Relationships within the Trinity

Don’t lump all evangelicals in with that travesty. Are you aware that the ETS formally called on them to recant that as heretical?

Do you remember the controversy and brouhaha that erupted when J. I. Packer published similar views in his bestselling Knowing God?

Me neither.

Thus we have the following set of relationships: 1. The Son is subject to the Father, for the Son is sent by the Father in his (the Father’s) name. 2. The Spirit is subject to the Father, for the Spirit is sent by the Father in the Son’s name. 3. The Spirit is subject to the Son as well as to the Father, for the Spirit is sent by the Son as well as by the Father. (Compare 20: 22: “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”)

Dare I open a can of worms… but this whole brouhaha is absolutely confusing to me, as what these theologians are putting forward is nothing new. If it was and is an obvious and clear heresy, where were the demands for Packer’s recantation over these last decades. His views being published in one of the most influential and most popular books among evangelicals, he wasn’t exactly hiding his heresy, it has been in display for decades.

In short, I am just dumbfounded as to why no one is calling on J. I. Packer to recant, or accusing him of having put forward unquestionable heresy. His classic “Knowing God” has been around for 45 years, sold well over a million copies, translated into a dozen languages, CT calls it one of the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals…

But so far as I know, over the last 45 years, no one ever demanded Packer’s recantation or accused him of spreading such gross heresy.

I genuinely am dumbfounded by this. Why not?

It was the “eternal” subordination part of Grudem and Ware’s theology that was problematic. And the obviousness that they were messing with the Trinity because they wanted to support the messed up idea that women will be subordinate to men for all eternity.

Here is a good summary of the points of contention:

See also this post by McKnight about how Reformed theologians eventually came around and agreed Grudem and Ware were out of line.


Dear Christy,

I appreciate very much the information that you have provided. It helps explain a great deal about the evangelical church. No, I do not want to paint evangelicals with the same brush of heresy. but this issue does clarify why evangelical leaders claim that more than 80% of them supported the man who advocates anti-feminist “traditional values.”

I am very glad that many theologians have taken a stand against this bad theology and hope it will lead to a stand against the real heresy and evil in the church. In the these last times the last place we want to be is against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians do not place their values over those of Jesus, Who respected all women.



I am dumbfounded by the outrage over this. Jesus made His subservience to the Father crystal clear. I think all this is founded on a more fundamental false premise that subservience somehow makes one less. On the contrary, Jesus also made it crystal clear that the opposite is the case. Subservience is precisely what makes one greater not lesser.

Matthew 20: 26 It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; 28 even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve

But does this justify subordination of women to men. Not unless you believe that men are inherently inferior to women. I mean that is what Jesus’ words about greatness implies isn’t it? Both can and should be subservient to each other thinking about the other’s needs rather than their own. If either plays games of dominance and tries lording it over the other then all they prove is their own childish immaturity.

Perhaps the real problem here is how so many make the Father all about power and control, lording it over everything in every way possible. I think this image is wrong and that the Father is all about love and service to the very core.

We are not talking about subservience, but subordination. The subservience that Jesus spoke about is choosing to put another’s needs before your own, and even there Jesus put limits on how far He would go. Jesus did NOT bow down to Pilate and the Jewish leaders and say, Yes, Sir, Master. Anything you say, Master! He stood up to them, even though He understood He had to go through with the Crucifixion for their good and the well being the whole world, including you and me.

In John Jesus made the point that He was One with the Father, which means that He was not subordinate to the Father. He might defer to the Father at times, but He did so because He choose to, not because he had to, which would be the case if He were subordinate.

Those who argue that women must be subordinate to men say that women it is wrong for a woman to have any authority over a man in the church or in society. This seems to me to be the origin of the old double standard.

Paul did tell husbands and wives to serve one another, but often husbands insisted that their wives serve them without them serving their wives.

