Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? A series on a contemporary evangelical controversy

Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? A series on a contemporary evangelical controversy December 8, 2011

Is there hierarchy in the Trinity? Part 1

One of the many controversies among evangelical theologians and biblical scholars surrounds the question of the immanent Trinity, specifically whether there is within it an eternal hierarchy of authority with the Son being subordinate to the Father. In this particular controversy “subordinate” means with regard to authority. So the specific issue dividing evangelical theologians and biblical scholars is whether the Son (and I assume the Holy Spirit) exists eternally under the Father’s authority. (I will spell out the who’s and what’s of this controversy in future installments.)

So far as I know, nobody in this debate or elsewhere denies that the Son is subordinate to the Father in the economic Trinity. That is, nobody I know denies that in relation to salvation history the Son obeys the Father especially during his years as a Jewish man living in Palestine. The Gospel of John makes this clear as Jesus repeatedly mentions that he came to do the Father’s will and prays that the Father will restore him to the glory they shared before the world began (John 17).

It’s important then, when attempting to understand this debate among evangelicals, to understand the difference (or at least distinction) between the immanent and economic Trinities. They are not two Trinities but two aspects of the one Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There have been two periods in the history of Christian theology when this distinction has become the focus of much attention. One was the era of the Arian and Semi-Arian controversies of the 4th century and the other was and is the 20th century which, after Karl Barth’s resurrection of the doctrine of the Trinity, saw a renaissance of Trinitarian thought among Christians. That renaissance is continuing in the 21st century although I think it is now running into the ground with too much speculation about minutia.

The Cappadocian Fathers Basil, Gregory and Gregory were largely responsible for carving out the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities. They felt it was important to make and hold to such a distinction for the sake of God’s transcendence; they did not want the Trinity tied exclusively to history as happened in the several modalist movements that described Father, Son and Holy Spirit as modes or manifestations or even masks of God true only in God’s relationship with the world in salvation history. That is, to put it bluntly, the various modalist groups (especially but not only Sabelius and his followers) reduced Father, Son and Holy Spirit to mere masks God wears; they were not regarded as real, permanent, eternal distinctions within God.

Against the modalists, then, the Cappadocian Fathers underscored the very real, ontological distinctions (I avoid the English word “differences” to avoid implying that they fell into tritheism which they strenuously denied) within the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct hypostastes sharing equally one ousia (essence, substance, being). (Unfortunately, there is no good English translation of hypostasis; we usually translate it “person,” but that wrongly implies separateness of selfhood.) For the Cappadocian Fathers (and this became orthodox doctrine from then on as it became the way in which the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was interpreted in both the East and the West) there is an immanent, ontological, eternal Trinity. God did not become Trinitarian only in relation to creation and salvation history. And the three hypostases are not mere masks or manifestations or modes of one person; they are real centers of consciousness even if they are not in any way different.  So, essentially, the immanent Trinity is eternal distinction without difference of three persons (to use flawed English): God in himself (or themselves).

Between the 4th century and the 20th century much focus of Trinitarian thought came to bear on the immanent Trinity sometimes to the detriment of the economic Trinity (the three distinct persons acting for us within history). At least that was what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner feared as he propounded his “Rahner’s Rule:” “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” This “rule” became the focus of a great deal of attention and discussion as it was interpreted in different ways by, for example, Jurgen Moltmann (in many of his books but especially The Trinity and the Kingdom of God) and Walter Kasper (in, for example, his magisterial work The God of Jesus Christ). Rahner’s Rule became virtually an item of orthodoxy as a regulative principle to forbid dividing the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity as if we can actually know anything about the former apart from the latter.

(For further brief survey and summary of the history of Christian thought about the Trinity see my book The Trinity written with Christopher Hall and published by Eerdmans.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the Great Church as a whole (both East and West including the magisterial Protestant Reformers) believed in a hierarchy within the immanent Trinity. “Where the reality exists there must also be the corresponding possibility” (Barth). If in the economic Trinity we see (e.g., in John 14-17) a subordination of the Son to the Father there must also be subordination of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. The monarchy of the Father is clear in the Cappadocian Fathers and has always been taught by the Eastern churches. Moltmann is one contemporary theologian who has tried to soften this hierarchical notion of the Trinity by speculating about different patterns of relationships (including of authority) within the Godhead tied to the stages of the Kingdom of God in history. He emphasizes ways in which the Father is dependent on the Son and the Spirit which is true enough but does nothing to undo what the church fathers meant by hierarchy within the immanent Trinity.

