In recent years a debate has emerged among conservative evangelicals over the “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son. At the center of this dispute is the question of how we are to understand scriptural teaching regarding the nature of the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father. Is the obedience of the Son to the Father limited merely to the incarnation, or does it also extend to the Son’s eternal relationship with the Father?1 The trinitarian teaching of the church fathers plays a central role in this dispute. Proponents and opponents of EFS accuse one another of “tampering with the Trinity,” and they appeal to past theologians to substantiate (or deny) this claim.2
One of these theologians is Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Consider the contrasting interpretations of the Father/Son relationship in Augustine’s trinitarian theology that are offered by Bruce Ware (who affirms EFS) and Kevin Giles (who denies EFS):
As Augustine affirmed, the distinction of Persons is constituted precisely by the differing relations among them, in part manifested by the inherent authority of the Father and inherent submission of the Son.3
Augustine likewise gives no support whatsoever to the idea that Christ is eternally set under the Father’s authority.4
The purpose of this essay is to explore the nature of trinitarian agency in Augustine’s theology and to consider the implications that Augustine’s position might have for the EFS debate.5 By “trinitarian agency” I simply mean the way in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in creation, providence, and redemption. Understood in this way, trinitarian agency is directly related to the EFS dispute inasmuch as supporters and opponents of EFS offer differing accounts of the manner in which the Father and Son work together.
Why Augustine? First, Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity is by far the most influential in the history of the West.6 Second, despite popular portrayals to the contrary, his trinitarian doctrine shares much in common with the Greek-speaking theologians of the East (e.g., the Cappadocians: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus).7 In turning to Augustine, one draws upon what is arguably the most representative version of trinitarian doctrine in the history of the church among Catholics and Protestants.8 Finally, as we have seen above, both sides in the EFS dispute appeal to Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity.
Because Augustine’s account of trinitarian agency can be understood only in the broader context of the relations among the divine persons, I begin by examining the divine relations as presented in De trinitate.9 Next, I outline his account of trinitarian agency. For Augustine, the working of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is indivisibly the work of the three ad extra (i.e., in creation, providence, and redemption). At the same time, in this single act, the divine persons work in an ordered and irreversible manner according to their relative properties ad intra. I close by considering the implications of Augustine’s account for the EFS debate.
1. The Relations of the Divine Persons in De trinitate
In Book I of De trinitate, Augustine helpfully summarizes the Latin pro-Nicene teaching on the Trinity.10 His summary contains four themes arranged in chiastic fashion:
A—Inseparable equality of the divine persons B—Real distinctions among the divine persons B’—Distinction of persons in the economy of salvation A’—Inseparable action of the divine persons in the economy of salvation11
It will be helpful to quote Augustine at length:
[A] The purpose of all the Catholic commentators I have been able to read on the divine books of both testaments, who have written before me on the trinity which God is,12 has been to teach that according to the scriptures Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the inseparable equality of one substance present a divine unity; and therefore there are not three gods but one God; [B] although indeed the Father has begotten the Son, and therefore he who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and therefore he who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, himself coequal to the Father and the Son, and belonging to the threefold unity. [B’] It was not however this same three (their teaching continues) that was born of the virgin Mary, crucified and buried under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven, but the Son alone. Nor was it this same three that came down upon Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, or came down on the day of Pentecost after the Lord’s ascension, with a roaring sound from heaven as though a violent gust were rushing down, and in divided tongues as of fire, but the Holy Spirit alone. Nor was it this same three that spoke from heaven, You are my Son, either at his baptism by John (Mk 1:11), or on the mountain when the three disciples were with him (Mt 17:5), nor when the resounding voice was heard, I have both glorified it (my name) and will glorify it again (Jn 12:28), but it was the Father’s voice alone addressing the Son; [A’] although just as Father and Son and Holy Spirit are inseparable, so do they work inseparably. This is also my faith inasmuch as it is the Catholic faith (De trin. I.7, 69–70).13
First (A), Augustine discusses the divine relations from an intra-trinitarian standpoint. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in an “inseparable equality of one substance.” Thus, we must speak of one God. Second (B), real distinctions exist among the persons that are grounded in unique relations that obtain among them. Third (B’), real distinctions exist among the divine persons in the economy of salvation. Finally (A’), the divine persons act inseparably.
