Complementarianism’s Trinity: The Story Now Told

Complementarianism’s Trinity: The Story Now Told August 14, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 8.52.47 AMAbout a year ago the story broke when some Reformed theologians with impeccable credentials (names below), many of them themselves complementarians of a sort, said a big “Nein!” on the eternal subordinationism of the Son to the Father as fashioned by the likes of Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan, and Robert Letham. Others who embraced that theory, some of whom now pretend they didn’t believe such things but many of us know better, now pretend they did not believe ETS or now claim they’ve been eternal generationists all along.

Kevin Giles, who all along has been calling out Grudem and Ware and others, both was the first to call them out and now has written a small engaging account called The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity. He has issued statement after statement but the authorities in the complementarian movement denounced him, ignored him, and therefore silenced him. But when the Reformed lights (names again below) came to his side, defended him, and denounced the inadequate and wrong-headedness of Grudem and Ware, the jig was up and suddenly Giles was no longer the bad guy. They will still largely ignore him, but the truth is out.

It’s in this book. It’s the story of the “rise and fall” of how eternal subordination got folded into Trinitarian thinking in such a way that God was on their side. They were wrong; God wasn’t. The doctrine of the Trinity ought to have nothing to do with female subordinationism to males nor of egalitarian relations in a marriage. Scholar after scholar has said this, none more consistently than Giles.

Every pastor and teacher who gets involved in this discussion — for among many of the followers of Grudem and Ware and others it continues to percolate unchecked — needs to read this book to get the fuller story. I will touch on a bit of it today. If you hear any pastor or teacher anchor complementarian relations among males-females in the doctrine of the Trinity, you need to read this book. Better yet, buy it, give it to them, and hold them accountable for it.

Here is Giles’ opener:

I have been crying out to complementarians for nearly twenty years, “Go back, you are going the wrong way on the Trinity. What you are teaching in the light of the creeds and confessions is heresy.” For well over a decade, I could count on one hand—and have fingers to spare—the theologians who openly supported me. Most evangelicals and Reformed theologians for most of this period in fact opposed me and were very critical of my work. I often felt like the boy who cried out, “The King has no clothes on, only to be cuffed around the ears by the princes and courtiers of the King. Slowly evangelical egalitarians began agreeing with me, but complementarians with very few exceptions stood in total opposition. Suddenly and unexpectedly in June 2016 everything changed. A few brave and honest complementarian princes said, “You know the boy is right, the King is naked,” and then everyone was free to state the obvious; the hierarchical ordering of the three divine persons is a denial of the creeds and confessions of the church. I now have so many evangelical and Reformed theological friends that I cannot number them. …

The about-turn of Dr. Denny Burk, the president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), a long-time dogmatic supporter of the eternal subordination of the Son and of the argument that women’s subordination is grounded in the life of God, proves the point. On August 10th, 2016, he broke with his friends Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, saying “[I now] do not agree with all their Trinitarian views.” Rather, “as a result of what has unfolded over the last two months, I believe in eternal generation, a single divine will, inseparable operations, and the whole Nicene package.” And he added that, when putting the complementarian case, appealing to “speculative, extra-biblical Trinitarian analogies .. is unhelpful and unwarranted in Scripture.” And furthermore, “I think it is good and right to leave behind the language of subordination” in reference to Jesus Christ (1-2).

The complementarian theory of the Trinity — eternal subordination of the Son — badly reshaped Trinitarian thinking because of its commitment to hierarchical relations of husband and wife, males and females in the church and for some society too. It was riding the wave of consensus, or at least it thought it was:

Only in mid-2016 did it become clear that the sharp divide over the Trinity among evangelical Christians was not between complementarians and evangelical egalitarians but between those who insisted that the creeds and confessions of the church ruled on how the Scriptures are rightly to be interpreted on the Trinity and other major doctrines and those who believed with Bible in hand they could construe the Trinity independently as individuals (6-7).

Exactly. I myself knew there were Reformed theologians who disagreed, who also thought Grudem and Ware’s crowd were mismanaging what complementarianism itself meant. Because Giles has been the leading voice in criticism of the eternal subordinationism theory of Grudem and Ware, he has a special role in telling this story. Here are his words, words that are not boastful but sheer truth, truth about a man who has been accused over and over falsely:

I am also uniquely positioned and informed to write this book specifically on the complementarian civil war over the Trinity, because arguably my writings on the Trinity, more than the work of anyone else, precipitated this civil war. In support of this audacious claim, I note that when the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS)—with over 4,500 members, most with a PhD—was forced to concede that the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity had been judged heretical by many theologians and the issue had to be got out in the open, I was asked to give the opening address at the plenary forum on the Trinity at the annual ETS conference in San Antonio in November 2016. This was a huge honor. More than 2,500 evangelical theologians come each year to this conference; in 2016 the attendees numbered 2,641. On stage with me where Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and Bruce Ware. Possibly five hundred theologians were present at this forum (7).


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • ZZ

    Thanks for the info on this book. I’m going to get it!

  • David Moore

    I had lunch with Carl Trueman last summer. This topic came up due to Carl’s helpful blogs on the issue. It would be good, even now, if Wayne simply said, “I am wrong on this one.”

  • danaames

    It would be good, but don’t hold your breath. Admitting being wrong about this takes away a complementarian’s strongest theological argument for the c. position. That the strongest argument is grounded in heretical thought doesn’t matter if one is committed to maintaining complementarianism above everything, or nearly everything, else.

    If you hold to complementarianism, fine – just don’t monkey with the Trinity; make your case in another way. And stop saying that those who don’t agree with you “don’t believe The Bible,” inferring that they might not be Christians; that doesn’t help your case, either.


  • Very informative, thanks!

  • scotmcknight

    From my FB Page:
    By Jim Payton, emeritus prof of church history and patristics…

    I have been an egalitarian for years, so I haven’t paid particular attention to the intra-complementarian squabbles. But as a Church historian and a patristics scholar, I can emphatically state that asserting any sort of subordinationism in the eternal Trinity is … and for many centuries has been … forthrightly condemned as heresy. That complementarian theologians resorted to asserting it shows at least two things: (1) how little they know or take heed of the history of Christian doctrine, and (2) how desperate they must have been to espouse such nonsense to support their teaching.

  • Greg Hahn

    I appreciate the coverage of this important topic, Scot. Thank you.

  • Harry

    Can someone please respond to these 2 critiques of Giles I received on another forum:

    [Giles] has not even understood Mike’s [Ovey] argument. The point of the analysis of creedal material in Mike’s book is to demonstrate that there were many uses of the language of submission and subjection in the 4th century and these occurred in creeds that were considered orthodox, non-Nicene and Homoian (a point Mike himself makes in his Latimer book at length in chapter 4) for that reason the fact one spoke of the Son’s ‘submission’ was not the litmus test for orthodoxy in the complex discussions taking place in the 4th century.
    Also Mike does not argue his position is ‘non-Nicene’ at all… he merely mentions that there are 3 groups (actually more than that but for simplicity’s sake) in order to stop people making the kind of hard and fast caricatures that Giles is sadly guilty of here… it is not Arians vs orthodox in the 4th century – it is MUCH more complicated (see Ayres – ‘Nicaea and its legacy’ for more). Mike also quite rightly contends that Hilary (a Nicene voice to be sure) clearly teaches submission – so if Hilary teaches this and yet rules Sirmium 2 blasphemy he cannot rule it as such because it teaches submission… in fact it is because it denies the ontological equality of the Son by refusing to affirm His immutability etc…
    . . . See further (for those with masses of spare time . . .

    Executive summary of that document: “My chief criticisms of Giles may be summarized as follows: 1) Giles’ representation of Athanasius is inaccurate, at times verging on blatant deception; 2) Giles is wrong to deny the monarchy of the Father, i.e., the doctrine that God the Father specifically and alone and only is without a source for his hypostatic existence and is the source and cause of the Son and Spirit such that the relationships between the persons in the immanent Trinity are asymmetrical; 3) Giles’ articulation of the persons as distinct hypostases is inadequate—though it is not in itself heterodox, it is capable of being developed in many directions, most of them bad; 4) Giles’ understanding of the relationship between the immanent and the economic Trinity is woefully inadequate; 5) Giles’ theological categories per “subordination(ism)” are inept because they are far too vague, thus he continually misses the point; and 6) Giles’ interpreting the Trinity in light of political-social categories causes him to, quite often, miss the point. “

  • A.Stacy

    I wish I could double up vote this…^^^

    Could of not said it better.