As some of your own poets have said, “Boy that escalated quickly.”
As many are already aware, the generally tranquil waters of the Reformed and Evangelical online world have erupted into controversy and not just the everyday kind. This latest one, advertised in advance as a “civil war,” has to do with the doctrine of God, the relationship between the sexes, and the priority of historic church confessions over and against personal friendships and parachurch alliances. The relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the godhead has been appealed to as an archetype for the submission of the wife to her husband within marriage, a move with potentially far-reaching implications for confessional theology proper. Hard questions have been raised about this, but then those asking the questions have themselves been questioned on their character and motivation. This has all created a lot of confusion and bad blood, and things look to be getting worse, not better.
So much has been written about it that it would we think it unnecessary to give any kind of detailed summary or review here. Alastair Roberts provides two very helpful reference posts: one explaining the most-recent conversation, and another which illustrates the academic background which set the stage for it all. More recently, Al Mohler has called a foul on unnamed concerned critics, while Dr. Carl Trueman has restated (once again) his theological and confessional concern. Other sites are indexing the significant contributions as well, and the list continues to grow every day.
Many of the contributions have been pretty bad. Without naming names, 1 we can say that representatives on both sides of the debate have used intemperate language, either in an attempt to show the seriousness of the theological error or the danger of personal rivalry, and both have obscured the historical record which got us to this current unhappy situation. Some contributors have invited open and spirited debate, but others have taken offense at the very idea.
We would like to try our hand at clarifying the real issues under dispute, and we plan to carry out this conversation in a series of posts over the next few weeks. There is a great opportunity here for our various churches and their leaders to learn important lessons about theology proper and theological method on the one hand, and human nature and Christian ethics on the other. Further, we believe that there is actually room for mutual correction and discovery of common ground with no need for an absolute winner or loser. However, this will require good will, careful reason, and a great deal of patience. It need not preclude hard-hitting criticism, of course, but the end is peace and wisdom, and so the need of the hour is what we like to call Reformed irenicism.
The most basic the doctrinal question under debate is this: Is there a relation of authority between the Father and the Word, distinct from the relations of origin, and prior to any economic order of creation and redemption?
The thesis that there is such a thing is held by a number of theologians, and has a number of variants which are known by various acronyms– but those variants are all variants of the one thesis. It has been called the “eternal submission” or “the eternal functional subordination” of the Son. This thesis argues that while the Father and the Son are equally divine, sharing the same substance, they nevertheless do have some sort of diversity of will which allows them to assume a relationship of authority essentially and from all eternity.
The debate then should be whether this fits within Nicene theological parameters–particularly the doctrine of divine simplicity, the singularity of the divine will, and the inseparable divine operations– and, if not, how serious any discrepancies should be understood.
Things have not been all that clear, however and this is because of a few reasons. The first is that the precise point under dispute does not seem to be equally understood by all participants. This complicates the conversation considerably. Is everyone arguing about the same thing, are they aware of the doctrinal tradition to which many of their institutions already subscribe, and are they even all aware of their own positions?
There’s also the question of why this has attracted so much attention at this time. We will not pretend to read hearts for motives, but we can say that there are publicly accessible reasons on all sides for this discussion to be as hot as it is beyond simple zeal for the truth in the doctrine of God. Which is not to say that the reasons are bad reasons, though the ideas involved may be bad. But these extra issues are definitely part of what drives these current controversy, and are just as important to this current debate as the precise answering of the Trinitarian question itself.
