The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.2

For part one of Allison's series, click here.

Earlier it became evident that although Grudem and Ware appeal to the creeds and early church fathers as though they proclaimed Ware and Grudem's view of authority relations within the Trinity, they don't in actuality. Grudem and Ware's position is far from the orthodox position. Nowhere in their citations of either Augustine or the creed is there an explicit connection made for the sending or originating relationship being an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is at best an implication that Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, though they appear not to be saying this is an implication (which is never worked out), but a direct communication of the idea in Augustine and the Creed.  However, the actual position of the early church, differing origination (the mere language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to), is not actually held by either of them. They hold to a different view.

In sum, we saw that they were lacking clear reasoning for why “sending” had to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.


 Having briefly over viewed the particular way Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware conceive of eternal differences within the Trinity, it is time to consider some of the view’s more serious problems. My basic claim is as follows: Although Grudem and Ware intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position.


The eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father should be rejected because, as it is currently expressed, it is incoherent. That is, there is a lack of cohesion in Grudem and Ware’s argument between the Son being eternally subordinate to the Father and trinitarian orthodoxy. I suspect they simply want to have it both ways yet are unable to provide an argument allowing for both. Worse yet, they do not seem cognizant of it. This is more than evident in the written back and forth between Ware and Thomas McCall.

In Which Trinity? Whose Montheism? McCall takes one chapter to critique eternal functional subordination.[1] Specifically, he wants to critique those who would make eternal functional subordination what God is ad intra. McCall allows for positions that teach the Son is always subordinate in his work in redemption as the incarnation in this possible world, indicating subordination itself is not what functions as the eternal distinguisher within the Trinity. McCall brings in the question of whether the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds in order to tease out the nature of the Son’s subordination. If one answers that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds, this means it is an essential property of the Son since it is necessary to the inner life of God and not just something that happens in relation to creation. If subordination ends up being something that is an essential property then it means there is something essentially different between the Father, Son and Spirit meaning they have difference essences.

How can Grudem or Ware get distinction within the Trinity if distinction must be necessary and yet not compromise the divine essence? If McCall is right they end up with a personal essence and generic essence of “kind” (i.e. divine) so that each trinitarian person has his own personal essence but also shares a divine essence with the others.[2] Whether or not they opt for having a second essence, their options from here are to base the personal essences in “origination relationship” (also known in terms of “generation” and “spiration”) or functional personal essences (i.e. having authority over). Since the latter (they do not subscribe to the former), they have articulated a Son who is in personal essence subordinate to the Father because of the argument summarized in the last paragraph necessitates that they are indeed speaking of essence or ontology whether or not they want to say the word “essence.”[3] According to Grudem, admitting the Son is not of the same essence as the Father is not an option because “If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God.”[4] Of course, this statement of Grudem’s does not anticipate a member of the Trinity with two essences! Grudem is trying to protect his view against Arianism rather than tritheism and so the risk stemming from two essences is entirely missed. McCall ends his critique wondering, “How someone might coherently affirm both homoousios and Hard EFS is far from obvious, and to say that such a position is internally strained is to put it rather mildly.”[5] How will Grudem and Ware reveal that they actually can coherently affirm homoousios and keep the authority-submission relationship?

Ware has recently given a direct response to McCall in the last chapter of One God in Three Persons. Still thinking in terms of there being only one essence in each divine person, he immediately defends against the notion that his view entails a denial of the homoousios. His first defense is simply to claim that if he has fallen into this error, then Athanasius and the Nicene fathers have too because they believe the essential personal distinguisher is being “begotten” and the conditions for this distinguisher are the same as subordination. They are both necessary personal properties and so if Ware’s position entails a denial of homoousios then so does Nicene orthodoxy.[6] Of course, he is not escaping from McCall’s argument; he is merely attaching his position to Nicene orthodoxy as a sort of theological trump card so that he cannot fail despite what is logically entailed by each stage of acceptance.[7]

If considered from the vantage point of one shared divine essence, submission-authority relationships already have by their very makeup a key difference from origination differences. Rather than being “strongly internally-related properties,” Ware and Grudem’s position has what amounts to a difference in omnipotence. [8]   McCall refers specifically to the Father being unable to do an action that is logically and morally possible such as becoming incarnate. It should be further noted that there is a difference in power-relationships between members of the Trinity in such a way that does not merely remain functional as much as Grudem and Ware would like it to.

Ware’s next rebuttal unfortunately only amounts to asserting that he is talking about “a property of the person of the Son, not a property of the essence or nature which the Son shares fully with the Father and the Spirit” and he is not referring to an attribute.[9] He does not seem to realize that McCall is claiming Ware’s understanding entails that he is actually talking about essence or nature ending in a different essence between the Son and the Father—Ware has to argue otherwise.[10] Ware is in a position where he can decide to posit two natures for each person of the Trinity or, say there is only one divine nature demonstrating how the Son can have the necessary subordinate personal property without it being essential and without it becoming a different essence from the Father. Instead, Ware gets angry with McCall for not providing this “solution” that it is really a personal property and insinuates McCall is trying to be deceptive when instead Ware has gravely misunderstood the force of McCall’s objection.[11]

