Tampering with the Trinity
How contemporary evangelical feminism has been straying from the orthodox doctrine of God
Evangelical feminists, otherwise known as egalitarians, have generally favoured retaining traditional masculine trinitarian language. Scripture is God's inspired Word and the vast majority of egalitarians have sought to defend masculine God-language against the criticism of many of their feminist colleagues. In the process, however, they deny that such masculine God-language has any implications either 1) of superiority of what is masculine over feminine, or 2) that the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indicate any kind of eternal functional hierarchy within the Trinity.
Let it be said clearly that non-egalitarian, complementarian evangelicals agree wholly with the first of these denials. Because God created the man and the woman fully as his image (Genesis 1.26-27), it is clear that no use of masculine language for God is meant to signal some supposed greater value, dignity, or worth of men over women.
Concerning the second denial, however, complementarians and egalitarians differ greatly. Egalitarians see clearly that if an eternal relationship of authority and obedience is grounded in the eternal immanent inner-trinitarian relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then this gives at least prima facie justification to the notion of creational human relations in which authority and submission inhere.
To avoid this implication, egalitarians argue fundamentally along three lines. First, they assert that the predominant masculine references to God in no way convey some corresponding authority attaching to the male.
Second, they assert that any suggestion of subordination within the Godhead, even the claim of a functional subordination of the Son to the Father, cannot avoid at least an implicit Arianism. The early theologians, it is argued, rejected all talk of subordination regarding any member of the Trinity to any other. Full equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit precludes any and all types of subordinationism.
Third, all of Scripture's language of the authority of the Father and submission of the Son is only rightly accounted for within the incarnational mission of the Son.
What is the complementarianism response to the Egalitarian Embrace of Masculine Trinitarian Language and Rejection of Inner Trinitarian Functional Subordination?
First, it appears that egalitarianism is in a difficult position. It affirms the predominance of masculine biblical references for God and yet it seems incapable, logically, to explain this divinely chosen use of masculine language. Why did God choose to name himself in masculine, but never feminine, terms? Father, not Mother?
An obvious reason exists, one which egalitarians seem to bump up against regularly without acknowledging it for what it is. For example, in Wainwright's musing over God as 'Father' he notes that '"Father" was the name that the second person of the Trinity in his human existence considered most appropriate as an address to the first person.' But why is this? To this question, Wainwright can only say that 'there must be . . . something about human fatherhood that makes Father a suitable way for Jesus to designate the one who sent him. In trinitarian terms, the crucial point is that Father was the address Jesus characteristically used in this connection.' However, just what the 'something' is, Wainwright does not tell us. But is it not obvious? Jesus said over and again throughout his ministry that he came to do the will of his Father. Clearly, a central part of the notion of 'Father' is that of fatherly authority. Certainly this is not all there is to being a father, but while there is more, there certainly is not less.
The masculine terminology used of God throughout Scripture conveyed, within the patriarchal cultures of Israel and the early church, the obvious point that God, portrayed in masculine ways, had authority over his people. Father, King, and Lord conveyed, by their masculine gender referencing, a rightful authority that was to be respected and followed. Malachi 1.6, for example, indicates just this connection between 'father' and authority: '"A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?" says the Lord Almighty.' God as Father is rightfully deserving of his children's honour, respect and obedience. To fail to see this is to miss one of the primary reasons God chose such masculine terminology to name himself.
Second, while the early church clearly embraced the full essential equality of the three trinitarian persons (because each of the three persons possesses fully and simultaneously the identically same infinite divine nature), nonetheless the church has always affirmed likewise the priority of the Father over the Son and Spirit.
Since this priority cannot rightly be understood in terms of essence or nature (lest one fall into Arian subordinationism), it must exist in terms of relationship. As Augustine affirmed, the distinction of persons is constituted precisely by the differing relations among them, in part manifest by the inherent authority of the Father and inherent submission of the Son.
