Today we are pleased to share the following guest post from Kyle Claunch, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary. Kyle also contributed the essay “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarianism in the Immanent Trinity” in the recent volume edited by John Starke and Bruce Ware, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). This essay was recently quoted by Carl Trueman on the Mortification of Spin site. Here, Kyle offers some clarifications about his essay and its argument, clarifications which dovetail well with yesterday’s post on arbitrating the Trinity debate.
An Attempt at Clarity and Charity Without Compromising Orthodoxy
by Kyle Claunch
If you are reading this, I can only assume that you are current on the debate over the Son’s obedience to the Father (the ERAS debate) that is unfolding at break-neck speed in social media and the blogosphere. When dealing with questions of eternal relations in the Godhead, I fear that the speed demanded by social media and blog posts may result in more confusion than clarity, more heat than light. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of this particular iteration of the debate (the intra-mural battle between fellow reformed complementarians). However, developments this week have drawn me into the fray. I pray my comments here are clear, helpful, pleasing to God, and serve to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Albert Mohler defended the orthodoxy of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. I found Mohler’s post to be helpful and demonstrated the appropriate support for two theologians whose work has benefitted the church in countless ways. Two statements made by Mohler are particularly relevant for this post. First, Mohler acknowledges that an affirmation of “separate wills in the Trinity” would be heretical. Second, Mohler asserts that the teachings of Grudem and Ware “do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it.”
Carl Trueman was quick to respond to Mohler’s claim. He noted that he could cite widely respected patristic scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes to demonstrate that indeed the ERAS Trinitarianism of Ware and Grudem is not consistent with Nicene Trinitarianism. Instead, Trueman quoted from my chapter in One God in Three Persons, the book co-edited by Bruce Ware (along with John Starke), as follows (brackets and bold print are in Trueman’s post):
“One often overlooked feature of such a proposal [on eternal submission of Son to Father as articulated by Grudem and Ware] is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity. In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills. This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it. According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity.
By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. The model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons.”
In those two paragraphs, I say two things that seem to conflict with Mohler’s defense of Ware and Grudem: (1) The ERAS position of Ware and Grudem seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the Trinity and (2) this entailment runs counter to the pro-Nicene tradition.
Only hinted at in the quoted portion above but discussed more fully a few lines later is the fact that the Nicene Creed articulates the eternal distinction between the divine persons in terms of eternal relations of origin – generation and procession. The ERAS model of Ware, Grudem, and others identifies the relationship of authority and submission as that which differentiates the persons within the one divine essence. Furthermore, although Ware and Grudem do not formally reject the language of eternal generation and procession, they have questioned whether the exegetical support from Scripture offered in justification of the Creed’s use of that language does in fact justify the language. To many, this concern over the exegetical basis for the language of relations of origin has been interpreted, unfairly, as a wholesale rejection of Nicene Trinitarianism.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should state openly that I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology under the supervision of Bruce Ware at Southern Seminary, where Dr. Mohler is president. You can imagine that I was greatly disquieted by the fact that my published words had been used to discredit the claims of the president of my seminary and the orthodoxy of my supervising professor! My concerns, however, go far deeper than self-interest. In this post, I hope to accomplish three things: (1) Provide clarification on my words and my assessment of the Trinitarian theology of Ware and Grudem; (2) ask two questions of those who wish to label ERAS proponents as heretics (and anyone else who might be interested to consider them); (3) make a final plea concerning charity and equity in theological discourse for the sake of gospel witness, especially in the matter of charging brothers and sisters in Christ with theological error.
Clarification of my assessment of ERAS
While my words were accurately quoted by Trueman, these two brief paragraphs do not tell the whole story of my assessment of the Trinitarian theology held by Ware and Grudem.
I personally do not subscribe to ERAS Trinitarian theology as articulated by Ware and Grudem. In my chapter in One God in Three Persons, “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity?” I lay out my understanding of the correspondence between the obedience of the incarnate Son to the Father and the role relationships of men and women as taught in the New Testament. I still believe that essay represents a fruitful way forward for those who believe that 1 Corinthians 11:3 does indeed establish some connection between gender complementarity and the Trinity but who detect some legitimacy in the trenchant theological critiques of Grudem and Ware.
