John (Part 16): Trinity Hierarchy? (continued)

03/17/2014 05:34

It cannot be supported that God is only one. God is love, and love necessarily must have others to whom it may be expressed. But it cannot be supported that there are multiple Gods. Equal infinites would necessarily limit each other, losing the very definition of being infinite. A supreme God with subordinate lesser gods cannot be supported Scripturally. For these reasons, the early councils articulated the understanding of the Trinity—our God is one in Essence and three in Persons. That idea has served well in orthodox Christianity for almost 2000 years.

However, recent conservative evangelicalism has started to shift in its understanding of the Trinity. While still claiming fidelity to the idea of the Trinity, these theologians are emphasizing the Persons and differentiation among the Persons, tilting the balance of singularity and plurality towards the plurality. Augustine had written of differentiating the Persons by origin: the Son is eternally generated from the Father; the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father; and the Father eternally generates and sends. The concept is admittedly difficult (admitted even by Augustine as being incomprehensible). To declare that God has always been three and then talk about one of the Persons being eternally generated from another defies both definition of terms and conceptual grasp. The contemporary conservative evangelicals agree, and many have dismissed the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son as incoherent in favor of the more concrete picture of hierarchy as what differentiates among the Persons. The idea is that although they are all equal, the Father eternally occupies the role of authoritative commander while the Son is forever subordinately submissive.

But can this be true? Is this idea of hierarchy in the Trinity logically defensible? Is it biblically defensible?

Let’s look at it first from a logical standpoint. There are two parts to this logical look. The first is maintaining the balance of singularity and plurality. When we consider relationships among the three persons of the Trinity, we must not lose sight of the oneness. It must remain. Here’s an analogy—and note, this is not a model of the Trinity, it is an analogy of how we must maintain the integrity of both singularity and plurality for a subject that has both. Imagine a message—a bit of communication from one person to another. In the consideration of a single message, we may give attention to its meaning, its communication, and its intent. All three are part of the one single message. And you can’t remove one (say, communication) without losing, to a large extent, the very concept of a message. This is different from considering a trio of message giver, message, and message receiver. The receiver and giver certainly have identity apart from the message. Thus, we cannot neatly draw a circle around the three to say this is some one thing, no more or less. In the first example, we could do that. The meaning, communication, and intent were the message pure and simple, and thus oneness and multiplicity were balanced. In the second example, the three did not hold the same kind of unity, and therefore, oneness was lost in the differentiation of the plurality.

I think this is what is happening in our discussion of the Trinity. The subordinationists begin to focus so much attention on the differentiation of the persons that they begin to lose their intrinsic identifying union, leaning much more toward tritheism than Trinity. Remember, Augustine insisted on maintaining unity by stating that they act inseparably in creation, redemption, and providence. Once we argue for distinction in function based on hierarchical authority, we may hold on to a unity of sorts in agreement among the members but lose the oneness of essence.

But this eternal hierarchy idea is even more damaging when we consider God’s eternal qualities. We understood the necessity of a plurality because of the quality of love. If God is love, God must be able to express love or love loses its meaning. But an arrangement in which identity in differentiating demarcation exists in eternal commanding authority for one and eternal submission for another necessarily loses the conceptual quality of love for the commander. Remember, intrinsic to the definition of love is submission—a self sacrifice. But to decide that the one and only differentiating identity of one entity is submission (the basis for love) means you cannot give that same quality used to differentiate to the other person without losing differentiation. And thus, you end up with the same confused outlook as those who see the OT God as harsh, cruel, and immanent, while the NT God (in Jesus) is soft, kind, and loving. Hierarchy as the lone and eternal identifying differentiation does not work without stripping from the Person of the Father the quality of love.

It necessarily puts so much differentiation in the Trinity that they no longer can be considered as acting as one. The Father acts for control. The Son acts for love. That’s not the Trinity.

