Essay / Theology

A Plain Account of Trinity and Gender

i have no mouth and i must scream

Let Us Speak of This No More

The June 2016 wave of Trinity discussion online has produced some really rich essays. Just off the top of my head, with apologies for slighting anybody, the posts by Darren Sumner, Matthew Barrett, and Matt Emerson have been a feast. I know it was controversy that summoned these theologians to crawl out of their offices and post some doctrinal discussions online, and I know that some phases of the discussion burn hotter and produce more smoke. I have to keep reminding myself it’s a Trinity fight, because I quickly forget the feistier salvos. But I’m really appreciating the thoughtfulness of the posts that almost seem to take the EFS controversy as an excuse to talk about the Trinity in general.

That’s certainly the lane I’m in. I will go anywhere I can and speak to any audience I can about the triune God; that’s my life goal. I intend to make the most of any opportunity to catechize on the Trinity. [Tweet this!] [Just kidding; I hate those things.] For the last dozen  years as I’ve pursued that goal, I’ve periodically seen it entangled with certain questions about gender relations. I’ve been invited to speak and write on this topic. I’ve turned down lots of those invitations, because it usually seems to me that my opportunities as a Trinity salesman will be curtailed and compromised if I attempt to make my case in a rhetorical context already charged with the tension between egalitarians and complementarians. Besides, I’m here to Trinity-juke your fight, not to get my life-message gender-juked.

But I haven’t turned down all invitations, because I do take seriously the theologian’s responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God and to account for the full range of doctrines, as time and aptitude permit. Recently I decided I’d better review my own episodic record on this cluster of ideas, to see if I’ve contradicted myself or if my thought had developed in any way. I named it “A Plain Account” in imitation of John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in which he reprints key portions of everything he has ever taught on that subject (Retractationes seemed even more pretentious).

So this may not be interesting to anybody but me, and I’m not blogging it in order to invite more invitations. On the contrary, I’m hoping anybody who might like to hear from me on the subject might find what they want among the already-published bits.

“The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology.” This is a paper I read at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nov. 18, 2004. It’s a broad survey of hot topics in evangelical trinitarianism, and I listed the gender debate as one of the five topics.

The next year I published a version of that paper as “The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 47/2 (Fall 2005), 153-176. You can read it here. I’m guilty of rough handling of Kevin Giles, whose book really irritated me at multiple points. In my ire, which I suppose I thought I was concealing, I made one false assertion: “Giles attempts to solve the question of whether the eternal Son is subordinate to the Father in order to secure his own egalitarian position and refute his opponents.” In fact I have not been able to find one sentence where Kevin works “to secure his own egalitarian position” by appeal to the Trinity. I have long since apologized to Kevin for this mis-characterization. Re-reading this paper at some distance, I can see the conflict between my desire to rage against errors on one hand (wittily if possible –there’s the rub), and to summon Christians to reconciliation and careful discussion on the other.

Something else that jumps out at me on re-reading this paper: Another one of the five trends I reported on was a rising movement of evangelical theologians rejecting the doctrine of eternal generation, including a sub-set of Calvinistic theologians who believed they had other grounds sufficient to support trinitarianism. I did not, in 2004, especially connect the two trends. That anti-EG tide, by the way, seems to be receding.

In 2007 I co-edited Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Intermediate Christology (B&H Academic), a collaborative volume that helps introduce evangelical theologians, and especially Baptists, to doing theology in harmony with the doctrinal guidelines of the first five ecumenical councils. From my point of view, this book was very much an attempt to shape how Trinity and christology are taught in evangelical seminaries, a task for which we assembled a coalition that was interdisciplinary and held a range of views. The chapters by Scott Horrell and  Bruce Ware both appeal to different versions of eternal functional subordination. I think there is a broad space where social trinitarians (Horrell and DeWeese most explicitly) and non-social trinitarians (I think Fairbairn and I are the clearest examples) can collaborate. Similarly, a variety of views on the uniqueness of the eternal  Son in the Trinity were on offer here. Throughout, I felt well aware of differences, but not battle lines.

