Arians are still with us

Lately, there’s been discussions on Twitter around Baptist theologian Owen Strachan. See this tweet, for example:

Strachan is a defender of what is often called complementarianism, the notion that “men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership,” according to Wikipedia. A phrase used, according to the encyclopedia, is ‘ontologically equal, functionally different,’ taken from John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s 1991 book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In 2016, Strachan co-authored a book on this subject, with Gavin Peacock: The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. In the tweet above, we find a quote from that book. Now, this blogpost is not about male and female complementarianism but about how Strachan (and Peacock) tries to root this in the Trinity in a univocal way, ending up by espousing trinitarian heresy. For an interesting thread, see here:

Regardless of your position on complementarianism, this is not Christian. This is just plain heretical and it turns Christ into a creature. To quote the Athanasian Creed: “This, however, is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one—equal in glory, coequal in majesty.”[1]

But why does Strachan espouse this heresy? What is behind it? I think that the problem behind it is a combination of a modern notion of personhood, tied to voluntarism and a univocal notion of being. Strachan states that God the Son submits to the Father’s will, as God. Now, no serious Christian theologian denies that Christ submits to the Father’s will as a human. Christ said so Himself many times, for example in John 6:37-38: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

As the Athanasian Creed states, Jesus Christ, the God-man, is “equal to the Father with respect to his divinity, less than the Father with respect to his humanity.” But this does not mean that the divine persons have distinct wills, qua divinity. For a defence, see Gregory of Nazianzus’s Fourth Theological Oration, XII, commenting on John 6:38.

But Strachan seems to say that since there are three divine persons, there must be three divine wills. He is claiming that the divine persons are ontologically equal, yes, but functionally different, and is thus denying divine simplicity, the centrepiece of classical Christian theism. And the reason he does so is that he, probably unwittingly, assumes a voluntarist notion of personhood, where what defines you as a person is your will and, most especially, your freedom to choose and to obey or submit. But this inverts the relationship between intellect and will.

As Thomas Aquinas shows, will is a rational appetite that follows the intellect.[2] And if we combine this with the Thomistic notion that ‘action follows being’ (Lt. agere sequitur esse),[3] we can see where the error comes from.

If will is what defines personhood, we would say that there was, in some sense, three divine wills. But there is one. And the reason is that will derives from being. And there is but one divine being. That is what the Athanasian Creed teaches, and what Christian theology has taught for almost two millennia. By assuming that God’s being is univocal to ours, and by assuming the primacy of will, Strachan, Peacock, and others end up espousing trinitarian heresy and they ultimately end up denying the divinity of both God the Son and the Holy Spirit, just to espouse their understanding of complementarianism. As a tweeter Kathryn of Caerbannog puts it:

Notes:

[1] I use the English translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 19, 23-25. For a critical edition of the Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 51-60.

[2] See David M. Gallagher, “Thomas Aquinas on the Will as Rational Appetite” (Journal of the History of Philosophy 29:4, 1991), 559-584.

[3] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017), 174-176; Rudi A. te Velde, Aquinas on God: The ‘Divine Science’ of the Summa Theologiae (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 69.

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