Review: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit (2005)

Bruce A. Ware—author of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Crossway, 2005) —is the T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a position he has held since 1998. Dr. Ware received his Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1984, and he served as the president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2009. His published works include Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God (Crossway, 2003) and God’s Greater Glory: the Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Crossway, 2004).

Ware developed the ideas and outline of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit for the 2004 annual meetings of the Conservative Baptist Northwest association of churches. The tenor of the book underscores the pastoral emphasis of these meetings. One need only examine the table of contents to see the doxological and properly pastoral focus, in which each chapter begins with “Beholding the Wonder of …”

Nevertheless, Ware begins his book with a chapter concerning the justification for study of the doctrine of the Trinity. His principal justification is, since “God [has] chosen to reveal himself to us as the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” then the doctrine is valuable merely by virtue of being revealed. Grappling with the truth as truth, it seems, is the primary impetus for any doctrinal study, the doctrine of the Trinity certainly not excluded. Nevertheless, Ware backs away from this purely cognitive justification (that is, justified by virtue of understanding) to a practical justification, in which he stresses that the doctrine of the Trinity has a natural and certain effect on “our lives and ministries.” He explains that “the focus of our study will be to examine especially the ways in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another, how they relate to us, and what difference this makes in our lives,” with the drumbeat falling pronouncedly on the practical import for the believer’s life.[1]

From these principle considerations, Ware proceeds to discuss briefly the historical development of the doctrine, although, as far as one can tell, the chapter is bereft of direct quotations of the early theologians of the Church, whose works were instrumental in shaping the direction of Trinitarian theology. The chapter, in essence, is not an historical overview at all but rather a compendium of the typical prooftexts for the doctrine of the Trinity, with only a smattering of historical details thrown into the text. While Ware does spend two pages altogether on Modalism and Arianism, there is little other direct discussion of how exactly the early church came to its nuanced, complex definition of the Trinity—particularly as is seen in the Creed of Constantinople in 359, which Ware fails to quote—perhaps belying the anti-institutional bent of the Baptist tradition.

Ware devotes the next three chapters to each of the three members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—explaining both the nature of the individual person as well as how each relates to the other two in Trinitarian community. Because the members of the Trinity each share in the divine nature, Ware finds the most fruitful distinction between persons to be that which is found in their differing “roles and relationships.” That is to say, one cannot distinguish the Father from the Son or the Spirit on the basis of omniscience, holiness, or aseity, since each of these characteristics are considered part and parcel of divinity. Rather than an ontological differentiation, Ware opts for the economic distinction of persons, which distinguishes between members of the Trinity through their relation to one another.

Insofar as the Spirit is concerned, Ware understands him to occupy “the background position” in the Trinity, or functioning as the spotlight, highlighting the works of the Father and Son, and desiring not to draw attention to himself. He states more forcefully, “The Holy Spirit embraces eternally the backstage position in relation to the Father and the Son.”[2] While such a position does not in itself seem magnificent and worthy of divinity, Ware contends that this fulfills the economic role that has been assigned to the Spirit in the Trinitarian community. One must wonder whether Ware has ascribed such a humble position to the Spirit in an overreaction to the growing worldwide Pentecostal movement.

However, this humility does model for the believer an appropriate focus in the Christian life. If even a member of the Trinity were content to glorify the Son in his work in the Church, then the Church ought to be content with glorifying not itself but the Son. Although the Church is glorious being clothed with Christ, this glory is derived from Christ and not its own merit. Furthermore, while the Spirit is glorious of his own nature, he works to glorify the Son in the Church.

Nevertheless, Ware does attribute to the Spirit a remarkable power. He writes, “[Acts 10.38] makes clear … that Jesus lived his life, resisted temptation, performed his miracles, and in all ways accomplished what the Father sent him to do, through the agency of the Spirit’s anointing. The Spirit, then, stands behind the obedience and miraculous power of Christ…”[3] Ware goes further, stating that “the Spirit anointed Jesus with power so that Jesus might be honored in the work he did and the words he taught, that the will of the Father might be done.”[4] Ware seems to suggest that, were it not for the anointing of the Spirit at the baptism of Jesus in Mt. 3.13-17, Jesus would be incapable of fulfilling the mission, which the Father sent him to complete. In fact, Ware’s statements earlier in the book, wherein he dismisses the “divine power” argument of Jesus’ perfection, confirm this interpretation of Ware’s position.[5]

