Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity

JATF.jpgGiles, Kevin.

Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Pp. 320. Paper. $24.99.

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Many thanks to Chris Fann at Zondervan for this review copy!

Jesus and the Father is a book-length treatment of the first third of Giles’ 2002 work The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate (see my review for criticisms of Giles’ handling of the doctrine of the Trinity). In this volume Giles’ argument hasn’t changed, nor did I discern any real fine tuning, but rather it has been re-asserted and repeated ad nauseum.  As I read through this book I thought to myself on numerous occasions: ‘If I never again read another book on the Trinity and the gender debate it will be too soon.’  And despite Giles’ claims to be examining the doctrine of the Trinity apart from the modern gender debate, all we get is a treatment of the Trinity in light of it (the irony being that he charges his opponents with “let[ting] their passion to maintain the permanent subordination of women dictate how they understand the doctrine of the Trinity” [p. 44] when he is guilty of this very thing!).

However, let me take a moment to highlight the one positive feature I noted in this book.  Giles rightly acknowledges the importance and centrality of the Trinity to the Christian faith when he says:

I suspect many Christians think that the doctrine of the Trinity is a very abstract and somewhat impractical doctrine of little importance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The doctrine of the Trinity, it cannot be denied, is a difficult doctrine to understand, but it is of huge importance and great practical consequence. It is nothing less than the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. […] To fail to correctly understand “our” distinctive and foundational doctrine of God can have catastrophic consequences. Almost, if not all, the so-called Christian sects either deny the doctrine of the Trinity or have a badly flawed understanding of it. […] A right doctrine of the Trinity is needed for right belief and right behavior. No doctrine could be more important. [p. 12-13]

And it is with these words that my agreement with Giles ends.  Throughout this work Giles wears two masks: (1) the victim, and (2) the defender of orthodoxy.  In the first role Giles plays the victim, believing that his earlier work has been unfairly criticized by his opponents who for no other reason than a desire for male dominance just can’t be honest with themselves about the strength of his thesis.  He speaks of the near impossibility of being able to get his opponents to “consider honestly and openly what they are saying on the Trinity” [p. 42] because of their inextricably uniting the subordination of women to the subordination of the Son in their minds, thus implying their inherent dishonesty.

He also says:

The response by those I sought to rebut was almost entirely negative and dismissive. Much to my surprise it was my work on the Trinity that upset my critics most of all. [p. 10]

I think this speaks volumes concerning just how unaware of his own inadequacies concerning the doctrine of the Trinity that Giles really is.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has worked through his first volume that the point at which it was its weakest was on the doctrine of the Trinity! [I say this as an egalitarian who appreciated much of his case for male-female equality in his earlier work.]

This sets the stage for the highly polemical nature of this book and the second role he plays.  Throughout Jesus and the Father Giles presents himself as a modern-day Athanasius battling the destructive heresy of Arianism and all of its proponents.  All one must do is read the initial chapter to see that I am not speaking hyperbolically.  On numerous occasions he refers to his opponents as Arians, heretics, and tri-theists.  For example, Giles says:

Although all of these evangelical theologians [e.g., Michael Harper; Tom Smail; Wayne Grudem; Peter Adam; the Sydney Doctrine Commission; et. al.] say that they affirm unequivocally the divinity of Christ and the oneness in being of Father and Son in the immanent Trinity, and they reject “Arianism” (a very imprecise term, as we will show), their position implies the eternal ontological subordination of the Son. [p. 30]

So according to Giles, it is not enough to repudiate Arianism while affirming the very thing that Arianism denies to be free and clear of the charge of Arianism.  Giles bases his charges on his flawed (and modalistic) argument that function defines person which equals being.  He describes any doctrine of the Trinity that affirms any kind of eternal subordination to be: “heretical [in] nature” [p. 32]; “old heresy in a new form” [p. 32]; “dangerous doctrine” [p. 33]; “new form of an old heresy” [p. 39]; “idolatry” [p. 44]; and “tritheism” [p. 62].  In the first footnote of the preface he says of “Arianism”:

This is a very broad category covering people and theological groupings with differing views on many things, united only by their common conviction that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father in being, work/function, and authority. We will come back to this matter many times in what follows. [p. 9, n. 1]

But it is precisely the Arian understanding of the Son as being inferior in BEING that makes Arianism heretical!  And it is precisely Giles’ inability to differentiate function from person from being that makes his argument untenable.  He notes a number of books written by a number of evangelicals that “all consider subordinationism to be a dangerous error” [p. 41], and rightly so when subordinationism is properly defined, but then he says that:

These authors speak in opposition to subordinationism, which they think is an old heresy, no longer a pressing threat to the modern church. No warning is given to the fact that to eternally subordinate the Son in his work, functions, or roles implies by necessity ontological subordinationism. [p. 41]

But there’s a reason that they don’t identify subordinationism as Giles does, and that’s because his argument simply does not follow!  He says: “my own brief definition of the theological heresy called subordinationism is this: to explicitly of implicitly teach that the Son and/or the Spirit are eternally subordinate to the Father in being, function, or authority.” [p. 61]  For Giles if the subordination is temporal then there is no heresy [see e.g., p. 39], but if it is eternal then those who believe it are Arians, plain and simple.  But as I just pointed out above as well as in my review of his last book, this is a non sequitur.  Giles never takes the necessary steps to prove his argument, he simply asserts and then charges any who disagree with heresy.

But if Giles is content to speak of his opponents as Arians then I am content to speak of Giles as a modalist.  On more than one occasion he makes statements that have no interpretation other than a modalistic one.  For example:

Hodge speaks of the eternal subordination of the Son in his “mode of subsistence and operations,” in his person as the Son and in what he does as the Son. He teaches an eternal subordination in being and function. [p. 37]

Giles’ critique of Hodge demonstrates Giles’ tendency to equate person with being.  Hodge specifies a subordination in the “mode of subsistence” which is a common way of speaking of how the persons of the Trinity relate as persons.  Giles acknowledges this but then goes on to represent Hodge’s position as a subordination in being.  In outlining his argument Giles says:

I argue that to teach that that the divine persons are eternally differentiated on the basis of differing “nature,” “being,” “essence,” or “subsistence,” ontologically divides the one Godhead, opening the door to subordinationism… [p. 60]

But classically, Trinitarians have always differentiated the persons in their manner of subsistence.  To do such does not “ontologically divide the one Godhead” as Giles suggests.  Anyone who has debated with Oneness Pentecostals has more likely than not encountered this exact argument (i.e., three persons = three gods).  But if these statements aren’t enough to arouse suspicion in Giles’ equation of person and being then take these explicit statements:

If the divine Son is eternally subordinated in role or function, he is a subordinated divine person. His subordination as it is eternal defines his person. In other words, he is subordinated in being. [p. 46]

The divine persons cannot be differentiated by who they are–their being–and if they are one in being, they must be one in work/function and authority. What the one God is as being-in-unity, the divine persons are as being-in-relation. [p. 53-54]

Once the word eternal is used, it indicates that the subordination ascribed defines the person. If the Son of God is eternally subordinated in function, and cannot be otherwise, then in his being/essence/nature/substance he is in some way less than the Father. [p. 57]

For them the Son’s subordination in authority prescribes who he is–his being. This is what differentiates him from the Father. He is the eternally subordinated Son and cannot be otherwise. If this is not ontological subordinationism I don’t know what is. [p. 59]

[W]hatever words are used to permanently set the Son under the Father in work divides who God is (his being) from what God does (his works). [p. 58]

The word eternal indicates that the Son does not merely function subordinately in the incarnation; he is eternally subordinated to the Father. His subordination defines his person. As the Son he is subordinated to the Father–subordinated in his person or being. [p. 59]

And this last statement accurately states the main problem of Giles’ work, namely that he doesn’t know what ontological subordinationism is!  In all of these examples he speaks of the ‘who’ as the ‘what’ and the ‘person’ as the ‘being’ thus ignoring the necessary distinctions that Trinitarians must make to avoid the heresy of modalism.  Time, space, and patience limit me from going through this entire book pointing out the difficiencies within (e.g., his handling of Patristic sources, his reading of the Niceno-Contantinopolitan & Athanasian Creeds, as well as the place of importance he gives to the latter), but I think that I’ve identified the root of Giles’ problem, namely the faulty logic that equates the persons with the being of God.

