Is it impossible to learn from the Trinity?

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One of the bones of contention in the debate between EFS advocates and neo-classical theists is whether or not we can apply things from the inner relationships of the Trinity to life today.  EFS has predominated amongst theologians and pastors from a complementarian background. The idea that the Father and Son are equal in nature but that there could be order and submission in their relationship (ontological equality with functional subordination) is seen as huge positive for the complementarian argument that women are equal in nature with men but may submit to them in the marriage relationship.

Neo-classical theists are wary of such applications believing that this is a misuse of theology.  Doctrine enables us to get a glimpse into who God is but we should tread warily.  The Economic Trinity (as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are revealed in terms of the incarnation and the work of redemption) is of limited use in terms both of our understanding of the immanent trinity (God in eternity and the inner relationships of the persons) and in terms of application to day to day pastoral situations.  The point is forcibly made in the full title to Matthew Barrett’s book which is “Simply Trinity: The unmanipulated Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Barrett believes that approaches to apply what we know of the Father -Son relationship either to our knowledge of God in eternity or to day to day human life risks becoming manipulative. Instead, he offers the pure, unadulterated doctrine.

I think there are two problems with that. First, when we think about the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, it leaves us with big questions about what we can know concerning God.  Karl Rahner’s dictum that “The economic trinity is the imminent trinity” certainly has its problems. Our knowledge of God is not exhaustive and so the revelation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the incarnation cannot tell us everything that God is.  Yet if it is true revelation, then it must tell us something.  The way that the Son speaks to the Father and Father to Son in the incarnation is no accident.

This is important because I think there has been a misunderstanding about language and its usage on both sides.  When talking about God we say that we can use analogical language.  This is distinguished from two other options as a middle way. Univocal language is language that is a like for like fit, if I describe God as a lion, moth, consuming fire, masculine, a mother hen etc then all of those things are literally true (you can immediately see the problem with that).  At the other end of the spectrum, we talk about equivocal language. From that perspective all we say about God is remote from the truth about him. We then have no way of communicating with him or about him. 

Analogical language means in effect that we talk of God by way of analogy. We recognise that God is infinite, other and beyond our knowing and yet he chooses to stoop to our level to reveal something of himself to us.  God is in someway like those things. It is important then to remember that all our language about God is analogical whether it is language about a bird sheltering its young, or a lion of a loving father. God is truly father, this is not a mere metaphor but we know that his infinite and eternal love is unlike our limited love. We recognise that analogical language when we admit that human fathers fall short of God’s standards. This also shows us the nature of the analogy. It is not that God is a bit like a human father, he really is father but our understanding of fatherhood is imperfect so that we as fathers are a bit like The Father,

What this means is that when we talk about the Father and the Son, we recognise that we are getting a peek in to the inner life of the son. When the Son says that he submits to the Father’s will,  then he means it. Furthermore, we get something of a glimpse into the eternal loving relationship of Father and Son. This does not mean that he submits as we often understand it into servitude. Indeed, that was the problem with Arianism. Arius concluded that it was impossible to submit as a true son and so Christ must submit as servant. However we cannot read Christ’s words in John 5 when he talks about his relationship to his Father, his prayer that we would share their oneness in John 17 or his words “your will be done” in Gethsemane without that telling us something, no matter how incomplete about what it means for him to know The Father.

The other question concerns whether or not we can learn from that Father-Son relationship and apply it to our lives. The neo-classical theist view appears to be “no” or only in a limited sense and yet there seems to be much evidence in Scripture to the contrary. First, when we go back to the beginning, we see that we were made in God’s image so that we are to reflect something of his likeness. We are to live as his representatives and convey that image to the world around us.

Secondly, Scripture pictures God’s people as his son too. Think about Hosea:11-1’s reference to Israel as the loved son called out of death and exile in Egypt. Think about the imagery of a loving father showing his son his work and the loving obedience of the son in John 5. The direct and primary teaching point is not about family life but we would be rather stubborn to ignore the side lessons. Consider how Jesus points to our experience with earthly fathers when showing that we can trust in the goodness of our heavenly father. Indeed, often the argument in scripture is “compare and contrast” or “even more so”.  Finally, think about John 17 and how Christ wants us to be one as he and his Father are one.

We would do well not to over-force lessons. After all, the Father-Son relationship is not a husband-wife one and indeed the primary teaching trajectory there would be from the mystical union of Christ and church to our marriage unions between men and women.  Yet, the lessons are there and we do well to observe them. We don’t need an identical, univocal match in order to learn that it is possible to be equal with someone and yet submit to them.  We should be able to see that analogically.

Indeed, I will keep repeating this point but I struggle with the determination of some to prove that  it is impossible someone to submit when equal to another. I understand the determination of egalitarians to prove that submission between equals is impossible. I remain bewildered by the determination of some complementarians to also prove that this is so. 

A careful engagement with Scripture’s teaching about the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit has much to teach us about our relationship to God and to one another.