Thursday, January 25, 2007

Trinity, Gender and Evangelicals

Over at RNS, I found this news report:

Scholars Debate Who Comes First in Holy Trinity
By Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON -- The Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- has been a source of debate for centuries among theologians. The issue of the proper roles for men and women, a comparatively newer fight, has been brewing especially strong in the last two decades among evangelical Christians. Now the two arguments have merged into one, as some scholars link their belief in a Bible-approved submission of women to men to a belief that the Bible indicates that Jesus is eternally subordinate to God. The otherwise esoteric theological discussion among certain evangelical scholars recently went public.


At the ETS Conference in Washington D.C. last November year there was a whole session devoted to this topic with speakers including Millard Erickson, Bruce Ware, Kevin Giles and the ever-present and ever-prosaic Michael Bird.

My paper was basically a response to some recent discussions on the topic (principally Kevin Giles) and trying to find a way forward. In sum:

(1) I do not see a problem with the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father as long as the Son has ontological equality with the Father - that means we are not dealing with Arianism. Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the word "subordination" because it carries Arian overtones and I prefer to speak, with Pannerberg, of the Son's obedient self-distinction from the Father.

(2) There are texts that do speak of the Son's subordination quite clearly and yet they never cast aspersions on his deity, e.g. John 5.18 and 1 Cor. 11.1-3, 15.28.

(3) I am altogether suspicious of the fact that, generally speaking, egalitarians are non-subordinationists and, generally speaking, complementarians are subordinationists. That is too neat! I tend to think that prior theological commitments are either determining or obscuring this debate about intra-Trinitarian relations.

(4) The application of Trinitarian relationships to bolster a view about human relationships is needless and counter-productive. Unless your marriage consists of three persons (two of which are male) then the application of Trinitarian relationships to male-female relationships is going to break down at some point. What the Trinitarian model does demonstrate is that you can have subordination of rank with ontological equality in a mutual relationship of persons. What it does not demonstrate is that rank must be determined by gender! What is more, it may even be possible to construct an egalitarian argument from the Trinity (as I think Stan Grenz does) even with the Son's eternal functional subordination. Just as the Father gives authority to the Son to do his works, why cannot the husband give his authority to his wife to do his works (preach and teach)? My point is not to argue for or against any view of gender and ministry; my point is that it is fruitless to use the Trinity to settle questions related to gender relationships and I call for a moratorium on such arguments.

(5) Now you might understand why my paper achieved the impossible; that was invoke the ire of both egalitarians and complementarians - who knows, maybe that was a good thing.

I hope, with Ben Myers help, to articulate these ideas further in a joint publication.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Regarding point 2, I'm not sure those texts have eternal functional subordination in mind - could you elaborate a little more on where (or how) you think scripture speaks to that? Cheers.

Volker said...

Hi Michael,

you say that it is not helpful to bring in the Trinity on the issue of gender relations. But is that not what Paul is doing here?

1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.

Would it be possible to have a look at your paper?

Michael F. Bird said...

I would say, first, Phil. 2.6-11 does not necessitate a temporal subordination; second, Rahner's rule would imply continuity between the Son's subordinate relationship to the Father in the incarnation with his pre-existent relationship to the Father in eternity past; third, 1 Cor 15.24, 28 implies eschatological subordination in the future; and fourth, if the Son is not eternally subordinate in function then the rationale for the incarnation of the Son (why not the paraclete) becomes arbitrary.


First, Paul draws analogies between man-Christ, woman-man, Christ-God for the purpose of commanding men AND women to honour their respective heads. Second, Paul is not arguing for a chain of command (God – Christ – Man – Woman) and he does not say that man is the head of woman BECAUSE God is the head of Christ! Third, following Judith Gundry-Volf, there is indeed a hierarchy of relations in the various couplets, but one that must also be understood in light of a gospel eschatology that affirms mutuality, reciprocity and the value of the “other” in the relationships that characterize the new creation.

Anonymous said...

mmm well done Mike.. Judith Gundry-Volk's statement allows a true complimentariansism, supplimentariainism maybe... :)
I agree with you in the issue of a an eternal subordinationism in the Trinity, yet a true ontological equality.. do you notice that the idea of a purely funcional trinity is again on the rise among some preachers (emergents) and scholars who profess to be evangelical but clearly aren't?

Michael W. Kruse said...

Concerning 1 Cor. 15, Augustine from "On the Trinity:"

“Neither may we think that Christ shall so give up the Kingdom of God, even the Father, as that He shall take it away from Himself. For some vain talkers have thought even this. For when it is said ‘He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father,’ He Himself is not excluded; because He is one God together with the Father.”

Second Helvetic Confession, written in 1566:

“We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that their is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the Son and Holy Spirit were the affections and properties of one God the Father, as the Monarchians, Novatians, Praxeas, Patripassians, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Aetius, Macedonius, Anthropomorphites, Arius, and such like, have thought." (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 2, Heresies.)

I agree with your concern about the use of the word "subordination." There are three are distinct persons operating of one mind and will. I would need some serious convincing that one person of the Trinity can be both subordinate and be of one mind and will at the same time.

As an egalitarian I find the relation of the Trinity irrelevant to the gender ranking debate precisely because the persons of the Trinity are of one mind and will. A man and woman joined in marriage are not. For example, if there is subordination in the Trinity and the persons are of one mind and will, and this is an analogy for husband and wife, then no husband would tell his wife to do anything she has not already willed to do and he would only will what she wants to do because they are of one mind and will. Otherwise you do not believe the Trinity are of one mind and will, and wander into polytheism.

I maintain that the non-hierarchical ordering of the Trinity is the orthodox position through the centuries. Curiously, the only time we see subordination re-emerge with any significance is with regard to slavery in the early 19th Century and with regard to gender roles in the late 20th Century. Hierarchicalism is the revisionist position and that concerns me apart from anything that has to do with gender debate.

Until someone can show me how one being among three beings of one mind and will can be subordinate to another in a way that is not reciprocated by the others, I am sticking with the historic teaching and witness of the Church. I don’t share your take that this is as indeterminate as you are suggesting but I also haven't read your paper. :)

Anonymous said...

I love the traditional approach which holds that the economic Trinity mirrors the eternal processions. The Father sends the Son, the Son returns to the Father, the Spirit is sent by the Father and Son. In other words, what God does reflects who God is.

Rather than filling your whole combox with a long theological argument, I'll just leave it at that for now.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I look forward to reading this future publication with Myers.

Josiah K. Walters said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Josiah K. Walters said...

Good points, Michael. Point four was particularly interesting to me. It is true that while Paul does used Christ's relation to the Church as a model of the husband's headship of the wife (Eph. 5.23), I cannot think of any time when a similar use is made of the Father-Son relationship. I also agree that one could perhaps build an egalitarian model using the Father-Son relationship, but only by ignoring other Scripures (not that you would disagree or agree with that). Anyway, good points.

By the way, is it possible to find your paper online somewhere?

michael jensen said...

Well I find myself in agreement with you MB. I can't imagine you got anything from Dr Giles but ire!