Why did it take so long for orthodox Trinitarians to recognize or at least call out the non-orthodox views of the complementarian Trinitarian theory of the Trinity?
That is a question asked by Kevin Giles in The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.
A conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2008 (Grudem, Ware, McCall, Yandell) confused many …
previously mentioned reviews by Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller…
an event at Southern Seminary (Grudem, Ware, Sanders, Lethan, Ayres) seemed to give the complementarian theory a boost …
a collection of essays by Jowers and House did not seem to make any impact …
but Kevin Giles thinks his book The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology was an important moment in creating an opportunity for classic Reformed complementarians to break out into a civil war with the complementarian Trinitarians like Grudem and Ware. In fact, it wasn’t just his book: it was Michael Horton’s very favorable review in Modern Reformation (Dec 2014) that propelled the classic Reformed folks to disagree with Grudem and Ware. By the way, check out who blurbed Giles’ book Eternal Generation (link above, blurbs on site).
The question: Why did it take so long?
I must admit that the question that never goes away for me is, why did it take so long for well-informed evangelical and Reformed theologians to come out and say that what complementarians were teaching on the Trinity directly contradicts the teaching of the creeds and confessions of the church? Evangelical theologians who wrote books on the Trinity should have known that to order the persons of the Trinity hierarchically is the essence of the error called “subordinationism” (58).
His lone exception was Millard Erickson. Too many said too much not to call this problem out. So, Kevin Giles proposes five possible or confessed reasons.
- I asked Carl Trueman why he only came out in 2016 and he told me, “I only really became aware of this issue about eighteen months ago.” … Westminster Seminary is well-known as a bastion of complementarianism. I thus dare to say, Trueman should have known for years that most evangelicals and Reformed Christians had come to accept that the divine persons were hierarchically ordered in the immanent Trinity. [Trueman, it must at least be said, is a church historian more than a systematician; furthermore, ]
- I was surprised by how many told me that they said nothing because they thought this was teaching so wrong it was below their dignity to comment on it. SMcK: this is specious and is better explained by #3.
- Third, as we think of how so few spoke against this teaching we have to recognize that in the evangelical world there is an abysmal ignorance of the doctrine of the Trinity. [SMcK: This is perhaps the most important observation. Evangelicals are not confessional but biblical and evangelicals often pay lip service to the creeds but have not studied them intensively. I say this as one who went through TEDS, who taught at TEDS, and who was at NPU for 17 years: Creeds were often spoken of as creedalism. Of course the theologians at each school knew creeds but I met no one with the depth of Bradley Nassif at NPU who is both Orthodox and evangelical, and Brad is thoroughly conversant with all things creedal. I have not met his rival in these institutions. I could be wrong about the lack of creed emphasis in these schools, but I’m telling you my experience. When I brought up this eternal subordinationism stuff with him, he called it out immediately and one time said, “This sounds like Arianism to me.”] Giles again: What this means is that large numbers of evangelical and Reformed people did not realize that to hierarchically order the divine persons is to contradict the faith of the church. … What this means is that when evangelicals began arguing for hierarchical ordering in the Trinity and quoting texts in support and claiming this was historic orthodoxy they met with virtually no opposition. Evangelical ignorance of the primary doctrine of the faith, our distinctive doctrine of the triune God revealed in history and Scripture, and spelled out carefully in the creeds and confessions of the church, had left wide open the door for error to enter and take over the evangelical house.
- [Political power of complementarians, Giles after being asked to speak at schools] My host has said to me, “I am pleased to have you speak because I need to keep my head down. Most of the faculty are complementarians and any criticism of their position on women or the Trinity is not tolerated. For me to openly dissent would cause a painful split among the academic staff. I would be marginalized.” … a one-time friend and fellow graduate of Moore Theological College in Sydney said to me very angrily, “Kevin, we [complementarians] will never give way to you on the Trinity because to do so would weaken our case for male headship, and nothing is more important for us.” #that’sit!
- Complementarians had convinced themselves that what they taught on women and the Trinity is “what the Bible teaches.” To disagree was thus by definition to reject biblical authority. What this argument did was shut down completely any critical and independent thinking, the most important academic virtue. People who argued that the Bible in fact does not teach the creation-given subordination of women and/or the eternal subordination of the Son were not to be listened to, no matter what evidence they offered.
Giles offers this stunning conclusion:
Now we see the huge importance of the recent rejection of the com plementarian doctrine of the Trinity by complementarian confessional Reformed theologians. They have said, to Grudem and Ware, the leaders of the complementarians, what you have been teaching on the Trinity is not “what the Bible teaches,” according to the creeds and confessions of the church. You have let your great concern to uphold male “headship” as you understand it corrupt your reading of the Scriptures on the Trinity. 61
Why, he asks, is Christianity Today silent on the shift that has occurred? “It would seem that there is tacit agreement by all involved that this embarrassing defeat for complementarians is to be swept under the carpet and never mentioned again” (63). There’s more: We have now a classic example of revisionism: many (former) complementarian theory Trinitarians now claim they have always believed in eternal generation. Not so.
Kevin Giles says it is time for theologians to announce publicly where they are on this issue, but I would add: it is also time for them to deny eternal subordination of the Son and to call it what it is: wrong, if not a blatant heresy. Giles:
For me, the term “heresy” is rightly used to designate teaching that directly denies the ecumenical creeds and the confessions of the church.
Dr. Ware and Dr. Grudem and anyone else are free to break with the consensus fidelium and in doing so express their personal opinion, their hairesis in the biblical meaning of this word, but they need to honestly admit what they are teaching is not the faith of the church. It is their opinion.
Finally, I return to McGrath’s definition of heresy. It “designates teaching that emerges from within the community of faith on the one hand yet is ultimately destructive of the faith on the other.” It is “an intellectually defective vision of the Christian faith.” I think this definition perfectly captures the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity.
I make one point: to affirm the creed is to affirm more than the creed, but the culture that created and embraces and indwells the creeds. That, I’m sure, is not where Grudem and Ware have been.
It’s time for institutions to tell the truth. It’s time for theologians to tell the truth. It’s time for them to say they were wrong.