Wayne Grudem’s Historical Theology Analyzed


I would welcome Wayne Grudem to the Lord’s table at our church. I believe he has done a lot of good for the church.

But I’m afraid the historical theology in Professor Grudem’s recent piece leaves me quite disappointed, even a little frustrated. His piece is a-historical and he advances quotes that do little to bolster his case, with even one or two quotes actually contradicting his view.

He offers an a-historical definition of “generation,” which leads him to think all sides are in agreement on that point. But we aren’t. Grudem simply redefines “generation” and expects us to be okay with that. No wonder that he reads “subordination” in the sources he provides according to his own meaning and not the meaning of the authors. In one instance, Grudem remarks,

“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.”

I get the impression that Grudem is ignorant of how the tradition has historically defined paternity, filiation, generation, etc. Our best authors didn’t just use those words, they explained what they meant, as best they could. He cannot redefine “generation” and then say that he is in fact creedal, followed by quickly moving to authority-submission.

Throwing down a whole host of quotes that span a few centuries, but without any analysis of the quotes in their historical context is a dangerous way to do historical theology. Words, and concepts change over time, such as “regeneration.”

Modes of origin (i.e., trinitarian relations involving eternal generation and eternal procession) should not be read as essentially synonymous with the authority-submission model being proposed by those who hold to ESS (ERAS). It seems as though Grudem wants to do that, as if they are synonymous concepts.

“Authority” is a word that has a certain historical connotations (see Aquinas, ST, 1.33.1): relations of origin, where Aquinas can affirm “authority” but in the same sentence deny subjection. I fail to see what historical-theological work Grudem has actually done that couldn’t have been done by an undergrad student with a good search engine and a Logos software program. Most of the quotes he used were already floating around the web the past week, so they were not a surprise to us who have been following the debate.

History shows that theologians can use the same words but what they mean by those words can be very different. That’s the work of historical theology. What Grudem does in this post is not historical theology, which makes Owen Strachan’s grandstanding over at his blog rather unfortunate.

To prove this, when I read Michael Ovey’s piece, it appeared to me his view of “subordination” involved multiple wills in God. He completely redefined classical Reformed Christology in doing so. Is Grudem happy with Ovey’s revisionist Christology, which is in fact a revisionist account of the doctrine of God? Or is he just happy that Ovey uses the word “subordination”?

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I’m afraid the historical theology in @grudemwayne’s recent work leaves me disappointed.—@Mark_Jones_PCA

Does Grudem actually treat the Bible the way he treats historical sources?

Take the quotes by John Calvin, for example. Calvin is merely speaking in the first quote of “order of subsistence,” and this would have been the view of any pro-Nicene theologian towards the end of the fourth century. Just what the second quote from Calvin proves is utterly beyond me. But if he wants to press that quote into how relations in the immanent trinity work, would he say that the Son obeys the Father in ad intra relations? That’s an ontological impossibility, by the way. But what else could Grudem possibly mean by throwing down a quote that has in view Christ’s human obedience while on earth?

In another place, Grudem quotes Carl Henry. But it appears to me that Henry is doing what Calvin and any pro-Nicene theologian would do: speak of the authority of the Father in terms of modes of subsistence. That is not the same thing as those who hold to eternal submission (or subordination). He’s simply speaking of relations of origin. Same with Hodge.

Using men like Michael Ovey and Bruce Ware is a curious move on Grudem’s part. As far as I am aware, these men are the ones who have been writing stuff that has caused us to raise eyebrows. To then adduce them as support is not the same thing as getting Augustine, Aquinas, or Owen on your side.

As for quoting Yarnell, I think Grudem might be surprised to learn Yarnell does not agree with him.  As for Richard Muller, he only meant to use Calvin in terms of the “authority” question, and I am reliably informed the word “subordination” will be removed in the next re-print of PRRD.

As for quoting Geisler, Ryrie, Gordon Lewis, and Bruce Demarest, I really don’t see the point.