“As Above, So Below: Appeals to the Trinity in Theological Accounts of the Human Family” was a paper that the Evangelicals and Gender study group invited me to give at the ETS Annual Meeting in 2006. I had the distinct feeling that the organizers wanted me to come with my Trinity artillery to score points against complementarians. And of course my arguments always tend in the “git yer mitts off the Trinity” direction, so that must have been useful for them. I did my best to put a pox on both houses, but I might have run low on pox before I got it evenly distributed. Everybody was very nice; Bruce Ware asked some hard questions during Q&A, and Mimi Haddad witnessed to me (accept egalitarianism into your heart). For the next couple of years I poked this paper a few times to see if I could be satisfied enough with it for publication, but nope.

“The Trinity and Gender” was a public forum I did at Biola with Kevin Giles, at the invitation of Ron Pierce. I revised the 2006 CBE piece and used the new version as my prepared statement. I blogged that prepared statement here (warning: 4500 words, I’m talking and I can’t shut up).

By this time, I think I had learned to resist the temptation of guessing at the motives of those I disagreed with –it’s humiliating to realize how hard this is to do! It seems like an intellectual vice you should have overcome by sophomore year, but tenured profs are out there lapsing into it in public. In place of that, I honed my criticism by connecting it to the dangers of projection, and I set the Trinity-gender discussion in the context of other, structurally similar appeals (trinitarian ecclesiologies and economic orders).

Biola made video of the forum publicly available. It includes Kevin’s prepared remarks, then mine, and then our discussion (warning! 2 hours long!):

My favorite thing about the whole event is how my stank face suggests I need a chiropractor or a laxative or something the whole time. I like everybody there, but my affect suggests perhaps there are places I’d rather be.

No, actually my favorite bits are:

1:09 The description of errors on both sides, including a “flattened, equalized Trinity” in which the three are unmarked billiard balls.

1:19 A delicate attempt to describe relations among the three persons, and the ground of the distinct filiality of the Son. Whew! And a veiled disagreement about Aquinas.

1:26 Giles concedes that there are some influential varieties of egalitarian trinitarianism out there that he does not endorse. He considers them too flat, and thinks that “mutual submission” language is inappropriate for talking about God.

1:27:30 I say “I promise to do a little self-policing on the complementarian side if you’ll push harder policing the egalitarian side.” Giles agrees “we’ll both try to speak to our friends.” (Question: Is the June 2016 online Trinity dust-up an instance of complementarian self-policing? Discuss at your leisure.)

1:46:00 I object to identifying people as heretics when they explicitly deny that they hold the view they are being accused of holding, or draw the conclusions we assume they must draw from their premises.

1:49:00 Giles says he tries hard to keep from calling his opponents Arians. He insists we must treat opponents with charity. But I think he then talks himself back into saying they’re pretty much Arian. But I like at 1:52:15 where he says “I confess I get a bit enthusiastic when I get in the study.” Love the image of Kevin at the keyboard getting riled up.

1:53:15 I reserve the right to save the word Arian for Arians.

You, Me, and the Heavenly Three, an August 2013 CT online piece I did about appeals to the Trinity on gender. I had tweeted about my disappointment that a recent book made the Trinity-gender connection, and Katelyn Beaty followed up to ask if I wanted to extend my remarks. So, a short, pop-level case without much new in it. Was Katelyn recruiting me to play another round of whack the complimentarian piñata? Maybe, but I did ask for it, and her editing process was even-handed. Katelyn even told me I was blowing it by failing to explain 1 Corinthians 11:3, and she was right (I chose not to because exegesis disrupted the literary flow of the piece).

