Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? Part 3

Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? Part 3 December 9, 2011

Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? Part 3

If you have not read parts 1 and 2 of this series, this part 3 will probably make little sense to you. I suggest you go back and read parts 1 and 2 first.

Why even discuss whether or not there is a hierarchy of authority within the immanent Trinity? For complementarians the reason is to show that there can be absolute equality of being, worth and value together with inequality of authority. Complementarians argue that male headship does not imply a wife’s inferiority. Some egalitarians, presumably all those authoring and signing “The Trinity Statement,” believe the contrary. To them, permanent hierarchy of authority and subordination within the family (between husband and wife) or the Trinity (between Father and Son) necessarily implies superiority and inferiority. Thus, the debate over hierarchy within the Trinity is an example of theology and politics (in its broadest sense) coming together for better or worse.

At the end of part 2 I said I would have trouble signing “The Trinity Statement” without some careful clarification. It does seem to me that both scripture and tradition affirm a certain kind of hierarchy within the immanent Trinity—the monarchy of the Father in the sense that the Father is the fount of divinity from which the Son is begotten (not made) and the Holy Spirit proceeds. Scripture refers to the Son as begotten of the Father (John 1:14). Tradition (the Great Tradition) includes affirmation that the Son and Spirit are generated by and proceed from the Father respectively. Possibly a person could argue that John 1:14 references the birth of Jesus, not the begottenness of the Son from the Father in the immanent Trinity.  However, that would seem wrong. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by the Father. The context of John 1:14 indicates it is talking about the pre-incarnate Logos (“logos asarkos”). And that is how the church fathers understood it.

So, both scripture and tradition do recognize rank within the Trinity—contrary to “The Trinity Statement.” However, the rank recognized within the immanent Trinity has to do with being, not necessarily authority. We all know that firstness in being does not require firstness in authority. An adult son is not under his father’s authority even though he came from his father biologically and ontologically. So hierarchy within the immanent Trinity can be affirmed without necessarily affirming authority over and subordination under.

Personally, I am hesitant to peer into the inner workings of the immanent Trinity. I think the church has sometimes gone too far in speculating about them. For example, the principle opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt (all operations of the Trinity toward what is outside itself are indivisible) seems speculative. It is meant to safeguard the unity of the Trinity, but it is a perfect example of a violation of Rahner’s Rule; it results in making the immanent Trinity make the economic Trinity artificial. However, the monarchy of the Father in terms of the unbegottenness of the Father and begottenness of the Son seems biblically necessary rather than speculative.

So, there is rank within the immanent Trinity. The question is, does it imply a hierarchy of authority? Much depends on how one interprets 1 Corinthians 11:3 (referred to and quoted in part 2). Does kephale mean authority over or source of? Is it referring to the immanent Trinity or only the economic Trinity? I don’t think this can be settled from this passage alone.

I have one question for those who argue there is a hierarchy of authority within the immanent Trinity: What exactly does that mean? Is it even possible to picture it? Go with me, if you can, into the immanent Trinity—the Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit before and apart from any creation. (Imagination required here.)  If we can talk about “the eternal councils of the Godhead,” what do we see and hear? Does the Father give orders to the Son and Holy Spirit? Are the Son and Holy Spirit in need of orders? What does “obey” even mean in a being where the partners are absolutely equal in every sense—to the point that they have one will? (Although I have not discussed this yet, orthodox Christian theology has always insisted that there is only one will in the Trinity. To speak of three wills would be blatant tritheism.) Of what use is authority where there is one will? I suggest that once we have rightly understood the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (something the complementarians claim to care about believing), the whole concept of authority over and subordination under becomes meaningless. Did the Father order the Son to become incarnate? Why would he have to? Was the Son reluctant? Of course we see that in the economic Trinity—in the Garden of Gethsemane (for a moment, anyway). But this is another reason why the church fathers developed the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinities—to avoid importing into the eternal Godhead the limitations of human existence. (It is also the reason the church fathers and the Great Tradition following them has always insisted that there were two wills in Jesus Christ—human and divine. Jesus’ “Not my will but thine be done” expresses the submission of his human will not only to the Father but also to his own divine will—which is one with the Father’s will.)

I simply cannot conceive of any purpose for authority over or subordination under within the immanent Trinity. The words become empty; they have no references. At least not that we can conceive of.

So, I do not think that rank within the immanent Trinity by itself is heterodox, as some egalitarians suggest. In fact, it seems clear to me that the complementarians are right that there is hierarchy within the immanent Trinity—hierarchy of source and generation and spiration (procession) from that source. But that, by itself, does not imply or require hierarchy of authority. And, in fact, if the three persons of the Trinity are understood to be absolutely equal in the sense of sharing one will (in traditional, orthodox theology “will” is attached to “nature”), there cannot be authority over and subordination under in spite of hierarchical ranking of ontology.

In other words, I do not accuse the complementarians with their hierarchical notion of the immanent Trinity of heresy or even heterodoxy. Rank alone does not imply Arian or Semi-Arian Subordinationism. I am accusing them of nonsense. I literally cannot make any sense of the claim that there is inequality of authority among three who share equally one will.

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  • Steve Rogers

    Very interesting and stretching for amateur theologians like me. If God is love it would seem to me that an expectation of mutual submission within the Trinity is the lens through which we should look into this mystery. Love does not seek its own way and therefore has no need for hierarchical authority in any sense that suggests domination or imposition of control within a co-equal relationship.

    • rogereolson

      Except in the case of adults and children.

  • Could you explain what you mean by: “. . . there cannot be authority over and subordination under in spite of hierarchical ranking of ontology”? It seems that this is the inverse of the complementarian line, namely, hierarchical ranking of authority but NOT of ontology. Indeed, they want to guard against a ranking of ontology precisely to avoid Arianism or subordinationism. Wouldn’t a “ranking of ontology” necessitate ontological difference, which would mean homoiousios rather than homoousios?

