Carl R. Trueman
Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies
Grove City College
Let me begin with a couple of anecdotes on how I became involved in this broad topic. The first takes place after I finished my PhD on the impact of Luther on the early English Reformation. I was looking for another project on which to engage, and I read a book with which I profoundly disagreed, on the understanding of the atonement in John Owen. So I decided my next project would be Owen on atonement. Yet what started as an attempt to address what I thought was a misreading of Owen’s doctrine of the atonement became in the end a study of Owen’s doctrine of the atonement in the context of his doctrine of the Trinity. This brought home to me the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for basic soteriological doctrine. That was an intellectual side of what made me interested in this topic.
The second personal anecdote involved my early years at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. I was asked to teach the medieval course when a colleague was away, and I did a section of that course on Eastern Orthodoxy. I became aware that a number of students in the class were contemplating converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wondered about how to approach this. I could have given arguments as to why that was a bad idea but I decided to opt for a more practical approach. I thought that it might be instructive to experience an Eastern Orthodox service together – after all, there is nothing like standing up for two hours during an ancient Greek liturgy to make people think twice about converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. After the service I took the students out to lunch. We had a roundtable discussion and I opened it up by asking, what do you think was good and what do you think was bad about the service? What struck me was the recurring assessment that the service was so distinctly Christian, because of its emphasis on the Trinity, especially at the end, when the priest raised his arms and said, “Go in peace, for the Trinity has saved you.” The student reaction really provoked me to thinking about the lack of the role of the Trinity in practical everyday church life in Protestantism.
In the years since, I have spent much time reflecting on the doctrine of God and its place in Christianity. As a result, I have become convinced that the doctrine of God as Trinity is central to Protestantism, both for our historical orthodoxy and as a major source of error within our communions. Quite often as conservative Reformed Protestants we instinctively think about doctrine of Scripture as the “mother of all errors,” and there is a lot of truth to that, but historically, the doctrine of God flowing from the Reformation has also proved to be just as – maybe even more – problematic.
It is, in fact, arguable that the Protestant heresy par excellence is Unitarianism, an error on the doctrine of God which can co-exist with a very high view of scripture. Many of the early Unitarians, the Socinians exhibit this. Thus, when John Owen engages with the Socinians, he really doesn’t have much to say about their doctrine of Scripture. He and his opponents are in fundamental agreement on the idea that Scripture is true and authoritative, and that it norms their doctrinal formulations. The big area that Owen focuses on is the doctrine of God.
The Socinians were anti-Trinitarians and this is significant: The Trinity is probably the key problematic area for Protestants because it raises in an acute form a number of questions that they are often uncomfortable handling. Consider, for example, the status of nonbiblical language, particularly the nonbiblical language of metaphysics. That’s something of which a lot of Protestants are instinctively suspicious. Such language raises questions of being as well of questions about economy and we are often happier thinking of God’s actions than about what must be ontologically true of him for to act in particular ways. This lay behind the question I posed last night at the discussion about the redemptive-historical method. Redemptive history tends to focus on the developing narrative of the Bible, the acts of God in space and time. With this tilt towards the economy, we may neglect to ask important non-economic questions, such as, “Who does God have to be in eternity for these acts to make sense?”
That also then raises the question of authority. Why do we as Protestants accept the doctrine of the Trinity? The great example of raising this question in an acute form would be John Henry Newman in the nineteenth-century. It’s his study of the fourth century that ultimately takes him to Rome. I have a coffee cup at home with a quotation from a later edition of his famous essay on the development of Christian doctrine, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Newman’s point is that when you start getting into the thick of the key debates, the dense weeds of the creedal discussions of the early church, the question of “who decides who’s getting it right?” rises in an acute form, particularly in doctrinal matters as subtle and complicated as those clustered around the doctrine of God. So, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of God, is of central importance to the matter of authority.
Before we consider some pressure points and offer some examples of how the Reformers responded to these things, I want to make a few comments about the Reformation in general. First of all, we must raise the issue of the Reformation’s relationship to tradition. Often part of the Protestant problem with the Trinity and like doctrines, is that it seems to derive its life, its significance, and its language, from tradition – and there is a long-standing, and not entirely bad, tradition of Protestant polemic against tradition. Weren’t the Reformers those who polemicized against tradition? Didn’t they want to bring us back just to the Bible alone?
