On Trinitarian Controversy: Why It’s Not Always Terrible and How to Go About It


I think I see Carl Trueman over there in the yellow.

If you’ve been following the theology blogosphere in Reformed circles over the last week or so, you’ll know there’s been a bit of a dust-up over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Multiple posts from a number of parties, both insiders as well as interested outsiders, have weighed in and things don’t seem to be slowing down.

Things are getting downright 4th Century out there.

Briefly, the controversy is over a piece of teaching that’s been labeled “Eternal Functional Subordinationism.” Essentially, its advocates hold that much as we see the Son submitting to the Father in his historical, incarnate work as the Godman, it is appropriate to speak of the Son submitting, subordinating himself to, or obeying his Father in the eternal being of God. For this, they usually appeal to any number of texts in the Gospels and especially 1 Cor 11:3.

Now, some who advocate this position have done so while simultaneously rejecting the historic doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son. Others (more modestly) see it as a constructive, admissible development of that same doctrine. (As a side-note, I think that distinction is important).

Its critics have charged multiple things: first, it’s not Biblical; second, it’s not consistent with historic, Nicene Orthodoxy; third, it threatens the honor the Son, introducing hierarchy in the Trinity; fourth, it does goofy things to the doctrine of God’s will, the persons, and must slide into a form of social trinitarianism. Obviously, these charges apply more or less to more or less radical versions of the doctrine.

My point here is not to weigh in substantially on the various, complex issues involved. Actual theologians on both sides are doing that forcefully and clearly enough. (Though, for the record, I’m not an EFS guy and I’m very adamant about Eternal Generation. While some advocates are better than others, about the furthest I think I’m comfortable going down these lines currently is to speak of the filiality [sonliness] of the eternally-generated Son involving a proper secondariness, which works itself out in history in his faithful obedience.)

No, what I really want to do is put in a quick, good word for this sort of argument happening publicly around this issue.

On the Good of Trinitiarian Controversy

As this thing has started to kick off, there has been an understandable amount of hand-wringing. For one thing, some of the initial volleys seem to have been made with less than moderate care for language. Second, the doctrine has been taught by well-respected Evangelical theologians for some time, and academic arguments around it have been around for a while, so the outburst online seems to have taken some off-guard.

More generally, though, I’ve seen some confusion as to why all this sort of thing even matters. Isn’t the Trinity an incomprehensible mystery anyways? And isn’t all this so much logic-chopping, trying to fit God in a tight little box, instead of simply worshiping him? What does this sort of thing do for our communion with God, anyways? All it seems to do is stir up and bolster fleshly passion under the guise of questing for spiritual truth.

It’s true that sometimes these theological arguments can turn into so much fleshly posturing. There is such a thing known as “theological odium” that can be stirred up. But I don’t think that needs to be the whole of it.

Instead, I would suggest that these kinds of questions often assume an anti-intellectualist pragmatism that is all-too-common in popular, American Evangelicalism. Second, they also assume a kind of skepticism about God’s self-revelation that initially sounds like a healthy humility before the mysteries of God, but which I would suggest can be hiding a theological laziness that wants to excuse itself from listening carefully and attentively to the divine address of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. Such intellectual lethargy is directly contrary to the Father’s desire for worshipers who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24).

Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Levering nicely suggests for us why this requires that we delve into the technicalities of Trinitarian theology:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

In this light, I want to suggest three hoped-for outcomes for this theological dust-up about the Trinity.

1. Theological Study. First, my hope (and one that I think I have already begun to witness), is that—however it began—this sort of controversy would provoke a greater interest in studying reality of our Triune God among the teachers and preachers of the Evangelical Church. I think that’s already been increasing—there are any number of top-flight Trinitarian theologians in the Evangelical academy. Heck, the Trinity is the thematic topic for ETS 2016.

All the same, what is still needed is a sense among the pastorate that Trinitarian theology is not just something you learn in seminary in your Systematics 101 course and then dust off from time to time. It’s the bread and butter of what you do. Pastors, you are not primarily organizers, CEOs, psychologists, or event-coordinators—you are the public theologians of the respective congregations you’ve been called to.

2. Theological Preaching. Second, it’s fine to have pastors who can parse the processions of Son and Spirit with the pros, but it doesn’t do much good if none of this is making it past the pulpit into the pews. What I mean is that theological study becomes intellectual esoterica if doesn’t bleed into our regular proclamation of the Gospel as the good news of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Spirit to reclaim his creation, or, of the sanctifying Spirit who we receive by faith in Christ, who then conforms us to the image of the Son to the glory of God the Father. And so on and so forth.

Basically, when you scan over Romans 8, or Ephesians 1, or the Gospel of John, or pretty much any text in the New Testament (and the Old…), you should regularly be tripping over implications and applications. And our sermons should be reflecting that. In that sense, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday.

3. Focus on the Great Things of the Gospel. Third—and this is something of a corollary of the other two—I hope it turns our attention, at least for a short time, from the regular sorts of trivialities, gimmicks, and ten-second controversies about this or that tweet, towards our God and the great things of the Gospel.

In other words, I hope all this online warfare points us toward deeper reflection that leads to offline worship and wonder at the God who exists marvelously, ineffably, transcendently, and resplendently as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is something centering, something reorienting and sanctifying about having our meditations, our energies and passions, direction towards the ultimate reality at the center of all things.

On the Good Conduct of Trinitarian Controversy

I had intended to wrap things up here, but instead, I thought I’d also offer a few words, not only the good of Trinitarian controversy, but also on the “good conduct” of such controversies. Since I am not always great this myself, I picked up John Webster’s little essay, “Theology and the Peace of the Church” in The Domain of the Word.

Towards the end of the essay, Webster asks:

What, finally, of the conduct of theological controversy in the peaceful kingdom of Christ? Just as the church does not know after the fashion of the world, so the church does not dispute after the fashion of the world from whose eyes are hidden the things that make for peace (Lk. 19.42). Why the difference? Because the church does know what makes for peace.

And so he offers five principles for theological controversy within the church:

1. “First, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum .” Essentially, in Christ, we are sanctified and so our speech and motives reflect that reality, especially as we recall that “the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion.” It is not simply to win, to prove wrong, or score points—the goal is the health of Christ’s church.

2. “Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content is peace.” More simply, remember that you’re arguing about and towards a reality outside yourselves—the Triune God of peace. This should not become a mere contest of personalities, but should be aimed at right worship.

3. “Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity.” Of course, there are differences so large that sometimes the controversy is no longer within but about the church, but nonetheless, we must keep in mind that we are likely striving over a common object of love and that this love does unite us.

4. “Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make.” Essentially, God is infinite. And so while this doesn’t mean that we can’t get specific, and that he doesn’t have a determinate nature, we should still be careful to resist the notion that we can’t continue to learn and grow in our knowledge of him even from our opponents.

5. “Fifth, most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture.” Webster’s not advocating a bare Biblicism here, but warning against the kind of skeptical, naturalistic, pragmatism that leads us to throw our hands up in controversies of this sort. Jesus has taught his church through Scripture by the Spirit and he will continue to do so.

With principles like these in mind, then, I don’t think we should be dismayed if such controversies continue. Instead, let us pray that we grow deeper in our knowledge and love of our God who is blessedly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria