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Complement–Arianism?

715+jmTdPRLKevin 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:

  1. God is one in being and three persons
  2. The three divine persons work inseparably
  3. The three divine persons have one will
  4. The three divine persons rule as one
  5. The divine persons’ relations in eternity and operations in the world are ordered
  6. The Son, in taking human flesh, subordinated himself for our salvation
  7. The limitations of creaturely language to speak of the triune Creator
  8. 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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] ‘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.

[3] 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,

  1. Arians in the middle of the fourth century confessed the Son as God, the maker of all things, and his eternal subordination.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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21 Responses to Complement–Arianism?

  1. Peter Carrell September 2, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Do you think the question of ‘procession’ has any bearing on the matter? The Son proceeding from the Father (West) or the Son and the Spirit proceeding from the Father (East)?

    • Ian Paul September 2, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks Peter. I am not sure. Nicene faith would presumably see any such ‘procession’ as eternal, rather than temporal, and so would not affect this.

      Presumably you know Kevin’s writing well?

  2. Phill September 2, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    Hi Ian, thanks for bring this up. I studied at Oak Hill and actually studied the Doctrine of God under Mike Ovey. I haven’t read Mike’s original chapter, but I’d be interested to read a response to this and hope that if one is forthcoming it is made accessible.

    I do disagree with Giles in a number of places, most of all where he talks about analogical language – that nothing about being a human father or son can apply to God. I think this is disingenuous – surely there is *something* about being a father or son which is analogous to the eternal Father or Son – otherwise, why choose those terms? Could we call God ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’, for example? Could any member of the Trinity have been incarnated? Do the titles Father and Son actually mean anything, or are they simply labels of convenience?

    Jesus on occasion draws an analogy between what it means for the Father to be a father with our experience of fathers (e.g. Matthew 7:11).

    I’m also not convinced about the Son being subordinate only in the incarnation. If Christ was subordinate only in the incarnation, then in what sense does he actually reveal God? Do we really know God if the Trinity is different in the incarnation to the Trinity in eternity?

    Anyway this is a fascinating area but I must go now!

    • Ian Paul September 2, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

      I think the point that Giles is making is that the social Trinity is not a model for human relations—and I think he is quite right. For one thing, we need to take seriously the unknowability of God. The reason why the analogies break down is that people are different, separate persons, whereas the ‘persons’ of the Godhead are not. This is central to orthodox theology, and without it we do not have a Trinity–we have Tritheism.

      All through the NT, the emphasis is that Jesus shows us the Father—not by reflection in his subordination, but by direct view in who he is. If Jesus is humble, then God is humble; if Jesus is loving, then God is loving. As Ramsey put it: ‘God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unchristlikeness’. Or ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.’ Or ‘He is the exact likeness of the invisible God.’ Or ‘He has made the Father known.’

      To suggest that this is not the case, and in fact the Sonship of Jesus shows us the internal workings of the Trinity, is not just unnecessary, it is not what the NT says.

      • Phill September 2, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

        Hi Ian, thank you for replying! I have to acknowledge that I’m not an expert in this, and I haven’t read Mike Ovey’s original chapter, so with that caveat – a couple of questions do strike me.

        I accept that there is a fundamental distinction between the persons of the Godhead and our persons. And yet, I think there is a likeness: otherwise, as I said, would *any* terms do? Why not call God Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit? That’s the point of analogical language: not that there is NO continuity between the human word and the object, but that the continuity is not exhaustive. So I’m happy to say, for example, ‘God is love’, and I’m happy to say that the love we experience as humans says *something* about God’s love, even if it doesn’t say everything (and even if as fallen creatures we need to be corrected on what love is).

        The point of “analogical language” is that there is something about the analogy which holds true even if not everything does. So I don’t think it’s wrong to use a human father-son analogy. It goes back to the question, is there something fundamental about being a father / son which God wants to express by using the words Father and Son? And if so, what is it? I would argue that there is, and that being a perfect Son involves ideas of obedience and submission. I think this is consonant with the teaching of the New Testament.

        On your second point, I agree that Jesus shows us God, of course. But it strikes me that Jesus actually reveals God more by being in the incarnation – the same as he is in the immanent Trinity.

        Unless you want to collapse the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, the Son is still distinct from the Father. So how does the Son actually reveal the Father? If the Son is distinct from the Father, then how can Jesus reveal whatever is distinct about the Father?

        I’d say the Son reveals the Father by virtue of being a Son, he relates to Him as a Father – and I think it’s no accident that we who are adopted children can then call God ‘Father’.

        So I think the Father / Son relationship is fundamental to who Jesus is and who we are in Christ.

