Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? (Part 4) The Monarchy of the Father

by | Aug 3, 2011 | Systematic Theology

In my previous blog I have expressed my suspicion that many evangelicals—if they were honest—are not really convinced of the first paragraph of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” How can God the Creed in some distinct sense identify the Father as the “One God”? My previous blog brought forward two of the many places in which the Bible itself identifies the Father as “the God” (John 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 13:14). Of course, there are many other such places in the Bible. Consider John 17:1-3: “Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

We may be troubled by passages that identify the Father as “the one true God.” Historic Trinitarianism was not. This was because it understood the doctrine sometimes called the monarchy of the Father. While each of the persons of the Trinity possess the entire divine essence and are from their standpoint of their essence self-existent, the same thing is not true for the persons of the Trinity. Each person is eternal but in Nicene Trinitarianism the persons of the Son and Spirit originate from the Father. Thus, later in the Creed it is affirmed that both the persons of the Son and Spirit eternally come from or are derived from the person of the Father. Of the Son it is affirmed that He is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Of the Spirit it is affirmed that He “proceedeth from the Father.” This Nicene doctrine is sometimes called the monarchy of the Father. The term, monarchy, has a meaning which is a little foreign to us. It is Greek and is derived from two words: monos = one or sole and archei = origin or ruler. The Father is one origin of the persons of the Trinity. Thus, the unity of Godhead has a twofold basis. It is grounded both in the unity of the divine essence and in the eternal derivation of the other divine persons from the Father.

If all this seems strange and “Eastern,” it should not. It was the doctrine of Calvin himself. In the midst of his critique of Erickson’s sub-Nicene Trinitarianism, Wellum makes this point:

“In a similar way, Erickson is not helpful in his discussion of Calvin. He argues that Calvin does ‘speak of the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity’ (162). He even admits that in Calvin ‘there is a type of order’ (162) but then simply reduces this order for Calvin to a ‘logical or psychological order’ (162) thus implying that Calvin would have accepted the equivalence view that all references to an ordering among the persons is only economic and temporary. But this is not correct. The same Calvin who denies any subordination when it comes to the three persons sharing the divine nature, also affirms, along with the Patristic Fathers that there are distinct, eternal relations between the persons so much so that Calvin regarded the Father as the (beginning) or origo, that from him is the Son, and from both is the Spirit-in respect to the persons and not the nature (see Institutes 1.13.18-20). Calvin’s view is precisely what the equivalence view does not affirm. Furthermore, Erickson concludes from his historical survey that ‘it is difficult to contend that throughout its history the church has taught the eternal functional subordination of the Son (and the Spirit) to the Father’ (167).”

Just as Calvin is often cited by Egalitarians, so also is Augustine. But just as Calvin affirms the monarchy of the Father, so also does Augustine. Here is a gem from Keith Johnson’s article on Augustine’s Trinitarianism:

“Although he affirms that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, Augustine offers an important qualification. He notes that John 15:26 does not say, ‘whom the Father will send from me,’ but rather ‘whom I will send from the Father.’ By this, Christ ‘indicated that the source (principium) of all godhead (divinitatis), or if you prefer it, of all deity (deitatis), is the Father. So the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son is traced back, on both counts, to him of whom the Son is born’ (De trin. V.29, 174). Thus, although Augustine clearly speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one substance, he also affirms that the source and origin of deity (principium deitatis) is the Father.”

Calvin and Augustine are often cited by Egalitarians as exemplars of Western Trinitarianism and exponents of a more Egalitarian view of the Trinity. There may be differences between Western and Eastern Trinitarians. I think there are. But one of those differences is not that they reject the Nicene doctrine of the monarchy of the Father. If we are uncomfortable with this doctrine, it is we who have the problem and not the Nicene Creed!

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