The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity | Book Review


The debate about gender roles between complementarians and egalitarians is one of the most contentious among evangelical Christians. Complementarians believe that God created a hierarchical relationship between men, whose role is to lead in home and church, and women, whose role is to graciously submit to male leadership. Egalitarians believe that the hierarchical relationship between men and women is not God’s creative design but rather the result of the Fall. For egalitarians, Christ’s redemptive work reverses the curse of sin, places men and women in relationships characterized by mutual submission, and frees both men and women to lead as God calls and empowers them.

Among some of the neo-Reformed complementarians affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), it used to be acceptable to prove their position not only by appeal to specific biblical texts (e.g., Ephesians 5:21–32; 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; 1 Timothy 2:11–15), but also by appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity. After all, did not Paul write, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3, ESV)?

Complementarian Jared Moore explained the logic of this argument in his review of Bruce Ware and John Starke’s One God in Three Persons:

If complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in church and home.

Thus, complementarians found a way to maintain male-female equality even as they denied that women could be leaders in home and church.

This argument was first articulated by George F. Knight III in 1977. It received institutional expression in the Danvers Statement of 1987, the charter of the CBMW. After that, it was articulated and defended most voluminously by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware in numerous books and articles, including Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the most widely used theology text in evangelical seminaries. According to these theologians, to deny fixed role relations between the sexes was tantamount to denying the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father, thus placing the denier outside the pale of orthodoxy and on “a new path to liberalism,” as the subtitle of Grudem’s 2006 Evangelical Feminism.

I say this argument used to be acceptable among these complementarians because it is now widely recognized — even by many of them! — to be heretical, a corruption of Trinitarian doctrine as formally defined by the councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) in the Nicene Creed. (In January 2017, for example, after a yearlong debate about EFS in complementarian circles, CBMW took the extraordinary step of explicitly affirming the Nicene Creed’s definition of the Trinity.) Kevin Giles charts the rise and fall of the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity in his book of that title. Giles is an Australian Anglican minister who has argued against the eternal functional subordination of the Son — the name complementarians gave their Trinitarian doctrine — since the 2002 publication of his book, The Trinity and Subordinationism.

Rise and Fall is an eye-opening, theologically helpful book. Why? Not only because it traces the history of a bad idea, but because it explains how that bad idea became so prominent among some theologians in the first place. Giles points to bad theological method as the culprit.

…the complementarian theologians got the doctrine of the Trinity wrong because they had a wrong understanding of how evangelical theology is “done.” They thought that with the Bible in hand they were free to construct the doctrine of the Trinity with virtually no reference to the historical development of this doctrine or any reference to the creeds of confessions of the church. In their mind, systematic theology was simply a summary by individual theologians of what they thought the Bible teaches on any doctrine. For them, an evangelical who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture had in the Bible the answer to every theological question.

This is where Giles’ book hits close to home. As a Pentecostal, I am neither a Calvinist nor a complementarian. However, this same theological method is prevalent among my tribe. As Protestants, we affirm sola Scriptura, Latin for “by Scripture alone.” In other words, we believe that Scripture is “the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and practice,” as the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Fundamental Truths puts it. So far, so good.

The problem is that we Pentecostals — along with many other evangelicals — often operate as if sola Scriptura meant what Giles calls solo Scripture— “No creed but the Bible!” There’s a huge difference between saying that the Bible is the only infallible source of our theology, however, and saying that it’s the only source whatsoever. As a historical matter, that’s not what the Protestant Reformation meant by sola Scriptura. The Reformers affirmed the orthodox doctrinal tradition of the Church, even as they appealed to Scripture to critique the corrupt traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. They didn’t throw out the Nicene baby with the indulgence bathwater. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this October, it might be helpful to keep the Reformers’ theological method in mind.

Giles wraps up The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity with a 30-page summary of how the doctrine of the Trinity developed in history. It is a good example of how tradition and reason, subordinate to infallible Scripture, produced Nicene orthodoxy. But that very orthodoxy creates a problem for complementarians. As Giles puts it: “Given that the complementarian doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity has now been abandoned, even by leaders of the complementarian movement, and that they have agreed that 1 Corinthians 11:3 neither subordinates the Son nor women, the reality of a major crisis for complementarian theology cannot be denied.”

How that crisis will resolve itself is anyone’s guess, but Giles concludes the book with a quotation by complementarian Calvinist Andrew Wilson: “I’m quite optimistic about the fallout from the whole debate…. I think correctives are good. I think robust challenges to faulty formulations of doctrine will, in the end, produce health rather than decay.

To which this Arminian, egalitarian Pentecostal voices a hearty, “Amen!”

 

Book Reviewed
Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Christianity at the Crossroads | Book Review


“The past is never dead,” wrote famed American author William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s quip came to mind repeatedly while reading Michael J. Kruger’s new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. The authors and controversies of that century are unfamiliar to most Christians, but they fundamentally determined what Christianity became and continues to be today. In the words of Gerd Lüdemann, quoted approvingly by Kruger:

To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day [emphasis in original].

