The debate between complementarians and egalitarians over the intra-Trinitarian relations between the Father and the Son has intensified significantly. In 2006, at the National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), Kevin Giles presented a paper in which he alleged that certain complementarian expressions of the Trinity have degenerated into Arianism.1 Bruce A. Ware also read a paper in which he defended his own complementarian view against Giles's accusation of Arianism.2 The charge of Arianism is a weighty accusation primarily because of the church's traditional condemnation of it as a fundamental heresy—Arianism betrays a core teaching of Scripture. The allegation also has an immediate impact within the ETS. As Giles pointedly notes, "In the Evangelical Theological Society Doctrinal Basis only two matters are made fundamental to the evangelical faith: belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in its original autographs and belief in a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three ‘uncreated' persons, who are ‘one in essence, equal in power and glory.'"3
The charge of Arianism hinges on a philosophical intuition about the nature of being. The defenses for this philosophical position offered by Gilbert Bilezikian and Kevin Giles, however, are incompatible with Scripture because they undercut the very possibility of Trinitarian theology. The failure of these arguments calls into question the validity of the position they defend. Because of these problems, current versions of the egalitarian case that the complementarian view of the Trinity constitutes Arianism are seriously flawed. This article provides an analysis of the flaw in the egalitarian accusation and suggests how the debate over the Trinity should proceed.
The Core of the Debate Concerning the Trinity
Many complementarians argue that the Son is eternally functionally submissive to the Father while still possessing absolute ontological equality with Him. The thesis of Ware's 2006 ETS paper was,
The Father and Son are fully equal in their deity as each possesses the identically same divine nature, yet the eternal and inner-Trinitarian Father-Son relationship is marked, among other things by an authority and submission structure in which the Father is eternally in authority over the Son and the Son eternally in submission to the Father. There is, then, an eternal and immutable equality of essence between the Father and the Son, while there is also an eternal and immutable authority-submission structure that marks the relationship of the Father and the Son.4
Wayne Grudem5 and Robert Letham6 each express views in keeping with Ware's thesis, as the 1999 Sydney Anglican Diocesan Doctrine Commission Report, "The Doctrine of the Trinity and Its Bearing on the Relationship of Men and Women," also clearly intends to do.7 The view of the Trinity expressed by Ware posits an ontology in which "one can possess a different function and still be equal in essence and worth."8
Most egalitarians assert that the view held by Ware, Grudem, et al. is essentially the Arian heresy in a new guise.9 In his magisterial work, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381, R. P. C. Hanson provides the definitive description of the ideas central to what came to be known as "Arianism." Arian theologians held that the nature of divine transcendence requires a being of lesser divinity in order to accomplish revelation and redemption through the incarnation.10 According to the Arians, the distinction between Father and Son must be made in terms of different natures, not merely different relations.11 The Arian ontology served a soteriology in which God (albeit a lesser god, Christ) suffered on behalf of humanity.12
When egalitarians charge complementarians with Arianism, they are clearly not suggesting that complementarians affirm an Arian soteriology. Rather, they are claiming that the Arian ontology of God has resurfaced in modern complementarian expressions of the Trinity. In his 1997 article, "Hermeneutical-Bungee Jumping," Gilbert Bilezikian alleges that Robert Letham's "view of an ontologically stratified, split-level Trinity lead[s] him straight into the trap of Arianism."13 More broadly, Giles has stated that,
To argue that the Son is eternally subordinate in authority, set under the Father, denies both that he is one in power with the Father and the Spirit and by implication, that he is one in essence/being with the Father and the Spirit. To deny, explicitly or implicitly that Jesus is one in being/essence with the Father is of course the Arian heresy.14
The Egalitarian Ontological Axiom
At its core, the charge of Arianism against complementarians is grounded on a philosophical position concerning the nature of being, a position that plays a determinative hermeneutical role for egalitarians. Millard Erickson suggests that "a temporal, functional subordination without inferiority of essence seems possible, but not an eternal subordination."15 Giles hardens this view into a direct assertion: "It is my case that once the word eternal is added to the word subordination, you have ontological subordination."16 In short, the view seems to be something like this: eternal functional subordination entails ontological subordination.
