Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity

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

This is a great snapshot of the Trinitarian debate of 2016. Kevin Giles gives a good summary of the teachings of Ware/Grudem and the Nicene refutation of those teachings.  While this is certainly a five star book, it does have its shortcomings.  Giles sometimes gives the impression he is the star of this show.  To be fair, he stood against Evangelical Arianism when few would.  Further, the book repeats itself many times (usually in terms of quotations from blogs).

He defines complementarian as one who believes God differentiates man and woman on the basis of “roles,” primarily that of submission (footnote 1). An egalitarian is someone who believes that man and woman co-ruled before the fall.  Submission is a result of the fall.  I think the debate is a bit more nuanced than that, but it is workable for the moment.

Giles notes that some long-time advocates of ESS, men like Denny Burk, have finally broken rank with Ware and Co. 

Giles notes that George Knight III was the first person to speak of “role subordination” in the latter’s 1977 book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women.  Knight argued that Kephale in 1 Cor. 11:3 meant a subordinating chain of hierarchy.  He then applied it to the Trinity (Knight 33).  This is almost word-for-word Neo-Platonism.  It comes very close to Arianism.

Giles’ main problem with “role” language is that its common examples aren’t relevant.  The early examples were that of a ship captain and a sailor.  Those, however, are due to training, expertise, etc.  If he wanted a closer parallel he would have to find superiority by birth: slavery, apartheid, etc. As Giles notes, “Some are born to rule. Some are born to obey.” That is a more relevant example.  We will come back to it.   

In 1991, the Danvers Statement took Knight’s use of “role” and coined the term, as far as I can tell for the first time, “complementarian.”  This was unfortunate, as almost everyone before then thought his view was “complementarian.”  But even in the Piper/Grudem book, the Trinity wasn’t that big a factor in the argument.  It wasn’t until 1994 when Grudem issued his Systematic Theology did it become a factor.

In an almost throwaway sentence in a section explaining Grudem’s beliefs, Giles nails it: “In the New Testament, the title ‘the Son’ when used of Jesus Christ speaks of his royal status and power, never his subordination.”

Giles’ theological takedown of ESS is certainly worth your time, but his telling of the 2016 story is even more fascinating.  By early June 2016, it had appeared that the Grudem/Ware camp had won.  Then two Reformed women, Byrd and Miller, began pointing out the semi-Arianism of this position.  This had a snowballing effect.  Carl Trueman got involved.  Finally, Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres, the two leading Patristics scholars in the English language, buried ESS.  It was beautiful. When someone of Ayres’ stature refutes your work, the game is over.

According to Giles, Miller “fired the first shots that led to the civil war among complementarians.”

Giles raises a good question that is worth considering: why did many confessional theologians who are definitionally precluded from accepting ESS wait so long to condemn it?  I have some ideas.  Reformed people were fighting Shepherdism, FV, theonomy, etc.  Those are worthwhile conversations, but the Trinity didn’t figure into them.

The problem with “we just get it from the Bible:”  the main problem is that the Bible doesn’t say the persons are homoousios.  Yes, Jesus and the Father are “one,” but what does that even mean?  One in nature?  One in goals?  One in love?  A good Mormon apologist can run laps around that.  Rather, we need to submit to the structure and grammar of the text.

To be fair, many in the CBMW camp say that complementarianism doesn’t depend on the Arian view of the Trinity.  I don’t think they can get off that easily. For decades that’s exactly what it depended on.  They camped out at 1 Cor. 11:3 and never left.  I’m glad that most have repudiated their early erroneous Trinitarianism.  I do wonder, however, if it will come back up in future exegeses of 1 Cor. 11.

A note on 1 Cor. 11: What does being head over mean?  Does it mean “source” or “authority?”  Source makes more sense, since women are allowed to prophesy alongside men, and the office of prophet is just beneath that of prophet.  If you read kephale as source, then you get the doctrine of eternal generation thrown in (which you are obligated to believe per Nicea).

Ware says only functions and authority can differentiate the persons.  That’s simply false.  For one, I can distinguish between two persons without knowing which one is in charge.  In any case, the Fathers were clear you distinguish them by their modes of origination. Full stop.  If you project human authority structures back into the Godhead as a way to define the persons, you are a pagan.  That’s literally no different from Greek mythology.

And lest anyone appeal to “Rahner’s Rule,” with Giles we can say, “Why they so enthusiastically embraced this rule given by a liberal Roman Catholic; a rule he never explains, a rule that virtually no two theologians can agree on what it means,” is anyone’s guess.

Towards a Critique

There are many angles from which to critique the doctrine of ESS.  I’ll start with some observations.

(1) Complementarians cannot simultaneously claim the Son’s subordination is merely functional on one hand and eternal and person-defining on the other. The latter is ontological, which entails (not just implies) a difference in essence.

(1.1) Phil. 2:4-11 says the Son willingly chose this role in the economy.  If that’s the case, then it isn’t a matter of eternal function.

(2) ESS reads Christ’s state of humiliation back into eternity past.

(3) You cannot affirm the Westminster/LBC’s use of the persons of the Godhead being “equal in power and glory” and hold to ESS.  ESS specifically rejects that they are equal in power (since exousia and dunamis) can sometimes be used interchangeably.

4 thoughts on “Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity

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