Trinitarian Controversy: Necessary Sharpening or Unnecessary Strife?

Not every controversy is a mere “quarrel of words;” the history of the church testifies that out of our greatest strife we have been most sharpened.

What I do want to do is ask this question: is this an exercise in creating unnecessary strife, or is it actually serving to sharpen? As someone who approaches the controversy from a pretty ordinary perspective, I hope it can serve to sharpen any Christian who will do the hard work of reading to understand, and the hard work of reading to reflect. The Trinity isn’t an accessory to Christianity. It is the bedrock because our foundation is nothing less than God himself, and God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

Sometimes the unfortunate idiomatic expression: “Boys will be boys,” is used to excuse turning a blind eye to the irresponsible behavior of some. After all, what more can you expect from boys? Well, if I can borrow that phrase and adjust it slightly, I suppose one might excuse their deaf ear when it comes to certain theological controversies determining that: “Theologians will be theologians.” There seems to be a certain expectation that theologians will raise mountains out of molehills, create crises out of theological thin air, and make every point of doctrine and endless potential for dilemma. I understand and am not completely unsympathetic toward those who see many theological controversies as a hopeless labyrinth of details lacking practical value.

But not every controversy is a mere “quarrel of words.” The history of the church testifies that out of our greatest strife we have been most sharpened. While those who engage in the debates might do a better job communicating to observers the value and worth of their discussions, so too those who tend to be disinclined shouldn’t be quick to dismiss all arguments as an “unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Timothy 6:4). Perhaps we can all do better at learning how to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

I write this because if you keep your eyes on the recent theological happenings of social media you’ve probably noticed there’s been a topic that has been getting a lot of attention from evangelicals, Reformed, and even a couple Roman Catholics. It’s been a pretty extensive and intensive brawl over the doctrine of the Trinity. While it would be impossible to digest all that has been written in the short span of ten days, let me try to give the uninformed a fly-by overview.

For some time certain evangelicals associated with the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) have sought to support their complementarianism by a certain understanding of the Trinity. Complementarianism–which stands opposed to egalitarianism–teaches that men and women are created equal but have different and complementing roles. While there are particular passages that speak clearly to this, it has become fairly widespread to correlate it with the Triunity of God. Namely, there are those who find a pattern for male-female relationships in the eternal relationship between the Father and Son. They reason that the Father and Son are eternally distinguished from each other by a relationship of authority and submission–the Son eternally submitting to the authority of the Father. This has often been called “Eternal Submission of the Son” (ESS), “Eternal Functional Submission” (EFS), or “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS).

Though ESS/EFS/ERAS has gained momentum–especially through the efforts of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware–it has not been without its challengers. For some time it’s been debated in scholarly journals, evangelical societies, and books. However, ten days ago that debate was brought to social media by Liam Goligher who argued extensively against ESS/EFS/ERAS. It’s important to know what is and isn’t being argued. For instance, it’s well recognized that there is a non-interchangeable order of the Persons of the Trinity. The Father is unbegotten and so is the “First Person,” the Son who is eternally begotten of the Father is the “Second Person,” and the Spirit who eternally proceeds from the Father and Son is the “Third Person.” To use the technical term, this has often been called the “order of subsistence.” Certain theologians like Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, and Geerhardus Vos have classified this order of subsistence as a kind of subordination. While the vocabulary is unfortunate it is perfectly orthodox. Further, it is also recognized that the incarnate Son–the God man, Jesus Christ–submitted to the will of his Father: “Not my will be yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The argument, however, is that to define the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father in terms of authority and submission goes beyond the boundaries of orthodox Christianity as it has found universal acceptance in the creeds. Opponents of EFS/ESS/ERAS have argued that it destroys the essential oneness of God who is Trinity–God three-in-one.

An accusation like that cannot land softly upon the ears of those to whom it is being made–and it hasn’t which can be see in the barrage of writing. For instance, see Goligher’s two original posts (here and here) and his follow up (here), and his support by Carl Trueman (hereherehereherehere), Mark Jones (hereherehereherehere, and here), Todd Pruitt (hereherehere), Jeffrey Waddington (here), Aimee Byrd (here), Michael Barnes (here), Lewis Ayers (here), Darren Sumner (herehere), and Fred Sanders (here). His accusations have been opposed by Wayne Grudem (here), Bruce Ware (here), Mike Ovey (here), Denny Burke (here), Owen Strachan (here), and John Stevens (here)–and others posts by Glenn Butner Jr (here), Alastair Roberts (here), Derek Rishmaway (here), and in case I missed anything or you want a timeline see (here).

I don’t want to offer an analysis of these two positions. If you want a hint of where I stand I think it’s dangerous ground to invoke the Trinity to support your agenda–whether you’re a complementarian or egalitarian! I oppose distinguishing the Father and Son in their eternal relationship in any other terms than the Son’s being begotten and the Father’s being unbegotten. I’m also suspicious that ESS/EFS/ERAS carried out consistently destroys the incarnation and so too the ground of our salvation. Okay, that was more than a hint! But I’m not a theologian or the son of a theologian. While I have my opinions I won’t pretend to understand the entirety of the debate and probably approach it with the same knowledge as many others do–which isn’t very much. I admit my eyes can get a little crossed when I begin to read things like: “order of subsistence,” or the “essential and accidental, necessary and contingent, ad intra and ad extra dimensions of God;” I need reminders of what the Latin vocabulary means; I’ve read a few systematic theologies but I’ve never made it through Augustine and haven’t touched Aquinas on the matter; and my mind quickly (very quickly) feels infinitesimal when I try to admire the Three-in-One.

What I do want to do is ask this question: is this an exercise in creating unnecessary strife, or is it actually serving to sharpen? As someone who approaches the controversy from a pretty ordinary perspective, I hope it can serve to sharpen any Christian who will do the hard work of reading to understand, and the hard work of reading to reflect. The Trinity isn’t an accessory to Christianity. It is the bedrock because our foundation is nothing less than God himself, and God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From this truth comes all our identity (Matthew 28:19), worship (Ephesians 2:18), blessedness (Ephesians 1:1-11; 2 Corinthians 13:14), and comfort (John 14-17). This isn’t merely a “quarrel about words” for theologians who sit in their armchairs snug and cozy in their ivory towers. No believer should be content to remain in willful ignorance. It ought to be utterly intolerable that a Christian can think so much about so many things and still have little to no apprehension of what God has revealed concerning his Trinity. That would be akin to saying: “I love God but I am satisfied to not know the one whom I love.” Though the doctrine of the Trinity has long been neglected in most of our churches, I hope the current controversy will refocus and sharpen us as faith seeks understanding. As Augustine said: “In no other subject is error more dangerous, inquiry more difficult, or the discovering of truth more rewarding.”

Kyle Borg is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and serves as pastor of Winchester Reformed Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Kan. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.