When editors Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis’s Discovering Biblical Equality came out in 2005, many were surprised to read its subtitle: “Complementarity without Hierarchy.” “Wasn’t that term ‘complement’ already taken? Didn’t it already mean ‘hierarchical’ by its inherent nature? Was this a case of co-opting a word and attempting to redefine it away from its original meaning?” were the questions to ask. Those who took the time to check it out in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary may have been surprised to read: “1. something that completes or makes perfect . . . 2. The quantity or amount that completes anything . . . 3. Either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterpart.”1
That we are counterparts, completing one another (1 Cor 11:11–12), should not have been such a great surprise. Genesis 1:27 tells us male and female humans are created in the image of God, and we see God employing the concept of counterpart in Colossians 1:15. There, we are told that Jesus Christ is the visible counterpart of the invisible God, the eikōn, “that which has the same form as someth[ing] else,” a “living image”2 that completes God’s self-disclosing revelation by making the Great Unseen seen (John 14:8–11). No wonder the pious wanted to kill Jesus in John 5:18. We are told he was calling God “his own father,” “making himself equal (isos) with God.”3 What his opponents realized is that, in his claiming descent from none other than God, Jesus was actually declaring himself to be God, as his “Father” was God. Christians, of course, understand that he was doing far more than merely making a claim to deity. He was stating a revelation: revealing himself as equal with the Father.
How equal is equal? The word is actually an absolute term. Absolute terms do not have degrees of absolutism. One is either equal or one is not. It is like the term “eternal.” Someone or something is either “eternal,” or not “eternal.” If it lasts a phenomenally long time, but eventually ceases to be, like the Greek gods that could eventually die (a claim the Cretans even made for Zeus, whom they believed was buried on Mount Ida, though other Greeks maintained Zeus was indeed immortal, thus branding “all Cretans” as “liars”4), then it is not eternal. It is like the state of being pregnant. One is either pregnant or not. One is not “sort of pregnant,” or “somewhat pregnant.” One is either pregnant or one is not. It is like the word “unique.” In popular parlance, we hear folks refer to “the most unique experience I ever had,” or “this is more unique than that.” But, such statements are misusing the term. There are no degrees to “unique.” Something is either unique (one of a kind), or it is not. And it is like the term “egalitarian.” Again, this is an absolute term. One cannot be a soft egalitarian. One is either egalitarian, or one is not. There are not degrees of “equal.” Each of these terms describes an either/or situation. In classical Greek, isos meant “equal in size, strength, or number.”5 Equal meant equal.
The Trinity is in perfectly equal, completing, complementary harmony.
These days, when I begin my early morning prayers, I praise this harmony, appreciating each of the persons who make up the One God, revealed in the Bible, whom we worship as Christians. I thank and praise the Father, from whom comes every good and perfect gift and in whom is no shadow of turning. And I praise and thank Jesus, who did not have to leave heaven, but did so, coming into our world and suffering what we suffer, doing for us what we could never do for ourselves, dying for us to pay our penalty of rebellion. And I praise and thank the Holy Spirit for continuing to care-take us, equipping us with every gift we need to serve the reign of the Great Triune God.
As a result, I am these days increasingly troubled in my spirit whenever discussions on the Trinity degenerate into contentious arguments over whether the Father is supreme and the Son is secondary, or whether they are on the same plane, or whether the Spirit is just a lackey of one or both or has a full share in the Godhead, or whenever believers become completely absorbed in the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts to the exclusion of the other personalities in the Trinity, since that is the one who is working with us now. I fear we might all fall into a theological version of the political trap of the Corinthians—pitting one person of the Trinity against another as they chose one leader against the others: Paul versus Apollos versus Peter versus Christ (1 Cor 1:12). Paul was appalled (1 Cor 3:21). Apollos refused to visit (see 1 Cor 16:12). And, obviously, Peter did not choose to show up to capitalize on his devoted support group.