    • rogereolson

      Actually, no. The now old debate between complementarians (John Piper and Wayne Grudem) and egalitarians (Berkeley and Alvera Mickelson) was over the meaning of kephale in 1 Corinthians. The egalitarians argued it means “source” rather than “authority.”

      • Right, but I’m struggling to know what a rank of “ontology” (i.e., “being; that which is”) could mean if not a difference of “ousia” or “substantia” (i.e., a rank of “being”). This issue came up at Grudem and Ware’s interesting debate with Tom McCall and Keith Yandell at TEDS a couple years back. Don’t think Grudem and Ware ever gave a satisfactory answer, which was why I was hoping you could clarify what you (or they) mean.

        • rogereolson

          It simply means that the Father is the fount of divinity within the Godhead, but the generation and procession of the Son and Spirit are eternal and they share everything in common with the Father except being the fount, source of divinity. There would only be three different substances if there were a difference of attributes. The difference of ontological rank is not one of attributes but of relation. This was all worked out in detail in the Cappadocian Fathers and afterwards in John of Damascus in the East and Thomas Aquinas in the West. One of the arguments used by the Cappadocian Fathers (besides scripture such as John 1:14) is that without such ontological ranking it would be difficult to distinguish between the three persons. But also, this is why scripture often refers to the Father as “God” proper and rarely to the Son or Spirit alone that way. It is why, in Christian doxology, we often address the Father as simply “God” and the Son and Spirit as Son or Spirit while believing and acknowledging they are all God.

  • Joel Ellis

    I think you made some excellent observations in this series. Even though parts of it made my head hurt, it came together nicely by the end. Thank you for sharing this.

    That said, I think this kind of a statement is a bad idea. It seems to be an attempt to codify a specific theological position as orthodox in order to support a particular ecclesiastical position. Both camps appear to be insisting on a particular Trinitarian view to support their conclusions on gender roles. The danger is anyone who disagrees with them on the issue of gender roles risks becoming a heretic for denying what one side or the other has deemed orthodox in terms of the Trinity. Our view of the Trinity must not be driven by whatever view we may have on functional questions like the role of men and women in churches.

    I agree (I think) with your conclusions at the end of this third installment. There is hierarchy in the immanent Trinity, but subordination in terms of authority is incomprehensible and would appear nonsensical. I say that as a complementarian whose view on women’s roles within the church does not depend on this question about the Trinity. I think I can find things to agree with and disagree with on both sides of this debate. Consequently, I would almost certainly abstain from signing a statement like this one, not because I do not agree with its theology, but because I neither share nor support its apparent underlying assumptions and motivations and because I fear the way such a statement will almost certainly be applied against other believers. But, of course, no one is asking me. 🙂

  • Eric Miller

    Hmm…very interesting. I do think the key is to understand “begotteness” to refer to the Incarnation rather than pre-Incarnation. Here is what William Lane Craig has said:
    Protestants bring all doctrinal statements, even Conciliar creeds, before the bar of Scripture. In this case one has to say honestly that nothing in Scripture warrants us in thinking that God the Son is begotten of the Father in His divine, rather than in merely His human, nature. The vast majority of contemporary New Testament scholars recognize that even if the word traditionally translated “only-begotten” (monogenes) carries a connotation of derivation when used in familial contexts–as opposed to meaning merely “unique” or “one of a kind” as many scholars maintain–nevertheless the biblical references to Christ as monogenes (John 1.1, 14, 18; cf. Revelation 9.13)do not contemplatesome pre-creation or eternal procession of the divine Son from the Father, but have to do with the historical Jesus’ being God’s special Son (Matthew 1.21-23; Luke 1-35; John 1.14, 34; Galalatians 4.4; Hebrews 1.5-6). I John 5.18 does refer to Jesus as ho gennetheis ek tou theou (the one begotten of God), which is the crucial expression, but there is no suggestion that this begetting is eternal or has to do with his divine nature. Rather, Christ’s status of being the Only-Begotten has less to do with the Trinity than with the Incarnation. This primitive understanding of Christ’s being begotten is still evident in Ignatius’s description of Christ as “one Physician, of flesh and of spirit, begotten and unbegotten, . . . both of Mary and of God” (Ephesians 7). There is here no idea that Christ is begotten in his divine nature. Indeed, the transference by the Apologists of Christ’s Sonship from Jesus of Nazareth to the pre-incarnate Logos has helped to depreciate the importance of the historical Jesus for Christian faith.

    • rogereolson

      I disagree strongly with Craig here. John 1:14 says of the Logos (clearly talking about the pre-incarnate Son of God): μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός. The best English translation (not always followed in our modern versions) is “begotten by (or of) the Father). All the early Christian thinkers interpreted it that way as well. I would say Craig is flirting with danger by rejecting the ancient Christian consensus about that. To reinterpret John 1:14 as referring only to the Trinity in the economy is to open a Pandora’s box of heretical possibilities including Arianism and Modalism. Also, Jesus was clearly CONCEIVED by the Holy Spirit, not by the Father. John 1:14 has to be referring to the immanent Trinity. It includes a reference to the Son sharing God’s glory. In John 17 Jesus asked the Father to glorify him with the glory they shared before the world began. Putting the two passages together clears the matter up for me.

  • Thanks Roger! A lot of the questions you raise here are questions I’ve had, but have always been too afraid to ask. I figured I was missing something obvious, but it seems my ignorance is shared by others.

    Great series.

