Thursday, November 06, 2008

Trinity & Subordination, Again

Apparently a new wave of debate over subordination in the trinity and in social relations has irrupted in evangelical circles. Click here to track the debate. I have received some emails from friends in ministry asking how to address the matter. Here's my response to one such email, which asked three questions: What does the Trinity have to do with everyday life? Why should pastors preach on the Trinity? How can we address the rampant subordinationism among church folk?

What does the Trinity have to do with everyday life?

On the one hand, it doesn't. The doctrine of the trinity is the church's attempt to faithfully bear witness to who God is. It is not a ready-made spiritual and/or social program. On the other hand, it has everything to do with daily life. The doctrine of the trinity teaches us that the God we encounter in history corresponds to who God is in eternity. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not intermediaries to keep God at a distance. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and the Holy Spirit is the eternal Spirit of God, and so God is our eternal Father. When we speak of following Jesus or living according to the Spirit, we are talking about encountering God in our everyday lives. The doctrine of the trinity gives depth and clarity to our everyday Christian walk and talk.

Why should pastors preach on the Trinity?

They shouldn't preach the trinity as a stand alone doctrine. Instead, it should be preached along the way as a necessary tool for understanding and proclaiming the gospel. A sermon series that aims to teach trinitarian doctrine would select key biblical texts where recourse to the doctrine of the trinity helps make sense of the gospel and shows how the doctrine of the trinity gives depth and security to Christian claims. E.g., the baptism of Jesus, the resurrection narratives, the death of Jesus (esp. the cry of derliction), the prayer life of Jesus (e.g., who is he praying to in Gesthename?), Pentecost obviously, the farewell discourse in John (lotsa goodies there, esp. on the spirit in ch. 14 and 16, as well as on the eternally shared glory of the Father and the Son in ch. 17), some of the visions in Revelation with the "one on the throne" and the "lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world," etc. I think this would be the best strategy for preaching and teaching the trinity in the church.

How can we address the rampant subordinationism among church folk?

There are reasons why we slip into subordinationist thinking, some good and some bad. The bad reasons are linked to subordinationist assumptions about the way the world works, and the presumption that this is simply the fabric of being itself and so befits our God-talk. Such presumption must be exposed and set aside -- repeatedly if needed.

The good reason is that Scripture places the Father and the Son in an irreversible relationship, wherein the Father sends the Son and the Son is sent by the Father, the Father commands the Son and the Son obeys the Father. So also the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Scripture does not permit a reversal of these relationships, even as it also indicates the unity, equality, and unrestricted fellowship of the persons. The mystery of the trinity is the unity, equality and fellowship of these three persons in their ordered relationships, and not just unity and equality as abstract divine principles.

Strictly speaking, this pattern in scripture is not a "problem" for trinity doctrine per se, because the church doctrine of the trinity has always claimed that the Father and the Son are eternally distinguishable from one another, even as they share all things as equally divine persons. The Father and the Son cannot be distinguished if there is no content to their relationship. So the Father begets the Son, and in begetting we see the distinction and order of their relations. This is not a subordination of being ala Arianism, but it is an ordered relationship.

Now one might try to then squeeze out of this the idea that women are equal to men in being but subordinate in function. Some people make such moves. But when we turn to whatever practical implications that may follow from the doctrine of the trinity, we must remember the following:

(1) Human persons do not relate in exactly the same way as divine persons do, because human persons do not share an identical essence. So there should be no 1-to-1 application of divine relations to human relations. Individual humans share a common human essence (however defined), but a community of individual humans are not a singular identity of essence in the way that the triune persons are one God. So sociopolitical debates cannot be swiftly solved by invoking the doctrine of the trinity. In fact, one could coherently advocate a strongly subordinationist doctrine of the trinity and maintain gender equality, while another could coherently advocate strongly the equality of divine persons and maintain complementarian gender roles. Although the trinity is not irrelevant, it is not the key that unlocks all doors.

(2) We are united to God through our union with Jesus Christ the incarnate Son, and so we should not be surprised that we stand alongside him as ones who are sent by God the Father and so submitted to God. We stand in some kind of "subordinate" relationship to God. Hence, subordination is not a dirty word in all contexts. One should embrace rather than reject subordination to God. Such subordination is of course loving and freeing because it is to the author of our existence and our salvation (which cannot be said of our relations with others). But it is still subordination and submission of the one sent to the one who sends, grounded in our union with Christ as the one sent by the Father. So the question is not whether subordination but what kind of subordination and to whom are we subordinated?

(3) Inasmuch as the relations of the trinity provide a model for human-to-human relationships, such direction should always be mediated through the God-human Jesus Christ, as opposed to some principle abstracted from the history of God with us (e.g., subordination, or equality, or relationality, etc.). It is in Jesus and his life that we see submission to God and to others that fulfills rather than destroys human personhood. In him we see obedience that is the crown and exaltation of human life. In him we see the transformation of fallen human relationships into fellowship that images God's eternal life. In him we hear the call to participate in the mission of God in this world by proclaiming the good news and living lives worthy of this gospel.

So we must tread carefully in applying the mystery of the trinity to our daily lives, not simply because it is so mysterious, but because upon reflecting on this mystery we learn of the uniqueness of the God we worship and do not presume to be like him in ways beyond our means. We must not seek to be gods, but to be godly. And it is in Jesus Christ the Son of God that we understand who God the Father is in his uniqueness and the ways in which he opens himself up to us become like his Son by the power of the Spirit.

So the bottom line for teaching the doctrine of the trinity, both for understanding and application, is to treat the trinity as the grammar and ground of christology. The trinity as grammar helps us to make sense of Jesus as not just some special guy but uniquely as the life of the only-begotten Son sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who in turn sends us in the Spirit unto all the nations. The trinity as ground reminds us that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are not just a fluke or oddity but a revelation and outworking of who God is in eternity. If the doctrine of the trinity is true, then God is for us and with us from all and to all eternity. And that's good news.

Any thoughts?


Russ Veldman said...


Dr. Bil Grover has two interesting articles on the Trinity, particularly trinal subordination, at Click on "Conspectus" and you will see the two he has written so far.

mike guest said...

Hi Russel
Just to let everyone know thatSATS has altered its domain name and URL from to
The link to Conspectus is now:
Look for Bill's work in volumes 6 & 7
Mike Guest
Webmaster SATS