Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My thoughts on the recent Trinitarian controversy

Adam Parker has compiled a summary of some of the major posts on the recent Trinitarian controversy here. It seems to me that this is the first major controversy between major theologians that is being fought online, which I guess is something.

As I have established in the past few posts, I tend towards the position held by those who promote some form of ESS (Eternal Submission of the Son), even though I am a Reformed Confessionalist. That said, with regards to Ware and Grudem, I do not find some of what they say helpful on the topic. Grudem's hedging on the topic of eternal generation is a big issue in my opinion. As Grudem states,

But just what is meant by "eternal generation"? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words "paternity" and "filiation" provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean "existing as a father" and "existing as a son," which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with "eternal generation" until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If "eternal generation" simply means "an eternal Father-Son relationship," then I am happy to affirm it.) (Source)

Whether one wishes to affirm or reject eternal generation, exhibiting confusion over what the doctrine is teaching is not acceptable for a theologian who is trying to teach us concerning the doctrine of God. Eternal generation is the teaching that the person of the Son is begotten of the person of the Father from eternity, and this begetting implies likeness and royal anointing (Ps. 2). It speaks of God ad intra, not of the works of God.

In this light, the very notion of "hierarchy" when applied to the Godhead is likewise confusing at best. If by "hierarchy," we mean the submission of the Son, then we are speaking about God ad extra. Even then, the word "hierarchy" often has the connotation of some form of superior-inferior ranking, and surely this is not what complementarians want to convey, so why use such a term when we can use better terms like "submission" and "obedience"? Also, talk about God's "inner life" is infelicitous. If by that we refer to God in His works, the Persons interacting among each other before time began, that I think is orthodox, for it is in the divine counsel that the Covenant of Redemption was made. But the phrase "inner life" can, and this might be more natural, mean God's essence, and this is where we should not go, for there is no change or multiplicity in God's essence.

Thus, I do think one can legitimately raise some concerns over what some complementarians are teaching. Our doctrine of God is most sacred, and getting this right is very important. It is no point getting the doctrine of justification and all of salvation right if we end up worshiping the wrong God.

Now, if Reformed Confessionalists would just start pointing out those issues and seek clarification, I doubt we would have a big uproar as what we are having now. But it seems some people just love to come out with guns blazing. Both Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman in their initial attack posts have charged complementarians Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem with the heresy of subordinationism, of "reinventing God" and of sliding towards Arianism. All of these of course are serious charges. If true, Ware, Grudem and their group of complementarians are essentially heretics who should be placed under immediate church discipline. If false, Goligher and Trueman should repent immediately and publicly. With so much weight on those accusations, one should be ready to back them up and defend them vigorously, and to some extent the prosecuting side have been beating the drums, and posting articles attacking Ware et al on this issue.

There are two problems however with the prosecution. First, instead of going after the language of "hierarchy" and other infelicious things, they decided to go after the doctrine of the eternal submission of the Son, which implicates many people who may not be comfortable with some of the other things CBMW (Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) has been saying. Second, they are not doing a good job and misrepresent Ware and Grudem, which is quite a turn-off. Saying Ware and Grudem's position is subordinationism is different from saying it implies subordinationism. Latching onto the use of the word "subordination" is not helpful since the word itself can mean different things depending on the person who wrote it and the context. The prosecution prefers attacking where they think Ware's and Grudem's position are deficient, which would be fine IF Ware and Grudem have explicitly stated that as their position, but they have not. Again, it might be true that Ware's and Grudem's position would imply such and such an error, but that is not the same thing as saying that Ware and Grudem hold to said error.

All of these attacks have only served to alienate those of us who are striving to be biblical and confessional. Even though I might have been on their side if they have properly pointed out problems in Ware's and Grudem's doctrine of God, wild misrepresentation and broad generalizations have swung me to the other side, and I am sure I'm not the only one. Of what good does it do to misrepresent the other party and attack a doctrine that has nothing to do with subordinationism?

It is here that I am happy that Goligher has written an irenic letter to Ware and Grudem stating his points and a plea for Gospel unity. This is how the conversation should be moving, in a way that puts forward what is true and orthodox. All of Goligher's points here I have nothing to quibble about, and in fact by focusing on the pactum he has found what I think is the best place for convergence between the views.

It is my hope that subsequent exchanges be more along the lines of Goligher's letter. I think there is room for legitimate disagreements over whether we can call the role of the Son in the Pactum "Eternal Submission," but we need more light and less heat. Ultimately, all of us are trying to follow Scripture and to come to know God more in this life, so, unless there is clear heresy involved, let us dispense of the strong rhetoric and talk about our real differences as among brothers (and sisters) in Christ.


hefin said...

The pactum is key for the reformed.

It can be argued that it reflects something of the Son's generation:

(And see Allen and Swain's 2013 article and essay both entitled "The Obedience of the Eternal Son")

Or if you want to drive hard on one will and divine simplicity (as Mark Jones does) then maybe one might abandon the pactum entirely:

Daniel C said...

Hi hefin,

Yes, Allen's and Swain's work is on my to-buy list.

I think Mark Jones' hardline approach on the one will is a mistake. God has one will, because He is simple. But the one will subsists in the distinct will of the Father, the will of the Son and the will of the Spirit. To attribute "will" necessarily to "essence" is totally unnecessary, and biblically unwarranted.

I think a major problem here is that those who oppose any form of eternal submission seem to want to place the Pactum in the ad intra realm, but since the pactum is a free act of God, therefore not necessary, it should be placed in the ad extra, the works of God.

hefin said...

I think we're in general agreement.

The will is clearly an attribute of the essence but each hypostasis is a mode of the existence of the essence. Even if divine simplicity is maintained it must be done so in the light of the fact that there are three named modes of the existence of the essence each with its personal properties. God wills, i.e. God wills essentially. The Father wills. The Son wills. The Spirit wills. God wills freely according to spontaneity. I find it hard to see how the Fathers spontaneously free will and the Son's spontaneously free response of doing his Father's will isn't fully in line with Pro-Nicene orthodoxy and Reformed assumptions about God and willing. The Father, Son and Spirit's will is one, and is "simple" from an "essential" perspective, that means that it is spontaneous and concurrent or even 'reciprocal.' As the reformed orthodox said - the Father wills of himself, the Son wills of the Father, and the Spirit wills of both.

I think the pactum is the place to resolve this: Helm's approach is to be rejected because the disjunction between the revealed Trinity and the imminent Trinity becomes too great. Mark Jones' approach is to be rejected because it gives a lop sided account of what Reformed Orthodoxy says. Goligher gambit of using the pactum is useful, but it seriously qualifies his initial two post's position. A Pro-Nicene account of the Son's eternal obedience seems warranted (a la Swain 2015, Allen and Swain 2013). That account can fulfil I suspect what Ware and Grudem want. Grudem needs to work on his historical theology.

Daniel C said...

Hi hefin,

Yes, I think we are. And Grudem does need to work a lot on his historical theology.

Have you listened to the most recent Christ the Center podcast on the topic ( I think it is extremely helpful.

hefin said...

Thanks for the "Christ the Centre" link. I'm not much of a podcast listener these days but I'll make the effort!