The Trinity in Gender Debates

The Trinity in Gender Debates October 30, 2012

Trinity and Gender Roles: A Nice and Hot Dispute

The evangelical debate about gender roles may seem like an unlikely venue for hashing out trinitarian theology, but that is what has been going on in the last few years. Everybody knows that evangelical complementarians and evangelical egalitarians have competing views of the relationship between men and women in the family, the church, and society.

But now there is a substantial literature that connects these two views to the doctrine of the Trinity. Some complementarians argue that just as the Father has headship over the Son in the eternal Trinity, so husbands have headship over wives in human society. Some egalitarians counter that this is heresy, and that the immanent Trinity is really a community of equality that our societies should emulate. That exchange seems straightforward enough, but it has generated a very complex literature. The best introduction is the collection The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son (Wipf & Stock, 2012). The editors (Dennis Jowers and Wayne House) have done a great job gathering a large number of the most important essays in the debate, surveying the territory in 440 pages. But it’s just not a literature that most trinitarian theologians will want to engage. Too much of the writing in this field has taken the form of each side accusing the other of imposing ideological controversy on the doctrine of God. One egalitarian opens his essay by expressing shock that “opponents of biblical equality have become so enamored with the idea of subordination that they want to make it part of God.” Too many participants in this discussion reach for the biggest sticks available when disagreeing with each other: this conversation has been filled with charges of heresy (even Arianism!), idolatry, ideological projection, “hermeneutical bungee-jumping” (whatever that may be), “tampering with the Trinity,”and of trading Christian orthodoxy for “the split-level stratifications of a pagan pantheon.” Craig Keener has shrewdly observed that terms like these ought to be “reserved for sects that genuinely subvert biblical Christology such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.” If we use these terms on fellow evangelical Christians, what terms will we have left to point out actual heresy?

The evangelical gender debates are largely a two-party system. Each side has its advocacy organization: the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Christians for Biblical Equality, respectively. Each side pursues and promotes its program across a broad front of issues: exegetical, cultural, ecclesial, historical, and theological. The issues they are devoted to are important. In what I am about to say, it is not my intention to hover above the fray, pronounce a pox on both their houses, or shake my head about the “darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night.” My own convictions on most of the relevant issues are complementarian. But I am complementarian for utterly predictable, exegetical, non-trinitarian reasons.

So when gender warriors on either side appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity, I don’t expect much light, though there’s always plenty of heat. A particularly unfruitful line of inquiry is the question, “what did the church fathers say about this?” Pursuing that question can lead to very long but irrelevant florilegia: endless quotations of classic theologians talking about something else, presented as if they are talking about Trinity and gender. They almost never were.

“Whose side are you on?” is an inappropriate question for most of the trinitarian theologians from the history of the church, and (though no one has been cheeky enough to hazard this question) it’s even more inappropriate question for the Trinity, for God.  When Joshua was confronted by a mysterious man with a sword in his hand, he asked the obtuse question, “Are you on our side, or our enemies?”  The response was: “Neither.  I have come as the captain of the hosts of the Lord.”  Whatever else it may be, that is at least an interesting answer, especially when delivered by a stranger with a drawn sword. It is certainly more interesting than the partisan question, “whose side are you on?”  The doctrine of the Trinity is more interesting than the recent question, and is worth thinking about for its own sake rather than for its relevance to gender hierarchy.

Two Different Doctrines

Contrary to a widespread presupposition, it is not at all self-evident that a theology of the Trinity and a theology of human community should be doctrines that impinge on each other. These are two doctrinal tracts which are widely separated from each other in a total theological system, and which must be doctrinally articulated according to very different internal logics.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the highest point of the doctrine of God, occupying a place anterior to all of the perfections of the divine nature, so that none of the divine attributes are to be parceled out among the Trinity nor described in a merely unitarian way without reference to the Father, Son, and Spirit. It is critical that nothing in the doctrine of God be allowed to creep in behind or before or above God’s triunity.  Furthermore, the doctrine of the Trinity functions to identify the particular God who is the referent of all Christian God-language, answering the question “which God” or “God who?” with a systematized form of the Biblical response: God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the God who raised Jesus from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit.  Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity has the two poles of the economic involvement of the Son and Spirit in the history of salvation, and the eternal immanent Trinity, and confessing God’s triune being and act in these two ways can doctrinally secure respectively the divine self-giving on the one hand and the divine freedom on the other. God gives himself to us in the Father’s sending of the Son and Spirit, and the Trinity would have been the Trinity if the Son and Spirit had not been sent, if the world had not been created, if there had never been anything but God in three persons. This, in broad outline, is the doctrine of the Trinity as it is systematically located.

