Grudem and Ware: heretics or a disagreement over language?

I’m breaking off from where I planned to go next in my discussion of the Trinity and the relationship of the Son to the Father. The reason is that I  want to look at a specific example of a dispute. The dispute concerns “Eternal Generation.”

A Creedal Matter

This is the belief as stated in the Nicene creed that Christ is the only begotten son of the Father. 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

A couple of EFS advocates, specifically Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem are alleged to have denied Eternal Generation, therefore putting them outside of Nicaean orthodoxy (as polite and academic a way as possible of calling them raving Arian Heretics).

The charge is lead by Kevin Giles, a prominent proponent of Egalitarianism.  On the Patheos site, he provides a transcript of a talk he gave at the Evangelical Theology Society in 2016.[1] In his speech, he quotes Grudem as saying:

“it would be best if the words about the begetting of the Son were deleted from the Nicene Creed and from all ‘modern theological formulations’”[2]

Then, he quotes Bruce Ware as saying that the Eternal Generation “doctrine is highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching”[3]

In condemning Grudem and Ware, Giles claims to be following Letham. This important for Giles in seeking to win over a complementarian audience.  Giles says:

“In absolutely rejecting Dr Grudem and Dr Ware’s theological methodology I follow the gender complementarian, Dr Robert Letham. He roundly condemns Drs Grudem and Ware in One God in Three Persons, for predicating their understanding of the Son of God on fallen human relationships. He says, this is an Arian argument that must be categorically rejected. He writes,

‘The Arian argument that human sons are subordinate to their fathers led to their contention that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The church rejected the conclusion as heretical and opposed the premise as mistaken. Rather, [it taught], the Son is equal with the Father in status, power and glory’.”[4]

Selectively Quoting?

A slam dunk, or so it seems.  However, can we be sure that these selective quotations accurately reflect their author’s position.  Unfortunately, Giles has previous. In his appendix to his work on The Holy Trinity engaging Giles, Letham accuses Giles of being selective in his quotations including of Letham himself in a way that misrepresents him.[5]  Indeed, it seems again that Giles is not being entirely transparent in his use of Letham. In fact, Letham does not accuse Ware of Arianism.  At the start of his chapter he notes that a number of authors on both sides of the EFS debate have expressed reservations about eternal generation terminology and then goes out to set out the doctrine and some of the challenges that have been made against it. To claim that this means he is accusing Ware or a number of other authors mentioned several pages earlier of Arianism is categorically false.[6]

You see, what Giles has done is set Grudem and Ware up for doing something that Letham states is wrong without checking whether Letham believes they have done this. Giles believes that Ware has made the error here of applying the nature of human sonship backwards onto God’s nature. This was part of the Arian error.  However, to say that we cannot apply back language about human relationships onto divine nature univocally is not the same as saying that we cannot use language and imagery associated with human relationships to describe divine relationships analogically. If we did, then we would find ourselves devoid of any language or imagery to describe God. In fact, this would rule out some of the very arguments used by opponents of Arius.

Letham is not the only author who might feel that he is being quoted out of context and Giles is not the only one to do it.  In this article https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/07/01/some-clarifications-from-kdclaunch-on-bruce-ware-and-the-trinity-debate/ Kyle Claunch responds to Carl Trueman’s use of a couple of his paragraphs engaging with Ware and Grudem in One God in Three Persons.

It is important that we are so careful in how we use the selected words of others either to support our position or in order to attack them. Of course, this is not historically a new thing. There was some controversy around Calvin’s Trinitarianism where he also had some potential difficulties with the creedal language. He was concerned that “God From God” in the Creed could imply that The Son was subordinate to the Father in nature. He therefore sought to emphasis that The Son was “autotheos” in other words holding the divine nature in his own right and to insist that the distinction of Father to Son applied only in terms of person not nature.[7] Indeed, Calvin concludes a section on various Trinitarian controversies in his Institutes by saying.

