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.

Why I Am Not “Convinced” By 1 Timothy 2:12-13

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way... I am not permitting a woman to teach nor authentein a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  Gar Adam was formed first, then Eve.” –1 Timothy 2:1-2, 12-13

It is still not unusual after more than ten years of study on gender theology and related biblical passages to be quoted 1 Timothy 2:12-13 as though it were a trump card to my egalitarianism. In many cases it appears as though they are thinking that maybe (just maybe) I had never considered the passage before. Perhaps the mere quotation of an isolated passage would part the waters of my dark, “liberal” mind.

 Despite the reality that the Bible consists of more than 1 Timothy 2:12 alone and that it is not good to have one or two texts control one’s entire theology, I don’t find the text itself or entire passage to be so clearly in favor of gender hierarchy. That is, I do not find that the text itself teaches that only men should be teachers or in authority. Why is this? The following is a brief overview of how I read the passage(s) along with some particulars to note in this controversial discussion.

 What is the Discussion Really About?

 The purpose or occasion for Paul’s writing is to stop the spread of false teaching. It is in his intro, throughout his letter and in his conclusion. For now consider Paul’s opening remarks for why he is writing this letter from 1Tim 1:3-7:

 "…Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions."

 So basically, there are false teachers that are going around living in ways that are contrary to the law of love and teaching false doctrines. They want to be great teaches and make lots of strong claims, but don’t know what they are talking about.

The expressed overarching idea of chapter two is for the entire church to lead a life of “quietness” and peace (2:2). A person's behavior is tied to what he or she believes about God so that if someone is thankful for all people and believes God desires all people to be saved, then they will reflect this in their own actions as believers (2:1-7). Note that Paul connects the essentials of what the church believes to how they treat others. Faith is not merely a private isolated commitment from how one acts within a community. 

Behaviors to Stop and Start

 Paul identifies particular bad behaviors perpetrated by certain groups in the church. Men are told not to angrily quarrel and women are told to be mindful of how they dress. In this context it probably has more to do with showing off social status rather than sexual immodesty like he does in 1 Cor 11. “Godliness” is to be expressed in good works (as is the case with the men doing good instead of quarreling) not in a display of wealth with one’s clothes. The people of God value one another in a way that is not status seeking or socially domineering.

The "Sexist" Parts of the Bible?

What follows can sound extremely bad for women depending on which Bible version you are reading or only a little odd. The ESV on the more negative side translates it this way:

 “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

 Immediately you may notice that the word “quiet” applied to women is the same as for everyone in the whole church in the earlier verses I shared in chapter 2. Also note that in Christian ethics those in the church give preference to one another (i.e. “love your neighbor as yourself”) and are expected to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5: 21). Women are expected to do the same and learning quietly was also expected of every good student. Women are being singled out here probably because they are the ones having particular issues with this at this church (like the men needing to lift up holy hands rather than fighting). Read the rest of the book and notice how many times women are described as the ones doing negative behaviors.

Additionally, although the women are to be allowed to learn they must do so with the same quietness and submission demanded of all students in the ancient world especially those who wish to be teachers.

Are ALL Women EVERYWHERE Not Allowed to Teach or Exercise Authority?

Here are some translation options:

 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

 I am not permitting a women to teach nor assume authority over a man; rather, she is to be quiet.”

 Again immediately, depending on your translation you will either walk away thinking Paul is making an absolute statement about all women that they cannot do two things or, that he is saying something that pertains to the present situation “I am not permitting” and/or they should not be engaging in a certain type of teaching “teach nor assume authority.” Grammatically, “I am not permitting” is correct (present, active, indicative).

 There is also a long complicated discussion over whether two things are being listed that should not be done or whether it is really one thing “teaching in an assuming way.” I go with the second (Check Out Philip Payne for More Info). I opt for "usurp/assume authority" over exercise authority because according to outside literature (we have to go outside because there is only one instance of this word in the NT) "exercise authority" is only a meaning hundreds of years after Paul and Payne makes a good case for "usurp/assume authority" over "domineer." Something else to consider, Paul and other NT writers have a common word for authority "exousia" (ἐξουσία) and don't need to use a word with negative connotations "authenteo" (αὐθεντέω) used for taking authority, power or something else that is not yours.

In sum, I believe Paul has a particular group in mind (in this case mostly women) and he is telling them to be “quiet” like everyone else and not be the kind of teachers that assume authority for themselves. Paul’s description in the intro describes them well: They are self- proclaimed teachers desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

Of course, just because Paul is speaking to a particular situation does not mean it does not apply to all of us who are arrogant, false teachers or people who usurp/assume authority that is not ours.

This is true whether it be all or some of the above. 

“For Example” vs “Because”?

 Coming off of the command for the women to be quiet and not take authority for themselves, enters either a rationalization or reason why they are not allowed to each, or merely an example exemplifying their situation? Translation can make the difference here and the Greek word Gar can be translated as “for/because,” “for example” or even go untranslated. Some options for Vv.13-14:

 For (or because) Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

 For example, Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

 Either of these options are reasonable if the verse is looked at in isolation. However the theological implications can be stark. Is Paul saying this particular group of women (or all women everywhere if you extend the present active indicative in “I am not permitting”) cannot be assuming teaching authority or teach and exercise authority because of a creation mandate based in who was created first? Of course, this is a pattern God himself does not seem to want to follow (i.e. Moses, Joseph, Jacob, King David…etc). I think that in context the latter fits better:

 There are false teachers going from house to house (5:13—the word sometimes translated as “gossips” is actually stronger and used for false teaching), who are mostly though not necessarily all women. Perhaps they are undermining the authority of male teachers in the churches (proto-gnosticism, mystery cult, “new woman” or Artemis cult influences?). Unfortunately, unlike Priscilla, Phoebe or Junia or other female teachers Paul encountered or was under they do not know what they are talking about because they are the one’s who are deceived—just like Eve!

Next Paul offers some hope that leaves many puzzled.

“Yet she will be saved through the childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

 Yes “saved" is correct (σῴζω). The word used for salvation, salvation that one can only have by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And yet despite all Paul’s talk about orthodoxy there is one heterodox exception when it comes to procreation for women? Missing in many Bibles is “the.” Paul does not have childbearing in general in mind, he has “the childbearing” that was promised to a particular woman in Genesis who was deceived by the serpent…the one who would crush the serpents head… guess who that is.


 Yes, these are false teachers and yes their behavior is showing that they don’t know what they are talking about and are a threat to the church, but they should be allowed to learn better and there is hope for them because even Eve who was deceived was given the promise of who we know to be Jesus. They too can be saved and brought into a new life of faith characterized by love, self-control, holiness, a quiet, peaceful tranquility not division, status seeking and taking what is not earned.

 This is a lesson for all of us, not just women!