Lastly, Ware accuses McCall of getting confused between adjectives and nouns. Ware clarifies he is talking about something “essential” not “essence.”[12] Of course, earlier he had also claimed:

Clearly, the distinction of persons requires that there are distinguishing properties of each person as opposed to being merely contingent or accidental, are true of them in every possible world, are held with a de re kind of necessity, and hence are essential to the distinctive personhood of each Trinitarian person.[13]

If he had followed McCall’s argument he would have realized that by reasserting that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds he was committing himself to subordination being necessarily and if subordination is a necessary property (de re), then he has this essentially, and if the Son has this essentially and the Father does not then he is of a difference essence than the Father. “Thus, the Son is heteroousios rather than homoousios.”[14] There is no confusion of terms in McCall’s work, just a progression of argument that Ware does not follow or answer for. Instead, his attempt at a defense amounts to saying other people are also guilty and crossly re-asserting his position again.

There is a final point of incoherence that is unresolved in Grudem and Ware’s trinitarian theology. Since their theology necessitates a difference that is hierarchically based, the Holy Spirit serves as a disruption to their all-encompassing categories of authority and submission. [15] In their scheme, the Father is no longer the Father if he is not in authority and the Son is not the Son if he is not subordinate to the Father and the Spirit it similarly not the Spirit if he is not subordinate to both the Father and the Son in the economy and for all eternity. Grudem explains:

So we may say that the role of the Father in creation and redemption has been to plan and direct and send the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is not surprising, for it shows that the Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and son relate to one another in a human family: the father directs and has authority over the son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son...These roles could not have been reversed or the Father would have ceased to be the Father and the Son would have ceased to be the Son. And by analogy from that relationship, we may conclude that the role of the Holy Spirit is similarly one that was appropriate to the relationship he had with the Father and the Son before the world was created.[16]

Similarly, Ware states:

This view holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons…the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[17]

The Holy Spirit’s distinctiveness is construed as doubly subordinate, just as a child is submissive to both her father and mother. The Spirit’s role, like the Father and Son is an eternal one perceived in the economy. The authority-submission relationship cannot be otherwise because it would mean that what makes each distinct is actually interchangeable. Curiously, Ware breaks these absolute categories he and Grudem have built up in admitting that in the biblical testimony the Son submits to the Holy Spirit. Uh oh.

Even though the Spirit is given authority over the incarnate Son, so that the Son follows the lead of the Spirit and performs his miracles in the power of the Spirit, nevertheless the Spirit knows that this authority is not permanent. And he knows that this authority is not over the eternal Son of the Father, but only over the Son incarnate.[18]

Rather than perceiving this move of the Holy Spirit as undermining his absolute authority-based understanding of trinitarian distinctions, Ware decides this is a special instance that only applies to the Spirit’s authority over Jesus’s humanity. Of course, he is not willing to allow this in the case of the Father exercising authority over Jesus, because such would undermine what makes each of the trinitarian persons distinct. This is inconsistent and instead of trying provide resolution, Ware arrives at an unusual practical lesson of not being bitter when one’s delegated authority comes to an end and for women to be happy working behind the scenes at church.[19] However, if the Holy Spirit serves as an exception to authority-submission relationships, then this is not an absolute distinction and the door is open for other possibilities. In sum, the Holy Spirit’s authority over the Son when he should be always submissive to the Son (lest he cease to be the Holy Spirit) derails their entire, mostly binary project.

Next time we will look more closely into potential entailments of Grudem and Ware's views. I say "potential" because on the whole their view appears incoherent. The point is that if it is not incoherent and thus should not be dismissed outright, depending on the direction they take we are left with some disturbing options. Do we end up with a partative God (the Holy Spirit is part of God, the Son another part...etc not the Holy Spirit is wholly God...etc) which threatens divine simplicity? Do we have a form of tritheism (one divinity composed of 3 distinct gods or individuals each with separate domains) or Arianism (Jesus is not truly "God" in the way we understand God, he is a lesser god with a different essence) entailed?



[1] Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.,: Eerdmans, 2010), 175-188.

[2] Ibid., 95-97, 180, 201-202.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251.

[5]McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,188.

[6] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 241.

[7] In the backdrop is the problem of having two essences: a divine and a personal one. Does this entail heterodoxy? However, McCall and Ware are still assuming one essence is being discussed.

[8] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,180, 182.

[9] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 243.

[10] Ware does something similar in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 79. When describing the authority-submission relationship between the Father and Son he recognizes he cannot (or rather should not) be describing essence or nature so he simply asserts, “Since this priority cannot rightly be understood in terms of essence or nature (lest one fall into Arian subordinationism), it must be understood in terms of relationship.” Rather than get upset over other theologians, philosophers and historians saying his view entails Arianism, it behoves Ware to actually demonstrate why his view does not end up describing a difference in essence and with it Arianism rather than offering complaints. 

[11] Ware, One God in Three Persons., 243-244.

[12] Ibid., 246-247.

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,179-180.

[15] Although there is not enough evidence compiled in her short book on the destabilizing impact of the Holy Spirit on theology, Sarah Coakley’s at least provides a starting point for further research into this tendency. Cf. God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 249-250.

[17] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 237-238.

[18] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 128.

[19] Ibid., 129-130.