Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Covenant & Trinity

David Booth has asked some good questions here. His questions are about the first affirmation in the Federal Vision Joint Statement that reads: "We affirm that the triune God is the archetype of all covenantal relations."

I responded on his blog already, but let me add something here. David asks if calling God's eternal, inter-Personal relations "covenantal" makes any difference. Let me put this in a way that makes the significance crucial.

When the disciples and apostles pondered everything Jesus had said and done, especially what he had said to his Father and done on the cross in obedience to his Father they were confronted with a riddle. The riddle of all riddles. How would they understand the meaning of his conversation with the Father? What would they make of his obedience to the Father? What would they judge its significance to be? Did Jesus speak with God the Father simply as a created man? Did he obey his Father as human or was there something more going on, something more amazing being revealed?

Were his words and actions in relation to the Father merely human actions? Or was he truly the eternal God talking, acting, obeying, serving, suffering, and dying in the flesh? When they call him "Lord," what kind of lord was he? When they refer to his "obedience" and "service" what kind of obedience was this? The obedience of a man? Surely, at least! But was it also the obedience of God? Can we talk meaningfully about God's obedience or is this just a category, a relationship for creatures.

A great deal depends on one's answer to these questions. If obedience is strictly speaking a human or creaturely duty, then it is easy to conceive of our obedience as a function of who's got more power. Since God has the power, we must submit and obey. If a king or a employer has more power, then we must obey. But is that the only way to understand obedience--as a way of relating to one more powerful and dangerous than oneself?

To put this in the context of the current discussion about the nature of the covenant the quesetion is: is covenant obedience restricted to the creature's response to his almighty Creator? If the answer is yes, then it would be blasphemous and dangerous to push this dimension of the covenant back into God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "equal in power and glory" as our Westminster Shorter Catechism nicely puts it. Sovereign human lords make treaties with vassals and those subservient vassals must obey without question or suffer severe repercussions. But can such a relation make sense of Jesus obedience to the Father?

If we accept these categories, then Jesus' obedience to his Father must be the obedience of his human nature, of the creature to the Creator. But does this really work? Christologically, this is suspect because Jesus is not a human person at all. Rather, he is a divine Person. The eternal Son. And as the eternal Son he assumed a human nature and lives his divine life as the Person of the Son in union with his assumed human nature. Can we be content with assigning his obedience to his assumed created nature? This appears to divide the natures in a way that seems too Nestorian. [I recognize that this paragraph assumes an awful lot and might need to be fleshed out a bit.]

But if it is the eternal Son who obeys the Father, then we have obedience, as it were, expressed in the relations of Father and Son. And if the incarnation of the Son reveals the true nature of God, as John tells us in chapter one of his Gospel, then the true God is obedient. According to the New Testament it is not simply the human nature of Jesus that has this obedient orientation, but it is Christ Jesus who lives as morphe theou, who in accordance with his divine mode of life becomes obedient unto death, pouring himself out for us (Phil. 2). That's my take, anyway, on Philippians 2. God the Son living as a man humbles himself and is obedient unto death.

It is the Person of the God the Son who is an obedient Servant—Servant of his Father on our behalf. There is nothing accidental or alien about this way of living and relating to the Father. This is not simply a foil for his divine glory, as if divine glory is really primarily about power. His "lordship" has nothing to do with the way fallen human political tyrants perceive glory—pushing people around and manipulating others.

In other words, Jesus does not become for a time something that he is not. The Son does not become a man so that he might be submissive and obedient. He does not need to be a man so that he can be a servant. He does not assume a role that does not express who he is. Obedience and service characterize at some crucial level the eternal, inter-trinitarian personal relations. The Son becomes a man because he is submissive to the Father. He, the Son, gave himself up (Gal. 2:20, Eph. 5:2). He, the eternal Son, humbled himself (Phil. 2:7). He, the divine Son, emptied himself, pouring out his life to the Father for us (Phil. 2:8; Isa. 53:13).

But doesn't God's covenant with the human creature involve man's obedience? If obedience is a necessary dimension of covenantal relations, then the Son's relations with the Father are covenantal. More than that, is it too much of a stretch to conclude that God's expectation of obedience from man is not something utterly foreign to God himself? That God's own covenantal life includes obedience—at least the obedience of the Son to the Father, but also the obedience of the Spirit to Father and Son, and possibly even the obedience of Father to the will of the Son and Spirit.