What kind of decisions are we talking about? Over the course of seven chapters, Kruger surveys the sociological makeup of second-century Christianity (chapter 1), its political and intellectual acceptability (chapter 2), and its ecclesiological structure (chapter 3).

The next two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s seminal book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and describe both the diversity (chapter 4) and unity (chapter 5) of the Church during this time.

Finally, Kruger examines the “bookish” nature of Christianity during this period (chapter 6), concluding by making a case that the canon of the New Testament was functionally established by the end of the second century (chapter 7).

These issues might strike some readers as “academic” in nature, of no concern to the average Christian today. And yet, academic debates tend to spring up in popular culture in unexpected places. So, for example, a version of Bauer’s thesis — a mangled version, I hasten to add — underlies the plot of Dan Silva’s (awful) 2003 mystery, The Da Vinci Code.

Leading characters in that novel argued that Christian “orthodoxy” was merely the side that won the era’s theological debates with a considerable assist from imperial Rome, that true faith in Jesus was better expressed by doctrines that came to be known as “heresy,” and that the canon of Christian Scripture originally included many Gnostic “Gospels” that Emperor Constantine suppressed.

I was a teaching pastor when Brown’s book came out, and I remember answering numerous congregants’ questions about it. “Is this true?” they asked. “Is Christian orthodoxy just one option among many? Were Gospels excluded from the New Testament canon?” Any answer I gave required getting second-century Christian history right. Like Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.

To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day. ~Gerd Lüdemann

Let me briefly summarize chapters 4 and 5 Christianity at the Crossroads to show the relevance of Christian history to such concerns.

These two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, mentioned above. First published in German in 1934, then translated to English in 1971, Bauer’s book argued that, in Kruger’s words, “the earliest (or predominant) version of Christianity in these locales [Asia Minor, Antioch, Egypt, and Edessa] was what eventually became regarded as ‘heresy.’”

Kruger’s summary goes on, “It was only in the later centuries — largely due to the influence of the church at Rome — that the doctrinal debates were settled and the ‘heretical’ nature of these beliefs was to become evident.”

Consequently, as Kruger explains the implications of Bauer’s thesis, “the distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy in these earliest centuries are nonsensical. Instead, what you have in these early centuries are just various competing versions of Christianity all claiming to be original.”

Kruger concedes in chapter 4 that self-described Christians in the second century disagreed with one another. “Just a short time after the time of the apostles [i.e., the first century], it appears that the early Church was mired in controversy over a number of different theological issues.” These included the doctrines of creation, Scripture, salvation and Christ — core doctrines all of them.

And yet, Kruger goes on to argue that these controversies don’t establish Bauer’s thesis. “Diversity by itself does not mean there is no way to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy,” he writes. “Nor does it mean that heretical views were as popular as orthodox ones.” In fact, he argues in chapter 5, “even in the midst of diversity, there was a core set of beliefs that unified most Christians together,” and “these beliefs appear to have an ancient pedigree — one that goes back even to the days of the apostles.”

Kruger employs three arguments to reach this conclusion. First, he argues that “there was widespread unity centred [sic] upon the ‘rule of faith’, one of the earliest expressions of apostolic teaching.” The rule was “not just an abstract collection of doctrinal affirmations, but [was], in essence, a history of redemption.” It began with God’s creative work, included God’s self-revelation through Old Testament prophets, and focused on Jesus’ acts of salvation. The “widespread, early and uniform nature of the rule of faith” rebuts the notion that “no meaningful theological unity” can be found in second-century Christianity.

Second, Kruger argues that “there are a number of lines of evidence that suggest [the] ‘orthodox’ crowd…constituted the majority of Christians” in this period. These include the number of leaders, the geographical spread of churches, the preponderance of ‘orthodox’ literature, and the fact that critics of early Christianity, such as Celsus, aimed their heaviest fire at the ‘orthodox’ camp, presuming it to be the majority.

Finally, Kruger argues that “the teaching found in the rule of faith matches most closely with the earliest accessible apostolic teaching, namely the seven undisputed letters of Paul” (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon). “If the earliest apostolic teaching is a reasonable standard for what counts as ‘orthodoxy’,” he concludes, “then it seems that title is best applied to the mainstream Church that embraced the rule of faith.”

From this brief review of Christianity at the Crossroads, I hope you can see, as Lüdemann saw, the crucial importance of second-century Christian history. Nineteen centuries later, contemporary Christians of various denominational stripes can recognize continuity between their faith and that of what both Celsus (the critic) and Irenaeus (the apologist) called the “great church,” a church that can credibly claim to represent the faith of the apostles.

 Christianity at the Crossroads is an illuminating study. It introduces the people and controversies of second-century Christianity in a clear, accessible manner. And it guides readers through scholarly debates about that century, fairly summarizing all sides of the debate, even as it argues for a traditional reading of the historical evidence. I highly recommend this excellent book about that “most important” century.

 

Book Reviewed:
Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017).

 

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

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