Three Failing Strategies Being Used to Redefine the Trinity

This summer’s Trinitarian Debate has looked like people jumping in a boat to cross a river, but getting stuck halfway because you’re not practiced in the art of rowing, drifting and circling in the current.

(If you want to see the very real implications of this debate, see the recent series on the male-centered church planting movement in Boston.)

On a Boat: An Image of the Controversy

Amid the fourth century Arian Controversy, Christian theologians pushed off the treacherous shore of “Subordinationism” in a boat called “Nicaea” which contained a single oar. On that oar was written “homoousion”, which means “the same being” (used to affirm that the Son and Father are “of the same being” and therefore equal as God in every way). In this boat, and with this oar, the Church crossed the river to the secure docks known as the Councils of Constantinople and Ephesus, disembarking on the safe shores of “Nicene Orthodoxy”.


And for the last two decades a group of complementarian theologians have jumped into this boat called “Nicaea” and grabbed the oar of homoousia and declared their own orthodoxy. They have, however, done this even while proclaiming the eternal subordination of the Son. Rather than sitting on the bow with the shores of Nicene Orthodoxy clearly in front of them, rowing with equal power, authority, and force on both sides of the boat, they instead hang their feet off the stern and kick, merely holding the oar of homoousion uselessly in their hands while looking backward at the shores of “Subordination”.

Those on the shores of Nicene Orthodoxy bid them to come all the way across, to actually put the oar of homoousion to work, and to press on to what is before them and let go of what is behind. But these theologians claim they are orthodox because they affirm Nicaea and are grasping onto the homoousion. Meanwhile, they keep drifting in the current, exerting tremendous exegetical energy while making very little theological progress.

It is as if these evangelicals had discovered a traditional (creedal) understanding of the Trinity without knowing how to use it, leading to several malfunctions, perhaps not returning to heretical shores, but certainly not crossing over to orthodoxy.

Have evangelical discovered a creedal understanding of the Trinity without knowing how to use it? Click To Tweet

Controversy Update: 3 Failing Strategies

What then, has been learned during this summer intensive surrounding the Trinity and Subordination? Under intense pressure from critics, supporters of the Son’s functional subordination of the Son to the Father have come up with different strategies for bolstering their position (see mostly notably Denny Burk’s recent post on the debate).

1) Terms

First, many have distanced themselves from the term “subordination” and have instead opted for “submission”. They hope this will lead to less confusion with the ancient heresy of subordination (Arianism) and will focus the discussion in the right area.

But, I fear, this change of terms is mere window dressing because no one in the previously Subordinationist camp has change their arguments in any substantial way (but see below for new nuances).

For example, to say that I grew up in San Jose, CA or that I was raised in Silicon Valley are two different ways of saying the same thing. Different terms are expressing the same reality. Those previously espousing the “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS) or the “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) are now speaking more of the “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS), but the underlying concepts, theology, and exegesis all remain the same.

This change in terms, however, is good because it more clearly aligns the Trinity and its influence of gender relations around the word “submission”. Their arguments are summarized like this: as the Son submits to the Father even while being equal to the Father, so too the wife submits to the husband even while being equal the husband.

2) A Claim to No Analogy

But in an interesting twist, we have also learned that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is not really interested in this connection. New president Denny Burk mentioned that the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and our understanding of gender relationships has never been a central issue because, for him, biblical complementarianism neither stands nor falls through parallels or analogies from the Trinity.

While it might be true that Burk’s position does not fail without support from the Trinity, it is false and misleading to say the CBMW and others have not actively pursue this analogy with the Trinity.

Aimee Byrd and Rachael Miller have shown this is definitely not the case, nor has it ever been. From the earliest days to their most recent conference the CBMW has promoted books and articles connecting gender complementarianism and Trinitarians subordinationism (see these books for women’s and youth bible studies).

Burk’s denial of CBMW’s link to this issue is particularly interesting when in the Fall, 2011 issue of the “Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (a publication of CBMW) he wrote an article on “Christ’s Functional Subordination in Philippians 2:6” (pp. 25-37) in which argues for the eternally subordinate role of the Son to the Father.

3) Eternal Covenant of Salvation

Along with a shift in terms, there has been a change in what is meant by the “eternal”. Previously “eternal” just meant everything outside of time pertaining to the nature and being of God. Burk and others claimed that the Son not only submitted to the Father in the Son’s earthly mission of salvation, but that the Son also “eternally” submits to the Father in his role as Son.

After having been pushed into a corner regarding the illegitimate reading of the economic Trinity (God’s work in salvation) into the immanent Trinity (God’s relations beyond all created understanding) (for example here), these theologians have turned to the idea of the Trinity’s eternal “covenant of salvation”, or pactum salutis, as a way of understand the “eternal” submission of the Son.

The idea goes something like this: “Certainly the human obedience that Jesus renders to God while incarnate is not a revelation of his eternal submission as Son. However, Scripture repeatedly states that the Son was sent for this work. And if he was sent, then this decision to send the Son, and the Son’s obedience to this decision, all happened before the Son’s incarnation, and therefore happened in eternity. Hence, the Son eternally submits to the initiation and decision of the Father.”

There are two problems with this line of argument:

A) First, this argument totally obscures the really issue between the ad intra relations of the Trinity and the ad extra works of salvation.

ad intra, immanent Trinity = God in God’s self without reference to creation or redemption in any way, and of which we have only the barest comprehension because we are created being existing in time.
ad extra, economic Trinity = all the decisions and actions of God in creation and redemption which are always properly Trinitarian and yet often attributed to one member of the Trinity in some way.

Before this summer’s debate the Submissionists used “eternal” to refer to God’s ad intra relationship such that the Son had the same eternal being but a different eternal role. But to now connect “eternal” with the pactum salutis, the covenant of salvation, is to shift its use to God’s ad extra work of creation and salvation, which originates in eternity.

On both sides of the issue in the past and present, NO ONE has ever denied the Son’s submission to the Father ad extra! So either this change of mean shows that the Submissionist have conceded or renounced their position (which I doubt), or reveals they are confused about the meaning and use of these theological terms, or they are hoping people won’t notice the shift and they can still claim the “eternal submission of the son” as if nothing has changed.

B) Second, the idea of the “covenant of salvation” as a decision made by the Father which is then obeyed by the Son (and where is the Spirit in all this?) is a seriously impoverished view of corporate decision making as a process of mutuality and collaboration (I have an entire post on this in the works so I won’t say more here).

A decision made by the Father & obeyed by the Son is an impoverished view of mutuality. Click To Tweet

Of course, more could be said of the general lack of mystery that pervades these conversations (that many would rather parse every aspect of every word with utter confidence than pace or even kneel in wonder before the Trinity), and more could be said of the borders of heresy and who can even make that charge, but I should end here as this is gone long enough.

We covered the shift in terms, the introduction of new meanings in old terms, and whether or not any of this has to do with the debates concerning men and women.

And as I said above, if you want to see the very real implications of this debate, see the recent series on the male-centered church planting movement in Boston.