Why the Trinity Debate Matters for the Pulpit and the Pew

TrinityIn case you missed it, there’s been an online debate about the Trinity that has scholars and pastors and even institutions on edge. The debate online has stayed at a rather high academic level, but to give you a primer, here are just a few of the articles:

  • This article by Liam Goligher started it all (here)
  • Bruce Ware’s response to Goligher (here)
  • Michael Bird’s overview of the concerns (here)
  • Fred Sanders’s outline of foundational Trinitarian affirmations (here)
  • Matt Emerson’s overview of exegesis and history (here)
  • Michael Ovey’s rejoinder to the claims (here)
  • Luke Stamps’s survey of the underlying issue in the debate (here)

The question at hand is, basically, whether or not the Son was subordinate or somehow under the Father’s authority before the Incarnation. No one denies that Jesus submitted to the Father’s will after the Incarnation, as biblical texts are rather clear on this (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38, 14:31; et al.). But the question comes down to how we handle the texts that refer to Jesus before the Incarnation (such as John 1:1ff; Phil. 2:6-11, etc.), and how to mesh all of this with the early Church’s foundational creeds, confessions, and writings.

At full disclosure, I’m not taking a side in this post–primarily because you don’t care. When Goligher, Carl Trueman, Ware, Wayne Grudem, Bird, Sanders, Ovey, Emerson, Stamps, and others are involved, I’m not needed. But I will say that I’ve been swimming in this debate for 4-5 years. First, as a master’s student, I majored in historical/systematic theology and wrote papers on Augustine’s Trinitarianism, patristic theological method, various Reformers’ views on the Trinity, and Barth’s Trinity-shaped view of divine revelation. Now, as a Ph.D. hopeful, I’ve just finished a 50-page thesis on the divine persons and their relations in the Book of Revelation.

All of this to say, I care about this debate–and you should, too. No doubt that these debates are often for academic sport, with scholars trying to one-up each other or defend their theological turf. This approach to theology is exhausting to many pastors and laypeople who just want to know the facts, Jack–tell me why it matters in my daily ministry and life. So here is my humble attempt to do just that.

1. Views on the Trinity Objectively Matter

We often make the mistake of thinking that if it’s not an application point in a sermon, it’s not “practical” or it somehow doesn’t matter. Like, if we can’t immediately apply it to some sin in our life or a situation at work, it’s not that important. But this is shortsighted.

First and foremost, thinking deeply and rightly about God is objectively important. You may never be able to fully articulate why your wife loves a particular type of food, why she is better at math than English, or why she has the color hair she has. But it’s still important to know those things about her because it’s part of who she is and how she works. Who God is and how he works matters by itself, even if you can’t easily fold it into your day-to-day.

More than that, if there’s a doctrine we cannot lose grasp of or think too much about, it’s the doctrine of God. So we shouldn’t work our way up to the Trinity through more “practical” thoughts, but we should become more practical as we move down from the Trinity. You see, every other doctrine ultimately flows from who he is and how he acts. What we think about God determines what we think about Jesus, salvation, eschatology, culture, politics, and even Sunday morning worship gatherings. So affirming the Trinity is huge and learning more about the Trinity shouldn’t be taken lightly.

So let me say this: if you haven’t pondered the Trinity much, go do that first. Find a good, helpful book like Mike Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity and spend time there first. But the nuanced details of this debate still matter–whether or not the Son was subordinate before the Incarnation affects preaching and practical living. This leads to the next point.

2. Views on the Trinity Influence the Pulpit and the Pew

Here’s where the big concerns for many lie. Fine, let’s say we have a good grasp of the Trinity and want to begin thinking about the nuances. Why should we? Can’t we just affirm the Trinity and move on? In one sense, yes. But again, theology is always practical and even detailed minutia can affect how we love God and neighbor.

Further, this is an exegetical argument, and how we handle biblical texts matters. I think immediately of how this debate impacts our reading of texts about husband-wife roles (Eph. 5:25ff; 1 Cor. 11:3; et al.). So let’s use this as a test case to see how it might affect the preaching, teaching, and practicality of complementarian marriages.

Disclaimer: In the end, neither of the following outcomes are necessary outflows of the views. I’m not saying either view must affirm what’s presented below. Let’s always be careful to say something “has a logical end” if the person who holds the view doesn’t affirm that end. Also, holders of these views might affirm some of the same things, but may not arrive there via their view of the Trinity. In any event, this is simply illustrative of how this works out practically.

If we hold to the view that Jesus was subordinate before the Incarnation (Eternal Functional Subordination/Eternal Roles of Authority-Submission–Ware, Grudem, etc.), we teach that the roles in marriage–the husband is the head and the wife is the helper–are an echo of the Trinitarian relationship between the Father and Son. After all, if the Son can submit to the Father forever and eternally, it’s not demeaning for the wife to submit to her husband for her entire life. For example, a pastor might counsel a couple experiencing marital problems based on how strongly he ties the eternal relationship of Father/Son to husband/wife, which some proponents find helpful and unhelpful. In other words, are there any grounds for divorce–infidelity, abuse, etc.–if the Son eternally submits to the Father? These are types of questions the EFS/ERAS camp has to answer.

On the other hand, if we hold to the non-EFS/ERAS view (Goligher, Trueman, etc.), we make the case that we don’t need the Son to be eternally subordinate to the Father to affirm a robust complementarianism. This view is uncomfortable blurring the line between the Creator/creature divide, arguing that it’s an imperfect analogy rather than a direct correlation. Sure, some texts talk about marriage reflecting the Father/Son relationship, but it may only be in terms of the Son becoming subordinate as a man–so the analogy is limited and only goes so far. But if the marriage relationship indeed is so strongly designed to mirror Trinitarian life and relations, EFS/ERAS camp asserts that this view misunderstands how human relationships were designed to work in light of humans being made in God’s image. In other words, can we fully live out a God-honoring marriage if we deny the most crucial link–that the eternal Father-Son relationship represents the covenant between husband and wife? These are the types of questions the non-EFS/ERAS camp has to answer.

So here’s the point: we should be willing to think through what the Bible says about a doctrine first and foremost, but we should not doubt that they have practical implications. First, we should care about these nuances because it affects our view of God; second, we should care because it affects how we view practical issues like the marriage relationship. Theology divorced from practice is bad theology, and we should be good theologians.

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