Is the Trinity a holy hierarchy, a triarchy, with God the Father as the boss, Jesus as his deputy, and the Holy Spirit as the Son’s assistant or delegate? The short answer is no. Historical Christianity—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—has affirmed that the Trinity is a Tri-unity of divine persons, not a tripartite hierarchy of heavenly beings. That is because in the Nicene Creed (AD 381), God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are equal in being and share the same divine essence. What differentiates the persons of the Godhead is not authority or rank, but relations of origin, i.e., how the divine persons relate to each other. God the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally generated rather than made or created, while the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and maybe from the Son too).
The church reached this conclusion after torrid debates in the fourth century about the divine nature of Jesus. In short, the problem was about what kind of divinity God the Son possessed: Was the Son divine like a super-duper-mega-uber-angel? Or was the Son divine in the same way that God the Father was divine? While there were many discussions about in what sense the Son was divine, it came to a climax when a Libyan presbyter named Arius criticized the theology of bishop Alexander of Alexandria in Egypt. In sum, Arius believed that Alexander’s doctrine of God was too philosophical and not scriptural enough: it was coming close to modalism, the view that the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three sides of the same person. In contrast, Arius believed that the Son was a created being and therefore not co-equal or co-eternal with God the Father. In addition, God the Son was distinct from God the Father and subordinate to him as a heavenly creature. Arius argued that if the Son were truly divine and co-equal with the Father, then there would be two Gods, which contradicted the monotheistic nature of Christianity and compromised the monarchy of the Father. Arius believed that the Son was a mediator between God and humanity, but not fully divine in the way that God the Father was divine—more like a supreme angelic being. Arius’s views were condemned at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. But the debate was protracted, producing no small number of theological fights, ecclesial factions, and imperial interferences for the next fifty years until 381, when the Nicene declarations were updated and reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople.
However, various forms of Arianism get dressed up and given a new permutation every so often. The most prevalent form today is the Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group who regard Jesus as the archangel Michael and contend that Jesus is not equal to God the Father. But there are also other Arianisms that can be found among sixteenth-century Unitarians, seventeenth-century Anglicans, eighteenth-century Lutherans, and nineteenth-century Baptists. Even today, there are some articulations of Christology and some explanations of the Trinity that can come dangerously close to either Arianism or semi-Arianism. It is good to know about these theological errors of the past so that we are forewarned against falling into the same pitfalls ourselves. As such, historical theology is worth studying if only to remind us that sometimes the theological road less traveled is less traveled for a very good reason!
The eternal functional subordination (EFS) debate
In more recent times, assertions about tiers of authority in the Trinity have been manifested through debates concerning gender roles, women in ministry, and husband-wife relationships. One of the primary points of contention that has arisen has been that of the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father. On one such view, the Son is equal to the Father in being and essence (i.e, ontological equality), but is subordinate to the Father in role (i.e., in terms of functionality). The Son’s subordination to the Father is not limited to the incarnation but goes all the way back into eternity. In terms of gender relations, the mileage that one gets out of this view is that it presents a scriptural instance of how it is possible to have ontological equality with functional subordination between persons. Thus, although wives may be subordinate in role to their husbands, they still possess an ontological equality with men as sharers of the imago Dei, and women are not in any way ontologically inferior by being submissive to their husbands. Towards this end, Wayne Grudem has argued:
Just as God the Father has authority over the Son, though the two are equal in deity, so in a marriage, the husband has authority over the wife, though they are equal in personhood. In this case, the man’s role is like that of God the Father, and the woman’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. They are equal in importance, but they have different roles.1
In terms of justifying the eternal subordination of the Son in the first place, Grudem declares:
If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed. This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”2
In other words, for Grudem and those who have followed him, it appears that within the Godhead the authority of the Father over the Son and the subordination of the Son to the Father was mirrored in the authority of the husband over the wife and the subordination of the wife to the husband. In the case of both dyads (Father–Son and husband–wife) everybody is equal in being, but there are relations defined by authority and submission to demarcate the various roles between the persons.
