Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Relationships, Roles, and Relevance
Bruce Ware authored a book on the Trinity, published through Crossway Books in 2005 titled Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. It is a focused examination of certain aspects of the Trinity. The subtitle reveals the focal points: “Relationships, Roles, & Relevance“. In other words, Ware is going to explore the interactions of the persons of the Trinity, the roles they play in several areas, and the relevance the doctrine has for us today. The work is unique in both its content and length. Doctrinal works on the Trinity are relatively rare. Given the academic air that Ware breathes one could easily expect a voluminous treatment. This book is a short read. Not a quick read. Short.
Dr. Ware is briefly biographed on the back cover as the Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. I have read a couple of his other works and listened to some of his lectures responding to the Open Theism heresy. His has been helpful in understanding the issues with Open Theism from a conservative evangelical point of view. So, how about this book? It has proven to be a mixed bag. Some good, some bad. Let’s look at the good first.
Ware reflects with amazement that the Father involves us in his kingdom work. I identify with the author when he roots his amazement in his own personality flaw of perfectionism. It is very hard for a perfectionist to let go of the reigns and allow someone else to do the work. I had to nod my head in agreement with Ware. The Father’s generosity of opportunity in labor that is everlasting in its fruits (namely sharing the gospel in many forms) is truly wonderful and can rightly bring wonder to our hearts as part of our vocabulary of worship.
Ware asserts that we can learn what true fatherhood is by looking to God the Father as our great exemplar. He raises distinct but complementary aspects for our consideration:
“God as Father insists on our respect and obedience.”
“God fathers us by being lavish, generous, even extravagant in his care, love, provision, and protection for his children.”
I love the way Ware builds both our awareness of God’s care and our worship vocabulary simultaneously. He has hit the true mark of theology – this is theology that issues forth in doxology, theology that leads to worship. It is not an easy mark to hit
Ware spends a full paragraph defending God’s self-revelation as Father and strongly denouncing the radical feminist pursuit to eradicate masculine language of God in Scripture. Given the heart-commitment that some have to the feminist viewpoint, it is unlikely (humanly speaking) that the arguments presented will sway their thinking. Their ears are stuffed full with zeal. Even so, I thought Ware wrote with appropriate strength about the unbiblical nature of the feminist view. If we are to take the Scriptures as God-breathed we must make sense of them as they stand, not by tinkering with the wording to make it more palatable to modern tastes (so much for my poker-face in gender-neutral translations and the egalitarian debate).
Ware highlights the need for reciprocal honor of those in authority and those under authority. He asserts that the inter-relationships of the Trinity are the model and basis for this mutual honor. He does not demand one-way honor directed towards authority. He calls for reciprocal honor, all based on observed relationships within the Trinity. There is a healthy balance that is all too easily thrown off-kilter by our lusts and love of idolatry (especially when we are the idol).
One clarification could be raised here. Ware designates the inter-relationships of the Trinity as the model for reciprocal honor between the one in authority and the one under authority and he intends us to apply it on our plane of human inter-relationships. That is where the reciprocal honor applies. Honor does not apply reciprocally between God and us. Perhaps I am naive in thinking this way, but I do not presume to expect God to honor me mutually in my relationship with Him. I may pray for His blessing, but honor flows one direction in this relationship… from me to Him.
Jesus and the Spirit
Ware examines an aspect of Jesus’ human life that I’ve rarely seen explored. He makes the case that Jesus’ sinless human life is grounded in his submission to the Spirit rather than his divine nature. In doing so, Ware is exerting himself to bring Jesus’ humanity to the forefront in the single most challenging area of the Christian faith – our daily walk. How many times have you felt disconnected from the perfection of Jesus’ life because of the easy excuse, “He was God in the flesh. What do you expect of me?” This life of submission to and reliance upon the Holy Spirit is a good point that needs to be explored more widely in modern evangelical circles. Holiness continues to be a challenge to the modern soul, at times disappearing from mention concerning the daily walk of the Christian. This is one of the points that Ware makes which could benefit from much more treatment. He cannot explore it adequately in the brevity of this work.
