Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit

by Kevin Giles | April 30, 2021
Cover of Simply Trinity

In well over thirty years in debate with scholarly complementarians on the status and ministry of women and on the Trinity, I have been accused of rejecting the authority of the Bible, denying what the Bible clearly teaches on the man-woman and the divine Father-Son relationships, of being an “evangelical-feminist,” and even an Arian. While some theologians have been terribly uncharitable, I am delighted by the dignity of Matthew Barrett. When I decided to write a scholarly review of his book, Simply Trinity, I sent him what I had written for comment and criticism (as is my habit). Matthew responded graciously and generously in a number of email exchanges. He related to me as an evangelical brother of Reformed convictions. After reading my extended review of Simply Trinity he made a detailed response. Wherever possible I have reworded, corrected, or deleted sentences or paragraphs that he thought were not fair or did not represent accurately his views.1 If only evangelical egalitarians and complementarians had been able to interact like this on the debates about the status and ministry of women and on the Trinity over the last thirty or so years, I am sure things would be very different today.

Matthew Barrett is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri. His book, Simply Trinity, is focused mainly on the doctrine of the Trinity, but how this doctrine bears on the relationship of the sexes comes up time and time again. He unambiguously confesses his theological position:

I am a committed, convictional complementarian. I believe there are strong scriptural reasons for restricting the office of pastor to qualified males. I also believe the husband is the head of his wife and the wife is to submit to her husband. (250–51)

This confession gives this book its great credibility and power. Here we find a devastating critique of the dogma, invented and promulgated by complementarians, that the Father rules over the Son for all eternity by a “card-carrying” complementarian.

Another fact lending significance to Matthew’s book is that his theological formation took place in a cultural context where the eternal subordination in role and authority of the Son was taken to be what the Bible clearly teaches as basic to historic Trinitarian orthodoxy. He says one of his most influential theological teachers was Bruce Ware, under whom he studied for almost seven years. Over time he came to see that “The Trinity I was taught [by Ware and other well-known evangelical scholars] was novel in many ways, manipulated for a variety of agendas” (45). “For more than a decade,” he wrote to me, “I heard highly respected evangelical professors and pastors teach on the eternal subordination of the Son, claiming this was what the Bible taught, in lectures at well-known evangelical seminaries, at large evangelical conferences and from the pulpit in evangelical churches.”

Few people are better equipped to write on complementarian teaching on the Trinity. For many years Matthew was an “insider.”

In chapter 1, Matthew tells the story of how many theologians in the last fifty years, including many of evangelical and Reformed persuasions, abandoned the historic doctrine of the Trinity enunciated in the creeds and confessions of the church. Among mainline theologians who have set out to revise the doctrine of the Trinity, he mentions Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, and Leonardo Boff, as three examples, and later in his book he adds Robert Jenson, Hans Frei, and Miroslav Volf. He says their aim was to improve the historic and confessional doctrine of the Trinity by revising it. For non-evangelicals to abandon and reject the confessional doctrine of the Trinity, historic orthodoxy, does not surprise those of us who are of from evangelical and Reformed traditions. What surprises us, as Matthew notes, is that prominent evangelicals took the same path, and he singles out the “young, restless, and Reformed” (21) as the worst offenders. Among the many evangelical leaders who openly departed from Trinitarian orthodoxy he mentions Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, John Feinberg, Robert Reymond, William Craig, and J. P. Moreland, adding that “there were many others” (24)—there certainly were. On a sombre note, he concludes, “Perhaps our Reformed resurgence is not all that Reformed after all” (21).

On looking back on his theological training, he says, what amazes him the most is that virtually all the evangelical theologies he read and all his “Reformed” lecturers denied the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, a doctrine affirmed by the creeds and confessions of the church and embraced by virtually every significant theologian from the fourth century until the present time. For himself, he believes that,

To affirm [the] eternal generation [of the Son] was the equivalent to confessing oneself to be a Christian, and a Bible-believing Christian at that. To deny eternal generation was to align yourself with heresy. (26)

What Matthew wants to bring to the attention of his readers in ch. 1 is that there has been a predilection among theologians in recent years—liberal, Catholic, and evangelical/Reformed—to break with the historic and confessional doctrine of the Trinity, which represents the communally agreed interpretation of what the Bible says on this doctrine and other key doctrines. As individual theologians they have taken the liberty to revise and reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in social categories, almost always to further one agenda or another close to their heart: socialism, ecumenism, pluralism, environmentalism, egalitarianism, and the subordination of women (30).

