Why Complementarians Need to Avoid Using the Trinity Analogy

Lucy Peppiatt WTCBy Lucy Peppiatt:

Hierarchy & the Trinity

Seeing as the words aner and andros are fungible, I like the fact that the RSV editors have kept their options open. It’s like a little glimmer of hope. It’s interesting that they shied away from the idea that man in general is the head of woman, but were happy with the claim that Christ is the head of all men. If they have decided that aner should be translated as ‘husband’, they could equally have made the decision that andros that occurs just before that could also be ‘husband’ as well, except they didn’t. One has to wonder why when it creates more problems than it solves.

In Eph 5 Paul uses both terms for ‘man’ interchangeably to mean ‘husband’, as he does in 1 Cor 7, and as the only other instance that we have of him applying this term ‘head’ to men and Christ is in the context of marriage, it would make better sense in this context just to stick with that? So if we do that, where does that lead us?

If you’ve read my previous post on Eph 5, you’ll know that I think that Paul is using the concept of head and body to describe the function of a cornerstone in relation both to Christ and the church and husband and wife. The main connotations I took from that are the ideas of foundation, building up to maturity, the summing up of all things in harmony and unity, and the indissoluble union of head and body. In addition to that he refers to notions of self-sacrifice, renunciation, and leaving and cleaving on behalf of the husband. These are themes drawn from the analogy of the husband to Christ.

This pattern is transferable to the God/Christ relation relatively easily in that it is possible to see God in some sense as the foundation of Christ in that the Son emanates from the Father, is begotten of the Father, is exalted in and by the Father, but all the while being of one substance with the Father in an indissoluble union.

I think this basically works. However, we still have the problem of the fact that Paul has left wives as the kephale of no-one! By situating the husband as the ‘head’ and the wife as the ‘body’ has he done wives an eternal disservice, consigning all of us to a dependent and what seems like an intuitively ‘lesser’ position? You could see it like that, but I don’t think you have to, and I believe there is freedom not to, but first it helps to do some trinitarian theology before we answer the husband/wife question.

The question revolves around connotations of ‘lordship’ and ‘preeminence’ associated with the word kephale, which I said I would deal with, so now I will.

Everyone who studies kephale knows that it can mean ‘ruler’, ‘chief’ ‘one who is foremost’ and things like that. But does it here? However much theologians go on and on and on about the fact that it can’t possibly mean that in relation to God and Christ because they are one – Christ is God – people stubbornly continue to insist on the idea that Paul must have had some kind of hierarchical structure in mind. This idea is normally supported by the economic obedience of Jesus to the Father as the incarnate Son, which is fair enough, except that the Bible’s claim that the Son was obedient sit alongside claims that the Father and the Son are ‘one’, and that Son does what he does of his own accord. It is far from a simple picture. The hierarchical reading of kephale is further bolstered by the misconception that men and women fit neatly into a hierarchical structure too, where men are preeminent and women are derivative, and before we know it, ‘head’ means I’m the boss of you and you’re the boss of no one …

The problem is that there are just too many problems with positing an eternal hierarchy within the Godhead. The submission of Jesus as the incarnate Son is not there to tell us something about hierarchy and governance, but to tell us something about the full humanity of Christ, and his willingness to live a fully human life in order to save us. This was his task while on earth, implementing the divine will on earth as it is in heaven, in his humanity, in order to bring about the salvation of the human race. There are rich and complex issues around the two wills of Christ which I blogged on earlier, so do look them up, but in brief, the fact that Jesus had a human will as well as a divine will, is not an indication that he was a subordinate being to the Father.

Any hint of subordination in the Godhead, or the idea that the Son was/is ‘lesser’ than the Father was comprehensively challenged in the 4th Century when Arianism (the name of this heresy) was eventually ruled out, as affirmed in the Creeds. I understand though how the idea that the Son is somehow below the Father has a certain comfortableness about it, even if it’s wrong. Colin Gunton rightly notes that heresies are easier for us to believe because they resolve the tensions that we find it difficult to live with.

I wonder whether Arianism also legitimates the positing of an eternal creation hierarchy or inequality between men and women, which is certainly not depicted in Genesis. The two ideas seem to be two sides of the same coin. One endorses the other, as we well know, but both are fundamentally un-Christian ways of thinking. This is why many recent scholars have moved to the idea of kephale as ‘source’, although that also may not be quite precise enough.

Anyway, my point is, that for the sake of staying with orthodoxy when it comes to God, let’s rule out kephale as ‘ruler’ because God does not ‘rule over’ Christ and let’s not adopt lordship as a concept within the Trinity, because the Father is not the Lord of the Son. This means really that preeminence is also out, but let’s take the idea of a ‘first principle’ because I think there are still traces of that in kephale, and it kind of helps. Chrysostom was also ditched hierarchy and stuck with ‘first principle’ so there might be something in this.

In trinitarian theology, there is a way of speaking of the Father that sounds as if he is ‘first’. He is the arche; he is ‘unbegotten’. In Paul’s language, you could say he doesn’t have a ‘head’. Similarly, there is a way of speaking of the Son that sounds as if he is second. He is the Son; he is ‘begotten’. And here we have Paul claiming that he has a ‘head’. To confuse you though, this language of unbegotten and begotten applied to Father and Son was never meant to imply in any way that the Father is logically, chronologically, or ontologically ‘first’. He can’t be. The Son is not lesser, but equal to the Father, as is the Spirit, and all three coexist eternally. The Son is not of a different essence, but of the same substance (as with the Spirit). He and the Father are one. There is no logical, chronological, or ontological separation of the three as they are always one. There is only distinction of the persons in the Godhead between the Father, Son, and Spirit. There’s the tension … but don’t be tempted to resolve it.

In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Adam is the human creature in whom man and woman exist and from whom the husband and the wife are created. This occurs at the point when the woman is differentiated from the man, by emanating from him, taken from his side. She is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, and the writer of Genesis says that it is for this reason, that the husband must leave his family and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. The second creation story contains the ‘marriage story’ in which the woman emanates from the man in an act of differentiation, and then the man willingly rejoins her in an act of indissoluble union, which has become how Christians describe marriage. Husband and wife become ‘one flesh’.

In Ephesians, Paul uses this picture of marriage to describe the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church, employing the concept of ‘kephale’ as an illustration. In 1 Corinthians 11, he employs the same concept to describe the mystery of the nature of the Godhead in relation to God and Christ. Husbands and wives, then, occupy a unique position in creation symbolizing this dynamic of emanation and union, or even re-union?

In all these three pairings, God/Christ, Christ/husband, husband/wife, first principle is both there and not there. It is there in the stories of origin, but never with logical, chronological, or ontological connotations of precedence or preeminence or superiority. Furthermore, in the purposes and economy of God, it is finally eclipsed by the mystery of union. In other words, kephale is a concept that potentially contains the idea of a first principle from which arises harmony, unity, and union. Crucially, however, Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians is that there is only one ultimate kephale. God will be all in all. He is the kephale above all things, and all will be summed up and built up in the perfecting of the created order in him.

Thus, cornerstone is the most fitting metaphor for this.

I know this doesn’t yet deal with the fundamentally unequal positions spelled out in Eph 5 and 1 Cor 11:3. The wife is still the kephale of no one. I’ll address that next.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.