Many readers of this blog will be blissfully unaware of a storm that erupted recently among conservative Protestants over the doctrine of the Trinity. For those interested in the details, Christianity Today offers a good account of the issues here. As the dust now settles, it is clear that a number of influential evangelical theologians have for decades been advocating a view of the Trinity that radically subordinates the Son to the Father in eternity and often rejects the idea of eternal generation. They have used this revised doctrine of God to argue for the subordination of women to men in the present, in a manner that has at times had terrible pastoral consequences.
What this recent debate has revealed is that conservative Protestantism is fundamentally divided on the identity of God. Some conservative Protestants hold to the ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Creed of 381; others wish to use Nicene rhetoric but actually hold positions that run counter to that Creed. Reactions to this revelation have varied—from serious and constructive engagement to bewilderment that anyone would regard a complicated doctrine like the Trinity as being of any importance. So what are the implications?
It seems clear now that the evangelical wing of conservative Protestantism has been built on a theological mirage. Typically, evangelicalism focuses on Biblicism and salvation as two of its major foundations and regards these as cutting across denominational boundaries, pointing to a deeper unity. But now it is obvious that, whatever agreement there might be on these issues, a more fundamental breach exists over the very identity of God. This in turn points to a host of other implicit disagreements over, e.g., hermeneutics, the role of creeds and confessions, the importance and significance of history, and the usefulness of classical theological categories.
The consequence of the past failure to note this basic disagreement on the Trinity has been that all of these concomitant issues have been shunted to the margins of evangelical discourse. In addition, the doctrine of salvation has been detached from, and prioritized over, the doctrine of God in a way that is theologically disastrous and inconsistent with the history of orthodoxy. It has also, as pointed out by Christopher Cleveland, marginalized and even abolished the very categories the church has developed for the transmission of orthodoxy from generation to generation.
But perhaps now that this situation is clear we can hope for new, constructive approaches to Protestant life and theology. Maybe it is time for those Protestants who disagree on this most fundamental and distinctive of Christian doctrines to face the implications and amicably to go their separate ways. Evangelicalism as currently constructed should be dismantled, as there is little of theological substance that holds it together. Its various constituent members may find new dialogue partners and ecclesiastical co-belligerents. In that spirit, I offer an ecumenical proposal and some ecumenical questions (to which, at this point, I have no answers but which I believe must nonetheless be raised).
First, the ecumenical proposal. Confessional Protestants—those whose churches explicitly hold to one of the great Protestant confessions of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries and who value classical orthodox formulations as being faithful to scripture—should focus their ecumenical energy in dialoguing and working with those denominations which share their most basic commitments, especially to the Nicene Trinitarian identity of God.
Earlier this year I was the lone Reformed speaker at a conference of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. For all our differences, it was good to be at a gathering where not only the Bible but also history, denominational distinctives, and the Creed were valued; where the liturgy reflected the seriousness of the gospel message; where the delegates thought confessionally; and where we spoke the same theological and ecclesiastical language. I am also currently working on a book with friend and LCMS theologian Bob Kolb, presenting the points at which Lutherans and Reformed agree and diverge, without trivializing the differences. Such engagement is possible precisely because Bob and I are both rooted in a common catholic faith. Confessional Reformed dialogue with confessional Lutherans may yet bear much fruit, and it certainly makes historical and theological sense.
Of course, this principle applies not simply to Reformed-Lutheran dialogue. There are other groups out there who also subscribe to full-blooded Reformation confessions. Maybe we Reformed and Presbyterian types should show the 1689 Baptists some love at this time. Of all Protestant groups, they have more than carried their weight on the doctrine of God over recent years and given us some of the best Protestant material on theology proper.
Second, the ecumenical questions. What is the significance of the fact that, as a Nicene Trinitarian, I find myself sharing a common creed with, say, Roman Catholics on this point while disagreeing with many evangelicals? And why is it treason in some evangelical quarters to sign any theological document with a Roman Catholic with whom orthodox Protestants agree on Nicaea, while it is quite acceptable to rally together around “the gospel” with other evangelicals who disagree on the most basic thing of all—who God actually is?
To be clear: I ask these questions not to push a secret ecumenical agenda but because I am genuinely unsure of the answers; and I shall be returning to them here and elsewhere in the future. But what does seem clear to me is that confessional Protestants need to think long and hard about their connections to evangelicalism, broadly conceived. There are other, better options out there. For example, Reformed catholicity, of the kind being sketched out by Scott Swain and Michael Allen, seems more thoughtful, to have more theological and historical integrity, and to suggest potentially more fruitful lines of ecclesiastical engagement, than our current big-tent evangelicalism does.
In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities. As the war of words dies down, the subsequent peace must bring with it ecumenical consequences. It cannot simply involve papering over the obvious cracks in order to return to gospel business as usual.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.