They Call Me Trinity: Subordination vs. the Good Son


My copy of Rublev’s masterpiece, The Trinity

The maddening thing about being a Christian parent is driving home from church and asking your younger children, “So what did you learn today?”

After that startled I wasn’t paying attention look in the rearview mirror, they answer with quivering voices, “Ummm…to love Jesus and God?”

Which prompts an unsuccessful attempt to explain the Godhead. The sun analogy doesn’t quite work. Nor the water molecule. The challenge is complicated by the fact implicit in their answer: that the second person of the Trinity became man.

Don’t worry — other religious traditions don’t get it. Honestly, a lot of faithful Christians don’t, either.

If you are a Christian (and unless you’ve been asleep) you’ve probably heard about the ruckus that has erupted in evangelical/reformed circles in the past month over the nature of the Trinity. Specifically, a group of scholars, led chiefly by Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, posit that within the Godhead the Son is eternally, functionally subordinate to the Father. Equal in essence to the Father, but as Son having a subordinate role. This in turn is used to argue for the subordination of wives (women) to husbands (men). One text used to support this is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul writes,

But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

The theological issue at hand involves the last clause: “God is the head of Christ.” Pulling out my ESV Study Bible I noticed that Frank Thielman’s footnote for 1 Cor 11:3 suggests something akin to functional subordination in the Trinity. But, as Andrew Moody points out, “there is a difference between Jesus’ eternal and human life…” This passage points to the relationship resulting from the second person of the Trinity having become man — the Jesus who, as our little ones tell us from the back seat, is to be loved with God.

The manhood of Christ is part of the reason the Antiochian-schooled archbishop Nestorius (431) struggled to accept the title theotokos (God-bearer, or in the Western Catholic tradition, “mother of God”) for Mary the mother of Jesus. In his mind this title overlooked the incarnation: God had become man, and it was his human nature to which the virgin had given birth. In his view Christotokos was a more appropriate title for Mary. But Nestorius’ critics, among them his Alexandrian political rival Cyril, accused him of splitting Christ into two persons, God and a man, instead of one person with two united natures. Nestorius denied this charge [I can’t pursue it here, but I suspect part of the controversy was linguistic, with Nestorius relying on Persian rather than Greek terminology to describe Christ’s person and natures].

I share this to further illustrate how complicated and delicate the job of describing the Godhead can be. An opportunity to pull over and ditch this conversation at the nearest restaurant open on Sunday can’t happen soon enough (with apology to Chick fil A).

In the case of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father, passages like 1 Cor 11:3 don’t help. It isn’t the Trinity in view but Christ in the economy of redemption, i.e. the ministry of God’s Son after incarnation. Michael Bird (whose excellent blog is linked in the column to the right) expresses concern that subordination — even if qualified as “functional” — leads to a “Triarchy” instead of Tri-unity. And as Liam Goligher points out, the attempt to use examples of Christ’s subordination to God during his earthly ministry is anachronistic, reading the redemptive economy played out in time and space back into the ontology of the Godhead.

I’ve read a couple of things Goligher has written on this matter. While unrelenting in defending Nicene orthodoxy (and suggesting that those who don’t hold it shouldn’t teach) it’s clear that his aim is to bring those holding the subordination view back to a proper understanding of the Godhead.

The same can’t be said of a recent post at First Things by Carl Trueman, a church historian of first-rank and scholar I admire. Expressing his disappointment with the eternal subordination position (perhaps “horror” is a better word), he makes several statements that leave me cold:

It seems clear now that the evangelical wing of conservative Protestantism has been built on a theological mirage. Typically, evangelicalism focuses on Biblicism and salvation as two of its major foundations and regards these as cutting across denominational boundaries, pointing to a deeper unity. But now it is obvious that, whatever agreement there might be on these issues, a more fundamental breach exists over the very identity of God…

…Maybe it is time for those Protestants who disagree on this most fundamental and distinctive of Christian doctrines to face the implications and amicably to go their separate ways. Evangelicalism as currently constructed should be dismantled, as there is little of theological substance that holds it together…

…[W]hat does seem clear to me is that confessional Protestants need to think long and hard about their connections to evangelicalism, broadly conceived. There are other, better options out there…

In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities…

Some pretty sweeping pronouncements. Why you want to be like that, Carl?

