Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

6 Jul 2016

7 Points on the Ongoing Trinitarian Flap

A few weeks ago a theological kerfuffle erupted on the blogosphere. Several Reformed Confessionalists (whom I will call Carl Trueman and Co.) accused certain members of the evangelical complementarian community (whom I will call Grudem, Ware, and Co.) of Nicene heresy for dividing the will of God and thus affirming the plurality of the divine substance. The controversy is not dying, and folks are starting to take sides on the issue without reading and thus understanding the arguments. The following is intended to summarize the debate and then to draw my own conclusion.
  • Grudem, Ware, & Company have made the case for a comprehensive and eternal form of human complementarianism (in church, family, and even, at times, society generally) by connecting the concept to eternal divine subordination within the economic Trinity. Carl Trueman & Company argue back that this exceeds Paul’s intention in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 to order parts of his order according to the temporary subordination of Christ to the Father during the Incarnation.
  • By arguing for eternal divine subordination Grudem, Ware, & Company mean something other than the “eternal generation” of the Son (and “eternal spiration” of the Spirit), which is typically part of the discussion of the ontological Trinity. The idea of eternal generation is clearly taught by Nicaea, and is a matter of considerable debate in its own right, but is really a separate issue.
  • By tying their comprehensive expression of human complementarianism to eternal divine subordination, Grudem, Ware, & Company have without doubt affirmed that there are eternally three wills within the Godhead, a fact ably demonstrated by Kyle Claunch in a book edited by Dr. Ware (One God in Three Persons [Crossway, 2015]) and broadcasted last week by Carl Trueman.
  • According to Carl Trueman & Company, this amounts to heresy in that it denies the Nicene Creed. Curiously, in his defense of Ware and Grudem, Al Mohler agrees, stating that “affirming separate wills within the Trinity would be heresy”; nonetheless, Mohler emphatically absolves Grudem and Ware of Arianism, the heresy that led to the Nicene Creed.
  • It should be noted that Grudem, Ware, & Company do not expressly deny the Nicene Creed (as that document does not expressly state that the Godhead has but one will); still, their understanding does counter the Nicene tradition, which has largely (& necessarily?) affirmed that if Christ has a will that is eternally independent of the Father’s will, then Christ is de facto not God but something other than God (i.e., Arianism).
  • The solution for Grudem, Ware, & Company is twofold: First, they consciously regard volition as a function of personhood and not one of substance/nature/being, thus making the question not a matter of ontology but of economy, and thus not addressed by Nicaea. This decision may be at odds with the Nicene tradition, but does not reject the Nicene Creed, thus absolving them of Nicene heresy. Second, Grudem, Ware, & Company view Christ’s will, if I may, as less than fully independent. While in one sense Christ’s will is truly independent (in that he always does exactly what he wants, without coercion), it is not absolutely independent (in that he is never free to do anything at all without reference to the other members of the Godhead). The three persons of the Godhead instead adhere to a single, eternal, and perfectly harmonious divine intention. This may amount to an impossible both/and arrangement (i.e., God’s will is both one and three); regardless, it is important to note that Grudem and Ware are careful to preserve the fixed and eternal singularity of the divine intention.
  • At the end of the day, this debate appears to me to be a imprudent attempt by Trueman & Company to curb the aggressive complementarianism of Grudem, Ware, & Company by tying it to a bigger issue that (1) is not really in play and (2) barely moves the needle on the complementarian/egalitaran issue. And while I rejoice in the attention being given to Trinitarian theology at present, I rejoice with the same bit of irony with which Paul rejoiced in Philippians 1:18.

5 Responses

  1. David Pitman

    Trueman & Co, as you label them, have been careful to disavow their Trinitarian concerns as cover for tweaking complementarianism. If you accept the protestations of Grudem & Co’s orthodoxy, why question the motives of Trueman & Co?

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    David, I guess my short answer is that methinks they do protest too much. I hold Carl Turueman to be a friend, and nine times out of ten I take his side when he critiques the conservative evangelical establishment, but I simply don’t see it on this one.


