one another and perfectly reflect one another. Each person exists eternally in communion with one another and each person is fully and completely God sharing equally the divine attributes. A will is defined as the desires that spring from the attributes of a nature. Because God has one divine nature which is undivided, there can only be one will in God. That one will expresses itself in the obedience and submission of the Son to the Father. Each person wills with respect to the relationships and roles that exist between each person in time and in eternity past. Each person of the Trinity expresses that one will with respect to his ordering within the Trinity (Rom 8:27).

Ignatius, in his letter to the Ephesians, declares that Christ with respect to his divine nature is unbegotten in contrast to being begotten as a man with respect to his human nature by Mary (7:2). Therefore, according to Ignatius, unbegotteness is an attribute of God rather than a personal property of the Father. To be unbegotten is to affirm an attribute of deity. If unbegotteness is an attribute of God, then in Ignatius’ mind, to say that the Son is not unbegotten with respect to his divine nature would be to deny an attribute of God to him, making him less than fully God. He is said to be “from God” and “from Mary” meaning that he was sent from God before he was born from Mary. Ignatius is here describing the sending of the Son into the world (John 1:14; 16:28). When Jesus says, “I came from the Father,” he is describing the missio Dei or incarnation of himself, not his ontological origin.

Origen’s concept of eternal generation, as employed by Athanasius, was a “quick and dirty” response to Arianism: every verse which the Arians used to argue that the Son is a creature became eternalized into never-ending timeless actions. The problem with the definition of Nicaea was that the common man could not distinguish between generation and creation, even if the generation was described as being eternal in nature. To say that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” was the same in their mind as saying that the Son was created before all ages. The phrase is not even an expression of eternal generation, but of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Logos Christology. It was only after Eusebius that the “before all ages” clause associated with the Son’s begetting was interpreted in accordance with eternal generation rather than Logos Christology. The distinction between univocal language and analogical language seems to have been lost on every early reader of Proverbs 8:22-36 in attempting to draw a one-to-one correspondence between Lady Wisdom and Christ. The assumption by both sides that the Father alone is unbegotten made the debate more difficult for the orthodox to maintain that the Son is God equally with the Father and never had a beginning.

Both sides assumed that the Son owes his existence to the Father, but they disagreed on whether this generative act was completed before the foundation of the world or if it is eternally ongoing so that the Son never had a beginning. But it is this very assumption derived from Logos Christology and reinforced through combating modalism that led to the rise of Arianism to begin with. I would like to suggest that we cut the Gordian knot of this problem by asserting that the entire concept of generation, whether it be temporal, timeless, or eternal, is based on a misinterpretation of Scripture. We should instead say that the Father is self-existent, God of himself, unbegotten, and without origin, the Son is self-existent, God of himself, unbegotten, and without origin, and the Holy Spirit is self-existent, God of himself, unbegotten, and without origin. But there are not three unbegottens, but only one unbegotten God who exists as three persons each sharing equally the attribute of unbegotteness being without origin or beginning. The Son is the eternally unbegotten Son of God who was begotten as a man in time by Mary. His being unbegotten is with respect to his divine nature since he is eternal and without origin or beginning, and his being begotten is with respect to his human nature which did have a beginning.

In order to distinguish between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in eternity past, I would retain the personal properties of paternity, filiation, and spiration, but would drop generation and procession. Eternal relations of origin is not how the Bible itself distinguishes between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the economic Trinity, the Father sends the Son and the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit for the purpose of creation and redemption. This temporal sending reflects the eternal distinction of personal subsisting relations within the life of the Trinity. But these relations are ones of relationship in fatherhood and sonship, not ones of origin in generation or procession since God by nature is eternal and has no origin or beginning.

Trying to explain how God can be one in nature and three in person at the same time can be dangerous if we ever move beyond Scripture into speculative theology or make the temporal human father-son relationship the basis upon which we understand the eternal divine relationship between the Father and the Son. This was the mistake the Arians made by asserting that the Father must exist before the Son because human fathers exist before their sons. Eternal generation makes a similar mistake by asserting that the Son is the eternal product of the Father because human sons are the product of their father. The similarity between human fathers and sons and the Father and the Son that is certain is that the Son shares the same nature as the Father as human sons genetically reflect the nature of their father. But this is only because this truth is revealed to us in Scripture (Col 2:9; Heb 1:3).

The undue exaltation of the councils and creeds of the early church in attempting to replicate the apostolic authority of the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 laid the foundation for the Roman Catholic concept of Sacred Tradition where the traditions of the church became equal to the authority of Scripture. Scripture was interpreted through the lens of church tradition rather than interpreting Scripture with Scripture. Widespread biblical illiteracy and lack of access to the entirety of the biblical canon did not help the situation. Those who did not have access to the Bible simply believed whatever they were taught by the church authorities of the day, even when it led them into the idolatry of praying to the saints. Even Protestants who have a high regard for church tradition do not accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council which approves of prayers to deceased saints and the veneration of icons. Other examples of error in the creeds of the church include the Fifth Ecumenical Council’s teaching that Mary was a perpetual virgin, the Nicene-Constantinople Creed’s teaching of baptismal regeneration when it says, “We confess one baptism for the remission of sins,” Chalcedon’s teaching that monks are not allowed to marry, and the teaching that Christ descended into hell in the Apostle’s Creed and Athanasian Creed. All tradition must be judged by Scripture alone, no matter how sacred that tradition is. We must speak where Scripture speaks and be silent where Scripture is silent. This is not because I am anti-creedal, but anti-false doctrine and a good Berean (Acts 17:11).

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