Kevin Giles is an evangelical Anglican minister who has been in parish
ministry for 37 years. He is vicar of St. Michael's Church in
North Carlton, Australia. He has also served as a minister and
consultant theologian for World Vision Australia.
Kevin holds a doctorate in NT studies and has publish more than 40
scholarly articles and ten books including What on Earth Is the
Church? (IVP, out of print) and Patterns of Ministry Among the
First Christians (HarperCollins). Kevin is married to Lynley,
a marriage educator and counselor and they have four grown up children
and 8 grandchildren.
The Doctrine of the Trinity and Subordination
by Kevin N. Giles
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the doctrine of the Trinity
captured the attention of theologians more than any other doctrine.1 At no time
in history since the theologically stormy days of the fourth century has there
been so much discussion on this topic, and the discussion does not seem to be
ending! Books on the Trinity by Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox
theologians continue to be published as I write. No longer is it thought
that the Trinity is an obtuse, secondary, and impractical dogma. Today
theologians are generally agreed that this doctrine is foundational to the
Christian faith because it articulates what is most distinctive in the biblical
revelation of God—he is triune.
The discussion in the last thirty years has ranged far and wide, but it may be
said with some confidence that conceptualizing the Trinity as a perichoretic
(interpenetrating) community of three “persons”2 who work in perfect unity and
harmony has been to the fore. This model of the Trinity highlights the
profound unity and the personal distinction within the Trinity without using
abstract philosophical terms. It also excludes tritheism, modalism, and
subordinationism, the three great Trinitarian heresies. The last of these,
subordinationism, has been particularly under assault. Ted Peters says
that if anything, contemporary mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic
trinitarian thinking is “antisubordinationist.”3
Paradoxically in this same period, many evangelical theologians have been moving
in the opposite direction. Since the 1980s, evangelicals wishing to uphold
the idea of male headship (understood as authoritative leadership) in the church
and the home have been arguing that the Son is eternally subordinated to the
Father like women are to men. Most speak only of an eternal subordination
in role/function for the Son. However some evangelicals honestly admit
that eternal role subordination by necessity implies subordination in person or
being.4 Conservative evangelicals who speak of the eternal subordination
of the Son quote Paul’s assertion that God the Father is the “head of Christ”
just as “man is the head of woman” (1 Cor. 11:3), and the texts that speak of
the Son being “sent” by the Father (Jn. 4:34, 5:30, etc.), and obeying the
Father (Rom. 5:18-19; Heb. 5:8). In addition, they claim that the eternal
subordination of the Son is historic orthodoxy. We are told that this is
the teaching of Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, and various other theologians, as
well as the creeds.
What should we believe?
For all evangelicals, the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of doctrine
and practice. However, in the ongoing debate concerning how the doctrine
of the Trinity should best be formulated, how to interpret the scriptures on
this matter has been the foundational issue.
Subordinationists (those who insist on the eternal and personal subordination of
the Son and the Spirit in being and/or function)5 appeal to the texts that seem
to subordinate the Son to the Father while non-subordinationists appeal to the
texts that would seem to affirm the equality of the Father and the Son along
with the Holy Spirit. If there were no way to settle this debate over the
interpretation of the Bible, we would have a stalemate. Each side could
simply go on quoting their proof texts and no resolution would be possible.
But this is not the case. Evangelicals both in support of the eternal
subordination of the Son and those vehemently opposed to the eternal
subordination of the Son are in complete agreement that tradition—how the
Scriptures have been understood by the best of theologians across the
centuries—is a good guide to the proper interpretation of scripture: it is a
secondary authority. Both sides claim the theological luminaries of the
past and the creeds are on their side. The resolution of the debate
therefore lies in determining whose reading of the scriptures is most faithful
to the tradition.
The New Testament
The first Christians were forced to rethink the doctrine of God they had
inherited from Judaism because of Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection, and the
subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit. As Jews, they were convinced that
there is but one God, a truth Jesus himself affirmed (Mk. 12:29- 32; cf. 1 Cor.
8:4; Eph. 4:6; James 2:19). This ruled out tritheism—three separate gods.
Nevertheless, they were also convinced that in some way Jesus and the Holy
Spirit made the one God present. For this reason, they frequently
associated the Father, Son, and Spirit together, implying their equality (cf.
Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 4:4-6; etc.), and on occasions
spoke of Jesus as Theos (Jn. 1:1, 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8), calling him
“the Lord” (the title for Yahweh used in the Greek OT) some two hundred times.
From these New Testament texts we see that the first Christians no longer
thought of God as a simple mathematical unitary entity. He was in some way
triune. Somehow, these two seemingly opposing ideas had to be held: God is
one and God is three. The New Testament writers agree on this, but they
give few insights as to how this might be so or how it might be explained.