What those of evangelical and Reformed conviction must do in this critical hour, when the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is under threat even by members of our own tribe, Matthew Barrett argues, is to listen to the best of theologians from the past and the creeds and confessions of the church that rule on how the Bible is rightly read on the doctrine of the Trinity and all the other important doctrines. These voices from the past do not stand over Scripture or replace Scripture. They tell us how the church across history has communally interpreted the Bible on doctrinal questions in dispute. He says until recently most theologians have believed that,

To depart from the Nicene Creed was to depart from Biblical teaching itself. To abandon the Nicene Creed was to abandon the God of the Gospel itself. (37)

In ch. 2, Matthew accurately outlines the fourth-century debate begun by Arius on how the Father and the Son are related, which resulted in the Creed of Nicea of 325, and with a bit of sharpening in wording, in the Nicene Creed of 381. For Arius, God is identified as “the Father.” He is a monad who cannot share his divine nature/being/essence with anyone else, otherwise there would be two or more Gods. The Son must therefore be a creature, yet a creature above all others. Arius agreed that the Son may rightly be said to be “begotten of the Father” in the sense that he was created by the Father in time. What unites the Father and the Son is not a oneness in divine being (ousia), but rather a oneness in “will.” The Son by necessity does the Father’s will (48). He is like a human son who came into existence in time and, like all sons, he is set under his Father’s authority. “Don’t miss this point,” says Matthew, “With such emphasis on will, Arianism, not only [implies] an ontological subordination, but [also] a functional subordination [of the Son]” (49).

In reply to Arius, Athanasius insisted that, in eternally begetting the Son, the Father perfectly communicates his divine being to the Son. On this premise, Athanasius and later the three Cappadocian fathers, argued that the Father and the Son are homoousios—one in divine being (ousia)—and for this reason they are one in majesty, glory, and dominion (56). What differentiates them, and the only thing that differentiates them, are their “eternal relations of origin.” The Father is unbegotten God, the Son is begotten God (59). This sums up what later would be called “the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son,” a doctrine that unequivocally establishes the full divinity of the Father and the Son and at the same time indelibly distinguishes them as the Father and the Son.

For Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers, homoousios was the key term that absolutely excluded any separating and dividing of the Father and the Son or any hierarchical ordering of the divine persons. These three Greek church fathers also insisted that the Triune God revealed in Scripture is “simple”—he cannot be divided into parts. Matthew emphasizes this term, “simple,” rather than homoousios. He says, “to say that the triune God is simple is to say that all that is true of the divine essence (eternity, immutability, etc.) is also true of each and every person of the Godhead. The Son is no exception to this rule; he too is simply God” (54).

In this chapter, Matthew shows that he has mastered the fourth-century debate on the doctrine of the Trinity, something not common in writings on this doctrine among evangelicals, or to use his self-designation, the “young, restless, and Reformed.”

In ch. 3, Matthew outlines how the doctrine of the Trinity, the distinctive Christian doctrine of God, became a social agenda. He finds the roots of this development in eighteenth-century liberal Protestantism, especially through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). These liberal theologians’ concerns were “not with speculative doctrines like the Trinity but with the ethics of God’s kingdom, and how those ethics might transform society” (73). These concerns reappeared in the 1960s in a book by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who similarly argued that it was “high time to throw off the shackles of scholastic speculation and liberate the Trinity” (75). Rather than focusing on God’s Triune life in eternity (the so-called “immanent Trinity”), the modern theologian should focus on the Trinity in history, the “economy”—how God is revealed as three persons in this world. In stating this case he gives what has come to be called Rahner’s Rule: “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” Rahner never explains what he means by this “rule,” and as a consequence, it has been interpreted in many different ways. One interpretation that has widely been given is that Rahner is seeking to eclipse the immanent Trinity. The Trinity is nothing other than how God is revealed in the economy (77). This is how Jürgen Moltmann understands “the rule.” For him, the Trinity is a “community” of three co-equal divine persons bound together in perichoretic union which sets a political agenda, a “socialist” agenda, Barrett says (80). In a similar way, the Croatian Protestant theologian, Miroslav Volf, and the Brazilian Roman Catholic theologian, Leonardo Boff, construe the Trinity and insist on its social implications.

