Answering the Charges of Racism and Misogyny in the PCA

Last month, a podcast on the issues of race and gender received a lot of attention. Some of the concerns were overblown, but some of the concerns were valid. Unfortunately, many of the valid concerns were lost among rude comments and the ensuing charges of racism and misogyny by those defending the podcast. I am not here to defend everything that was said or written in response to the podcast. A good bit of it is indefensible. But I would like to gently address a couple of items from the original podcast, namely the accusations of racism and misogyny in particularly in the PCA.

First off, I’d like to say that there are genuine reasons to discuss racism and misogyny in the Reformed world, and even in the PCA. Some churches in our denomination have bad histories regarding racism. Other churches have bad track records in how they have treated women.

We are all sinners, and as such, no doubt there are individuals, church leaders, sessions, churches, and even presbyteries that may need to address specific examples of racist or misogynist beliefs and actions. I am thankful that there are individuals, leaders, sessions, and churches addressing some of these concerns and many more who appear willing to consider how racism or misogyny might need to be addressed.

However, I do think that there are a couple of cautions that should be raised. As believers, we should address all sin patterns in our lives. However, not all believers will agree on the best course of action when it comes to how these issues should be addressed, especially when it comes to political action or to particular organizational approaches. It’s also worth noting that different believers will have different callings and no one person can possibly be active in the fight for or against everything.

For example, we should all be supportive of adoption, but not all believers can adopt children. We should all be pro-life, but not all believers can devote time to promote pro-life legislation or actions. We should all care about the needs of those around us, but not all can volunteer at food banks and shelters. We should all be against racism, but not all of us will devote our time to advance that issue. We may also not all agree about the best ways to address these issues. And that’s ok. The diversity of callings within the church allow for us as believers to work towards many good things. We should be careful about doubting the faith of our brothers and sisters because they disagree with us or don’t share our passion for a particular issue.

The other important caution is that we need to be careful in our zeal for our causes that we don’t lose sight of the gospel. As Paul wrote

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, NASB)

The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected and that because of his death and resurrection, we can be at peace with God. There is no better news than this. And no matter what good things we work towards in this life, no matter what we achieve that benefits others if we don’t trust in Jesus alone for our salvation, it’s ultimately meaningless. If we don’t share the good news of salvation with others, no amount of good things we do here will be of eternal good for them.

To be clear, I am not accusing any of the podcast speakers of having forgotten the gospel. I’m not questioning their faith. I am reminding all of us that we are good at forgetting what’s most important, and I am pleading with us all to remember the primacy of the gospel.

Along these lines, I think it’s important for us to be careful to disagree without accusing others of sinful motivations. Not everyone who disagreed with portions of the podcast did so for racist or misogynist reasons. Not everyone who has the same skin color, the same background, or the same gender is going to agree or think uniformly on any given issue.

There were thoughtful responses to the podcast both from women and from men/women of color who disagreed with aspects of the original podcast. It seems odd to suggest that all those who disagreed, regardless of racial background, were racist and equally odd to determine that all those who agreed, regardless of racial background, were innocent of racism.

The sin of partiality is something that everyone of all skin colors and backgrounds and nations must recognize and fight. As James wrote:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? (James 2:1-7, NASB)

Moses wrote in Exodus that the partiality can come not only in favoring the rich but also the poor:

You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23: 2-3, NASB)

We are always going to be tempted to show partiality towards others for many reasons. Not everyone will struggle with this to the same degree. But we should all be open to considering the ways in which we show sinful partiality to others in our lives. And we should be careful in making accusations of partiality.

Moving on to the charge of misogyny in the PCA, as I said at the beginning, I know there is misogyny in Reformed churches. However, some of the examples being given are not actually misogyny. Two main ones that have been referenced recently are using masculine pronouns or names for God and male-only ordination. While there are certainly misogynists who hold to or teach these ideas, I do not believe that either of these is necessarily misogynistic.

First, let’s start with the use of masculine pronouns and names for God. There are a couple of things to remember in this discussion. As the catechism teaches, “God is a Spirit, and does not have a body like men.” This means that God does not have a sex. However, God has chosen to relate to us in the following ways. He is God the Father. He is God the Son. He is God the Holy Spirit. The pronouns used in the Bible for God are masculine. When God the Son was incarnate, He was born as a male. The names Father, Son, and Jesus are all rightly used with masculine pronouns.

The question that comes up is what to do about the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it’s usually feminine. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, and it’s gender neutral. In English, masculine and feminine words really throw us for a loop because we don’t use them. Other languages use them all the time. In Spanish, a table is feminine, but a pen is masculine. Mouth is feminine, and eyes are masculine. But both men and women have mouths and eyes, so the gender of the word doesn’t affect the gender of the person.

The same is true with ruach and pneuma. All people who have the breath of life in them are said to have ruach/pneuma. For example, Genesis 45:27 says that Jacob’s spirit revived. Jacob, a man, has a ruach, a feminine word. But that doesn’t make him feminine.

As for the Holy Spirit, the pronouns Jesus used in John 14, 15, and 16 are uniformly masculine. Jesus had no problems with correcting faulty beliefs about God, but He did not choose to use feminine pronouns for the Holy Spirit. He also didn’t use gender neutral pronouns for the Holy Spirit when He could have.

The Holy Spirit is not “she” nor “it.” He is the third person of the Trinity. Given the Biblical usage of masculine pronouns for the Spirit, it is not misogyny to call the Spirit “He.” It’s consistent with what the Bible says.

Back to the point about God being a spirit and not having a body or a sex. It’s important to emphasize that when God made man (humanity) in His image, He did so by making both male and female. Women are as much made in the image of God as men. Men are not more in the image of God by virtue of their masculinity. This is often forgotten in the emphasis on the masculinity of God.

We should also remember that God’s actions are often described using feminine imagery. This doesn’t mean God is a woman or “she,” but it does mean that both men and women can relate to God and that both men and women reflect aspects of God’s character. Here’s a list of feminine characteristics or attributes from Scripture:

  • God comforts his people like a mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66:13)

  • Like a woman would never forget her nursing child, God will not forget his children (Isaiah 49:15)

  • God is like a mother eagle hovering over her young (Deuteronomy 32:11)

  • God seeks the lost like a housekeeper, trying to find her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

  • God cares for his people like a midwife that cares for the child she just delivered (Ps 22:9-10, Ps 71:6, Isa 66:9)

  • God experiences the fury of a mother bear robbed of her cubs (Hosea 13:8)

  • Jesus longed for the people of Jerusalem, like a mother hen longs to gather her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34)

These are a good reminder for us not to only focus on the masculine attributes or characteristics of God. We should not make women believe they are worth less because of their sex. It’s also worth remembering that all of the imagery of the church is feminine. It’s not that men always represent Christ and women always represent the church. We are all, male and female, the bride of Christ.

A second example given regarding misogyny is that we only ordain men. The ordination of qualified men to elder and deacon is a practice I believe is Biblical. I am aware that many Christians disagree on this issue and that both sides are convinced on the basis of Scripture. We disagree on the interpretation and application of the pertinent Biblical passages, much like paedobaptists and credobaptists do, or Arminians and Calvinists. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the differences. But the truth is believers disagree on this and will continue to disagree.

Because both sides claim Scripture and because both sides are certain that they are the ones correctly interpreting Scripture, it would be wrong of us to attempt to force each other to hold a position contrary to our convictions. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Each of us is responsible to God for his or her beliefs. Out of respect for each other, we should stand firmly for our beliefs, but we should not force others to accept a position they cannot in good conscience affirm.

Thankfully, there are any number of denominations out there that already affirm every possible set of beliefs on this issue. If you are not comfortable with the PCA’s position on male ordination, there are many denominations that ordain women which might be a better fit. Which is not to say I want anyone to leave the PCA. I just think it is for the best for everyone to be in a church home where they won’t be forced to affirm things they disagree with. If the PCA were to change its position on ordination, then I would be looking for a new church home myself.

Beyond the issue of ordination, it is reasonable to address churches that do not utilize women and their gifts as well as they should. This is a conversation that I believe needs to continue. While affirming the important role that our ordained leaders play in our churches, especially in the leading of worship, administering of the sacraments, and preaching the Word, we should also look for ways to include lay men and women in the life of the church. It is important to ask how we can encourage women in the church to use their gifts in a way that supports the work of the church and doesn’t diminish the vital roles of elders and deacons.

I really hope that this article is received in the gentle spirit of encouragement and critique in which it is intended. My goal is the peace and purity of the church. I do believe that there are areas in the Reformed world and in the PCA, in particular, that should be addressed with reference to racism and misogyny. But I hope that we can also be careful when we are tempted to attribute sinful motivations to the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Policing the Blogosphere? We’ve Been Here Before

Last week, Anglican Priest, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote a much-discussed article for Christianity Today, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere“. Warren is concerned about the lack of authority and accountability for bloggers and speakers, especially women. The subtitle explains Warren’s concern a little more: “the age of the internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.” She lays out her concerns regarding the state of the Christian blogosphere, using Jen Hatmaker’s recent statements on LGBTQ as an example:

Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?

It’s not at all news that there is a lot of false teaching going on in the evangelical world. It’s also not news that a lot of this teaching is promoted and shared via social media. Anyone with computer access can write and share practically anything they want on the internet.  What is newer about Warren’s article is her solution for the problem:

The broader church has a responsibility to provide formal support and accountability to teachers, leaders, and writers—whether male or female. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else. What this looks like in practice will vary dramatically between traditions and must be creatively hammered out by leaders and pastors in their own denominations or other Christian institutions. But while I cannot provide a specific model for each ecclesial organization, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.

Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity. (emphasis added)

Now, anyone who has read my articles knows that I am a strong proponent of orthodox teaching. I think it’s extremely important that all believers be taught sound doctrine. And so I can agree with some of what Warren wrote. I share her concern regarding false teaching being published and spread through social media. I recognize that there is a good deal of disdain expressed online for authority and accountability. I also agree that many popular teachers, both male and female, are heterodox and that they often seem to lack effective authority over them.

However, I do not believe that the answer is adding another layer of authority. In fact, I’m really concerned by the appeal to authority and control as the answer to false teaching for several reasons. First of all, an additional official authority structure will not solve the problem. False teachers are primarily in churches/denominations that agree with them, or they are outside all church authority. Most orthodox bloggers and speakers are already submitting to their local or denominational authority regarding what they write or say.

No new authority structure will stop Joel Osteen from preaching in the church his daddy built. Doug Wilson has a denomination that he created after he self-ordained himself to back him up. Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, and many others are currently members of churches that approve of what they do. Rachel Held Evans is now Episcopal as was Bishop Spong. I expect the denomination that didn’t stop Spong isn’t particularly interested in addressing Evans either.

Some denominations have means for addressing false teaching. Others really don’t, and they don’t seem all that interested in changing that. Baptist churches are very happy to be loosely affiliated and yet fiercely independent of any oversight by the denomination. Demanding that all churches form institutional authority structures isn’t going to keep false teachers from teaching, but it may well suppress needed challenges to false teaching, which is my next concern.

Warren’s call for authority structures will only hurt orthodox authors and speakers. Having to go through a formal authority process to be allowed to write or teach, even informally, will simply add another hurdle to jump through. It will also allow those who call out error to be silenced by those who don’t want to hear the truth. And that leads me to my next point, we’ve been here before.

