Part 5: Conclusion

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

A Different Perspective

The heart of my argument is now clear: the theological presuppositions for the complementarian argument from the trinity are, in fact, groundless. They depend upon certain assumptions connected with social trinitarianism and other misguided analogies between God and humanity that (1) fail to respect the ontological divide between the divine and the human and (2) fail to look to Jesus Christ as the one who alone unites the divine and the human.

At this point, I want to look at things from a different perspective. I will do so as briefly as possible in two ways. The first is a simple point regarding social trinitarianism. Earlier I argued that the social doctrine of the trinity is the hidden assumption behind the complementarian argument. Without this doctrine, none of its claims work, because you can only extrapolate human relations from the divine if the trinitarian persons are three distinct subjects. The irony is that—in the work of theologians like Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, John Zizioulas, and Catherine LaCugna—social trinitarianism makes the same move from trinity to humanity in support of egalitarianism. This, in itself, should give us pause. Whether one side has more arguments in favor or not, the fact remains that it is not at all clear that the argument from the trinity should result in a complementarian social order. Whereas the complementarian argument focuses on the way Father and Son relate within history, the egalitarian argument focuses on the being of Father and Son within eternity. Picking one over the other is hazardous: losing the Son’s subordination to the Father cuts one off from the biblical narrative of Jesus, but losing the eternal co-equality and perichoretic unity lands one in subordinationism.

In the end, both versions of social trinitarianism presuppose the same problematic conception of divine “personhood.” Both employ circular reasoning that construes God in human terms, making God into the image of humanity so that humanity can then find its image in God; both end up confirming what the theologian already believes. Social trinitarianism—whether a social-trinitarian complementarianism or a social-trinitarian egalitarianism—ends up with a quasi-tritheistic conception of God that undermines the single subjectivity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. For this reason, we cannot appeal to an egalitarian doctrine of the trinity over against a complementarian doctrine of the trinity.

The second change of perspective involves rethinking our gendered metaphors for God. While God is beyond gender, we are nevertheless able to use gendered imagery for God in order to articulate the reality and revelation of God for us. The problem is that we have been too blind to the way the tradition engages in rather surprising acts of de-gendering or gender-bending. Again, Tanner is helpful here, and I will quote her at length:
The gendered imagery in classical trinitarianism is always considered in tandem . . . with other forms of biblical imagery of a quite impersonal sort—light and water imagery, for example. Paired with these other images, the meaning of Father-Son language becomes quite abstract and relatively untethered from its specifically gendered associations. . . . The Son comes out of the Father, for example, like a ray from a source of light, so as to share its nature. No one set of biblical images, furthermore, is privileged; each has its particular theological strengths and weaknesses. . . . Multiple images are therefore commonly employed together so that they might mutually modify one another’s theological shortcomings. . . . One might grant too that in classical trinitarian thinking this is a Father who acts like a mother: he births or begets the Son. . . . The closeness of the relationship is at issue: the absence of any temporal or spatial distinction between originator and originated. Birth as the primary metaphor for developing whatever the Father is doing in relation to the Son is therefore often quite strong in classical trinitarianism. One might even say, following Psalm 120:3, as Hilary of Poitiers does, that the Son is begotten of the Father’s womb. . . . Gendered imagery is “exceeded” in a “baffling of gender literalism,” as Janet Soskice puts it. “Roles are reversed, fused, inverted: no one is simply who they seem to be. More accurately, everyone is more than they seem to be . . . the Father and the Spirit are more than one gender can convey.”1
The claim is not that we have to always balance out our gendered imagery whenever speaking about God. That would certainly be an improvement over an exclusively one-sided use of gendered language. But the real point is that God is absolutely beyond gender in such a way that no single gender can accurately reflect the trinitarian life of God, and thus both genders can be used to speak faithfully of God—though, in our current state of linguistic confusion, no gender might be the best option. This needs to become axiomatic for Christian faith. Without it, we are easily bewitched by the language found in scripture and the tradition into thinking that Father and Son are somehow comparable to what we call “fathers” and “sons,” that God is somehow more like a man than a woman, or that relations within the trinity share a likeness to relations between men and women. These are all examples of Christianity run amok, and we have to be diligent about extinguishing such ideas whenever they appear. Once this axiom is in place, however, we are free to employ gendered imagery in ways that help to articulate the truth of the gospel. We can speak of God the Father who is, at the same time, God the Mother. This is not an act of departing from scripture or of bringing in pagan notions into our theology. It is precisely out of a true faithfulness to the triune God that such language becomes meaningful, even necessary.


The complementarian argument from the trinity is biblically and theologically unsupportable. It makes assumptions about God that we have no basis for making and draws analogies that we have no business drawing. In short, it is not controlled by God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ in the way that all our thinking and speaking about God must be. That’s not to say the egalitarian argument from the trinity is any better, though it is by far the more common. I am saddened whenever I hear Christians appealing to the trinity in support of any social model—whether complementarian or egalitarian. It is evidence that we have domesticated God and, simultaneously, that we have lost contact with the insights of our ancestors in the faith. I hope this argument is not taken to imply that the trinity is irrelevant for the church’s life. But the relevance will have to be located elsewhere, filtered through christology. The trinity is not a social model for us to imitate; it is rather a christocentric mission in which we are called to participate as a community of faithful and obedient disciples.


1 Tanner, Christ the Key, 213–15. Quoting from Janet Soskice, “Trinity and Feminism,” in Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology, ed. Susan Frank Parsons (CUP, 2002), 146; Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syrian Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37, nos. 2–3 (1993): 114.


Fernando said…
I like your article overall, and generally agree with you, though I think I'd be more willing to accept an analogia entis than you are.

My question, however, is whether what you are condemning is really what the original statement is doing. I don't know any complementarians who derive their position from the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, they derive their position exegetically.

What the mention of the Trinity in that paragraph is trying to do, it seems to me, is simply to argue against the notion that obedience necessarily implies inferiority. The Son is obedient, and he is not inferior.

On this, the Barthian position seems in agreement. As you say, he argues for "ontologically-grounded subordination within the triune divine life without any ontological subordinationism".

So the role of the Trinitarian reference in the complementarian position is not foundational, but rather an attempt to demolish a presupposition that they see as underlying the egalitarian thesis, and, in fact, present even it its self-description as "egalitarian".

Now, of course it is unclear how to move from "the Son is obedient but not inferior to the Father" to "the wife can be obedient but not inferior to the husband". As you point out, that move is problematic. But it is not foundational to the complementarian position; it is an attempt to deal with the criticism implies in the very word "egalitarian".

I find myself in the curious position of thinking both sides are right on many things and wrong on many things. (Luckily, I am in no position to have any influence on my denomination's stance on such things, so I don't need to come to a conclusion quickly.) I do think complementarians are correct in claiming that obedience does not imply inferiority, however.