Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate

Millard J. Erickson Kregel Academic & Professional, Grand Rapids April 16, 2009
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Erickson, one of the most respected theologians of recent decades, presents an analysis of debate between those who advocate equal authority within the eternal Trinitarian relations versus others who contend that God the Son is eternally subordinate to the authority of the Father. After briefly tracing his involvement in the debate the author states, “My aim here has been to investigate as thoroughly and fairly as possible the alternative positions on the subject before attempting to decide which is the more adequate theory” (p. 11).

The work begins with a general overview of the two sides of the debate (chaps. 1–2). Erickson shifts away from somewhat common terminology to define Trinitarian complementarianism as the “gradational-authority view” and the egalitarian perspective as the “equivalent-authority view.” That the popular terminology related to the gender-debate has weaknesses is surely true (both sides claim the term “complementarianism”), but whether Erickson’s authority-oriented terminology adequately addresses the tensions is less persuasive.

The author establishes a well-organized structure for the discussion (chap. 3) and proceeds to evaluate biblical, philosophical, theological, and practical dimensions of the debate (chaps. 4–8). Here the work traces the larger dimensions of the controversy and provides background to the current discussion. In forming his case Erickson follows his dialectical approach of assessing two sides, in this case especially the arguments of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem over against those of Gilbert Bilezikian and Kevin Giles. Committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, Erickson nevertheless contends that exegesis itself does not carry the day because presuppositions and personal motivations influence one’s understanding of the text. He gives significant attention to philosophic issues (chaps. 3 and 6) that together with theological issues (chap. 7) necessarily contribute to one’s doctrine of God. In light of some passages that affirm the equality of the Son with the Father, Erickson deduces that biblical texts that refer to the Son’s subjection to the Father are related only to salvation history. “Thus they do not count as evidence in support of an eternal supremacy of the Father and an eternal subordination of the Son” (p. 138). Passages referring to divine order in creation (John 1:1–18; Eph. 1:3–14) or consummation (1 Cor. 15:24–28) are deemed not sufficiently clear to infer any differentiation of authority in the immanent (eternal) Godhead. Apparently other texts are sufficiently clear to show mutuality.

Erickson forces a choice between the two poles of either the eternal subordination of the Son or the coequal authority of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His discussion focuses on relatively recent debates in evangelicalism, as though the idea of eternal order in the Trinity were an invention of gradational-authority traditionalists. Absent almost in entirety is discussion of the long history of Eastern Christendom’s ontological priority of the Father as the eternal Source of the Son and the Spirit, or Roman Catholicism’s repeated and ongoing struggle about how to affirm eternal distinction of origin among the divine persons while affirming the single essence of God, or, again, various other theologians who do affirm eternal relational order without necessarily a hierarchy of authority (Barth, Rahner, et al.).

The author avoids such discussion because all traditional Christianity confesses with the Nicene Creed the “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten and not made, of one substance with the Father” (italics added). Because Erickson rejects the doctrine of “eternal begottenness” and seems to deny any eternal roles within the Godhead (pp. 253–56), he leaves little if anything definitive by which to distinguish one person of the eternal Trinity from the other (pp. 209–23, 251). If divine roles are interchangeable and if the terminology of eternal relations of origin is rejected, then it seems that one is left with a Trinity of three identical, interchangeable members. In this view the Father was not always necessarily the Father nor the Son the Son. If gradational-authority advocates risk the error of Arianism (the book concludes with warnings to them), then does not Erickson’s historically novel position that the members of the Trinity are apparently indistinguishable in their eternal relations risk the equally serious error of modalism in which the triunity of persons simply collapses in on itself?

As noted, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? begins by affirming a neutral position “before attempting to decide which is the more adequate theory” (p. 11). But from the outset there is bias in the pejorative description of Bruce Ware in the Evangelical Theological Society debate with Kevin Giles (pp. 13–14)—a debate in which Erickson himself maintained a position similar to Giles. The author is not forthright regarding his own longstanding position. Naturally his already established convictions influence the structure and conclusions of the book.

To his credit Erickson sets forth an impressive panorama of various theologians’ positions on the subject of the eternal subordination of the Son. Moreover he rightly sets forth many of the strengths and weaknesses of both gradational-authority and equivalent-authority views. For example the terms “subordination” and “hierarchy” do appear to undermine the full and resplendent mutuality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On the other hand, while Erickson points out the hermeneutical subjectivity of reading the biblical text, he seems less conscious that the philosophical and theological categories by which he analyzes the question are equally subjectively tainted. His effort to override biblical exegesis with philosophic concerns regarding what divine personal equality must entail (“superiority” vs. “inferiority”) puts in question whether he believes that God’s Word reveals God’s ultimate relational reality or not.

In the end questions remain. Does Erickson affirm any distinction of role, order, or taxis in the eternal relations of the Trinity, as is true of virtually all historic Christianity? He gives no answer. Should the key issue regarding eternal Trinitarian relations be that of gradational-authority versus equivalent-authority? Many would suggest that this is too simplistic an approach. Rather there is equality of authority but distinction of disposition and relational roles in the eternal Godhead. Erickson’s book leaves readers with less than adequate resolutions to the issues involved.

—J. Scott Horrell

October 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2010 vol. 167 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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