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…

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

24 Comments

  1. Scot McKnight
    May 23, 2015

    Well done, Stephen, and I have clipped some of this for my blog today and hope to draw folks to your full review.

    • steve
      May 23, 2015

      Thanks, Scot – most kind.

  2. Mike Higton
    May 23, 2015

    Thanks for this, Steve. I have begun to think that we might be in a rather odd situation at present, being faced with a question not simply about whether complementarianism is true or false, but about whether it is a first order truth of the faith – a claim by which the gospel stands or falls. You say that Grudem et al. seem to show a commitment to the position independent of the strength of the particular theological arguments by which they defend it, and I have to say that sounds all too familiar to me. It has seemed to me of late that some form of complementarianism is seen, by some, as a deep but plainly visible structural feature of a Christian moral vision, always there but now (in the light of the unprecedented attacks upon it) requiring formal recognition and confession as a doctrine of the church, in order to preserve that vision from fundamental distortion. It is not that the individual arguments about it do not matter, rather that they are inevitably no more than skirmishes around the edges, because this is not simply a particular matter of moral teaching but something much more central.

    And that worries me, to say the least.

    • steve
      May 23, 2015

      Thanks Mike. I think there are two things here. One we might term ‘inertia’: suppose you convinced me that my arguments for believers’ baptism and against episcopacy were false; given everything I’ve said over the years, and given my various ecclesial entanglements, I might well look around for some different arguments for the same conclusion and grab hold of them. I’m not sure that would be noble, but I think it would be understandable.

      The second would be the elevation of male authority and female submission to a first order truth/dogma as you say. This is, unfortunately, certainly happening in some places – mostly across the pond – on the classic evangelical weasel line: ‘if you believe X, you obviously aren’t committed to the authority of Scripture, because I cannot see how anyone who is could believe X; the authority of Scripture is first order dogma, so anyone believing X should be unchurched.’ Spot the dodgy premise…

      • Bowman Walton
        Jun 1, 2015

        Not fair to the ‘weasels’ on my western shore of the pond–

        “This is, unfortunately, certainly happening in some places – mostly across the pond – on the classic evangelical weasel line: ‘if you believe X, you obviously aren’t committed to the authority of Scripture, because I cannot see how anyone who is could believe X; the authority of Scripture is first order dogma, so anyone believing X should be unchurched.’ Spot the dodgy premise…”

        First of all, the so-called weasels are actually hedgehogs. For as Antilochus says, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ These hedgehogs live in a society that celebrates the replacement of men by women. Noted for their tenacity, they insist on a biblical account of why God made men.

        But to the complementarian hedgehogs, the anti-complementarian foxes seem to reject all scriptural explanations of God’s purpose in creating the polarity of man and woman. (Steve Holmes counts at least four.) Indeed, attentive hedgehogs hear the most egalitarian foxes saying that the Bible has all authority in the Church except inside a certain perimeter they reserve for thinking about the sexes.

        So then to the dodgy premise. The serious hedgehogs are objecting, not that the foxes are recognizing another authority as higher than the Bible– what on earth would that be?– but rather that the foxes’ reservation is tacitly limiting the scope of the Bible’s authority in the Church. As it happens, foxes follow this distinction more easily than hedgehogs care about the difference. Why should anyone trust a church that is nescient about men and women?

        To regain the trust of hedgehogs, foxes can follow at least two obvious strategies. They can plead innocence; deny that there is any such reservation; prove this with a scriptural account of the great polarity that shows men to be irreplaceable in God’s created order. That would not only answer the charge, but address the pastoral problem on the ground that concerns the hedgehogs. Or foxes can plead guilty; acknowledge that the reservation is real; argue that it nevertheless leaves the Bible’s authority in the Church intact. This strategy might be reasonable from the many perspectives that clever foxes know, but it will be difficult for hedgehogs, who know only one thing, to see how the Bible can have any authority as a representation from the Creator if it cannot explain this central fact in human life. They may not say this as well they should, especially on my western shore of the pond, but this is why the hedgehogs are so tenacious in seeking a scriptural account of sexual difference: a religion that cannot account for the great mysteries in life is no religion at all.

  3. Brandon
    May 23, 2015

    Steve,

    Can you simply sum up your view of the roles of men and women? You stated that you do not hold to a complementarian view so what do you hold to?

  4. newenglandsun
    May 24, 2015

    “Christian accounts of gender ‘complementarity’ depended on an assumption that women were in some way weaker or less perfect than men.”
    I wouldn’t necessarily state this. From my reading of The Angelic Doctor, it seems they believed that women had strengths where men did not and vice-versa. The two were ontologically different at a spiritual level. An assessment that I definitely agree with. Met. Kallistos Ware would also agree according to the revised version of Women and the Priesthood edited by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko.

