No, The Trinity Debates Aren’t Over

In 2016, there was an eruption in conservative Evangelical and Reformed theologians surrounding the doctrine of the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son (EFS). There’s no need to rehash what has already been said, as that has been summarized helpfully elsewhere. Needless to say, it was the hot topic for podcasts, blogposts, books, and academic articles for more than a year. Seemingly everyone had an opinion on the Trinity debates, and sides were taken, uniforms passed out, and strategic advances made.

Now, several years later, there seems to be something of a ceasefire, with the theological battlefield only seeing an occasional rifle shot to the other side instead of the constant cannon fire it once witnessed. Some may be led to think that since so much time has passed, and since the debate isn’t as white hot as it once was, that something of a peace treaty has been reached. An “agree to disagree,” kind of thing, if you will. So, is the battle over? No. Far from it.

Why do I say this? Well, first of all, no one (that I’m aware of) has repudiated their positions. Those who have eschewed the biblical and catholic doctrine of God in favor of a more “Biblicist” approach are still teaching their erroneous views. Some theologians have even doubled down on their views in the face of a seemingly mountain of evidence to the contrary.[i]

However, now it seems that other vital doctrines are being compromised. Doctrines that were once seen as imperative to hold for one to be considered orthodox. Sadly, some have even adopted arguments that were once only reserved for Socinians, rather than hold fast to the orthodox faith confessed in all ages. Doctrines such as divine simplicity, impassability, actus purus, and inseparable operations are all up for grabs. In fact, one soon-to-be released book aims to show that among the history of the orthodox church, there have been at least twelve different conceptions of divine simplicity! No doubt there are some differences, especially in nuance, but twelve seems a bit extreme. Compare that view with the proclamation of William Twisse, the prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, who said “That God’s attributes are not really distinguished, we all confess.”[ii]

What is the cause of this? There’s probably not one single answer to that question. Some of it is (in my estimation) an overreaction to the retrieval of classical theism and Thomas Aquinas in Reformed circles. Wary of falling prey to some kind of “Thomism,” and losing the Reformational truth of Sola Scriptura, some have opted to claim the title of being a “Biblicist.” Despite many of these doctrines being points of continuity between classical Thomism and Reformed theology.[iii] Perhaps others (maybe even the same people) are ignorant of their own confessional Protestant tradition. And with the release of certain works, such as Richard Muller’s magisterial Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, as well as the republishing of older primary sources by companies like RHB, the gap between the two camps is only widening.

Whatever the reasons may be (and I’m sure there are more), there seems to be no slowing down. Or to borrow another phrase, it’s “all gas and no brakes” for the Biblicist crowd. With these doctrines redefined or thrown out altogether, there’s a crack in the foundation that allows Kenoticism and other errors to seep in. Sadly, it seems that may already be happening. So no, the battle isn’t over. Now is not the time for a ceasefire. Rather, it is time to pick up your sword, put on the full armor of God (Eph 6:10-18), and defend the truth once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).[iv]

Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[i] For example, in his second edition of his wide-selling Systematic Theology published in 2020, Wayne Grudem attempts to answer some of the criticisms in defense of his position, concluding at one point that “To deny these unidirectional relationships between Father and Son is to fail to speak the way the Scripture speaks about the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 304 (kindle edition).

[ii] William Twisse, A Discovery of D. Jacksons Vanitie (London: N.p., 1631), 74.

[iii] Carl Trueman rightly observes that “the notion of God as simple, as Him being pure act, and as thus being perfect in terms of having no potentiality, is an obvious point of continuity between Thomas and the Reformed.” Carl Trueman, “The Reception of Thomas Aquinas in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodox and Anglicanism” in The Oxford Handbook of the Recception of Aquinas, eds. Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 212.

[iv] Lord willing, in follow up articles we will examine these issues in closer detail.