What We Believe
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A Development, Not a Departure: The Lacunae in the Debate of the Doctrine of the Trinity and Gender Roles, by Hongyi Yang. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2018, xxii +305 pages, $30.00, paper.

Whether you are a veteran or a latecomer like me to the debates about eternal submission of the Son (ESS or EFS) and the Trinity, Yang’s book provides a very helpful distillation and analysis of the controversy. Since the author is a convert from atheism born in mainland China, her accomplishment is noteworthy as is her sympathy for complementarianism. Her approach to the ESS issue critiques both sides of the debate, though the title of the book suggests a favoring of some version of ESS. The book is essentially her doctoral dissertation but is accessible to many readers of this journal. Basic groundwork for the dissertation predated the 2016 announcement of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem affirming the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation—a positive change in the eyes of most critics. Interestingly, it was their ESS teaching that gained most attention in 2016—perhaps due to the formal setting of the Evangelical Theological Society where the issue was being discussed. The book has a reasonable treatment of the early church fathers, in my inexpert opinion, and makes a helpful distinction between the issues they faced (Arianism) and the issues of today (egalitarianism). One interesting observation is the inconsistency of those who condemn the ESS position on traditionalist grounds but embrace an egalitarian gender-relation view that goes against early church tradition.

One frustrating part of the book for me is the discussion of “the Rahner Rule” (the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice-versa) and an alleged gap problem between the economic and immanent (ontological) Trinity. If we simply regard this distinction as one between the Trinity in relation to the Trinity alone versus the Trinity in relation to creatures, then the “problem” is more properly transferred to a “gap” between Creator and creature. For any revelation or relationship to exist between the Creator and creature there must be a voluntary condescension of the Creator. As such, one can argue that the Triune God accommodated himself (Matt. 3:16–17) in the sphere of his external operations (“ad extra”)—though clearly, the second person of the Trinity takes on a special “role” in this regard. A noteworthy article by Benedict Bird in the Westminster Theological Journal[1] gives John Owen’s way of viewing God’s ad intra and ad extra works (vis-a-vis the Covenant of Redemption) that forecloses some problems in ESS that might remain, and the article arguably illustrates a better doctrinal “development” without departure.

This leads to a concern about the exegetical treatment of 1 Corinthians 11:3. Some egalitarian treatments of the text deny that “head” implies “authority” by arguing that such an interpretation is akin to heresy by making the second person of the Trinity (Christ) subordinate to the Father (God). The simple answer to this is that the text references the economic Trinity in God and Christ. This simple and wholly adequate response would have directed the gender role debate in a better direction.

Yang’s thesis—that a doctrine may properly develop in response to new issues confronting the church—is doubtlessly true. It is sometimes argued—wrongly—that ESS was developed as a foundation for complementarianism. The evidence suggests that in answering faulty egalitarian exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:3 ESS advocates went beyond a text adequate for their position to root the economic subordination of the Son in an eternal property of divine Sonship. Grudem and Ware—initially rejecting eternal generation—had weak protection from modalism except their “property” of eternal submission.

Yang’s interaction with the Rahner Rule suggests that the question of whether any person of the Trinity might have taken on the role of Christ had a part in this development. Since contingency does not exist for God, it is natural to assume there is no accident that the Logos rather than the Father became flesh.  If today’s ESS advocates confined their views of subordination to Charles Hodge’s explanation (subordinate in mode of subsistence and operation), there would be little controversy. Going further, to close gaps between the Trinitarian order and the created order risks the danger of meaningless speculation (cf. Deut. 29:29) or the idolatry of construing God in our image. That said, Yang’s book explains serious attempts of Christian scholars to grapple with the revealed mystery of the Trinity, and this is a beneficial contribution.

Endnote

[1] Benedict Bird, “John Owen and the Question of the Eternal Submission of the Son within the Ontological Trinity,” The Westminster Theological Journal 80, no. 2 (Fall 2018): 299–334.

Stuart Jones is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who has served as a pastor. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Ordained Servant Online, October 2021.

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