The Trinity-Subordinationism Debate and the Opportunity Before Us

opportunitiesIn an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.

Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.

In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the Bible question, particularly on the nature and authority of Scripture. The Bible question was also, of course, in many quarters a culture question: to affirm the Bible meant ipso facto to take certain positions on a range of cultural, political, and domestic questions. To fail to line up meant coming under suspicion for your doctrine of Scripture, not only your politics. Yet, in this recognizably cultural mode, within the world of twentieth-century evangelical theology, Reformed and otherwise, the doctrine of Scripture was the issue.

This rallying, unifying cry around the doctrine of the Bible resulted in a variety of phenomena the fruits of which account, at least in part, for our situation. (That I note only negative consequences below is dictated by my aims in this brief post. I certainly see many enduring positive consequences as well.) These phenomena include theologians trained primarily or exclusively in biblical studies rather than in traditional dogmatics, itself not necessarily problematic except that its role in the recent malaise of evangelical theology requires that we account for it. Another fruit of that bibliological center was a host of evangelical biblical scholars who translated a “high view” of Scripture’s nature and authority into a particular hermeneutic of Scripture controlled by ancient historical and grammatical, yet conspicuously non-theological or ecclesial, concerns. The result was a great deal of helpful material on ancient biblical and non-biblical history, the grammar of biblical and cognate languages, linguistics, and the like, yet little to no meaningful connection of the task of close exegesis to the theological story and categories of the Church catholic.  There are wonderful exceptions to this trend, of course, both individually and institutionally, but they stand out precisely as exceptions.

What, then, about those categories of ancient orthodoxy? They seemed more and more remote from the presumed concerns and issues of the biblical texts themselves. Buying unwittingly into a rather deep liberal theological conviction that the history of the Church’s theology is a truly separable (rather than distinguishable) entity over against the “real” world of the biblical materials, evangelical “theology” widened the gap between the “historic orthodoxy” it was ostensibly interested in defending and the actual materials, vocabulary, and categories of that orthodoxy. As Cleveland remarks, “The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.”

And without that push, without that ecclesial and orthodox consciousness, how could we know where transgressions of that orthodoxy occur, at least outside of the increasingly narrow (and ultimately collapsing) confines of the doctrine of Scripture’s “high authority” and nature? There was now a conspicuously wide culture gap between the Church historic and the Church contemporary, even in the work of theology where such a gap would seem most effortlessly closed. The gap was there, and widening, because we could say a lot about inspiration and inerrancy and evidence and authority, but we no longer spoke the language of the Church, and so we could no longer hear or understand what the Church catholic had long been saying. In the end, it became possible for a big name or two in the evangelical world of bibliological-cultural orthodoxy to push for a version of complementarianism that is rooted in a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, and for no one in that world to notice.

Dissatisfaction with this modus operandi is anything but new; there have always been dissenting voices. The dissent has grown louder with the growth of biblical, historical, and theological scholarship generally. For instance, the more we have learned about the role of the ecclesial community in the very development, organically and formally, of the Bible itself as canon, the more we began to fear that our ostensibly very high view of the Scriptures may in fact prove to be ironically unbiblical. Cleveland appropriately points out, too, the dissonant and welcome voices of several modern (and generally Reformed) theologians who argued in recent decades against the grain for a return to theology in terms of its classic categories and interests.

He also draws attention to one of the most significant developments of the latter half of the twentieth century: the work of scholars like Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Carl Trueman who have exposed the cataclysmic failures of various older, ahistorical readings of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, particularly late medieval theology and Reformed Orthodoxy. Today’s theologians and churchmen are discovering the strong, organic, positive ties of the Reformers to the texts and ideas of the patristic and medieval — yes, medieval — eras, and most significantly the similarly strong, organic ties of the post-Reformation periods of confessional orthodoxy to all that came before (not just Calvin and Luther). They are learning of the great diversity of the Reformed tradition historically and confessionally, and of the kind(s) of unity forged in the midst of and without denial of that diversity. They are learning the importance of reading critically yet charitably and humbly outside their own tradition, and reading to learn and not merely to dismantle. They are learning, too, of the difference it makes to read Scripture with the Church in ancient-catholic and (not but) confessionally Protestant fashion, and how far away we have drifted over the years from the discipline of doing so.

