In 1991 John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited what is one of the most influential and significant books of that decade: Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. The book’s goal was to show that egalitarianism—the idea that men and women should not have any role differences in marriage or in church—is unbiblical. Instead, Christians should embrace complementarianism–the idea that God designed the sexes to complement each other through different roles in both marriage and church life.
Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood dismantled egalitarianism for a generation of evangelicals. Grudem and Piper used a barrage of arguments, hunted down obscure Greek words, and built an air-tight case that men and women are of equal worth/value/dignity/honor, but have different roles.
Of the book’s many postulates, one of the more lasting came from Thomas Schreiner (who at the time was at Bethel Seminary, but who now leads the New Testament department at Southern). He argued that submission in marriage is no sign of inferiority because, after all, isn’t the second person of the Trinity eternally submissive to the first? And one member of the Trinity is obviously not greater than the other, because that would be heretical. Thus in the Trinity we have a model of two persons of equal ontology, but submissive in differing roles.
Shorter version: far from being degrading, submission is actually a high calling, because the eternal Son has always submitted to his Father.
Fast-forward 24 years, and last week Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher have sounded the alarm that this teaching is dangerous and will lead to a generation of Arians walking the streets. Part of me chuckles at this, because the view with which they are taking issue is a prominent feature of a book that is, well…24 years old. I mean, it was Christianity Today’s book of the year in 1993.
But regardless, Trueman and Goligher raise some objections. As I’m sure is evident by tone, I don’t find their objections meritorious, but I want to answer them regardless.
In his first post, Goligher asks this:
Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the Godhead? Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)?
Let me answer his questions one at a time:
Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Yes, the Trinity is more than a social program for the world and the church.
Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Because he uses the word life, egalitarian, obviously.
Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the godhead? Its complicated, because “will” and “power” speak to the essence of God, while “mind” is generally used to speak to the persons within the Trinity. A better way to say it would be that there are three persons that subsist distinctly, and act differently, and that apply the will of the Triune God with regard to their peculiar nature. This kind of precise language allows for a concept of submission within the Godhead without the implication that the three persons of the Godhead have wills which are in tension.
Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)? Probably, especially those of a certain segment of former members of The Gospel Coalition. Look—I share Trueman’s concerns about The Gospel Coalition, but Grudem, Schriener, and Ware’s views of the Trinity are certainly not to blame.
Reading through Goligher’s two posts it seems his objection boils down to this: if there is eternal submission between the members of the Trinity, then there must inherently be an ontological division within the being of the Godhead. And if there is that division, that means that one of the members of the godhead must have priority, and there must therefore be a hierarchy within the Godhead, which is unbiblical.
But I’m reminded of a warning in these discussions: when you hear Ralph say, “If Fred believes X, then Fred must also in turn believe Y,” and then along comes Fred, who convincingly states X and denies Y, the problem is most likely with Ralph’s logic.
When Goligher says that if the second person is eternally submissive to the first, then there must be a hierarchy in the Trinity, then along comes an army of people who believe in eternal submission but reject ontological hierarchy, and those people have been consistent in their teaching for 25 plus years, then I’m skeptical about the tightness of Goligher’s logic. In fact, here is Schreiner on this very topic:
[some object] that to make God the head over Christ is to fall into the Christological heresy of making Christ subordinate to God. But this would only be a heresy if one asserted that there was an ontological difference (a difference in nature or being) between Father and Son. The point is not that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Rather, the Son willingly submits Himself to the Father’s authority. The difference between the members of the Trinity is a functional one, not an essential one (p. 128).
Notice Schreiner’s point: there can be an eternal submission in functionality, but this does not necessitate ontological distinction.
Interestingly enough, Goligher almost concedes the same in his post. Under the heading “What is at Stake” he grants that in “the economy of redemption, in his state of humiliation there is submission.” By that, I assume he means that in his incarnation, and there only, was Jesus submissive to the Father. Or, to say it differently, submission was a function of his humanity, not his deity.
Which leads to my main concern with Goligher’s posts. He concedes that in matters of redemption there is submission within the Godhead, but he wants to separate that from the ontological nature of God. He says that hierarchy is fine, as long as it is confined to the act of redemption (the economic Trinity) and isolated from the being of God (the ontological Trinity).
But this loses what American theologians from Edwards to MacArthur have always pointed to as the motivation for God’s plan of salvation. God is by nature a savior. Even this year at the Shepherd’s Conference, MacArthur’s keynote address tied the saving plan of God to his Trinitarian existence. Because there are three persons, there is love. And because this love is so intense and perfect, there is the desire to share it with others, and the highest expression of that love is seen through the cross. This ontological love of God for himself is seen between the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and the three are distinct persons yet love themselves in such a way it is self-love of one being. The three persons share the will to enact salvation, and this action entails the submission of the Son to be the one who will go to his creation and bear sin.
There is a great harm to our understanding of God’s motivation in salvation if we make either one of two errors, and I read Goligher’s posts as committing both:
Error one—separate the ontological nature of God’s triune self-love from his “economy of redemption” (Goligher’s phrase), as if the plan of redemption was separable from God’s own self-love seen in the Father-Son relationship (here is a more scholarly post which points out this same error).
Error two—to insist that if there is a submission in the trinity from eternity, there must be a division of being (and here is a longer post showing John Owen warning against this error).
The first error isolates salvation from God’s eternal nature, and the second error “fails to make the historic and crucial distinction between essence and role” (Schreirner’s words).
The right balance is to understand that God by nature is a savior, that the plan of salvation flows from his self-love, and this plan culminates the Father sending and the Son going, but it is a plan decreed in eternity past and flowing from the very ontological nature of God. At the same time, this voluntary submission and subsequent title as “son” are coterminous with the plan of redemption, and DO NOT REFLECT ONTOLOGICAL DIVISION in the Godhead.