The advantage this argument had was that it rooted complementarian ideas of gender relationships in the Trinity. The disadvantage was that it appeared to rehearse some Arian Christological tropes by using the word “subordination” and abandoning the traditional ways of differentiating the persons (i.e., unbegotten, eternal generation, and procession). Quite expectedly, there was a huge backlash, with many egalitarian theologians accusing Grudem and company of being Arian.
It was at this point that I entered the debate nearly twenty years ago—and I was initially sympathetic to Grudem. First, I agreed that the obedience of Jesus to his heavenly Father in the incarnation does tell us something of the eternal relationships between Father and Son. This is because of what is known as “Rahner’s Rule” whereby the economic Trinity (how God acts towards us in Christ) tell us something about the immanent Trinity (how God exists in all of eternity). Second, it was clear to me that Grudem and others like Bruce Ware were not Arians in the classic sense. They did not believe the Son was a created being, much less an angel, and while they used the language of “subordination,” I assumed that they did not really mean it. They were (clumsily) attempting to distinguish the Son from the Father. I myself preferred to use Wolfhart Pannenberg’s description of the Son’s obedient “self-distinction from the Father”3 with the caveat that the obedience is about taxis (order) rather than archē (authority). Where I vigorously disagreed with Grudem was in applying intra-Trinitarian relationships to human relationships. To be honest, unless your marriage includes Father, Son, and a Eunuch, then I’m not sure applying the Trinity to your marriage is really going to work. I felt like Grudem, Ware, and others were reading their views of marriage and gender roles back into the Trinity.
But, to be honest, I should have been more skeptical, because there was much, much more wrong with Grudem’s view than I had originally emphasized.
Trinity without hierarchy in the Godhead
Two things changed me from lukewarm sympathy to frosty criticism in regard to positing eternal functional subordination inside the Trinity.
First, Rahner’s Rule is not absolute. Yes, the economic Trinity (how Father, Son, and Spirit act in creation and redemption) does express the immanent Trinity (how the triune God is by nature). But, not everything in the economic Trinity can be projected into the immanent Trinity. For example, Jesus submits to the Spirit during his incarnation, but after his ascension the Holy Spirit appears to submit to him. How does the Jesus/Spirit relationship project back into eternity given the alternating patterns of authority between them?4
Second, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are certainly not Arians, their (former)5 denial of the eternal generation of the Son and their preference for authority/submission as the means of differentiating the Father and the Son as persons comes very close to a species of semi-Arianism known as “Homoianism.” In Homoianism, the Father and Son are similarly divine but not the same, the language of “generation” and “same substance” is eschewed, and there is a focus on the Father’s monarchy and greatness over the Son. In a document known to us as the Blasphemy of Sirmium (AD 357), we find Homoianism layed out:
Since there appeared to be some misunderstanding respecting the faith, all points have been carefully investigated and discussed at Sirmium in the presence of our most reverend brothers and fellow-bishops, Valens, Ursacius, and Germinius.
It is evident that there is one God, the Father Almighty, according as it is believed throughout the whole world; and His only Son Jesus Christ our Saviour, begotten of Him before the ages.
But we cannot and ought not to say that there are two Gods, for the Lord Himself said, “I will go unto My Father and your Father, unto My God and your God” [John 20:17]. So there is one God over all, as the Apostle hath taught us, “Is He God of the Jews only? Is He not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith” [Rom 3:29–30] And in all other things they agreed thereto, nor would they allow any difference.
But since some or many persons were disturbed by questions concerning substance, called in Greek οὐσία, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ὁμοούσιον [homoousion, “same substance”] or what is called ὁμοιούσιον [homoiousion, “similar substance”] there ought to be no mention made of these at all. Nor ought any exposition to be made of them for the reason and consideration that they are not contained in the divine Scriptures, and that they are above man’s understanding, nor can any man declare the birth of the Son, of whom it is written, “Who shall declare His generation?” [Isa 53:8]. For it is plain that only the Father knows how He begot the Son, and the Son how He was begotten of the Father.
There is no question that the Father is greater. No one can doubt that the Father is greater than the Son in honour, dignity, splendour, majesty, and in the very name of Father, the Son Himself testifying, “He that sent Me is greater than I” [John 14:28]. And no one is ignorant that it is catholic doctrine that there are two Persons of Father and Son; and that the Father is greater, and that the Son is subordinated to the Father, together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him, and that the Father has no beginning and is invisible, immortal and impassible, but that the Son has been begotten of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, and that the generation of this Son, as is aforesaid, no one knows but His Father.
