There is No Hierarchy in the Trinity
By John Crowder
When we talk about the Trinity, this term signifies a special understanding of God existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons of the same essence and unity who eternally and communally dwell as one substance … the one Almighty God.
A great delusion and much controversy has swept through evangelical camps in recent decades (up to a boiling point in recent months) as a number of mainstream conservative teachers are proposing the idea of hierarchy within the Trinity. They teach that there is a role of primacy within the Godhead, in which the Father sits at the top of the ladder, with the Son being eternally subordinate (underneath or subservient to the Father), and Holy Spirit is beneath the Son at the bottom of the totem pole (perhaps they figure He’s not too important since they haven’t seen Him around in their churches for a few decades). Such a contorted view is a clear danger to our perspective of the Christian God, and yet somehow this modern twist on an ancient heresy has gained traction in churches all around the world.
A lot of nuance and big theological terms get thrown around in this whole debate, which I hope to boil down into ordinary speak for readers in an effort to bolster us in the knowledge of the other-serving, other-giving dance of the Trinitarian life which is the very heartbeat of the church and the gospel. Dr. Liam Goligher, one of a number of teachers who has been recently vocal in combating this modern heretical view, compiled a list of succinct quotes that contrast the difference between contemporary evangelicalism and the orthodox faith handed down to us through the Christian fathers:
Modern Evangelicalism Says
“The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been…There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission” (Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock).
“I hold to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father” (Wayne Grudem).
“Today debates over whether the Son submits eternally to the Father have been wrapped…relations of authority and submission do indeed exist among the persons of the Godhead” (Christianity Today, Oct. 10, 2008).
Orthodox Christianity Says
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of light, very God of very God” (Nicene Creed)
“In this Trinity none is afore, nor after another; none is greater or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).
“Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist ‘in an inseparable equality of one substance’” (Augustine).
“We believe with all our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God – eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty: completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good” (Belgic Confession).
“In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son” (Westminster Confession of Faith).
“The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are equal with the Father, ascribing to them such names, attributes, works, and worship as are proper to God only” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q11).
“The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made…” (1689 Baptist Confession)
"If there be one God subsisting in three persons, then let us give equal reverence to all the persons in the Trinity. There is not more or less in the Trinity; the Father is not more God than the Son and Holy Ghost. There is an order in the Godhead, but no degrees; one person has not a majority or super eminence above another, therefore we must give equal worship to all the persons." (Thomas Watson)
One Will, Three Persons
Jesus clearly submitted to and did the will of His Father on earth. As a matter of fact He shall always do the Father’s will. But so shall the Father do the will of the Son and the Spirit! There is only one will and one shared heart in the life of the Trinity! Mutual submission and an inter-penetration of love one between the other. But a hierarchical view of the Trinity being embraced in the modern church is a drastic departure from the foundations of the Christian message.
“It’s not hard to see who has moved!” writes Goligher, addressing the above list of quotes. “These quotes highlight what is at stake in the teaching of some contemporary evangelical scholars and pastors: they are presenting a novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture. This is serious. It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity - a deity in whom there are degrees of power, differences of will, and diversity of thought. Because, mark this, to have an eternally subordinate Son intrinsic to the Godhead creates the potential of three minds, wills and powers.”
In His earthly ministry, Jesus clearly operated in the will of His Father. But it is a heretical leap to assume He is eternally beneath the Father in a functional way. There are no executive decisions on the Father’s part in which the Son and Spirit must simply shut up and obey. No separation of wills or minds or powers. In fact, the very reason Jewish religious leaders sought to have Jesus killed was on the charge of blasphemy in John 5:18, “because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God." In their culture it was clear that an adult son was an emissary deemed equal in all things (status, stature, etc.) with his father.
The debate often gets jumbled into a quagmire of terminology. Most evangelical theologians are smart enough not to suggest outright that Jesus is ontologically subordinate to the Father (lower than the Father in His essence or being). The biggest term used in the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s most succinct and revered doctrine of faith, is the word “homoousios” (meaning the same essence or substance). In fact this word is the crux of the Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is the same essence or substance as the Father. Very God of very God.
One of the main reasons the early fathers so strongly pronounced this in the Nicene Creed of 381 AD was to refute one of the largest heresies ever to sweep through the church: Arianism. The Arian heresy stated that the Son of God was “created” by the Father, and therefore Jesus was neither coeternal with the Father, nor of the same “substance.” But the chief theologian of the Trinity emerged in those days, Athanasius, who together with the Cappadocian fathers argued that the “begottenness” of Jesus did not refer to His beginning, origin or starting point in time. His begottenness stands outside of time as an eternal reality – Jesus did not become the Son at the incarnation, but He always flowed out of the Father. And in fact, the Father was always the Father. He did not one day “become a father” by creating the Son.
This concept is sometimes called the “eternal generation of the Son.” Jesus clearly stepped into our world and “became” a man, but He was always the eternal Word through Whom all things were created. He had no starting point and was continually face to face with the Father (not made by Him nor somehow less than the Father (John 1:1-3). The term “only begotten” is monogenes. It refers moreover to Christ’s absolute uniqueness – one of a kind.