Bilezikian defends this view, which we shall call the "egalitarian ontological axiom," in his "Bungee-Jumping" essay,
A subordination that extends into eternity cannot remain only functional but . . . it also becomes ipso facto an ontological reality. . . . Since the attribute of eternity inheres in the divine essence, any reality that is eternal is by necessity ontologically grounded. Eternity is a quality of existence. Therefore if Christ's subordination is eternal, as both Grudem and Letham claim, it is also ontological.17
Unfortunately, if it is valid, Bilezikian's argument seems to present us with a Faustian choice. Any distinction between the Trinitarian Persons in eternity, being eternal, would also be ontological. Thus any distinction between Persons, not merely functional subordination, results in them being ontologically different. To make any distinction between the divine Persons in eternity would be to succumb to either Arianism or tri-theism. If, on the other hand, we make no distinctions between the Persons in eternity, we in effect abandon immanent Trinity and run the risk of conceiving God in eternity as a monad. Christians would be able to think of God as Triune only in relation to creation. In other words, the argument seems to render futile any attempt to talk of the immanent Trinity; it is an argument that proves too much.18 If Bilezikian's argument being valid leaves us with such a choice, it is better to conclude that the argument itself is not valid.
Giles offers a more developed and nuanced defense of the egalitarian ontological axiom when he ties it to the unity of God's being and God's acts.
Whatever words are used to permanently set the Son under the Father in work divides who God is (his being) from what God does (his works). This division breaches divine unity, equality, and "simplicity." It suggests that in the immanent Trinity the divine three do not work as one. To speak of the voluntary and temporal "functional or role subordination" of the Son in the work of salvation is acceptable, but the minute the word eternal is introduced, a profound theological error is embraced. The word eternal indicates that the Son does not merely function subordinately in the incarnation; he is eternally subordinated to the Father. His subordination defines his person. As the Son he is subordinated to the Father—subordinated in his person or being.19
Though more sophisticated than Bilezikian's case, this argument also has fatal difficulties. Giles's case here seems to rest on a view of God's work that requires God to be, and function as, a monad-"If God is a monad (ultimately unitary), he must be one in being, work, and authority."20 This assertion is not quite in line with the Christian tradition, which conceived of God as ultimately triune (ultimately one and three) rather than ultimately unitary.21 The view of God as a monad is one that modern philosophical theologians such as Alvin Plantinga have rejected on the grounds that it yields a God who is either non-relational or nonpersonal.22 Furthermore, if Giles is correct that how God works ad intra indicates who God is ad intra (and I believe he is correct on this point!), then the view that God's work ad intra is absolutely unitary and not susceptible to distinction would yield a God who is not and cannot be triune ad intra. In short, Giles's argument kills off immanent Trinity. In this way, Giles's argument, as Bilezikian's, proves too much.
Giles's argument also raises a specter of category-confusion. Just prior to his argument for the idea that eternal functional subordination entails ontological subordination (quoted above), Giles provides a helpful table (see below) in order to clarify the different terms used in discussing the unity and differentiation within God. Giles complains, "These two sets of terms should not be confused, as they invariably are in evangelical literature." He then correctly notes that,
No progress can be made in this painful debate among evangelicals until there is agreement on the meaning and force of the technical terms being used. To use terms incorrectly . . . does not further the cause of meaningful communication.23
Giles's own argument, however, seems to conflate "person" and "being." He states that eternal subordination "defines his [Christ's] person;" it is "subordination in his person or being" (emphasis in the original).25 Given the context, the charge of Arianism, it seems that Giles means "subordination in his person, i.e., in his being." This would appear to be a confusion of a term referring to the way in which God is one (being), and a term referring to the way in which God is three (person).
Both Bilezikian's and Giles's defense of the egalitarian ontological axiom are fundamentally flawed. Both prove too much in that they both make either Unitarianism or Arianism an inescapable result—they undercut the very possibility of Trinitarian theology. Neither of these results are ones that either Bilezikian or Giles (nor any other evangelical!) would wish to affirm. As such, they are unsuccessful as a defense for the philosophical idea that eternal functional subordination entails ontological subordination.
The egalitarian ontological axiom is the key move upon which the charge of Arianism in the complementarian view of the Trinity depends. In the absence of an adequate philosophical defense of the axiom, the charge of Arianism over-reaches the evidence. The failure of the two philosophical arguments for the axiom also suggests that the egalitarian ontological axiom itself is incompatible with Scripture, though it does not prove conclusively that the egalitarian ontological axiom is indefensible. At best, we should view the axiom as an intuition about the nature of being which stands in need of further explanation and defense.