One of the first suggestions as to how God might be three and one at the same
time was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were merely successive
modes of revelation of the one God. This answer upheld the biblical truth
that God is one, but it undermined the eternal distinct existence of the three
divine persons, which the Bible also teaches. This error, which was called
modalism, was rejected by the church Fathers, as it has been by subsequent
orthodox theologians down to our day. It is believed that to be loyal to
biblical revelation the doctrine of the Trinity must affirm without equivocation
the unity of God and the eternal and personal coexistence of Father, Son, and
Another early suggestion made by many second and early third century theologians
who were opposed to modalism was that God the Father, a Monad, is God in the
fullest sense, the Son is the Logos or Word of God always in the Father who was
brought forth for creation and redemption.6 They stressed that the Son and the
Spirit were fully divine persons, but this Logos model of the Trinity, while
safeguarding the unity of God and excluding modalism, implied that the Son and
the Spirit were secondary and tertiary subordinates to the one true God.
To exclude the problems this reading of Scripture raised, Catholic theologians
from the time of Athanasius, on the basis of a deeper reflection on Scripture,
began with the belief that God is not a solitary Monad who begat the Son and the
Spirit in time, but is a Tri-unity of three equal divine persons from all
eternity. This was a revolutionary breakthrough in theological method.
This profound insight Athansius used to counter Arius, a presbyter in
Alexandria, who earlier in the fourth century went a step further than the
second century naive subordinationists and actually argued that God the Father
alone was the true God: the Son and the Spirit were lesser gods, different in
being/nature/essence from the one true God. In making this assertion,
Arius began a theological “school,” known as Arianism which, despite significant
variations among its members, involved certain characteristic ideas.
According to Professor R.P.C. Hanson in his definitive book on Arianism, The
Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, the first and most important of these
was ontological subordinationism—the subordination of the Son (and the Spirit)
in his being/nature/essence. This observation comes as no surprise, for
most know that ontological subordinationism was of the essence of Arianism.
What is of some surprise to many is that for the Arians, this ontological sub-ordinationism
always had as its corollary the eternal functional subordination of the Son.
The Arians believed that the human traits seen in the incarnate Son were proof
that he was less than the Father, a creature, a “sort of vulnerable God.”7 They
made much of his ignorance of certain facts, tiredness, prayer life, and
suffering, and in particular they highlighted his sending by, and obedience to,
the Father. Hanson says the Arians consistently taught that the Son “does
the Father’s will and exhibits obedience and subordination to the Father, and
adores and praises the Father, not only in his earthly ministry but also in
Heaven.”8 The Arians began with a Greek view of God who could have no contact
with matter, let alone with human flesh, but their proof of the ontological
subordination of the Son was based on many biblical texts that either seemed to
subordinate the Son, or actually did subordinate him in some way. In other
words, they found proof of what they already believed by appeal to the Bible.
Most of the texts quoted alluded to the Son’s human characteristics and servant
form seen in his incarnation. They argued that this biblical teaching
spoke not only of the incarnate Son’s relationship with his Father while on
earth, but also of his eternal relationship with his Father in heaven.
Although Arianism was basically a fourth-century phenomenon, subordinationism is
a perennial threat to the life of the church. It is the most common of the
three classic trinitarian errors.9 In almost every century, there have been
those who have argued in one way or another that the Son is eternally
subordinated to the Father.10 Calvin battled with such people in the sixteenth
century; they flourished both on the continent and in England in the seventeenth
century. In the eighteenth century, Charles Hodge, the staunchly reformed
professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in the United States, taught, “In
the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons (of the Son and the
Spirit) as to the mode of their subsistence (i.e. personal existence) and
operation” (i.e. work/function/role).11 And in the last thirty years, as was
noted at the beginning of this article, subordinationism has become common among
contemporary conservative evangelicals committed to the permanent subordination
It has to be admitted that there are texts in the Bible that can be quoted, and
Arius and his followers found every one of them, to support the eternal
subordination of the Son. Jesus himself once said, “The Father is greater
than I” (Jn. 14:28), and the scriptures speak of him being “sent” (Jn. 4:34;
5:30 etc.), and obeying the Father (Rom. 5:18-19; Heb. 5:8). What has to
be asked is, how do these texts relate to the texts that speak of the Son as God
(Jn. 1:1, 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8), or as the Lord—the title used of Yahweh in
the Greek Old Testament (Acts 2:21; Rom. 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:2—more than 200 times),
or as equal with God (Phil. 2:6), or as “head over all things” (Eph. 1:22; Col.
2:10)? This tension in the texts called for a hermeneutic that could make
sense of the whole, without rejecting any of the parts.12
Athanasius’ Reply to the Arians
Arianism posed the greatest threat to Christianity that had arisen to this point
of time. If Jesus the Son of God is not God in human form, then he did not
perfectly reveal the Father, and he could not save, for only God can save.
