A Reflection and Some Lingering Concerns after the RTS Trinity Conference

After writing up my summary yesterday of the four talks at the recent Trinity conference at RTS Houston, I wanted to take some time to share my thoughts on the conference. On the whole, I found the talks extremely helpful. They were scholarly but still accessible for the average person in the pew. I was pleased to see many women and children in attendance. It makes me glad to see others interested in theology.

I came away from the conference with a stronger appreciation for those who have gone before us and fought for orthodoxy. I gained a greater understanding of the history and Trinitarian language used this summer in the debate. That was a great help. I also came away with a better understanding of why it matters. The Trinity is not a minor issue. This debate isn’t quibbling over silly things. What we believe about God will have an impact on all of our theology and life. I appreciated the speakers addressing the practical and pastoral aspects of the debate.

As far as the history goes, the talks at the conference gave me some insight on how to apply the lessons of the past to today’s debate. Here are some of my insights.

The tone police who have complained about the recent discussions would be horrified by how rough the 4th Century debates were. Having read letters from other church conflicts, I can add that this is true throughout history. We have very little sense of history when it comes to debate. Some issues are very serious, and sometimes it takes pointed words.

It’s not enough to claim that we’re following Scripture. It was pointed out a couple of times this weekend that Arius and the other heretics were claiming Scriptural support for their arguments. Scott Swain said that the short path to heresy isn’t denying Scripture, it’s affirming only part of what the Bible teaches. I believe that this is true of the debates today as well.

Dr. Haykin spoke of the Arian heresy as an overcorrection in response to modalism. Just as the Arians were so concerned about modalism that they went into heresy in a different way, I believe the current ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents have overreacted to concerns over feminism and egalitarianism. While there may be valid concerns, the answer is not in undermining the doctrine of the Trinity.

It was interesting to note that Athanasius, the Westminster Standards, and even the CBMW Statement of Faith affirm that each of persons of the Godhead possess all of the divine attributes. The question that came to mind when I realized this was whether or not the ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents would agree that God’s authority is a divine attribute.

In the 4th Century, there was much debate over the role and deity of the Holy Spirit. I think this is key today too. In much of today’s evangelical culture the Holy Spirit is treated as an “also ran” or afterthought. In the ESS/EFS/ERAS debate, the Holy Spirit has been described as the child of the union of the Father and the Son. Some evangelicals treat the Spirit as an impersonal force. Many seem to think His work is unnecessary in this “everything is grace, there are no rules for behavior”culture. We need to recover an understanding of the full deity and work of the Spirit.

I was amused by some of the historical accounts of orthodox church fathers who were deemed suspicious because of their allies. Modalists were also against Arianism, and some orthodox fathers were called modalists because of their friendships and their work against Arianism. Today, many of those on the Pro-Nicene side of the Trinity debate have been accused of being egalitarians or feminists. It’s true that there are egalitarians and feminists who have opposed ESS/EFS/ERAS. I am appreciative of their work in this regard. But, the fact that we agree on our opposition to ESS/EFS/ERAS doesn’t mean we agree about everything.

In the recent debate, proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS balked at being equated with Arians. As many of us pointed out, Arianism was just one of many forms of subordinationism. But, it is worth noting that many of the same passages of Scripture are being used now as then to support their ideas. For example, Grudem uses John 14:28, “the Father is greater than I” as one of many verses in support of ESS/EFS/ERAS. The Arians used it too. The orthodox answer then, and now, is the same. Dr. Haykin pointed out that the orthodox understanding of the verses that speak this way is that they are speaking of Christ’s humanity. This is one of many examples of how a good understanding and appreciation of church history can be of great help.

It was noted a couple of times at the conference that scholarly debate and face to face meetings are to be preferred over online articles and discussions. While it’s certainly true that the church fathers got together to discuss at councils and other meetings. They also wrote many letters, tracts, papers, and books addressing specific heresies and those who promoted them by name. The names of these works are often “Against  so-and-so.” I’m thankful that these were written and that the discussions were recorded for posterity sake. It is a very good thing that these are available to us today.