        • Pete J September 2, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

          Surely the son reveals the father by becoming flesh?

          I think you can submit to someone with out being subordinate to them…Ephesians (I think) encourages us to submit to one another and Jesus teaching on submission is that in the kingdom of heaven the greatest submits, so if anything that points to the son being greater than the father.

          • Phill September 3, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

            The Son reveals the Father by becoming flesh, but that doesn’t mean the Son is the same as the Father. That would be a heresy known as modalism 🙂

            I think your point about submission and subordination highlight some of the problem with this debate… what exactly *is* subordination, and how does it differ from submission? I wonder if part of the problem is a lack of clarity about these terms. I think that Christ willingly and joyfully submits himself to the authority of the Father (e.g. John 12:49; 14:31) and the Father in turn loves the Son and places everything into his hands (John 3:35). It’s a relationship of complete and reciprocated love, but in different ways, of the kind which marriage hints at. So I think my idea of ‘subordination’ might be different to what others might be thinking of.

          • Pete J September 3, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

            Im not suggesting the son is the father.

            I would say I might submit to my sister if her desire runs contrary to mine, but I’m subordinate to my boss. He has greater authority than me and has authority over me. There’s an implication I will do his will because I am compelled to, whereas submitting implies choosing to do another’s will.

            If the son is subordinate to the father then the son does not have all authority in heaven and earth since a greater abortio exists.

        • Jonathan Tallon September 3, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

          Quote: ‘being a perfect Son involves ideas of obedience and submission’.

          In fact, this aspect of sonship is NOT used by the orthodox post-Nicene patristic writers – a glaring omission, that on the face of it is surprising (they want people to be obedient, so it would be an easy example).

          The best explanation of why they seem to avoid doing this is precisely to avoid any danger that the son might be thought subordinate in any way to the Father – in other words, to avoid Arianism. The sonship of Jesus was used to emphasise that both were the same nature/substance, not any form of subordination.

          This has been studied as part of the ‘faith of Christ’ debate, but also noted elsewhere. See in particular:

          Wallis, Ian G. The Faith of Jesus Christ in Early Christian Traditions. Edited by Margaret E. Thrall, Society for New Testament Studies: Monograph Series vol. 84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

          • Phill September 3, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

            Thanks Jonathan.

            I do wonder whether the political wrangling over Arianism which was going on at that time means that it’s not actually that helpful to look at the patristic writers on this issue. The subordination of the Son was a hot button issue (much as it is today, although for different reasons) and I can see how many would have wanted to react against such language for political reasons. In a climate where no-one wanted to be identified as Arian, I can well see how many would want to play down any language about submission and instead emphasize one-ness and equality.

            This doesn’t describe everyone, though – Hilary of Poitiers certainly did believe in the eternal subjection of the Son, and Hilary was no Arian (although Giles gives De Synodis short shrift in his paper).

            However, as I said, I think there are good logical and Biblical reasons to believe in the eternal submission of the Son, and at the end of the day I think these are what should be debated rather than what the patristics did or did not think about subordination.

          • Jonathan Tallon September 5, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

            Thanks Phill. Except the wrangling over Arianism wasn’t just political. It was also theological. The Church took over a century to work out the best way to express the relationship between the Son and Father, and ended up rejecting subordination.

            It isn’t that they didn’t notice the possibility of sonship implying hierarchy – they did, and rejected this part of the analogy. Instead, they saw the Father-Son analogy as being about the same nature. In making this point, they pored over just about every scriptural passage that might have had a bearing on the issue.

            If you read Gile’s paper, you’ll note that in the mid-fourth century many bishops and others (who explicitly ruled themselves out as followers of Arius) nevertheless argued for the subordination of the Son (at that time, the political climate was actually in their favour). The Church ultimately decided they were wrong – the Son is equal in all things to the Father.

            In short, the logical and biblical reasons for the eternal subordination of the Son were tried, and found wanting.

  3. petermhead September 2, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    Giles is not very well informed about Oak Hill. J.I. Packer was never Principal.

    • Ian Paul September 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

      Yes, just sent him the Wikipedia article. Was there anything else in his comment about Oak Hill that needed correcting?

      • SeekTruthFromFacts September 3, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

        ” Oak Hill is the most famous and prestigious evangelical Anglican theological training college in England.” I think this is open to dispute as well. I’ve studied at Oak Hill and love the place, but Wycliffe and Cranmer Halls are each part of a world-class university and would therefore have decent claims to being more prestigious. I also think it’s fair to say that in the 60s and 70s, Oak Hill retained its original heritage of being the college for the less academic, while the Trinity of J.I.Packer and Alec Moyter and the LCD/St John’s of Michael Green were rather more respected.

