The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate

T&S.jpgGiles, Kevin.

The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002. Pp. 282. Paper. $20.00.

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With special thanks to InterVarsity Press for this review copy!

The Trinity & Subordinationism is an interesting book to say the least.  I have to say that I had mixed emotions when reading it because I actually come out on both sides of the debates presented in this work.  With regard to the gender debate I am an egalitarian, believing that men and women are partners in the home and co-workers in God’s various ministries.  With regard to the Trinity I recognize an eternal functional subordination deriving from the taxis (order) of the Trinity (to state things simply).  I base both of these beliefs on my reading of Scripture.

I have to first commend Giles on his breadth of research.  He did well to consult various writers from patristic, reformation, and modern eras in developing his thesis, but one wonders how well he actually read all of the sources he cites.  Giles is also to be commended on his style of writing.  For an academic study of the Trinity and modern gender debate this was surprisingly a page turner, comparable to any novel that I’ve ever read.  He writes with clarity even if the arguments he sets forth aren’t as clear as the style he writes with.

Giles begins the book by stating that Scripture isn’t enough to settle these issues.  He notes that both sides have their proof texts but to come to any firm conclusions we must recognize (à la Athanasius’ understanding) the ‘scope’ of Scripture [p. 3-4].  To recognize this scope one must move past the Scriptures themselves and take into account the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures throughout history.  His position basically states that Scripture as interpreted through Tradition is the best (and seemingly only valid) way to settle these debates.  To this assertion I take no issue, but I recognize that tradition is only good in as much as it is faithful to the text.

But it is Giles’ recounting of history that leaves something to be desired.  In arguing that the Church has never held any conception of an eternal functional subordination he summarily dismisses Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian saying: “The ante-Nicene Fathers did their best to explain how the one God could be a Trinity of three persons. It was the way they approached this dilemma that caused insoluble problems and led them into subordinationism.” [p. 62]  Apparently, for Giles, history doesn’t really begin until Athanasius and the Arian controversy of the 4th century.  And even then his survey focuses only on Athanasius [p. 33-41], the Cappadocians [p. 41-43], and Augustine [p. 46-49], and then jumps forward to Calvin [52-58]!  There’s a thousand-year gap that needs to be accounted for in his survey of the development of doctrine.

Giles does well to adamantly reject any form of ontological subordination that would make the Son or Spirit lesser in being/nature, and I think that much of what he says in response to the Arian position is helpful, but his  tendency to equate function and ontology is pervasive throughout the book.  Giles argues that if temporal, then functional subordination is valid, but once permanency is introduced it becomes ontological subordination [p. 17, 85, 181].  So according to Giles all the interpreters throughout history who recognized the Son’s subordination to the Father in the Incarnation are justified in their belief but those who recognize an eternal subordination are not.  But in his assertion he never presents a reasoned argument of why this is so.  He simply says:

If the Son must always obey the Father, then he must be in some way less than the Father. He lacks something possessed solely by the Father. His role is determined by his being. Historic orthodoxy has long seen this conclusion and has argued in the opposite direction. Because the Father and the Son are one in being, they act as one. It is thus impossible to avoid the conclusion that the eternal role subordination of the Son implies the ontological subordination of the Son despite any protestations to the contrary. [p. 85]

But this is clearly a non sequitur.  If the Son must in “some way” be less than the Father because of a “role subordination” it does not follow that this way “must be” ontological.  It is hardly “impossible to avoid [Giles’] conclusion.”

Also disappointing was Giles’ assertion that: “This innovative form of subordinationism arises entirely in connection with attempts to preserve what to them [evangelicals in the latter part of the 20th century, i.e. complementarians] is a fundamental truth: namely, male ‘headship.'” [p. 109]  But as an egalitarian I take issue with this assertion because I have come to exactly the same conclusion without any desire to preserve male headship.  In fact, it is on this point that I would assert both parties err.  Giles is as guilty of reading egalitarianism into his doctrine of the Trinity as he asserts complementarians are of reading complementarianism into theirs.  In my judgment, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a model for male-female relationships and to say that it is, is a gross mixing of metaphors.

Space prohibits me from commenting on Giles’ (and Western Christianity in general) tendency towards modalism in his conception of the Trinity, but for those who will read this book it should be evident on nearly every page.