The twentieth-century Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman makes a very helpful distinction between what he calls “Tradition One” and “Tradition Two.” He claims that you cannot read the Reformation as a blanket rejection of tradition, because there are different kinds of tradition. Tradition one (T1), Oberman says, is the tradition of doctrinal formulation that is closely tied to, and justified by, reflection on the exegesis of Scripture. The traditional teaching of the church on the virgin birth, for example, would represent what Oberman describes as T1. This is what Paul was talking about when he told Timothy to pass on, or hold fast to, the form of sound words: it is passing on the tradition of teaching derived from the Bible. So there is good tradition and, in fact, most pastors operate with some form of tradition (T1). If you are preparing a sermon on a Sunday, typically speaking you won’t just stare at the page of the Bible and hope for enlightenment, you will pull your commentaries and maybe a systematic theology or two off the shelves in your study to help you better understand what the passage means.
The Reformers were comfortable with T1. When they attacked “church tradition,” they were referring to what Oberman would call tradition two (T2). That’s the tradition of dogmatic or doctrinal formulation which stands somewhat independent of biblical exegesis and rests its authority on the magisterial, direct teaching of the church herself. If the virgin birth is an example of T1 kind of teaching, we might say that the immaculate conception of the virgin, the idea that she was conceived without original sin, would be a T2 doctrine. (Now I know a very good Roman Catholic theologian, like Matt Levering, would try to make a case that you could justify the immaculate conception on the basis of Scripture, but I am not persuaded.)
In sum, there are two kinds of traditional teaching, that which rests closely on reflection of exegesis of Scripture and that which rests more directly on the magisterial claims of the church. Hold that in mind.
Oberman is correct in his analysis of tradition in the Reformation but we need to add one further dimension to it. The Reformers operated with what I would call a hermeneutic of trust regarding the past. One of the things that characterizes our present age is suspicion, particularly suspicion of authority and suspicion of tradition. Cynicism and suspicion are in the very air we breathe. For the Reformers that was not the case. How did that affect their view of tradition? Well, we might fairly characterize them as accepting church tradition as being T1 unless it was self-evidently T2. To put this another way, they accepted the historic teaching of the church on any given topic unless it became very clear that it wasn’t justifiable by reflection on biblical exegesis. That is quite a significant way of thinking about (and not simply doing) theology. I remember during the heat of the 2016 Trinity controversy, somebody asked me, “well, how do you justify eternal generation?” I said, “In my world I don’t have to justify it, that is the traditional teaching of the church. If you reject it, the burden is on you to prove that the church is wrong.” You see the difference in cultural mindset? The basic assumption of the Reformers is that the doctrine of the Trinity is part of T1. It is taken as a given that should only be modified as and when it is demonstrably incorrect or inadequate.
Now I want to refer to a few pressure points or areas of acute polemical concern. Some of these I will not pick up on later, but they will hopefully set synapses firing as you start thinking about these things yourselves. There are a number of issues in the sixteenth century that shape the Reformers’ approach to God. First of all, there’s the very material one, the impact of the rise of literacy. We all know that the printing press brings about a technological revolution. But it also brings about a cultural revolution in terms of the rise of literacy. Why do I raise that? Not all things that present themselves in history as doctrinal issues necessarily have exclusively doctrinal explanations. Work done in the 1960’s in South America has indicated that, as literacy rates rise, radical thinking within society increases. In the context of this lecture, we might rephrase that to say that, as literacy rates rise, tradition comes to have less of a hold on the popular imagination and intellectual iconoclasm begins to flourish. Having just noted that there was a hermeneutic of trust in the Reformation, we should also note, therefore, that the sixteenth century witnessed the rise of other groups such as the Socinians which were much more radical in their mentality. That is in part the result of having the material means of learning – the printing press.
Secondly, there is an attraction in such a context towards biblicism. Biblicism seems to make things easy. One reason why debates about the doctrine of God are so difficult to pursue with evangelicals is that to say God is three and God is one is profoundly counterintuitive and cannot be justified by simply quoting a few Bible verses. Compared to the theological and historical work that must be done to understand why the church formulated the Trinity in the way she did, it is a much simpler task just to quote plain old Bible verses as if their meaning is self-evident.
