The Eternal Subordination of the Son, Social Trinitarianism, and Ectypal Theology

Social Trinity?

Social Trinity?

Steve Holmes has a post worth reading, reflecting upon the recent book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life. The book in question seeks to defend the ‘eternal submission of the Son to the Father,’ a controversial theological position that nonetheless plays an important role in many contemporary defences of complementarianism. The book presents an assortment of theological, exegetical, and historical arguments for the position, from a number of writers who advocate various—and occasionally opposing—forms of the doctrine.

Holmes is fairly scathing in his treatment of the book, not merely on account of his principled opposition to complementarianism, but also on account of his theological concerns as a leading Trinitarian scholar (I recommend that anyone interested in Holmes’ perspective on the current state of Trinitarian theology read his book The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity). He concludes that the arguments—even the chastened ones—advanced in support of the eternal submission of the Son fail beyond recovery. He wonders why the eternal submission of the Son argument has passed through so many iterations, when it has been disproved every time; one would presume that after a few versions the doctrine itself would have been condemned as beyond salvage. I won’t summarize his arguments here: I suggest that you read his post yourself before proceeding with my discussion here.

There are several issues at play in this particular discussion, a number of which many laypersons might unfortunately perceive to belong to the arcane area of Trinitarian theology, a daunting quagmire of abstruse philosophical distinctions better avoided than engaged. Unfavourable as this ground may appear, it is an important site of the theological discussion surrounding gender. I hope that the following points will give readers a better purchase upon this particular discussion and perhaps also upon Trinitarian theology and the debates surrounding it more generally.

Social Trinitarianism

According to an oft-told narrative, Trinitarian theology underwent a revival in the latter half of the twentieth century, after having languished in general neglect for many centuries. A common feature of such narratives of retrieval is the claim that the Western doctrine of the Trinity suffered from taking the oneness of God as its starting point, while the Trinitarian theology of the fourth century Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) more appropriately began with the three persons. For the first—supposedly ‘Western’—approach, the problem was how to account for the three persons. For the second—‘Eastern’—approach, the question was reframed as that of how God could be one.

One of the issues in these debates concerns the meaning of the term ‘person’ as it functions in orthodox Trinitarian formula—one God in three Persons. While it is granted by almost all parties to current debates that the historic theological term does not bear the same meaning that it has in contemporary discourse, ‘social Trinitarians’ use the term in a manner that more closely resembles popular usage. When applied to the Trinity, such language suggests that each of the persons of the Trinity possesses a distinct centre of consciousness, self, will, etc. Social Trinitarianism is a position represented by such figures as John Zizioulas, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Colin Gunton, and the majority of leading theologians who have addressed the doctrine of the Trinity over the past fifty years.

Social Trinitarians typically articulate the unity of God in terms of community, freely chosen, loving relationship, empathy, mutual belonging, perichoresis/interpenetration, etc. The Trinity is conceived of as the manner in which three distinct yet equally divine selves are bound together in eternal unity. The eternal submission of the Son to the Father, as it is commonly understood, is another instance of such a social conception of the Trinity.

Holmes is a leading figure among those who have firmly criticized this social Trinitarianism, arguing that it departs from and misrepresents the tradition that it claims to retrieve. He writes in the conclusion to The Quest for the Trinity:

…we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine. We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian’s Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God’s relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God’s ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality. We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival’; future historians might want to ask us why.

A recurring feature of social Trinitarianism is its use of the inner life of the Trinity as a basis for its social vision. Karen Kilby (doc file) observes the way in which social Trinitarianism has been used to justify and support a vast range of ecclesiological, sociological, anthropological, and political projects. Moltmann, for instance, writes: ‘it is not the monarchy of a ruler that corresponds to the triune God; it is the community of men and women, without privileges and without subjugation,’ challenging the hierarchical privileging of a single person that are implicit in many other conceptions of God. The feminist theologian Patricia Wilson-Kastner writes:

Because feminism identifies interrelatedness and mutuality—equal, respectful and nurturing relationships—as the basis of the world as it really is and as it ought to be, we can find no better understanding and image of the divine than that of the perfect and open relationships of love.

The liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, uses the doctrine of perichoresis to justify a more egalitarian polity. The Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, emphasizes the monarchy of the Father to uphold the importance of the episcopal office. Miroslav Volf uses the Trinity to justify a congregationalist ecclesiology. It is within such company that Holmes is placing the complementarian argument about the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.

This is an important point to register for those who might think that Holmes’ objection is simply to the implied hierarchy in the notion that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Although that is a claim to which he strongly objects, his argument rests more heavily upon the theological claim that, if we hold to a single divine will and ‘inseparable divine operations’, we cannot meaningfully speak of ‘submission’ and ‘authority’ as such terms imply relations between distinct subjects or selves with distinct wills. This claim, it should be noted, also strikes at the root of many favoured social Trinitarian arguments for egalitarianism and feminism.

Inseparable Operations, Immanent and Economic Trinity

One of the points that Holmes emphasizes in his critique is the doctrine of inseparable operations. This doctrine is related to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which teaches that God is not made up of parts. For instance, God doesn’t have qualities such as love as a set of characteristics: rather, God is love. The doctrine of divine simplicity also maintains that God’s actions are inseparable, an inseparability that Holmes argues arises from the ‘single simple event’ of the eternal divine relations. Although there is a proper ordering (taxis) to the eternal divine relations—the Son is begotten by the Father, the Son does not beget the Father, etc.—these relations don’t arise from a sort of sequence of successive events, nor can the persons be thought of as if they, logically or otherwise, preceded their relations (another corollary of divine simplicity).

