SBTS profs examine relationship between Trinity and gender

Communications Staff — September 16, 2009

The doctrine of the Trinity has been the topic of much debate among evangelicals in recent years, and this year is no different.

A full room of students, faculty, and staff gathered in Heritage Hall at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Sept. 9 to hear Bruce Ware and Gregg Allison discuss the recent book by Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With The Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate.

In the book, Erickson interacts with many theologians regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, including Ware and Wayne Grudem. In interacting with Ware and Grudem, Erickson argues for an incarnational understanding of the Son’s submission to the Father.

The event was co-sponsored by the School of Church Ministries at Southern and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Randy Stinson, Dean of the School of Church Ministries and President of CBMW, moderated the discussion. Ware and Allison serve as professors of Christian theology at Southern Seminary.

Ware provided a brief overview of the two views on the Trinity. The complementarian view, which argues that there is an eternal structure of authority and submission within the Godhead, is the biblical view which the church has traditionally held, he said.

“The question is whether or not the relationship of authority and submission is one that characterizes the relationship of the Father and the Son eternally, or was it just missional or incarnational?” Ware said.

“What we see in the incarnation is an instance of what is true eternally. The Son was always the Son of the Father. This reflects the broader eternal pattern of authority and submission.”

Erickson argues that the submission of the Son to the Father is merely true in the incarnation of Christ. In eternity past there was no authority and submission relationship and in eternity future there will be no authority and submission relationship. His view more or less represents that of most egalitarian Christians.

Both sides claim that the other view is heresy, Ware pointed out, a claim that itself renders the issue as being extremely serious.

Erickson charges Ware with holding a form of Arianism, an early church heresy which says that the Son is not of the same essence as the Father. This is a charge that Ware takes very seriously.

But the charges against Erickson, and others, are just as severe, Ware said. Arguing that there is no distinction among the three persons of the Trinity as Erickson does is akin to Unitarianism or, at best, the heresy of modalism, Ware said.

“God is simply three names, not three beings or person specific properties,” Ware said. “There have to be distinguishing properties; otherwise we just have three names. Something has to distinguish the Father from the Son, and the Son from the Holy Spirit.”

Historical Evidence for Orthodox View of the Trinity

Both egalitarians and complementarians claim that church history validates their particular view. Allison, who is writing a massive historical theology, said that the fathers of the early church clearly held to the view that complementarians assert today.

“Overwhelmingly the church has affirmed what we affirm,” Allison said. “God is three persons, equal in essence, nature, and attributes,” Allison said.

Allison said that Erickson and others paint church history with a broad brush. But even before the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, the church held to an orthodox rendering of the Trinity. Polycarp’s prayer, when he was being martyred, modeled a Trinitarian understanding of God, Allison said.

Because the early church did not specifically discuss authority and submission in their teaching on the Trinity, Erickson takes this as the early church fathers not holding to authority and submission, Allison said. But the fathers saw authority and submission as so natural that they did not have to make it explicit in their writings, he said.

Biblical Evidence

In Ephesians 1:9, Ware argued that the phrase “he purposed in him” is saying something important about the Trinity.

“Erickson wants to say the whole Trinity decides this,” Ware said, “but this is not reversible. It is not collective of the Trinity. The Father chose us in Christ. We see the role of the Father is the architect and designer who wills what will come to pass.”

Creation also reveals something that is done in eternity past, he said: Genesis 1 and John 1 reveal that God creates through the agency of the Son.

“We also see Christ’s submission in eternity future,” Ware said.  “Revelation 1:1 indicates there is an ongoing relationship of authority that the Father has over the Son.

There is not a single instance in the Bible where the Father carries out the will of the Son. It is not reciprocal. If we say it is not really this way, then we don’t really know God’s revelation.”

Erickson would say that these texts don’t prove what we think they do, Ware said.  He sees the Father’s choosing in Ephesians 1 as having no particular significance; rather Erickson implies that there is a mutuality of authority throughout. He asserts that the Spirit is sent from the Son and the Father in various instances in the Bible.

Ware cautioned Christians to read these texts carefully, adding that the book of Acts tells us that the Son received from the Father the gift of the Spirit.

Erickson gives biblical support of his view, said Allison. Another passage that talks about the Son submitting to the Father is 1 Corinthians 7:24-28. But Erickson would say that there are other interpretations of this passage, Allison points out. Citing John Calvin and Charles Hodge as allies, Erickson states that this passage gives us a view of Christ, not necessarily a view of Christ’s relationship to the Father.

“Erickson is admitting that our interpretation of this passage is more obvious than Hodge’s, but Hodge’s interpretation fits in better with this idea of mutual submission and authority, which is Erickson’s point,” said Allison.

Ware added that Erickson’s most convincing use of Scripture is his interpretation of Philippians 2. Erickson claims that Christ took on a role of servitude and obedience that he had not exercised before.

“Paul is not merely referring to servitude per se,” Ware said. “It is servitude as a man.”

Gender Debate

A correct understanding of the Trinity has implications for the home and the church, both theologians pointed out. Ware said that within manhood and womanhood we see equality of essence, but differentiation of roles, as evidenced in the Godhead.

According to Ware, the implication of the complementarian position of the Trinity is that roles and relationships are marked by authority and submission.

“It would only make sense that in creating man and woman in his image, God is creating them within a structure of authority and submission,” Ware said, “We see Paul correlating these things, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, by grounding all other relationships of headship and submission with the ultimate relationship of the Father and the Son.”

“It is just as Godlike to submit with joy and gladness to rightful authority, as it is Godlike to exert wise and beneficial, rightful authority. And this does not simply apply to male/female relationships. This applies to any relationship where authority and submission are being played out.”

Pastoral Implications

Allison encouraged pastors to teach doctrine of the Trinity within their local congregations. Allison said he is surprised how few students have heard messages on this prior to coming to seminary.

“God has given us adequate revelation and we are morally bound to teach and preach what God has revealed. This has implications for the home and the order of the church,” he said.

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