Evangelicalism is no stranger to controversy. Debates over neo-Orthodoxy, the New Perspective on Paul, and Open Theism—to name only a few in the past half a century—have positioned evangelicals on the right side of controversy as they push back against attempts to abandon or modify major doctrines of the faith. However, recent debate over the doctrine of God has positioned evangelicals on the wrong side of controversy. For decades, notable evangelicals have questioned core components of theology proper, from God’s simplicity to his immutability and impassibility. The Great Tradition—from the church fathers to the Protestant Scholastics—considered these divine perfections indispensable to Christian orthodoxy’s distinction between the Creator and the creature, which explains why the Reformed tradition included them in their confessions and catechisms.
Recent controversy escalated further when evangelicals taught a doctrine of the Trinity to churchgoers and students alike that they were convinced was biblical. Under further investigation, the recipients of this doctrine discovered that the Trinity they had been taught came dangerously close to the trinitarian heresies that motivated the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. Prominent evangelicals to this day advocate a hierarchy within the immanent life of the Trinity, believing the Father is greater in authority than the Son, whose functional subordination to the Father is even person-defining, necessary for the Son to be the Son in eternity. In addition, the trinitarianism that evangelical theologians claimed was pure Scripture has an uncanny resemblance to modern theology’s social trinitarianism, a novel view that has been charged as tritheism by critics.
Recent controversy over the doctrine of God is nothing short of ironic. In the past, evangelicals grew comfortable pointing the finger at others who allowed the influence of modernity to seep within—the battle over the Bible is a case in point. But after decades of imbibing modern theology’s doctrine of God, evangelicals have no one left to blame but themselves. As I explain in my book Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, evangelicals have drifted away from biblical and Nicene trinitarianism, all the while assuming they are still swimming in the waters of orthodoxy.
As a result, our present doctrinal moment is one of flux. We await the outcome, wondering whether future evangelicalism will return to orthodoxy or continue down this deviant road of modernity. Our state of flux brings with it no small feeling of uncertainty. Those who long for the renewal of a Christianity that will not settle for anything less than fidelity are discouraged by the reluctance of evangelicals to reform. After all, in past decades, evangelicals were quick to defend doctrines like inerrancy or justification; yet with a locus as central as the doctrine of God, evangelicals have been slow, even hesitant, to demonstrate their orthodoxy. Such indecision speaks volumes: on the one hand, manifesting evangelicalism’s lack of familiarity with the weight of theology proper; and on the other hand, exposing the political nature of such reluctance. Few evangelicals desire to confront their own.
Disenchantment with evangelicalism has followed. Those jaded may feel that a solution is daunting, as if change for the better is a boulder too big to roll over. Some have become so discouraged by evangelicalism’s vitriolic reaction against the creeds of the church and its refusal to ground Protestant theology in the deep roots of the Great Tradition that they are considering whether they should abandon all hope and swim the Tiber. “If this is what it means to be Protestant, count me out,” they reply disheartened and fatigued.
All that to say, recent controversy has been painful, consequential, and still lingers in hope of a solution. Yet rather than despair in the darkness, this article is a small attempt to open a window of light and let a beam of hope shimmer inward. Some balk at controversy because it sheds more heat than light, but a more reasonable outlook recognizes that the light shines bright only after the purification of heat is applied. In that light, could this present moment be an opportunity to reflect on the ways that God designs controversy to lead us into further doctrinal sanctity and ecclesiastical unity? Might this be but a wrinkle in time, one that compels us to consider the strategies in the heat of controversy that might give birth to an illuminating solution? In that spirit of hope, the time has come to explore the nature of controversy itself and why we can be so audacious to claim that doctrinal disagreement might pave the way to a more mature reception of creedal authority.
Controversy: A Sanctifying Instrument
in the Hand of the Almighty
Doctrinal controversy is a friend to some and an enemy to others. Yet in the hands of the inscrutable wisdom of the Almighty, controversy does have a positive, even formidable role to play in the past, present, and future history of his church.
