The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.1

Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Using the Trinity to promote a social agenda is nothing new and often it seems there are more than enough ideologies to go around. If only we could all see the connection and enact whatever implication being promoted, then our society, government, church or family would be better off. It is not unusual to hear of appeals to the Father and Son relationship as a template for homosexual relationships[1] nor is it unexpected to hear the doctrine of the Trinity is being used to promote a particular type of egalitarian society within the church or at large, as is the case with Jürgen Moltmann.[2] In commenting on this broader tendency to use the Trinity to promote a social agenda Keith Johnson satirically remarks:

But why not argue that the threeness of God constitutes the blueprint for governmental structures with three “equal” yet “distinct” branches of authority: an executive branch (corresponding to the Father), a legislative branch (corresponding to the Word) and a judicial branch (corresponding to the Spirit, who is described in John’s Gospel as “Counselor”)? On this basis we could claim that the American government is an image of the Trinity![3]

It is not difficult to see why one might make a connection between the Trinity and whatever social program is in vogue or happens to align with an individual or group’s existing sentiments. Doing so not only provides another layer of authority for a social agenda otherwise lacking, it can on a less sinister level simply serve to make the Trinity relevant for one’s everyday life—the sentiment behind Karl Rahner’s project.[4] Not surprisingly, some evangelicals are rightly suspicious of groups that perceive a connection between the Trinity and another agenda they are passionate about.  For example, Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, both subordinationists in regards to the Trinity, helpfully share their concerns regarding the often-perceived link between subordination in the Trinity and gender:

We are suspicious of the fact that, generally speaking, most complementarians are functional subordinationists while, generally speaking, most egalitarians are in favor of co-equality in function…This partisan perspective leads us to infer that prior theological commitments on both sides have influenced the debate and discussion is not really about trying to describe the ineffable mystery of inter-personal relations within the Trinity as much as it is about trying to advance or obstruct a certain view of women.[5]

These sorts of tendencies to make improper connections between the Trinity and other aspects of life we wish to change should be firmly resisted. If not, at the very least such a link should inspire reservation if a precise link cannot be clearly demonstrated from Scripture or if it entails a rejection of the historic faith.

For years there has been a debate within evangelical circles concerning the nature of the Son’s obedience to the Father.[6] One perspective claims the Son’s submission to the Father is to be understood in terms of his incarnation, a role he enacts as a representative of humanity in the economic Trinity. The other position alleges the submission of the Son characterizes the Son as the Son in the immanent Trinity, meaning the Son is eternally subordinate—though merely in a functional manner. What is relatively new in this longer debate is that a movement comprised of gender “complementarians” has commandeered the latter of these positions in order to promote their own social agenda, in turn attracting responses from evangelical egalitarians.[7] As a result, it has become difficult to separate the initial discussion from various gender biases and yet such a connection is now prevalent and cannot be ignored. For this reason a multifaceted approach to the issue is needed, one that still focuses on the initial question concerning the nature of the submission of the Son, but also considers the new landscape of the discussion without reducing one position to the other.

Through several blog series adapted from a class paper it will be argued that although many evangelicals utilize the idea of an eternal functional hierarchy within the Trinity to legitimate a similar role-relationship between men and women, such a position entails an improper understanding of the Trinity. In this case, an improper understanding of the Trinity is conceived of as one that is wrongly construed to include gender, is incoherent, or at worst one that entails a heterodox understanding of the Trinity. Since it is the very connection being made between the Trinity and gender that will also be under consideration, I will be focusing primarily on the works of two main proponents of this connection: Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. The goal of the above thesis will be accomplished by first reviewing their positions on the Trinity, briefly highlighting some areas where I believe Ware and Grudem do not give a basis for their view. Second, I will be arguing against the affirmation that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father based off of four main concerns: 1) at best, the position as expressed is incoherent, 2) at worst it entails a rejection of God as simple, 3) and a different essence between the members of the Trinity in the form of what amounts to the Son not being homoousion with the Father or a slip into tritheism with two essences: personal and divine. Lastly, I will consider intuitions giving rise to an embrace of the eternal subordination of the Son, which are a version of Rahner’s rule and their position on gender.