A theological account of gender relations, on the other hand, is properly situated far away from the doctrine of the Trinity, across the great divide that distinguishes God from everything else. It is located within the doctrine of creation, within the territory of theological anthropology, and is a doctrine which must provide explanatory value for our daily experience of the empirical fact of being human. Theological anthropology is necessarily involved in the drama of good creation, disastrous fall, free reconciliation in Christ, and eschatological fulfillment. The doctrine of humanity has to be constructed in a way that makes logical sense out of a narrative sequence: good creation and bad fall are events that must be recognized in human dignity and human misery, in our indissoluble relation to our creator, and in our alienation from right relation to him. God the Trinity is also involved in a story, in fact the same story, and the doctrine of the Trinity must be constructed from this economic story, but unlike man, God is the sovereign Lord of his own story.  Therefore, the narrative identification that shapes the doctrine of God is not constitutive of the being of God in the way that the human narrative constitutes human being. Though the doctrine of the Trinity is widely confessed to be a mystery, a theological account of human gender must grapple with its own mystery, seeking to make sense of humanity’s puzzling existence in these two basic forms of male and female.

All of this is just to say that these are two different doctrines which, if they are to be connected, stand in need of considerable connecting work. In terms of the traditional ancient creeds, one of these doctrines is too big to be a single element of creedal confession: the Apostles Creed does not say concisely, “I believe in the Trinity,” but more expansively, is structured by an overarching confession of faith in the Father, then the Son, and then the Holy Spirit. The creed is structurally and substantively trinitarian, but the doctrine itself is too large and comprehensive for inclusion in the list of things believed. The doctrine of human gender, on the other hand, is too small to make it into the creed. In fact, the creeds bypass theological anthropology and the doctrine of sin altogether in their rush from creation, which they differentiate into the hierarchy of “heaven and earth” or “all things visible and invisible,” to the surprising incarnation of the Son of God “for us and our salvation.”  The Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds could be reverently faulted for bad storytelling in that they introduce the solution before they have set up the problem. The Trinity is too big for the creed, and theological anthropology is too small. These doctrines are palpably different; they are not just different doctrines, but even different kinds of doctrines.

An Image Below of a Reality Above

The answer that has loomed largest in the history of theology is that they can be related through the doctrine of the image of God.  That is almost certainly right, but when we do the work of filling out the notion of the “image of God” from biblical and theological argument, we discover that instead of this being a direct and self-evident route from Trinity to human community, it is instead a doctrinal complex of its own, following its own logic and therefore functioning not as a direct leap between God and man but an indirect one, involving a long and fascinating detour. However, when the doctrine of the image of God is misconstrued as a direct line from God to human community, it becomes a very abstract appeal. It is an appeal of this sort: Divine and human community are related to each other by imaging: ontologically speaking by reflection, or ethically speaking by imitation. “As above, so below” is the nature of the appeal, and when applied as an abstract principle, it has a mythological structure. It explains the seen in terms of the unseen.

