Part 4: The Problem of Analogy

This is part four of my series on “Trinity, Gender, and Subordination,” which is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality.

The Problem of Analogy

I have identified social trinitarianism as the crucial factor in the complementarian position. I have also identified this position as theologically unfounded, based on an illegitimate application of human personhood to God. Social trinitarianism results in a mythological, tritheistic, and Marcionite conception of God. But this does not exhaust the problems with the complementarian use of trinitarian doctrine.

I have classified these additional concerns under the heading of analogy. By “analogy” I mean the move between speaking about God and speaking about humanity. As I have already implied, such speaking cannot be univocal—because then God and humanity would be basically identical, as is the case with the social trinitarian concept of “person”—nor can it be equivocal, because that would mean we could never actually speak about God. If our language is equivocal, then it has no real meaning; there would be no actual relation between God and humanity. But God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ establishes precisely such a relationship, and for that reason, meaningful speech about God is indeed possible. The result is that we can speak analogically.

But what kind of analogy are we talking about? If the analogy only comes into effect via revelation, then it is only available on the basis that God chooses to make this analogy possible. The analogy is not a general possibility that any person can articulate. If revelation in Jesus Christ is the starting-point, then the analogy is only possible on the basis of faith. It is only because God has spoken to us in the Word that we can then speak truthfully about God in our words. This is what Barth calls the “analogy of faith” (analogia fidei). Truthful speech about God depends upon a reconciled relationship with God. We can only begin to know God once we discover that God already knows us in Christ. As Paul states, “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4.9). To know God is to know that we are loved and saved by God. What this means, in effect, is that we only know who God is and how God relates to us in light of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We don’t have access to a God outside of or behind the incarnate God. Something can only be analogous to God if it is in accordance with what God has made manifest in Jesus.

Why this brief discourse on analogy? Because the logic of the complementarian argument—which tries to establish an analogy between Father-Son and male-female—violates the analogy of faith. This takes a variety of different forms. I’ve already addressed the social-trinitarian basis for this move, but let’s look at it from another perspective. By drawing the analogy to men and women, the complementarian position posits an analogy of being rather than an analogy of faith. The analogy of being (analogia entis)—to which Barth was adamantly opposed—is the notion that there is an inherent likeness between humanity and God. The analogy of being posits an analogy between human being and divine being, irrespective of faith. Classical proponents of the analogy of being locate the connection in our reason (our logos) that participates in the divine reason (the Logos). Others make an immortal soul the basis for the analogy. What I am suggesting is that complementarianism is implicitly locating an analogy to God in our gender differentiation. Unlike some versions of the analogia entis, the complementarians are, presumably, not trying to use this gender binary as an apologetic basis for reaching knowledge of God outside of faith. And yet their version remains a species of the analogia entis insofar as the analogy is grounded in a particular feature of humanity-in-general, namely, our sexual differentiation as male and female. Our being as male and female is supposed to correspond to God’s being as Father and Son. Even if the fulfillment of the analogy only arises within the church, the possibility of this analogy is already latent within our natural being. In other words, complementarianism tries to find a point of analogy in creation rather than in reconciliation. It is not an analogy given in revelation and made possible through faith.

What unites all versions of the analogia entis is the notion that our analogy to God is a feature of our being created “in the image of God.” The doctrine of the imago dei is a very convoluted affair in Christian history. There is very little agreement among textual and theological scholars about what the term ought to mean. What is certainly clear is that a change happened in early Christian theology. Instead of asking “how do we image God?” the church began to ask instead, “What makes human beings different from the animals?” The assumption was that the image is something we are, something we possess, rather than something we do; it was a noun (“the image”) instead of a verb (“to image”). The result was the identification of some structure in our being that could conceivably correspond to God’s being. The notion that the image could be lost through sin and restored only through reconciliation was inconceivable. And yet it is precisely this more dynamic understanding of the image that makes the best sense of the biblical witness.

Rightly understood, the imago dei answers the question, “What does it mean to be like God?” with the answer, “Be holy, because I the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19.2). And we must also remember Exodus 31.13: “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” For Christians, God’s act of making us to be holy occurs in the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ. This is why we find Jesus described as the true image of God (2 Cor. 4.4, Col. 1.15). We are to be conformed to his likeness. All of this is brought together, in light of Christ, in Colossians 3.9-11 (emphasis added):
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
What it means to be “in the image of God” is not having rationality or (gendered) relationality—something intrinsic to us, something we possess—but rather coming to live in reconciled relationship with the Creator, becoming-holy, becoming-righteous, becoming-new. In other words, the imago dei has nothing to do with some inherent feature of our humanity; it is not an attribute that characterizes us by nature. It is instead a gift that comes to us by grace. We receive it as part of our conformity to Christ through faith. We only image God when we image Jesus, and we only image Jesus when we receive the new life that he provides and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. This has nothing to do with being male or female, since all persons are equally sinful and so equally reconciled to God. The analogia entis tries to find a point of contact between God and humanity outside of Jesus Christ; the analogia fidei recognizes that we only image God—i.e., we are only analogous to God—when we become participants in the mission of God through the saving work of Christ.

But let’s bracket the issue of the analogia entis. Even if an analogy of being is not involved, there is still a fundamental problem with the analogy itself. Why are Father and Son supposed to correspond to male and female? How did we even come up with such an analogy? Obviously, both Father and Son are masculine images, and Jesus is quite literally a man. On what grounds does anyone make the connection between the Son and women? Of all the connections one could theoretically draw, this one makes the least amount of sense. Maybe the gender analogy is based on the fact that the Holy Spirit has a history of being understood in feminine terms. That would be rather surprising, considering these are complementarians who refuse to use feminine language for God at all. Moreover, the Spirit in the biblical witness does not possess the kind of concrete interpersonal agency that would provide an analogue for human relations. And there is no history of obedience and submission on the part of the Spirit, nothing that would provide any support for the complementarian position. So the appeal to the trinity to support gender subordination depends finally upon the identity of the Son.

Returning to the main question, then, how does the Father connect with men and the Son with women? Is it simply because we see superiority and submission in the Father-Son relation? Besides the fact that this presupposes the social trinitarianism criticized above, it is an entirely formal conception of this relation. Nowhere in scripture do we find abstract discussion of the Father’s superiority and the Son’s submission. What we find are concrete accounts of specific actions and relations for the sake of specific ends. Jesus is not subordinate to the Father in the abstract; he is subordinate because, as the gospel of Matthew puts it, “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16.21). Jesus is sent (missio) on a mission of obedience to the point of death. The fact of his submission cannot be abstracted from his mission. His subordination has the cross as its indispensable content. Likewise, the Father is not superior in the abstract; the Father is superior as the one who sends the Son into the world. The Father’s superiority has the mission of the Son as its indispensable content. Both aspects absolutely preclude any generalization of their roles within the history of salvation. The “roles” of the trinitarian modes of being cannot become a formal template for human “roles,” gendered or otherwise.

We can demonstrate this rather easily through a little reductio ab absurdum. Where exactly are we to find an analogue for women in the obedience and submission of Jesus? Jesus is subordinate in terms of his obedience unto death, but let’s sincerely hope there is no attempt at an analogy there. Jesus is the revealer of God and the apostle to the world. Ironically, wouldn’t that mean women are the true apostles and ministers? Jesus says that “I and the Father are one.” Does this identification apply to men and women? Jesus prays to the Father. Are women supposed to pray to men? We could go on and on. The point is that the analogy between Father-Son and men-women is clearly arbitrary, formal, and in the end, meaningless. The whole basis for the analogy is wrong-headed from the start. The complementarians have a position they want to find theological justification for (viz. the subordination of women). They look around and happen to see subordination in Jesus’ relation to the Father. They then use this to legitimate their model of gender roles. The circularity of the argument is painfully obvious, just as it was in the social trinitarian position discussed above. The complementarians find in God confirmation of what they already believe to be true.

The only non-arbitrary basis for an analogy between human relations and the Father-Son relation is found in the fact that the Son took on human flesh in the incarnation. It is Christ’s humanity that then establishes a connection with other human beings. But this immediately poses a problem for the complementarian position, no matter how one looks at it. If we view Jesus’ gender as significant, then he becomes the analogue for men; if we view his humanity in terms of its salvific significance—in which case men and women are included equally—then he becomes the analogue for all human beings (i.e., within the church) irrespective of gender differentiation. Either way, any attempt to make him the model for women in particular appears baseless. At least the connection between the Son and the church makes sense from the biblical text. Paul speaks of Christians as those who are adopted by the Father and become co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8.16-17; Gal. 4.7). If we are going to speak about a particular group of people who are subordinate, it can only be the church as a whole that is subordinate before the Lord, not women who are subordinate to men.
On this point, the evangelical complementarians have something to learn from Catholic complementarians. Catholics have their own way of drawing gender-based analogies from Christ. They aren’t any less problematic overall, but they are less arbitrary. Catholics don’t use the intra-trinitarian relations at all; their commitment to the orthodox doctrine of the trinity precludes any social trinitarianism from the start. Instead, they take for granted the so-called “law of nature” that defines the man as the active giver and the woman as passive receiver—represented in the different sexual organs of men and women. They then see this natural law exemplified in the relation between God and Mary: God as the active initiator and Mary the humble receiver (“let it be with me according to your word”). God represents the “male” function of activity, and Mary represents the “female” function of receptivity. This then maps on to relations within the church—except not in the way one might expect! Catholics do not make the mistake of applying the God-Mary relation to actual men and women in any straightforward sense. They don’t need a theological reason for complementarianism, because they believe God has already ordained a self-evident law of nature. (There are many good reasons for Protestants to reject this notion of a law of nature, but that’s another conversation for another time.) Instead, Catholics use the God-Mary relation as the analogue for the God-Church relation as a whole. The entire church, men and women, are called to be “feminine” by receiving God’s grace. Hans Urs von Balthasar even calls the church “the woman-in-community.”1 We could say, according to the Catholic understanding, that we are to be “masculine” in our active ministry towards others, but “feminine” in our receptivity before God.
Among modern Catholic theologians, Balthasar is perhaps the one who has reflected on this “polarity of man and woman” the most. For him, it is central to the very drama of salvation. Like almost all Catholics, he takes this gender binary to be “a fundamental feature of human nature.”2 In his explication of the male-female relation, he defines man as “word” (German: Wort) and woman as “answer” (Ant-Wort). He connects this distinction to the Genesis creation account, where the man is the one who names the animals, while the woman is the response to the man’s word: “If man is the word that calls out, woman is the answer that comes to him at last.”3 The woman’s fruitfulness “is an answering fruitfulness, designed to receive man’s fruitfulness . . . and bring it to its ‘fullness.’”4 He makes a similar connection to the parallel terms Litz (“look”) and Ant-Litz (“face”). The man is the look, the woman the face that returns the look. For Balthasar, it is a fact of nature that the man is superior and the woman is subordinate. The woman only responds to the man; she cannot be an initiator herself. There is an order “built into” the structure of nature itself. It is a “natural datum,” he says, which neither sin nor redemption changes.
What’s important to note is that it is only after he has developed this account of human nature that Balthasar then adds: “This [account of male and female as word and answer] yields an analogy for the relationship between God and the creature.”5 In other words, there is no claim to find the basis for male-female relations in the trinitarian relation between Father and Son. The analogy goes the other direction. Catholics take the “fact of creation” as their starting-point, and only from that perspective do they go on to find confirmation of this relationship in other examples from Scripture and theology. The advantage of this approach is that Balthasar makes none of the questionable analogical moves noted above, except (crucially!) for his embrace of the analogy of being. On that point, Catholics are united against Barth and the Reformation. Nevertheless, his account does not make the mistake of social trinitarianism, nor does he try to map the Father-Son relation onto the male-female relation. Balthasar represents one of the only logically respectable alternatives to a full-fledged position of radical equality. If one is going to try to argue for complementarianism on theological grounds, one has to take creation or nature as one’s starting-point. One has to embrace an analogia entis. This will mean sacrificing Jesus Christ as the normative center of one’s theological anthropology.
We are thus faced with a crucial decision: either the event of salvation accomplished in Christ is determinative for human relations (thus resulting in radical equality), or it isn’t, and instead there is a bifurcation between creation and reconciliation. This essay is premised on the claim that only the former route is theologically responsible for Protestant Christians committed to Jesus as the self-revelation of God. As problematic as it may be, the Catholic position at least makes internal sense. What makes no sense at all, however, is the evangelical complementarian attempt to find a theological justification for its account of gender roles in the trinitarian relations.
There are many problems with the analogy between the trinity and humanity—many more than I can adequately discuss here. The time has come to evaluate the underlying problem with every such analogy: the disregard for the ontological divide between God and the world. The attempt to find some analogue in the trinitarian being of God for human social relations is fundamentally misguided, because it fails to take into account the wholly otherness of God. Words like “Son,” “person,” “relation,” etc., lull us into thinking that we can compare God’s intra-trinitarian relations with relations between human beings. But this forgets that all such language is a feeble and fallible human attempt to speak about a reality that is radically different from anything we experience or imagine. Our language about God is never a direct expression of who God is and what God is like. God’s self-revelation, while granting us true knowledge of Godself, does not mean that our concepts are themselves revelatory; our words are at best a finite, provisional, and contextual witness to the reality of God. We must not allow the authority of Scripture or the familiarity of the church’s language blind us to the fact that our words have only analogical significance, meaning that God is both similar and dissimilar to what our words normally mean. And while the similarity is important—grounded as it is in Christ himself—the dissimilarity is crucial, since God is absolutely transcendent and totally other than the world. God is of a completely different ontological order from humanity.

This is why, in the final analysis, no gendered comparisons can be made between God and humanity. There simply is no analogue to human gender to be found in God. God is wholly beyond human attributes like sexual differentiation. The distinctions between men and women, masculine and feminine, have no connection to or grounding in the being of God. On this point, the tradition has consistently insisted that God is absolutely beyond gender. Gregory of Nyssa makes this quite explicit: “The divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity?).”6 The traditional use of the masculine pronoun for God has no gendered meaning whatsoever. God is not male, nor does God have “male” characteristics. Conservatives sometimes claim that the use of feminine imagery for God is an illegitimate anthropomorphizing of God. But that argument holds true for masculine imagery as well. It is the radical transcendence of God that allows both masculine and feminine words to describe God—precisely because neither is directly applicable to God.

