The Failed Strategy of “Trinity & Subordinationism”

trinity-and-subordinationism.jpgKevin Giles’s The Trinity & Subordinationism is easily one of the worst books I have ever read.1 I say that not because I disagree with the position he defends (i.e., the Son is not in any sense eternally subordinate to the Father); I’m still in the process of evaluating the evidence. Rather, I make that statement based primarily2 on what the book itself sets out to do.

Giles’s goal in T&S is to move beyond the exegetical impasse regarding eternal subordination in the Trinity by appealing to tradition.

Quoting biblical texts and giving one’s interpretation of them cannot resolve complex theological disputes. . . . I believe this approach [to “doing theology”] should . . . be abandoned today because it always leads to a “text-jam.” . . . What we have today is a bitter stalemate (3).

This is so, he argues, because “given enough time, a clever theologian could find texts and interpretations to prove almost anything.”

Part of what Giles hints at as a solution to this problem is to move away from individual texts to “the ‘scope’ of Scripture—the overall drift of the Bible, its primary focus, its theological center.” But this biblical-theological sparring will likely prove to be no more promising than exegetical sparring, for surely one’s exegesis of individual texts informs his understanding of “the scope of Scripture” and “its theological center.” Ultimately, then, the debate comes back to the proper exegesis of specific texts.3

What Giles sees as the real solution is tradition. Finding the orthodox view of the Trinity, the view accepted by the best theologians of the church throughout its history, is the only way to solve the disagreement.

To bring resolution to this matter we need to determine who is in fact accurately reflecting historical orthodoxy (6).

This book is predicated on the view that the Bible can often be read in more than one way, even on important matters. This comment is uncontroversial because it is undeniable. History gives innumerable examples of learned and devout theologians who have differed from others in their interpretation of the Bible on almost every doctrine or ethical question imaginable. In relation to the doctrine of the Trinity my argument is that the tradition should prescribe the correct reading (9).4

Giles then sets out to demonstrate that the orthodox tradition unequivocally rejects the eternal subordination of the Son to Father in any sense. I think he fails at this task, which I hope to demonstrate in a later post. But the problems with T&S go deeper than a misreading of tradition.

His very strategy is problematic for several reasons:

  1. It fails to reckon seriously with the fact that the same impasse exists in the interpretation of historical texts as exists in the interpretation of biblical texts; complementarians, like egalitarians, are convinced that tradition is indisputably on their side. Giles’s himself acknowledges this, making his thesis and strategy all the more puzzling.
  2. It wrongly assumes that church historical texts are easier to interpret and somehow immune to the diversity of readings that plagues the interpretation of biblical texts.
  3. It easily allows for a convenient defining of orthodox tradition in a question-begging sort of way (i.e., orthodox tradition is the tradition that agrees with one’s own view—in Giles’s case, that rejects the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in any sense). Giles quickly dismisses those Protestants who have held to the eternal subordination of the Son: “They do have Hodge on their side, as well as the Protestant subordinationists in the period between the Reformation and the mid [sic] twentieth century—when the doctrine of the Trinity went into ‘exile’ and a state of ‘decay’—but appealing to those who are patently mistaken and in error does not give weight to their case. Two wrongs don’t make a right (107).” Give me a break! This is question begging of the worst kind!
  4. It assigns to tradition too weighty a role in determining proper exegesis and theology. The last century has witnessed progress in perhaps every field of biblical and theological studies. If the tradition were indeed the standard for exegesis and theology, the Reformation would never have happened, and few if any real theological advances would ever be made.
  5. It is inconsistent with how he handles tradition when he thinks the tradition is wrong (e.g., slavery and the subordination of women). When should tradition control exegesis, and when should exegesis be allowed to depart from tradition? When it agrees with the position one is defending? Surely there’s a better way to correlate exegesis and tradition.

Giles’s strategy fails. He has done nothing more that demonstrate that complementarians and egalitarians disagree not only on the proper interpretation of Scripture, but also on the proper interpretation of history. His selective reading of history, which often conveniently reads more out of texts than what they actually say, will convince no thinking complementarian. The impasse continues.