And that the Son of God Himself, our Lord and God, as we read, took flesh, that is, a body, that is, man of the womb of the Virgin Mary, of the Angel announced. And as all the Scriptures teach, and especially the doctor of the Gentiles himself, He took of Mary the Virgin, man, through whom He suffered. And the whole faith is summed up and secured in this, that the Trinity must always be preserved, as we read in the Gospel, “Go ye and baptize all nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” [Matt 28:19]. Complete and perfect is the number of the Trinity.
How the Paraclete, the Spirit, is through the Son: Who was sent and came according to His promise in order to instruct, teach and sanctify the apostles and all believers. 6
That quote is both long and truncated, but the main points are:
- The author affirms a strict monotheism.
- He rejects any mention of “generation” because it is an inscrutable mystery.
- He rejects also the language of “essence.”
- He rejects the language of “same/similar substance” (the famous homoousion and homoiousion) because these terms do not appear in Scripture.
- He affirms the Son’s general divinity as “God from God.”
- He affirms the Father’s authority and the Son’s subordination.
- He affirms the full humanity of Jesus.
- He affirms the sending of the Holy Spirit to all believers.
Those who supported the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father in recent controversies mustered arguments that were not technically Arian but were close enough to semi-Arian Homoianism to be rather alarming and certainly unorthodox as far as classic Trinitarian theology is concerned.
Moreover, the really concerning thing is that what was driving advocacy for eternal functional subordination and the backlash against it was not the doctrine of God per se, but rather, debates about gender roles and marriage. Now, there might be some good reasons for being complementarian (e.g., 1 Tim 2:11–15; Eph 5:22–33), however, tinkering with the Trinity by reading tiers of authority into it was a bad way of trying to provide theological capital to one’s view of gender, authority, and marriage. The proof of which is that even many complementarians have rejected the eternal functional subordination view as unorthodox and something that should not be used to buttress complementarian perspectives of relationships between men and women.
The reason for rejecting eternal functional subordination is that in the orthodox view of the Trinity there is no hierarchy, no tiers of authority and power in the Trinity, and no gradations of glory and majesty. Nobody is lesser or greater than the other. What distinguishes the divine persons is not eternal relationships of authority and submission, but relationships of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally generated, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and—for some —from the Son).7
The church councils reached that position based on three factors:
- Their reading of Scripture.
- They were searching for language that affirmed what Scripture said but which nobody could obfuscate or bluff around. This is precisely why they adopted non-scriptural terms like homoousios: because Arians and semi-Arians could not spin that word their way.
- They wished to preserve the worship of God the Son as truly God and not as an inferior deity.
But what about the subordination texts?
Some might object that there are many scriptural texts in which Jesus declares that he is subordinate to the Father in at least some sense.
For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus declares,
You have heard that I said to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would have rejoiced that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am. (John 14:28)
I’d go so far as to say that John 14:28 was the John 3:16 of Arianism. It was a text prized by Arians because it said, quite explicitly, that the Father is greater than the Son. But what the Nicene theologians pointed out—that is, theologians who aligned themselves with the Creed of Nicaea—is that the greatness only applies to Jesus’s earthly life as one who is sent by the Father. In addition, the Gospel of John also emphasizes Jesus’s oneness with the Father (John 10:30 17:11, 21) and his equality with the Father (John 5:18). As Adesola Akala puts it:
The Johannine theology of sending ties Jesus’s divine sonship to his agency from the Father, making the gospels’ subordination language inevitable. The subordination conundrum in John’s Gospel, therefore, stems from the theological tension originating from the narrative portrayal of the Father who sends his equally divine Son into the world as his unique emissary. In the narrative, in every instance where the Son uses subordination language, his essential equality and oneness with the Father is clearly affirmed. As highlighted by patristic pro-Nicene theologians, the Johannine Jesus is eternally equal with the Father; his divinity supersedes his delegated role as the Father’s emissary.8
There are also several purported subordination texts in Paul’s letters. In particular, in 1 Corinthians. Paul asserts at one point:
I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11:3)
Then later, in talking about the final consummation of the kingdom, he writes:
Then the end [comes], when he hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For it is necessary for him to reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death. For “he subjected all things under his feet” [Ps 8:6]. But when it says “all things” are subjected, it is clear that the one who subjected all things to him is not included. But whenever all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected all things to him, in order that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:24–28)
Once more, it is possible to read these texts in a strictly subordinationist way, as a hierarchy consisting of God → Christ→ Man → Woman (1 Cor 11:3) and the Son subject to God in the final consummation (1 Cor 15:28). Those passages, ripped out of their context, removed from the orbit of Paul’s wider theology, and dislocated from Paul’s affirmations of the Son as equal to God the Father, can be taken in an Arian sense of an inferior and created Son. But it is more likely that the point expressed in both cases is the Son’s agency on behalf of the Father without disparaging his equality with the Father’s being and glory (see esp. Phil 2:6–11). 9
A summary of orthodox Trinitarian theology is given in the fifth-century Athanasian Creed (not written by the famous theologian, Athanasius of Alexandria—just named after him). This creed says:
Nothing in this Trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are co-eternal and co-equal with each other. … For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty co-eternal.
