The Trinity and Subordinationism

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The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate
Kevin Giles
IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 2002, 273pp

Australian Anglican Kevin Giles has attempted many things in his recent book The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. Primarily, he alleges that those who argue that God the Son is eternally subordinate (or in submission to) God the Father are saying that God the Son is inferior to God the Father and so are guilty of heresy. This has implications for thinking about women and men in relationship, both in the church and in marriage, which Giles also discusses. He claims conservative evangelicals have distorted the doctrine of the Trinity in order to maintain the subordination of women in marriage and the church, and argues that conservative evangelicals have used the doctrine of God to impose their view of women on the church. In developing his argument, Giles explains how he believes the church is to use Scripture today.

Giles’ view of Scripture is the first thing we must consider, because it is the basis of his entire method. Giles affirms that Scripture is authoritative and the word of God. Yet, when he describes what this looks like in practice, he denies what conservative evangelicals have understood about the Bible since the Reformation. That is, he denies that Scripture is clear enough to be understood on its own terms.

Giles does not say that Scripture is irrelevant, but his argument implies that Scripture alone is not enough to understand God’s will on the matter of relationships between men and women as well as relationships within the Trinity (pp. 194-9). Scripture, according to Giles, is simply not clear enough to direct us. For example, he believes that only some parts of the Bible reflect God’s ideals for his people. Other parts (sometimes far larger than the parts that reflect God’s will) only reflect the sinful beliefs and values of the culture of the writers (pp. 235 with 222-6). Further, on almost every area on which Christians disagree, the Bible speaks with different voices so that the Bible can be found to support almost any position imaginable. Consequently the Bible cannot be read on its own terms and Christians must turn to outside authorities to understand the Scriptures correctly.

Consequently, Giles advises believers to turn to the tradition of the church, as well as to the culture in which we live, for the understanding and clarity we need from Scripture. For Giles, these two sources of authority in practice have more to say to the church today than Scripture. Indeed, he implies that we can only hear God’s voice in the Bible if we have either tradition or culture on our side.

First, Giles directs our attention to tradition: the results of sustained Christian thought on a topic. Where Scripture is unclear, Giles urges us to turn to tradition for clarity. Yet, tradition simply cannot be trusted to have this authority.[1] That is not to say that tradition is useless. On the contrary, tradition can be very helpful. The insights of those who have gone before us in the faith can provide great light when reading the Scriptures. When we read Scripture we check this tradition against Scripture to be certain that it is a true reading of Scripture, and we also use this tradition to help us understand Scripture more thoroughly than if we didn’t have this resource. However, if tradition is seen to be contrary to Scripture it must be discarded, as indeed it has been by the church throughout the centuries. Therefore tradition simply cannot do the job that Giles wants it to do, and evangelicals have recognised this ever since the Reformation. Tradition cannot decide authoritatively on the way the Father and the Son are in relationship, and the way men and women are to be in relationship. Tradition works against Scripture when it is placed above it as the authoritative interpreter that cannot be challenged by Scripture. It works best when it is the servant of Scripture. Only Scripture can tell us with authority how to behave and what to believe. Only Scripture can be trusted to be God’s word to us.

Second, Giles uses our contemporary culture as a way of understanding how the Holy Spirit may be directing the church. Here he sees a way forward in the debate over the place of women in the church. Scripture has been used so exhaustively by both sides of the debate he considers that it is no longer a source of real evidence. According to Giles, the Bible supports both sides. Giles appears then, to have excellent motives for turning to culture as authoritative: he wants Christians to stop the damaging debate over women.

Giles seems to use Paul as his model here. For Giles, Paul applied his understanding of the gospel to the problems he faced in his day.[2] Giles seems to see himself as following Paul’s lead, as Giles uses his own understanding of the gospel to decide that the Holy Spirit is behind the changes in Western culture with regard to the place of women (pp. 201-2). Because Giles lives today, he considers himself better able to see the implications of the gospel than Paul, who lacked the cultural insight to grasp the full impact of the gospel for future generations.

In effect this means that Giles takes the place of someone standing over Scripture rather than standing under Scripture. Giles’ method is the major problem here: Giles believes that culture rather than Scripture is being used by the Holy Spirit to teach the church. At the end of the day, Giles decides what he considers the Holy Spirit to be doing and follows that lead. The Bible isn’t clear, he claims, but culture is so clear that he can determine which aspects of culture resonate with the voice of God.

Notice that Giles does not deny Scripture to be the true word of God. Yet, by giving tradition and culture the tremendous place that he does, he mutes Scripture’s authority considerably. Notice also that he does not deny the usefulness of Scripture in understanding God’s mind on any of the issues he discusses. Yet, he drowns out the voice of Scripture by providing tradition and culture with such amplification.