In the 1400-1500s, the universal church in Europe was in a bad state. Priests were often barely literate. The common people could not read the Scriptures or understand the Latin Mass and were dependent on the church leaders to tell them what to believe and what to do. The people had been taught to have a blind faith in the church leaders. They were taught that they could not be trusted to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Imagine, they were told, the errors that might happen if the average person read and attempted to interpret for themselves!

Then men like Hus, Wycliffe, Luther and others believed that the people needed to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. The Reformation was born out of a desire to strip away all the errors that had crept into the church and return to the doctrines of Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, to the glory of God alone. Many, many books, pamphlets, and Bible translations were written and published during the early days of the Reformation. And these unauthorized writings and their unauthorized writers were condemned by the official church leaders.

The Counter Reformation, starting with the Council of Trent, was an attempt by the Catholic church to put an end to the “false teachings” of the Reformers, and to protect the “orthodoxy” of the Catholic faith:

The spirit of the Catholic Reformation was a spirit of zeal and ardor for the faith, a recognition of abuses in the church and a dedication to the work of reform, and an attitude of intolerance toward heresy.

A list was produced with approved and prohibited books:

The books of those heresiarchs, who after the aforesaid year originated or revived heresies, as well as of those who are or have been the heads or leaders of heretics, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar Friedberg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these, whatever may be their name, title or nature of their heresy, are absolutely forbidden. The books of other heretics, however, which deal professedly with religion are absolutely condemned.

The list of prohibited books was enforced by the Inquisition.

As early as 1543, Caraffa., as Inquisitor-General of the Roman Inquisition, had insisted that no book should be published without approval of the Holy Office. He also wanted the Inquisition to hunt out and destroy already published books. Caraffa became Pope Paul IV.

Eventually, the approval of books included a special notation to indicate that the books were without error and approved by the Catholic church:

During this period, probably out of necessity, the church began supervising all printed matter. They issued their first list of approved and prohibited books in the middle of the 1500s. Today Catholic books generally carry the notations, nihil obstat (nothing conflicts), or, imprimatur (it may be printed), to let faithful Catholics know whether the book is prohibited. For many years, the church placed the vernacular New Testament on the prohibited list. (emphasis original)

What’s interesting to me is that this current push for authorization of women writers and speakers seems like an odd weaving together of two very different strands of thought. On the one hand is the idea that women need some official legitimization. Often this is expressed as a call for the ordination of women. On the other hand, the current discussion reminds me of the patriarchal teaching that women need to be under an umbrella of protective authority to keep them safe from danger and error. That umbrella typically shows Christ over the husband, who then is over the wife and children.

It seems very odd to me to see these two threads combined, but that is exactly what’s happening in the current discussions that began with Warren’s article. Imagine having to provide some kind of stamp of approval in order to blog on theology.

The combination here of the two thoughts, women needing legitimizing and also needing protective authority led me to create an official stamp of approval in the vein of the Counter Reformation.

My final concern about Warren’s call for authority structures is that it undermines another aspect of the Reformation: the priesthood of believers. The Reformers believed strongly that all believers were theologians who were responsible for reading and applying the Word of God. This does not mean they encouraged everyone to go about interpreting Scripture without regard to the teaching of pastors and elders, but they believed that theology was not solely the domain of professional theologians. To demand that all writers and speakers must be authorized by the church is to return to a pre-Reformation standard.

Because I do agree about the sheer amount of false teaching, especially the popular teachings peddled to women, I think there are some steps that we could take towards a solution without the authoritarianism. These steps are both simple and yet arguably harder than creating new rules or authority structures. But in the long run, I believe they will be much more effective at preserving orthodoxy.

Instead of creating new authority structures, I think we need to return to the authority already in place. First, we need to return to the authority of God by means of recognizing the authority of Scripture. This was key to the Reformation, and I believe it is key for us today. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Question/Answer 2:

The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

If Scripture is the “only rule” then we need to return to the authority of the Scripture in our churches, our lives, and in our writing and speaking. Ultimately, what we write and speak must be consistent with what Scripture teaches.

Second, we need to recognize the authority of the local churches and denominations. I know that many people are hesitant to submit to church authority because of the examples of abusive authority that some pastors and churches have practiced. It is a valid concern, and I’m not calling for ultimate authority or authoritarianism in the church/denominations either. Some churches, mainly those without Presbyterian polity, have created massively intrusive membership covenants that have no place in the church.

But that doesn’t invalidate membership vows and a proper submission to church leaders in a limited sense. As a Presbyterian, the membership vows I took do not give the church leaders the right to dictate or control my life.

  • Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

  • Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

  • Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

  • Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

That last vow is important. In matters regarding the peace and purity of the church, I have promised to submit to the authority of my church leaders. Of course, this too can be abused, but that is why no church is independent in our denomination. There are layers of checks and balances to protect church members from being abused. These same layers are designed to promote orthodoxy by holding the ordained leaders to a standard of faith and practice. Is it a perfect system? No, but there’s a reason being Reformed is more than the 5 points of Calvinism. Church polity matters.

Connected to that last point, we need to hold teachers, writers, and speakers accountable for what they write and say. And this is actually where social media and blogging can be a help. Public teaching is open to public critique.

Any Christian who sets himself up as a teacher in the church of Christ and publicly teaches anything thereby opens himself up for criticism by others (cf. James 3:1). If they think what he is teaching is harmful to the church, they have an obligation to point it out just as widely as it was taught. Such public warning or debate on the topic should not be considered a personal attack at all. The teacher’s plea that a critic should first have come to him about his disagreement on the basis of Matthew 18:15 does not hold. This passage has to do with personal wrongs known only between the two, who should privately discuss the matter that separates them. What a critic of a public teaching does in pointing out his disagreement with that teaching has nothing to do with personal affronts or lack of reconciliation; he is simply disagreeing at the same public level as that on which the teaching was given in the first place. — Dr. Jay E. Adams, Grist from Adam’s Mill, 69

This should not be abused, and it should be done with care and gentleness whenever possible. I know that some may be distressed that I’ve critiqued Warren’s article in this way. But my critique has been kept at the level of ideas and not at a personal level. I have nothing personal against Warren. I simply disagree with her on this matter. Her public article invites public critique. And mine does too. I’m certain those who disagree with what I’ve written here will say so.

The next step that I think we need to attempt is to stop buying books from false teachers and to stop attending conferences with false teaching. It sounds easy, but the reason these false teachers have a platform is because people pay for and support them. We need to be more discerning and willing to take a stand publicly.

Related to that, I believe that big name leaders and organizations need to be more discerning and careful to stand for orthodoxy over popularity. That means they need to not promote false teachers. They need to not be silent when others are addressing error. There are big name organizations that were studiously silent on the Trinity debate. I’m not saying everyone needs to address every controversy. There wouldn’t be time. But some errors are so fundamental that we cannot be silent.

Standing up for orthodoxy will also mean not speaking at conferences or sharing stages with heterodox teachers. This also includes not publishing false teaching. I don’t care how winsome those teachers are. The presence of big name leaders side by side with heterodox ones lends respectability. Which leads to another Reformation era danger: certain groups, organizations, or people are seen as infallible no matter what. The average person is conditioned to blindly trust and not question what they are taught by the “right” people. (HT: Persis Lorenti)

Big name leaders and organizations also need to take concerns over the teaching of “one of their own” seriously and not simply circle the wagons or invoke the Good Old Boy network for protection. As Aimee Byrd has written extensively in her book, No Little Women, pastors and elders need to know what’s being taught to the women in their churches, and they need to be willing to address any false teaching.

Lastly, women writers and speakers (and men too) need to be well-grounded in solid doctrine. They need to submit to the local authority of their church. They need to be willing to hear correction and to speak the truth in love in all they write and say.

Warren raised some legitimate concerns regarding the prevalence of false teaching and the lack of appropriate authority and accountability in the blogosphere. However, the answer isn’t authoritarianism, ordination/commissioning, or more control over bloggers. Rather, the answer is a return to the authority of Scripture and the accountability of the local church through existing means. We must teach ourselves and others to be Berean, always searching the Scriptures to see if we or others are staying true to the faith.

As I said, this is much harder to accomplish than introducing more controls or regulations, but it is the only way to truly reform the Christian blogosphere. We need a grassroots effort to reform from the bottom up, not new authority structures to enforce a top-down hierarchy of approved bloggers. Let’s not forget the lessons of the Reformation. The privilege to study and discuss theology as an average woman was too dearly won.

Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere? Ultimately, we all are.

Can’t We PLEASE Talk About Something Else?!

I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the sermon illustration of the Sunday School teacher who wanted to talk about squirrels. I have no idea who wrote it originally, but here’s the version of it I found on several sites. If you know the original author, leave a comment, and I’ll update the reference.

A Sunday School teacher wanted to use squirrels as an example of prepared workers. She started the lesson by saying, ”I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”  The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and  it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …”   Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?”  “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.”

It’s a funny story, and it could very well be true. All too often we teach our kids that the right answers in studying the Bible are either Moses or Jesus (Moses for OT, Jesus for NT). There are a couple of pitfalls in teaching kids that we can fall into, “All Answers Must Be Jesus” or we’re tempted to reduce all lessons to “Dare to be  a Daniel.” Of course, all of our study of the Word should ultimately point to Jesus, but you get my point.

Moving away from children’s ministry and on to women’s Bible study, I’m concerned that we’re in danger of falling into a new trap where the punchline would be “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Biblical Womanhood.” Yes, I know that our modern culture is woefully deficient on a Biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, marriage, submission, etc. But surely this is not the only topic we need to discuss in women’s Bible studies. I’m not even sure that it’s the most pressing topic we should be discussing.

Like a person who enjoys lifting weights, but keeps skipping “leg day,” I’m afraid we’re so hyper focused on the topic of Biblical womanhood that we’re creating a generation of Biblically lopsided women. Hannah Anderson, in her book Made for More, talks about limiting women to the “pink” passages of the Bible:

Too often as women, we have restricted ourselves to the “pink” parts of the Bible. … And we forget that these “pink passages” were never intended to be sufficient by themselves. (105)

Women need to know ALL of the Bible and to know that ALL of the Bible is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB). All of the passages addressed to believers are meant for both men AND women. Specific passages to husbands, fathers, pastors, etc. may not apply particularly to women, but the majority of the biblical guidelines for living as believers applies both to men and women.

There is a great need in our churches today for women with a strong foundation in Biblical orthodoxy. If we’ve learned anything from the Trinity debate last year, it’s that so much of what is marketed to women is at best weak and at worst heretical. And it’s everywhere. As Aimee Byrd warns in her book, No Little Women, the greatest danger for women today is likely coming from books and materials marketed for women by Christian publishers and authors.

In many cases, women’s ministry becomes a back door for bad doctrine to seep into the church. Why are there still so many gullible women? … Why is it that so many women sit under good preaching and have all the best intentions, yet fall prey to the latest book marketed to them that is full of poor theology? And why do so many women in the church fail to see that theology has any practical impact on their everyday lives? (22)

We should not be afraid to delve into the Scriptures and even to teach women doctrine. I’m sure that some churches and leaders may be hesitant to take this approach with women’s Bible studies. But according to recent articles and studies, the people in the pews are hungry for the Word. And, yes, it may be a stretch for some women who are used to the popular book studies with floral artwork and script fonts and pastel colors that let women know they’re “safe” to read. Women are regularly challenged by popular culture to try new things that might seem difficult or different to begin with. We all know the hardest days of diet and exercise are the early days before we develop new good habits.

In the same way, switching from a diet of fluffy books to more challenging material will be an adjustment but so worth it. And in studying the Word, going through books of the Bible, there will be opportunities to address topics of gender, sexuality, morality. But the opportunities will be organic and not forced. Although we should be careful not to focus our studies of the Word so that all roads still lead to Biblical womanhood.