To be clear: I believe exactly what Trueman believes about the Trinity, which is exactly what the Nicene Creed sets forth. I realize it’s anecdotal, but everything I know about historical orthodoxy I learned first by reading evangelical scholars. To give one example, an article by Craig Blaising on the Council of Chalcedon for Bibliotheca Sacra, the Dallas Theological Seminary quarterly, ignited my interest in exploring the Church Fathers and the theology of the ancient church (which set me on a path that ultimately led to the Anglican communion).

Trueman is correct about the evangelical emphasis on the Bible and salvation for cutting across boundaries. In that process some novel and eccentric ideas crop up that require confronting and correcting. But calls for separation don’t simply clean up the theological work space; they result in the separation of whole groups of people from the conversation. People who need to hear what folks like Carl Trueman have to say.

Well, I would like to say something about the second person of the Trinity, prompted by an excellent podcast discussion at Mere Orthodoxy. While discussing the subordination controversy Derek Rishmawy used a word I really like: sonliness. For me, “sonliness” gets at something that can help us better understand the Son within the Trinity.

He is, after all, the Son — not the “Child.” The New Testament borrows from the Roman idea of sonship to illustrate rights and privilege of adoption into God’s family. Sonship involves being the adult heir to a father’s estate. He’s the heir because he is a responsible person, sharing his father’s interests with the intent to sustain if not expand the estate.

A child, by contrast, is subordinate to its father, being too young, too unaware, and needing to be told what to do. A son knows and shares his father’s purposes and desires; a child needs training and correction to understand what those desires and purposes are.

I remember hurrying home from work one day because a storm was coming, and I wanted to get the yard mowed before it hit. As I pulled up in front of the house I saw the grass had already been cut. My son came out on the porch and said, “I knew you would want that done before it started raining, dad.”

That is sonship. It says I can be at peace because he has taken over things exactly as I would want them. And may I add: you can be 40 or 50 or 60 years old and still be but a child to your own father, breaking his heart.

In the same podcast Andrew Wilson speaks of the “fittingness” of the Son to be the one sent into the world on the Father’s errand — not as a matter of functional subordination, but because it is what a son does. What is that errand? To seek true worshipers who will worship God in Spirit and in truth. This is what Jesus told the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well.

Later, that “babbler” Paul faced the learned Stoics and Epicureans on the Aeropagus in Athens. His message?

“…[W]e should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31)

Neither at Jacob’s well nor the Aeropagus do we find an explication of the Trinity. We get, rather, a call: a call to repent, a call to become true worshipers of the true God. God reveals himself as we are drawn by the Son through the Holy Spirit into fellowship. The medieval iconographer Andrei Rublev depicts this in The Trinity (ca. 1410). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated at a table — and a place is open for you, viewer, on Sundays and other days, to join them. The Son gestures with two fingers toward the cup of salvation — the blood of the New Covenant he shed on the cross for the remission of our sins. This beautiful and theologically rich image shores up our understanding of the Trinity in whose name we are baptized. It unfolds something of the glory of the God we worship in the church.

But the church needs the prophetic edge of evangelism that goes into the byways and hedges, as well as the academies and offices, to seek and compel people to come in.

In doing those things that please the Father, in going out to win treasures for his household, the Good Son isn’t about tripping up those who can’t pass a pop quiz on the nature of the Trinity. Whether it was through crying out to him, “Son of David!” or just nagging persistence, Jesus honored faith wherever he found it.

There’s plenty of time (i.e., eternity) to learn and grow in our understanding and appreciation of the Trinity. The time to repent is now.



  1. oldhop

    Thank you, sir. I agree, which is why I uphold the “high” view of the Son here. The case for the complementarian view of the sexes can be drawn from a robustly biblical anthropology without tinkering with the Trinity.


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