A Response to Al Mohler on Tradition and the Trinity with Reference to Richard Muller

Dr. Al Mohler just wrote a post today in regard to the ongoing “evangelical” and “Reformed” debate about the so called eternal, functional subordinationist view endorsed and articulated by Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al. Mohler offers some pretty hard critique of folks who have been critiquing Grudem, Ware, et al. with reference to their thinking about God’s inner life (i.e. the eternal councilofnicaeasubmission of the Son to the Father as ostensibly a model for gender relations between men and women here on earth). Mohler writes:

Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.[1]

Strong words, particularly in light of whom, among others, has offered said critique of Grudem and Ware, et al.; none other than Patristic scholars, par excellence, Lewis Ayres and Michael Barnes. Both of these scholars are authorities in their field. Don’t get me wrong, appeal to credentials in and of itself doesn’t prove anything, but credentials actually are important, and in this case are meaningful. Not whether or not they are respected evangelical theologians, but rather that both of these scholars have expertise in a field that has direct bearing on this debate; so much expertise, that to say that their critique of Grudem and Ware, et al. should bring into question who is promoting the nonsense here (i.e. Ayres, Barnes, Trueman, et al. or Mohler in this instance). By the way, Carl Trueman has already responded directly to Mohler here.

So this is what is happening on the ground today. But I would like to provide a little historical perspective on why folks like Ayres, Barnes, Trueman, and so many more are offering the critique that they are. I also, at the same time, want to provide further historical insight into the trajectory that folks like Grudem, Ware, et al. are moving from in regard to how they are reading Scripture (which I touched upon early on in this debate here). Richard Muller, as he is writing about how Holy Scripture served as the Reformed authority for all doctrine and practice, juxtaposed with Roman church tradition, helps illustrate from what basis legitimate critique is being made of Grudem’s, Ware’s respective proposal in regard to the Trinity and eternal submission between the Father and the Son. What Muller writes also illustrates where the Grudem/Ware mode might fit in. As Muller explains the reformers move away from the traditional  Roman quadriga method of biblical interpretation, he becomes instructive for our purposes as he writes:

From the perspective of this developing pre-critical exegetical model, the movement away from the quadriga toward an increasingly critical access to the literal meaning of the text in its original languages served as an admirable weapon in the Reformation polemic against ecclesiastical abuses and doctrinal accretions or excesses; it proved to be a major challenge to Protestantism as the era of orthodoxy dawned. The Reformers, operating at least initially in the context of traditional Catholicism, were able to adjust and revise certain key doctrinal points — like the doctrines of justification and the sacraments — by recourse to exegesis, while at the same time assuming the churchly stability of the larger body of doctrine. (It was one of the functions of the radical Reformation, perhaps the most forcefully in its antitrinitarian moments, to test this assumption and to demonstrate the impossibility of holding on to the larger body of traditional dogmatic formulations when the tradition as a whole was set aside.) The Protestant orthodox, however, were left with the task of reconstructing a churchly and confessionally governed dogmatics in the context of a hermeneutical revolution. Doctrines like the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the fall, and original sin, which had developed over centuries and with the assistance of an easy mingling of theological exegetical traditions and of an exegetical method designed to find more in a text that what was given directly by a grammatical reading, would now have to be exposited and exegetically justified — all in the face of a Roman Catholic polemic against the sole authority of Scripture as defined by the Reformers over against the tradition and the churchly magisterium, a polemic made all the more telling by the presence of the teachings of the Radicals.[2]

As a distillation: 1) Muller identifies how a ‘literal’ reading of Scripture for the magisterial Reformers helped distinguish themselves from their Roman counter-parts in regard to important doctrines like justification, the sacraments, and so forth. But what Muller also highlights, is that for the early Reformers (like Luther, Calvin, et al.) the tradition of the church also stood as the broad informing framework within which these other exegetical challenges were happening. In other words, the Nicene-Constantinople-Ephesian-Chalcedonian creeds which provided the Trinitarian and Christological grammar remained decisive and authoritative for these first-tiered Protestant Reformers (of course this is not to say that someone like Calvin did not have his own ways towards thinking about the Trinity i.e. his whole autoTheos locus in regard to the Son). 2) Muller also highlights the role that the so called Radical Reformers had in this movement towards affirming the authority of Scripture over-and-against the tradition of the church. It were these autonomous anti-authoritarian Radicals, Muller contends, who slid furthest away from the authoritative nature of the ecumenical councils pronouncements and attempted to do a new thing solely from Scripture all by itself (i.e. solo Scriptura); without, for example, any recourse to the Trinitarian grammar provided for by the catholic (universal) councils of the church. 3) Finally we have, per Muller, the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians who were wanting to clarify further the work bequeathed to them by the initial Reformers; the work of allowing Scripture be the sole authority (i.e. norma normans), while at the same time honoring the tradition of the church (i.e. norma normata) when it came to working through the complex matrix of attempting to speak of the ineffable Triune God. The Post-Reformed felt tasked with justifying the Trinitarian grammar of the councils by Scripture.

Dr. Mohler in his post from earlier today asserted that Grudem and Ware, et al. are not repudiating the Nicene-Constantinopolitan settlement; which is why he claims critiquing them is non-sense. Granting that this is a complex thing, if one honestly looks at what Grudem and Ware are saying, respectively, it would seem that they are operating in a more Radical mode of operation rather than what the magisterial and/or Post-Reformation Reformers were on about. While the Tradition does have profound and complex implications tied into it, it is not complex when it comes to this particular issue.

Grudem and Ware come from somewhere, as we all do, but if we were to use the Muller index to place them along the Protestant continuum of things, I think they would fit closer with the Radical Reformers. Not maybe in tone, or function, but in hermeneutical practice. There is precedent indeed in the Protestant Reformed history to radically elevate the Word above church and church tradition, but as the Reformers understood this does not mean that the Trinitarian grammar produced by these early councils was confusing or murky; so much so that within that ostensible ambiguity people like Mohler could appeal to complexity in order to keep the peace among the evangelicals and the Reformed. It is rather black and white when it comes to what the early church taught in regard to who God is. Yes, working out the patterns of all of that becomes more complex, but one thing that is true, as Ayres and Barnes have pointed out, the early church did not believe that God had three wills (tied into the hypostaseis), nor that the Son was eternally subordinated and submissive to the Father (in se).

I can see where the Grudems and the Wares come from in the world of Protestantism, but in this instance their Radical departure from catholic reality, with reference to God’s Tri-unity, I would contend places them outside of the pale of orthodoxy. Biblicism goes awry when its reality is reduced to slavish adherence to literalist-grammaticism, instead of slavish adherence to the Word’s reality, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. What I hear in Mohler’s remarks is an appeal to the ‘good’ and the impact that evangelicals like Grudem and Ware have had upon the evangelical church in North America. But that’s really not of issue, what’s of issue is whether or not what they are communicating about God not only fits into the tradition of the church, but into the sensus literalis compositus[3] and the theological reality (res) of Scripture as a whole.

 

 

[1] Albert Mohler, Heresy and Humility — Lessons from a Current Controversy, accessed online 06-28-2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology. Volume Two (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 443-44.

[3] See Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 279. “sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate the articuli fidei,” or ‘articles of the faith’.

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