Which leads to my other concern: What exactly is being taught under the heading of “Biblical womanhood?” From my reading of numerous books and articles on the subject, I’m becoming more and more convinced that much of what is being taught as Biblical womanhood is actually middle/upper-class Victorian ideals that owe more to the ancient Greeks and Romans than to Scripture.

For example, the discussion of the domestic and public spheres of dominion comes not from Scripture, but from secular culture. The concept of men and women occupying separate spheres goes back to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle, but it gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era.

The idea is that men inhabit the public sphere which includes government, business, etc. and that women inhabit the domestic sphere of child-rearing, housekeeping, and education. A popular Victorian Era poem called “The Angel in the House” exemplified the ideal Victorian woman, and the image of the wife and mother who was pious and submissive came to be referred to as “the angel in the house.”

Unfortunately, this has next to nothing to do with the Bible. Aristotle’s idea, which carried over into the Victorian Era, and into modern Biblical Patriarchy, was that women are by nature inferior to men. However, even these Victorian/Greek ideals only ever applied to the rich and powerful. Women slaves and servants were necessary to keep the system running, and these women were not afforded the same protections or respect. They were not held up as examples of womanhood.

The same is true today. Women who work outside the home to help provide for their families are shamed for not living up to the impossible standards set by those who have the time and money to write books about what Biblical womanhood looks like.

Our study of the Bible and our application of it should be timeless and cross-cultural. A young Christian woman in the US should realize that she has more in common with an elderly Christian man in Asia than she does with the non-Christian women in her neighborhood. And the only way she’s going to recognize that is if she is steeped in the Word.

What if what we’re teaching women under the heading of “Biblical womanhood” isn’t substantially different from what they could get from other religions? For example, here are some quotes from Helen Andelin’s book, Fascinating Womanhood. It is extremely popular in certain circles. It attempts to teach women how to be good wives. The catch is that Andelin is Mormon. Do any of these quotes sound familiar?

The masculine and feminine roles, clearly defined above, are not merely a result of custom or tradition, but are of divine origin. It was God who placed the man at the head of the family when he told Eve, “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The man was also designed to be the protector, since he was given stronger muscles, greater physical endurance, and manly courage. In addition, God commanded him to earn the living when he said, “In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return to the ground.” This instruction was given to the man, not to the woman.  (p. 124).

The woman was given a different assignment, that of helpmeet, mother, homemaker. (p. 124).

Her homemaking role is assumed: She must nurture her young and run the household, to free her husband to function as the provider. (Gen. 2: 18) (pp. 124-125).

The masculine and feminine roles are different in function but equal in importance. … They are complementary. (p. 125).

Contrary to much of what is taught as “Biblical womanhood” the greatest problem for women is not that they don’t submit. According to the Bible, the greatest problem for women is that we are sinners and that apart from Christ we are separated from God and have earned eternal punishment for our sins. That is our fundamental problem.

And the solution isn’t that if women submit then there will be peace on Earth. The solution is found in salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. This is of first importance. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4, NASB).

I’m concerned that our focus on Biblical womanhood in women’s Bible studies has put us in danger of forgetting the gospel. We are saved by the blood of Christ, not by adherence to a standard of womanhood that may or may not be Biblical. If we are not teaching Christ, crucified and resurrected, we are not helping the women in our churches. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach on topics related to sexuality, gender, morality, marriage, but maybe we should watch what percentage of our time is devoted to these versus the rest of Scripture.

I am very concerned for the women in our churches. They need to be taught the full counsel of God. They need to know the Word of God fully. They need more than a truncated version of the gospel that focuses mainly on “Biblical womanhood.” Let’s teach women to study the Word, to love the Word, and to apply the Word. All of the Word. 

I’m thankful to be in a church where the women study the Word faithfully and the leaders of the church encourage it. I wish that all churches were this way.

Anxiety: My Thorn in My Flesh

I woke up last week with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Nothing, in particular, was wrong, but that didn’t stop my mind from racing through every possible thing that I could worry about. And then it latched on to something. And I began to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. And then “but, what if?” And then it latched on again. And I continued to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. Again, and again, and again. For days. Every night I’d go to sleep praying about it. Every morning I’d wake up early with the same dread, and the cycle would begin again. It was exhausting.

It’s not the first time I’ve gone through episodes of heavy anxiety. Sometimes I know when to expect them, other times they seem to come out of the blue. During the worst of the anxiety last week, I read an article that explained anxiety better than anything I’ve read before: “Anxiety: Post Traumatic Stress for Something That Never Happened… But Might.”

Concerns that any “ordinary person” would have about normal things – children, finances, career, relationships, health – skyrocket. Your mind immediately imagines the worst possible outcomes of reasonable concerns. A loop of anxiety that begins with an initial surge of panic and ends in the replay of catastrophic outcomes runs in your mind. This cycle is repeated dozens of times in a given day and you cannot make it stop. As much as you try, you’re unable to let go of things “like normal people do.” Once your mind locks on to something its nearly impossible to get it loose. Someone captured the sensation of acute anxiety as a relentless “embracing of dread.” It comes complete with physiological effects; shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, disorientation, exhaustion.

Can I tell you the encouragement in knowing I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one who feels this way? After sharing the article with friends, I realized that the struggle with anxiety is something that many, many people have in common. I decided to write about my experience with anxiety and some of the coping techniques I have found helpful.

First, I want to address some myths about anxiety.

  • Anxiety is just a lack of trust in God. I’d be the first to agree that I don’t trust God as I should, none of us do. But anxiety is much more than a lack of faith or trust. I want nothing more than to lay every anxious thought at the foot of the cross and allow God to handle it all. But that doesn’t make the anxiety go away.
  • Anxiety is all in your head. Anxiety involves your whole body. It’s not simply thinking worrying thoughts. And many times addressing anxiety means addressing your whole body.
  • Anxiety is just “spiritual”. Again anxiety involves your whole being. There is a spiritual aspect that must be addressed, but it’s not as simple as praying and reading your Bible more and you’ll be anxiety free.
  • Anxiety is sin. Because our whole beings are affected by sin, sin will always be a part of what we do and what we struggle with. Sin can make us anxious. The effects of sin can make us anxious. And our fallen bodies can struggle with anxiety regardless of how strong our faith is. We can sin in our anxiety, but anxiety itself may or may not be the result of particular sin.
  • Christians shouldn’t use anxiety medications. This one is a touchy issue. There are many people who are strongly against the use of medications to treat depression and anxiety. However, there is good research that suggests that medications are necessary and helpful for addressing the physical/biological aspect of depression/anxiety. We don’t stigmatize diabetics for needing insulin. We should be as kind to those suffering from anxiety and depression.

Second, I would like to give a little advice to anyone currently struggling with anxiety. There are many, many physical and hormonal imbalances that can cause us to be anxious. Low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and magnesium can lead to high levels of anxiety. For women particularly, low progesterone levels can cause all kinds of problems and especially bad anxiety. For men, low testosterone can cause both anxiety and depression. Thyroid is another big contributor to anxiety levels.

My advice is to get your doctor to test your levels. If your anxiety levels make going to the doctor extremely hard, I feel your pain. Regarding avoiding doctors, my approach is often like Jane Eyre: “I must keep in good health and not die.” But these vitamin and hormone problems can be fairly easy to treat and are worth pursuing. It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether anxiety medications might be helpful for you. I realize the hypocrisy of me saying this since I haven’t gotten up the nerve to do so. Yet.

Even with treating the underlying causes of your anxiety, you may continue to struggle with anxiety. What I want to talk about next are some of the practical things that I’ve found helpful in fighting the good fight against anxiety. These are not meant as replacements for medication or medical treatment. They are simply ways of coping.

  • Destress your life. I know that we can’t always control our level of stress. Kids/parents get sick and need help. Crises arise. Life is tough. But where we can reduce unnecessary stress, it is helpful to do so. Sometimes it means saying no and not overextending yourself. Knowing and acknowledging our limits is a good thing.
  • Rest. Our society does not like to rest. We push and push and push until we drop. Our bodies and minds and souls need rest. We were created to rest. It reminds us that we do have limits and that’s a good thing.
  • Exercise. Our bodies were also created to work and work physically. I’m not suggesting we all need to run a marathon, but regular exercise is a good way to combat anxiety. Several friends recommended gardening as a type of exercise which goes well with my next point.
  • Get outside. Living in the land of eternal summer, it’s often too hot to be out much here. But getting outside even for short periods of time can be very helpful in dealing with anxiety. It does us good to get away from all the electronics in our lives. Granted, with wifi, we can take them with us, but maybe leave those at home and go for a walk.
  • Limit your time on social media. Many new studies show the negative effects on our mental health in spending so much time online. We fear missing out. We get depressed by how much better others’ lives seem to be going. We worry over every piece of news, real or “alternative”. We spread ourselves too thin.
  • Eat well. This is not a plug for any particular diet or fad. Eat regular meals of real food. Our bodies need fuel and running on caffeine, chocolate, fries, and alcohol will take a toll. Not to say anything is inherently wrong with those things, just that all things should be done in moderation. We need balance.
  • Talk to a trusted friend. Everyone who struggles with anxiety and the cycle of intrusive worries needs a safe person to talk to, someone who can listen and encourage. It’s so important to have someone you can tell about the “crazy” and know they aren’t actually thinking you’re crazy.
  • Hug someone. We were created for community, and we need physical affection. Hugs from friends or from our kids or from our spouses can be calming and encouraging. It’s a reminder that we’re loved.
  • Pray. I know it seems obvious, right? Of course, we should pray. But in the grip of anxiety, it’s often extremely hard to remember to pray. We have a God who hears us and who cares. He’s called us to cast every anxiety on him (1 Peter 5:7). He’s told us not to worry about tomorrow because He is sovereign (Matthew 6:25ff). He’s told us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6). He’s promised us His peace (John 14:27).
  • Read the Scriptures. There is a great comfort to be found in the words of the Bible. The passages above are all great places to start when addressing anxiety. My go-to place is Psalms. As Christina Fox wrote in A Heart Set Free:

In fact, the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament, give us a structure for how to express our feelings. They remind us what is true. They point us to God’s love and faithfulness. They help us journey through the dark valleys until we can emerge on the other side and bow in grateful worship. (17)

  • Sing or listen to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Music speaks to my heart and soul. In my times of deepest struggles, there are many hymns and songs that have ministered to me. These words come back to me again and again. I’m convinced that many of the hymn and song writers have struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of my favorites are hymns such as Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Jesus I am Resting, Resting, I Need Thee Every Hour, Blessed Assurance. There are many songs by Indelible Grace that have helped me. Some of them are Give to the Wind Thy Fears, Dear Refuge of My Weary SoulPoor Sinner Dejected With FearPensive Doubting Fearful Heart. Sandra McCracken is one of my favorites. Her Psalms album is excellent: My Help, My God (Psalm 42). JJ Heller is another favorite. So many of her songs have encouraged me: Have Mercy On Me. To lift my spirits, I really enjoy Rend Collective Experiment: Joy Of The Lord.
  • Do something for someone else. In my experience, anxiety tends to be very introspective. It can help to shift your focus from your fears to doing something productive for someone else.
  • Remember your own history. If anxiety isn’t a new struggle for you, it can help to remember that you’ve been through these struggles before. It helps me to remember that I’ve felt this way before, that the intensity of the struggle did pass, and that I did feel better again. It also helps me to reflect on my track record of being anxious over things that turned out to be nothing. My anxious feelings aren’t the best indicator of actual problems.
  • Remember your God. For all that is changeable and uncertain in the world and in my life, one thing is secure. God is my refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1). No one can pluck me from His hand (John 10:28-30). Nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39), not even my “what ifs”. He will never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). And these promises are true for every one of His children.