  • Nate Garvin

    Thoughtful and gracious. Thank you. I myself subscribe enthusiastically to the idea of eternal authoritative distinctions in the Trinity, but please don’t ask me to explain the mechanics of such a thing. (Your aversion to peering too closely into the Immanent Trinity is well stated.) There is a glory in perfect benevolent authority and also a glory in perfect trusting subordination. The consideration of it actually generates worship – at least in me. I am powerfully inclined to think that everything in creation reflects for us something in the eternal glories of God. Did authority and submission really only begin with creation? I suspect not. Again, thanks for the discussion.

    • rogereolson

      I would be interested to know how you reconcile that with the orthodox doctrine that there is only one will in God?

  • Phil N

    You would not accuse them of heresy, but isn’t “subordinationism” dangerously close, and for only 1 perceived purpose, to have the trump card for complementarianism.

    • rogereolson

      It depends on what “subordinationism” they are guilty of. As I explained, “monarchy of the Father” is very traditional in Christian orthodoxy both East and West. Technically, however, “subordinationism” is used in historical theology for Arianism and Semi-Arianism. I can see why some critics fear that these complementarians revising the doctrine of the Trinity (to include a hierarchy of authority) are moving too close to that.

  • Bev Mitchell


    This series is very helpful. I for one did not realize that things had reached the point where some evangelicals  feel it is necessary to make a firm statement against a view that, presumably, was dealt with long ago and remains fairly clearly excluded to those who actually follow the early creeds. Thanks for the heads up.

    Following your arguments, would the following version serve as a day-to-day formulation for those of us who have trouble holding all of this together in our heads for the length of time necessary to make a fuller statement?

    The Will of God  – Father 
    The Word of God. –  Son (eternal and Incarnate)
    The Work of God. – Holy Spirit

    It is the Father’s will that prevails. It is the Word who proceeds from the Father to create and to reveal God to man. It is the Holy Spirit who performs the Father’s will in Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection. All have perfect fellowship (perichoresis) in the Trinity and are eternally of one will, the Father’s will.

    • rogereolson

      I tend to think of the three as sharing equally one will. The Son and Spirit only do the will of the Father in the economy of creation and redemption. Even then, there is no sense of a will imposed.

      • Bev Mitchell

        I take your point – it’s tough to actually say what one means, especially on this subject and in a few words. Of course there is one shared will. However, I’d still like to have a clear, simpler formulation for everyday use. Perhaps this little poem captures it better, but it fudges the point as to the Trinitarian source of the Will. The  Tolkinesque style was unintended- it just came out that way 🙂 

        There is one Will which shall prevail,
        One Word which cannot fail,
        One Work completing all.

        Even a limited familiarity with the main issues of the early church, such as mine, shows how fundamental our understanding of the Trinity is to the rest of our Christian understanding. Thanks so much for your willingness to put up with us amateurs as we try to put things in our own words.

  • **WOW**

    Thanks, Dr. Olsen.

    I think you get the gist of me by now – I’m just a stay at home evangelical Christian mom with lots of kids. It might seem that I have no place nor interest in these conversations.

    But I do. You might be surprised at how often this is at issue in the common woman’s life and theology. Christian women are kept in specific categories of home/church/leadership positions specifically due to hierarchical status as patterned after the Trinity. This is especially strong in the homeschooling world. The perceived perpetual subjugation of the Son is cited as reason for the perpetual subjugation of the wife or woman and thus, children. This always begs the question (for me): Sons are allowed to grow up and gain autonomy. A wife is not. (A daughter is not allowed to either. In some circles, if she does not marry she is always under her father’s subjugation or headship, per the Trinity’s example. If she marries, that submission is transferred to her husband.) Honestly, I do not think that most people who talk about hierarchy within the Trinity know the difference between immanent and economic hierarchy. I was raised to believe that the Father was the foundation (the wellspring, if you will) and that the Son submitted himself for a time. I appreciate the simple way you pointed out the illogicality of hierarchy of authority amongst those who share one will. That’s sorta like a good marriage. Hierarchy of authority is a moot point, if each one wants the best for the other and is trying to lift the other up. My answer to the authority question in our home is usually, “who cares?” It’s not even an issue.

    So interesting.

    Also, I have had conversations regarding the Trinity with Muslim friends. This is a huge stumbling block for them as regards monotheism. This helps me better understand the topic. Thank you.

    • Joel Ellis

      Not to be critical or to press your observation too far, but I don’t know that a strong parallel can be drawn between the single will of God in the Trinity and a good marriage. Even though love teaches mutual submission which produces peace and unity in action, husbands and wives do not have one will in even remotely the same sense as the Trinity.

      On another point you raised, what some complementarians may not realize is permanent subordination of the Son is not necessary to support a complementarian view of gender roles. As you pointed out, Jesus submitted Himself to the Father for a time, not because He was inferior in person or intrinsic authority, but in a functional role. I understand the same to be true of the relationship between husbands and wives today, but as Jesus indicated, in the resurrection these marital roles will no longer exist (Mk. 12:25).

      • rogereolson

        All analogies fail at some point.

    • Dinah

      I would like Roger Olsen to comment on Holly’s post …. as that is how very many in the “complementarian” camp are using this teaching of subordination in the Trinity.
      I have always considered the Son as subordinate to the Father in the incarnation .- cannot imagine subordination in the Godhead … nor how on earth we could even begin to imagine what it looked like – let alone use such a teaching to permanently and eternally subordinate the female half of the Adam made in God’s image.

      • rogereolson

        I guess I didn’t sufficiently respond to Holly’s comment? I agree with you; that should be clear from what I wrote in my 3 part series.

  • Hi Roger,

    I see only a poor biblical basis for the Nicene doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. For example, in the Gospel according to John, the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit refer to the functional/economic Trinity, not the eternal dynamics of the Trinity. The Bible never teaches about the eternal derivation of the Son and Spirit. Or could you prove me wrong with some biblical studies? 🙂

    • rogereolson

      John 1:14 clearly refers to the immanent Trinity because in no sense, ever was the man Jesus “begotten of the Father.” He was conceived of the Holy Spirit.

