Guest blog by Pastor Stefan Lindblad
An assertion is not an argument. Obvious, right? Sadly, much of the current internet imbroglio over the doctrine of the Trinity and the novel doctrine of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (henceforth EFS, and oh yes it is novel!) belies the obviousness of this basic distinction.
I realize this is a broad generalization, but let’s be honest: the battle lines have been drawn largely on twitter, a medium that is necessarily incapable of providing the space requisite for substantial analysis and argumentation. The medium is the message; and this medium provides the platform for a lot of messengers, many of them ready to assert rather than analyze and argue (biblically, theologically, and logically, of course). There is plenty of arguing; much less argumentation. But I digress.
One of the real tragedies of this debate is that both the twitterverse and the blogosphere (does anyone still call it that?) are rife with this category mistake. Witness the Southern Baptist elite, Russell Moore and Albert Mohler. Both men in the course of the last few weeks – Moore on Twitter and Mohler on his blog – have asserted that the orthodoxy of two main proponents of EFS, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, ought not to be in doubt, but without so much as a word of substantial proof or demonstration.
Moore tweeted on June 20 that while he didn’t agree with EFS,
I actually don’t agree with EFS Trinitarianism. But the idea that Bruce Ware or Wayne Grudem aren’t orthodox is absurd, irresponsible.
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) June 20, 2016
His justification came only moments later
Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem are gifts to the church and great men of God. You don’t have to agree with them on everything to see that.
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) June 20, 2016
I wanted to reply, simply, “huh?” Are the theological formulations of these two men – note well, men – above scrutiny simply because Moore says so, or, more charitably, because they are well-regarded theologians in some circles?
At best, this is question-begging; at worst, this is an ex cathedra pronouncement of an evangelical doyen. In any case, it’s an assertion, not an argument. The onus lies with Russell Moore to tell us why EFS does not entail a denial of creedal orthodoxy, especially when that is the argument that many have mounted against EFS.
Mohler’s essay is much longer and gives the appearance of argumentation; but for that reason is much more egregious. After reminding us briefly of the nature of heresy and especially of the Arian heresy condemned by the creedal tradition, Mohler asserts:
“Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are not just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, you might have expected some substantial argumentation detailing precisely why the charge of heresy is unfounded. You might have anticipated proof from the writings or teachings of Grudem and Ware. But, alas, all in vain. Mohler never once tells us how or why EFS successfully upholds any of the teachings of the creedal tradition (Constantinople, Chalcedon, Athanasian), let alone Nicaea. There is not one whit of biblical, theological, or historical argumentation in his essay that could satisfy the conscience as to the mere orthodoxy of sirs Grudem and Ware. He leaves us with nothing but mere assertions.
This is troubling precisely because for over a decade now theologians have been challenging Grudem and Ware on this very point. As with Moore, the burden of proof lies with Mohler to demonstrate, via clear analysis and cogent argumentation, that his assertions are not themselves baseless and reckless.
So what’s the rub?
First, theologically, in the face of repeated challenges to the theological coherence, and more importantly, the creedal orthodoxy of EFS, we need more than assertions. We need demonstrable proof that the biblical and creedal formulations of the past have not been transgressed. (Ware attempted this recently over at secundum scripturas; but that post raises its own issues, and deserves separate attention.)
Specifically, and at the very least, we need to hear from Moore and Mohler, if they are going to enter this debate, how Ware and Grudem understand both the con and the substantial in the doctrine of consubstantiality (i.e., both divine unity and the distinction of persons), and related, the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession – doctrines articulated in the early church and taught for centuries precisely to uphold the homoousian, but which Ware (until yesterday, sort of) and Grudem (still, to my knowledge) have regarded as speculative and unbiblical. We need not assertions, but clear and cogent theological argumentation.
The thing about wax noses…
Second, from a churchly perspective: collegial bonds – friendships, working relationships, the kind of thing both Moore and Mohler stand on to defend Grudem and Ware – are not the basis for the adjudication of questionable and questioned theological positions, regardless of who advances them. Scripture judges. But Scripture is not a wax nose. In the matter of biblical interpretation and theological formulation, we need not reinvent the wheel. Robust confessionalism is as much a Protestant principle as is sola scriptura. The confessions of the Reformed tradition, including the Second London Baptist Confession, incorporate both the terminology and the substance of the creeds in summarizing Scripture and its teaching regarding the life of the Triune God. The confessions are far more impartial judges than are we; and their doctrines are formulated, not on the basis of principals (i.e., people), but on principles. Their doctrines are conclusions resting on – you guessed it – arguments, not assertions.
What, then, is an ordinary pastor to do? Yes, I am a trained theologian. But I am also a pastor. I’m not a free agent theologian who can muse and admire howsoever I please. I don’t have that liberty; no Christian pastor does. I have an obligation to be a faithful shepherd of Jesus Christ. I have an obligation to teach the truth, which necessarily includes distinguishing truth from error, even the grave and persistent errors of the evangelical elite.
The imprimatur of the likes of Moore and Mohler provide no reason to treat the errors of Grudem and Ware in any other way. I would be failing in my calling if I accounted their assertions as arguments. In fact, one could argue that the proponents and friends of EFS have failed in their respective callings. In fact, that is precisely the argument – not assertion – I am making.
EFS proposes a hierarchical ordering of the persons of the Trinity, and thereby teaches a doctrine of the eternal distinction of the persons that runs counter to biblical and historic orthodoxy as enshrined in the Reformed confessions. In addition to the problems this creates for the simplicity of the divine essence and the unity of the divine will, EFS leaves us with a Son that is, in his personal relation to the Father, of a different degree or rank. It may not be Arian, but it is, by any other name, ontological subordination.
Is that an assertion? No. It is a conclusion based upon premises. That is, it’s an argument.
The host blogger would like to assert that the Council of Nicea approved this post, but of course he has no argument by which to do so.
*Stefan Lindblad is a pastor at Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in Kirkland, Washington. He is a candidate for a PhD in Historic and Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He was the author of the 2013 ARBCA Circular Letter on the Eternal Subordination of the Son. A revised version of that letter was published in BY COMMON CONFESSION. He was also both a contributor to and an editor of CONFESSING THE IMPASSIBLE GOD.