This line of argumentation underscores one of the more pressing issues of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Because Ware fails to address specifically the way in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the divine essence— that is, by not answering the metaphysical question of the Trinity—he does not provide an ontological structure capable of withstanding criticisms of how it is that the Spirit empowers the Son for ministry. Appeals to the brute text of Scripture are not in themselves capable of answering the metaphysical questions concerning the Godhead’s being. That is to say, because the authors of Scripture were not concerned with crafting a philosophical treatise of God’s existence, or rather, because they were not even attempting to craft a theological argument for God’s ontology, one must answer those questions in a way which incorporates (but which finds its foundation outside of) Scripture—a project Ware does not attempt.

Insofar as Ware’s model of the Trinity is pertinent, it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which Jesus fails to live a sinless life while yet retaining his divinity. One can only reach the conclusion by denying that Jesus is the Son of God, the pre-incarnate and eternal member of the Trinity. The peccable conception of Jesus’ humanity assumes a relationship between the human and divine nature, in which the human nature can overcome the divine and render it less than it is. The orthodox position is that the divine nature is capable of overcoming the human and exalting it to its original position of sinlessness—that is, the Edenic perfection.

Ware’s position leads one to assume an artificial rather than a natural, or essential, unity between the Spirit and Jesus. This is only a few steps from adoptionism, which has been understood as heresy since at least the 2nd century. Although Ware’s emphasis on the power of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry is good and proper, he overstates his case. It is evident that Jesus would not have been capable of accomplishing what he accomplished without the help of the Spirit. However, the accomplishment did not come about by means of a special anointing but by virtue of the eternal bond that the Son and the Spirit shared before, during, and after the incarnation. The baptism of Christ functions as a visible (as well as aural) proclamation that Jesus indeed was anointed for ministry by the Spirit and approved by the Father, but neither the Father’s approval nor the Spirit’s anointing occurred on this occasion. Furthermore, this baptism demonstrates to the believing church that they must be indwelt and empowered by the Spirit, as Jesus was throughout his life and ministry. To speak of a dynamic relationship between the Spirit and the Son, whether in his pre-incarnate or incarnate state, seems ludicrous.

As the book closes, the final chapter discusses the relationships among the three persons as a community, rather than as relationships merely between one member of the Trinity and the other. Ware finally emphasizes the practical import of the doctrine that he has only given in piecemeal previously. Ware outlines ten principles one can derive from a Trinitarian theology. Among them, Ware believes that the nature of the Godhead serves as a model for human relationships in its harmonious unity, its eternality, and its authority/submission structure.

However, his most important principle seems to be the complementarian theology of gender. Although he has a few scattered references to his “egalitarian opponents” throughout the book, he spends eight and a half pages in the final chapter writing about the rights and duties of husbands and wives in marriage, which argument he bases on Gen. 1.26,27; 1 Cor. 11.5-10; and 1 Tim. 2.12-15.

He states, “Male headship, then, is part and parcel of the very created design of God for men and women, and this reflects something of God’s very triune nature.”[6] One has to question the integrity of the position. Ware stretches his Gen. 1.26, 27 prooftext too far. He reads into ‘the image of God’ an implicit endorsement of complementarian theology, because he believes that this is how Paul used the creation narrative in the Corinthian and Timothy passages mentioned above.[7]

Whether or not one can justify such a reading is not quite the point, however. One must be wary of peering too deeply into the mystery of the Trinity. The perichoresis is beyond human understanding except insofar as its qualities have been revealed. To derive social models from the inner life of the Trinity seems to be a fool’s errand. One need neither take nor leave Ware’s ultimate conclusion (i.e. complementarian theology as such) to find fault with his grounding it in the triune God. Such a conclusion requires much more careful reasoning and argumentation than Ware offers in Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

[1] Ware, 14 – 15

[2] Ibid, 104

[3] Ibid, 105, emphasis mine

[4] Ibid, 107, emphasis mine

[5] Ibid, 88 – 94

[6] Ibid, 140, emphasis mine

[7] Some do question whether Paul’s appeal to ‘head’ in 1 Cor. 11.3 is supposed to be taken as a sign of primacy of source (unbegottenness versus begottenness) or primacy of authority. See, for example, Roger Olson, “Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? Part 3,” My evangelical Arminian theological musings, December 9, 2011, accessed September 30, 2015.

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