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ETS and the trinity cont: potentia and potestas

August 3, 2012

I realize now that my approach to the ETS doctrinal basis has been overly simplistic. I really don’t know what anyone who assents to it believes, but I am now considering alternatives. First, let me review and build on my case.

This is the doctrinal basis of the ETS,

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.

I am concerned here about the meaning of just one word. Other aspects of this statement are equally open to investigation, but I have not come anywhere close to sorting out what “power” means in this statement. On the one hand, I think it means the same as “authority” and it establishes equality of authority, that is, egalitarian relations, in the trinity, but others disagree.

This doctrinal basis is derived from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 6, which includes these words, written first in 1646, in English and translated into Latin later,

There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

The Westminster Catechism was translated into Latin and Greek, as well as other languages. I don’t have to the other languages but we can confirm that the Latin translation of “power” was potentia and this was indeed a translation for dunamis in Erasmus’ Latin translation of the New Testament. Erasmus writes in his Annotations on Romans 1:4, regarding using the Latin word virtus for the Greek dunamis,

To set this in the larger picture, here are some of the equivalencies for exousia and dunamis over the millenia,

Vulgate –  exousia > potestas, dunamis > virtus

Erasmus – exousia > autoritatis, dunamis > virtus or potentia

Tyndale – exousia and dunamis > power

KJV – exousia > power or authority, dunamis > power

From Erasmus’ notes, the case seems settled, that exousia is potestas, and dunamis is potentia. In that case, the complementarians are correct in saying that they can sign the doctrinal basis of ETS, confessing that the Son is equal in power to the Father, and still believe that the Son is unequal in authority. It seems that they have won this round.

However, the difficulty is that now we must take potestas as meaning authority. And here complementarians are stuck. Augustine was emphatic that Christ was not unequal in potestas (authority) to God.

Here is Augustine,

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.

In another translation,

For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father, but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father being from the Son.”*

And in Latin,

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.

And this is what Bruce Ware has written in regard to this quote from Augustine,

Augustine affirmed, the distinction of Persons is constituted precisely by the differing relations among them, in part manifested by the inherent authority of the Father and inherent submission of the Son.

If the “Son” is sent by the “Father,” and if the “Son” comes to do the will of the “Father,” does it not stand to reason that God wishes by this language to indicate something of the authority and submission that exists within the relationships of the members of the immanent trinity?

It appears that Ware has fundamentally misunderstood Augustine. If, according to Erasmus potentia is power (ability) and potestas is power (authority) then Augustine is clearly saying that the Son has no disparity in authority from the Father. Further, in De Trinitate, Book II, chapter 5:9, Augustine rebutts Ware’s thesis and writes,

For perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son. He commanded that He should come, and He, complying with the commandment, came. Did He then request, or did He only suggest? But whichever of these it was, certainly it was done by a word, and the Word of God is the Son of God Himself.

Wherefore, since the Father sent Him by a word, His being sent was the work of both the Father and His Word; therefore the same Son was sent by the Father and the Son, because the Son Himself is the Word of the Father. For who would embrace so impious an opinion as to think the Father to have uttered a word in time, in order that the eternal Son might thereby be sent and might appear in the flesh in the fullness of time?

So Augustine is clearly denying that the fact that the Son was sent by the Father means that there is a disparity in authority. The Son was sent by both the Father and the Son. They are equal in authority.

Now, it does not matter to me whether Ware agrees with or disagrees with Augustine or the Westminster Catechism. But it seems odd to me to read this work of Ware’s in which he persistently claims to derive from Augustine the exact opposite of what Augustine wrote. Ware appears to be saying that it is orthodox to say that the Son is inferior in authority to the Father because of what Augustine wrote. But if Augustine did not say that the Son was inferior in authority, then is there other evidence that this belief was held to be orthodox at any time in church history? This is not at all clear.

In summary, complementarians hold that the Son is equal to the Father in power, but unequal in authority. This is usually paraphrased as “equal in essence, and unequal in function.” This has the advantage, in the first part, of agreeing with the letter of the Westminster catechism, but the second part cannot be confirmed explicitly from any earlier church documents that I have seen so far. Egalitarians, on the other hand, affirm that the Son is equal to the Father in both power and authority, thus agreeing with both the Westminster Catechism, and Augustine on the trinity. There is no indication that at some earlier time, anyone in the orthodox lineage of the church differentiated between the authority and power of God in such a way that the persons of the trinity are seen to be “equal in power, unequal in authority.”

A closer look at the history and usage of potentia and potestas would indicate that the difference was not universally perceived to be clear, and potentia and potestas were often considered to be synonyms meaning “power,” as both ability and authority. At the time that the Westminster Catechism was written, the KJV was in use, and in that translation “power” was a transation for both exousia (Erasmus authoritas) and dunamis (Erasmus potentia). Lexicons routinely list potentia and potestas as synonyms, and exousia as both “power” and “authority” so that is no help. All in all, egalitarians have no difficulty affirming the creeds on the trinity as they have been recorded throughout history. Complementarians are in a somewhat less clear position.

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