In this critical hour, God raised up one of the greatest theologians of all
times, St. Athanasius (296-373 AD).13 His grasp of the whole of Scripture was
profound and his theological acumen far exceeded that of his adversaries.
In reply to the Arians’ appeal to the Bible, Athanasius argued that they had
failed to grasp the whole “scope” of scripture and failed to recognize that
Scripture gives a “double account” of the Son of God—one of his temporal and
voluntary subordination in the incarnation, the other of his eternal divine
status.14 On this basis he argued that texts that spoke of the divinity of the
Son and of his equality with the Father pointed to his eternal status and
dignity, and texts that spoke of the subordination of the Son pointed to his
voluntary and temporal subordination necessitated by him becoming man for our
salvation. For Athanasius, the Son is eternally one in being with the
Father, temporally and voluntarily subordinate in his incarnate ministry.
Athanasius had no problems with the many texts that spoke of the Son’s frailty,
prayer life, obedience, or death on the cross. For him these texts
affirmed unambiguously the Son’s full human nature temporally and voluntarily
assumed for our salvation. Such human traits, he argued, were not to be
read back into the eternal Trinity.
As part of their case, the Arians claimed that if the Son is “begotten” (they
took this to mean created) by the Father, then he must be less than the Father
because all human sons are less than their father. In reply to this
reasoning, Athanasius first argued that the biblical metaphor of “begetting”
when applied to the Son of God did not imply creation. The Bible did not
teach that the Son was one of God the Creator’s works, but rather God himself
differentiated from the Father by origination. For Athanasius, the Son was
“begotten” of the Father, not created by the Father. The terminology of
begetting differentiated the persons, but did not subordinate the persons.
In regard to the Arians’ claim that all sons were less than their human fathers,
Athanasius next argued that in fact all sons are one in being with their
A third incredibly important insight into what the Scriptures taught about the
persons of the Trinity was made when Athanasius pointed out that in the Bible
what God does reveals who God is—the being of God is made manifest in the works
of God. He thus argued that it is because Jesus does what only God can do
(raise the dead, heal the sick, forgive sins, offer salvation, reign as Lord and
head over all, etc.) that we are to know he is God (cf. Jn. 5:19). So, for
Athanasius, in contrast to Arius and his followers, the being/nature/essence and
the works/operations/functions of the Father and the Son are one. The
three divine persons are one in being and one in action. Who they are and
what they do cannot be separated.
In enunciating this principle, Athanasius perfectly captured biblical thinking.
This unity of being and action between the Father, Son, and Spirit, first spelt
out by Athanasius, is a constant theme from this point on in the orthodox
doctrine of the Trinity. On this basis it is held that to eternally
subordinate the Son or the Spirit in work/operation/function by necessity
implies their ontological subordination. If one person on the basis of
personal identity alone must always take the subordinate role, then he or she
must be a subordinated person, less than his or her superior in some way.
Athanasius believed that in the incarnate Son, God was truly present in the
world in human form. The texts he quotes most of all are, “The Father and
I are one” (Jn. 10:30), and, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn.
14:9). So emphatic was he that the Son was fully God, he repeatedly says,
“The same things are said of the Son which are said of the Father, except for
calling him Father.”15
The Cappadocian Fathers
In the later part of Athanasius life, his closest and most gifted theological
allies were the Cappadocian fathers (three learned theologians who were all born
in Cappadocia in Asia Minor) who likewise were totally opposed to subordinating
the Son in the eternal Trinity in any way. In thinking about the God
revealed in Scripture, they begin not with God the Creator, but with the
eternally triune Godhead (Theotes).16 For them, the divine three share at an
inter-trinitarian level one being (ousios), yet they are eternally three
hypostases. The hypostases could be distinguished but not separated,
differentiated but not divided. For them their unity is that of three
persons in communion (koinonia) and it is so profound that each person
interpenetrates the other.17
Like Athanasius, the Cappadocians not only insisted that all three persons were
one in being (homoousios) but also that they worked/functioned/operated as one.
Oneness in being necessitated oneness in action and vice versa. So Basil
We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the
same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of
operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature.18
For the Cappadocians, the idea that the Son is eternally obedient, always a
servant under the Father, as their chief Arian opponent Eunomius emphatically
and repeatedly argued, was a gross error.19 They take up this matter time and
time again. In reply, they insist that in the New Testament, the Son’s
servanthood and obedience is limited to the incarnation. Gregory of Nyssa
says, “By his partaking of creation he also partook of servitude.”20 Furthermore
they argued in the incarnation the Son was representative man.21 His obedience
countered the disobedience of Adam that had brought ruin to the human race.