There is much more that could be said about fighting anxiety, and many good books have been written on the subject. This is not an exhaustive list, just some encouragement from one anxious Christian to another. Feel free to comment and add any encouragement you might have that I didn’t discuss.

A few things I’d like to encourage you to remember.

  • You are not a bad Christian because you struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Many strong believers have struggled before: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, to name a few.
  • While we shouldn’t ignore our feelings and intuition, we need to remember that our anxious feelings lie to us.
  • You are not a weak person because you struggle with anxiety. Everyone struggles with something.
  • You aren’t going crazy, although anxiety can make you feel that way.
  • God isn’t punishing you.
  • God hasn’t forgotten you.
  • God will not abandon you.

One day, this struggle will end. Maybe on this side of glory, but maybe not. By God’s grace, a day is coming when everything will be made new and there will be no more tears or sadness (Revelation 21). Until that day, God will give you the grace and strength and mercy to fight each day. Like manna, that grace comes with enough for today and a promise for more for tomorrow. Don’t give up hope.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NASB

#clarityforthegospel

During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.


Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,

So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.

Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.

Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?

And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.

But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:

  • Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
  • Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]

Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:

The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.

Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.

On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.

Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.

No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,

To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.

So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?

Get off Twitter.

No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.

1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)

Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.

How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?

The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.

2. Seek to edify with your tweets.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)

It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.

Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:

Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.

How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?

It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)

3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)

Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.

When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.

How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.

There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.

And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.

The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation

In 1974, Susan Foh wrote an article for the Westminster Theological Journal on the meaning of Genesis 3:16, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” From the beginning, Foh’s article was intended as a response to the 2nd wave feminist movement. The article begins, “The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman” (376). Her focus in the article was how to interpret the second half of Genesis 3:16: “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” (NASB)

For such a short article, it has had a profound influence on conservative Christian teaching. 40 years later, numerous books, articles, sermons, and even Bible translations have adopted Foh’s unique interpretation of Genesis 3:16. Even those who swear they’ve never heard of Susan Foh teach her interpretation as if it is the best or only understanding of the passage.

My concern is that Foh’s interpretation is an example of eisegesis with dangerous implications. I’m always wary of “novel” or “unique” interpretations of Scripture especially when they arise in response to some contemporary situation. What I’d like to do here is summarize Foh’s main points and then lay out my objections to her article.

Foh begins her article with 3 common interpretations of the woman’s desire. They are:

  1. Sexual desire: “. . . thy desire shall be to thy husband– thou shalt not be able to shun great pain and peril for childbearing, for thy desire, thy appetite, shall be to thy husband. . .” (Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Kansas City, Mo., Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967, p. 22. )
  2. Pathological craving:  “the desire that makes her the willing slave of man.” (John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1930, p.82.) or  “immense, clinging, psychological dependence on man.” ( Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple; God and the Single Girl, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1972, p. 51.) or “a desire bordering upon disease”  (C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, V. 1: The Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., n.d., p. 103. Cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Columbus, The Wartburg Press, 1942, p. 172.)
  3. Desires made subject to her husband: “The woman’s desires are wholly subservient to her husband’s, as a result of God’s judgment.” (377)

Foh summarizes all three common interpretations: “In other words, because the woman desires the husband in some way, he is able to rule over her” (377.)  She objects to all three of these interpretations.

  1. She states that the word teshuqah (desire) has a similar root to an Arabic word that doesn’t mean sexual desire but “to urge, drive on, impel” (378).
  2. Because the husband’s rule over the wife is “part of the created order”, it can’t be part of the curse (378).
  3. Foh does not object to the interpretation that wives are to be completely subject to their husbands. “[T]he tyrannous rule of the husband seems an appropriate punishment for the woman’s sin” (379). Her objection is that there is no “hardship of punishment” in these interpretations because”a willing submission contradicts the context of judgment” and doesn’t fit “the New Testament commands to submit.” (379)

Foh then points out that teshuqah only shows up 3 times in Scripture: Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10. She dismisses the Song of Songs occurrence by saying the context is “ambiguous” and that “it is not possible to determine the precise meaning” of teshuqah there (379). But she believes her interpretation of desire “is credible in Song of Solomon 7:10,” noting “that the immediate context is that of possession: ‘I am my beloved’s'” (379).

Having dismissed Song of Songs, Foh compares the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7. She notes, “[i]n  Genesis 4:7 sin’s desire is to enslave Cain — to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower” (380). Foh points out that other commentaries have addressed the similarity, but that they neglect the context and don’t arrive at her conclusions on interpreting the meaning of desire.

Foh’s interpretation is that the desire in Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is the same, “a desire to possess or control” (381) and that Adam’s command is the same as Cain’s, “to rule over” (382). Thus, Foh interprets the woman’s desire to be a desire to usurp or control her husband:

These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination. (382)

Foh believes this interpretation is borne out by experience. She believes that if “he shall rule over you” was meant as an indicative, then it’s false because Cain didn’t rule sin and not all husbands rule their wives. She also points out that not all wives desire their husbands contrary to other common interpretations of the text. In contrast to those interpretations, she states:

The two clauses, “and your desire to control shall be to your husband” and “but he should master you,” are antithetical. (382)

Therefore, the proper way to interpret the passage is:

Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife. (383)

Foh gives four reasons to support her interpretation over others:

  1. “It is consistent with the context” (383). The husband’s rule is made harsh because of the wife’s attempts to usurp control.
  2. It’s a consistent interpretation for the uses of teshuqah in the Old Testament
  3. The parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is highlighted.
  4. “It explains the fact that husbands do not rule their wives as a result of God’s proclamation in Genesis 3:16b” (383).

Ultimately, Foh believes that Genesis 3:16b can’t be an indicative statement that husbands will rule their wives because not all husbands rule their wives, and “if God states that something will come to pass it will.”

That ends the summary of Foh’s argument for her interpretation of the woman’s desire. As I said at the beginning, I’m wary of new and novel interpretations. The fact that Foh’s interpretation was motivated by a desire to combat feminism in the church is concerning, especially since it is still used for that purpose today. Our doctrine should not be reactive. We might need to seek the Scriptures to determine how to address new challenges and issues, but we don’t need to change our understanding of passages in reaction to those challenges.

Foh’s article demonstrates sloppy research, weak and inconsistent reasoning, and poor exegesis. She misrepresents the three common interpretations of the woman’s desire by reducing them to a cause and effect (the wife’s desire makes the husband’s rule possible) that she then argues against.

Foh dismisses a sexual component to the woman’s desire by using an Arabic word with a similar root to determine the proper meaning of teshuqah. This is poor exegesis as it relies primarily on extrabiblical sources instead of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Foh states that “[t]he rule of the husband, per se, is not a result of or punishment for sin” (378). I agree, however, I would argue that neither is the wife’s desire. Like childbirth and work, the wife’s desire and the husband’s headship are pre-Fall realities. All are affected by the Fall. Childbirth would be painful, work would be hard, wives would desire their husbands, and their husbands would rule over them. It’s inconsistent to argue that of all four only the wife’s desire is new and the result of sin.

Foh clearly likes the idea of “tyrannous rule” as a punishment for woman’s sin, but only if a wife is forced to submit. It is disturbing that she believes a husband’s tyranny would be an appropriate punishment for his wife’s sin. Nowhere in her article is there any mention of God’s grace or mercy in forgiving sin. There is also no mention of Christ or salvation or the gospel, which is striking given that God promises a Savior in Genesis 3:15 directly preceding the passage in question.

Since the word teshuqah only appears 3 times in Scripture, it seems inappropriate to dismiss one of the occurrences when attempting to determine the meaning of the word. Following after this passage in Song of Songs, it’s hard to agree with Foh that the meaning of desire is ambiguous. It is clearly a desire that includes sexual longing:

“Your head crowns you like Carmel,
And the flowing locks of your head are like purple threads;
The king is captivated by your tresses.
“How beautiful and how delightful you are,
My love, with all your charms!
Your stature is like a palm tree,
And your breasts are like its clusters.
“I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree,
I will take hold of its fruit stalks.’
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
And the fragrance of your breath like apples,
And your mouth like the best wine!”
“It goes down smoothly for my beloved,
Flowing gently through the lips of those who fall asleep.
“I am my beloved’s,
And his desire is for me.”(Song of Songs 7:5-9, NASB)

Despite Foh’s assurances, her interpretation of desire is not “credible” in this passage. Controlling, contending with, and usurping are not possible meanings of desire in Song of Songs. There is no context in which desire in Song of Songs can be so negatively interpreted without doing violence to the passage.

Having limited the possible occurrences to Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, Foh discusses the similarities in the Hebrew between the two passages. It’s true, of course, that there are similarities in the words used. However, I believe that Foh forces a parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 beyond what is clear from the text.

For example, the woman does not equal sin. Pastor and Hebrew professor, Sam Powell, explains in his article on Genesis 3:16:

The fact is “sin” and women are not the same thing, and their desires are not the same thing. I wonder why we make the assumption that women’s desires are always for domination and manipulation even when the text doesn’t say so. Simply saying “Sin desires to manipulate and dominate and since the same preposition is used this applies to the woman as well” simply will not cut it. That’s not how language works.

Another striking difference between the two passages is that Genesis 3:16 is not addressed to Adam, it’s addressed to Eve. Adam is not being told to master sin/Eve. Eve is being told how the curse will change life for her. If the woman’s desire means she will try to control the man and that the man must master her, then all of the curses, except for pain in childbearing, are addressed to Adam. If that is true, we lose the parallel between the curse for the man and the curse for the woman.

As far as Foh’s explanation that sin’s desire is to enslave Cain, Cain, as a son of Adam, was already a slave to sin. Cain was certainly being tempted to sin in a way he had not yet sinned. But the only way he could have mastered it would have been to turn to God. In himself, Cain could not have mastered sin. Foh’s interpretation of desire reads into the text.

Interestingly, Foh quotes from E.J. Young who also discusses the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, but comes to a completely different conclusion:

As we examine the language of the Lord, we note that it is capable of two interpretations. First of all, however, it is well to compare it with the similar language in Genesis 4:7. In that verse we read, ‘and his desire is unto thee.’ The mean- ing in this context of the fourth chapter is that what sin desires is what Cain will carry out. His desire is unto Cain in the sense that Cain is a slave thereto, and must perform whatever sin’s desire may be. In the present verse Gen. 3:16 we may render, ‘and unto thy husband is thy desire.’ It is obvious that the meaning here is the reverse of what it was in the fourth chapter. Is it not clear that in this third chapter the meaning cannot be that the desire of the woman is unto the husband so that he must do what she wishes? Is it not clear that the woman is not here pictured as a despot who compels the man to do the thing she desires? Plainly this is not the meaning of the text. (Edward J. Young, Genesis 3: A Devotional and Expository Study, London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1966, p. 126-127, emphasis added)

Foh complains that Young “relies on certain presuppositions about the nature of the husband/wife relationship” (381). However, Foh has based her own interpretation on a different set of presuppositions. She presumes that all wives want to control and usurp their husbands’ leadership. That is the foundation of her interpretation. But this misses the context of the curse: the frustration of and breaking of existing conditions.

