Trinity Wars (Pt. 2)


In the first part of this review of Kevin Giles’ recent book The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity, I presented the recent Trinitarian debate as given through the perspective of Giles. In this second part I would like to briefly review the main issue, and ask several questions that highlight areas of concern with Giles’ approach.

The main issue centers on what Giles terms a “complementarian view of the Trinity.” This view argues that Jesus the Son eternally submits to the authority of his Father in their intra-Trinitarian relationship, and that this divine submission has implications for human relationships in the home and church. Giles adamantly opposes this view, asserting that that the Father and Son are coequal in eternity both relationally as well as ontologically, and denouncing any form of analogy between the eternal submission of the Son and the submission of women in the church and home. Giles presents the “complementarian view of the Trinity” as having been defeated in the Trinitarian Wars of 2016, with only the stubborn or ignorant few still advocating eternal submission.

In reading this book, several questions for Kevin Giles were raised in my mind in regard to eternal submission:

Is God more one than he is three? Giles is quite concerned to preserve the unity of God throughout this book. He argues that if the Son eternally submits to the Father, the unity of the Godhead is destroyed. However, in attempting to preserve unity, Giles fails to understand that submission relates to and occurs on the level of divine personhood (God’s threeness) and not essence or nature (God’s oneness). For Giles, God is primarily one, and even the distinctions of the persons must yield to the supremacy of the one divine nature. This betrays what Robert Letham has described as an overemphasis on the nature and oneness of God.[1] The Eastern traditions focus first on the threeness of God and then move to his oneness. The Triune God is both irreducibly one and three. If God were only one in an absolute sense, internal relations of authority and submission would be impossible. Yet because God is three on the personal level, real distinctions between persons in how they relate to one another is not only possible but necessary. Without true distinctions we would have a modalistic god. Perhaps Giles’ view of the Triune God is a little too heavy on the oneness without giving enough weight to God’s threeness

Is the Bible insufficient when it comes to understanding the Trinity? Giles strongly critiques those who would seek to derive their theology from the Bible alone. He says, “[Complementarian theologians] thought that with Bible in hand they were free to construct the doctrine of the Trinity with virtually no reference to the historical development of this doctrine or any reference to the creeds or confessions of the church,” (67-68). In his view, church councils and creeds are an accurate, essential, and authoritative commentary on Scripture. This presents a problem for me in that it contradicts how the NT authors viewed the text. When Paul wrote about divine inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, he said all Scripture was profitable “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” For Paul, Scripture is authoritative for all areas of life, especially for development of doctrine, which he lists here first.

The issue here boils down to the sufficiency of Scripture. Did the NT give us sufficient information about the Trinity to develop a Trinitarian theology, or are the Trinitarian debates of the early church (particularly the fourth century AD) a necessary appendix to the Scripture?[2] Giles represents a good number of scholars today who seem to place more emphasis on the wording of the Nicene Creed as the authoritative standard for understanding the Triune God than on the Scriptures. To a large degree the eternal submission debate has been one that has ignored biblical-theological argumentation in favor of church-historical support. Certainly we should not ignore the value of early church discussions on the Trinity, but these should be subservient to a close biblical and theological discussion of the Scriptures themselves, which were the primary source of Trinitarian information for the early church fathers.

If Jesus’ relationship with the Father is different in his incarnation than it is in eternity, does Jesus really make the Father known to us? In reading through the Gospel of John, it becomes evident that within the earthly life of the eternal Son, Jesus at times identifies himself with God, and at other times speaks of his obedience to God the Father. This corresponds with his mission to reveal God to humanity. The apostle John writes in John 1:18, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” But if what Jesus explains or reveals about the Father through their relationship on earth is staunchly different than it is eternally, can we really, truly know what God is like? In other words, if Jesus submits to the Father only in his incarnate life, the economic Trinity (God in salvation history) looks very different than the immanent Trinity (God in himself). This also seems to divide the person of Christ into a pre-incarnate Christ and an incarnate Christ, where the Son behaves very differently in relation to the Father in his humanity than he does eternally. Yet the witness of Scripture is clear that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” (Heb. 13:8), in both his nature and relational interactions.

