The Trinity and Gender? Talking about the Recent Debate (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I summarized this debate and the criticisms against EFS (the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father) theologians, mainly Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. I also discussed one of the charges against EFS theologians, namely that EFS theologians should not relate the Trinity to gender roles.

I argued that we should ask: Does Scripture itself relate the Trinity to gender roles? If so, then we should focus on what Scripture says.

Another major charge against EFS theologians claims that their teaching of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father in role, function, and authority is not orthodox but an innovation or reinvention that breaks from the Nicene tradition. The opponents of EFS list various creeds (mainly the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed) and some Church Fathers to show that the teaching appears to differ and conclude, on that basis, that EFS is unorthodox and perhaps even heretical. This charge is very subtle and yet serious, confusing many.

Indeed, in all the creeds quoted by the opponents of EFS, there is no such statement as, “The Son eternally submits to the Father in role, function, and authority.” However, does the absence of such wording mean that the EFS teaching is heretical? Does the absence, in a certain tradition, of a particular doctrinal understanding, such as EFS, necessarily mean that it is unorthodox?

No, not necessarily. Notice that, although these creeds do not have this particular statement, they do not deny it either. They simply do not explicitly address the idea of EFS. But I believe that this idea is actually implied in their acknowledgement of the distinction among the three Persons. The Son’s submission is one aspect of the distinction. The Nicene Creed was formed within a context that demanded emphasis on the equality and oneness of the three Persons of the Trinity. However, this focus on one aspect of trinitarian theology does not necessarily entail that the Church Fathers denied other truths in the Bible. If they lived in our contemporary context, it is hard to say whether or not they would accept or reject EFS.

What Does the Bible Say?

Again, let us go back to where we should ultimately go for answers—the Bible. Can one find EFS there? Does the Bible indicate or imply such a teaching? Yes, it does. John Dahms, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and other biblical theologians have provided adequate biblical evidence. Grudem lists numerous passages indicating that the Son submits to the Father prior to, during, and after his incarnation.[1] I will not repeat all the references here. I encourage you to read them yourself and then decide. However, I would like to highlight two of them: the many expressions of Jesus’ relationship with the Father in the Gospel of John and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

The Gospel of John seems to portray the equality of Jesus’ relationship with the Father in tension with the Son’s subordination to the Father. On one hand, Jesus Christ is described as equal to and being one with God the Father (“The Father and I are one” John 10:30). On the other hand, He is presented as having been sent by the Father, always doing His will, and as saying, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). You may be asking, “How can the Son both be equal to and submit to the Father? This obviously is contradictory!” The apparent tension we see from our limited human perspective may not be contradictory in God’s eyes.

Equality and hierarchy may harmoniously exist in God Himself. The Gospel of John presents both aspects of the truth: The Son is equal to the Father and also submits to the Father. If the Bible reveals both aspects of the relationship between the Father and the Son, should we not embrace both? Sadly, one aspect (either equality or hierarchy) is often emphasized more than the other and sometimes even set in opposition to the other.

In John 10:30, Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” The Greek word for “one” is in the neuter form. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, points out that this neuter form indicates that the ousia (substance or nature) of the Father and the Son is one. However, in John 14:28, Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I.” This statement is comparing two Persons, the Father and the Son. Therefore, the Father is greater than the Son in the sense of hypostasis (person).[2]

All the sending passages, the Father-Son terminology, and those doing the Father’s will passages in the Gospels (not only John’s Gospel) affirm this idea of John 14:28 and imply the Son’s submission to the Father.

So the Son is equal to the Father in ousia[3] but the Father is greater than the Son in hypostasis. (Sorry – I have tried so hard to avoid these two Greek terms but I eventually realize that they are unavoidable when one talks about the Trinity.)

As for 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, even the opponents of EFS theologians admit that this passage, especially verse 28, portrays the submission of the Son to the Father in the eternal future. “When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15:28)

What Do These Passages Mean for the Debate?

Some point out that the Son’s submission to the Father is due to his incarnation (becoming “the form of a servant” Phil 2:7). The Son submits to the Father in His humanity. This does not change the fact that the Son submits to the Father in the eternal future. Furthermore, we do not want to split the Person of the Son, who is both God and human and who submits to the Father as the whole Person.

Why is it important to debate these questions about the Son’s submission to the Father? There are at least three reasons: First, this debate addresses what is the ultimate authority and foundation for belief and practice—is it common sense, culture, tradition, or the Word of God? Second, if the Word of God really indicates the Son’s eternal submission, should we avoid or deny such a submission, even when Jesus Himself unashamedly mentions it (John 14:28)? Finally, this debate addresses the issues of knowing God, worshiping Him as He is (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and knowing about ourselves as men and women created in the image of the triune God. The proper order is first to know God and then can we know about ourselves!


Editor’s Note: Check back soon for more of June’s analysis of the current debate and why it matters for women today.


[1] See his works such as Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004, 2012), “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and the Son, ed. Dennis Jowers and H. Wayne House, 223-61 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012) and “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce A. Ware and John Starke, 17-45 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).

[2]“A Greek word meaning ‘something with a concrete existence.’ In terms of the Trinity, it came to mean ‘person.’ Thus, by the end of the fourth-century controversy, it referred to what is distinct in God, the way he is three, while ousia was reserved for the one being of God. See “hypostais” in Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 501.

[3]“Being (that which is). Since there is only one God, he has only one ousia. The word refers to the the one being of God.” See “ousia” in Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 501.


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One thought on “The Trinity and Gender? Talking about the Recent Debate (Part 2)”

  1. Wright Doyle says:

    June Yang is one classy theologian! She is clear, cogent, and courageous. I look forward to hearing more from her.