Grudem and Eternal Generation: Did I Bury the Lede?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Books

The inimitable Fred Sanders has reviewed the revised Trinity chapter in Wayne Grudem’s second edition of Systematic Theology. As per usual, Fred’s take is clear, measured, engaging, grounded in Scripture, well-versed in the tradition, and just the right amount of levity. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the nub of the review is Fred’s attempt to move the conversation away from Grudem’s eternal functional subordination (EFS) to his affirmation of eternal generation, which signals a reversal from the first edition. It’s not that Fred ignores or downplays the problems that remain with Grudem’s insistence on EFS, not least its superfluity and awkward fit with the eternal relations of origin that Grudem now affirms. But Fred’s point is more of a hope and a prediction:

If it were in my power to divert attention and passion into the right channels, I would direct everybody to focus on the doctrine of eternal relations of origin in the triune God….I predict eternal generation will prove its vigor, and the persuasiveness of EFS will continue to fade.

As I noted at the beginning of my post the other day, Grudem’s new edition has made two or three noteworthy shifts: he now affirms eternal generation and the unity of the divine will and qualifies some of his speculations with the language of mystery. But the greater part of my initial response wrestled with the implications of Grudem’s continued commitment to EFS. Fred seems to disagree with this prioritization:

The doctrine of eternal relations of origin is so important that I can survey Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Second Edition, and say that of the two Trinitarian news stories –the addition of eternal generation and the double-down on eternal functional subordination– the former is by far the bigger story.  I don’t expect many people to agree with me in that estimation, but through a number of conflicts and confusions in the past decade, the strategic task of retrieving eternal generation has been the main objective worth striving for. Let me put it this way: By faithfully equipping his readers with the doctrine of eternal generation in this second edition (and cutting appendix 6!), Grudem has given his students the orientation they need to take their trinitarian theology further into the satisfying resources of the great tradition than his first edition encouraged. Let eternal generation have its patient, perfect work, and obviating the felt need for EFS will be among its lesser accomplishments.

I appreciate Fred’s attempt to be charitable in his critique. In the four plus years of the “Trinity controversy,” Matt and I have tried to find this same balance both in our online responses and in our published works (even hosting EFS perspectives on our own blog). In both public and private, I have defended EFS proponents against charges of heresy and punches from critics that felt below the belt. So, I am grateful for the model that Fred gives to us all here: be firm in your critique but be fair in your evaluation.

Further, I am sincerely heartened by Fred’s optimism. I hope he is right. The best-selling evangelical textbook on systematic theology now includes a clear affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son and has removed the appendix that cast doubt on it. I am still concerned with the narrow, proof-texting method that led Grudem to change his mind: it came down to a translation of one word in the Greek New Testament. As Matt and I have tried to demonstrate, one of major problems that led so many evangelicals to affirm EFS for so many years is a narrow biblicism: doing theology by collating verses of Scripture rather than attending to canonical patterns, doctrinal parameters, and the history of interpretation. Even if we alter some of the conclusions, if the hermeneutical and methodological problems remain, then we unintentionally leave ourselves open to heterodoxy. But maybe I should be more hopeful; maybe this influential author affirming the eternal relations of origin–these crucial, biblically-warranted synthetic doctrines–will tend to crowd out the more problematic holdovers from his previous work.

But I am not as convinced as Fred is that EFS will simply die a natural death now that eternal generation has won the day. Grudem still tries to dovetail his commitment to EFS with his newfound affirmation of eternal generation, and I suspect the multitudes who read Grudem will simply follow suit. Fred believes that “there will be more and more to say about [Grudem’s EFS] in a smaller and smaller community of discourse.” This may be true in some academic circles. In fact, I believe it is. The 2016 controversy was a real game-changer in that regard. But let’s be honest: Grudem’s influence and book sales dwarf whatever the more academic treatments have achieved. Pastors, students, and laypeople who read the new edition will still walk away thinking that the divine persons are eternally distinguished by relationships of subordination and submission. They will still be influenced by an idiosyncratic model of hierarchical “roles” and a divine will that that is “actualized” by the divine persons for different tasks in creation and redemption. In a sense, Grudem’s affirmation of eternal generation only makes makes matters more difficult for those wishing to correct the errors of EFS. The new affirmations give cover for an expanded and barely qualified defense of an eternally subordinate Logos.

It should go without saying, but I want to make clear that my critique here is not “cancellation.” I am not calling for people to throw away their Grudem! He is a senior scholar who has had a profound and positive effect of hundreds of thousands (!) of Christians. I pray this new edition continues to have this kind of impact. And I sincerely rejoice that he (and some other EFS proponents) are shifting toward a more traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. But given the footprint of the “big blue (now white) book,” I had hoped for more than the formal addition of eternal generation (on narrow translation grounds) that rests uncomfortably with his broader treatment of the Trinity. Grudem may now affirm eternal generation. But EFS is still driving the train.

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