Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance

By Bruce A. Ware
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2005). 173 Pages.

Reviewed by Clifford McManis
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 144-146

Professor Bruce Ware teaches systematic theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. This work is the by-product of a lecture series given at a pastors’ conference in March, 2004 (11). In chapter one he delineates eleven reasons why Christians should study the doctrine of the Trinity (13-22). Eight of those eleven emphasize the functional inner-workings of the Trinity, in keeping with the subtitle of the book that accentuates “relevance.”

In chapter two, Ware chronicles three foundational axioms of the Trinity with a cursory overview of what the early church believed. The first is Scriptural Monotheism (24-28), emphasizing the biblical truth of only one true God. Here he invokes standard passages like Deut 6:4, 1 Kgs 8:59, Isa 45:5-6, John 17:3, 1 Tim 2:5, 1 Cor 8:6, and others. The second axiom he labels Scriptural Trinitarianism (29-35). Here he shows from the NT that Jesus is deity and equal to the Father in status, yet distinct from the Father in identity. He summarizes the unique relationship between Jesus and the Father with the adage, “Identity and distinction, equivalency and difference” (31). Distilled exposition of standard texts include John 1:1, 14; 8:58; Mark 2; and Hebrews 1. The third and final axiom is, Scriptural Trinitarianism: The Church’s Formulation (35-42). Here he surveys the Arian heresy, the importance of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 and implications of the Council of Constantinople in 381. From the three above axioms Ware posits his formal version of an orthodox definition of the Trinity which is as follows: “The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three distinct Persons of the Godhead” (41).

The next three chapters are dedicated to functional relations among the three Persons of the Trinity (43-130), with a chapter emphasizing each of the three respective Persons. Here Ware ardently argues the case of eternal subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. Detractors of his view are repeatedly labeled “egalitarian” (72, 80, 88, 138, 143). The three Persons of the Trinity have clearly demarcated roles, with an inherent eternal hierarchy of authority and submission— with the Father as preeminent. This irrevocable order of authority and submission that exists within the Trinity, Ware calls taxis, a technical term he wields at least fifteen times (72-73, 77, 85, 96, 122, 151, 153, 156-58). Chapter three addresses the Father, where the author asserts seventeen times that “the Father is…supreme within the Godhead.” The theme of chapter four is “that Jesus’ submission to the Father extends from eternity past to eternity future” (84). Chapter five highlights the Holy Spirit’s inter-trinitarian role, which entails advancing “the work of the Son, to the glory of the Father” who “embraces eternally the backstage position in relation to the Father and the Son” (104); who “assists” the Father (105); who takes “a backseat to the Son and the Father” (125), in eternity past, in time and in eternity future.

The last chapter is dedicated to explaining ten practical applications that Christians are to assimilate in daily living after the model of the eternal inner-workings of the Trinity (131-58). Paramount among these is the principle of “authority and submission” (137). This resonates with Ware’s overarching theme that weaves through every chapter: “The Father is supreme in authority, the Son is under the Father, and the Spirit is under the Father and the Son” (131).

The late Carl F. H. Henry wrote in 1982, “American evangelical theology has not on the whole contributed significant literature to the current revival of trinitarian interest” (God, Revelation and Authority, V:212). He may have spoken too soon, for since then many notable works have been generated, including Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology (1987); Grudem, Systematic Theology (1994); White, The Forgotten Trinity (1998); Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity (2000); Feinberg, No One Like Him (2001); Geisler, Systematic Theology (2003); Culver, Systematic Theology (2005). And now, most recently, Ware’s work can be added to the list.

One strength of Ware’s book is that it is Scripturally-driven—the book is saturated with biblical texts. This is in stark contrast with many other standard works on the Trinity, like Rahner’s The Trinity (1967), which is totally void of Scripture. Ware’s allegiance to biblical terminology might explain his conspicuous avoidance of typical trinitarian words like “economic,” “immanent,” “ontological,” and “perichoresis” that abound in other works (although he champions the word taxis to an extreme). Like a growing number of theologians (e.g., Erickson, Feinberg, Geisler), Ware frowns upon the phrases “eternal generation of the Son” and “eternal procession of the Spirit” as historically understood because they are “highly speculative” and not biblical (162). The greatest strength of the book is his emphasis on practical application. He makes a convincing case for the relevance of the doctrine of the Triune God in the daily life of the believer—examples abound. His writing style is also lucid, systematic, logical, and accessible to the average lay person.

As for weaknesses, the reader might frequently be confused by Ware’s strong “subordinationist” perspective. He seems to make no clear distinction between trinitarian subordination within the economic Trinity versus the immanent Trinity. Orthodoxy has always affirmed functional subordination within the Godhead, but has rejected ontological subordination. Clarity on his position would have proved helpful.

Any serious Bible student who wants to delve into trinitarian studies should add Ware to the list as a must read. But it can’t be read in isolation—his “eternal subordinationist” slant needs to be ameliorated by the contemporary works of Erickson, White, and Feinberg, who argue for temporal subordination. In addition, reference is also warranted to the classic articles on the Trinity by Carl F. H. Henry and B. B. Warfield, both of whom cautioned against overly aggressive eternal subordinationist interpretations.