Category Archives: complementarianism

Why The Doctrine Of The Trinity Cannot Be Used To Support Egalitarianism Or Complementarianism Or Any Other Ethical Teaching

In the contemporary debate about the relationship between men and women, in church, home, and society, disputants on all sides appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity for support. In this post, I will argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is the wrong ground on which to fight this battle. Any theological argument made on this issue must be based the economy of salvation and not on the inner mystery of God’s being. The doctrine of the Trinity points toward that mystery but it does not make it clear to the eye of reason. Hence it cannot be used for further deductions.

The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God’s eternal being is one essence in three persons. This assertion is the terminus of a line of reasoning that moves from God’s saving action in the economy of salvation to God’s eternal being. In a post on the Trinity from May 7, 2016, I outlined this process:

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative. For it does not explain the how and why of the Trinity, only the that.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a metaphysical theory of God or of the nature of being derived from the idea of God or being. It is a Christian teaching only because and insofar as it is implied in the way God worked in Jesus Christ. It should be confessed because it is implied in the act of faith in Jesus as savior and lord, which is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. But the doctrine of the ontological Trinity is not comprehensible by reason. It’s not like a logical or mathematical truth in that once you understand its terms, you can see its inner and absolute necessity. Even when you understand its terms and see that it follows logically from a combination of two or more truths of faith, you cannot see its inherent necessity and meaning. Hence this doctrine cannot become the foundation for another line of reasoning that attempts to draw out ethical or ontological truths that were not present in the original faith assertions.

The controversy about whether the doctrine of the Trinity supports an egalitarian or a complementarian or a hierarchical view of the relationship between men and women can never be settled. The disputants always argue in a circle by using their conclusions as interpretive lenses through which to “see” their views in the doctrine. And the reason for this futility is simple: the doctrine of the ontological Trinity points beyond our reach into the incomprehensible mystery of God. I find myself sympathetic to Vladimir Lossky, who in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church objects to such thinkers as John Zizioulous (Being as Communion) and Juergen Moltmann (The Trinity and the Kingdom) who want to see in the doctrine of the Trinity an ontology of being or ethical truths that could become bases for further insights into the nature of the church or the ethics of society and interpersonal relationships. Lossky argues that the assertion of the ontological Trinity is designed to drive us to encounter the mystery of God. I advise taking Lossky’s cautious approach rather than the bolder approach of Moltmann.

So, if you want to construct a theological ethics of male/female relations, look to what Jesus taught and suffered, to what he did and what happened to him, and to the apostolic teaching about what his suffering and resurrection means for the way we live at home, society, and church. But don’t try to squeeze something out of the doctrine of the Trinity that you cannot find already present in economy of salvation enacted in Jesus Christ. Such speculations give the impression of being ungrounded and arbitrary. They persuade only those who need no persuasion. And they do an injustice to the doctrine of the Trinity and risk missing the encounter with the divine mystery.