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The fuss was not about acknowledging Jesus was the servant of the Father or that submission is Christ-like, or even saying that women should submit to men. It was about the claim of ontological subordination within the Trinity. They were indeed clearly saying that the Son was less than the Father when it came to several divine attributes. It was heretical for lots of technical reasons people can go read about if they feel like it. I realize that this is an intramural sport between professional theologians and not very grounded in things the average Christian cares about.

Grudem and company wanted to argue that women are ontologically subordinate to men. It isn’t a role they’ve been given, it’s core to their identity. Their submission to men is not just a righteous response to a gender-specific calling that they offer by their own free will because they are commanded to by God, nor is their subordination some effect of the fall or curse. Rather female subordination to males was designed into their nature at Creation and will endure for all eternity, even in heaven.

[ETA: Here is a short explanation of the difference between the Economic Trinity and the Ontological Trinity as it relates to the debate by one of the conservative, Reformed theologians who agreed eternal subordination of the Son was heretical.}


I not only don’t know what “ontological subordination” is supposed to mean but I doubt that it means anything at all… that there is any such thing. I mean if you are talking about the Arian belief that Jesus is a created being… now that is something I can sink my teeth into. That would be a meaning of “ontological subordination” that I can make a judgement about, and I think it contradicts the Bible and so I would repudiate it. But this… sounds like just making stuff up like saying the Father is alpha and Jesus is beta, which which is more likely to make me laugh than get me outraged. Likewise “subservience” has a substantial meaning that I can connect to the reality of Jesus words and support it as correct. The phrase quoted by Daniel was “subject to” and although that is neither “subservient” or “subordinate,” it frankly that sounds like the weakest of the three with subordinate being in between. But Jesus was subservient to the Father and yes He was subordinate (opposite of insubordinate) and He was certainly subject to the Father. But now… perhaps we do need to remember that Jesus and the Father are one. If Packer in any way denied that then I would be all over it to condemn that claim. I think I must be missing something – words that Packer said elsewhere in his book that would shed more light on the outrage He is provoking.

Like the above comparison if it was something like Arianism to say that men were created first and women were created to serve men then I would agree that this is total crap. Adam and Eve were not golems of dust and bone according to a comic book reading of the text. So getting back from the Walt Disney movie to reality any suggestion that men came before women is simply absurd. If anything, they are created for each other, to serve and love each other. If and I say IF women are better (on average) at serving men and some might say they are then by Jesus words in Matthew 20 that would that would make them greater on average than men.

ontologically subordinate… hmmm…

Another comparison that comes to mind is that of the angels, which the epistle to the Hebrews makes very clear are ultimately of a lesser order of existence. I believe that. I believe that angels are created spirits and thus will never be more than what God made them to be. We however start as practically nothing – an organism too small to see with the naked eye, but with the capacity to grow and learn becoming more and more, which in a relationship with God is without limit. But see, once again there is a substance to the difference being talked about. Jesus is certainly not subordinate in any way like the angels are to ether God or man.

Ok… now I am taking a look at the link Christy provided… but I am not finding it helpful.

You are the one who made this conversation about subservience. The theological debate was over subordinationism, it’s obviously a thing, there’s a Wikipedia entry for it, what more needs to be said? It has a history in the Church and this is just another iteration.

Packer is not provoking outrage because what he said is orthodox and in bounds. Roger brought up the eternal subordination of the son debate in Evangelicalism which was primarily between Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware on one side and Kevin Giles on the other. Kevin Giles won. Grudem and Ware were denying the"eternal generation" of the Son at one point, which is certainly not the traditional orthodox Trinitarian position.

Well, Grudem at least is a YEC who believes females are literally derivative of males. So there’s that.

I didn’t bring any of this stuff up because it’s helpful. It’s stuff that makes you want to stick a fork in your eye. But Roger implied this thinking was standard Evangelical teaching, and I was just trying to redeem the good name of all the fine Evangelical theologians who called foul on that nonsense. I don’t think the average person in the pews has much of a clue about this whole thing. But it would not be the first time on this forum that we have wandered far into the theological weeds.



