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Reclaiming Orthodoxy for Evangelicals

Why ESS and Nicene Trinitarianism don't go together

The volume Trinity Without Hierarchy (Kregel, 2019), edited by Michael Bird and Scott Harrower, is a recent exceptional foray into the debate concerning whether the Son eternally submits to the Father in the immanent Trinity, and, further, whether such submission serves as a pattern for gender roles. Bird and Harrower’s volume is currently the strongest collection of technical essays against the eternal submission of the Son (ESS) position.

The text is not an ideal introduction to the debate – too little time is spent explaining the core points of each perspective in a systematic manner – but it fulfills an important role as a reference work or supplemental text for those who are navigating the full complexities of the ESS debate in a way that no prior volume has. It should be widely read in the evangelical world and beyond.

A thorough critique of ESS

Trinity Without Hierarchy offers biblical, historical, systematic, and philosophical responses to various pro-ESS claims. Many of these responses are the most rigorous and persuasive in print. For example, in Chapter 2, Madison Pierce offers an anti-ESS reading of 1 Corinthians 11:3 that also avoids the contentious claims made by many egalitarian scholars, which would likely not make headway among ESS supporters. Pierce argues that kephale, as in “God is the kephale of Christ,” is a wide metaphor, not restricted to either literal authority or being the source. Instead, the meaning “that which is first, extreme” is implied, which fits with trinitarian taxis without requiring ESS (49-50).

In an exceptional survey of Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarianism, the most in-depth in this particular debate, Amy Brown Hughes shows how Nyssa’s thought is incompatible with eternal submission. Nyssa will allow no temporality (diastema), no subordination apart from the incarnation, and no distinction in operation or will (130). Tyler Wittman’s chapter shows that when Aquinas and other medieval authors speak of the Father’s authority, they do so in the sense of “principle.” Origin alone is in view, not dominion, command, or servitude (151–54), a peculiarity of the Latin such that the word “authority” is best dropped in English (159).

T. Robert’s Baylor’s treatment of the pactum salutis shows that with John Owen, the covenant between Father, Son, and Spirit does not require submission in the immanent Trinity (chapter 8). This is a significant chapter, especially given that Owen’s account of the pactum salutis appears at first glance more amenable to ESS than the accounts found in Witsius or Coeccius, for example. Each of the chapters I’ve noted undermine key pillars in the ESS platform and will be central to any future developments in this debate.

Expanding beyond ESS

Several of the chapters stand alone as solid contributions to trinitarian theology proper, while others are more extensively focused on ESS. For example, Ian Paul’s excellent chapter on the Trinity in Revelation only indirectly connects with ESS, making it applicable a wider audience beyond evangelicalism. In fact, several chapters treat ESS briefly, almost as a passing thought, which means both that some readers would do well to investigate the details of the ESS position elsewhere first, and that the book will still benefit those uninterested in the ESS debate. It is unfortunate that the title of the work may dissuade this larger audience from considering the quality essays within. To date, Trinity Without Hierarchy has the most extensive treatment on numerous subjects essential to the ESS debate. Click To Tweet

By contrast, Harrower offers a thorough analysis of Bruce Ware’s use of Rahner’s Rule, noting that he holds to a “strict realist reading” of the rule in a manner that causes him considerable problems in explaining the eternal relation of the Spirit to the Son (313-324). This essay will be quite helpful to the evangelical community, perhaps more so than some less clearly anti-ESS chapters, but it will less likely have an impact beyond. Such diversity is an inevitable feature of any edited volume, but the scope of potential interested readers remains worth noting.

Shortcomings of the book

There are a few places where Trinity without Hierarchy falls short. Many have critiqued ESS on the basis that it violates the “single will” of God. Peter Leithart strangely takes aim at this argument, calling it “dogmatically indefensible” (111). Leithart doesn’t do the legwork to defend this claim, which I find implausible at best, but does in this passing critique undermine what I consider to be the strongest anti-ESS argument.

In chapter 14, James Gordon responds to an argument from Gons and Naselli in an opaque manner. Elsewhere, Gons and Naselli defend ESS against the typical claim that predicating different properties of Father (“authoritative”) and Son (“submissive”) entails a rejection of consubstantiality. They argue that it is traditional to allow for unique personal properties without denying consubstantiality, and that submission and authority are such properties. I admit I cannot fully discern the intent of Gordon’s counterargument, but I do not see that it is a rebuttal of Gons and Naselli.

Initially, Gordon’s thesis seems to be that orthodoxy denies the notion of personal properties that are not also essential properties by virtue of simplicity (294). This may well be the case, but it does not stop Aquinas, whom Gordon cites, from continuing to speak of unique personal properties while affirming consubstantiality (i.e., ST PP. q. 33, a. 4). By the end, Gordon appears simply to be arguing that the personal properties claimed by Gons and Naselli are not those used in the tradition. This is true enough, but does little to show that the presence of such properties entails a rejection of consubstantiality. I would deny the latter claim with Gons and Naselli, though I remain no supporter of ESS. In the end, Trinity Without Hierarchy critiques some of the best anti-ESS claims while defending the weakest anti-ESS argument.

Despite this shortcoming, Trinity Without Hierarchy remains essential reading, a volume that should be on the shelf of any evangelical seminary. To date, it has the most extensive treatment on numerous subjects essential to the ESS debate. I wholeheartedly commend it to the reader.

Image credit: David Le Batard, Be here now

Glenn Butner, Jr.

Glenn Butner, Jr. (M.Div., Duke Divinity School, Ph.D., Marquette University) is assistant professor of theology and Christian ministry at Sterling College in Sterling, KS. His first book, The Son who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son was released in 2018.

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