The Battle Rumbles Along: The Trinity of Complementarians

The battle rumbles along: one side of the historic Reformed have announced that the complementarian–focused Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have a faulty theory of the Trinity, and they have come back to announce they are fully orthodox. The issue here is the eternal subordination of the Son. Which they use, though in these newest statements they are not speaking into that issue, to prop up the subordination of women to men. Their distinctive emphasis on eternal subordination of the Son is connected to their complementarianism. They’re now trying to minimize this but the facts are otherwise… see both Trueman’s fuller response at the link and the final point made by Bird below.

Now to the principals: Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and then responses from Carl Trueman and Mike Bird. All are reformed of one sort or another.

Bruce Ware:

God the Son, then, is both God and Son. As God, he is fully equal with God the Father, in that both Father and Son possess fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. As such, the equality between the Father and Son (and Spirit) could not be stronger – they are equal to each other with an equality of identity (i.e., each possesses fully the identically same divine nature). As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish. The eternal Son, God the Son, is both fully God and fully equal to the Father, while he is fully Son and eternally in a relationship of Agent of the Father, carrying out the work and implementing the will of the Father in full submission and obedience to all that the Father has planned. God and Son, i.e., fully God (in nature) and fully Son (in person)–this is who this Second Person of the Trinity is as Hebrews, John, and the New Testament declare.
Fourth, none of this glorious Trinitarian theology is being devised for the purpose of supporting a social agenda of human relations of equality and complementarity. I do believe there is intended correspondence, indeed. But that is a far cry from saying that we are “reformulating” the doctrine of the Trinity to serve our social purposes. God forbid! Let God be God, regardless of what implications may or may not follow! And may our sole aim be to know the true God through his self-revelation in Scripture–the one and only true God, who is God only as he is Father, Son, and Spirit.

Wayne Grudem:

I returned from vacation on Monday night, June 6, only to find that an article onMortification of Spin, a website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, had accused me of presenting “a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.” I was surprised to read that I was “constructing a new deity,” that I was “reinventing the doctrine of God,” and that my view was “more like Islam than Christianity.”

In addition, I discovered that to hold my view of the Trinity is “to move into unorthodoxy” and “to verge on idolatry” and to advocate belief in “a different God.” The author recommended that holding my view of the Trinity should “certainly exclude” me and any who held my view “from holding office in the church of God.” Apparently those who had entrusted me to serve as a professor of Bible and theology for the last 39 years had made a dreadful mistake!… [The Berkhof, Strong, Hodge, Schaff notations fail to show he thought it was an “eternal” subordination of the Son. I read both speaking of the economical Trinity and incarnation. Why quote a summary of Calvin, not Calvin himself? What we need is the patristic Nicea era’s leading theologian speaking not only of subordination but of eternal subordination. As I read Grudem’s quotations, its seems to be found only in Frame, nor am I sure the Bromiley quotation speaks of eternal subordination.]

Carl Trueman:

[To Ware] Simply claiming the homoousion is not enough to make one a Nicene Trinitarian.  Were it so, history would make no sense.  After all, the term was adopted in 325 but it was another 56 years before Nicene Trinitarianism was finally defined.  The intervening years were largely spent battling over the nature of the relations.  One of the keys to the resolution of this problem was the concept of eternal generation.  Thus, I never denied that Professor Ware claims the homoousion, nor asserted that he is an Arian.  The point at issue is that of the nature of the relations.  In his writings, Professor Ware explicitly rejects the Nicene notion of eternal generation while asserting that of eternal functional submission.  That is in fact a very radical move to make, though not uncommon today.  Yet its popularity does not make it consistent with a Nicene position. In fact, rejection of eternal generation puts you definitively outside of Nicene Trinitarianism.  And that is what I was arguing.  And I cannot see how claiming the homoousion while altering your understanding of the relations does not leave your position vulnerable in the long term to one of the many problems which were debated and rejected between 325 and 381.

[To Grudem] To respond: I accuse no-one of rejecting the Nicene Creed of 325, as he states (at least in the version of the post available at 13:52 on Friday).  Nicene orthodoxy is actually defined at Constantinople in 381.  I simply state that those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381 — which is the ecumenical standard of the church catholic, albeit in the West subject to the revision at Toledo.

If Nicaea 325 is the standard of Nicene Trinitarianism with which he and Bruce Ware are operating, then I understand why they think an appeal to the homoousion is sufficient.  But history and the church catholic say otherwise.  Eternal generation etc. etc. are also of critical importance, as Constantinople 381 indicates.

Mike Bird:

First, when I say “Homoianism” I refer to the view that was common in the 350s and 60s that stressed the subordination of the Son to the Father and declared that the Son is like the Father “according to the Scriptures,” that is, it emphasizes solely the economic subordination of the Son rather than utilizing ontological language and immanent relationships of equality. Read the Second Creed of Sirmium for an account of a Homoian Creed and R.P. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian God chap. 18 for more on Homoianism.

Second, the book by Bruce Ware and John Starke, One God in Three Persons sets out their understanding of this Complementarian view. Ware and Starke have both written to me privately to stress their acceptance of the term homoousion and their deliberate intent to avoid the language of “subordination,” both of which I affirm and applaud.  In fact, Ware prefers the term “eternal authority-submission relationship” over “eternal functional subordination,” though I’m not convinced it is that much of an improvement. Even so, to reiterate, they are definitely not Arians! For more, see Stephen Holmes’s review of Ware and Starke for some robust criticism and Fred Sanders’s review for a bit more sympathy.

Third, I remain concerned of two things: (a) That the notion of authority and/or hierarchy is still being applied by proponents to the Trinity which potentially makes the God-head a Tri-archy rather than a Tri-unity, and I don’t think this can be squared with a Nicene theology; and (b) The whole debate is motivated by gender issues and not solely by a careful appropriation of biblical materials and their reception among the Nicene Fathers.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.