To state this in a way that some might find shocking, God does not ask his creatures to do something that he himself is not willing to do.

You see, we have to clean up our thinking a bit. Obedience, especially an obedience that willingly serves and puts oneself at another's disposal in order to see the other glorified, is a divine mode of life. Maybe this is why John says "God is love" and that "love is obedience to the command of the other." Father, Son, and Spirit love one another so much that they are obedient servants one to the other. And this eternal covenantal submission and service is the ground of the human creature's covenantal obedience to God. To be godly means to be obedient and imaging God means obedient, self-sacrificial service to God and to other human creatures.

If our conception of the covenant degenerates into purely external, extrinsic acts of God, acts that are only loosely related to the real life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if they only assumed these roles in order to get something accomplished, then we know and worship an unknown god behind the purely economic, covenantal relations expressed in his covenantal dealings with us.

Think about this. The submission/obedience/service of the covenant is not external to God, but expressive of his true life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this is not myth, but history. God's history. This is the solution to the riddle of Christ's conversation with and obedience to the Father. What is recorded in the New Testament Scriptures—what the Son said to his Father and to us, as well as what the Son did in obedience to his Father in time and space is nothing else but the history of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit's covenantal relations with each other pro nobis.


Kelly Kerr said...

One thing that has confused about the members of the Trinity and the covenant is their oneness. Are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit one covenantally, ontologically, or both? If ontologically, then how is that understood? I understand that they are of the same substance, but is it more than that?

Thank for clarifying these issues; I've greatly benefited from reading your blog.

Jeff Meyers said...

Welcome, Kelly. There's really no simple formula that will do justice to the unity of God. And, for that matter, one that will do justice to the threeness of God.

The traditional formula "one substance/essense, three persons" is about as good as you can get. But it is often misunderstood to mean that there is some impersonal substratum of stuff that unites the three Persons.

The unity of the godhead is much richer than that. There's the perichoretic existence of the Persons with/in one another, for example. Also, we tend to pit ontology against relationship, but surely the ontological being of God is irreducibly relational. Otherwise there is some impersonal substance in addition to the Persons and we are left with a composite being.

So, yes, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are covenantally one and they are ontologically one. Our language will always fail to fully comprehend the rich reality of God's uncreated triune being. That's what we mean when we confess God's incomprehensibility. Not that we cannot know him or describe him or even imitate his relational life. Only that we can never exhaustively define and comprehend the fulness of his being and life.

Hope that helps. Thanks for reading!

Bryan Cross said...


What differentiates the three Persons from each other? I don't see anything in your position that would differentiate them from each other. Without something to differentiate them, it would follow that modalism is true.

Also, your claim, "If obedience is a necessary dimension of covenantal relations, then the Son's relations with the Father are covenantal" looks like a non sequitur to me. If P entails Q, that does not mean that Q entails P. Do you think that the obedience children owe to their parents implies that sometime in early childhood, the parents and child made a covenant with each other? I never made a covenant with my children; but I expect them to obey me nonetheless. :-)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...


Are you sure you meant Modalism? I've been accused of leaning toward tritheism with my position but never modalism. I'm not sure how my position could be construed even to be compatible with one divine person acting in different capacities. I am strongly affirming relational communication and action between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, you didn't see anything in my short post that would differentiate the Persons of the Godhead because that's not what I was writing about. I was writing about how the THREE divine Persons interact with one another. They are, I believe and confess, different as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I confess the Athanasian Creed, etc.

Third, you never made a covenant with your children, but your relations with them are nevertheless covenantal. I'm NOT suggesting that at some point the Persons of the Trinity entered into some voluntary agreement with one another. I don't believe that covenants have to originate in voluntary agreements.

All humans, for example, are in covenant with God the Father and are therefore his children. That is true by virtue of their conception and birth. Our covenantal relationship with God is as sons to our Father, even if many are unfaithful to that covenant.

Adam didn't enter into some sort of agreement with God in order to be in covenant with him. God's creation of Adam constituted the covenantal relations.

Bryan Cross said...


I'm in complete agreement with you about what you say concerning the Son's obedience to the Father. What concerns me is that you have the Father obeying the Son as well. You seem to be denying hierarchy in the Godhead, as though equality of Persons entails absence of hierarchy.

