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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Patrick Ramsey

    “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.”

    Assuming they haven’t already, perhaps one way forward is for Trueman and Goligher to confess this (with no ifs or buts or maybes). This would then open the door for fruitful dialogue. After all, if we want other people to hear us and change, what better way then for us to hear our own critics and change if indeed we are at fault.

  • Andrew_Z

    Thanks for this Jake – your last paragraph in particular I think struck the right balance (and I think is consistent with what Leithart wrote yesterday even if the emphasis is different – http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2016/06/too-much-bible).

    I think there are several questions that are at play in this debate and only a few have really received close treatment. 1. Is the ESS view consistent with Nicene orthodoxy; 2. If ESS is inconsistent with Nicaea, how severely does it depart; 3. If ESS is inconsistent with Nicaea, do the scriptures nonetheless suggest that Nicaea needs to be modified (either because it’s incorrect, or because it’s insufficiently supported by scripture to receive the weight of a creed); 4. If ESS is incorrect both creedally and Biblically, how serious is the error and what should be the consequence for teachers who hold this view.

    I think the first has received adequate and very helpful coverage in various blog posts etc. (I realize it may seem silly to restrict focus to the debate on the blogs, but that’s where the conversation has focused over the past few weeks). The second has also received some consideration, but generally the argument has evaluated the severity of the implications of the view even though Grudem and Ware would disavow those implications (perhaps inconsistently). I think 3 and 4 have really received very poor consideration. I sympathize with those who want to just ignore 3 as being too unlikely, but it really ought to be treated if only to cover all the bases.

    All that said, I think the biggest gap still is that people aren’t giving the same careful thought to determining the severity of the error (i.e., #4). Moore and Mohler seem to provide their gut level assessment, and consider it absurd that Grudem and Ware might be unorthodox / heretical in some serious way. Trueman / Goligher seem to reason that any kind of error within the doctrine of God will have significant harmful downstream consequences, and so we really are talking about the kind of error that should lead to resignation (forced or otherwise). I don’t think either side has presented the same kind of reasoned consideration of this part as they have to the the first part. Assuming for the moment that there is an error here, what sort of error is it? Assuming that we have a divergence from the creeds, how severe is the divergence. What kinds of errors will necessarily follow from this initial error? I don’t know the answer to these, but I think closer attention to this last question might help move this forward.

    • Yes to all your questions. Permit me to add several more:
      5. If ESS is incorrect both creedally and Biblically, does it not also follow that the application of attaching submission/headship to the ontological categories of femaleness and maleness, with all of its corollaries in how men and women are to live in contexts apart from marriage and church, should also be dismissed?

      • Andrew_Z

        I don’t really see how that would follow. If the eternal subordination of the son to the father were the only basis by which folks like Grudem and Ware argue for complementarianism then that would be a problem for them, but that’s clearly not the case. At any rate, you have complementarians on both sides of this debate (and I gather that in some sense, you can find egalitarians on both sides as well).

        • This latest round of the debate was actually initiated by the MoS team, and an informal network of Reformed women bloggers, calling attention to increasingly extra-biblical arguments about an expanded definition of complementarianism beyond certain functions within family and church life to encompass all male/female interaction, and the attachment of that expanded definition to the gospel itself. Women like Rachel Miller and Persis Lorenti began to uncover the roots of those arguments in the writings of Ware and Grudem (among others) regarding their adherence to EFS. If EFS is sufficiently shown to be at least a questionable understanding of the relationship between the members of the Trinity, then there needs to be the same questions raised about the legitimacy of this expanded definition of complementarianism, which argues for submission as an ontological part of femaleness, so that all women are in some way to be submissive to all men. Does that make sense?

          • Andrew_Z

            Thank you that definitely gives more context. I’m at least a bit suspicious of claims that their “thick” complementarianism primarily stems from EFS, but I suppose it’s possible that without that particular view, they’d hold to a less expansive complementarianism. In trying to move forward and promote unity, I think it’s preferable to keep the issues as clean and distinct as we can (which in the end may not be terribly clean or distinct), so I’d resist trying to solve too many problems at once.