It is the doctrine of God in general, but the doctrine of the Trinity in particular, which has suffered a great deal from a direct appeal to an imaging relationship between divine and human community. Theologians who start with the assumption that the Trinity has an image and that we can identify it in a created structure are constantly running the risk of unchecked projection.  Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity could be adduced here, or the tradition flowing from him of identifying the image of the Trinity in the mental processes of remembering, knowing, and loving: one mind present to itself in three ways, neither dividing the substance nor confusing the “persons.” But theologians like Augustine and Aquinas are doing so many things at once that it is not clarifying to use their work to make the narrow point I am trying to make here about the way an imaging structure (“as above, so below”) exposes us to the danger of projecting human traits onto God. Here are a few examples from recent years:  Theologians have appealed to the image of the Trinity to support their visions of social, political, and economic order. Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff has elaborated in his book Holy Trinity, Perfect Society a social vision of equality and mutuality which he explicitly grounds in the free, equal, and mutual community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Less well known is the work of Michael Novak, who briefly suggests that the dialectic of unity and plurality in God’s triune being shows in a dim and distant way the adumbrations of “a political economy differentiated and yet one” or, in short, that is, democratic capitalism. Boff and Novak famously operate with different socioeconomic visions, and when one of them looks into the mystery of God he sees socialism, while the other peers into the same mystery and perceives a free market. Perhaps the mystery is serving as a mirror. How would we know? If one is wrong and the other right, how would we make that judgment? What are the controls and limits that we should urge on these two thinkers who have found mutually contradictory images of the Trinity?

A particularly telling version of this problem in recent decades was the attempt to illumine the doctrine of the church using the doctrine of the Trinity. Just a bare outline of the story is relevant here: a major Roman Catholic theologian argued that the Trinity was structured in a way that was analogous to the primacy of the Pope among the bishops throughout the world. A major Eastern Orthodox theologian re-described the Trinity as more nearly analogous to a perfect communion of autocephalous centers. Finally, a free church theologian blew the whistle on both of them, and instead proposed that the Trinity has a lot more in common with the principles of free association. Looking over this whole conversation, another theologian (Anne Hunt) wrote,

one cannot but observe that the conclusions reached bear a close correspondence to the particular ecclesial tradition or understanding from which each interlocutor in our survey comes to the question.  … I personally find it troubling to see how trinitarian theology can be invoked in support of such diverse positions and conclusions. At very least, this surely offers a salutary reminder that we should be very wary of any appropriation of God language in support of our structures and systems, be they ecclesial, political or social…. And they all do it with the best of intentions, I do not doubt that.  But the diversity of conclusions is surely indicative that the mystery of the Trinity is not the determining factor in their ecclesiologies.

To point this out is not to accuse the participants of bad motives, or even to claim to understand them better than they understand themselves. Hunt’s point stands on the strength of her observation about the sheer “diversity of conclusions.”

No Protection from Self-Projection

Socialists peer into the Trinity and discern socialism; capitalists capitalism; Catholics see hierarchy; the Orthodox see intercommunion among equals; Baptists see Baptists; egalitarians see only equality, and complementarians see complentarianism.  When we use the image-of-the-Trinity strategy, we tend to find what we want to find. Furthermore, there is a notably arbitrary character to which of our convictions and values we decide to locate in the Trinity. Why do we find authority structures but not threeness? Why do we not find relations of origin? What serves as the criterion, or lets us know whether the human thing we admire is properly to be understood as a point of similarity with God or a point of difference? Perichoresis, for example, the mutual indwelling in which the persons of the Trinity have their being in each other constitutively, is frequently appealed to as a wonderful instance of interpersonal unity which either shows us how human personhood is socially constituted, or as a model which we ought to strive for. But perichoresis, it seems to me, ought to name the difference between the unity of God and any created unity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one with a unity more absolute than any we encounter among created phenomena, they are one with a category-bursting unity of mutual insideness which cannot be captured on a venn diagram. When Jesus prays “let them be one, as we are one,” to interpret this as meaning that perichoretic unity should characterize the church is a serious misunderstanding.

I hope it is obvious how this relates to the conflicting visions of a theology of gender relations in evangelicalism. Both sides seem open to the charge of having looked into the Trinity and found their own image looking back. The complementarians have been the most explicit about the normative character of the imaging: the wife should submit to the husband as the eternal son submits to the eternal father. If you want the string of quotations documenting this argument, check into Kevin Giles’ first two books on the subject, as he traces what he calls the Knight-Grudem-Ware view.

