Who’s Tampering With The Trinity?

I’ve finished evangelical theologian Millard Erickson’s book about the subordinationist debate in the Church, and I recommend it highly — perhaps more so than any other book on theology I’ve ever read, with the exception of the entire Oxford Women’s Study Bible. Erickson, considered one of the Church’s pre-eminent Old and New Testament scholars, has an even-handedness that not only kept his verdict veiled until more than two-thirds of the way through the book, but doesn’t reveal at all whether he’s a complementarian or an egalitarian.

Whether he believes that the Scriptures teach the functional, permanent subordination of women to men in home, Church, and society (complementarian) or sees that positions in the Church and home are open equally to women and men based on Spirit-given and other gifts (egalitarian), is significant here, and I still don’t know which side he’s on. But what does the debate about how Jesus relates to God have to do with whether or not a woman can legitimately be named pastor of a church?

The subordinationist debate involves a disagreement about the nature of the Trinity and the relationships of the Persons within it, with some evangelicals believing that the Bible teaches that Jesus occupies an eternal, permanent, functionally subordinate role to the Father — and not just in his Incarnation — while others insist that the Bible demonstrates that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally, functionally, unchangeably equal in authority, only with Jesus voluntarily giving up the prerogatives of Deity while on the Earth in bodily form.

Th former veers perilously close to the Arian heresy that prompted the Athanasian Creed some sixteen centuries ago. The belief that the Father-Son designation in the Trinity is literal, such that the Father is the “supreme authority” in the Trinity and the Son submits to him as Anthony does to Jeff, is a terrible misunderstanding of the nature, purpose, and unity of the Godhead. Where it becomes utterly pernicious is when today’s subordinationists, virtually all of whom are rabid complementarians, attempt to justify women’s permanent, functional subordination to men by comparing their role to that of Christ’s — ontologically equal (in essence), but functionally non-equal (in role). It’s an example of the maxim that bad theology leads to bad practice, and in this case, “bad practice” means a tragic manipulation of Scripture to accommodate the need some have to make sure that women serve, or are prohibited from serving, on the basis of gender, not gifting.

This is why it’s especially significant that after reading “Who’s Tampering,” I still have no idea if Erickson is a complementarian. As a matter of fact, I suspect he probably is, as I’ve never seen his name alongside other prominent egalitarians like Keener, Clark-Kroeger, Bilezikian, Groothuis, Fee, Stackhouse and Gaebelin-Hull. But he knows doctrinal error when he sees it, and while he doesn’t conclude that subordinationists are Arian and thus heretics, he does — forcefully and clearly — demonstrate that seeing a chain of command of authority in the Trinity is not only un-Biblical, but fraught with danger.

It could easily lead, he argues, to the modern-day Arianism of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that suggests that while Jesus is God, he’s a lesser god, or a created god, or a god-different-in-essence god, than God, the Father Almighty. Further, the complementarian accommodation of subordinationism sets a very bad precedent. The integrity of the Trinity and of evangelical Christianity’s understanding thereof is far too important to have it succumb to the literalism of the Father-Son relationship or the expediency of its supposed parallel to gender relations between people. Echoing the concerns of Australian theologian and Anglican Vicar Kevin Giles, Erickson begs the subordinationists to turn back. The road they’re on, both men agree, leads somewhere entirely un-Biblical and utterly devastating to the believer’s, and the world’s, understanding of the Triune God.

I would be eager to discuss this with some of our local complementarians, particularly those who sit at the feet of Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart. Both men are devout Trinitarians; it would be impossible, I imagine, to overstate the importance both ascribe to the Godhead, and Leithart even more than Wilson has gained prominence in evangelical circles for his work on the Trinity. And while I vehemently disagree with Federal Vision theology, even in its application to the Trinity, I don’t know if these men are subordinationists or not.

In other words, I know that Kirk leadership, to a man, is convinced that God has ordained certain and specific, immutable and inimitable, roles for women and men — and that those of those roles involving leadership, teaching, and authority over mixed groups or men cannot extend to women. What I’d like to know is if these scholars see the object of all of our Christian love and devotion — the Trinity — as the primary example of the administration of those varied roles, which, as it turns out, never vary in the placing of men over women, regardless of the innumerable ways our God has gifted them both. I truly hope that Wilson, Leithart, et al, someday shed their complementarianism, knowing that that will only ever be possible if it isn’t grounded in a wrongful view of the Trinity in the first place.

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