In the end, the argument from the trinity is a complete dead-end. There is no way to determine human social relations from intra-trinitarian relations. We are prevented from making any such move. Whatever “person” means in relation to Father, Son, and Spirit, it does not and cannot mean the same for human persons. Even if there is a relation of superior to subordinate between Father and Son, these are modes of one and the same divine subject; they do not relate to each other as separate individual subjects brought together through a fellowship of wills. Whatever “subordinate” means within God’s being, therefore, it does not and cannot mean the same for human beings, nor could it possibly apply to a particular gender (or any other set of people).

To return to where we began, the problem with all these analogies is that they are not grounded in the analogy of faith. What the analogia fidei makes clear is that our speech about God—that is, our understanding of how God relates to us and how we relate to God—has to be seen in the light of our reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ. And what we learn from Christ is not that superiority and subordination are mere characteristics of God. On the contrary, the relation of superior and subordinate within the trinity only has theological significance as part of the event of reconciliation. They are not attributes to be applied to us; they are aspects of a salvation narrative in which we are called to participate as faithful witnesses. The Son is only subordinate to the Father for the sake of his mission as the one “obedient unto death”; his subordination is integral to the divine will to reconcile the world to God. Christ’s submission is entirely “for us and for our salvation,” as the creed puts it.

The complementarian attempt to use this submission as a model for gender relations ends up separating the form of Christ’s mission (submission to the Father) from its soteriological content (reconciling us to God). But this is to arbitrarily and illegitimately isolate an aspect of Jesus Christ’s history—dislocating it from its proper location within the event of salvation and turning it into an example for us to imitate. The problem is that Christ’s submission to the Father is not a model to follow; it is a mystery to praise. The complementarian use of this narrative for human relations does not respect the exclusive nature of this Father-Son relationship. Not only is it ontologically other than any human relationship, it is part of a salvation occurrence that we simply cannot and must not try to apply to ourselves.

In conclusion, the only way to relate the trinity to human beings is not by moving from God to humanity, but by bringing humanity to God. It is not the intra-trinitarian relations, but the trinitarian movement into the world in Christ, that establishes our likeness to God. We become analogous to God only by participating in the mission of God. Tanner is very helpful here:
My own strategy for closing the gap [between God and humanity] looks to what the trinity is doing for us—what is happening in the life of Christ, in short—to answer the question of how the trinity applies to human life. Human beings are not left to their own devices in figuring out what the trinity means for human relations. Instead, the trinity itself enters our world in Christ to show us how human relations are to be reformed in its image. . . . The trinity in the economy does not close the gap by making trinitarian relations something like human ones, but by actually incorporating the human into its very own life through the incarnation. We are therefore not called to imitate the trinity by way of the incarnation but brought to participate in it. . . . In Christ we are therefore shown what the trinity looks like when it includes the human, and what humanity looks like when it is taken up within the trinity’s own relationships. . . . The gap between divine and human is not closed here by making the two similar to one another, but by joining the two very different things—humanity and divinity, which remain very different things—into one in Christ via the incarnation. . . . The trinity is not brought down to our level as a model for us to imitate; our hope is that we might be raised up to its level.7
It’s worth reflecting on Tanner’s words here. Her point is that if we want to know how humanity ought to look in light of the trinity, then we should look to where the triune God has actually become human. We see in Jesus, for example, a dependence upon God, an empowerment by the Spirit, a self-offering love for others, and a ministry of prophetic witness and healing care. We image the triune God by faithfully participating in this mission as apostolic witnesses to God’s abundant mercy and saving love. Jesus was sent on a mission “to inaugurate a life-brimming, Spirit-filled community.” To share in the life of the trinity involves participating “in the kingdom or new community that accords with Jesus’ own healing, reconciling, and life-giving relations with others.”8 This is how we model our lives in correspondence to the trinitarian life of God.

Tanner makes two important observations. First, “Jesus’ relations with Father and Spirit do not appear in any obvious way to be the model for his relations with other human beings in the story.” Second, the relations that Jesus has with Father and Spirit are simply and obviously “the sort of relations that it is appropriate for humans to have with Father and Spirit. . . . We are to worship the Father following the precedent of Jesus’ own prayers, carry out the will of the Father as human beings filled up with and empowered by the Holy Spirit as Jesus was, which means working for the well-being of others as Jesus did, and so on.”9 To be human is to be related to Father, Son, and Spirit—not to be related to others as Father, Son, and Spirit are related to each other.