Eternal Functional Submission: A Summary with Considerations

How do evangelicals such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem articulate their understanding of the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father? Ware refers to his view as, “eternal relational authority-submission” and offers the following description:

God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully and eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet 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.[8]

Ware is clear that he affirms basic Trinitarian orthodoxy. Each of the members of the Trinity shares only the one divine nature, meaning there is one God, not three. Further, this nature is undivided. He clarifies this further:

So we cannot say, for example, that the Father has the attribute of omnipotence, and that’s what distinguishes him from the Son and the Spirit. No, the Son and the Spirit each possesses fully the attribute of omnipotence by possessing fully the undivided nature.[9]

For Ware, if one of the Trinitarian persons did not fully have the attribute of omnipotence for example, then he would not fully possess the divine nature. Still, not only must there be one God, this God must exist in three distinct persons without compromising divine unity or personal difference within the Godhead. Historically, the church has understood this distinction in terms of a specific type of relation: differing origination or eternal generation.[10] Where Grudem and Ware differ from this understanding is that they choose what they perceive to be a different type of relation to establish the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity. When it comes to the Father and Son relationship, this amounts to “replacing eternal generation with obedience as the Son’s distinguishing personal property.”[11]

It is common for the different type of relationship characterized as a personal property to be articulated as a difference in “role” or function. It is crucial to note that role is not being used, to describe every day changeable jobs or functions, but rather something that is unchangeable and basic to personal identity. In the case of Grudem and Ware it is the distinguisher of the Son from the Father and women from men. Consider Grudem’s following explanation:  

Therefore the different functions that we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit performing are simply out workings of an external relationship between the three persons, one that has always existed and will exist for eternity. God has always existed as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These distinctions are essential to the very nature of God himself, and they could not be otherwise...This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase 'ontological equality but economic subordination,' where the word ontological means 'being.' Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say 'equal in being but subordinate in role.'...If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity[12].

For Grudem then, distinction is based exclusively in authority-submission relationships that are particular to each person of the Trinity. The Father could not be subordinate to the Son otherwise he would no longer be the Father and the Son could not be in authority over the Father, otherwise he would not be the Son. If this relationship were removed, then for Grudem there would be absolutely no inherent difference between the members of the Trinity and so there could be no Trinity.

Curiously, even though historically differences between the members of the Trinity have been based in differing origination, and not at least explicitly, in authority-submission relationships, Grudem and Ware strongly insist anyone who does not share their version of what distinguishes the members of the Trinity is deviating from orthodoxy. For example, under the lengthy heading “Arguments That Deviate from the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity: Denying the Trinity by Denying Any Eternal Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Grudem singles out Kevin Giles as an example[13] because he denies the Father always has authority over the Son even though Giles bases trinitarian distinction in eternal generation.[14] For a reason unstated, Giles is strongly disqualified from believing in eternal distinctions within the Trinity even though he does—a small detail even noted by Robert Letham in his forward to The Eternal Generation of the Son.[15] They are clearly at an impasse and Giles’ frustration is evident:

The Nicene fathers insisted that differing origination was the one safe way to indelibly differentiate the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) because this alone did not call into question divine oneness and equality or allow the subordination of the Son in the eternal life of God in any way. It is because the Son is eternally begotten of the Father that he is, as the Nicene Creed says, ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,  … one in being with the Father.’  Differentiating the Father and the Son on the basis of differing authority, all the pro-Nicene fathers clearly saw, entailed the sub-ordering of the Son, the essence of the Arian error.[16]

It is indeed difficult to miss that differing origination is how the early fathers perceived distinction within the Trinity and that it served as their trump card against heresy (as evident in the Nicene creed).[17] Interestingly, Grudem and Ware see differing authority as what is actually being presented in the Nicene Creed through the sending language. Grudem asserts:

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church's doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was 'begotten of the Father before all ages' and that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son.' Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church's doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicaea (A.D. 325).[18]

Similarly, Ware claims Augustine is actually endorsing his view after citing The Trinity, IV.27:

Notice two observations from Augustine’s statement. First, Augustine sees no disparity between affirming, on the one hand, the full equality of the Son to the Father, and on the other hand, the Son’s eternal position as from the Father, with the responsibility of carrying out the will of the Father. The claim of some egalitarians[19] that the functional subordination of the Son would entail his essential inferiority to the Father is here denied by Augustine. Second, notice that Augustine denies the egalitarian claim that all subordination of the Son to the Father rests fully in the Son’s incarnate state. To the contrary, Augustine affirms that ‘the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh.” In other words, the sending of the Son occurred in eternity past in order that the eternal Word, sent from on high from the Father, might make take on human flesh and then continue his role of carrying out the will of his Father.[20]

By appealing to the creeds and fathers as though they proclaimed their view of authority relations, Grudem and Ware give the appearance of having their specific position being the orthodox position. Oddly, nowhere in the creed nor in Augustine is the explicit connection made by them for us that the sending or originating relationship is an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is an interpretation Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, an additional step other theologians or scholars may not necessarily be willing to take.

Stranger is that the actual position of the early church—differing origination— the language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to—is not held by either of them.[21] Perhaps even though they are saying the creeds are expressing their view they mean to say that their view is entailed by the creed or Augustine’s appeal to differing origination? Or, are they merely ignoring the whole early understanding of origination and are instead entirely assuming the sending language only means the Father’s authority or priority is being demonstrated? At the very least it would seem they believe only their position is the truly orthodox position regarding distinction among members of the Trinity, but on what concrete basis? In sum, they are lacking clear reasoning on why “sending” has to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.

In the next post I will consider some of the more serious problems with Grudem and Ware's understanding of the Trinity. I will be arguing that although they intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position. Note that this is different from saying that they are heretics. Someone can hold to a view that entails more than what they actually hold. Still, if a view entails heresy, give it up immediately!


[1] Cf: Eugene F. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 201-203 and David McCarthy Matzko, “Homosexuality and the Practices of Marriage,” Modern Theology 13:3 (1997) 394-395.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 197-202.

[3] Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity & Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2011), 201.

[4] Kark Rahner, The Trinity (NY.: Crossroad, 1967), 10-15.

[5] Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: A Response to Recent Discussion,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son eds., Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 305.

[6] Documented in: M. J. Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel, 2009).

[7] Initially it was George Knight III who first introduced the link between gender hierarchy and the Trinity in his book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Woman (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1977), 33, 55-56. He argued that since the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father and yet still equal in essence, women can also be said to be equal in being yet functionally subordinate. A similar argument is frequently made by various complementarians (to be discussed in this paper). Although evangelical egalitarians are also known for responding to complementarian arguments, they are not on the whole basing their gender theology in the Trinity. They are not saying

that because the members of the Trinity are functionally and ontologically equal, women are too. It is not a position found in Christians for Biblical Equality’s statement, nor does it appear in the book Discovering Biblical Equality except though there is a response to complementarians using the Trinity towards the back of the book by Kevin Giles.


[8] Bruce A. Ware “Does Affirming an Eternal Authority-Submission Relationship in the Trinity Entail a Denial of Homoousios? A Response to Millard Erickson and Tom McCall” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 237-238.

[9] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton IL.: Crossway, 2005), 45.

[10] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2012).

[11] Swain and Allen, “The Obedience of Eternal Son,” in Christology Ancient and Modern eds., Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI.: 2013), 75.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1994), 251.

[13] This is an especially deceptive characterization because Kevin Giles has a whole book dedicated to defending “the doctrine of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son, so central to the doctrine of the Trinity.” He continues, “indeed, this is what the entire book is about...This doctrine sheds light on how the One God is self-differentiated for all eternity.” Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2012), 17.

[14] Wayne Grudem, “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminists Arguments about the Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 18-19.

[15] Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 9-10.

[16] Kevin Giles, An extended review of One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce Ware and John Starke, Pending Publication, 18.

[17] Even Wayne Grudem is at least aware that the early church had eternal generation in mind in the specific context of eternal relations and the creed. Cf: Systematic Theology, 246-245, 1233-1234. Ware also shows some knowledge that the early church thought of difference in terms of being begotten. One God in Three Persons, 241.

[18] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251-252.

[19] A reference to “egalitarians” is yet another reminder that Ware constantly has his mind set on gender as he discusses the Trinity, revealing a bias guiding his theology.

[20] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 80-81.

[21] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1233-34; Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 162 n. 3.