Several times at the conference, the speakers emphasized the importance and Scriptural veracity of the Nicene formulations. For a very long time, the Nicene Creed has been considered a baseline for orthodox faith. However, affirming it means more than just agreeing to the words. We must also agree with the Pro-Nicene fathers as to what the words mean.

The annual ETS meeting is going on right now in San Antonio. Drs. Ware and Grudem spoke yesterday. Both now say that they affirm the language of the Nicene Creed regarding eternal generation. They also continue to affirm the necessity of believing ESS/EFS/ERAS. I was wondering how they could hold to both the Nicene and ESS/EFS/ERAS, but I found an answer in something Grudem wrote in the debates this summer:

I am happy to affirm both the full deity of the Son and that the Son is eternally “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” provided that “begotten of the Father” is understood to refer to an eternal Father-Son relationship in the Trinity that includes no superiority or inferiority of being or essence. Up to that point, I think all sides agree. But what kind of eternal Father-Son relationship is this? That is the point of difference. Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan and I have understood it in terms of the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son within their relationship.

So, they agree with eternal generation as long as it fits their definition of the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission in the Trinity. We’re clearly not saying the same things then. There are two fundamental differences.

First, we differ in our understanding of what is meant by the divine naming. Historically, the orthodox explanation has been that the names Father and Son mean that God the Father and God the Son have the same nature. Everything the Father has, the Son has, except being the Father. The distinction between the persons of the Trinity is limited to begetting, proceeding, and being begotten, not authority and submission.

In contrast, Grudem and Ware insist that the names Father and Son mean that there exists an inherent authority in being the Father and inherent submission in being the Son. This makes passages like, John 14:9, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” make little sense.

Second, as noted earlier all persons of the Godhead have all the attributes of God and this list usually includes power and glory. But this seems to be another difference between orthodoxy and ESS/EFS/ERAS. Is God’s authority (power) an attribute or not? Orthodox teaching says yes. Grudem and Ware say no. At ETS yesterday, Grudem said that authority is not a divine attribute, it’s a relationship. In Ware’s book, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he claims that the Father has supreme glory as well as authority:

God the Father receives the ultimate and supreme glory, for the Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption in his humiliation, and the Father exalted the Son over all creation; in all these things, the Father stands supreme over all – including supreme over his very Son. … It is the Father, then, who is supreme in the Godhead – in the triune relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and supreme over all the very creation over which the Son rules as its Lord. (quoted in Who’s Tampering with the Trinity, Millard Erickson, pg. 233)

These are serious differences indeed. Until Ware and Grudem affirm the substance of the Nicene formulations, including full equality of power and glory, then they will continue to be outside the Nicene orthodoxy.

This continued insistence on ESS/EFS/ERAS by Grudem and Ware worries me for both complementarianism in general and CBMW in particular. And for these reasons I was not as reassured by Ligon Duncan’s talk as I would have liked to have been. I am extremely glad to hear that both Dr. Duncan and RTS are Pro-Nicene, but that really wasn’t in doubt, was it?

Grudem and Ware made clear yesterday at ETS that they are not backing down and they are continuing to say that to deny ESS/EFS/ERAS is to threaten the Trinity. These are strong words. I believe that equally strong words are needed in response. Clarity is also needed, which brings me to my concerns about Ligon Duncan’s talk.

Despite what Dr. Duncan said in his first point, the proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS are indeed teaching ontological submission. If the Father is in authority by nature of being the Father, and the Son is in submission by nature of being the Son, that is an ontological argument. The Son submits because He’s the Son. There’s no way around this.

