• Keith Mathison

American Evangelicalism's Toleration of Heresy

In my last blog post, I suggested that there are a number of ways American evangelicalism is killing itself.

(NOTE: I understand that I am using the phrase "American evangelicalism" in a very general way. What I am concerned about doesn't apply to every American person who would consider himself or herself an evangelical. I'm addressing what I see as a general trend and using a general term to describe (in general) the group in which that trend is generally occurring.)

In that previous blog post, I focused on the insatiable lust for secular political power at any cost and how it echoes the fatal mistake of the medieval papacy. I want to turn now to another of the ways American evangelicalism is slowly committing suicide, namely by allowing gross heresy to be taught and promoted in its churches, seminaries, publishing houses, and conferences. In this way, American evangelicalism is echoing the fatal mistake of theological liberalism.

Allow me to share a few quotes. As you read, I want you to ask yourself where, in the history of the church these quotes are found?

“Nobody denies that the Father is somehow greater than the Son, not because of another hypostasis nor because of any difference, but because the name of Father itself is greater than ‘Son.’”

“Even though He [the Son] is subordinated to the Father, still He is God ‘according to His perfect and true nature.’”

“We do not make the Son equal to the Father, but subordinated to the Father.”

“There is no uncertainty about the Father being greater: it cannot be doubted by anyone that the Father is greater in honour, in dignity, in glory, in majesty in the very name of ‘Father.’”

“[The Holy Spirit] subject and obedient in all things to the Son; and the Son, subject and obedient in all things to God who is his Father.”

Any guesses?

All of these quotes are from the fourth century. They were written during the time of the Trinitarian controversy. The first four are taken from a variety of creeds written by heretical opponents of the Nicene Creed in the years between AD 325 and 381. They were all written by those who promoted one variation of the Arian theme or another. They were all written by opponents of orthodox theologians such as Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers. The hope of the authors was that these alternative creeds would replace the Nicene Creed, which they opposed. The final quote above is taken from a Arian creed written by Ulfilas, a bishop of the Goths.

Notice what all of these quotes by fourth-century heretics have in common. They all teach various versions of the subordination of the Son. Some clearly teach an ontological subordination. Some teach forms of functional subordination. But the key point is that this kind of teaching regarding the Son occurs in the fourth-century debates only in the teaching of the heretical opponents of orthodox Trinitarianism. It was a heresy condemned by the proponents of the Nicene Creed and orthodox Trinitarianism.

Guess where these kinds of quotes can be easily found today. We find them repeatedly in the teaching of some of the most prominent American evangelical professors, pastors, authors, and conference speakers. The controversy blew up online back in 2016, but it has had little effect on the acceptance of this doctrine among wide swaths of American evangelicalism. [For those who want names, click on the link in this paragraph. The proponents of this heresy aren't embarrassed or hiding].

Here is the problem. To be as blunt and as clear as possible because the issue could not be any more important, the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is a heresy on par with unitarianism, pelagianism, or justification by works. Why then, do American evangelical colleges and seminaries continue to allow men who teach it to instruct their students? Why do American evangelical publishers continue to publish books by those who teach it? Why do American evangelical conferences still feature speakers who teach it? Why do American evangelical churches still ordain men who preach it?

I think part of the reason this heresy has found acceptance among American evangelicals is because we are sometimes so focused on the dangers of social liberalism that we forget about the dangers of theological liberalism. And that’s what this heresy is, by the way. Theological liberalism is characterized by its rejection of creedal orthodoxy, and embracing the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is a rejection of creedal orthodoxy. It’s another version of theological liberalism, no different than any other version of liberal anti-trinitarianism.

But back to the connection with social liberalism. The ancient heresy of the eternal subordination of the Son gained a foothold within American evangelicalism partly as a result of the battle with radical feminism, an element of social liberalism. American evangelicals were rightly concerned with the danger of radical feminism and its false teachings, but it became so focused on this cultural battle that it lost sight of equally important dangers. So when, in the 1970s, the doctrine of the Trinity was drawn into the debates over egalitarianism and complementarianism within the American evangelical world, no one paid attention to the danger. Some theologians began to make an analogy between the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity and the male-female relation in certain human contexts. They resurrected the old heresy of the subordination of the Son in order to combat radical feminism. In their battle against social liberalism, many ended up embracing theological liberalism.

