The Trinity-Subordinationism Debate and the Opportunity Before Us

opportunitiesIn an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.

Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.

In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the Bible question, particularly on the nature and authority of Scripture. The Bible question was also, of course, in many quarters a culture question: to affirm the Bible meant ipso facto to take certain positions on a range of cultural, political, and domestic questions. To fail to line up meant coming under suspicion for your doctrine of Scripture, not only your politics. Yet, in this recognizably cultural mode, within the world of twentieth-century evangelical theology, Reformed and otherwise, the doctrine of Scripture was the issue.

This rallying, unifying cry around the doctrine of the Bible resulted in a variety of phenomena the fruits of which account, at least in part, for our situation. (That I note only negative consequences below is dictated by my aims in this brief post. I certainly see many enduring positive consequences as well.) These phenomena include theologians trained primarily or exclusively in biblical studies rather than in traditional dogmatics, itself not necessarily problematic except that its role in the recent malaise of evangelical theology requires that we account for it. Another fruit of that bibliological center was a host of evangelical biblical scholars who translated a “high view” of Scripture’s nature and authority into a particular hermeneutic of Scripture controlled by ancient historical and grammatical, yet conspicuously non-theological or ecclesial, concerns. The result was a great deal of helpful material on ancient biblical and non-biblical history, the grammar of biblical and cognate languages, linguistics, and the like, yet little to no meaningful connection of the task of close exegesis to the theological story and categories of the Church catholic.  There are wonderful exceptions to this trend, of course, both individually and institutionally, but they stand out precisely as exceptions.

What, then, about those categories of ancient orthodoxy? They seemed more and more remote from the presumed concerns and issues of the biblical texts themselves. Buying unwittingly into a rather deep liberal theological conviction that the history of the Church’s theology is a truly separable (rather than distinguishable) entity over against the “real” world of the biblical materials, evangelical “theology” widened the gap between the “historic orthodoxy” it was ostensibly interested in defending and the actual materials, vocabulary, and categories of that orthodoxy. As Cleveland remarks, “The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.”

And without that push, without that ecclesial and orthodox consciousness, how could we know where transgressions of that orthodoxy occur, at least outside of the increasingly narrow (and ultimately collapsing) confines of the doctrine of Scripture’s “high authority” and nature? There was now a conspicuously wide culture gap between the Church historic and the Church contemporary, even in the work of theology where such a gap would seem most effortlessly closed. The gap was there, and widening, because we could say a lot about inspiration and inerrancy and evidence and authority, but we no longer spoke the language of the Church, and so we could no longer hear or understand what the Church catholic had long been saying. In the end, it became possible for a big name or two in the evangelical world of bibliological-cultural orthodoxy to push for a version of complementarianism that is rooted in a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, and for no one in that world to notice.

Dissatisfaction with this modus operandi is anything but new; there have always been dissenting voices. The dissent has grown louder with the growth of biblical, historical, and theological scholarship generally. For instance, the more we have learned about the role of the ecclesial community in the very development, organically and formally, of the Bible itself as canon, the more we began to fear that our ostensibly very high view of the Scriptures may in fact prove to be ironically unbiblical. Cleveland appropriately points out, too, the dissonant and welcome voices of several modern (and generally Reformed) theologians who argued in recent decades against the grain for a return to theology in terms of its classic categories and interests.

He also draws attention to one of the most significant developments of the latter half of the twentieth century: the work of scholars like Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Carl Trueman who have exposed the cataclysmic failures of various older, ahistorical readings of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, particularly late medieval theology and Reformed Orthodoxy. Today’s theologians and churchmen are discovering the strong, organic, positive ties of the Reformers to the texts and ideas of the patristic and medieval — yes, medieval — eras, and most significantly the similarly strong, organic ties of the post-Reformation periods of confessional orthodoxy to all that came before (not just Calvin and Luther). They are learning of the great diversity of the Reformed tradition historically and confessionally, and of the kind(s) of unity forged in the midst of and without denial of that diversity. They are learning the importance of reading critically yet charitably and humbly outside their own tradition, and reading to learn and not merely to dismantle. They are learning, too, of the difference it makes to read Scripture with the Church in ancient-catholic and (not but) confessionally Protestant fashion, and how far away we have drifted over the years from the discipline of doing so.

