I had hoped that the big Trinitarian brouhaha was starting to calm down to more of a restrained, tightly defined level. Then Dr. Al Mohler waded into the debate yesterday, calling attacks on his friends Drs. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem “nonsense” without ever bothering to actually engage with the substance of Carl Trueman, Liam Goligher, Mark Jones, Alastair Roberts, Michel Barnes, Matthew Crawford, Lewis Ayres, Fred Sanders, or Matthew Emerson’s actual arguments. Apparently it only takes one dismissive wave of the hand by someone as prominent as Mohler to dismiss the careful argumentation of a half dozen leading authorities in patristics or dogmatics.
And this, of course has been the biggest problem with this fiasco since it first kicked off a few weeks ago: On the one hand, it’s entirely fair for defenders of Ware and Grudem to point out that Trueman and Goligher’s initial attacks were much too aggressive and quite possibly personal in nature. That is a reasonable concern to raise. By attacking the issue in the way they did, Trueman and Goligher made it much more difficult to have a productive debate and they really are at fault for that.
Even so, the tone of Trueman and Goligher has precisely nothing to do with the substance of their critique of Ware and Grudem—concerns that have now been echoed by many, many others who have done so without the harsh tone of the debate’s initiators. At this point in the saga there is simply no reason for us to still be talking about Trueman and Goligher’s initial salvos.
So a helpful response from Mohler—or anyone else wishing to defend Ware and Grudem—would be to recognize that Trueman and Goligher are over-heated, but then move on to the many other substantive posts raising very similar concerns by the other scholars named above.
That did not happen.
Instead, we got this from Dr. Mohler:
Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are not just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.
Nowhere in his entire blog post does Dr. Mohler name any names or even attempt to respond to any of the many substantive posts written by other scholars concerned that Drs. Ware and Grudem are, at the very least, anti-Nicean.
And so we continue to go around the maddening how-evangelicals-debate cul de sac: Dr. Trueman has long complained that evangelicalism is driven more by cultural concerns, like complementarianism, and a celebrity pastor complex than by sincere concern with faithful preaching and ministry. In the way he makes these critiques, he has sometimes been excessively aggressive, thereby making it far less likely that people will hear his real concerns or weigh whether or not there is any truth in them at all. He is, instead, easily dismissed as a crank.
But then, what happens when we finally have a substantive intramural theological debate happening? One of the biggest and most influential leaders in the reformed world writes a lengthy post that makes some rather severe criticisms of an unspecified group of theologians (is he critiquing only Trueman and Goligher? Or does he also have Jones, Sanders, Emerson, Ayres, etc. in his sights?) and never once even bothers to engage with the actual argument.
Meanwhile, one of the chief participants in the debate, Dr. Grudem, writes a sloppy post cherry picking quotes from church history that he says support his position, even when some of the quotes he pulls actually contradict his argument (read that Edwards bit again), and another participant, Dr. Owen Strachan, crows about it on his Patheos blog, assumes a mocking tone that only suggests he’s scared of engaging in actual substantive debate, and consistently ignores weightier responses from gifted scholars.
This, then, is the tragedy of the moment in the reformed evangelical world—and I don’t think that’s too strong a word for it. We are master Bulverists. In one sense, this makes Trueman and Goligher’s initial posts even more inexcusable, of course: If they are right about Big Eva, then all the more reason to be careful in how they structure their criticism. Even so, there is absolutely no reason for us to still be talking about that after the more even-handed critiques raised by other scholars. (Dr. Trueman’s response to Dr. Mohler was also quite restrained, it should be noted.)
If we actually believed in theological debate, we would have the ability to bracket whatever concerns we have with Trueman and Goligher’s tone and move on to interacting more substantively with their concerns, as well as the concerns raised by Ayres, Barnes, Crawford, Sanders, Emerson, and others. But that is not what the men from CBMW have done. Drs. Grudem and Strachan have consistently ignored these other scholars and instead focused on tone-policing the overwrought posts of Trueman and Goligher. Denny Burk has cheered them on as they do so while not adding anything to the debate. Strachan, sadly, hasn’t even risen to that level. Now the heavy hitters from Big Eva are coming in to provide backup.
The saddest thing about all this is how unnecessary it is. We recently published a substantive and hard-hitting review of a book by Dr. Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks Ministries. It would have been very easy for Dr. Leeman to ignore us, get offended, or dismiss us out of hand. After all, we’re just some blog online. Leeman could have dismissed us if he wanted.
But because Leeman is a very good and very honest man, he did not. He got in touch with me privately after the review was published. We were able to have some excellent conversations and make plans for him to publish a response to Minich’s review, which we did on Monday. In the comments to that response, Leeman then went back and forth with Minich as well as another commenter raising similar concerns.
In every interaction I’ve had with him, Dr. Leeman has been kind, approachable, and prepared to defend his arguments. To be sure, we never attacked Leeman quite as aggressively as Trueman and Goligher did Ware and Grudem. But we also didn’t go easy on his book. Even so, Leeman has given as good as he’s taken and, for what it’s worth, my respect for the man has grown enormously as a result—and I already liked him before this whole thing started.
I tend to think most of the Big Eva leaders are probably more like Dr. Leeman than many of Big Eva’s critics, Trueman included, care to admit. Certainly, everyone I have ever spoken to from The Gospel Coalition has been nothing but kind, as is also true of everyone I’ve met from Desiring God and Christianity Today, to name only two other prominent evangelical institutions. I can’t speak to others as I have very limited personal contact with most evangelical institutions.
However, having lived in the Twin Cities for a year, I had ample opportunity to hear the on-the-ground local scoop on Desiring God and everything I heard about it was exemplary. When a close friend of mine was moving to the Twin Cities to plant a church up there, he actually contacted Bethlehem Baptist to see if they wanted him to focus on a region of the area a certain distance from their downtown Minneapolis location so that they weren’t competing with each other. Their response was that he should go wherever God leads him and if they can do anything to support him, he should let them know—even if that means planting his church a block from Bethlehem’s main campus. My experience of “Big Eva” suggests that this sort of sentiment is not unusual.
That said, substantive theological disagreement seems to bring out the worst in us. There are multiple reasons for this. Part of it, no doubt, is because of the number of absurd accusations routinely hurled at big evangelical organizations by outside critics. This teaches us to react defensively when we see a friend being attacked, even if the attack is coming from a far more respectable and serious person, such as Dr. Trueman. Ego also plays a role on both sides, no doubt, as big-name scholars who are accustomed to being treated with great deference do not take kindly to having their credibility questioned or being dismissed for a reason as academically vapid as an aggressive tone.
Finally, there is likely also the normal difficulty that anyone has when hearing their most valued ideas subjected to such intense scrutiny. The CBMW leaders have dedicated a great deal of time and energy to the idea that the Trinity is the basis for our understanding of gender roles and to a fairly specific understanding of the Trinity. Having that questioned will naturally be quite challenging and potentially even painful. Given that, the aggressive tone taken by Trueman and Goligher is particularly unfortunate.
All those things being said, we are Protestants. We must say, with Luther, that our conscience is captive to the Word of God. Our first concern must be to faithfully exegete the biblical texts and understand them rightly. However, as Christopher wisely noted last week, this task should not be done in an historical vacuum, but rather in conversation with the broader tradition of Christian dogmatics, not because older divines have a monopoly on truth or some sort of magical authority, but because “If (we) 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.” The church triumphant includes many who were no strangers to controversy. Indeed, the testimony of church history suggests that these controversies are normal and can, in fact, be done well. (There is also no shortage of counter examples, of course.) We would do well to remember that.