The failure of strict confessionalism: Theological lies and the failure to tell the truth
It is not a secret that the American Reformed churches are extremely divided. After studying Reformed theology, it is my opinion that many divisions are not warranted and driven more by ego and the need to “prove oneself.” For example, the whole republication (of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant) controversy, while interesting and worth of discussion, is in more opinion not worth the amount of heat and ink it generates. Readers can read the OPC report on this issue themselves and ask if the amount of sophistication is worth actual bickering and fighting over.
Now, it is true that some things are worth fighting over. John Gresham Machen was right to fight liberalism for example. But the amount of stuff American Reformed Christians fight over is shocking given the small proportion they have among professing believers.
This idea of fighting to establish themselves was brought to the fore in 2016, when first Todd Pruit and then Carl Trueman lobbed theological grenades accusing those who promote a doctrine called “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) or “Eternal Submission of the Son” (ESS) of heresy. This set a firestorm that continues to have its embers even today. Now, charges of heresy are serious charges, and the first step of proving any doctrine is heretical is to actually represent it correctly. If one misrepresents what one is critiquing, then it does not matter how eloquent and how biblical one argues. One is engaging in a straw man and nobody should take what is said seriously.
The 2016 ESS controversy caused me to read up on the topics raised, and the more I read the more disturbed I feel. The initial feelings were one of astonishment and anger that these prominent pastors and theologians are hypocrites when they engage in the sort of slug fest that they deplore and attack in others. Evidently, when pastors and theologians told their congregants not to attack other Christians, or not to fight online, they mean only THEY can engage in attacking other Christians, and fight online. You see, only Reformed pastors and theologians can engage in the type of conduct other Christians should not engage in. For normal Christians to do so is sin I guess, but the clergy have privileges the laity do not!
As I read into the topic, I start to feel disturbed because what the critics are saying is not what the proponents of ESS are saying. Many critics are insisting that ESS necessarily imply this and that, which are heretical. But they do not prove this point, instead taking such implications as a given. This is just for the more honest critics. Then you have militant polemicists who just want to tar ESS any way possible, like Matthew Barrett who attacks ESS as tritheistic, Sabellian and Subordinationist. Barrett’s dishonesty is seen in his attacking ESS as both tritheistic and Sabellian. Just as something cannot be A and not A at the same time, something cannot be both tritheistic and Sabellian, given tritheism holds to three gods, while Sabellian holds so closely to the unity of the one God the persons are mere “appendages” or “manifestations” of the one unitary God.
Ironically, while it is among the hardcore anti-ESS “Reformed Confessionalists” that truth has gone missing and hatred festers, it is among the egalitarians that charity continues. Glen Butner, while a critic of ESS, is fair in his critique, and makes some points that ESS proponents should address. In my engagement with Butner on social media, I have found him charitable and willing to engage, while my engagement (where there is any) with Reformed Confessionalists has been either absent, or rude and condescending, just shy of hurling anathemas.
Just stand and ask yourself: From a human point of view, who would you be predisposed towards: a rude and condescending Reformed Confessionalist, or a supposed “biblicist”? I have interacted with Bruce Ware as well as Owen Strachan, and they have been extremely courteous. They have also consistently denied the positions attributed to them. Just on the issue of optics, which side is anyone more predisposed to think is in the right?
Of course, truth is one thing, and conduct another. This is where my reading comes in. In my own personal reading, while I do not think everything said under the banner of EFS is biblical, I find it to be not the monster, the heresy, that Reformed Confessionalists accuse it of being. Again, it means a big deal when these polemicists are busy burning straw men. Lying about one’s opponents, even after being called out on it, is a sure sign that one is probably in the wrong. The sheer venom that these Reformed men spit against “biblicists” and “Arians,” while lying over and over again about their opponents, does not endear me to them. But then, who cares perhaps, since I am a non-white and a non-American, so I am nobody to them?