First, controversy may be unpleasant, but we do well to remember that controversy is spiritual, a type of personal or corporate sanctification. Sanctification is often segregated to Christian living, but theology is also sanctification, a process in which your thoughts about God must be made holy. Those who are discouraged by past mistakes can be prone to arrogance (as if their theology has already reached a state of perfection) or prone to despair (a refusal to be encouraged by how far the Holy Spirit has brought them along). Yet theology is nothing less than the renewal of the mind. The sanctifying progress of the theologian or the church does not in any way lower the high standards God himself has set: he expects sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), but he summons the church to recognize that on this side of glory, instruction still needs to be given.
Controversy could be less unpleasant if those with doctrinal faults recognized their need for further theological sanctity. Yet this request does assume that a posture of humility is necessary on the part of the person or church, denomination, or institution under scrutiny. Personally, I have always admired those churches and pastors, institutions, and theologians who have paused in the midst of all their success to acknowledge that their theology could be—must be—improved both for the sake of further faithfulness to God and for the sake of those under their care. That pastoral posture of humility, however, is extremely rare for it requires an admission of guilt as well as a resolve to move upward to purer theological air.
Second, controversy should be uncomfortable because we desire unity in the body of Christ, yet controversy should be considered necessary precisely because we desire unity in the body of Christ. Many evangelicals will avoid controversy at all costs because of the inevitable pain and potential division disputes cause in the body of Christ. To ignore this consequence is naive. Controversy is a knife; the only question is what type. Is controversy a butcher’s knife that hacks away and leaves carnage in the end, or is it the knife of the skilled surgeon, carefully cutting into the body to locate the sickness that threatens the body’s survival? The latter is the mindset of both Christ and his creeds. On the one hand, Jesus prays that his followers will be one as he is one with the Father (John 17:21). On the other hand, prior to praying for their unity, Jesus prays that his Father might sanctify his disciples in the truth of his word so that they will not go the way of the world (v. 17). Jesus even considers his own sacrifice a means to that end: “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (v. 19). His language of consecration and sanctification does not isolate the spiritual from the theological. Unity with Christ and with one another, according to Jesus, is never at the expense of sanctity in the truth. Such a consecration is the means by which unity is experienced and enjoyed.
This pattern may have been articulated by Christ, but in the centuries that followed it was exemplified by his church’s creeds. The fourth century, for example, was an era birthed into controversy, as church fathers like Athanasius were exiled many times for advocating a Trinity without a trace of hierarchy or subordination. Yet apart from the fathers and their tenacious resilience, the church might have gone the way of Arianism altogether. If Athanasius seems bullish at points, he understands that apart from a controversy that settles in favor of orthodoxy, the faith confessed by the church will never arrive at a point of theological consecration and the body of Christ will remain divided. Naturally, not only Athanasius but also the Cappadocians considered controversy a painful but necessary tool, pruning those vines that threatened to choke the flower of trinitarian orthodoxy.
Whatever aggressive tactics they may have utilized, the fathers were characterized by a humility that considered their own theology in need of development. For example, in AD 325, the creed written at Nicaea was a monumental declaration in favor of the Son’s eternal generation. Nevertheless, in the condemnatory appendix, the fathers still considered hypostasis and ousia synonymous. Between 325 and the final codification of the creed at Constantinople in AD 381, the fathers reevaluated and entertained the possibility that their own articulation of trinitarian vocabulary needed refinement. In that interim, they acknowledged the potential for misunderstanding: treating hypostasis and ousia as synonyms could sound like person and essence should not be distinguished. Rather than doubling down, however, they humbled themselves and further refined their trinitarian grammar so that no misunderstanding could occur between hypostasis and ousia. In the end, the controversy that threatened to divide the church brought the church together, and some of those previously hesitant to affirm Nicene trinitarianism were brought into the fold. This progress was only possible because the same fathers who were unflinching in their opposition to those unwilling to leave subordination behind were also unpretentious enough to refine their vocabulary for those who were open to Nicaea but nonetheless reticent due to lingering confusion.