It is important to observe how A/A’ and B/B’ mirror one other in such a way that A (inseparable nature) constitutes the basis for A’ (inseparable action) while B (intra-trinitarian distinction) constitutes the basis for B’ (distinction in the economy of salvation). With this background in mind, I will examine Augustine’s teaching on the divine relations in greater detail following the order above (A, B, B’, A’).14
1.1. Unity and Equality of the Divine Persons ad intra (A)
Following a theological tradition that can be traced to Tertullian, Augustine locates the equality of the divine persons in a unity of divine substance.15 Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “are of one and the same substance or essence” (De trin. I.4, 67).16 Although he frequently speaks in terms of one “substance” (substantia), Augustine’s vocabulary is somewhat flexible in that he also speaks of one essentia, one divinitas, and one deitas.17
1.2. Distinction of Divine Persons ad intra (B)
If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one substance, then no inequality may exist among them. Although this affirmation eliminates all ontological subordination, it leaves an important question unanswered. If the divine persons possess one nature, in what sense, and on what basis, are they distinct? According to Augustine, real distinctions exist among the divine persons that are grounded in relations of origin. Because the Father has begotten the Son, the Father is not the Son. Because the Son is begotten by the Father, the Son is not the Father. Similarly, because the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, the Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son.
1.2.1. Generation of the Son
Augustine was not the first to articulate a doctrine of eternal generation as a way of explicating the relationship of the Son to the Father. To the contrary, eternal generation is a central feature of pro-Nicene theology (both Latin and Greek).18 Augustine’s account of eternal generation includes several important elements.19
First, the generation of the Son is incorporeal and should not be understood in the manner of human generation. Unfortunately, some people make the mistake of “transfer[ing] what they have observed about bodily things to incorporeal and spiritual things . . .” (De trin. I.1, 65).
Second, the Father “timelessly” (eternally) begot the Son (De trin. XV.47, 432). Thus, the generation of the Son is eternal.20
Third, the Son is begotten by the Father in an equality of nature. Through generation the Son receives the “life”—that is, the nature or substance—of the Father. Commenting on John 5:26 (“As the Father has life in himself, so he has given the Son to have life in himself”), Augustine explains that the Father “begot [the Son] timelessly in such a way that the life which the Father gave the Son by begetting him is co-eternal with the life of the Father who gave it . . .” (De trin. XV.47, 432, italics mine).21 Thus, we should not think of the generation of the Son like “water flowing out from a hole in the ground or in the rock, but like light flowing from light” (De trin. IV.27, 172).22 The Son’s “light” is equal in its radiance to “light” of the Father.
Fourth, the generation of the Son is “necessary” in the sense that the Son is begotten not by the will of the Father but rather of the nature of the Father (De trin. XV.38, 425).23
Finally, the generation of the Son is incomprehensible.24
1.2.2. Procession of the Holy Spirit
Although earlier theologians recognized that the procession of the Holy Spirit differed from the generation of the Son (such that it would be inappropriate to speak of the Spirit as a second “Son”), many were at a loss to offer a theological rationale for this distinction.25 Augustine made an important contribution by suggesting that the Holy Spirit proceeds jointly from the Father and the Son. Augustine succinctly summarizes his position in the following statement:
And just as for the Holy Spirit his being the gift of God means his proceeding from the Father, so his being sent means his being known to proceed from him. Nor, by the way, can we say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son as well; it is not without point that the same Spirit is called the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. (De trin. IV.29, 174)
Although he affirms that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son,26 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. IV.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.27
1.3. Distinction of Divine Persons ad extra (B’)
Having examined the divine relations ad intra, I will now turn to the relations among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ad extra by examining the central “economic” concept in De trinitate—the divine “missions.”28 Augustine links the “sending” of the Son to the incarnation: “[W]hat constituted the sending of the Lord was his being born in the flesh, his issuing, so to speak, from the hidden invisibility of the Father’s bosom and appearing to the eyes of men in the form of a servant. . .” (De trin. III.3, 129). Augustine insists that the sending of the Son represents a unique moment in salvation-history such that one cannot properly speak of the Son being “sent” prior to the incarnation.
The sending of the Holy Spirit differs from the sending of the Son in that the Spirit did not join a created reality “to himself and his person to be held in an everlasting union” (De trin. II.11, 104). At the same time, the sending of the Spirit (which Augustine links to Pentecost) did involve the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit through created forms (De trin. II.11, 104).