Further, and this is important for the story, in the late seventeenth century we witness the collapse of classical metaphysics. When classical metaphysics collapses so does the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is challenged in different ways in different places, but one thing that Unitarian theologies all have in common by the end of the seventeenth century is an anticlassical metaphysical aspect. I have ambiguous feelings about some of the theology of Jonathan Edwards but what he was trying to do is something he could hardly avoid. He was trying to recast classic Reformed orthodoxy in a context where the metaphysics which Reformed orthodoxy had assumed was no longer plausible in the wider culture. So, to give Edwards credit, I think he was attempting a heroic task – saving the faith at a time of philosophical flux. Whether he was successful or not I leave for others more clever than I to decide. But that was the metaphysical challenge he faced.
It’s worth noting at this point that it is often said that the doctrine of God is not a subject of significant revision in the Reformation. I call that a most mischievous truth. It’s a truth, but it’s mischievous because of the way that it is sometimes used. Yes, the doctrine of God is not significantly revised. Calvin raised some questions about the aseity of the Son and there are certain very serious matters that surround that discussion. But, on the whole, the doctrine of God is not subject to significant revision by the Reformers. I am going to argue that relative to Luther in just a few moments.
Still, the way that this claims that the Reformers did not revise the doctrine of God, has come to function is important. In some narratives, it is used to argue that the Reformation was only half-done. Soteriology was subject to Scriptural scrutiny, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith emerged, imputation, etc., but the Reformers should have been more thorough in their revision of the doctrine of God. That is a serious misrepresentation of what’s going on. It is so because, even in Reformed circles today, that kind of argument is being used in order to advocate for things like passibility and mutability – things which that would have been anathema to, say, the Westminster Divines. What is happening to the doctrine of God is this: the alleged methods of the Reformers are being set against the conclusions of the Reformers. We often hear that phrase, “the Reformed church must always be reforming,” and, while there’s a true sense to that, there’s also a very mischievous sense to that expression. It can be used to justify a kind of doctrinal relativism at times. I want to argue that the Reformers didn’t revise the doctrine of God because they didn’t think it needed revising.
One other pressure point – an area where the Reformers, we might say, innovate – which is very important to them is Christology. In a couple of ways, the Christological modifications and arguments that the Reformers put forward do raise challenging questions to the doctrine of God. Do they compromise the classical doctrine of God in order to accommodate their Christological changes? We will come to that a little bit later.
Having laid the groundwork, let us now move to thinking more specifically about the Reformers themselves. The lion’s share of my focus today is going to be on Martin Luther, the Reformer with whom I have most familiarity and about whom I am most comfortable talking. He is famous, of course, for his notion of justification by grace through faith, through the emergence in his writings of the Scripture principle. Arguably, the five-hundredth year anniversary of the Reformation is not 2017 but this year. In 1519, you have the Leipzig Disputation, and in the process of that disputation Luther comes to realize that the debate about justification is really a debate about authority. His opponent in that debate, Johannes Eck of Ingolstadt, pushes Luther to realize that something like the Scripture principle is necessary in order to justify his theology.
Luther was an occasional theologian. When you go to Luther, you don’t find a systematic theology. Luther writes polemical works, pastoral works, political works, and commentaries but he never has the luxury of sitting down and writing a dogmatics. We don’t find that in Luther. So we must keep bringing back this discussion to the confessional documents. The best guide to what the Reformers believed are the confessions they formulated. That’s the same for Luther, as for Calvin and for Bullinger. The confessional documents have to be regarded ultimately as normative. The other writings can be interpreted in light of them and can provide helpful light to the background of them, but it is the confessional documents that are normative.
Now, let us return to this idea that the Reformers never really bothered to address the doctrine of God and that they simply assumed it and weren’t critical enough. It is very interesting to see in early Luther, early Calvin, and especially in early Melanchthon, how hesitant they were in the early parts of their careers about using traditional trinitarian terminology. You might ask, well Trueman, how is that going to help you make the case, that the Reformers did look at the classical doctrine of God and found it to be consistent with T1, with the scripture principle, and vital to the church? Melanchthon in 1521 avoids using traditional patristic language relative to the doctrine of the Trinity. And you find the same thing in early Zwingli, a great hesitancy to use the metaphysical language which is actually so essential to defending the doctrine of the Trinity.