These extra issues can be summed up under a single head: the doctrine of the relation of the sexes. Most are familiar with the dispute between “complementarians” and “egalitarians”, but curiously, this current controversy isn’t between those two camps, at least not directly. It is between two kinds of complementarianism. The first camp holds the thesis under discussion, and sees in it a Scriptural warrant for the idea of a relation of comprehensive authority and submission within God Himself. Now, on this account, since the persons of God are coequal and consubstantial (and all agree on this point), this means that one can also assert that a relation of authority and submission exists between men and women, who obviously share the same human essence. Further, since in this account this relation in God is in God, not merely ad extra, it is comprehensive, and, thus, what is true of the exemplum must be true of the created imitation also– it must be a comprehensive complementarianism, covering all aspects of life, and they think this can be authoritatively expounded and explicated in comprehensive detail of application. This is regarded by its proponents as a “thick” complementarianism.
The proponents of this idea oppose themselves to what some of them call a “thin” complementarianism. The proponents of the latter object to that description, of course. They claim to hold the Biblical doctrine of marriage and social order too, and would grant that the reality of male and female, whatever that is, is present wherever humans are. What they would deny are two things. First, they deny that the Bible teaches their opponents’ key thesis of eternal subordination and that prescriptions for the practical ordering of relations between men and women can be gotten from the Bible beyond a few very general principles precluding the ordination of women to church office and asserting the headship of the husband in the family. They therefore regard the broader question of what role the sexes have in the civic forum as one of Christian freedom. They consider their opponents to be implicated in the suppression of women’s freedom, and are regarded by their opponents as having surrendered to gender egalitarianism, leaving only the private redoubts of church and home.
The conversation moved into the realm of popular public debate with two posts by Dr. Liam Goligher sounding the alarm on a new teaching which appears to breaking with Nicene orthodoxy and contains the very real potential of endangering the eternal destiny of souls:
What we face in evangelicalism today is at best shoddy thinking and at worst ungodly thinking about the first principle of our religion – “Who is God?” The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ’s church. Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake – our own and our hearers’ eternal destiny.
This is a very serious charge, and it set the tone of the debate in stark terms. One’s answer to this might require them to step down from their teaching office within the church, and it may well indicate that they are fundamentally unsound on basic doctrinal matters.
Is there any way in which one may speak of variation within the divine nature, a meaningful distinction of multiple wills and energies, or subordination among the hypostases? These questions bear directly on the classical doctrines of divine simplicity, the singularity of the divine will, the inseparable operations of the Trinitarian hypostases, and the meaning of the divine ousia itself. Dr. Goligher is not at all wrong, then, to say that this does involve the “classical, catholic, orthodox, and reformed understanding of God as He is.” 2
These are indeed fundamental doctrines, and there is no virtue in either side denying this. We should be clear as to what sort of conversation is being had.
But things do get a little more complicated. The fact is that many of these questions have been openly asked and redefined for decades, in print and at various theological conferences, by conservative theologians. And, incredibly, this has happened without creating a firestorm. This makes the problem less one of some rogue thinkers suddenly sneaking into the fold of orthodoxy, and more one of a larger theological community having been lax, and almost officially so, in its own standards. While one might feel that this was an unacceptable situation, it was the actual one, and so the tone of the conversation should account for it. It often hasn’t.
The traditionalists cannot so easily cast all blame upon the innovators, for their own associates and institutions have been complicit in varying degrees, whether it be seminary textbooks, various “alliances” between theologians and pastors, or just the legacy of someone like Cornelius Van Til. Michael Horton has approximated “social Trinitarianism” in his writings (which we pointed out in 2012 3). These kinds of arguments really are not new, even if they are potentially very problematic. We ought to acknowledge some level of collective responsibility, thus requiring greater patience and a greater willingness to allow for correction. And all of this might also indicate that a good deal of common ground could actually be worth investigating. Curiously, it is also possible that some of that very common ground is itself to blame.
Even though the writers at the Mortification of Spin believe that the tail has wagged the dog in such a way that complementarianism, as modernly construed, has created these controversial suggestions about the Trinity, the fact is that there is some precedent for it within Reformed theology. There is a history of curious, perhaps controversial, thinking with regard to the intra-Trinitarian relations going back at least to John Murray. Murray thinks he is following Hodge, of course. But, if we are being totally forthright, the more developed form of the doctrine of the pactum salutis draws out some of these very same questions. In fact, the very same John Owen whose visage graces the Mortification of Spin blog, and whose writings lend inspiration to their very name, plays a central role!