In the second part of the book Giles’ talks about what he knows, and that’s the gender debate.  For the last 30 + years he has been engaged in this ongoing discussion and he unabashedly affirms an egalitarian position on the issue.  In this section of the book he focuses on two books in particular, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991) and Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995).

He argues that complementarians have not only come up with a novel understanding of the Trinity to support their view on the gender debate, but they’ve also come up with a novel understanding of women’s role in church history.  But he admits that his understanding is equally as novel.  I found his repeated claim that: “[c]ultural change has generated into new interpretations of the relevant biblical material” [p. 143] and “[a] change in cultural context often leads to a change in the interpretation of the Bible” [p. 145] to be inconsistent with his earlier insistence that we keep with tradition.  It seems nothing more than a case of Giles wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

On the one hand when he thinks that tradition upholds his view on the Trinity we need to allow it to inform our understanding of the “scope” of Scripture.  But on the other hand when tradition contradicts his view on male-female relations we need to allow the change in culture to give way to new interpretations of Scripture.  Couple this with a later complaint against eisegesis [ch. 8] when he has already deemed exegesis nearly irrelevant in and of itself, and we have a strange mishmash of special pleading.

But even with these problems I found many of his arguments for the egalitarian position to be extremely well reasoned and persuasive, but these were the arguments that didn’t rely on his interpretation of Trinitarian theology, these were the arguments that relied on his interpretation of the pertinent Scriptures.  For example, when he says regarding Ephesians 5:21ff: “What he [Paul] actually teaches is that headship of the husband involves costly self-sacrifice and self-giving agape love” [p. 190]  I found myself nearly shouting AMEN!

I also found his distinction between complementarians refreshing and helpful.  He says:

They [the editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] chose the term complementarian to take the high ground. The trouble with this term is that egalitarians have used this word for thirty years as part of their case. The truth is that both sides are complementarians, believing that God has made us distinctively women and men–the two sexes being intended to complement each other. On one side are hierarchical-complementarians who believe the Bible sets men over women in the church and the home, and on the other side are egalitarian-complementarians who believe the Bible makes the ideal women and men standing side by side, equal in dignity and authority in the world, the church and the home. [p. 157]

At one point in his presentation he notes a glaring inconsistency with hierarchical-complementarians, and that is the way they leave the state and academy off of their list of places where men should exert authority over women.  He says:

To be consistent with their own theology, they should oppose women holding high office in the state, where they are set over men. As education opens the door to women gaining such positions of authority in the political, legal and commercial world, hierarchical-complementarians should also give themselves to opposing women’s having access to higher education. [p. 176]

The force of this argument is great in that if women can govern alongside men in the state or teach alongside men in the academy then what valid reason is there to say that they cannot lead among men in the home and in the ministry?

With regard to the third section of the book on slavery, I found it out of place.  Giles say that his intention was to show how for centuries the Bible was interpreted to justify slavery much in the same manner it was interpreted to justify oppressing women, but I didn’t see this section as being as relevant as Giles would have liked it to have been.  It honestly seemed a way to cause an emotional reaction and garner support for egalitarianism with a guilt by association type of argument.

In the end I give this book 3 out of 5 stars 3.0 out of 5 stars.  I think that Giles’ handling of the development of Trinitarian doctrine was off in many respects.  He appears to take the Fathers out of context (e.g. in his assertion that Athansius denied the monarchy of the Father) and his demanding that the creeds (Niceno-Constantinopolitan & Athanasian) can only be read in a way that comports with functional equality is misguided.  His recounting of the various interpretations of women’s roles in church history while appalling didn’t really provide enough context to determine how accurate his retelling of history here really was.  I have to suspend judgment on this particular topic until further study.  What I did appreciate were Giles’ arguments when they pertained to the gender debate separate from the Trinity.  It is here that he shines and can be said to have made his case.

On a more peripheral note, this book does not contain a bibliography which seems to me to be a necessity in an academic work such as this.  The footnotes certainly provide us with all of the bibliographic information we need, but to arrange them in a manner that makes it easier on the reader should have been something that the editor/publisher insisted upon.