A further important theological distinction to introduce here is that between the ‘immanent’ and the ‘economic’ Trinity, between God as he is in himself and God as he is revealed in his work in creation and redemption. The claim of God’s simplicity has implications not only for our account of the immanent Trinity, but also for our account of the economic Trinity. Because God is one God with one will, everything that God does is inseparably done by Father, Son, and Spirit, and not just as a team of human persons might willingly work in concert with each other. Every action of God is indivisibly an act of Father, Son, and Spirit, acting according to the order of the eternal divine relations. The incarnation is the act of Father, Spirit, and Son, even though it is only the Son who puts on flesh: it is the undivided action of the one God.

The economic Trinity is the earthly image of the immanent Trinity. It is through God’s action in the world, and especially in the incarnation, that he reveals who he is in himself. Within the gospels we see Christ being obedient to his Father’s command. The form that Christ’s eternal Sonship takes under the conditions of our human flesh is this obedience to his Father’s command. However, although the eternal order or taxis of the divine relations makes it appropriate for the Son, rather than the Father, to become incarnate, the inseparability of divine action—God is one God with one will—makes it inappropriate for us to understand the relation of the second person to the first person of the Trinity as one of submission to authority.

The Problem with Projections, Archetypal and Ectypal Theology

The critics of social Trinitarianism typically remark upon the degree of projection that occurs within it. The danger of projection—of unwittingly or wittingly importing our ideological prejudices into what we are studying and misrecognizing them as arising from the matters that we are studying themselves—is one that is frequently highlighted in various contexts of theology. Ludwig Feuerbach argued that God was a projection of humanity’s nature that humanity mistook for other. Albert Schweitzer supposedly characterized the Jesus questers that preceded him as people who looked down a deep well and saw their own reflection. Karl Barth challenged his contemporaries, insisting that ‘one cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice’. Social Trinitarians seem to have a related problem: the God that they speak of always seems to have the sort of inner life that underwrites their sociological or ecclesiological prejudices.

Karen Kilby helpfully highlights what is especially ‘distinctive and problematic’ about the part that projection typically plays in social Trinitarianism. She argues that social Trinitarianism as it generally operates has to be projectionist. Social Trinitarianism’s question of what binds the three persons of the Trinity together as one doesn’t find any clear answer in the Scripture. The ‘something’ that binds the persons of the Trinity together is called the divine perichoresis. This divine perichoresis is then given content by comparing it to the things that bind humans together: ‘interrelatedness, love, empathy, mutual accord, mutual giving and so on.’

She goes on to observe:

Anselm, in formulating his doctrine of atonement, famously drew on feudal concepts of honour and justice. So one can say, to some degree at least he projected contemporary concepts and ideals onto God. And, one might want to argue, in so doing his theology may have served to legitimate and reinforce those very ideas and the corresponding social structures. But suppose Anselm had gone on to say that the main relevance of the doctrine of the atonement, the new and important thing that it teaches us, is that at the very heart of God is the notion of honour: it teaches us that God is all about honour and what is due to one’s honour, and that we too must in various ways make these concepts central to our lives. If Anselm had, in other words, trumpeted as the most important thing about the doctrine those very concepts which he himself had imported to solve the intellectual difficulty posed by it, if he had said, these concepts are the heart of the doctrine, they are what we must learn about God and ourselves from the doctrine of the atonement, then, I think, he would have been doing a very different, and a much more worrying, kind of theology.

Projection, then, is particularly problematic in at least some social theories of the Trinity because what is projected onto God is immediately reflected back onto the world, and this reverse projection is said to be what is in fact important about the doctrine.

Social Trinitarianism, Kilby argues, tends to employ a ‘three stage process’:

First, a concept, perichoresis, is used to name what is not understood, to name whatever it is that makes the three Persons one. Secondly, the concept is filled out rather suggestively with notions borrowed from our own experience of relationships and relatedness. And then, finally, it is presented as an exciting resource Christian theology has to offer the wider world in its reflections upon relationships and relatedness.

The distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology is also important in this area. Archetypal theology refers to God’s own exhaustive self-knowledge. Ectypal theology rests upon archetypal theology: God, acting with exhaustive self-knowledge, reveals himself. Ectypal theology is the analogical and derivative knowledge of God that has been established by God for humanity, communicating his truth in a way accommodated to our understanding.

Forgetting this distinction is dangerous. Projection reverses the direction of revelation. Rather than receiving God’s accommodated revelation and resisting speculation beyond its bounds, it attempts to conceptualize God using our own autonomous processes of symbol-making and idolatrous elevation of virtues and characteristics to the level of the divine. As Kilby’s critique of social Trinitarians should illustrate, it is easy for us to do this unwittingly, which is why we must be on our guard.

The Shape of the Debate

Here it is important to make a few points about the character of this debate.

First, as we have already seen, social Trinitarianism is not a complementarian distinctive, but is widely found among egalitarian and feminist theologians too.

Second, more specifically, belief in some sort of eternal subordination of the Son is not a complementarian distinctive. Here’s Colin Gunton, Holmes’ former doctoral supervisor, on the subject:

Indeed, Paul’s account of the progress of the risen and conquering Christ in 1 Corinthians 15 ends with the confession that when he hands the Kingdom over to the Father, God will be all in all (v. 28). Here, however, the priority of the Father is not ontological but economic. Such talk of the divine economy has indeed implications for what we may say about the being of God eternally, and would seem to suggest a subordination of taxis—of ordering within the divine life—but not one of deity or regard. It is as truly divine to be the obedient self-giving Son as it is to be the Father who sends and the Spirit who renews and perfects. Only by virtue of the particularity and relatedness of all three is God God.

