Theology: February 2010 Archives

Craig Blomberg has a pretty detailed review of Philip Payne's Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters, and because of Denver Journal's new comment feature there's a lengthy comment in reply by Payne right below the review. There's a brief statement in Blomberg's review that Payne spends a good deal of time responding to that caught my interest.

The primary debate is over a particular issue in biblical interpretation between complementarians who insist that functional subordination is compatible with ontological equality when it comes to human relationships and egalitarians who resist such a compatibility. Most complementarians consider a similar kind of functional subordination to occur between the Father and Son in the Trinity, and so any egalitarian argument against it has to take into account both levels of the analogy, which makes things tricky to say the least. My own concern with Payne's argument lies primarily in its significance for the Trinitarian debate, but it also has an application in the gender-role issue that gave rise to the overall book that Blomberg is reviewing. I'll quote the relevant part of the exchange before offering my sense of where I think Payne's argument is mistaken.


Payne finds the concept of functional subordination within ontological equality virtually non-sensical


This misrepresents my position. I believe that ontological equality is perfectly compatible with functional subordination as long as that subordination is voluntary and temporary, as was Christ's voluntary and temporary subordination to the Father in the incarnation (e.g. Phil 2:6-11). It seems to me that if subordination in necessary and eternal, it is then an aspect of one's essence. As Millard J. Erickson says in Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 250, "If the Father is eternally and necessarily supreme among the persons of the Trinity, and if the Son eternally is subordinated to him, an interesting consequence follows. The Son in not merely accidentally, but essentially, subordinate to the Father. That means that there is a difference of essence between the two--that the Father's essence includes supreme authority, while the Son's essence includes submission and subordination, everywhere and always." It is the simultaneous affirmation of equality of essence of the persons of the Trinity with this sort of difference in their essence that I find self-contradictory.

I'm not sure I agree. It depends on a couple issues. In the case of the Trinity, it partly depends on what you mean by "ontological equality". Suppose functional subordination is correct, and the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father eternally and necessarily. Does that imply ontological inequality? Well, it implies a difference that is ontological, if it counts as an ontological difference for the Son to have an essential property not shared by the Father and the Father to have one not shared by the Son. If the roles are eternal and necessary (meaning there is no possible world in which the Father and Son don't have these roles), then there is an ontological difference, yes.

But is it inequality? Only in the sense that two things that are different are not equal on the mere ground that they are different. An apple and an orange are different and thus not equal. But they're an apple and an orange and are thus not comparable. It's not as if the apple is superior to the orange or vice versa just because they're different fruits. They're just different. Ah, but isn't the hierarchical relationship of the Father and Son going to be comparable, since one is in authority over the other? Thus it won't be like apples and oranges. That's true. But what the apple-orange relationship illustrates is that you can have differences without having the kind of ontological difference that amounts to inequality. Does a hierarchical relationship involve the kind of inequality we should care about when talking about equals?

Not necessarily. In the congregation I grew up in, the pastor and chair of the elder board was an unpaid volunteer, who had a full-time job in the human resources office of a local manufacturing plant. A member of the congregation was the human resources director and thus was his boss. So they simultaneously were in authority over each other in different respects, one on a spiritual level and the other in a workplace-supervisory role. Each was functionally subordinate to the other. It's true that in this case both are temporary roles, but my point with the example isn't that it's permanent but ontologically equal. It's that a functionally-subordinate role relationship can be hierarchical without being unequal. These two men were fully equal in their rights as U.S. citizens, as members of our congregation, and as employees of their company, but in certain respects one was in authority over the other, while in other respects the other was in authority over the first. So a hierarchical relationship can involve functional subordination with ontological equality.

So it seems to me that functional subordination is compatible with equality in the important sense, and whatever sense ontological differences of the sort Payne points out will be true in a case of eternal and necessary ontological differences, it's not the sense that undermines the relevant kind of equality.

But I think there's another problem with Payne's argument. Should we assume that eternal functional subordination implies necessary subordination? Should we think eternal functional subordination of the Father to the Son involves some essential property of the Father involving authority and a different essential property held by the Son involving subordination? I'm not sure myself that such a view would be heretical, as Kevin Giles claims. As long as the property is relational, it need not be part of the essence of the Father or the essence of the Son (which on traditional orthodox assumptions should be the same essence and thus have the same properties). After all, there has to be something that distinguishes the Father from the Son for them to be two persons, even if they are also the same God and thus can't have essential properties that are different. Perhaps an essential relation between them, a functional one rather than an ontological one, that would do that trick. (By a relation here, I mean a property corresponding to a two-place predicate that's held between two things rather than a property corresponding to a one-place predicate held by one thing.)