We therefore learn nothing from the trinity about gender roles. The relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are not relations that we are called to imitate. They do not apply to us. It is also completely irrelevant what gender Jesus is. His humanity is representative of all human beings, since all people are equally sinners and thus are equally reconciled to God in him. (But even if his gender were significant, it would apply to men only.) There is no distribution of people groups among the trinitarian persons. The Father does not stand for one group and the Son for another. Tanner, again, states the matter well:
When humans are incorporated into the trinity through Christ, different people are not spread across the trinity to take on its pattern; instead, we all enter at the same point, we all become identified with the same trinitarian person, members of the one Son, sons by grace of the Holy Spirit; and move as a whole, as one body, with the second person of the trinity in its movements within the dynamic life of the trinity. The trinity does not therefore in any obvious way establish the internal structure of human community . . . . Instead, the one divine Son and the one divine Spirit are what make human society one; we are one, as the Pauline texts suggest, because we all have the same Spirit and because we are all members of the one Son.10
The attempt to specify a group that the Father represents and another group that the Son represents has no basis in Christian theology. All human beings find their unifying point of origin and departure in Jesus Christ as the incarnate one of God. Christ is the one who brings us into relationship with a God who is absolutely transcendent and ontologically other than humanity. Outside of his reconciling death and resurrection, there is no analogy between God and humanity; in him and through him, however, we are able to truly bear the image of God. If we wish to bear the image of the trinity, therefore, we can only do so by bearing the image of Jesus as his faithful body of Spirit-led disciples within the world.


1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 290.

2 Ibid., 283.

3 Ibid., 284.

4 Ibid., 285.

5 Ibid., 287.

6 Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. Casimir McCambley (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987), 145; quoted in Tanner, Christ the Key, 212.

7 Tanner, Christ the Key, 234–36.

8 Ibid., 240.

9 Ibid., 237.

10 Ibid., 238.


Daniel said…
David –

Thanks for the incredibly helpful engagement here. To my mind this is the precise direction that a refutation of complementarianism ought to come from. Given that true humanity is found only in Christ, any attempt to found personhood or ethical roles in abstraction from his person and work breaks down. Coming to know God's being and act in him also ought to disrupt any attempts to draw a correlation from it to our being and act. For all of that I am in complete agreement with you.

One minor point, however: I'm not sure it's entirely right to say that "The point is that the analogy between Father-Son and men-women is clearly arbitrary, formal, and in the end, meaningless" where complementarianism's draw a connection between the Father-Son roles and the suppose it male-female ones. it seems to me the most wants to found this analogy between God and gender in 1 Corinthians Chapter 11,where Paul notes that "Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ" (v. 3). the way that they work from this passage and the conclusions that they draw from at May the wrongheaded, but generally speaking it's not coming out of nowhere.

Regardless, though, thanks for the incredibly thorough and helpful account here!
Daniel said…
Sorry for the typos there -- I use voice-recognition software for typing which often makes stupid errors if I don't look back through it.

To correct, then, that should be:

"...where complementatianism draws a connection between the Father-Son roles and male-female ones, it seems to me that most want to found..."


"...the way that they work from this passage and the conclusions that they draw from it may be wrongheaded, but generally speaking they're..."

Ian Paul said…
You ask why the analogy exists between Father and Son for humanity--and rightly point out the problems. Here are some others.

Seeing women as submissive like Jesus actually makes Jesus passive and feminised, and men have long struggled with this.

If there is a true analogia entis, then we really need three genders, not two.

Interestingly, there is some analogy, since the NT does indeed see women as apostles and ministers! But as you say, it is the analogy with all humanity, not just one gender in one arbitrary way.

I don't agree with you about the Spirit not being subordinate. The metaphor of the Spirit as breathe carrying the words of God has this dimension to it.

On the other hand, if the Son and the Spirit are acting with delegated authority in their sentness, then there is submission by the Father here. You cannot delegate to someone unless you are willing to give up control.
Wistwaveral said…

I realise that I'm late to the party here, but in the hope that this excellent series is still 'active', I'd like to make a contribution at one point.

Barth himself seems to make the link between the subordination in the immanent Trinity and gender relations that you decry complementarian evangelicals making. It occurs on page 202 of CD 4.1.

Barth says:

Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? Why should not our way of finding a lesser dignity and significance in what takes the second a subordinate place (the wife to her husband) need to be corrected in the light of the homoousia of the modes of the divine being?

[typed by hand, so there might a minor error or two in transcription]

Admittedly it is brief, and it focuses on husband-wife and not women in public ministry roles. Nonetheless Barth appears to be quite bluntly linking the issue of subordination in human relationships and that within the divine life to say that our tendency to ascribe a lesser dignity to the subordinate place must be corrected in light of the homoousious. In doing this, he even uses a strongly gendered relationship (husband-wife) to make his point.

So, I think Barth does see some implications for human social life from the Trinitarian relationships. And sees it precisely at the point that you claim he doesn't.

That's a small point in what is, without a doubt, a simply superb and accessible treatment of Barth's account of the Trinity and a well-deserved thumping of social Trinitarianism. I hope your series gets a wide readership, even with this minor point in place - it would certainly advance evangelical thinking on the Trinity.

But I think it does require a modification to your basic thesis in this blog series. Either you're wrong as to the import of Barth's Trinitarian theology for this debate, or he misunderstood his own theology at this point.