Real Humanity – Interconnected and Interdependent
Ware notes our American cultural autonomy and its appeal to the power of the individual. In contrast, he places Trinitarian inter-relationships as the pattern for real, authentic humanity – interconnected and interdependent. Anticipating potential reactions to what I’ve written here, I want to highlight that Ware is speaking of the influence of our cultural autonomy. Ware is not proposing a socialist political identity or some other nonsense as a corrective to our cultural autonomy.
Relationships and Essential Being Within the Trinity
Ware correctly attributes simultaneous worship of the Father and Son. He discusses equality of the essential nature of the persons of the Trinity (the ontological trinity, theologically speaking). He emphasizes and re-emphasizes the authority structure of the functional relationships of the Trinity (the economic Trinity).
Counsel for Christian Husbands
Ware writes forcefully and pointedly of the example set before Christian husbands in the care of their wives. His thought is founded upon the demonstrated interplay between the persons of the Trinity. I appreciate him including this section of the book. The way he presents the material is helpful and will make a difference in the way I care for my own dear wife.
Having noted all of the above points as good and profitable portions of Ware’s book, let’s move on to a couple of problematic propositions.
I was surprised to find what Ware has written concerning Christian prayer and Christian worship as it relates to the Trinity. Prayer and worship sit squarely in the practice of the daily Christian walk. Several other areas Ware explores in the book are experiential, but none of them have the kind of deep impact that prayer and worship have in the life of the believer.
Ware is deeply committed to the form of prayer prescribed by Jesus for the disciples in Matt 6/Luke 11. He emphasizes this form early in the work and repeats it often throughout the book. The repetition makes it obvious that this is a strong current in Ware’s theology. In a nutshell, Ware believes Christian prayer is directed to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Period.
Ware recognizes the radical nature of his position, identifying it as such in his first mention on page 18. Even though this is his initial presentation, it is phrased in very strong language. He exerts himself to bring home the controversial nature of his position. He writes the following:
“The Christian’s life of prayer must rightly acknowledge the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit as we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. … May I suggest something both clear and radical? If Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, then we ought to do this. … So prayer rightly understood – Christian prayer – is prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. To pray aright, we need a deep appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity.” p.18
I agree with Ware on two points. His position is both clear and radical. In the face of such radical clarity, should we adapt our devotional life to fit Ware’s definition of Christian prayer? After all, he is an established Christian scholar and seminary professor. It is obvious that he possesses the training and credentials to form a powerful case for his position. Nonetheless, in my years of research and observation of pseudo-Christian cults, I have constantly encountered hundreds of clear, radical beliefs. We clearly must ask the question, “Is this biblical?” Clear? Yes. Radical? Absolutely. Biblical? (spoiler alert) Absolutely not.
Ware understands well enough that he is setting himself in opposition to the devotional instruction and example that many (probably most) evangelicals have received. He writes, “We may encourage our children, especially, to open their prayers with, ‘Dear Jesus,’ despite the fact that Jesus said to pray ‘Our Father in heaven . . .'”. Let’s be clear about this. Ware isn’t suggesting a slight modification to the prayer life of the evangelical Christian, where we address the Father or the Son. He rejects prayer to Christ as Christian prayer; as praying aright; and as meaningful, biblical prayer. He explicitly states that addressing our prayers to the Father alone is to pray aright. If adherence to this position is to pray aright, then stepping outside of it is to pray awrong. Ware indicts modern evangelical piety head-on. In doing so, has he indicted biblical prayer as well?
