Book Notice: Trinitarian Theology

On Monday, October 1, B&H Academic will release Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Trinitarian Application, edited by Keith Whitfield (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). This the first volume in the B&H Theological Review series, a series based on topics discussed at the annual B&H SBC Professors’ Fellowship at ETS. In the book, Bruce Ware (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Malcolm Yarnell (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), and Luke Stamps (Anderson University) and I offer three separate chapters outlining our different theological methods and the different theologies of the Trinity they produce. Additionally, each author (or set of authors in my and Luke’s case) responds to the other chapters in an attempt to further clarify the terms of and stakes in the debate. This book thus addresses the methodological issues involved in the so-called “Trinity Debate” of 2016.

Here is an excerpt from my and Luke’s chapter, summarizing our aims and argument:

This essay contends there is a way to be thoroughly biblical without succumbing to the drawbacks of biblicism, and one of the primary test cases for this methodological distinction is the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, we wish to articulate a canonical, confessional, and dogmatically informed evangelical theological method. We wish to retain the biblicist commitment to sola scriptura while at the same time operating with what might be called a “thick biblicism,” in which what counts as biblical encompasses something much more than simply collating “plain” readings of biblical texts. To put it simply, a canonical, confessional, and dogmatic theological method seeks to articulate Christian doctrine by understanding Scripture as a canonical whole, read in light of the Church’s consensual tradition, and with the aid of dogmatic reasoning. The method articulated below also situates the task of theology primarily in an ecclesial context in which the Spirit’s illuminating guidance is a nonnegotiable factor.

And regarding the Trinity and gender roles:

The relationship between a husband and wife is not univocally comparable to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. We acknowledge that passages like 1 Cor 11:3 connect the doctrine of God to gender roles, but we want to insist that this connection is made between human relationships and the economic missions of the three persons of the one God. The Bible does not ever posit or suggest a straight line between complementarianism and God’s life ad intra. Rather, the submission of a wife to a husband is comparable to the submission of the Church to Christ (Eph 5:22–32) and to the submission of the incarnate Christ to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). Because the economic missions are fitting given the eternal processions, it is not as if there is no connection at all, but the connection that exists is not a direct one. Rather, gender roles mirror or reflect the roles seen in the economic missions. Those missions, in turn, reflect and proceed from the eternal relations of origin. But the latter do not contain any hint of subordination, since, as we have argued, that would be ruinous for trinitarian monotheism.

For those interested in the issues surrounding the Trinity debate, we hope you’ll pick this up and find it clarifying. Right now B&H Academic will only have it available in ebook format, with a print version coming early 2019. The link will be on Amazon on October 1.

 

The Trinity and Theological Method

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve most likely seen the debates on the blogosphere and social media about something called the “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son and God the Spirit to God the Father, or, alternatively, “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). To my knowledge and in my reading, the former is posited by the likes of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, while the latter is a phrase used by Owen Strachan  and Gavin Peacock in their new book on complementarianism. These theologians believe Scripture teaches that the Son (and, by extension, the Spirit) eternally submits to the Father. This submission therefore occurs not only in the act of salvation, and particularly in the incarnation, but in the inner life of God as he has existed from eternity. In Ware, Grudem, and Strachan’s understanding, this relationship is what distinguishes the three persons of God; they are all equally God in essence, but differ from one another as persons through how they relate to one another, and particularly in the Son and Spirit’s submission to the Father.

It is no secret that this is a departure from the traditional means of distinguishing between the persons; Ware and Grudem cast doubt upon the traditional doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit (I do not know where Strachan is on this). In the Christian Tradition, and in fourth century pro-Nicene theology, the pro-Nicene theologians, like Ware et al., affirmed that the three persons are homoousios – that is, they each share in the one divine essence. But unlike Ware et al., instead of distinguishing between the persons via relations of submission and authority (an idea to which the Fathers were allergic, to say the least), the pro-Nicene theologians argued that the persons are distinguished via their eternal relations of origin. The Father eternally begets, or generates, the Son, and the Father and Son (in the Western tradition) both spirate, or process, the Spirit. This is eternal, so it is not the same as creation, and it is a communication of the divine essence, not a creation of a new god or a hierarchical relationship where one turns into three. Both Ware and Grudem posit EFS as a more clear, biblical means of distinguishing between the persons, rather than through eternal relations of origin.

All of this has been summarized far better and far more clearly elsewhere; I’d recommend Darren Sumner’s post for a more detailed summary of the issue. My point here is not to provide more of the same but instead to bring to light a point that I think has been overlooked. Owen, in his rejoinder this morning, asked that we “reaffirm Scripture as our authority and avoid a New Scholasticism,” because, ” philosophy and history must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology.” Amen to that. I am not sure if Owen is here saying that proponents of the traditional distinctions between the persons are relying on philosophy and history instead of exegesis and theology, or if he is merely cautioning all of us going forward. In any case, he is right that exegesis and scripturally-derived theology, for Protestants, always trumps history and philosophy. But there is more to be said on this point.