A ‘subordination of taxis’ is pretty much what most complementarians are arguing for. However, Gunton is not defending a complementarian position here but is just engaging in Trinitarian theology, a form of Trinitarian theology that many complementarians have appealed to for support.

Third, the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is questioned by many complementarians (yours truly among them). Fred Sanders writes on the subject here.

To sum up, although complementarian advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son are most clearly under challenge here, this debate cuts across typical complementarian-egalitarian boundaries in a number of respects.

Possible Objections

Even while I largely find myself nodding along with the objections presented by such as Holmes and Kilby to social Trinitarianism, there remain some nagging concerns. At the heart of these concerns may be the fact that I have a far more positive account of the analogical knowledge and divine revelation provided within ectypal theology. Though I can readily agree with the dissimilarities that Holmes may emphasize, I believe that we need to think more seriously about the similarities. Yes, the Son’s eternal relation to the Father is inappropriately characterized as obedience to a command or submission to authority. However, Christ’s obedience to the Father is revelatory of God and we should say more about that. Yes, inseparable operations is an important theological point. However, this can easily be expressed in a manner that obscures the distinct ways that the persons act in the economy of salvation. Yes, we should be aware of projecting human models of sociality onto God. However, the divine self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit already seems to imply that there is a divine relation to which the interpersonal relation between a man and his male child is somehow faintly analogous. Yes, a straightforward relation between human sociality and the divine life is problematic. However, Jesus declares:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.—John 17:20-23

While those who project an image of sociality onto the Trinity are dangerously mistaken, the complete exclusion—or the practical neglect—of a social analogy may be mistaken.

Despite having reservations about his general case within it, I think Peter Leithart makes a crucial point in his recent book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. Leithart observes the stark contrast between the Scripture’s bold and confident employment of analogy—its ‘naïve’ supposition ‘that human language can accurately reveal God’—and the anxious reticence of many theologians to treat scriptural analogies as if they had genuine heft. One of the key points here is that we ought to begin and end with the language of the Scriptures, approaching ectypal theology with great confidence in God’s accommodated and analogical revelation, despite our awareness of its dissimilarity from archetypal theology. Within the bounds of the revelation that God has given us, we can speak with assurance, an assurance founded upon our trust in the self-knowing (archetypal theology) God who has revealed himself to us in a manner suited to our understanding (ectypal theology). And such revelation may tell us more than we might first think (note, for instance, that a crucial move in Kilby’s argument is the claim that Scripture doesn’t give us a clear answer about what binds the Trinity together).

One of the dangers of theology is that of censoring the boldly analogical language that Scripture uses of God out of theological discomfort. Yes, God doesn’t have a body, but the innumerable ways in which Scripture describes God’s dispositions and actions in terms of bodily action shouldn’t just be disregarded on this account. Yes, God isn’t a physical object, but he is the Rock and Refuge of his people. Yes, God doesn’t have a sex or sire offspring, but he is our Father. Yes, God’s rule is quite different from that of earthly rulers, but he appears to Isaiah on a throne in a palace wearing a robe. Yes, the Trinity is radically different from any human society, but Christ relates the unity of believers to his unity with his Father. Taking analogical revelation seriously means holding onto relation despite pronounced discontinuities and dissimilarities (it also means being far more aware of the problems with employing other language as if it could be used univocally of God and humanity: why do we feel theologically awkward about speaking about the ‘face of the Lord’ but much less so about the ‘mind of God’?).

While we do not have grounds for a natural Trinitarian theology—deriving a doctrine of the Trinity from reflection upon creation and human relations—I believe we have grounds for believing that God created the world in a manner communicative of himself and apt for greater communication. Mountains and seas, birds and beasts, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and infants, cities and societies, temples and thrones, fire, wind, and water: like stained glass they can bear reflections of their Triune Maker, the light of whose transcendent self-revelation shines through them, diffusing his creation.

Although I understand the relation differently from most complementarians, I believe that God did create male and female in a manner that reflects his Triune life, more particularly as that life is revealed within the economic Trinity. I think that there are good biblical reasons for believing this. I do not think that we need to project human relations onto divine relations, or impose the pattern of the latter upon the former to recognize this. The pattern is established within creation itself. It is an analogy within which the dissimilarities between the two aren’t reduced or minimized and where similarity doesn’t collapse them into a single univocal pattern—we don’t and shouldn’t derive our gender ethics from our doctrine of the Trinity, or our doctrine of the Trinity from our account of gender—yet where a resonance is nonetheless genuinely perceptible.


Many questions remain, not least regarding the proper way to read the crucial text of 1 Corinthians 11:3, which is a hugely vexed issue itself and upon which I would part ways with many complementarians. However, the principal questions that I see here concern the way that we should relate our accounts of gender and society with our doctrines of the Trinity. These are questions that cut across our typical boundaries.

I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, Bible, Church History, Controversies, Doctrine of God, NT, Revelation, Scripture, Sex and Sexuality, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son, Social Trinitarianism, and Ectypal Theology

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I think it can be very helpful to distinguish between an ‘ontological subordination’ and a ‘functional subordination’. The subordination of the Son to the Father – or, as Barth said, this subordination does not involve a ‘lack’ or inferiority but a particular mode of being. This carries over to the immanent Trinity – from all eternity Jesus is obedient to the Father.