As I said in my introductory remarks, he’s guilty of the thing he accuses his opponents of, which is allowing his view on gender relations to determine his doctrine of the Trinity — and this was my criticism of his former work.  Nothing in terms of argument has fundamentally changed from his first book, but in this work we are treated to much more polemic, suspicion (or more appropriately paranoia), and lack of charity. If you’ve read his previous work then this will be more of the same.  But even if you haven’t read his first book I cannot in good conscience recommend this one.  The only person I see enjoying this title is the person who has a vested interest in the gender debate and doesn’t care for accuracy in Trinitarian theology.  This is truly one of the worst books I have ever read and I’m sad to say that I will probably refrain from reading Giles on the Trinity ever again.  I rate this with one star. 1.0 out of 5 stars


21 thoughts on “Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity

  1. This is a good word, Nick. I agree: Giles is a massive disaster and one of the worst, manipulative scholars I have run into in the past 10 years. I appreciate your criticisms and insight here, because as an egalitarian you may gain more of a hearing than I would as a complementarian. We both agree the doctrine of the Trinity is infinitely more important than one’s gender views, and to see Giles twist historical fact over and over again is truly discouraging. I think you are right, too, that for all of his whining about his critics not understanding him or listening to him fairly, he is by far the most egregrious offender of misrepresenting others’ views and engaging in revisionist history. Keep up the good work, brother.

  2. Hi Nick,

    Wow! That was tame? :-D As I always appreciate your thoughts even where I disagree, I don’t really want to get into a pointless “he said, she said” string of comments on your review. From an outsider’s perspective on this whole debate, I can’t help but wonder if you’re both examining the data from such different conceptual presuppositions as to be talking past one another. In fact, I was immediately reminded of your review in progress on Bauckham’s book on John.

    I seem to remember that you’ve read “God Crucified”, but I don’t recall what you thought about it. So. I’m really interested to hear what your take is on “divine identity”. For precisely the conceptual categories you assume here [Greek function/being rather than Jewish “relational” categories] are the very ones Bauckham treats as anachronistic to the NT. I’ll really look forward to seeing evntually what you think the implications are, for both your current views and the church’s later theologizing if Bauckham is right. Or, indeed, I’d love to see your refutation of Bauckham. Much to look forward to!

    All the best.

  3. Jonathan: My instinct was to call him names and talk about his mother! :-P So in the end I think I was pretty tame. ;)

    Concerning Giles’ and my conceptual presuppositions, I’d say that they’re the same for the sake of my critique. He’s working within the conceptual categories (being/person) of the great Creeds and Confessions of faith, so it is on those grounds that I have critiqued him. I don’t believe that Giles is actually a modalist, in fact in his book he explicitly states that he isn’t, but my tone was intentionally polemical as to match his throughout his book. He charges his opponents with Arianism (which they are not guilty of), but his solution is modalism (which I don’t believe he realizes).

    With regard to Bauckham, he acknowledges that ontology (the what) plays a role in Jewish thinking, but it takes a back seat (way back) to identity (the who). I don’t have any major gripes with this view, and I think it is helpful when talking about the earliest Christology, but then again, the NT authors weren’t dealing with the issues that would later arise in Church history. Bauckham’s explanation of the Son as being instrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God would be rejected as quickly by anti-Nicenes as talk of his consubtantiality with the Father.

    You’ll be happy to know that I’ve put in a request with Eerdmans for Bauckham’s new volume, which is just God Crucified reprinted along with some additional essays (some previously published, others brand new), so I will be giving his work a review probably early next year.

