Civil War among the Complementarians

Civil War among the Complementarians August 16, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 8.52.47 AMJust over a year ago complementarianism as we knew it began to crack open. The story of its crack-up is told by Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

I remember the events because I routinely reposted the major critical posts and read the responses by such folks as Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and others.

Now to the story of what Giles calls the “civil war.”

On June 3, everything changed. Civil war broke out in the evangelical community. A deep and sharp split among those who call themselves complementarians suddenly and unexpectedly appeared. The contestants were not divided over the gender question, but rather over the Trinity. Two Reformed women, Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd, of whom I will say more later, had raised concerns about what was being taught on the Trinity by complementarians prior to June 2016, but the battle only really took off when Dr. Liam Goligher, the respected and able senior pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, made a blistering attack on complementarian teaching on the Trinity. In very strong Ianguage he accused Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. Bruce Ware, the leaders o’ 0f the complementarian movement, of breaking with orthodoxy, of idolatry, and of departing from biblical Christianity (35).

[Goligher is quoted saying:] They are building their case [for the subordination of women] by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions (36).

[CT Caleb Lindgren reported and Giles summarizes Lindgren:] He says that some of the best known confessional Reformed theologians have branded the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity “heresy” (37).

The debate, Giles observes, about the Trinity was not as Grudem and Ware dubbed it: a debate between evangelical complementarians and evangelical feminists (their term for Giles), but between confessional Reformed types and non-confessional, Bible-only types like Grudem, Ware, Burk, and Strachan.

When Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes — two very well known specialists in Nicene theology — entered the debate with Ayres dubbing Grudem’s stuff “daft” and Ware’s as “too simplistic” the more accurate situation was being described. At this time I was reading Lewis Ayres carefully, and I found his work immensely informed and erudite.  Mike Bird said this at the time:

When two of the biggest names in fourth-century trinitarian theology graciously dismantle your theological argument for basing human relationships on a subordinationist trinitarianism, the game is over. Time to abandon the SS Subordinationism, man the life boats, look for a nice Nicene Island for refuge to land on, and find less complicated ways of arguing for complementarianism” (38).

Giles, not at the level of Ayres or Barnes but still very informed on Nicene orthodoxy, offers his conclusion:

Their teaching on the Trinity has been judged by their peers as a blatant denial of the creeds and confessions; a rejection of what the church has agreed is the teaching of Scripture on the one God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three “co-equal” divine persons (38-39).

Enter Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd.

I think it is true to say that Rachel Miller fired the first shots that led to the civil war among complementarians that began in earnest in June 2016. In 2012 she first raised questions about the way in which many of her fellow complementarians spoke about women. Aimee Byrd followed in her steps, making similar points on the website The Mortification of Spin. In February 2013 she wrote a number of blogs critical of patriarchal-complementarianism. She even called this teaching “sanctified testosterone” (39).

Add others: Carl Trueman, Andrew Wilson, and others. But Aimee Byrd had a decisive observation: “CI invited a man to write [in opposition to the complementarian doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son] and suddenly, men were concerned and noticed it” (41).

Robert Letham, too, said the argument from human father-sons to divine Father-Son relations is an Arian or Arian-like move.

Now to the ETS meeting in San Antonio.

The 2016 ETS conference, as I have mentioned in chapter 1, was planned as a winner for complementarian trinitarian theology. When the call for papers to be given at the conference went out in April, things were looking good for complementarians. They felt they had “won.” I put in two proposals for papers on the Trinity. In June I was notified both proposals had been rejected. I was not surprised. Evangelical egalitarians get a very hard time in the Evangelical Theological Society.45 Two weeks later, Dr. Sam Storms, the incoming president of ETS, wrote to me inviting me to give the opening address in a plenary forum on the Trinity on the first day of the conference, in which Millard Erickson would with me take the “egalitarian evangelical” position on the Trinity and Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, “the complementarian position.’ … I wrote back accepting this totally unexpected invitation, but pointed out that there was no “evangeli cal egalitarian” doctrine of the Trinity. I would not speak on that topic. I would, however, be willing to speak on the creedal and confessional doctrine of the Trinity. Dr. Storms graciously conceded to my request (44).

[In Giles’ paper in San Antonio:] I then pointed out that the Nicene Creed made seven wonderful affirmations about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In each case, I argued, Dr. Grudem and Dr. Ware explicitly or implicitly denied each one of them. I suggested their most serious error was that they defined the Father-Son relationship in terms of human analogies rather than Scripture. … One of the seven creedal affirmations I noted, that Grudem and Ware explicitly rejected, was the confession, “We believe … the only Son of God [is] eternally begotten of the Father.” In other words, both of them denied the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, a doctrine on which is predicated everything following that this creed says about the Son (45).

Ware responds by saying he and Grudem now accept eternal generation, after twenty years of denying it. Giles will have none of their reason, which is what they thought now John 1:14 et al teach. Giles says No, it doesn’t meant that; it means “only.” Even if it means “only” begotten it does not mean “eternal generation.” Their adherence to authority relations in the Trinity defiles their co-equal and eternal generation affirmations. “In Nicene orthodoxy, what primarily and essentially differentiates the Father and the Son is that the Father is unbegotten God, and the Son begotten God. Differing origination is what distinguishes the Father and the Son” (47).

I think at the ETS conference in November 2016 everyone present realized that Dr. Grudem and Dr. Ware had met their Waterloo. The case for a hierarchical Trinity where the three divine persons are eternally differentiated by their differing authority has to be rejected by all who claim to be orthodox Christians.

Powerful complementarians who a year ago were enthusiastically teaching the complementarian doctrine of a hierarchical ordered Trinity and confidently grounding women’s subordination in divine life are now saying they reject this teach ing. Al Mohler… J. Ligon Duncan … Denny Burk [and about Burk Giles says:] He also says, it has now become clear to me that to be a complementarian who believes in the subordination of women in terms of the Danvers Statement you do not have to be “reliant upon an analogy” between women and the Son. This comment should be carefully noted. Burk reiterates what Ligon Duncan said. The post-June 2016 position of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is that you do not have to believe in a hierarchically ordered Trinity, you can hold to Nicene orthodoxy, which excludes hierarchical ordering in the immanent Trinity, and still be a complementarian. This is a complete about-face by Denny Burk (51-52).

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