It’s vital to talk about motivation in the debate about ‘Eternal Submission of the Son’ (ESS Part 1)
Go here to read Part 2 of this series on ESS.
I believe Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and quite a few others are so in love with their idea of gender roles that their Roles Ideology has become the lens through which they are apprehending the relations between the Persons of the Trinity. They are reasoning from the creature up to the Creator Godhead and back down again, ….with the result being a mess of pottage.
I believe their Husband Authority / Wife Submit lenses are fixed so firmly on their noses that they are imagining they can see Authority and Submission in the eternal relations of the Trinity. They are asserting the Primacy of the Father and the Eternal Submission of the Son (father-son) … and then they are mapping that assertion back downwards, not to father-son, but to man-woman and to husband-wife.
But it is a defective circular argument based on selective perception. Prejudiced perception. They deny that they are making a circular argument. They deny that they are arguing this way in order to push a particular social agenda (complementarianism) — but I don’t believe them. I think they know, deep in their hearts, that they are doing it. And they don’t want to admit it.
I believe they would like to keep women and wives in the position of children. I believe they are intent on not respecting women as adults. I believe they want to de-voice women, to marginalise them and keep them out of the important conversations.
I believe Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware do not want to have to accord the same degree of respect to women that they accord to men. Putting this another way, I believe they do not want to give up their male privilege. I believe they are fighting to maintain their male privilege. “Fighting” is not too harsh a word for it, in my opinion.
Why am I saying this with such passion? Why now? In the last week there has been a giant boil-up on the web about a doctrine called “the eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS). This doctrine is being promoted by well known leaders: Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Denny Burke, Owen Strachan and others. Some other well known leaders have called it out as dangerous doctrine. The protagonists, and many of their opponents, are from the complementarian camp.
By the way, the doctrine of the Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS) is also known by other names: Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), and Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). I am using the term ESS.
The ESS doctrine in a nutshell:
The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been…There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission (Strachan and Peacock, The Grand Design).
I hold to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. (Wayne Grudem)
Notice that the Father elects us in the Son (Eph. 1:4-5), creates the world through the Son (John 1:2, 1 Cor. 8:6, Heb. 1:2), sends the Son into the world (John 3:16), and delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27), while the Son after his Ascension sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35), receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33), makes intercession before the Father (Heb. 7:25), receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev. 1:1), and will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28). Again, not one of these relationships is ever reversed – the Son does not elect us in the Father, does not create the world through the Father, does not send the Father into the world, does not delegate judgment to the Father, nor does the Father sit at the right hand of the Son, or bring intercessory prayers to the Son, or receive revelation from the Son to give to the church, or become eternally subject to the Son.
We agree that the actions of any one divine person involve the other Trinitarian persons in corresponding ways. But whenever Scripture specifies actions that occur between two or more members of the Trinity, the position of greater authority is always held by the Father, while the position of submission to that authority is always held by the Son and the Spirit. This principle is simply inviolable in Scripture.
Here is another summary of ESS. This one uses more theological terms.
The claim under debate is essentially this: There is within the life of God (and not strictly in the economy) an eternal relationship, or structure, of authority and submission. The Son shares the essence of God the Father and so is not ontologically subordinate to the Father, but the Son is functionally so. (source)
Proponents of ESS are using key terms. I would call these ‘code words’. I’ll give you those terms in capital letters here to help you embed them in your brains, dear reader. The terms are:
- Eternal Authority of the Father
- Eternal Primacy of the Father
- Eternal Submission (or Subordination) of the Son
- Eternal Functional Submission of the Son
Now, we all know that the Son submitted to the Father in the incarnation and the work of redemption. That’s not in dispute. All sides of this debate also affirm that the plan of redemption was decided upon in the secret counsel of the Godhead in Eternity, before time began. Classic trinitarian theology says that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The point at issue is: can we take those truths and start using language like The Eternal Authority (or Primacy) of the Father, and The Eternal Submission of the Son? What’s with that kind of language? Is it safe? Is it wise? Is it helpful? Is it orthodox? Is it dangerously pushing the envelope towards Arianism? (an ancient heresy).
Heavyweight theologians have weighed in. I’ll give you links at the end of this post if you want to dig in to the theology and the debate.
But the main reason for this post today is to make the case that it is vital to talk about motivation in this debate.
It is vital to talk about motivation in this debate
Why do I need to say this? Because some people are trying to shut down all talk about the motivations of the participants. I believe we MUST talk about motivation or else we will not be able to pop the boil fully. It will go underground and fester again.