In his first point, Dr. Duncan gave several questions that were raised by the summer’s debate, but he did not answer the questions. They are important ones, and I would have liked to hear what he believes to be the answer to them. He did give a partial answer regarding whether or not ESS/EFS/ERAS is heresy. He quoted Liam Goligher as having called for proponents to quit or be deposed. While many accused Liam of having said this, it’s not what he said. Here’s what he actually said:

To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo-tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God

Dr. Duncan said that the Trinity debate began with Liam’s two posts on Mortification of Spin in June and that the debate has been within the complementarian camp. While it’s true that Liam’s posts kicked off a particularly intense debate, many people have been challenging ESS/EFS/ERAS for years. There are both Pro-Nicene and ESS/EFS/ERAS complementarians in the current debate, but there were also many egalitarians involved as well. The Trinity is not just a complementarian issue.

Dr. Duncan also said that CBMW was mostly unaware of ESS/EFS/ERAS at least at an official level. It may well be true that he was personally unaware, but from what I’ve demonstrated before, ESS/EFS/ERAS has been taught from the beginning of CBMW. In fact, it seems to be foundational to CBMW’s version of complementarianism. And while I appreciate the theological diversity within CBMW, the Trinity is not something we can agree to disagree over. It’s much more than mode of baptism or even the 5 points of Calvinism. Should a statement of faith be more inclusive than the Nicene Creed? In the Nicene formulation too narrow? These are important questions that have not really been answered.

I was surprised by Dr. Duncan’s assertion that the Westminster Confession of Faith is minimalist regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s true that the Confession doesn’t say everything that could be said, but it is a theologically rich statement. Here are some excerpts:

On God:

There is but one only,[1] living, and true God,[2] who is infinite in being and perfection,[3] a most pure spirit,[4] invisible,[5] without body, parts,[6] or passions;[7] immutable,[8] immense,[9] eternal,[10] incomprehensible,[11] almighty,[12] most wise,[13] most holy,[14] most free,[15] most absolute;[16] working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,[17] for His own glory;[18] most loving,[19] gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;[20] the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;[21] and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments,[22] hating all sin,[23] and who will by no means clear the guilty.[24] (WCF 2.1)

On creation:

It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,[1] for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness,[2] in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good.[3] (WCF, 4.1)

On Christ:

The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature,[10] with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin;[11] being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance.[12] So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion.[13] Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.[14] (WCF 8.2)

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself;[37] yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.[38] (WCF 8.7)

That last paragraph would help to answer the question of how Christ is said to submit to the Father. This is just a small portion of the Confession. There is a wealth of information there.

Dr. Duncan said that discussions like this one on the Trinity are best addressed in serious venues such as conferences and journals. I appreciate so much that RTS Houston held the Trinity conference this weekend and that I was able to attend. There certainly needs to be much work done at the academic level to combat the very widespread teaching of ESS/EFS/ERAS. I am thankful for those scholars and theologians who are doing this work.

But because ESS/EFS/ERAS is so widespread and particularly because it is so prevalent in popular level books and Bible studies, it must be addressed more broadly. The orthodox response needs to have the same reach as the heterodox teaching. This teaching is not merely academic or esoteric. This teaching has very real and very practical implications on the men, women, and children in our churches.

Even the PCA’s women’s leadership training material has contained ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching. I am very grateful to hear that  this is being addressed. For many people, conferences and journal articles are not accessible. If the average person hasn’t been taught about why ESS/EFS/ERAS is wrong, they will continue to be influenced by it. As long as the proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS continue to teach it, we must continue to respond to it.

Again I am very thankful for Dr. Duncan’s reassurance regarding RTS and himself. I never doubted that they are Pro-Nicene. I have no doubts as to their orthodoxy or to their commitment to orthodoxy. I simply think there are questions that need to be answered regarding the connection between CBMW, complementarianism, and ESS/EFS/ERAS. I had hoped those questions would be answered, but I was disappointed.

A reader left a comment on my last article. He/she took issue with saying that complementarianism is not compromised by being Pro-Nicene. He/she said:

Wrong question. Has the complementarian movement been thoroughly compromised by ESS/EFS?

I think that is a very valid question, and one worth addressing. After the conference, I was left with one main question:

What’s more essential, being complementarian or being inside Nicene orthodoxy?

