Bad debates over good theology

imagesWell, we’re at it again. Conservative evangelicals are all aflutter over a doctrinal debate that started when one member of our delicately (un)balanced brotherhood called out another over a doctrinal point that most Christians don’t understand. The two positions quickly congealed into “camps” that have done a fair amount of back and forth over how to answer the question, “what precisely is the nature of the eternal economic (i.e. functional) relationship between God the Father and God the Son? Or more specifically, “Is God the Son functionally submitted to God the Father in all eternity (i.e., before and after the incarnation)?” We’ve even created a new (as far as I know) acronym: EFS—Eternal Functional Subordination. If there’s an acronym for the Trueman/Goligher view, I’ve missed it.

I haven’t kept up on every step in the debate (see here or here for digests, both a bit out of date now). I learned about it when Grudem posted his initial reply to Goligher. I’ve dipped into it periodically over the last few weeks, in each instance hoping I would read that the hullabaloo had died down only to learn that it was intensifying. As I’ve watched from a safe distance, I’ve seen an example of a dynamic that has grieved me for years: that of drawing battle lines in front of theological formulations that are the result of speculative theologizing and not conclusively presented in Scripture (i.e., the more or less unavoidable result of good exegesis). As a student and teacher of theology I have three main observations about this dynamic.

#1: the heresy distortion

This has been articulated already by Al Mohler: debates like this one, when one Christian suggests that another is not orthodox because that other holds one finely-tuned speculative systematic theological formulation instead of another finely-tuned speculative systematic theological formulation, tend to obscure real matters of orthodoxy and heresy. Mohler’s post is more than adequate to express my frustration on this point, so I won’t go any further with it here.

#2: The fruitfulness test

My second concern is that this debate does not pass what I might call the “fruitfulness test.” Our theologizing must bear the fruit of worshiping, walking, and working. As we study Scripture and history seeking to better understand God’s self-revelation, we will embody this learning in a life of worshiping Christ, imitating Christ, and serving Christ. To quote William Ames, theology is “the science of living unto God.” If this is not the case, then doctrine is empty affirmation of abstract concepts and cannot glorify God, which is the purpose of all of life.

But this is not to say that the EFS conversation itself is out of bounds. Careful theology has always included exploring questions that go beyond the actual words of Scripture—this is how the church has managed to articulate and defend the doctrine of the Trinity itself, for example. But the farther we go beyond the words of Scripture, the less sure our footing. I believe the debate over EFS takes us into territory that is sufficiently speculative that we must hold our conclusion with an open hand, and we must find our unity (and trinitarian orthodoxy) in what Scripture articulates more clearly, for those are the doctrines that will actually issue forth in fruitfulness. For me the bottom line is here: I don’t think that one’s commitment to EFS or its opposite will result in a more faithful or fruitful life. Let’s have the conversation and explore together, but let’s do theology in such a way that godliness increases among us.

#3: The goodness of tension

Debates like this bring out the tensions in our theology because they begin with ideas that are more clear in Scripture and build speculatively toward those that are unclear (or absent). In the present debate, both views highlight truths that we must affirm. The eternal functional subordination view emphasizes that the Son perfectly carries out the will of the Father. It extols the glory of the Savior in the entire economy of salvation. It lauds the absolute economic harmony of the eternal triune Persons. The opposing view, on the other hand, wants to emphasize the oneness of God that is “behind” all this, the single essence of the God who is yet three Persons. To exalt the uniqueness of the incarnation and avoid any appearance of affirming tritheism as a result. These are truths that (we agree) Scripture proclaims loud and clear, yet without tying them up into a neat systematic formulation for us. We need to affirm the truths enthusiastically while holding the systematic formulations with an open hand. In other words, we need to accept that there may not be a right answer available for some of the questions we ask.

That leads me to another observation: like it or not, as we articulate biblical teaching we sometimes say things that we do not fully understand, or that we know (or should know) cannot be explained fully in creational terms. We should not be surprised at this problem, for we are finite (and fallen!) creatures trying to understand the Infinite One. And it is particularly the case when we affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Here is a deeply mysterious truth that Scripture compels us to affirm, even though “three persons in one essence” challenges our ability to conceptualize. Why else would there be so much related debate in the history of the church?

UnknownThis is what it means to have healthy tensions in our theology. We need these theological explorations (again, I’m not saying they should all just shut up and love Jesus more). What we do not need is the divisions that are created when we draw battle lines along speculative formulations that cannot be demonstrated conclusively from Scripture. Eternal functional subordination? There are hints of it. Incarnational subordination? I see your point. Eternal generation? There are verses that demand close scrutiny and deeply historical formulations that have commanded the respect of the church catholic since the fourth century. But there are also real objections to be lodged against each. That’s why there are still debates.

So for now, here’s my approach—maybe it will help you: I will resolve to accept the push and pull of both sides in debates like this one, resulting in tensions that I will be content to maintain in awe and wonder as the conversation continues. But I will not call one side heresy and the other orthodoxy. By God’s grace, I will commit myself to theology that bears real fruit. And I will accept my place as broken creature who cannot fully grasp some of the glorious truths I wholeheartedly affirm. I will try to learn from both the Grudems and the Truemans, knowing full well that they also speak better than they understand. And I’ll attempt to hold the tensions among truths I am compelled to affirm while I await better understanding, here or hereafter.

  • Dr. Dennis Swanson

    Well said. There seems to be a tendency on the part of some to remove all tension in theological formulations and to do so is impossible. I like the illustration of walking the tightrope falling off on either side will land you somewhere you don’t really want to be. I sincerely hope this debate isn’t a prelude to another series of witch hunts at ETS (where we narrowly added the trinitarian affirmation several years ago, but solely for the purpose of keeping cultists out of the society). I guess I may be cynical (well, I know I am) but I see no functional purpose or positive outcome in the debate as it is currently framed. This seems to be more of a battle enjoined by the Truly Reformed against the Reformed or reformed 😉

    • Andy Snider

      It would be refreshing to hear someone say, “you know, we’re asking a question that God hasn’t answered. Let’s move on.” I can’t imagine this could get enough traction to cause exclusion battles in ETS. I mean, that would be the height of irony after the open theism craziness.

      • Jason

        If only I could have one of my theo 1 papers back . . . 😉

      • Dr. Dennis Swanson

        I sincerely hope not. I recall all of those meetings. At the the final showdown I voted not to expel Pinnock, mainly because he got up for his allowed time, was humble, admitted some flaws and said if he had the time (he didn’t he died not long after) he would reword The Scripture Principle considerably. Did he abandoned open theism? Not that I saw, but that wasn’t part of the ETS doctrinal statement, and I chose to go with what I heard him actually say at a point in time and in my view he affirmed inerrancy. Now, I did vote to expel Boyd. His presentation was almost the polar opposite of Pinnock, he basically said Pfui, I’m leaving anyway, so I obliged him. Funny story, the next day outside the hotel we were using that year I found his wallet laying on the sidewalk. I walked into the hotel where he was frantically trying to check out, but had no money, cards, or ID. I handed it to him, and though thoroughly tempted I resisted saying something about the sovereignty of God 😉

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