I'm drawing from what you said in your reply to Roger du Barry in "Trinity & Church XV", and also in "Trinity & Church XII", where you wrote: "... there is an undercurrent throughout this history that trumps the language of inter-personal relations with terms which imply ontological and/or hypostatic relations of causation among the Three."

That, along with the claim that the Father obeys the Son and Spirit, seems to leave nothing to differentiate the three Persons from each other. I know that you affirm that there are three Persons. I am simply pointing out that I don't see anything in your position that differentiates the three Persons from each other. If you claim that they are three, but your position provides nothing whatsoever that differentiates them (except stipulating that there are three Persons), then your position would collapse into modalism.

If you do in fact affirm the Athanasian Creed, then you affirm that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. You seem to want avoid the philosophy (cf. your comment in T&C XII and your reply to Roger in T&C XV), while at the same time affirming the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, which make use of philosophy to explain and defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I don't see how you can have it both ways. But perhaps I'm misunderstanding you.

You say that my relations with my children are covenantal, even though neither I nor my children ever made a covenant with each other. You must be using the term 'covenant' in a way that is unfamiliar to me. If my cat has kittens, is the relation between the mother cat and the kittens "covenantal"? If not, then why is the relation between human parents and their children covenantal?


- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Bryan, these are fair questions. Don't take my quick interaction has hostility. I appreciate your engaging me on this topic.

Let me know if this helps.

1) I made a throw away comment about the possibility of the Father's obedience to the Son, I believe. I think I said, "and maybe even the Son's obedience to the Father." I said this, because the Father does seem to give some authority to the Son as the glorified Lord at the ascension. So the Father has given all judgment to the Son (John 5:27, etc.). But this is not a big deal to me. I don't think my position on the covenant is really effected if my tentative affirmation is untrue.

2) I do affirm the creedal confessions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as unbegotten, begotten, and proceeding. But I don't believe that I am required by those creeds to go the extra mile and confess that these relations have to do with causation. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father but that does not necessarily imply that the Son is ontologically derived from the Father. The Father is not the cause of the Son's existence. I follow Thomas Torrance and others in this. I reject all forms of ontological subordinationism. The Son is eternally the Son in relation to the Father, etc. But he does not derive his Personhood or his nature (however we distinguish these) from the Father. They are not the same Person nor are they identical copies of one another.

3) As for your analogy with kittens, well, kittens are not made in the image of God. Man is. So Father-Son relations are covenantal because we mirror God's Father-Son relations. It might be argued that animals are made to image man and so some semblance of covenantal relations might be seen in them. Humanity can learn things from observing animal relations (Proverbs). But it's not the same thing.

I'm using the word covenant to refer to strong bonds of love that require loyalty on the part of all parties. In many cases this will involve a formal covenant-making ceremony or ritual, but not in all cases.

The covenant God Yahweh creates Adam, for example, in covenant with him. The covenant begins when he begins his life. He does not agree to it or enter into it voluntarily. The same is true for our children. The same is true for citizens who are born into a covenanting society.

And what I have argued is that God is an fellowship of eternally covenanted Persons. They didn't enter into this covenant; the covenant is the eternal life of the being of the Triune God.

Does that help?


Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your clarification regarding 'covenant'. If you don't mind, I'll set that aside, because I prefer to talk about one thing at a time.

If generation and spiration are equivalent to their respective passive counterparts, then nothing would differentiate the Persons. So what is it, in your view, that distinguishes *generation* from *being generated*, and *spiration* from *being spirated*?

peace in Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Bryan: thanks again for your engaging questions. I suspect that we are not going to resolve this in a blog comments interchange. But maybe a few more clarifications will help.

I'm not sure what I said that implied that I believe generation and spiration "are equivalent to their respective passive counterparts."

What I am denying is that the inter-trinitarian relations ought to be characterized in causative language.

I think we run the risk of unfruitful speculation when we start over analyzing Latin theological terms like "generation" and "spiritation." I can't define the differences precisely between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. The Father is eternally the Father in relation to the Son. The Son is eternally the Son in relation to his Father. They are different in the ways that human fathers are different than sons, mutatis mutandis.

We are probably not going to agree on this because I'm not very fond of Thomistic speculation about the ontological Trinity. I don't believe that the creeds demand, though they do permit, that kind of speculation re: generation, spiration, etc.