So what did they mean? What did the Cappadocian Fathers and what does the Eastern Church (or churches) mean by the “monarchy of the Father?” And how did they/do they avoid Arianism or Semi-Arianism (heresies that deny the equality of the Son with the Father in terms of divinity)? That’s a very long and complicated story, of course, so I can only answer in a nutshell. By the “monarchy of the Father” the Cappadocian Fathers meant only that the Father is the source or “fount” of divinity within the Godhead; the Son and the Spirit derive their deity from the Father eternally (so there is no question of inequality of being). Their favorite analogy was the sun and its light and heat. There is no imagining the sun without its light and heat and yet it is the source of them. So the Son, who became Jesus Christ in the incarnation, is begotten of the Father from eternity (not in time) (the technical term is generated but it means the same) and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Western church added filioque—“and the Son). (I happen to think the filioque addition to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was a mistake and it should be undone or revised to say “through the Son” although that has its problems as well.) In brief, then (without going into all the ins and outs of the filioque controversy or even the debates about the generation and procession of the Son and the Spirit), the “monarchy of the Father” in traditional, orthodox doctrine means only that the Father is the eternal, ontological source, fount, origin of the Son and the Spirit. It has nothing to do with authority over which, if imported into the immanent Trinity, would imply a kind of subordinationism.

So why is it important to have a monarchy of the Father within the immanent Trinity? The Cappadocian Fathers argued it is necessary to preserve and protect the distinctiveness of the three hypostases. Some also argue it is necessary to preserve and protect the connection between the economic Trinity (in which there is clearly subordination) and the immanent Trinity.

Now, there are so many issues here that I can’t even begin to discuss them all! But it is absolutely crucial to understand this distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity before diving into the current evangelical controversy over the Trinity. My suspicion is that many evangelicals who write about the subject are not properly or carefully enough making this distinction. My theses going into this discussion are that 1) There is subordination of the Son and Spirit within the economic Trinity including in terms of authority over, and 2) The subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father within the immanent Trinity has only to do with source, fount, origin of the divinity of the Son and the Spirit which does not automatically include a hierarchy of authority (i.e., obedience to). And I will argue that we cannot claim to know very much about the immanent Trinity, so even that (thesis 2) is arguable so long as we do affirm the immanent Trinity. In sum and in brief, I will argue that it is possible (if not necessary) to believe in the “monarchy of the Father” even within the immanent Trinity without making the Son and Spirit subordinate to the Father in terms of authority (i.e., obedience).


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  • Kyle Carney

    Very excited about reading this. Thanks a breakdown of some important considerations.

  • Peter

    I am not a theologian, but have recently become aware of this issue and I might have a “feel” for the significance of it. So far so good. Thanks for taking the time to emphasize distinctions/terms/definitions. I think I’m getting it. Thank you.

  • owlafaye

    It pre-supposes the question. The Trinity was an added doctrine, written into the Bible.

    Just another conundrum for the foolishness that is Christianity.

    • rogereolson

      Huh? “An added doctrine” to what? To the Bible? When? By whom? This kind of lazy throw-away statement contributes nothing.

  • Ciprian Luca

    Excellent article! I’m looking forward to reading the next ones.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    You have mentioned on the blog previously that the “Trinity” is a defensive doctrine. In my own words: While it is not put forward bluntly as an article of faith in the Bible, because of all the other bluntly stated articles of faith there must be a Trinity. The further one extrapolates from the bluntly stated articles of faith, the less reliable the statements become.

    If in the economic Trinity we see (e.g., in John 14-17) a subordination of the Son to the Father there must also be subordination of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity.

    Here we see a slice of time (4 chapters – at most a week), and we are able to evaluate the relationships of the “distinctives” within the Trinity who have existed from eternity past? While there is no denying John 14-17, why must it be insisted upon for the relationship outside that which we are more familiar with? Seems like an instance of calling an “elephant” a “rope”.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, by “defensive doctrine” I don’t mean unimportant! But I agree that speculating about the intricacies of the inner-trinitarian relations is a waste of time and effort. All we really need to believe is that God did not “become” Trinity with creation. The immanent Trinity, then, is a limiting doctrine–one that places a limit on the relation between God and the world to prevent God from being dissolved in history (a la Hegel or process theology).

  • Thank you because all of this has ramifications for biblical gender issues and translates well into debates over the word kephale. This is all very helpful and clear.

