Reflections on a new defence of ‘complementarianism’
I recently picked up a new book arguing in more detail than I have seen before the thesis that the doctrine of the Trinity, specifically the Father-Son relationship, gives warrant for what tends to get called a ‘complementarian’ understanding of gender relations – the idea that there is something inherent in human nature and intended by God in male authority and female submission. The book is: Bruce A. Ware and John B. Starke (eds), One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).
I did not expect to agree with the various authors: not only have I taken a fairly straightforward stand against ‘complementarianism’, I have argued even more forcefully that analogies from the triune relations to human interpersonal relations are always poor; a set of essays using the latter form of argument to defend the former conclusion is, well, not something I would have written a commendation for, even if they had been foolish enough to ask me… That said, reading books with which you disagree is much more important than reading books with which you agree; if they are well-argued and adequately researched, they sharpen you and force you to refine your thoughts; sometimes they even contribute to a change of mind, and, as I often tell students, the only way to prove you have a mind is to change it occasionally…
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It is an edited volume; inevitably the essays vary in quality. The worst are genuinely bad. Unfortunately, the nadir is the opening essay, by Wayne Grudem, which in part lists a series of fairly central points in classical Trinitarian dogma (most egregiously, inseparable operations), and then claims each must be wrong by gesturing towards a few unexamined proof-texts. Now, of course, I accept the theoretical possibility of challenging the ecumenically-received doctrine on the basis of serious and careful exegesis; I am Baptist, evangelical, and Reformed, and hold to sola scriptura tenaciously. That said, ‘serious and careful exegesis’ involves rather more than quoting an English translation of a verse and asserting its meaning is obvious; further, I have the view, perhaps old-fashioned, that one ought to understand the faith before trying to overthrow it.
The reader who perseveres beyond this infelicitous opening is rewarded, however. I confess to not keeping a close eye on the literature here, but I believe that these essays move forward the present state of the ‘complementarian’ argument in this area in significant ways, not all of them necessarily helpful to its supporters. There is some good historical work (in marked contrast to the opening essay): Robert Letham notes that the doctrine of eternal generation has come under some attack – from both sides of the gender debate – recently, and offers a robust historical and systematic defence, culminating in the claim ‘ the dogma of eternal generation is the cement holding together the doctrine of the Trinity’ (121); well, no – historically that is inseparable operations (see Gregory of Nyssa, Ad. Ablab.) – but I take the point. (Eternal generation is another basic point of trinitarian orthodoxy that Grudem has rejected, incidentally.)
Mike Ovey’s chapter is curious but also instructive. It is again serious historical scholarship, investigating the status of the fourth-century debates in the mid-350s, around the time of the promulgation of the famous Blasphemy of Sirmium. Ovey examines three anti-Sirmium writers, Athanasius, Hilary, and Basil of Ancyra, and a number of symbolic documents of the period, including the Blasphemy itself; his claim is that in all these writers and documents, a basic submission of the Son to the Father is taught. This is more-or-less true (I think there is more to be said about Athanasius), but in danger of being misleading: the 350s are perhaps the most unsettled and unstable period of the whole fourth-century debate (which is saying something…). Hilary’s thought is rapidly developing through the decade and beyond; to treat De synodis as a mature and settled expression is just wrong. To give only the most obvious example, Ovey picks up on Hilary’s account of names, and particularly of what the name ‘Son’ means (147); Hilary repeatedly revises his theory of names – there are, for example, no less than three distinct doctrines visible in the De Trinitate (he announces a change of mind in Book VII, and visibly changes his view again in Book XII).
The question of the divine names becomes vital in the final settlement of the Trinitarian controversies: in response to Eunomius’ heavily-platonised theory of names, Basil of Caesarea develops his account of theology as ‘epinoietic’, which is the decisive insight that allows the development of Cappadocian trinitarianism. Looking at the history in this perspective, we are forced to acknowledge that there was no adequate account of the divine names on offer anywhere in the 350s; the fact that Hilary’s earlier theory allowed an account of the submission/subordination of the Son was precisely its problem!
Ovey describes the promulgators of the Blasphemy as ‘Arian’; this is of course anachronistic. They were Homoians, and would have repudiated angrily any suggestion of a connection to the late Alexandrian presbyter. The authentically ‘Arian’ phase of the fourth-century conflict passed rather quickly; Hilary (in De syn.) and Athanasius (in de Decr.) construct imagined genealogies which link every anti-Nicene writer back to Arius; the strategy is rhetorically powerful, but historically mendacious. I suppose that, confronted with a modern ‘complementarian’, both Hilary and Athanasius would have quickly inserted him/her into the genealogy of heresy – a point Kevin Giles has leveraged in print. The proper ‘complementarian’ response to this must be to deny the genealogy, to insist (probably with reference to the condemnations of Marcellus and Photinus) that there are ways of speaking of the subordination of the divine Son that are not anti-Nicene. I do not know why there is no consideration of Marcellus in this volume; it would seem to be the strongest Patristic play the ‘complementarians’ have to offer.