21 thoughts on “A Reflection and Some Lingering Concerns after the RTS Trinity Conference

  1. elnwood says:

    You wrote:
    “I am extremely glad to hear that both Dr. Duncan and RTS are Pro-Nicene, but that really wasn’t in doubt, was it?” and “Again I am very thankful for Dr. Duncan’s reassurance regarding RTS and himself. I never doubted that they are Pro-Nicene. I have no doubts as to their orthodoxy or to their commitment to orthodoxy.”

    Did you forget that John Frame has been teaching at RTS Orlando since 2002? Or do you consider John Frame’s support of EFS as Pro-Nicene?

  2. Barbara Roberts says:

    Very good observations Rachel.

    When I read your report on four talks at the Houston event it was clear to me that Ligon Duncan (a) is not properly seeing the problem in ESS,
    (b) was wrong to claim that the Westminster Confession gave a minimalist definition of the Trinity, and
    (c) was misrepresenting what Liam Goligher had said.

    Thanks for giving those quotes from the WCF to prove that its treatment of the Trinity is not at all minimalist.

    “Until Ware and Grudem affirm the substance of the Nicene formulations, including full equality of power and glory, then they will continue to be outside the Nicene orthodoxy.” I fully agree.

    And it’s interesting to know that the debates in the 4th century used pretty rough language. I wonder if they had anything like the tone-police that we have today!

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Lynn Betts says:

    Thanks for the summaries and critique! Excellent job!
    I think your concerns, Re: Grudem, Ware, Strachan, CBMW, and Duncan, are well-founded.
    Now I’m interested to see what comes of the relevant ETS sessions.

  4. roscuro says:

    You are correct that the ESS/ERAS/EFS debate is not new. Goligher may have brought it to mainstream attention via Aimee Byrd’s blog, but I came across, on CBMW’s website, an account of a formal debate on the subject in 2008. I cannot find the article now, but this is the link to the notes of the actual debate: http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2008/10/trinity-debate-ware-grudem-vs-mccall-yandell/

    I think, as regards the plaints about tone, that Paul’s account of him reproving Peter should set the idea that strong language doesn’t belong to debates in the church to rest. Both Paul and Peter reproved those straying from sound doctrine in no uncertain terms – “fallen from grace”, “in the bond of iniquity”, “proud, knowing nothing”, etc. There is a sense in which, with Christ setting the pattern with the Pharisees, strong reproofs belong to those who claim to have the truth but are denying some part of it. Christ showed gentleness to the sinful and lost, but to those who claimed to be righteous but were in the wrong, he was unyieldingly stern.

  5. NJ says:

    I’ve been reading Mark Jones’ twitter feed, as he has been at the ETS conference. Apparently, Wayne Grudem said the following:

    “if you deny EFS then you arent faithful to the distinctions between these two persons. You threaten the trinity.”

    So he’s basically saying that EFS (or whatever) in fact IS Christian orthodoxy, and anyone disagreeing with this deserves the name of heretic. Since they are digging in their heels, I hope to eventually see this addressed at denominational levels. It seems that only a firm collective rebuke from NAPARC, the SBC, and any other affected bodies might get their attention (especially Al Mohler’s). One thing is clear; they should no longer be teaching future pastors, and possibly should have been disciplined years ago.

    • Nancy2 says:

      NJ, Al Mohler is not going to take sides. He is going to do what is best for Al Mohler.
      And there are many men within the ranks of the SBC who support ESS. Dave Miller on SBCVOICES wrote an article stating that the SBC/baptists have always believed in ESS (most of the commenters agreed with him), and Denny Burk at CBMW is an SBC pastor/preacher. None of those men will say anything to risk losing their gospelly-appointed-supremacy over women.

  6. Nancy2 says:

    If they teach that God the Son is eternally submissive to God the Father and use it to justify women being eternally submissive to men, why don’t they use it to justify earthly sons being eternally submissive to earthly fathers?