First, the pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries were profoundly biblical in their doctrinal formulations. If you’ve read Athanasius or the Cappadocians or Cyril or Augustine you will know that when they talk about, say, the eternal relations of origin, or the taxis of the Trinitarian persons, they do so under the assumption that what they say must be derived from Scripture. Further, they do so with particular theological assumptions in place, namely, that the scriptures have a particular shape, or economy, to them that dictates how we read passages that speak about the Son. Does a passage refer to the Son in his humanity, or in his divinity? This is not an a-scriptural assumption; the Fathers took care to show that this “rule” is a scriptural one (e.g. their use of Phil. 2:5-11). So when Owen says exegesis and theology rule the day, I say “Amen!” But I also want to note that so did the Fathers, and so do modern day defenders of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity.

The second point worth mentioning here is the relationship between exegesis, theology, and history. While the former two are most certainly the norma normans non normata, history and tradition  cannot and should not be merely cast aside – yes, even for us Protestant evangelical Baptists. The weight of tradition should at the very least give us pause in our hermeneutical endeavors when we think that exegeting a single passage, or a handful of them, can overturn almost two millennia of doctrinal teaching, and particularly when that teaching relates to theology proper and historic Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Heresy Hunting and Eternal Relations of Origin

I’m a classic complementarian who affirms classic orthodoxy regarding the eternal relations of the persons of the Trinity (i.e. that the eternal relations of origin distinguish the persons, not a social schema). I also believe that what the Bible says about gender is enough to support complementarianism without comparing the relationship between male and female to the inner life of the Godhead. Additionally, I don’t believe the relations of the persons of the Godhead are comparable to relations between male and female. I therefore disagree with those who wish to bolster their position on gender with a social Trinitarian schema, whether it be from an egalitarian or complementarian perspective. I thus disagree with Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and other complementarians who attempt to support complementarianism via the doctrinal innovation known as eternal functional subordination. I disagree not only with tying in gender roles to God’s inner life but also with the social Trinitarian understanding of the relations between the persons of God upon which such a claim is based.

That being said, I’ve seen many on social media and on blogs willing to throw around phrases comparing Ware, Grudem, et al.’s position to heresy. This is unfair, careless, and a straw man. If you read Ware’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Grudem’s systematic theology, both of these theologians strongly and clearly affirm the unity of the Godhead in essence. According to them, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all equally and fully share in the one divine being. They are homoousions. They also, though, posit that the Son willingly and volitionally submits to the Father ad intra. While I have serious disagreements with this latter position, both biblically and historically, this is not a classic heresy by any means. It is an innovation, in my opinion, but one that incorrectly understands eternal relations rather than one that departs from classic orthodoxy regarding the unity of the Godhead.

I’m not sure evangelicals can disagree without someone throwing out a heresy bomb at some point, but we should at least give it a good old college try.

Biblical Masculinity

Or, “why you don’t have to watch UFC, own lots of guns, hunt, love sports, and/or avoid anything remotely “feminine” to be a godly man.”

I am a solid and committed complementarian in respect to gender roles, both in the home and in the church. I am concerned, however, that our conservative evangelical culture (and by that I am referring to a group that includes a whole host of pastors, teachers, theologians, etc.) sometimes lays down hard and fast lines concerning what it means to be godly man that are not found in Scripture.

In the Bible, the godly man is one who is “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable . . . not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3; I left out “able to teach” since a godly man doesn’t necessarily have to be an elder). The godly man is one who “loves his wife, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:25-28). He is a man who lives with his wife “in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).

In these passages and others, the godly man is one who leads his wife well by pushing her towards Christ and giving himself up for her sanctification, who loves his neighbor by being gentle and hospitable, and who loves God in all of it. There is no mention of masculinity being defined by doing or not doing chores in the home or what types of entertainment he enjoys.

There also is no indication that a man should not be nurturing and caring towards his family or others. The opposite is in fact the case, especially when we look at how God is our Father. In Scripture God reveals himself to us as a loving parent, a God who is tender towards his children (Hos. 11:3-4), who weeps over them as a mother hen over her chicks (Matt. 23:37), and who is a good and loving Father who gives good gifts (Matt. 6:26-34; 7:7-11). Additionally and in terms of gospel ministry, Paul compares himself and his companions in their ministry to the Thessalonians to a nursing mother in the way he cares for the church there, nurturing them in gentleness and love (1 Thess. 1:7).

I sometimes wonder if we have forgotten God’s care for us and Paul’s care for the churches when we think of what it means to be a man. I wonder if we’ve forgotten that the only concrete definition we get in Scripture is that a man is to lead his family and especially his wife in holiness, love his neighbor in gentleness and hospitality, and love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength.

You don’t have to grow a beard to be a man, or have a deep voice, or like football, or hunt, or only listen to rock music. You don’t have to tell your wife that you don’t have to help out around the house. You don’t have to ask your boys to avoid toys that help them understand what it means to nurture and love another human being. You can listen to classical music and love art and read British lit or whatever it is you do with your spare time, as long as it is isn’t sin and helps you love Jesus.

To be a godly man you need to love your family, your neighbor, and your God with all you have.

NOTE: I’ve avoided mentioning names in this post because I believe this issue is widespread amongst complementarians but on the particular issue concerning boys and baby dolls I have to mention one because of the proximity of this post to his article. Although I appreciate greatly Owen Strachan’s ministry, I have to respectfully disagree with him on this particular point. I should also say that although Owen’s article got me thinking more on this issue, I’ve been concerned for quite some time about the picture of masculinity given by conservatives for some time. Most of what I mention in this post has little to nothing to do with Owen’s view of masculinity.