Simply questionable

I’ve just been reading a fantastic new book for review (watch out for the review over the next few days) and was struck by the attention it gives to 2 Timothy 3 and the warning that we are marked out as true teachers and leaders not just by our message but also by our method. It is not enough to simply be orthodox in the content of our teaching we need orthopraxis and well as orthodoxy, how we go about things matters too.

The point rings true because I’ve been particularly concerned about how Christian authors and bloggers go about presenting their arguments. At times it seems that there is a focus on settling scores or getting books sold. We need to remember that God gave us our gifts for the church in order to edify, to build up God’s people and to glorify Christ. I’m not convinced that a lot of what we have been reading and writing recently does that.

The other day I talked about how I read books and mentioned an example of an author dealing with a contentious issue.  He is aware that someone has written a serious and significant book from the other side of the debate to him. It probably presents his opponents argument at their strongest. You would expect him to give that book serious attention and to interact with it substantially in the body of his own work. Instead we are treated to a little dismissive footnote.  I want to pick up on that because I think it exemplifies the problem we are talking about.

The book in question is “Simply Trinity” by Matthew Barrett.  The book is primarily focused on countering the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS/ESS) position associated with Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. I’ve written extensively on the subject previously and you can find my past articles here. My personal conclusion was that both sides of the debate stay within the boundaries of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Both have concerns to protect that orthodoxy but both at times through clumsy language say things that could risk pushing those boundaries. Specifically, the language of subordination is unhelpful because of its association with positions that treat Christ as less than God whilst the non EFS position’s hesitancy to see and express how the Economic Trinity and Imminent Trinity join up risks being misheard as pushing towards a modelist understanding of God simply appearing as three persons. The language also risks giving us an impersonal and unknowable God. In both cases I think the proponents push at but don’t cross the boundaries.

The book that develops the opposing view to Barrett’s is “Your will be done” by Mike Ovey.  In a footnote, Barrett makes a few brief comments about Ovey and his book.  Barrett briefly served under Ovey at Oak Hill a few years back and so he writes.

“Controversy erupted in 2016. Bruce Ware and John Starke published a book called One God in Three persons, with contributions from EFSers like Wayne Grudem. I learned of the book on landing on the other side of the pond only to discover that Mike Ovey my new colleague and principal had  contributed  a chapter and used  words like ‘subordination’ to describe the son’s subjection to the Father within the immanent Trinity.”[1]

It looks a little like Barrett’s first aim here is to distance himself from Ovey and to excuse the mistake of working for him at Oak Hill. Yet despite his alleged surprise, Ovey’s Trinitiarian position was well established not least in his doctoral work and I would have expected an academic moving to work to do due diligence on his new employer’s theological position just as I would if taking up a pastoral post.

Barrett goes on to say:

“When controversy over the Trinity erupted, Mike was surprised to learn that in the past  Grudem and Ware had questioned  eternal generation among other tenants of classical Christianity. Mike discovered that there was more to the version of EFS Grudem and Ware maintained than he was willing to affirm.” [2]

Now it is of course the case as I’ve noted before that there isn’t a uniform “EFS” position and its opponents would do well to acknowledge that the term is being used as a bit of a catch all. This should push them to a bit more nuanced discussion. It is good that Barrett does distinguish Ovey out a little but observe how he goes about it.  First of all, there’s the tit-bit gossip here. Barret invites us in on a little conspiratorial gossip. He is in the know about Mike and is able to share things from his personal conversations.  Rather than engaging with Mike’s work that is publicly on the record, Barrett deals with off the record conversations where he cannot be challenged. There is a little power play here, Barrett knows things that you and I not only don’t know but cannot know without him. Furthermore, that power play is meant to be seen in his relationship to Ovey.  Barrett portrays himself as the informant bringing shocking news to the naïve English Principal.  As it happens, I’ve known enough wise academics like Mike to learn that “oh that’s interesting, do they really say that” can mean “that’s the first I’ve heard of that” or can mean “are you sure, have you read them carefully because I don’t think how they are being presented is quite what they mean.”  I can’t say for certain in this situation but I do remember Mike as incredibly well read on the detail of matters and as having one of the best forensic brains I’ve had the privilege to observe in action.