      • Begotten of the Father refers to Christ as “the one and only Son.” (NIV) I understand that John made no reference to the virgin birth when he referred to Jesus as God’s Son. But that in no way implies that the Son is eternally derived from the Father anymore than John’s reference to the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father implies eternal procession. Are you saying that John 1:14 clearly teaches eternal derivation of Son?

        • rogereolson

          It teaches exactly what it says–begotten of the Father. (“Derivation from” is your term.) That must be understood in light of John 1:1-2.

          • Please allow me to clarify a few things:

            1. I don’t believe that the Nicene Creed inherently teaches subordinationist Christology, which I suppose is your primary point, so we agree on that as opposed the authors of the “The Trinity Statement.”

            2. I mistakenly thought you used the word “derivation,” but somebody else in this thread did, so I am sorry about that mistake.

            3. The Nicene Fathers mistakenly thought that “monogenes” meant something other than “only son” or “only daughter” (obviously “only son” in the case of Christ); I suppose that the Nicene Fathers picked up their interpretation of “monogenes” from the earlier Logos Theologians, who were subordinationists and evidently precursors to both the Nicene Fathers and the Arians.

  • *Olson.* My apologies. 🙂

  • David Hess

    excellent discussion an incredibly complex doctrinal issue. thanks.

  • “I do not accuse the complementarians with their hierarchical notion of the immanent Trinity of heresy or even heterodoxy. Rank alone does not imply Arian or Semi-Arian Subordinationism. I am accusing them of nonsense.”

    What a memorable conclusion (!) to a compelling and scrupulously fair argument. Thanks.

  • Deborah

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    I’ve read and commented on other posts here. What I still don’t get at this point, even though I’ve shared some of your concern for being aware of the phrasings that early church Fathers sometimes used (particularly in the East), is why I/we should think today that the truth of generation/source/spiration should have any necessary or helpful congruence with words like hierarchy and rank. I’ve been reading the egalitarian scholarly articles on this topic, and none of them deny generation/source/spiration. However, w/o directly addressing the Eastern Father’s use of the “monarchy” of the Father, I do suspect that they find the language confusing. I think it is significant that language of hierarchy did NOT make it into the early creeds, and I personally feel this was God’s hand at work in history giving us some of the best of the church father’s thoughts w/o always their sometimes-confusing developing language. As you can see in the history of Trinitarian doctrine and other doctrines, there were stages of understanding and of clearer speech about these doctrines that developed over the course of time, and oftentimes, the writing of the theologians from the previous period would have been viewed to have some heterodox, heretical, or unsettled components when it came to topics that were not as extensively formulated until the later era. Insofar as church fathers were trying to protect the church from establishing three wills, differing authorities, etc. they were promulgating an equality. I suppose they meant monarchy in terms of the timeless generation of the Son who would rule beside Him (not at the Father’s death or secondary to the Father over a certain area). The caveats that have to be employed (as evinced in my last sentence) in properly explaining this human metaphor suggest to me that the metaphor may be less than helpful and that we might best speak of generation apart from monarchy as to avoid the likely development of errors that demote the Son and Spirit’s authority.

    In short, I’m befuddled by your attraction to a hierarchy w/o authority. In today’s usage at the very least, the semantic debate involved in this would seem to distinctly work against the average person understanding what we do know of the interworking of the Trinity. I appreciate your egalitarian impetus regarding authority but feel like holding on to “hierarchy” per se instead of focusing on the language of source and spiration is far more confusing than helpful. I know some of the earliest great thinkers did the same, but other historical thinkers did not or explicitly limited their discussion of hierarchy to the discussion of the functional and temporal subordination of the economic Trinity (I know, Rahner’s rule… but it seems far more scriptural to acknowledge that there was a temporary subordination that was part of the one eternal will for their movement in time; that doesn’t, to my mind, necessitate a disjunction between the economic and immanent Trinity but displays a foreordained movement w/in it… and to deny that there was this submission of authority for a time would seem unscriptural too… but to apply it to the immanent and eternal Trinity would lead to rank of authority, etc., so I guess I’m arguing that Rahner’s rule can be applied too much here w/ a couple of errors resulting).

    In other words, I’m appreciating the difficulties w/ aligning the language of all ages w/ either of the potential and sparring formulations of today. But the more I follow your reasoning, the more convinced I am that I do need to sign off on the Trinity Statement. Language of hierarchy and rank just does not seem necessary at all to understanding spiration and sourcing (which itself needs careful explanation as separate from our notions of time), and this language of hierarchy and rank seems to be almost inseperable in most definitions and minds from the language of authority. This creates notable problems. One can respect and explain other orthodox formulations such as those of the Orthodox church w/o finding them to be the clearest or the most accurate depictions. One can build on their formulations while acknowledging they had not yet arrived at the clearest language (w/ the least number of pitfalls) for general explanation. Given the contemporary threat to the authority of the Son and Spirit, this clarification seems necessary. And it is clear to me that the language of spiration, distinction, and full equality of authority is closer to what the Church was discovering and beginning to protect in its creeds than is that of spiration, distinction, and eternal ranks of authority.

    Just my 2. As noted in my prior comment, there were both comps and egals working on the Trinity Statement.

    All best,

    • rogereolson

      It’s fine with me if you sign it. I’ve explained why, at this time, anyway, I can’t.

      • Deborah

        I know you don’t mean to persuade me not to sign it or anyone else for that matter. And I hope I didn’t come off as overly contentious. I suppose I was fishing around for any more light on why hierarchical language would be important for describing the Trinity when it seems to me like the clearest articulation of the theological points comes from not using it. Obviously you’ve thought about that and come to a different conclusion than I for reasons that I am unable to comprehend, and I suppose that is rather suitable for two people attempting to discuss such a mysterious doctrine as the Trinity.

