What is a gentleman to do? OR I agree with Wayne Grudem
October 7, 2016 By Todd Pruitt
I was interested to read a recent article by Dr. Jason Duesing of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City (my alma mater). The title of the post is “Where are the Gentleman Theologians?” The post is helpful and appropriately challenging in many ways. I appreciate his call for theologians and pastors to treat one another with charity in our disagreements. Who among us does not need to be reminded of that from time-to-time? He refers appropriately to the late Roger Nicole who was well known for his irenic spirit. I hope that we will be careful to know the difference between those issues upon which we may agree to disagree and those issues which ought to rise to the level of public opposition.
Of keen interest to me is that Dr. Duesing draws a direct line between the call to be gentlemen theologians and the current controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity (If you need to, you can catch up HERE).
Certainly there has been substantive discussion over vital issues of non-negotiable importance. Yet, there has also been a great deal of unhelpful polemics as we have seen a blurring of the distinction between healthy intra-evangelical debate and the attribution of heterodoxy. As I’ve watched and read, I have been hoping for more Gentlemen Theologians to help us know how to proceed. For one can contend in public as a gentleman without having also to condemn…
Personally, I agree with Albert Mohler that much of the citations against Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and also Denny Burk and Owen Strachan are nonsense, not just for what those concerned claim, but especially for how they claim it. I can’t help but wonder that if those convinced of their brother’s heterodoxy were slow to speak and sought to earn the right to criticize in private, much of the negative impact of this debate could have been avoided.
As I mentioned, I am not implying that essence of these discussions are not extremely important or not worth addressing at length. Yet, I am questioning some of the chosen polemical paths with regard to how one brother attributes heresy to another.
This is where I believe Duesing begins to err. At no point does he identify the “vital issues of non-negotiable importance.” Neither does he name any person or cite an article as evidence of his claim of “unhelpful polemics.” This is most unhelpful for it greatly limits any sort of engagement. But I am still going to try because most people will understandably assume that he is referring primarily to articles which ran on MOS. Since he provides not a single example of his claim I have to proceed upon assumption.
What is clear however is that Dr. Duesing identifies the opponents of ESS as the offenders in this debate. That is most unfortunate. I assume that he is not aware, for instance, of the mean-spirited accusations leveled against us on social media from some of the men he names in his defense. We were accused of being closet feminists pushing our agenda and even compared to satan. Certainly Duesing would not have intentionally overlooked those ungentlemanly actions.
Dr. Duesing finds us ungentlemanly who have publically critiqued the theology of ESS as espoused for years by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Of course it begs the question of just what exactly is the gentlemanly response to public theological error. What ought a gentleman to do when he finds error being propagated within the church? Given that error attacks the peace and purity of the church I have typically supposed that a rather vigorous and public response is appropriate. Is that not what our Lord and his apostles modeled?
One of the weaknesses of Duesing’s critique is that he seems to assume that these issues can and should be worked out entirely in the context of personal conversations among scholars in fraternal gatherings. He does not seem to understand the history or circumstances of the current debate. The debate over the theology of Drs. Grudem and Ware has been going on for about 20 years. Addresses have been delivered at such gatherings as ETS. Entire books have been written challenging their articulation of ESS. And, yes, there have been personal conversations and correspondence on this doctrinal controversy.
If you believe that ESS is sound Christian doctrine then you will likely wonder why anyone would be so rude as to publically rebuke it. But this is not simply a matter of theological esoterica to be discussed over eggs benedict at a scholar’s conference. And the proponents of ESS have not left the doctrine in some rarely visited corner of polite academic discussion. Books and curricula advancing ESS continue to be written for laypersons. Crossway even published a children’s book by Dr. Ware promoting ESS. CBMW has been active in promoting ESS to churches for years.
So the time for pleasant breakfast conversations has been over for a long time. This is not a debate about the mode of baptism after all. It is not a debate over amillennialism versus historic pre-millennialism. This is a debate about the nature of the Godhead and the status of the Son and Spirit within the Trinity. Sadly there are many within the big tent of evangelicalism who do not seem to understand that these are vitally important matters. Or it may be that the bonds of old friendships and various alliances are so powerful that overlooking serious error is considered gentlemanly.
I still remember a wonderful address some years ago by Al Mohler on the courage of Athanasius who was “willing to go to war over a dipthong.” That is a quote worth remembering. Not very gentlemanly behavior from Athanasius, however, who once declared that if the whole world opposed him then he would oppose the world. Martin Luther was likened to a wild boar in the Lord’s vineyard. Johnathan Edwards was fired in part for not being nice enough. Charles Spurgeon was publically censured by the Baptist Union for making a nuisance of himself with his insistence on sound doctrine. Machen was defrocked and held up for public ridicule. The examples abound of men who were condemned or ignored for not striking the proper, dare I say, gentlemanly tone.