  5. Charles Twombly
    May 24, 2015

    Super helpful essay, Steve. Many thanks.

    Will be interested if any “complementarians” will respond to my new book. John Damascene set forth the Son’s submission to the Father in terms of the incarnation, not the eternal relationship of Father and Son. The pre-existent Son is subservient only in the sense of deriving his origin from the Father in an irreversable relationship. I agree, as I think you do. JD would have found Grudemesque style of proof-texting as bizarre, if not downright grotesque.

    • steve
      May 24, 2015

      Yes, thanks Charles – I picked up your book, but I confess it is still on the ‘read when teaching finishes’ pile – teaching finished last week… But what you sketch seems to me to be simply standard for the Fathers.

      • Charles Twombly
        May 25, 2015

        Yes, “simply standard,” Steve. If you manage to have a go at my book, I hope you’ll find more than that in JD’s presentation of the relationship of Father and Son. Would love to hear!

  6. Charles Twombly
    May 24, 2015

    Thanks, Steve. Really solid. Really helpful.

  7. Gerald Bray
    May 24, 2015

    I have never understood what the connection is (or is supposed to be) between the Trinity and gender-complementarity and think that most of the discussion about this is wrong-headed to begin with. But at the same time, we should admit that all relationships are complementary by nature. This is not a denial of equality, but in many ways, an affirmation of it. As long as it is assumed that ‘compelementarianism’ means that one party in the relationship is subordinate (and inferior) to the other, and that ‘egalitarianism’ means that all involved are interchangeable because that is what being equal means, we shall get nowhere. The church fathers worked out that the Father and the Son are equal and complementary. The Bible teaches the same thing, in a different context, about male and female. Can we not come to terms with this?

    • steve
      May 24, 2015

      Thanks for stopping by, Gerald. I agree that any analogy from the Trinity to gender (or any other human) relations is misplaced, as I think you probably know.
      Of course maleness and femaleness are not interchangeable; beyond the basic biological distinctions, however, I have never seen an exegetically convincing account of a stable set of distinctions. To take just a couple of obvious texts, Prov. 31 and Eph. 5 propose very different models of gender roles, each of which is easy to align with the culture in which it was written. So I tend to the view that a proper Christian ethic of gender relations involves a creatively respectful evangelical subversion of the local cultural norms, not the imposition of something fixed…

      • Bruce Clark
        May 25, 2015

        Steve, thank you for this stimulating post. I find myself sympathetic to Gerald’s comment: “the Father and Son are equal and complementary,” and that Scripture teaches the same for male and female.

        I would add how strikingly and unavoidably non-”egalitarian” both OT an NT ethics are. Indeed, whatever we may think of “egalitarianism” (marital or communal), is it not a predominantly Western modern construct, to which the Scriptures never call us?

        On the contrary: “…in lowliness regard others as of greater value than yourselves” (Phil. 2.3); though not easy to translate, Rom. 12.10 seems to call Christians to assign more honor to others than to oneself. And Jesus calls us not to shunning the pursuit of what is surely a relative “greatness” but to a kingdom pursuit of such greatness through service. He calls his apostles not to the abandonment of authority but to the selfless (Christological) use of it.

        Does not egalitarianism effectively call us to an ever-elusive, ill-defined “equality”? It seems to regard communal and marital relations as inorganically static, whereas the NT envisions an extremely dynamic relational interaction in which some are in positions of selfless authority while others are in roles of mission-minded allegiance. This portrait is explicitly organic: the human body is Paul’s metaphor for both Christian community and Christian marriage, reflecting a unity in diversity. Paul’s discussion of honor in 1 Cor. 12.22-27 reveals a beautiful, ever-dynamic, ever asymmetric movement of honor, where there really are “weaker” members who, delightfully, prove to be anagkaia–”indispensable.” (One might ask: would this “body” metaphor suggest “inseparable operations and a single will”?)

        Incidentally, the NT’s characterization of communal / marital relations as dynamic finds an interesting bedfellow in late modernity’s critical engagement–even deconstruction–of egalitarianism: “Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising power,” writes Foucault in Power/Knowledge.

        Whatever Foucault gets wrong, he rightly insists that in any relationship power will be exercised and that it will be exercised asymmetrically. Anyone who holds out an (egalitarian?) ideal of symmetry is like one who would build a car with more than one steering wheel (or what’s the proverb about too many cooks in a kitchen?)

        Thanks again for the provocative post.