If Jesus submits to the Father only in his humanity, when does that submission end? One question that arises over and over again in Giles’ writings, and again in this latest book, concerns the limits of Jesus’ humanity. Giles acknowledges that Jesus submits to the Father in his humanity. Yet he does not want to acknowledge that Jesus continues to submit to the Father presently. But isn’t Jesus still both human and divine? Isn’t the hypostatic union that took place in the incarnation something that never ends? And if this is the case, when in his humanity does Jesus stop submitting to the Father? These are questions that opponents of eternal submission, Giles in particular, have not addressed well, and they demand answers. Giles fails to do justice to the incarnation in that Jesus took on humanity not just for a limited time, but for unending time into the everlasting future.

 Since human beings are created in God’s image, and part of the Imago Dei is relationality, shouldn’t the eternal Trinitarian relationships have implications for human relationships? The argument here is as follows. Humanity is created in God’s image, and God is a relational being (three persons in one essence). If the Son does submit to the Father’s authority eternally, doesn’t that mean we should expect to see relationships of authority and submission represented within humanity? If this is the case, human relations of authority and submission, wherever they might exist (not just between men and women in the church and home), are reflective of the authority and submission within the Godhead when conducted in a right and holy manner. The Father never forces the Son to submit; neither does the Son submit unwillingly. Both Trinitarian persons relate to one another in love.

Thus, all human relationships where there is an authoritative figure and a submissive figure have the potential to mirror this Trinitarian reality, though sin works to undermine this relationship. To say, as Giles does, that the relationships in the Trinity should not be analogous to human relationships presents a problem for theological anthropology, as relationality is fundamental to the very image of God stamped upon humanity.

Is the battle for Christ’s eternal voluntary submission to the Father really over?Giles presents the Trinitarian War of 2016 as forever deciding the theological question of eternal, relational submission. But is this the case? He lists a limited (albeit large) number of contemporary theologians who have recently sided with his position. But is this definitive? Does a panel of four at an ETS conference forever determine a Trinitarian issue that is significant (if not vital) for understanding who God is? I’m guessing the issue is not permanently settled, though perhaps for a moment many scholars have gotten so tired of the debate that they are satisfied to leave it where it currently lays. But Trinitarian issues do not stay down for long. In the end, Giles’ account in his latest book is instructive in understanding the war around eternal submission, but I suspect it is somewhat exaggerated in its claims and premature in its scope. The debate around Christ’s eternal relationship with the Father and its significance for human relationships may continue to be fiercely contested for years to come.[3]



[1] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 493.

[2] I’m not arguing that the Trinitarian battles of the early church were not of immense value or help in constructing Trinitarian theology. I’m simply asserting that Scripture alone should hold a unique authority over and above even early church councils, creeds, or traditions.

[3] For a complete survey of blogs related to the Trinitarian War of 2016 see “The Thirty-Second Updated Edition of the Trinity Debate Bibliography” at Books At A Glance,


Trinity Wars (Pt. 1)

A Review of The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity, by Kevin Giles.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been one of utmost importance for Christians throughout church history and across denominational divides. From the first century onward Trinitarian debates have led to fiery contentions and bitter rivalries. Many times these theological debates have served to separate the orthodox from the heretics. Kevin Giles contends that evangelicalism recently experienced one of these Trinity wars in his book The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

Giles, an Australian Anglican minister, is both an avid advocate for an egalitarian approach to womens’ roles in the church, and a leading opponent of what he terms the “complementarian view of the Trinity.” This view argues that Jesus the Son eternally submits to the authority of his Father in their intra-Trinitarian relationship, and that this divine submission has implications for human relationships in the home and church. Giles has argued against this view of the Trinity for over twenty years in his many books and articles on the subject. His position was vocally supported by only a handful of theologians until the summer of 2016, when “civil war broke out in the evangelical community,” (35) His most recent work looks to drive the nail in the coffin of his theological opponents and lay any talk of relational submission in the Godhead in the grave for good.

