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Does Complementarianism Depend on ERAS?: A Response to Kevin Giles, “The Trinity Argument for Women’s Subordination”

June 22, 2023
By Stephen Wellum

Over the years, the doctrine of the Trinity has been at the center of discussion in the larger complementarian and egalitarian debates. For some, one of the key theological arguments for complementarianism has been a Trinitarian argument. This argument depends on a specific view of how the divine persons are distinguished from each other ad intra (or within God) due to their eternal relations and ordered authority roles. Today, this view is identified by the acronym ERAS (“Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission”).

ERAS, in agreement with Nicene orthodoxy, affirms that the divine persons are equally and truly God, since they share the one undivided divine essence. Also, ERAS agrees with the classical view that the divine persons are distinguished by their eternally ordered relations of origin (i.e., paternity, filiation, and spiration). In contrast to Nicene orthodoxy, however, ERAS contends that the eternal relations between the Father, Son, and Spirit also entail a hierarchy of authority roles, thus resulting in the eternal priority of the Father’s authority, the Son’s eternal submission to the Father’s will, and the Spirit’s eternal submission to the will of the Father and the Son. For ERAS, these ordered authority relationships do not result in any ontological subordination within God, since the divine persons share the one divine essence. Instead, these hierarchical authority roles are the means by which the divine persons are distinguished as persons. As ERAS is applied to human relationships, specifically the relationship between men and women, the argument is this: analogous to the Trinity, men and women are ontologically equal as image-bearers but functionally distinguished by their authority role differences in marriage, the church, and the larger society.

In recent years, however, due to a renewed study of historical theology, ERAS has come under serious scrutiny, especially regarding how it distinguishes the divine persons ad intra by hierarchical authority roles and relationships. Historically, classical Trinitarianism has affirmed that the only way to distinguish the divine persons is by their eternally ordered relations, but these ordered relations do not entail a hierarchy of authority roles between the divine persons. Instead, divine authority is what the Father, Son, and Spirit have in common, because they equally share and subsist in the one divine essence. In fact, if the Son is eternally distinguished by his submission and obedience to the Father’s will, this would seem to require that the Father and Son have distinct wills — a point that Nicene orthodoxy rejects. Thus, as pro-Nicene Trinitarianism has been retrieved and viewed as the more biblical and theologically viable position, a number of egalitarians have concluded that since one of the key theological arguments used to warrant complementarianism is no longer valid, this in turn requires a corresponding rejection of complementarianism. At least this seems to be the argument of Kevin Giles in his chapter, “The Trinity Argument for Women’s Subordination: The Story of its Rise, Ascendancy, and Fall.”

But is this actually the case? Is complementarianism dependent on a specific view of the Trinity, as Giles and others seem to assume? And if one rejects ERAS, does this require one to give up complementarianism? In this review article, I will reject Giles’s linkage of ERAS with complementarianism. No doubt, for some complementarians both past and present, ERAS has been used to account for how men and women are equal in nature but also different in authority roles in marriage, the church, and even the larger society. For a vast number of complementarians, however, including myself, we do not argue for a complementarian view based on an ERAS view of the Trinity. Instead, we affirm a classical view, yet argue that Scripture teaches a complementarian view regarding the relationship between men and women. As such, an ERAS view of the Trinity is not required to uphold a complementarian view. In fact, a complementarian view stands on its own due to the teaching of Scripture. Although Scripture will draw an analogous relationship between theology proper and creaturely relationships, what must always be preserved is that these relationships are only analogical due to the Creator-creature distinction.

My review of Giles’s chapter proceeds in three steps. First, I offer a brief summary of his chapter, and then secondly, I offer a number of critical comments. Lastly, I outline how complementarianism stands on its own, independent of a specific view of the Trinity, thus rejecting Giles’s seeming assumption that complementarianism depends on a specific view of the Trinity — especially the notion that if this view of the Trinity is undermined, so is complementarianism.

Summary of Giles’s Overall Argument

The basic thesis of Giles is this: Up until 2016, the complementarian view was tied to a specific view of the Trinity, namely ERAS. In fact, Giles seems to assume that complementarianism only gained ascendancy due to its appeal to an ERAS view of the Trinity.[1] In 2016, however, when serious challenges were raised against ERAS, according to Giles the theological warrant for complementarianism was undercut. Thus by implication, with the theological rationale for complementarianism gone, the only viable option is to embrace an egalitarian view. Of course, for this argument to work, it must assume that complementarianism requires ERAS; indeed it assumes that both stand and fall together. Since Scripture provides no grounds for thinking there are ordered authority relationships between men and women, as Giles contends, the best argument for complementarianism has been the Trinitarian argument, which has now been defeated.

