The Trinity Controversy (Aimee Byrd and complementarianism part 2)

Blurbs about Aimee Byrd’s book, Recovering from Biblical manhood and womanhood have highlighted a few issues she picks up on, one of which is that she views that approach to complementarianism as linked to an unorthodox view of the Trinity.

What is the problematic view? Well, let’s start by going back to first principles. When we talk about The Trinity, we say that there are three essential things that we cannot deny (or must affirm). The first is the Unity of the Godhead. We believe in one God and therefore Father, Son and Holy Spirit share the same nature. This ensures that we do not become polytheists believing in three gods.

Secondly, we affirm that this God exists as three persons so that we do not deny the distinction between them.  Each person is real and has existed eternally. This stops us from entering another heresy, that of modalism. Modalism believes that God only appears to us in those three different forms at different forms.  This would have the disadvantage of making both Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration fantasy events and posit a God who is unknowable, hidden behind these outer manifestations like some kind of puppet master operating a Punch and Judy show.

Thirdly, we declare that each of the three persons is equal in nature. This follows from our belief in the unity of the Godhead. In fact, each of these three statements interconnect and to deny any of them causes problems for the others.  Equality means that there isn’t a hierarchy in the godhead. This helps us to avoid the error of Arianism where Jesus is a subordinate and non-eternal being. This false teaching is still seen in some sects today such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now a number of theologians over a significant period of time have been seeking to re-engage at a detailed level with the question of how the Son relates to the Father.  Key to this have been two Bible passages. First, there is the scene in the garden where Jesus says “Not my will but yours….” Then we have this eschatological statement in 1 Corinthians.

“… the end will come, when he (Christ) will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power. 25 For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. 26 And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For the Scriptures say, “God has put all things under his authority.”[e] (Of course, when it says “all things are under his authority,” that does not include God himself, who gave Christ his authority.) 28 Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.”[1]

What does it mean for Jesus to submit to the Father? Well, some theologians have suggested that we see something about the eternal relationship of Father and Son here. The Son, unlike Adam and Israel is the obedient Son who submits to his Father’s will and this reflects how they relate in eternity.  This has become known and Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) or Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS).

Now, the response of others has been to react against this and to say “This sounds like it is straying into the territory of Arianism.” We reject subordination within the Trinity because we must not deny the equality of the persons.

This of course, still leaves us with a question about how to handle the question. If The Son does not submit, then what do we make of those texts which suggest he does and in fact are the very texts used by Arians and Jehovah’s witnesses to build their case?

Well one response is to suggest that the submission is in relation to Jesus’ human nature. Jesus, the incarnate human being submits to his heavenly father. However, that is problematic however for two reasons.

First of all, if it is a mark of his humanity that The Son submits, then that risks creating a breach between his human nature and his divine nature so that in the Garden “Yet not my will” becomes an inner dialogue between human Jesus and divine Jesus.  This also leads us into dangerous territory. You see, the early church, paying close attention to Scripture agreed that we must not do two things with Jesus identity. First of all, we must not confuse the natures. In other words, don’t mix the divine stuff with the human stuff like mixing butter, eggs and sugar to create cake mix.  This would be to create a completely different, nature altogether, a composite one. Rather, we are to see Jesus as one person with two natures but an integrated will and personality. So, Jesus’ divine nature is actively involved in the act of submission to the Father’s will in Gethsemane.

Secondly, when we look back at the relevant passages, we see clearly that the act of submitting to the Father, is something the Son does with respect to his eternal nature and will, not just bound within time at the incarnation. Philippians 2 alludes to Christ’s incarnation as itself an act of submission which starts in eternity. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage points to it as an act of the risen and ascended son, in heaven, at the end of time.

So, I would suggest that Scripture does point to the Son as submitting to the Father, not just in the context of his incarnation but in terms of his eternal existence and relationship. This is why the issue was so controversial because the Arians saw those verses and could not comprehend the idea that someone majestic, equal with the Father in glory would willingly submit to the Father, would willingly give up something that was rightfully his. Yet, that is the exact point of what Jesus does.  Indeed, I believe that this is integral to our attitude today, not just in terms of marriage or gender roles in church but in terms of mutual submission to one another. How can I possibly put others needs first, isn’t it demeaning to serve? Well Jesus is the one who does that without losing anything of his glorious nature.

I must admit that I struggle with the language of EFS. The use of “subordination” suggests a level of compulsion and passivity. I’d rather say that the Son willingly and actively chooses to submit to the Father as an act of love.


I do not believe that the EFS position is an unorthodox view. In fact as theologians such as Mike Ovey have carefully shown, the position reflects the historical position of the early church, including leading early theologians such as Athanasius and Hilary. Failure to take this seriously leads to other theological dangers particularly around Christology. I do find some of the language unwise and unhelpful, especially the use of “subordination.” I think that an understanding of Jesus as the obedient son and a healthy view of The Doctrine of The Trinity is actually of great benefit to our practical understanding of the Christian life.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

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