Carl Trueman has noted that in some quarters, the ERAS debate has moved to ascribing motivation to the protagonists and besmirching their character. He said:
My basic point remains: if you argue for EFS and/or reject (or even regard as negotiable) eternal generation, then you stand outside the bounds of the historic Nicene Christian faith as set forth at Constantinople in 381 and held thereafter by the church catholic. I understand that many hold these views sincerely, without realizing the historical/theological/creedal implications; but my point has been confirmed by both Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres. The argument on that issue really is now closed, which may – if I might speculate a little myself — explain why the polemic has now apparently moved in some quarters to character and motivation. (Carl Trueman, Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism – boldface mine)
Yes; the polemic has moved in some quarters to character and motivation.
The site where Trueman’s post are published, Alliancenet, has closed down comments on posts. I’m guessing that they closed comments because the commenters started talking about character and motivation. In particular, yours truly. Alliancenet published three of my comments at Dr. Liam Goligher Responds to Dr. Mike Ovey. But my next three comments there never saw the light of day. In those comments I had raised serious issues about the motivation of Grudem and Ware. Bam. Shut down. Pretty much straight after I’d submitted those three comments, Alliancenet seemed to have closed comments on all their posts to do with this debate.
UPDATE: (~ 1600 hrs, 19 June, 2016, Pacific Time USA)
I misconstrued. My three comments that didn’t go live at that post were not published because they included one or more links. Thanks to Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd for tipping me off the comments had not been closed. I misconstrued; I ought to have double checked. I really appreciate Aimee for allowing comments on her Mortification of Spin posts. I wish Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt would follow suit with Aimee. I have now submitted a couple more comments at that post and they have gone live. Bless you, Aimee!
Five points about motivation
For the remainder of this post, which is Part 1 of a series, I am going to make five points about motivation. Tomorrow, I will go into more detail about what I think is motivating Grudem and Ware and their mob in this debate. (In Aussie slang, ‘mob’ is not pejorative, it’s just a casual term for a group of people, so be gentle on me.)
Firstly, is it biblical to ascribe motives to people? The canons of niceness in the church say that it isn’t. But most assuredly it is, if you have reasonable evidence or grounds to do so. In Acts 8, Peter ascribed motives of greed and love of power to Simon the Sorcerer. In Matthew 23, Jesus ascribed motives to the Pharisees — The motive of pride and self-conceit: They do all their deeds to be seen by others. The motive of covering up their wickedness under a guise of godliness: … you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Secondly, the motivation of the protagonists should not be off limits in this debate because they may in fact be central to the debate. I believe motivation is the bed from which the whole theology of ERAS, as propounded by Ware, Grudem and Strachan, has grown. It is vital to consider motivation if we are to understand the root of this tree, the real problem that has brought this all about.
Thirdly, both Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher (who are key objectors to ESS) have made inferences about the motivation of Ware and Grudem. Here are some examples:
The leaders of the organizations which represent New Calvinism have weathered storm after storm, from Driscollgate onwards, by maintaining a firm grip on the mainstream New Calvinist media, by licensing just enough criticism to reassure concerned onlookers, and by stoic public silence in the face of numerous scandals and controversies. But this one is surely too big and the stakes are too high. It has to be addressed. (Carl Trueman Fahreheit 381)
This is true. And Carl Trueman is implying something about these leaders’ motives: he’s inferring that they are motivated by a desire to control the conversation. The words “firm grip” tell us that.
They are building their case by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions. Out of that redefinition of God their teaching is being used to promote a new way of looking at human relationships which is more like Islam than Christianity; more concerned with control and governance than with understanding the nuances of the relationship of the Son with His Father in eternity on the one hand and how that differs from the roles they adopt in the economy of redemption on the other. (Liam Goligher, Is it okay to teach a complementarianism based on eternal subordination?)
Goligher is ascribing motives to Ware and Grudem by using this language: “Doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to“. Goligher is suggesting that Ware and Grudem have been behaving in an underhand, secretive way, with dubious motives.
And Goligher gets even more pointed here: “[Their] redefinition of God … is being used to promote a new way of looking at human relationships which is more like Islam than Christianity; more concerned with control and governance than with understanding the nuances of the relationship of the Son with His Father in eternity…” In this passage, Goligher is pointing (rightly, I believe) to Grudem and Ware’s motivation. He’s asserting that Grudem and Ware are deliberately promoting their ERAS doctrine for an agenda, an agenda that is driven by a love of control. Being in control. Governing the home and the church and the doctrines of the church. I’m spelling it out more than Goligher did, but what I’m pointing out bluntly, is what Goligher is pointing out less bluntly. (I’m not bound by the canons of niceness. If the Emperor has no clothes, I will say it out loud.)
