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Published Date: October 31, 2011

Book Info

Book Review: Nancy Hedberg’s Women, Men, and the Trinity

This very accessible book is an excellent place to start one’s exploration into what has come to be called the “New Subordinationism” in current evangelical discussions of the Trinity. Author Nancy Hedberg, who is vice president for student life at Corban University in Salem, Oregon, is accustomed to communicating with young college students and brings that clarity over to her discussion of theology. She is a philosophical thinker who is gifted in understanding what an author is communicating as well as in relaying an accurate description of that position to readers. As a logical scholar, she can also evaluate the content of each argument and communicate clearly why she believes various theological conclusions have failed in their logic. Finally, she has three published novels to her credit, so she has a clear and interesting writing style. She obviously embraces William of Occam’s famous “razor”—she does not use many sentences to say what can be said in fewer, so she pares issues down to what one needs to know without unnecessary verbiage. Her resulting book is compact, a lot like carefully culled notes on a longer discussion. It gets to the point with a clear and careful exposition of the current debate.

After personally contextualizing the problem for herself as a Christian woman called to ministry, she invests her opening section in an analysis of current as well as historical egalitarian versus male hierarchical views on the Trinity, showing how these views are reflected in theories of essential and functional equality or subordination in female/male relationships. She has read widely and carefully and samples key thinkers with pithy summaries of opposing positions on such topics as creation order, submission, power and authority, and the implications of theories of the economic Trinity, unity, and equality. She is also careful to differentiate between historic hierarchical views espousing the essential inferiority of women and present hierarchist views of equality of essence but subordination of function.

Self-identifying as an egalitarian (49), she finds the logic of the hierarchist position faulty with such clearly stated objections as this one to the creation order argument that Adam’s appearance before Eve ensures his functional superiority in their relationship: “would we say that the authority of Jesse was greater than his son David? That the role of Moses’ unnamed father was greater than his? That Abraham remained subordinate to his father Terah?” (30). With such thinking, she dismantles many popular hierarchist catch phrases, e.g., “It simply is not true that distinction requires subordination. One can be distinct without being ranked above or below another” (24).

Several improvements that might be suggested for the next edition would be to supplement her endorsement of Sarah Sumner’s view that the head/body metaphor in Ephesians 5:23 stresses interdependence with the work on kephalē as “source, origin,” listed in Liddell and Scott’s A Greek English Lexicon and explicated by Catherine Kroeger, Philip Payne, and many others. Her discussion of Philippians 2:5-11, which preserves the old King James rendering of arpagmos as “a thing to be grasped,” rather than the sense of retaining, as in “hold on to” (Newman’s A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament) or “gripping” (BDAG), unhappily appears to continue the connotation of Jesus giving up the quest to seize equality with God and choosing to submit, rather than emphasizing the correct understanding which is that Jesus chose not to retain the benefits of equality with God which he possessed already, but emptied himself of them and became like a servant. Her example of submission of a female associate pastor who believes she may hold “any position except senior pastor,” having chosen not to “kick the door down”—that is, not having ‘”grasped’ that equality in terms of church office” (98)—is a reading that CBE readers will find uncomfortable because it appears to undermine both the essential equality of Christ and of women. As the book appeared simultaneously with Millard Erickson’s new Who’s Tampering with the Trinity, she was unable to include it, but relied on his earlier God in Three Persons and, being the careful scholar she is, was unable to recognize his full egalitarianism (23), so adding a discussion of his new book to her fine work will strengthen her data. Finally, adding a good subject and Scripture index would be helpful to future readers as they move around in this interesting work.

All in all, Dr. Hedberg has produced a very useful and helpful discussion on the issues of whether role equality or unilateral subordination exists in the Trinity and whether what happens in the Trinity reflects in human relationships. Her book is a fine primer to help every newcomer into this discussion and her love of God and the Scriptures is evident everywhere. As she puts it so well, “The Bible is not a hammer for men to use against women or for women to use against men. Instead it is a remarkable reminder to both men and women to treat each other with love and respect” (75). She exemplifies this attitude in her writing, presenting fairly and without condemnation positions with which she disagrees and evidencing her obvious love of the topic and respect toward all engaged in debating it.