Some Thoughts on the Current Complementarian Trinitarian Civil War

Jeff Waddington
Many of you are no doubt aware of the current controversy within the Reformed complementarian community about the issue of grounding male and female roles of subordination in the inner-Trinitarian life of the Godhead. The desire to establish the rationale for how men and women relate to one another in how the persons of the Triune Godhead relate to one another certainly has the initial appearance of soundness and wisdom. But the reality is significantly more complex than a prima facie reading of the situation would reveal. Good men stand on both sides of this dispute and I do not claim to have read every last blog post or Twitter feed on the matter. I am not concerned with personalities so names will be left out of my musings. I do take a side in the controversy. I side with the classical consideration of the Triune nature of our great and glorious God that stems from the Nicene tradition (perhaps all sides of this debate could read Lewis Ayer's Nicaea and It's Legacy and ponder its detail?).

Discussion of the Trinity is necessary and hashing out the intricate issues is healthy. I am mindful of Saint Augustine's warning about dealing with the Trinitarian glory of our God. At the beginning of his monumental De Trinitate (On the Trinity) the bishop of Hippo Rhegius noted that there was nothing more treacherous than approaching the hallowed ground of Trinitarian theology. At the same time there is nothing more rewarding and soul-stretching. I do want to avoid turning meditations on the Trinity into a geometrical puzzle that needs solving. That is not my desire. I hope to shed a modicum of light on the present impasse. First I will say something about deriving guidelines of male-female relations from the inner-Trinitarian life of God. Second, I will offer a thought or two on the technical matter of subordinationism in theological formulations. Third, I want to say something about how the covenant of redemption relates to this discussion. Fourth, and finally, I want to conclude with a pastoral note.

I think there is a helpful way to draw implications for male-female relations from the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as long as we recognize certain limitations. The first limitation is the Creator/creature distinction. God is not just some bigger, better form of us. God is also incomprehensible. While we can have true knowledge about God and his ways with us, we never possess exhaustive knowledge of God. By definition only God has infinite, exhaustive knowledge of himself and his plan of redemption. Because God has revealed himself to us (in this case, he has revealed to us something of his Trinitarian nature) what we do know is true and not the product of our imaginations as long as what we think conforms to and is consistent with his revelation. Related to the above, our knowledge and theological language is analogical. That is, it is neither univocal (or identical with God's self-knowledge) nor equivocal (completely different from God's knowledge).

What can we say about how men and women are to relate to one another from the Trinitarian nature of God? I think we can say, as Paul does in 1st Corinthians 11:3 that Christ is the head of the husband, the husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. But we need to reckon with some distinctions as we seek to properly understand this text and apply it in our lives. Paul is talking here about Christ's relation to the Father as it exists in the economy of redemption. In other words, we are not talking about the relation of the Son to the Father outside of and apart from the execution of the plan of redemption in time and space. Christ is spoken of here as the God-man Mediator, not as he was in his pre-incarnate state. The wife submits to her husband as the God-man Mediator submits to the Father in the economy of redemption. This filial submission was voluntary for the purpose of redeeming a people for the Son's possession.

Second, we rightly seek to avoid subordinationist language when discussing the internal relations of the persons of the Trinity. John Calvin, I believe, furthered Trinitarian theology when he helpfully noted that the Son of God, considered as to his godness or divinity, is autotheos. The son as to his divine essence is co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. There is no subordination here. But as to his person the Son is derived from the Father and the Spirit is derived from the Father and the Son. Theologians such as Geerhardus Vos (Reformed Dogmatics 1.3.12.c & d) and Sam Waldron (Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith) discuss subordinationism and reject ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. However, they seem to allow for a kind of subordination of manner of existence and mode of operation. The mode of operation is what I have already referred to here as economic subordination for the purpose of redemption. The manner of existence subordination has to do with the fact that the Father is unbegotten and begets the Son, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is not begotten but proceeds. It is arguable whether applying the moniker "subordination" is appropriate for consideration of the personal properties of the divine persons or their ordering or taxis. The only seemingly appropriate use of subordination language regards economic subordination. This is what Paul describes in Phil.2:5-9 and what we see throughout the gospels as we see how Jesus relates to the Father. Why is this even an issue? If the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father, then he is a demi-god who cannot save us from our sins. It's that basic.

Third, I want to bring this conversation into contact with what our theology says about the covenant of redemption or pactum salutis or covenant of peace. The covenant of redemption is that covenant that the Father, Son, and Spirit entered into to save a people out of sin and misery. In this pre-temporal covenant (which we can see evidence of in John 17, for instance), the Son agreed to take to himself a "true body, and a reasonable soul" (WSC 22). This was a completely voluntary act on the Son's part. The Father did not arm twist or cajole the Son into becoming incarnate for our sakes. The Son determined to become incarnate and live a lowly life and die an excruciating death in order to glorify the Father (who in turn glorified the Son) and to redeem lost sinners. While the nature of the Son's personal properties does lead to his incarnation, to make the incarnation and work of redemption arise from the subordinate nature of the Son's relation to the Father is to verge on removing the voluntary nature of the Son's work. Undoubtedly there is more work to be done here or at the very least, more study of what the church has already said instead of thinking we need to reinvent the wheel every time we do exegesis or biblical theology.

Fourth, and finally, we need to be cognizant of the pastoral implications of this dispute. Theological controversy is not to be avoided simply because it is controversial. Jesus himself had an ongoing controversy with the religious leaders of his day. I have been interacting with more than a few laymen who do not know what to make of this current civil war in the ranks of Reformed complementarians. I have tried to stress that theological controversy can be healthy (I am, after all, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and so am gladly one of "Machen's warrior children") and that we should not be overwrought about doctrinal disputes as such. There are, of course, proper ways to conduct theological disputation. But I am not personally bothered by vehemence or the passionate presentation of an argument. However, we do need to reckon with how a dispute is seen by laity and even those outside the church. This controversy can lead to greater understanding of our great and glorious God if it is conducted in a biblical, godly way. We should focus on the issues rather than on personalities. I do need to note that we live in a day and age when we hate to challenge anyone's orthodoxy. I am not providing license to heresy hunters or discernment bloggers. But truth matters. Orthodoxy is not a dirty word. The nature of God's Triune being as it is revealed in Scripture is paramount.

In conclusion, while we can derive some conclusions about how men and women relate to one another by considering the role relations of the persons of the Triune Godhead, we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge. We need to use technical terms like subordination clearly and carefully and where we are nuancing our use it should be clearly stated that that is what we are doing. We need to reckon with how the covenant of redemption relates to this whole discussion. And we need to remember that this controversy is not just an academic disputation but has pastoral implications. We need to debate in a godly manner.