I think we can explain this in a number of ways. Certainly, in Calvin’s case, we have to remember that he has no real, formal theological education. As you read Calvin throughout his career, he clearly develops in sophistication as a theologian, gaining ground in the way he thinks theologically over time. For example, there’s a great leap in sophistication between the 1536 Institutes and the 1539 edition, part of which is generated by the controversies in which he finds himself, where he realizes he’s not up to snuff and he needs to learn more theology. So, one of the reasons might simply be the background of the Reformers in terms of their theological training.
Another reason is that there is certainly in Lutheran circles, and maybe even in Reformed as well, a tremendous confidence in the early years of the Reformation that all you need to do is preach and expound the Word. For Luther, this is crucial for understanding why he changed his mind on the Jews. Luther thinks he is living at the end of time. Jesus is coming back soon. As he said in a 1522 sermon, “I sat around drinking beer or I was asleep, and God’s Word was out there doing it.” One should not underestimate the importance of confidence for how people think theologically.
There is also this sense of rebelling against the Middle Ages and the scholastics. Luther is reacting against the via moderna, the theological approach in which he was trained. Calvin is reacting against the men of the Sorbonne school. Both have a desire to get rid of that gobbledygook metaphysical language and the confidence that simply laying out the Bible will be sufficient to carry orthodoxy forward. But that proves a false hope and eventually metaphysical language reappears in their corpus within their lifetime because they realize that such language does something important. That is, the doctrine of the Trinity depends upon the kind of finely tuned language developed by the Cappadocian Fathers and the scholastics of the Middle Ages in order for it to be stable and coherent.
Thus, to those who ask, “why is it that we have this hesitancy with traditional trinitarian formulation in the early Reformers?” My answer is this: because they had to learn that biblicism is not sufficient and merely citing bible verses is a problem. As in that old Dutch proverb, “every heretic has his text” — and the Reformers had to learn that the hard way.
We could go on beyond the Reformers to draw a much broader historical schema out of this. We could say that the rise of metaphysical language is one of the most significant developments in the latter part of the sixteenth and on into the seventeenth century. But it has nothing to do with a move towards the Enlightenment and everything to do with the desire to defend the catholic faith by appropriating the terms that had been shown over the centuries to be good and indeed necessary for precisely that purpose.
There’s a pedagogical dimension to this. When theology moves into the university in the latter part of the sixteenth century, theology has to define itself over, against, and in relation to other fields of human knowledge. That also raises metaphysical questions. Polemics play their part too. The traditional metaphysical language emerges rapidly under polemical pressure as the Reformers felt both the need to combat the rising tide of radicalism on their left (where the Anabaptists were throwing out traditional Christian orthodoxy for the sake of just being led by the Spirit) and on their right (where Catholics were challenging their justification of doctrine merely on the basis of the Scriptural principle). Reflection upon the teaching of the church over past centuries becomes necessary.
For Calvin, in his big leap between 1536 and 1539, it is his clash with Peter Caroli that is most significant. Caroli is goading Calvin by asking, “why won’t you sign the Athanasian creed?” Part of Calvin’s reason is not theological – it is because he is “bloody-minded,” as we say in Britain. He’s not going to do it because Caroli whom he despises is telling him he’s supposed to. But the controversy also forces him to ask, “how can I justify my basic argument about the Reformation, that we have the true tradition and our opponents are the deviants?” The only way to do so is not merely to pick up the bare theistic bones of Trinitarianism but also to appropriate the metaphysics and the arguments that lie behind it.
This is clear from the gradual expansion of Calvin’s patristic knowledge. It is commonplace now in Calvin studies to note that his patristic learning and teaching, muted in his early writings, becomes foundational in his later works. You read the 1559 Institutes, and they are pervaded by discussions involving the writings and ideas of the Fathers. Calvin is a work in progress not simply because he thinks it’s fun to read the ancient fathers but because as he matures as a theologian. He comes to realize that appropriating the early church fathers is going to be vital to doing that which he considers necessary for a faithful reformation.
