An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate

nicenecreedIn this debate, Stamps and I have been between a rock and a hard place. That is to say, both of us genuinely believe in the importance of affirming Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and clarified not only at Nicaea (325) but also at Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451). We therefore are sympathetic to the criticisms of the views of, say, Wayne Grudem, who casts doubt upon eternal generation and posits EFS (now ERAS) in its place. We take these criticisms seriously because we take Nicene Trinitarianism seriously.

On the other hand, the way these concerns were raised was and is not helpful, either. (I am thinking particularly Liam Goligher’s initial post that compared EFS/ERAS to Islam and insinuated that it is something akin to heresy, but also subsequent posts from others along those same lines.) I will come back to this in a moment, but here I will summarize and say that the rhetorical heat has not often given adequate consideration to the actual content of Grudem et al’s position. Note that this is not just a critique of tone per se, but more importantly a critique of the use of such tone without basis. (As counter examples, see both Fred Sanders and Malcolm Yarnell, who’ve been sympathetic to but also critical of ERAS, all while being fair and even.) I think, therefore, that while I am not satisfied with any ERAS proponents’ response, I also agree with e.g. Dr. Mohler’s call to refrain from using the label of “heresy” or its cognates.

Given these concerns on both sides, how can we all move forward?

1. The ERAS proponents need to take their interlocutors’ historical and biblical challenges seriously.

To be clear, from my perspective, the academic onus in this debate is on ERAS proponents. Contrary to Dr. Grudem’s initial proposal for this doctrine (see his various monographs) and his recent list of past and current theologians that supposedly support his view, a collection of historical and biblical proof texts for one’s position does not a doctrine make. If one reads the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicenes, and if one familiarizes themselves with the secondary literature (of which there is an ever increasing amount of late), it becomes very clear that Michael Haykin’s seemingly prophetic Facebook post from about two months ago, in which he said that “there is not even a whiff of subordination” in the pro-Nicene Trinitarian formulations, is entirely accurate. Further, the subsequent history of interpretation and dogmatic reflection relies on that 4th and 5th century language. And so when we hear “subordination” and “modes of subsistence” in later theologians, including those that Dr. Grudem cites in support, we must realize that they are using terms that originated in the 4th and 5th century debates and were used for very particular purposes, none of which were to speak of a differentiation in authority in the Godhead.

It is therefore not advancing the debate for Dr. Grudem to cite these sources when many of them clearly do not support his view once we consider the historical meaning of the terms, nor is it helpful for others who support ERAS, like Owen Strachan, to simply quote Dr. Grudem’s post and then refer to it as an irrefutable “murderer’s row.” It is also not advancing the debate to simply quote 1 Cor. 11:3 or 15:28, among other texts, as if simply pointing to one or two texts solves the entire issue. These texts have been thoroughly exegeted throughout church history, and not until the twentieth century have they been taken to refer to ERAS within the Christian tradition. I would encourage Dr. Grudem, Dr. Strachan, and others involved to take seriously the challenges made to their position, both on biblical and historical grounds. Additionally, ERAS proponents need also to address the dogmatic implications of their view, and particularly the issue of the unity of the divine will. Until they do, the hit pieces will keep on comin. But in that regard,

2. The ERAS opponents need to tone down the rhetoric and represent their interlocutors accurately.

Remember the 9th commandment, brothers and sisters.

“Heresy,” “heterodoxy,” “division,” and “ordinational revocation,” are very, very serious terms. They should only be used in the most obvious of circumstances. Here many will say, “but this is an obvious circumstance! Grudem et al have attempted to depart from Nicene Christianity!” To which I would say, no, not quite. Yes, it is true that (at least) Grudem has cast doubt upon eternal generation. And yes, it is true that, in its place, he has posited the innovative doctrine of ERAS. And yes, as a matter of historical accuracy, this is a departure from the development of Nicaea to Constantinople and (seemingly) a departure, therefore, from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

But here is where we should be (should have been) overly cautious. It is no small thing to accuse someone of heresy, or of not being a Nicene Christian. So what exactly is Grudem trying to do with this? Is he simply departing from Nicaea, and doing so without much concern for the seriousness of that departure?

Well, he certainly is not attempting to deny the homoousion. In fact, he affirms this wholeheartedly. A more accurate way of describing his project, then, is to say that he is attempting to affirm the spirit of Nicaea and the subsequent Creed, but through different means than eternal generation. He does so because he does not think there is anything in particular in the Bible that demands the affirmation of eternal generation (Grudem’s view is given in his ST, pp. 1233-34).

