This post is part of the ETS Women’s Project. Our goal is to get more women to attend the national ETS meeting in Milwaukee, November 14-16. For more information on the annual meeting or to join ETS, click on the link in the left-hand column. Click here for Amanda MacInnis’ posts about the ETS Women’s Project.
The goal of my research into the ETS and talking to my “inside” sources (which, I must admit, makes me feel a little like Woodward and Bernstein) has not been to get dirt on an organization that I happen to have faith in, but to discover as much as I can about why there are so few women in the ETS—and to do whatever I can to encourage more women to join.
When I started this project, I was already aware that complementarians had pretty much taken over the leadership of the organization, but I was surprised to learn the extent to which some of them had gone to make complementarianism a plank in the evangelical platform. When I realized that the doctrine of the Trinity had been co-opted as theological support for male headship and female submission, I knew I had to address the issue directly.
The fact that this was happening at all was a revelation to me. I mean, if I messed with the Trinity that way, I’d be called a heretic, but here were well-respected scholars saying things that were not only different than what I’d been taught all my life, but made it sound like God the Father and God the Son were actually two separate entities, one of whom had always been—and always would be—in eternal submission to the other.
I was pretty sure that this would be news to most of the Christians I knew.
More importantly, though, I was concerned that women (and non-complementarian men) might come across these ideas either at ETS or in other blogs and have no response to them. I can just imagine some unsuspecting grad student (like I was last year), hearing a paper about “the eternal submission of the Son” and walking out of the session thinking they’ve just been submarined. Is female submission really rooted in the Trinity? What possible argument is there against that?
Or as John Stackhouse says “No wonder some complementarians argue this way. What a trump card! Our view of gender is rooted in the very nature of God!”
The fact is that there is by no means a consensus on this issue. There are, in fact, excellent arguments against it. And since my ultimate goal is to see more women strut into ETS with their heads held high, confident in their right to be there, I decided that the best approach was to address the issue head-on.
The biggest challenge I had with this particular topic is that I am not a Trinitarian scholar. I had to do a lot of research just to feel like I had a basic understanding of the issues involved. And since the Trinity is one of the most complex doctrines in Christianity, I will undoubtedly stumble over one term or another. But the goal here is to provide a kind of big picture of what’s going on so people understand both how complementarians are using the Trinity to support their theology and why it’s not the trump card that it might seem.
For a deeper, more thorough discussion of these issues, I recommend checking out the primary sources that I cite throughout the article. Work through them. Come to your own conclusions. Most importantly, be able to recognize these ideas when they insinuate their way into the conversation.
A Basic Understanding of the Trinity
First of all, let’s admit that the Trinity has not been something that most pastors find essential to their Sunday morning sermons. If my own church experience is any indication, most pastors struggle to find something “relevant” (one of my least favorite words, by the way) and “practical” (a word I like even less) to talk about each week so their parishioners can feel like they got their money’s worth. How the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit interact with one another does not fall into the category of topics that are likely to help someone save their marriage or get out of debt.
The only time I ever remember actually talking about the Trinity in church was during the Alpha course for new believers when someone would inevitably ask “Who do I pray to? The Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?” Since I was always taught that, as Millard Erickson says “The unity of God is basic. Monotheism is deeply implanted within the Hebrew-Christian tradition. God is one, not several,” my answer was always that it didn’t matter that much. If you prayed to one, you were praying to all of them.
In my research for this post, I consulted my systematic theology text, Erickson’s 1200-page Christian Theology. His “essential elements” of the doctrine of the Trinity include what I think has come to be the standard understanding of most Christians—that God is one, not several distinct entities; that each member of the Trinity is completely divine; and that the Trinity is uncreated and eternal.
It will also be helpful for our purposes to quote Erickson at length regarding what is sometimes called the “economic” function of the Trinity, in which…
The function of one member of the Trinity may for a time be subordinate to one or both of the other members, but that does not mean he is, in any way inferior in essence. Each of the three persons of the Trinity, has had, for a period of time, a particular function unique to himself. This is to be understood as a temporary role for the purpose of accomplishing a given end, not a change in status or essence.
Erickson goes on to give examples of functional subordination that might occur in human relationships, such as business or the military. It’s interesting to note, however, that Erickson does not use male headship/female submission as an example of this functional subordination, a move that would seem obvious to anyone looking to prop up complementarianism.
Another helpful description of what I think of as the traditional understanding of the Trinity is from David Congdon’s excellent series on Trinity, Gender, and Subordination. In it, he describes “Father, Son, and Spirit acting as a single agent in the economy. There are not three intellects, three wills, three self-consciences in God. There is one self-conscience, one “I,” that acts in a triune way—one God in threefold self-repetition.”
For my money, the strongest defense of the historic understanding of the Trinity comes from Phillip Cary and his explanation of the theology behind the Nicene creed of 325 A.D. “Everything the trinity does is done by the Father, Son, and Spirit working together with one will,” writes Cary. “The three persons of the Trinity always work inseperably, for their work is always the work of the one God.”
Here is where the rubber meets the road. And here is where Cary describes the Trinity that I think most evangelicals are talking to when they call upon the “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not just three persons who decide to cooperate, like Peter, Paul, and Mary agreeing to do something together. Their agreement is essential and necessary, part of their very being, or else they would actually be three Gods just as Peter, Paul, and Mary are three humans…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always necessarily of one will, because there is only one God and therefore only one divine will. And where there is but one will there cannot be the authority of command and obedience, for that requires one person’s will to be subordinate to a will other than his or her own.
What’s happening in some complementarian circles (including some corners of the ETS) is an attempt to exchange the doctrine of the economic, temporary subordination of the Son (which most theologians agree with) with a kind of eternal subordination in which the Son has always been—and eternally will be—in submission to the Father. This revision of Trinitarian theology is then being used to support the position that the submission of women to men does not imply any kind of essential inferiority, but is simply a mirror of the divine relationship between Father and Son.
Yes, this is heady stuff, which is why I’m going to split the discussion into two parts. For now, it’s just important to get a handle on the specifics of an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. It’s also important to grasp what Cary is talking about when he says that the Trinity must always be “necessarily of one will,” because that will become important later.
And as always, I want to emphasize that the point of this discussion is not necessarily to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong (although that would be nice), but to demonstrate that a group such as the ETS, that is dedicated to faithfully equipping people for ministry, should not be—and, in fact, is not—monolithic about these secondary issues.
In many cases, all that’s necessary is that a critical mass of reasonable people speak up. And for those who are really nervous about speaking in front of a group, just think of everyone sitting in the audience in their underwear.