Next, Matthew turns to evangelical and Reformed “revisionist” theologians who in recent times have redefined the Trinity to further their own social agenda. Almost all of these are complementarians. The one exception he names is the egalitarian evangelical, Stanley Grenz, who died in 2005. Grenz definitely embraced a social doctrine of the Trinity echoing Moltmann, even if he did so cautiously and, near the end of his life, questioned the position he had taken. The most enthusiastic and most published revisionists were “The New Calvinists” led by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware—who called themselves “complementarians” (91). They fully embraced a social doctrine of the Trinity in which each divine person is differentiated and distinguished by the differing authority each exercises. This means they are related as “a functional hierarchy” (91). The Son “is subordinate to the supreme and absolute authority of the Father within the immanent Trinity” (91). In other words, the Father is identified and distinguished from the Son and the Spirit in that he is eternally supreme, and the Son by the fact that he is eternally subordinate to the Father and must obey him—and this can never be otherwise. Here we see how the argument for the eternal subordination of the Son led many complementarians to abandon the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. If what primarily distinguishes the Father and the Son is differing authority, then the historic position, that differing origination primarily differentiates the divine persons, has to be rejected. Complementarians who invented and promulgated this “novel” (as Matthew calls it) doctrine of the Trinity named it “the EFS position” (the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son position). Behind this doctrine, Matthew says, lies a “social agenda . . . just as strong, if not stronger, than the [liberal] social trinitarians before them” (91). Their doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity is “a paradigm and prototype for hierarchy in society, especially wives submitting to their husbands in the home” (91). In practice, this hierarchical ordering of the sexes, grounded in divine life, also excludes women from leadership in the church.

Barrett notes the circular nature of this argument. He says that “EFSers”

Project the functional subordination of the Son to the Father during the incarnation back into the eternal, immanent Trinity, only to return to history in order to apply their hierarchy to gender roles. (91)

What is more, he adds, in evangelical churches and seminaries that assumed the complementarian position, “Contemplating and praising the Trinity was not the end goal (as it should be), but the Trinity was used merely as a means to other ends” (92). And what are these other ends? Matthew does not name them at this point. The primary one was undeniably the subordination of women.

In ch. 4, Matthew returns to Rahner and his Rule. This Rule, he believes, has led more theologians, mainline and evangelical-Reformed, into theological error than anything else. To introduce this discussion, Matthew first outlines how deep and profound is the Bible’s teaching on the triunity of God. It is foreshadowed in the OT and fully revealed in the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. What is not made clear and explicit in the NT is how what is revealed of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in history (the economy) speaks of the Father, Son, and Spirit in eternity (the immanent Trinity—God as he is for all eternity). This, he says, is “the million-dollar question” (112). Many take Rahner’s Rule (“The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and vice versa”) to be answering this question, but as Rahner never tells us his answer it is not surprising that subsequent theologians have reached different, and sometimes opposing, conclusions. Complementarians in unison have argued that Rahner’s Rule means that, just as the Son is subordinated to the Father and must obey him in his earthly ministry (the economy), so he is subordinated to the Father and must obey him in the immanent Trinity, or we might say, in heaven. Matthew says this interpretation is profoundly wrong, and I absolutely agree with him. Rahner is an orthodox Catholic theologian, and Catholic theology anathematises any sub-ordering in divine life or work. He does not say one word in support of the eternal subordination of the Son, and much to the contrary. What is more, the Bible also excludes this interpretation of Rahner’s Rule as an option for evangelicals. Philippians 2:4–11 makes it quite clear that in the incarnation we see the self-emptied divine Son, not the Son as he is eternally, one with the Father in all might, majesty, and power. This means we cannot “project” back into the eternal Triune life what we see in the economy (116).