Again, I quote Gregory of Nyssa who in answering Eunomius points out that “the
mighty Paul” says “he [Jesus] became obedient (Phil, 2:8) to accomplish the
mystery of redemption by the cross, who had emptied himself by assuming the
likeness and fashion of a man … healing the disobedience of men by his own
obedience.”22 For the Cappadocians, the Son’s obedience was not compulsory
submission to another’s will, the will of the Father, but rather a coincidence
of willing. What the Father wills and what the Son wills are always one.
[The Son’s] will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father.
Do not let us then understand by what is called a “commandment” a peremptory
mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a
subordinate, concerning what he ought to do. Let us rather in a sense
befitting the Godhead, perceive the transmission of will, like the
reflection of an object in a mirror, passing without note between the Father
and the Son.23
On this basis, the Cappadocians argued the divine three have but one will.
They always work in perfect harmony and unison.
For the Cappadocians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are differentiated by
their differing origins and thus differing relations and nothing else. The
Father is “unbegotten,” the Son “begotten” and the Spirit “proceeding.” For them
differentiating the persons in this way did not in any way suggest the
subordination of the Son or the Spirit. To ensure the unity of the Godhead
they spoke of the Father as the “sole source” or “sole origin” (Greek
monarche) of the being of the Son and the Spirit. In their thinking
this too did not imply any subordination whatsoever for the three hypostases
shared in the one being of the Godhead and each interpenetrated the other.
In other words for them, derivation of being did not imply diminution of being,
or demotion in authority.
However, in making the Father the arche/origin of the being of the Son
and the Spirit, many Western theologians think a conceptual weakness was
introduced. A certain priority was given to the Father. To simply
deny that the monarche of the Father envisages the Son and the Spirit
standing below the Father does not solve the problem. Eastern Orthodox
theologians generally endorse the monarche of the Father, denying it
implies any hint of subordinationism. Nevertheless in recent times, as an
outcome of ecumenical dialogue, some of them have begun speaking, as Athanasius
did, of the divine Trinity as the arche.24 Like most contemporary theologians,
they want to exclude completely subordinationism.
First at the council of Nicea in 325 AD, and then at the council of
Constantinople in 381 AD, the idea that the Son was subordinated in his being to
the Father was totally rejected. In the Nicene creed, as finally worded at
the council of Constantinople, the Son is confessed as one in being (homoousios)
with the Father.25 In making this theological pronouncement, this creed also
pronounced on how the Scriptures should be read. To read back into the
eternal Trinity the subordination of the Son seen in the incarnation, the creed
rules, is a hermeneutical error.
Augustine and his heirs
Early in the fifth century on the western side of the Roman Empire, another
great theologian, Augustine of Hippo gave his mind to restating the doctrine of
the Trinity. In his presentation of this doctrine, he begins with the
unity of the triune God and then explains how the divine three are distinct
“persons.”26 Like Athanasius, he is particularly keen to first establish how the
scriptures are to be read correctly—canonically is his word. For him the
unequivocal divinity and unity of the three “persons” is the foundational
premise. Then, making Philippians 2:4-6 the key to a right reading of
Scripture, he insists that all texts that refer to the equality in divinity,
majesty, and authority of the Son speak of his eternal status, and all texts
that refer to some subordination or frailty speak of his temporal and voluntary
subordination in the incarnation for our salvation.
In Augustine’s work, the emphasis falls on the one substance or being of God.
With this starting point, there can be no subordination whatsoever in the
Trinity since all three persons “share the inseparable equality of one substance
present in divine unity.”27 Because the three persons are one in their inner
life, this means that for Augustine their works in the world are one.
Particular works could be appropriated to each person (e.g. creation to the
Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Spirit) but always the
divine three act as one. They work in perfect unison and harmony.
Thus he spoke of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as having one will.
For this reason, it is an impossibility for Augustine to speak of the Father
commanding and the Son obeying as if there could be a conflict of wills within
the eternal Trinity.
With his stress on the unity and equality of the three divine persons, Augustine
also had to carefully and unambiguously distinguish them to avoid any hint of
modalism. He argued that the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are
designations given to three unchanging and unchangeable relations 28 within the
Godhead, predicated on differing origination. The Father is distinguished
as Father because he “begets” the Son; the Son is distinguished because as the
Son he is “begotten;” the Spirit is distinguished from the Father and the Son
because he is “bestowed” by them.29 For Augustine, just as with Athanasius and
the Cappadocians, differentiating the persons does not imply the subordination
of any of the persons. Equality and difference are both fully embraced
Augustine thought of the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the
Son and as the communal bond that unites them. This meant that for him the
Holy Spirit could not be the Spirit of just one of them but rather of the two in
relationship. This theological insight he found in Scripture. He
noted that the Bible spoke of the Holy Spirit as both the Spirit of the Son and
the Spirit of the Father. The Father and the Son must therefore be “the
origin,” or “principium” of the Holy Spirit.