I am sure Dr. Duesing would agree that Paul was justified in inviting the Judaizers in Galatia to emasculate themselves for tinkering with the gospel. But of course we all know that such jagged polemicizing would be shunned in this era of evangelical niceness (There is no evidence that Paul took the Judaizers out for a cup of coffee prior to his cringe-worthy recommendation).
I can imagine an objection being raised at this point: “But we’re not talking about the gospel here!” And it is true. The gospel is much easier to understand than the more metaphysical issues related to ESS. Al Mohler has stated that although he denies ESS (I wonder why?), Drs. Ware and Grudem are nevertheless fully orthodox and any contrary suggestion is “ridiculous.” Duesing agrees with Mohler on that point. So, in both men’s minds the doctrine of ESS is fully within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. I suppose then that a true gentleman who does not personally hold to ESS would simply say to the proponent, “I beg to differ my friend. However, our disagreement over ESS is nothing more than a minor quibble over matters that have no bearing upon orthodoxy. Please pass the scones.”
The irony in all of this of course is that Wayne Grudem does not agree with Mohler or Duesing on this. He does not agree that the doctrine of ESS is a comparatively small in-house debate between equally orthodox brothers. Dr. Grudem sees ESS as a necessary feature of historic biblical orthodoxy. Without ESS, says Grudem, there can be no Trinity (Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 251, 433). It’s a bold position to state that denying the eternal subordination of the Son “would destroy the Trinity” (Ibid, 433). What is a gentleman theologian to do when that opinion is put in print and delivered to laypersons?
Is Dr. Duesing aware of the title of Dr. Grudem’s address at the upcoming ETS meeting? It is quite provocative: “Why a Denial of the Son’s Eternal Subordination Threatens Both the Trinity and the Bible” (source). I cannot help but wonder what Al Mohler thinks about that thesis. After calling “ridiculous” any suggestion that the views of Drs. Ware and Grudem are outside orthodoxy, the later goes and says Mohler’s denial of ESS “threatens both the Trinity and the Bible.” While I am apparently no expert on these matters, that does not seem to fit the requirements of gentlemanly behavior.
Is Dr. Duesing aware of the debate held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on October 9, 2008? The question under debate was “Do relations of authority and submission exist eternally among the Persons of the Godhead?” Four scholars were involved. Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware debated in the affirmative against Drs. Keith Yandell and Tom McCall. In a display of rather sharp polemic Dr. Grudem called the view of Drs. Yandell and McCall “modalism” a bona fide heresy. Do not skip over this point. The historic Nicene viewpoint represented in the debate was dismissed as a heresy by Wayne Grudem. Is this then an intramural debate among equally orthodox brothers or a battle against heresy? Dr. Grudem in contrast to Mohler and Duesing seems to view it as the later. Incidentally, at no point did Drs. Yandell and McCall accuse Ware and Grudem of heresy.
I wonder if Dr. Duesing will now write an article lamenting the lack of gentlemanly behavior which has issued forth from the proponents of ESS?
What then is the gentlemanly response to Dr. Ware’s assertion that the Son receives less glory in the Godhead than does the Father? How ought the gentleman pastor respond to his claim that it is inappropriate to pray to the Son since He possesses a lesser supremacy in the Godhead than does the Father? How should the gentleman theologian respond to Dr. Grudem’s contention that the Trinity is analogous to a married couple with a child?
Perhaps it is the policy in some Southern Baptist seminaries to promote ESS. That is their business. But I think it would be rather ungentlemanly of reformed and Presbyterian pastors to merely tut-tut politely while consequential errors regarding the Trinity are finding their way into the pews of the churches they serve. I thank God that a discerning committee of laypersons within a rather large denomination, having followed this debate since it began in June, expunged all vestiges of ESS from their women’s ministry curriculum. That would not have happened as a result of hushed conversations over breakfast.
So I agree with Wayne Grudem. Someone is indeed threatening the Bible and the Trinity. And it is a good thing that there are men who are willing to enter the fray allowing others go about more gentlemanly duties.
Presbyterian pastor Todd Pruitt blogs at THE MORTIFICATION OF SPIN, par of REFORMATION 21 and THE ALLIANCE OF CONFESSING EVANGELICALS.