One of the epiphanic moments of my faith came about in north Philadelphia at what had been Temple University’s theological school, redubbed Conwell School of Theology after Russell Conwell, the Civil War officer whose coming to Christian faith was profoundly influenced by a devout and devoted assistant, Johnny Ring. Johnny seemed a perfect candidate for the ministry when his life was abruptly cut off in “the war between brothers.” Severely wounded himself and left for dead for a night at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (Georgia), Conwell eventually embraced Johnny’s God.1 Years later, now a Baptist pastor, he was asked by a young deacon to teach him to preach and responded in the grand style, founding Temple College in Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love,” perhaps as much a tribute to the young believer Johnny Ring. Temple blossomed into the university with a theological seminary, the latter becoming independent and soon acquiring a new name, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, when Billy Graham brokered a merger with another seminary, Gordon Divinity School, which was also leaving its present campus.
The Philadelphia branch, only destined to run that one last year, 1969, was housed appropriately in the old Widener Mansion, the former Philadelphia Public Library. There, amid a new set of books, all Christian and profound, and a faculty that favored European and high-church professors, assembled by the wise Australian Anglican church historian and former cathedral dean Stuart Barton Babbage, I learned about the precious treasure bequeathed to Christian posterity in such statements as the Creed of Nicaea, the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith, the Apostles’ Creed. I also learned, to my surprise, that such declarations as the Southern Baptist “Faith and Message” were also creeds, as was the statement of belief in my own independent Baptist birth church.
A creed, from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe,” was simply an affirmation of what an individual, or a church, or a group such as a parachurch organization, or a denomination believes are the central tenets of the faith that may not be changed. These are what are called the dogmatic declarations—the unifying principles that define the faith being espoused.
In evangelical Christianity, we have (hopefully) many areas in which we allow variety of conviction. We can vary in church structure; in what liquid elements (alcoholic or non) we use in the Lord’s Supper; in when we baptize, how much of the body we need to cover with water, and how many times we do it for each individual believer; in how formal our worship styles are; in what version(s) of the Bible we deem acceptable for the public reading of the Scriptures; to items as personal as whether body-piercing and tattooing are demonic or simply artistic, or as formal as whether robes are required on clergy or not, and so on.
The question of whether Jesus is fully God and fully human and the only way to salvation is not, however, negotiable in conservative Christian circles.
As Nancey Murphy has noted in her illuminating book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, when one moves away from any of these foundational tenets, one has made a paradigm shift from conservative to liberal. She explains that one cannot simply slip down a slippery slide of plummeting doctrine. One needs to change one’s views.2 Jesus is either Lord of all or Lord of some, God or not-God, human or not-human, the sole door to salvation or just one of many windows looking in.
As I keep telling my own students, Jesus cannot be “most unique” or “very unique” or “more unique.” Jesus is either unique—the only member of the category of God-Among-Us-in-Human-Form—or not unique. There are not degrees of uniqueness any more than there are degrees of egalitarian, since things are either equal or they are not. These words indicate something absolute.
In Christian doctrine, stating that a core tenet is an absolute and unchangeable aspect of what a church believes, an unalterable dogma foundational to that church’s faith, is what declaring a “We Believe” confession is all about.
The most famous and enduring of the “We believe” statements, or creeds, of course, deal with the nature of God. The first great creeds, it can be argued, actually appear in the Bible itself. I trace the first great “We believe” to what is called the Shema, the “Hear, Israel,” named in the Hebrew style for its first words of declaration in Deuteronomy 6:4, (literally) “Hear, Israel, the Lord, your God(s), the Lord is one (or united).” What using the singular word for “Lord”—the four sacred letters of God’s name, called the Tetragrammaton—in conjunction with the plural word for God, Elohim (“Gods”) means in this context has been the subject of much debate. Many evangelicals see it as the foreshadowing of the revelation of God’s triune nature, one of many such places in the Bible where Jesus took those astonished travelers to Emmaeus, as reported in Luke 24:13–35, as “beginning with Moses and with all of the prophets he explained (or interpreted, diermēneuō) to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27).
