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 impetus for this series was the surprising realization that some complementarians were using the Trinity to “prove” that authority/submission was a divine paradigm, built into the Godhead itself—that women could be told that they have been given a permanent, subordinate role, but are still ontologically equal—and that they should feel good about it because that’s how the Son and Holy Spirit function in relation to the Father.
My goal for this series on the Trinity is not necessarily to change anyone’s mind (although that would be nice), but to prepare thinking Christians so they’re not surprised when they cross paths with this theory.
Of course, my ultimate goal is to give more women in evangelical academics the confidence they need to say “Yeah, I’ve heard about this. I’ve considered the arguments. And I can hold my own at the ETS, thank you very much.”
Part 1 in this series took a look at what has historically been considered the orthodox view of the Trinity in which each member of the Godhead is, as the ETS doctrinal statement says “an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”
Part 2 investigated the recent trend by some scholars proposing that the Son has submitted to the Father from eternity past and will continue to submit for all of eternity future. This trinitarian model of eternal submission is then being used to suggest that the divine paradigm of authority/subordination is reflected in God’s creation in the relationship between men and women.
Another important piece of this discussion from Part 2 is the concept of “social trinitariniansim,” a doctrine that describes the Father, Son, and Spirit as three independent centers of consciousness with their own distinct intellect and wills, who maintain their “oneness” by a kind of indwelling of each other.
The goal of this third and final post, is not to suggest that there is no biblical support for eternal subordination of the Son (However uncomfortable I am with it, I do think that a scriptural case can, in fact, be made), but that using the Trinity as a model for relationships between people, other than in the most generalize sense, is just a bad idea.
The easiest way to demonstrate the problem with using the Trinity to support one’s view of gender relations is to recognize that both complementarians and egalitarians appeal to the Trinity and come to opposite conclusions. “There is no hierarchy in the Godhead,” assert egalitarians. “Any submission of the Son to the Father is temporary and for a specific purpose, not ontological. Since the members of the Godhead are equal, gender relations should reflect that equality.”
Complementarians who subscribe to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father then turn around and say that the authority/submission dynamic built into the Trinity demonstrates that women can submit to male headship without compromising their essential equality.
The specific examples of how those on both sides of this issue use the Trinity to support their views on gender relations is, at the very least, absolutely fascinating. In a wonderful post, John Stackhouse describes the ways in which both sides draft the Trinity to support their claims:
Complementarians argue that the members of the Trinity are indeed co-equal, as the Nicene Creed makes clear, but also that the Son and Spirit willingly submit to the Father, and the Spirit humbly bears witness, not to himself, but to the Son. Thus, the argument continues, women can submit to men, as they ought to do (which is a point argued on other grounds) without feeling automatically devalued.
Egalitarians argue from the co-equality of members of the Trinity to the opposite conclusion. They say that the members of the Trinity do play different roles, but none of them dominates the others. Indeed, they are all involved in all aspects of divine work, from creation through redemption to consummation, in an interplay of mutual joy and cooperation.
David Congdon makes a similar point, saying that the fact that both complementarians and egalitarians use the Trinity to support their argument should clue us in to the fact that there are inherent problems with using this argument:
Earlier I argued that the social doctrine of the trinity is the hidden assumption behind the complementarian argument. Without this doctrine, none of its claims work, because you can only extrapolate human relations from the divine if the trinitarian persons are three distinct subjects. The irony is that—in the work of theologians like Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, John Zizioulas, and Catherine LaCugna—social trinitarianism makes the same move from trinity to humanity in support of egalitarianism. This, in itself, should give us pause. Whether one side has more arguments in favor or not, the fact remains that it is not at all clear that the argument from the trinity should result in a complementarian social order.
Even more fun than both sides actually using Trinitarian doctrine to support their positions is listening to each of them accuse the other of using it. In a video on The Gospel Coalition website (which actually has a lot of really good content ), D.A. Carson describes social trinitarianism as a doctrine that “abuses” the Trinity, while Tim Keller refers to social trinitarianism as something that is usually used to prop up egalitarianism.
Now, I’m not going to accuse either of these two scholars of being unaware of the fact that Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem are using social trinitarianism to support complementarianism. But they are, at the very least, ignoring the fact that the social trinitarianism that they are criticizing has become an important plank in the complementarian platform.
As an aside, Carson also makes it clear that he agrees with the eternal subordination of the Son, a position which, as I said in a previous post, I think makes social trinitarianism necessary.
Besides the fact that both complementarians and egalitarians use the doctrine of the Trinity to support their views on gender relations, there are several philosophical reasons why using the Trinity as a model for gender relationships is problematic.
John Stackhouse argues that using the trinity as a paradigm for one-on-one human relationships is a bad theological move by anyone. First of all, he says, we’re talking about three “persons,” not two. In addition to which they’re all, rhetorically at least, male.
And in his excellent series on the Trinity and gender, David Congdon makes the larger point that any attempt to create an analogy between a sovereign divine being and his creation is doomed from the start:
The logic of this move depends upon viewing each divine “person” as a distinct subject who then relates to the other divine persons the way we relate to other human beings. If the Father, Son, and Spirit constitute a single agent, then any relations between them would be entirely irrelevant for human relations; there would be no point of similarity between God and humanity…in order for this analogy between God and humanity to work, one has to univocally (i.e., literally or directly) apply a definition of human personhood to God. By defining God according to humanity, social trinitarian arguments necessarily end up rejecting the radical ontological differentiation between God and humanity.
The bottom line here is that in order for the Trinity to function as a model for human interaction, the members of the Trinity have to be separate beings, which is what orthodox Trinitarian theology has said they aren’t—for almost 2000 years now.
While researching this topic and following various rabbit trails down, through, and across the internet, I found a paper written by J. Scott Horrell, Professor of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. In “Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order” (JETS September 2004), Horrell argues unapologetically for a social model of the trinity (apparently he is not afraid of being accused of promoting social trinitarianism).
In his paper, Horrell suggests that there are four characteristics of the trinity that parallel human personhood, one of which he describes as “mutual indwelling of each in the other without confusion of self-consciousness.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t see how the mutual indwelling of the Trinity is replicated in relationships between individual people. What’s it like to “indwell” another person? In what way is that even possible? All the “indwelling” of one person by another I’ve ever seen has been on Star Trek or Doctor Who (and yes, I can name specific episodes).
In the end, all this talk just strikes me as people trying to impose their preferred paradigm of gender relations onto what is a cosmic mystery.
That is not to say that the doctrine of the Trinity has nothing to say about how humans relate to each other. I want to submit to Christ in the same selfless way that Christ submits to the Father. I want to model that love to my community and my world. And I want the Holy Spirit to dwell in me as the Trinity indwells each other. But to use the Trinity to go much farther than these general expressions of communal love begins to create an analogy where none exists. The Trinity is, after all, a doctrine about God, not about me.
Or, as Michael Bird so succinctly put it “I think everyone who is trying to use the Trinity to bankroll their view of gender and ministry is messing with the Trinity for the wrong reasons and should refrain from doing so, i.e., keep the Trinity out of your gender wars.”
So now, when you go to the ETS and end up sitting next to someone who talks about the Trinity as if it’s the complementarian’s trump card, you’ll be ready.
Although to be honest, if you have dinner with me, Amanda, and a few of our other friends, you’ll be much more likely to end up talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.