In a similar vein, who is not encouraged to see so many churches and pastors today acknowledging past deviance from Nicene orthodoxy—either in their own theological education or present church—only to follow through with a willingness to take the next steps to reform? I propose that this is the way forward. Such humility will be the beginning of concord—consecration for the sake of unification. We all long for the church to be one, but if the church is not holy first, then unity is but a mirage.
Christ Will Build His Church:
Tradition as Gardener and Guardian
If such a bold claim is true—that is, controversy is instrumental to the doctrinal sanctification and unity of Christ’s church—then what strategies might lead those in the oven of controversy toward a solution? I offer the following strategies with the recent controversy over the doctrine of God in plain view. These strategies for a solution assume, however, that missteps with the doctrine of God are only a symptom. The virus itself is in the bloodstream and must be identified; otherwise, evangelicals will continue to suffer the symptoms.
At the end of the Nicene Creed, our church fathers confessed their belief in one holy catholic and apostolic church. The fathers did not believe any of these ecclesiastical attributes were optional, and they also considered each mark indispensable to the next, a web of inseparable silk strands. That point is worth emphasizing because everyone desires the church to be one. Yet evangelicals rarely recognize that for the church to be one, it must not remove itself from the church catholic—that is, universal. Unity in the present is achieved when we embrace the unity of the past. Should we sever ourselves from those brothers and sisters in Christ across the ages, cutting ourselves off from the church universal, then we leave ourselves disconnected from an apostolic witness. How can we confess the faith once for all delivered to the saints—a faith around which we unite—if we do not consider ourselves accountable to the faith once for all delivered to the saints?
To clarify, the church catholic or universal is a subservient authority to Scripture, which alone is God’s written and infallible revelation to his people. At the same time, the light of the Holy Spirit was not extinguished after Pentecost. Jesus’ promise to build his church did not return void. In the centuries after the apostles, the Holy Spirit came through on that promise, yet not by means of additional acts of inspiration in the form of tradition. Rather, by the light of the Spirit, our Lord guided his church through the fires of heresy to providentially preserve a tradition that originated with the apostles and was passed down to all who confess the true God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. As far as that tradition was recapitulated by man, it remained open to fallibility, but this does not mean that such an apostolic tradition was impotent in authority. Scripture remained the magisterial authority for the church, said fathers such as Augustine. Yet these same fathers also recognized that God embedded his inscripturated gospel within his covenant community. Therefore, they marked that apostolic tradition as a ministerial authority and with humility received it as the handiwork of Christ the architect coming through on his promise to build his church even when the gates of hell itself stood in the way.
The Great Tradition is ministerial in authority because it serves the church in two critical ways. First, its theology is a gardener, nurturing the biblical soil so that the church’s theological reasoning is true and faithful to the God it worships. For this reason, Reformed churches to this day implement catechisms to nurture the young and old in that historic faith. Second, the Great Tradition’s theology is a guardian, protecting the church from heresies that threaten the apostolic truth that was first articulated in the Scriptures and then passed along to all those faithful to confess its credibility. For this reason, for example, the church assembled to write the Nicene Creed. As a faithful representation of Scripture, as well as Scripture’s good and necessary consequences, the creed not only confessed the faith but also shielded the faith from those within the church who betrayed God and Christ with both exegetical and theological aberration.
Evangelicalism shines bright for its devotion to the Bible. Unfortunately, some evangelicals have assumed that such devotion is also a license to read and wield the Bible on no authority but their own. The widespread misinterpretation of Martin Luther has not helped this plague. Luther, so we are told, threw off the chains of tradition, disdained one thousand years of “dark ages,” and stood all alone with nothing but his mallet and Bible in hand. This caricature is quite fatigued by now. As many scholars have observed, such a retelling betrays not only sixteenth-century history but also Luther’s mature perception of himself, as evident in his later writings affirming the creeds of the faith and their ecclesiastical authority. Protestantism did not originate from an attempt to forge a new denomination, but the Reformers were excommunicated in their attempt to renew the church of their day. Renew—that word makes all the difference. The Reformers attempted to restore the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
Rome claimed that the Reformers were innovators, propagating new doctrines, and therefore heretics. That charge frustrated the Reformers because it was a case of mistaken identity. The charge did not fit their profile but the radicals. The radicals claimed the church had been lost since the apostles but now, with their arrival, the true church would be established for the first time. The Reformers grew nauseated at such an arrogant view of history—what C. S. Lewis once called chronological snobbery. By contrast, the Reformers responded to Rome by demonstrating their continuity with the church catholic (universal). No doubt the Reformers enraged Rome when they concluded that it was the true innovator of doctrine, indebted to late medieval theology (Scotus, Ockham, Biel—the via moderna), rather than the fathers of the patristic and early and high Middle Ages (representatives of the via antiqua).
