What Hath Johann Philipp Gabler to do with Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and the EFS Debate?

The recent online debate in regard to the so called eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father in an ostensible eternal Father-Son authority-submission framework has lost ‘some’ steam it seems in the theoblogosphere (I think personally I wrote approx. eleven posts on the topic in a span of about three weeks). That notwithstanding it is still percolating, for one reason, I would suggest, because the national Evangelical Theological Society’s meeting this year is on the doctrine of the Trinity. To me that seems as a harbinger of things to come, and continues to eternalsubordinationdemand preliminary attention—as we’ve seen occurring online—to this yet unresolved debate (which will most certainly remain the case in my estimation, since this debate in the evangelical/Reformed world has been brewing to one temperature or another for years without production of anything that resembles a drinkable coffee).

In this post, I would like to offer another brief foray into this theological development, by observing something. For Protestant Christians, in particular, the Bible is the final authority for doctrine and practice. That said, for some Christians, concordant with Scripture as authoritative, this includes the history of interpretation. In other words ecclesial tradition remains definitive for how scripture is read; particularly when discussing ecumenical matters such as the triadic nature of God, and who God in Christ is. Sola scriptura, held by the magisterial reformers, and subsequent post reformed orthodox reformers, did not ever imagine that pro-Nicene theology would ever be understood as at odds with the authority of Scripture, but that pro-Nicene theology, instead, was derivative of the teaching of Holy Scripture. Other Christians, particularly with reference to this debate, like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, et al. seem to verbally affirm sola scriptura, but in practice function in the realm of what can be called solo scriptura (Scripture all by itself, something that stands outside of the confessional normativity of the ecumenical councils that sola scriptura remains sensitive to). I want to suggest that Ware et al. who argue for EFS, indeed work with this solo scriptura idea, and that at a functional level seem to do so in a kind of de-confessionalized way; in a way that might make someone like Gabler and other early enlightenment critics proud.

By caveat, let me also say that what I am about to share will not hold true for Ware, Grudem, et al. in fact; but in principle I think that the methodological turn I am going to describe, by reference to Gerhard Hasel’s introduction to Johann Philipp Gabler, will maybe help press further into what is informing folks like Grudem, Ware et al.

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers though about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things.” Gabler’s inductive, historical, and descriptive approach to Biblical theology is based on three essential methodological considerations: (1) Inspiration is to be left out of consideration, because  “the Spirit of God most emphatically did not destroy in every holy man his own ability to understand and the measure of natural insight into things.” What counts is not “divine authority” but “only what they [Biblical writers] thought.” (2) Biblical theology has the task of gathering carefully the concepts and ideas of the individual Bible writers, because the Bible does not contain the ideas of just a single man. Therefore the opinions of the Bible writers need to be “carefully assembled from Holy Writ, suitably arranged, properly related to general concepts, and carefully compared one with another ….” This task can be accomplished by means of a consistent application of the historical-critical method with the aid of literary criticism, historical criticism, and philosophical criticism. (3) Biblical theology as a historical discipline is by definition obliged to “distinguish between the several periods of the old and new religion.” The main task is to investigate which ideas are of importance for Christian doctrine, namely which ones “apply today” and which ones have no “validity for our time.” These programmatic declarations gave direction to the future of Biblical (OT and NT) theology despite the fact that Gabler’s program for Biblical theology was conditioned by his time and contains significant limitations.[1]

Does this sound like who Ware and Grudem are as evangelical theologians? No. But what it describes is a historical move that took place by which evangelical scholarship of past days was affected deeply. There was a move away from thinking confessionally, which historic reformed theology was committed to with sola scriptura, and instead an emphasis in biblical studies/theology was fostered such that the Bible came to have a “non-traditioned” reading associated with it.

It helps me to try and make sense of how evangelical scholars like Ware, Grudem et al. have gotten to where they’ve gotten by taking a look at the history of ideas. What evangelical thinkers did at the turn of the 20th century and onward was attempt to throw away all of the “higher-critical” stuff we see described in Gabler’s declarations, but hold onto the naturalist non-confessional reading of Scripture when it comes to the discipline of biblical studies. I personally believe that this is what is funding the mood that allows Ware and Grudem et al. to get to where they get in regard to eternal functional subordination between the Father and Son in their inner life (in se). Because pro-Nicene theology, and historic Christian confessional thinking and engagement with Holy Scripture does not.

[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.