In ch. 5, Matthew addresses the mind-boggling question, how God can be one and three at one and the same time for all eternity. The Bible gives a few hints as to how this question can be answered, but it was the great Christian thinkers in the post-apostolic age who developed a full and satisfying answer that was first spelt out in the Nicene Creed of 325. They answered, because each divine person is described as God in the NT, we may rightly speak of them as homoousios, or in Latin, consubstantial, one in divine being. The one God is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—one God in three persons.

For Athanasius, the word homoousios completely excluded any separating and dividing of the divine persons, but he also makes much of the fact that Jesus says he is in the Father and the Father is in him (John 10:38; 14:11, 20). If they mutually indwell each other, he reasons, they cannot be divided or separated in any way. Later theologians called their mutual interpenetration, in Greek, their perichoresis, and in Latin, circumincessio.

Matthew speaks positively of the terms homoousios and perichoresis but, as I have already noted, he favours another term to exclude any separating and dividing of the Father and the Son—and the Spirit. God is “simple.” He calls his book Simply Trinity to make this point. Matthew Barrett stands 100% within orthodoxy in speaking of our Triune God as “simple.” Thomas Aquinas made divine simplicity the first of the divine attributes. Nevertheless, in my writings on the Trinity I avoid this word. For me, it does not describe the God I see in Scripture. He is definitely not “simple” in the everyday meaning of this world. Here we should note that describing God as “simple” originates with the pre-Christian Greek philosophers and that many evangelical theologians have argued it is not a helpful way to describe the God revealed in Scripture.

Notwithstanding what I have just said, I concede that Matthew, in asserting that our Triune God is “simple” and defining this term in the light of Thomas Aquinas’s definition, finds a powerful way to exclude any dividing or separating of the divine three who are the one God. For Matthew, to say God is “simple” means we believe,

Not [in] a God made up of parts, but a God without parts. There is in him no composition, nor can he be compounded by parts. If he could, he would then be a divided being (parts are divisible by definition), a mutable being (parts are prone to change), a temporal being (parts require a composer), and a dependent being (depending on the parts as if they precede him). (137)

Matthew argues that defining God as “simple excludes the three trinitarian heresies of our age, Sabellianism/modalism, tritheism and “social trinitarianism” (149, cf. 227, 256). If the God revealed in Scripture is “simple” he cannot be one divine person “who merely changes into three different forms” (145) or modes in history (as in modalism). If the God revealed in Scripture is “simple” he cannot be three separate and divided persons, each with their own will and consciousness (as in tritheism). So far so good. But when he comes to the third error, “social trinitarianism,” he loses me. Yes, if God is “simple,” as he defines the term, then God cannot have three wills and “three centres of consciousness,” but is this not tritheism? “Social trinitarianism,” I believe, is nothing more or less than an expression of tritheism (as Matthew says, 149) with a social agenda.

Subordinationism is certainly the most common Trinitarian heresy among evangelicals today, as elsewhere in his book Matthew acknowledges, but in this chapter it does not get a mention. Why Matthew at this point makes “social trinitarianism” a separate and distinctive theological error, when it is almost universally agreed that it is nothing more or less than an expression of tritheism with a social agenda, is puzzling. I suspect that Matthew does recognise that subordinationism is an expression of tritheism that can take one of two forms. For liberal and Catholic social Trinitarians, the three divine persons, each with their own will and consciousness, are profoundly equal, bound together by mutual love and self-giving in perichoretic union. Pictorially, the divine three stand in a circle with hands linked. They are guilty of the error of tritheism but not subordinationism. Their social agenda is to promote social equality wherever possible. In stark contrast, for evangelical social Trinitarians of EFS convictions the three divine persons are not equal in “role” and “authority.” Specifically, they insist the Father rules over the Son for all eternity. Pictorially, the divine three stand in hierarchical order. This means these evangelical social Trinitarians are guilty of both the errors of tritheism and subordinationism. For them, Matthew says, their “social agenda is . . . just as strong, if not stronger, than the [liberal] social trinitarians before them” (91). For evangelical and Reformed theologians who argue for the eternal subordination of the Son, their hierarchically ordered social doctrine of the Trinity is “a paradigm and prototype for hierarchy in society, especially wives submitting to their husbands in the home” (91).