How does Giles demonstrate his overall point? He first argues for the dependence of complementarianism on ERAS starting in the 1970s, which buttresses his assumption that both are mutually dependent on each other. Then, by documenting how in 2016 ERAS was rejected by many, he assumes that complementarianism must also be rejected. For Giles, it seems that complementarianism has no biblical and theological warrant apart from ERAS.

In recounting how complementarianism hitched its wagon to ERAS, Giles argues that it was George Knight III who was the first to do so.[2] According to Giles, “[Knight] rejected the historic way of speaking of men as ‘superior’ and women ‘inferior’ . . . arguing instead that men and women are ‘equal’ yet ‘role differentiated’” (352). In fact, Knight was the first to use the language of “roles” to distinguish essential differences between men and women and to speak of “the essential difference between the divine three persons” (353). Thus, in a novel way, Knight linked ERAS and complementarianism together, which allowed him to ground his complementarianism within the triune personal relations. For Knight, the “Son and women are defined by their subordination” (353), and as such complementarianism and ERAS now stand or fall together.

After Knight, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware solidified the link between ERAS and complementarianism,[3] which in turn became the primary warrant for complementarianism. Others followed suit, but Giles’s main point is this: if ERAS is true, then complementarianism stands; but if ERAS falls, so does complementarianism. This is why the year 2016 is so crucial for Giles. With the increased scrutiny of the biblical, theological, and historical legitimacy of ERAS, and its ultimate rejection by many, this resulted in the fall of complementarianism.

Critical Reflections on Giles’s Argument

What are we to think of Giles’s overall argument? Let me offer three critical reflections before I explain why complementarianism stands on its own independent of views of the Trinity.

First, in terms of historical reconstruction, there is truth in what Giles documents, but also some historical revisionism and overstatement. No doubt since the 1970s, many prominent people argued that ERAS provided a theological warrant for complementarianism (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Michael Ovey, etc.). These same people, however, argued that the ultimate reason for their embrace of complementarianism is due to biblical authority and not merely their understanding of the Trinity. For example, Giles charges Knight with circular reasoning by introducing the concept of “roles” into human relationships, and then reworking the Trinity to make it fit with his construction (353). But this is hardly what Knight is doing. In Knight’s work, he makes strong exegetical arguments based on a proper understanding of creation, fall, and redemption, as well as  biblical connections between the Father, Son, and humans that Scripture itself teaches (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:21–33; 1 Tim. 2:11–15). In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Knight primarily explains the phrase “God is the head of Christ” in relation to the incarnate Christ, although he later extends this relation back into the immanent life of God.[4] I disagree with this latter extension, but one can hardly charge Knight with circular reasoning; Knight is doing careful exegesis of the biblical text.

Second, Giles gives the impression that until 2016, ERAS and complementarianism were organically one, “with no dissenting voices” (351). But this is simply false. No doubt, within conservative evangelicalism, ERAS was taught as a kind of default position. In fact, during my years at TEDS in the 1980–90s this was the case. Due to the work of Richard Muller, Carl Trueman, and many others, however, at the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s the social trinitarian emphasis of much of the theological world was challenged (including aspects of ERAS), as a retrieval of Nicene orthodoxy occurred. Thus, although it was not loudly stated, ERAS was losing traction long before 2016.[5] Yet, as many of us were moving away from ERAS, the important point to note is that we continued to affirm and defend complementarianism. In other words, the relation between ERAS and complementarianism is not as tight as Giles presents.