I have long felt that what the Apostle John in the first chapter or prologue to his gospel is setting out is a creedal statement as he combats the pernicious teaching of Cerinthus, the Ebionites, the Nicolaitians.3 All of these teachers sought to alter the faith once received by the saints.
Cerinthus was a Neoplatonist who viewed Jesus as less than God, since Jesus created the world, and, in the Platonist perspective, matter is evil and God cannot touch it. A lesser demiurge emanating from the Divine Monad (God seen as a non-Trinitarian,
Unitarian deity) must have been the creator. But John establishes in his statement that the creative word that emanated out from God in Genesis 1 was a distinct person of God, both distinct but united in deity: “and the Word was with God” (“with,” pros, being a preposition drawn from the word for “face,” prosōpon, thus meaning distinct from or “face to face with God”), and, at the same time, that “Word was God” (John 1:1).
I believe that John is drawing out the same lesson that the Shema was teaching: that God is plural yet one. We call this the “Three in One” quality of God: the Trinity.4 Our zealous Jehovah’s Witnesses friends may insist that the term “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the term was created to explain this concept of divine plurality in singleness, the three-in-oneness of God, that we see all over the Bible. This is what theology is all about: articulating concepts in helpful terms. Those terms are then gathered up into statements that help us understand and confess our central beliefs: the creeds.
Generation after generation, the church has had to stand up and declare what it believes just as Israel regularly confessed the Shema that God first delivered through Moses as God’s people stood on the far side of the Jordan River, poised to enter a land full of false faiths that would seek to pollute the true revelation that had been given to them in order for them to bless others as a nation of priests (Gen 12:2–3).
The Apostle John, as we saw, stated this faith again in the opening of his gospel. Paul did it in Colossians 1:15–20 and Philippians 2:5–11. Emperor Constantine had church leaders do it again at the Council of Nicaea when more Neoplatonists, spurred by the saintly appearing preacher Arius and his powerful patron the overseer Eusebius of Nicomedia, sought to establish that Jesus was a lesser God than the Father. A century and a quarter later, the equality in the Trinity and the revelation of the incarnation of that person in the Trinity who came to earth as Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God, had to be reaffirmed again at the Council of Chalcedon. Down through the ages, confession after confession became necessary as the church continued to reaffirm its central tenets. Many of these have become famous: the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession. Some emerged from great conflict and threats not only to the faith, but also to the very nature of the church as Christ’s and not some other earthly power’s, as the Theological Declaration of Barmen that declared that Jesus Christ alone and not Adolf Hitler was the Lord of the church.
In short, periodically the church needs to declare one or more of its central beliefs when it senses these are threatened. This is not “creeping creedalism”; this is living confession.
Recently, many of us have been dismayed by a rising movement among some in conservative Christianity to draw distinctions of degree of rank between the persons of the Trinity. These evangelicals and fundamentalists are motivated by a belief that there are degrees of rank among human beings that reflect our creation in the image of God, who is also stratified. Not wanting to become heretical, these sincere believers have consciously tried to avoid making that paradigm shift into liberalism that sees a difference in rank as also a difference in being.
As all of us know, the dividing line between a theological liberal and a theological conservative is not in essence about whether we think that giving a cup of water to a thirsty person is part of Jesus’ gospel message or a prelude to it. The line is drawn between whether we believe that God the Father is God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are lesser beings, or whether one believes that God is one God in three coeternal and coequal persons. Among theological liberals, Jesus is often identified as a human being who apprehended God in a fuller way than the rest of us and the Holy Spirit as the power of God working on earth. Theological liberalism is at its core essentially akin to Unitarianism. Theological conservatism identifies Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as coequal and coeternal persons within the Godhead in regard to being. There is no disagreement between evangelical egalitarians and conservative gender hierarchists on this point. All of us are Trinitarian in regard to God’s being.