        Of course, if he had limited it to conservative evangelical Anglican colleges, then it’s arguably in a pool of one and therefore wins every prize.

  4. Pete J September 2, 2015 at 11:06 pm #

    I had no idea anyone believed this (that the son was subordinate).

    Ive heard that the SBC have been moving (even) more socially conservative for some time now, but it is a bit shocking if such a large denomination ihas adopted this (I would say clearly false) doctrine

  5. IanS September 3, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Are we not getting confused here between subordination of nature/being (which is what the Arian’s argued for – saying the Son is a creature), which we rightly deny, and subordination in terms of intra-Trinitarian relationships? The eternal Son must submit to the Father to be sent into the world, an action the Son took independent of the human nature he consequently took on. The obedience of the Son does not mean he is inferior in nature – which is the point complementarians make on gender issuse. Our culture thinks you can only be equal in being if you have equal status/role. The Trinity shows this is a nonsense. The Son is equal in being with the Father, but submits to the Father. Isn’t this the position of the Nicene fathers?

    • Pete J September 3, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

      I think you can be equal but have a different role. I don’t think our culture says otherwise? I think our culture says that if you can have the same role then you are equal, but not being able to have the same role does not imply inequality. However if there are roles which have high status which person A can have but person B cannot have and cannot have an equivalently high status role then that is inequality.

      Sorry if that is confusing.

      I don’t think you can have equality where people have different statuses? Which is maybe why I have a problem with this subordination within the trinity.

      I wrote in another post that if the son has all authority in heaven and earth then how can the father have more authority? Sorry to repeat myself, but I think that’s a pretty important question and, for me, supreme authority is a really important aspect of Jesus identity

  6. Ali September 3, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    This argument is new to me, and my first reflection is that if Christ is our model of submission then the exhortation for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church gives a take on leadership in the household that is very different to the one that is often portrayed.
    The picture of mutual submission in Ephesians 5 is contrary to the idea that we often carry in our society that to be submissive in a relationship means being dominated by the other person.

    The Biblical principle that the greater our call to lead, the greater our responsibility to be a servant and to pour ourselves out on behalf of those we are called to, is counter-cultural and must be difficult to carry in circles where leaders are often afforded ‘celebrity status’ and placed on pedestals where maintaining humility is a constant challenge.

  7. Dinah September 14, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    I just cannot understand how scholars I respect can come up with such convoluted reasons to support a doctrine that the early church condemned as a part of the Arian heresy … subordinationism ….

    Oh, they come up with plenty of reasons why they are different – but frankly, you know the old saying – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck …… !!

    Why? …. to hammer home the primary doctrine – the subordination of women.

    Actually, I could live with that – after all women have been living with this teaching for a long time ….

    But I cannot, cannot, live with the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son …. this is a foundational Christian doctrine, not some useful way of proving a point … and as Kevin Giles makes perfectly clear – Athanasius, the Cappadocians etc – all who held to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds went to great lengths to describe complete equality within the eternal Trinity.

    The other thing that leaps out at me is how this affects the doctrine that there is One God – as opposed to 3 Gods arranged hierarchically. …..

    • Ian Paul September 14, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      Thanks Dinah…though it raises the question: why do you respect them?

      A key part of scholarship is to be ready to follow your research where it leads. This is about seeking truth…

  8. Phill January 4, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    Apologies for leaving a comment here several months after discussion finished, but I just wanted to say your post has made me do some reading on this topic, especially on the work of Kevin Giles. You lean very heavily on his work, which I wasn’t previously aware of, and naturally I wanted to read up on him.

    The conservatives he attacks have written some pretty forceful replies to his work. Two reviews of ‘The Trinity and Subordinationism’: Use and abuse of the Fathers and the Bible in Trinitarian theology (by Robert Doyle) says that he has misrepresented historical material, as well as methodological errors amongst other things. The CBMW has written a review with similar concerns. Constantine Cambell wrote a Churchman article responding to ‘Jesus and the Father’ – who accuses Giles of actually siding with the Arians in the presupposition that he makes – and Robert Letham responds in Evangelicals Quarterly.

    I write this here not because I want you to change your mind, but because the charge of heresy is a very serious one and I wanted people to know that not everyone agrees with Kevin Giles and, indeed, feel that he has unhelpfully misrepresented the historical doctrine of the Trinity.

    I wish there was a way here of disagreeing without accusing the ‘other side’ of heresy.

    I leave this comment here in the hope that anyone finding this post might have a read of some reviews of Giles and make their own minds up.

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