Applying this kind of selective preference to the Triune God is a grave error: an injustice to the God who loves us and who created us. In Genesis 1, we see the Holy Spirit gestating the chemicals that God created at the beginning, and, when they are ready, the Father speaking, and the Word going forth and creating (see Gen 1:1–3ff; cf. John 1:1–3, 10–11; Col 1:15–17). We do not see the One God With Three Faces or Personalities, whom the Bible reveals, as a triumvirate of three competing gods, splitting up over the blueprints for the world, or any of the persons of the Trinity rolling up a third of the plans and stalking out of heaven, grumbling, or holding out, insisting that “Created by (any one of them)” be stamped on one-third of us and a third of the items around us. All of the Godhead created us in a perfect harmony of activity and loves us and wants us to be in a love relationship with our creating One God in three coequal and coeternal personalities.
Jesus tells everyone in John 14:21 that whoever loves him will be loved by his Father. There is no competition in the Godhead. That is why Jesus, though he was “God,” as he reveals again to his peril in John 10:33, did not, as Paul explains to the Philippians, decide for selfish reasons his equality with God (again, the term for equality is isos) was something to hold onto (arpagmos, Phil 2:6), but lays aside (kevoō) what he possesses (Phil 2:7). Being already in the form (morphē) of God (2:6), this full person of the Godhead chooses to take on (lambanō) the form (that is the same word morphē) of a servant (2:7); for selfless love, he becomes human like us.
Then, as a human, the humbled God-in-human-form could assure his disciples that “the Father is greater (meizōn)” than himself in his now limited human form (John 14:28). But even while he is assuring his opponents his “Father . . . is greater [the same word meizōn] than all” in John 10:29, they still try to execute him for blasphemy, “because,” as they explain, “you being a human make yourself God” (v. 33), since he called God his Father and claimed that “I and the Father are one [hen]” (v. 30). The equality with God remains, even as he is limited in human form and, thereby, less than the Father in the attributes of deity: no longer omnipresent (when he was in Galilee, he was not in Bethany [see John 11:21]); no longer omniscient (he did not know everything now [see Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32], his humanity limiting his ability to search the depths of the Father’s mind); and no longer omnipotent (he could now die for our sins [see John 19:30]). But all this he gave up out of selfless love. As in the creation of humanity, in the recreation of humanity, we see God working in perfect harmony.
The lesson is obvious, as the editors of Discovering Biblical Equality so well knew. Equality is not something to be limited in others, nor is it something to be exploited. We who would become more like the God who created us need to strive for perfect harmony in our relationships, loving one another with a selfless love that completes each other and rules out selfish contention. This is the way God intended us to love each other. And we should love our Creator selflessly with complete gratitude. These goals will truly bring in the reign of God.
Toward reflecting the beautiful harmony we see within God, we are calling this present issue of Priscilla Papers “The Bible to the Creeds (with special attention to the Athanasian Creed): Divine Equality, Human Equality.” The title, I should mention, is set up in a Greek style of reasoning modeled on its letter “X” (pronounced “chi”) and is called a “chiasma”: A-B-B-A. In this case, our article on the Bible is about human equality as present in the New Testament churches. Aída Besançon Spencer draws out some insights from her brand new, major commentary on the Pastoral Epistles to show us how human equality was present in these seminal churches where mature Christian women were leaders. Then, Kevin Giles gives us a brief discussion on the value of the creeds. I follow with an application on the Trinity from the Bible and two creeds associated with Athanasius: the Creed of Nicaea, which he defended, and the Athanasian Creed, built by his disciples from his thought. Finally, Francis Geis explores insights about the Trinity gleaned from the Scriptures. Our book review of a volume edited by Alan Johnson, How I Changed My Mind, is presented by Shirley Barron. Ruth Hoppin brings our issue to a close with three delightful poems from her recent book, Spinning the Arrow of Time. Ruth is well known for her work on the authorship of Hebrews, along with her poetry, both of which have been published in previous issues of Priscilla Papers.
In a fallen world, we find competing with and attempting to best and subject one another deceptively easy to do, but, if our model is Jesus, we will realize that any authority we possess is gifted to us by God and is a servant authority, given us to serve the church over which Jesus Christ (not ourselves) is head (Col 1:18). Our goal is not to rule over each other, but to hear our Savior say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25: 21).
- Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (New York, NY: Random House, 2001), 418, col. 1.
- Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 281 col 2–282, col 2.
- All translations of the Bible text by the present author.
- See a discussion in Aída Besançon Spencer, Titus, 2 Timothy, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), p. TBA.
- Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, comp., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 839, col. 1.