We can also see the change in excerpts from some classic Reformation documents. The Augsburg Confession was written in 1530 when the Holy Roman Empire and its emperor, Charles V, could have committed to either Catholicism or Protestantism. Had the decision been for Protestantism, western history would’ve been very different.
At the time, Luther is too controversial to risk attending and so he doesn’t go to the diet, but stays at Coburg Castle. Instead, Melanchthon, his brilliant associate, presents this Lutheran confession. Here we have a great example of how Melanchthon, who in 1521 is very hesitant about traditional ways of talking about God, has by 1530 clearly appropriated metaphysical language to talk about God.
We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea, that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in power and alike eternal: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, without division, without end, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, one creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible. (Article 1)
Divine simplicity, among other things, is being taught here. Then he goes on to say, also in Article 1:
The word “person” is to be understood as the Fathers employed the term in this connection, not as a part or a property of another but as that which exists of itself. Therefore, all the heresies which are contrary to this article are rejected. Among these are the heresy of the Manichaeans, who assert that there are two gods, one good and one evil; also that of the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and others like them; also that of the Samosatenes, old and new, who hold that there is only one person and sophistically assert that the other two, the Word and the Holy Spirit, are not necessarily distinct persons but that the Word signifies a physical word or voice and that the Holy Spirit is a movement induced in creatures.
Melanchthon is here outlining a patristic hall of shame in a manner typical of the Reformers who, lacking our modern historical consciousness, saw history as one endless round of the same. Arius is the same as the people they’re facing in their own day. They live in the same world, polemically, as the patristic authors did. Thus, they framed their doctrine in relation to ancient archetypal heretics and heresies which they saw recapitulated in their own day.
Notice a couple of things in the Augsburg Confession which reflect classic patristic points of concern: unity of essence, simplicity, infinitude, carefully qualified use of the language of personhood. One of the most problematic areas of modern trinitarianism has been the unconscious appropriation of the modern notion of personhood as a sort of sphere or center of consciousness. That’s a problem, carrying connotations which should not be read back into the patristic consensus. Notice also the basic framing of the doctrine against the background of patristic heresies. In so doing it’s asserting the basic catholicity of the Lutheran doctrine and the importance of the patristic conflicts to an appropriate understanding of the trinity. And it is noteworthy that the Apology for the Augsburg Confession spends almost no time whatsoever defending the details of its arguments.
Our opponents approve the first article of our Confession. This asserts our faith and teaching that there is one undivided essence, that there are nevertheless three distinct and coeternal persons of the same divine essence, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Article 1)
This is rhetorically and theologically important, for one of the things Melanchthon knows he has to do at Augsburg in 1530 is persuade the emperor that “we, the Reformers, are not innovating, we hold to the true tradition. T1 is where it’s at and that’s where we stand.”
Melanchthon is obviously acting with Luther’s approval but he’s not Luther. So where does Luther stand relative to patristic language? If we doubted if Luther too is on board with this, we could jump forward to 1537, the Smalcald Articles, that are authored by the great man himself.
That Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one divine essence and nature, are one God, who created heaven and earth.
That the Father is begotten by no one; the Son is begotten by the Father; the Holy Ghost proceeded from Father and Son.
That only the Son became man and neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit.
That the Son became man in this manner, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without the cooperation of man… (Part 1, articles 1-4)
Again, by the time we are in the 1530’s, that initial marginalization of the sophisticated metaphysics that undergirded the patristic and medieval doctrine of God has gone and the traditional language is coming back.
I mentioned earlier though, that I think there is one area in the Reformation where the Reformers’ emphases and modifications of theology raise questions for the classical doctrine of God. One of them is the issue of passibilism. This is particularly acute for those who look to Luther. One can look at the reformed tradition and see that the Reformed are not by and large, changing much if anything in the classic doctrine of God. But what about Luther? Passibility and immutability have been something of an issue relative to his thinking because of his radical focus on the cross and his audacious language about the incarnation. Yet it is clear that if we are to allow that the second person of the Trinity changes or suffers, this would mean that simplicity collapses and the Trinity effectively implodes. So, it would be very serious if Luther was guilty of this issue. And this is the typical understanding of Luther, popularized most influentially by the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann in his classic 1972 work, The Crucified God.
