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.
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.