Augustine’s opponents—probably Latin Homoian theologians29 —argued that the sending of the Son by the Father reveals the “inferiority” of the Son to the Father on the grounds that the one who sends must, of necessity, be “greater” than the one who is sent (De trin. II.7, 101). Augustine’s response has important implications for the EFS debate. He labors to show that “being sent” does not imply any inferiority on the part of the Son. It simply reveals that the Son is eternally from by the Father:
If however the reason why the Son is said to have been sent by the Father is simply that the one is the Father and the other the Son, then there is nothing at all to stop us believing that the Son is equal to the Father and consubstantial and co-eternal, and yet that the Son is sent by the Father. Not because one is greater and the other less, but because one is the Father and the other the Son; one is the begetter, the other begotten; the first is the one from whom the sent one is; the other is the one who is from the sender (De trin. IV.27, 172).
In short, because sending reveals merely the generation of the Son, the Son is not in any way inferior to the Father.30 One of Augustine’s central insights is that the economic missions of the Son and the Spirit both reflect and reveal the nature of their eternal relation to the Father. The temporal sending of the Son reveals his eternal generation by the Father while the temporal sending of the Spirit from the Father and Son reveals his eternal procession from the Father and Son.31 In this sense, the missions ultimately reveal Father.32
Because the temporal missions correspond to and reflect the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit, the intra-trinitarian taxis represents one of the keys to understanding the interrelationships among the divine persons in the economy of salvation.33 Indeed, this is precisely what one discovers: the Father (principium) is the one who sends the Son and Spirit, while the Son and the Spirit (who proceed from the Father) are the ones who are sent.
1.4. Unity of Operation of the Divine Persons ad extra (A’)
Having discussed the distinction of persons ad extra, I will now consider the divine persons in their unity of operation. According to Augustine, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act “inseparably” (De trin. I.7, 70). As this will play an important role in my “Augustinian”assessment of the EFS debate, it will be helpful to examine this in some detail. The inseparable action of the divine persons represents a fundamental axiom of Augustine’s trinitarian theology.34 He inherited this axiom from pro-Nicenes including Ambrose and Hilary.35 Anti-Nicenes argued that the distinct activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indicated that the divine persons were separate beings with the Father being superior.36 In response, pro-Nicenes argued that Scripture shows the activity of the divine persons to be one (i.e., all three persons are involved in acts of creation, providence, and redemption). Thus, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one nature.
What does Augustine mean when he affirms that the divine persons act “inseparably”? First, inseparable operation means that all three persons are involved in every action of creation, providence, and redemption.37 As Augustine explains, while it was only the Son who became incarnate, the incarnation of the Son was the inseparable work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, it means that that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one will and execute one power. Inseparable operation is a direct implication and economic expression of intra-trinitarian unity (i.e., monotheism).38 This can be seen clearly in Augustine’s summary of Latin pro-Nicene teaching on the Trinity: intra-trinitarian ontological unity (A) constitutes the basis for inseparable economic operation (A’).
Augustine’s mature account of inseparable operation can be found in his Tractates on the Gospel of John.39 I will briefly examine his exposition of John 5:19 in Tractate 20.40 “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.’”41 After reviewing the context of John 5, Augustine identifies an interpretive key that must guide one’s reading of v. 19: “The Catholic faith, made firm by the Spirit of God in its saints, holds this against every heretical depravity: The works of the Father and the Son are inseparable. . . . Just as the Father himself and the Son himself are inseparable, so also the works of the Father and Son are inseparable” (Tract. 20.3, 166).42 The Catholic faith does not teach that the Father does one thing while the Son does something else. Whatever the Father does, the Son does as well.