Because my essay was published as a chapter in a book where many of the authors (Ware and Grudem included) advocate for the terminology of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity, I felt compelled to clarify that my proposal does not advocate the use of such terms. However, in keeping with the overarching theme of the book, my proposal does establish a connection between the obedience of the Son and gender relations, via a robust analogical divide between the incomprehensible Creator and the creation. In clarifying the differences between my proposal and that of Ware, Grudem, and some others, I felt it necessary to explain why I do not find the language of eternal authority and submission to be helpful. That is where the quotation from Trueman comes into play.
While I maintain that three distinct wills in the Godhead does run counter to the established language of the pro-Nicene consensus and the heritage that emerged from it, I have refused to call ERAS proposals heretical for two reasons. First, at the time of writing my essay, it was not entirely clear from the publishing record of Ware or Grudem that they were consciously rejecting the heritage of one will in the Godhead. It seemed plausible that there might be some nuanced explanation for how authority and submission might manifest itself in the Godhead with one will. Indeed I had hopes that my essay in this volume might spark just such a clarifying discussion. Hence, I said that their proposal “seems to entail” a commitment to three distinct wills in the Godhead. In fact, subsequent to the publication of the book, Ware has told me through private correspondence that he holds to one will in the Godhead, each person exercising the one divine will according to his hypostatic identity as Father, Son, or Spirit. I will allow Ware to speak for himself as to how he understands and articulates this.
Second, while I was concerned with the reluctance of some ERAS proponents to fully embrace the creedal language of eternal relations of origin (generation and procession), it seemed to me then, and still does now, that their contention was with the exegetical basis for that language and thus with the adequacy of that language to express clearly the orthodoxy they knew the Creed intended to establish. The council of Nicaea (and later Constantinople) used the language of eternal generation to preserve two non-negotiable truths: (1) the full eternality of the Son who shares fully the divine essence with the Father against the Arians who appealed to the language of generation in Scripture to defend their aberrant views of the Son and (2) the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son so as to avoid the error of modalism. That is, the language of eternal generation preserved the conviction that Paternity and filiation are eternal relations in the immanent being of God, not simply manifestations in the economy. I am fully aware that the doctrine of eternal generation does far more for Trinitarian theology than just to safeguard those cardinal truths, but I think all sides can agree that is the chief end of clinging to the church’s historic affirmation of eternal generation. After my extensive reading of Grudem and Ware and my extensive personal instruction under the teaching of Ware (not to mention a friendship forged in the fires of theological inquiry and pursuit), I knew these men to be tediously careful to articulate the full deity and eternality of the Son and his eternal sonship as Son of the Father from all eternity. Therefore, even if some ERAS proponents continue to express concerns with the exegetical basis of eternal relations of origin, it is unthinkable to me to apply the same “heresy” label to theologians who carefully preserve those cardinal truths as we apply to theologians who explicitly reject those truths. In other words, I cannot consider the likes of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, who raise critical questions about the terminology of “eternal generation,” as occupying the same contemptible theological space as those who reject the eternality and deity of the Son of God, even if I do not share their concerns with the use of the traditional terminology.
Indeed, this is why I wrote the words, “By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories.” I wanted to say that I do not view these theologians as abandoning the fundamental orthodoxy of the doctrine of the Trinity, as established by the first and second ecumenical councils of the church.
Two Questions for Those Making Accusations of Heresy Against Ware and Grudem
1. Can we not (and should we not) distinguish between a departure from some of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition?