A Way Forward
Unfortunately, the radicals and their misreading of ecclesiology were not extinguished with the passing of the sixteenth century, but continue today whenever evangelicals confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, most often heard in that defiant Enlightenment cry, “No creed but the Bible!” Ironically, even among those today who do hold to some confessional document, the same spirit is embodied whenever they dismiss the past as inferior to their own contemporary estimations. That spirit has become conspicuous with the doctrine of God controversy and may even be its cause in part. Well-known evangelicals have either resisted accountability to the Nicene Creed or found ways to (re)interpret the creed so that it supports their novel position and modern categories. For example, evangelicals who have functionally subordinated the Son within the Trinity have now conceded the doctrine of eternal generation, which they previously questioned. Nevertheless, they claim that a functional subordination must exist within and flow from the Son’s eternal generation from the Father, now infusing subordination much deeper into the immanent life of the Godhead. They then conclude that such a maneuver is consistent with the Nicene Creed, which is a bold but reckless claim considering the creed was a reaction against various types of subordinationist heresies. That maneuver—a most modern one—is a manipulation of Nicene vocabulary and concepts to match the hierarchical agenda of evangelicals.
How, then, might evangelicals once again enjoy doctrinal unity? The solution cannot be a concession to such novel aberration since maneuvers like these defy orthodoxy and its Nicene intention to preclude any inequality within the Trinity (hence the patristic emphasis on the Trinity’s simplicity). To concede in the end may result in a kind of unity, but only at the expense of doctrinal compromise. Evangelicals would be given the false impression that either position—classical or modern—is legitimate under the evangelical tent. By contrast, unity must be planted within the life-giving soil of Nicene orthodoxy. Evangelicals will be relieved to learn that they may already exist within denominations that were originally embedded within that Nicene soil. Lutheran and Reformed confessions, for example, affirmed the Nicene Creed without nuance and without hesitation. Baptists are not without a heritage either: seventeenth-century Baptists assembled to adopt a confession that mimicked the Westminster Confession, taking exception to secondary loci such as baptism, as to be expected.
Unfortunately, two barriers stand in the way of making forward progress. First, evangelicals are so historically disoriented that they lack the ability to properly interpret these Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist confessions and, as a result, do not know how to rightly handle a confession’s affirmation of historic creeds. As mentioned, that much has become obvious with the recent controversy over the Trinity as evangelicals try to project hierarchy back into creedal language. Yet this inability is also apparent in evangelical treatments of divine attributes. For example, the confessions clearly affirm divine simplicity (God is without parts), divine immutability (God is without change), and divine impassibility (God is so complete he is without emotional change). Nevertheless, evangelicals ignore how these attributes were defined by the confessions—confessions that proposed to preserve the Great Tradition’s intended definition of these perfections by the church fathers and their exegesis of Scripture. Evangelicals downgrade simplicity as if it merely means God does not have a body; they modify immutability as if God can still change relationally; and they undercut the power of impassibility when they say God does not have emotions like man, but he nonetheless is affected and changed by the creature. When these modifications are intentional, they become misleading, and nothing undermines the authority of a church or denomination’s confession like the absence of transparent, doctrinal honesty. When these modifications are accidental, they become irresponsible, and nothing cuts deeper at our doctrinal integrity than theological imprudence, however unwitting it may be.
