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Socinianism, Divine Simplicity, and the Eternal Functional Subordination Controversy

Broadly speaking, the Reformation can be categorized under two headings.

The first and the one that most of us are familiar with is the Magisterial Reformation.  The Magisterial Reformation saw itself in continuity with Catholic Christianity and only sought to reform the doctrinal deviations which crept into the Roman Catholic Church through the medieval period. Due to the desire to remain in continuity with the Catholic tradition, it affirmed the conciliar consensus on subjects like the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. It also affirmed the conciliar consensus on the denial of Pelagianism which was rejected at the first council of Ephesus in AD 431 and saw this as one of the primary departures from the historic faith which Rome was guilty of.

The second category is what is known as the Radical Reformation. Rather than being any sort of unified movement, the various groups of the Radical Reformation sought to reevaluate everything, including doctrines like the Trinity and Hypostatic Union. Due to this reevaluation, some groups came to unorthodox or heretical conclusions. One such group was called the Socinians. Originating in Poland, and named after the Italian Fausto Sozzini, the Socinians ultimately ended up rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and a much of what we call Theology Proper.

I write all this to comment on an interesting statement I encountered while reading volume one of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics.

18. What is God’s simplicity?

That attribute of God whereby He is free of all composition and distinction. God is free:

a) Of logical composition; in Him there is no distinction between genus and species.
b) Of natural composition; in Him there is no distinction between substance and form.
c) Of supernatural composition; in Him there is no distinction between slumbering capacity and action. Proof texts: 1 John 1:5; 4:8; Amos 4:2; 6:8.

The Socinians and Vossius deny this attribute in order better to escape the Trinity, that is, the oneness of the three Persons. 1

There has been a bit of a dustup in the past week or so regarding James Dolezal’s book, All that is in God. Dolezal’s book represents a retrieval of the classical theism presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith and London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). Some, primarily John Frame, have responded that Dolezal’s book, and by extension the Confessional Statements referenced, relies too much on Reformed Scholastic methods and conclusions. Instead, so goes the argument, we must preserve the biblical language which mitigates against the divine immutability and simplicity presented in these confessional statements. 2 With (nonsensical) phrases like “God is not only simple, but in his own way, highly complex,” Frame pushes against the Scholastic consensus (and thus the Westminster Consensus) on attributes like simplicity and mutability.

Men more competent than I have responded to the theological issues in Frame’s review, 3 so I will not belabor that point. However, I wanted to offer a thought on a particular statement by Frame, and then reflect on how it relates to the Vos quote above, and the recent EFS controversy.

Dolezal thinks that “theistic mutualism” (TM) is very common among evangelical writers today and in the recent past. He cites as examples Donald MacLeod (21), James Oliver Buswell (23), Ronald Nash (23), Donald Carson (24), Bruce Ware (24), James I. Packer (31), Alvin Plantinga (68), John Feinberg, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig (69), Kevin Vanhoozer (72), Rob Lister (92), Scott Oliphint (93), and, yes, John Frame (71-73, 92-95). Wayne Grudem joins the group later for his adherence to “eternal functional subordination” in the Trinity (132-33). This group brings together many of the most important thinkers in evangelicalism today, and I am honored to be included in it, though I do not agree with all of them on everything. Dolezal, I think, should be more respectful of this group than he is. Is it not even a little bit daunting to stand against such a consensus?

This is indeed a formidable consensus, however, what other thinkers could we add to this group. Among modern figures we could add the likes of Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and others that I’m sure Frame would not be so happy to be listed alongside. But pertinent to the Vos quote above, we could also add Sozzini and his followers.

What I find most interesting however is the link between a denial of divine simplicity, and an unfortunate (and hopefully only implicit and accidental) denial of the Trinity. As Dolezal recently commented, 4 during the formative years of Trinitarian theology, a denial of divine simplicity was seen as a more grave error than a denial of any particular Trinitarian formula. The reason being is that if we deny divine simplicity we lose monotheism. Regardless of how we believe the three persons relate to each other, if they are not unified by a single indivisible divine nature, then we are polytheists in some form or another.

The Socinians understood this, and if Vos here is correct they intentionally rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity in order to justify their denial of the Trinity. What is unfortunate, however, is that many (several in the “formidable consensus Frame boasts of) commit exactly the opposite error. They reject divine simplicity in order to attempt to preserve the threeness of God, however in doing so they lose the oneness.

This is the error of the EFS advocates, who —both implicitly and explicitly at times— affirm a plurality of wills in the Trinity. This is true of men like William Lane Craig who render the persons to be component parts of the whole and no one person to be the fullness of the divine nature. One could go down the list and draw similar conclusions about many of the men represented above.

Divine simplicity, divine immutability, and the orthodox understanding of the Trinity… they all go together. If you reject immutability (as Frame, Craig, and Oliphint explicitly do) then you necessarily reject simplicity (as Craig explicitly does, and as Grudem, Ware, Frame, and Oliphint implicitly do). And if you reject simplicity, as the Socinians recognized and utilized, you undercut the doctrine of the Trinity (as all of the above unfortunately do).

All of these issues are connected. They are what happens when we abandon the faithful Catholic witness of the historic Church. When we reevaluate things that have been faithfully and biblically taught for 2000 years, things don’t go well.

The moral of the story gang is this: Don’t be a Socinian. The Holy Spirit has been working in the Church since Pentecost, there is no reason to act as though he hasn’t.


Vos, Geerhardus. 2012-2014. Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by Richard Jr Gaffin. Translated by Richard Jr Gaffin. Vol. 1. 5 vols. Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press.

 

Notes:

  1. Vos 2012-2014, 9.
  2. This is a baffling development, given that Frame is ostensibly a confessional Presbyterian.
  3. See responses by Mark Jones and Keith Mathison.
  4. Unfortunately, Dolezal has appeared on several podcasts and I cannot find which one his quote comes from. I will update this post if I come across it.