June 27, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part Three of Five)

Theological Strategies for Eternal Relations of Authority

In order to make judgments regarding the eternal relations of authority effort, we suggest a review of their primary strategies for promoting their theological perspective. We discern three primary ways that the ERA theologians are advancing their theology: a scriptural strategy, an historical strategy, and a cultural strategy.

The Scriptural Strategy

Rather than glibly affirm a traditional heresy or neo-orthodoxy, the ERA theologians have recently busied themselves in two other ways. First, they seek to prove that their presentation of God is rooted in Scripture. In our mind, this has been their most successful strategy. They have demonstrated, without sufficiently detailed counter-arguments from their accusers, that Scripture constantly presents divine action—in creation, redemption, and consummation—as originating with the Father and moving toward creation through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. (Alongside this progression is the consequential return of the unitary divine activity from the Son and the Spirit to the Father.)

The most prominent exegetical argument(s) deployed against the ERA theologians are that the submissiveness of Jesus Christ toward God the Father in the New Testament is attached to his humanity rather than to his deity or that the divine economy is opposed to divine ontology. But these traditional arguments do not satisfy the free church desire for exegetical rigor over historical precedence and systematic expedience. On his part, ERA theologian Bruce Ware has repeatedly pointed to submission passages that broach, if not breach, the liminal boundary between time and eternity. 

In a first instance, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 brings the subjection of all things at the consummation of time unto, if not directly into, the eternal relation between the Son and the Father. In Ware's favor, why should we believe that this passage has to do with Christ's humanity rather than his deity? On what basis is this exegetical division required? And what would the division do to the Son's unitary personhood as the God-man?

In a second instance, Grudem argues it is difficult to dismiss κεφαλή (kephale) in 1 Corinthians 11:3 as merely a reference to "source" rather than "head" (we believe it probably means both). If the correlation between the Father and Christ is merely ascribed to his humanity, how is it that this restriction is exegetically required? Again, what does this division do to the unitary personhood of Christ? Or why must we believe this passage is a reference to the economic Trinity rather than the immanent Trinity? Alternatively, if 1 Corinthians 11:3c is a reference to an economic Trinitarian work, why must we follow Warfield rather than Rahner and disconnect the economic from the immanent Trinity? And if we so follow Warfield rather than Rahner in this choice, are we not in some sense casting doubt on the trustworthiness of divine revelation?

With these judgments and queries, we are not permanently cutting off the ERA opponents and their interpretations of the biblical text, but we are saying the credibility of the ERA theologians' biblical hermeneutics is powerful and their judgments must receive deeper consideration. The scriptural case is far from closed but the weight so far in this particular debate favors the eternal relations of authority proponents, though we will have more to say in this regard later.

The Historical Strategy

The second major strategy of the ERA theologians has been to demonstrate their position is not a historical novelty. As historical theologians, we are not yet convinced by the ERA proponents here, though we believe the situation has not been finally determined. While Malcolm utilized the early church fathers in his own work on the Trinity, he did not read them with a focus on the questions raised by the eternal relations of authority theologians. Malcolm's other historical theological work has centered in the Reformation, while Karen has focused on early twentieth century German theology. We come to the current problem with appreciation for the historical task, though with limited patristic expertise.

But what we can say with certainty is that neither Wayne Grudem, who drafted Malcolm for his argument for eternal functional subordination, nor Mark Jones, who drafted Malcolm against Grudem, were entirely correct or incorrect. As Jones properly recognized, the indisputable fact is that Malcolm follows the classical eternal generation interpretation in his reading of the biblical text, and not the eternal relations of authority interpretation. This is not to say that Grudem was wrong to see a possible correlation with his position; it is to say that Malcolm's careful affirmation of equality with subordination did not distinguish the functional from the ontological in the way Grudem does. (It was perceptive and kind of Grudem to note Malcolm's use of the term, "subordination," is carefully paired with "equality.")

As for Mark Jones, we read his response to Grudem and found much with which to agree. Like Jones, we try to receive historical theology in a contextually sensitive way. In The Formation of Christian Doctrine and Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation, Malcolm argued that we should allow historical figures to speak for themselves according to their sitz im leben. We both remain convinced that meticulous re-presentation of the thoughts of those who have come before us is a necessary virtue.

However, Malcolm also remembers when his former professor and friend, the revered Reformed theologian John Webster, took him to task for dwelling upon historical fidelity. (For the curious, Malcolm was defending an historical reading of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in a seminar at Oxford University, while Webster was advocating a freer appropriation of Calvin.) John Webster responded that historical theology is fine even necessary, but systematic theology ultimately requires the judicious appropriation of history for eternal concerns now.

If Webster's principle is correct, then Wayne Grudem is not entirely wrong to employ previous "subordination" claims in his favor, even if those authors used that language differently. Historical controversies rarely if ever exactly repeat themselves. And the ERA theologian need not necessarily adhere to a perfect correlation in order to infer a modicum of historical support, even if we ourselves prefer meticulous representation. Historical theology pursues truthful representation of the past; systematic theology utilizes historical theology to pursue truth itself. More thought is required in this question of theological method.

The Cultural Strategy

What the ERA theologians have not stressed in this latest round of controversy over Trinity and authority is their premier illustration for the immanent Trinity, the application to gender relations. For Grudem, Ware, and Ovey, gender relations in marriage has been the leading analogy in their presentation of the Trinity. This seems undeniable, though what is its import?

The ERA theologians have been accused of allowing contemporary cultural issues to drive their doctrine of the Trinity, but they have denied such. Similar accusations against their older evangelical opponents, the egalitarians, have also been leveled. Both the ERA complementarians and some egalitarians have found the Trinity helpful in addressing contemporary anthropological concerns, and both have been accused of reading anthropology into theology. The scandalous claim of idolatry has even been bandied about.

Whatever the case regarding currently unverified internal motivations, the marriage analogy is doubtless preferred among the ERA theologians. A preferred analogy is not all that unusual, but it can create problems. For instance, among those reviewing the classical tradition, the Cappadocians have sometimes been represented as leaning toward human community while Augustine has been represented as overextending human psychology. The Cappadocians were thus falsely accused of incipient tritheism and Augustine was thus falsely accused of incipient Unitarianism. The research of Barnes and Ayres has shown the so-called "de Regnon thesis" incorrectly fostered these readings of the fathers. Likewise, because of their preferred analogy, it may be that the ERA theologians have been falsely accused of Arianism.

In light of this, it seems prudent that we should never allow an analogy or illustration of the Trinity to remain unaccompanied. Malcolm encourages his systematic students at the least to use countervailing Trinitarian illustrations. This may help their people see that every analogy of the perfect God proves inadequate at some point. Unfortunately, if analogical variety is not deployed, somebody down the road may drag out a preferred analogy and attempt to hang its misuse against its proponent.

Misunderstanding or misrepresentation of intentions may also be driving some of the accusations against the ERA theologians. Apart from external proof to the contrary, or the omniscience which only one human being possesses, we who lack the divine nature must take the ERA theologians (and, by extension, the egalitarian theologians) at their word.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

1 comment:

  1. I agree "countervailing Trinitarian illustrations" are best. Great series!


Edifying comments always appreciated!