This kind of knowledge does not come, however, through surveys and introductory classes. It does not come from seminary classes using a comprehensive textbook but no primary sources. It certainly does not come from a video series from the favorite parachurch organization expounding on the so-called five points of Calvinism. No, it comes only by dealing with the texts themselves, and by reading those who live in them rather than read about them. It comes, then, by listening first rather than rushing to speak, listening to the texts themselves. Further, unlike so many edited collections of essays pumped out by evangelical and Reformed presses, it means listening to those who may be unknowns in the populus of our church circles but are in fact the experts on the topic. These are the ones who can truly teach us from the deep depths of their years of working rigorously and patiently with those texts. The present generation of churchmen and teacher-writers involved in these public debates are no longer content to read about Augustine, but read Augustine, and probably a widely recognized expert in Augustine, too. If they are determined to add their voice to a public debate about the meaning of a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, they are not content merely to refer to Calvin or to Matthew Henry on the passage, but they read the tradition as well as the best contemporary research, and appreciate what the real questions are. Or at least they know to do so. Those who don’t are now fairly quickly and easily recognized.

What does all this mean in terms of the opportunity before us, particularly in the Lydia Center’s areas of research and teaching? If the current trinitarian debate over a version of complementarianism was inevitable, what does this mean for the next stage of faithful thinking and practice? I do, after all, believe it poses great opportunities. I offer three for now for your consideration.

Firstly, debates on these topics (and others) within church bodies and faculty meetings are now possible at a richer and more substantial level of discourse than was previously the case. For the emerging generation of scholarship-oriented church leaders and writers, debates over the particular dynamics of marital relations are no longer decided by, say, the quotation of 1 Cor. 11:3 and the word “head” or Eph. 5:22 and the word “submit,” as though this settles things. There is a fresh appreciation for the danger of such simplistic appeals and for the integrity that belongs to a patient, informed, and circumspect (because churchly) reading and use of Scripture.

Secondly, as capable scholars and responsibly informed teachers who are largely unknown to the hoi polloi have regained some traction in the Church’s labor (a growing number of them happily working as pastors rather than as professors), debates are no longer decided by appeal to personalities. Here I choose my words with care. The historic practice of appealing to a figure in the context of public debate remains valuable, yet I suggest we may be witnessing a slow return to an older way of doing so. It is more complicated that I am suggesting in these few remarks, but as in the tradition generally, appeals to human authorities are now again valuable principally as they function as appeals to a distinctive and well-informed argument or position that figure represents. Put negatively, it is no longer compelling, and in fact is now clearly counterproductive, simply to refer to personalities in a debate as though it carries sufficient weight to end that debate, whether they are admired pastors or conference speakers, teachers, or writers. Because it is now (again) the argument itself that matters, at least more and more often the most compelling appeal to a figure will be to a true scholar of the question, not simply to an admired person.

For example, in the last couple of weeks we have seen how the inserted names, and sometimes voices, of publicly known and admired figures such as Dr. Mohler have proven not to be compelling and arguably counterproductive. Why is this? Because even though he is highly regarded on many church and culture fronts, Dr. Mohler’s views have been measured against the texts of the tradition and the ideas that belong to that tradition, and found wanting. His name is not enough. No name is enough anymore, and this is a healthy development. For many people of an earlier generation who cut their theological teeth at the parachurch conference or the popular Reformed or evangelical presses where names are everything, or who have traded in their associations with influential names in this or that institution, this shift can be rather jarring. An appeal to Jay Adams may begin or contribute in some way to a debate on marriage or divorce, but thankfully it no longer ends one.

Lastly, for decades (but not much longer than that) serious examination of the classic questions of sexuality and family was handicapped by the quiet assumption in conservative circles that the forms and framework of modern western domesticity on the one hand, and the forms and framework of prescriptive biblical sexuality and family life on the other, are one and the same. The chasm-wide difference between the two has long been known to students of these topics, yet the popular misconceptions have survived and persisted despite this. But it is now possible to attend to the highly important questions of sexuality, gender, marriage, divorce, “headship,” abuse, children and related matters as properly theological questions. Now (mostly) on the other side of the decades-long dominant (western, English-speaking, cultural, and church) sociologies which masqueraded successfully as theology in this area, these questions may enjoy meticulous, patient, and properly theological investigation on the terms of the Scriptures and of the Christian tradition.

This meaningful return of the categories and voices of the theological tradition to the table of serious inquiry into sexuality and family means the opportunity to consider, say, divorce as a properly theological question, which it is. It also means the return of Holy Scripture itself — not a bare historical text awaiting our archaeological digging skills, but the living canon of the living Church, whose voice(s) we need.

It also means more hopefully that, despite our anxiety and listlessness in the midst of this contemporary sexual revolution, the Church, dutifully sanctified and reformed by and according to Holy Scripture, may in fact be in a position to survive this cultural upheaval with something to say, both to it and to herself, as the Church. She may yet summon her resources, old and new, and speak positively and constructively of the way of Christ and the way of faithfulness as the only way of human hope and wholeness. This project, at least, is what the Lydia Center is formed to try to help along.

