Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate

Ware and StarkeToday 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

In Defense of Evangelical Eclecticism

In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:

It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.

Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life.  “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.

Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?

Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.

First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking and choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.

What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.

Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds.  Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.

Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be.  We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.

In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.

P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.


*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.

Thoughts on “The Future of Protestantism”

On Tuesday night I attended a conversation on “The Future of Protestantism,” which consisted of 10-15 minute presentations from Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman, a discussion between the three presenters moderated by Peter Escalante, and Q&A from the audience. Biola University and their Torrey Honors Institute added to their track record from the first LA Theology Conference as superb hosts, and it was nice to see Rusty Reno of First Things (also a sponsor of the event) attend and briefly interact with the presenters at the end.

Some thoughts:

  1. I thoroughly enjoy reading Peter Leithart, namely because he is one of the best typological and intertextual readers of Scripture of which I’m aware. I also resonated with much of what he said regarding Protestantism, both in his original article at First Things and in his presentation and response last night.  Namely, I appreciated so much his calls to abandon the tribalism endemic to much of Western Christianity, and especially American Christianity, and to return liturgically, doctrinally, and historically to a more robust faith. I don’t want to pass over these things quickly, because they are important calls that I think the church needs to hear. But I think there are a number of issues with his proposal which were only exacerbated and made clearer as the night progressed, and I sensed that Sanders and Trueman wanted the same things as Leithart but had a much more precise vision for it.
  2. First, I’m worried as a Baptist where I fit into Leithart’s vision. The only comment he made about Baptists was a dismissive one in which he called us to let go of a primary distinctive (congregationalism). The larger problem here is that, in Leithart’s proposal and especially in his further comments last night, he appears to be the one who decides which ecclesial bodies need to give up which doctrinal distinctives in order to overcome tribalism. Although he eschewed a top down approach to ecumenism, one can’t help but wonder if that’s inherent to his proposal.
  3. Second, it seems to me that Leithart’s proposal relies heavily on an unsupported typological reading of Western history. It’s one thing to say that God reunited Judah and Israel in Christ, and another to say that we should therefore expect God to reunite Protestants and Catholics. I’m not comfortable with taking what I see as a legitimate typological pattern in Scripture and then, without any support other than our own reading of subsequent church history and our current situation, apply that reading to a prophetic call to action.
  4. Third, and related, Leithart mentioned his “eschatological vision” a number of times. He never said it explicitly, but it seems obvious to me that his goal is one born partly out of his postmillennialism. If one is a postmillennialist, then I suppose Leithart’s expectations are warranted. But I’m not convinced that the NT gives us much warrant for that type of eschatological outlook, especially given Jesus’ warnings at the end of each gospel about people falling away, Paul’s continued fight against false teachers, and the cyclical nature of the structure of Revelation. There is an already/not yet tension inherent to the NT’s structure, and Leithart only seems to pass over that tension and focus too heavily on the “already”.
  5. Fourth, and finally, I don’t see how Leithart’s vision takes into account the very clear instructions of at least Paul and John to cast out those who depart from sound doctrine. In other words, there is a warrant for church discipline not only on the basis of behavior but also on the basis of belief. I’m thinking specifically of Galatians 1, where Paul anathematizes those who preach a soteriology contrary to Scripture; 1 Timothy 1, where Paul says that Hymenaeus and Alexander have been handed over to Satan in order to be taught “not to blaspheme”; and 1 John 4, where John instructs the church to discern the spirits primarily through judging their beliefs about the incarnation. Leithart, in my opinion, did not take this into consideration at all in his proposal. He did state a number of times that we should be honest about our doctrinal differences and attempt to convince one another, but, in the case of both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, there are fundamental soteriological doctrinal differences that I think warrant consideration of the verses listed above.

Sanders and Trueman ably brought up many of these critiques, although I’m not sure I heard much on eschatology or doctrinal discipline. Nevertheless I was convinced that they possessed a more rigorous and precise understanding of how to articulate and implement many of the most important aspects of Leithart’s vision without ignoring some of its evident problems. In the end I’m grateful that these three men had the courage to tackle this difficult topic and to have been able to attend in person. My hope is that the conversation continues well into the future.