What has made this even more confusing for people in the pews is that most of the men promoting this heresy claim to be teaching in accord with Nicene trinitarian orthodoxy, but the only way to affirm this is to be ignorant of the context in which Nicene trinitarian orthodoxy was settled. Affirming the words of the Nicene Creed while also affirming a doctrine that contradicts the original meaning of the words of the Creed is effectively a denial of the Nicene Creed.

The problem is that whether they know it or not, those who affirm the eternal subordination of the Son are teaching one of the very doctrines condemned as heresy by the fourth-century proponents of Nicene trinitarian orthodoxy. This is one reason I provided the fourth-century quotes above. It certainly isn’t sufficient for a thorough case, but it’s a little bit of information. If more people knew the context and content of the fourth-century Trinitarian debates, they would not accept the claims of heretics to be teaching orthodox Christian theology. [For those who are interested, Lewis Ayres's Nicaea and its Legacy is a good starting point on the history of the fourth-century debates].

I was one of those who was too ignorant of the historical context to realize that I was being taught a heretical doctrine of God during my time in seminary thirty years ago. I didn't know any better, and I trusted that my professor did know better. It took years before I realized the full extent of the falsehood that I had been taught. The point is that I'm not alone. A lot of men in seminary, a lot of readers of best-selling evangelical theology books, a lot of conference attendees, don't know any better either, and they are trusting those they are hearing or reading to know better. Sometimes they don't.

Another reason this issue is confusing is due to the way in which proponents of this heresy take something that is true regarding the human nature of Christ and His state of humiliation and read it back into the eternal Trinity. There is a subordination or submission if we’re referring to the perfect submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will and to His taking the form of a servant to perfectly obey the law for us. All of this is necessary for our salvation. But there is no subordination, ontological or functional, within the one Triune Being of God. There is an order of the three Persons and a distinction among them defined by their personal relations, but those three Persons are homoousios, one with another. There is only one God with one will, thus there is no subordination of one Person’s will to another Person’s will. Christians are not polytheists.

A final reason this heresy is particularly confusing and dangerous within the context of American evangelicalism is due to the fact that it has been taken up by many who are rightly concerned with the dangers of radical feminism. Those segments of American evangelicalism that are focusing a lot of effort on dealing with radical feminism (e.g. the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the biblical patriarchalism movement, etc.) have to be especially wary and careful because of the history of the way this heresy has been coopted in the battle against radical feminism. It doesn't do any good to win the battle against cultural liberalism if you become a theological liberal in the process, and make no mistake about it, if you adopt the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son, you are a theological liberal regardless of what else you teach.

Since the 1970s, attacks on the orthodox doctrine of God among American evangelicals has only become worse. Several decades ago, some self-professing evangelicals (Open theists) began denying the omniscience of God, or radically redefining it so that it did not include knowledge of the future. Today, other self-professing evangelicals are denying other divine attributes such as immutability, impassibility, and divine simplicity. Their doctrine of God is growing more and more similar to that of process theologians. I've addressed this in more detail elsewhere.

Theological heresy is deadly, not only to the church as a body, but to the souls of the individuals within it. It will always kill a church that tolerates and coddles it. The State of Theology survey has repeatedly revealed that large percentages of American evangelicalism do not have a grasp of even the most basic biblical doctrines. We can't recognize heresy if we don't know what orthodoxy is. This is why learning theology is not an option for Christians.

The doctrine of God and the heresies related to it were the most important theological issues the church faced during its first five centuries. If you lose the doctrine of God, everything else goes with it. Classical Trinitarian theism is as important a doctrine in the twenty-first century as it was in the fourth, and the heresies attacking it today are as serious as they were when they attacked it in the fourth century. If we wouldn't have a unitarian write, or speak, or teach for us, why would we have a proponent of an equally serious heresy write, or speak, or teach for us? Both are forms of theological liberalism and rank heresies.

If American evangelicalism continues to tolerate heresies related to the nature of God, it will suffer the same fate as past churches which have embraced these forms of theological liberalism. Embracing heresy is suicidal for the church.

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