    Also, I don’t see a way in which social trinitarianism doesn’t lead to tritheism.

  2. Tim says:

    Alastair, this is excellent. I agree with whitefrozen that the danger of social Trinitarianism is the likelihood of eventually ending up with tritheism. Your thoughtful description of how it breaks down from the start is golden.


    P.S. I tried to honor the day with this much shorter post: Some Insights From R.C. Sproul For Trinity Sunday: When 3 Persons Equal 1 Being Who Doesn’t Exist?

  3. thrasymachus33308 says:

    Just skimmed but Holmes is a progressive who displays the typical progressive ticks- “how could anyone *be* so stupid”- and just as quoting a few NT verses in English and asserting their obvious truth isn’t much of an argument, asserting your obvious social superiority is even less of one.

    For me, Jesus’ obedience is kind of the whole ball of wax, and if it’s important it’s probably eternal.

    • I think that you are quite misrepresenting Holmes here. Holmes is hardly a ‘typical progressive’, nor is his argument a ‘progressive’ one. Rather, his concerns arise from his understanding of the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology and should be taken very seriously, coming as they do from a leading Trinitarian scholar.

    • whitefrozen says:

      Sort of like how asserting that someone is a liberal and asserting how, for you, something is important and probably eternal isn’t that great of an argument

  4. Thank you for your thoughts. I’ve written two articles responding to ESS in the last week or so.

    Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?

  5. Ethan says:

    Thanks for this.

    The safe bet is sticking with the analogies of scripture. My issue with complementarians using the Trinity for their gender role debates is that it overrides Paul’s gender analogy of Christ and the church. It is Christ(M) who lays down His life for the church(F); the Father(M b/c of headship in the complementarians analogy) does not lay down His life for the Som(F).

  6. Andrew says:

    Fascinating topic. I’d like to highlight two parts:

    “Yes, we should be aware of projecting human models of sociality onto God. However, the divine self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit already seems to imply that there is a divine relation to which the interpersonal relation between a man and his male child is somehow faintly analogous.”

    “One of the dangers of theology is that of censoring the boldly analogical language that Scripture uses of God out of theological discomfort.”

    I strikes me that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is *the* controlling presentation of God within the New Testament. It’s not exclusive – Paul speaks of “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” in Acts 17:24 – nor is it intended to be, but it is all pervasive. I’ll also note that “God” in the NT is often used to identify the Father, often as distinct from the Son. For example, Acts 7:55 describes “Jesus standing at the right hand of God”. I can think of no instance where “God” is used of the Son or Spirit as distinct from the Father.

    I don’t see a way that we can argue that the Father-Son relationship is not fundamental to the trinity that does not do violence to the entire New Testament presentation of God.

    From this follows an interesting set of questions:
    – To what extent is the Father-Son relationship definitional (or an ideal model) *for* father-son relationship?
    – To what extent is the relationship described as Father-Son an analogy *from* (ideal) father-son relationships?
    – How is Scripture’s (implicit and explicit) understanding of “father” and “son” to therefore conform our understanding of Father and Son?

    In thinking of this topic, I’m always struck by two passages from the Gospels:

    The first is the parable of the tenants (Matt 21:33-44, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-18). The owner sends his servants, but lastly sends his son. “They will respect my son” – the son represents the father in a way that servants do not.

    The second is Luke 20:41-44, where Jesus quotes the Psalms to confound the Jewish teachers: “‘The Lord said to my Lord …’ … David thus calls him Lord, how is [the Christ] David’s son?”. The son follows from the father; he is not superior to him.

    The good son obeys his father, represents his father, is of one will with his father, speaks with his father’s voice. The relationship is fundamentally both hierarchical and unified.

    So how do we map this to God? Is the Father-Son language just picture-language, using an earthly description as shorthand for something unknowable? Or is or worldly ideal of father-son an imaging of the Triune God himself (perhaps in the same way that our rulership over the earth images God’s rule)? Does reading hierarchy and authority out of human father-son relationships (leaving only unity) depower them from what they are supposed to be, and does it do the same to our divine understanding of Father and Son?

    Despite the slightly polemic skew above, I’m genuinely interested in hearing thoughts from all angles.

  7. evan773 says:

    This is a great contribution by Holmes.

    I’ve spent my whole life in evangelicalism, and have become ever more frustrated by the insistence that gender-role hierarchy is somehow essential to the Gospel. Moreover, it strikes me as a bit too coincidental that “biblical manhood and womanhood” (BMAW) looks eerily similar to views of manhood and womanhood that prevailed in middle-class America in the 1950s. I can agree that there’s a complementarity to the male-female dyad. Even so, I see no reason why that necessitates cramming men and women into some arbitrarily selected gender scripts of a bygone era. I keep hoping that evangelicals can discuss sex and marriage without merely fetishizing the 1950s and eulogizing the neo-Freudian gender scripts of that era. But I keep facing disappointment. I fear that we have come to conflate engagement in the Culture Wars with proclaiming the Gospel.

    The “eternal submission” argument seems to show how central gender-role thinking is to many evangelicals’ conception of their faith. As Holmes amply demonstrates, the arguments for eternal submission are fairly weak. And it’s likely no accident that the contributors to this volume are all ardent proponents of BMAW. I understand the attractiveness of BMAW: It provides a simple rubric that gives clear black-and-white answers on the social issues that have dominated the American political scene for the past 35 years. It feeds our desire for certainty. But Scripture just doesn’t give us very clear answers on these issues. In that sense, I fear that BMAW forces Scripture to say things that it just doesn’t say. BMAW may be good prudential advice, but it’s just not “biblical” advice. For me, the strongest argument against BMAW is that it can’t be reconciled with the doctrine of the Trinity. In my book, the Trinity trumps gender roles. It’s disturbing to see that, for a number of evangelicals, the opposite is true.