Continuing the historical theme, John Starke engages with Keith Johnson on Augustine. Johnson is of course a serious interpreter of Augustine, and his views carry weight. He points out – what attentive reader could have doubted it? – that Augustine’s accounts of eternal generation, inseparable operations, and the nature of the divine names, together leave no space for any account of the Son submitting to the authority of the Father. The argument is nuanced, but can be reduced without too much loss to a fairly simple point, which I have made (rather bluntly) elsewhere: orthodox trinitarianism, East and West, depended on the assertion of inseparable divine operations and of a single divine will; it is not possible to speak of ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ meaningfully if one genuinely holds to these points.
Starke’s response, although billed as an account of Augustine’s doctrine, is in part an appeal beyond Augustine to Thomas and Owen, suggesting that there are Augustinian ways of holding to various points. No doubt; this is however to misrepresent Augustine himself. He is clearly wrestling with the question of whether the sending of the Son implies subordination in response to a claim that it does; this occupies the substantial argument of Books II-IV of De Trin.; his conclusion is straightforward: ‘Nunc autem non ideo minorum filium quia missus est a patre, nec ideo minorem spiritum sanctum quia et pater eum misit et filius sufficienter quantum arbitror demonstratum est.’ (IV.32) In the face of this pressing debate, and his uncompromising response, would Augustine have considered an account of ‘eternal functional subordination’ plausible? No; he was too able a theologian, and too doughty a controversialist, to make that option plausible.
The most interesting essay in the book is by Kyle Claunch, treating I Cor. 11:3. Claunch understands the points about inseparable operations, and tries hard to move beyond them (his exegesis of 1 Cor. 11 is far less interesting than this). He points out the centrality of an appeal to this verse for ‘complementarian’ arguments from the Trinity to gender relations – without a particular reading of this verse, accounts of ‘eternal functional subordination’ offer no traction for theologies of gender. He then acknowledges that this particular reading is very difficult, and proposes a rather nuanced account of it. He argues, essentially, that ‘God is the head of Christ’ can only be understood as a claim about incarnation – it is not an assertion of ‘eternal functional subordination’ in the Trinity – but that an argument may be made from economy to theology here.
The argument he offers turns on the fact that the event of incarnation is in perfect accord with the eternal taxis in the life of God. The Son becomes incarnate because the eternal relations of origin make that appropriate, in a way that it would not be appropriate for the Father to become incarnate. (Claunch appears to be simply unaware of the very extensive scholastic debate on precisely this question, which is unfortunate, but I think he falls on the right side of the issue regardless.)
Unfortunately, he then makes his moves far too quickly: he claims an ‘indirect’ grounding of gender complementarity in the immanent Trinity (87); why? As far as I can reconstruct the logic: 1 Cor. 11:3 demands a link between male-female relations and the Father-incarnate Son relation; the Father-incarnate Son relation somehow mirrors or instantiates or reveals the Father-eternal Son relation; so the sort of male-female relations demanded by 1 Cor. 11:3 are mandated by the eternal relation of Father and Son. Even if I accepted his reading of 1 Cor. 11:3 – which I don’t – the logic here would need far more careful working out to be plausible.
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From Thomas Aquinas down to c.1950, Christian accounts of gender ‘complementarity’ depended on an assumption that women were in some way weaker or less perfect than men. Of course there were challenges – some which accepted the assumption (Sojouner Truth’s great speech), some which rejected it (in my own evangelical tradition, Phoebe Palmer or Catherine Booth). But the basic argument was stable.
When it became clear that this basic argument was simply false, the churches had two options. One was to surrender accounts of complementarity – the English Free Churches all did it in the 1920s and 1930s without fuss or difficulty. The other was to find new arguments to defend the old conclusions.
There is a good book to be written by someone who has more patience than I do with bad arguments, narrating the various arguments used by complementarians in recent decades. A ‘narrow hermeneutic’ argument based around close exegesis of two or three NT texts failed – the exegesis was not plausible; it was replaced by a ‘broad hermeneutic’ argument appealing to a Biblical theology of gender. This also failed, and was replaced by an appeal to ‘eternal functional subordination’ and a direct argument from the doctrine of God to gender relations.
The book I am here treating seems to me to demonstrate that (at least some) ‘complementarians’ themselves have realised what serious scholars already knew: this argument too fails. It relied on an extreme version of social Trinitarianism which had no purchase in the Christian tradition, and was unsustainable exegetically. In their different ways, Starke, Claunch, and others here offer chastened versions of the argument – but it is lost.
If I wished to defend ‘complementarianism’, I would abandon the Trinitarian argument completely; there is a potential Christological argument available in Eph. 5; I do not think this works, for reasons I have explored elsewhere, but it is less obviously wrong than the Trinitarian position explored in this book.
I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?
In the case of the sort of Christian ‘complementarianism’ it defends, this volume makes me wonder seriously if we have reached that line.