Matthew concludes this chapter mainly on divine simplicity with an insightful informed discussion of the Athanasian Creed (150–54). In this creed we confess, he says, that

The Godhead (Father, Son, and Spirit) is “all one,” and if all one, then there must be total equality: “their glory equal, their majesty co-eternal.” Apart from one thing that distinguishes them (i.e., eternal relations of origin: paternity filiation, spiration), they all wholly share all the properties of God’s undivided essence.” (152)

In this creed he also notes all three divine persons are said to be “almighty” and “co-equal.”

Chapter 6 is entirely an explanation and defence of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. I am the only evangelical of Reformed convictions that has written a full-length book on this topic,2 but he does not footnote me once in this chapter, and only once in the chapter following. I nevertheless highly commend his exposition and support of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, noting that he has read widely on this matter and sees all the issues clearly and well. What I would have liked to have seen in this chapter is an admission that, just as evangelical egalitarians initiated and led the evangelical and Reformed opposition to the eternal subordination of the Son, so too evangelical egalitarians initiated and led the evangelical and Reformed opposition to the denial of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.

Chapter 7 continues his discussion on the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, arguing that this doctrine is predicated on what the Scriptures teach about the Father-Son relationship. His appeal to Scripture in support of this doctrine is comprehensive and compelling.

In ch. 8 Matthew brings his argument to a crescendo. Simply Trinity is worth buying for what he says in this chapter. Here we read the most profound and well-informed renunciation of the idea that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father in role and authority, a belief that almost took over the evangelical world and was absolutely basic to the complementarian position for “decades” (222). He writes as someone who has imbibed complementarian teaching on women and the Trinity for a large portion of his life—he writes, in other words, as an “insider.”

I have read everything I can find on what complementarians have taught about the Trinity, written four books on this matter over a twenty-year period, and have publicly debated complementarian theologians, including Ware and Grudem, in large gatherings of evangelical theologians, and I still learnt some things from this chapter.

Matthew is emphatic, to teach that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role and authority is to deny the historic orthodox doctrine of the Trinity predicated firmly in scriptural revelation. He says Ware “openly rejected the orthodox creeds and the Great Tradition, and did so with confidence” (220).

Again, in this chapter Matthew Barrett identifies Ware, Grudem, and all supporters of the EFS doctrine of the Trinity as “social trinitarians” who see the Trinity as a hierarchically ordered community of three persons, each with their own will and consciousness, and who prescribe a “social agenda . . . just as strong, if not stronger, than the [liberal] social trinitarians before them” (91). It gives a “pattern,” a “paradigm,” a “prototype” for every relationship in the world (221), but especially and specifically “for gender roles in the workplace, ministry and the home” (221). “In fervent opposition to evangelical egalitarianism which sees male and female as equals in authority, EFS argues for complementarianism, which sees the husband as the head of his wife, and the wife’s ‘role’ as one of submission to her husband” (221). “These roles,” he adds, are “intrinsic” to the identity of both the Father and the Son and men and women (222). “The Son cannot be the Son if not subordinate, so the wife cannot be wife if not subordinate” (222).

Matthew dates the beginning of the revolt against the EFS doctrine of the Trinity, or what I would call, “the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity,” to a blog by the complementarian theologian Liam Goligher on June 3, 2016 (222). He knows this is not the case, but he told me in personal correspondence that he gives this late date because his publisher wanted him to be brief.

The history in more detail is this: What I call the “complementarian doctrine of the Trinity” was first enunciated by George Knight III in his seminal book, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, published in 1977.3 He invented the idea that men and women and the divine Father and Son are differentiated by differing “roles” and “authority” and that the hierarchical ordering of the divine persons in heaven is prescriptive for the man-woman relationship on earth. Huge numbers of evangelicals, in ignorance of the creedal and confessional doctrine of the Trinity, embraced his novel and heretical doctrine of the Trinity because they saw it gave the most profound theological basis possible for the permanent subordination of women. Under the leadership of Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Bruce Ware, Don Carson and countless other well-known evangelical theologians, who called themselves “complementarians,” the eternal subordination of the Son in heaven became the dominant argument in support of the subordination of women on earth.