‘Thus saith the Lord’: When pastors talk about intimate partner violence


As noted in a previous installment in this series, research on the discourse of clerical response to intimate partner violence (IPV) has been few and far between. What do members of the clergy say to congregants about this topic? Useful anecdotal evidence abounds, based on clergy’s and victims’ memories, but we can learn a great deal from going directly to the source by means of, for example, sermons.

In this post, I look at examples of pastors talking about IPV, drawing from Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s 2007 paper entitled ‘Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operators’ in the Journal of Family Violence. They offer a groundbreaking analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, based on their own and others’ research on the nature of violence and resistance and the significance of misrepresentation and partiality in social discourse about IPV. What emerges is a lens through which they examine five accounts of IPV from a perpetrator, a judge, a psychiatrist, a government minister, and a psycho-therapist. Specifically, they look at ways in which:

Language can be used to:
conceal violence,
obscure and mitigate offenders’ responsibility,
conceal victims’ resistance, and
blame and pathologize victims.

Alternatively, language can be used to:
expose violence,
clarify offenders’ responsibility,
elucidate and honor victims’ resistance, and
contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims. (p. 513)

In the sermon excerpts I use, a great deal is happening discursively, all of which I won’t discuss here. The purpose of this work-in-progress post is to highlight a few features I find particularly interesting, focusing on how Coates’ and Wade’s model helps us understand how pastors talk about IPV. I will also suggest how the Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance framework might be modified to suit the religious context. Since physical violence has both physical and psychological effects (and vice versa), I define violence broadly, as encompassing both.

A word about the corpus

The pilot corpus comprises sermons by pastors who are: (Reformed) Baptist (23 sermons), Presbyterian (2), Free Presbyterian/Free Reformed (2), Free Reformed (1), Family Integrated (1), United Reformed (1), and RPNA (1). As I explained in a previous post, these 31 were narrowed down from the 100 most frequently accessed sermons on divorce on SermonAudio. They are the sermons attracting the widest audience. Careful examination of these sermons allows me to begin to form hypotheses about how pastors talk about IPV more widely as well as consider what criteria could be used to expand the corpus.

Only a small minority of the pastors in the corpus mention IPV directly, though some hint at it by describing a spouse as ‘anything but kind’. This is consistent with recent research by LifeWay which found that pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit, despite evidence that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience IPV at least once in their lifetime. talktocongregationIn fact, despite ‘violence’ being a significant semantic domain in the corpus as a whole, such language was rarely used to refer to IPV. Rather, the majority of pastors used language like ‘break,’ ‘breakup’, ‘fracture’ and ‘violation’ to refer to divorce itself. In short, the most frequent message was that divorce itself, not IPV, constitutes violence worth mentioning. In later posts, I will look at this and other larger patterns in the corpus. Here, again, the purpose is to examine the usefulness of Coates’ and Wade’s model for helping us understand the rare instances where pastors do directly mention IPV.

All 3 speakers cited in this post are (Reformed) Baptist, and indeed all but 1 of the pastors in the corpus who mentioned IPV directly are Baptist. Though we cannot generalize about denomination from this corpus (nor did I intend to), questions to investigate via a larger corpus include: Are only Baptists talking about IPV?

Evaluative ‘Oh’

Excerpt 1:

Now, listen. We are empathetic people and we should be. And we feel bad when someone has been mistreated and we should. But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. No. No. When we give someone advice, it had better come from the sacred, written Word of God. And so if someone says to you, Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive. They don’t respect me. They don’t love me the way that they should. They are unkind. They stay out at all these hours. They don’t treat me the way I deserve to be treated. They don’t take care of me. They don’t provide me with enough money. They don’t provide me with enough time. They have all the demands for me. They are just unbearable to live with.

When it comes to that scenario we look at the biblical text and there is only one biblical text on this issue, 1 Corinthians chapter seven verses 10 and 11. That is all you have. And because it is all you have, it is the only counsel you can give. Do not cave under the pressure because of your concern and love.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Again, this excerpt has more going on in it than we have space here to discuss. However, notice, for example, that the perpetrator is at times invisible, for instance in the passive ‘has mistreated.’ Further, though the pastor mentions giving ‘someone’ (one victim) advice, he uses the plural ‘they’ for the abusive spouse. We might say this is an instance of ‘single they’, which conceals the offender’s gender (since both men and women can be violent). However, paired with the single victim, it has the effect of distancing the violence from any one perpetrator. It isn’t him; it isn’t her; it’s they. Arguably, the pastor’s language choices disperse and therefore mitigate the responsibility of any one perpetrator. Note also that the pastor mentions ‘emotional abuse’ but uses vague language like ‘mistreated’, ‘unkind’ and ‘unbearable,’ etc., which may or may not include physical violence. The selection of the term ’emotional abuse’ is particularly significant in this context since it is much less likely to attract sympathy than physical violence, a point I will likely return to in another post.