According to Augustine, when Jesus explained to the Jews that he could do nothing of himself but only what he saw the Father doing, he was basically saying, “Why were you scandalized because I said, God is my Father, and because I make myself equal to God? I am equal in such a way that he begot me; I am equal in such a way that he is not from me, but I am from him” (Tract. 20.4, 167). Why then does the Son’s ability to work come from the Father? Simply because the Son himself is from the Father. Hence, his power (in this case, to heal) comes from the Father as well.43
Augustine recognizes that some see the Son as “less” than the Father in ability, power, and honor when they read John 5. This arises from a “carnal understanding” of Christ’s words (Tract. 20.5, 168). To help those who struggle to see the equality of the Son to the Father, Augustine provides a concrete example. From the Gospels, we know that Jesus walked upon water. Where, in the Gospels, do we see the Father walking on water? If the Son only does what he “sees” the Father doing, then must it not be the case that the Father walked on water as well? The “Catholic faith” has a simple solution to this problem: the eternal Son walked on the water with the “flesh” walking and the “divinity” guiding its steps (Tract. 20.6, 169–70). When this took place, was the Father absent? By no means! John 14:10 reminds us that the Father abiding in the Son does his works.44 Thus, the Son’s water-walking is the work of the Son and Father.45 This, Augustine explains, is precisely the point Jesus makes in John 5:19.
Augustine offers another example of inseparable action. Genesis 1 teaches that God created light. What light did the Son create? It certainly cannot be a different light. On the contrary, it must be the same light: “Therefore, we understand that the light was made by God the Father, but through the Son” (Tract. 20.7, 170). Similarly, the Father created the earth. The Son did not create another world by “watching” the Father. On the contrary, the world was created by the Father through the Son. Thus, the reason the Son can do nothing of himself (John 5:19) is simply because “[t]he Son is not of himself” (Tract. 20.8, 171). Summarizing his discussion of the creative agency of the Trinity, Augustine explains, “The Father [made] the world, the Son [made] the world, the Holy Spirit [made] the world. If [there are] three gods, [there are] three worlds; if [there is] one God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, one world was made by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit” (Tract. 20.9, 172). This summary nicely captures the core elements of Augustine’s understanding of trinitarian agency.
Augustine’s mature account of trinitarian agency involves two elements. On the one hand, the working of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is inseparably the work of the three ad extra. On the other hand, in this single act, the divine persons work according to their relative properties ad intra.46 The Father acts with the other divine persons according to his mode of being “from no one” (unbegotten). The Son acts with the other divine persons according to his mode of being “from the Father” (generation). The Spirit acts with the other divine persons according to his mode of being “from the Father and the Son” (procession). Combining these two elements we might say that the divine persons act inseparably through the intra-trinitarian taxis: from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.47
2. Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son
Before exploring the implications of this investigation, we must consider an important question: Do any good reasons exist for accepting Augustine’s explanation of trinitarian agency? One’s response to this question has direct bearing on how seriously one will consider the implications that follow.
2.1. Theologians Who Share Augustine’s Understanding of Trinitarian Agency
The account of trinitarian operation outlined above is in no way unique to Augustine. That the divine persons act inseparably ad extra according to their relative properties ad intra is an assumption Augustine shares not only with the entire Latin pro-Nicene tradition but also the Greek-speaking theologians of the East (e.g., the Cappadocians).48 For example, in his “Answer to Ablabius,” Gregory of Nyssa offers an account of trinitarian agency virtually identical to that of Augustine:
We do not learn that the Father does something on his own, in which the Son does not co-operate. Or again, that the Son acts on his own without the Spirit. Rather does every operation which extends from God to creation and is designated according to our differing conceptions of it have its origin in the Father, proceed through the Son, and reach its completion by the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that the word for the operation is not divided among the persons involved. For the action of each in any matter is not separate and individualized. But whatever occurs, whether in reference to God’s providence for us or the government and constitution of the universe, occurs through the three Persons, and is not three separate things.49
Similarly, in his Letters to Serapion, Athanasius explains,
[The Trinity] is consistent in itself, indivisible in nature, and its activity is one. The Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit; and thus the unity of the Holy Trinity is preserved; and thus there is preached in the Church one God, “who is over all, and through all, and in all.” He is over all as Father, as beginning, as source; and through all, through the Word; and in all, in the Holy Spirit.50
Hence, if one chooses to dismiss Augustine’s explanation, one must also dismiss the entire Pro-Nicene tradition.
Furthermore, medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas deploy Augustine’s grammar of trinitarian agency (albeit in a more sophisticated form). For example, in his discussion of creation Aquinas explains, on the one hand, that to create is not proper to any of the divine persons but is a common work of the whole Trinity. On the other hand, Aquinas points out that the creative act is inflected through the two processions (generation and spiration):
As the divine nature, although common to the three Persons, still belongs to them in a kind of order, inasmuch as the Son receives the divine nature from the Father, and the Holy Ghost from them both: so also likewise the power of creation, whilst common to the three Persons, belongs to them in a kind of order. For the Son receives it from the Father and the Holy Ghost from them both.”51
Moreover, similar “Augustinian” explanations of trinitarian agency can be found among post-Reformation theologians.52 For example, commenting on the work of the Trinity in redemption, John Owen explains, “The agent in, and chief author of, this great work of our redemption is the whole blessed Trinity; for all the works which outwardly are of the Deity are undivided and belong equally to each person, their distinct manner of subsistence and order being observed.”53 To cite a more recent example, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck explains,
Granted, all God’s outward works (opera ad extra) are common to the three persons. “God’s works ad extra are indivisible, though the order and distinction of the persons is preserved.” It is always one and the same God who acts both in creation and recreation. In that unity, however, the order of the three persons is preserved. The “ontological” Trinity is mirrored in the “economic” Trinity.54
The consistent pattern in the above examples is difficult to miss.
2.2. Implications for the EFS Debate
Augustine’s account of trinitarian agency has at least four implications for the dispute over the eternal subordination of the Son.
2.2.1. Distinguishing the Son from the Father
First, it must be recognized that Augustine’s theology is at odds with elements of the trinitarian doctrine on both sides in the EFS debate. According to Augustine, the Father is distinct from the Son because the Father eternally “begot” the Son, and the Son is distinct from the Father because the Son is eternally “begotten” by the Father. Augustine is not alone in holding this position. As we saw above, the assumption that “eternal generation” constitutes the Father/Son relationship represents one of the core elements of trinitarian doctrine embraced by all pro-Nicene theologians.55 By way of contrast, Millard Erickson (who rejects EFS) and Bruce Ware (who affirms EFS) both reject eternal generation on the grounds that this doctrine is speculative and unbiblical.56 This move represents a substantive departure from Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity. This not to suggest that everyone in this debate rejects eternal generation,57 but simply to draw attention to substantive differences that exist between Augustine’s teaching and the trinitarian doctrine of leading proponents on both sides—differences that fuel misreadings of Augustine.58
2.2.2. The Inseparable Work of the Father and Son
Second, because the divine persons act inseparably, we must think about the “sending” of the Son by the Father in the context of inseparable operation. At stake in affirming inseparable action is nothing less than the unity of God. One cannot reject inseparable operation at the economic level and still affirm a unity of nature at the intra-trinitarian level.59 Augustine insists that the Father and Son—who “have but one will and are indivisible in their working” (De trin. II.9, 103)—were both involved in sending the Son:
What we are saying may perhaps be easier to sort out if we put the question this way, crude though it is: In what manner did God send his Son? Did he tell him to come, giving him an order he complied with by coming, or did he ask him to, or did he merely suggest it? Well, whichever way it was done, it was certainly done by word. But God’s Word is his Son. So when the Father sent him by word, what happened was that he was sent by the Father and his Word. Hence it is by the Father and the Son that the Son was sent, because the Son is the Father’s Word (De trin. II.9, 103, emphasis mine).60
Inseparable action, therefore, intrinsically qualifies all the working of the Father and Son, including the “sending” of the Son by the Father. EFS proponents, therefore, misread Augustine when they sever his comments about the Father “sending” the Son from Augustine’s unequivocal affirmation that the divine persons act inseparably.
For example, in making a case that the Son was subordinate to the Father prior to the incarnation, Bruce Ware quotes a passage from Book IV of De trinitate in which Augustine explains that the Son is said to have been sent not merely because he became incarnate “but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh . . .” (De trin. IV.27, 172).61 This passage, says Ware, constitutes proof that Augustine believed that the Son was “obedient” to the Father in eternity past. Ware, however, misunderstands Augustine. As we have seen above, the sending of the Son was not merely the work of the Father but the inseparable work of the Father and the Son. As Augustine explains elsewhere, “So it is that the invisible Father, together with the jointly invisible Son, is said to have sent this Son by making him visible” (De trin. II.9, 103). Augustine is on solid biblical ground in affirming this point.62 Alongside texts relating the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ to the purpose of the Father (John 3:16; Rom 8:32; Gal 4:4–6), there are also passages that relate the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ to the decision of the Son: “he made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9); “he emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6–7); “who gave himself” (Gal 2:20); “I lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). Ware’s reading takes only the former category of texts into account and not the latter.63
Moreover, Ware’s reading of Augustine, if correct, undermines the very point Augustine is trying to make in response to his Homoian opponents who argued that one who sends is “greater” than one who is sent. As Augustine explains, “For [the Word] was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father, but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father being from the Son” (De trin. IV.27, 172, emphasis mine).64 The “sending” language in Scripture does not reveal that the Son is somehow eternally subordinate to the Father (which would undermine Augustine’s response to Homoian theologians) but simply reveals that the Son is eternally “from the Father” (i.e., eternal generation).