As far as I can see, the first evangelical to point out in print that what complementarians were teaching on the Trinity is illogical and contrary to historic orthodoxy, was the highly respected evangelical theologian, Millard Erickson, in his book, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, published in 1995.4 He says, “A temporal, functional subordination [of the Son] without inferiority of essence seems possible, but not an eternal subordination.”5 In other words, he is saying the eternal subordination of the Son implies by necessity a subordination in “essence” (being), or we might say, the “ontological subordination” of the Son. In 1997, a detailed and well-informed frontal attack on complementarian teaching on the Trinity followed in an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, written by a well-known professor at Wheaton College, Gilbert Bilezikian.6 He argued that this teaching was undeniably heretical, a modern-day counterpart of Arianism. From the early 1990s, I was opposing the idea that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father in lectures and in reviews of complementarian publications, and in 2002 I published The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate, which is still in print.7 Then, in 2006, I published Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity.8 Both books are listed by Matthew in his bibliography (pp. 352ff.), but he never refers to them in the text of his book. Before 2016, I also published at least a dozen scholarly articles opposing any hierarchical ordering of the three divine persons in the immanent Trinity.9 I also note at this point that Matthew does not list in his bibliography or mention at any point in the text my 2017 book, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity, which he tells me he has read. This book gives in great detail the story I have just outlined.10

But it is not only that evangelical egalitarian theologians were strongly condemning the EFS doctrine of the Trinity long before Goligher wrote in 2016. Two well-informed Reformed women, Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd, both complementarians, had done so two years before him.11 It was female complementarians who first pulled the brake cord.12 Matthew knows this. Why does he attribute the first assault on EFS by complementarians to a male complementarian?

In ch. 8, Matthew Barrett rightly identifies the three great Trinitarian errors or heresies as Sabellianism (or as we call it today modalism), tritheism, and subordinationism as taught by Arius. In every complementarian publication before 2016, we were told by complementarians (I have found no exceptions) that the eternal subordination of the Son in role and authority does not imply, let alone suggest, the ontological subordination of the Son. This denial was a complementarian mantra repeated time and time again. Matthew’s rebuttal of this mantra is devasting. He says that if the Son’s subordination is eternal, and it can never be otherwise, then it must be ontological in nature; the Son’s subordination defines who he is, his being. He says,

It is fallacious to say there is something ontological as supposed to something functional within the immanent Trinity. This is a strange dichotomy, one that is not just novel in every way but antithetical to biblical, Nicene orthodoxy. In all their exegesis of Scripture, the pro-Nicene fathers would never have recognised such categories. The Nicene Creed never refers to “roles” of hierarchy within the immanent Trinity. To speak of the immanent Trinity was always to speak of ontology. (232)

Then he adds a knock-out punch: “Inventing a division between ontological and functional is a farce” (236).

I, and other egalitarian evangelical theologians, have been making this argument for more than thirty years. Now we have a gender complementarian agreeing with us. To eternally subordinate the Son in role and authority necessarily implies his ontological subordination. This means the EFS doctrine of the Trinity, first devised by complementarians and then enthusiastically propagated by complementarians up to 2016, is a form of the heresy called “subordinationism,” narrowly defined as the ontological subordination of the Son, or more accurately and broadly defined as the error of sub-ordering—or we might say, hierarchically ordering—in any way, the divine persons in the eternal or immanent Trinity.13

What I am uneasy about in ch. 8 is that Matthew almost entirely critiques the EFS position and those who support it. If you did not know that complementarians invented, and for forty years promulgated the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son in role and authority, making it foundational to the complementarian position, you would never realise that it is more accurate to call what he is critiquing, the “complementarian doctrine of the Trinity.” Yes, a small number of gender complementarians in recent years have made trenchant criticisms of their fellow complementarians for corrupting the doctrine of the Trinity to support their belief in the permanent subordination of women, and Matthew is among these few brave souls, but I say confidently that for about forty years all those who affirmed the eternal subordination of the Son, and all those who still do, are complementarians. On p. 250, Matthew says “EFSers have exerted no little effort to present their position as the complementarian view.” I think they have been very successful in doing this.