Theological Method: Moving the Trinity Debate Forward
One of the oldest and most widely-accepted understandings of the theological task is "faith seeking understanding."26 This means that the faith is a given; its truths are the axioms that cannot be challenged but that instead must be accepted in order to be understood. The evangelical theological task, then, is a response to the Word that delivers to us the Faith.27 On this view, theology becomes "a second-order discipline pursued ‘from within.' The enterprise is a critical, reflective activity that presupposes the beliefs and practices of the Christian community."28
It is critical for evangelicals that in this method, Scripture is the norma normans non normata, the norming norm which is not itself normed. For Stanley Grenz, the Bible's place as the supreme authority "forms the ongoing legacy of the Reformation within the evangelical tradition."29 The deliverance of any source in theology—tradition, culture, reason, experience, even the creeds—must be judged by Scripture.30
Philosophy is one such source that theologians must judge in light of Scripture. Scripture itself warns of the danger of deceptive philosophy (Col 2:8). Tertullian accused philosophy of being the instigator of heresy.31 Luther warned that whoever would use philosophy (Aristotle in particular) without danger to his soul must first be a fool for Christ.32 These somewhat hyperbolic warnings by Tertullian and Luther point to the danger of using philosophical speculation that is incompatible with Scripture as the hermeneutical lens through which one reads Scripture.
Historical theology provides ample examples of the failure against which Col 2:8, Tertullian, and Luther warn. Meister Eckhart attempted to integrate the Plotinian concept of the One without division with the orthodox concept of the Trinity. He first posited a distinction between God (the Trinity) and the Godhead (the absolutely one "God beyond God"). Unfortunately, this made the Trinity less than ultimate. To avoid this problem, Eckhart identified the Godhead with the Father, but this only served to compromise the equality of the three divine persons.33
The Arians also allowed a philosophical position incompatible with Scripture to control their reading of Scripture when they assumed an ontology in which a simple divine nature could not be simultaneously shared (i.e., fully possessed) by three divine persons. The result for the Arians was that to admit the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father would be to affirm that something is more ontologically basic than God is, or to affirm the mutability of God.34 The failure of Trinitarian theology in both Eckhart and the Arians indicates the danger to orthodox theology of importing biblically incompatible philosophical intuitions into theology as hermeneutical rules—no matter how obvious those intuitions may seem.
Modern theologians have reiterated much the same kind of concern. For example, Pannenberg warns that,
Christian theology can effect a link-up with the philosophical concept of God only when it undertakes a penetrating transformation of the philosophical concept right down to its roots. Wherever philosophical concepts are taken over, they must be remolded in the light of the history-shaping freedom of the Biblical God.35
The point here is neither that all philosophy is deceptive, nor that Christian theologians must abandon it as an unhelpful tool. Rather, evangelical theology must judge any philosophical claim in light of the biblical evidence, rejecting what is—contrary to the faith, affirming that which is compatible with it.36
The application of this theological method to the current Trinity debates among complementarians and egalitarians means that the egalitarian ontological axiom may not serve as an untested presupposition in the reading of Scripture. Presuppositionless reading of Scripture is not possible, of course. However, the fact is that our presuppositions "tend to determine what we take from Scripture" and other texts.37 As long as the compatibility of the egalitarian ontological axiom with Scripture is in question, that axiom may not also be used as a hermeneutical presupposition in reading the Scripture or the tradition.38
The supremacy of Scripture also determines the way in which the egalitarian ontological axiom can be decisively invalidated. If complementarians can show that the Scripture requires us to affirm the functional/role/relational subordination of the Son to the Father alongside the ontological equality of the Son and the Father, then functional subordination cannot entail ontological subordination no matter how well reasoned the philosophical case for it. This does not render useless a well-reasoned philosophical defense of the egalitarian axiom; such a defense would serve to require a much stronger and clear case for the functional subordination of the Son from Scripture than would otherwise be necessary.
The way in which complementarians are making their case attempts to paint egalitarians into precisely this corner. Kovach and Schemm have offered a brief two-pronged argument from Scripture. The first is that Scripture describes the Son as being eternally the Son of the Father, indicating a subordinate relation to the Father. The second is that the Son is the "agent" through whom the Father works.39 Ware has argued that the Scripture indicates the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father through the names "Father" and "Son," the Father's authority over all things, and the submission of Son to the Father in the Son's mission.40 He has also argued that Scripture provides evidence of the submission of the Son to the Father in eternity-past and eternity-future.41 Additionally, Ware and Grudem have made a broad case from the Church Fathers that a reading of Scripture that affirms some sense of monarchia unique to the Father is consistent with the Nicene faith, specifically, and the tradition, generally.42
Complementarians can strengthen their case further by taking greater care to be both precise and consistent in their use of technical Trinitarian terms. Giles's concern here should be a point well taken. Complementarians would benefit by providing a well-developed, coherent philosophical description of the ontology required by their position, and a rigorous philosophical critique of the egalitarian ontological axiom using the tools of analytic philosophy. A more explicit defense of the Augustinian category of "relations" as a Trinitarian category that does not make the Son less a person or possessed of a lesser being than the Father, would serve to round out the categories of technical Trinitarian language described by Giles.43 Complementarians also need to provide a more explicit defense of their own key presupposition, "the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity," and the way this principle functions in their own reading of Scripture.44
Finally, it seems likely that egalitarians will be unable to provide direct biblical warrant for their position that eternal functional subordination entails ontological subordination. However, under the theological method described in this essay, it should be clear that it is not necessary for them to do so! While a stronger and more coherent defense of the egalitarian ontological axiom would strengthen their case, they need only show that the Scripture does not require us to affirm that the Son is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father. A reading of the Fathers and the rest of the tradition, which accounts for all of the relevant data, including language about the monarchia of the Father and other counter-indicators, would also strengthen the egalitarian case that their reading of Scripture is consistent with the tradition. In short, all that egalitarians lose by not presupposing their ontological axiom is the ability to rule out other wise superior readings of Scripture and the ability to utilize the charge of Arianism as an ad hominem attack against complementarians.
