ReNew...ing our understanding of the Trinity (ESS)

N and N 11.08.2000

Debates over the Trinity involve complex metaphysical theses and the scrutiny of biblical texts. Church members often find it difficult to see how this doctrine relates to faith and practice. 

For me it is key - Trinitarian relations give us a model for relating to one another as communities, putting the other first. Tim Keller in his book 'Center Church' says this:

God is triune, 'other-orientated' and therefore love, friendship, and community are intrinsic to him and at the heart of all reality. A triune God created us (John 1:1 – 4). He already knew love in himself – a community but then replicates – makes more communities – us and asks us to become like him, learn from him. He created us to share in his love and to share in service to the world. The persons of the Trinity love and serve one another — they are “other-oriented” - we are to be too to fulfil our God-given identities because we were made in his image. 

The early church debated this doctrine of the Trinity for centuries.

Orthodoxy was at stake in councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Today, the debate over whether the Son submits eternally to the Father has arisen again in terms of its application to marriage and women bishops. There are numerous books on this topic and an absolute flurry of scholarly exchange.

I've just been wondering what it was I committed myself to, on my Wedding day, in the year 2000. This was before I'd even really considered the Christian gender wrangles and my brain was uncomplicated by these things. Anyway, I found the vicar's brochure of the service performed on that beautiful sunny day St John's, Hagley Hall, Hagley, to discover what this Mrs N had agreed to with her Mr N and it was the following:

N, will you take N to be your wife?
Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

I will.

N, will you take N to be your husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honour and protect him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?

I will.

So, we both committed to the same things - so I did know what I was doing back then despite my brain being less complicated and so very in love it might have agreed to anything...

I didn't say obey. If I had done - it would have been a good excuse to have our marriage blessed again with the words: Will you love him, comfort him, honour and mutually submit to him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live? (bit of a mouth-full isn't it?)

So that saves us some money!

John Richardson once responded to a post I wrote about complementarianism and the curse, and how we weed our gardens and have our pain relief during child-birth but are expected to just live under male headship and not seek to improve our lot. John informed me how in the early days of the discovery of anaesthesia it had been denied to some women on Christian grounds. Amazing!

As you know, Bilezikian (Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible has to say about a Woman's place in Church and Family) is one of my recommended reads. Not to be left out on the coffee table in case guests think its title purports to 'other things!' He is very helpful in his debunking of ESS (the Eternal Subordination of the Son - the trinitarian controversy of our time).

I also own a copy of 'Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.' If you engage with complementarianism, you need to read the stuff. Grudem is having an argument with Bilezikian in the back of the book. Grudem states that Authority and submission are divine concepts and goes on to explain what he means, saying these concepts are 'rooted in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.' (p.463) What?! Yep, it's there - look it up! So this is ESS.

Blog 'Under much grace' writes about ESS, explaining it in the following way: 

"Rather than attributing Christ’s emptying of every aspect of His fully realized deity as a function of the kenosis described in Philippians chapter 2, this theory maintains that Christ never fully realized the authority of God the Father. Jesus becomes something of a “special purpose God” who ranks in hierarchy between His superior Father and above the Holy Spirit. Though all the Divine Persons possess the same nature and attributes, they do not share equal attributes in terms of authority of which role seems to play out as a function of that authority."

George Knight III, in his highly influential book “New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women,” published in 1977, formulated an entirely new set of theological arguments in support of the permanent subordination of women... In developing his novel case, Knight also argued that this God-given permanent subordination of women in role and authority in the church and home was supported and illustrated by the Trinity. For him, the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father, despite the fact that the Father and Son are fully divine. He thus speaks of a “chain of subordination” and of an eternal subordination of the Son that has “certain ontological aspects.” This new teaching on the Trinity came to full fruition in 1994 with the publication of Wayne Grudem’s "Systematic Theology: An 
Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.”...

For Grudem, the Son’s role subordination, like that of women, is not a matter of who does certain things, as we might expect on seeing the word 'role', but rather the matter of who commands and who obeys...

... Bruce Ware (an American theologian) ...claims that historic orthodoxy teaches that Son of God is “equal in being, eternally subordinate in role.” The Trinity is a “functional hierarchy.” There is an “eternal relationship of authority and obedience grounded in the eternal immanent inter-Trinitarian relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” If God is rightly called “Father,” then Ware holds the divine Father must be set over the divine Son, for human fathers always have authority over their sons. It is contemporary theologians, he argues, who speak of a coequal Trinity who have broken with historic orthodoxy!

Bruce Ware has preached for Resurgence Ministries (Mars Hill) where Mark Driscoll has just stepped down. He attempts a deconstruction of trinitarian relations and there is some good stuff on the theology of 'being sent' and on Jesus's obedience to the Father in Christ's incarnation. The future-orientation of everything being put in subject to the Son is explored. Where it begins to get worrying is where God is ordered in such a way that our best earthly reflection of this is 'marriage.' The equality of essence and the distinctions between the genders are to be played out in the church and the home, is his thesis. There is a split between essence and function, almost a dualistic split between what we Do and who we ARE. There is a problem here. Jesus is ontologically sent and sacrificing of self. There doesn't seem to be a split between ontology and function. 