Either way, it's not quite as silly as you seem to be suggesting to make the point that Barth makes here - that necessary subordination in human relationships does not mean a substantial inferiority, because of the divine homoousious and the subordination that occurs in the Godhead, and to make that point with a particular reference to gendered relationships .

Even if Barth misunderstood the implications of his own theology here(which I don't think he did, but could be argued) if he did it, it's hardly silly for anyone else to do the same thing.

Nonetheless, I add my thanks to some of the other commentators - thanks for putting such a great treatment of this issue out on the web.

Mark Baddeley
Thanks for the comment, Mark. I am aware of that passage, although I did not come across it until later. But it changes nothing. It has been well-documented how inconsistent and incompatible Barth's own account of gender relations is with his own theology. It's one of the clearest places where his own cultural biases shines through. So like virtually every Barth scholar, I am perfectly happy to charge Barth with a severe lack of understanding about the implications of his own theology. (This actually holds true for a number of other areas as well, some of which are documented in Bruce McCormack's work.)

But why should this misunderstanding by Barth make this error any less silly and foolish? Because Barth was a smart man and a brilliant theologian? No. We can't excuse foolishness simply because brilliant people in history have been guilty of it. Some of the best and brightest have absolutely reprehensible ideas and make the silliest of errors. We should criticize Barth no less than we should criticize John Piper.
Wistwaveral said…
Hi David,

I'm not sure it's quite that simple.

If Barth himself thinks that his theology has the implication that conservative evangelicals think it has then that needs to be recognized. We generally assume that a person is the first and best witness to their own thought - unless they are lacking in self-awareness, their mistakes of their own implications should be the exception rather than the rule.

Secondly, 'silly' and 'foolish' is a bit different than 'wrong'. I think the former two require a higher threshold than the former, and making those claims tends to reduce the relational capital needed for constructive conversations - it is a way of imputing to the person, not just to their ideas. The 'big guys' in theology tend to be so because, even when they're wrong, their thinking wasn't, generally, implausible or incompetent. While I'm not a great fan of Barth, I'd put him in that camp as well.

Finally, I struggle to see what is so foolish and silly about the point he is making. In God the first place and the subordinate place are equal in every way that matters, certainly equal in dignity and honor and essence.

Given that, it is not self-evident that the second place would be inherently inferior in God's creation. It is not a self-evident piece of logic inherent to the meaning of the word 'subordinate' or the like the way that is often argued, which tends to suggest that it applies that way to God as well.

One can mount a case that the creature-Creator divide is such that first and second are equal in God but that this is simply impossible for creatures for we fall short of God's eternal divine glory even without sin. "In God authority, submission and equality are coherent, but they are entirely incompatible for his creatures." On this view, a kind of complementarianism would be the divine original but creatures are only capable of some kind of egalitarianism - except perhaps in Christ for those with a view of divinization, where the divine life enables God's creatures to transcend their mere creaturely egalitarianism to a higher level of life in Christ that is more complementarian. But I have seen no-one try and make that case - maybe you have.

Barth's claim that our views about the inherent inferiority of being under authority need to be reframed in light of the divine relations seems like it makes an inherent sense even apart from a problematic social Trinity. It would be counter-intuitive if equality was so very different among God's creatures than between the hypostases who are the source and cause of those creatures and their equality. It's possible, and an argument can be mounted for it, but it's hardly the first way we think about God's communicable attributes - of which 'equality' would arguably be included.

Mark Baddeley

You're line of thinking here is misguided. Barth does not *think* that his doctrine of the trinity has this implication for gender relations. That is ascribing a far greater level of reflection to Barth on this question than is supported by the text. We are talking here about a single parenthetical comment. Now the problem here is that Barth's doctrine of the trinity, elaborated over hundreds of pages, is the most rigorously anti-social trinitarian doctrine ever conceived, at least within the modern era. And this means that it simply cannot support the claim that it appears he is making. The two positions contradict each other in the deepest way.

So what's the more plausible claim: that Barth carefully thought about his position and decided that gender hierarchy was supported by it and so expressed this carefully worked out thought in a single parenthetical comment OR that Barth, in an attempt to find something concrete to say to his students in a lecture one day, made a poor choice for which he gave no serious thought or reflection? The answer is pretty clear, especially given the fact that we find these kinds of contradictions replete throughout the entire Church Dogmatics.

More problematically, it doesn't appear that you have actually read and understood the argument I have made about the being of God. In fact, your entire argument in the last couple paragraphs is a social trinitarian argument! Moltmann and others also want a strong creator-creature distinction, but that is insufficient. As I pointed out in my essay, the issue is the equivocal use of the word "person" in relation to God and humankind. God is a single subject in three modes of being, not three centers of consciousness or three wills. So the issue of higher and lower in God is, from the very beginning, completely unrelated to anything in creaturely life. We are not talking about an above and a below between multiple subjects, which is the primary condition for any meaningful analogy between God and humanity on this matter. To use your own language, God is not "under authority" in the way that we are under authority. Authority as you use it for humankind is an external authority, a separate will and agent from us; but the "authority" in the case of God is just God, the same and single subject. Father, Son, and Spirit are three only as one. They are not separate agents, and thus to speak of God as being "complementarian" or "egalitarian" is wrongheaded in the extreme. Such words have no meaning with respect to the triune God.

