Many doctrinal debates have taken place within the Christian community, some of them in an atmosphere of intense acrimonious dispute. Some have been settled quite satisfactorily, others continue to simmer, while yet others have been newly sparked.
We shall look at three examples, one that took place long ago and has been settled, one that is more recent and still going on, and a third that is emerging.
The first few centuries of the church were spent in clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea, the first such ecumenical council, was convened to deal with a heresy associated with Arius who taught that Jesus was a created Son of God, thus a lesser being than God. Arius claimed that “there was once when the Son was not”. Opposing his view was Athanasius and almost all of the bishops gathered in Nicaea. They ruled that Arianism was heretical and came up with the Nicene Creed, stating that Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…”
The Nicene Creed was further expanded and fixed at the next Council in Constantinople (AD 381), a form that has been used till now. It emphasises that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father”. Another creed, attributed to Athanasius also emphasises the “co-eternality” of the three Persons in the Trinity.
Subsequently, theologians have also clarified the internal relations within the Trinity. How does one deal with the submission and obedience of Jesus to the Father during His earthly life? Though we cannot comprehensively discuss Trinitarian theology here, we can say that theological orthodoxy emphasises both the equality in being of the three Persons as well as the Father as the “primary source” in the Godhead, in that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father while the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and Western Christianity would say, also the Son).
If we fast-forward to the 20th century, we come across another debate, this time about the relationship between men and women, and in particular husbands and wives. On one side are the egalitarians, who insist that in Christ there is no gender distinction in that women and men are equal in being and status (cf. Gal 3:28). On the other hand are the complementarians who hold that while there may be ontological equality, there is a functional hierarchy in that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22). There is a range of views among complementarians, stretching from a light view to one that sees Scripture as forbidding women from assuming leadership or ministry positions in church (cf. 1 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Cor 14:33-35). This debate is still in progress.
Enter a third debate which brings together the two debates mentioned above. In June 2016, a heated debate began among various complementarians, when American Presbyterian pastor Liam Goligher strongly criticised theologians Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware for seriously distorting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. Grudem and Ware, both complementarians, are accused of distorting Trinitarian theology to support their views on gender roles.
Others have since entered the fray from both sides. Grudem, Ware, and their supporters argue that they are holding firmly to the equality of the three Persons of the Trinity, even while subscribing to the eternal functional subordination of the Son. Their opponents accuse them of introducing a neo-Arianism merely to find support for their views of the marital relationship.
While the debate rages on, a few points must be kept in mind.
Firstly, the term “subordination” is not very helpful. Those who use this term are accused of actually proposing “subordinationism” which is just one step away from Arius’ heresy. The biblical word is submission – whether we are talking about how we should relate with one another (Eph 5:21), how a wife should submit to her husband (Eph 5:22; 1 Pet 3:1) or how Jesus submitted to the Father (Matt 26:39; Phil 2:6-8; 1 Pet 2:23).
Subordination gives the idea of a lower status or being, and can be seen as the result of coercion. Submission gives the idea of a choice. Can the fact that Jesus submitted to His Father during His earthly life be then turned into the concept of His eternal subordination (though functional in nature) is the issue that is hotly debated. The problem may be one of using the wrong vocabulary (“eternally begotten” is an excellent phrase) and the need for clear definitions.
The second issue is one of methodology. When we think of and talk about the Trinity, we are dealing with mystery, on which some light has been shed from what God has revealed of Himself in His Word and in Christ.
An example will help explain this. Some people have difficulty relating to God because their earthly fathers were violently abusive and irresponsible. Consciously or unconsciously, they “do theology” by using an inductive method – constructing God from their own limited experience. Therapy and transformation for them would involve a “deductive method” of doing theology, starting from God, our perfectly loving Father, and then recognising that earthly fathers can be poor models of Him.
When we try to extrapolate onto God the circumstances of our own psychological and social existence, we may end up making God in our image, rather than discovering that we are made in His image – and are being remade into the image of His eternally begotten Son.
Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.