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The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity Kindle Edition
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Among some of the neo-Reformed complementarians affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), it used to be acceptable to prove their position not only by appeal to specific biblical texts (e.g., Ephesians 5:21–32; 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; 1 Timothy 2:11–15), but also by appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity. After all, did not Paul write, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3, ESV)?
Complementarian Jared Moore explained the logic of this argument in his review of Bruce Ware and John Starke’s One God in Three Persons:
"If complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in church and home."
Thus, complementarians found a way to maintain male-female equality even as they denied that women could be leaders in home and church.
This argument was first articulated by George F. Knight III in 1977. It received institutional expression in the Danvers Statement of 1987, the charter of the CBMW. After that, it was articulated and defended most voluminously by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware in numerous books and articles, including Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the most widely used theology text in evangelical seminaries. According to these theologians, to deny fixed role relations between the sexes was tantamount to denying the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father, thus placing the denier outside the pale of orthodoxy and on “a new path to liberalism,” as the subtitle of Grudem’s 2006 Evangelical Feminism.
I say this argument used to be acceptable among these complementarians because it is now widely recognized — even by many of them! — to be heretical, a corruption of Trinitarian doctrine as formally defined by the councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) in the Nicene Creed. (In January 2017, for example, after a yearlong debate about EFS in complementarian circles, CBMW took the extraordinary step of explicitly affirming the Nicene Creed’s definition of the Trinity.) Kevin Giles charts the rise and fall of the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity in his book of that title. Giles is an Australian Anglican minister who has argued against the eternal functional subordination of the Son — the name complementarians gave their Trinitarian doctrine — since the 2002 publication of his book, The Trinity and Subordinationism.
Rise and Fall is an eye-opening, theologically helpful book. Why? Not only because it traces the history of a bad idea, but because it explains how that bad idea became so prominent among some theologians in the first place. Giles points to bad theological method as the culprit.
"…the complementarian theologians got the doctrine of the Trinity wrong because they had a wrong understanding of how evangelical theology is 'done.' They thought that with the Bible in hand they were free to construct the doctrine of the Trinity with virtually no reference to the historical development of this doctrine or any reference to the creeds of confessions of the church. In their mind, systematic theology was simply a summary by individual theologians of what they thought the Bible teaches on any doctrine. For them, an evangelical who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture had in the Bible the answer to every theological question."
This is where Giles’ book hits close to home. As a Pentecostal, I am neither a Calvinist nor a complementarian. However, this same theological method is prevalent among my tribe. As Protestants, we affirm sola Scriptura, Latin for “by Scripture alone.” In other words, we believe that Scripture is “the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and practice,” as the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths puts it. So far, so good.
The problem is that we Pentecostals — along with many other evangelicals — often operate as if sola Scriptura meant what Giles calls solo Scripture— “No creed but the Bible!” There’s a huge difference between saying that the Bible is the only infallible source of our theology, however, and saying that it’s the only source whatsoever. As a historical matter, that’s not what the Protestant Reformation meant by sola Scriptura. The Reformers affirmed the orthodox doctrinal tradition of the Church, even as they appealed to Scripture to critique the corrupt traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. They didn’t throw out the Nicene baby with the indulgence bathwater. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this October, it might be helpful to keep the Reformers’ theological method in mind.
Giles wraps up The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity with a 30-page summary of how the doctrine of the Trinity developed in history. It is a good example of how tradition and reason, subordinate to infallible Scripture, produced Nicene orthodoxy. But that very orthodoxy creates a problem for complementarians. As Giles puts it: “Given that the complementarian doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity has now been abandoned, even by leaders of the complementarian movement, and that they have agreed that 1 Corinthians 11:3 neither subordinates the Son nor women, the reality of a major crisis for complementarian theology cannot be denied.”
How that crisis will resolve itself is anyone’s guess, but Giles concludes the book with a quotation by complementarian Calvinist Andrew Wilson: “I’m quite optimistic about the fallout from the whole debate…. I think correctives are good. I think robust challenges to faulty formulations of doctrine will, in the end, produce health rather than decay.
To which this Arminian, egalitarian Pentecostal voices a hearty, “Amen!”
A helpful resource and a fairly quick read without much theological difficulty. Highly accessible to the general lay reader.
A few areas lack substantial address, however:
1 - No mention given to the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) as argued by Owen and a'Brakel in Swain and Allen (Church Dogmatics) -- which is quite a serious omission.
2 - Giles mentions the validity of "differing works or operations of the divine persons" in passing, but never returns to how and where this is possible nor how it was worked out in historical teachings (by Berkhof, Edwards, Owen, Hodge, and others).
3 - Giles claims that the Danvers Statement of 1987 enunciates the case for "permanent subordination of women" which does not bear out from the statement itself or its affirmations.
- It would seem that Giles equates submission with subordination, without substantiation (a common egalitarian mistake!). He also mistakenly seems to equate "permanent" with the created order.
4 - Giles claims that now the false teaching of ESS is out of the way, complementarians should now come learn from the egalitarians. He claims that important developments such as how Genesis 1-3 does not teach the authority of the man over the woman prior to the fall (even though this is the teaching held by the large majority of reformed scholars through the ages, and there is not definitive overturning evidence to the contrary).
In summary, the bulk of the book which focused on a recap of the debate is excellent (with the few exceptions mentioned above).
I also appreciated the strong case that Giles makes regarding the egalitarian stance on the Bible's teaching on gender.
However, the egalitarian chasm this side of the second coming should remain a solid, eschatological impasse for complementarians.
My fear is that the weakness in the popular press (i.e. blogosphere and podcastry) at attending to and expressing complementarian scholarship on those points that the Bible has made clear for millennia, will further erode the gender distinction inherent between male and female, in marriage, church leadership, and vocational callings.
Consequentially, Giles' call for complementarians to embrace egalitarian scholarship ought to send us all running as fast as we can toward the solid teaching of the church fathers and reformed leaders of previous eras before checking the latest egalitarian blog posts.
Interesting how Giles and others who lean so heavily on the patristic authors to skewer ESS teachers while ignoring the same scholars' work when it comes to their position on gender.