Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways!”
NOTE: While this article might start out a little dense in its discussion of The Trinity, please keep reading…even if you feel lost…because the real focus is at the end, where we will be discussing unity in God’s church, and how to handle disputes.
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been quite the brouhaha over the issue of the Trinity in the strange and beautiful world of underground Evangelical Theology. I say underground here in a bit of a tongue in cheek way – not because the participants in the debate are factually hiding, but because the topics they often wax poetic about are a bit inscrutable for Joe and Betty Averagechurchgoer. Happily, nobody has thus far been excommunicated, either rightly, very rightly, or wrongly, and, very fortunately, nobody has been killed.
What has happened, however, is that good Christian teachers and pastors 1 have been said to be presenting a new or novel understanding of God. They have been accused of “reinventing the doctrine of God,” and “departing from biblical Christianity,” and “promoting a new way of looking at human relationships which is more like Islam than Christianity,” Not to mention, it is suggested that these men are in danger of themselves departing from the faith by incremental adjustments in doctrine AND leading others away from the faith altogether! In addition to all of that, there appears to be the suggestion that some who hold to a particular nuance of Trinitarian understanding (Eternal Functional Subordination/EFS) are not fit for any leadership role in the church, and have moved into the realm of unorthodox theology. While the direct charge of heresy has not been leveled by the principle participants in this debate, I have seen the word thrown around quite liberally in comments and discussions on this issue. These charges, put forward in various places (Here, Here, Here) are incredibly serious, at least on the surface. 2
How are men like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Bruce Ware and others committing all of these egregious acts? Here is how: “What they have done is to take the passages referring to the economic Trinity and collapse them into the ontological Trinity.” Now – that charge, I suppose, isn’t going to make a ton of sense to most Christians, and even most Christian leaders. For a solid article to help you understand the Trinity better, and the issue of the Economic Trinity vs the Ontological Trinity, you’d do well to peruse Matt Slick’s discussion HERE. Essentially though, the Ontological Trinity is the essential being and nature of the Trinity – One God, Three Persons, equal in attributes and divinity. The Economic Trinity is basically concerned with how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit relate to each other and to humanity. Goligher and others are proposing that some evangelical Christians are so misrepresenting the Trinity that they are in danger of leaving orthodoxy and leading others away from the faith.
Specifically, this particular Trinitarian debate has been raging over the question of whether or not The Son (Jesus) is eternally subordinate to God the Father in function, not in ontological actuality. Now – before your head starts spinning, and you click off of here to read a post on Relevant Magazine, or the Hall of Dogma, or even the Reformed Pub…let me beg your indulgence for a few more moments. This post isn’t mostly about the various nuances of how, precisely, the Trinity works. Rather, it is about the question of whether or not committed Great Commission Christians should publicly engage in sharp, orthodoxy-questioning debate over nuances of the Trinity at all. 3
To get an idea of the type of dialog that has been going on, and the density and depth of it, read this summary statement at the end of Fred Sander’s very good review of a recent book on Trinitarian theology:
“There is, in the relations of origin of the triune God, an irreversible taxis to which the obedience of the incarnate Christ corresponds in human form. It’s an eternal procession that reaches its strangely logical final conclusion in the sending of the Son. As for his submission to the Father, I don’t know what they call it in the happy land of the Trinity, but when it lives among us it is rightly named obedience.” (Final paragraph of Sander’s review of Bruce Ware and John Starke’s One God in Three Persons)
Here’s another paragraph from that same review. You don’t have to read it all, I’m just posting it here to give you an idea of the level of discussion that is involved when theologians talk about God as Trinity. Keep in mind that this paragraph (and the one above) isn’t actually from a heavy theological book or article – it is from a review of such a book or article. Essentially, it represents the Cliff’s Notes of the discussion:
“But he leans heavily on the pro-Nicene Hilary of Poitiers, which means he promotes eternal relations of origin to a place logically prior to, and in fact forming the only possible ground for, a relation of submission. “Just as begottenness entails the Son’s full deity, so it also entails subjection.” (150) Contra egalitarian flattenings of the Trinity in the fourth or the twenty-first century, Ovey recalls that “the Trinitarian persons are not ‘three brothers,’ or ‘three friends.’” (152) But again, Ovey gets submission by getting generation first: “filial submission is a natural consequence of true sonship,” and true sonship comes from coming from.”
Reading a sentence phrase like “true sonship comes from coming from,” is one indication that we are in deep theological waters here. Any discussion of the Trinity has the potential to quickly go into the deepest ends of the pool, because God Himself is so very deep (Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways!”) As such, any discussion of the particular nuances of the Trinity – particularly one that revolves around the issue of how God the Son eternally relates to the Father post-ascension – is going to be particularly complex. Is Jesus in eternal functional subordination to the Father, as is alleged by teachers and writers like Wayne Grudem, Denny Burk, John Piper, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachen, and many more? Or, was His submission to the Father limited to the time that Jesus was on the earth, as alleged by Trueman, Goligher, Russell Moore, and others. It is a good question, and one that is worth wrestling with scripturally. It is not, however, a shibboleth question that determines whether one is or is not orthodox, but that is precisely what is being claimed by Goligher, Trueman, etc. Consider the ending of Goligher’s essay:
“So, here is the bottom line: God has revealed Himself as Trinity. To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry…What we face in evangelicalism today is at best shoddy thinking and at worst ungodly thinking about the first principle of our religion – “Who is God?” The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ’s church. Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake – our own and our hearers’ eternal destiny.” – Liam Goligher
Ultimately, there is a way to discuss the Trinity, and to even challenge each other scripturally. This, however, is not that way. Understand that Goligher here is accusing Piper, Grudem, Ware, et al. (myself largely included…) of moving beyond orthodoxy into idolatry, engaging in shoddy/ungodly thinking, and potentially leading themselves and the church into eternal damnation. ALL over the issue of whether or not Jesus is still, in some ways, functionally subordinate to God the Father. And the truly amazing thing to me is that in the entirety of Goligher’s two essays, he never once references 1 Corinthians 15, which is probably the clearest passage in all of Scripture that might teach the eternal functional subordination of the Son:
1 Corinthians 15:27-28 “For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.”
To write a series of essays that suggest that those who believe in EFS of the Son are outside of orthodoxy and leading people away from eternal life is unnecessary in the extreme. To do so without citing 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 4 seems egregiously…unfair. It would be akin to attacking complementarian theology and never dealing with 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2, or being a “Christian” universalist who ignores John 14:6. That said, however, this is not ultimately a paper written in defense of EFS, a position that I barely hold to myself with a bit of a tenuous grasp. (That is to say that I am not quite persuaded that Jesus is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father in a few non-Arian ways, but I gsee that some Scripture seems to point in that direction. That said, I don’t understand the specifics of how that subordination might play out eternally, and I am not sure that the Bible precisely details it for us to understand.) This paper is ultimately about unity, and a hopefully charitable warning about arguing over words.
The ultimate question here is this: What do we divide over? That there is a time to divide, I will freely admit. There are some deviant positions on the Trinity that are so outside of Scripture, that it would seem that humble and grieving division is the only possible outcome. The question being raised in this writing is whether or not a seemingly small and detailed differing understanding of the Trinity, one that would be very difficult to explain to the average mature Christian, is worth dividing over. It would seem that supporters of EFS and non-supporters of EFS both have significant Scripture to point to that is worth considering here. Some, even most of those EFS pertinent Scriptures, such as the 1 Corinthians 15 passage quoted above, are quite difficult to understand fully. There are some Scriptures, however, that warn against quarreling in the church, that are not terribly difficult to understand. Here are a few of those Scriptures:
1. 2 Timothy 2:23-24 23 But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.24 The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and
patient, 25 instructing his opponents with gentleness.
- 2 Timothy 2:14 14 Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.
- Philippians 2:13-14 14 Do everything without grumbling and arguing,15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world.
- Titus 3: 9 But avoid foolish debates,genealogies, quarrels, and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
- Ephesians 4:1-3 I therefore,a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
These Scriptures do NOT prohibit calling out false teachers. They do not disallow the vigorous discussion of deep points of biblical doctrine. They do not prohibit rebuking those who need to be rebuked. They do, however, unquestionably warn Christians away from disputing about words; they warn Christians to not engage in quarrels; and they exhort Christians to eagerly fight and maintain the unity of the Spirit in peaceful ways. I submit that questioning the orthodoxy of fellow believers over deep and nuanced understandings of the Trinity that are scripturally supportable, is a violation of those passages. This is not how we should debate online – in full view of Christians and otherwise.How should we debate online? We should keep the above passages firmly in the forefront of our mind (and others like them) when we are debating with professing Christians. Perhaps more so when we are debating with those who do not profess faith. “Let your gentleness be evident to ALL,” counsels Paul in Philippians 4:5. Consider also these wise words of John “Amazing Grace” Newton, written down hundreds of years ago in letter form to a friend who was about to engage in a debate with a fellow believer:
* “As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write. If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
* Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists (!!!), are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.”
* If you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God. Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill-treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors….If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.
Good words, brothers and sisters, let us ponder these words from Newton and take them to heart! If we are to discuss theology – even debate it, then let us resolve the following:
1. To discuss and debate in a way that is profitable for the one we are discussing or debating with.
2. To discuss and debate in a way that is NOT a stumbling block in any way for those that might watch or listen in on our debate.
3. To discuss and debate in a way that brings glory to God and shows forth a Christlike (and Pauline) care to exhibit Truth forged in the fires of Love and Love that is informed by Truth.
- People like Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, John Piper, and many others. ↩
- Most of the quotes in the paragraphs above are taken from Pastor Liam Goligher’s post, found on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelical’s site. Of particular note is the comments section of the first post in particular, which feature multiple charges of heresy directed at Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and others involved in this debate. Most of the charges of heresy appear to be coming from Evangelical feminists and/or egalitarians who disagree with the complementarian stance of Grudem/Ware. ↩
- Note: For part one of this post, I intend to intentionally skirt the whole element of this issue that is related to complementarian and egalitarian theology. But, you protest, that is one of the core issues here theologically!! Yes, I agree with you. And while I am a convinced complementarian theologically (not at all because of issues relating to the Trinity), this article is not an attempt to add to the Trinity discussion from a theological perspective. There are more and better theologians than I that are already engaged in the theological dimensions of this issue. I am trying to raise a different issue entirely. ↩
- As well as treating 1 Corinthians 11:3-4 as only applying to Jesus’ time on the earth is strange at best ↩