Such a vivid image!–and I agree with it. I don’t understand it enough, either.

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Right, because it was the only thing of substance I could get out of the discussion.

Sure and people argued over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. Just because they debated about ontological subordinates doesn’t mean it is a real thing. To me it sounds like the theological analog of phlogiston.

I didn’t see anything unorthodox in what was quoted. That is why I could not understand @Daniel_Fisher claiming this should be the basis of accusing Packer of heresy.

Then I don’t see how the Trinity helps to justify this unless He is advocating Arianism.

Some people have the same reaction to some of the topics in physics. But in that case I think there is solid grounding in measurements and mathematical equations. Despite an MDIV from a theological seminary I am not so confident that all these theological debates are more than empty words and abracadabra.

“Theological weeds” I like that! I think my writing teacher would have praised this turn of phrase.

I still confess myself dumbfounded. I read over the debate a bit more, and if Grudem et al were careless on particular minutiae (and yes, I’d classify eternal generation as such because I still can claim I don’t even know exactly what it means), then there’s that.

But the overwhelming hostility to their position seemed to be focused in the fact that they suggested that the subordination, or subjection, of Christ to the Father was not rooted in the Son’s human nature (whereas, as a human person he owed obedience to his father).

Rather, the hostility and core objection to Grudem’s position seemed focused on the idea that he suggested that the eternal Son of God, by his very nature, in his eternal being and nature within the godhead, existed in a relationship of economic subordination under the Father.

Packer’s description of the Son (and Spirit) being subject to the Father are rooted in their divine nature, not in any incarnational status (the Spirit, after all, being subject to the Father, while never being incarnate of course).

But the core objections and discussion I have read against Grudem and others seems to be not the various particulars, but against the core belief he certainly seems to share with Packer.

To clarify, then, may I ask… Do I understand you as concurring that the idea that the Holy Spirit’s being subject to the Father is fully orthodox? Also, the Spirit being subject to the Son?

Not economic subordination. Lots of people are fine with that. I’m fine with that. That is classic theology. Ontological subordination. That is classic heresy.

Yes, in the economic Trinity.

Thanks for the clarification. I’ll have to reread the debates with that in mind. I’d never caught anything that suggested they were actually embracing a denial of ontological equality or ontological subordinationism, the kind that would essentially be Arianism. But I wasn’t looking for it, either. I’d not read carefully, but I’d assumed they were making a specific comparison between the ontological equality of being with a distinction/subjection in roles within the godhead, and making that comparison to ontological equality of persons but with different gender roles… a comparison that, as I read it, would have required an affirmation of ontological equality, both of the persons of the trinity and of genders.

The critiques I’ve read of their position seemed to rest on the idea that any subordination or subjection happened strictly from the position of Christ’s incarnate or human nature, suggesting to me that that any eternal subordination within the Godhead, even strictly of economy/role, was claimed as heresy.

Okay let me clarify. Although we humans really know little about the origin of the Trinity, we use some hints from the NT to makes some theories. The first is the best founded. God the Father has no beginning, or the Father is ingenerate.

Because God the Son implies that the Son was born or has a beginning or the Son is generate. However it is clear that the Son was present from the Beginning of the universe, we say that the Son is eternally generate, which is important because the best definition of God is That which is eternal, beyond time. Jesus, even though He was born in time, is eternal as the Logos, Who existed in the Beginning. Arianism was rejected because he said that the Son was created in time and thus was not eternal and not God.

There fore the question of eternal generation is the question as to whether Jesus is really God or just a very good human being. If He is just very good human being, then Christians are not saved, but at best caught up in another legalistic belief, which appears fine with Grudem as long as the patriarchy and the subordination of women is part of that legalism.

[quote=“Daniel_Fisher, post:107, topic:41005”]
But the overwhelming hostility to their position seemed to be focused in the fact that they suggested that the subordination, or subjection, of Christ to the Father was not rooted in the Son’s human nature (whereas, as a human person he owed obedience to his father).

