Complementarianism in Crisis?

Complementarianism doesn’t need the Son to be eternally submissive to the Father (and, as we’ll see in a moment, such a claim actually distorts the essences/roles distinction anyway)

The Trinitarian angle on the complementarian/egalitarian debates of the last thirty years has certainly raised the stakes. It has tied sex roles into the divine being, and in doing so has turned areas of reasonable disagreement into areas where charges of heresy could well be, and have been, levelled in both directions. So the disentangling of related but in principle separable claims about God has, I imagine, lowered the temperature somewhat. Egalitarians like Scot McKnight and Mike Bird (both of whom, it is worth noting, are thoroughly persuaded that men and women are complementary!) seem relieved that complementarians are not irrevocably wedded to a doctrine they regard as heterodox; many complementarians will no doubt be equally relieved no longer to be tarred with that particular brush; and that should make dialogue both gentler and more constructive all round.

 
“Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis,” writes Carl Trueman. “But this is a crisis of its own making — the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them.”

Personally, I’m quite optimistic about the fallout from the whole debate. (More optimistic than Carl Trueman? Who knew?) I think correctives are good. I think robust challenges to faulty formulations of doctrine will, in the end, produce health rather than decay. Admittedly there is a certain type of complementarian argument that, in all likelihood, will be either gradually jettisoned, or refined and nuanced until it can no longer be recognised as the same thing, and this, I suspect, is what Carl means by “complementarianism as currently constructed.” But the overall effect of that change will be positive, rather than negative, for complementarianism as a whole, let alone the church as a whole. I say that for five reasons.

The first is clarity. It is now much clearer than it was, to me and I suspect to many others, that (a) order or taxis in the Trinity, (b) the submission of Christ to the Father after the incarnation, (c) the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, (d) the denial of the eternal generation of the Son, and (e) the affirmation of three divine wills, do not have to belong together. (The fact that some have defended Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware by denying that (c) is heterodox, when the real charge of course concerns (d) and (e), misses this important distinction, as others have shown). There is far more diversity on some of these points than it previously appeared (at TGC, in CBMW, amongst the contributors to the Starke and Ware book, and so on), and that makes it easier to appraise the arguments for each claim on its merits, rather than assuming they come as a package deal. For my part, I have always held to (a) and (b), and never (d)—which is pretty orthodox—but I had never really thought about (e), and my position on (c) has changed from enthusiastic advocacy, to support with reservations, to outright rejection. The unbundling of these various issues has made that whole process clearer for me, and probably for others.

The second is unity. The Trinitarian angle on the complementarian/egalitarian debates of the last thirty years has certainly raised the stakes. It has tied sex roles into the divine being, and in doing so has turned areas of reasonable disagreement into areas where charges of heresy could well be, and have been, levelled in both directions. So the disentangling of related but in principle separable claims about God has, I imagine, lowered the temperature somewhat. Egalitarians like Scot McKnight and Mike Bird (both of whom, it is worth noting, are thoroughly persuaded that men and women are complementary!) seem relieved that complementarians are not irrevocably wedded to a doctrine they regard as heterodox; many complementarians will no doubt be equally relieved no longer to be tarred with that particular brush; and that should make dialogue both gentler and more constructive all round.

The third is simplicity. Complementarianism doesn’t need the Son to be eternally submissive to the Father (and, as we’ll see in a moment, such a claim actually distorts the essences/roles distinction anyway)

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