    Honestly, the whole Culture War thing just has’t ever made any sense to me. In my opinion, the Culture War was won on a hill outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago. So, we’re free to stop wringing our hands over “the culture” and go out and bask in the freedom that Christ bought for us. Too often, however, the Culture War looks like a faithless effort to shirk the amazing freedom that is ours in Christ. Our certainty is not in BMAW or even in an inerrant Bible; rather, our certainty is in the person of our risen Savior.

    • Thanks for the comment, Evan. Just one brief remark in response. You write:

      For me, the strongest argument against BMAW is that it can’t be reconciled with the doctrine of the Trinity.

      I don’t think that this is quite how Holmes’ argument works. It would be possible to hold both together, to ‘reconcile’ them—although Holmes would firmly reject complementarianism on other grounds—but the Trinity cannot be made a basis for complementarianism. The Trinity neither upholds egalitarianism nor complementarianism and any attempt to make it do so does violence to the doctrine.

      • evan773 says:

        I would agree with you concerning the Holmes thesis. There are plenty of versions of complementarity that would not require one to adopt ESS. Even so, the particular view of complementarity that one finds advocated in Reformed circles in the US–BMAW–does require ESS. And that’s the reason why Ware et al. must either abandon BMAW or accept ESS.

        I agree with the basic notion of complementarity, i.e., that there are essential differences within the male-female dyad. Even so, I see no reason why such differences ought to require the adoption of the kind of soft patriarchy that’s widely promoted in Reformed evangelical circles in the US. Moreover, I see no reason why the male-female dyad necessarily implies a corresponding masculine-feminine gender-role dyad. Further, I find it to be too coincidental that these “biblical” gender roles look a lot like the neo-Freudian gender roles that were widely promoted in the 1950s. As Peter Leithart noted on his blog a few weeks ago, there’s no reason why complementarity requires a dominant-subordinate dialectic.

  8. Christopher McCartney says:

    As I understand it, father/son language in Scripture was originally a description of the relationship of God with some man or men who were set apart to exercise vicegerency for Him. So Adam is called a son of God. So is David. And Israel, that royal priesthood, is also called God’s firstborn son: “out of Egypt have I called my son.” Because the man Jesus fulfills this role most fully, he above all is called the Son of God.

    So, when Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour of his coming, not even the son, but only the father, this describes the mind of Christ as man. If ‘son’ here means the eternal logos, then it would seem to teach some kind of heresy: not only that the logos is a different center of consciousness, but that he does not enjoy omniscience, and is some kind of lesser being than the Most High God.

    The author of Hebrews seems to be using ‘Son’ to speak of the person of Christ in contexts where he describes his being and actions both as divine and human. And then there is the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” since the three names occur together in Scripture in that way, they seemed the best choice for naming the three persons of the eternal trinity.

    With this history in mind, it’s not clear that the *names* of the first two persons of the trinity are meant to evoke the relation between a man and his male offspring in general. Or at least, the connection is a good bit more tenuous than we might have thought without a knowledge of this history: The relation between (not just any man but) a king and his male offspring, the crown prince, illustrates in the first place not a relationship within the Godhead, but a relationship between God and man, a specially chosen man, that is. That’s step one. Then step two is to apply this to the economic relation between the Father and the Logos, because the Logos takes on flesh and becomes preeminently the chosen man. And step three is to apply the same terms to the immanent trinity, because after all they’re the same three persons whether we’re describing their eternal life or their economic activity. That’s quite a few steps. And the nature of the path they have taken might present an obstacle to us if we want to use the generic meaning of those terms to illuminate the uniquely intra-divine relationship.

    Briefly: the reason the Son is called “Son” is not because his eternal relationship with the Father is analogous to human sonship in general, but because, having taken on flesh, he plays the role, as a man, of God’s chosen king, which role is analogous to the role the son of a human king plays in his rule.

    That being said, I’m inclined to agree with you that the analogy can be maintained. That’s because of John 17, which indicates that union with Christ enables us to participate in a way in the eternal divine life, where when we address God as Father we are relating to him by participating in the relationship that Christ has eternally with his Father. And when Christ teaches us to call God “Father”, it’s not just a regal/political metaphor, but the more intimate familial aspects of the term are involved as well.

    • Father-Son language in Scripture is generally much more than just a employment of generic father-son relations but is, as you say, more clearly defined than that. However, there are a few points that are important here. The first point is that the initial uses of the language and imagery in revelation are not necessarily those uses that represent its deepest meaning. That meaning only becomes clearer over time. Likewise with bridegroom and bride imagery. Nuptial imagery develops over time, but its development serves to disclose the deepest foundations of the imagery, that a man and wife becoming one flesh ultimately relates to the union between Christ and his Church. This isn’t a process of metaphorical expansion and projection, moving from a human relation to the divine, but a revelation that the human relation was established as an analogical image of something greater.

      Second, analogies have levels. Song of Solomon can be read to refer to the relationship between a man and his wife. It can also be read as referring to the relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite. It can be read as referring to the relationship between the king and the people. It can be read as referring to the relationship between the promised Messiah and the nation. It can finally be read as referring to the relationship between God and his people. It is, of course, all of these things. Likewise, the language of sonship used by Christ takes up many threads and operates on many levels of meaning. However, ultimately, the Christian tradition has rightly seen this language as referring to a deep and eternal relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity.