The second logical difficulty comes up again as part of the definition of command and submission. In the Trinitarian structure, truth, goodness, and beauty are in the one essence of God. The embrace and expression of those qualities (in faith, hope, and love) are in the persons of the Trinity. Where does the will come in—in the one essence or in the persons? I believe it is in the persons, and thus each has a will. I see too much connection of the will with embrace and expression to imagine it in the one essence. (If it is in the one essence, it presents an even greater obstacle to the construct of command and submission.) Now, how is the will influenced toward embrace and expression in faith, hope, and love? It is influenced by truth, goodness, and beauty. But if each person of the Trinity shares the one essence of infinite truth, goodness, and beauty, it would not be possible to imagine a different impact on the will of one person from the other. Thus, although the wills may be three, they must be indistinguishable so that we can speak of the one will of God.

But how do we define authoritative command and subordinate submission? We necessarily define them by the authority of one will over the other. One person submits his/her will to the overriding will of the authority. However, in the case of the Trinity, the wills are indistinguishable, making the idea of one will overriding the will of the other impossible at best, incoherent at worst. The Father exercising authority to the submission of the Son is definitively disingenuous. It has no purposeful meaning. It is role-playing that does not change in the slightest that which would occur had the role-playing not been conducted. And without purpose, it is directly opposed to the biblical teaching that our God is one of reason.

A point of clarification is necessary lest someone think this line of reasoning is inconsistent with my previous contention that God is fulfilled in love within the Trinity. If the definition of love is selfless expression of truth, goodness, and beauty for the benefit of the one to whom those qualities are expressed, how can one infinite person love another? How can love exist among the Trinity if none needs anything? Love cannot be expressed in relation to elements outside the Trinity, but it can within the Trinity. Here is what I mean.

No person of the Trinity needs something from creation in order to be complete. Thus, one person of the Trinity can’t do for another by providing some outside element. However, within the Trinity each person may joy in the reception of truth, goodness, and beauty expressed by the others. In this and this alone, the persons of the Trinity are vulnerable and dependent on the others—having truth, goodness, and beauty expressed to them; in other words, fulfilling the need for being loved.

Finally, we must look to the Bible to ensure that our thoughts and arguments do not contradict. And, in fact, they don’t. The only showcasing of authority between the Father and the Son is in the incarnation. Jesus, by virtue of his humanity, is in a vulnerable position. God cares for him; Jesus trusts God for that care. He acts as the perfect human ought to act, in perfect fulfillment of covenant obligation.

So while the subordinationists have it right that marriage reflects the Trinity, they misunderstand the picture by presuming hierarchy within the Trinity and then insisting that the marriage relationship be structured according to that misunderstood image.  


It is interesting that, across the landscape of biblical Christianity, ideas about intra-Trinitarian relationship are coming to the forefront again. I think that’s a good thing. However, the ideas are coming in a strange mixture. The reason behind the grouping of ideas is that there is another concern that is the driving focus. Male and female equality within the Christian home and church is at issue. And therefore, the debating sides are lining up beliefs about the Trinity according to this overriding one. Patriarchal Complementarians (PCs) believe in male governance in church and home. To support their point, they claim the following:

1.     Hierarchy in the Trinity with the eternal subordination of the Son

2.     Denial (or downplay) of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son

3.     Trinitarian relationship is a pattern for marriage

Biblical Egalitarians (BEs) believe in the equality of men and women in the church and home not only in value but in function as well. To support their point, they purport the following (and admittedly sometimes as a mere kneejerk reaction to the PCs):

1.     Heterarchy in the Trinity with the eternal generation of the Son

2.     Denial of the doctrine of the eternal subordination

3.     Trinitarian relationship is not a pattern for marriate

Despite being a BE, I take issue with these groupings. I believe in heterarchy of the Trinity, not hierarchy. However, I subscribe to neither the eternal subordination of the Son nor the eternal generation of the Son. A recent book by BE theologian Kevin Giles is entitled The Eternal Generation of the Son. Although I have not yet read the book, some detailed reviews have explained his approach. Giles appears to support this traditional doctrine as the way to maintain the balance between the singularity and plurality of the Trinity. In other words, his reaction to the Person emphasis of the PCs has encouraged him to bring back balance from leaning to the plurality. I agree with his goal, but I disagree with his means. The Bible’s emphasis on the Son in relation to the Father is an issue of the incarnation, not of eternal identity. We don’t even see the Father/Son distinction in the Bible related to the Trinity until the Word becomes flesh. The PCs are correct that a term like “eternal generation” bears no resemblance to our understanding of the word generation. To cling to it, then, to highlight the oneness of God while providing differentiation on the basis of origin is not helpful at all.