  • The word “subordinate” is not only imprisoned by the human understanding, it also indicate how the fallen nature must emjbrace some form of hierarchy. We do not, we cannot, understand the trinitarian contruct, especially where it concerns some authoritarian division of the triune God. We cannot even define the Trinity, much less accurately separate the levels of authority.

    The word “Father” is an attempt to accomodate the limited human understanding. If we fully embrace the ramifications of the word “Son”, we are left with Mormonism. But the searching of the divine contruct we call the “Trinity” is a journey without an end this side of heaven.

    In fasct, leaving aside the divinity of Christ, the concept of the Trinity is above our intellect and usually serves to incite doctrinal arguments. Jesus was God in the flesh. All the other arguments are only distractions.

    Before we discuss “hierarchy” first let us define the Trinity. Afetr two thousand years we are still waiting.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I don’t think so. The basics of the doctrine of the Trinity are clear and we should stick by them (viz., God is one divine being, one God, one substance, shared equally by three hypostases, “persons,” subsistences). Put less formally, TRIUNE: Three recognized as God (in scripture), Regarded as distinct persons (because of scripture), Immanent and eternal, not merely economic and temporal (because otherwise God “became” triune with creation), United in essence (because scripture says “one God”), No inequality (because Jesus said “the Father and I are one” and “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father”) and, finally, Explains other doctrines but is itself inscrutable.

  • edi

    First of all, we all have to be aware of the fact that we know extremely little of and about God and the Trinity. You probably know Augustine’s parable with the child on the seashore that was playing with a shell and the Lord told him, if you could fill the shell with the sea, then you can understand the Trinity. So, we must be very humble in this respect. We have to deal with the fact that NOBODY is or was an expert in this subject. All we can do is struggle with a few sparse references that are probably the minimum basic for us to know who is God, whom we relate to.
    Considering these facts, let me add that I don’t want to enter any kind of polemic in this matter, because that will mean that someone pretends to be an expert, which as I mentioned is simply not true.
    But, just to share my ideas from what I understood from Scripture and studied in the theological institute. I really don’t understand (because it’s not defined properly) what is an economic Trinity? I have never come across such a term. Well, my opinion stands apart in this respect. And speaking of the immanence of GOd, why didn’t you mention anything about His transcendence also? I believe if you try to distinguish between the members of the Trinity you run the risk either of semi- or full arianism or of polytheism. No argument can protect you from that. If the members of the Trinity are also different (the first time I hear this in an evangelical medium) then it results in sheer polytheism. In the interfaith dialogue with Muslims they accuse us (unfairly) of polytheism anyway, but we could explain that the three are actually one entity. But if you say the Son and HS have originated in the Father, this makes them creatures, not creators, which is denied by the whole Scripture (Gen 1, John 1, etc). The term ‘monarchy of the Father’ is at least suspect and reveals lack of understanding of spiritual beings that are co-divine. If they are co-divine, how can there be someone above that – but that is a hint of Catholic thinking, since the pope was higher than co-equal bishops, that’s how it all started….. My personal opinion is that within the Trinity there is perfect equality. There is an interesting study across the Bible that shows that the whole Trinity was involved in all important events of history. The only difference among them is of ROLES, which sometimes (because of limited human speech) gives the impression of authority. The time LOrd Jesus was on earth is a separate discussion. Why? Because His coming on earth implied several changes – first of all, He had to renounce for the 33 years of his earthly life His divine attributes. He had to provide a credible model of what Adam should have been, had he not fallen. If Jesus would have kept at least some of His attributes, for His omnipresence was impossible in a human body anyway, then everybody would have denied his life as a model. Anyone could have said, ok, you resisted the devil in Matt 4, that happened because you were also divine (having divine attributes), so that is not possible for us, humans. Everything would have been a scandalous sham, including His death and resurrection. But, he was deprived of all these, so that he could show humans how they should behave and depend on God. That of course, gave the impression of subordination. But even subordination is ok, but I think we understand it in a wrong way, because of our earthly nature. I think all three persons of the Trinity are love. In order to show love you promote another not yourself. Jesus promoted the Father, but then (see Philippians 2 and Hebrews), the Father promoted Jesus – He was given ALL authority in heaven and on earth. He was called The Lord of lords and the King of kings’ – so who is the monarchic figure here? The Father (Gsp of John) gave all the judgment to the Son. In Hebrews it says that ALL things are submitted to Him and nothing is not outside His authority (there is a comment of the author). And everything is done and implemented by the Holy Spirit. So, there is a harmony that we humans cannot imagine, we are guided by our egotistic principles.
    Anyway, that was just an opinion. Thank you and God bless you. I realise I know nothing about the subject and none of us. We can’t even get out of our stereotypes and prejudice about some terms.