This is most clearly seen in the eternal Father-Son relationship in which the Father is eternally the Father of the Son, and the Son is eternally the Son of the Father. But, some might wonder, does this convey an eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son
Hear how Augustine discusses both the essential equality of the Father and Son, and the mission of the Son who was sent, in eternity past, to obey and carry out the will of the Father: 'If however the reason why the Son is said to have been sent by the Father is simply that the one is the Father and the other the Son then there is nothing at all to stop us believing that the Son is equal to the Father and consubstantial and co-eternal, and yet that the Son is sent by the Father. Not because one is greater and the other less, but because one is the Father and the other the Son; one is the begetter, the other begotten; the first is the one from whom the sent one is; the other is the one who is from the sender. For the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son.
'In the light of this we can now perceive that the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh, and by his bodily presence to do all that was written. That is, we should understand that it was not just the man who the Word became that was sent, but that the Word was sent to become man. For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father, but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father being from the Son.'
Notice two observations from Augustine's statement. First, Augustine sees no disparity between affirming, on the one hand, the full equality of the Son to the Father, and on the other hand, the Son's eternal position as from the Father, whose responsibility it is to carry out the will of the Father as the one sent from all eternity from the Father. Jewett's claim that functional subordination entails essential inferiority is here denied by Augustine. Second, notice that Augustine denies Bilezikian's claim that all subordination of the Son to the Father rests fully in the Son's incarnate state. To the contrary, Augustine affirms that 'the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh.' In other words, the sending of the Son occurred in eternity past in order that the eternal Word, sent from on high from the Father, might take on human flesh and then continue his role of carrying out the will of his Father.
As P.T. Forsyth writes, the beauty of the Son's simultaneous equality with and obedience to the Father expresses the willing service God intends his people to render. Forsyth asserts that 'subordination is not inferiority, and it is God-like. The principle is imbedded in the very cohesion of the eternal trinity and it is inseparable from the unity, fraternity and true equality of men. It is not a mark of inferiority to be subordinate, to have an authority, to obey. It is divine.' And in another place, Forsyth makes clear that the Son's obedience to the Father was indeed an eternal obedience, rendered by an eternal equal, constituting an eternal subordination of the Son to do the will of the Father. He writes: 'Father and Son co-exist, co-equal in the Spirit of holiness, i.e., of perfection. But Father and Son is a relation inconceivable except the Son be obedient to the Father. The perfection of the Son and the perfecting of his holy work lay, not in his suffering but in his obedience. And, as he was eternal Son, it meant an eternal obedience. . . . But obedience is not conceivable without some form of subordination. Yet in his very obedience the Son was co-equal with the Father; the Son's yielding will was no less divine than the Father's exigent will. Therefore, in the very nature of God, subordination implies no inferiority.'
Why the Son?
Third, the egalitarian denial of any eternal submission of the Son to the Father makes it impossible to answer the question why it was the 'Son' and not the 'Father' or 'Spirit' who was sent to become incarnate. And even more basic is the question why the eternal names for 'Father' and 'Son' would be exactly these names. John Thompson has indicated a trend in much modern trinitarian discussion to separate Christology from trinitarian formulations. He writes that 'Christology and the Trinity were virtually divorced. It was both stated and assumed that any one of the three persons could become incarnate. . . . There was thus only an accidental relation between the economy of revelation and redemption and the eternal triune being of God.'
It appears that contemporary egalitarianism is vulnerable also to this criticism. Since nothing in God grounds the Son being the Son of the Father, and since every aspect of the Son's earthly submission to the Father is divorced altogether from any eternal relation that exists between the Father and Son, there simply is no reason why the Father should send the Son. In Thompson's words, it appears that the egalitarian view would permit 'any one of the three persons' to become incarnate.
And yet we have Scriptural revelation that clearly says that the Son came down out of heaven to do the will of his Father. This sending is not ad hoc. In eternity, the Father commissioned the Son who then willingly laid aside the glory he had with the Father to come and purchase our pardon and renewal. Such glory is diminished if there is no eternal Father-Son relation on the basis of which the Father sends, the Son willingly comes, and the Spirit willingly empowers.