Coming in at 273 pages of main text this book was surprisingly a quick read.  I finished it in three days.  I attribute this to Giles’ smooth and seemingly effortless writing style.  I can recommend this work without hesitation to anyone engaged in the gender debate, in my mind it seems to be necessary reading.  But for those interested in Trinitarian doctrine/theology, I can only recommend this as an example of how not to engage it.  Giles’ egalitarianism clouds his Trinitarianism and makes for a tortured picture of the Trinity throughout the pages of this book.



26 thoughts on “The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate

  1. You’re not alone in your criticism of Giles’ the doctrine of the Trinity. Fred Sanders presented a paper criticizing Giles’ doctrine of the Trinity. You can access “The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology” over at I have read Giles’ papers over at CBE International but I’m not that knowledgeable of the patristics to comment on his doctrine.

  2. Mike: Thanks, I enjoyed your last review as well, especially how you struggled through it after learning that there was hardly anything about Ephesians in there! ;)

    Jason: Thanks for the article reference. I read the section on the Trinity and the Gender debate and Sanders expresses some things that I believe about the issue. I disagree with him though about 1Corinthians 11 being a crux passage that necessitates that we somehow discuss gender roles in light of the Trinity, but oh well. :-|

  3. I have not read this book. However, I agree strongly that the doctrine of the functional subordination of Christ was resurrected and made popular for the express purpose of subordinating women. This is how I remember it and this is how Ben Witherington remembers it as well as Giles.

    It is highly offensive since it puts women on the cross making recompense to men. I believe this movement is apostate and disgusting.

    On the other hand, there is no real need to critique the teaching of the subordination of Christ when Grudem happily teaches the subordination of God.

    This is from the Systematic Theology,

    “Recently some writers have denied that the creation of Eve as a helper fit for Adam signals any difference in role or authority, because the word helper (Heb. ezer) is often used in the Old Testament of someone who is greater or more powerful than the one who is being helped.

    In fact, the word helper is used in the Old Testament of God himself who helps his people. But the point is that whenever someone “helps” someone else, whether in the Hebrew Old Testament or our modern day use of the word help, in the specific task in view the person who is helping is occupying a subordinate or inferior position with regard to the person being helped.”

    Then he goes on to quote Cline who says about God and anyone who helps,

    “… in the act of helping they are being “inferior”

    This is on page 461 and 462 of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem and is available through

    There is no doubt that this book clearly teaches that in helping man, God is “inferior” to man. Don’t ask me how this book ever got published.

    I feel no connection whatsoever to a religion that sets the agenda for the subordination of women, and then creates a doctrine of Christ and a doctrine of God to suit.

    It is utterly revolting.

  4. I’m amazed that you, Witherington, or Giles remembers any teaching on the Trinity at all. It is such a neglected topic. I can probably count on one hand all the times (outside of my own teaching) I’ve heard any aspect of Trinitarian theology expounded upon other than in print form.

    But whatever the misappropriation of the doctrine of the Son’s (and let’s not forget the Spirit) functional subordination, it is first and foremost a Biblical doctrine. But it is one that has much support in the writings of the Fathers as well. Like I said before, to use the Trinity for the gender debate is in my opinion misguided.

    The Son’s eternal obedience to the Father has nothing at all to do with how men and women relate in the Church and at home. At best we can view the reciprocal love between the persons of the Trinity as an example of how all people are to interact, but I wouldn’t press any analogy too far.

  5. Here is Darby’s teaching on John 14,

    “For the power of the Son was not, and could not be, wanting to the Father’s will: there was no limit to His power.”

    I don’t think you can read functional subordination into this. The Brethren went on and on about the relationship within the Godhead, mostly about how the Spirit worked the will of God on earth. There was no place for authority and submission when the teaching centred on the three having one will.

  6. Suzanne,

    I think you’re making the same mistake that Giles makes in seeing a functional subordination as somehow making one person inferior to the other in some essential way. A unity of will does not preclude that one submits to the other. In fact I would argue that this is a willing submission on the part of the Son (and the Spirit). It was as willing in eternity as it was in the incarnation.

    And I also don’t think it necessary to read into anything (in fact I think this is the major problem of using the Trinity in the gender debate, both sides read their position into Trinitarian theology when neither is represented in it!) — but I think that we can draw out this doctrine from the Scriptures. Give me a week and I’ll flesh this out more in the post I’m writing from the Trinity Blogging Summit I’m hosting.

  7. My point is not about what we can say about the trinity. My point is that I did actually listen to teaching on the trinity and it did not involve a discussion of functional subordination.

