Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fahrenheit 381

A cold war over complementarianism recently became a hot war. I think both sides are wrong in different ways. For convenience, I'll use this post as a frame of reference:

Frankly, as Liam points out, we need to keep our issues with the earthly politics of gender out of our reflections upon the eternal being of God…And when it comes to submission in scripture, the explicit New Testament model for such in marriage is the relationship of the incarnate, crucified Christ and the church, not that of the Father and Son in eternity. Paul’s choice of analogy would seem most significant.

I agree with that. As I've often argued, it's a mistake for some complementarians to ground their position in the Trinity. 

Because we live at a time when good teaching on the differences between men and women is needed more than at any previous moment in history, it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity.  

i) We might distinguish between the maximal complementarianism of John Piper (to take one example) and the minimal complementarianism of Trueman. As I've explained before, I think Piper's blueprint complementarianism is sometimes arbitrary and painfully self-conscious. 

ii) However, Trueman's minimal complementarianism, which–from what I've read–is confined to the church and the family, while avoiding and evading the implications of biblical manhood and womanhood outside the church and the family, is an exercise in intellectual cowardice. It's an artificially compartmentalized position that refuses to grapple with attacks on gender binaries and heteronormativity by feminism and transgenderism in the military, the workplace, public education, &c. 

iii) In addition, from what I've read, Trueman constantly evokes the bugbear of Kuperian transformationism as his foil, as though that's the only version of social conservativism which Christian Americans espouse. But I daresay most Christian conservatives aren't advocating anything nearly that ambitious. Their position isn't about using political activism to transform the culture. Rather, theirs is a modest retrenchment about preserving or restoring some traditional moral and political norms regarding abortion, euthanasia, parental rights, the Bill of Rights, school choice, consent of the governed, gender binaries, heteronormative values. 

Trueman has a bad habit of taking intellectual shortcuts. He caricatures the opposing view by fabricating a narrative about what it allegedly stands for. Then he directs his rhetorical firepower at this unrepresentative strawman. 

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…Indeed, the question which the leadership of the various groups associated with New Calvinism -- the Gospel Coalition, CBMW etc.

Here's another example of his modus operandi. He's using the complementarian controversy as a pretext to saddle up his hobbyhorse about the alleged powerbrokers at TGC, &c. It's all very paranoid. This is another one of his confabulations, as though Tim Keller, Don Carson, Joe Carter, and Justin Taylor are New York godfathers who run the city by placing a few phone calls. And it's bound up with his antipathy towards parachurch organizations, even though his day job is at a parachurch organization. 

Do you consider Nicene orthodoxy to be a non-negotiable part of your movement’s beliefs?  Now, we live in a free country and, as Protestants, we are committed to scripture alone as the norming norm.  Thus, you are free to say that Nicene orthodoxy has no place in the church today. You are also free to say that it is something of secondary importance on which Christians can differ.  You are even free to say that the Creed of Constantinople and the Chalcedonian Christology which flowed from it are erroneous and contrary to biblical teaching.  But make no mistake: in doing any of these things you place yourself and therefore your movement not simply outside of the boundaries of the consensus of the confessions of Reformation Protestantism but also outside what has historically been considered orthodox Christianity in its broadest sense.  That is your prerogative and if your conscience and your understanding of the Word of God bind you to it, then you must do it. But you need to be honest and transparent about what you are doing. Subordinationism was found wanting in the fourth century and set aside for very good reason. 

i) It's gratuitous to throw in the creeds of Constantinople and Chalcedon. To my knowledge, that hasn't been challenged by the complementarians in question.

ii) Calvin famously or infamously (depending on your viewpoint) modified traditional Nicene Christology by claiming the Father generates the person of the Son rather than the nature or deity of the Son. Cf. P. Helm, Calvin's Ideas, chap. 2. So Calvin himself didn't regard Nicene Christology as a nonnegotiable, norming norm. 

Moreover, prominent Reformed theologians like B. B. Warfield, Paul Helm, John Frame, John Murray, John Feinberg, and Robert Reymond have taken that a step further by denying the eternal generation of the Son (as well as denying the eternal procession of the Spirit). 

iii) The ancient creeds are not above scrutiny. They must be tested against divine revelation. In addition, every Christian generation must scrutinize its theological patrimony. It's not enough to say, "I believe it because my parents believe it, and their parents believe it." That would make religious identification an accident of birth, be it Calvinists, Lutherans, Arminians, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, &c. 

iv) However, the oddest, most ironic thing about Trueman's reaction is how oblivious he is to the ramifications of his preferred alternative. He presents Nicene Christology as the antithesis of subordination, yet it's arguable that Nicene Christology entails a radical version of eternal ontological subordination. Here's a classic statement of eternal generation–a la Thomism:

The role of a father is “to beget,” just as the meaning of sonship is “to be begotten.” The Father, therefore, is unbegotten, but is origin and progenitor of the Son, who himself does not beget, for there is no “Son” in the Godhead other than himself. That is to say, the whole reality of the Father is to beget, to generate, to give all that he has, namely, his whole divine nature, to the Son. And the whole reality of the Son is to be begotten, to be generated, to receive all that he has, namely, his whole divine nature, from the Father...The life of the Father is an eternal giving of himself whole and entire to the Son. The life of the Son is an eternal receiving of the Father whole and entire.

i) On this view, the Son is a product of the Father, like a dream is a figment of the dreamer's imagination. If the dreamer awakens, everything he dreamt about instantly ceases to be. You have a metaphysical asymmetry that goes all the way down to the very bottom of the Son's very existence. The Son's existence is purely receptive and contingent. You may say the Father necessarily originates the Son, but that doesn't change the direction of cause and effect. 

I realize proponents of Nicene Christology deny that eternal generation makes the Son an effect of the Father. But their discomfort with that language evinces discomfort with the logic of their position. Verbal protestations notwithstanding, they can't explicate generation without recourse to causal concepts. 

It makes the divine Son far more contingent than a human son. A human son does not derive his entire nature and existence from his father. And even though his father is a precipitating cause, the end-result is a human being whose existence is thereafter independent of his father. 

By contrast, eternal generation is analogous to continuous creation or theistic idealism, where God sustains the existence of the world by constantly thinking about it. If there were a momentary interruption in God's thought-process or attention span, the world would vanish like a dream. Trueman is so conditioned by the notion of Nicene "orthodoxy" that he hasn't thought through what his own position amounts to.

ii) Moreover, Trueman can't very well take refuge in Calvin's distinction, since that's idiosyncratic. That represents a theological innovation. That falls "outside what has historically been considered orthodox Christianity in its broadest sense."

Not to mention that Calvin's distinction is dubious. What evidence is there that the Father generates the person of the Son rather than the deity of the Son? What reason is there to think that's even possible? 

In a subsequent post, Trueman says:

I simply state that those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381 -- which is the ecumenical standard of the church catholic, albeit in the West subject to the revision at Toledo…Eternal generation etc. etc. are also of critical importance, as Constantinople 381 indicates.

There are some basic problems with that appeal:

i) There's more to councils like Nicea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople than their creedal statements. In addition, you have the conciliar canons. And in the case of Chalcedon, you also have the letter of Pope Leo. 

It's a potential problem when evangelicals cherry-pick church councils. When they pluck the creeds, but discard other conciliar mandates. 

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that. If all you're looking for is what is true and useful, then it's fine to be selective in your appropriation of the church councils. 

If, however, the council itself is a criterion of truth, if the fact that a council said it validates the claim, then it's arbitrary to pick and choose what you will believe or enforce. Since people like Trueman seem to be mounting an argument from authority when they appeal to conciliar creeds, their selectivity is ad hoc. 

To treat assertions by "ecumenical councils" as ipso facto decisive presumes an ecclesiology that's at odds with evangelicalism. 

ii) Concerning eternal generation, I don't think it's coincidental that Trueman is a church historian. That's his standard of comparison.

By contrast, I suspect many or most contemporary NT scholars reject eternal generation. That's because the traditional prooftexts for eternal generation were the Johannine title for Jesus as the monogenes huios, taken to mean "only-begotten son". But nowadays, most NT scholars and Greek lexicographers reject that definition. As a result, the bottom has fallen out of the textual basis for eternal generation. (And the textual basis for eternal procession was even thinner.) So we have an ever-widening gap between historical theology and exegetical theology in that regard.

I'm not saying that forecloses further debate. But Trueman's invocation is very one-sided. It reflects his bias as a church historian.  

1 comment:

  1. Steve, I just read Cornelius Van Til's "Why I Believe in God" for maybe the 7th time in 20 years. It's so witty in its conversational style in addressing atheism by means of a fictional interlocutor, that I felt I had to suggest that maybe one day you would write a similar letter to a fictional atheist friend (maybe an older gentleman whom you respect, or younger atheist who respects you). In my opinion Van Til's "Why I believe in God" [1948?] is reminiscent of Albert Camus' last complete work of fiction The Fall [1956]. Both of which get into the head and biography of the speaker and the rationale for why they believe and do as they do. And both try to get the imaginary interlocutor(s) to agree with the sole speaker/character.