The brilliant confessional theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) once wrote a long and influential essay arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in three statements:
- ”There is but one God.”
- “The Father and the Son and the Spirit is each God.”
- “The Father and the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person.”
“When we have said these three things,” Warfield declared, “we have enunciated the doctrine of the Trinity in its completeness.”
But Scott Swain, Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), in his inaugural lecture below, points out that Warfield omits any mention of the so-called “personal properties” which distinguish the divine persons from one another, namely:
- The Father’s eternal begetting of the Son (“paternity”).
- The Son’s eternal generation from the Father (“filiation”).
- The Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father and the Son (“spiration”).
This is a somewhat surprising omission, Swain says, given that
The personal properties reflect a broad ecclesiastical consensus in interpreting the revealed names into which we are baptized. On the basis of the revealed names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” the church confesses that within the eternal depths of God’s being there is one who stands in the relation of a father to a son, one who stands in the relation of a son to a father, and one who is breathed forth in the mutual love of the other two.
It is not, however, an accidental omission:
It is the result of reasoned interpretive judgment. According to Warfield, the Son’s eternal generation and the Spirit’s eternal procession “are not implicates of their designation as Son and Spirit.”
Swain’s argument in his inaugural lecture proceeds in four steps:
- He summarizes Warfield’s biblical argument against the personal properties.
- He locates Warfield’s argument within the historical-theological trajectory of which it is a part.
- He responds to Warfield’s argument by (a) pointing to patterns of biblical teaching that challenge his interpretation and (b) by addressing what seems to be Warfield’s primary worry regarding eternal generation and eternal procession.
- He makes some observations on the importance of the traditional interpretation of the revealed names for trinitarian theology.
You can watch the entire lecture here:
In the conclusion, Dr. Swain argues that “The personal properties of paternity, filiation, and spiration further enrich and expand our understanding and experience of this “one seeking and saving love of God'” in these ways:
- They help us see that the eternal covenant of redemption—the foundation of all God’s saving works in time—flows from and expresses the deep, mutual, and eternal delight of the blessed Trinity.
- They help us see that the Father who has eternally begotten an eternally beloved Son also wills to bring many other sons to glory.
- They help us see that, at the Father’s sovereign behest, the Father’s only-begotten Son has willed to become our kinsman redeemer, assuming our creaturely nature, satisfying our twofold debt to God’s law, in order that he might become the firstborn among many redeemed brothers and sisters.
- They help us see that the Holy Spirit who eternally proceeds in the mutual love of the Father and the Son has equipped the Son with all things necessary for redeeming his brothers and sisters; and, that redemption being accomplished, the Spirit now applies the blessings of adoption to us, uniting us to our incarnate elder brother and welcoming us into the fellowship which the Spirit has enjoyed with the Father and the Son from eternity and which we, in, with, and by the blessed Trinity, will enjoy for eternity as well, to the glory of our great God and Savior: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Swain’s arguments here, I’m sure he’d be the first to say, should not dissuade students from reading and studying Warfield’s essay on the Trinity. In fact, if you want to do so, the best way is to download Fred Sanders’ annotated Warfield Trinity Study Edition.
One thing you may notice about the drift of the annotations: They start out with enthusiastic agreement and then tend toward disagreement. The reason is that, in my judgement, the early parts of the essay are magnificently helpful, while the conclusion swerves off course in a few ways. When I think of this essay, my immediate response is gratitude: the way Warfield describes the revelation of the Trinity in the economy of salvation and its canonical witness in Scripture is revolutionary. My first reading of it was an intellectual and spiritual event for me. I probably can’t even fathom all the ways this aspect of the essay has helped me put together my own approach to teaching the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that is transparently biblical and keyed to the main, central points of the gospel.
But if I reflect further on the entire essay as it stands—that is, not just on what it did for me, but more objectively on what it contains and on what others might therefore take from it—I wince to recall that Warfield bends his powers to keep the exegetical case from supporting the traditional Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit.
- He pulls his punches on the meaning of the terms Son and Spirit;
- he cordons off the economy of salvation as the only place where we can be certain that the second and third persons come from the first;
- he gets stingy with how much is revealed in the order of operations among the three;
- he overloads covenantal categories in order to bypass ontic categories;
- he comes within a hairs-breadth of affirming a merely messianic sonship; and
- for the life of him he can’t imagine how anybody could reconcile eternal relations of origin with absolute equality of persons. Never mind that the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith both instruct him otherwise; here he forges his own way ahead, and his overall trinitarianism fares the worse for it, more anemic than it needed to be after the vigor of his biblical proof.
For all that, I can’t stay mad at Warfield and his essay. I do recommend the essay itself, and I will continue to make constant use of the lessons I learned from it. One reason I’m making this annotated version available is to disseminate Warfield’s own work with a few helps. The other reason is to attach a little bit of cautionary guidance in the form of my longer notes, which I hope may help as a prophylactic against the devolutionary tendencies of some of his conclusions.