One of the problems with Thomistic ontological speculation is that it tends to reduce the relations between the Persons as something weirdly ontological and less than personal. Talking about "generation" and "spiration" doesn't lend itself well to thinking about the Trinity as three Persons that love, communicate, and interact personally with one another. I'm not saying that Thomists deny these things, but that all the talk about ontological causation tends to obscure "common" personal relations.

What happens in Western trinitarian theology is that paternity, filiation, and spiration end up being substitutes for the concrete personal names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In addition to this terminological confusion, there is an undercurrent throughout this history that trumps the language of inter-personal relations with terms which imply ontological and/or hypostatic relations of causation among the Three. Much of this scholastic philosophizing has only served to obfuscate the inter-personal relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so realistically narrated in the Bible. This, in turn, historically has bracketed trinitarian theology from any significant interaction with anthropology and ecclesiology.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your reply. It seems to me that to affirm the Creeds truly is to affirm what those terms [in the Creeds] mean. And those terms mean (at least) that the Son takes His origin from the Father, and that the Father does not take His origin from the Son. [And likewise with the procession of the Spirit.] That is precisely what prevents the orthodox position from collapsing into modalism. Using the words "Father" and "Son" and "begotten", while stripping out all causal implications, entirely guts these concepts, and thus leaves the position without any way (aside from table-pounding stipulation) to avoid both modalism and tritheism. In order to avoid tritheism, we have to affirm homoousious (consubstantiality). But then to avoid modalism we have to affirm generation and spiration. Without generation and spiration, the position collapses either into tritheism or modalism.

Thanks again for discussing this with me.

Peace in Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...


I must respectfully disagree. I deny that the Son takes his "origin" from the Father or that the cause of the Spirit's being or Person is the Father and the Son. I don't believe that the only way to avoid modalism and/or tritheism is by propounding relations of origin and causation among the Trinitarian Persons.

I believe that confessing three eternal Persons and not simply three identical iterations of one being but three distinct and distinctive Persons who relate to one another as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be upheld with out the unfortunate connotations of "relations of origin" and "causation."

But I have to hit the sack now, so maybe I'll have more to say about this tomorrow. The Lord be with you!

Bryan Cross said...


Let me just say why I think generation and spiration are necessary to avoid tritheism and modalism.

If we deny generation and spiration, then either our homoousious claim will be merely stipulative (and thus our position susceptible to tritheism) or our differentiation of the Persons will be merely stipulative (and thus our position susceptible to modalism). Here's why. If we deny generation and spiration, then whatever relations we posit between the Persons will be compatible with tritheism (thus making our homoousious claim merely stipulative), and whatever distinctions we posit between the Persons will be compatible with modalism (thus making our claim that there are three Persons merely stipulative).

If you think I'm wrong on this point, then I'd be grateful if you would show me where. Thanks!

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...


Yes, I had a good night sleep. Thank you. ;-)

I'm not assigning arbitrary titles, terms, or meaning to any or all of the three Persons. I'm simply trying to be true to Scripture. I just don't believe that we can justify "relations of origin" from the biblical language.

But far from assigning arbitrary attributes to the Three, I am arguing that we believe what God has revealed about his life and being in the story of Jesus when the three Persons show themselves to us clearly in their conversations and actions toward one another and toward us.

There's nothing stipulative about describing God as eternally Father, possessing all the archetypal attributes of fatherhood appropriate to the divine being. The same for the Son and the Spirit. These names are not ciphers or arbitrary human attributions. They are revealed to us by God himself.

Perhaps it would help to say that whereas I reject relations of origin and causation I do not reject "relations of dependence" and "identity." The Son is the Son only in relation to the Father. He needs the Father to be the Son. Without the Father he would be something else. His identity is bound up with his relation to the Father.

I think we have to say something similar for the Father. For a father to be a father he needs a son. So the Father's identity is bound up with and dependent on his Son.

So I'm denying that the differences between the Persons on my view are merely stipulative and arbitrary. I don't see why relations or origin or causation are needed to maintain real distinctions and differences between the Three.

Now that I think about it, I remember that there are numerous ways to conceive of "causation" and it just might be that one of those ways might be acceptable to me. But it's been a few years since I worked through the philosophical nuances involved in the notion of causation, especially in Thomistic theology.