  • Rick

    I appreciate this series. Very helpful.

    Question though: if the Father is the “source”, is there a time when the Son (and/or Holy Spirit) “was not”?

    • rogereolson

      Most definitely not. I stated that in one of the posts of the series. The generation of the Son from the Father (like the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son) is eternal.

      • CarolJean

        I guess this is the confusing part for me about eternal generation, since generation or to generate is a verb and eternity is forever, how can something be generated and alway be?

        • rogereolson

          The Cappadocian Fathers, following Origen, used the analogy of the sun and its light and heat. There never was a time when the sun existed without its light and heat. Now, if you ask how a being can always exist, well, then we’re into the mystery of God! 🙂

          • bondboy

            Maybe it’s a mystery or maybe trinitarians are trying to hide the fact that they can’t defend their beliefs (or dare I say they are wrong).

            I can say that I have a pet goldfish who also is an elephant. I can say that it’s a mystery but it’s true, but nobody would believe me.

            Maybe the truth is simple and logical. God is god, in the way every single reference to him in the bible intended. Jesus was a person born the way every other person in the history of the world was born. Jesus served as prophet of that God, and was so revered that he was deemed to be an agent of that God.

            No mysteries, no need to create hermeneutics to cover one’s tracks to answer impossible questions such as : why didn’t YHWH tell his prophets in the OT that he was triune? Why didn’t Jesus ever tell anybody that God was triune? Why didn’t any writer ever describe the nature of God as a foundation of the faith? How can one be begotten and eternal (you just can’t, in the same way you can’t be a fish and an elephant)? And on and on and on.

          • rogereolson

            It sounds like you’ve been reading John Toland and/or Matthew Tindal. If not, you should. You’d find them very congenial to your point of view. The only problem is it’s not a Christian point of view. It’s also just plain hermeneutically naive. “God is god, in the way every single reference to him in the bible intended.” What does that even mean? Now, you seem to be one of those people who comes into my living room or office (my blog) just to argue. I don’t detect any openness to real dialogue on your part. It seems you’re only here to heckle me and I have no obligation to facilitate that. So either change your modus operandi or go away.

      • Eric Miller

        You have to admit that the Father is causally prior to the Son, though.

        • rogereolson

          As the sun is causally prior to its light and heat.

  • Mike McLeod

    Roger, thanks for the posting on this subject. They have been most informative. I remember taking a systematic theology course from F. LeRon Shults and being first exposed to Rahner’s rule.

    Something to probe. You acknowledge that there is a hierarchical relation of “source” in the immanent Trinity. And yet you say this does not “imply or require a hierarchy of authorty”, so when in the last paragraph you accuse complinentarians of “nonsense”, I was surprised. As we watch the economic Trinity unfold, logically, we don’t see the Son sending the Father to earth to obediently do the Son’s will through the Spirit. The economic Trinity seems to flow in a consistent manner with immanent Trinity of “sourced” authority, certainly, not the elimination of it or the reversal of it. So, how is this complimentarity nonsense? It seems to me that egalitarians have more explaining to do because of how the economical Trinitry is played out. Not that I am pastorally for complinentarity. I am not completely settled on this myself.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see how the sending of the Son into the world by the Father or the sending of the Spirit into the church by the Son implies any kind of authoritarian hierarchy. If they are of one will (as they must be if they are one God), then the “sending” implies no compulsion or subordination. My wife and I have an egalitarian marriage. And yet she might “send me” to the store and I might be (and usually am) more than willing to go. In fact, in most such cases, I was planning to go anyway. And yet, if I meet someone at the store, it is right for me to say “My wife sent me to the store.” That does not imply authority over.

    • Mike, classical trinitarian theology does suggest that the divine processions contain the missions. The latter are not arbitrary but derive from the former. In other words, it is fitting that the Son is sent into the world by the Father because the Son is eternally begotten by the Father. The Son’s relation of begottenness is precisely what makes Him suited to go out from God to creation. And so, as you say, “the economic Trinity seems to flow in a consistent manner with immanent Trinity of ‘sourced’ authority.”

      Roger, I enjoyed reading this series very much. How complementarians make the eisegetical jump from trinitarian relations to human gender relations is beyond me. I am still trying to sort out these issues in my own mind, but I appreciate the distinctions you draw between a hierarchy of being and of authority in the Godhead. To this I would add an ordering of (for lack of a better word) roles: the Son is freely obedient to the Father by virtue of His perfect sonship, not because the Father is a) ontologically superior, or b) authoritative over Him, as if the Son has no choice but to submit to One who is functionally superior. The key in this distinction is the Son’s free submission — necessary precisely because He is ontologically equal with the Father.

      But perhaps this is what you mean by ‘authority,’ with the bit I’m worried about safeguarded by the singularity of the divine will.

  • John Metz

    Thanks, Roger, for this excellent discussion.

    I read the recent statement about the Trinity before reading your three posts. The impression I had was that there was a definite agenda to the statement. As much as possible, such statements should be made without an underlying agenda (if at all possible!). You did an excellent job of bringing out the background of the statement.

    Speculation into the immanent (or, essential) aspect of the Trinity must be limited as you stated. When you said earlier “use your imagination” I said to myself that you were a master of understatement. Since the immanent aspect refers to what God is in Himself, we have little to say beyond what the scripture says. We know that the three of the Triune God are co-eternal (all Three are eternal), co-existent (all Three exist at the same time throughout history and eternity), co-inherent (the Father is in Me and I am in the Father), distinct, but never separate. We know the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It seems we cannot avoid the use of terms like “persons” or “hypostases” but must acknowledge that these are approximations (various church fathers and more recent Bible teachers have had problems with either term). We know that the Father, Son and Spirit are not three successive modes nor are they three gods. We know that the Father, Son and Spirit act distinctly in their interaction with humans and with human history, yet they are one God.

