Liam Goligher misquotes John Calvin...

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(NOTE FROM TB: In response to concern with my use of the phrase "economic subordination," I have added a footnote responding to that concern.)

Over on Carl Trueman's blog hosted by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, my friend Liam Goligher, senior minister of Philly's Tenth Presbyterian Church, has been joining Trueman in an attack upon the historic, Biblical doctrine of our Lord's economic subordination1 to His Father. Liam claims those who believe and teach that Jesus submitted to His Father before His incarnation deny the orthodox Christian faith. He tells his readers that men who hold to economic subordination cannot at the same time affirm the Nicene Creed's declaration of our Lord's equality with His Father.

Of course, Liam's declaration concerning the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is wrong. Here, though, I simply want to correct Liam's abuse of John Calvin in support of his error.

Liam writes:

I am an unashamed biblical complementarian. The original use of that word took its cue from the biblical teaching about the differences yet complementarity of human beings made in the image of God while not running away from the challenges of applying biblical exhortations for wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church. With only those two caveats, as Calvin told John Knox, women may be princes in the state, but not pastors in the church.

John Calvin said no such thing. Rather, Calvin was consistent in declaring the teaching of Scripture concerning...

God's Order of Creation:

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.

If anyone bring forward, by way of objection, Deborah (Judges 4:4) and others of the same class, of whom we read that they were at one time appointed by the command of God to govern the people, the answer is easy. Extraordinary acts done by God do not overturn the ordinary rules of government, by which he intended that we should be bound. Accordingly, if women at one time held the office of prophets and teachers, and that too when they were supernaturally called to it by the Spirit of God, He who is above all law might do this; but, being a peculiar case, this is not opposed to the constant and ordinary system of government. (Calvin's comments on on 1Timothy 2:11-13)

And from a letter Calvin wrote his fellow reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, concerning their discussion of this issue with John Knox:

Most willingly I looked over the answer which you gave to the Scotsman. He had talked over these matters with me before he came among you. As I had freely exposed to him in familiar conversation my opinion, he did not press the subject any further, and not even after his return, did he ask me to communicate to him my ideas in writing. The substance of what I expressed orally moreover tallied with what you had written. ...About the government of women I expressed myself thus: Since it is utterly at variance with the legitimate order of nature, it ought to be counted among the judgments with which God visits us; and even in this matter his extraordinary grace is sometimes very conspicuous, because to reproach men for their sluggishness, he raises up women endowed not only with a manly but a heroic spirit, as in the case of Deborah we have an illustrious example. But though a government of this kind seems to me nothing else than a mere abuse, yet I gave it as my solemn opinion, that private persons have no right to do anything but to deplore it. (Letter CCCXLVIII from John Calvin to Heinrich Bullinger; Geneva, 28 April 1554)

Then, this letter from Calvin to William Cecil:

Two years ago, John Knox in a private conversation, asked my opinion respecting female government. I frankly answered that because it was a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature, it ought to be held as a judgment on man for his dereliction of his rights just like slavery—that nevertheless certain women had sometimes been so gifted that the singular blessing of God was conspicuous in them, and made it manifest that they had been raised up by the providence of God, either because He willed by such examples to condemn the supineness of men, or thus show more distinctly His own glory. I here instanced Huldah and Deborah." [John Calvin, "Letter DXXXVIII to William Cecil" in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge & Jules Bonnet, vol. 7, (Philadelphia, 1860), p. 46.]

C. S. Lewis sums up the Reformers' discomfort at Knox's jeremiad against Queen Elizabeth's governance in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women) while agreeing that women's governance of men was "contrary to nature and divine law":

...nearly everyone (except regnant queens) agreed with Knox. Everyone knew that it was contrary to natural and divine law that women should rule men... Calvin knew as well as Knox... Bullinger thought the same... (C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 199-200.)

So Liam, dear brother, would you please correct your error? I would be grateful.

  • 1. Some would prefer the word "submission" to "subordination" in regard to the relations of the Three Persons within the Godhead. They say "subordination" has a connotation of enforced inequality that renders it infelicitous, if not incompatible, with the Son's submission to His Father. We are entirely willing to speak of the "economic submission" or "eternal submission" of the Son to the Father if that helps Trueman and Goligher stop charging their fellow complementarians Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware with heresy, but it won't. What Trueman and Goligher oppose is not merely a matter of wording, but the very Biblical doctrine of our Lord's submission to His Father both prior to and following His incarnation. Given Scripture's clear witness to both, the Church's confession of the Trinity cannot change. The orthodox Church denies that Jesus' obedience of His Father is limited to His incarnation because, when confronted by a choice between the Nicene Creed and stipulations and limitations feminist Sorbonnists are determined to add to it, the orthodox Church chooses the Nicene Creed because in it the Church fathers did no violence to the clear witness of Scripture (1Corinthians 15:28).
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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