What happens is the creation of a straw man, which on the surface seems persuasive. Bruce is able to appeal to the reader/hearer. We are taken in by his apology on the behalf of all men for not understanding his clear teaching, for their purported abuse of their wives because they have only understood their own superiority without understanding actually the equality of their wives, inside, of which, of course, there is her functional subordination (but only her functional subordination). In other words if these men in his audience have misunderstood and framed their wives in terms of ontological inferiority, they are to apologise. This is clever. We are bound to think - ahhh! That's good. Repentance. Right relations re-established etc. But no - do not be taken in - this is just a way by which the 'functional subordination' can then be pressed. Bruce then explores the curse. 'Helpmeet' constitutes wife and mother. 'Kephale' is left unexplored in terms of its application to God the rescuer. 

Before the end of Ware's thesis, and so quickly, we are in the realm of the man having 'God-like authority.' God elevates the Son and so, persuasive again, the man is to elevate the woman under his charge. Other-serving authority. Retain authority says Ware but in a God-like way. Build up those under your charge - the woman. He then explores God-like submission - submitting with joy and gladness - Christ submits to the will of his Father, the woman should submit to the man. 

He talks about how uncomfortable this word 'submit' makes us feel. But there is a reason for this. In its practical outworkings, it becomes inferiority. When I was doing research on the theology behind women bishops, I looked at Grudem and Rainey’s ‘Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood’. They describe how the ‘Biblical View of Submission …requires her to submit to him…, while no passage indicates that a husband should be subordinate to his wife.’ I think that in the casual exchange of the word submit for subordinate, significant problems lie. These two words are not synonymous because the former is theological and about ‘dying to self’, the latter is worldly, denoting inferiority. I have no problem with the idea of Christian submission but I am a suspicious about the idea of Christ’s subordination - something doesn’t add up because of what becomes its logical extension.

This is what it become: John Piper has a list of jobs that are suitable for women and some that really are not - I find this difficult and I don't think it's because I'm post-modern. Piper says that a female boss with a male secretary is compromising the humanity of them both. This is then the logical extension of this kind of dangerous thinking. There is this proposal that this kind of thesis is to be extended over the home and the church and it is problematic enough there but really the whole earth belongs to God, why bring in more dualisms?  

There was a very interesting live debate (http://hrht-revisingreform.blogspot.com/2008/10/considering-theological-reasons.html) over in America where ESS was being debated and Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem were putting forward their case for subordinationism. 

How persuasive do you find it, really? 

Ware finishes his sermon by describing the woman as the helper of the man - she facilitates his mission in God. She is to assist and complement the man to fulfil his God-given purpose. One of the ways she might do this is through hospitality, opening up the home and providing meals. I will leave you with that thought. 

In questions to Ware afterwards, a woman talks about the potential of the idolatry that can come about when a woman makes her husband her Lord rather than Christ. This is, it would seem, the common consequence for women living out complementarian teaching. This woman finds it difficult to find her self-identity in her husband's definition of her - she wants to be rooted and grounded in Christ. Ware encourages her to help him to become what God has called him to be and to grow in her endeavour to support and respect him. Through parents to children, God provides and through husbands to wives, God provides says Ware. Ware takes images of obedience in terms of slaves and children in Ephesians and makes no distinction - the relations for wives and husbands is then the same as that for children and parents - this is not so - see Bilezikian on Ephesians 5 here. 

What we are left with then is some very muddled thinking that is doing significant pastoral damage. Pastors like Mark Driscoll who have admitted their thinking has gone astray are evidence of this. 

As theologians and scholars continue to debate trinitarian and human relations and many present theses for why they can no longer continue as Anglicans in a church that will now consecrate women, watch for the increeping of this new approach to that key doctrine of the Trinity. 

How do you configure your concept of the trinity?


Charles Read said...

Hi Rachel

You might also look at Kevin Giles two books on ESS and - rather briefer- Alan Padgett's book on submission.

Phil Almond said...

A convincing case against the ordination of women can be made without appealing to the Father-Son relationship. See my post to the Fulcrum thread ‘Paul’s concern for the women in Timothy’s churches: Notes on 1 Timothy 2:8-15’. The key flaw in the case for the ordination of women is failure to realise that Christ does not submit to the church and failure to appreciate the strength of the Christ-church/husband-wife analogy in Ephesians 5 and its implications for 1 Corinthians 11, Genesis 2 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

Phil Almond

Lloyd Scott Jr said...

Not sure we should be ordaining anyone, but just making sure everyone might be able to manifest their giftedness in loving community of a healthy functioning body with all members being honored and respected. So in the debate of what is the origin of the feminine in relatedness have found that Ruach [Holy Spirit = 'X' is the first Total Submissive in eternity being the complement]; The Total Authority that Ruach is submissive to and complement of is the Father = 'Y' [neither masculine or feminine in character]. There is no other like the Father possessing Total Authority with no submission being the Unsubordinate One. Both eternally together birthing the Son = 'X-Y' [the masculine], the harmonious concert in perfect concord without any hint of discord, the very Prince of Peace fully submissive to the Father exercising total authority over all of creation. Three separate distinct eternal personages all of Word in essence subsisting in a eternal defining relatedness of full identity with the Son being able to completely communicate both the Father and the Holy Spirit in one person. Everyone's problem being submissive to rightful authority. LESJR


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions