“These quotes highlight what is at stake in the teaching of some contemporary evangelical scholars and pastors: they are presenting a novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture. This is serious. It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity…”
–Liam Goligher, June 3, 2016 (emphasis mine)
There is much in play in the current Trinitarian debate: the concept of eternal submission, the one will of the Godhead, and complementarian connectivity to the Trinity, among other matters.
These issues are complex and take time to sort out; see my book with Gavin Peacock, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them for some of my thoughts. As I have stated, I believe that there is no need to divide the church on these matters. I have admired and appreciated the work of Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman for years, and am deeply grateful to God for the excellent institutions they serve.
But there is now one issue that has been sorted. Over at Reformation21, Wayne Grudem just published a compendium of theologians who have affirmed what he, Bruce Ware, I, and others call an eternal relation of authority and submission (ERAS) between the Father and Son. These theologians, as Grudem shows, span the spectrum. They are Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist; they are British, French, American, and Dutch.
The list includes such titans as Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Carl F. H. Henry, Geerhardus Vos, J. I. Packer, Charles Hodge, Louis Berkhof, John Frame, A. H. Strong, and Robert Letham. Though each man has his own precise formulation of the roles and relations of the Godhead, all of these thinkers affirm ERAS. Do not miss the significance of Grudem’s piece. This list is not merely a scattered collection of minor thinkers. This is a murderer’s row of the Christian past.
This amounts to a devastating refutation of the charge by Goligher (one affirmed by historian Carl Trueman) that ERAS as held by Grudem, Ware, myself, and others is “novel.” ERAS is not “a different view of God than that affirmed by the church through the ages,” as Goligher claims. It is crystal-clear that precisely the opposite is true: this is a very well-attested view. Drawing from the inerrant Word, theologians have affirmed, taught, and proclaimed this conception of the Godhead for hundreds of years, and as Grudem’s citation of Schaff and Bromiley shows, for millennia. Figures in the early church, contra the way they are sometimes presented, did hold to ERAS, as the survey of the Nicene fathers by Schaff notes: “The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism,” a “subordination of hypostasis” regarding person, not essence. If true, this collapses the argument that ERAS proponents have erred in their understanding of the fathers.
In sum, Grudem’s survey shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that many of our best and most faithful thinkers have unfolded this shared vision in their scholarly work. This is problematic for Goligher, to say the least. His bold claims regarding evangelical history now appear malnourished, for Grudem’s piece is the equivalent of theological nitroglycerine. There are other matters to be sorted out in this debate, but we have no choice but to conclude that one aspect of the conversation is now closed: ERAS is not “novel.” It is richly-attested and widely-held.
Unfortunately for Goligher, this was not the only major misstep he made. He said this about those who teach ERAS: “It [holding this view] should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.” This, too, is a shocking claim, one that follows from the first. It necessarily and unequivocally entails that Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, myself, and others should lose our positions teaching systematic theology in seminaries. It also means that any pastors who hold to ERAS should lose their office, summarily and swiftly.
Let us think for a moment about the outworking of this statement. If proponents of ERAS teach “unorthodoxy” as Goligher says, then we must retroactively take the following actions.
—John Calvin must retire his Genevan robes, never to pastor or teach again. We should promptly burn all copies of the Institutes, and repent of ever having touched his works, which promote a “new deity.”
—Jonathan Edwards must move back to Connecticut in ignominy and shame, leaving his diverse ministerial career, never again to write a doctrinal word, let alone to preach the most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (George Whitefield will have to prosecute the First Great Awakening by himself!)
—Charles Hodge must be taken by the arm and escorted out of magisterial old Princeton, silenced for his falsehoods. The Presbyterian church must lose the benefit of 58 years of Hodge’s expert instruction. (Liam Goligher said so, and Carl Trueman seconded the motion.)
–We must detain J. I. Packer with all due haste. There must be no Knowing God (which explicitly teaches ERAS), no rehabilitation of the pious Puritans, no work on the ESV, and all else. Packer must be kicked out of his teaching posts for holding to “neo-Tritheism.”
–We must get to Berkhof, Frame, and Vos before they can write their tremendous theological works, their systematic and biblical theologies that have helped so many of us understand and love God’s Word. Their support of ERAS disqualifies them from lifting their pen to instruct the church.
—Carl Henry needs to keep his journalistic credentials in Chicago, for despite being the most important evangelical theologian of the later twentieth-century, his Trinitarian views necessitate his expulsion from the ministry.
These thinkers aside, it’s possible that someone still might say, “But ERAS isn’t in the creeds and confessions!” We have two responses. Firstly, and most importantly, ERAS is bound up in how many theologians, in their own way, have worked through the Nicene concept of the eternal fatherhood and eternal sonship of the first and second persons of the Trinity. ERAS accounts for how theologians have understood the biblical teaching on the relationship between the Father and Son more broadly. Further, as noted above, eminent historians have said quite straightforwardly that the Nicene fathers did hold to what we moderns call ERAS.
Secondly, even if none of the Fathers held this view, we should remember that while the creeds and confessions have great value, they were temporal documents, and in point of fact do not cover numerous vital biblical matters. You will search the creeds in vain for full-blown articulations of such core doctrines as justification, bibliology, eschatology, anthropology, and creation. This is not because the early church did not give attention to these things; it is because the early church had certain falsehoods to correct. The church in every age venerates the creeds and confessions, but recognizes the need to explicate the church’s only inerrant text: the Scripture, which summons us to glory in every facet of the whole counsel of God, regardless of whether the ancient documents cover it or not.
In sum, those who hold to ERAS, and those who have wondered of late whether it is the next stop on the bullet-train to unorthodoxy, can breathe easy. While the witness of the theologians cited in Grudem’s post in no way proves the doctrine (this Scripture alone can do), we can know with certainty that ERAS is the very opposite of a “novel” perspective.
The Trinity debate will go on, but one aspect of it has concluded. With respect, Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman are wrong, deeply wrong, on this count.