One thing I like about C. Michael Patton is that he’s honest. He will write what many Reformed proponents think, but are reluctant to publicly affirm. Like, for instance, his post from earlier this month in which he posits that the Trinity is a hierarchy: God is on top, Christ is in the middle, and the Holy Spirit is on the bottom.
This is heresy, friends, albeit a widely popular heresy.
While I don’t believe there is an ontological hierarchy (gradation of essence, or all that stuff I said above), I do believe there can be a hierarchy in person. In other words, one member of the Trinity can take on a different rank than another. I think we can all agree that at the incarnation, this hierarchy presented itself as Father, then Son, then Spirit. After all, even Christ said that the Father was greater than he was (John 14:28). This is sometimes called a “functional hierarchy.” This should not be too difficult to process, as we can see many analogies to this in our own world.
There, in the last sentence, you can see what leads Patton into error. To analogize the Godhead with the President of the United States (as he does in the next sentence) is wrongheaded — any analogy between the incomprehensible Godhead, particularly the trinitarian form thereof, and something earthly is predestined to lead you into error. (See what I did there?)
He goes on to write:
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, I believe the Holy Spirit is last on the divine authority totem pole. The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Holy Spirit, and the Father is sent by none.
Ugh. A “divine authority totem pole”?!?
If you haven’t figured it out from that kind of language, let me make it perfectly clear: A trinitarian hierarchy provides theological defense for other hierarchies, like men over women, clergy over laity, master over slave, and king over subjects.
These ideas have been thoroughly debunked in many books, most notably:
By Jürgen Moltmann:
By Kevin Giles:
- The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate
- The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology
- Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity
But don’t just take the words of modern theologians for it. Instead, read the most beautiful hymn ever written to the Trinity, the Athanasian Creed (6th century). Based on the theologies of Augustine and Athanasias, see how the ancient church understood all three persons of the Trinity to be absolutely equal in all things, both ontologically and functionally:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord;
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
So, dear friends, do not be deceived. The Trinity is not a hierarchy. Neither should the church nor the home be a hierarchy.