Where the disagreement lies is whether an eternal difference in rank indicates an essential difference in being in the persons of the Trinity. For some (but not all) gender hierarchists, permanently imprinted (so as to say) in the essence of each divine person is a presumed stratified position in rank, the Father being first in position (calling the shots, one might say) and (to some who hold this position), therefore, first in power and glory and honor as well, the Son and Holy Spirit waiting for and acting upon the Father’s orders in a one-way subordination relationship. This position is held by those who also espouse that women, as Jesus and the Spirit to the Father, reflect this one-way subordination to men.
It is important to note, however, that not all who are convinced that the Bible teaches that men have the ultimate decision-making responsibility in the home also espouse that a similar stratification of ranking exists in the Trinity. These evangelicals see a separate dynamic working in the Godhead than the one working in humanity. They see no necessary correspondence between a woman in the home and the person of the Godhead who became Jesus Christ (God’s anointed Messiah and God-Among-Us in human flesh) or the One identified to us as the Holy Spirit. Jesus, as God’s “Son” on earth, hardly corresponds to a human wife. Further, to posit the Holy Spirit as female and impregnated by the Father and employing the human Mary as a surrogate mother seems anthropomorphic to the point of being pagan, God the Father having become Zeus and the Holy Spirit Hera. No such explanation of the birth of Jesus is presented in the Bible. In the Bible’s account, God the Father has no direct action in the Son’s birth. The Holy Spirit, not God the “Father,” overshadows Mary (episkiazō, Luke 1:35). Instead, God the Father is the person of the Trinity who exhorted the Godhead to create humanity (Gen 1:26) and from whom, Jesus explains, we inherit God’s kingdom (Matt 25:34). God is Father in terms of being the source of heavenly inheritance, not in terms of sexual production, thereby eliminating such Greek pagan thinking. Finally, the Godhead is not an institution, as is marriage, but is the divine mystery of the Deity—that God is one God in three coeternal, coequal persons.
Further, any analogies in the Scriptures that could be construed as one-way submission in the Godhead are recognized by many gender hierarchists along with egalitarians as commenting on a temporary incarnational submission of Jesus in order to demonstrate the proper obedience of humans collectively to God as well as to bring about human salvation.
After those gracious actions, as Calvin put it, once Jesus had fulfilled the role of humanity’s “Lord,” “then he returns the lordship to his Father so that—far from diminishing his own majesty—it may shine all the more brightly. Then, also, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as of yet covered by a veil,” since Jesus “will cease to be the ambassador of his Father, and will be satisfied with that glory which he enjoyed before the creation of the world.”5
In other words, Jesus’ submission to the Father in the incarnation was temporary, just as we submit to a boss at work. It does not mean that our boss is qualified eternally to give us orders after work hours or after our job is done and forever after. Such a privilege would only occur if our boss were somehow in essence superior to us in being and, therefore, eternally equipped to rule over us. What troubles all of us egalitarians and those gender hierarchists who reject the eternal subordination view of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, whichever side of the gender debate we fall on, is that such a position would indicate an essential difference in the natures of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. To suggest that the essence of the Father is to command eternally, while the essence of the Son and Spirit is to submit eternally, is to describe a difference in essences that determines an eternal difference in function. But, the nature of deity is to be unique. And “unique,” as we noted earlier, does not support such degrees of difference. This is the struggle to define the distinction between the eternal faces or personalities or persons in the Godhead that the great Nicaean scholar Athanasius, the defender of the Nicaean creed, underwent when he concluded that Jesus “has equality with the Father by titles expressive of unity, and what is said of the Father, is said in Scripture of the Son also, all but his being called Father.”6 Neither of the persons we call the “Second” and “Third” of the Trinity is inferior in being or in ranking (or in glory, honor, power) to the One we call the First Person. Equality of essence means just that. No inequalities of attributes can be built in eternally to the nature of the One in Three. Therefore, God the Son cannot be eternally subordinate to God the Father and also remain of the same unique substance of the Father.