    The son-father comparison is a more direct correlation than the female-male. So, ISTM that they are only interpreting/twisting God’s word to justify misogyny in their little-man-syndrome infected minds.

  7. David says:

    This abberration has been going on for years. It’s patriarchy cloaked for years in a complementarian mantle! Heretical ESS is a control thing which goes part in parcel with a continualist outlook. Grudem did not budge when Ian Hamilton took him to task on that in the U.K. In 2010. His Systemstic Theology has promoted it and ESS for decades influencing thousands. The SBC is speeding along to fully embrace a continualist stance, so much for deriding ESS which is one of several brake levers against charismania excesses.

    • Coralie says:

      David, while Grudem is guilty of both errors, continuationism is not the predominant thought in most patriarchal circles; or probably more correctly, the continuist crowd are new comers to the movement. I think you are committing the error Rachel warned about in lumping all people who agree with Grudem on theTrinity into agreeing with him on all things.

      • Barbara Roberts says:

        Thanks Lynn Betts. I had guess he meant that, but I’d never heard the word ‘continualist’ so I wanted to be sure. I would have thought that the opposite of ‘cessationist’ was ‘continuationist,’ but apparently others don’t think the same way as me on that point…

        I’m disappointed David has not replied to me himself.

  8. Barbara Roberts says:

    I agree with Coralie that David seems to be committing the error Rachel pointed out had been happening in the 4th century, where people were deemed ‘suspicious’ because of the allies or associates they had.

    Just because Grudem may believe in the continuation of the spiritual gifts, doesn’t mean ALL who hold to ESS/EFS/ERAS believe in the continuation of the spiritual gifts.

    And the reverse is also true: some who reject ESS are continuationist in their view of spiritual gifts (I am such a one). And others who reject ESS are to varying degrees cessationist.

    And in case you are afrighted by what I just disclosed about myself, be assured that while I believe the spiritual gifts are still for today, I am heartily against what is colloquially known as charismania — it sickens and disgusts me.

    • puritangirl says:

      “And the reverse is also true: some who reject ESS are continuationist in their view of spiritual gifts (I am such a one). And others who reject ESS are to varying degrees cessationist.

      And in case you are afrighted by what I just disclosed about myself, be assured that while I believe the spiritual gifts are still for today, I am heartily against what is colloquially known as charismania — it sickens and disgusts me.”

      Thanks for saying that, Barbara! You and I are in FULL agreement. 🙂

  9. Margaret says:

    I will step out in ignorance and request that the acronyms be explained. Thanks. I do appreciate the thoroughness of the article; however, I am not able to appreciate its fullness without definitions.

    • Rachel Miller says:

      ESS is Eternal Subordination of the Son.
      EFS is Eternal Functional Subordination.
      ERAS is Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission.
      Each are slightly different versions of the same idea, that the Son has always been in submission to the Father and the Father has always been in authority over the Son.

  10. Timothy Joseph says:

    A couple of thoughts! First, it appears to me, that an essential element missing from proponents of the ESS position is an understanding of God’s simplicity, particularly, His unity of will. This one will that exists within the Triune Godhead precludes the distinction that these ERAS/EFS proponents advocate. Much of their position relies on the Father being sender and the Son being sent, however, since there is only a single Divine will, in actuality, any decision to send the Son was made by all three persons. This Divine simplicity also answers more readily how seeing the Son is seeing the Father and yet, the Father is greater than the Son. Since there is only one Divine being, God, with one will, everything the Father is the Son is in their nature. Yet, within this one Divine being, God, exists an eternal relationship as Father, Son and Spirit. It is solely in this relationship that the Father is greater by virtue of being the Father and neither the Son nor the Spirit. Relational distinctions cannot support authority or subordinated positions within a Divine Essence that has a single will.

    Second, of course the ESS/ERAS/EFS position is a greater threat to orthodoxy than egalitarianism! Still, let us not forget, that both of these positions undermine Spirit inspired Divine truth. An orthodox position recognizes the former without compromising the later.


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