Finally your penultimate paragraph makes no sense. I assume you actually meant to reverse the words "complementarianism" and "egalitarianism," for otherwise the position is not only theologically impossible but ethically abhorrent. In any case, I have not the slightest interest in deification theories. But even if I did, they could not be used to make the point you want to make. For traditional deification never means the overcoming of the creator-creature divide. In fact, Orthodox theologians are at great pains to emphasize this point, thanks to many decades of Protestant misunderstanding.
Wistwaveral said…
Hi David,

I'm not sure my thinking is as misguided as you're making out. Barth here looks similar to Athanasius - my DPhil topic. Athanasius is also not a social trinitarian, he doesn't conceive of the Father, Word and Spirit (to speak of three hypostases is a bit anachronistic for him) as three subjects. And yet Athanasius also has some move from the relationship that characterizes Father and Son and human relationships that touches on our current debate.

Now I suppose we can say that Athanasius also doesn't understand his own Trinitarian theology properly but it starts getting a bit strained.

It's true that if you think the word 'person' is equivocal when used between God and us, then I did miss that, and would strongly disagree. I don't think that captures my reading in the early church fathers any better than the social trinity does. A very, very weak analogy would be better, as opposed to social Trinitarianism's 'thick' analogy of personhood.

The rest of that second last paragraph of your recent comment I would endorse quite wholeheartedly, except towards the end.

My problem is that final step you take is not supported by what I see in Athanasius (and other early Church fathers like Cyril of Jerusalem and Hilary of Potiers IIRC). They recognize that there is only one will in the Godhead, that the three are not three subjects, and yet they are willing to speak of the Son obeying the Father, and the Father having authority over the Son outside the incarnation.

Unlike your view about me and Barth, I don't think you're being silly or foolish to see a non-social Trinity as being so different from us that it has absolutely no implications for human life - such a view seems quite plausible in the abstract.

My problem is that I don't see such a view supported by the sources I read in the fathers. They aren't social trinitarians, but they aren't quite doing your slash and burn either.

And, no the penultimate paragraph is written as intended. I suspected that your protests that the Godhead has no implications for human life was probably part of a preference for an egalitarian ethic, so I tried to bring out the implications of your take on Barth.

Barth uses authority, obedience and the like in the Godhead in a quite unqualified sense in the section of CD under discussion. If we're to map his view of the Godhead here it onto the current debate it is 'complementarian' (not the full two-party North American sense of that term, hence the scare quotes) as he sees that in the one subject of the Godhead there is a non-reciprocal submission that the Son gives the Father that does not inhibit the Son's equality.

I think Barth knows what he's doing when he says this should reshape our all too human instinct to say that the second place is inferior to the first. But if you're right and he doesn't, then his account means that in the Godhead authority and submission and equality cohere because it occurs in the one subject. But us creatures cannot attain to that as we are always two subjects. We have to accept a lower, egalitarian way of life, where authority, submission and equality cannot cohere because we are two subjects.

And as for divinization, I do have some understanding of the concept, and managed to not embarrass myself when speaking at an Orthodox conference last year. The sentence on divinization was written to capture the sense of the idea and avoid any sense of transcending the creature-Creator divide. Divinization preserves our creatureliness and yet raises our lives to a higher level than would be possible otherwise - seen not least in the way that mortal creatures receive immortality, which is a quality proper only to God.

I understand that if you think conservative evangelicals and Barth are all silly and foolish on this, I can't expect a better assessment myself, but I don't think I'm quite as quixotic and ignorant as your stance to me is suggesting.


I'm going to have to be brief, because I'm not interested in carrying this out any further.

1. You clearly have not read the entire essay, so I really can't engage in a fully discussion with you before that's happened.

2. I'm not interested in what any random church father has said on this topic. I can see that you are keen on Athanasius because he is a topic of interest to you, but it's utterly irrelevant to this piece for at least 3 reasons: (1) Barth may be "like" Athanasius, but this says nothing interesting and gives you no justification for then trying to leverage Athanasius's arguments against me, as if they represent Barth's views, which they do not; (2) Athanasius is not a figure with any special importance to the gender debate; and (3) Athanasius is irrelevant to the entire debate over social trinitarianism, because the conditions under which the current debate is going on only arose within the modern period.