I like my example of Trinitarian singularity and plurality as a message. The message shows the three elements—meaning, communication, and intent—as one. The intent can’t exist without the others. The message is no message without the communication. In other words, each element can be considered individually and yet they cannot exist or act separately. So too with the Trinity. But how do we differentiate the Persons of the Trinity if not by assumed origin (sending, generating from, proceeding from)? I think we have biblical support for an activity-related differentiation.

Revealer – That the Word was made flesh, indicates he was Word before he became flesh.

Empowerer – The Spirit moved on the earth as it was being formed (Gen 1:2). He provided wisdom, understanding, and ability (Ex 31:3). He led Christ (Mt 4:1). He leads us into all truth, and, in fact, is in us (John 14:17). He is the power from on high (Lk 24:49). He enables (Acts 2:17-18).

Provider – Of course, the OT has numerous examples of God as Provider, but it doesn’t distinguish the Father in his personhood as provider. In the NT, especially in relationship to Jesus in his humanity, we see more direct relationship of the Father providing. Ephesians 1:3 speaks of the Father of Jesus providing every spiritual blessing. I believe that the promise made by Jesus that the Father would give (send) the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 15:26) is not so much an emphasis about the HS—that his origin is in the Father—but that Jesus puts the emphasis on the Father’s role as provider.

I am not advocating the use of these names over what we have called God. Their mention is merely to say that we have Scriptural emphases of differentiation that are not about origin but about the work that God does in us. And these purposes do not lean too heavily creating unnecessary division in the Trinity. The Empowerer provides; the Empowerer reveals; the Revealer provides; etc. And you cannot remove the Provider while leaving revelation and empowerment intact. They necessarily work together—just as Augustine said they had to.

Going back to our chart of Trinity beliefs, I also have to side with the PCs over the BEs regarding Trinitarian relationship as a pattern for marriage (although not exactly in the same way). Life is about relationship, and ultimate relationship is in God. So it is thoroughly reasonable to understand all aspects of life deriving from the example of the Trinity. The universal church—all the covenant people of God—are to interact in relationship based on the relationship within the Trinity. The local church—that group of Christians within your span and scope of influence—should conduct its relationships after the example of the Trinity. A family ought to be in relationship as the Trinity is in relationship. And a marriage is intended to incorporate Trinitarian relationship in its connection. But the marriage serves a purpose in relationship modeling as well. In other words, all our earthly relationships flow by design from the ultimate perfection of relationship in the Trinity. But God does not only provide Trinitarian relationship as the fountainhead from which all relationship flows; he also gives us an example—a model—to point us back to the Trinity to ensure that as we grow our relationships, they point back to the ultimate. Marriage serves that modeling purpose.

Jesus and those born of him are described as or pictured as what?—a groom and his bride. God and Israel in the economy of the OT are pictured as what?—a husband and wife. God uses marriage and intends marriage to be the model for ultimate relationship—the Trinitarian kind.

Back at the beginning when God woke Adam to introduce Eve to him, we read how explosively overcome Adam was: “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken from man” (Gen 2:23). “She was taken from me!” Adam exclaims. “She’s just like me! She shares my image qualities. I can relate to her because she is like me!” Adam understood immediately about their relationship bond. And the very next verse tells us how important this relationship is to be between a man and woman dedicated to each other. The picture shows other relationships left behind for this the ultimate. And it shows in the coming together a two-in-oneness—an imaging of the Trinity’s three-in-oneness. Yes, verse 24 speaks of sex, but not just sex. It is a picture of the two coming together in body, mind, and spirit reaching the climax of human oneness. That’s the model. And God says don’t mess with that model.

What is sin? Sin in the Hebrew means to miss. And sin in the Greek means to miss the mark. What mark? If God reveals to us truth, goodness, and beauty in relationship, to miss the mark is to miss relational truth, goodness, and beauty. Think of a list of sins—murder, lying, stealing, coveting, adultery. These are all sins against relationship. They violate relationship. They miss the mark of Trinitarian relationship.

And God has set up marriage as this model of Trinitarian relationship so that if we violate this model, this image, we have sinned—we have violated the model of Trinitarian relationship. That understanding helps answer certain questions. Why is sex before marriage wrong? Seriously, why does an activity that is seemingly not harming anybody considered by God to be sin? Just caprice on God’s part? A man and a woman fall in love. They decide to get married. In fact, their wedding is three days away. They are alone together one night. They embrace. They don’t stop embracing. And in their passion they think we’re getting married in three days. We love each other. We’ve already given our hearts to each other; what does it matter that we give our bodies to each other a couple days early. And they have sex. Did they sin? Three days later, as planned, they marry. They spend the next 80 years living in blissful union together. Did they sin back there just because they had sex before the official ceremony? Did they hurt anyone? Why would that be a sin?

The answer is yes, they sinned. The violation was not necessarily to their relationship together, but it nevertheless was a violation to relationship because it violated the image model that God had established and jealously guarded through every age of humankind since the beginning. It is not just a sin because person is hurt in relationship with another human being. The sin may be because of hurting a relationship with God or hurting a relationship idea or image that God has established. So sex before marriage is sin. Sex with someone else when in marriage is sin. Capriciously ending a marriage is sin. It all violates the image God established.

And, by the way, that is why same sex sexual activity is sin. Now, there’s all sorts of reasons why two people of the same sex may want to have sex. They may simply find the idea new and exciting. A person may not care who he or she has sex with as long as he or she is self-gratified. Or it could be because a person is genuinely chemically inclined in attraction toward same sex. But figuring out the reason why is not the point. If you have two people of the same sex who actually do care in mind and heart for each other and are oriented in attraction toward each other, what would be wrong with them in sexual union? Whom are they hurting? Can’t they together fulfill the marriage model? Again, the answer is no, because it violates the image that God established. He so designed the model to picture two-in-oneness in as ultimate a unity as human beings can achieve. So it is a unity of mind and heart that are important shown in giving themselves in permanence only to each other in marriage, and it is a unity of body shown not just in the fact of reaching orgasm, but in the picture of the fit of man and woman together.

I don’t mean to get so graphic, but it is an important point. Why did God make two sexes? Could he not have made us all as one sex and one gender? Could we not all have been made biologically capable of sex and reproduction? Well, sure. But his design was meant as a picture—an image so that he could bring together two people showing both their difference and their oneness at the same time, imaging the Trinity. So engaging in homosexual activity is wrong. It is sin. It is just as much sin as is any heterosexual activity outside marriage. And the reason is that it violates God’s established image.

That kind of sin has a special description. It is an abomination. It is abominable because it is behavior that flies in the face of revelation about God. So homosexuality is an abomination. Heterosexual activity outside marriage is an abomination. Divorce is an abomination. Rejecting Jesus as the Christ of God is an abomination. He is the ultimate revelation of God about relationship with God. So to reject him is an abominable sin. Remember in Daniel 11 and Matthew 24, it speaks of the abomination of desolation? Why is that an abomination? It is about the rejection of Christ by the Jews in continuing OT worship. It leads to desolation.

Can God really be so disturbed about harming this picture he’s created? I mean, sex and marriage for the purpose of picturing Trinitarian unity is just an image, isn’t it? if we see truth, goodness, and beauty in a relationship, isn’t that enough? Isn’t that ultimately what God wants?

The answer is no. Think of another mere image. There was no magical tree in the Garden of Eden. But God designated one as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for mere image purposes. Eve approached it and saw that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom and that it was good for food and that it was delightful to look at—truth, goodness, and beauty. Her problem? She decided to make the judgment call in rejection of God’s revealed truth about this image and what he said was true, good, and beautiful. And she sinned by violating the image. She sinned abominably. And there were consequences.

Trinity relationship is important. It is good to discuss in order to grasp as well as we can the revelation of how relationship should be. And it is good to understand our relational God. That understanding will serve us well as we continue in John’s Gospel.