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De Trinitate

In the Nick of Time

Over the past year or so I have been asked repeatedly to express an opinion about the current Trinitarian debates. I have hesitated to speak for several reasons. First, the Holy Trinity is a mystery that I do not fully understand. Second, what we can understand (however relatively and partially)—that is to say, what is adequate for and necessary to the Christian faith—has already been addressed by creeds, councils, and fathers, to whose insights I can add exactly nothing. Third, the various participants in the current debate have found ways to bring the vital issues to the surface, and I question whether I could do much to advance the conversation. Fourth, the tone of the current debate has often been acrimonious, and as a fundamentalist I am committed first and most importantly to the love of the brethren and the unity of the body of Christ. Frankly, I have been afraid of saying anything that would worsen the tone of an already strident dispute.

As I have tried to keep abreast of the debate (no easy task), the words of Thomas à Kempis have come frequently to mind. He opens The Imitation of Christ by asking, “Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it.” I have not felt myself to be either a sufficiently good man or a sufficiently competent theologian to lecture my betters about such matters.

What I can do is to set forth my own views, as well as my reactions to some of the things that have been said in the current debate. The debate began when some voices connected with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood wanted to find a way to illustrate their assertion that equality allows for order, structure, and even submission. They believed that they found a convenient analogy in the Trinity.

All sides agree that the three persons of the Trinity are coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial. They further agree that in His humiliation the Son emptied Himself and submitted Himself to the will of the Father. This ought to have been illustration enough, even if the submission of the Son is only an economic relationship within the plan of redemption. Theologians on both sides of the gender debate, however, insisted that the analogy was only useful if it could be pressed into the immanent Trinity.

In attempting to make that case, some complementarian theologians applied the label “eternal functional subordination” to the Son. I can’t imagine language that would be more likely to trigger a reaction. Subordinationism is just what was taught by Arius, and Christians have been allergic to that term ever since. Of course, those who have used the term have insisted that “eternal functional subordination” is not subordinationism, and I think they are correct. The label, however, was unfortunately provocative.

The grain of truth is that the immanent Trinity does display an order or taxis that is prior to and independent of God’s plan. If God had never created or redeemed, if He had never planned to, still He would subsist as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the relationship between these three is such that the Son could not possibly have sent the Father into the world to do His will.

This order is not a matter of the relation of the persons to the divine ousia but to each other. Each of the three persons possesses the entire divine nature (each is homoousios); each is God in His own right (autotheos). Nevertheless, the personhood (hypostasis) of the Son must be distinguished in relationship to the personhood of the Father, and the personhood of the Spirit must be understood in relationship to that of the Father and the Son. The Father is distinguished by His paternity; the Son by His filiation; the Spirit by His procession.

Some complementarians have argued that the submission of the Son is eternal. By this they mean that from eternity He has voluntarily submitted His will to that of the Father. Other complementarians have rightly objected that will is not a function of persons but of natures. The incarnate Lord Jesus Christ is two natures in one person, and therefore He possesses two wills. The Holy Trinity is three persons in one nature, so God as God can have only one will. To distinguish the will of the Father from the will of the Son and the will of the Spirit is to dip a toe into tritheism.

On the other hand, to do away with the real distinction between the persons is to make them de facto interchangeable (rather like Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasies) and to plunge headlong into modalism. This is precisely the error with which certain egalitarians distress us. On their account, it appears that any of the three persons could have come to suffer on the cross. This position is even more alarming than “eternal functional subordination.” The order or taxis of the Trinity is real and it must be upheld.

That is my understanding. At the end of the day, I think that there is some error in both extremes, and I am rather thankful for the complementarian theologians who have objected to the language of “eternal functional subordination.” This is an important issue.

My wish, however, is that all participants in this debate could temper their language and restrain their tempers a bit. Some have, but others have not. I fully agree that this is a critical issue. It is also an issue in which it is easy to say the wrong thing while wanting to say the right thing. That is why early Christians took some centuries to hammer out exact language, and why disagreement persists over some rather significant points (such as the filioque).

In fact, I am happy to concede that I have probably said some things wrongly even in this short discussion. If so, then I invite correction. But I beg my correctors to remember that we are all of us struggling to explain something upon which our minds have only the most tenuous grasp. While recognizing fully the importance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, let us encourage one another as Christians of good will who are engaged in the impossible task of explaining the ineffable. This is not a time, and this is not an issue, for choosing teams and adopting mascots. Could we not help one another to grow in understanding with all patience and contrition? We all confess the Trinity. We could help each other to explain the Trinity, and even more to love the Trinity.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


What God Ordains Is Always Good
Samuel Rodigast (1649–1708)

What God ordains is always good:
His will is just and holy.
As He directs my life for me,
I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed
In ev’ry need
Knows well how He will shield me;
To Him, then, I will yield me.

What God ordains is always good: 
He never will deceive me;
He leads me in His righteous way,
And never will He leave me.
I take content 
What He has sent;
His hand that sends me sadness
Will turn my tears to gladness.

What God ordains is always good:
His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
That my physician sends me.
My God is true; 
Each morning new
I trust His grace unending,
My life to Him commending.

What God ordains is always good: 
He is my friend and Father;
He suffers naught to do me harm
Though many storms may gather.
Now I may know 
Both joy and woe;
Some day I shall see clearly
That He has loved me dearly.

What God ordains is always good: 
Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness,
I take it without shrinking.
For after grief 
God gives relief,
My heart with comfort filling
And all my sorrow stilling.

What God ordains is always good: 
This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
I shall not be forsaken.
I fear no harm, 
For with His arm
He shall embrace and shield me;
So to my God I yield me.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.