As I said before, Foh’s interpretation of desire is novel. She doesn’t cite a single commentary to support her new interpretation. What’s striking to me is that not even the early or medieval church scholars, who weren’t exactly known for being kind to women, attempted this interpretation of the woman’s desire.

Foh states that the husband must master his wife and that therefore “the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination” (382). However, if the husband’s mastery of his wife is commanded by God in the same way as Cain’s mastery of sin was, then why would the husband’s headship be tyranny and domination? Wouldn’t it be right and proper? If not, what does she think is being commanded?

In addition to the sloppy research and poor exegesis, Foh’s biggest weakness is the internal inconsistencies. She states that experience confirms her interpretation, that all women want to control their husbands. She says that “he shall rule over you” can’t be an indicative because not all husbands rule their wives.

While I’m not suggesting that wives don’t struggle with the application of appropriate submission, but in the history of the world, across centuries and countries and cultures, have men ruled over women or women over men? Foh sees no universality to husbands ruling wives, but she does think wives universally desire to usurp authority. This is contrary to the experience of most women.

Foh has fundamentally misunderstood the woman’s desire. As Barbara Roberts wrote:

Woman would desire to be cherished by her husband.

Eve would want Adam’s forgiveness and abiding love, to comfort her in her shame for having made that grievous mistake about the forbidden fruit. And more broadly, women in general would yearn for loving husbands, for cherishing and protection from their men.

Woman would long for closeness and companionship with that one special man, a closeness which would have a sexual component but it wouldn’t be limited to just sexual desire.

Eve had just been told that childbearing would now be painful. Despite that and despite the now broken relationship between her and Adam, who had moments before blamed her for his own sin, she would continue to desire her husband. And he would rule over her. This is a descriptive statement of the future of Eve and her daughters, not a prescriptive one. And that is very consistent with the experience of women across the centuries. It also fits the passage better.

Contrary to Foh’s claims, her interpretation is not more consistent with the context. It ignores Song of Songs 7:10. And it forces a parallel with between the two Genesis passages even when there are strong dissimilarities. As Foh points out, Cain didn’t win against sin. Does she mean to imply that neither will husbands?

Foh also misses out on the mercy and hope in the passage. As Matthew Henry points out in his commentary on Genesis 3:

Observe here how mercy is mixed with wrath in this sentence. The woman shall have sorrow, but it shall be in bringing forth children, and the sorrow shall be forgotten for joy that a child is born,Jn. 16:21 . She shall be subject, but it shall be to her own husband that loves her, not to a stranger, or an enemy: the sentence was not a curse, to bring her to ruin, but a chastisement, to bring her to repentance. It was well that enmity was not put between the man and the woman, as there was between the serpent and the woman. (emphasis added)

Foh’s interpretation of Genesis does exactly what Henry rejoices wasn’t done in the passage. She puts enmity between the man and the woman. And that is the great danger inherent in her interpretation and in those who have adopted it. Foh’s interpretation of desire creates, maintains, establishes an inherently antagonistic relationship between husbands and wives and between men and women in general. And all in a desire to bolster support for male headship in the home and the church.

The problem is we don’t need to change the meaning of Genesis 3:16 in order to teach a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission. There are plenty of New Testament passages that do so clearly. There are also several passages that teach the ordination of qualified male pastors and elders. Foh’s interpretation is completely unnecessary and extremely harmful.

I can’t count the number of modern resources that promote the teaching that a woman’s desire is to control her husband. It’s everywhere, whether or not they acknowledge Foh. It’s even been made an official translation of the passage.

So many women (and men) have been hurt by this kind of teaching. When women are inherently desirous of controlling their husbands and husbands are commanded to master such rebellion, it creates a system ripe for abuse to flourish. How is a Christian husband going to show love sacrificially to his wife if he believes his wife is trying to usurp control and that it’s his responsibility to rule her? How is a Christian wife going to submit to her husband as the church to Christ if she knows he views her with such suspicion?

Foh’s interpretation is unnecessary and dangerous. And the irony is not lost on me that so many men who believe that women desire to control men would continue to promote this unique translation which was written by a woman.

May we put aside such harmful teaching and seek to love each other and build each other up in light of the gospel. Men and women were cursed in the Fall. Our relationships with God and with each other were broken and damaged. But that’s not the end of the story! God in His great mercy and love has sent us His own Son to save us from our sins, to restore us to fellowship with Him, and to redeem even our broken relationships with each other.

For this reason, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially putting her needs before his own. And wives are to submit to their husbands as the church to Christ. In all things, we are to show each other love and tenderness and respect, because we are joint heirs, brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is my prayer that more people would reject Foh’s novel interpretation and seek to repair the damage that it has done on men, women, families, the church, and society.

A Bible Reading Plan and Bible Study for the New Year

For the last several years, I have been reading the Bible through each year. I’ve used several different plans, and there are elements of each that I’ve really enjoyed. But last year I wanted to do something different. I like the idea of reading each book through so that you get a good feel for the flow of the book. But I really don’t like to wait until the last third of the year to read the New Testament. I love reading the Wisdom Literature, but I think I appreciate them more in smaller portions.

So, after looking through the various Bible reading plans available, I decided to create my own. There’s a decent chance that someone has made one just like this already. If so, please let me know. I’d be glad to share it.

My plan alternates between Old Testament and New Testament books, but completes one book at a time. On the weekends, my plan has readings from the Psalms on Saturdays and a chapter from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs on Sundays.

I attempted to portion out the readings so that it wouldn’t be too much for any one day, but I may need to adjust the readings as I go through it this year. Below you’ll find a link to the pdf document with the full reading plan.

A Daughter of the Reformation Bible Reading Plan

I’m also planning to use Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible to supplement my reading. I’m hoping that the combination of Bible reading and Bible study will be helpful this year. I’d love to hear what your plans are for the year.

Grudem and Ware Double Down on the Eternal Subordination of the Son

Last month at the annual ETS meeting, the topic of the conference was the Trinity. Given the debate this summer over ESS/EFS/ERAS, it was an excellent topic and very timely. One of the highlights of the meeting was a panel discussion, “Submission and Subordination in the Trinity” featuring Dr. Kevin Giles, Dr. Bruce Ware, Dr. Millard Erickson, and Dr. Wayne Grudem. You can purchase the audio for these sessions here.

After listening to the sessions, I wanted to give a short summary for those who might be interested and also a few of my own reflections. There was not a lot of new material covered, but some points are worth highlighting. Of particular note is that Drs. Ware and Grudem stated that they now hold to the Nicene language of Eternal Generation of the Son.  After the summaries, I’ll explain why I’m still concerned about their commitment to Nicene orthodoxy.

Dr. Kevin Giles spoke first. His topic was “What is the Trinity Debate All About? A Reformed Confessional Perspective.” The full paper is available here. Dr. Giles is an ordained Anglican minister and has written many books on the Trinity. In his talk, Dr. Giles focused on the Nicene and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity.

He noted that the division that was made clear in this summer’s debate is between creedal/confessional evangelicals and non-creedal/confessional evangelicals. It was not between egalitarians and complementarians. He stated his belief that the doctrine of the Trinity is not about the relationship between the sexes. He went on to say that Drs. Ware and Grudem are not historically orthodox as defined by the Nicene creed.

Dr. Giles gave seven ways in which Drs. Ware and Grudem are outside the Nicene formulations in their teachings on the Trinity:

1. In the Nicene creed, the Son is called “Lord.” This is equating Him with YHWH. If the Son is Lord, then He is supreme and co-ruler. There is no difference in authority between the Son and the Father. Drs. Grudem and Ware contradict the Nicene creed in stating that the Father and Son are eternally different in authority.

2. The Nicene creed uses the term “begotten” to describe the Son. This is from the word monogenes. The creed uses the term in order to combat the Arian heresy that taught that the Son was subordinate to the Father because human sons are subordinate to their fathers. Jesus’ sonship is not like human sonship. The Father and Son are not defined by human experience. In Scriptures, the title Son of God is speaking about His kingly status, not subordination. Drs. Ware and Grudem contradict the Nicene creed by arguing that Jesus is a son like human sons therefore subordinate to the Father. Dr. Giles quotes Dr. Robert Letham:

“The Arian argument that human sons are subordinate to their fathers led to their contention that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The church rejected the conclusion as heretical and opposed the premise as mistaken. Rather, [it taught], the Son is equal with the Father in status, power and glory”. (“Eternal Generation”, in, One God, 122.)

3. In the Nicene creed, eternal generation is essential. The only difference between the Father and the Son is begetting. Drs. Ware and Grudem contradicted the Nicene creed in their denial of eternal generation. [Note: Dr. Giles spoke first in the panel discussion and so was not aware that Drs. Ware and Grudem would go on to affirm eternal generation in their talks.]

4. The Nicene formulation for the Son, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God,” explain that the Son is everything that the Father is, but He’s not the Father. Being “from the Father” does not make the Son inferior or subordinate to the Father in any way. Drs. Ware and Grudem use the doctrine of eternal begetting to teach the Eternal Subordination of the Son. However, Dr. Giles explained that eternal generation, instead of supporting ESS, “Son teaches the eternal co-equality of God the Father and God the Son.”

5. In the Nicene creed, the word “homoousius” is used to signify that the Son is one in being with the Father. There is only one divine will, not three wills. God is undivided, and all three persons share the same authority and glory. Drs. Grudem and Ware affirm homoousius, but divide God into the Father who rules and the Son who obeys which leads to multiple wills.

6. The Nicene creed explains that the Son is through whom all was created. The fundamental division is between the Creator and the created. The Son is co-creator with the Father. Drs. Grudem and Ware teach that the Son creates under the authority of the Father or at the direction of the Father. This is contrary to the Nicene formulation which teaches an order or taxis that differentiates but does not subordinate. There is order but not hierarchy in the Trinity.

7. The Nicene creed speaks of the incarnation of the Son. Dr. Giles referenced Phil. 2:4-11 to explain that the incarnation of the Son is “the willing and self-chosen subordination and subjection of the Son for our salvation.” The subordination and obedience of Jesus, the God-man, should not be read back into the eternal life of God. This is precisely what the writers of the Nicene creed were protecting against.

Dr. Giles concluded that ESS is not the historic teaching of the church. All of the Reformed and Post-Reformation confessions of faith exclude ESS. God is three persons equal in being and power. Dr. Giles mentioned a quote from the Second Heveltic Confession from 1566 which specifically denies any subordination:

We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the Son and Holy Spirit were the affections and properties of one God the Father, as the Monarchians, Novatians, Praxeas, Patripassians, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Aetius, Macedonius, Anthropomorphites, Arius, and such like, have thought.

Dr. Giles also noted that the divine terms “power” and “authority” are synonyms in New Testament usage. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in power and glory. This is contrary to Dr. Ware who states that the Father has the ultimate supremacy and highest glory.

Dr. Bruce Ware spoke next. His talk was on “The Nature of the Priority of the Father within the Trinity: Biblical Basis and Importance.” Dr. Ware is Professor of Christian Theology at SBTS. He has also authored a number of books including ones on the Trinity. In his talk, he focused on the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission (ERAS).

Dr. Ware began his talk by explaining that he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son and begottenness. He said that he gave it much thought after the debate this summer and now understands that the only way the Father is eternally Father and the Son is eternally Son is if the Father begets the Son. He said that the affirms the Nicene creed, “as I believe it was intended by the authors.” He then gave a fully Nicene definition of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in terms of begottenness and procession.