But you might instead be able to make sense of the Father-Son relation as contingent but eternal. In other words, isn't it possible that the functional relationship between the Father and Son is a voluntary, agreed-upon relationship that the Father and Son eternally and timelessly settle on but that in another possible world they might have eternally and timelessly settled on a different relation, namely one that puts the person who actually is the Father in the Son role and the person who actually is the Son in the Father role? I'm not aware of anything in the creeds or the scriptures that precludes such a view. Something's being true at every time certainly does not imply that it had to be true. If that truth is grounded in a timeless decision that God might have made differently, then in a different possible world God would have had some other contingent fact true of him timelessly and eternally. So it simply isn't true that functional subordination across all time implies necessary functional subordination.

I think there's yet a third problem too. Complementarians think functional subordination relations among human beings in this life should not involve a woman in authority over a man in marriage or in spiritual authority over men in the church. Regardless of whether that view is correct, I don't think it's true that they hold this to be true eternally. Marriage relationships end in death, and there's no reason to think elder-congregation relationships continue with any authoritative relationship post-death. So, for the only two functionally-hierarchical relationships most complementarians today even believe in, there's no reason to think complementarians must extend those relations beyond death, and thus that functional subordination isn't even an eternal relation, never mind a necessary one. I'm sure most complementarians would insist that women will not be in authority over men in the resurrection in any way like the husband-wife or elder-member relations in this life. But that doesn't mean such relations will continue. It's consistent with complementarianism that no human being (besides Jesus) will have any authority over any other human being in the resurrection. So even if Payne were right that eternality implies essentiality (which he certainly is not), he'd have the further problem of extending his critique toward complementarians who won't even insist on eternal functional subordination, and I don't see why complementarians should insist on that.

Views on Baptism

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Marcus Maher reviews a new book called Three Views on Baptism. It basically covers the two main views of baptism found among Protestants along with a third view by Anthony Lane that is very close to what my own congregation does, and I've hardly ever seen anyone argue for such a view in print (which I think is the best practice, for the record).

The idea is that scripture isn't clear enough on the issue of baptism to justify a congregation requiring either believer's baptism or infant baptism. Instead, a congregation should leave it to the parents to decide whether they will (a) baptize their infant in anticipation of a later confirmation or (b) dedicate in anticipation of a later baptism (with pretty much the same content expressed at whichever one ends up occurring).

I happen to be of the view that each practice is functionally equivalent to the other practice. One of them conceptualizes it in a more biblical way, but the other does the same thing under a less-biblical way of describing it and conceiving of it.

As I commented on Marcus' post, I think there are two issues going on here, one of which isn't remotely settled by Lane's approach. Here are two separate questions:

1. What should a church allow in terms of its practice (only infant, only believer's, leave it to the conscience of the parents)?
2. What should a parent do (which might involve how parents choose a congregation to be members of or mighty involve choosing what to do in a dual-practice congregation)?

Even if you answer the first question with dual-practice (as I would), you still need an answer to the second question. I belong to a dual-practice congregation, and I think they made the right choice to allow both. But I think the scriptures do favor believer's baptism. Someone else might disagree with me (as several members of my congregation do, including one of the three elders). But I don't think that disagreement is grounds for division, which is why I favor the dual-practice approach.

What I don't think Lane really answers, though, is the second question. Favoring dual-practice in a congregation doesn't mean not taking a view on which to do when it comes time to decide between them, and it seemed to me from the review that Lane doesn't take a stance on that question. He thus hasn't answered the main question the other two authors are debating in the book, which is a little strange if the book is supposed to cover three views on the same question.

Holy Vestments

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In Sartorial Eye for the Clerical Guy, Christopher Benson points to the Mosaic law's requirements for dazzlingly beautiful uniforms for priests as a reason for Christian ministers to wear nice clothing today, with an emphasis on the majestic robes of the more liturgical denominations as compared with the three-piece suits of the congregations I grew up in.

In the comments, someone made the argument that Paul doesn't exactly say anything to Timothy, repeating such provisions for New Testament times. I suppose that's true, but it doesn't go far enough, because Paul did discuss vestments at one point:

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works.[I Tim 2:9-10]

as did Peter:

Do not let your adorning be external--the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear-- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. [I Pet 3:2-4]

This is of a piece with the holy expanding to all things [edit: see my Scripture and Worship for the biblical theology of worship I'm working with here], as opposed to the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law. If all vestment can be holy, as all food, all containers, all buildings, and all days are now holy, then the principle of wearing clothing to glorify God becomes more about the inner than what it looks like. So a biblical theology that recognizes this isn't going to apply the levitical dress in a way that requires uniforms for the so-called professional ministers (on the ground that they are the replacements for priests at least in the sense of being the ones paid for ministry) or for the ordinary believer (on the principle of equality). It requires recognizing what Rick Warren wears as being just as capable of holiness and glory to God as what N.T. Wright wears.

When I raised this issue in the comments (I actually just lifted my comment verbatim above), Christopher responded:

Thank you for invoking relevant New Testament passages on clothing. Those passages deepen our conversation. I am wrestling with your contention that "the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law" is gone under the New Covenant, so that the holy is expanded to "all things." All things? Holiness can be conceived in different ways. One way is "a condition of being set apart." What is set apart about a minister who wears the same clothing at the pulpit that he wore for the Super Bowl party or neighborhood BBQ? What is set apart about going to a building on Sunday morning that resembles the bar I visited on Friday night or the mall I strolled through on Monday afternoon? Holiness quickly begins to loses its set-apartness and becomes quotidian and pedestrian.