    • Bowman Walton
      Jun 1, 2015

      “As long as it is assumed that ‘complementarianism’ means that one party in the relationship is subordinate (and inferior) to the other, and that ‘egalitarianism’ means that all involved are interchangeable because that is what being equal means, we shall get nowhere.”

      Yes. The absolute beginning of any grown-up discussion.

      “…beyond the basic biological distinctions…”

      As evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology, and other human sciences expand our understanding of the different biological substrates on which women and men build their minds through the lifespan, language like this sounds naive. It would be ironic if a secular society attuned to Darwin, neuroscience, and human development came to have fewer difficulties accepting ‘la difference’ in scripture than much of the Church does.

      “I have never seen an exegetically convincing account of a stable set of distinctions.”

      Mere ‘distinctions’ are already available in common experience and observed nature. The theological question is about the informing polarity in these phenomena: how does a believer live out what it means that God created humanity male and female?

      “To take just a couple of obvious texts, Prov. 31 and Eph. 5 propose very different models of gender roles, each of which is easy to align with the culture in which it was written.”

      Yes, we can read any text in a non-canonical, historicist way. But is that the appropriate way to read canonical texts with traditions of more theological readings?

      That languages all differ does not disprove their deep syntactic similarities, rooted in neural structures apparently universal in human beings. The realisations of gender possibilities need not take a fixed form for the polarity of genders to be real and informing.

      “So I tend to the view that a proper Christian ethic of gender relations involves a creatively respectful evangelical subversion of the local cultural norms, not the imposition of something fixed…”

      For serious complementarians, this probably means “creatively respectful evangelical subversion” of an ongoing feminist subversion of a hated traditional paradigm imperfectly modeled on scripture long ago. In the horizons of middle childhood and young adulthood, this is a mess. Surely the rule of the Church by the Holy Spirit opens some possibility that is more helpful? “Our God is a God of order…”

  8. Chris Green
    May 24, 2015

    Stephen, I’m by no means a complementarion, but I wonder if someone might argue that the Son’s work remains *distinct* even though not *separate* from the Father’s and the Spirit’s (and so on through all the relations). If so, then perhaps we might make a case that there is something like “submission” at play?

    Be that as it may, it seems to me one of the roots of the many problems with complementarianism is its misuse of analogy: it draws much too straight a line from a certain construal of male-female/husband-wife relationships back to God. As Jenson says, we have to use analogy, but we can never draw straight lines!

  9. Noel
    May 24, 2015

    This was a great review. Thanks!

  10. Alan Molineaux
    May 25, 2015

    There is another part that concerns me in this ongoing debate. It is the inconsistent use of male language by those who make a case for the complementarian position. So we have ‘elders must be the husband….. ‘ being used as a proof text of the superiority of maleness. Then we have the ‘Son’ being subordinate to the ‘Father’ as a representation of a woman being subordinate to a man. In this case it seems that gender language is of no importance. They might be able to make more of a case if the incarnation had seen God, present in humanity, as a daughter.

    I would also add that I am amazed that Grudem is still on the reading list of some evangelical colleges.

  11. David
    May 26, 2015

    Bruce Ware has a pro-complementarianism article in the latest Evangelicals Now. He’s speaking at the EMA next month. Both are to be expected, but sadden me. His article isn’t exactly edifying – it’s full of very manipulative language.

    See http://www.e-n.org.uk/2015/06/features/gender-moves/

    I really appreciated your analysis of the different arguments for complementarianism and your view that they all fail. I would agree. Are there any resources you can recommend (online or in print) that go into this in more detail?

    • Ted Beam
      Jun 4, 2015

      David,

      Could you elaborate on what language in Bruce Ware’s article is manipulative? (This isn’t a loaded question—I’m a novice in this arena. He recently spoke at my church, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.)

      Thanks,

      Ted

      • David
        Jun 10, 2015

        Ted, sorry for delayed reply. I’m working on a detailed response to the Ware article, which I have agreement in principle for another blog to publish. Watch this space for an update!

        For now, the things that concern me include: saying something is “clear” or “Biblical” without giving reasons, utilising slippery slope arguments, scare tactics linking egalitarianism to homosexuality and apostasy, appeals to history, misrepresenting the origins of egalitarianism, taking a selective approach to scripture, and constantly repeating many of these dubious techniques. See if you can spot these in the article. It’s more propaganda than theology.

  12. Bowman Walton
    May 31, 2015

    I hope to read this again in Fulcrum.

  13. Ivan
    Jun 1, 2015

    Hi there, I was curious if you could briefly summarize why you don’t think the christological argument in Eph 5 doesn’t work or point me to where you have explored the christological argument. I’ve been wondering about this whole complementarianism vs egalitarianism issue for a while now. Thanks.

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