  3. Ross

    Mark, I appreciate your summary and comments. Thank you for the post. I too have been reading along as this unfolds. And, honestly, I have learned about the Trinity (and related debates) through this. Your (1) conclusion is that a bigger issue “is not really in play.” How would you encourage me to think about someone being “at odds with the Nicene tradition”? Any concern? Best considered in light of some theological triage? I agree with your (2) conclusion–some of the most compelling complementarian leaders have winsomely disagreed with Gruden, Ware, and Co. Thanks again, Ross

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Ross, I would say that eternal generation and eternal sonship are separate issues–related, but not identical. The first I see as an ontological issue, the second an economic one. Obviously some disagree with me on this.

    As to the charge of Nicene heresy, a few points are in order: (1) There is a big difference between disagreeing with the Nicene Creed and disagreeing with an interpretive tradition that grew up around the Nicene Creed. As I see it, Grudem and Ware have not denied Nicaea (which says nothing explicit about the will(s) of God). But (2) there’s also a big difference between Nicene heresy and biblical heresy. And while I have enormous respect for ancient historical creeds, they aren’t on par with Scripture. This isn’t the first time Grudem has been in this spot (remember the “descent into hell” flap back in the early 1990s?) And while I disagree with Grudem on that issue, I am perfectly comfortable allowing him to question a creed–even one so venerable as the Apostolic Creed.


  5. The way I view any discussion regarding the Word of God is from scripture and not longstanding church culture, religious traditions, or erroneous institutional dogma. In that respect, we cannot ignore the most basic of scriptures, because when we do, we make God the Author of confusion, and as we all know, He is not. There is only ONE God and in this current dispensation of grace, His Name is Jesus. Indeed, even Jesus said, “I and My Father are One.” (John 10:30) After Jesus was taken up, He [Jesus] THROUGH the Holy Ghost gave commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen. (Acts 1:2-3) Not as a separate being/person but regenerated again to the same Holy Ghost that overshadowed Mary. (Luke 1:35; Titus 3:4-7; Ephesians 4:5-6; I Timothy 3:16) The Lord Himself came forth as a mighty man. (Isaiah 42:13; Isaiah 9:6) “He was in the world and the world was made by Him and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (John 1:10-11) All the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Him [Jesus]. (Colossians 2:9) If there was a trinity in any form, we would worship “them” and not “Him.” This is why God hath exalted Him — the Him being the Name of Jesus which is above every other name. (Philippians 2:5-11) There is only ONE Lord, ONE Faith and ONE Baptism. (Ephesians 4:5-6) Before the foundation of the world, the same Spirit of the Lord God who created the world had already decided that He Himself must bring salvation to those who are lost. (I Peter 1:18-25) God in Christ. (II Corinthians 5:19; John 20:28; John 1:1-18) God our Saviour. (Galatians 3:17) Jesus said, “If you had known Me, ye have known My Father also; and from henceforth ye known Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:6-10) This is why we can receive the Spirit of truth, the Comforter (who is the SAME SPIRIT of Jesus who was in the world) within because we know who He is — the Holy Ghost. (John 14:26; John 15:26) As Jesus said, “If you do not believe that I AM HE, then ye shall die in your sins.” (John 8:24) Before Abraham was, I AM. (John 8:57-59) This is why the cross was such a contradiction. But in order that we in these last times might have salvation according to the pleasure of His will, He willingly made the sacrifice. Jesus said, “And now O Father glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee BEFORE the world was. I have manifested THY NAME unto the men which Thou gavest Me out of the world: Thine they were, and Thou gavest them Me; and they have kept Thy Word.” (John 17:5-6) This is why the first 3,000 souls saved on the day of Pentecost were water baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, because there is no other NAME whereby salvation can be obtained. (Acts 2:36-38; Acts 4:12; Acts 10:44-48; Romans 6:3-4; I Peter 3:21-23) Because these recognized that this same Jesus whom ye have crucified is BOTH Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:36) The last to see Jesus was Paul born out of time (I Corinthians 15:1-8) “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared ….” (Titus 3:4) We need to begin keeping HIS Word and not denying HIS Name … (Revelation 3:8-9)