A Response to Scot McKnight’s Post; to the Social Trinitarians and Complementarians; and to the ‘Conservative Calvinists’

Scot McKnight just posted on a brewing controversy apparently taking place among so called “conservative Calvinists.” The issue, as McKnight explains it:

I speak here of the eternal subordination of the Son, of a teaching that some Reformed theologians are saying fellow Reformed types are not only not consistent with the Reformed tradition but are flirting with idolatry if not heresy. (source)

rublevMcKnight goes on further and identifies the ‘conservative Calvinist’ voices that are most influential, and provides further context to the debate; he writes:

These posts are aimed at Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan. I have been in communication this week with a bundle of theologians who (1) are deeply concerned about these theologians and what they are teaching the church and (2) know that it is an uphill battle to get the principals to listen. But the voices from within the complementarian crowd that is self-critical on this issue of Trinitarian relations as a template for hierarchical complementarianism may move more and more to a position that sees the folly of this new theology. (source)

When McKnight says “These posts,” he is referring to some blog posts that Carl Trueman, and a guy by the name of Liam Goligher have written contra Grudem, Ware, and Strachan; the latter three are the primary voices promoting eternal subordination in the Trinity in order to argue by analogy that there is a similar hierarchical subordination between men and women (which is consistent with their hard complementarian beliefs juxtaposed with the egalitarian position).

The issue as I see it is that so called social Trinitarianism, which Grudem, Ware, and Strachan are all proponents of is being coupled with another social issue, i.e. the relations of the sexes, creating an unnecessary dilemma. There is no reason to collapse God into a social analogy just so we can justify our pet-beliefs about complementarianism and/or egalitarianism, etc. In fact this is a backward way for doing genuinely Christian Dogmatic theology. Genuine Christian Dogmatics, by way of taxis or order always starts with God and His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; it does not alternatively attempt to read social analogies back into God’s life. Khaled Anatolios says it this way when commenting on the patristic church and its understanding of God and revelation:

As Creator, God is both radically other than his creation and positively related to it. The difference between God and world is such that creatures can only know God through his free self-revelation. Any attempt by creatures simply to infer the nature of the divine on the basis of creaturely realities will inevitably amount to a projection of created features onto the divine and will thus amount to a mythology (Athanasius). Divine self-disclosure is available through its inspired witness in the Scriptures, as interpreted by acts of ecclesial communion (synodal councils) and as appropriated and performed in worship and discipleship. The combination of these three elements constitutes what fourth-century theologians referred to as eusebeia. That the elasticity of that term combined these elements is evidenced by the range of translated meanings, all of them appropriate in distinct contexts, which are alloted to it: “piety,” “orthodoxy,” “religion,” and so on. An authentic retrieval of Nicene trinitarian theology should endeavor to reappropriate trinitarian eusebeia in this global sense: as appropriating determinate ways of reading Scripture through interpretations gleaned from acts of ecclesial communion and ways of celebrating and suffering this divine self-disclosure in worship and discipleship. However, even as integral reception of God’s self-revelation does not eradicate divine infinity and incomprehensibility and the incommensurability between the divine and the human. The infinite God cannot be contained by finite human knowing. Yet, human knowing and human existence in its entirety can be so contained and determined by the divine self-disclosure as to be suffused with knowledge and love and union with the divine. Christian eschatological hope looks forward to a consummation of this process in the eternal enjoyment of the sight of the Father, Son, and holy Spirit. In the meantime, Christian existence consists in the project of referring one’s existence toward this sight such that every internal and external act becomes oriented to the love and knowledge of the Triune God.[1]

Grudem’s, Ware’s, and Strachan’s Errors

1) All three are attempting, as we refer to Anatolios’ language, “to infer the nature of the divine on the basis of creaturely realities,” which “realities will inevitably amount to a projection of created features onto the divine and will thus amount to a mythology (Athanasius).” This is the problem that underlies so called social Trinitarianism where we end up with three distinct wills in the hypostaseis of the Divine Monarxia (Godhead). And in the case of these three conservative theologians, they are motivated to do what they do by what I consider, in the least, to be heterodoxy, relative to a doctrine of God, by a social issue (i.e. their brand of complementarianism); the very thing that the early church and Anatolios warns against, and for good reason!

2) On a more formal level, as we already touched upon, they are failing to engage in actual Christian Dogmatics. Meaning that they are at some level repudiating the confessional position of the historic orthodox church, provided voice, in particular, in the ecuemincal councils of Nicaea-Constantinople-Chalcedon, and attempting to innovate in a way that violates the very mind of the church. It is one thing to work constructively within the boundaries of the ecumenical grammar on the Trinity, as Karl Barth does, which Hunsinger labels the ‘chalcedonian pattern’; but it is altogether another thing to work outside of those norms in order to bolster one’s position on a social issue such as complentarianism. Indeed it is even that much more heinous to use God’s name in order to sanction one’s pet-belief about male/female relations; I would suggest it is to use God’s name in vain.