In a large gathering in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Australia, arranged as a debate between complementarians and evangelical egalitarians, the first speaker defending the complementarian case argued that the doctrine of the Trinity that ordered the divine persons hierarchically was prescriptive for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes on earth. In reply, I pointed out that the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church and the Athanasian Creed, both binding on us as ordained Anglicans, explicitly excluded the hierarchical ordering of the persons of the Trinity. When I finished speaking, a bishop on the other side of the debate jumped to his feet and with great vehemence said, “Kevin, we complementarians will never give way to you on the Trinity. To do so would weaken our case for the headship of men and the subordination of women.” In my opinion he summed up accurately what virtually all complementarians for many decades believed. The complementarian belief in the permanent subordination of women was inextricably connected with and predicated on belief in the eternal subordination of the Son.

What Matthew does not acknowledge is that, for complementarians, their abandonment of their doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity which they dogmatically claimed was clearly taught in Scripture, has mortally wounded their case for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes. If they have “lost” the debate about the Trinity, which they said was the most important element in their case for the permanent subordination,14 then surely the latter stands in a very precarious situation. It too is threatened with collapse and defeat. Maybe complementarians have got what the Bible teaches on the man-woman relationship dead wrong, just as they did with the Trinity. Maybe evangelical egalitarians are reading the Bible rightly as they did with the Trinity. For evangelical egalitarians, the subordination of women is entirely due to the fall, as Gen 3:16 makes clear, and as such should be opposed by Christians. The creation ideal is seen in Gen 1:27ff. where God bestows on man and woman the same status and dignity, commissions them both to govern God’s world standing side by side, not one over the other, and the family mandate is a responsibility given to both sexes. Jesus embraces this view of the sexes, saying not one word on “male headship” and its corollary, the permanent subordination of women, and much to the contrary. A single text, 1 Tim 2:8–15, cannot save the day for complementarians. Everything said in every verse in this passage says something that has no parallel in the rest of the Bible. It is obviously addressing an exceptional situation and its teaching is thus not normative.15 What we Christians should take as normative is what Scripture as a whole says on the status, leadership abilities, and ministry of men and women, not one idiosyncratic text.

Chapter 9 focuses entirely on the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. What Matthew says is inspiring. After reading the chapter twice, it seems to me he gets it all right. He captures well what the Bible says on the Spirit and accurately outlines the doctrine of the eternal procession or spiration of the Spirit that guarantees that the Spirit is both a distinct divine person yet sharing in the one undivided divine being. He is the Spirit and he is fully God.

In ch. 10 Matthew discusses the doctrine of “inseparable operations” which is basic to the historic and confessional doctrine of the Trinity but denied by EFSers. Basic to the EFS and complementarian position until 2016 was the dogma that God has given “different roles” to each person of the Trinity. The fundamental “role” of the Father is to command, and the fundamental “role” of the Son is to obey. Matthew says that, like all social trinitarians, EFSers think of the three divine persons as individuals each with their own will and work. The historic and confessional doctrine of the Trinity puts up again the sign, Go back you are going the wrong way.16 The God revealed in Scripture is homoousios/one in being. Because the three persons are one in being, they cannot be separated or divided; they must always work as one. This is called the doctrine of “inseparable operations.” This doctrine does not deny that some divine works or operations are “appropriately” associated with one divine person, such as the Father with creation, the Son with salvation, and the Spirit with sanctification, but never to the exclusion of the other two. This is called the doctrine of “divine appropriations.”

Conclusion

Simply Trinity is a very significant contribution to the contemporary debate about the doctrine of the Trinity among evangelical and Reformed Christians. Matthew writes as an informed Trinitarian theologian of gender complementarian convictions, who studied under Bruce Ware. His repudiation of the EFS doctrine of the Trinity in ch. 8 is so compelling that the book is worth buying just for this chapter. The great strength of his book is that he writes as an “insider.” He is a “card carrying” gender complementarian. Sadly, I fear he may soon become an “outsider” because complementarian leaders do not tolerate critics of their position. For most male complementarians, their doctrine of “male headship” is the most important doctrine for them. It guarantees their pre-eminence. It cannot be questioned.

The shadow cast by Matthew’s complementarian convictions is the great weakness of this book. He does not acknowledge that egalitarian evangelicals of Reformed conviction were the first to oppose the denial of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, and that they were the first, by a long-shot, to oppose the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son, a doctrine exclusively promulgated by complementarians. Further, he cannot unambiguously acknowledge that until 2016 most complementarian theologians inextricably tied together their doctrine of the permanent subordination of women and the eternal subordination of the Son. Nor can he see that the defeat of the complementarian embrace of the EFS doctrine of the Trinity, which complementarians said was clearly taught in Scripture, raises the question acutely of whether the complementarian teaching on the permanent subordination of women (euphemistically called “role subordination”) is clearly taught in Scripture. Egalitarian evangelicals argue that it is not, indeed that it is contrary to Scripture read holistically. I am convinced they are right on this as they were on the Trinity.

