Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War
Image: Pieter de Grebber (c.1600-1653), "God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand "

Last week, a group of evangelical theologians who normally agree on many controversial issues began a heated debate, prompting claims that scholars are getting God’s nature so wrong that they should quit their jobs.

The topic: the Trinity. The group: Reformed complementarians, i.e. Christian thinkers who affirm a broadly Calvinist view of theology and are also committed to the view that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership.

Debates about the Trinity and how to understand it are not exactly new in the history of Christian theology. But in recent years, such disagreements among evangelicals have usually been divided along the lines of other hot-button theological issues—namely gender roles in the church. So what makes this latest discussion significant—beyond the increasingly fiery rhetoric on blogs and Twitter—is the surprise of seeing theologians who agree on so much (including gender roles) breaking ranks with each other around such a core component of Christian belief.

What’s more, the opposing sides are calling into question each other’s commitment to historic Christianity. Accusations of “constructing a new deity” and “reinventing the doctrine of God,” are flying fast and thick, along with calls to “exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.” Likewise, protests that such accusations “do not represent our view fairly” and “suggest that Scripture itself is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity” in turn call into question the critics’ commitment to gospel-centered theology.

Those are big accusations.

So, why are Christian teachers and leaders, who normally have so much in common, suddenly in such sharp disagreement? Here’s a brief explanation of what’s going on and why it matters.

What happened?

On June 3, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) published the first half of a guest post by Liam Goligher, senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, on its blog, Mortification of Spin.

In his two-part blog post, Goligher strongly critiqued well-known theologians Bruce Ware (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Wayne Grudem (Phoenix Seminary) for presenting a “novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.”

Goligher claimed that Ware, Grudem, and other complementarians have—in order to support their view of biblical gender roles—adopted a theology that makes God the Son eternally subordinate to God the Father, effectively dividing the Trinity.

According to Goligher, Ware and Grudem’s theology goes “beyond orthodoxy.”

According to Goligher, Ware and Grudem’s theology goes “beyond orthodoxy.” He adds that it “verge[s] on idolatry,” suggesting that holding their view “should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.”

Directly following those initial posts, Carl Trueman, a theologian at Westminster Theological Seminary who also blogs for ACE, added his support to Goligher’s accusations.

Ware and Grudem both responded to Goligher and Trueman, while numerous theologians and scholars have come out in support of one side or the other (notably the Patristics scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes have come out against Ware and Grudem’s views).

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Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War