See my previous two posts:

Footnotes

  1. I should clarify that I have read and am referring to only his section on the Trinity, which is its own distinct unit.
  2. I’ll probably follow up this post with the book’s other problems, such as (1) misunderstanding and misrepresenting complementarians, (2) selective reading of history, (3) eisegesis of historical texts, (4) category confusion, etc., etc. Here’s one example of misrepresentation to give you an idea of the way Giles interacts with complemenatarian Trinitarianism throughout the book: “Rather than working as one, the divine persons have been set in opposition—with the Father commanding and the Son obeying.” I wrote this in the margin, “Opposition?!!! What a massive misrepresentation!” I challenge Giles to show one complementarian who considers the Father and the Son to be in a relationship of opposition!
  3. I don’t think Giles really intends this as a solution to the debate, but merely as an escape from or quick and easy counter to the exegesis of his opponents.
  4. Giles does not believe that one of these interpretations is correct and the others are not. He says later that “many conservative evangelicals . . . have [wrongly] be lead [sic] to believe there can only be one correct interpretation of any given text (10).” In his view, there may be multiple correct interpretations. As culture changes, the proper interpretation (not application) of Scripture changes.

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7 Responses to The Failed Strategy of “Trinity & Subordinationism”

  1. Mike Aubrey October 18, 2007 at 1:25 pm #

    Phil, have you looked at Gordon Fee’s discussion of 1 Cor 15 in his new book, Pauline Christology?

  2. Phil Gons October 18, 2007 at 1:27 pm #

    I haven’t yet, but I will. Thanks for the reminder. Have you had a chance to look at it yet? If so, what are your thoughts?

  3. Mike Aubrey October 22, 2007 at 1:47 pm #

    My amazing, beautiful wife bought it for me for my birthday.

    Fee argues that Paul is not discussing being or ontology, but of salvation history.

    For him then, the subordination of 1 Cor 15 should not be understood as an eternal subordination.

    Of course this is a simplification.

    I think he has a point, but I wonder if Paul ever discusses Jesus and the Father in terms of being at all. If Paul does not make a distinction between salvation history and ontology clearly/directly, is it legitimate for Fee to draw the distinction for him?

    The only explanation I can think of to explain Fee’s words is that he does not view eternal subordination as compatible with the rest of Paul’s Christology.

  4. Mike Aubrey October 25, 2007 at 10:15 pm #

    Phil, one more question…

    I think remember you saying at some point that you were doing your dissertation on NPP.

    Did you change? Or was I mistaken?

  5. Phil Gons October 26, 2007 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks for the summary of Fee’s take on it. I’ll definitely have to give it a read.

    About my dissertation: yes, I was working on something related to the NPP, but I decided to change. I was in over my head, and the literature was too much to master while working full time. I needed something more narrow. Now I’m working on eternal Trinitarian subordination in the interpretation of 1 Cor 15:28 and its implications for the complementarian–egalitarian debate.

  6. Mike Aubrey October 26, 2007 at 5:20 pm #

    Well, as one who reads a lot in that debate (and in general, from the other perspective), I am very interested in your studies.

    By the way, with your plans to join Logos, will you be moving to Washington?

    My wife and I are expecting to be on our way to Trinity Western in about a year, not too far away.

  7. Mike Aubrey October 26, 2007 at 5:44 pm #

    Okay, sorry, one more comment, I found a little more explanation.

    Fee’s basis for seeing 1 Cor 15 as being only dealing with Salvation History and not ontology is the reference to the Psalms and by implication the Messianic King.

    “The currently reigning messianic Son has by life, destroyed the final enemy, death, that marks the end of the Son’s messianic functions. So he in turn returns to his prior “role” as the eternal Son” (545).

    And that goes into a much longer section about Jesus as the Eternal Son that I am not going to take the time to summarize. But you can see where he’s going I think.

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