Sunday, November 25, 2012

Trinitarianism Is Complementarian

Some egalitarians, and particularly those of the feminist variety, like to appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity in support of their rejection of complementarian ideals. In their opinion, the equality of the three divine persons should do away with any and all talk about the distinct roles of husbands and wives. Since men and women are created in the image of God, then it follows that men and women are equal in value.

I've simplified the argument somewhat, but for whatever reason, it seems like some egalitarians are under the impression that complementarians disagree with the notion that husbands and wives are equal. The validity of the above argument and the truth of its conclusion are things that any complementarian will notice and point out immediately. Egalitarians who make these kinds of assertions show that they don’t really have a solid grasp on either complementarianism or trinitarianism. So here's my attempt to un-muddy the waters.

Kevin DeYoung provides what I think is one of the most helpful and basic summaries of the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t know if this summary is unique to him or reproduced from another source, but in any case, DeYoung explains the Trinity by way of seven key statements:
1. There is only one God.
2. The Father is God.
3. The Son is God.
4. The Holy Spirit is God.
5. The Father is not the Son.
6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
7. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. (source)
DeYoung then writes, “All of the creedal formulations and theological jargon and philosophical apologetics have to do with safeguarding each one of these statements and doing so without denying any of the other six.”

This is where the egalitarians fumble the ball. In their egalitarian vision of the Trinity, they aren’t being careful to safeguard all seven statements. They want to emphasize the first four, but they keep quiet about the last three. They do this for one of three reasons: either (1) because they’re not aware of the importance of distinguishing the divine persons and their respective functions, or (2) because they recognize that having a right understanding of these distinctions hurts their argument greatly, or (3) because they actually deny any distinction between the persons. In the first case, they show that they don’t understand trinitarianism and need to brush up. In the second case, they’re being dishonest. In the third case, they’re modalist heretics. I want to give egalitarians the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll assume the first option is true.

DeYoung goes on to quote the Athanasian Creed: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”

The emphasized portion of the above quote, and the last three of DeYoung’s seven summary statements, teach what egalitarians need to remember about the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct. In other words, they are different persons who do different things.

First, the Father is not the Son. It is inaccurate, even heretical, to teach that the Father died on the cross (patripassionism). It was not the Father who died, but the Son. In fact, the Son willingly submitted to his Father’s will when he laid down his life for the salvation of the world (Matt. 26:39). As a side note, this submission of the Son to the Father demonstrates the falsehood of what egalitarians frequently claim, namely, that submission entails inequality or inferiority.

Second, the Son is not the Holy Spirit. It was not the Son who was poured out at Pentecost, but the Spirit. Jesus told the disciples that he would send them another helper, i.e. someone else who will do something else (John 16:7).

Finally, the Spirit is not the Father. Rather, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. With authority, the Spirit is sent into the hearts of believers to help, comfort, and sanctify. This authority is not tyrannical or domineering, but it is nevertheless real authority.

These considerations help us to see how, contrary to what egalitarians would have us think, complementarianism is consistent with, and even derived from, trinitarian theology. There is headship in the Trinity whether egalitarians want to acknowledge it or not. Since complementarians recognize this headship, they are often charged with promoting heresy; and I suppose it would be heresy if it wasn’t in the Bible. Paul said, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).

The heresy that egalitarians are mistakenly appealing to is the heresy of subordinationism. Subordinationism teaches that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father. In other words, the Son is essentially a lesser quality being; he is less God-like than his Father. But complementarians are affirming no such thing when they acknowledge trinitarian headship and point out that a parallel exists between this and marital headship. Just as complementarians affirm the ontological equality of each divine person, so also do they affirm the ontological equality of all husbands and wives. At the same time, just as complementarians affirm the personal and functional distinction between each divine person, so also do they affirm the personal and functional distinction between all husbands and wives.

To express this in a simpler fashion: All the divine persons are equally God and equally valuable, just like all husbands and wives are equally human and equally valuable. Yet at the same time, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct, and function in complementary ways; just like all husbands and wives are personally distinct, and function in complementary ways.

In other words, trinitarianism is complementarian.

