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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Posted by Christopher Cleveland

Dr. Christopher Cleveland is an expert on the influence of medieval theology upon Reformed protestant theology. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Aberdeen in 2011, where he studied under Dr. John Webster. His dissertation topic was Thomism in John Owen. His research interests currently center upon the Biblical and exegetical foundations of Thomistic thought.

  • Rich Barcellos

    thank you!

  • Chandra

    8Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” 9Jesus replied, “Philip, I have been with you all this time, and still you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do
    you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The
    words I say to you, I do not speak on My own. Instead, it is the Father
    dwelling in Me, carrying out His work.…
    John 14:8-10

  • I wonder how much of this is particular to the baptist (and its low regard for tradition and education) theological issues and now much is a broader modern evangelical problem.

    I think the post is very helpful, but as a cradle baptist has been moving into a more historically liturgical and traditional stream of Christianity, it feels to me like many other evangelicals that have been part of traditional streams of Christianity (presbyterian, methodist, evangelical Anglicans, etc) do not have this same problem.

    It seems to me that it is the other streams of evangelicalism that are calling out the ahistorical baptist streams of evangelicalism not baptists that are regaining an understanding of the historical church and calling out other baptists.

    • hoosier_bob

      Agreed. This strikes me as more of a problem among Baptists and Baptists who happen to baptize infants (folks in the PCA). There is no similar controversy in other conservative Reformed communions, such as the CRC.

      • milkytruffle

        The CRC isn’t really all that conservative. I say that as a lifelong member and daughter of a CRC pastor. In fact, I’ve recently washed my hands of the denomination, though admittedly that’s not only because of doctrinal drift but also because of the abuse my father and I suffered at our last church. For more on that clergy killing, see the blog my sister compiled about it here:

    • Nathanael

      Oddly enough, although the eternal functional subordination crowd is mostly Baptist, there have also been a number of Australian Anglicans on their side as well. (That, incidentally, is the context against which Kevin Giles wrote Jesus and the Father.) I don’t know much about Sydney Anglicanism but it is my understanding that it is very Evangelical in culture, in the American, sociological sense of the term.

      • Interesting. Is that contextually explained in Giles?

        • Nathanael

          He does talk a little about it in Jesus and the Father but not in a lot of depth (unfortunately). He refers to the 1999 Sydney diocesan report on the Trinity and its relation to the relationship between men and women as defending the position he opposes but he doesn’t say much beyond that (he may say more elsewhere).

  • Seth Pye

    I wonder how what you’re describing has affected the church’s overall understanding of eschatology.

  • Thank you/

  • This article is mostly bulverism.

    • The last line really is a zinger:

      “The better method by far is to do the work of dogmatics in conversation with the theology and exegesis of the church triumphant.”

      The “Church triumphant” in 2016 is radically different from Church triumphant in 1916, and that from the same voice in, say, 1416. An appeal to such a thing is the ultimate exegetical cop-out and really says nothing at all. Returning to the Bible over and against tradition is literally the seed of Protestantism and the modern Church. It produces some pickles, sure, but it can hardly be seen as the problem. I think many Christians are finally realizing that some ancient, respected (post-Apostolic) Christian teachers might just be wrong about some major things. Fancy that.

      • Actually, “returning to the Bible *over and against* tradition” is the seed of the radical reformation, not the magisterial. The magisterial Protestants constantly cite tradition in making their arguments. Scripture is the final judge and arbiter, but Luther, Calvin, Bucer (especially Bucer), and Melanchthon are never shy about grounding their arguments in the fathers whenever they are able to do so. And that interaction with tradition only becomes more pronounced with the reformed scholastics of the next generation.

        We can disagree on other things about the post; I find the idea that evangelicals are just *now* learning to disagree with the fathers to be risible, but we may have different people in mind when we think of “evangelicals.” But IMO evangelicalism’s biggest problem has never been being too hidebound to traditional Christian teachings at the expense of being faithful to Scripture. Rather our great failing has been a stubborn and often quite foolish biblicism that isolates us from our brothers and sisters that went before us. That said, if you can expand on this claim I’d be happy to debate. My main concern was with your misrepresentation of the Reformation. The two early reformers I know best, Calvin and Bucer, lean *heavily* on the fathers. Bucer in particular sometimes almost seems to use them in the same way he uses Scripture. So the idea that the Bible was somehow always set *against* tradition by the early Protestants is simply wrong. It was much more complicated than that.

        • I actually agree with you! But I think it only goes to show that modern Baptists—and their close cousins, the nondenominational crowd—are more influenced by the Radical Reformation (with which I happily associate myself) than they wish to admit. If I am at all observant, it is these two groups that make up most if not all of the semi-Subordinationist camp in this debate.

          Moreover, my point wasn’t really that the Reformers always used the Bible a certain way, but rather that the idea of a “Church triumphant” to Martin Luther was different than just an appeal to tradition, since there were many traditions (i.e. established practices and beliefs of the monks and bishops around him) he was bucking simply based on the testimony of Scripture. And I think some modern theologians are (almost) ready to do that with the Trinity.

          I am not heavily acquainted with the (so-called) Fathers, but I would believe that the Reformers appealed to them often. Even concerning this Trinity debate, some of the earliest Fathers seem to land on the side of Subordinationism. I don’t take that to be authoritative, but still.

        • Andrew_Z

          I agree with all of that, evangelicalism’s problem has never been a slavish devotion to Christian tradition. And yet, I think that both the baptist style “bible-thumper” biblicists and the historical / dogmatic theologians both evidence some unhealthy tendencies. Certainly at an academic level there is a significantly wide divide between Biblical studies and systematic or historical theology. Because of that, the “biblicists” seem out of their dept in discussing dogmatics, but some of the dogmaticians seem ill-equipped to deal with the scriptural text in a useful and perceptive way. I do think that Calvin is a great corrective example – an emphasis on the fathers for sure, but he read the fathers pretty clearly in service of a greater understanding of the text of scripture. By today’s standard, he’s a bit hard to place in terms of his discipline (I’d say closer to Biblical Theology, but the categories we use today are probably more misleading than helpful). Again, I don’t think this is in conflict with what you say, but some of the critiques of “biblicism” make me a bit uneasy when I see the meager quality of the exegesis from some systematics folks.

          To put it a bit differently, I agree that we shouldn’t carelessly pit scripture against church tradition, but I also think that scripture correcting tradition shouldn’t be seen as just a low-probability hypothetical situation. We should be surprised if our interpretation of scripture leaves nothing in our tradition unchallenged.

        • hoosier_bob

          Jake said, “But IMO evangelicalism’s biggest problem has never been being too hidebound to traditional Christian teachings at the expense of being faithful to Scripture. Rather our great failing has been a stubborn and often quite foolish biblicism that isolates us from our brothers and sisters that went before us.”

          I don’t disagree. Of course, I don’t think we can ever be tradition-less. When we opt intentionally out of one tradition, we’re easily prone to imbibe from other traditions without even being conscious of it. The modern evangelical movement (neo-evangelicalism) took root at the same time that Freudian notions of familialism were rising to cultural ascendancy. Thus, we unwittingly imported a lot of Freudian thinking about sex and gender into our biblical exegesis. So, while we discarded more traditionally Christians notions of sex and gender (described in Leithart’s piece, “Intrusive Third Parties”), we inadvertently displaced them with notions that were even less biblical than what we were discarding. That’s why, I think, we’ve had difficulty coming to terms with things like same-sex marriage. We have long since jettisoned traditional Christians ways of thinking about sex and family, even if we did so unwittingly, replacing them with notions that owe more to Freud than to Paul. But now that most in our culture have jettisoned Freud, we’re struggling–and rightfully so–to find a biblical basis for what we thought the Bible surely taught.

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  • hoosier_bob

    Well said. Even so, I suspect that this doctrinal error arose, in major part, due to the desire to find some cogent biblical response to evangelical feminism. In that sense, this error seems to go hand-in-hand with “biblical manhood and womanhood.”

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  • Scott Alexander
  • Doc B

    I would like an explanation of how this post is any different than a 16th century version of throwing sola scriptura under the bus.

    (I’m not being flippant…it’s a serious question….perhaps because of the thickness of my skull, or perhaps because the post leaves too many underlying assumptions unchecked.)

  • Lane

    Problems such as this surrounding the authority of articles of Faith is why I became Catholic.

    • Russell Phillips

      Roman Catholic.

      • Lane

        Good one!

        • Russell Phillips

          Maybe I should elucidate a bit more. The present controversy surrounds the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This was agreed by the church catholic in 381. It was arguably the novel theology of the Roman Catholic church, inserting the phrase filioque into the creed, which led to the schism of 1054 and which also underlies the present controversy. The church catholic confesses the monarchy of the Father as the “principle and source of all the Godhead”.

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  • Physiocrat

    The trinitarian controversy seems really to begin with a philosophical change. Most clearly the doctine of Divine Simplicity which Christian philosophers such as Craig and Plantinga reject. With this gone there’s far more room for innovations in trinitarian philosophy. Rather than calling to a return to the Church Fathers etc (the role of tradition ought be viewed as advisory rather than authoritative) we really need proper bottom up, metaphysical philosophy, to provide appropriate categories for theology. Once this is complete, a survey of tradition and scripture will provide the best epistemology strategy to produce not only sound systematic but also biblical theology.

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  • Andrew_Z

    This from Leithart is a very helpful complement (qualifier?) to this article:

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  • Thank you.

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  • Russell Phillips

    From what I have gleaned from this debate, the ‘traditional’ side has – at least at times – been only selectively historical. For example it is historical insofar as it holds to a particular reading of the Augustine-Calvin thread of Christian thought on this subject, whilst the Athanasius-Cappadocian-John of Damascus thread is overlooked. While language such as ‘eternal subordination’ would seem ahistorical and potentially heretical, the Church Fathers did speak of the monarchy of the Father and indeed Calvin acknowledges that the Father is ‘first in order’ and also the formula that the Father is the “principle and fountain of all the Godhead”.

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  • From the article: “The ultimate victor in this conflict will be those whose teaching is in line with the traditional categories of Christian dogmatics.”

    The author stated his thesis, but did not attempt to persuade. He merely declared victory. All tradition must be compared to Scripture. Just read the book of Colossians in one sitting, outloud, for heaven’s sake.