Giles as Trinity War Historian
The first two chapters reconstruct the events that led to the Trinity debate of 2016. Giles walks his readers through a history of the modern connection between the doctrine of the Trinity and women’s roles in the church and home. His contention is that prior to the work of George Knight III in 1977 no one had used the terminology of “role subordination,” (9). Popular authors Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware picked up on this idea of role subordination in the Godhead and popularized the notion in evangelicalism.

This understanding of the Trinity was dominant among evangelicals and organizations like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood until June of 2016. Prompted by the writings of Reformed bloggers Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd, “Liam Goligher, the respected and able senior pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, made a blistering attack on complementarian teaching on the Trinity,” (35). Goligher in a series of blogs sharply rebuked Grudem and Ware for their position on the eternal subordination of the Son, ultimately calling for their resignation and accusing them of false teaching. With these blogs, Goligher sent a shockwave through the evangelical world that opened the floodgates of blogs and tweets for the next several months.

Over the course of the debate, patristic scholars like Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes “spoke very disparagingly of the Trinitarian theology of Grudem and Ware,” (38). Giles presents the theology of complementarians who advocate roles in the Trinity as being “judged by their peers as a blatant denial of the creeds and confessions,” (38-39). The debate came to a head at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November of 2016. Giles and Millard Erickson represented evangelical egalitarianism in a plenary forum on the Trinity, while Grudem and Ware represented the complementarian position (44). Giles summarizes the discussion by saying, “I think at the ETS conference in November 2016 everyone present realized that Dr. Grudem and Dr. Ware had met their Waterloo,” (47). In his estimation, the war was over; the Son cannot be eternally subject to the Father because that teaching runs contrary to the orthodox creeds and confessions of church history.

Giles as Theologian and Patristic Scholar
In the next two chapters, Giles looks at Trinitarianism from the lens of both theologian and church historian. As theologian, he is critical of the “Bible alone” approach to theology. He says, “It is this understanding of theology that has undone complementarian theology,” (69). He advocates an approach to constructing theology that includes three sources: Scripture, tradition, and reason. These three are not to be given equal weight, however, as Scripture is “uniquely authoritative,” (75). Tradition Giles defines as “the exegetical and theological tradition” of the church (75), or what the church has said about the Scriptures over the generations of its history. Reason is “the facility that makes theology possible,” (78). The task of the theologian involves drawing from each of these sources to systematize the doctrines of Scripture.

Giles then turns to the development of Trinitarian doctrine using a series of eleven propositions about the Trinity. He begins by establishing God’s oneness, three-ness, and the relationship between those two. He talks about the eternal self-differentiating of God and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then focuses on the identification and unity between the three: they are homoousios (one in being/essence/nature), working inseparably, possessing one will, and having one authority. Giles then writes in proposition 9 that there is an ordering of Trinitarian relations in eternity and in their operations in the world. He goes on to write about the Son’s subordination which happened during his incarnation, and wraps up his review by firmly stating that the Trinity should not be the model for our human relationships and roles.

Giles as Trinitarian Prophet
In the final chapter of his book, Giles asks the question, “where do we go from here?” To answer, he first affirms his conviction that the doctrine of the Trinity should not be used as evidence either for the complementarian view of roles in the church or for the egalitarian view. However, the fact that the complementarian understanding of the Trinity has been soundly defeated, for Giles, demands that the complementarian view of male and female roles in the church be reexamined. He is optimistic that this will allow for productive discussion between egalitarians and complementarians for the first time in decades: “It seems to me that we have exciting times ahead as complementarians and evangelical egalitarians learn from each in the quest to find a common mind on what the Scriptures teach on the status and ministry of men and women,” (114).

Giles’ arguments are well rehearsed, articulated clearly, and executed pointedly. Nevertheless, I am far from convinced that his account of the Trinitarian War of 2016 is definitive. In part 2, I will present a series of questions for Kevin Giles that have been raised by his book.

Reading Backwards

41pum5wfyul-_sy344_bo1204203200_I wrote a review of Richard B. Hay’s Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel. This was an excellent work that really caused me to reexamine some of my presuppositions when it comes to reading the gospels and the OT. You can find the review here:

Tell me what you think!