            On that separate topic though, I’d point to this really good piece (https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/09/16/are-women-real-comprehensive-complementarianism/) which readily acknowledges the clumsiness and awkwardness of some complementarian formulations but also wants to hold to some creational patterns in male female relations beyond the church and family. Also see all the great stuff that Alastair Roberts has written on this. Neither of these writers are presenting a standard CBMW view, but they do have a complementarianism of sorts that extends beyond narrowly defined familiar and ecclesial roles. Roberts also clearly does not take the EFS position (no idea about Cherny, but I doubt it, and she doesn’t make that connection in her piece as far as I recall).

          • hoosier_bob

            The ESS argument for ontological female submission arose in response to the eschatological trajectory arguments. After all, we don’t see hierarchy enter into the picture until after the Fall narrative. Some would argue that the creation order set forth in the Genesis 1 narrative suggests ontological submission, but Peter Leithart has laid that argument to waste. Thus, it seems, that submission is not ontological, but is instead temporal and passing away, much as the eschatological significance of marriage and procreation is passing away. The ESS argument was important to patriarchalists because it allowed one to point to something that answered the egalitarians’ averment that patriarchy is temporal.

            I’m convinced that female submission is temporal, and that the church should be moving in a direction of egalitarianism, to the extent that it makes practical sense within context. That’s not to say that it always makes good practical sense. But I think we ought to be moving in that direction. And, where it does make practical sense, we ought to allow it.

            Honestly, I have a hard time seeing what’s at stake here. After all, CBMW’s theology is so transparently dependent on the Freudian social theorists’ notion of familialism that it’s hard to take seriously the notion that it’s even trying to be biblical.

  • hoosier_bob

    Thinking back to the “same God” controversy of last December, I don’t recall that Mohler extended much grace to Larycia Hawkins. What’s different now? Oh, yeah, Ware and Grudem are middle-aged white guys like Mohler, and Hawkins wasn’t. Got it.

    As a litigator, I’ve learned two things, among others.

    First, an adversarial posture brings forth the truth. Evangelicalism is far too concerned about messaging and protecting gurus from critique. It needs more people like Trueman. It even needs more people like Pete Enns and Daniel Kirk. It needs to let more issues be unsettled and to simmer for a few years. I don’t care how much effort the folks at CBMW have put into their gender theology. If they can’t defend it under robust and sharp criticism, then the whole thing was a colossal waste of time.

    Second, anecdotes about the kindness of people are worthless when the kindness didn’t cost them anything. People’s true character shows when they are pushed to the breaking point and backed into a corner. The best test of character is to watch how someone responds under hours or days of withering cross-examination. Those who have nothing to hide generally do fine. Mohler, Strachan, Burk, and other folks from the TGC frat house don’t seem to be handling Trueman’s light criticism too well. To me, that says a lot about what kind of men these guys actually are at heart.

    • Murther

      “Second, anecdotes about the kindness of people are worthless when the kindness didn’t cost them anything. People’s true character shows when they are pushed to the breaking point and backed into a corner.”
      I would second this. After all, in the anecdotes in the article the author wasn’t in the position of critiquing the named organisations – let alone critiquing them on biblical grounds (one of the few things that ‘Big Eva’ takes seriously).

      • hoosier_bob

        Big Eva takes the fact that it’s being criticized on biblical grounds seriously. It rarely takes the substance of the criticism seriously. In my opinion, guys like Mohler, Piper, and Grudem are no less flim-flam artists than Benny Hinn. This debate has simply brought that to the fore.

  • gk

    “All those things being said, we are Protestants. We must say, with Luther…:”

    ‘Remember well that the sheep have to pass judgment upon that which is placed before them. They should say: We have Christ as our Lord and prefer his Word to the words of any man or to those of the angels of darkness. We want to examine and judge for ourselves whether the pope, the bishops and their followers do right or not. For Christ says here that the sheep judge and know which is the right voice and which is not. Now let them come along. Have they decreed anything? ***We will examine whether it is right, and according to our own judgment interpret that which is a private affair for each individual Christian***, knowing that the authority to do this is not human, but divine. Even the real sheep flee from a stranger and hold to the voice of their shepherd.’ [Source: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/sermons.viii.vi.html%5D emphasis added