But the egalitarian depiction of the inner life of God always sounds suspiciously like a thriving, vibrant, egalitarian community. Take these phrases from the recent “Evangelical Statement on the Trinity” written and promoted by Christians for Biblical Equality:

God exercises perfect cooperative relationships. … God models perfect love, respect, cooperation. … God exemplifies a unity in diversity that we should emulate between the genders and practice in the global, multicultural, mutual submission and respectful cooperation of all humans…. Deference within the Trinity is mutual….All mutually honor and defer to one another.

It seems to me that while some complementarians have been boldest about directly connecting inner-trinitarian structure to human power relations, some egalitarians have been most uncritical in allowing their assumptions about power to dictate the plausibility structure of what simply must be the case. In both cases, we are trapped in a hall of mirrors. You may pretend to model your social vision on what you already know about God, but as your opponents will gladly point out, you are really more likely to be modeling your notions about God’s inner life in the image of your vision of a just social order.

The Economic Trinity is the Image of the Immanent Trinity

How is it that such a reversal has come about? Who will deliver us from the bondage of this death by anthropological projection?  Thanks be to God: he has made a way. Trinitarian theology can avoid the dangers of projection by eschewing any direct appeal to a created phenomenon as the direct image of the immanent Trinity. If the immanent Trinity can be visualized, it is because it has provided for us an image of itself. The immanent Trinity, God’s eternal existence as Father, Son, and Spirit, has been made known in the economy of salvation. The eternal Son condescended to become the incarnate Son, and the eternal Spirit has been poured out on all flesh by the Father on the basis of the finished work of the Son. The special personal presence of the Son and Spirit in the history of salvation, that is, the economic Trinity, is the one exclusive foundational image of the immanent Trinity. Whoever sees the Son has seen the Father, because the incarnate Son lives out among us a life of identical filial response as the eternal life of filial response he lives with the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit above all worlds. There as here, the Son is the Son. As George MacDonald poetically puts it, “When he died on the cross, He did that, in the wild weather of his outlying provinces, in the torture of the body of His revelation, which he had done at home in glory and gladness.” God is not different in our midst from how God is in the eternal divine life. The immanent Trinity has its own proper image in its own proper gracious presence in the history of salvation.  It is the economic Trinity which is the image of the immanent Trinity.

There is a relative independence of these two regions of doctrine (Trinity and gender), but there is also a relationship between the immanent Trinity and all manner of human social structures, including the structure of male-female relations in family and church.  That relationship is not direct and is not an image. It is the salvation-historical reality established by the direct personal presence of the Son and the Spirit in the economy of redemption. The economic Trinity, and only the economic Trinity, is the image of the immanent Trinity. This exclusivity cuts in two directions: No other image of the Trinity is admissible as a source of revelation or a basis for theological constructions. The psychological analogy of the Trinity, structures of community life, and hierarchical or non-hierarchical organizations of human relations need not apply. They may have continued relevance as an illustration or an apologetic gambit or a pedagogical aid, but they cannot be used to generate theological accounts of the Trinity. The image of the Trinity is not the human soul or the human family; the only image of the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity. To elucidate God’s triunity in itself, theology should not turn anywhere but to the economy of salvation.

The exclusivity of the economic image also cuts in another direction, calling into question the idea of imitating the Trinity and undercutting the many current projects which proffer the immanent Trinity as a model society which human societies should imitate. These projects presuppose that Christian social ethics should emerge from transforming our common lives into a kind of image of the immanent Trinity. The immanent Trinity, however, already has an image: the economic Trinity. It is the economic Trinity which should serve as the model of any mimetic ethic we might undertake. Rather than arguing that people should get along peacefully because the Trinity gets along peacefully, we should latch on to the momentum released by the economic Trinity’s forward thrust into the coming kingdom of God. God does not rule the world through a formal principle like “As above, so below.” He rules the world as his kingdom comes to earth, as it is in heaven, brought by the eternal Son who makes one identical movement of filial response to the Father, on earth as in heaven.