While we were sleeping, feeling secure that they were not tampering with the glory of the gospel, they were in fact tampering with the glory of the eternal Son of God!
The church long ago rejected any form of primacy of the Father within the eternal Trinity, though there were some among the fathers who wanted to assert primacy to justify bishops in the church, just as there are some among evangelicals who want to assert primacy to justify patriarchy in the home and beyond.
What we face in evangelicalism today is at best shoddy thinking and at worst ungodly thinking about the first principle of our religion – “Who is God?” The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ’s church. Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake – our own and our hearers’ eternal destiny. To say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry. (Liam Goligher, Reinventing God )
With his words, “[they] want to assert primacy to justify patriarchy in the home and beyond,” Goligher is ascribing motivation to Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Goligher is making a clear assertion: that ERAS people want to assert X in order to justify Y. That Grudem and Ware want to assert the Eternal Primacy of the Father and the Eternal Subordination of the Son in order to justify patriarchy in the home and beyond. ‘Want’ implies desire, motive.
And when Goligher says “they were in fact tampering with the glory of the eternal Son of God!” the word ‘tampering’ is pejorative (rightly so!) and it suggests a dark motive.
~~~ UPDATE (as per above update) Now that I realise I had misconstrued in thinking that all comments had been closed on Housewife Theologian, my fourth point no longer has the weight I originally gave it. But because I believe in ethical journalism, I am leaving it as originally written.~~~
Fourthly, why is it okay for Alliancenet to publish Goligher and Trueman’s inferences about Ware and Grudem’s motives, but shut down comments when people like me start saying things about the motivation of Ware and Grudem? And why is it okay for Carl Trueman to make inferences about motivation, but raise his eyebrows when others make inferences about motivation?
Come on guys! Is it okay to ask for a level playing field? Is it okay to ask for some respect?
There is motivation in deciding to block comments although comments had been allowed originally (as Alliancenet has done). There is motivation in never allowing comments. (CBMW, TCG and Reformation21 never allow comments). I know that there could be many reasons why the site owners don’t allow comments, not least of which is how much time it take to moderate them. But still…. Not allowing comments keeps some genuine Christians out of the debating room, and that is not wise if it seriously impacts the health of the body of Christ. Which in this case, it does. (see here if you want proof)
I think Goligher has correctly pinpointed the motivation of Grudem and Ware and their ilk. I think Trueman has correctly pointed to their motivation too, though less pointedly than Goligher. But why does Alliancenet then block commenters like me who can amplify — and give documentary backup — to the points that Goligher and Trueman are making about Grudem and Ware’s motivation? ( I will be giving that documentary backup later this week, but you if you want to see it right way, I posted most of it at Wendy Alsup’s blog here.)
Fifthly, since I’m arguing that motivation IS important in this debate, let me state my own motivation lest it be misconstrued.
Carl Trueman has been challenged about his motivation. In Carl’s post Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism he defended himself (in part) by saying this:
I am not motivated by any ecclesiological, let alone feminist, purpose. I am motivated by a desire to see bad teaching corrected so that both this generation and future generations will be saved from some of the erroneous positions of the past.
I say the exact same thing for myself as Carl said. I am not motivated by any ecclesiological purpose; I do not partake in the debate for or against women’s ordination. I have never engaged in that controversy. It doesn’t interest me. I think that debate has been missing many of the most important things. And the word ‘feminist’ is used in so many ways by people (on both sides, multiple sides…) that I step aside from labelling myself one way or the other there.
I am motivated by a desire to see bad teaching corrected so that both this generation and future generations will be saved from some of the erroneous positions of the past. And I am motivated by a desire for justice and truth, and a desire to bring release to the captives and the oppressed.
Specifically, I desire to see justice and truth applied in the church to victims of abuse — spouse abuse, child abuse, spiritual abuse, psychological abuse. My own work focuses on domestic abuse (spouse abuse) but domestic abuse overlaps with those other kinds of abuse. Often all kinds of abuse co-occur as the victim seeks help by disclosing to the church and to counselors … and if the victim divorces, there is often legal abuse via the courts. (Family Court processes and rulings not uncommonly give fathers more scope to abuse their children.) It’s systemic abuse really, a tightly structured system of webs which bind the victim/survivor.