Dr. Ware went on to explain that these eternal relations of origin are what ground the functional relations within the Godhead. The names Father and Son are not true just of the economic Trinity. They are eternally functional relationships that necessarily follow from the ontological reality.

Because the Father is eternally Father he acts in a manner fitting the Father: always paternal- planning, designing, commanding, sending, purposing, willing, etc. The Son acts in was fitting as the Son: obeying, going, doing, accomplishing, working all that the Father gives Him to do. The Spirit as an agent of the Son fulfills work assigned by the Father: assisting, empowering, enlivening, acting all that the Father and Son have directed Him to do. He quoted Calvin on the distinctions of the Trinity:

“It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity….The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:142-43.)

Dr. Ware said that what we see in the economy activity of the Trinity is rooted in their ontological identities. This is carried out in the framework of authority and submission. The Father as Father expresses authority in planning, initiating, sending. The Son as Son expresses submission in embracing, responding, going. The Spirit as Spirit expresses further submissive support in empowering, assisting, completing.

Dr. Ware explained that when the early church spoke of taxis or order some saw a structure of authority and submission. Is this relationship of authority and submission merely economic and not eternal? Dr. Ware answered that it is either eternal or it is not at all. The evidence is of the Father planning, designing, sending, etc. in eternity past. What we know of the economic Trinity must reflect the ontological Trinity.

According to Dr. Ware, the Father possesses the personal property of paternal authority as expressed in the economy because in the order of subsistence He’s the Father. The Son possesses the personal property of filial submission as expressed in the economy because in the order of subsistence He’s the Son. The relationship of authority and submission is eternal because if what we see in the economy isn’t true of the immanent Trinity, then it questions the self-revelation of God.

Dr. Ware is concerned that God not be strikingly different than revealed. What God has shown us in the economy is Himself. Therefore the economy is truly immanent. Dr. Ware appealed to the divine names, Father and Son, as supporting the eternality of authority and submission. He said that the relationship of Father and Son in the Trinity is more than authority and submission, but that “at the heart of what it means for the Father to be Father and the Son to be Son is a full and joyous obedience of the Son to the Father.”

Dr. Ware concluded with an affirmation of the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission (ERAS). He repeated that the economic is rooted in and expressive of the eternal relationship of origin.

Dr. Millard Erickson was the third to speak. His talk was on ” Language, Logic, and Trinity: An Analysis of Recent Subordination Arguments.” Dr. Erickson is Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. He has written numerous books, several on the Trinity. His talk focused on the logical errors of the ESS arguments.

Dr. Erickson began with metaphysical issues. He asked the question: is EFS/ESS functional or ontological? He answered that if the Son is eternally and necessarily subordinate, then that is an ontological statement. Drs. Ware and Grudem have made a division between God’s attributes and the personal properties of the three persons. They would say the Son is functionally subordinate but has the full divine essence.

Dr. Erickson observed that if an attribute is necessary, it is essential and therefore inseparable from nature. Drs. Ware and Grudem teach that authority and submission are inherent in the Father and Son. According to proponents of ESS, the Father has an essential attribute (authority) that the Son doesn’t have, and the Son has an essential attribute (submission) that the Father doesn’t have.

Even the use of the term “fundamental” instead of “essence” or “essential” doesn’t change the ontological nature of the argument. If authority and submission are fundamental, then the Father and the Son are fundamentally different. Calling the differences of authority and submission “relational” confuses relationship with properties. Dr. Erickson explained that if logically ESS/EFS/ERAS implies subordination of essence and one rejects subordination of essence, then one has either to reject ESS/EFS/ERAS or prove that it isn’t bad logic. And that hasn’t been proven yet.

Next, Dr. Erickson pointed out that Drs. Grudem and Ware have made statements that EFS is essential to the differences between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that without authority and submission there is no Father, Son, and Spirit. To say that the different roles of authority and submission are essential has a hidden premise. If different roles mean there must be differences of authority and submission, then that must be argued for or the conclusion doesn’t follow logically. It may be true, but it hasn’t been established.

After describing various logical fallacies that Drs. Ware and Grudem have used in the arguments for ESS/EFS/ERAS, Dr. Erickson moved on to exegetical examples. Drs. Ware and Grudem explain that Phil. 2:6-8 describes a new kind of obedience that the Son learned in the incarnation. But this is an insertion of meaning into the text.

Dr. Grudem explains that the word “intercede” in Heb. 7:25 and Rom. 8:24 always means to bring requests “to a higher authority.” However, other Greek lexicons don’t add the meaning of “to a higher authority.” Drs. Ware and Grudem also use passages that describe Jesus’ earthly ministry as proof of an eternal relationship of authority and submission between the Father and the Son. This assumes rather than argues the point.

Dr. Erickson explained that there is great danger in conflating the economic and immanent Trinity. There have to be differences between Jesus as incarnate God-man and the Son prior to the incarnation. For example, was Jesus capable of being tempted before the incarnation?

Dr. Erickson concluded with discussing the nature of the interpretive principle. If our interpretation is valid, it must be applicable to similar cases. For example, Dr. Grudem in arguing for ERAS says that Jesus uses the term “Father” for God, therefore, authority and submission is intended. In a parallel passage in John 20:17, Jesus states “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God.” If calling God His Father here means an eternal relationship of authority and submission, what about “my God and your God?” Is the 1st person of the Trinity eternally the 2nd person’s God?

The last speaker for the panel was Dr. Wayne Grudem. His talk was on “Why a Denial of the Son’s Eternal Submission Threatens both the Trinity and the Bible.” The notes from his talk are available here. If you listen to the audio, there is a question and answer time with all four speakers included after Dr. Grudem’s talk. Dr. Grudem is Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona and co-founder of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He has written many books including a best-selling systematic theology. His talk focused on why denying ESS/EFS/ERAS does damage both to our understanding of the Trinity and of the Bible.

The bulk of Dr. Grudem’s talk was a restating of his article, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father.” I have dealt more fully with that article in my post, “Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?” But I will summarize the main points here.

Dr. Grudem believes that the Son is eternally in submission to the Father. He gave the following evidence. The Son submitted to the Father before the incarnation because the names Father and Son mean that there is a relationship of authority and submission. In the ancient world, fathers had authority, even over their grown sons, for all their lives. Since the original audience for Scriptures would have understood the names Father and Son to mean a relationship of authority and submission, then there must be an eternal relationship of authority and submission between God the Father and God the Son.

Dr. Grudem explained that contrary to his previous writings he now affirms the Nicene creed formulation of eternal generation or eternal begottenness. This is because, according to Dr. Grudem, eternal generation “provides the ontological basis for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.”

Dr. Grudem also sees authority and submission prior to the incarnation in the planning, directing, initiating, choosing, and leading of the Father prior to and in the work of creation. The Father created through the Son, chose us in the Son, and sent the Son.

Dr. Grudem said that the Son continues to be in submission to the Father after the ascension. The Son intercedes for us, and as noted earlier, the extrabiblical evidence indicates that this is always from an inferior to a superior. The Son received authority from the Father to send the Spirit at Pentecost and to give the revelation to John in Revelation 1:1. The Son is seated at the right hand of the Father which is “never a position of equal authority, always secondary authority” in the ancient world. The Father delegates authority for the Son to judge the world after which, the Son will deliver the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The Father is the ultimate authority.

Dr. Grudem summarized his points, “The Son is always subject to the authority of the Father.” That is never reversed. “Does this consistent pattern of Scripture mean nothing for our theology?” Dr. Grudem said that those who object to ESS threaten to obliterate the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Next, Dr. Grudem quoted J.I. Packer, John Frame, Louis Berkhof, Carl F. Henry, and Jonathan Edwards as examples of theologians who taught the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. All of these quotes are available in Dr. Grudem’s article, “Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” published at Reformation 21 this summer. In the talk at ETS, Dr. Grudem went on to say, “No theologian prior to modern evangelical feminism ever said eternal subordiation of the Son to the Father is unorthodox. No creed says that the Son is not eternally subject to the Father (to my knowledge.)”

Dr. Grudem then gave three clarifications. First, he explained that divine authority is not an attribute, but a property of relationship: “authority (as we understand it here) is a property of relationship, not an attribute of one’s being (an ontological attribute) (omnipotence is an attribute).” Second, there is only one divine will, but three distinct expressions of that will. Third, it’s not enough to say that the submission is eternal but not necessary. “Shall we say that God in himself is different from everything that Scripture tells us about how he acts in the world? Better to say that the economic Trinity reveals the ontological Trinity. And I think we must insist that Father and Son have eternally been Father and Son — and that those names consistently in Scripture assume a relationship in which authority belongs to the Father with respect to the Son.”

Dr. Grudem explained that opponents of ESS “undermine the doctrine of the Trinity by ‘confounding the persons’ in the Trinity.” This, he said, is contrary to the Athanasian creed. He specifically rejected the claim that every act of one person is an act of all three.

Dr. Grudem then concluded by saying that opponents of ESS undermine the authority of Scripture. They do this by failing to offer explanations for verses that seem to contradict their position and by making untruthful claims about the Scripture.

As I said at the beginning, there was not much new information covered in these talks. It was helpful and instructive to listen to them all. I will be writing more soon on some of what I learned and on the rest of my thoughts regarding what was said. But for today, I want simply to conclude with the following points that I think are most important.

First, I am glad to hear that Drs. Ware and Grudem now affirm eternal generation and eternal procession. However, by affirming it on one hand and then affirming ESS/EFS/ERAS on the other, they call into question their commitment to Nicene orthodoxy. As Dr. Giles’ talk addressed, there is more to the Nicene formulations than eternal generation. Eternal generation is not simply another way to say that God is eternally Father and Son and therefore eternally in a relationship of authority and submission.

Second, despite claims made after this summer, the terms ESS, EFS, and ERAS were used interchangeably. It does not seem that Drs. Ware and Grudem have changed fundamentally in their argument for an eternal submission of the Son to the Father.

Third, although Drs. Ware and Grudem insist that they believe that the Father and Son are equal in being, they continue to make ontological statements about the authority and submission of Father and Son. The Father “as Father” and the Son “as Son” are ontological statements. When Father means authority and Son means submission, that is making the Father and Son unequal in being.

Lastly, it is very troubling to hear Drs. Grudem and Ware attempt to separate God’s authority from His being. To make a distinction between God’s power and His authority is to separate something that no orthodox church father would have separated. God’s power, His omnipotence, includes His sovereignty, His almighty power, and His rule. 

This is expressed in Scripture in the name Almighty, which is used for both Father and Son. In the New Testament, the use of Lord as a title for Jesus expresses the same sovereignty. To deny equal authority for all three persons is to deny God’s sovereignty and omnipotence. To deny equal authority is to make the Son and the Spirit less than God or to deny that all of God is sovereign. And that is a very, very dangerous thing to deny.

So while there was some new information and it’s encouraging that Drs. Ware and Grudem have changed their minds on eternal generation, the talks indicated no fundamental change on ESS/EFS/ERAS. In fact, Drs. Ware and Grudem doubled down in their insistence on ESS/EFS/ERAS and continued to accuse those who deny ESS/EFS/ERAS of being wrong on both the Trinity and the Bible.

Answering Four Common Laymen Responses to the ESS/EFS/ERAS Debate

Brad Mason, author of guest post “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers,” has written a new article and graciously allowed me to post it here. Brad is a lay member of the RCUS and a cabinet maker by trade. He’s married and has four children. In this article, Brad answers four common responses he’s heard to the ESS/EFS/ERAS debate. I’m grateful for his continued interaction with this important discussion. (All Scripture references from the ESV translation.)

