The Recent Debate of the Trinity and Gender: A Development Not a Departure

In the previous blogs, I have presented an overview of the recent debate of the Trinity and gender roles (here and here). I also discussed and answered two major charges against the position called “EFS” for its emphasis on the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father. In this blog, I would like to examine more deeply the phenomenon of this debate itself and the emergence of EFS teaching. Why did EFS teaching emerge? How do we perceive it?

How do we perceive and define EFS teaching?

On one hand, this doctrine appears to differ from the major creeds such as the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, since these creeds do not seem to address explicitly the idea of EFS. So should we treat it as a heresy, as some have already recommended?

However, on the other hand, Scripture seems to indicate and imply such a teaching. How do we explain such an incongruous phenomenon—the apparent difference from Nicene tradition (or lack of explicit expression of this idea in that tradition) and the consistency of the teaching with Scripture?

While writing my dissertation, I found that these questions actually relate to doctrinal development.

Doctrines do develop over time. John Henry Newman is famous for arguing for a theory of the development of doctrine.[1] He refuted the simplistic assumption that the teaching or doctrine of the church never changes. Newman regarded Christianity as an idea that leaves an impression on the mind of the church.

When Christianity interacts with the world in various times and locations, Christian doctrine develops. Variations and differences in expressing further understanding of a particular doctrine are not necessarily harmful to the church but may be helpful to the development of doctrine. This is especially true in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Those who insist that the doctrine of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father in role, function, and authority breaks from the Nicene tradition need to realize that Nicene theology itself is a development and a break from its previous tradition.

In the concluding chapter of The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Richard Hanson remarks, “There is no doubt, however, that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine.”[2] Hanson continues, “In order to perceive the full genius and drive of the Christian faith, it was necessary for them to some extent to emancipate themselves from the tradition, even from the orthodoxy, of the past.”[3]

Christian doctrines need development and must develop in order to connect biblical truth with particular contexts in which Christians live. One major task of theology is to respond to the contemporary context with biblical truth. In this process of responding to various contexts, new terms are employed and doctrines obtain dynamic developments. These developments may appear “different” from certain traditions since they may use new terms to highlight different aspects of truth in Scripture demanded by different contexts.

In the fourth century, church fathers were compelled to highlight the oneness and equality among the three Persons of the Trinity. In our contemporary context, EFS theologians have noticed the hierarchical pattern in the relationship between the Father and the Son described in Scripture. They are calling our attention to this aspect, and they emphasize it in responding to an egalitarian culture.

Thus, rather than a departure from biblical teachings, the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father in role, function, and authority is a doctrinal development that responds to an egalitarian age with the truth already contained in Scripture.

This development shows not only connections to the past development of the doctrine of the Trinity but also characteristics particularly useful for responding to contemporary issues.

The ultimate measurement of a doctrinal development is not tradition but Scripture. Tradition addressed the issues of its own context and does not answer all problems that each generation faces. Each generation needs to solve its own problems. God has not given a “sufficient” tradition, but God has given “sufficient” Scripture. God has not given an “infallible” tradition, but God has given an “infallible” Word—Scripture.[4]

Creeds are valuable when they are understood in their contexts. However, creeds do not exhaust all the truth in Scripture. Tradition should be treated as an authority subordinate to Scripture and primarily as a dialogue partner for exegesis of Scripture, the doctrinal source to which church fathers kept returning.

Development entails imperfection. Inconsistencies and limitations in the presentations of EFS theologians do not necessarily indicate that their doctrine is heretical.

Even in the fourth century, both sides of the controversy committed errors and expressed confusions. Hanson believes that the best word for describing the development of doctrine in the fourth century is “trial-and-error.” “Mistakes, confusion, the re-formulation and re-thinking of previous ideas, were confined to neither side in the long controversy.”[5]

However, imperfection should not prevent us from developing doctrines based on biblical truth. EFS theologians are carrying out the legitimate responsibility of theologians to respond to their contemporary context with truth contained in Scripture.


[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 6th ed. (1878; reprint, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

[2] Richard Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318381 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 827.


[4] An interesting example is the Athanasian Creed. One line in the creed says, “And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.” However, Scripture plainly states that Jesus said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). This is one illustration of the fact that tradition does not always present Scripture accurately or, at least, adequately. This heavily Augustinian-flavored creed has its own context to consider and needs interpretation as well.

[5] Hanson, The Search, 827.