The Trinity-Subordinationism Debate and the Opportunity Before Us

If the current trinitarian debate over a version of complementarianism was inevitable, what does this mean for the next stage of faithful thinking and practice?

It also means more hopefully that, despite our anxiety and listlessness in the midst of this contemporary sexual revolution, the Church, dutifully sanctified and reformed by and according to Holy Scripture, may in fact be in a position to survive this cultural upheaval with something to say, both to it and to herself, as the Church. She may yet summon her resources, old and new, and speak positively and constructively of the way of Christ and the way of faithfulness as the only way of human hope and wholeness.

 

In an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.

Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.

In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the Bible question, particularly on the nature and authority of Scripture. The Bible question was also, of course, in many quarters a culture question: to affirm the Bible meantipso facto to take certain positions on a range of cultural, political, and domestic questions. To fail to line up meant coming under suspicion for your doctrine of Scripture, not only your politics. Yet, in this recognizably cultural mode, within the world of twentieth-century evangelical theology, Reformed and otherwise, the doctrine of Scripture was the issue.

This rallying, unifying cry around the doctrine of the Bible resulted in a variety of phenomena the fruits of which account, at least in part, for our situation. (That I note only negative consequences below is dictated by my aims in this brief post. I certainly see many enduring positive consequences as well.) These phenomena include theologians trained primarily or exclusively in biblical studies rather than in traditional dogmatics, itself not necessarily problematic except that its role in the recent malaise of evangelical theology requires that we account for it. Another fruit of that bibliological center was a host of evangelical biblical scholars who translated a “high view” of Scripture’s nature and authority into a particular hermeneutic of Scripture controlled by ancient historical and grammatical, yet conspicuously non-theological or ecclesial, concerns. The result was a great deal of helpful material on ancient biblical and non-biblical history, the grammar of biblical and cognate languages, linguistics, and the like, yet little to no meaningful connection of the task of close exegesis to the theological story and categories of the Church catholic.  There are wonderful exceptions to this trend, of course, both individually and institutionally, but they stand out precisely as exceptions.

What, then, about those categories of ancient orthodoxy? They seemed more and more remote from the presumed concerns and issues of the biblical texts themselves. Buying unwittingly into a rather deep liberal theological conviction that the history of the Church’s theology is a truly separable (rather than distinguishable) entity over against the “real” world of the biblical materials, evangelical “theology” widened the gap between the “historic orthodoxy” it was ostensibly interested in defending and the actual materials, vocabulary, and categories of that orthodoxy. As Cleveland remarks, “The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.”

And without that push, without that ecclesial and orthodox consciousness, howcould we know where transgressions of that orthodoxy occur, at least outside of the increasingly narrow (and ultimately collapsing) confines of the doctrine of Scripture’s “high authority” and nature? There was now a conspicuously wide culture gap between the Church historic and the Church contemporary, even in the work of theology where such a gap would seem most effortlessly closed. The gap was there, and widening, because we could say a lot about inspiration and inerrancy and evidence and authority, but we no longer spoke the language of the Church, and so we could no longer hear or understand what the Church catholic had long been saying. In the end, it became possible for a big name or two in the evangelical world of bibliological-cultural orthodoxy to push for a version of complementarianism that is rooted in a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, and for no one in that world to notice.

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