The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Debate so Far
June 16, 2016
The most recent eruption of the eternal subordination of the Son controversy began with a couple of provocative posts by Liam Goligher, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, over on Aimee Byrd's Housewife Theologian blog.
Goligher's posts sharply criticized advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son position (hereafter ESS) for projecting the subordination of the Son to the Father within the work of redemption (the economic Trinity) back into the inner life of God (the immanent Trinity). Within his posts, he accuses those who teach the eternal subordination of the Son of 'reinventing the doctrine of God' and 'doing great dishonor to Christ.'
The eternal subordination of the Son has been a popular doctrine in certain complementarian contexts, being used either to ground the submission of women and authority of men in the life of the Trinity, or, perhaps more commonly, to defend such a position against the charge that naturally hierarchical relations are necessarily oppressive by means of a weak analogy. Goligher implies that, in order to advance a legalistic account of gender roles, a certain group of complementarians are wittingly yet surreptitiously moving the Church away from the historic form of its Trinitarian faith. He concludes:
Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake - our own and our hearers' eternal destiny.
Carl Trueman soon joined his voice to Goligher's. In both Trueman and Goligher's pieces, the controversy is framed as one between different forms of complementarianism. Given these initial salvoes, it is unsurprising that the ensuing controversy has been a fraught and occasionally quite an unedifying one. In Goligher's posts, the stakes of the discussion were ramped up from the outset, suggesting conscious divergence from historic Trinitarian orthodoxy on the part of complementation ESS advocates.
Friction between opposing visions of complementarianism is an important aspect of these fault lines and a matter to which I will return at a later point. While the doctrine of the Trinity is the epicentre of dispute in this instance, it is a point where far broader institutional and theological systems and visions are colliding. Once such political tectonics are appreciated, both the theological alignments in and the rhetorical temper of the debate may start to make more sense.
The principal initial responses to Goligher and Trueman came from Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. Both Ware and Grudem insisted that their position was in keeping with Nicene orthodoxy, had historical precedent, and was firmly grounded in the scriptural witness. As representatives of the ESS position, Ware and Grudem's stance is greatly complicated by the fact that both of them have questioned the historic doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son in the past--a doctrine that many in their own camp would strongly advocate--and have grounded divine self-differentiation within relationships of authority and submission. Grudem and Ware's defences of the ESS position have since been joined by those of Denny Burk, Mike Ovey (who has recently written a book on the subject), and Owen Strachan.
Although the controversy has predictably excited considerable party sentiment, despite its heat it has also occasioned much light and some valuable engagement. There is good reason to hope that it might yet prove to have been a profitable one. The last week has witnessed a multitude of posts and comments, addressing the matter from a host of different angles. Even where party spirit has been in evidence, there have been some extremely constructive, clarifying, challenging, insightful, and generally worthwhile contributions to the conversation. The following are a few examples.
Derek Rishmawy argues for the usefulness of Trinitarian controversy, properly engaged, in developing a theological awareness that is often lacking in the Church. Andrew Wilson provides a brief survey of the issues currently under debate. The inimitable Fred Sanders offers 18 theses on the Father and the Son, challenging, among other things, egalitarian attempts to flatten out the distinctions among the Triune persons and complementarian 'overdrawing' of them. Darren Sumner gets into some of the theological issues at stake in connecting the relations of origin of the immanent Trinity with the missions of the economic Trinity. The importance of having a clear theological understanding of the relationship between the will of God and of Christ's divine and human natures is emphasized in these posts by Mark Jones. Andrew Perriman highlights the need for greater communication between biblical and systematic theologians in the task of Christology, observing theological failure to engage closely and attentively with the scriptural narrative. Luke Stamps also laments the lack of interaction between theological sub-disciplines, arguing for the need for exegetes who are well acquainted with the history of interpretation. Finally, Glenn Butner, Michel Barnes, and Lewis Ayres each provide some clarity on some of the contested historical details.
In my next post, I will review some of the literature surrounding the question.
*Editor's Note: This is the first post in a series that ran at Reformation21 from June 2016 to June 2017. You can find other posts in this series here.