Kevin Giles has a long track record of engaging with the debate about the implications of ‘conservative’ views of gender and their relation to our understanding of God. He has written three major volumes: The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate in 2002; a development of this with responses to critics in Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity in 2006; and The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology in 2012. One of the reviewers of the last book sums up Giles’ case:
Giles’ argument, rather simply, is for the Trinity as an equal partnership of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Understanding the Trinity as the three-in-one is essential for orthodox mainstream Christian theology.
One of the early heresies that the church tried to address is that there was some sort of hierarchy in the Godhead, with God the Father being at the top of the pyramid, and the Son and Spirit somehow being lesser part of the Godhead.
This heresy, called subordinationism, has made a comeback lately, especially among Calvinist evangelicals that espouse a “complementarian theology”. In other words, using a few proof texts from the epistles of Paul, the folks that espouse women’s subordination to men and denying them leadership in the church say that women should take on a subordinate role to men just like Jesus takes on a lesser role in relationship to the Father. Giles argues against people like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, citing both biblical and historical evidence.
Amongst evangelicals in the Church of England, part of the debate about women in leadership was whether this was a ‘second order’ issue about the organisation of ministry, or a ‘first order’ issue about primary theology. Many evangelicals who did not agree with the ordination of women either as presbyters (priests) or as bishops did concede that this was not a first order issue, and so they could ‘agree to disagree’ on the question, and continue to live reasonably happily in a Church which ordained women to all three orders of ministry. In response to this, other evangelicals continued to insist that it was indeed a first order issue, based primarily on the view that Giles opposes: that there is hierarchy (‘order’) in the Trinity, and that this hierarchy is the pattern for male-female relationships, so that the subordination to women is a sign of orthodox belief in God as he truly is. (I have not been able to understand how, if you think this, you could continue as a member or minister in a church which ordains women.)
I must confess to finding this argument very unpersuasive on not very sophisticated grounds:
- Along with language of Jesus being subordinated to the Father in the NT, there is also language of mutuality, or even the Father doing what the Son asks (such as John 14.13).
- If the pattern of human relationships is based on the Trinity, then, logically, we ought to have three genders not two.
- Paul appears to accept the leadership of women, and it is not really credible to say these texts don’t mean what they say on the basis of a prior assumption that they couldn’t mean that.
- If women were subordinated to men, then we should not find any language of equal mutuality, which we do in fact find in e.g. 1 Cor 7.4.
- Our pattern of relationships is every based (‘Love one another…’), not on the relationship between persons of the Trinity, but on God’s love for us (‘…as I have loved you.’)
- Logically it is impossible for one person to be subordinated to another without the two having separate centres of will (unless they could will something different from one another, the issue of subordination does not arise). But how could the persons of the Trinity have separate wills if Jesus is ‘one being with the Father’?
Kevin Giles wrote a very helpful article on the Trinity for the Priscilla Papers in 2012, and I was pleased to see that some of his points did in fact overlap with my concerns. His headings are as follows, to which he adds explanation and commentary:
- God is one in being and three persons
- The three divine persons work inseparably
- The three divine persons have one will
- The three divine persons rule as one
- The divine persons’ relations in eternity and operations in the world are ordered
- The Son, in taking human flesh, subordinated himself for our salvation
- The limitations of creaturely language to speak of the triune Creator
- The Trinity is not our social agenda
In his latest paper, attached below, he offers a specific critique of an essay by Mike Ovey that has just been published.
In a recently published symposium of essays, mainly written by Southern Baptists, that argue for the eternal subordination of the Son, I was surprised and disappointed to find an essay by the principal of Oak Hill Theological College London, Dr. Michael J. Ovey. Oak Hill is the most famous and prestigious evangelical Anglican theological training college in England. James Packer was once the principal. Michael quite explicitly argues for hierarchical ordering in the life of God, which is the very thing most patristic scholars see as the chief error of Arianism in its differing expressions. For Michael, the Father rules over the Son as a human father rules over his son, and for him this divine ordering in heaven prescribes the male-female relationship on earth. This argument in part fuels Michael Ovey’s well known strident opposition to the ordination of women and their consecration to the episcopate. He believes passionately that God has given ‘headship’ to God the Father and to men. Leadership is male. For three years he was on the staff of Moore Theological College, Sydney, my alma mata, where virtually the same views on the Trinity and women that he holds prevail.
 One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, eds, B. Ware and J. Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). The essays by R. Letham and K.S. Oliphint, Reformed scholars committed to the Westminster Confession, are exceptional. They reflect historic orthodoxy.
 ‘True Sonship – where Dignity and Submission Meet’, in One God, 127-154. I twice emailed Michael asking if he would like to critically read my essay and comment on it before I made it public. He did not answer my emails.
 I will say more on this, but at this point I simply quote in support R. Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 147.
Interestingly, although Giles believes in the equal ministry of women, he does not do so on the basis of his understanding of the Trinity:
I argue against the doctrine of the eternal subordination or submission of the Son because I am convinced that this is a denial of the basic Christian confession, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’; it is to contradict what the Nicene and Athanasian creeds teach, and for an Anglican, it is to oppose what Article 1 of the Anglican 39 Articles clearly affirms. It is not historic orthodoxy. The fact that I argue against hierarchical ordering in divine life should not be taken to imply that I think a co-equal Trinity would support the equality of the sexes. For me, the Trinity does not set a social agenda; it is our Christian doctrine of God. It is not the basis for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes or their co-equality. In any case there can be no direct analogical correlation between a divine Father-Son relationship, and the threefold trinitarian relationship in heaven, with a twofold male-female relationship on earth. The logical connexion is missing.
He offers a detailed critique of Ovey’s approach, running to some 11,000 words, based on a close reading of the patristic material, and comes to the following conclusion:
Michael Ovey has by his own work disproved the key elements of his thesis. He has conclusively shown that,
- Arians in the middle of the fourth century confessed the Son as God, the maker of all things, and his eternal subordination.
- By appealing to Athanasius he has led us to see that for the Athanasius and the other pro-Nicene fathers the Son is only subordinate to the Father by his own free choice while he was in ‘the form of a servant’ in the economy.
- And that for Athanasius and the other pro-Nicene fathers the title ‘Son’ indicates not his subordinate status but rather that he is God in the same sense as the Father; he is one in divine being with the Father, ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’. Athanasius and the other Nicene fathers are totally opposed to the idea that creaturely words such as ‘father’ and ‘son’ can inform our understanding of God and his trinitarian relationships.
What this means is that Ovey has demonstrated more conclusively than I have ever been able to do that the contemporary ‘complementarian’ doctrine of the Trinity, which he supports and promotes, stands far closer to Arianism in the middle of the fourth century than it does to the Nicene faith. It is a doctrine of the Trinity which the later creeds and confessions of the church reject.
I understand that he has sent his paper to Ovey and invited response, but has not yet had a reply. This seems to me to be an important issue, and Giles is here asking all the right questions.
You can read the full paper by downloading here: Giles response to Ovey
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