Such concern to remain historically orthodox to the scriptural revelation and the great orthodox confessions of the church has prompted us egalitarians and some gender hierarchists to unite to form a new confessional statement: a creed, or a “We believe,” that we are calling “An Evangelical Statement on the Trinity.” In this issue of Priscilla Papers and in the book edited by Dennis Jowers and Wayne House, The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son from Wipf and Stock Publishers, we are debuting our creedal statement. It is displayed on the cover of this issue and discussed within it. Stanley Gundry provides a biblical commentary. I present a theological commentary I drafted in consultation with a number of other concerned scholars. Kevin Giles also provides a popular commentary on the issue. Along with these, scholars Nancy Hedberg and Maria Boccia both present discussions of the issues involved. A poem and book reviews round out what we hope will be a useful and provocative presentation that will help our readers negotiate the current discussion.
Once, a student from a nonevangelical seminary who was considering taking my Systematic Theology 1 course asked me at the opening of my first lecture, just as I began to introduce the Trinity, whether any of this was important. Smiling sweetly at me, he asked, “Does it really matter what we believe about Jesus—whether he’s God or just human or whether there’s really a Trinity or not? After all, I have my belief about God, and you have your belief, and these folks have their belief. Isn’t the most important thing that we all just try to get along?”
“Actually, it does matter,” I had to reply. “How we treat one another is extremely important. But what we believe about Jesus and the Trinity is essential to our faith. We don’t just make it up as we go along. All over the world, people give up their lives and die for what they believe. You can’t simply dismiss the essential points of faith as irrelevant, because what we believe motivates how we act and, therefore, how we treat one another. They are intrinsically and inseparably related.”
What we believe about the Godhead—whether the One we worship is internally and thus eternally stratified in rank or whether the Trinity is a fully equal divine community—is essential to preserving the tenets of what makes our faith true to what God has revealed. Our belief also does directly affect how we regard and, thus, treat one another, both in our approach to relationships between women and men, but, as well, in how we deal with all the different nationalities and types of people we encounter across our world. We do need to expend the effort to get it right.
- See Agnes Rush Burr, Russell H. Conwell and His Work (Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston, 1926), 125–34. I first heard the Johnny Ring account when I was a student at Conwell in 1969. As I recall, the rendition I heard was that Johnny was determined to study for the ministry, and the decision to found Temple was in part an effort to help young men like him. I am indebted to church historian Dr. Garth Rosell, who graciously provided the Burr data to help me clarify this account.
- The way she puts it is: “While it is certainly possible for fundamentalists to ‘slide down the slippery slope’ to evangelicalism, it is not equally possible to slide from evangelicalism to liberalism. There is an invisible wall in between; a ‘paradigm shift’ is required.” Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1996), ix.
- Irenaeus offers a helpful introduction to these heterodoxies in book 1, chapter 26, of his Against the Heresies (New York, NY: Paulist, 1992), 90–91.
- One can find a provocative discussion of the “three in one and one in three” in late Christian writer Pseudo-Lucian’s dramatic philosophical dialogue “The Patriot or The Pupil,” in Lucian, trans. M. D. Macleod, The Loeb Classical Library , vol. 8 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1967), 437; e.g. “The mighty god that rules on high / Immortal dwelling in the sky, the son of the father, spirit proceeding from the father, three in one and one in three[.] Think him your Zeus, consider him your god.”
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 486, 485 (2.14.3).
- Athanasius, The Epistle of S. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, Concerning the Councils Held at Ariminum in Italy and at Selecucia in Isauria, trans. J. H. Newman (Oxford: John Henry Parker, J. G. F. and J. Rivington: 1842), 3.21.50.