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Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable

June 23rd, 2016 | 8 min read

By Christopher Cleveland

Recently, there has been a major clash in the Reformed and evangelical blogosphere on the doctrine of the Trinity. While others have covered the ins and outs of the controversy with some depth, I am more interested in why this clash is happening, and why it is happening now. Michael Bird has said that this is about to be a “miniature civil war”. While that may be an exaggeration, the clash was inevitable for several reasons.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, a strong opposition to traditional doctrines of the Christian faith became entrenched in numerous major seminaries and universities around the world. John Webster indicated in an interview that when he was a graduate student in the 1970s, there was a lack of confidence that the positive task of systematic theology was a worthwhile endeavor due to the “critical appraisal” approach to theology. Fred Sanders makes this same point in his tribute to Webster:

“I remember this doctrinal-criticism style of academic theology very well. For me it was symbolized by the 1994 Hodgson & King book Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, in which every essay subjected an isolated doctrine to a three-step procedure:

  1. Statement of traditional doctrine,
  2. Modern criticisms that show why the doctrine can no longer be maintained in its traditional form,
  3. Clever reconstruction move using the latest whatever.

That theological style had such a grip on academic theology in the late twentieth century that I very nearly went into New Testament scholarship instead of systematics.”

This lack of confidence in traditional doctrine and classical categories of dogmatics was seen in the seminaries as well. The conflict at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early nineties encapsulated the situation very well. Southern Seminary was seen by traditional evangelicals to be so completely dominated by liberals who moved away from Christian orthodoxy that the theological education therein was highly suspect. As part of the “conservative resurgence,” Albert Mohler was brought in by the trustees of the school in 1993 to become president and essentially clean house by removing all professors whose teaching was not in accord with the school’s doctrinal statement (the Abstract of Principles). The other Southern Baptist seminaries had similar situations, but Southern was seen to be the one in the worst shape. Southern illustrates the situation well, as those on the left had moved away from traditional Christian doctrine, while the conservatives merely wanted to be able to take the authority of the Bible seriously in the seminary context.

Because of this clash between the conservatives and the liberals within theological institutions of the time, there emerged an entire group of evangelical scholars who were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics. Whether for reasons of neglect in their theological training under more critical theologians or because of their purposeful avoidance of dogmatics in favor of Biblical studies, a generation of evangelical scholars arose who had no serious acquaintance with the classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought. Nor did they have allegiance to those categories. What mattered in the fight against liberalism, in the minds of so many, was the Bible, not theology.  

So, for example, Wayne Grudem, the author of one of the most popular volumes on evangelical systematic theology, received his Ph.D. in New Testament, not Systematic Theology. While this fear of liberalism was very well founded, it produced an approach that was essentially ahistorical. The approach was unfortunately similar to that described by Sanders:

  1. State the traditional doctrine.
  2. Explain why the Bible doesn’t teach the traditional doctrine.
  3. Come up with a new interpretation and new categories based upon recent evangelical exegesis alone, and not upon interaction with the categories of the Christian tradition.

The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.

However, during this time, systematic theologians like John Webster and Colin Gunton (among numerous others), who were very well acquainted with the classical categories of dogmatics began to devote more time and energy to them. The serious dogmatic work of these men reflected the traditional categories of Christian doctrine. To give only one example among the many that could be put forward, Webster’s article on Illumination in the Journal of Reformed Theology 5 (2011) 325-340, is an extended explication of the Christian doctrine of illumination. In it, Webster interacts with Augustine, John Owen, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth, producing a treatment of the doctrine of illumination that is rich, full, and robust.

During this same time, there was also groundbreaking historical work done by Richard Muller and those who followed in his wake. Muller’s research definitively smashed the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis, and his undeniably strong scholarship produced a whole new generation of scholars who became acquainted with the thought and categories of classic Reformed orthodoxy. Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is the standard for studies in thought on Reformed orthodoxy. Carl Trueman, Willem J. Van Asselt, and several others produced excellent studies at about the same time. Rather than being dismissed as too rigid and unbiblical, Reformed scholasticism began to be seen as a rich resource to be mined for positive systematic theology. For this reason, theologians and historians could no longer get away with the hasty dismissal of Reformed orthodoxy that was assumed in theological presentations in the past.

Because of this, there has emerged a set of scholars who are now able to critique novel evangelical ideas that arise in the Reformed/evangelical world by comparing them to the classical categories of Christian theology. This, I believe, is the reason for the current clash, and why I think that it was inevitable. There are increasing numbers of scholars who are capable of critiquing the relatively novel evangelical formulations through comparison with the Christian tradition. Those who have had their training based upon the novel evangelical approach to theology are incredulous that anyone would criticize their mentors. Such explicit or implicit appeals to individual authorities fail to be compelling to those trained in traditional dogmatic thought.

The ultimate victor in this conflict will be those whose teaching is in line with the traditional categories of Christian dogmatics. The reason for this is that the novel evangelical interpretations that are based solely upon modern exegesis without interaction with the tradition fail to be sufficiently catholic. Rather, they are idiosyncratic. If they do not interact with the broader Christian tradition, then there is no way to check to see if these interpretations accidentally align with the failed, tired, (or even heretical) theological programs of the past. The better method by far is to do the work of dogmatics in conversation with the theology and exegesis of the church triumphant.

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