Books Like This Deserve Reviews Like This

Books Like This Deserve Reviews Like This May 23, 2015

Stephen Holmes, on the new book that attempts to defend complementarianism on the basis of eternal [add, functional] subordination. The new book is called One God in Three Persons, ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke. I’ve had more than one theologian friend say this stuff is just getting too close to Arianism and others who say it is re-inventing Trinitarian theology. Kevin Giles has been proving this stuff wrong step by step for years.

Male-female relations do not need to be, and cannot be, anchored in the Trinity because, as I read both sides of this debate, it’s little more than a good example of colonizing one idea (Trinity) with another idea (complementarianism, egalitarianism) or, worse yet, special pleading.

The conclusion to this debate stands or falls on two points: careful exegesis of Scripture and the classic doctrinal explanations of the Trinity (and eternal generation, not subordination, is the classic view).

Here’s what Stephen Holmes concludes in his fair-minded but strong review, and I encourage you to go to the link to read the whole review:

From Thomas Aquinas down to c.1950, Christian accounts of gender ‘complementarity’ depended on an assumption that women were in some way weaker or less perfect than men. Of course there were challenges – some which accepted the assumption (Sojouner Truth’s great speech), some which rejected it (in my own evangelical tradition, Phoebe Palmer or Catherine Booth). But the basic argument was stable.

When it became clear that this basic argument was simply false, the churches had two options. One was to surrender accounts of complementarity – the English Free Churches all did it in the 1920s and 1930s without fuss or difficulty. The other was to find new arguments to defend the old conclusions.

There is a good book to be written by someone who has more patience than I do with bad arguments, narrating the various arguments used by complementarians in recent decades. A ‘narrow hermeneutic’ argument based around close exegesis of two or three NT texts failed – the exegesis was not plausible; it was replaced by a ‘broad hermeneutic’ argument appealing to a Biblical theology of gender. This also failed, and was replaced by an appeal to ‘eternal functional subordination’ and a direct argument from the doctrine of God to gender relations.

The book I am here treating seems to me to demonstrate that (at least some) ‘complementarians’ themselves have realised what serious scholars already knew: this argument too fails. It relied on an extreme version of social Trinitarianism which had no purchase in the Christian tradition, and was unsustainable exegetically. In their different ways, Starke, Claunch, and others here offer chastened versions of the argument – but it is lost.

If I wished to defend ‘complementarianism’, I would abandon the Trinitarian argument completely; there is a potential Christological argument available in Eph. 5; I do not think this works, for reasons I have explored elsewhere, but it is less obviously ridiculous than the Trinitarian position explored in this book.

I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?

In the case of the sort of Christian ‘complementarianism’ it defends, this volume makes me wonder seriously if we have reached that line.


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