The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine

The current debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) has highlighted a number of existing tensions in evangelical theological circles. Perhaps one of the most significant of these is the tension between dogmatic and biblical theology.

The dogmaticians and systematic theologians have principally made their case through appeal to the creeds, patristic sources, and other important theologians from the tradition. They have discussed the deeper logic of orthodox Trinitarian theology, and have shown the ways in which the ESS position departs from it. However, their engagement with Scripture itself has been relatively slight. By contrast, Scripture has played a very prominent role in the arguments in favour of ESS.

It is noteworthy that the egalitarian theologians with the greatest sympathies for an ESS position have been exegetes and biblical scholars, people like Craig Keener and Andrew Perriman. There have been accusations and counter-accusations. For instance, Perriman claims that theologians are attempting to 'retrofit their worldview on scripture under the guise of an epistemologically privileged Trinitarian hermeneutic,' criticizing such an approach for failing to attend properly to history, or to grant it its proper priority.

While I doubt any of the complementarian advocates will favour Perriman's broader approach, Perriman isn't the only person complaining about the role that systematic or dogmatic theology are permitted to play in these debates. Owen Strachan insists that the philosophical and historical Trinitarian arguments 'must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology' and warns of the danger of a 'New Scholasticism', where doctrine becomes the preserve of 'arid scholars', leaving laypeople feeling unqualified to understand the Bible for themselves.

Mark Jones' response to Strachan pulls no punches. Strachan's criticisms of systematic and dogmatic theologians are comparable to the naïve 'anti-metaphysical Biblicism' of the Socinians. Appeals to the plain reading of the Bible have long been the refuge of heretics, who have pitted exegesis against the philosophizing of orthodox theologians. Besides, when actually examining the 'plain readings' that Strachan and others champion, one is all too often disappointed to discover lazy exegesis, which also departs from mainstream historical readings of the texts in question.

There is a palpable and not unjustifiable frustration on both sides here, a frustration occasioned by a breach between dogmatic and biblical theology and by an unhealthy relationship between systematic theology and exegesis. This frustration is particularly pronounced for the doctrine of the Trinity, which, on account of its dogmatic centrality, makes strong demands of exegetes, without seeming to be open to exegetical correction and clarification itself.

There appears to be a widespread sense among biblical theologians that the doctrine of the Trinity was propelled into a faulty dogmatic orbit through various miscalculations in the Church Fathers' exegesis and their failure to compensate for the gravitational pull of Greek philosophy. While ESS advocates may generally affirm and value the doctrine of the Trinity, they often seem to have a suspicion that the flawed trajectory of the doctrine must be addressed and that the coordinating function of the doctrine, while largely serviceable, is nonetheless somewhat compromised. Engaging with dogmatic theologians heightens their impression that the doctrine, unless its faulty course is corrected, is at risk of leaving the orbit of Scripture and spinning off into the deep space of speculative philosophical theology.

Of course, many of the prominent advocates of the ESS position are systematic theologians themselves. However, they typically lean heavily on the plain sense of Scripture in their arguments and, where they diverge from the stances of traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy, argue that they cannot see the doctrines in question within Scripture. Bruce Ware, for example, has formerly cast doubt upon the doctrines of the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, claiming that they seemed 'highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching' (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, 162n3).

Whatever the merits of classic Trinitarian doctrine itself, Ware's claim has something of the sting of truth when applied to the arguments of many of its advocates. Dogmatic theologians--even the best ones--often don't do a great deal of helpful work with Scripture, perhaps especially on the subject of the Trinity. In a debate where scriptural texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3 have been prominently featured on the side of the ESS position, beyond highlighting the readings of key figures from the tradition, remarkably few of the defenders of classic Trinitarian orthodoxy have closely engaged with this and other texts or provided alternative readings. It is far more commonly insisted that the texts cannot mean what ESS advocates say that they mean, as such meanings conflict with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

The neglect of Scripture is common even in the work of the most able dogmaticians. For instance, I recently read Webster's superb treatment of Trinity and creation, and was struck by how it largely functions in a manner independent of exegesis, or reflection upon the biblical narrative (I would have loved to have seen Webster engage closely with something akin to Francis Watson's suggested Trinitarian reading of Genesis 1 in Text, Church, and World). ESS is, more than anything else, about the reading of key biblical texts, rather than about the parsing of a theology of God that, no matter how orthodox, increasingly floats free of the text.

When readings of Scripture that have a prima facie plausibility to many readers are met with forceful objections from Trinitarian doctrine, but little by way of careful alternative exegesis, it is unsurprising that tensions will arise between exegetes and dogmaticians. Indeed, there is a danger that dogmatics may come to be regarded chiefly as the creator of obstacles, burdens, and Kafkaesque demands for interpreters of Scripture.

If this were to happen, it would be deeply unfortunate. Although the standard of orthodox dogmatics must be authoritative (even if not the final authority) for interpreters of Scripture, once again we face the question of how such authority is to be conceived and handled. Does the authority of dogmatics justify it lording over exegesis, or is its authority primarily given to serve exegesis, which will be empowered and flourish as it heeds its guidance?

In my next post, I will articulate a vision for the fruitful interaction of dogmatics and scriptural interpretation.