Summary-evaluations of Wayne Grudem's chapter on the Trinity now concludes.
D. Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
1. Different primary functions in world
The ways in which the different persons of the Trinity relate to the world is called the "economy" of the Trinity. For example, in relation to the Trinity, God the Father spoke the words of creation. The Son carried out these "creative decrees." The Spirit sustained and showed God's immediate presence in the creation. In redemption, God planned it. Jesus accomplished it. The Spirit implemented it, brought it to completion. Grudem sees Son and Spirit as equal in deity, but subordinate in their roles.
2. Eternally existed distinct
Grudem does not believe that the roles of the members of the Trinity are interchangeable. For him, the Father could not have come to die on the cross. They each have fixed "positions" (249). Second, these positions for Grudem are eternal. They have always had them from before the creation.
Finally, these are not distinctions in attribute, deity, or God's essential nature. They hold these things as part of God's one substance. The distinctions are in how they relate to each other, something Grudem calls "ontological equality but economic subordination" (251). He will of course use this understanding to argue for subordination in the family.
3. Relationships between persons and being
How does the being of God relate to the three persons of God? The persons are not each a third of God. Each of the persons is fully God. Yet the persons of God are not something added on to God, extra parts that the persons have that the others do not. The persons are not just different ways of looking at God (modalism), like looking at the same man as father, son, and husband.
Perhaps the analogy Grudem likes the most, but certainly considers imperfect, is a man thinking as subject, thinking about himself as object, and thinking about his ideas about himself--himself as subject, object, and thoughts about himself. He fully admits this doesn't get at it perfectly. God's existence is just a kind of existence far different than anything in our experience.
4. Can we understand it?
We simply cannot remove the mystery from the Trinity. He has already said that all analogies ultimately break down at some point. We simply will never be able to understand it fully. At the same time, he says, Scripture does not ask us to believe in a contradiction.
It is best to begin where Grudem ends. We believe in the Trinity because it is a doctrine of faith, because we believe that the Holy Spirit worked in the church universal to establish it as common doctrine. If we were truly limited to the Bible alone, other configurations would be possible. In fact, most scholars of the history of theology would argue that Grudem's version of subordinationism has historically been considered mildly heretical. It is possible to argue for it from the biblical texts, as Grudem does, but it is probably not the common consensus of Christians throughout the ages.
The historical understanding is not that the roles of the persons of the Trinity are subordinate but that the humanity of Jesus was subordinate to God the Father (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:28). The incarnation--the pre-existent Son of God taking on flesh--is a matter for later in the book, but historically Christians have believed that the Son was not human before he came to earth. In that sense, the historical Christian belief is that only the human nature of Christ is subordinate to God the Father and that the Son did not have this dimension until the incarnation.
But as Grudem says, no analogy is adequate to explain or describe the Trinity and we must ultimately consign its full understanding to mystery. Grudem seems right to say that the different persons of the Trinity tend to do different things. He also seems on to something when he recognizes a connection between the creation and the various roles they play.
God the Father seems to relate more to God's transcendence. God the Spirit seems to relate more to God's immanence. And God the Son seems to relate especially to bridging the gap between God's transcendence and his immanence.
An individual can speculate about such things, but refinement of doctrine is ultimately a matter for the universal church. But we can ask whether a more developed understanding of creation out of nothing would affect the way the church understands the Trinity.
For example, the Christians of the councils presumably had no thought for space itself being part of the creation. Creation, for them, was arguably the Trinity (in the emptiness) putting stuff into the emptiness that wasn't there before (creating it out of nothing). However, with the advent of relativity, we now must think of God creating the emptiness itself. We must now think of the very laws of nature being part of the creation.
The very idea of scientific law as part of nature belongs to the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. The assumption of the formative church would have been to see the operations of reason and experience as part of the givenness of the cosmos and they would have connected it to the nature of God.
Arguably, theologians like Grudem continue to blur the creation with the Creator. They have a three or at most four-dimensional understanding of God that ultimately sees him within the same space (and time) as the creation. In their theology, he is not truly outside space and, although they might say he is timeless, their solution to the question of God's foreknowledge of the future betrays that they do not truly see him as outside time.
So when so many theologians talk of the relationships within the Trinity, we have to wonder if they are still mistaking the analogy for the literal. That is to say, even "Father" and "Son" are analogies from our world to help us understand a mystery that ultimately reaches beyond our universe and frame of reference. We believe by faith in some eternal distinction in the pre-universe "nature" of God that corresponds to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But arguably even these distinctions are this-universe analogies.
Grudem's primary application is of course to marriage. The husband's role is parallel to that of the Father, whom he believe God intends to have authority over the wife in marriage. The relationship of parents to children is thus analogous for him to the relationship between parents and children. All are equal in humanity, importance, and personhood, but have different fixed roles and levels of authority.
Scholars of the history of theology largely disagree with Grudem (and thus Hodge) on subordination within the Trinity. Historically, it is the humanity of Jesus that is understood to be subordinate to God the Father. If Grudem wants to pull the cork on this issue by trumping the church fathers with Scripture, then he also opens the door to the question of whether Jesus is of "one substance" with the Father in the New Testament. It is no coincidence that, in the Protestant Reformation's turn back to the Bible, we not only saw the rise of Lutherans, but Socinianism as well, which denied the Trinity.
However, in the end, it is not clear that the Trinity is an appropriate model for the family at all. Jesus is not the bride of God the Father. He is the Son. The Holy Spirit is not the child of the Father and Son (a non-traditional family indeed and certain to be incarcerated). Given the mystery of the Trinity and our sense that even the orthodox statements of church history had an underdeveloped sense of ex nihilo, we must consider even the titles of "Father" and "Son" as analogies. They are metaphors drawn from human life to help us catch a glimpse of God. They are images we must not mistake for the fully literal.
God has no genitals. He is not literally male or literally a father. God uses feminine images of himself as well (e.g., Isaiah 42:14). We must never mistake the pictures of God for God himself. God uses pictures in revelation to meet us in language we can understand. But no human words or thought can fully--or perhaps even literally--capture God in our understanding.