 

Four Common Laymen Responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS Critics Answered
By Brad Mason

As the layman class, of which I am a member, begins to come to terms with the possibility that their Sunday School teacher may have led them astray by teaching that the Son of God has been subordinate to the Father for all eternity, recurring questions and rejoinders are nevertheless heard in small groups and church foyers across the reformed-ish world. They may have already come to terms with, for example, the multiple wills objection[1] and have become thoroughly convinced of the historical novelty of ESS/EFS/ERAS[2], even rightly concluding that the Council of Nicea and Athanasian Creed roundly contradict the teaching. But, being students of the Scripture, submitting admirably to its authority, and seeking peace within the Church of God and charity towards those who may err, I have in my experience heard the following responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS critics over and over, and have read very little direct response to these rejoinders at the popular, accessible level:

  1. “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”
  2. “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”
  3. “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”
  4. “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

(Probably the other most common response would be, “But there must be some reason the Son came and submitted to the Father, and not the Father to the Son”, etc., but this has, in my opinion at least, been succinctly dealt with elsewhere at the popular level by Mark Jones.[3])

I have attempted below to deal with each of these four objections/questions in hopes that my fellow laymen in the Church might find certitude as well as a clear conscience in taking a stand against ESS/EFS/ERAS.  Of course, these answers are not exhaustive and are possibly not as persuasive as I would hope, but I pray that they may nevertheless be to the glory and honor of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, giving Him the honor He rightly deserves.

  • “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”

This argument does indeed seem plausible on its face, for did not Christ say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16)? We see from the context of this passage that Christ is making the point that He is greater than His disciples, they being the sent ones and He the sender.  And this is perfectly in line with John 14:28, when Christ, having been sent, speaks of His coming return to the Father, “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I”.  We ought to thus conclude that the Father is greater than the Son in all eternity, which clearly includes having greater authority than the Son, by virtue of being the sender and not the sent; and He even looked forward to returning to the greater, the Father.  It would seem this is unassailable Biblical reasoning.

But right away it needs to be noted that this argument proves too much.  Not even the most ardent ESS/EFS/ERAS defenders are willing to say that being sent proves the Son in eternity to be less than the Father and the Father greater than the Son.  They, fortunately, do intend to stay within the language of the Athanasian Creed, “And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.”  ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents are rather arguing for an eternal functional relation of roles among the Godhead (we will discuss this claim below).  

Nevertheless, if the Bible is true, and it teaches us the sender is greater than the sent and therefore has greater authority, then why was this line to the contrary included in the great Creed of the Fathers?  How can both be true, that the Father sends the Son yet is not greater than the Son?

The answer universally[4] given by the Pro-Nicene Fathers themselves was that all passages that speak of the Father as greater than the Son are to be understood as a relation between the Father and the Son in His flesh—Christ, the God-Man.  For as the Athanasian Creed also says of the Son, He is “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”  This includes even His having been sent.  Gregory Nanzianzus, for example, after proving from the Scripture the full equality of the Father and the Son, says the following to the subordinationists of his day:

But in opposition to all these, do you reckon up for me the expressions which make for your ignorant arrogance, such as My God and your God, or greater, or created, or made, or sanctified; Add, if you like, Servant (Philippians 2:7) and Obedient (Philippians 2:8) and Gave (John 1:12) and Learnt, (Hebrews 5:8) and was commanded, was sent, can do nothing of Himself, either say, or judge, or give, or will. […]To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate— yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature.[5]

This is the principle expressed in the Athanasian Creed.  The Fathers saw clearly in their struggle with the Arians that all passages implying a greater and a lesser in the Godhead, including sending and sent, are to be accorded to Christ in His flesh, His human nature, not to that in which He is one with the Father, viz., His eternal Nature.

I think Augustine explains the relation of sender and sent among the Godhead best in his On the Trinity.  In Book 2 Ch. 5, after discussing the notion that sending proves superiority to the sent, he writes the following:

[…]perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son. He commanded that He should come, and He, complying with the commandment, came. Did He then request, or did He only suggest? But whichever of these it was, certainly it was done by a word, and the Word of God is the Son of God Himself. Wherefore, since the Father sent Him by a word, His being sent was the work of both the Father and His Word; therefore the same Son was sent by the Father and the Son, because the Son Himself is the Word of the Father. For who would embrace so impious an opinion as to think the Father to have uttered a word in time, in order that the eternal Son might thereby be sent and might appear in the flesh in the fullness of time? But assuredly it was in that Word of God itself which was in the beginning with God and was God, namely, in the wisdom itself of God, apart from time, at what time that wisdom must needs appear in the flesh. Therefore, since without any commencement of time, the Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, it was in the Word itself without any time, at what time the Word was to be made flesh and dwell among us. And when this fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, that is, made in time, that the Incarnate Word might appear to men; while it was in that Word Himself, apart from time, at what time this was to be done; for the order of times is in the eternal wisdom of God without time. Since, then, that the Son should appear in the flesh was wrought by both the Father and the Son, it is fitly said that He who appeared in that flesh was sent, and that He who did not appear in it, sent Him; because those things which are transacted outwardly before the bodily eyes have their existence from the inward structure (apparatu) of the spiritual nature, and on that account are fitly said to be sent. Further, that form of man which He took is the person of the Son, not also of the Father; on which account the invisible Father, together with the Son, who with the Father is invisible, is said to have sent the same Son by making Him visible. But if He became visible in such way as to cease to be invisible with the Father, that is, if the substance of the invisible Word were turned by a change and transition into a visible creature, then the Son would be so understood to be sent by the Father, that He would be found to be only sent; not also, with the Father, sending. But since He so took the form of a servant, as that the unchangeable form of God remained, it is clear that that which became apparent in the Son was done by the Father and the Son not being apparent; that is, that by the invisible Father, with the invisible Son, the same Son Himself was sent so as to be visible. Why, therefore, does He say, Neither came I of myself? This, we may now say, is said according to the form of a servant, in the same way as it is said, I judge no man.[6]

Christ, as He Himself said, was indeed less than the Father, had less authority than the Father, was even servant of the Father. But not in eternity; not as the Son of God in all eternity, not as He is one in nature with the Father, but rather according to His human nature.  It is the Sent-One that says in His flesh, “the Father is greater than I” and says, “the Father who sent me…”.  The Son was always in the world, was the Creator, was always the giver of life and light of all men (John 1), long before He came unto His own, and was and is in fact the upholder of the entire universe (Heb. 1:3).  He is the very Word, Wisdom, and Power of God (1 Cor. 1:24) in all eternity.  His coming was His appearing to men in His flesh in time; His prior “sending”, not in time, was by the one will of the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Only in His kenosis is He the Sent-One of the Father, appearing among men as man, the great Servant of the Father and Redeemer of His enfleshed brethren.

  • “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”

Proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS are indeed aware of and openly opposed to the Arian teaching of an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, that is, a subordination and hierarchy within the very nature, essence, or being of God, for such a position clearly contradicts the Nicene Creed, dividing the one Nature and Will of God, calling into question the co-equality of the Persons. Rather, they locate this subordination and hierarchy of authority within relations of function or role amongst the persons of the Godhead.  This, they claim, distinguishes their position from the Arian heresy and shields them from their critics.  As Bruce Ware puts it,

[…]the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons.[7]

Or as Wayne Grudem states it,

The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function[…].[8]

But it seems clear to me (and others) that the words “function” and “role” are being used illicitly and beyond their normal meanings, to grant a veneer of plausibility to their unorthodox claims.  To begin with, “function” already implies ontology, or properties of being, nature, or essence.  Bruce Ware is absolutely correct when he states that, “function always and only follows essence. Put differently, what something can do is an expression of what it is”[9].  That is part of the very definition of “function”!  And the use of “role” fares no better when squared with the body of ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching, for a role is by definition not a necessary relation, nor an eternally fixed relation; a role could have been otherwise and can always become otherwise.  If one is in an eternal, necessary, counterfactual-excluding relation, then one is simply not in a relation of role.

But in the end, regardless of the terms used, ESS/EFS/ERAS is indeed about ontology and ontological subordination.  “Ontology” is the study of fundamental being, nature, essence; it has to do with what makes something what it is, including what it must be to be what it is and what it cannot be and still be what it is.  This is not the whole of the discipline of ontology, but it is essential to the meaning of “ontological.”  When we speak ontologically of God, we are speaking of His very being, nature, and essence—those things which are fundamental to who He is and without which He is not who He is.  Despite the reliance on “function” and “role” throughout the ESS/EFS/ERAS literature, a simple ordering of the logic of their arguments quickly peels away the veneer of plausibility:

(1)  God is ontologically Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or He is not who He is:

“[…]if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity (cf. also John 17:5, 24). Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging (see chapter 11 above). Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is.” (Grudem[10])

(2) There are no distinctions amongst the persons of the Godhead except in relations:

“[…]it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person.” (Grudem[11])

“There is no difference in attributes at all. The only difference between them is the way they relate to each other and to the creation.” (Grudem[12])

(3) In eternity, the fundamental relational distinction between the Persons of the Trinity is their internal relations of subordination.

“The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function: without this truth, we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son.” (Grudem[13])

“Authority and submission between the Father and the Son, and between both Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.” (Grudem[14])

“[…]support will be offered for the church’s long-standing commitment to the Trinitarian persons’ full equality of essence and differentiation of persons, the latter of which includes and entails the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to both Father and Son.” (Ware[15])

(4) Or, that the Father is “Father” and the Son “Son” entails that, and is entailed by, the submission of the latter to the former and the authority of the former over the latter:

“[…]what does it mean that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, and that the Son is the eternal Son of the Father? Is not the Father-Son relationship within the immanent Trinity indicative of some eternal relationship of authority within the Trinity itself?” (Ware[16])

“Clearly, a central part of the notion of “Father” is that of fatherly authority.” (Ware[17])

“Authority belongs to the Father not because he is wiser or because He is a more skillful leader, but just because he is the Father.” (Grudem[18])

“The names “Father” and “Son” represent an eternal difference in the roles of the Father and the Son. The Father has a leadership and authority role that the Son does not have, and the Son submits to the Father’s leadership in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son.” (Grudem[19])

(5) Therefore God is not Father, Son, and Holy Ghost unless there is an order of subordination within the Godhead:

“If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination[…]then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.” (Grudem[20])

And by (1) we must conclude that God is not who He is without an eternal order of subordination!  That, my friends, is an ontological statement—an ontological subordination—and it absolutely contradicts the Nicene formula.  If the claims of, and arguments for ESS/EFS/ERAS are to be accepted, we must admit that the subordination of the Son to the Father is no more a functional role than is His eternity, omnipotence, or immutability, for it would be ontologically definitive of His being, nature, and essence.

  • “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”

The doctrine of the Trinity is rightly understood by laymen to be a profound mystery; certainly, we cannot comprehend the doctrine fully within our human minds any more than we can comprehend God Himself in His fullness.  So, many conclude, we cannot get bogged down in such minutiae as this, mostly lying beyond our ken anyhow, but must rather stick to core and understandable Gospel truths, such as the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But what, I ask in response, is the import and profundity revealed in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is it not that the GOD, Jehovah Himself, became man and thus in His full Godhead and full humanity, has reconciled fallen and corrupt man to the true, perfect, and eternal God; that full and complete God with all majesty and authority has met together with true humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ? Is not the Gospel itself sapped of its inaccessible majesty and glory if the death and resurrection of our Lord were really the death and resurrection of humanity united with an eternally subordinate God, an eternally submissive God, a lower ranking person within the Godhead; in short, a sort of Jehovah Jr.?

