10 March 2014

Trinitarian Controversies are on the Horizon

Observing the theological struggles of our day it leads me to wonder what will the next big 'heresy' be?

In recent years we've seen challenges to God's Omniscience and Omnipotence in the teachings of Open Theism. From the Canon to many of the Fundamentals of Historic Christianity, scholars have been deconstructing historical understandings and re-contextualizing and re-interpreting them.

Not all of this is bad if motivated by a Berean Spirit, but much of this is being conducted in the spirit of scepticism and an attempt to cast down historical interpretations  and narratives that have been used to legitimize claims of power. This recasting is in itself a type of power-grab. We're seeing an attempt to pull the reins of control away from historical institutions and narratives related to Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury.

 On one level I can appreciate it. In a way it's akin to what I'm trying to do. Although I challenge the Establishment narratives, I have no interest in stealing their power. Their power-paradigms are a big part of what I'm critiquing.

The sceptics are doing this too, but our foundations couldn't be more different. Thus while it may seem I have common cause with many who are beating up on historic Protestantism or Catholicism, we're not on the same side. Theirs is a scepticism in the name of Ecumenicism or sometimes even secularism. They're attacking the idea of Bible-based Christianity by discrediting the Bible. They're trying to re-cast ancient Christianity by reading modern secular understanding into the past. I'm arguing that Bible-based groups haven't really been all that Bible-based.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend may work in the dog-eat-dog world of politics, but it has no place in the spiritual battles of the Kingdom.

In Protestant/Evangelical circles we're seeing tensions not only with regard to the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity but I would argue within the framework of Trinitarianism itself.

Some imbued with the spirit of speculation continue to work toward developing and refining the Trinitarian formulation.

Others will reject this project as an outworking and application of Greek philosophy, an ancient plague that continues to afflict the Church.

These tensions have always existed throughout Church history. The Eastern Church has always tended emphasizing God's Tri-unity, His Threeness as it were. The danger here is the potential to stray into Subordinationism and Tri-theism.

There's another type of Subordinationism that can lead to Arianism, but that's for another discussion. Just don't think they are one and the same.

The West has always veered the other way and emphasized the Unity of God with the equal danger of straying into Modalism and Unitarianism... which of course is also a denial of the Son's Deity.

Both extremes have at least the potential to lead to Arianism and a denial of the Incarnation. It was this latter example that trapped many 17th and 18th century theologians.

The East with its mystical strains, its tendency toward sub or non-systematic apophatic theology stands in contrast toward the rationalistic, intellectually speculative and systemizing approach of the West.

And yet to make it more confusing the East historically emphasized Orthodoxy... right understanding and doctrine, while the West emphasized Catholicity, the formal unity of the Church as an organization. Later this found its ultimate bond, its supreme formulation in the blasphemous doctrine and claims of the Papacy.

Various factions have moved away from the Systematizing approach and are generating controversy in Protestant circles. Their reasons for this are different. Some wish to shed certain scholastic and philosophical tendencies and yet stay within the confines of their Confessional traditions. Others wish to frame theology in a more fluid and dynamic fashion they believe more faithfully reflects how the Bible presents doctrine. In some cases they have been driven out.

All of this is generating reaction, response and reformulation. The Western tendency is to respond to error with ever greater precision. But every time this happens it leads to another schism.

These issues regarding 'system' and 'logic' and arguments over structure and primacy will always eventually lead back to the Doctrine of God. This has already happened in the larger and doctrinally broad Evangelical world. As I mentioned it's driven many to Open Theism. This shouldn't have been a surprise as many Evangelicals already function as Deists. It could also be argued there is almost a Pantheist/Spiritist streak in Charismatic circles.

But many (at least in our culture) are responding to all this with an argument for further rationality and the use of strict logical construction. This of course has always been the root cause of hyper-Calvinism and this ultimately leads to a tension between Coherence (the heart of all systematic thinking) and Textual Fidelity.

But now these tensions are creeping into conservative Confessional circles. The battle is on the near horizon.

For several years I keep encountering people who speak of Subordinationism in an accusing way.

Again this would be the danger inherent in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Tri-emphasis (Father-Son-Spirit) as opposed to the Oneness and Unity of God.

Historically many have spoken of both an Ontological and Economic Trinity but few have agreed over what this means. Those that advance this position will speak of the Ontological Trinity stressing the unity in being...there's one God.

But that God reveals himself in Three Persons. These Three Persons are equally God and of the same substance... of course these terms have to be defined... but reveal themselves as having or possessing different functions. This relationship between the Persons and their different functions is referred to as the Economic Trinity. 

Perhaps as a response to Feminism in the 1970's it was advanced that this hierarchy present in the Economic Trinity is analogous to the how the Triune God relates to creation, and thus the relationship between husband and wife. This teaching gained traction and helped form some of the theological structure for the view of the family known as Patriarchy.