This kind of knowledge does not come, however, through surveys and introductory classes. It does not come from seminary classes using a comprehensive textbook but no primary sources. It certainly does not come from a video series from the favorite parachurch organization expounding on the so-called five points of Calvinism. No, it comes only by dealing with the texts themselves, and by reading those who live in them rather than read about them. It comes, then, by listening first rather than rushing to speak, listening to the texts themselves. Further, unlike so many edited collections of essays pumped out by evangelical and Reformed presses, it means listening to those who may be unknowns in the populus of our church circles but are in fact the experts on the topic. These are the ones who can truly teach us from the deep depths of their years of working rigorously and patiently with those texts. The present generation of churchmen and teacher-writers involved in these public debates are no longer content to read about Augustine, but read Augustine, and probably a widely recognized expert in Augustine, too. If they are determined to add their voice to a public debate about the meaning of a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, they are not content merely to refer to Calvin or to Matthew Henry on the passage, but they read the tradition as well as the best contemporary research, and appreciate what the real questions are. Or at least they know to do so. Those who don’t are now fairly quickly and easily recognized.

What does all this mean in terms of the opportunity before us, particularly in the Lydia Center’s areas of research and teaching? If the current trinitarian debate over a version of complementarianism was inevitable, what does this mean for the next stage of faithful thinking and practice? I do, after all, believe it poses great opportunities. I offer three for now for your consideration.

Firstly, debates on these topics (and others) within church bodies and faculty meetings are now possible at a richer and more substantial level of discourse than was previously the case. For the emerging generation of scholarship-oriented church leaders and writers, debates over the particular dynamics of marital relations are no longer decided by, say, the quotation of 1 Cor. 11:3 and the word “head” or Eph. 5:22 and the word “submit,” as though this settles things. There is a fresh appreciation for the danger of such simplistic appeals and for the integrity that belongs to a patient, informed, and circumspect (because churchly) reading and use of Scripture.

Secondly, as capable scholars and responsibly informed teachers who are largely unknown to the hoi polloi have regained some traction in the Church’s labor (a growing number of them happily working as pastors rather than as professors), debates are no longer decided by appeal to personalities. Here I choose my words with care. The historic practice of appealing to a figure in the context of public debate remains valuable, yet I suggest we may be witnessing a slow return to an older way of doing so. It is more complicated that I am suggesting in these few remarks, but as in the tradition generally, appeals to human authorities are now again valuable principally as they function as appeals to a distinctive and well-informed argument or position that figure represents. Put negatively, it is no longer compelling, and in fact is now clearly counterproductive, simply to refer to personalities in a debate as though it carries sufficient weight to end that debate, whether they are admired pastors or conference speakers, teachers, or writers. Because it is now (again) the argument itself that matters, at least more and more often the most compelling appeal to a figure will be to a true scholar of the question, not simply to an admired person.

For example, in the last couple of weeks we have seen how the inserted names, and sometimes voices, of publicly known and admired figures such as Dr. Mohler have proven not to be compelling and arguably counterproductive. Why is this? Because even though he is highly regarded on many church and culture fronts, Dr. Mohler’s views have been measured against the texts of the tradition and the ideas that belong to that tradition, and found wanting. His name is not enough. No name is enough anymore, and this is a healthy development. For many people of an earlier generation who cut their theological teeth at the parachurch conference or the popular Reformed or evangelical presses where names are everything, or who have traded in their associations with influential names in this or that institution, this shift can be rather jarring. An appeal to Jay Adams may begin or contribute in some way to a debate on marriage or divorce, but thankfully it no longer ends one.

Lastly, for decades (but not much longer than that) serious examination of the classic questions of sexuality and family was handicapped by the quiet assumption in conservative circles that the forms and framework of modern western domesticity on the one hand, and the forms and framework of prescriptive biblical sexuality and family life on the other, are one and the same. The chasm-wide difference between the two has long been known to students of these topics, yet the popular misconceptions have survived and persisted despite this. But it is now possible to attend to the highly important questions of sexuality, gender, marriage, divorce, “headship,” abuse, children and related matters as properly theological questions. Now (mostly) on the other side of the decades-long dominant (western, English-speaking, cultural, and church) sociologies which masqueraded successfully as theology in this area, these questions may enjoy meticulous, patient, and properly theological investigation on the terms of the Scriptures and of the Christian tradition.

This meaningful return of the categories and voices of the theological tradition to the table of serious inquiry into sexuality and family means the opportunity to consider, say, divorce as a properly theological question, which it is. It also means the return of Holy Scripture itself — not a bare historical text awaiting our archaeological digging skills, but the living canon of the living Church, whose voice(s) we need.

It also means more hopefully that, despite our anxiety and listlessness in the midst of this contemporary sexual revolution, the Church, dutifully sanctified and reformed by and according to Holy Scripture, may in fact be in a position to survive this cultural upheaval with something to say, both to it and to herself, as the Church. She may yet summon her resources, old and new, and speak positively and constructively of the way of Christ and the way of faithfulness as the only way of human hope and wholeness. This project, at least, is what the Lydia Center is formed to try to help along.