Bryan Cross said...


Thank for your reply. I agree that there are more nuanced ways to think about causation. We live in an age in which causation is conceived of in a very narrow sense, rooted most closely, I think, to modern physics. But the Greeks held a much broader notion of causation, and the fathers were aware of this. Also, I'm working within the notion that when we speak of God, we are doing so analogically, not univocally. So if I say that the Son "takes His origin from the Father", I am claiming that this statement is true, but simultaneously recognizing that my statement falls short of fully capturing the relation between Father and Son, a relation that exceeds our capacity to categorize conceptually without remainder. That is why the Nicene Creed goes on to the negative "not made", and the Athanasian Creed adds two negatives: "not made nor created".

Regarding the idea that the Persons are differentiated by a dependence of identity, it seems to me that differentiation by dependence of identity is compatible both with tritheism and modalism.

First, here's why I think that differentiation by dependence of identity is compatible with modalism. Nothing distinguishes X and Y by saying that Y is Y only in relation to X, and that X is X only in relation to Y. That is because such a claim is fully compatible with X being Y. If X is Y, then X is X only in relation to Y (i.e. X), and Y is Y only in relation to X (i.e. Y). Therefore it seems to me that differentiation by dependence of identity is compatible with modalism.

Second, here's why I think that differentiation by dependence of identity is compatible with tritheism. A lover is such only in relation to the loved. And the loved is such only in relation to the lover. But that is compatible with lover and loved being distinct beings. Likewise, a leader is such only in relation to a follower, and a follower is such only in relation to a leader. But that is compatible with the leader and follower being distinct beings. Similarly, a creator is such only in relation to a creation, and a creation is such only in relation to a creator. But that is compatible with the creator and creature being distinct beings. Likewise, consider the example of a human father with only one son. This father is a father only in relation to his son, and his son is such only in relation to his father. And yet this father and son are two distinct beings. And many other examples could be produced. Therefore, claiming that the Father is such only in relation to the Son, and the Son is such only in relation to the Father, is compatible with the Father and Son being distinct beings. And therefore differentiation by dependence of identity is compatible with tritheism.

So because differentiation by identity is compatible with both modalism and tritheism, therefore a Trinitarian theology that differentiates the Persons only by dependence of identity avoids modalism and tritheism only by stipulation.

The peace of Christ be with you.

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...


Okay. Hmm. I need to be careful here that I'm not continuing this only to "win the argument." So let me say something right off the bat for those that are following this debate.

I don't believe for one moment that your exposition of the Trinitarian relations ought to be disallowed in the church. Of course, as you know, you are arguing for a pretty standard Thomistic/Catholic understanding of these matters. I acknowledge that and also affirm your freedom to hold this position as a faithful Christian.

So I believe that the level of discussion we are having ought not to be misunderstood by readers. You may disagree with me on this, but I hope not.

I think the key is to understand that we are both arguing for tendencies and wondering where positions might lead IF they were carried out to logical or illogical conclusions.

That said, I also believe that your analysis of "relations of identity" being susceptible to modalism and tritheism is helpful on one level. It's helpful and maybe even accurate in isolation from everything else one would want to say about the being and life of God.

In other words, one might press my position on this narrow issue with rigorous consistency and insist that I am tritheistic or modalistic in my trinitarian theology based on the fact that I deny ontological causation in my exposition of "begotten" and "proceeding." But one could only do so by bracketing everything else I affirm and deny about God's triune being and life. For example, we have not talked about perichoresis, which I affirm.

Because we can only theologize about God as limited creatures, we must make statements one at a time and in temporal order. We can't say everything at once and make it all fit together in all the ways that everything does indeed fit together in the being of God. So any given statement we make might indeed be pressed in all sorts of directions that might seem to deny something else we might have said one paragraph before or six pages later in our exposition of God.

I believe that this makes all of our theologizing about God inherently paradoxical. What we appear to give in one paragraph we will have to take away in another. And that might seem to be contradictory, but we need to remember that we are only offering creaturely propositions about the richly textured being of God.

Bryan Cross said...

That sounds quite reasonable Jeff. Thanks very much for discussing this with me.


- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Thanks for the stimulating discussion, Bryan. I hope I didn't frustrate you too much! ;-)

Grace and peace!