Recently I encountered a presentation that made me shed my Western Christian eyes. It was given by Beau Branson (freely available at his website) on what he calls the “neglected” doctrine of the “monarchy of the Father.”
In this post I will summarize some key points of his five-part presentation. While I will cover a number of Branson’s key points, I don’t want to suggest that my summary is in any way a replacement of what Branson says. I simply want to introduce readers to Branson’s conception of Monarchical Trinitarianism, and to encourage further engagement on the topic. At the end of this post I’ll also link to a number of resources he uses and recommends in the presentation.
I should also make it clear that Branson is not trying to convince anybody in this presentation that Monarchical Trinitarianism is true. He does say he accepts the view though. Again, I recommend the entire presentation to you.
Branson sets his sights on Dale Tuggy in this presentation, and argues that the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father solves a lot of the problems with the Trinity that Tuggy raises in his published work. Of particular interest to Branson is Tuggy’s definitions of “Trinitarian” and “unitarian” Christian theology in his paper “Tertullian the Unitarian.” (It’s also clear from his presentation that Branson is familiar with many of Tuggy’s podcasts, presentations, articles, and blog posts that raise further issues.) Branson, I think, hands it to Tuggy that his work makes his view (called “biblical unitarianism”) look like an attractive alternative to the Trinity.
To begin his critique, Branson provides his own definitions of “Trinitarian” and “unitarian.” Branson counts a view as “Trinitarian” if the view accepts two things: (1) there are exactly three divine Persons, and (2) there is exactly one God. And a view is “unitarian” if it accepts that there is exactly one God and that there is exactly one divine Person.
So what’s the problem between Branson’s definitions and Tuggy’s? Branson argues that the monarchy of the Father is a Trinitarian view (on his own definition), but can count as both Trinitarian and unitarian on Tuggy’s definitions. And that’s a result that Tuggy should want to avoid. But what is the monarchy of the Father, exactly?
What is the Monarchy of the Father?
At first Branson explains that “monarchy” (Gr. μοναρχία; monarchia) means that there exists only one ultimate source (or “First Principle”) of being. He then makes it clear that the “monarchy of the Father” refers to the Father as the one source of being, even within the Trinity.
Even that explanation can seem vague, though, because some will say that the Father’s relation of origin in the Trinity (as “unoriginate”) is consistent with the Father’s monarchy in the sense explained a moment ago. So what’s the real difference between Branson’s view and that of say, Augustine or Aquinas?
The essential difference, as Branson sees it, seems to be one of numerical identity. On a view like Augustine’s, each of the three divine Persons has an “equal claim” to being God in every way. Branson calls this view “egalitarian” or “symmetrical.” (I will abbreviate this view as “ET.”) According to the ET view, the one God is numerically identical to (“just is” or “=”) the Trinity.
Now we arrive at the crucial (but not by any means only) distinction between the ET view and what Branson calls the “Monarchical” Trinitarian (“MT”) view. This view says that God just is the Father, and that there are three divine Persons. This, Branson says, is perhaps the traditional understanding of the Eastern Orthodox church.
Here are two other differences between the ET and MT views. On ET, there is exactly one God because there is one God that just is the Trinity. On MT, there is exactly one God because the Father just is the one God; the one God is, as Branson puts it, “one of” the Trinity. Also, I take it that on the ET view that Branson thinks each of the divine persons exist a se. But on MT, only the Father exists a se; that is to say, only the Father has a claim to “aseity.” What this means is that only the Father exists “through himself,” and that the Son and Holy Spirit also, in some way, owe their existence to the Father. The Father alone is the source of everything else that has being on the MT view, even within the Trinity itself. One might even go so far as to say that the Father is the “cause” of the Son and Holy Spirit, in some sense.
Now, both MT and Tuggy’s view (“biblical unitarianism”) hold that God just is the Father. But where they differ is in the claim that Jesus Christ is fully (or “truly,” if you prefer) divine. On biblical unitarianism, the Father alone is fully/truly divine, and Jesus Christ is God’s solely human Messiah; Jesus is not an eternally-existing divine Person who became incarnate. Obviously, the MT view is going to reject the latter claim.
A Lesser Son?
If the Father alone exists a se, as Branson explicitly says, then how is MT not a form of “subordinationism” where the Son is somehow “less God” than the Father? This is perhaps the number one issue that jumps out to somebody familiar with, or who holds to, the ET view. Here are a couple of things Branson might say, based on what I gather from his presentation.
First, if the MT view is some form of subordinationist heresy, the objector will have to take that up with men who were monumental in the Arian controversies of the fourth century. Notwithstanding, they will have to say that Athanasius (!) and the Cappadocians, for example, were subordinationists. But obviously that should seem to anyone familiar with the relevant texts that this is just bad reading comprehension. Really, this response amounts to the objector clarifying exactly what they mean by “subordinationism.”
Second, Branson calls attention to the church fathers who argued that the Father isn’t properly called “Father” without the existence of his Son. That being the case, I take it that Branson will say that the Son shares in the Father’s rule by virtue of being fully/truly divine. The Father doesn’t rule unless he rules with the Son (and the Spirit). The Son is “of the same substance” (Gr. ὁμοούσιος; homoousias) as the Father. (Branson says homoousias means “the same kind of thing.”) The fact that the Son doesn’t exist a se doesn’t mean that he isn’t “the same kind of thing” as the Father. So there needs to be some argument that shows that, even though the Son “the same kind of thing” as the Father, the fact he doesn’t exist a se means that the MT view is committed to some regrettable, or perhaps heretical, subordinationism. So what’s the argument?
Monarchical Trinitarianism, as Branson explains in his presentation, accepts at least the following:
- The Father = God.
- There are exactly three fully and equally divine Persons.
Obviously, to avoid a kind of view where the Father is “over here” and the other two divine persons are “over there,” Branson is going to accept with the church fathers that the three divine persons are “of the same substance.”
But how does Monarchical Trinitarianism “work”? Branson defends his view of Gregory of Nyssa’s account, and its logical consistency, in his doctoral dissertation (also available at his website). For those unfamiliar with symbolic logic, I recommend at least the third part (“History”) of his dissertation to begin to get a handle on this. In that section Branson gives Gregory’s reasons why (especially due to “synergy”) one cannot say that there are three gods.
If you don’t find Gregory’s (as explained by Branson) account convincing, you might choose to modify a current “Trinity theory” on offer to fit Monarchical Trinitarianism. A couple of these are discussed in Branson’s presentation as well.
I find Monarchical Trinitarianism interesting, and I look forward to seeing and hearing more of Branson’s work. Special thanks to Corby Amos for pointing me toward Branson’s presentation.
These are selections from Branson’s actual presentation.
Behr, John. 2004. The Nicene Faith.
Behr, John. 2008. “Calling Upon God as Father: Augustine and the Legacy of Nicaea.” In Orthodox Readings of Augustine.
Beeley, Christopher. 2008. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light.
Clarke, Samuel. The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. (Note: Branson claims in his presentation that Clarke’s view is essentially the Eastern Orthodox view, contrary to what Tuggy says about it. Tuggy considers this book a “lost classic” that he has reprinted. )
Lossky, Vladimir. 1997. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
Zizioulas, John. 1997. Being as Communion.
Gregory of Nyssa. Ad Petrum. (Note: Branson states that this letter has been attributed to Basil of Caesarea in the past, which is why it appears as Letter 38 in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.)
Gregory of Nyssa. Contra Eunomius. (You can also find “On ‘Not Three Gods'” in that volume, which is important to Branson’s dissertation.)
John of Damascus. An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.
(St.) Photius (the Great). The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit. (Free online version.)