Now, some may fault him here and say that he has not read the Fathers’ exegetical warrant carefully, or used an appropriate theological method, or any number of other things. But, as Protestants who affirm sola scriptura, we can at least say that he is attempting to honor that confession by being semper reformanda, even if what’s in his sights to reform is the Nicene Creed. Additionally, we can also admit that he is casting doubt upon eternal generation not because he does not want to affirm the homoousion, but precisely because he does, just in what he sees as a more biblically warranted way.

This is not high-handed heresy. This is not even heresy per se, since it does not match any historical position. And it is not even “denying Nicaea,” because what Grudem is trying to do is affirm the Nicene Creed in what he considers to be a biblically faithful way. Now, I don’t really know what to call all that, but it is not heresy. It is not anti-Nicene, at least in spirit if not in letter. It is not something that automatically demands division among Christians, or among evangelicals more particularly.

So, what is the solution?

3. The answer to this Trinity debate is not division but sustained, charitable dialogue and disputation.

The truth is that if we really boil this down to what’s underneath it all, we’ll come up with two opposing methods. On the ERAS side, Grudem et al are biblicists. They want to see you prove a doctrine from the text and from the text alone, and if you cannot do it then they will not believe it. (That is an attitude that this Baptist can definitely appreciate!) On the non-ERAS side, there is a confessional hermeneutic informed by not just exegesis of individual passages but also the history of interpretation and creeds and confessions. As those who affirm sola Scriptura, the Bible always takes prime place in doctrinal authority. But there is also a derivative authority given to creeds and confessions, one that is reflective of the Bible’s content and therefore helps Bible readers to understand it.

Given this large methodological gap, the non-ERAS camp cannot expect to yell “heresy” or “non-Nicene” and see any results. If you were to charge Wayne Grudem with heresy (which, isn’t it ironic that this doctrinal lawsuit is being carried out by crossing ecclesial lines), or even with some lesser charge related to this teaching, what effect would that have? He does not approach defining heresy in the same way a confessional reader would. For Grudem, heresy is departing from the Bible, not the Creed per se. Now, one might respond and say the Creeds are reflective of the Bible, and that may be so (I believe that it is so). But my point is that, if Grudem thinks at some point the Creeds are not reflective of Scripture, he does not deem it heresy to find alternative means of getting to the spirit of the Creed’s confession.

Again, the answer, therefore, is not division but dialogue – even debate and disputation – but within the ranks of those committed to the absolute truthfulness of Scripture and the importance of historic orthodoxy. Yes, I would agree with non-ERAS proponents that the burden is on ERAS proponents to prove their view is biblical and historical. And yes, I find more affinity with a confessional hermeneutic than a biblicist one. And so yes, I would hope the fruit of this dialogue and debate would be non-ERAS proponents helping ERAS proponents to see the gaps in their exegesis, their theological method, and their understanding of the Christian tradition. Of course, an ERAS proponent would tell me it’s the other way around, and that I need to rethink my exegesis, my method, and my historical understanding.

But that is precisely what is needed – for us to talk to each other, not past one another.



4 thoughts on “An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate

  1. Pingback: Blogstorms, digital teacups: New Calvinists and Nicene Trinitarianism « The Patrologist

  2. Dear Matt,
    I do not know you, but I thank the Triune God that you have said this. And I thank you as well.

    Thank you,

  3. Pingback: Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate | Secundum Scripturas

  4. Matt,

    Thank you for this gracious article. It may be my favorite piece so far in this whole debate. Your comments near the end about methodology and biblicism hit the nail on the head, while also hitting a nerve with me personally. Like you, I am a Baptist. And like you, I have great respect for the classical catholic tradition. At the same time, I have often felt an inward tension between these two parts of my thinking.

    It’s not that the two are formally contradictory (though some might disagree with that). It’s more of an underlying ethos. To be a Baptist, you have to be the kind of person who is committed enough to sola scriptura that you’re willing to assert that the broader catholic tradition got some pretty major things wrong for a pretty long time. This can range anywhere from a Trail of Blood primitivism to a semper reformanda spirit (Latin and all). But it inevitably requires us to say something like “The Reformers made a lot of necessary corrections, but they didn’t go far enough.” Which, it seems to me, is exactly the same kind of mindset you find toward divine immutability, etc. in someone like Bruce Ware or Wayne Grudem. In other words, I don’t see how we can totally rule out this mindset while remaining honest Baptists.

    How can we integrate these two streams of thinking wisely? And who are some good models for us to look to today?

    In Christ,

    Justin Dillehay

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