And finally, what biblical evidence exists for the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father? A running theme in the history of this doctrine (as seen above in Augustine and Forsyth) is that the Son was commissioned by the Father in eternity past to come as the incarnate Son. As Jesus declares on well over 30 occasions in John's gospel, he was sent to the earth by the Father to do the Father's will. Could this be reduced merely to the sending of the incarnate Son to fulfil the Father's mission for him now that he has already come into the world? Or should we think of this sending, this commissioning, as having taken place in eternity past, a commissioning which then is fulfilled in time? Scripture, it seems clear, demands the latter view.
Consider, for example, Peter's statement in his Pentecost sermon recorded in Acts 2. Concerning Christ, he says, 'This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross' (Acts 2.23). The crucifixion of Christ fulfilled God's 'set purpose' which he established far in advance of the actual incarnation. Though this verse alone does not tell us exactly how far back God's plan was set, we know from numerous biblical prophecies (e.g., Psalm 22; Isaiah 9.6-7; Isaiah 53; Micah 5.2, to name a select few of the most notable) that God had planned and predicted, long before the incarnation, precisely the birth, life, death, and ultimate triumph of the Son. If Christ's coming fulfilled God's 'set purpose', and this purpose was established long in advance of the incarnation, then it is clear that the commissioning of the Son occurred in Christ's relation with the Father in the immanent trinity and not after he had come as the incarnate Son. Consider another of Peter's claims. In regard to Christ's redemptive work, Peter writes: 'He [Christ] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake' (1 Peter 1.20). If we wonder how far back this commissioning of the Son took place, this verse settles the question. Before the world was made, the Father chose (literally, 'foreknew') the Son to come as the redeemer. The Son's coming in time to shed his blood reflects not an ad hoc decision, or a toss of the trinitarian coin, but the eternal purpose of the Father to send and offer his Son.
Ephesians 1.3-5 confirm this understanding. In Ephesians, Paul gives praise to God the Father for choosing his own in Christ before the foundation of the world, and for predestining them to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself. Since Paul specifically 1) gives praise to the Father for this election and predestination, 2) designates Christ as the one toward whom our election and predestination is directed, and 3) states that the Father's elective purpose and plan occurred before the creation of the world, it follows that the Father's commissioning of the Son is based in eternity past, and that the Son's submission to the Father is rooted in their eternal relationship within the Godhead.
God all in all
But will Christ one day, as Bilezikian argues, be elevated to the same status or equality of role as that of the Father? Consider Paul's discussion of the consummation of Christ's reconciling work in a day yet future. He writes, 'For he [the Father] has put everything under his [Christ's] feet.' Now when it says that 'everything' has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all' (1 Corinthians 15.27-28). Because Christ was commissioned in eternity past to come, in time and in history, to carry out the will of his Father, when this work is completed, Christ will place himself in the very position he had with the Father previously. While possessing again the full glory of the Father (John 17.5), he will put himself in subjection to the Father (1 Corinthians 15.28). The relation of the Father and Son in eternity past, in Christ's historic and incarnate life, and in eternity future, then, is the same. Christ is fully equal in essence with the Father yet subordinate in role. Scripture clearly upholds these truths, and we in the church should likewise do the same.
Because we have God's inspired word, and because God has, in this word, made his own triune life known, we must with renewed commitment seek to study, believe and embrace the truth of God as made known here. Where we have been misled by the history of this doctrine, may Scripture lead to correction. But where contemporary revision departs from Scripture's clear teaching, may we have courage to stand with the truth and for the truth. For the sake of the glory of the only true and living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, may we pledge to him alone our fidelity, obedience, and love.
Bruce A. Ware, PhD
Professor of Christian Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
This is an edited version of an article which appeared first in The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and is used with permission.