Conclusion

I think if someone wants to argue for complementarianism they should avoid appealing to God’s ousia or being in order to do so. It creates a false dilemma for people, making them think that if they affirm complentarianism that they must also now affirm social Trinitarianism and eternal subordination in the Godhead. I think this is a serious issue for those placing this dilemma before church leaders and the laity, and as such they should tread much more lightly and circumspectly than they are. This isn’t just an academic debate; my guess is that God is paying attention, and most likely is not happy with having his name tied to a social program that he never prescribed or mandated in the first place (at least as far as I can tell from His Self Revelation in Christ).

[1] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 282.

 

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13 thoughts on “A Response to Scot McKnight’s Post; to the Social Trinitarians and Complementarians; and to the ‘Conservative Calvinists’

  1. I appreciate this. Though I would describe myself as a complimentarian I have been sorely vexed by the low (and loathsome) theology of my brethren. They have been quite content to sacrifice fidelity to the Pater as long as their followers will swear fealty to a soft form of patriarchy. Strangely missing is any allegiance to the patristics! So much for knowing our place and “honoring our fathers.”

    If you were going to recommend a few books that have constructively reformulated Trinitarian theology while remaining faithful to classical dogmatic sketches what would they be? I am thinking of particular books or article by Barth, Torrance, et al.

    Keep up the good work. Your posts often make me question my long-held assumptions (perhaps even allegiances) regarding my “Federal Calvinism.”

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  2. Brandon,

    Thanks. TFT’s Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons and his The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Faith (T&T Clark Cornerstones) are great places to start!

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  3. Good post. As I’ve told my students for some time now, the function of the doctrine of the Trinity is to speak of God (and indeed, his relation to us in Christ) not about us. That seems so blindingly obvious that it almost seems silly to say. But say it we must.

    As happy as I am about the renaissance of trinitarian doctrine in the last few decades, it has been unfortunate that a byproduct of that renaissance has been trying to make everything else trinitarian as well. No, humans aren’t analogous trinities, nor is the church, nor is the world. By definition the Trinity is what make God, God.

    It is also unfortunate that Barth has been so often appealed to as a social trinitarian of sorts. His anthropology (particularly his doctrine of relationality in the imago dei) certainly leans toward an analogy of sorts between Trinity and anthropology–and it I think it is an extension that I wonder if he would have now regretted. It seems to me that he would have done better to emphasize, as he does so many other places, the covenantal over the “relational” per se when it came to anthropology.

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  4. Bobby, that is correct. Liam Goligher is the pastor two pastors after Boice (Philip Ryken was the pastor between Boice and Goligher). I attended 10th while I was going to WTS and I had Ryken and then Goligher as my pastor.

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  5. Hi David,

    Thank you. It was a quickly conceived “blog post,” but I think the main point I wanted to get across came through.

    It is interesting how the renaissance of trinitarian doctrine has been received by different camps. In this instance it seems that Grudem, Ware, et al have received it in name only, without any rigorous engagement with the movements (like we find in Barth et al) that have critically offered Dogmatic accounts with reference to critical histories and theological reflection. It just reminds me of the kind of superficial evangelical mode that I’ve grown tired and sick of as an evangelical myself; which is why Barth and TFT have become my teachers, and have provided the fresh air needed (for me) to keep engaging theologically.

    I thought (as Nathanael mentioned and linked on FB) that McCormack’s critique of Ware in Mc’s Kantzer lecture was spot and and appropriate to what you are getting at here. It is unfortunate that Barth has been appealed to in this way, since it couldn’t be further from the truth. I wonder though if Barth “leans” the way he does (in tone) because of his actualism? Which if so also differentiates superficial readings of Barth, even in this regard.

    A book I’m about to finish Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy does a nice job, I think, in providing a good critical way into the covenantal aspects of Barth’s theology. Even if he did not press those himself, at least fully or adequately, it seems to me that the covenantal is present enough in Barth’s theology that After Barth theologians have much material to work with and in fruitful ways.

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  6. I think the one major way in which Ware, Grudem, et al. partake in the spirit of the contemporary Trinitarian “revival” is that, like many other social Trinitarians, they try to build a social program directly off of the inner life of God. This type of move is also made (albeit with far greater sophistication) by other social Trinitarian theologians like Moltmann, Volf, Boff, and Zizioulas. The irony, of course, is that these theologians employ the doctrine of the Trinity to support wildly different social and political programs, which should, even apart from other considerations, lead us to be suspicious of such attempts.

    Please note that I do not intend to imply that this sort of move is characteristic of the entire Trinitarian “revival”; Barth and Rahner, to name just two, do not partake of this sort of foolishness. However, it has been and remains distressingly common among theologians both conservative and liberal.

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  7. Nathanael, yes, Moltmann, Volf, and Boff are particuarly problematic in their approach in my view. Alastair’s blog post hits these points well: https://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-social-trinitarianism-and-ectypal-theology/

    I find Zizioulas to be a bit more compelling, but I don’t agree with him either; I think he ultimately falls prey to what Alastair and you (and me in my post) are highlighting. A good account and contrast of Zizioulas can be found in vol 4 in the journal Participatio in an essay written by Nikolaos Asproulis (start pg 162) ; a volume I copy edited and served as assistant editor for : http://www.tftorrance.org/journal/participatio_vol_4_2013.pdf

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