It is thus of no surprise to find that at the third council of Toledo in 589 AD
the words “and the Son” (these three English words translate one Latin word,
Filioque) were added to the Nicene Creed which had until that time spoken of
the Spirit as proceeding solely “from the Father.” This led to a growing divide
between Eastern and Western theologians. The latter generally believe this
addition safeguarded the vital truth established in the Nicene creed that the
Father and the Son are one in being/substance; it also disallows any disjunction
between the Son and the Spirit that would be contrary to Scripture where the
Spirit can be called either “the Spirit of God” or “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts
16:7; cf. Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6). This addition was not intended to
subordinate the Spirit to the Father and the Son, but it must be admitted that
the Eastern Orthodox objection that it does just this, at least conceptually,
cannot be ignored.
After Augustine’s death his model of the Trinity was encapsulated in the
so-called, Athanasian Creed (Athanasius was long dead when it was complied.).
This creed stresses the unity of the Trinity and the equality of the persons.
It ascribes equal divinity, majesty, and authority to all three persons.
“Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Spirit.” All three
are said to be “almighty” and “Lord” (no subordination in authority); “none is
before or after another (no hierarchical ordering); none is greater, or less
than another (no subordination in being or nature) … all three are co-equal.”
The Son is only “inferior to the Father as touching his manhood.” A more
explicit rejection of the eternal subordination of the Son in being, function,
or authority is hard to imagine. For those who confess this creed, they
are affirming this is what they believe and that this is what the Bible teaches
when read correctly.
The great Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century restated and developed
Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity. Like Augustine he began with and
emphasized the unity of God before he discussed the distinction of the persons.
With his stress on the divine unity of the Godhead there can be no
subordinationism whatsoever within the eternal or immanent Trinity. Roman
Catholic theologians have consistently followed him on this principle.
There is not time in this essay to say more on Aquinas but more must be said
about Calvin’s teaching on the Trinity because for many evangelicals he is the
theologian par excellence.
Calvin made several important contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Foreshadowing modern developments, he eclectically drew on the best of Eastern
and Western Trinitarian thinking, yet seeking always to be faithful to the
formulations of this doctrine as it had been passed on. However, as the
Bible was his primary authority, he was not adverse to modifying terminology or
explanations found in the tradition so that the scriptures determined the
theology he enunciated. But he soon saw that appealing to the Bible did
not silence his subordinationist opponents who also appealed to scripture,
quoting texts that seemed to support their position. Like Athanasius and
Augustine before him, he concluded that Philippians 2:4-11 prescribed how
scripture was to be read correctly. He returns to this text time and time
again. Here he sees the scriptures teaching that in becoming man the Son
willingly and freely chose to subordinate himself for our salvation. He
took “the form of a slave … and became obedient to the point of death.” On this
basis Calvin insists, like Athanasius and Augustine, that all texts that speak
of the frailty, subordination, or obedience of the Son refer only to his
incarnate existence. Eternally, the Son is equal in divinity, majesty, and
authority with the Father and the Spirit.
For Calvin, the Son perfectly reveals the Father. He is “God with us.”
Like Athanasius, he loves to quote Jesus’ words in John 14:9, “whoever has seen
me has seen the Father.” Boldly he argues the Son’s divine status is not
bestowed by the Father. He is God in his own right (autoth-eos).
Nevertheless, this revelation of God’s self is in the flesh and as such is
“veiled” and “concealed,” recognized only by faith.30 In response, Calvin’s
opponents argued that the Son’s servant status and obedience, so clearly
attested to in scripture, indicates rather an ongoing subordinate status for the
Son. The great Reformer goes to great pains to refute his critics.
He notes that Paul quite specifically in Philippians 2:8 speaks of the Son’s
“obedience” as one of the human traits that his “voluntary” emptying of himself
involved. He writes,
Laying aside the splendor of majesty, he showed himself obedient to his
Father (cf. Phil. 2:8).
Having completed his subjection, he was at last crowned with glory and
honour (Heb. 2:9) and exalted to the highest Lordship that before him every
knee should bow … (Phil. 2:10).31
Then in the next subsection in his Institutes, in speaking of the
soteriological work of the Son, Calvin returns to the matter of the Son’s
obedience. Calvin points out that the son had to be obedient if he were to
be the second Adam. To make his point Calvin asks,
How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God and
acquired righteousness to render God favourable and kindly towards us? To
this we in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of
his obedience. This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s
disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made
righteous” (Rom. 5:19).32
Calvin then adds, “his willing obedience is the important thing because a
sacrifice not offered voluntarily would not have furthered righteousness.” The
voluntary nature of the Son’s obedience is a recurring motif in Calvin’s
What Calvin says on this matter is unambiguous. For him the Son’s
obedience is limited to the incarnation. It is indicative of his true
humanity assumed for our salvation.33 The Son’s last act of obedience was the
cross (Phil. 2:8). From then on he rules as Lord and head over all.