The Bible demands a very different position for itself. Scripture must take the central, commanding position, with tradition and culture doing its bidding as a kind of chorus to its solo, so to speak. This is important because Jesus rules his church through his word by his Spirit. Our understanding of the gospel is completely grounded in the Bible, and our Christian lives are sustained by that same word. The Holy Spirit leads us through Scripture—it is his word (2 Pet 1:19-21; 2 Tim 3:16-17). We are under God’s authority when we live in submission to his word. Where certain parts of Scripture seem less clear to us, they should be interpreted in the light of the whole of Scripture—particularly other passages that address similar concerns—and not by resorting to tradition and/or culture.

The second major flaw in Giles’ book is his assumption that permanent subordination necessarily implies inferiority. He argues that it is quite acceptable for someone to be subordinate or in submission to someone else, so long as that subordination is not based on who the person is and can never be changed. If a person is always in submission because of who they are, they must be considered inferior. So, if person A is subordinate to person B because of race or gender, for example, and that can never be changed, then person A is inferior, according to Giles. Therefore, if women must be in submission to their husbands in marriage, they must be considered inferior. If God the Son is always in submission to God the Father, then he must be considered inferior. Submission that cannot be altered because of something central to the person means inferiority, according to Giles.

Giles never proves this. He offers no evidence other than some fairly patronising comments about conservative evangelicals’ marriages and the hypothetical self-interested motivation of men who hold the position that women are to submit. Instead, he asserts his position as self-evident. All this proves, however, is his indebtedness to the Enlightenment for his understanding of how people relate to each other.

Conservative evangelicals do not claim that women are inferior to men as the reason that women are called to submit to men in marriage and the church. Giles attacks them for appropriating the term ‘role’ from sociology to help explain how women are regarded as legitimate, genuine human beings while submitting to men. Yet this move shows a desire to communicate to women (and to men) that submission is not degrading to who women are. Indeed, understanding the radical submission of God the Son to God the Father—even to death on a cross—is tremendously helpful at this point. Jesus never ceases to be God yet he submits to the Father, and we worship him as true God, because through his submission we have been reconciled to God. There is no sense in which Jesus is lesser or inferior because of his submission, and if we even begin to think that then we are on dangerous ground, for we begin to undercut the cross’ ability to reconcile us to the Father.

This brings us to the final and most damning flaw in Giles’ book. He argues that Sydney Anglicans (as particularly noteworthy conservative evangelicals on this issue) are Arians,[3] suggesting that we do not believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly and eternally God the Son, because we do believe (with Scripture) that God the Son submits to God the Father. Indeed, he argues that we go against every major theologian in our tradition by saying that Jesus is in eternal submission to the Father, and therefore, in short, we are heretics. If these charges were true, they would be serious indeed.

However, the evidence he uses from past theologians is taken out of context and even used against the original intention of the writers.[4] Certainly Scripture insists that Jesus is both God the Son and in eternal submission to the Father.[5] Jesus did not submit only when he became incarnate. He always does the will of the Father, but this in no way diminishes his deity or his oneness with and equality with God.[6] Giles acknowledges the existence of the Scriptures used to reach this understanding of the relationship between God the Son and God the Father, but insists that these passages can be read two ways and so therefore cannot be used in developing our thinking on this. Yet anyone who wishes to stand under Scripture’s authority dares not discard Scripture in this fashion.

In conclusion, Giles‘ book does not serve God’s people well. It does not respect Scripture as having final authority, and does not help us to understand how we are to live under its authority and so under Jesus’ lordship. It most particularly does not help us to think through the difficult issue of how Jesus can submit to the Father and yet be fully God and Lord of the universe. It simply denies that we can think both things, where Scripture (and tradition) urge us to do so.

This book can be intimidating. Giles’ confidence can be overpowering and it doesn’t help that in the midst of arguing for ‘women’s rights’, he at times seems tangled in a profound chauvinism towards women. However, as women, we should not be intimidated by this book. Rather, we should use its publication to remind ourselves of the critical importance of Scripture to all our thinking—about God, about others and about ourselves.

 

Jennie Baddeley is married to Mark and cares for their two children. She works part-time at Redlands Presbyterian church and is involved in various writing and other projects. She loves being involved in children’s ministry and ministry to women.

 

[1] Giles does mention that the Reformation overturned tradition in favour of Scripture. This does not appear to make a practical difference to his theological method, however.

[2] It must be noted that elsewhere Giles implies that Paul is unable to understand the fullness of how the gospel should have been applied (see pp. 234-5).

[3] Arianism was a heresy in the early church, which denied that Jesus was truly and fully God.

[4] This is apparent from the context of the writings Giles quotes. See forthcoming review article in the Reformed Theological Review for details; in an article of this size the evidence cannot be produced in any satisfactory way.

[5] E.g. 1 Cor 15:28; John 5:19ff with 1:1-5, 14; c.f. Giles, pp. 196ff.

[6] See Revelation 1:5-8 as an example of God the Son’s service to God the Father without him being any less God.