    David: Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. :)

  4. Hi Nick,

    Yes, I phrased that badly. My real point is that relational categories have much greater impact on ontology than some some allow even in the Fathers [e.g., sovereign rule is functional but has ontological consequences etc]. Giles takes that on board and it affects his entire presentation (which was, indeed, horribly repetitious!). Lots of the critiques I’ve read of Giles don’t fully grapple with that element of his analysis (but that’s his fault for not being clearer). And, with all humility, a bit more of that in your work might have led to a slighter kinder review. But, I’ll look forward to what you do with Bauckham, I’ve my copy pre-ordered! We’ll have to compare notes!

    Take care.

  5. You ever thought about emailing Giles your criticisms/review of his book? I’d be interested in how he responds or if he recognizes his book was a wee bit more polemical/paranoid than it needed to be and that it detracted from its quality.

    BTW I have no idea what you and Jonathan are talking about : )


  6. Bryan: No, I haven’t thought about starting up any kind of correspondence with Giles. I doubt that my critique would persuade him at all though since these same criticisms have been offered by men far more educated than I. I’ve seen his interaction with guys like Matt Paulson and Andrew Moody and their in depth analyses and critiques were just brushed off. Doesn’t give me confidence that any interaction I’d have with him would be more fruitful.

    And that’s why you need to get more into theology and the Trinity! ;)

  7. I plan on getting more into theology and the trinity after I study philosophy a whole lot more since they seemed to be kind of intertwined. Unfortunately a lot of the theology I read on blogs just turns me off to the whole endeavor so I’m not really looking forward to it right now.


  8. “If I never again read another book on the Trinity and the gender debate it will be too soon.”

    Amen, amen, I tell you.

    There’s a reason Jesus constantly said, “My Father and your Father.” Obviously the relationship was different between them than between the Father and us. Different enough, I suspect, to make it silly to use it as some sort of baseline for human relationships.

    But I’m repeating myself, here.

  9. Nick, I know that I am late here, but as I am reading through “Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective” this guy Kevin Giles name came up. So I stopped reading came to your site and did a search to see if you had anything to say about him. Not only did you have something to say about him, but you had a review regarding the exact same book that was referenced.

    Once again your site has proven to be an excellent source for Trinitarian studies!

  10. Giles, Jesus and the Father, p.135 As an example of Giles’s method, he writes: ‘The first passage [John 1] teaches that “the Word was with God” and “the Word became flesh,” and the second [Philippians 2] that the Son “was equal with God but emptied himself.” These two texts give what he calls a “double account of the Saviour”– one temporal and one eternal.[note 25]… In his eternal being, however, there could be no subordination at all.’ The reference is to Athanasius, Discourses against the Arians 3 ch. 26, sec. 29, where we find the quoted words, but with no connection that I can see to Philippians 2, or John 1. (There’s a passing reference to John 1.14 later in section 30).

    OK, so here’s what Athanasius said: Σκοπὸς τοίνυν οὗτος καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ἁγίας γραφῆς, ὡς πολλάκις εἴπομεν, διπλῆν εἶναι τὴν περὶ τοῦ Σωτῆρος ἐπαγγελίαν ἐν αὐτῇ ‘Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this, —it contains a double account of the Saviour;’ ὅτι τε ἀεὶ Θεὸς ἦν καὶ Υἱός ἐστι, Λόγος ὢν καὶ ἀπαύγασμα καὶ σοφία τοῦ Πατρός· ‘that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom;’ καὶ ὅτι ὕστερον, δι’ ἡμᾶς σάρκα λαβὼν ἐκ Παρθένου τῆς Θεοτόκου Μαρίας,ἄνθρωπος γέγονε. ‘and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God, and was made man.’

    Giles misleads the unwary reader into thinking that Athanasius’s first point was that Jesus was equal to God – whereas in fact it did contain that point – ἀεὶ Θεὸς ἦν – ‘He was always God;’ but also still within the first point was καὶ Υἱός ἐστι, Λόγος ὢν καὶ ἀπαύγασμα καὶ σοφία τοῦ Πατρός – ‘and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom’. To say that the Son is the radiance of the Father does I think convey a certain subordination.


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