In this whole discussion on the person and work of Christ in the Institutes we
see Calvin contrasting what he calls, “the time of his humiliation”34 of his
earthly ministry with his subsequent majesty and authority in heaven.35 Thus for
Calvin, to read back into the exalted status what scripture explicitly limits to
the Son’s humbled status is a grave error. This he saw was the root cause
of subordinationism of his day.
B. B. Warfield in his lengthy and detailed essay on Calvin’s doctrine of the
Trinity concludes that Calvin’s aim was “to eliminate the last remnants of
subordinationism,”36 being in “inexpugnable opposition to subordinationists of
The twentieth century
Sadly from the time of Calvin until late in the twentieth century, most
Protestant theologians lost interest in the doctrine of the Trinity, as did most
Roman Catholic theologians. The tendency was to treat the Trinity as a
formal doctrine that needed to be outlined and then left to one side. Not
surprisingly, many of the discussions of the Trinity in theological textbooks
from this period are sadly inadequate and sometimes historically and
theologically in error. Theologians who purport to be teaching historical
orthodoxy all too often endorse modalism or subordinationism.
Two exceptions to this general rule among Reformed and evangelical theologians
should be noted. First we mention B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), the great
defender of biblical authority. In opposition to the subordinationism
espoused by Charles Hodge, Warfield wrote to “vigorously reassert the principle
of equalisation” in the Trinity.38 Mainly by appeal to the Bible he refuted
arguments used to suggest that the Son and the Spirit are eternally subordinated
in their subsistence” (personal being) and/or in their “operations” (work or
function). Warfield does speak of the subordination of the Son in
“function” in the work of redemption.39 This subordination he says was
voluntarily, “due to a convention, an agreement between the persons of the
Trinity,” and he insists it is not eternal. This means that although the
terminology differs, Warfield in speaking of the functional subordination of the
Son is referring basically to what I call the temporal and voluntary
subordination of the Son in the incarnation.
In even more detail, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in the Netherlands masterfully
restated the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the second volume of his
Dogmatics, later translated into English in abbreviated form as, The Doctrine of
God.40 In this work Bavinck not only gives an excellent account of the doctrine
of the Trinity as it had been historically developed but also sets out to
repudiate modalism and all forms of subordinationism, two errors he sees as a
perennial threats to the life and well-being of the Church.
However, most attribute the awakened contemporary interest in the doctrine of
the Trinity to Karl Barth among Protestants and Karl Rahner among Roman
Catholics. More has been written on this doctrine in the last thirty years
than any other doctrine. This has involved a return to the historic
sources and the development of the best insights from the Eastern and Western
models of the Trinity. In this process, many have found the contribution
of Athanasius particularly instructive.
Some discussions have sought to break new ground, but the predominant trend has
been to utilise the best insights from the past, depicting the Trinity as the
three divine persons bound together in a unity of being and action, mutually
indwelling one another. The evangelical theologian Millard Erickson his
1995 book, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity
eloquently sums up how the doctrine is understood by most contemporary
The Trinity is a communion of three persons, three centers of
consciousness, who exist and always have existed in union with one another
and in dependence on one another … Each is essential to the life of the
others, and to the life of the Trinity. They are bound to one another
in love, agape love, which therefore unites them in the closest and most
intimate of relationships. This unselfish, agape love makes each more
concerned for the other than for himself. There is therefore a mutual
submission of each to each of the others and a mutual glorifying of one
another. There is complete equality of the three.41
Because virtually all theologians agree that the doctrine of the Trinity should
inform human relationships correctly, enunciating the historically developed
doctrine of the Trinity is of great practical consequence. If in the
Trinity all have the same authority, “none are before or after,” all are
“co-equal” (the Athanasian Creed), then the doctrine of the Trinity calls into
question all forms of human domination. It reminds us that totalitarian
regimes that ride roughshod over people or hierarchical ordering that
presupposes that some are born to rule and others to obey cannot and never will
reflect the divine ideal seen in the Trinity. And to be quite specific,
rather than supporting the permanent subordination of women in the church and
the home, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity suggests exactly the opposite.
Postscript: The difficult texts
In answer to what I have written some will reply that I have not explained those
few often quoted texts that do suggest the Son is subordinate to the Father.
I have dealt with the obedience theme but what about John 14:28, 1 Corinthians
11:3, 15:28 and the fact that the Father sends the Son? Let me very
briefly comment on these few texts subordinationists love to quote so as not to
leave any loose ends.
