Book Write-Up: Trinity without Hierarchy

Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower. Trinity without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology. Kregel Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book attempts to refute the view that God the Son has been eternally subordinate to God the Father, even prior to the incarnation. Such a view is held by evangelical scholars Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. This book contains contributions from different scholars. The Christian thinkers who are engaged in this book include church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Puritan John Owen, Karl Barth, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Those who argue against eternal subordinationism contend that such a concept makes God the Son into an inferior being to God the Father. This runs counter to classical orthodox Trinitarianism, which holds that the three persons of the Trinity are one with each other in will and essence, as well as ontologically equal with each other; there is no hierarchy. Eternal subordinationism, by contrast, implies that the Son is different from the Father because the Son has an inherent submissiveness to the Father, which the Father lacks. It also entails that the will of the Son is different from the will of the Father, for the Son obeys the Father rather than naturally doing what the Father wants. While there are passages about the Son obeying the Father or being under the Father’s authority, those relate specifically to Christ in his incarnate state—-his human nature—-not to God the Son prior to the incarnation. Christ indeed humbled himself in obedience to the Father, but he did so after a pre-incarnate state of equality with the Father, making his act of humility all the greater. Hebrews 5:8 affirms that Jesus learned obedience by suffering, implying that he was not in a state of eternal obedience to the Father prior to the incarnation; prior to the incarnation, his will was one with the Father, so there was no need for obedience.

Those who believe in eternal subordinationism seem to acknowledge that God the Father and God the Son are ontologically equal, but they hold that God the Son has eternally submitted to the Father. In the Roman world, sons obeyed their fathers, so, by regarding Jesus as God’s Son, early Christianity was implying that God the Son obeyed God the Father, even prior to the incarnation. Moreover, the Father and the Son, even in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism, are different from each other in that the Father is unbegotten, whereas the Son is begotten by the Father.

Another reviewer criticized this book for focusing more on the Nicene Creed than on Scripture. Indeed, if one were to look at Scripture alone, one might question whether Scripture clearly comes down on one side or the other. The argument against eternal subordinationism from Hebrews 5:8, in my opinion, is a strong biblical argument.

At the same time, some arguments against eternal subordinationism strike me as pedantic. One argument (as I understand it) is that God the Son was not actually obeying the Father in creating the cosmos, for that would make the Son dependent on creation. Not necessarily, for that would be just one more example of the Son obeying the Father, in an eternal subordinationist model. The anti-eternal subordinationist tendency to treat the Father and Son as absolutely the same, without distinctions, also seems pedantic. Can one avoid the Father and the Son being distinct? One is a Father, and the other is a Son. Their roles are different. “But you are speaking about their roles and not their essence: in their essence, they are the same.” But does not their essence lead them to assume the distinct roles that they take? Critics of eternal subordinationism seem to assume this when they say that the Son submitting himself eternally to the Father requires some submissive element in the Son’s essence, making him different from the Father (which, for them, is a no-no). Could there be something in the Son’s essence that makes him the Son, distinct from the Father? But, admittedly, we then run into the brick wall of classical orthodox Trinitarianism, specifically the question of how the three persons of the Trinity are one. Traditionally, they have been held to be one on account of their same essence.

Another issue, with which the historical and current theologians wrestle in this book, concerns when the Son obeyed the Father. Reformed Christians emphasize that God planned the work of redemption before the foundation of the world. In that case, did not the Son decide to obey the Father prior to the incarnation, by agreeing to become incarnate in the future?

Those are my cliff-notes version of the two beliefs and the basis for them, along with my reflections. There are more nuances and technicalities, and this book gets into those. It is not for the theologically faint of heart, but the highlights are fairly salient. The book is effective in conveying the other side in its critique. The book also gets into profound theological questions. Why did the Son become incarnate and not the Father and the Holy Spirit? If the Son is God’s word and wisdom, does that imply that God the Father lacks in himself the ability to speak and wisdom?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.



About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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