Economic Trinitarian Relations

Pastor Timothy Mills recently submitted a review of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology to our PastorBookshelf Reviews website. His comments were generally positive, but not as positive as I would have hoped for such a fine introduction to biblical doctrine.

One area where he disagreed with Grudem was in his handling of the Trinity.

His choice, however, of the model of the Trinity as a hierarchy setting the pattern for the marriage relationship (454) is problematic. The Trinity is a tri-unity, while a marriage is merely dual-mutual. Yes, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church (Eph. 5:23), but that is a relationship between the husband and wife, as between Christ and the church; but not as between the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. No where does the New Testament make that comparison.

I suggested to Pastor Mills that that is precisely the connection Paul makes in 1 Cor 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Just as a husband is the head of his wife, so the Father is the head of the Son.

Another individual, Tim Manian, commented, ready to pull out the matches.

Isn’t it obvious that Grudem is a heretic? The very idea of a heirarchy [sic] in the Trinity is tritheism. Consubstantiality is destroyed the minute you have one of the persons become inferior to another in authority. This is why the Athanasian Creed says the Son is equal to the Father as regards His Godhead, but inferior to the Father as regards His manhood. This is pure Arianism all over again. How can anyone recommend this book. It should be burned.

This is generally the kind of comment that I ignore, but I decided to respond.


I don’t share your view of Grudem. He is far from a heretic. He is a very solid evangelical scholar, and his Systematic Theology is one of my favorites. I recommend it often and will continue to do so. His view of the Trinity is supported by a long line of evangelical scholars and ecumenical creeds and councils.

Nor do I share your view of the Trinity. I disagree that hierarchy, properly understood and defined, constitutes tritheism—for the simple reason that both hierarchy and monotheism are taught in Scripture.

First, you need to distinguish between essence or nature and function or economy. Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in the former, but not in the latter.

Second, that Jesus during His incarnation was functionally subordinate to the Father is without dispute. If this could take place for a time without constituting tritheism, then it could take place eternally without constituting tritheism.

Third, whether that subordination existed before and continues after the incarnation is less clear, but there are some texts that strongly suggest this.

Deal, please, with 1 Cor 11:3 and 1 Cor 15:28.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that sGod may be all in all.

The Father is the head of the Son. The Son will finally be subjected to the Father. If this is not functional subordination, then what is it?

A denial of functional subordination is nothing more than egalitarianism wrongfully controlling exegesis and theology.

What are your thoughts? Am I on track? Does Scripture indeed teach an eternal functional subordination among the members of the Godhead? How important is this issue to an orthodox view of the Trinity? Is there room for disagreements on economic trinitarian relations—particularly the presence or absence of eternal functional hierarchy?

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10 Responses to Economic Trinitarian Relations

  1. Donn August 22, 2007 at 10:28 am #


    Just a quick question: Which do you prefer, Grudem’s or Erickson’s Systematic Theology? and why?


  2. Brian August 22, 2007 at 11:10 am #

    Robert Letham deals with this issue at some length in his recent book on the Trinity. He argues that eternal economic subordination is biblically and historically orthodox and that to deny it distorts the doctrine of the Trinity. I found his discussion convincing.

  3. Mike Aubrey August 22, 2007 at 11:39 am #

    Eternal subordination seems questionable to me. I wouldn’t call Grudem a heretic, but I wouldn’t call him right either.

    If I remember correctly, Millard Erickson responds to such a view of the Trinity in his Christian Theology, which I definitely prefer to Grudem.

    As I’ve read Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he seems overly obsessive about the marriage relationship and overly reactionary to the problems in American culture.

  4. theologien August 22, 2007 at 6:00 pm #

    My question is, does his view of a hierarchical trinity lead him to his hierarchical view of husband/wife relationships, or does his view of husband/wife relationships lead him to a hierarchical view of the trinity? My take is that without this hierarchical view of the trinity, he is kicking the support out from underneath his theology of male/female relationships.

  5. theologien August 22, 2007 at 6:30 pm #

    A couple of thoughts: To me (following Barth), trinity is about relationship and relationality. To emphasize hierarchy is demote relationality and God’s relationship to the world, which reflects the relationship among the trinity. Second, we have to be careful that we do not not confuse role or function with being, where Grudem seems to swerve at times.

    I would tend to agree with Mike Aubrey.

  6. Phil Gons August 22, 2007 at 10:18 pm #

    Thanks for the comments.

    Donn, Erickson’s work is worth having and consulting, but I prefer Grudem’s for at least a couple of reasons: (1) I like the practical and devotional aspect of Grudem’s ST, and (2) I find Grudem to be closer to the truth on soteriological matters.

    Brian, thanks for the note about Letham’s book. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but look forward to checking it out at some point.

    Mike, eternal economic subordination raised some bothersome questions for me when I first considered it, but those questions stemmed from theological rather than exegetical considerations. I’m strongly inclined toward functional or economic subordination of the Son to the Father on the basis of 1 Cor 11:3 and 1 Cor 15:28. I don’t know how else to interpret these texts. How do you understand them?

    Theologien, I can’t speak authoritatively for Grudem, but it seems to me that his view of the Trinity comes first. While the two issues (trinitarian relationships and marital relationships) are related, I’m not sure that a certain position on one absolutely necessitates a certain position on the other.

    Concerning your second comment: (1) Theologizing is fine and good, but I want to see that it is firmly rooted in solid exegesis of texts—1 Cor 11:3 and 1 Cor 15:28 included. (2) I agree that a clear distinction must be made between ontology and economy. What I’ve read from Grudem seems to make that distinction with precision.

  7. Bill Combs August 22, 2007 at 11:19 pm #

    I guess we must all be heretics here at DBTS since, as far as I know, every professor holds that both the ontological Trinity (equality of essence) and the economic Trinity (subordination in function) are eternal relationships. Sad to read the comment by Tim Manian: “Consubstantiality is destroyed the minute you have one of the persons become inferior to another in authority.” Subordination of one person to another does not demand inferiority in the Trinity, just as subordination of the wife to the husband does not mean the wife is inferior to the husband—though the evangelical feminists try to make that argument.

  8. Phil Gons August 23, 2007 at 5:59 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Bill. Well said.

  9. Mike Aubrey August 30, 2007 at 5:07 pm #

    I’d have to agree with you, Phil, in that I am also inclined toward functional subordination.

    Regarding 1 Cor 11.3, I don’t see eternal suborndination as explicit from the passage. I’ve not been impressed by Grudem’s multiple articles on kephale (beyond the fact that it does not mean “source” in the NT). I’ve been more influenced by Anthony Thiselton’s excursus on the word in his 1 Cor commentary and Gordon Fee’s writings.

    Regarding 1 Cor 15.28, I don’t know. In all honesty, I have not studied it. My focus exgetically for the past nearly two years has been Ephesians 5. But presently, I’m reading through Fee on 1 Corinthians.

    I’ve been both an egalitarian and a commplementarian, going back in forth since I was in college. Peter O’Brien had me convinced for several months (on Eph 5.21), but now I don’t see his argumentation as adequate. Above all though, I try to be open to change, if that is where scripture leads me.

    Do you know of any commentaries on 1 Corinthians that argue for eternal subordination for these two passages? I’d be interested in reading what they have to say.

    Much of my thought on has to do with the paper I wrote for the Logos/SBL contest (which I wrote on Ephesians 5.18-24).

  10. Phil Gons August 31, 2007 at 8:36 am #

    Thanks for the follow up, Mike.

    I’d agree that eternal subordination is not explicit in 1 Cor 11:3. It’s at least open to such an interpretation and most likely points in that direction.

    1 Cor 15:28, on the other hand, is a bit more explicit, and the conclusion seems, to me anyway, inescapable.

    Thanks for sharing your journey on the role-of-women issue. Your attitude of openness to change based on your commitment to the Scripture is commendable.

    I’ll work on a post on the 1 Cor 15:28 passage. Look for it in the next several days.