John 14:28: “the Father is greater than I.” This is a difficult text to be
sure because it stands in stark contrast to John’s teaching that the Son reveals
the Father and the Father and the Son are one. The best solution would
seem to be that given by Ambrose, Augustine, Calvin and many others: Jesus here
speaks as the incarnate Son in his state of humiliation.
John 4:34 etc.: In John’s Gospel, Jesus is he who is “sent” by the Father.
In that the Son is sent, some see eternal subordination implied. He always
does as he is commanded. However in John, the sending of the Son is best
explained in terms of the Jewish shaliach principle: the one sent has the same
authority of the one who sends. If this is the case, sending does not
indicate subordination but equal authority.
1 Corinthians 11:3: “God is the head of Christ.” Many evangelicals today
think that here Paul speaks of a four-fold hierarchy, God-Christ-man-woman.
This is not the case. Paul in fact speaks of a three-fold pairing; in each
case one person being the metaphorical head of another, and not in a
hierarchical order. First he mentions Christ and man and last, God and
Christ. What Paul seems to be doing in this verse and throughout this
passage is seeking to differentiate men and women, not subordinate Christ or
Theologian Wayne Grudem wants us to believe that the Greek word kephale
(translated into English as “head”) always means a “person in authority over.”42
His premise is that words have one fixed meaning, the context does not matter.
Virtually all linguists are of another opinion. Any given word has a range
of meanings and the context is the most important indicator of that meaning.
The erudite Anthony Thiselton carefully considers Grudem’s thesis and dismisses
it. He holds that Paul is playing on the “multiple meanings” of kephale
in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and in v. 3 it does not “denote a relation of
subordination or authority over.”43 The context rules out of court Grudem’s
understanding of kephale in v. 3 because Paul immediately goes on to
speak of men and women leading the congregation in prayer and prophecy, the two
most important ministries in the Corinthian church, so long as they are
differentiated by what they have or do not have on their “head.” To reply that
prophecy does not signify authority to speak on behalf of God, whereas teaching
does, is special pleading. Paul makes prophecy the second most important
gift ahead of teaching (1 Cor. 11:28) Here we need also to remember that
elsewhere in Paul the risen Son is said to be “head over all things” (Eph. 1:22;
Col. 2:10)—and no one disputes that Paul in these verses is speaking of Christ
as “a person in authority over.”
1 Corinthians 15:28: In this passage Paul seems to speak of the Son’s rule
coming to an end at the consummation of all things and of him becoming subject
to the Father. The first problem this text raises is that elsewhere the
Son’s reign is said to be “forever” (2 Sam. 7:13; Isa. 9:7; Lk.1:33; 2 Peter
1:11; Rev. 7:10-12, 11:15; cf. Eph. 1:20). Then there is the question as
to whether the Greek verb translated “subjected” is passive voice, “Christ is
subjected by God”, or middle, “Christ subjects himself.” The latter seems
preferable because in the incarnation the Son voluntarily subordinates himself,
and this would be a parallel. What Paul thus seems to be suggesting is
that the rule God the Father gave to God the Son at the resurrection is freely
handed back to the Father by the Son at the end. Rather than speaking of
fixed roles, or of the eternal subordination of the Son, this text indicates a
changing of roles in differing epochs.
1. This essay draws on the first part of my book, The Trinity and
Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers
Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), but exhibits some development in my thinking
as I continue to read the Bible and the historical sources. The Trinity
and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate
is available at www.equalitydepot.org
2. I put the word “person” in quotes because there has been much debate as
to what is the best word to designate the divine three. “Person” when used
in a trinitarian sense is acceptable if it is not taken as an exact synonym of
what the word person means when used of humans.
3. Ted Peters, God as Trinity (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), p.
4. The eternal role subordination of the Son apart from subordination in
being is given classic expression in W. Grudem, Systematic Theology
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 454- 70. I list numerous articles and
books outlining this position in my, The Trinity, p. 23, n. 8. To this
list should be added W. Grudem (ed.), Biblical Foundations for Manhood and
Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002). See especially pp. 37, 47-52,
233-253. This position is entirely novel. It has no historical
antecedents. Previously the argument has been eternal subordination in
being/nature/essence and work/operation/function are two sides of one coin.
The classic expression of the contemporary case for the eternal subordination of
the Son in being and role is found in the 1999 Sydney Anglican Doctrine
Commission Report, “The Doctrine of the Trinity and its Bearing on the
Relationship of Men and Women,” quoted in full in my The Trinity, pp.
122-137. Other examples of this position are also given in my book.
In the Sydney report at one point the subordination of women is explicitly
grounded in the “differences in being” within the Godhead (par. 25).