Before looking specifically at Luther, it is important to understand that passibility and mutability are where the battle over the doctrine of God is going to be engaged most severely in the next few years within the ranks of those who profess to be confessional Protestants. Passibility and mutability are very attractive doctrines in this day and age, because the way they connect to things that exist in the popular imagination. Passibility, the suffering of God, connects directly to issues of victimhood, suffering, and empathy, all things that resonate deeply in our culture. These doctrines also have a great intuitive advantage in that they seem to rest directly on the straightforward teaching of Scripture where God repents, God grows angry etc. The Bible applies the language of change to God; it therefore seems reasonable to assume that God does really change.
For all of the enthusiasm in some quarters for divine possibility, it always seems to promises more than it actually delivers. Divine empathy is not the answer to the human condition because victimhood and suffering are not the problem at the heart of the human condition. The problem is guilt. If I go to my doctor and say “Doc, I’ve got cancer,” and my doctor says, “Well, don’t worry, I have cancer too,” that doesn’t help me a lot. It might make my doctor more empathetic to my situation, but it doesn’t actually solve my real problem. Yet I suspect that a lot of those who advocate a passibilist position for what I might call ethical reasons, think that it can deliver more than it actually does.
When he writes The Crucified God, Moltmann is working against the background of post-Hegelian Protestant thought, which tends to regard immutability as a problem. The metaphysical framework within which Moltmann is working regards impassibility and immutability as at worst totally incoherent and at best neither a strength nor an advantage when thinking of God. Secondly, Moltmann is addressing a very specific question that would not have crossed Martin Luther’s mind. Moltmann is very explicitly trying to justify God in a post-Auschwitz context.
One can certainly understand why a German theologian would be preoccupied with that issue, certainly a German theologian who as a very young man was drafted into the Wehrmacht and taken captive. (I had the privilege nearly 30 years ago to be riding in the back of a taxi with Jürgen Moltmann when he was a guest lecturer at the University of Nottingham. Not know what to say as a very junior academic to this great theologian, I asked him, “Have you been to Nottingham before?”And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you enjoy it?” And he said, “No, I was a prisoner of war”. The conversation rather died out shortly thereafter.)
Now, Moltmann sees precedent for his own passibilism in Martin Luther’s understanding of Christ on the cross. Certainly there are elements of Luther’s thinking about Christ that might lend support to that. The emphasis on the crucified Christ both kerygmatically in the proclamation of Lutheranism but also aesthetically in the art work that is typically associated with Lutheranism places great focus on the crucifixion of Christ, the suffering of Christ.
To take Luther’s preaching, when you read him on the crucifixion, his language is frequently very dramatic and daring. For example, he does not hesitate at times to talk about God dying on the cross. We might also add, at a subtler level, that Luther’s understanding of the communication of the properties between the divine and the human in the incarnation might lend itself to understanding such language in a straightforward, passibilist sense. Remember, one of Luther’s major concerns is that the whole Christ, human and divine, is truly present in the elements of the Eucharist. That requires a kind of extension of Christ’s humanity in some way beyond its normal physical limits. How is that achieved? By his notion of the ubiquity of God, the ubiquity of the second Person, communicated directly to the flesh of Christ. Given this, it becomes plausible and coherent to think that the bread on this altar here and the bread on that altar over there both contain the whole Christ, divine and human, united together. The human nature is transformed through its union with the divine such that its normal geographical or spatial limitations no longer apply.
Now if properties are being directly communicated in this manner between the natures, could the passibility of the human nature be directly communicated to the divine? In the incarnation does God therefore essentially make himself vulnerable to suffering? If this is so, simplicity goes out the window. Furthermore, given that simplicity is the doctrine which underpins that of the Trinity, as far as I can see the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be radically revised in a way that makes it look nothing like the Nicene formulation.
