For the past two decades, evangelical theologians have debated over one specific aspect of the relationship between members of the Trinity. One group insists that the Father is eternally the supreme member of the Trinity, necessarily and always possessing authority over the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are thus subordinate to him. The other view contends that the Son eternally possesses equal authority with the Father, but that for the period of his earthly ministry, he voluntarily became subject to the Father’s will. Similarly differing views are held regarding the authority of the Holy Spirit, although the discussion has not dealt extensively with the status of the third person. Both parties agree that all three persons are fully deity, and thus equal in what they are. Biblical, historical, philosophical and theological arguments have been presented on both sides, without reaching agreement. Whether or not the subordination itself is eternal, some have begun to wonder whether the debate over it might be.
There can be no denying that we have starkly opposing doctrines of the Trinity. Dr. Grudem and Dr. Ware argue on the basis of creaturely analogies for a hierarchically ordered Trinity where the Father rules over the Son, claiming this is historical orthodoxy and what the church has believed since AD 325. I argue just the opposite. On the basis of scripture, I argue that the Father and the Son are coequally God; thus the Father does not rule over the Son. This is what the church has believed since AD 325. You could not have two more opposing positions. There is no middle ground.
Etienne Gilson spoke of medieval theology as an attempt to build great “cathedrals of the mind,” mental constructions meant to bring glory to God and to inspire worship as soaring stone cathedrals across Europe have since the same time period. Like any architectural achievement, these mental cathedrals brought together the many pieces of Christian doctrine into coherent and often beautiful structures of thought, building idea upon idea until great theological and philosophical systems emerged from scriptural foundations. This architectural analogy implies something important—it is rarely possible to shift the ground floor of a building without the entirety of the construct tumbling down. Only with great caution and preparation, whereby new supports are carefully constructed before the old are removed, can such a change go smoothly. Unfortunately, evangelical theology finds itself today in a situation where a great shift in a foundational doctrine of Christian theology has occurred—in the doctrine of the Trinity. This shift threatens several important Christian teachings and compromises the basic orientation of Christian ethics. As complementarian theologians increasingly speak of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (hereafter EFS), they move a central pillar of the cathedral of Christian doctrine, unaware that such a change could bring down the entire edifice of Christian theology.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary doctrine of the Christian faith. It expresses our distinctive Christian understanding of God. Sadly, many contemporary evangelicals are inadequately informed on this doctrine, and the evangelical community is deeply and painfully divided on this matter. In seeking to promote unity among evangelicals by establishing what is to be believed about our triune God, I outline in summary what I conclude is the historic orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then provide a biblical and theological commentary on my summary in a second and longer article, which follows.
This paper was given by Kevin Giles at the Evangelical Theological Society annual conference on November 15, 2016 in San Antonio, TX. The other speakers on the plenary Trinity forum were Dr Bruce Ware, Dr Millard Erickson, and Dr Wayne Grudem. Dr Storms presided.
There are two main groups within evangelicalism debating the issues of subordination (lesser authority) among the members of the Trinity and subordination among male-female relationships. Complementarians believe, among other things, that women should be under the authority of male leaders in their churches, and wives should be under the authority of male leaders (their husbands) in their marriages.
In this series, I will address and support the necessary qualitative distinction between the eternal inner life of the Trinity and the temporal inter-relationships of women and men in church and marriage.
As many of you are aware, a particular debate involving the doctrine of the Trinity is causing no little stir in American evangelicalism. This past Thursday (June 16, 2016) Christianity Today even felt it necessary to write a primer on the discussion.