    • Andrew says:

      “because, having taken on flesh, he plays the role, as a man, of God’s chosen king, which role is analogous to the role the son of a human king plays in his rule”

      I think the point that “Son” language isn’t just any son but the King’s heir is a good one.

      – does this mean he wasn’t “the Son” before he incarnated?
      – if the Son language is transient, why do the NT writers continue to refer to him as the Son?
      – if the Son language is transient, why does Stephen see him “seated at the right hand of the Father”?
      Also see 1 Cor 15:28, where “God” puts all things in subjugation to the Son. And then Paul makes the very explicit exception that “all things” doesn’t include the Father. Rather, the finality is that the Son, who rules over all things (except the Father), will place himself in subjection to the Father, bringing everything to completion.

      Likewise, Revelation makes the distinction between “the one who sits on the throne” and “the Lamb” (ch 5). Meanwhile, ch 20-21 refer to “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (which could be “throne of (God + Lamb)” or “(throne of God) + Lamb”) and “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb”. Like Paul, John typically reserves the name “God” for the Father even while describing God & Lamb united as a single focus of worship.

      • Christopher McCartney says:


        if the Son language is transient, why do the NT writers continue to refer to him as the Son?

        But the incarnation is not transient. I’m arguing that, at least in its principle meaning, “Son” reflects his role as second Adam, the son of man under whose feet all things have been subjected. I think Christians often read the things that the NT says about Christ’s apocalyptic rule as if they pertained mainly to his divine nature. I myself thought this way until I was challenged to look at things in Hebrews where divine authority is _given_ to Christ. While the author of Hebrews clearly believes in the pre-existent divinity of the second person, he also clearly describes Christ as being _given_ the name that is above every name, and the strongly monotheistic formula from Isaiah is applied to Christ (“every knee shall bow and every tongue confess”) as the _result_ of his obedience and suffering. So the author of Hebrews is not talking there about the eternal divine nature of Christ, in respect of which he has always been and never ceased to be of one substance with the Father, equal in power and glory, but rather he is describing the manner in which Christ _as a man_ takes up divine characteristics and authority: a friend of mine aptly described this as “the theosis of God.” And once I saw this in Hebrews, I realized it made sense of a lot of other things in Scripture, such as the people in the Gospel who rejoice that God has “given” to man authority to forgive sins. And the very term “Son of man” that Jesus uses there and in so many other places seems to capture this theotic authority of the second Adam: the Psalm, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him; you made him a little lower than the the heavenly being and crowned him with glory and honor. You have placed all things under his feet: all flocks and herds and all beasts of the field” (quoting from memory; might be a bit off) is describing the place of humanity in the world, but the NT applies the language of this Psalm to the divine authority of Christ as the apocalyptic “son of man” foreseen by Daniel, who _receives_ all power and authority, and sits on the throne of God so that all nations worship him. So I’m convinced that the apocalytic dominion of Christ is a dominion that he exercises in his human nature as the second Adam. And he will continue to do so for all eternity.

        So, no, my argument, even if taken further than I would take it, would not imply that the “Son” language should be transient.

        As for whether he was “the Son” before he was incarnated …

        If you mean was he _called_ the Son before he was incarnated, then the answer is easy: yes, because the incarnation was prophesied ahead of time. But that’s probably not what you mean.

        If you mean “Was he then what ‘the Son’ now denotes?”, then the answer is again easy, because in Trinitarian context, “the Son” denotes the second person of the trinity. And the second person of the trinity was the second person of the trinity from all eternity. I think that’s the most straightforward reading of the sentence, but the _denotation_ of the term is not really what’s at issue though.

        So maybe you mean to ask whether the _connotation_ of “Son” that the term has by being derived from the human filial relationship describes him (analogically) as he was before the incarnation. That’s just the original question rephrased, and the answer, I say, is less than obvious.

        But I’m not disagreeing with Alastair and (presumably) your conclusion about that. I’m just raising questions about how we get there. The biblical basis for that conclusion is perhaps not as straightforward as it might seem. But in the end I do agree that the answer to even that question is yes.

  9. A newcomer to your blog. Just wanted to say that while I am an egalitarian (I know, boo, hiss!) this is a wonderfully written and researched blog post, keep up the great work! (How is Leithart’s new book by the way? I am just about to start it) I think you strike a fine balance regarding your notion of analogy. I am with the likes of Kilby and Tanner that either way (egalitarianism or complementarianism) these have to won the old fashion exegetical way, because the Trinity simply cannot be “utilized” that way. To my mind (here comes an analogy!) its a lot like quantum physics: if you ask the Trinity “complementarian-like” questions, you will receive answers that look complementarian, and vice-versa with egalitarianism. For example as an egalitarian I completely affirm the eternal generation of the son and the immutable “taxis” of the Trinity. Where my confusion comes in is that the EFS (eternal functional subord.) folks want to affirm this and then go on to say that it proves their point. But if all EFS is, is eternal generation (well, apart from Grudem and Ware’s rejection of it) and taxis, then I suppose I have no problem with it. But egalitarians like Kevin Giles also affirm taxis and eternal generation. So it seems the difference in interpretation boils down to the “project” that the model is embedded in?

    At any rate a few years back I wrote a short paper summarizing main points on both sides in the evangelical “Trinity war.” I would definitely change some of it now, because of further research etc… If you or your readers get a chance I’d love feedback on anything that I have misunderstood or misrepresented:

    Cheers, and keep up the good work!