While no evangelical teacher would outright say Jesus is of a lesser substance than the Father, nevertheless by painting Him in the role as subservient under the Father’s hierarchy, they end up doing this very thing. A popular term now used is eternal functional subordination. They contend that although Jesus is fully God, his functional role is still to always obey and serve the father (also called an economy of subordination). The idea is that the Father and Son are “eternally distinguished by an ‘authority-submission’ structure,” wherein the Father will forever have authority over the Son, and the Son will forever submit to Him.
The danger in handing the Son a lesser “role” or “position” is the risk that even functional subordination tends to devalue Jesus. Millard Erickson explains, “The problem is this. ... Authority is part of the Father’s essence, and subordination is part of the Son’s essence, and each attribute is not part of the essence of the other person. That means that the essence of the Son is different from the essence of the Father.... That is equivalent to saying that they are not homoousios (the same essence) with one another.”
Author Zack Hunt furthers this sentiment that Jesus’ person and role cannot be divided without the one lessening the other.
“As I said, advocates of this position hold that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father, but that that role has nothing to do with his being, who he is or his ontology, because according to them a person’s eternal condition is irrelevant to their existence,” writes Hunt. “From what I have read, the argument for this apparent inconsistency is that Jesus’ subordination to the Father relates to his role in the Godhead, not his ontological status; meaning the Father and Son (and presumably the Spirit) are one and equal because Jesus’ subordination somehow doesn’t affect his being even though it is a position he takes and has taken and will take for all eternity and can do no other.”
Considering the Ramifications
Another topic that is usually brought to the fore in these debates on the subordination of Christ is the doctrine’s relation to the role of equality/submission of women as well as questions on obedience to church leadership. Whatever your view on church leadership or gender roles (as vital as these topics may be), I see these as side issues that muddle the most important point. Diminishing the role of Christ or Holy Spirit is devastating beyond comprehension in its ramifications. The core problem lies in these questions: How do we see God? Does God really look like Jesus? Is there some other dark, authoritarian side of God behind Jesus’ back?
The fact is that Jesus is radically submissive. But the Lamb Who was silent before His shearers also speaks volumes on the nature of His Father and Holy Spirit (who is also a Person, not a force). The Trinity mutually submits to one another. I do not object to the concept of the persons of the Trinity having roles (economies of function), nor the obvious sense of patriarchy that being a Father implies. But He is no heavy handed, judgmental controlling Father as our own fallen projections of a paternal figure may lead us to believe; “… the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge” (John 5:22).
What is submission? Is it a slavish, dutiful obedience? Or does it look like serving, loving, laying one’s life down for another? If “worship” is the ultimate act of love and obedience then we could most veritably argue that Christ “worships” us far more than we worship Him! Not that He hails us as God or obeys our command, but that He loves, serves and sacrificially gives Himself to the creature far more than the creature loves and worships Him in response.
The love and self-giving that Jesus demonstrates is the love and self-giving of Abba. Perhaps it is the Father who gets most maligned in these heresies (these after all are the same evangelical camps which preach penal substitution – the idea that Jesus was dying to pay off the Father’s bloodlust and wrath against us). This bifurcation between the loving servant heart of Jesus and a supposedly vindictive, heavy handed Father who demands a “price” for forgiveness drives a schizophrenic split in our vision of God, and through the fabric of our very lives. Forget mere equality for women … we are dealing with a fundamental dualism that corrupts our parenting, our every relationship and whether we view the sinful world around us through eyes of compassion or with legalistic fury.
The Trinity is not a vertical, hierarchical chain, but a circle of other-giving love.The term for the interpersonal indwelling, communion and shared life and work of the three persons of the Trinity is called perichoresis, which literally means “dancing in a circle.” A perichoretic understanding of the Trinity is found in the very teachings of Christ Himself in the gospels. In John 14:8–11 we read:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do.”
Jesus, the Logos, is not less transcendent than the Father. He is the very visible image of the invisible God, existing before and supreme over all creation (Col. 1:15). He does not merely possess a diluted or mediating form of deity. Never must we fear an “invisible” side of God not reflected in Jesus. There is not some looming puppeteer over the head of Jesus whose arbitrary mood will ever shift against us. His Abba is our Abba. The presence of His Holy Spirit abides with us always. Dr. C. Baxter Kruger states:
From all eternity, God is not alone and solitary, but lives as Father, Son, and Spirit in a rich and glorious fellowship of utter oneness. There is no emptiness in this circle, no depression or fear or insecurity. The trinitarian life is a great dance of unchained communion and intimacy, fired by passionate, self-giving, other-centered love and mutual delight. This life is unique, and it is good and right. It is full of music and joy, blessedness and peace. And this love, giving rise to such togetherness and fellowship and oneness, is the womb of the universe and of humanity within it. The stunning truth is that this triune God, in amazing and lavish love, determined to open the circle and share the trinitarian life with others ... This is the one, eternal, abiding reason for the creation of the world and of human life. … Before the creation of the world, the Father, Son, and Spirit set their love upon us and planned for us to share and know and experience the trinitarian life itself. To this end the cosmos was called into being, the human race was fashioned, and Adam and Eve were given a place in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in and through whom the dream of our adoption would be accomplished.