Stephen – The First Christian Martyr
And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60, NASB)
The Disciples When Replacing Judas Iscariot
And they prayed, and said, “Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship
from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place. ” (Acts 1:24-25, NASB)
Saul’s Thorn in the Flesh
Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9, NASB)
Christ Answers Prayer Directed to Him
“And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14, NASB)
Paul Entreats Jesus
Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; (1 Thessalonians 3:11-12, NASB)
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, NASB)
The Last Prayer in the Bible
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:20, NASB)
A Biblical View
The above is a sample of the examples. They provide ample biblical evidence that Christian prayer may be directed to Christ and not solely to the Father in Christ’s name. Ware’s view is clear, radical, and unbiblical. There is a sense in which Ware’s rebuke of evangelical practice is proper. By and large, evangelical Christians appear to function as ‘Jesus only’ unitarians. We overemphasize Jesus and hold the Father at arms’ length. As a corrective to this imbalanced piety, Ware is on target that a faulty understanding of the Trinity drives us away from the Father in our devotional life. It would be a much easier pill to swallow if Ware did not employ such stark language contrasting typical practice with his radical suggestion. If his goal was to encourage us to return to addressing the Father in concert with the Son, there was no need for the extreme contrast. Due to the fact he uses such contrast, this was obviously not his simple goal. He is intentional enough in what he has said to make it clear he is proposing a complete reformation of evangelical prayer.
James White addresses the evangelical ‘Jesus only’ prayer life in his book The Forgotten Trinity with as much clarity as Ware but without adopting the radical position Ware has taken up. I heartily recommend White’s book on the Trinity as a fine starting point to understanding the Trinity and its necessary impact on all aspects of our life, faith, piety, and practice. It is a fuller treatment of the Trinity than Ware’s book. Granted, Ware is focusing on specific aspects of the Trinity, which again indicates that his book is not the place for the committed reader to begin studying the Trinity.
The Normal Pattern
When you survey the pattern of prayer demonstrated in the New Testament, you will find that most prayers are directed to the Father. Ware pushes us towards this biblical model of prayer, but he does so too forcefully. We would all benefit from cultivating our devotional relationship with the Father but this does not justify making a case appear stronger than it is. If only Ware would have approached this imbalance in a balanced manner, he may have had a much more positive and wide ranging impact. Imbalance is not corrected by another imbalance.
“Hence, Christian worship must be worship of the Son, by the power of the Spirit, to the ultimate glory of the Father. Worship is deeply satisfying and correctly expressed to the glory of this triune God only as it is exercised within this trinitarian framework” (p.155)
In approaching the topic of worship, Ware again falls into language that is too strong and imbalanced. “Christian worship must be worship of the Son”? I believe Ware is less than coherent on this point. Jesus gave explicit instruction in Luke 4:8 concerning worship of God that is unreconcilable with his instruction to the woman at the well in John 4:21-24 if we adopt Ware’s position. It feels as if Ware has made a similar error in thinking as he made with prayer. In offering a corrective to an imbalance in current practice, he goes too far and ends up out on a theological limb.
Worship and prayer are related. Many theologians consider prayer to be an act of worship. If Christian prayer (a form of worship) is to be directed to the Father alone and Christian worship (which would include prayer) is to be directed to the Son alone, we are stuck in a theological conundrum. Can we do either in a Christian fashion in the construct Ware has built? This is not theology that leads to doxology. It is theology that leads to paralysis. Other sections of the book do bring us to live as we should. The intermingled doctrines of prayer and worship as presented do not lead us to the same destination.
Not only have I been surprised at Ware’s position on prayer/worship, I am perplexed at the unqualified recommendations that internet reviewers have given the book. Brothers and sisters, are you reading carefully? While I agree that Ware has many profitable things to say, they pale in comparison to the potential damage caused by his unbalanced and contradictory positions on prayer and worship. This error is the kind of minefield that could blow apart a local church. Has anyone become convinced by Ware’s argument that prayer must be offered to the Father alone through Christ? If so, a balanced biblically-based worship service would be akin to scraping your forehead with a cheese grater. If the church has been protected wholesale by God’s grace from falling into this error, I am thankful for His outpoured mercy.
So what is my overall opinion of the book? Although Ware presents several helpful points which will make a difference in my life, the deep impact of his position on prayer/worship gives me great concern.
For Further Study Concerning Prayer to Christ
God in Three Persons
The Word Became Flesh
H. R. Mackintosh
The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ
The Trinity: Evidence and Issues
New Testament Commentary – Acts, I Corinthians
New International Commentary on the New Testament, I Corinthians
Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith
B. B. Warfield
The Lord of Glory
Systematic Theology, vol II
Know the Truth
Lectures in Systematic Theology
Reflections on the Gospel of John
Jesus is the Christ
The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, Acts 7:58-59