If we carefully attend to how the truth of God as Triune has been revealed in the pages of Scripture, we can plainly see that the Gospel is itself the revelation of the Trinity and that Trinity contains the truth of the Gospel.  As T.F. Torrance opens his THE Christian Doctrine of God,

THE Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation, in accordance with its proclamation in the Gospel and its actualisation through the Holy Spirit in the apostolic foundation of the Church. It is in the Lord Jesus, the very Word and Mind of God incarnate in our humanity, that the eternal God ‘defines’ and identifies himself for us as he really is.[21]

It is in the redemptive history, recorded in the narratives of the Scripture, especially the Gospel records and the Book of Acts, that we see the Triunity of the One God displayed.  B.B. Warfield fleshes this notion out well in the article, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”[22].  He first discusses how God in the Old Testament is carefully and relentlessly revealed as the One and only God—true unity.  Though God is eternally three in one, He nevertheless taught His people to take up the confession, “the Lord our God is one Lord” as the inviolable representation of His being. There were indeed indications of His personal distinctions throughout the Old Testament revelation, but more as furniture in a dark room, dimly seen, and not fully comprehended or revealed until the lights are turned on.

The New Testament letters, on the other hand, seem to assume throughout not only the oneness of God but that the Father is God, the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God, though we find no discourse or chapters and verse where this Trinity in Unity is spelled out discursively or philosophically.  It rather easily flows from the lips and pens of the New Testament authors with no apologies nor sense that the reader should be surprised by the truths; it is a revelation presupposed at the basis of their discourse.

So where and when was this great doctrine of the Triunity of God revealed?  In the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, and in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, promised by the Son and given at Pentecost.

We cannot speak of the doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, if we study exactness of speech, as revealed in the New Testament, any more than we can speak of it as revealed in the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written before its revelation; the New Testament after it. The revelation itself was made not in word but in deed. It was made in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. The relation of the two Testaments to this revelation is in the one case that of preparation for it, and in the other that of product of it. The revelation itself is embodied just in Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is as much as to say that the revelation of the Trinity was incidental to, and the inevitable effect of, the accomplishment of redemption. It was in the coming of the Son of God in the likeness of sinful flesh to offer Himself a sacrifice for sin; and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, that the Trinity of Persons in the Unity of the Godhead was once for all revealed to men. Those who knew God the Father, who loved them and gave His own Son to die for them; and the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved them and delivered Himself up an offering and sacrifice for them; and the Spirit of Grace, who loved them and dwelt within them a power not themselves, making for righteousness, knew the Triune God and could not think or speak of God otherwise than as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity, in other words, is simply the modification wrought in the conception of the one only God by His complete revelation of Himself in the redemptive process. It necessarily waited, therefore, upon the completion of the redemptive process for its revelation, and its revelation, as necessarily, lay complete in the redemptive process.[23]

God has revealed Himself as Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity in His great redemptive work in time and in space!  It was the actualization of the Love of God in History, the Gospel itself, that God reveals Himself as He truly is and always was, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Gospel is the revelation of the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the revelation of this Triunity is coextensive with the Gospel.

This fact having been admitted, who is this God we meet with in Jesus Christ?  The eternally subordinate and submissive One?  Blasphemous! No, He is the true God indeed, that the saints of old had always known and worshipped, though the full revelation awaited His coming in the flesh.  That is, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ it is Jehovah Himself that is united in perfect personal union with the Human Nature of His fleshy creatures. This is the grandeur of the Gospel message.  When we read of Christ’s full divinity in the New Testament, we are not confronted with a subordinate person of the Godhead or one of lower rank. On the contrary, we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM’” (John 8:58). He is, in fact, the I Am that I Am who called Abraham and He who came to and saved the people of Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh.  He is the God characterized uniquely by His aseity, dependent on nothing and no one, having the source and continuance of His Being in His own Being.  Throughout the New Testament, ascriptions given to God alone in the Old Testament are quoted over and over and applied to Christ.

And thus we see the grandeur of the Gospel Message in the nearly impossible-to-comprehend condescension of the true God taking up the Servant role, taking upon Himself flesh and humbling Himself in obedience.  The Apostle Paul, calling Christians to likewise give up their rights and natural estates, writes the following:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is the profound greatness and revealed mystery of the Gospel, that one equal with God, one with God, and Himself the true God, voluntarily condescended, taking on the form of a servant through corruptible flesh, and became obedient, though it was not and is not His natural estate.  The Gospel message is not and cannot be that an eternally subordinate and submissive being became subordinate and submissive.  When God and man meet together in the Lord Jesus Christ, by union through the Holy Ghost, man meets with Him of Whom it was said in Psalm 45:6 (Heb. 1:8), “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom”, and He of Whom it was said,

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:11-13)

We must, to uphold the truth and majesty of the Gospel itself, confess with clarity that the mission of Christ was to become submissive—a role contrary to and not a simple corollary of His eternal Nature.  In a word, submission was the mission, not the cause of the mission.

  • “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

Indeed, we can and we must. But surely it is agreed that our Doctrine of God is the very heart of our Christian ethics, and therefore the truth or falsity of the ESS/EFS/ERAS position, impinging as it does on the ontological Nature of God and the very Gospel message itself, must have a bearing on our calling to love each other and foster unity.  And it most certainly does, for the example of Christ looms large in the Biblical authors’ framing of Christian ethics throughout the New Testament.  I will briefly explore just two of the many ramifications of this below.

First, take for example the Philippians passage noted above (in its wider context):

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

The clear point of this passage is that just as Christ, who was true God, with all the glory and majesty of God rightfully His, nevertheless gave it all up on behalf of His people, even to the point of obedience to a cursed and shameful death, so in like manner must we not regard our own supposed natural estates, looking to our own interests, but have the same mind of Christ, condescending to each other and treating others as more important than ourselves.  But what becomes of this call to Christ-likeness in unified love and lowliness of mind when we collapse the intended vast disparity between Christ in His eternal Majesty and Christ in His voluntary Servant form by claiming that Christ was always subordinate, submissive, and obedient?  Is the intended reading of the passage really, “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus, who having always and eternally been a subordinate Person of God by nature, nevertheless set aside this natural estate of obedience and submission in order to become obedient and submissive”? Would we not, with ESS/EFS/ERAS assumptions, empty Paul’s argument of its intended power? This passage and others like it are at the heart of Christian ethics and are the principle and exemplar upon which we as Christians build our unity in love.  We see a similar argument in Romans:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Rom. 15:1-3)

Again, the strong have to take up the burden of the weak, just as Christ, the infinitely strong, sought nevertheless not to please Himself but serve others.  Also, we see, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

To be clear, the principle of Christ-likeness in fostering love and unity among the people of God is powerfully enjoined upon us by the example of the One who is eternal God with all Power and Authority, submitting to no one, subject of no one, nevertheless breaching time and eternity to become submissive and obedient, contrary to His eternal Nature and rightful claim, all out of His infinite, condescending, love for His Creation.  We must do likewise.  ESS/EFS/ERAS renders this teaching impotent.

Next, and with the most notable ramifications, ESS/EFS/ERAS turns the principle of Christian rule and authority on its head.  1 Corinthians 11:3 has become one of the supposed foundational proof texts for the subordination of the Son to the Father, and from it is born, in their theology, an analogy of human authority and submission, specifically between husband and wife.  We have, e.g., from Grudem,

[…]in the relationship between man and woman in marriage we see also a picture of the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Paul says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Here, just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to that of God the Father and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood. And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity.[24]

Leaving aside the tortured interpretation and utter ahistorical nature of this reading of 1 Corinthians 11[25], we see that Grudem and nearly all ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents see in the passage an analogy: just as the Father and the Son are co-equal, yet the Son is eternally subordinate, so husband and wife are co-equal, yet the latter is subordinate to the former. Rather than unravel the whole of Grudem’s misreading here, for our present purposes I wish only to point out that there is, in fact, no analogy present in this passage! Paul does not say “as,” “just as,” “so as,” “in like manner,” or anything similar, even though Grudem attempts to supply them.  Further, if the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading were accepted, it would prove much more than they intend, for the passage runs that God is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man the head of woman. If man being the head of woman is analogous to God being the Head of Christ, then the middle term, Christ is the head of man, is also part of the analogy. Thus, if the purpose of the passage were to teach that just as Father/Son are co-equal, then man/woman are co-equal, then we must also conclude that the middle term shows that God and man are co-equal—an absurd and unacceptable conclusion.

But Paul does give an analogy of the husband and wife relationship elsewhere in his writings,

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:22-33)

Here, when Paul does actually give an analogy of the husband-wife relationship, he is explicit with “as to,” “even as,” “so also,” “as,” and the like.  But most important to our point here, we must note that when an analogy is given it is between husband and wife and Christ and His Church.  And how is this headship of Christ characterized in Ephesians 5?  In self-sacrificial love and service, as to the care of one’s very own body.  This is tremendously important, for in ESS/EFS/ERAS readings of 1 Corinthians 11, we have the exact opposite!  If we allow an analogy in 1 Corinthians 11:3, we see that the suffering Servant role of Christ toward God is the role of the wife to her husband.  That is, on their fallacious reading, the wife’s coequality is realized in her self-sacrificial servant role under the headship of her husband.  On the contrary, in Ephesians 5 we see the husband bearing the self-sacrificial role of loving service on behalf of his wife.  In the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading of 1 Corinthians 11, headship implies rule over the self-sacrificing servant wife; in Ephesians 5, where an actual and explicit analogy is present, headship implies self-sacrificing service on behalf of the wife.

The principle of rule and authority that ought to govern all relationships within the Church is found in the following:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

In seeking to put 1 Corinthians 11 in service of ESS/EFS/ERAS claims, contrary to the near entire history of interpretation of the passage, proponents have turned Biblical headship on its head.  This should not simply be seen as collateral damage, but itself an impediment “to getting back to loving each other and fostering unity.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] E.g., Glenn Butner, “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will” (http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-1/JETS_58-1_131-49_Butner.pdf); Mark Jones, “Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!” (https://newcitytimes.com/news/story/eternal-subordination-of-wills-nein)

[2] See Brad Mason, “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers” (https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/surprised-by-orthodoxy-responding-to-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-using-the-pro-nicene-fathers/)

[3] “Why did the Son become incarnate? Because he submitted?” (http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/1517/why-did-the-son-become-incarnate-because-he-submitted#.WA6bH-grKhc)

[4] See “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, the entirety of section 5.

[5] Oration 29.18 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310229.htm)

[6] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130102.htm

[7] “Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/07/04/knowing-the-self-revealed-god-who-is-father-son-and-holy-spirit/)

[8] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.C.2.b (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/trinity-wayne-grudem)

[9] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 76 (http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Biblical-Foundations-for-Manhood-and-Womanhood.pdf)

[10] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.B.6

[11] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[12] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[13] ibid., Ch. 14.C.2.b

[14] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 51

[15] ibid., pp. 234-235

[16] ibid., p. 242

[17] ibid., p. 245

[18] ibid., p. 51

[19] “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” (http://www.waynegrudem.com/biblical-evidence-for-the-eternal-submission-of-the-son-to-the-father-2012/)

[20] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.D.3

[21] Introduction

[22] https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_trinity.html

[23] ibid.

[24] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.E

[25] see for example Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Calvin on 1 Cor. 11:3 in, “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, 5.a., 5.e., 5.g., and 5.n (linked above), as well as John Gill here: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/1_corinthians/11.htm

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?