DEERFIELD, Ill. (ABP) — There’s a tempest brewing among evangelical theologians about the triune nature of God, with potential to spill beyond academic halls into relationships between males and females in the church and home.
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago recently sponsored a two-hour debate, broadcast live on the Internet, about whether relationships of submission and authority exist eternally between the Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the Trinity.
Critics say that instead of allowing the Bible to inform their beliefs on wifely submission, the “complementarians” are trying to establish theirs as the only acceptable view for orthodox Christians, while labeling those who promote equality of the sexes as heretics on par with people who deny the Trinity.
In a June sermon at Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, Bruce Ware, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, included an argument for “eternal submission” of Christ in a list of 10 reasons “why we should affirm that God designed there to be male headship” in the family.
“If it’s true that in the Trinity itself — in the eternal relationships of Father, Son and Spirit — there is authority and submission, and the Son eternally submits to the will of the Father,” Ware said in the sermon. “If that’s true, then this follows: It is as Godlike to submit to rightful authority with joy and gladness as it is Godlike to exert wise and beneficial rightful authority.”
At another point, Ware also said one reason men abuse their wives is because women rebel against their husband’s God-given authority.
At the Trinity debate, Ware, incoming president of the Evangelical Theological Society, said the three persons of the Trinity possess the same divine essence or nature but are different in role.
“The Father is the Father eternally, the Son is the Son eternally, and among the differences is authority and submission in relational structure between those two members of the Trinity,” he said.
Wayne Grudem, Ware’s partner in presenting the submission side of the debate, said the very names “Father” and “Son” imply a hierarchy of authority and submission. Former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and now a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, Grudem added that by sending the Son, the Father revealed his headship in the relationship.
Both sides agree Jesus submitted himself to the Father’s will while on earth, but Grudem noted that after his Ascension, Jesus is described as “high priest,” an intermediary between God and humans, and as sitting at the “right hand” of the Father, a place of second-in-command.
All this worries theology professor Curtis Freeman, director of the House of Baptist Studies at Duke University Divinity School. Freeman believes Baptists have neglected the Trinity to the point they have become functional Unitarians — elevating faith in Jesus alone to near exclusion of the Father and Spirit, or on occasion elevating the Father with subordinate roles for Son and Spirit.
While welcoming renewed attention to the Trinity, Freeman said he fears the current complementarian crowd is using it as “an end to justify” their views on the family.
In an e-mail posted on Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson’s blog, Freeman labeled eternal subordination of the Son a “semi-Arian” doctrine not thoroughly examined and tested by the entire church.
Arianism is named after a cleric who taught in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. Noting the Bible describes Jesus as “begotten” of the Father, Arius posited there must have been a time when the Son of God did not exist. Jesus, therefore, was not “one” with the Father, but rather subordinate and less than fully divine.
The controversy became so intense that in 325, the Emperor Constantine assembled bishops in present-day Turkey for the First Council of Nicea. It was the first of seven ecumenical councils that over time developed the historic creeds of the Catholic Church.
Church leaders at Nicea declared Arius a heretic and responded with the Nicene Creed, describing Jesus Christ as, “Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
While the whole argument may sound strange to modern ears, the late Southern Baptist theologian Dale Moody wrote in his 1981 book, The Word of Truth, that Arius’ view was not far different from statements in the 19th century by J.R. Graves, founder of a theological movement among Southern Baptists known as Landmarkism.
Eternal submission of the Son advocates deny charges that they are tinkering with the Trinity. They counter that the ones guilty of innovation are the feminist theologians who argue for egalitarian relationships between men and women based on evidence of mutual submission among the Persons of the Trinity they find in Scripture.
Opposing Grudem and Ware at the Trinity debate, Keith Yandell, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, acknowledged the New Testament talks about Christ submitting to the Father’s will (such as in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his Crucifixion) but they say submission resulted from — and was in effect only during — the Incarnation.
Other passages, like Philippians 2:5-11, portray the pre-existent Christ as fully equal to God, humbling himself voluntarily to die on the Cross, and afterward exalted to the name “above every name.”
Tom McCall, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity, said verses like Mark’s description of the Spirit “driving” Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of temptation suggest mutual submission.
McCall said “it’s not entirely clear what motivates” his opponents’ claim.
“What might motivate this claim?” Ware offered in his rebuttal. “Only the entirety of biblical revelation from God about himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Bob Allen (
) is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.