Trinity Book Fest – Part 3: One God in Three Persons

Trinity Book Fest – Part 3: One God in Three Persons August 10, 2015

Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (editors)
One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life
Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.
Available at

This volume contains a number of essays that deal with the theme of Trinity. But the single biggest problem with this book is that it is not actually about the Trinity. It is in fact about gender roles in church and family. It is the attempt to argue that the hierarchy within the triune God is translatable into a hierarchy between male-female relationships since men and women reflect the image of God. So just as the Son submits to the Father, so too does the wife submit to the husband. The proof of this is the fact that the first three essays of the book are by Wayne Grudem’s on “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity,” Christopher Cowan on “I Always Do  What Pleases Him: The Father and Son in the Gospel of John,” and Kyle Claunch, “Does 1 Cor 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity?” In other words, the editors are trying to use the Trinity to bankroll a particular view of women, gender roles, church, and family.

Among the essays, I think the “anchor” essay for this volume is Kyle Claunch on 1 Cor 11:3, which admirably tries to show analogical or indirect evidence to ground the Son’s submission in the immanent Trinity. Jim Hamilton tries to argue for something similar about 1 Corinthians 15. John Starke does his best to show that Augustine’s conception of eternal generation supports a notion of a particular order in the Trinity characterized by the Son’s submission. These were the more interesting contributions in my opinion.

As you can imagine, this type of theology – the so-called complementarian view of the Trinity – has prompted no small sway of responses. In the most recent issue of Evangelical Quarterly, Kevin Giles (“Defining the Error Called Subordinationism,” EQ 87 [2015] 207-24) has repeated his objections to complementarian views of the Trinity: (1) There is a subordination of the Son in function, rank, status, and divinity, and the development of a hierarchy within the God-head; (2) Any functional subordination implies an ontological subordination; and (3) There is a subordination of the Son in terms of power and authority. Giles defines subordinationism as follows:

Subordinationism is the error of sub-ordering the Son and/or Spirit below the Father in any way within the eternal life of God, It involves explicitly or implicitly denying the unequivocal unity and co-equality of the eternally and immutably differentiated three divine persons who are the one God, thereby dividing and separating the divine persons. Very commonly this error arises because the voluntary and temporal subordination of the Son in the economy for our salvation is read back into the immanent Trinity (the triune God as he is himself).

This is the error that Giles believes such complementarians have committed by trying to tie their views of gender submission into submission within the God-head.

Stephen Holmes, in response to reviews of his work, says the reason why he never engaged the complementarian view of the Trinity is because “it is impossible to square this idea with classical Trinitarian orthodoxy; this seems to me to be merely obviously. The fact is that the concept only makes any sense with an excessively ‘social’ doctrine of the Trinity; considered against the classical doctrine, it falls into that celebrated class of ideas that are ‘not even wrong’ but just utterly incoherent” (The Holy Trinity Revisited, p. 154).

I’ve argued in two TrinJ articles that, yes, the economic relationship, even the submission/obedience that the Son offers to the Father, can be correlated with immanent and eternal Trinitarian relations. However, that should not be constituted as a hierarchy or a subordination, but rather as part of the Son’s obedient self-distinction from the Father (a la Pannenberg). What is more, while there is an analogy between Father and Son in headship which is applied by Paul in 1 Cor 11:3 to husbands and wives, it is only analogous for a particular cultural setting, and not intrinsic to the ontologies of the Godhead or constitutive for human beings. What is more, as I joke to my students, applying immanent and intra-Trinitarian relationships to your marriage only makes sense if your marriage consists of two guys and a eunuch.  While that might be possible in the state of Massachusetts, I doubt it is possible in Most American states.

There are also several omissions from this volume, not the least on how their thesis relates to the Cappodocians. In terms of contemporary research, the work of Steven Holmes could have been engaged (though admittedly, it might not have come out in time), and also Scott Harrower’s thesis that pushes back on the use of Rahner’s Rule to ground Jesus’ economic obedience in the immanent Trinity. Personally, I’m still in favor of Rahner’s Rule, however, Harrower’s criticisms do need to be addressed. Graham Cole’s lecture on Trinity without Tiers also merited attention too.

I would not call this complementarian view of the Trinity a strictly Arian account as some allege, since the contributors do verbally declare the Son’s eternality and equality to the Father. However, when you use and celebrate the words “subordination” and “hierarchy” to describe the God-head – descriptions the  Orthodox have historically rejected – then you are flirting with one lady who looks awfully like like Arius’ half-sister, Homoianism. Given the centrality of this school of thought around Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, I propose – for discussion – whether it is apt to start referring to “Southern Baptist Homoianism.” Comments for and against appreciated!

As I’ve said once before and so I say again: We need a theological restraining order to prevent anyone on either side of the gender war trying to use the Trinity to establish their views of gender. I’m not saying that we should not reflect on the Father-Son relationship (contra the preface on p. 14), only restrain applications to a sensible plane (see for instance Graham Cole’s essay in the John Feinberg festschrift!). The fact that the classical view of the Trinity is being pejoratively labeled as “feminist” and revisionist views of the Trinity are being called “complementarian” is proof that gender issues are driving the whole discussion and even the taxonomy of views. It seems to be an exercise in tribal identity formation- if you want to be part of the complementarian tribe, well, then you better  have THIS view of the Trinity … or you might look like a feminist! It is getting weird people. You won’t find Graham Cole, Kevin Vanhoozer, Timothy George, or Gerald Bray arguing for this stuff … and there’s a reason for that!

For an entree into this debate, see Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (eds.), The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son.

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