    Regardless of what can be understood from scripture, the functional subordination of Christ was made popular by those who wanted to subordinate women. This is simply observable fact.

    You seem unwilling to acknowledge what I am actually saying. I am not saying that there cannot be submission and one will. I am saying that subordination of the son was not usually taught as a doctrine until the manhood folks made it popular.

    Whatever my beliefs are, I haven’t stated them, so you can’t know what kind of mistakes I am making.

  8. Nick,
    I have a few questions that maybe you can help me with.

    1.) What was subordination in the early church? And was it heresy?

    2.) How is what Giles is arguing against different than that?

    3.) I read one of Giles’ article on this topic and he distinguishes between the immanent trinity and the economic trinity and sees the functional subordination as falling into the category of the economic trinity (and I guess not permanent). Are you saying that the economic is permanent or that functional subordination should fall within the immanent trinity (I don’t know if that makes sense or not) or that the economic is the immanent?

    4.) Is there disagreement on this topic today and if so could you list some proponents on each side?


  9. Like Suzanne, I have not read this book. But I do find some inadequacies in your review of it. You claim:

    If the Son must in “some way” be less than the Father because of a “role subordination” it does not follow that this way “must be” ontological.

    The issue here is I think with your whole philosophical approach, which apparently differs from mine which is probably similar to Giles’. You seem to believe in some kind of Platonic ideal world in which Christ has “ontological” equality with the Father, even though in no part of the real world (that is, the eternity of heaven as well as the created universe) is there any actual equality. But I reject that argument because I reject the entire concept of Platonic ideals, especially when you are trying to contrast an ideal Trinity with the real one. Rather, I would say that if there is no possibility of the equality of the Father and the Son being realised and made evident throughout the whole of eternity, then this equality simply does not exist. To me it is meaningless to talk of something as ontologically true if it can never be true in actual practice.

    This reminds me of the claim that the elements in the Communion are transubstantiated while retaining all the physical attributes of bread and wine: to me, what has the attributes of bread and wine IS bread and wine.

    And I would apply the same argument to rebut the claim that women are ontologically equal to men but eternally functionally subordinate. If functional subordination is eternal, the alleged equality simply does not exist, period.

    You also write:

    In my judgment, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a model for male-female relationships and to say that it is, is a gross mixing of metaphors.

    The trouble here is that your judgment is not the Apostle Paul’s. He often mixed metaphors, and in 1 Corinthians 11:3 he makes an explicit parallel between these two sets of relationships. Now it may well be that the complementarian functional subordinationists, and Giles, are making too much of Paul’s one-off parallel. But they do have a case to answer, not just to be ridiculed away.

  10. Suzanne: I’ve acknowldged your point. But contra what Giles claims, this is not novel. You, him, and Witherington may have certainly witnessed a resurgence of this teaching due to the gender debate, but I’m just saying that that was by no means the beginning of it.

    Bryan: Wow, that’s quite a bit. Let me be as succinct as possible.

    1. I’d distinguish here between ‘subordination’ and ‘subordinationism’. The first was believed by nearly everyone and involved the taxis (order, not rank) of the Trinity. The Father begets, the Son is begotten, the Spirit proceeds. The Father was seen as the monarchy or fountainhead of the Trinity and the Son and Spirit derive their deity from the Father, but since they are all eternal there is no actual causation. The Son’s generation is an eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession is an eternal procession. The Father sends the Son and the Father and the Son send the Spirit. This was not heresy.

    But subordinationism was what the Arians believed. In this belief the Son was divine but not as divine as the Father, he was heteroousios (of another substance), a pretemporal exalted creature. The Spirit was not even considered deity but was more akin to a force (like what JWs believe). This was heresy.

    2. Giles acknowledges the order (see p. 42-43 & 55) gives lip service to the differences in the types of subordinations but collapses them all into one claiming that permanency in functional or role subordination demands that it is really essential subordination (much like Peter does below).

    3. The immanent Trinity is the intra-Trinitarian relation, God in Godself. The economic Trinity is the extra-Trinitarian relation of God to creation/salvation-history. My position is that this subordination arises from the intra-Trinitarian relationship and is expressed in the extra-Trinitarian relation to the world. The Son obeys the Father not only in the incarnation, but in eternity as well. But this is not some coerced obedience, it is a willing obedience which is seen in his willing condescension. The Son did not come to the earth and become enfleshed only to eventually die and rise from the dead against his will. Giles sees no problem with willing submission if its temporal but somehow if it is an eternally willing submission he sees it as an essential inferiority.