Trinity Conference at Southern Seminary in Louisville. I was invited to this September 2013 conference to speak alongside Lewis Ayres, Robert Letham, Wayne Grudem, and Scott Horrell. My own paper was an early iteration of what I later presented at LATC and published in Advancing Trinitarian Theology. It made an argument about how we interpret trinitarian revelation, and while it located ERAS (eternal relational authority-submission) on a spectrum of views, it made no reference to gender. Grudem’s paper did, however, and subsequently became one of the chapters in One God in Three Persons, edited by Ware and John Starke. Bruce Ware was the SBTS conference organizer, and did a great job in every way. I was especially impressed with the range of viewpoints that he invited. Lewis Ayres interacted a lot but had to leave early, but everybody else was on stage for a panel discussion that was memorable and livestreamed but unrecorded (I’ll never forget Dr. Letham with his lavalier mic gone haywire responding to the question, “what verses would you point to as evidence of eternal generation?” “WHY, THE ENTIRETY OF SACRED SCRIPTURE!”)

Reviews of One God in Three Persons. I reviewed the Ware/Starke book in May 2015 when it first appeared. I took this book very seriously, and my review concentrated on the diversity among the contributors in what seemed to be packaged as an EFS project. Filial submission grounded in eternal generation in a non-social account of the Trinity and a recognition that external operations of the Trinity are undivided is a very different proposition from filial obedience without any of the classical equipment in place.

I suppose my inveterate tendency to attend to the doctrine of God led me to downplay the complementarian connection that is signaled in the intro and surfaces repeatedly throughout the collection. Steve Holmes did not miss them, and he wrote a review that located the book in a history of complementarian retrenchments. I wrote a follow-up comment explaining why I viewed the collection as part of a different story: a growing evangelical interest in the Trinity (yay!), more impressive engagement with patristic and medieval theology (yay!) and a recovery of classical theism (yay!). And while I’d rather talk about eternal generation than about m-m-m-my generation or anybody else’s, I am very encouraged that these traits were best showcased by the younger theologians in the book. So that’s three cheers for a book I can’t endorse.

Lacunae in the Debate. During the Spring of 2016 I served as the outside reader on a dissertation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Hongyi Yang’s dissertation was on “Lacunae in the Debate on the Doctrine of the Trinity and Gender Roles.” In the course of her argument, Dr. Yang (so…you’re telling me she passed!) makes the case for connecting Trinity and complementarianism, admits the novelty of the theologoumenon, but treats it more as a development of doctrine. I’ll leave it to Dr. Yang to make her work public in due course, but I learned several things from this dissertation.

What have I learned from reviewing this series of reluctant dalliances? I see that I have written several thousand words over the course of these years, have consistently said no to linking the doctrine of the Trinity to any vision of social order, power relations, or family structure, and have attempted to be equally vigilant about abuses on either side of the two-party system of evangelical gender debates. I think I  have been more suspicious of the egalitarian side (in one case mis-reading an author) and less consistently suspicious of the complementarian side. I also have a tendency to overlook real fights and minimize the seriousness of charges and counter-charges that interlocutors are making against each other. Sometimes that’s a real vice; a motivated failure to perceive a situation in the round.

One thing I feel reassured about is that I seem to have been pretty resolutely focused on investigating the doctrine of the Trinity proper, and particularly the filiality of the Son. The ins and outs of the EFS discussion in particular have from time to time provided some helpful tools and categories for this task; though the cost has been higher than I would have wanted to negotiate for. In the course of these years I have become more deeply convinced that the doctrine of eternal generation is the key to understanding the Trinity biblically –precisely biblically, and not only traditionally– and less inclined to search for alternatives or even supplements. But that’s another story.

I’m going to post a few more things in the current trinitarian discussion (I need to reply to Mark Jones’ fine questions), and I hope you don’t take it as stoking a controversy or beating a dead horse. I’m going to keep contemplating the Trinity because it is good practice for heaven. Cyprian of Carthage said, “Let us imitate what we shall one day be. Since in the kingdom we shall possess day alone, without intervention of night, let us so watch in the night as if in the daylight. Since we are to pray and give thanks to God for ever, let us not cease in this life also to pray and give thanks.” (Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer 4:36) And since we will contemplate the Trinity forever when tweets have passed away and blogs shall be no more, let us not cease in this life.


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