I completely agree with the gender complementarian, Carl Trueman, long-time professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, when he says,

Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis. But this is a crisis of its own making—the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them.17

I note that within the last year, Beth Moore, the most listened to speaker in the Southern Baptist Convention, has also reached this conclusion after years of struggle and maltreatment, that the permanent subordination of women is not what the Bible clearly teaches and has left the SBC.18 Will she be the first complementarian to break ranks on this hugely important issue for so many male evangelical pastors? Here I remind my readers that two complementarian women were the first to break ranks on the doctrine of the Trinity embraced until that time by all complementarians.19

Postscript

After several email exchanges with Matthew, I was keen to find out how our marriages were different, for we both claimed to have idyllic marriages. We could not be happier as couples. I wanted to know this because Matthews says, “I am a committed, convictional complementarian,” and I would say, I am a committed, convictional evangelical egalitarian. Our theology of marriage is thus very different, but what I wanted to know is how our marriages differed in practice. I have always thought our theology should determine how we live and relate to others. I pressed Matthew on this question because the evidence is now in. “Happy” marriages in today’s world are almost by definition profoundly equal relationships, and “unhappy” marriages almost by definition are profoundly unequal relationships. I was not at all surprised to find that in practice our marriages were basically the same. Despite our contradictory theological positions on the man-woman relationship, it seems our marriages operate in much the same way. We two men both love our wives deeply, value their support and advice, make all important decisions conjointly with them, and do all we can to enrich their lives. We would never seek to impose our will on them. In other words, in practice we both have profoundly equal marriages.

In closing, I ask, how can the complementarian theology of the sexes not collapse if complementarians themselves are not putting it into practice and if many of them have agreed that their doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity, on which they built so much, is heretical?

Notes

1. I sent back to him my edited manuscript. He then asked for a small number of other corrections which I gladly made.

2. Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (IVP Academic, 2012), 270 pgs.

3. George W. Knight III, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Baker, 1977).

4. Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Baker, 1995).

5. Erickson, God in Three Persons, 17.

6. “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Trinity,” JETS 40 (1197) 57–68.

7. Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (InterVarsity, 2002).

8. Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Zondervan, 2006).

9. For example, “The Doctrine of the Trinity and Subordinationism,” Evangelical Review of Theology 28/3 (July 2004) 270–84; “The Evangelical Theological Society and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” EQ 80/4 (Oct 2008) 323–38; “The Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity,” Priscilla Papers 26/3 (Summer 2012) 12–23; “Defining the Error Called Subordinationism,” EQ 87/3 (2015) 207–24.

10. Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Cascade, 2017).

11. For further reading from these authors, see Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Zondervan, 2020); Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (P&R, 2019).

12. I tell this story in Giles, Rise and Fall, 39–41.

13. See Giles, “Defining the Error,” 207–24.

14. In The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity, 52–54, 110–14, I document how the leading complementarian theologians with one voice agreed that their hierarchical ordering of the sexes in heaven was foundational to their case for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes on earth.

15. See my book, What the Bible Actually Teaches about Women (Cascade, 2018), 94–104.

16. Millard J. Erickson, Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Kregel, 2009) 258: “If indeed, the next generation of theologians move to this idea of ontological subordination, then much of what present-day conservative Trinitarian theologians . . . have worked so hard to preserve will be threatened. I therefore echo [Kevin] Giles’s plea . . . ‘Go back. You are going the wrong way.’”

17. “Fahrenheit 381,” Mortification of Spin, June 7, 2016.

18. See Bob Smietana, “Bible teacher Beth Moore, splitting with Lifeway, says, ‘I am no longer a Southern Baptist,’” Religion News Service (March 9, 2021).

19. Giles, Rise and Fall, 39–41.

Book info
Author:
Publisher:
Baker Books
Year:
2021
ISBN:
978-1540900074