3. The issue is not whether we can move from Father and Son to humanity. Of course we can do that -- via the incarnate Christ. That is Tanner's argument, Barth's 99.999% of the time, and mine. I would be willing to bet that it is Athanasius's argument as well, but again, that's irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue is moving from a relation within the eternal trinity directly to humanity apart from Christ. That is what the social trinitarians and trinitarian complementarians do. I'm almost certain that this is not what Athanasius does.

4. You say that Athanasius, Cyril, and Hilary speak of the Son obeying the Father "outside the incarnation." I am almost certain that you are wrong about that. I say that because when these ideas were discussed in an ecumenical conference with some of the leading Catholic historical theologians in the country 2 years ago, they were unanimous in denouncing Barth's notion of an eternal obedience of Son to Father as basically heretical and completely unfounded in the tradition. These people know Athanasius, Cyril, and Hilary in ways that neither of us ever will, so I am profoundly suspicious of your claims here. That being said, I wish they would say it! That would just confirm Barth's position, which is a non-social trinitarian conception of obedience within the Godhead. So exactly how is that a criticism of my position? Unless you also meant to say that all of these church fathers then draw out ethical implications for human relations from this account of the trinity, in which (a) I'll need to see proof (because I frankly think you'd be making that up) and (b) I don't care, because my argument is not based on what people have said but on what they are able to say. Which leads me to my next point.

5. You have not demonstrated how it is possible to draw out any human implications from the intratrinitarian relations. You simply state the Athanasius says something about this, as if that somehow suffices in place of an argument. But if the Godhead is a single subject with a single will, then there is simply no way to move from divine to human relations apart from Jesus Christ. I have to discern how you understand this connection to be possible. Deification will not accomplish this, no matter how strongly you flesh out the concept. You simply cannot make human beings share in perichoretic relations. That would require an ontological transformation whereby human beings become ontologically divine. That is heretical on any Christian account. So let's just stop that line of thinking.

6. "We have to accept a lower, egalitarian way of life, where authority, submission and equality cannot cohere because we are two subjects." This sentence -- and the entire "argument" supporting it -- make no sense to me. First, we don't "accept" being two subjects; that's simply what we are. It's our nature as nondivine creatures. Second, your use of "complementarian" and "egalitarian" is pretty loose, and the words are basically meaningless; they simply mean "divine" and "human." God cannot really be "complementarian," even on Barth's account, because there are not two subjects. God doesn't complement God. Nor is human life "egalitarian" simply because we are multiple subjects. In that case the master-slave relation is "egalitarian." But that's nonsense. I assume you don't mean to use the words that frivolously, so much more care and precision is necessary.

This is the end of the conversation on my end. Best wishes.
Wistwaveral said…

No problems. Two quick points to finish on my end - you threw a lot out there in your swansong, all of which I disagreed with, but I'll just touch on these three.

1. The information about the Roman Catholic theologians is interesting, thanks for letting me know. I wonder if that's the influence of Augustine over the earlier tradition on their thought?

But in trying to get a handle on that question it'd be worth digging up Hopko's article in the St Vladimir's journal on "the" Orthodox understanding of the relationship between the Trinity and gender. You'll find it is basically along the lines I've suggested (seeing I'm speaking 'loosely' you might seize upon some nuance of difference). In fact he seems to go further in a complementarian type direction than I would. I think he's worth factoring in as another person who could be trusted to know his patristics and their implications reasonably well. Given the nature of the journal I think he could be taken as a witness to at least a strong line of thinking in Orthodoxy to keep in coversation with the views of those Roman Catholic scholars on where the tradition lies.

2. I'm sorry that my invoking of Athanasius seemed to confuse you as to its relevance. Your argument with regards to Barth seemed to be that no implications could be drawn because it was a non-social Trinity, not for any other reason to do with the particular type of non-social Trinity Barth constructed. Appeal to Barth himself and the argument he himself offers was then handwaved away as Barth himself not having any idea what he was doing at that point.

It's hard to debate a position once the idea that the person under question is being selectively foolishly is invoked. So I was trying to expand the field of discussion to another non-social Trinity formulation to say that what seems a priori obvious to you may not be so straightforward when looked at a posteori, in light of the evidence of the guys formulating such views - unless you keep invoking the selective folly argument with each new case added.

Unless it isn't the non-social Trinity aspect of Barth's thought, but some other feature, that move of expanding to other examples of non-social Trinity conceptions should have been relevant I would have thought, your appeal to this being a purely contemporary debate notwithstanding. Truth and basic logic isn't quite that chronologically bound.

3. Yes, obviously I have the evidence I'm pointing to in the fathers, it's not that hard to find if you read them.

Thanks for the conversation. I can't say I found it as edifying as the blog posts (which I did read even if my discussion with you ended up engaging with it tangentially) but those posts themselves are something I still think are quite worthwhile.

in Christ,
Mark Baddeley
Ian Paul said…
David, I don't know if you are still responding to comments here.

But I wonder how all this pans out in relation to the debate about same-sex marriage, and those who say that change on this issue must follow change on women…?