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ETS, the trinity and basic literacy

August 2, 2012

Amanda has mentioned that Leslie, here and here, is blogging on the trinity and ETS. Both women would like to see more women attend ETS. I probably won’t attend partly because I am not in academia. However, I would like to outline my major difficulty with attending ETS. It is simply this. Many members of ETS appear to be unaware of the meaning of the doctrinal statement of ETS. They do not hold to the statement in any real way. That just irks me.

Here is the ETS doctrinal basis,

The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

However, Bruce Ware, former president of ETS has written a book on the teaching that the Father has eternal authority over the Son, and the Son is eternally under the authority of the Father.

My problem with this is that “power” and “authority” have been used indiscriminately throughout church history until very recently to mean the same thing. Within historic Christianity, the Son cannot be both “equal in power to” and “eternally under the authority of” the Father.

The way this came about is that the Greek exousia was translated into Latin in the Vulgate as potestas, and by Erasmus as autoritatis. In early English translations, Tyndale and following, exousia was translated into English with the word “power” and in the KJV, exousia was sometimes translated into English as “power” and sometimes as “authority.” In the English Revised Version and the Revised Standard Version, the there is a continuing transition toward translating exousia as “authority” and dunamis as “power.” Then in the ESV exousia is translated only as “authority.” The transition is now complete.

However, the creeds are supposed to represent Christian belief dating back to the early church era. If the early church fathers used the word potestas for the Greek exousia and that was later translated into English as “power,” then we can have the equivalency of exousia > potestas > power, and we also have the equivalency of exousia > autoritatis > authority.

So, once again, how can a group of contemporary Christians hold passionately to the belief that the Son is equal to the Father in power, but eternally subordinate in authority? To our minds these may seem to be two different things, but historically, they are not.

When Augustine wrote,

He was not sent in respect to any inequality of power, or substance, or anything that in Him was not equal to the Father; but in respect to this, that the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son; for the Son is the Word of the Father, which is also called His wisdom.

the Latin says,

non secundum imparem potestatem uel substantiam uel aliquid quod in eo patri non sit aequale missus est, sed secundum id quod filius a patre est, non pater a filio. Verbum enim patris est filius, quod est sapientia eius dicitur.

Since potestas translates exousia in the Vulgate, we must assume that Augustine meant that the Son was not in any inequality of exousia/authority. Here is one author who got it right, writing about the Reformers views on authority,

There is one thing I do know for sure. You cannot convince any man who wants to use his beliefs about the trinity to shore up his belief in male authority over the female, that Augustine said that the Son was not unequal to the Father in authority. Its impossible.

It is impossible to explain to many that the difference between power and authority is a modern nuance. Since I haven’t been in dialogue with anyone associated with these doctrines who is prepared to discuss the Latin, the conversation is over before it begins.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    August 2, 2012 10:37 am

    Thanks for these thought-provokers, Suzanne. Toward the end you mention how hard it is to discuss this issue with men who use the Trinity to support male authority over females. What about talking to women who are in that doctrinal camp as well. Do you think it is as difficult a discussion with them as well?


  2. Tim permalink
    August 2, 2012 10:37 am

    P.S. Followed you over from Leslie’s place. Glad I did.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 2, 2012 11:44 am


    It is perhaps even harder to discuss this with women who support male authority. I was thinking of ETS when I wrote that. I made an assumption that complementarian women are not frequent speakers at ETS, but I don’t know that for sure.

    It doesn’t matter who we are, we all want to justify how we have lived our life, whether in authority or submission. I used to try and justify patriarchy until one day I couldn’t do it any longer.

  4. August 2, 2012 7:31 pm

    I am surprised at the text of this doctrinal statement itself.
    inerrant in the autographs. What is an autograph?
    God is a Trinity, where is trinity in the Bible?

    If the Bible is sufficient, which I believe it is, to what is it sufficient? For me, only to the extent that it points reliably to the engagement of faith. I find all of its parts sufficient – so far in my investigation… And I don’t need the autographs and neither am I under obligation to not question the accepted results of the first 400 years of Christendom as I have received them through the creeds.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 2, 2012 8:17 pm

    These are excellent questions! I am still stuck on the meaning of power in this sentence, but your other points are equally worthy of discussion. Of course, we can question the first 400 years of Christendom, but one shouldn’t contradict these creeds and then claim not to.

  6. August 3, 2012 12:58 am

    HI Suzanne —

    Figure I’ll include my link to the older version on this:

    Since we’ve talked about it, I’ve run into this brand of semi-Arianism in several Pentecostals now. This theology of eternal subordination of the son as being indicative of gender relations is also getting popular with Mormons, who reject Holy Mother(s). Though for Mormons Jesus is subordinate in both power and authority and the creeds are openly rejected so your counter argument wouldn’t work.

    So unfortunately, Bruce Ware is gaining converts.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 3, 2012 1:26 am

    Hi CD,

    Its good to hear from you! was just reading this post of yours this afternoon. i am now working on a new post which demonstrates that complementarians are half right. The Westminster catechism said that Christ was equal in power (potentia) to God, and this is from dunamis. But the problem then is that Augustine said that Christ was not unequal in potestas to God, and potestas is authority. At least that is what my next post will discuss.

  8. August 3, 2012 2:47 am

    BTW just to throw this out. Did get a fairly good counter argument on Westminster that since Westminster’s Latin version is a translation of the English, the English not the Latin is authoritative. Wasn’t sure what to do with that one.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 3, 2012 3:13 am


    I just posted on this. In part, I think I was wrong originally. In Latin there are four words for the two in Greek, and two in English.

    English – power and authority
    Greek – dunamis and exousia
    Latin – virtus, potentia, potestas and autoritas

    In Latin, virtus is clearly dunamis, and autoritas is clearly authority. But I had the impression potestas and potentia were synonyms meaning both power and authority since they are regularly listed as synonyms with this meaning. However, I have posted Erasmus annotations on Romans in tonights post. This material has come online since I last wrote on this topic.

    I am sorry if my previous posts were misleading. However, when one considers that the translators of the KJV considered power and authority to be synonyms, it is not an easy matter to disentangle.


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