In tonight’s debate, McCall and Yandell tried to make the case that the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father entails a denial of homoousion.
Here’s their argument:
- If the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in all possible worlds, then the Son is necessarily subordinate to the Father.
- If the Son is necessarily subordinate to the Father, then the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father.
- Thus, the Son, as essentially subordinate to the Father, is of a different essence or nature than the Father, which entails a denial of homoousion.
My First Response
My first line of response is to show that this argument can be equally applied to any eternal difference between the Father and the Son. Let’s take the Son’s property of sonship and apply their own argument to it.
- If the Son is eternally the Son and the Father is eternally not the Son in all possible worlds, then the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son.
- If the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son, then the Son is essentially the Son and the Father is essentially not the Son.
- Thus, the Son, as essentially the Son, and the Father, as essentially not the Son, are of a different essence or nature, which entails a denial of homoousion.
The result of extending the argument this way is that it demonstrates—assuming the legitimacy of the argument—that there can be no eternal difference of any kind without denying homoousion. But Yandell himself affirmed in the debate that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, and the Father alone the property of being the Father, and the Spirit alone the property of being the Spirit. Yet, according to his own argument, he must deny homoousion because these eternal differences constitute necessary differences, which constitute essential differences.
Yandell and McCall are attempting to affirm three propositions that simply cannot stand together. Here are the three incompatible propositions:
- The argument is valid.
- There are eternal differences among the three persons of the Trinity.
- The Father and the Son are homoousios.
If they wish to maintain their claim to rationality, they must either deny (1) the legitimacy of the argument, (2) that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, etc. (which amounts to a denial of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity), (3) the doctrine of homoousion, or (4) some combination of the three. At least one of these has to go. All three cannot coexist.1
My Second Response
My second line of response to this argument is to show that it confuses categories—just like Kevin Giles does in his unhelpful books on the subject.
Assuming for a moment that we should not deny that there are some eternal differences among the three persons of the Trinity, which, again, even Yandell acknowledged when he said that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, there must be some way to account for these differences without abandoning homoousion. I make this claim on the basis that Scripture seems to teach both.
First, it is important to point out that McCall and Yandell seem to be using only two categories: essence and function; while Grudem and Ware use three: essence, person, and function. Thus what Grudem and Ware mean by essence and person end up getting merged together into McCall and Yandell’s single category of essence.
In the two-category system, we need a place to put personal properties like fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness.” Do they belong to essence or function? I doubt anyone would want to maintain that sonship is simply something the Son does and not something that He possesses or is. But does sonship belong to the one divine essence? No. If it did, then all three persons would be the Son, since they all share equally the one divine essence. So where do we put it? We must, in a two-category system, differentiate between the one divine essence shared equally by all three persons and their own individual essences that constitute what each person holds uniquely. This double use of the term essence is what seems to cause confusion for so many, so this might not be the best set of terms to use.2
The important thing to note, though, is that this necessary distinction allows part of their conclusion—with a minor modification—(i.e., “the Son, as essentially the Son, and the Father, as essentially not the Son, are of a different essence different essences”) to be affirmed without denying homoousion, because it is the individual essences, not the shared essence, that the conclusion necessarily has in view (i.e., since the major and minor premises concern not what they share, but what they hold uniquely).
In the three-category system, the term essence is reserved for the one shared divine nature, while the term person is used for those properties that belong uniquely to each. So fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness” would not belong to the one divine essence, but to the category of person. This approach has the advantage of using separate terms and avoiding confusion introduced by the two-category system, but it’s not without its challenges.3
It doesn’t really matter to me what we call the category that accounts for their differences. The fact is that there must be such a category or we are forced to abandon rationality or deny clear biblical teaching.
Regardless of which system we go with (perhaps there’s a better option?), we must account for what the three share in common and what they hold uniquely, even if we do have to struggle to find the right terms. My main point is this: if the persons of the Trinity can equally share the one divine essence without obliterating their differences of being Father, Son, and Spirit, then we at least have a way to conceive of how they can equally share the one divine essence without obliterating their differences of authority and submission.
In the next post, I’ll respond to the second argument concerning the Father’s supposed inability to become incarnate.
See these previous posts of mine for the context of this post (most recent on top):
Update 1: For clarification, I added “in all possible worlds” to the first premise of the argument. I was assuming it all along, but should have stated it explicitly to represent the argument most faithfully and avoid misunderstanding.
Update 2: Replaced my misuse of homoousian, which typically refers to someone who believes in homoousion, with the more appropriate homoousion.
Update 3: The discussion has continued over on James Gordon’s blog, Conquering Thirst.
- One other possibility would be to demonstrate that this eternal difference (i.e., fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness”) is categorically different from the other eternal difference (i.e., authority and submission) and thus the argument cannot be extended in this way. However, I cannot conceive how such a step could be successful. ↩
- Yes, this does essentially become a three-category system as well: (shared) essence, (individual) essences, and function. ↩
- What really is person? And how precisely does it relate to essence? Is person really any different from the individual essences mentioned above? If essence is what someone or something fundamentally is, aren’t the things assigned to person (i.e., fatherhood and being in authority on the one hand and sonship and being in submission on the other) also part of what the persons fundamentally are? I’m inclined to think that person is a somewhat arbitrary label whose merit is that it avoids the confusion of (shared) essence and (individual) essences. For more on this, see my previous post: Is the Trinity One “What” and Three “Who’s”? ↩