    • rogereolson

      “Immanent” in “immanent Trinity” DOES refer to the transcendence of God. You can’t simply transfer “immanence” (as in counterpoint to transcendence) into this subject of the ontological Trinity. I would have thought the context (where I mention “eternal” and “ontological” Trinity as synonyms for “immanent” Trinity) would have cleared this up. I explained that “immanent Trinity” is a limiting concept–delimiting the relationship between God and creation such that God’s being trinitarian is not dependent on the world (transcendence).

  • God is a spirit.
    Define spirit.

    • rogereolson

      You define spirit.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      I define “spirit” to be this: both alive and non-material.

      Is that too simplistic?

      • rogereolson

        That’s a good starting point. Of course, when scripture says “God is spirit” I assume it means more than that.

  • James Petticrew

    Has anyone done any research into how culture has influenced theologians concept of the relationships within the immanent Trinity?

    • rogereolson

      Yes. Much speculation has been devoted to how neo-Platonism, for example, influenced Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers in their thinking about the monarchy of the Father.

  • David Hess


    As a student of Early Christianity, I’ll have to say I appreciate the way your theology is informed by the faith of the Ante-Nicene Church. I can’t say that about too many Protestants.


    • rogereolson

      Please don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t agree with everything I read in Irenaeus (although I find very little to disagree with in Against Heresies), Origen (especially him!), Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, etc. (I realize the latter are not strictly “Ante-Nicene,” unless one counts the Council of Constantinople as the real turning point from Ante-Nicene to post-Nicene.) You’re right, though, that I highly respect what they had to say about the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity.

      • David Hess

        Actually, I’ve read all three posts now and I was hoping that you would be quoting Origen on this very topic. You seemed to make reference to him because he spoke about the subordination of the Son to the Father within the Trinity as regards to origin/source. I also see how Arians could take some of his quotes in isolation and make him sound Arian at times. This discussion has been helpful for my thinking personally. Thanks.

  • Very nice! Btw, here is a nice quote by that profound Russian Orthodox, Fr. Serguis Bulgakov:

    “The dogma of consubstantiality, which safeguards the unity of the Holy Trinity, thus remains a sealed book so far as we are concerned – for in a religious sense it has neither assimilated nor unfolded.” (Sophia the Wisdom of God, page 25)

  • David Hess

    Actually, I’ve read all three posts now and I was hoping that you would be quoting Origen on this very topic. You seemed to make reference to him because he spoke about the subordination of the Son to the Father within the Trinity as regards to origin/source. I also see how Arians could take some of his quotes in isolation and make him sound Arian at times. This discussion has been helpful for my thinking personally. Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      Origen was largely responsible for Arianism as he was extremely unclear, even ambiguous (ambivalent, too?) about the status of the Logos vis-a-vis the Father. But he did teach the eternal nature of the Logos even as he subordinated him to the Father.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Roger: “Much speculation has been devoted to how neo-Platonism, for example, influenced Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers in their thinking about the monarchy of the Father.”

    Isn’t “speculation” endemic within the whole development of our creedally crystallized conceptions, reconceptualizations, and ongoing discussions regarding “trinitarian” relationships?

    Scripture seems long ago to have become a mere launching pad for our intellectual extrapolations: interesting, entertaining, humanly gratifying, but spiritually vacuous expeditions into realms and realities regarding which we have virtually not a clue. If God had given us clarity through special revelation we wouldn’t have to think our re-conceptualizing of God in the image of our imaginings is so special.

    • rogereolson

      The speculation I referred to was not about the Trinity but about the influence of neo-Platonism on the early church fathers.

  • No one can define spirit. But we seem all too confindent in clearly defining God as triune, even to debating things that have scant if any Scriptural dealing. All of the personifications of God including the numerous anthropomorphic revelations are meant to afford us understanding on our level.

    And this was always especially shocking in its misrepresentation and its obvious attempt to soothe our intellectual conscience:

    Trinity is like an egg. Three parts and all that jazz. That’s like taking the Taj Mahal and representing it with lego blocks and demanding everyone embrace your lego structure or else!