    Derrick Peterson

    • Thanks, Derrick. And thanks for the link to your article.

      I have very mixed feelings about Leithart’s book. I like what he has to say about language, music, love, etc. as accounts of language, music, love, etc. However, I find the way that he connects these to Trinitarian perichoresis quite unconvincing and unhelpful. I believe that there are ways that we can relate the Trinity to such things, but it isn’t through the practical projection of concepts of the Möbius strip connection of inside and out, mutual inhabitation of signified and signifier, or the way that sounds live within each other, etc. up into the Triune life. Whether or not this is Leithart’s intent—and it would be unfair to say that he is unaware of this danger—his argument often seems to take this form. If I were attempting to do something like what Leithart is doing, I would start off with the divine missions in creation and redemption, observe the different ways in which Son and Spirit, for instance, are presented as establishing the creation, and show how this illuminates the sort of aspects of the creation that Leithart identifies. However, I think Leithart puts the cart before the horse in his approach. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it when you read it.

      • Thanks, I think we might be of the same opinion. I got much the same “cart-before-the-horse” vibe (admittedly just from skimming several sections). And yes, I would start with the missions as well, I think you are absolutely right. I find the analogy of perichoresis in creation to ring fairly hollow (it just doesn’t seem to add much to the idea that people are relational, etc. …), so a methodologically different starting point is vital. I am particularly skeptical of how widespread perichoresis is in science and theology dialogue (and typically in panentheist directions) so I may have come in to Leithart with a bit of an a priori chip on my shoulder. I’ll be sure to check back in!

      • Also, as perichoresis tends to be deployed as a concept it is too often along the lines of ‘they just, like, dance around inside each other, man.’ The generic and amorphous character of the concept makes it a rather boring one to me. It is interesting to talk about how signified and signifier interplay, for instance, but this is interesting in large part because signified isn’t signifier and their differences give their interplay a distinct shape, rather than flattening everything out.

        Leithart does a fairly good job of articulating this, for the most part. However, classifying all such cases under the generic concept of perichoresis tends to homogenize the distinct dynamics that makes such interplays worth studying in the first place.

    • evan773 says:


      What would you say is the difference between egalitarian and complementarian positions. After all, the opposite of egalitarian is hierarchical, not complementarian.

      I would say that I hold to a complementarian position because I believe that, in the main, males and females seem to complement each other in a variety of ways. Even so, I would also say that I’m an egalitarian because I don’t believe that these complementary features (which may be expressed in varying degrees and combinations in any individual male or female) necessarily impose any kind of hierarchy within the dyad. The views espoused by groups like CBMW are not merely complementarian, they are also hierarchical and patriarchal.

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  13. monkbasil says:

    Reblogged this on basilkaf.

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  17. Holly J says:

    I would agree that we should use the analogies which Scripture uses. However, Scripture does not use the eternal Father/Son relationship in the Trinity to explain the relationship between men and women – interestingly, it also does not use the Father/Son relationship when telling children to obey their parents.. The analogy in Scripture to show how a husband and wife (not just men and women) should relate is that of Christ to the Church. Furthermore, even that analogy has its limits, which we expand on our peril. I have seen the teaching that because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, therefore, the husband must also be the High Priest of the wife because Christ is the High Priest of the Church. It should not need to be said that the husband as High Priest teaching is very problematic theologically. Perhaps the real problem is that modern theologians do not understand how to use analogies properly.

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  22. spacebishop says:

    Hi Alastair.
    What did you think of Steve’s history-of-complementarian-exegetical-moves ?

    From Thomas Aquinas down to c.1950, Christian accounts of gender ‘complementarity’ depended on an assumption that women were in some way weaker or less perfect than men. Of course there were challenges – some which accepted the assumption (Sojouner Truth’s great speech), some which rejected it (in my own evangelical tradition, Phoebe Palmer or Catherine Booth). But the basic argument was stable.
    When it became clear that this basic argument was simply false, the churches had two options. One was to surrender accounts of complementarity – the English Free Churches all did it in the 1920s and 1930s without fuss or difficulty. The other was to find new arguments to defend the old conclusions.
    There is a good book to be written by someone who has more patience than I do with bad arguments, narrating the various arguments used by complementarians in recent decades. A ‘narrow hermeneutic’ argument based around close exegesis of two or three NT texts failed – the exegesis was not plausible; it was replaced by a ‘broad hermeneutic’ argument appealing to a Biblical theology of gender. This also failed, and was replaced by an appeal to ‘eternal functional subordination’ and a direct argument from the doctrine of God to gender relations.

  23. spacebishop says:

    I see on your about section you talked about writing something on that whole debate. Have you posted it anywhere?

    Also, where is he inaccurate in the above.?


    • A number of points. For starters:

      1. It is certainly not ‘clear’ that the argument that women are weaker than men is ‘false’ (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). In fact, there is a wealth of evidence proving this very point, which should also be commonsensical to any observer of differences between the sexes. It just is considerably less palatable as an element of a theology of gender to modern people.

      2. There has almost always been rather a lot more to Christian accounts of complementarity than merely a quasi-quantitative distinction between men and women as the supposedly lesser in strength and perfection. Although there were certainly glaringly misguided and misogynistic assumptions about women in many older Christian (as in non-Christian) texts on gender, there was also a rather more intimate acquaintance with natural realities that have become dulled to us by modern medicine and society’s distancing of us from human mortality and generation and reorganization of society around increasingly degendered principles of production and consumption.

