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Roles of Father, Son, Holy Spirit examined

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Quoting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky isn’t a typical launching pad for talks on theology.

But for renowned theologian Millard Erickson, who addressed a packed crowd at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center March 27, Gretzky’s words provided the perfect introduction for his topic of discussion: the Trinity.

Gretzky, known as “The Great One” by hockey fans, once was asked the secret of his success, Erickson said.

“Other hockey players skate to where the puck is,” Erickson quoted Gretzky as saying. “I skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Erickson drew a quick comparison.

“Too often in the church and in theology, we skate to where the puck is or where the puck used to be instead of where the puck’s going to be,” he said.

Erickson, who was hosted by the NOBTS Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry in conjunction with the annual Greer-Heard Forum, highlighted one specific aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity — the issue of authority.

“The issue pertains to the relationships of authority that apply among the members of the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Specifically, the question is whether the Father, the Son and the Spirit are eternally equal in authority or whether the Father is the eternally supreme member of the Trinity, with the Son and Spirit subordinate to the Father with regard to authority, Erickson explained.

Erickson surveyed both sides of the debate, but he made clear from the start that his main concern was not for where the debate stands today but for where today’s debate may be taken by the next generation of theological thinkers.

The typical terms applied to the two views on the authority of the Trinity debate, Erickson said, are “complementarian” and “egalitarian.” Complementarianism argues for God the Father’s supremacy with regard to authority over the Son and the Spirit. Egalitarianism, then, argues for the eternal equality of all three members of the Trinity, authority included.

But Erickson believes those terms present a problem.

“That terminology has been applied to two views of gender relationships, of the relationship between husband and wife and the role of male and female in ministry,” he said. “I don’t want to confuse [the issue of authority in the Trinity] with that one.”

Erickson, thus, opts for other terminology. He replaces “complementarianism” with the term “gradational authority,” the idea that there are grades of authority within the Trinity. He also replaces the term “egalitarianism” with “equivalent authority,” the idea that, though the Father, Son and Spirit may have different roles, they are equivalent in their authority.

Two main proponents of the gradational authority within the Trinity are scholars Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Grudem is research professor of theology and biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary; Ware is professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Erickson pointed to Romans 8:29, James 1:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:24–28 as verses that gradational authority advocates frequently cite. He also said that backers of the gradational authority view point to the use of the names “Father,” “Son” and “Spirit” for support.

“There is a reason these terms are used, and they are eternally applied, they would say,” Erickson said. “[The use of these] did not simply begin to be used when Jesus came to earth. It’s always been ‘Father’ and ‘Son,’ and there’s always been a command and obedience relationship.”

That line of reasoning extends also to the order found in the Matthew 28:19–20 record of the Great Commission: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Erickson said gradational authority advocates also point to prayer in the Bible as evidence for this view.

“Bruce Ware says we are to pray as Jesus taught us to pray,” Erickson said, alluding to the Lord’s Prayer. “How did Jesus teach us to pray? ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.’ Prayer is to be directed to the Father.”

Erickson also highlighted portions of the view of equivalent authority.

“[The other view] says, ‘Yes, indeed there was a submission of the Son to the Father, but it was functional and temporary,” Erickson said. “The three are equal not only in what they are but also in authority.”

He highlighted Philippians 2:5–11, a passage known for its description of Jesus’ incarnation and obedience to God. Verse 8 says that Jesus “became obedient to death.”

“There was a point in time when that [obedience] began,” Erickson said. “It was not eternally so.”

Hebrews 5:8 makes a similar case, Erickson said.

With regard to terminology, advocates for the equivalent authority view point to the variation of names used for the three members of the Trinity. “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are not the only names used for the Trinity. Erickson pointed to the Apostle Paul’s more typical terms: “God,” “Jesus” or “Christ,” and “Spirit.”

“If ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are so important in conveying that relationship, why does Paul prefer the other one? In fact, it’s interesting that Jesus’ preferred term for Himself was not ‘Son of God’ but ‘Son of Man,'” he said. “Maybe ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ don’t necessarily mean what the gradationists hold.”

Furthermore, Erickson pointed to prayers in the New Testament that are directed toward Jesus, not God the Father. In Acts 7, Stephen prays as he’s being stoned “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Erickson commented that Stephen’s prayer was remarkably similar to Jesus’ prayer from the cross, except that Stephen’s was directed to Jesus and not the Father.

Erickson admitted that rarely does all the evidence point to one side of an issue.

“The very fact that there’s a dispute is because there is an apparent mixture — some evidence here and some over there,” he said. “That means you don’t win the debate by pointing out one fault in the other position.”

But Erickson was up front with his critique and concern for the view of gradational authority in the Trinity. He pointed specifically to the issue of prayer.

“If a gradational view of the Trinity implies you pray this way, but it’s not the case that you have to pray this way, then it is not necessarily the case that this view of the Trinity is correct either,” he said.

Ken Keathley, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a response to Erickson’s presentation. A central critique offered by Keathley of the equivalent view had to do with “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” terminology.

Terminology with regard to the Trinity can be broken down into economic and immanent terms. The economy of the Trinity refers to how Father, Son and Holy Spirit are revealed particularly in salvation. The immanence of the Trinity has to do with each person’s eternal characteristics, roles and attributes.

“If I understand his argument correctly … the first, second and third persons of the Trinity are radically equal in the sense that any one of the three could have accomplished what the other one did had it chosen to do so,” Keathley said.

He asked this question: “When you have three persons who are equal in authority, could they have sent the third person to accomplish the work on the cross rather than the second person?”

That question led Keathley to wonder whether, if equivalentists see no identifiable differences among the members of the Trinity, then how they distinguish one member from the others.

Erickson, though, saw no difficulty in ascribing equality to the members of the Trinity and yet also recognizing their distinctions. He actually employed one of Ware’s analogies — that of musical harmony.

“Ware uses a very good analogy about the difference between unison and harmony,” Erickson said. “The question is, does the same one always carry the melody? Does the same one always choose what tune is to be sung?”

He reiterated: “I don’t think it follows from difference in role that one must be superior. I think that’s a major logical leap in the argument.”

Both Erickson and Keathley have books due out in 2009. Erickson’s book, titled “Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?” is due out May 31, while Keathley’s book, “Salvation and Sovereignty,” is set to be released Aug. 1.
Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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