Recent posts by Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher on the nature of Trinitarian relations have prompted a fairly major online conversation. I was personally implicated in the controversy alongside greater lights like Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, as I recently published The Grand Design with Gavin Peacock. In TGD, Gavin and I briefly make the case for what is called Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS).
Trueman and Goligher did not hold back, God bless ‘em: they say that ERAS is akin to “idolatry,” to Islam’s view of God, that we have fallen prey to “neo-tritheism,” that we are “constructing a new deity,” and that we hold “a position seriously out of step with the historic catholic faith” that is “a likely staging post to Arianism.” Who knew that three, nay four, wild proto-Arian bulls were running rampant in the Lord’s vineyard? But here our bullishness must end, and we must come to heel.
Personally, I think both ERAS proponents and non-ERAS proponents can dwell together in unity and love. But it seems–guessing at random here–Trueman and Goligher disagree. What follows is my response in four points, a friendly reply that builds off of the excellent work already published by Ware, Grudem, Mike Ovey, and Denny Burk.
First, let us read Scripture plainly on Fatherly headship and affirm the beauty of submission. One principle that seems to animate the critiques of Trueman and Goligher is that Christ’s submission in the Trinity ad intra compromises the nature of divinity. To submit, goes the thinking, amounts to taking on substandard status. But this is not so in God’s eyes. See 1 Cor. 11:3—“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” We note that this statement attaches no temporal limit to this relationship. It is entirely natural to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 and come away assuming that it maps the Father-Son relationship in all stages (while recognizing that the full display of this dynamic came when the Son took on flesh). One need perform no gymnastics here to make this conclusion, which harmonizes with a classically Protestant bias in favor of simpler exegesis over the more difficult reading.
Note what this entails about the corollary of headship: submission. The Father being “head” of the Son entails no substandard state for Jesus. On the contrary, the Son is greatly exalted in his present state. He has defeated sin and Satan in his crucifixion, he has triumphed over the grave in his resurrection, and he has ascended to the right hand of Father. How interesting this is. It is in the period following the Son’s triumph over his enemies that the Father is expressly identified as his head.
One might think, in other words, that if the T-G camp is correct, then the Son would have returned to heaven with authority equal to that of his Father. But this is not so. He did all he accomplished expressly to glorify the Father (John 17:4). We detect a marvelous unbroken Christological thread here, gleaming with otherworldly glory. The Son was sent by the Father (Hebrews 1), indicating the Father’s authority over the pre-incarnate Son; in his incarnation, he completed the Father’s will, obeying the Father and submitting to him; now, he sits at the Father’s right hand; in eternity, he will continue in this role, being highly exalted by his loving Father, but never taking the Father’s position of authority (1 Cor. 15:28). Even when he is given the name above every name, it is to the greater magnification of the Father (see Phil. 2:1-11). To inhabit the position of submission in a relationship involves no lesser state of being or inferiority in one’s ontology. It is the submissive Son who is highly exalted.
I recognize that this turns the world’s categories on their head. It seems like submission should be lesser, degrading, and substandard. That is certainly how a secular, fallen, Bible-hating, God-defying world presents it. But this is not how Scripture portrays submission. The obedient Son is sent by the Father and submissively does all the Father directs him to do.
If we lose this understanding of Christ, and this God-saturated conception of submission, we lose something very, very close to the beating heart of the Christian faith. This is the kind of insight that only the Holy Spirit can unveil, for it is so directly unearthly, so rudely contrary to the way the world views servanthood. In the kingdom of Christ, humility—unbroken humility, from before the world stretching into all the ages to come–becomes kingly. How stunning. Let us glory in our unearthly, otherworldly Christ.
Second, let us not be shy about making complementarian connections. One could read Trueman and Goligher and think that the Trinity must be kept separate—like a well patient from the sick ward—from complementarity. I hear this a good bit today, and it’s problematic.
What’s more, it is God himself, speaking through the apostle Paul, who connects Trinitarian relations with marital roles. 1 Corinthians 11:3 makes this plain as day. In his matchless wisdom and kindness, God wants marriage to have the same authority-submission dynamic that his own Father-Son relationship has. We men and women will not live this out perfectly as the Father and Son do, but the Lord calls us to this beautiful design nonetheless.
This means that we are freed from embarrassment over the connection between the Trinity and complementarity. How happy this is. The world scorns us for holding to scriptural teaching. It encourages us to think of manhood and womanhood as lesser things. But our great God shows us that he rejects such doctrinal ranking and worldly thinking. His design for marriage is good, grand, and beautiful, mirroring his intra-Trinitarian life. What a summons to joy this is in our marriages, if we will receive it as good.
Third, let us reaffirm Scripture as our authority and avoid a New Scholasticism. There are some tough issues to sort out in these areas, make no doubt about it. I’m grateful for gifted philosophers and historians who push us to think carefully and logically. I am also aware, however, that philosophy and history must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology. The Word is our authority.
It increasingly seems to me like we find ourselves in a moment similar to the post-Reformation period, the time after a great gospel awakening, when a certain scholasticizing tendency cropped up in German circles (to cite one locale). Then, speaking broadly, theology moved away from a rigorously, richly textual mooring and began to be more of a philosophical enterprise. Doctrine came to be seen in such a season as the possession of arid scholars, and laypeople came to feel as if they were not qualified to understand the Scripture. Abstractions and categories mattered more than prophesies and promises.
Let us avoid a New Scholasticism. Let us be humble servants of God, and beggars before the Word of God. Let us savor afresh that the holy Trinity belongs to the whole church. This is not to write off advanced theological inquiry; I have given my life to such endeavors. But it is to say that I personally perceive today that we need to take care that we do not leave our first love. Let’s not think the Godhead is for the ivory tower. It’s for the people of God.
Fourth, let us not grow fearful of exploring the threeness of the one God. As several folks have said, it is good and right to affirm the concept of inseparable operations, but we must take care that we do not flatten the Bible’s presentation of the Father, Son, and Spirit into a pre-poured mold. The New Testament, and in particular books like the Gospel of John, show us a Trinity that is very active, with the three members of the Godhead making crucial contributions to the work of redemption. The Scripture is not shy at all about opening our eyes to the glory of the three persons as they each fill their doxological role.
Noting this diverse work and celebrating it is not “tritheism.” It is biblical Christianity. If we lose the oneness of God, yes, we are in a very, very bad place. But let us be aware of the opposite tendency, equally problematic: to underplay the threeness of God and thus lose sight of the distinctive glory of the person and work of each member of the Godhead. Let us glory in oneness, and let us revel in threeness, never losing the indissoluble connection between these two glorious, mind-remapping concepts.
The issues referenced above are by no means fully sorted out. I for one believe that there is room in our movement for both those who hold to ERAS and those who take issue with aspects of it. It is clear that I believe that there is good exegetical and theological reason to hold to ERAS, but even those who do not share my position may still happily affirm the Danvers Statement and find joy in a complementarian identity.
Division is the easy way out. We Christians may disagree on some issues, but surely we can do all things in love. Here’s hoping for that spirit in days ahead as God’s people continue a worthy discussion, one that reminds all of us that the Trinity is the meta-idea that causes Christianity to shine as no other faith, no other religion.
Truly, there is no God like our God.