      To our modern minds, the category of ‘equality’ can take on an immense significance, as the core realities of human society are increasingly gender neutral and any differences must be treated as indifferent or a threat to be dissembled. Reading older texts in the light of these convictions, the clear presence of assumptions that deny equality utterly disqualifies them to us. However, in traditional societies, where gender difference is deeply constitutive of human society and the paradigmatic human isn’t gender neutral, categories of ‘equality’ don’t function to the same degree, or have the same importance. For an example of this, see the way that Galatians 3:28 is consistently read by egalitarians as concerning the equality (and, indeed, de-differentiation) of all individuals, rather than as chiefly concerning the unity of groups in Christ.

      3. Holmes’ representation of the traditional position, framed by his egalitarian assumptions, overstates the degree to which non-equality—rather than, say, a non-commensurability in differentiation—was the governing principle for the traditional consciousness of gender. When old conceptions of non-equality passed, then, it wasn’t as if the task was simply ‘to find new arguments to defend the old conclusions.’ New arguments were developed to replace old ones, but the old conclusions always depended on a very great deal more than assumptions about men and women’s non-equality, not least upon biblical teaching on the subject. To those whose understanding of the framework of the debate is fixated on the concept of equality, the developments here will appear to be considerably greater than they actually were.

      4. The English Free Churches are far from unanimous on these matters. Holmes seems to be focusing chiefly upon certain leading denominations to the exclusion of other streams of the free church tradition.

      5. His ‘narrow hermeneutic’ claim is ridiculous. The exegesis was often very plausible—many egalitarians will even admit as much, while opposing the application to contemporary church. Rather, the exegesis was firmly resisted because it was unpalatable, and wasn’t able to prove the case with indisputable certainty. This isn’t a ‘failure’, just a matter of the natural limitation of exegesis to shut up fierce opponents. Texts seldom can, especially in the hands of readers hostile to their sense. Also, without venturing too far into tu quoque territory here, it is a little rich for an egalitarian to be making an argument about such failures of exegesis and over-dependence on texts that cannot bear the weight of the claims being made. Much egalitarian exegesis has proceeded precisely by ruling texts out of the discussion one by one, by casting key terms within them in question, or by greatly over-reading other texts to the eclipsing of much else.

      6. His ‘broad hermeneutic’ claim is also ridiculous. There hasn’t been a ‘failure’ here. Although it hasn’t been convincing to many of the fiercest opponents of the position—which it never was going to be—it is notable that egalitarians have, while putting holes in complementarian accounts, with a few welcome exceptions, failed to respond with a broad grappling with the biblical teaching on gender of their own.

      7. On the supposed move to the appeal to ‘eternal functional subordination’, a few points.

      First, belief in this position and connection of it to gender relations has been around for well over a century.

      Second, this doctrine did not arise to provide support for gender relations, although it became load-bearing for that doctrine at a later point.

      Third, this doctrine is far from exclusive to modern American complementarians. Forms of the eternal subordination of the Son can even be found in the works of figures such as Holmes’ own doctoral supervisor, Colin Gunton. Karl Barth even relates (his rather unusual account of) the eternal subordination of the Son to gender relations, speaking of the woman as ‘second and subordinate’ and of this as ‘a reflection of this likeness [of the Creator-creature antithesis] of the inner life of God Himself.’

      Four, the use of the Trinity to provide a rationale for gender relations is a modern trend that is far from exclusive to complementarians. A number of leading egalitarians have redrawn their doctrine of the Trinity around a principle of absolute equality, occasionally expressed in a rejection of or resistance to notions of taxis.

      Fifth, the use of eternal subordination of the Son in the context of gender relations has chiefly been illustrative, rather than architectonic, for complementarians. It has been appealed to in order to illustrate the fact that there are relations that are structurally asymmetric and characterized by subordination, without thereby denying the equality of the parties within them. The power of this illustration has been the wide acceptance of such an understanding of the Trinity among evangelicals of all backgrounds, whether egalitarians or complementarians.

      Sixth, as suggested in the past point, this doctrine has not been peculiar to complementarians. Prominent egalitarians such as Craig Keener and Andrew Perriman have written in support of it. On the other hand, the doctrine has not received universal support among complementarians.

      Seventh, the doctrine has more recently started to bear a lot more weight for certain prominent complementarians, while being criticized by others. However, it never simply ‘replaced’ other lines of (‘failed’) argumentation, but rather started to gain greater importance alongside them.

      More could be said, but I really think that Holmes’ account of the development of the arguments is terrible, and not worth the time or effort of more detailed engagement. I have an ongoing series treating the wider debate over on Reformation21.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        Regarding Galatians 3:28, or really Galatians 3: Why does St. Paul in 3:29, refer to us as Abraham’s seed, singular? Elsewhere that the word is singular may not be that big of a deal, but St. Paul had just made a big deal of the singular seed in 3:16, and seems to have even tied the singular “seed” it to the Shemah (3:20). Furthermore, the singular “sperma” doesn’t match the verb “este”, which is plural. In that context, the singular in 3:29 seems extremely significant, and to underscore the unity (unity that’s even perhaps tied to the Shemah!). But St. Paul’s point regarding “seed” is enigmatic to begin with, and I’m not sure what to do with it here.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I left this in the wrong spot. I started to type it here, jumping off your comment on Galatians 3:28, and then realized it belonged on the links post, where I copied it. But then I finished editing it here, and posted this one. I’ll copy this over there, and if you want, you can delete this one.

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