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  • James R

    I do NOT — God forbid — question the Deity of Christ. With that aside, no one needs to assume that the trinity model is some untouchable gold standard in theology. While it was useful to counter Arianism, itself, it is not flawless truth. It is not scripture. And at best an imperfect formula and the product of a human mind(s), which to make it worse is the work of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Granted that God can use even the RCC to speak the truth every once in a while, let me nevertheless ask the burning question …

    How exactly is the Son NOT the Father? the Father NOT the Son? the Son NOT the Spirit? the Spirit NOT the Son? the Father NOT the Spirit? the Spirit NOT Father? the Father, Son and Spirit NOT ONE? And if ONE why speak of THREE persons (a loaded term)?

    If the NICENE model is true, that the Father, Son and Spirit are GOD, but THREE PERSONS, then there are essentially THREE GODS. This is blasphemy and confusion.

    I say that God IS ONE. Detracting from this seminal truth has given space for all manners of cults to flourish, that deny Christ is God and diminish the Spirit to a lesser god, if at all.

    The Spirit is NOT Christ, that Christ does not live in you! And you are NOT his.

    To say that the Father, Son and the Spirit are God, but NOT ONE, is to go beyond the scriptures and obfuscate, even deny, the truth. For Christ himself has said it plainly, and I quote, I and my Father are ONE (present-indicative). -John 10:30

    Isaiah for one would agree that the Son IS the Father … the Prince and Messiah, Saviour.

    For unto us a CHILD is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting FATHER, The Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6

    We have 2 witnesses.

    May I propose https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1abce3981547a7cc044da580310088642b226afafe129b81148a5f0ed3ea215d.jpg

  • James R

    I do NOT — God forbid — question the Deity of Christ. With that aside, no one needs to assume that the trinity model is some untouchable gold standard in theology. While it was useful to counter Arianism, itself, it is not flawless truth. It is not scripture. And at best an imperfect formula and the product of a human mind(s), which to make it worse is the work of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Granted that God can use even the RCC to speak the truth every once in a while, let me nevertheless ask the burning question …

    How exactly is the Son NOT the Father? the Father NOT the Son? the Son NOT the Spirit? the Spirit NOT the Son? the Father NOT the Spirit? the Spirit NOT Father? the Father, Son and Spirit NOT ONE? And if ONE why speak of THREE persons (a loaded term)?

    If the NICENE model is true, that the Father, Son and Spirit are GOD, but THREE PERSONS, then there are essentially THREE GODS. This is blasphemy and confusion.

    I say that God IS ONE. Detracting from this seminal truth has given space for all manners of cults to flourish, that deny Christ is God and diminish the Spirit to a lesser god, if at all.

    If the Spirit is NOT Christ, than Christ does not live in you! And you are NOT his.

    To say that the Father, Son and the Spirit are God, but NOT ONE, is to go beyond the scriptures and obfuscate, even deny, the truth. For Christ himself has said it plainly, and I quote, I and my Father are ONE (present-indicative). -John 10:30

    Isaiah for one would agree that the Son IS the Father … the Prince and Messiah, Saviour.

    For unto us a CHILD is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting FATHER, The Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6

    We have 2 witnesses.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1abce3981547a7cc044da580310088642b226afafe129b81148a5f0ed3ea215d.jpg

  • nbraithwaite

    Here is the deal… You can’t have your cake and eat it as well.

    Either “God the father” and “God the son” are co-equal and make up “one” essence or they do not. If they are co-equal, then neither can be submission to the other is ANY way. If one is submissive to the other then equality is absent and you have two different Gods. And that surely won’t fly in Trinityville.

    Mohler’s response is pure hypocrisy if he is a true trinitarian; otherwise, by his words, he must accept and defend a submissive “God the son” as a legitimate alternative trinitarian view.

    While the “submission” argument is headed in the right direction, it falls well short of the truth that the Messiah was a human being and not God.

    These kinds of arguments all begin with the false trinity doctrine. You can not find one similar argument is either the OT or NT. And the reason for that is because the “Jewish” Messiah was not seen as God, nor did he ever espouse such a blasphemous idea.