    I do appreciate your willingness to wade (or, dive) into deep waters.

  • Margaret

    “There is a glory in perfect benevolent authority and also a glory in perfect trusting subordination. The consideration of it actually generates worship – at least in me.” (Nate Garvin)

    Me too.

  • Russ

    As an egalitarian who has not been in line with how evangelical egalitarians have been making their case, I think this well said, and exactly right. It seems to me that evangelicals who may be able to elaborate on soteriology (or, worse, eschatology) in precise detail are often pretty fuzzy on the theology of the trinity. It gets all the more muddled that the the most vocal complementarians are Calvinists who seem completely unaware of Calvin’s description of the Son as autotheos.

    • rogereolson

      Interestingly, Arminius denied the Son’s autotheos status arguing for the monarchy of the Father (ontologically). In an ironic twist, the contemporary Calvinist complementarians agree with Arminius (at least about hierarchy in the immanent Trinity) AGAINST the majority of Calvinists (at least of the 16th and early 17th centuries). Arminius was accused of heresy for arguing for the monarchy of the Father, but he managed to put his accusers off by referring to the ancient Christian consensus on the subject.

  • Mike McLeod

    Hi Roger. One more thought on this very interesting post. You acknowlegdge hierachy in the immanent Trinity in terms of “source” but are careful to keep this dynamic of hierachy untethered to “authority”, presumedly to hold onto egalitariansim. I hope this is a fair observation. But, can we find linkages of hierachy with authority? Yes, I notice in Mt. 28:19ff that Jesus is GIVEN all AUTHORITY presumedly from God the Father. So, in the Mt. context, hierachy involved “sourced” hierachy AND shared authority without implications of inferiorty between the Father and the Son. So, can this not also be played out in other human social relations, including marriage? Just wondering.

    • rogereolson

      I interpret that passage as referring to the economic Trinity.

      • Mike McLeod

        Yes, of course. But I am thinking of flow and consistency. If the economic Trinity links hierarchy and authority, might we find this in the Immanent Trinity. Just like theologians do with the “begotten” (John 1:18), generation idea. Honestly, I feel that Egalitarians jump over the Economic Trinty. Truth be known to me, I feel that the Egalitarian push/drive in the church is more from our cultural gestalt than anything else. That’s just a personal judgment. Roger, I also see this happening in theology with Theologians. To me, it seems that science and our new discoveries drive theology, well mostly anyway,and also secular philosophers (ala, Derrida, Deluseze, and others. Personally, I have come to embrace some of the trajectories of Egalitarianism and evolution in science. I was querious to know where you land on the evolution-creationist debate. I enjoy your posts.

        • rogereolson

          I am agnostic about origins beyond what the Bible clearly teaches–that God created everything outside of himself and pronounced it good and that he created humans in his own image and likeness. I have trouble even getting interested in debates about evolution or the age of the earth.

  • Dr. Olson, I have not read through everyone’s responses, so I apologize if I’m being redundant. First of all I agree with your position 100%; it is dangerous to peer too far into the eternal God. The church Fathers adequately refined the Trinity to avoid heresy, and that’s how it should function and that’s how it should remain–it’s true dogma. This is the best we can expect because God is beyond us. Secondly, I think your first respondent said it right by suggesting that love is what we should take from the eternal relationship within the Godhead, not authority. As I taught in my book, God’s Love is giving and receiving, and receiving so as to give again. Thirdly, the Corinthians passage behind all this brouhaha needs to be understood Christologically not as Trinitarian. After the Trinity had been settled the Fathers were faced with how to explain Christ. The Bible has many passages like this Corinthians passage that appear to contradict each other or at least suggest different Christs. This gave way to the many versions under the opposing indwelling logos and hypostatic union models. They resolved all this by understanding Christ in terms of pre-existence/kenosis/exaltation (Phil. 2:5-11), resulting in the orthodox picture of Jesus the Christ as two natures/one person (see Chalcedonian creed). The incarnate Christ is what the Corinthians passage refers: Jesus being the first fruit of authentic humanity is necessarily subject to the Father and also one with Him. Finally, this long debate over “who’s the boss” is getting old; and an attempt to answer it by tinkering with the essential dogma of the trinity is really too much. In Eph. 5:21, Paul clearly tells us to submit to one another OUT OF REVERENCE FOR CHRIST. If we all (and I include myself) would love God first with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength–as both the first four commandments demand, and Christ commanded–all of this confusion, which frankly has come about because of the American idolization of personal rights, would take care of itself. P.S. Thank you, Dr. Olson, for upholding orthodoxy.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome. It would come as a surprise to some of my critics (Al Mohler who calls me a post-evangelical) that I “uphold orthodoxy.” Thanks for pointing it out. That’s how I see myself as well. I agree with everything you wrote there.

  • Jason Armold

    Thank you so much Dr. Olson. I’m currently at a fairly conservative Bible College about ready to graduate in May. We’ve had to read “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Dr. Bruce Ware. Many of the students seemed convinced that the present argument of the family being so closely aligned to our understanding of the Trinity has been the accepted historic position. When I expressed disagreement I was pretty well ostracized from their version of Orthodoxy. It to me is an alarming thing when such books are used to teach Doctrine. I should note I grew up in a secular and fairly egalitarian home, but since becoming a serious student I have yet to be able to swallow Ware, Piper, et Al’s argument. I’ve been tracing the history of this recent debate since George Knight first published in I think 1977. I find it interesting the names involved in the debate are usually Baptist/Southern Baptist. I don’t see the fact that Southern Baptists “stopped” there practice of ordaining women just a few years earlier. Well, I digress, but I want to thank you for clarifying the real essence of the debate!