Or, in the case of Ware and Grudem, should we not distinguish between questioning the exegetical basis of the words of the creedal tradition and a departure from the orthodoxy of that tradition? Is there no difference between Arian denials of the full deity of the Son and Grudem’s and Ware’s concerns with the exegetical basis of the terminology of eternal generation/procession? Should no distinction be made between an explicit denial of divine essential unity and a Trinitarian proposal that we fear “seems to entail” three wills in the Godhead? Indeed, this distinction is observed by many who disagree with ERAS Trinitarianism but by no means wish to use the “heresy” label. For example, Luke Stamps argues cogently that a rejection of the eternal relations of origin (generation and procession) is a departure from the language of the Nicene tradition and that “we should be extraordinarily wary of abandoning it.” He goes on to say, “For [proponents of ERAS], the language of rank or order within the Trinity is not tied to relations of origin but to intrinsic relationships of authority and submission, command and obedience. Now, we need to be clear, this is not heresy. But it isn’t quite what the pro-Nicene tradition has handed down to us either” (bold print is my emphasis). Stamps seems to be operating with a conscious distinction between heresy (a rejection of the principle truths of Nicene orthodoxy) and what he perceives to be problematic but lesser departures from the traditional heritage. I find this distinction to be critical to temperate and charitable theological discourse and debate.
So, to those who insist on using the label of heresy to describe the ERAS position, is there not a place in our public discourse for a distinction like this one? If so, then we do well to make such a distinction explicit when charging a brother or sister in Christ with theological error. It would be immensely helpful and would calm the tone of some of the rhetoric if those using the label of heresy would acknowledge that they are not describing a rejection of the eternality/deity of the Son and his eternal filial individuality in relation to the Father. Furthermore, if the distinction is legitimate, it behooves us as Christian brothers and sisters to avoid declaring one another outside the parameters of the Trinitarian theology of the church catholic for articulating an ERAS position.
2. Do the warnings that stem from the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility apply to the language of the Nicene Creed in particular and the creedal tradition in general?
Does the sword of divine incomprehensibility cut both ways in this debate? A recurring accusation against Ware, Grudem, and other proponents of ERAS is that they fail to account for the infinite ontological gap between God as he is in himself and the revelation of God in the economies of creation and redemption. It is argued that Ware and Grudem draw too straight a line between the authority and submission found in created relationships – Jesus to the Father, wives to husbands – and the eternal relations in the Godhead. The critique may be fair, but does the critique apply to those who insist so vehemently on the language of the Creed also? After all, doesn’t the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility demand that we acknowledge that the language of eternal generation and procession is accommodated language drawn from the realm of the human experience of paternity and filiation? The fact that the Nicene Creed painstakingly qualifies the language of generation and procession to indicate that it is not the same as creaturely generation and procession does not mean that the Creedal formula dwells on the other side of the ontological gap between God and creation. Furthermore, does not our confessional and conscientious commitment to the authority of Scripture alone demand that all accommodated language apart from Scripture is subject to scrutiny, critique, and reformulation? I am by no means suggesting that the language of eternal relations of origin needs reformulation. In fact, I believe strongly that no such reformulation is necessary and that the overwhelmingly heavy burden of proof rests on those who believe that it does. But if the accommodated language of the Creed is unassailable under pain of being labeled a heretic and reckoned outside of the church catholic, then are we really taking the doctrines of divine incomprehensibility and Sola Scriptura seriously?
One Final Plea
The clarity of our gospel witness is paramount in this debate as in all things we say and do as Christian theologians, pastors, professors, and disciples. If indeed there is a legitimate distinction between questioning certain words of the Creed and departures from the theological orthodoxy of the creed, then it follows that our greatest vehemence should be reserved for theological ideas that actually undermine the Triune identity of the one true and living God and thus undercut the very foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theological discourse and debate done well builds the church of Jesus Christ and positions her to better withstand the onslaught of satanic ideologies that threaten to erode her foundation, thus destroying her witness. We must be wary that the methods of the old serpent, such as hubris and intemperateness, do not make their way, Trojan horse style, into the ranks of those whom the Lord has placed as watchmen on our walls.
I am not proposing that debate on this topic cease, nor am I suggesting that error falling short of the label of heresy should be tolerated without being refuted. I am, however, suggesting that all proposed theological error should be refuted with charges that approximate the seriousness of the error, no more, no less.