“.. what avails it to discuss, as Lombard does at length (lib. i. dist. 9) whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes an absurd fiction from the moment it is seen, that from eternity there were three persons in God.”[8]

You will note how similar this seems to be to the controversy with Ware and Grudem. Calvin talks about fiction in a similar way to contemporary concerns about theological speculation.  Now Calvin had his fair share of opponents who would have loved to have been able to condemn him for heresy on this point and yet, they recognised that he was not stepping outside of Nicene orthodoxy but within the space provided for reflection by the creed, he was attempting to think through the language we use.  Calvin’s concern was to protect Nicen orthodoxy by showing that Christ is fully God as well as fully man.  His opponents may have not been happy with his language but could not fault his orthodoxy here.

So, retuning toWare and Grudem. Is it possible that they have been misunderstood or misrepresented? Well, I don’t have all of the relevant books and articles accessible so I can only make some provisional comments here based on what I do have access to but on the basis of what I have seen, I think there is a legitimate. Concern.

For example, Giles provides a proud post-script to his talk claiming that Grudem and Ware were forced by his dazzling theological argument to retract their positions.

“After I sat down Dr Ware spoke. He began by saying, “I have now changed my mind.” He then went on to tell the several hundred evangelical theologians present that he now endorses the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son because he now recognizes it has good biblical support. It is foundational to the doctrine of the Trinity!!!”[9]

After Dr Erickson had spoken, Dr Grudem spoke. He too began by saying that he now believed the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and that he would be correcting his Systematic Theology when he revised it!!! I thought to myself, how long will it be before these two hugely influential evangelical theologians will confess that teaching the three divine persons are hierarchically ordered is also mistaken and a threat to the historic faith. [10]

What Grudem says

This should prompt us to go and look at what Ware and Grudem said at the ETS. Well, I’ve not managed to source Ware’s talk yet but I have found Grudem’s notes online. He says:

“My conclusion on eternal generation: I am now willing to affirm the “eternal generation of the Son,” based on John 1:14, 18, etc., as something mysterious, not implying creation of the Son (“begotten not made”), and somehow analogous to a human father-son relationship.”

And further

“I still want to guard zealously against greater ontological power – greater attribute – for Father”[11]

Engaging with what Grudem was actually saying shows us what he was seeking to do both in the past and in the present. It is clear, that he was concerned to avoid language that might imply that The Son was ontologically less than the Father, that he was created, that he was a subordinate being. His concern was clearly with language and interpretation so that in the past he had expressed concern that some of the language used to explain Eternal Generation was Latinate and lacked clear English definitions.

“But just what is meant by “eternal generation”? In what [Goligher and Trueman] have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words “paternity” and “filiation” provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean “existing as a father” and “existing as a son,” which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with “eternal generation” until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If “eternal generation” simply means “an eternal Father-Son relationship,” then I am happy to affirm it.)”[12]

Wyatt Graham who is quoting Grudem here muses:

“Grudem calls eternal generation “some Latinized terminology” that requires further clarification. Theological terms, according to Grudem, should have an “ordinary English” explanation.”[13]

I would like to make two brief observations here. First of all, notice how the idea that we should aim to have ordinary English explanation is expressed with some element of surprise here.  Grudem is not infallible but along with others like Frame, Ovey and indeed historically back to the Reformers, his clear concern is to see theology owned by the church not the academics and truth about God communicated clearly.

Secondly, once again the quote has been mishandled. It is not “Eternal generation” that Grudem describes as “some latinized terminology” but rather the explanation that Goligher and Trueman have given for it. In other words, his problem at this point is not with the creed or the doctrine but with his contemporaries handling of it.

What Ware Says

Now, let’s return to Ware.  Here is a fuller quote from him courtesy of Rachel Miller on the Aquilla Report

The Western church adapted the Nicene Creed to say, in its third article, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the son” (filioque) and not merely that he proceeds from the Father (alone). While I agree fully with this additional language, I believe that this biblical way of speaking, as found in John 15:26, (But when that Comforter shall come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth of the Father, he shall testify of me.), refers to the historical sending of the Spirit at Pentecost and does not refer to any supposed “eternal procession” of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. The conceptions of both the “eternal begetting of the Son” and “eternal procession of the Spirit” seem to me highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching. Both the Son as only-begotten and the Spirit as proceeding from the Father (and the Son) refer, in my judgment, to the historical realities of the incarnation and Pentecost respectfully.[14]