While I certainly am no Egalitarian when it comes to understanding the Bible's roles between men and women, I think this view would constitute a misuse and misapplication of the Economic Trinity. This does not necessarily mean that Patriarchy is therefore automatically wrong. I would just say they have to make their case differently.

Some are calling this use of the Economic Trinity a form of Subordinationism. This coupled with the fact that there's a concerted effort to re-assert the role of logic and systematics in the function and framework of theology leads me to wonder where this will lead? How far will it go?

There are battles over Justification, the Covenant and the entire structure of Biblical Theology. There are tensions within Reformed circles over Redemptive-Historical Theology vs. Systematics and both of these mainstream camps generally oppose the Federal Vision movement and its approach to the theology which has some affinities with the New Perspective on Paul.

The response is always to emphasize the rational ordering, structuring and applicability of logic to theological questions.

The core issues also play out in the debates over Hyper-Calvinism, but I have to believe at some point there will be a large-scale battle over the doctrine of the Trinity. That's where all of this is headed.

A faction will arise, perhaps already exists which is going to push the formulation with regard to Unity. This will be the outworking of a theological pendulum swing resulting from all the modern controversies. They will be accused of Modalism and probably with some justification. I believe there are already some who more or less hold to this position but my thinking in general tends to be out of the mainstream.

There will be multiple responses and some camps... those tending toward Redemptive-Historical Theology may end up arguing for a more a more undeveloped, nebulous and thus mysterious understanding of the doctrine.

The fight will escalate as they fight over the language of the Confessions and the original intent of the authors.

The sad part is that this will erupt at a time when the Church (generally speaking) will be at a low point. In our anti-intellectual cultural context, the controversies will probably drive people away

It's one thing to hold to intellectualism but at the same time embrace mystery, it's something else to emphasize subjective feeling and experience and to regard intellectual contemplation and evaluation as unimportant. Modern Evangelicalism is certainly guilty of the latter and the more doctrinally minded Churches will suffer from such a period of controversy.

But I'm afraid it is inevitable. History helps us to understand the past and the present but can often give us a pretty good notion of what the future holds.

What is most ironic is that the bulk of the people sitting in the pews are already 'heretics' when it comes to these issues.  Most people have not been taught what the Church historically believed and if you go out and talk to people you'll find many Modalists, Apollinarians and others... people embracing notions and ideas that are actually against what the Church has historically taught.

It's not their fault. Blame the leadership. All too often they have failed to shepherd the flock.

That said, out of this impending cyclone of controversy new doors and opportunities will arise. It may provide an occasion to revisit the foundational structures of theology and rethink some of these issues, not in the spirit of the Sceptic, but in terms of a more Biblically faithful, perhaps simple, mysterious and less philosophical framework.
I see a battle coming, but in Reformed circles the battle will be more over Westminster than Nicaea. It's too bad because it would be a good time to re-visit Nicaea, with Bible in hand.


Cal said...

A lot of these heresies derive from false choices that certain systematics present. Open Theism is a case in point. It's a logical outworking of considering the kenosis of the Son of God. If Jesus is really the exact Image, then God is also kenotic. I can agree with the statement to this point, with the Lord always condescending to us, but this gets worked out to all sorts of conclusions for many.

What is lost, which the "Fathers" understood very well, is paradox. Like you said, intellect and mystery together. God's weakness is demonstrating strength, His foolishness reveals wisdom. And thankfully it's this way!

Like a phoenix, our systematicians think they finally got Him on the table to pick through the ashes, and in a flash of flame, He's beyond.

What do you think about the separation of ontological and economic trinity? It seems revelation is disingenuous if they're kept apart. However any concept of "eternal subordination" is an opening towards the Arian errors of the Abyss.

Of course, I think right teaching goes hand in hand with right living. We both know that with the embrace of consumerism, capitalism, conquest, and corporatism that the church in America (which is mostly a church of America) hardly does the latter. Obedience gets pegged as legalism, or misappropriating the law, instead of mercy and broken repentance. Yet there's no time for either if you're running Babylon.

2 cents,

Protoprotestant said...

You definitely can't keep the economic and ontological apart. There's a tension.

Subordination can go in the direction of Tri-theism or in the direction of Arianism.

Of course a purely ontological understanding ends up veering toward Modalism.... which is Unitarianism again. Funny how both errors can get you to the same place.

Right now I'm dealing with some JW's...so I'm looking at Jesus as Jehovah the Alpha and Omega.

But when I'm talking to some Evangelicals I'm going to emphasize Christ's humanity on the one hand and the Economic Trinity on the other.

A lot of Evangelicals are in fact Modalists w/out knowing it.

That said, I like a simple Tertullian like Trinitarianism. I'm not as keen on what came out of Nicaea. I don't reject it but I'm not as keen on it. I think those formulations flirt with speculation.