5. All accept that the Son was for a limited period (temporally)
subordinated in the incarnation. What is in dispute is whether or not the
Son is subordinated in the eternal or immanent Trinity in his
being/nature/person and/or work/operation/function. I will argue that
orthodoxy has always held that it is a grave error to eternally subordinate the
Son in his being or work for one implies the other.
6. In my The Trinity, pp. 60-62, I show that the Apologists—
Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hyppolytus—each in their own way adopt this approach.
7. R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God
(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988) p. 103.
8. Hanson, Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 103.
9. The other two are modalism and tritheism.
10. In more detail see my The Trinity, pp. 60-85.
11. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: Judson), vol.
1, pp. 445, 460-62, 464-65, 467-68, 474. It is to be noted that Hodge
gives no support to eternal role subordination apart from a subordination in
person. He holds that the Son is eternally subordinated in his person and
operations or functions.
12. Exactly the same approach is needed today in the debate over what the
Bible teaches on the status and ministry of women where there is a parallel
tension in the texts. See my The Trinity, 194-211.
13. For what follows I refer readers to, “Four Discourses Against the
Arians”, in Athanasius, Selected Works and Letters, vol 4, The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (hence-forth NPNF), ed P. Schaff
and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).
14. Athanasius, 3.29 (p. 409).
15. “Four Discourses”, 3.4 (p. 395), 3.5 (p. 395), 3.6 (p. 396), “The
Councils”, 3.49 twice (p. 476).
16. I refer readers to the writings of the Cappadocians in NPNF,
vols. 5, 7, and 8 rather than secondary sources.
17. This insight first found in Athanasius was later called in Greek, the
doctrine of perichoresis. Kevin Giles is a CBE’s conference speaker.
He is the Vicar of St. Michael’s, North Carlton in the Anglican Diocese of
Melbourne, Australia. He has been in parish ministry for over thirty
years, and holds a doctorate in New Testament studies; he served as a
theological consultant for World Vision, Australia, in the mid-1990s. He
has published widely; his books include The Trinity and Subordinationism: The
Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (InterVarsity, 2002);
Making Good Churches Better (Melbourne: Acorn, 2001); What on Earth is
the Church? (IVP, 1995); and Patterns of Ministry among the first
Christians, (Collins-Dove, 1989).
18. Basil “Letters:, NPNF, Vol 8, 189.7 (p. 32)
19. For details on this see Eunomius’ “Confession of Faith” as given by
Hanson, The Search, pp. 619-621, particularly towards the bottom of p.
20. NPNF, vol. 5, 6.4, (p. 187), For similar comments by
Basil see NPNF, vol. 8, “Basil Letters”, 261.2 (p. 300).
21. As Gregory of Nazianzus says explicitly. See NPNF, vol. 7,
“Theological Orations”, 4.5 (p. 311).
22. NPNF, vol. 5, “Against Eunomius”, 2.11 (p. 121).
See also “Basil Letters”, 261.2 (p. 300).
23. NPNF, vol. 8, “On the Spirit”, 8.20 (p. 14)
24. See further my The Trinity, p. 100.
25. It is to be noted, however, that from the eleventh century there has
been Eastern and Western versions of this creed that differ as to whether the
Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or the Father and the Son. I
explain this debate below.
26. See the translation of De Trinitate by E. Hill, The Trinity,
(Brooklyn: New City, 1991).
27. Hill, De Trinitate, 2.15.
28. i.e. the Father is always the Father of the Son, the Son is always the
Son of the Father etc..
29. De Trinitate, 5.1 ff.
30. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed J. Neil, trans. F.
L. Battles (London: SCM, 1960), 2.13.2.
31. Institutes, 2.14.3.
32. Institutes, 2.16.5.
33. P. van Buren, Christ in Our Place, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1957), p. 38, says, “We cannot speak of the obedience of Christ in Calvin’s
theology without speaking of the strong emphasis he puts on the idea that this
obedience was performed in Christ’s human nature only.” See pp. 23-40 where he
develops this theme. For a virtually identical conclusion see also R. A.
Peterson, Calvin and the Atonement (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 1999), pp. 61-68.
34. Institutes, 2.11.12
35. On this basis Reformed theologians developed their Christology
speaking of the two states of Christ, his humiliated state in the incarnation
and his exalted state after the resurrection.
36. Calvin’s “Doctrine of the Trinity” in Calvin and Augustine,
(Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956), p. 230.
37. Calvin’s “Doctrine of the Trinity”, p. 251.
38. B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”, in Biblical
Foundations (London: Tyndale, 1958), p. 116.
39. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”, p. 110.
40. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. and ed. William
Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951).
41. Millard Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary
Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), p. 331.
42. Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 47.
43. Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 816. D. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker,
2003), pp. 506-516, reaches virtually the same conclusion.