1 Kevin Giles, "Father and Son: Divided or Undivided in Power and Authority?" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Washington, D.C., 16 November 2006).
2 Bruce A. Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission Among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Washington, D.C., 16 November 2006).
3 Giles, "Father and Son," 1.
4 Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles," 1.
5 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 454-70.
6 Robert Letham, "The Man-Woman Debate: Theological Comment," Westminster Journal of Theology 52 (1990): 65.
7 The clarity and success of the Sydney Report is, however, another matter.
8 Thomas Schreiner, "Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 128.
9 One notable exception to this is the egalitarian author Craig Keener. See his "Is Subordination within the Trinity Really Heresy? A Study of John 5:18 in Context," Trinity Journal n.s. 20, no. 1 (1999): 39-52.
10 R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 100.
11 Ibid., 103-04.
12 Ibid., 122-23.
13 Gilbert Bilezikian, "Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 1 (1997): 64.
14 Giles, "Father and Son," 1.
15 Millard Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 309.
16 Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 28.
17 Bilezikian, "Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping," 63-64.
18 My thanks go to Justin Grace, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for the conversations that helped me to refine my analysis of Bilezikian's argument. Any flaws in the analysis are mine alone.
19 Giles, Jesus and the Father, 58-59 (emphasis in original).
20 Ibid., 53.
21 Stephen Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 53. Holmes notes that the idea of divine simplicity in the Fathers is not that of an ontologically basic monad. See also Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 87) on the characterization of God as an indivisible monad as a core conviction of Arianism!
22 Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University, 1980), 42, 53.
23 Giles, Jesus and the Father, 54.
24 Reproduced from ibid.
25 Ibid., 59.
26 Augustine, Sermon 43.7, 9; and Anselm, Proslogion 1.
27 Kevin Vanhoozer, "Exploring the World; Following the Word: The Credibility of Evangelical Theology in an Incredulous Age," Trinity Journal 16, no. 1 (1995): 18.
28 Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 75.
29 Ibid., 93.
30 Ibid., 97.
31 Tertullian, Against Heretics 7
32 Martin Luther, Career of the Reformer I (vol. 31 of Luther's Works; ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999), 41.
33 David Clark, To Know and Love God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 306.
34 Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 92.
35 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology (3 vols.; trans. George H. Kehm; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 2:139.
36 See Clark, To Know and Love God, 296, 302.
37 Giles, Jesus and the Father, 74.
38 That the egalitarian ontological axiom functions as the kind of filter Giles warns against is most evident in Giles's own use of the Fathers. See esp. Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles," 11-12, 15-16.
39 Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm, "A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (1990): 461-76.
40 Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles," 2-5. These instances are representative, not exhaustive of the number of complementarian authors who have argued such a case. Though it is not the point of this article, I do find their case to be quite strong.
41 Ibid., 5-9.
42 Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004), 415-22; Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles," 9-12. These are but representative instances of complementarians arguing that their view is not incompatible with the Church Fathers, and indeed is supported by them. Once again, though it is not the point of this paper, I find their case to be quite strong.
43 Ware touches on this in his discussion of Augustine, but does not develop it as an ontological category. Ware, "Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles," 10.
44 Though this principle is a critical part of the traditional Trinitarian argument against modalism, a fresh and clear exposition of the warrant for it and how it can and cannot be used to speak of the immanent Trinity would be very helpful. I also believe that it might have the potential to turn a common egalitarian admission against their own view. Egalitarians readily acknowledge that the Son was functionally subordinate to the Father in the incarnate mission of the Son. If the principle of "economic reveals immanent" applies to the relations of the Trinitarian persons, then the evidence of functional subordination already admitted by the egalitarians would become evidence against their position on the Trinity.