Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate by Millard Erickson

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In 2009-2010 I began to hear of a discussion about the eternal subordination of Jesus in the Trinitarian scheme. It’s main proponents are Wayne Grudem from Phoenix Seminary and Bruce Ware from Southern Seminary. The eternal subordination of Jesus basically proposes an eternal hierarchy of authority among the three persons of the Trinity. The Father is the supreme authority with the Son and Spirit eternally submitted to his authority.

Scouring the interwebs, I ran across a book by one the best known theologians in Christianity, Millard Erickson. Erickson wrote the theological tome that we called the “Big Green Monster” when I was in seminary. His thoroughness in his theological writings is held in high regard. Regarding the subject of eternal subordination, Erickson has made a wonderful contribution to the discussion with this book Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (2009, Kregel Publishers).

In addressing this topic, Erickson sets out to look at eternal subordination from the perspectives of its major proponents and then compare them to those who argue for a temporal subordination of Jesus, one in which his subordination was limited to his time on earth. Doing so, Erickson traces the recent history of the arguments beginning in the 1870’s. He also looks at the historical documents cited by both sides. He then examines the biblical arguments, the philosophical issues and finally the implications of each view.

Here is what Erickson says about the discussion:

Each group contents that its view is the true biblical one, and can be shown to be so by a careful study of the Scriptures. Each also claims that it has the support of history-indeed that it is the view that has always been held by the church. Each also holds that the advocates of the opposing view have adopted the view they have on this issue because of a prior commitment on another issue – the relationship of men and women in the church and in the family – in order to justify that prior commitment. They believe the other theology has distorted the traditional formulation of the doctrine of the trinity.

He also notes that neither side are heretics. They love God, and love the Scriptures. In addition, he suggests that there is no middle ground in this discussion, no third way out. It is one or the other, based on the arguments made.

At the end of each chapter, Erickson, gives his summary of who he feels is correct in their presentation of their argument, their interpretation of the historical documents and the biblical position. Then at the end of the book, Erickson sums up the entirety of his thoughts.

I am admittedly not one who has read many of the primary sources Erickson references. In addition, I have read philosophy, but not been educated in philosophy. For those sections, I can only trust the judgment of Erickson who is a master theologian and philosopher. However, in his other chapters, specifically the biblical argument and practical implication chapters, I would say that he has presented both sides appropriately and has come to his conclusions appropriately. His writing is easy to read and process, though there are moments when you need to be willing to wade into the deep end of historical theology and philosophy pools. Ironically, philosophy is an area Christians and pastors need to wade deeply in, but too often we have chosen the practical and methodological over the theological and philosophical.

I also admit I am hesitant about sharing with you Erickson’s conclusions for two reasons. The first, is that you need to read this book. This is an important book with potentially grave implications. This line of thinking has become popular among a large subset of American Christianity. The second reason is that it is now primarily being taught in the seminaries of my tribe, specifically three Southern Baptist Seminaries: Southwestern, Southeastern, and Southern.

With that said, I will simply quote Erickson’s conclusions with the note that he terms those who believe in eternal subordination gradationists and those who do not, equivalents:

At this point, I would ordinarily terminate my discussion of a theological dispute. Although the two views are quite different from one another, each falls within the boundaries of traditional orthodoxy. Neither view has ever been condemned by an official body of the church. In general, the gradational view more closely resembles the traditional Eastern view of the Trinity, and the equivalence view is a variety of the Western approach to the doctrine. I have no concern that the gradationists who have written and spoken so forcefully in support of their view are not fully orthodox in their doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the other major doctrines of the Christian faith. I have no fear that any of them will, within their lifetimes, move beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Having said this, however, I do have a concern, and significant one. Although the stated doctrine of the gradationists is orthodox, I believe that it contains elements that logically imply an unorthodox dimension of the doctrine of the Trinity. I have in mind here the idea of ontological equality combined with the eternal and necessary supremacy of authority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit. As I argued in the philosophical chapter, I believe this is an unstable position. For if one member always and everywhere is functionally superior to the other, then there must be an ontological basis for this difference. In other words, while explicitly rejecting the idea of ontological subordination, this view actually implies it, and thus contains an implicit ontological subordination.

I am concerned to preserve the orthodox tradition, in this case, with respect to the crucial doctrine of the Trinity. I issue this sincere plea to the gradationists: “Please think through the implications of your view, observe the body of evidence against it, and reconsider the idea of the eternal functional superiority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

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