    4. Just look to anyone engaged in the gender debate. They seem to be the ones really arguing this. Proponent of eternal subordination would be Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, John Piper. Opposing would be Kevin Giles and Gilbert Bilezikian. I’d really recommend Robert Letham on the subject and say that his view is closer to my own than Ware, Grudem, or Piper, although he still uses it to argue for complementarianism.

    Hope this helps.


    “I have not read this book. But I do find some inadequacies in your review of it. “

    That says it all. ;) And the problem with 1Cor. 11:3 is that Paul’s analogy is not a Trinitarian analogy, sorry. Concerning Platonic ideals, you’re imagining them. But let’s say that you’re not, I could easily take the Bauckham/Hurtado approach which has the Son and subsequently Spirit included in the divine identity and still see a functional subordination. They are the agents through which the Father mediates, yet accorded the worship that God alone is due.

  11. That did help. Thanks Nick. Although for question # 4 I was thinking more about those outside the gender debate. Who are the people who believe in eternal subordination and who don’t and who are not involved in the gender debate?


  12. Nick, I’m sorry, but I don’t appreciate being fobbed off with a put-down, and a smiley as if that makes it all right. Just because you have had the privilege of being able to read this book, that doesn’t give you the right to expound bad theology in a review of it.

    If 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not a Trinitarian analogy, then there is nothing Trinitatian in the Bible, and we had better abandon the doctrine of the Trinity altogether! No, Paul is making one of the rather few profound statements in the New Testament about the relationship of the Father and the Son, implicitly in the Godhead. If you don’t allow this to inform your Trinitarian theology, you are cutting that theology loose from its biblical moorings and risking going into serious error.

    If there are no Platonic ideals here, what is the meaning of saying that something is “ontologically” or “essentially” true when in fact it is not true in any real or potentially real world for all eternity? This seems to me to be nothing more than a way of calling evil good and lies truth, i.e. this is “essentially” or “ontologically” good and true even though all the evidence shows us clearly that it is evil and false.

    As for the Bauckham/Hurtado approach, from your brief summary this sounds remarkably like an essentially lower status, in the same way as a glass of water is essentially less than an ocean although they are both made up of the same substance.

  13. Peter: You didn’t strike me as the unappreciative type. ;) I almost didn’t respond to your comment at all because I thought it completely lacked merit, but as a courtesy I did. Now this bit about calling my theology bad and equating it to calling evil ‘good’ and lies ‘truth’ makes me not want to respond (to this last comment) even more. Your inability to make distinctions is really not my problem. I really would like to address the ludicrousy of this last comment but I feel it would be a waste of time. Good day sir.

  14. Nick, if that is how you wish to dismiss me, I will take your comments to a wider bar of public opinion through my own blog. We may see then whose views are considered “bad theology” or “completely without merit”.

    As for “calling evil ‘good’ and lies ‘truth’”, these words are not aimed at you, but at those complementarians who claim that they believe in “ontological” equality between men and women while denying any reality to that equality.

  15. Peter: Feel free (and I’ll ignore the inherent ‘threat’ soundingness of that statement). :)

    And thanks for clarifying. Now what correspondance does that have to the Trinity issue?

  16. Well, you can now see my post. Don’t take the threat seriously, but I am sincere in inviting comments. The correspondence with the Trinity issue is partly because of the verse you so summarily dismissed, 1 Corinthians 11:3. I don’t claim that it necessarily implies a link between eternal subordination in the Trinity, or not, and eternal complementarianism, or not. But I do think it is important enough to require careful consideration. But actually the correspondence is not dependent on this verse, but is in the common argument that something can be ontologically true while eternally false in any real world.

  17. Let’s not forget we are talking about That which created and runs everything, including gallaxys over a billion light years away. Our words are a finger pointing at infinity. The Church Councils “defined*” the Trinity as three “prosopoi.” a word usually meaning face. All words fail terribly. The idea of God as male or female is an obvious contradiction, another incident of words failing, as they must when talking about God.

    * Given the Subject obviously a self contradiction.

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