Fred Sanders, who is obviously much smarter than I am, has written a helpful and thorough article about this, though he seems to suggest that the Trinity should not inform anyone’s view of gender, either egalitarian or complementarian, which I don’t agree with. Give it a read anyway. I’ll leave you with a paragraph from that article, and a personal postscript:

Sanders writes, “So when gender warriors on either side appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity, I don’t expect much light, though there’s always plenty of heat. A particularly unfruitful line of inquiry is the question, “what did the church fathers say about this?” Pursuing that question can lead to very long but irrelevant florilegia: endless quotations of classic theologians talking about something else, presented as if they are talking about Trinity and gender. They almost never were.”

Postscript: Personally, my suspicion is that here we’re dealing with people who wouldn’t have given much thought to trinitarian orthodoxy had they not stumbled upon a (defective) way to make the Trinity serve their egalitarian vision of manhood and womanhood. In some situations, egalitarians strongly emphasize the need to contextualize Christianity by casting off the dated traditions of the past in order to make Scripture's message more relevant to our own culture. But whenever they see an opportunity to advance the egalitarian cause, they call an audible and present themselves as stalwarts of historical orthodoxy.


Betty Freidan said...

I'm really interested in what your definition of subordinationism is. I however, find your argument to be very circular. I think the idea of the Trinity being complentarian is a interesting thing to think about, but I think your way of going about proving it is faulty. I also think in trying to not commit subordination of the Trinity, you did just that. Very interested in what your thoughts are. Would love to hear more of what you think. Also, what feminist has your panties in a twist?

Joel Griffis said...

Hi, Betty. I thought you were dead. Thanks for the comment!

1. Are you asking me to give you my definition of subordinationism? Or are you just saying that you found my definition interesting? This is how I defined it in the post: "Subordinationism teaches that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father. In other words, the Son is essentially a lesser quality being; he is less God-like than his Father."

There's a fuller definition of subordinationism on Theopedia (here). The last paragraph is especially significant, since it explains why ontological subordination should not be confused with functional subordination, which is a point I labor to make in the post.

2. An argument is circular when its conclusion is assumed in the premise; in other words, when I assume the truthfulness of what I need to prove. How is my argument circular? In what way is my reasoning faulty? My only goal was to briefly explain orthodox trinitarianism, and then demonstrate how it is consistent with a complementarian view of gender.

3. How did I fall into subordinationism? I've provided definitions for subordinationism and contrasted it with orthodoxy, showing how the two are different. The divine persons are ontologically equal, yet personally and functionally distinct; similar to the way men and women are ontologically equal, yet personally and functionally distinct.

To believe that headship and submission exists within the Godhead is not heresy; it is not subordinationism.

4. As for what incited me to write the post, it was mainly the article by Fred Sanders; but there was some other background as well. The first thing that got me thinking along these lines was a comment on the Facebook page of a feminist friend of mine. The commenter quoted this line from Kevin Giles's book The Trinity and Subordinationism:

"Their concern for upholding the permanent subordination of women, which they believe the Bible teaches, has led them to thinking that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, something the Bible definitely does not teach."

Now, I don't know the whole context of what Giles was saying, but this particular quote was "liked" by my feminist friend, which gave me the impression that she thinks the doctrine of the Trinity supports her egalitarian vision of manhood and womanhood; but at the time, I didn't think much of it.

Later, in a private exchange with this same feminist friend, she wrote the following: "I’m inclined to think that if our souls do not have a gender, I cannot think why any individual would have some sort of ontological superiority over another."

Here, my friend demonstrates that she has read enough to know that the "ontological" category is part of this debate, but not enough to know how complementarians have always used it. Complementarians do not believe that the male gender is ontologically superior to the female gender. Rather, we emphasize the ontological equality of all men and women, and this is mirrored and informed by the persons of the Trinity, who are likewise ontologically equal.

The "ontological" category is relevant to both trinitarianism and gender; so if you have a misunderstanding of that category, then you're going to misunderstand both issues. I wanted to clear this up for my friend, which is also part of the reason for this post, since I imagine I'll link her back to it at some point.

5. Panties are for women.