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.