According to the pactum salutis, God, in His singularity, decrees to redeem the world by way of covenant, and He does so by way of a covenant between the persons of the Father and Son as distinct covenanting persons. This allows for a sort of multiplicity of willing, though somehow still understood as being a reflex, as it were, of the one will, wherein the person of the Son agrees to a subordinate role in order to fulfill the covenant. This is not natural, but rather a wholly free arrangement. The natural equality of God always stands logically prior to the pactum salutis. And yet, theologians have still wished to call this an eternal covenant, thus making the relationship and roles eternal as well.
As we said, this can be seen in John Owen, who explicitly connects the covenantal roles with “authority” and “sovereignty”:
Particularly the will of the Father and Son concurred in this matter which was necessary that the covenant might be voluntary and of choice. And the origin of the whole is referred to the will of the Father constantly. Hence our Lord Jesus Christ on all occasions declares solemnly that he came to do the will of the Father: “Lo I come to do thy will, O God,” Psal xL.5, Heb x.5-10. For in this agreement the part of the enjoiner, prescriber, and promiser, whose will in all things is to be attended to, is on the Father. And his will was naturally at a perfect liberty, from engaging in that way of salvation which he accomplished by Christ. He was at liberty to have left all mankind under sin and the curse, as he did all the angels that fell. He was at liberty utterly to have destroyed the race of mankind that sprang from Adam in his fallen estate; either in the root of them, or in the branches when multiplied, as he almost did in the flood, and to have created another stock or race of them unto his glory. And hence the acting of his will herein, is expressed by grace; which is free, or it is not grace; and is said to proceed from love acting by choice all arguing the highest liberty in the will of the Father, John iii.16, Eph i.6.
And the same is farther evidenced by the exercise of his authority, both in the commission and commands that he gave to the Son as incarnate, for the discharge of the work that he had undertaken. For none puts forth his authority but voluntarily, or by and according unto his own will. Now he both sent the Son, and sealed him, and gave him commands, which are all acts of choice, and liberty, proceeding from sovereignty. Let none then once imagine that this work of entering into covenant about the salvation of mankind, was any way necessary unto God, or that it was required by virtue of any of the essential properties of his nature, so that he must have done against them in doing otherwise. God was herein absolutely free, as he was also in his making of all things out of nothing. He could have left it undone without the least disadvantage unto his essential glory, or contrariety unto his holy nature. Whatever therefore we may afterwards assert, concerning the necessity of satisfaction to be given unto his justice, upon the supposition of this covenant, yet the entering into this covenant, and consequently all that ensued thereon, is absolutely resolved into the mere will and grace of God. (Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews Vol. II, Exercitation 28.11, Ritchie 1812, pg. 86.) 4
Owen even adds that the obedience of the human nature of Christ was itself grounded in the prior “work from eternity” which the divine Son agreed to perform:
…And whatever is expressed in the Scripture, concerning the will of the human nature of Christ, as it was engaged in and bent upon its work, it is but a representation of the will of the Son of God, when he engaged in this work from eternity. So then he freely undertook to do and suffer whatever on his part was required, and therein owns himself the servant of the Father, because he would obey his will, and serve his purposes in the nature which he would assume for that end, Isa. xlii.1, 6, ch. xlix.9, Zech. xiii.7, and therein acknowledged him to be his Lord, Psal. xvi.2, unto whom he owed all homage and obedience. (ibid Exercitation 28.12, pg. 90.)
