6 Jul 2016
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.