The Trinity Debate: A Year of Reflections

Last summer, the evangelical Internet was ablaze with debates over the Trinity. The question at hand was, basically, whether or not the Son was subordinate or somehow under the Father’s authority before the Incarnation. No one denies that Jesus submitted to the Father’s will after the Incarnation, as biblical texts are rather clear on this (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38, 14:31; et al.). But the question comes down to how we handle the texts that refer to Jesus before the Incarnation (such as John 1:1ff; Phil. 2:6-11; et al.), and how to mesh all of this with the early Church’s foundational creeds, confessions, and writings.

Instead of rehashing everything here, I have pulled together a brief reading list to refresh your memory or help you catch up for the first time:

  • This article by Liam Goligher started it all (here)
  • Bruce Ware’s response to Goligher (here)
  • Michael Bird’s overview of the concerns (here)
  • Fred Sanders’s outline of foundational Trinitarian affirmations (here)
  • Matt Emerson’s overview of exegesis and history (here)
  • The late Michael Ovey’s rejoinder to the claims (here)
  • Luke Stamps’s survey of the underlying issue in the debate (here) and thoughts on the EFS position (here)

From senior professors to PhD students to undergrads, everyone jumped into the fray, offering their opinions, rebukes, and (thankfully) simply asking questions. The result of this debate was two-fold: (1) professors were forced to tighten up their language about the Trinity, with several scholars doubling back or modifying their positions; and (2) students were forced to make sure they care about the nuances moving forward that some of these professors had overlooked.

We should all be encouraged that this debate happened in public and right in front of us, because it taught us a few good lessons. As a PhD student writing on the Trinity, I have reflected extensively on the debate over the past year. I have learned two lessons in particular that could benefit scholars and students alike:

1. It Is Virtuous to Be Humble and Speak Slowly

The temptation for all of us, especially in the digital age, is to give our opinions. For example, this debate saw undergrads and seminarians calling out theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware before either man had time to respond to the articles aimed at him. Conversely, many decided to take on Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman in defense of Grudem and Ware, as though their multi-decade careers of studying and writing on the subject didn’t prepare them to defend themselves.

This is not to say that undergrads and seminarians can’t speak into the conversation. In fact, no one is barred from speaking into it and you’re not inferior to any of the scholars in the debate. But it’s an interesting phenomenon that Ware and Grudem didn’t have 48 hours to respond before half of the Internet was trying to speak on their behalf or against them. They’re big boys, they can handle it. And as seasoned laborers in this debate, it doesn’t hurt to let them have the first word out of sheer respect for their sacrifice and dedication. I was impressed that here at Biblical Reasoning, Matt and Luke posted an open letter by Ware, even though they ultimately disagreed with his conclusions. This was a good example of humility and respect toward a senior scholar in the midst of a tense discussion.

Seminarian — maybe you do have something to say. Maybe you’ve read several books on the Trinity, including some of the primary sources from the 4th century patristic foundations of the debate. Maybe you already know how to parse generation and subordination, how to exegete the difficult texts, and what Gregory of Nyssa thinks about the subject. That’s great! But let me encourage you to practice being slow to speak, even if it’s not a sin to speak. As I mentioned above, there were Trinitarian scholars having to rethink a decade of work when this conversation arose! So there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and trying to learn even more before you attempt to school everyone else online. Patience and humility are always virtuous.

2. It Is Crucial to Do the Quiet Work of Study

Semi-related, this debate shows us that doing the quiet work of deep study — that work that no one sees but you and the Lord — is extremely important. While some seminarians were moderately able to chime into the debate, the truth is, there was a lot of pontification with little substance. There were seminarians online who hadn’t read a single book on the topic, had no idea the difference between the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, didn’t know basic terminology at hand, and didn’t even understand “what the big deal is.”

Worse, there were scholars in the field taking the microphone and singing way out of tune, as though they’d never exercised their Trinitarian vocal chords before they stepped on stage at the Grand Old Nicene Opry. Some were ignorant of historical sources, others simply defiant toward what it means to converse intelligently and winsomely in academia. If anyone should be modeling the work of deep theological study, it’s our professors, right? Don’t be the person who “fakes it ’til you make it,” getting by on talent and even character without doing the work needed to genuinely contribute to the Church the way your career calls you to.

Seminarian — maybe you’re the smartest student on campus. Maybe you can riff on theology, wowing freshmen and first-year seminarians with your megabrain. Maybe you can write like a world-class poet. That’s great! Use it to encourage and educate when you can. But don’t forget to read, read, and read some more. Dig into primary sources. Read an occasional obscure article. Read biblical commentaries. And please, for the love of Tertullian, read your Bible. Don’t copycat your favorite theologian while not reading the stuff he read to get there.

In all things, we can all remember that doctrine matters because speaking about God rightly matters. We shouldn’t take it lightly. May we all be humble, study hard, and do our work to the glory of God.

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