If we think of holiness as being set apart, then it is a little strange to say that all things are holy, since then there would be nothing to be set apart from. But I think what I said is still true (and what follows is repeated from a comment I left in response). I meant that the holy/common divide of seeing the priestly/tabernacle things and the ordinary life things breaks down in the NT. Every day is equally holy, not just special festival days or sabbaths, as Paul says in several places. Every location is holy and suitable for worship rather than just a centralized temple or tabernacle, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4. All food is clean, as Jesus declares and Peter and Paul reiterate. There are no special holy silverware items for use in a special holy building (e.g. what some people wrongly call a church) used for special fellowship meals. There are no special seats that have to be used (e.g. pews). Why should we retain the idea that some clothes are special?

That doesn't mean there's no purpose for clothing. We should still be clothed, for example, and it shouldn't be too revealing. But I don't see why a T-shirt, even one with a rip in the sleeve, or a bright Hawaiian shirt pattern should be any less appropriate for worship than a three-piece suit or dress. There's something special about worship that takes place corporately, yes. But it's not as if that's the only time we worship, and the principle that we should care about our appearance should apply as much during the week when we worship with our lives as it does when we happen to be worshiping corporately with other believers.

James Sennett's chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy considers several views on the extent of salvation:

Universalism: Everyone will be saved.
Pluralism: There is no one, true religion. Multiple religions are legitimate paths to God.
Inclusivism: There is one, true religion, but some who are technically in other religions are nonetheless on a legitimate path to God by means of the correct religion, even if they don't know it.
Exclusivism: There is one, true religion, and the only path to God is through explicitly following that religion.

Sennett argues, correctly I think, that Lewis was an inclusivist. He allows for Emeth to be saved without any explicit trust in Aslan, but he insists that Emeth was following Aslan while falsely believing he was following Tash. Aslan clearly states that Aslan and Tash are not the same being, and the followers of Tash are evil and do not make it into Aslan's country. Universalism and pluralism are as easily ruled out as exclusivism. I haven't spent an awful lot of time thinking about inclusivism, because it seems so hard to square with Paul's train of thought in Romans 10. But Sennett has helped me see that Lewis' inclusivism makes sense of one puzzling element of the Narnia stories, and he's also helped me think a little more fully about what an inclusivist view should look like.

Sennett argues that inclusivism best explains something that might otherwise be puzzling in the Narnia stories. See The Mouse Trap Theory of Atonement at Green Baggins for a serious discussion of Lewis' theory of the atonement in the Narnia books. After reading Sennett, I'm now wondering if the discussion makes any sense. It's an attempt to get an entire theory of atonement out of an event that isn't really atonement for anyone but Edmund. Sennett has a much better alternative. He insists that the Narnians' following of Aslan is not Christianity. You don't have anything in Narnia like salvation by means of faith in a work of atonement. The stone table was one event for one person that turned the tables in one war against one opponent. It's much better to think of Narnians who follow Aslan in a way more like how Christians generally see faithful Jews before the time of Christ and how Lewis saw Emeth following Aslan without knowing it when he thought he was serving Tash. I think what Sennett is suggesting is that the real atonement for Narnians is the same one for us, namely the cross in our world. The Narnians don't know this to put explicit faith in it, but it's enough that Aslan does when he initiates the work of faith in their lives to guide them along in their progress toward greater understanding, some of which may only come after their death (as was the case with Emeth). I think this makes much better sense of what Lewis is doing with the stone table and how he might say that Narnians are saved.

Anther intriguing statement Sennett makes is that Aslan is not Jesus. I thought it was obvious that Aslan is Jesus. Isn't the stone table supposed to refer to the cross, even if it isn't really salvation for all the Narnians? Well, yes, literarily. But in the world of the fiction, Aslan is a lion. Jesus is a man. The incarnation of the first person of the Trinity as a man in our world is not the same incarnation as his incarnation as a lion in the Narnian world. The incarnation is hard enough to figure out philosophically, but a double incarnation? Fortunately, Prosblogion has already had two discussions of that issue for those who are curious.

Finally, it occurs to me that inclusivism fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty. Sennett's way of describing who among other religions is genuinely on the path to salvation is that they're the ones God is working in to move them toward the right attitudes and practices, despite not having the right information to know what the gospel even is. Without that, and without the evidence of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved. The easiest way around that is for the criteria to be simply whoever God is genuinely working in, a work that will always be brought to completion, but that requires Calvinist views of divine sovereignty over human salvation. There may be other ways to do it, but that's certainly the easiest answer to the problem. Ironically, Calvinists are probably more likely to be opposed to inclusivism than other groups, and inclusivists rarely want to be Calvinists.


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