Sabellianism. Arianism. Biblical authority vs. Greek philosophy. Four evangelical scholars delivered charges and counter-charges over the Trinity during an October 9 debate before about 450 people at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). The seminary's Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding hosted a four-man debate over the question: Do relations of authority and submission exist eternally among the persons of the Godhead?
Questions over the Trinity involve complex metaphysical matters and careful interpretation of biblical texts. Though the Trinity is undeniably crucial to Christianity's unique religious identity, church members do not always see how the doctrine relates to faith and practice. Yet the early church labored feverishly over the doctrine for centuries, with orthodoxy itself at stake in councils at Nicaea, Chalcedon, and elsewhere. Today, debates over whether the Son submits eternally to the Father have been wrapped up with questions of authority and submission between men and women, resulting in a flurry of scholarly exchange. Gender roles did not emerge as a factor Thursday night, but that did not discourage vigorous, high-stakes debate.
Former TEDS systematic theology professors Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware returned to the suburban Chicago seminary and argued the affirmative: relations of authority and submission do indeed exist among the persons of the Godhead. They pointed to a number of biblical texts that show that while the Son dwelt among us, he submitted to his heavenly Father. This was not the point of disagreement, however, so Grudem cited additional passages, arguing that they suggest the Son has submitted from eternity past and will submit for eternity future. He turned to Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29, and John 1:14 to argue: "The role of planning, purposing, predestining — the entire history of salvation — belongs to the Father, according to Scripture. There is no hint of any such authority for the Son with respect to the Father."
John 3:16 ("God gave his only Son") reinforces this view, Grudem said. "If one sends and the other is sent, then one commands and the other obeys," said the Phoenix Seminary professor. "Yes, the Son represents the Father, but to be sent by the Father is also to be subject to the Father's authority." Grudem explained that the very terms for Father and Son would have implied authority and submission in the biblical world. Ware, currently a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Grudem and marshaled quotes from Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and numerous other theologians to support their case.
Tom McCall, a current TEDS systematic theology professor, teamed up with Keith Yandell, philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to offer a different position. "There are no good reasons for orthodox Christians to hold to the position advocated by Drs. Ware and Grudem," McCall began, " and there are very good reasons for orthodox Christians to reject their account." He explained that both sides uphold biblical authority, both sides employ philosophical categories for understanding the Bible, and both sides can quote Bible verses. The key is which side can interpret Scripture correctly.
McCall took issue with a statement from Grudem's book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth in which he argues, "If the Father also submitted to the authority of the Son, it would destroy the Trinity, because there would be no Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only Person A, Person A, and Person A." That view would be Sabellianism, also known as modalism — the heretical view that the one God appears to humans in three modes, not three distinct persons. Defending himself against possible charges of heresy, McCall said we may affirm that there are distinctions within the Godhead even if we don't know what they are.
McCall also challenged Grudem and Ware's interpretation of passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:28, which they believe teach the Son's eternal subordination. Here Paul states, "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all." McCall pointed out that Paul does not explain how long this subordination will last. Certainly we may not conclude from this verse, McCall argued, that Christ's subordination is "timelessly eternal or backwardly everlasting." More importantly, McCall said, "It only tells us of what is and will be — it does not tell us what must be!"
Yandell backed McCall's argument with a series of philosophical proofs. He contended that Ware and Grudem held doctrine that cannot be argued exegetically from any biblical text. He worked toward a climax that argued Ware and Grudem's view of subordination actually undermines the Trinity with a form of Arian heresy, though he did not employ that loaded term. The Arians, defeated by Athanasius at Nicaea in the fourth century, believed that Jesus was created a little lower than the Father. In Ware and Grudem's view, Yandell said, "The Son has as an essential property being subordinate to the Father and of course the Father lacks that property. So the Father has an essential property — a property that is part of the Father's nature — that the Son does not have as part of the Son's nature, and the Son has an essential property — a property that is part of the Son's nature — that the Father does not have as part of the Father's nature. This entails that the Father and the Son do not share the same nature after all."
Both sides employed technical, nuanced arguments derived from Scripture with help from philosophy. Subsequent responses between the two sides brought greater clarity to the perspectives that separate them. Ware and Grudem argued that in the economic Trinity of the Bible (the three persons as seen in the outworking of the "economy" of salvation) we see the relations between the three as they always have been and will be. But Yandell countered that what sounds biblical from Ware and Grudem actually comes through a filter of Greek philosophy that obscures the meaning of the Incarnation and Pentecost.
Yet the crowd, which filled the TEDS chapel nearly to capacity, hung on the scholars' words for two and a half hours. Yandell shared that his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin would regard this debate as pointless, like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So would many evangelicals, I suspect. But as the evening progressed, the intensity of discussion reminded us why the early church fought with such prolonged fervor over the Trinity. What could be more exciting and more important than sharpening each other's understanding of the nature of God?
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author ofYoung, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Update: This is Wayne Grudem's response to "Anathemas All Around."
Thank you for the factual summary of the debate, which included the main arguments on both sides. But the word "anathemas" in the title gave entirely the wrong impression of a debate that was marked by a gracious tone on both sides and friendly personal interaction before and after.
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Grudem and Ware have a Q&A on the issue at the website for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (which has several other articles on Trinity debate). Ware has a related article at The Resurgence website.
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.