Third, although Giles’s chapter correctly documents the loss of influence of ERAS within evangelical theology, he does not demonstrate the truth of egalitarianism unless he assumes that ERAS and complementarianism are mutually dependent on each other. This is a false assumption, however, and for many complementarians today, complementarianism stands independent of one’s view of the Trinity. In fact, when Giles attempts to give a brief rebuttal of ERAS and complementarianism (358–61), he either distorts ERAS or fails to wrestle with Scripture. For example, in terms of ERAS, he charges it with Arianism, which is false (368). Or in terms of Scripture, when he appeals to 1 Corinthians 11:3, he strangely states that it is not a Trinitarian text because the Spirit is not mentioned (360) and also dismisses that kephalē can mean “head” in specific contexts, instead opting for “source,” contrary to all the evidence that it means both “head” and “source” and that context is determinative.[6] Overall, Giles has documented the declining influence of ERAS, but he has not demonstrated that complementarianism demands ERAS.

Arguing for Complementarianism on Scriptural Grounds

Much could be said regarding the overall biblical-theological argument for complementarianism, but my point is that the warrant for complementarianism is Scripture, not a specific view of Trinity. This is not to say that there is nothing analogous between theology proper and human relationships. In fact, Giles goes too far in saying that we “must completely separate the doctrine of the Trinity from [our] doctrine of the sexes” (360). I understand his point, and I basically agree; however, Scripture draws analogous relations between God and ourselves, as evidenced in 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5:21, etc. If Scripture does so, then so must we. But as we do, we must always preserve the Creator-creature distinction and never read back into the eternal relations of the divine persons what we see in creation. In fact, when Scripture does unpack the relation between husbands and wives as analogous to Christ and the church, and how God as the head of the incarnate Son (1 Cor. 11:3) is analogous to human relations, it is not in terms of the eternal relations among the persons, but more in terms of the incarnation and the divine economy.[7]

The main warrant for complementarianism, however, is Scripture itself, starting in creation and culminating in the new creation. I cannot unpack the entire argument here, but suffice it to say, creation establishes that men and women are equally created as image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–27), yet designed for complementary relations. Both have dominion over the world, but according to how God has created us as male and female. Men and women are created for each other, but in creation there is a clear order and complementary nature of the sexes (Gen. 2:18–25). Woman is created as a “helper” fit for man, which expresses both equality and difference. Nothing in the text suggests that “helper” means inferior, but it does speak to authority role differences, which is precisely how Paul argues as he explains how male-female relationships ought to function in the church (1 Tim. 2:11–15) and the home (Eph. 5:21–33). As one works across the canon, taking into consideration the effects of the fall and then our redemption in Christ, the equality and complementarity of men and women are made evident. This is why in Ephesians 5, the husband is the “head” (having authority over) of his wife as Christ is the “head” of the church, and the submission of the wife speaks of her complementarity in marriage, not her inferiority.

Much more could be said, but the biblical and theological warrant from complementarianism is Scripture itself, not any particular appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity. In the end, Giles recounts what has happened in evangelical theology regarding discussions of the Trinity, but he has not established in the least that his egalitarian view is warranted by Scripture itself. The case for complementarianism rests not on appeal to the eternal personal relations of the Trinity, but on what Scripture teaches regarding how God has created, ordered, and designed men and women. On this last point, this teaching is something we desperately need to recover in a day and age that is totally confused on what humans are, specifically what it means to be a man and woman.

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. His is married to Karen with five adult children and five grandchildren.

[1] Giles argues that “the primary basis for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes, was invented, was popularized, and gained ascendancy in the evangelical and Reformed world” due to its dependence on ERAS (352).

[2] See George W. Knight III, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977).

[3] See for example, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) and Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).

[4] See Knight, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, 32–33, 55–56.

[5] For example, see Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). Also, see Kyle Claunch, “God is the Head of Christ,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 65–93, who argues for a classical view of the Trinity in contrast to ERAS, yet he defends a complementarian view. In fact, Giles mentions this book but he fails to acknowledge that all of the authors do not affirm ERAS such as Claunch. Also see my God the Son Incarnate (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), where I argue for a classical view of the Trinity and Christology, which was submitted to Crossway before 2016. Also, Bruce Ware has been my colleague since 1999, but we have debated the merits of ERAS long before 2016, along with some of my other colleagues at Southern Seminary. But all of us are complementarian.

[6] See Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 812–22; Wayne Grudem, “Does Kephalē (“Head”) Mean “Source” or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal 6, no. 1 (1985): 38–59; idem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” JETS 44 (2001): 25–65. Cf. Claunch, “God is the Head of Christ,” 69–75.

[7] For a helpful way of unpacking the analogy between theology proper and human relationships, see Claunch, “God is the Head of Christ.”

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