The evidence seems pretty strong and yet the implications – that Luther was not Nicene in his theology – seem devastating. Yet there are a couple of things one might say prior to developing a response. First of all, in this language about God dying and God suffering on the cross, Luther is arguably only employing language that is increasingly commonplace in the late Middle Ages, and it is reflected in art work. For example, if you go to St. Peter’s in Rome, you will see there what is maybe the most powerful statue ever carved, the Pieta by Michelangelo. It’s emblematic of a theology and culture of piety that focuses upon the suffering of the whole Christ. And we find this in Luther’s writings, such as his 1538 treatise, On the Councils of the Church. There, he even critiques the Council of Ephesus in 431 for not offering a more a comprehensive rejection of Nestorius in its quest to emphasize the unity of the whole Christ. Now, most of us would think that Ephesus was a pretty comprehensive rejection of Nestorius. But Luther doesn’t think it goes far enough because it doesn’t hammer the fact that Nestorius denies that God suffers in Christ.
Second, there is the late medieval emphasis on a voluntarist understanding of God which accents the will of God and his (from a human perspective) unpredictability in the service of guarding his mystery. Luther picks up on this and often emphasizes that God could be whoever and whatever He wants to be. This would seem to mean that we can’t allow metaphysics to limit the possibilities of God. We have to look at what God has done in order to understand who He is and how he can and does act.
Given this background, how might we respond. First of all, in terms of voluntarism, one of the things often forgotten about late medieval voluntarism is that it is really an epistemological point. Essentially, what the late medieval theologians are doing by emphasizing that God could be whoever He wants to be is pointing to the limitation of human knowledge. In other words, they are not so much making a positive statement about God’s being as they are making a statement about the limitations of human knowledge of God: we have to be very careful about what we predicate of God, and we need to look to His revelation.
Secondly, here I am very grateful to and dependent upon the work of David Luy of Trinity Divinity Evangelical School. In his excellent book on Luther and divine passibility, Dominus Mortis, he makes a very good case for saying that the communication of attributes in Luther is fundamentally one way. There isn’t a communication of the human to the divine even if there is a communication of the divine to the human. Now, I disagree with Luther’s understanding of the communication of properties from the divine to the human, but I don’t think that such a communication compromises Nicene orthodoxy in the way that two-way communication would.
The key to the case that Luy makes is that if you’re going to examine Luther’s language of God dying on the cross, you’ve got to look at the understanding of predication of that point in time. So, what is the linguistic and logical background of what Luther is doing there? Luy points compellingly to the role of Gabriel Biel. Now, Luther never met Biel but he’s without doubt Luther’s late medieval intellectual mentor for good and for ill. There are parts of Biel that Luther takes and parts Luther rejects, but there’s no doubt of theologians from the medieval period Gabriel Biel is the key influence upon Luther.
Now, Wwhen Biel talks about predication relative to God, he makes a distinction between abstract predication of the nature considered in itself and concrete predication of the nature considered in relation to the subject which possesses the nature. The important thing to grasp here is that the flow from the abstract to the concrete doesn’t necessarily flow in reverse from the concrete to the abstract. To put this in layman’s terms: when Luther says, “God dies on the cross,” we might recast that as “God dies incarnate in Jesus on the cross according to the human nature of the incarnation.” God suffers on the cross in the human nature of the incarnation. It does not require an abstract predication of suffering to the divine nature. The person is suffering, not necessarily both the natures. And this is (perhaps ironically from Luther’s perspective) very close, if not the same as the kind of predication that the Reformed would use about Christ suffering on the cross.
Here is a key passage from Luther’s 1540 disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ:
Question: It is asked, whether this proposition is true: The Son of God, the creator of heaven and earth, the eternal Word, cries out from the cross and is a man?
Response: This is true because what the man cries, God also cries out, and to crucify the Lord of glory is impossible according to the divinity, but it is possible according to the humanity; but because of the unity of the person, this being crucified is attributed to the divinity as well. (Argument V)
The attribution is a verbal one not an ontological one at this particular point. Luy concludes, “in Luther, divine nature can denote either divinity itself or Christ the divine person depending upon this descriptive phrase is considered in the abstract or the concrete.” Luther’s volatility, the ferocious nature of the debates in which he’s engaged, the occasional nature of his writings, and his massive tendency to overstatement and exaggeration all mean that we should be very careful about interpreting occasional statements – statements thrown out in a non-systematic context in sermons and homiletic material – in a way that would lead him into fundamental conflict with Nicene orthodoxy as owned and expressed in the confessional documents which he affirms.