Next, the pastor presents an image of a victim who repeatedly complains (perhaps pathologically) about all her problems. As complaint can be considered a form of resistance, we might see this as the pastor elucidating rather than concealing the victim’s resistance. However, this reading is undermined, first, by the chronic complainer’s long list of problems. Second, a particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim by introducing his constructed dialogue with a victim with ‘oh’ as in ‘Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive’.

This reading is supported when we examine concordance lines from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English). Examples include the following, where the speakers are marking reported speech, in some cases reinforcing their negative evaluation with further commentary like ‘that wasn’t true’ and ‘that’s completely unfair’:

  1. The nurses were very matter of fact about it, oh she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine and that wasn’t true.
  2. I would have us wear red because they think administrators/school personnel, ’Oh you wear red, you’re automatically a Blood’, when that’s not
  3. But when someone else wears red, they’re like, ’Oh, you can’t do that’ and that’s completely unfair.
  4. A second commented, When you give them more choices, you diffuse the ‘Oh, this is really meaningless to me.’

The second sermon excerpt (below) has victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. Again of interest is the evaluative ‘oh’, where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves. Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

Excerpt 2:

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and puts [indiscernible] leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

(‘The Home, the Bible, Divorce’)

An appeal to authority

Though both these excerpts fit nicely into Coates’ and Wades’ model in many respects, their religious context means that language is used to accomplish additional goals. More specifically, these excerpts demonstrate an appeal to authority, that of God’s Word and God Himself.

In the first excerpt, the pastor juxtaposes his portrayal of the congregation’s sympathetic feelings and intuitions with the counsel that God (allegedly) requires when a victim asks for help. Notice the dramatic change in register in ‘Thus saith the Lord’, a reference to a highly frequent appeal to (and indeed indication of their own derived) authority by prophets in the Old Testament. 250px-moses_pleading_with_israel_28crop29 We also see again the evaluative ‘oh,’ used here to introduce and disparage the would-be counselor’s advice. In essence, we might say that the pastor is adopting the voice of a prophet here and encouraging his congregants to do the same when they talk to a victim of violence.

But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. 

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Both the appeal to the Word of God (and to the pastor himself) as an authority and the switch to a more formal register lend an air of unquestionable finality to the pastor’s eventual pronouncement, shortly after, that

A wife is not to depart from her husband. That is a direct command.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Similarly, in Excerpt 2 the pastor contrasts God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of IPV, demonstrating that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands. This happens elsewhere in the corpus, such as in the additional excerpt below, where the pastor reminds his congregation that even murder or incest are not grounds for divorce ‘according to Scripture’.

Excerpt 3:

…whether the man commits adultery, the woman commits adultery, whether they kill, murder, maim, commit incest, there is nothing that breaks the marriage bond and there is no way that a man or a woman can remarry, according to Scripture, without being called an adulterer or an adulteress.

(‘Divorce, Re-Marriage, the Bible #2’)

Pitting compassion against God

In closing, it is of course hardly surprising that a pastor would directly appeal to the authority of the Word of God, particularly in a conservative, evangelical context. We Christians consider it a pastor’s calling and duty to direct our attention to God’s Word. However, the question remains: Why this appeal, and why now? These direct appeals to authority suggest, first, the view that any instinct we might have to consider IPV as grounds for divorce runs counter to the Word of God and, second, that congregants therefore require this correction/exhortation*. The use of language to distinguish between our instincts/sympathies and God’s Word seems to be significant in this context and is unaccounted for in Coates’ and Wade’s model.

So far, therefore, the examples I have provided are consistent with Coates’ and Wade’s framework and suggest that it is indeed useful in making sense of how pastors talk about IPV. As a fuller analysis of the pilot corpus will indicate, almost every single one of the direct references to IPV in the corpus minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal resistance. However, the religious context of the sermons means that the model is likely to require some adaptation, particularly as the corpus expands, and I have suggested the additional use of language to appeal to authority. In the excerpts above, this appeal, at times, overrides any concealing of violence. For these pastors, no matter how terrible the violence, God requires victims of IPV to remain married.

Finally, though nearly all of the direct references to IPV accomplish similar goals, there is one notable and encouraging exception, another Baptist sermon, which I look forward to sharing with you. It deserves its own post.

*It will be interesting to track where else such direct appeals to authority occur. The question is: When do pastors feel confident enough to state that their interpretation of Scripture is ‘from God’s lips to your ears’? A quick look at my reference corpus of over 100 sermons on non-marriage related topics suggests that pastors say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ most frequently when quoting this exact phrase from the Bible in context, suggesting that it doesn’t happen often when offering interpretation. But I will need to look at this more closely as well as other forms appeal to authority takes (‘according to God’s Word,’ etc.).