B.B. Warfield’s Trinitarianism. But B.B. ‘There is no God Behind the Back of God’

Here are a couple of warfielddrawingquotes from Princeton theologian of yesteryear, B.B. Warfield for your consideration:

The doctrine of the Trinity is “the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.”

-B. B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 22.

I think this short quote offers an illustration of what sounds perfectly orthodox (and it is in many ways!), but it also illustrates something that I have been after for quite some time. For Warfield, as for Charles Hodge, the informing theology behind his thinking comes from Westminster Calvinism; and in particular, as for Hodge, and thus by way of influence, for Warfield, Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology (‘Polemic  Theology’) played an indubitle role in shaping his doctrine of God and the categories through which he thought.

All I want to highlight with this quote from Warfield on the Trinity, is that if the reader pays careful attention and reads slow enough; he or she will recognize the role that so called substance metaphysics or classical theism (the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian Theology) is playing in giving expression to Warfield’s articulation of the Trinity. We have ‘unity of the Godhead’, that is good! We have ‘three coeternal and coequal Persons’, also good!! Then we have ‘the same substance but distinct in subsistence’, not good!!! What this substance language presupposes is the Aristotelian distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘accident’; the former is necessary attribution of a things constituent parts (like for Thomas Aquinas’ anthropology he believed that the intellect was the touchstone of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God), but the latter (i.e. accident) is not a necessary feature of what identifies someone as a human being—so a person can’t be a person without an intellect, but a person can still be person without having red hair or being a tennis player (these are accidents of their person-hood). If we use this dualism, this binary-code, this distinction to describe God’s oneness and threeness–as Warfield has–then we end up with a concept or thingness of Godness that stands behind the back or above the subsisting persons that flow from this thingness of Godness; one consequence of this is that there is no necessary relationship between being God (in unity) and the subsisting persons who hang arbitrarily below this essence or substance or thingness of Godness. The only thing correlating the oneness and threeness of God together in Warfield’s account is his piety and assertion; it is not his theology. [Let me add this clarification: What I am saying is that in Warfield’s account there is no necessary relationship between the person’s who subsist from the unity of God, and the unity of God. God could still be a unity without his subsistence, just as I could still be a human being without being a tennis player. Evangelical Calvinism, as construed by Myk, myself, and foremost, T. F. Torrance, offers a doctrine of the Trinity that works from what Torrance calls ‘onto-relations’. This emphasizes a subject-in-being distinction, but it is this distinction in perichoretic (interpenetrating relation) that defines the one subject of the Monarchia or God-head; so God’s oneness defines his threeness and his threeness defines his oneness. There is nothing subsisting in this schema, Godself if anything is his own subsistence in onto-relation one with the other … there is no God[ness] then behind the back of Jesus, or for that matter, behind the Holy Spirit.]

This is one of the reasons why in classic Westminster Calvinism we end up with a God who is disjointed, ruptured from within, impersonal and a host of other things when considering the theology that stands behind the beautiful piety of their classic Reformed faith. And this is why Warfield and others need to be questioned in regard to the adequacy of their relative doctrine of God, and other subsequent doctrines that follow—like theories of revelation, atonement, bibliology, salvation, etc.


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