The Son on Earth as He is in Heaven

And that brings me to the place where I can make my best stab at a statement about the relationship between the eternal son and the eternal father. Is it egalitarian or is it complementarian? No. It’s weirder than that. It turns on the eternal generation of the Son, a relationship in which the Son exists as always being from the Father, but in complete equality. Eternal generation is something in God that there is nothing like in created reality. Within the life of God, there is –another strange formula here– an internal procession; that is, a going forth that remains immanent within the agent. This eternal relation of fromness is the order in which Father and Son exist, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The Father is at one end of the relation, as the one from whom, and the Son is at the other end of the relation, as the one from.

Kevin Giles has recently written a book about eternal generation, and it is surely a doctrine that needs to be revived among contemporary theologians. But neither he nor the other egalitarians who have become interested in the Trinity have drawn what are, in my view, the right conclusions from the doctrine of eternal generation. This eternal relationship shows that Father and Son are in positions of priority and posteriority; there is some ordering in which Father is first and Son is second. I would not call this subordination, but I would confess that it shows an ordered priority and posteriority in the life of the living God. The Father and Son can tell each other apart. Trinitarian theology under the pressure of prior egalitarian commitments is in constant danger of ignoring this.

What else can we say about this eternal Fatherhood and Sonship? I do not think we should describe it as a relationship of authority, in which one commands and the other obeys. Why not? For two reasons, both having to do with the analogical way we have to make claims about the essence of God. First, I do not think the persons of the Trinity are three distinct centers of consciousness, each with its own faculties of knowing and willing, its own mental contents and perspectives. That is, I am not a social trinitarian in the modern sense of the term, and cannot place Father and Son over against each other as negotiating between themselves the claims of their independent wills within the unity of the one God. Secondly, I think that what we see here in the history of salvation –the Son obeying the command of the Father– is a true representation of what occurs between the Father and Son in the immanent Trinity, but it is a representation under certain specific conditions: conditions of incarnation and redemption. What passes between them in their eternal life together is something high and exalted, something we probably do not have a name for. What the Lord Jesus lives out, there in the being of God, is eternal sonship, sovereign filiality, perfect fromness. When it takes on flesh and dwells among us, that sonship is expressed in the form of obedience. But “obedience to a command” is not a worthy name for it as it exists on high.

Austin Farrer, in a 1961 sermon on the incarnation, pressed this case magnificently. “What was expressed in human terms here below was not bare deity,” he said; “it was divine sonship.”

The divine Son can make an identical response to his Father, whether in the love of the blessed Trinity or in the fulfilment of an earthly ministry. All the conditions of action are different on the two levels; the filial response is one.  Above, the appropriate response is a co‑operation in sovereignty and an interchange of eternal joys. Then the Son gives back to the Father all that the Father is. Below, in the incarnate life, the appropriate response is an obedience to inspiration, a waiting for direction, an acceptance of suffering, a rectitude of choice, a resistance to temptation, a willingness to die. For such things are the stuff of our existence; and it was in this very stuff that Christ worked out the theme of heavenly sonship, proving himself on earth the very thing he was in heaven; that is, a continuous perfect act of filial love.

The Son is the Son; the eternal Son is the incarnate Son. The principle here for trinitarian theology is not the mirroring structure of “as above, so below,” but the dominical accomplishment, “on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught us to pray in that manner, to his father and ours, because he is in person the Son on earth as he is in heaven. This is what trinitarianism under the distorting influence of the debate about gender roles is in danger of obscuring.


This post is a revised version of remarks I made at a public discussion with Kevin Giles at Biola last week (Oct 26, 2012), at the invitation of Ron Pierce and his “Theology of Gender” class. Those remarks in turn incorporated some comments from a 2006 ETS paper, also delivered in dialogue with Dr. Giles. It seems every couple of years this issue is raised again, and I’m never happy enough with the way the discussion is framed, or with the aptness of my remarks, to publish them. But with the Jowers & House volume now in print, and with Kevin in town for a public conversation, it seemed appropriate to go ahead and state my views in case they are helpful for a wider audience.

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