Barrett goes on to set out his criticisms of Ovey’s book with the first one being:

“Rather than giving an extensive treatment of Nicaea, Mike focuses on creeds that are outliersand carry little or no authority today.” [3]

It’s first worth remembering at this stage that both EFSers and opponents alike affirm Nicaea and indeed, you would struggle to find something in its text which the EFS position overtly breaches. In fact, the whole argument has been that the position somehow by implication goes against the implications of Nicaea.  This internecine debate is rather inter-Nicene.  So it would be absolutely legitimate for Mike to delve into other texts from that time period to help inform the nature of debate before and after Nicaea and to examine Creeds in the immediate aftermath of that Council which would have claimed to have been following it and in line with it.  Barrett here seems to be seeking to rule out evidence which looks to me to be extremely relevant.

Furthermore read this from Ovey.

 “It is important not to confuse the creed produced at Sirium I (351) with the creed produced at the later Sirium II (357), as Giles apparently does given their very different contexts, contents and theologies.” [4]

Giles is one of the opponents of the EFS position and so it is obvious at this stage that Ovey is not merely picking his own texts to deploy as evidence but responding to evidence that has been used in the debate from the other side. Furthermore, it is also clear that Mike believes his interlocutor has misunderstood the evidence. It would be a bit strange if evidence was used by one side in the debate and then the other side were denied permission to engage with that evidence.

Barrett goes on

“Mike is sympathetic with a relational view of the Trinity, a form of social Trinitarianism.  Mike like Gunton is sceptical of Augustine.” [5]

I’m sure that there should be enough on record from Mike to demonstrate his known opposition to Social Trinitarianism.  Furthermore, the assertion here that there is a “relation view of the Trinity” which is “a form of social Trinitarianism” is itself challengeable without reference to Ovey. You see, Social Trinitarianism is a specific view that treats the persons not as finding their oneness in substance but rather in a kind of covenant, alliance, or fellowship. To say that we should look at aspects of Trinitarian Theology in terms of the relations between the persons is not Social Trinitarianism and indeed has significant historical precedent. 

As for Ovey’s alleged scepticism towards Augustine he writes:

“The position in which the Son is subordinate to his Father as a son has historical precedent  since it is adopted by the great defenders  of the Nicene Faith, Athanasias of Alexandria and Hilary of Poitiers, and is echoed at points in Augustine.”[6]

In an extended treatment of Augustine at pages 70-74 in his book, Ovey looks at Augustine’s engagement with Arianism. Far from treating him sceptically, Ovey sees significant alignment between his views and Augustine’s approach and further identifies him as offering protection against some of the clumsiest descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father.[7] Furthermore, it is to Augustine that Ovey turns in his conclusion drawing heavily on his pastoral wisdom.[8]

Barrett claims that Ovey misreads the historical sources and practically accuses him of eisegesis in his reading of John’s Gospel.  Having carefully read Mike’s book and taken time to read Hilary and Athanasius as well as spending many happy hours in John’s Gospel I’m not at all convinced by Barrett’s claims but I would encourage you to check out Ovey for yourself.  In the meantime I think we’ve seen enough here already to show that Barrett does not engage with Ovey fairly.

As I mentioned in my article “How I read you.” This kind of approach doesn’t do an author any favours with me and I’m sure with many other readers too. It is okay for playing to the gallery and getting the support of your own cheer leaders but doesn’t actually win arguments because we are left thinking (and this risks being unfair so I’m working hard at setting it to one side) if they’ve treated someone I know like that and if the stuff I can verify turns out wrong then should I pay attention to whatever else they are saying.

Most importantly this methodology does not sit well with our calling as teachers and leaders in the church.  One day we will see The Son face to face and be required to give an account. I’m sure that many of us when we see him face to face and know in full will have to repent the clumsy language we’ve used when talking of the Son. However I also think that some will need to repent the way they have gone about things when seeking to speak for the Son.

[1] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 341.

[2] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 341.

[3] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 341.

[4] Ovey, Your will be done, 38-39.

[5] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 341.

[6] Ovey, Your Will be done, 2.

[7] Ovey, Your Will be done,70-74.

[8] Ovey, Your Will be done,140-142 &144.

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