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.