Now, Miller thinks that this quote makes Ware a subordinationist and that it puts him in conflict with the Nicene Creed. However, we need to note two important things here. First of all, Ware is writing specifically about the Filioque clause. As he explains, this was added in by the Western Church[15]  This remains a bone of contention between East and West.  Secondly, notice that he explicitly says on the clause that “I agree fully with this additional language.”  His problem is not with the creed or even the creedal language here. Rather, he simply wants to point out that the text used to prove this does not in his opinion exegetically support the clause. As is the case on a number of theological points, it is possible to agree that the whole testimony of Scripture leads us to a doctrinal position whist recognising that some texts may not be the right ones to draw on to support that conclusion.  So similarly, Ware is cautious about using the language in John 3:16 about the only begotten son as the basis for eternal generation as he sees the language of begetting and sending as applying to the incarnation. Ironically his aim seems to be to defend the full deity of Christ along with others who are nervous about applying language to do with the incarnation and the economic trinity back onto the eternal nature of the relationship between Father and Son. As it happens, I disagree with Ware on the exegesis here and do think that the texts provide exegetical support.

Assessment

Whilst I have not been able to check out everything Grudem and Ware have ever said on this matter, I have to say that the quotes being used by their opponents to accuse then of denying Nicene Trinitarianism simply do not support the charge.  We may be unhappy with some of their exegesis and the clumsy and unhelpful language and structure to their arguments but that does not make them heretics.

Why does this matter

Why as a pastor have I given over a morning to looking at this particular spat between theologians?  Well it is exactly because it has been conducted that way.  I am concerned that we are moving to a situation where theology is removed out of the church again and becomes the subject of speculation amongst academics and students.  If we reach the stage where an academic elite set the parameters so tightly and the bar so high that they are able to trip up and accuse anyone over mere differences of language then we will remove theology from the church.

This matters because I believe that what we believe affects how we live. Doctrine does not exist as ammunition for our personal battles or for speculation. It exists to enable us to know God better and to live for him. It often seems that the aim of the restrictions is to prevent doctrine being used for pastoral application which is the very thing it should enable. If we cannot learn about relationships from the relationships within the trinity then where can we truly learn about them?

I don’t want the Doctrine of the Trinity to be this remote, inaccessible thing that people don’t understand and are scared to go near in case they get shot down in flames. I want it to be something they enjoy that prompts worship, that helps them consider their own lives and that provides them with ammunition not for civil war but for evangelism and apologetics.

There is another concern I have. The key thing that comes across to me in this debate is that people seem to be talking past each other and not understanding each other. There seems at the moment to take statements out of context and put the worst spin on them rather than assuming the best of one another. This is bad example to set.  Currently, future pastors are trained within the context of academic theology and as well as the theology, they are picking up the attitudes and methods of their tutors. If this type of behaviour is then brought into the church then we are in trouble.


[1] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/

[2] He cites this from Grudem, Systematic Theology,1234. Unfortunately that page turns out to be an index page in my copy with mo mention of the said quote. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/

[3] Ware, Father Son  and Holy Spirit, 162, cited at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/

[4] The Letham quote is cited from his chapter in One God. Three Persons on “Eternal Generation” at page 122.  https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/#_ftn4

[5] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 492 -493.

[6] See Letham “Eternal Generation” in One God Three Persons (ed Ware, Bruce & Starke, John. Wheaton Il.: Crossway, 2015), 109 -125.

[7] See Letham, The Holy Trinity, 252 -268.

[8] Calvin, Insiitutes, I.XIII.29.

[9] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/#_ftn4

[10] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/#_ftn4

[11] http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ETS-Presentation-on-Trinity-11-15-16.pdf

[12] https://wyattgraham.com/how-wayne-grudem-and-bruce-ware-argue-for-eternal-relations-of-submission-and-authority-in-their-own-words/

[13] https://wyattgraham.com/how-wayne-grudem-and-bruce-ware-argue-for-eternal-relations-of-submission-and-authority-in-their-own-words/

[14] https://www.theaquilareport.com/which-is-it/

[15] Western Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy split away from each other. The Eastern stream includes Greek and Russian Orthodox churches as well as Egyptian Coptics. The Western tradition provides the foundation for Protestant and Reformed theology.

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