The Trinity theme of last week’s Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) annual meeting spurred the continuation of an online debate and provided a venue for application of the Trinity to a variety of disciplines.
According to a count by Baptist Press, some 175 of the Nov. 15-17 meeting’s approximately 600 presentations were offered by scholars with ties to Southern Baptist churches, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries and colleges that partner with Baptist state conventions.
In a presentation characterized as “highly anticipated” by The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary news release, Southern Seminary theology professor Bruce Ware defended his view that there is “an eternal relation of authority and submission between God the Father and God the Son.”
Ware’s view, which is shared by Phoenix Seminary’s Wayne Grudem among others, has been the subject of an online debate that generated more than 140 blog posts between June 3 and July 11, according to a count by Jack Jeffrey of booksataglance.com.
Ware, Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at Southern, argued in his ETS paper that the three co-equal persons of the Trinity “carry out their activities within an eternal relation of authority and submission, reflecting who each is as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.”
The relationship of authority and submission, Ware wrote, is not merely a matter of function, but reflects something of the eternal personhood of the persons of the Trinity.
Ware acknowledged that some points of the present Trinity debate “are approaching the point of sheer mystery in which we are seeking to know what has not been revealed.”
Still, he cited a “mountain of biblical evidence of the Father’s role in planning, designing, [and] sending, to be accomplished through the Son and Spirit, all of which takes place long before the incarnation, indeed long before creation, in what might be called eternity past.”
Ware added, "I'm … inclined to think [that] what God has shown us of Himself" — the Son's submission to the Father from eternity past — "is truly an outward and economic expression" of the eternal personhood of the persons of the Trinity.
The Trinity & feminist theology
Candi Finch, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued in a paper that feminist theologians have committed a serious error by “renaming and reimagining the Trinity” in feminine terms.
One common error of feminist theologians is to use the Greek word “sophia” – which means wisdom and possesses feminine grammatical gender – to reference a supposedly feminine side of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit, Finch wrote.
While God’s wisdom is referenced in the Bible, Finch wrote, and while “feminine and masculine metaphors and similes are used for God in Scripture,” God “is never referred to by the name or title of ‘Mother’ or ‘Sophia’ or by feminine pronouns.”
Feminist theologians rightly attempt to correct the false teachings “that God favors men, that women are inferior, [and] that women cannot be useful in the Kingdom of God,” Finch wrote. But by “remaking God in their own image,” feminist theologians “have essentially committed idolatry.”
“Considering how gender itself is being redefined in our own culture today, there is no end to the remaking of God to reflect a person’s own self-understanding,” Finch wrote.
How is God unchanging?
Adam Harwood, associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, argued in a paper that all three persons of the Trinity participated in the incarnation of Jesus and thus “all the members of the Triune Godhead can sympathize with the human condition.”
The main question considered in Harwood’s paper was whether Jesus’ assumption of humanity “resulted in the triune God sharing in experiences of change not previously possible for an incorporeal God.”
In response, Harwood affirmed the traditional belief that God “is unchanging in His nature and He cannot be moved emotionally to act contrary to His plans.”
At the same time, Harwood agreed with a line of evangelical and conservative Catholic theologians who have argued, “Because the death of Christ was experienced by the unified person of Christ, it seems reasonable to say that the divine nature experienced to some degree the death of Christ” – an experience of change.
“And because that incarnate, eternal Son is the same eternal Son who has existed from eternity with the other persons of the Godhead, then any experience of the Son would also be shared in a sympathetic way by the Father and the Spirit due to their shared being and personal life,” Harwood wrote.
A historical Trinity debate
John Mark Yeats, professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, presented a paper recounting an 18th-century theological debate between Unitarian scholar Joseph Priestley and Jewish scholar David Levi.
Priestley rejected the virgin birth of Jesus, the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, inviting Jews to convert to his supposedly more “logical” version of Christianity, Yeats wrote. Levi rejected Priestley’s religious beliefs as lacking biblical warrant.
Among noteworthy observers of the debate was Thomas Jefferson, who said he read Priestley’s works “over and over again” and “rest[ed] on them … as the basis of my own faith.”
Yeats also described the contribution to the debate of Anglican Anselm Bayly, noting orthodox Christians of the day were “concerned about the theology being propounded” by both Jews and Unitarians.
The Trinity & bioethics
Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued in a paper that because God has ordered the world to reflect His Trinitarian nature, there is naturally a three-faceted method for evaluating bioethical dilemmas.
Scripture contains numerous examples of “ethical reality” that reflect the Trinity, Heimbach wrote. For instance, there are “three virtues essential to living the Christian life” – faith, hope and love – and “three stages of salvation” – justification, sanctification and glorification.
In the realm of bioethics, “all we are and do must conform to the holiness of God … express the love of God, and … be for the glory of God,” Heimbach wrote.
To illustrate his Trinitarian proposal for evaluating bioethical dilemmas, Heimbach considered a hypothetical scenario in which a woman becomes a surrogate mother for her sister and brother-in-law because her sister is biologically unable to bear children.
Heimbach argued the surrogate mother’s actions ultimately are unethical because they violate “something holy to God” and the glory of God by “gestating life outside the marital union.” At the same time, the actions exhibit commendable love for the infertile sister.
Hosea & marriage
In one of many ETS presentations not on the Trinity, Debbie Steele and Rick Durst of Gateway Seminary of the SBC presented a paper citing the Old Testament book of Hosea as a model for reenergizing broken relationships.
In Hosea 1-2, Hosea and his wife Gomer felt increasingly insecure in their relationship and consequently withdrew from one another emotionally and physically, wrote Steele and Durst.
Steele is associate professor of Christian counseling, and Durst serves as director of Gateway’s San Francisco campus.
Using the case study of a modern-day couple facing marriage challenges, Steele and Durst explained how Hosea and Gomer’s reconciliation mirrors insights from the field of emotionally focused counseling.
A spouse who feels emotionally detached from the marriage “can only be quieted by a loving partner moving closer to soothe and reassure,” Steele and Durst wrote. “Nothing else will do.
Once the partners regain confidence in knowing they can count on each other to be there emotionally, they will feel more secure in the relationship, allowing the emotional bond to fortify.”
The 2017 ETS annual meeting is scheduled for Nov. 15-17 in Providence, R.I., with the theme “the heritage of the Reformation.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)