Another area where the Reformers feel pressure on the traditional doctrine of God is that the Reformers, as opposed to Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, argue that Christ is mediator according to both natures. He is mediator according to both his human and divine natures because he’s mediator according to his person. That raises serious questions, as Cardinal Bellarmine is not slow to point out: for example, how can God be the midpoint between God and creation? Or, to put the question another way, how can God be subordinate to God? And it provides the dynamic for the development of the covenant of redemption. It certainly puts pressure on Nicene orthodoxy and requires very careful nuance of language in that context to avoid the implications that there is a multiplicity of wills in God. This is where discussion of a concept such as the covenant of redemption becomes simultaneously both very necessary and very complicated.
In conclusion, I have a few proposals. First of all, we need to understand that the doctrine of God is more important historically, and possibly dogmatically, than the doctrine of Scripture. But it can be hard to persuade others of this basic fact because the doctrine is complicated and, unlike the doctrine of Scripture, counterintuitive. Through its deployment of complicated metaphysical terminology it also seems at first glance not commensurable to the Protestant principle of Scripture, and evangelical Protestants therefore are often nervous about metaphysical language and about creeds and confessions. The suspicion can be that this a supplementary T2 thing that is starting to bleed over our T1 commitments.
In light of this, we need to realize that historically, ever since Nicaea, every alternative to the doctrine of God articulated at that council that has ever been proposed to it has ended in disaster. It may not be a completely watertight argument to say the history of the alternatives proves that Nicaea is true, but it might be a 99% watertight argument. During the height of the 2016 Trinitarian controversy, I emailed a prominent scholar of Reformed Orthodoxy asking for some advice, and he replied that I shouldn’t even bother engaging it because as soon as this doctrinal debate is resolved is sorted out, they [the evangelical theological establishment] will be off “screwing up some other classic orthodox doctrine”. The point is that these errors on the doctrine of God arise of a whole cultural way of thinking theologically – one that is biblicist, unconfessional, and detached from history.
Secondly, we need to understand that doctrine does not drop off the page of Scripture, in a way that, say, Wayne Grudem seems to think, nor does it develop in a linear seed-tree fashion as suggested by John Henry Newman. If you read Newman’s Development of Doctrine, he says the formulation of doctrine emerges over time like a seed growing into a tree. Newman is uncharacteristically naïve on this point. By contrast, Bernard Lonergan, the Catholic theologian, has observed that grammars of theological language and metaphysical frameworks which theologians use develop dialectically over time in tandem with doctrinal development takes place.
What does that mean? To illustrate, let me use an example from my classroom. I typically start my patristics classes by asking the students, “How many wills does Jesus have?” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, students give me the wrong – though intuitive — answer: “He has one.” No, I would tell them, he has two. Then the students would demand, “Where is that found in Scripture?” I would then say, “We can’t read it with ease off the pages of Scripture but, trust me, as we work through the debates of the ancient church, it will become clear that, as weird as that answer is, it’s the best way of making sense of the Scriptural record we have.” I don’t want to sound Hegelian, nor do I wish to sound like a historical relativist, but what happens in the ancient church is this: People propose models of God; Those models are then tested by Scripture and found to be good or wanting; Then they are adopted and they change the ley of the land, the language being used and the way doctrinal debate subsequently moves forward. So, to return to the example: Once you have the Nicene-Chalcedonian resolution of the Trinitarian-Christological issue, the two wills in Christ becomes the next theological step to take and, as odd as it at first appears, it makes sense in that historical context. That is why teaching how and why doctrine develops, and why the understanding and the formulation of doctrine develop, should be an important part of the theological curriculum.
That brings me to my final point. The redemptive-historical approach of biblical theology becomes at best problematic, at worst positively inimical, to the preservation of the tradition of true Christian teaching and orthodoxy when it is detached from the metaphysical and dialectical concerns of systematic and historical theology. We are witnessing in Reformed circles precisely that problem today relative to the doctrine of God. Doctrinal history not only teaches that, on the doctrine of God, there really are no new error under the sun, it also explains the necessity of the way the church speaks about God, even when such speech seems counterintuitive. It may sound self-serving for a church historian to say church history is important, but it is also true. The way the church speaks is historical, and therefore understanding the history of that way of speaking is absolutely critical to the preservation of the faith as we pass it from generation to generation.