2.2.3. The Ordered Relationship between the Father and Son
Third, an ordered and irreversible relation exists between Father and Son that necessarily shapes their agency.65 Although the divine persons act inseparably, they do so in an “ordered” way. The Son always acts with the Father according to his “filial” mode of being “from the Father.”66 On this point, Augustine is misinterpreted by theologians on both sides in the EFS dispute.
On the one hand, some EFS opponents ignore or subtly deny this reality.67 For example, in a five point summary of Augustine’s trinitarian theology, Millard Erikson identifies inseparable action as a key element of Augustine’s trinitarian theology but fails to acknowledge the ordered and irreversible relation that shapes the agency of the divine persons.68 Erickson does acknowledge that the Son is “from the Father” (which he rightly relates to eternal generation); however, he does not acknowledge the fact that “from the Father” names both the Son’s relationship to the Father in eternity (i.e., his manner of subsistence) and his action in the economy of salvation (i.e., manner of operation). Moreover, Erickson also fails to acknowledge a core element of Augustine’s trinitarian hermeneutic that grounds this ordered relationship.
According to Erickson, Augustine employs “two” rules in reading Scripture. The first rule concerns a distinction between the Son in the “form of a servant” (human nature) and the Son “in the form of God” (divine nature).69 A second rule concerns the inseparable action of the three divine persons.70 He represents Augustine well on these two points; however, what he fails to mention is that Augustine has a third rule that he brings to bear on passages that “show not that one person is less than the other, but only that one is from the other” (De trin. II.3, 99, italics mine).71 Augustine’s “from-another” rule receives extensive attention in De trinitate and represents a core element of Latin pro-Nicene trinitarian hermeneutics. This rule (discussed earlier in this essay), relates directly to the ordered and irreversible relation that shapes the agency of Father and Son.
Proponents of EFS also misinterpret this ordered and irreversible relationship. From the fact that an ordered and irreversible relationship exists between the Father and the Son, it does not follow for Augustine that “authority” and “obedience” are what constitute the Father as Father and Son as Son.72 Bruce Ware falls into this error when he asserts that Augustine affirmed that “the distinction of Persons is constituted precisely by the differing relations among them, in part manifested by the inherent authority of the Father and inherent submission of the Son.”73 Ware claims that “inherent authority” and “inherent submission” constitute the Father/Son relationship; however, this misreads Augustine.74 “Authority” and “submission” are not “personal properties” for Augustine. To the contrary, “eternal generation” is what constitutes the Son as Son. Augustine is unequivocal on this point.75 Ware, as we saw above, rejects eternal generation as the distinguishing property of the Son.76 In Ware’s theology, “submission” effectively replaces “eternal generation” as the distinguishing property of the Son. Augustine is then read through the lens of this alternative understanding of personal properties.