This would seem to provide everything that the advocates of eternal submission of the Son could want. There is a relationship of authority between the Father and the Son, and it is “eternal.” They would have to accept more than a bit of that dreaded scholasticism which Owen Strachan has warned us against, and they wouldn’t be able to claim a relationship of authority as the most antecedent relationship within the Godhead–it would always be dependent upon a logically prior act of the natural divine will– but otherwise it would be pretty close. Are they aware of this theological possibility, and would they be willing to consider it?
Importantly, however, we must note that this “solution” only works if there is a prior confession of eternal generation of the Son from the Father’s nature. Wayne Grudem, for instance, seems to be either equating or replacing the traditional doctrine of eternal generation with the relationship of submission, thus giving genuine cause for concern over semi-Arianism. Bruce Ware has likewise questioned the traditional understanding of divine immutability. If “nature” has been redefined to mean “volition,” or if there is no clear affirmation of an eternal ontological unity prior to any divine willing, then John Owen’s distinction collapses.
Perhaps this is the most precise point of the controversy. For the pactum salutis to hold, there must be a prior natural relationship between the Father and the Son where they fully share the entirety of the godhead through the eternal generation.
If the advocates of some sort of “eternal submission” of the Son to the Father are unable to grant this distinction, and if they really do equate filiation with submission simpliciter, then it is hard to see how they avoid some species of Arianism (whether Eunomian or Homoian or other). But perhaps they would like to avail themselves of something like John Owen’s distinctions above. Thus, they have an opportunity to reform. They only need the will.
Of course, this raises a point in the opposite direction too. Are those who are so adamantly opposed to the modern “eternal subordination” position also troubled by Owen’s explanation of the pactum salutis? It certainly seems to raise many of the same challenges regarding historical understanding of dogma. Owen admits that his interpretation of certain key passages in the Bible differs from the Fathers. For example:
This place I confess the ancients expound unanimously of the human nature only, to obviate the Arians who ascribed unto him a divine nature, but made, and absolutely in itself inferior to the nature of God. But the inferiority of the human nature to God, or the Father, is a thing so unquestionable, as to need no declaration or solemn attestation; and the mention of it is no way suited unto the design of the place. But our Saviour speaks with respect unto the covenant engagement that was between the Father and himself, as to the work which he had to do. (ibid Exercitation 28.9, pg. 87-88)
He also highlights the challenge of harmonizing the one will of God with the hypostatically distinct acts of willing in the eternal covenant. He does this through an “impressive,” as Mark Jones put it, distinction:
…not by a distinction of sundry wills, but by the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts, in the Persons of the Father and the Son… For from these distinct actings of the will of God in the Father and the Son, there doth arise a new habitude or relation, which is not natural or necessary unto them, but freely taken on them. (ibid Exercitation 28.13, pg.91)
Is this a successful solution to the problem, and do we actually understand how a “a new habitude or relation” can “arise” between the persons of the godhead, and yet still be eternal? Does this satisfactorily harmonize with Nicaea, or might it illustrate why subsequent, and more radical, developments took place? Have we really acknowledged the level of difficulty involved in accommodating the pactum salutis to pro-Nicene theology? How impressive can a distinction be before it raises concern?
All of these questions are worth being asked in earnest, quite apart from the current polemics. As such, it highlights the amount of room the tradition allows for this conversation.
Both sides of this dispute have their points. It seems clear that the common expression of the eternal subordination of the Son is outside of the lines of Nicene orthodoxy and needs important modification. However, it is not clear that this problem is at all new or unique to “complementarianism.” As such, the burden of introspection and revision falls to the whole Reformed theological tradition, along with its modern representatives. We should be equally rigorous in our criticisms and equally charitable in our accommodations, no matter the historical prestige nor institutional affiliations.
It’s also not the case that this conversation is over. In fact, those seeking to absolutely close this conversation, no matter the side they favor, are doing the most harm. Even if spirited, the debate should continue. This is a very important conversation, and it has inspired much good thinking. The points should be clarified and refined, and all involved should commit themselves to the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads.
It is our hope to continue this in our upcoming installments.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.