At other times, Grudem quotes theologians who are speaking about the economy of salvation, which is not what this debate is primarily about.

For example, the quotes from Jonathan Edwards actually disprove Grudem’s case. So Grudem quotes Edwards:

“4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another…”

Strangely, Grudem only highlights certain words in bold: “a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings” but does not highlight in bold “be not from any proper natural subjection to one another.” What he fails to highlight is precisely the point under dispute. When he is prepared to deal with the key questions then perhaps this conversation will go somewhere. But, as it stands, he is not doing that.

The quotes from Edwards actually prove the case I have been making over the past week. Edwards is speaking of a “free agreement,” not of ad intra necessary submission. Edwards knows that can’t happen. Then Edwards goes on to prove another point that I made at the beginning of this debate: the Son became the incarnate, obedient servant, because of the fittingness of the order of subsistence among the persons. What Edwards says is totally uncontroversial. But make no mistake, he’s not saying the same thing as what proponents of ESS are saying. He goes out of his way to avoid that implication by arguing the opposite.

Now, as we continue with Grudem’s choice of quotes, where are the Early Church Fathers? Is Michael Haykin wrong to say there is “not a whiff of subordination” among the orthodox Early Church Fathers? Of course he isn’t. Isn’t it telling that Patristic scholars are rather confused by Grudem’s position? Of course it is. Many have spoken and it appears as though Grudem et al are simply unwilling to listen.

The State of the Question

We all want to know what Grudem et al mean by the Son submitting to the Father in the ad intra necessary relations between the three persons. What does the Son submitting to the Father mean in the free will of God in the plan of salvation? Don’t give us quotes. Explain what submission looks like among the persons of the Trinity in the ad intra relations. I know how the God-man can submit in time: he has a human will. But how can the Son, according to his divine nature, “submit”?

Sometimes you can find quotes from all sort of theologians where they are speaking “improperly” versus “properly,” largely because in their writings a lot of what they say is for homiletical purposes. So you see the Son “accepting” the proposals of the Father in some treatments on the pactum. That is “improper,” sort of like God getting “angry.” Do those throwing around the quotes on the internet care whether the quote is used in a sermon or in a sophisticated theological treatise? Do they care about proper vs. improper, necessary vs. accidental, etc.?

Maybe Strachan, Ware, or Grudem can please answer the following question for their critics:

If the Son is eternally obedient or submissive to the Father, how does that actually work? How does the Son, according to his divinity, submit to the Father? How is that ontologically possible if there is one undivided will among them? Or are they willing to give up divine simplicity?

For my part, we cannot distinguish wills between the three persons when we are speaking of intra-trinitarian relations. There is one will. Thus when Grudem or Ware speak of “obedience” how do they suppose the Son is obedient or submissive in his necessary relation to his Father? Doesn’t it make more sense, classically speaking, to simply affirm that the Son receives from the Father rather than gives? That’s a big difference, is it not? You can’t redefine “generation” and add in submission language and not expect serious damage to take place to the doctrine of God and the Trinity.

As for Owen Strachan’s commentary on Grudem’s post, I found it a little immature. Given his confidence, I’d happily debate him face-to-face on this issue if he’d agree.

Again, divine simplicity and God’s will are two major issues that have not been adequately addressed by these gentlemen who hold to ESS. I still don’t know how they can make their doctrine of the Trinity “work” when they insist on bringing the word “submission” (or subordination) into the immanent Trinity.

Grudem et al so want to make ontological equality and functional subordination work with men and women that they are willing to make that the case with God. The difference is, in the examples of God and Christ, as well as men and women, you have two different wills at work. In the Trinity you have one. Submission only works with two wills.

Mark Jones

Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver Church (PCA) since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He lectures at various seminaries around the world and is currently writing a book titled, "God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God" (Crossway, 2017) and "Faith, Hope, and Love" (Crossway, 2017).

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