    • Jason Armold

      I should say I don’t see it as just coincidental*

    • rogereolson

      Let’s be clear. “Southern Baptists” do not ordain or refuse to ordain women. Ordination is strictly a matter of the individual congregation; associations, conventions and the SBC itself do not ordain. They can exclude a congregation for ordaining women, but they can’t strip it of its Baptist status. Nobody can. Many SBC related churches within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (their future status with the SBC is doubtful), including my own, do ordain women. There’s nothing the SBC or anyone else can do to stop it.

  • Rus Hooper

    Hi, Roger.

    I am enjoying reading your posts and the discussion. I’ve got a sticking point, though, in trying to understand it all. You wrote, “Possibly a person could argue that John 1:14 references the birth of Jesus, not the begottenness of the Son from the Father in the immanent Trinity.” I have been having trouble reconciling your interpretation of John 1:14, exegetically. John said the Word became flesh and they beheld His glory. First, it seems to me that the glory John beheld was of the incarnate Word, an economic beholding (cf. 2:11), not a beholding of the Word in the immanent Trinity, as you seem to argue (how could John have gazed into the immanent Trinity except through incarnate revelation???).

    Second, monogenes as an adjective does not mean “only-begotten” for it has only one nu, not two, not from gennao, but from genos, “kind.” Rather, it seems to me to mean “unique” Son (3:16, 18) of the Father. So, John is saying that he beheld the glory of the incarnate Word, who he then describes as the monogenes of the Father (1:14), as well as the monogenes God (1:18, UBS 4).

    Third, your reasoning for rejecting this as a verse about the economic Trinity is that “Jesus was conceived (gennethen) by the Holy Spirit, not the Father.” Isn’t this a denial of perichoretic activity involving both the Father and the Spirit? How is it consistent to argue in that way, in light of so many passages (eg. Heb. 1:5)?

    Fourth, Heb. 1:5, quoting Ps. 2:7 says “you are my Son, I today have begotten you.” “Today” — this would be a temporal “economic” begatting, would it not, instead of a begatting in eternity? I keep looking for the eternal begatting in Scripture but cannot seem to find it. In tradition, yes, I find it. But where is it clearly in Scripture?

    If I am mistaken, I would greatly benefit from your assistance in seeing things clearly. Thanks for stimulating our learning!

    • rogereolson

      I can’t address all of your questions (or all of others’–it’s too time consuming). Let me just say that I do take the Greek fathers seriously and they interpreted the monogenes of John 1:14 as referring to the eternal begetting of the Son in the immanent Trinity. The “glory” John (or the author of John’s gospel) “beheld” was in Jesus’ exaltation after the resurrection. Jesus himself prayed (John 17) that the Father would glorify him with the glory they had together before the world began. Obviously, then, the “glory” of the Son referred to in John 17 was not of the earthly Jesus before his resurrection. I have addressed the issue of perichoresis and the distinct operations of the persons of the Trinity in reply to another commenter. I won’t go into that again.

      • Rus Hooper

        Sorry to raise too many questions for the present time, which are somewhat tangential to your fine posts. I’m still trying to work out a better understanding of the eastern and western views. I agree with the thrust of what you have communicated in these three posts. Thanks for making me dig.

  • Margaret

    Have you read The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, by Samuel Clarke? I have been finding it hard to put down – in spite of the difficulty of reading the old script.

    It contains all the passages in the NT that seem to have a bearing on the subject, and not just a few “proof” texts. That is refreshing.

    It also contains quotations from many of the earliest church “Fathers”. Some of the quotations – especially from men like Athanasius – amaze me.

    • rogereolson

      No, I haven’t read that book. (But I have read scores of books on the doctrine of the Trinity and written one myself.) As opportunity arises, I’ll look at it. Whenever I hear someone (e.g., a Jehovah’s Witness) argue that the doctrine of the Trinity was “invented” by Constantine (or theologians under his influence) I cringe. They have obviously not read Athanasius (who was certainly not under Constantine’s influence!) or the church fathers of the second or third centuries (well before Constantine). And they have obviously not read Celsus–the pagan critic of Christianity in the late 2nd century who ridiculed Christians for worshiping a man (Jesus) as God and who (according to him) believed in three gods.

  • Margaret

    What surprised me most about this book is how closely these early writers agree with what we have acknowledged is the one aspect of the immanent Trinity – perhaps the only one – that we know about.

    For example: Clarke’s first few propositions (after quoting about 500 New Testament passages, along with quotations from the early writers) can be summarized like this:

    There is one supreme Cause and Original of all things.
    The Father alone is self-existent, unoriginated, independent. He alone is of no other, whether by creation, generation, procession, or any other way whatsoever.
    The Father is the sole Origin of all power and authority. He is the Monarch. He alone is, in the highest and absolute sense, Supreme over all.
    The Scripture, when it mentions the one God or the only God always means the Supreme Person of the Father.

    Is that a fair representation of what is now termed orthodox, or has there been some deviation from that?

    • rogereolson

      That’s a fair representation of what I consider to be the Eastern Orthodox and ancient Greek Christian view of the immanent Trinity (viz., the “monarchy of the Father”). However, it’s certainly not a complete account of the immanent Trinity. Athanasius would agree with it but add (as he does in On the Incarnation of the Word) that without the Son the Father would not be Father! Over the years I have corrected students (and others) when they use “God” and “Jesus” interchangeably (e.g., “when God said to his disciples). It’s not technically wrong, but it’s historically-theologically wrong. Whenever the word “God” is used in Christian theology, without “the Son” or “the Holy Spirit” following, it is the Father who is meant. This is because of the monarchy of the Father, not because the Son and Holy Spirit are less divine than the Father. Again, the analogy of the sun and its warmth and light is the illustration used by some of the Greek fathers.