The members of the triune Godhead are, importantly, co-equal and co-eternal in glory and majesty. Yet that confessional affirmation is undermined by any approach that attempts to find in the Trinity a mirror of its favored model of church structures, gender relationships, or social arrangements. The Trinity might well have implications for how we think about equality, community, relationships, vocation, and order, but it is to our detriment when we re-create the Trinity in the image of our niche cause. For example, I’d be prepared to say that the triune God’s mission is continued in the church. The Father sends the Son, the Son bestows the Spirit, and the Son sends the church in the power of the Spirit. This is why Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). Or else, in the same way that the Father loves the Son, the Spirit is the bond of love between them, and they share that love outwardly, we might say that we too must love one another, and share that love with our neighbors—because the Spirit of God and the love of God have been poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5). So there’s a safe and reasoned imitation of the Trinity in our own church life. But I’m cautious about trying to get my view of marriage, democracy, and church governance validated by reading it into the Trinity. We need to mind the gap between divine relationships within the Trinity and human relationships with each other. Ultimately, the Trinity is not a proof text; it is a hermeneutic, a way of reading Scripture, the search for coherence in our doctrine of God. The Trinity matters because the alternatives, the many heresies such as modalism, adoptionism, Arianism, Tri-theism, etc., do not lead to a coherent reading of Scripture or accord with the church’s worship of Jesus as truly God and truly man. The Trinity is important for what it affirms as much as what it denies. We should not allow the doctrine of the triune God to be rewritten in order to bolster anyone’s political, social, anthropological, or ecclesial pet projects.
For those who want to learn more about this topic, they might like the read Michael F. Bird and Scott D. Harrower, Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology (Kregel, 2019). Or else, there is an excellent Logos Mobile course, Perspectives on the Trinity: Eternal Generation and Subordination in Tension (TH361), which covers every view and perspective about eternal functional subordination, the immanent versus economic Trinity, eternal generation, and more.
Finally, the Trinity is a complex doctrine, but an important one. It is worth wrestling with, if only to make sure our worship of God stands in the tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that confesses that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting … and in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (39 Articles § 1).
Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit
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The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity
Retrieving Eternal Generation
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Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application
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- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 459–60.
- Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 1:308–17.
- A point ably made by Scott Harrower, Trinitarian Self and Salvation: An Evangelical Engagement with Rahner’s Rule (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).
- Grudem and Ware have publicly declared a change of mind on the topic and now do affirm the eternal generation of the Son.
- Osius and Potamius, “The Second Creed of Sirmium—357 (The Blasphemy),” Early Church Texts, https://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/creed_second_of_sirmium_357_blasphemy.htm, accessed February 25, 2023.
- A division exists between the Latin and Greek churches of Europe as to whether the Spirit from the Father or from the Father and the Son. This is known as the filioque controversy.
- Adesola Akala, “Sonship, Sending, and Subordination in the Gospel of John,” in Trinity without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology, eds. Michael F. Bird and Scott D. Harrower (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2019), 35.
- See also Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 506ff.