First of all, the Decalogue does not say obey your father and your mother, but HONOR your father and your mother, so how can you say that as a human being Jesus owed obedience to God the Father and to Mary His mother.

To say that Jesus was subordinate or subject or subservient to the Father is not true. There words indicate He had no choice, but to obey the Father, when in tact He did.
Jesus had the choice to be right with the Father just as we all do. He was the Savior be4cuaw He is without sin and He is without sin because He chose to be in right relationship with God which is Love, not obedience, through the Holy Spirit.

Colossians 1:15 (NIV2011)
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

If the Son is the exact Image of the invisible Father, then how can the Son be subject to the Father. “Anyone who have seen Me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9) The Son is in harmony with the Father, not subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is God. How can God be subject to God or anyone else? God is Omniscient and Omnipotent so how can God be subject?

Um, no. I disagree here most vehemently.

I am subordinate, subject to, and subservient to my commanding officer. These words in no way indicate that I have no choice but to obey my commanding officer.

Americans in the military have no choice than to obey their commanding officer as I understand it, except when that command is illegal. It is not that they have the innate capacity to disobey their superiors, it is not by nature that they are subordinate, but by the hierarchical structure of the organization prohibits they from disobedience.

Americans today are volunteers. They would not volunteer to serve unless they are willing to submit to the retractions of their freedom that military service entails. Soldiers should not publicly criticize their commander-in-chief.

Did Jesus Christ, God the Son, die on the Cross because He was subordinate to God the Father, or did He die upon the Cross because He chose of His free Will to pay the price for our salvation?

Of course I have a choice in the sense we are using it here. I could choose to disobey, which would subject me to various consequences, but I still have the free will to obey. I don’t become a robotic automaton when I get to work, my free will evaporating, because I “have no choice” but to obey.

And, more to the point, I obey the orders I’m given because I want to obey them, because i am committed to achieving the desired outcome, and because I want to honor the person to whom honor is due - not simply because I “have to” out of fear of consequences or the like.

Respectfully, this is a false dilemma fallacy.

Did I show up at work yesterday because I love my job, my work, and chose of my own free will to serve the people and missions I have been given the opportunity to serve, or because I am subordinate to my commanding officer’s guidance and direction?


did Jesus die for us in obedience to his Father? Or because he desired to save us?


Both, clearly.

He became “obedient” to death.
He sought not his own will “but the will of the Father who sent me.”
His very food was “to do the will of him who sent me.” He did nothing of his “own authority” but by his Father. We are made righteous “by the one man’s obedience.” Jesus “learned obedience” by what he suffered.
He spoke not by his own authority but only what the Father told him.

And ultimately, He chose to go to the cross in that final moment in obedience to his Father’s will/desire in the matter, while denying his own immediate will/desire. “Not my will, but yours…”

Simultaneously, though, of course Jesus did this “for the joy set before him” And as a free choice, no one takes his life, he “lays it down willingly”.

Beware basing theology on false dilemmas.

No… That looks to me like a denial that Jesus was the Son of God until the incarnation, and I don’t think that is correct or consistent with scripture. But if Jesus is eternally the Son and the other person of the Trinity we are talking about is eternally the Father then that implies an eternal subordination as part of the proper relationship between Father and Son, BUT which does not imply that Jesus the Son is any way lesser or “ontologically subordinate” (which I can only connect to Arianism in order to give it any meaning of substance at all). Christy likes to call this “economic subordination” but that sounds insufficient to me also and would prefer to call it “relational subordination” as enshrining the fact that a relationship of subservience can be something which is holy and good rather than demeaning or wrong – one which can make the servant greater in the same way that those who are loved are greater in the eyes of those who love them – especially a son in the eyes of a father.

Gosh… this whole discussion should be in a thread of its own! I lost track of it for a while because it has no relationship to the title of the thread at all. How about the title: “Relationships within the Trinity.”

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