Second, an equally cancerous scenario exists among those churches, denominations, and institutions that adhere to “doctrinal statements” that have taken the approach of “doctrinal minimalism.” By “minimalism,” I do not refer to the absence of tertiary matters (e.g., the exact order of events in the eschaton). Minimalism in tertiary loci can be a hedge to foster harmony against those who would divide the body of Christ over beliefs miles away from the core of Christianity. Rather, I use the term “minimalism” here to target those statements that devote few sentences to or settle for shallow prose on doctrines central to the faith. An irony persists in such instances because these minimalist statements are often forged out of a motivation for unity. Trouble occurs, however, when these same churches, denominations, and institutions assume that those under their statement will remain evangelical in the historic, reformational sense of the word. In the twenty-first century, history shows what a failed experiment this has become, and yet it is one we perpetuate.
The solution—however painful—is a resolve to be far more robust on doctrines central to the faith. The goal is not to avoid controversy but the wrong type of controversy. In other words, controversy over tertiary matters of doctrine need not divide those evangelical institutions permitting denominational diversity. Nevertheless, there is another type of controversy that cannot and should not be avoided: division over primary loci. I am amazed I must say this, but the doctrine of God is primary. God and Christ, as Gregory of Nazianzus understood, is a hill worth dying on. To be practical, evangelical churches, denominations, and institutions are long overdue for a diagnostic check on their “statements of faith.” A quick survey will reveal that a minimalism has crept into those primary doctrines—the Trinity and the attributes of God, as well as the person of Christ—leaving them vulnerable to a host of theological novelties that look more like modern theology than orthodox Christianity.
If the heat of controversy has any chance of ushering God’s people into the light of unity, then churches, denominations, and institutions can no longer lack creedal and confessional depth and accountability on a locus so central to orthodoxy.
The Courage of Conviction
Change, however, will occur only if a newfound conviction is born in the hearts of evangelicals. Yet conviction is not enough; courage must follow. And if courage was ever needed, it is now, with the doctrine of God itself at hand.
Although some evangelicals are willing to believe what is right, they are unwilling to stand up for right belief. The Lord Jesus was meek and mild, but he reserved some of his strongest words for these types because belief without conviction to act is nothing less than hypocrisy. Christ refused to sever the line between the hands and the heart. True followers not only believe the right doctrines in their hearts, but they also put their hands to good use instructing and, when necessary, admonishing others. But the man without a chest—to reappropriate a phrase from C. S. Lewis—will always find a way to justify not acting in times of controversy, using otherwise good motives to excuse his passivity. The passive person is the lion in the land of Oz, showing off his roar but never using it when it counts because he does not have the courage. When confrontation comes at little cost, he is bold against blatant error, but only against the type of error that those around him already find disagreeable. Yet he cannot bring himself to turn against a theological blunder that is encased with subtlety and nuance and that resides comfortably within his own house, among his own friends.
Following in the footnotes of his Lord, the apostle Paul showed little patience for such theological feebleness. As Paul reports in Galatians 2, Peter ate and drank with the Gentiles. And why not, for they were his equals, brothers in Christ? But when the circumcision party arrived, Peter no longer ate with the Gentiles. Paul, seeing this hypocrisy (as he calls it), “opposed him [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). Peter should have stood with the gospel—and with some courage—but fearing controversy with the Jews, Peter acquiesced and led others (Barnabas included) to misrepresent the “truth of the gospel” to the Gentiles (2:14). When courage does not accompany controversy—and notice, the lack of courage is masked as the religious option in Galatians 2—truth itself becomes collateral damage. The passive person may claim he is preserving the church’s unity, but he never makes the sacrifices necessary to ensure that the church remains holy.
In the spirit of the apostle Paul, I leave the reader with this clarion call: jellyfish theologians have no backbone; but in times of controversy over doctrines most central to the Christian faith, both creedal sanctity and ecclesiastical unity depend on a spine injected with the courage of conviction.
Matthew Barrett is the author of Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Baker, 2021). He is the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. He is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.