    • rogereolson

      If my Lego structure looks more like the Taj Mahal than everyone else’s I will insist they accept it! 🙂

  • Abell

    Dear Roger,
    I read your post of 8th December 2011 and was , quite frankly, shocked.!
    I would suggest that you have been ‘staring at’ the Trinitarian Doctrine for so long that you have ceased to exercise your critical faculty. Perhaps you are just ‘seeing what you want to see”?
    I’ll take your closing comments to this post as an example.
    “… No inequality because Jesus said “I and the Father are one” and “If you have seen me you have seen the Father”

    The Greek word used used to denote ‘one’ in John 10v30 is “ev”
    The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 3 v8
    “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose(ev)”

    And again in Phillipians 2v2
    “united in spirit with a single purpose(ev)”

    You quote “if you have seen me you have seen the Father’
    The Book of Acts clearly depicts Christ in an ‘agential’ way- as Gods ‘right hand man’.
    If you received a visit from Mr. Smith of Coca Cola Corporation today, you might tell your superior ” I saw Coca Cola today”. Mr. Smith is merely the sales rep.
    so you might not mention his name.
    Rogar, there are NO trinitarian ‘proof verses’ – and neither you or anyone else I have studied have any idea what you are talking about!
    The Trinity is NOT in the scriptures and no attempts at ‘shoe-horning’ it will do.

    I sense the frustration in “Owlafaye”(above) and it is felt by a great many people modern people. Trinitarians are asking intelligent people to believe something which is incomprehensible – and then telling them that salvation depends on their acceptance!
    Time for a new Reformation!!
    God Bless

    • rogereolson

      The Trinity may be incomprehensible, but the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t. Nobody has said here that belief in the Trinity is necessary for salvation. So I don’t know what you’re reacting to. Apparently you’ve been reading something into my posts or some comments responding to them. My theology is thoroughly trinitarian and that’s a settled issue for me. I’m that it apparently isn’t for you. Simply said, if you don’t believe in the Trinity we are believing in different Gods (my God and your god). I’m not going to get into a debate with you here about the Trinity. All I can say is–go read the one of the many wonderful books explaining it and defending it scripturally. I wish you the best and hope you see the light.

  • 🙂 And therein lies the rub. No one has seen the Taj Mahal (God) and only constucts his legos (doctrine) with reports about it. There will come a day when we “see Him as He is”, but until then – legos.

    And Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Spirit is God. How that all operates or an earthly understanding of the divine essence is above my theological pay grade. Any sincere stab at it has value unless it is incongruent with Scripture, but they are all sincere guesses. Of course my legos seem much more attractive than all others!

    • rogereolson

      Just because a doctrine is a model doesn’t mean it is totally unlike the reality it is a model of. Without special revelation and especially Jesus Christ we would be mostly (if not totally) in the dark about God, but as we do have special revelation including Jesus Christ, we are no longer mostly in the dark about God. Sure, there are things we cannot know about God, but whatever they are they can’t conflict with what God has told us about himself (or shown us about himself) in his Son and written Word. Who am I arguing with here and what is our common ground? I begin to suspect we have very little, but it’s hard to tell. These are my bedrock presuppositions. If you don’t share them, well, then we really don’t have very much to talk about.

  • I probably share all of them, including a desire towrd piety and deep worship. My point is only that the doctrine of the Trinity, which I believe, is dealt with very thinly in Scripture and veiled in statements which barely scratch the surface. (I and the Father are one) What does that mean?

    Jesus is God in the flesh. That, to me, is the maypole around which we must dance. (I do appreciate the interaction and having a blog of my own I pray you resist the frustration that I have sometimes felt with commenters. 🙂 )

    • rogereolson

      Earlier here I argued (in a post some months ago) that the doctrine of the Trinity is a defensive doctrine and not part of the gospel (a la Brunner). I believe the incarnation is part of the gospel. However, I cannot understand how anyone can read and correctly interpret scripture and not come up with the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems to me any denial of the Trinity has to overlook much of scripture.

      • I agree. But the Scriptures imply the Trinity rather than openly teach it a la justification by faith.

  • Trinitarian view of God

    Would Jesus be subordinate to the Father so much so that he would call his Father “God”.

    Or how can we understand “My God my God why have you forsaken me”

    • rogereolson

      Are you talking about the immanent Trinity or the economic Trinity? I don’t know anyone who denies that Jesus was subordinate to the Father in the economic Trinity.