Any doctrine which compounds this systemic web of entrapment for the victims of abuse is a doctrine I will criticise. ERAS is one such doctrine But I’m not doing this from an agenda of feminism or women’s ordination: I’m doing this because I believe in according respect to the victims of injustice and oppression.
I want to see respect shown to the abused, and I want the perpetrators and their allies to be exposed and called out. That will bring truth and justice. Sometimes the abuser’s allies are witting; sometimes they may be unwittingly condoning the abusers’ agendas. I challenge both the witting and the unwitting. Wherever a person or an organization falls on the spectrum, from tacit silent acceptance of the abusers’ ideas and conduct, right through to witting defence of the abusers and witting crushing of victims: I will point it all out.
Respect means giving the abused oxygen, giving them a place to speak, giving them a level playing field from which to speak into the communal conversation.
And that is NOT what is being given to victims of abuse at the moment.
Coming up tomorrow: The ceiling came down, so it’s time to inspect the whole building. (ESS Part 2)
Posts in this ESS series
Part 1: Is this post.
Part 5: An open letter to Wayne Grudem
Quick guides to the debate:
Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War
Further reading for the dedicated!
I have noted in red in this list the posts that are still open to comments. I encourage readers to comment on those posts, so that our point(s) of view can receive more oxygen. [March, 2021: We have not checked to see if these posts are still open to comments. Editors.]
Items that I have added to this list since the post was published are marked NEW. [March, 2021: The NEW label was removed. Editors.]
Adam Parker has compiled a timeline compendium of many (but not all) contributions to the debate:
Trinity Controversy Omnibus
Jack Jeffery’s timeline bibliography:
Fourteenth updated edition of The 2016 Trinity Debate: A Bibliography — Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?
[Note added 7 Oct 2016: I think may be the only bibliography which is still being updated.]
From the ESS camp
Note: the ERAS camp is not completely homogenous — some people in it are not arguing exactly the same way as Grudem and Ware are.
Bruce Ware and John Starke (Editors):
One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life
The Glorious Godhead and Proto-Arian Bulls
Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock:
The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them
A brief response to Trueman and Goligher
Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility
Should I resign? [This link is broken and there is no replacement. The article, however, was published in Credo Magazine (see the link below). Editors.]
Should I resign? On the Eternal Subordination of the Son [Credo Magazine article, which first appeared on the Oak Hills College blog (see the link above). Editors.]
Are We All Heretics Now? Reflections on the Furore About Eternal Subordination Within the Trinity [This article might take a little time to load. Editors.]
From complementarians who are objecting to ESS
Note: Since it’s Grudem and Ware’s version of ERAS that is causing most discomfort, I’m placing in this group all those who seem uncomfortable with Ware and Grudem’s version.
A Guest Post [from John Calvin]
A surrejoinder to Bruce Ware
Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism
Once more unto the breach… and then no more: A final reply to Dr. Grudem
Rachel Miller on CBMW and EFS / ERAS
The Ecumenical Consequences of the Peace
A Plea to CBMW
Michel R Barnes:
Patristics Scholar Michel R. Barnes Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate on the Trinity — this post is open to comments
Patristics Scholar Lewis Ayres Weighs in on the Intra-Complementarian Debate — this post is open to comments
A Guest Post by Carlton Wynne
The eternal subordination of the Son (and women?) — this post is open to comments
Why did the Son become incarnate? Because he submitted?
God’s Will And Eternal Submission, Part One — this post is open to comments
Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein! Part Two — this post is open to comments
Subordination in the Pactum? (And the irony of ESS) — this post is open to comments
Wayne Grudem’s Historical Theology Analyzed — this post is open to comments
Propositions on God and Questions (for Fred Sanders) on the Trinity
Alistair Roberts series on EFS:
The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Debate so Far
The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Survey of Some Relevant Material
The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Subordination
The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Need for Trinitarian Clarity
The Eternal Subordination of the Son: The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)
From “Goldilocks” complementarians (neither hot nor cold on ESS)
Better late than never: The Covenant of Redemption and the Trinity Debates — this post is open to comments
From egalitarians who are objecting to ESS:
Reflections on A New Defence of Complementarianism — this post is open to comments
Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate — this post is open to comments
What Is the Immanent Trinity? A Clarification for the Eternal Subordination Debate — this post is open to comments
Is it New? Yes. Is it Orthodox? No.
Dee from The Wartburg Watch:
The Battle for the Eternal Subordination of Women Disguised as a Disagreement on the Functional Roles of the Trinity