  • Margaret

    I certainly agree that God’s Son and God’s Spirit are no less divine than God himself. That’s because their divinity comes FROM God. And that, in turn, means that their divinity does not originate in themselves, but comes from the God who alone is self-existent.
    I do heartily believe in the trinity that is described in 2 Cor. 13:14 (and many other passages): God himself, God’s Son, and God’s Spirit. What I cannot find anywhere is a God who is plural.

    But I don’t need to repeat that again. Thank you very much for your courteous answers.

  • Dinah

    found them – thanks

    however I do not quite agree with your conclusion …. I think much of what is written on this topic by ‘complementarians’ does indeed come very close to heresy ….
    perhaps from most Christians it comes from not understanding the Trinity – it is sometimes very hard not to speak as if there are in fact 3 gods, or one god who discloses himself in 3 forms ….
    But – these are leaders and theologians …. I found what Bruce Ware wrote shocking, and also Wayne Grudem ….
    Another example is the Anglican church in Sydney’s paper, which thankfully was not accepted … Kevin Giles wrote in response to this.
    I find it hard to believe what I am reading … and there is little being said against it.

  • Hi Roger,
    Thanks for these posts – really thought-provoking and very helpful. I’m coming a bit late to the game, so not sure if you’re still checking the comments on this, but if so I just wondered what you make of 1 Cor 15:28? What does the Son being subjected to the Father mean in this passage?
    Many thanks,

    • rogereolson

      That’s one of those obscure passages. After all, isn’t the Son already subject to the Father (in the economy of salvation history)? Even the strictest subordinationist-complementarians think so. So what would it mean for the Son to be subject to the Father in the future history of the kingdom? The only plausible explanation I’ve read of this is in Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom–an excellent, if somewhat speculative, discussion of the relations among the persons of the Trinity in relation to the history of the kingdom of God.

      • Great – Thanks Roger, I’ll check out Moltmann.

  • Josh


    I know I’m way late to the game, but if you’re still responding, I would value your input. A great series of posts, by the way – helpful in a whole host of ways. I’m curious about your conclusion in this third piece: you suggest that your main objection to the concept of hierarchy is that you can’t imagine what it means for three hypostases with one will to involve a hierarchy of authority, though there is rank in terms of source. Couldn’t a valid complementarian response be focused on your lack of imagination? I’m not trying to be snarky, but isn’t all of this a little beyond our imaginations? I’d truly value a response. Thanks again.


    • rogereolson

      By “I can’t imagine” here I mean “cannot conceive of.” I can form no concept of it. How can anyone expect me to believe in something I cannot form any concept of?

      • Josh

        Okay, but it seems to me that God calls us to believe in a great many things of which many of us can form no concept. Historically – for the early Jewish Christians, that Jesus is God (I can imagine that this would have been literally nonsense); for most of us, the idea of the Trinity (this is still very nearly literal nonsense for most); more personally, that God loves us despite ourselves. Isn’t our call to believe what is true and then to learn to form some sort of concept? Does not our faith inform our knowledge, understanding, and even our imagination?
        I’m not coming to you to disagree with your basic points, but I find an argument that finishes “I can’t imagine” unconvincing, especially in the nature of this case – the nature of the inner workings of a mysterious God. I’m also not convinced that there is enough evidence to say that there is, in fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity (depending on how you interpret 1 Cor and John). But, I want to be convinced one way or the other and “I can’t imagine” does not convince. How am I misunderstanding you? What am I missing?

        • rogereolson

          Yes, you are misunderstanding what I mean by “I can’t imagine.” I can imagine God as triune without any real difficulty. I can form the concept in my mind without great cognitive dissonance. In fact, I find it more difficult to imagine God as a singular monad. Such a God could not be love and would need some world as his counterpart in order to be at all personal. I have no trouble “imagining” the incarnation, either. But if you ask me to “imagine” (form a concept of) a married bachelor I can’t do it. You would be asking the impossible. The same happens if someone asks me to imagine (form a concept of) a being with one will that includes hierarchy of authority.

          • Josh

            Thanks for the response. Perhaps my imagination is not as formed as yours (again, not trying to be snarky, just honest) – I still struggle to form any real “concept” of the Trinity that doesn’t result in great cognitive dissonance, though I still believe it to be true. I still struggle to project a mental image of three distinct hypostases that have one divinity, coequality, and will; yet I am convinced that it is so. And so, because I am already beyond my imaginative capacity when I come to the Trinity, I have no problem with the idea that there might be three persons with one will in some kind of hierarchy (in theory, and whatever that might mean). Thanks for the back and forth. – Josh

          • rogereolson

            You are confusing “mental image” with “mental conception.” I can conceive of much I cannot picture. I cannot picture (form a mental image) of a photon, but I can imagine (form a mental conception of) one by reading about them and seeing models (which are only analogues, not images).

  • Josh

    I should close my portion of this discussion by saying that, as far as I can see, it’s less helpful to posit “hierarchy” within the Trinity than it is just to say what we know we can say – that the Father begets the Son and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father [and the Son], and that there is an “order” within the Trinity. And when it comes to the debate over the contemporary applications of Trinitarian doctrine to practical matters of order and polity, it seems that we have to proceed with wisdom rather than an eternal principle. Thanks again.

  • Whiningmachine

    Thanks for posting this series, Roger. While I might not agree with everything conclusion you’ve made, it’s been a great starting point for research for a sermon I will be preaching soon. If nothing else, being able to read a dissenting opinion (regarding the Spirit and Son being from the Father) forces me to consider possibilities that I’d never even known about before, and certainly helps a little with confirmation bias when studying on topics like this that can become very academic. I am not sure whether I will change my mind in light of future research on the subject, but thank you for providing a resource that at least calls me to look more closely.