2.2.4. The Immanent Trinity as a Blueprint for Human Relations
Finally, Augustine’s account of trinitarian agency must be viewed within the context of the creator/creature distinction, which has important implications for how human relations “imitate” divine relations. In a sermon on the baptism of Jesus, Augustine devotes extensive attention to the inseparable action of the divine persons.77 After explaining the biblical basis for this theological principle, he inquires whether any suitable likeness might exist for the inseparable operation of three separable things. To find three things that act inseparably, Augustine suggests we turn inward to the divine image in the human mind/soul (mens)—specifically to the triad of memory, understanding, and will (the same triad he explores in De trinitate). Right before he explores this triad as a dim reflection of inseparable operation, Augustine underscores the creator/creature distinction in order to remind his readers that no created reality can adequately reflect God’s immanent nature.78 The creator/creature distinction disallows direct movement from immanent relations to human relations. This is because human beings can imitate the triune God only in a creaturely way.79
Although it is rather common in contemporary theology to treat the immanent Trinity as a blueprint for everything from ecclesial structures to gender relations,80 this use of the immanent Trinity is problematic and does not reflect the emphasis of the NT. Scripture directs us to imitate the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as they relate to us in the economy of salvation (i.e., the economic Trinity).81 When Paul exhorts Christians to imitate the triune God, he points them to the incarnate Son (economic Trinity): “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1–2). The model for Christian love is the self-giving of the Son on the cross (economic Trinity). The model for Christian marriage in Eph 5 is not the love of the Father for the Son apart from creation and redemption but the love of Christ for the church (economic Trinity). The clearest model for Christian submission to authority is the obedience of the incarnate Son to the Father as displayed on the cross (Phil 2:8). In other words, when Scripture invites us to imitate the Trinity, it directs us toward our experience of and relation with the Trinity.82 That is to say, it is a covenantal relation with the triune God that provides model, motivation, and ground for human imitation.
These references to the cross highlight an additional reason that our relationship with the Trinity in the economy of salvation must constitute the focal point for Christian imitation: in this life, we “imitate” God under the condition of sin; however, no “sin” marks the immanent life of the God. How do we know what it looks like to imitate God under sin? The answer is found by observing how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to rebellious human beings. It should not surprise us, therefore, that Eph 5:1 exhorts believers to imitate the love of God expressed in the cross because it is precisely in the cross that we observe God’s love displayed under the condition of sin. When we forgive those who sin against us we are imitating the Trinity, but not by directly imitating the intra-trinitarian relations among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as no forgiveness marks these relationships). Instead we are imitating the forgiveness we ourselves have experienced from the triune God in the economy of salvation (i.e., the economic Trinity). The model for Christian compassion is not some type of immanent “mercy” among the divine persons, but the mercy rebellious human beings experience from their heavenly Father: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). In the immediate context, Jesus has in mind the mercy God expresses toward those who have rebelled against him. Christians are to love their enemies specifically because God “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). Thus we might say that a proper imitatio Trinitatisproves to be an imitatio Christi.83 As Kathryn Tanner explains, “Jesus’ relations with other people constitute the sort of human relations that the economy of the trinity itself specifies. Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life.”84 Notice how Augustine emphasizes modeling our lives after Christ (De trin, VII.5, 223): “Thus, to conclude, it is not surprising that scripture should be speaking about the Son when it speaks about wisdom, on account of the model which the image who is equal to the Father provides us with that we may be refashioned to the image of God; for we follow the Son by living wisely.” Although we cannot explore this issue further and it is distinct from the main concerns of this essay,85 this fourth point is important because of the way the EFS debate is fueled by the debate over gender relations.
So where does Augustine stand on the EFS debate? We have seen that Augustine is misread by proponents and opponents of EFS alike. Moreover, important differences exist between Augustine’s trinitarian theology and the theology of some representatives on both sides in the debate. There is no evidence that Augustine believed that the hypostatic distinction between the Father and the Son is constituted by eternal “authority” (on the part of the Father) and eternal “submission” (on the part of the Son). To the contrary, this element of EFS is incompatible with his account of trinitarian agency. At the same time, Augustine does not explore the speculative question of whether any analogy might exist between the Son’s filial mode of being eternally “from the Father” and his obedience to the Father in his state of humiliation.86
“Are you for us or for our adversaries?” asked Joshua when he encountered an imposing stranger bearing a sword outside the city of Jericho. “Neither,” said the stranger, “I am the commander of the Lord’s army.” Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Joshua’s encounter. In our quest to answer a speculative theological question, we can become so preoccupied with the question of whose side Augustine is on that we no longer let one of the church’s leading theologians speak on his own terms. At the beginning of De trinitate, Augustine reminds his readers, “[N]owhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious, or discovery more advantageous” than in the study of the Trinity (De trin. I.5, 68). As we seek to understand scriptural teaching about the Trinity, the church fathers represent an invaluable resource. However, if we engage the fathers simply to determine whose “side” they are on—like pawns in a chess match—not only will we misinterpret them, but we may also fail to hear the ways in which they rightly challenge and correct our thinking about the Trinity.