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Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene…

Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical… (edition 2019)

by Michael Bird (Author)

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Surveying Scripture, church history, and theology, sixteen contributors present a defense of the full and equal authority and majesty of all three members of the Trinity while critiquing approaches that border on semi-Arianism. Readers will learn why the strong statement of the equality of the Father and Son made at the council of Nicaea is necessary for a biblical and evangelical faith, having significant impact on our doctrine of God and the person of Christ. While some contributors hold complementarian and some egalitarian viewpoints, all agree the gender roles are not a proper basis for understanding Trinitarian relationships. Book jacket.… (more)
Title:Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology
Authors:Michael Bird (Author)
Info:Kregel Publications (2019), 344 pages
Collections:Your library

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Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology by Michael Bird


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In 2016, a major controversy erupted online when certain Reformed notables such as Liam Goligher, Todd Pruitt, and Carl Trueman leveled a polemical attack against certain evangelical all but accusing them of heresy concerning the doctrine of God. This is because certain evangelical have held to a certain variant of a doctrine termed as ESS (Eternal Submission of the Son), EFS (Eternal Functional Subordinationism), or ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission). The charge was one of semi-Arianism and departure from Nicene orthodoxy. The ensuing firestorm produced lots of heat and little light.

In this book edited by Michael Bird and Scott Harrower, a bunch of theologians have come together to argue against ESS. Now properly in print, their arguments are more coherent and fixed. Those of us who remember the 2016 furrow can check out and see if anything has changed since then. Unfortunately, while increasing in erudition, nothing much has changed.

My key complaint back then in 2016 was that ESS was misrepresented by its critics. Reading the chapters in this book has shown me that the "pro-Nicene" crowd continue to refuse to listen to their critics, thus they continually misrepresent ESS. Unfortunately, for all its brilliance and erudition, this work fails at what it was written to do. ( )
  puritanreformed | Aug 10, 2020 |
Summary: Engaging the American theologians who argue for eternal and functional relationships of authority and subordination in the Trinity, the contributors uphold a traditional, Nicean orthodoxy of recognizing the oneness of God, who is three equal and distinct Persons without hierarchy or subordination.

In recent years, a group of American evangelical theologians have burst on the scene contending for what some term "eternal functional subordination" (EFS) of the Son to the Father, or "eternal relationships of authority and submission" (ERAS) within the Trinity. The theologians making this contention are what is known as "complementarians," rooting their understanding of authority and submission in male and female relationships in what they see are similar relationships within the Trinity.

This proposal has been challenged as problematic in terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and while not intending any of these things, opens the door to tritheism or forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism. [As one who has worked in multi-faith contexts, I believe this perspective also offers ample fodder for Muslim apologists.] While it is true that in the economic out-working of the Triune God in our salvation, the Incarnate Son obeys the Father, it is another move altogether to assert that this reflects the essence of the relationships within the immanent Trinity. There is also the problem of analogs between human relationships and the intra-trinitarian relationships.

The contributors of this book argue for what they understand is the orthodox articulation of the nature and relationships of the Triune God, as formulated in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan councils. Editor Michael Bird writes:

The central thesis of this book is that the evangelical consensus, in keeping with its catholic and orthodox heritage, affirms that the Trinity consists of one God who is three distinct and equal persons, and the distinctions do not entail subordination or hierarchy. As such, this volume tries to do two things. First it constitutes a robust restatement of Trinitarian orthodoxy with special attention paid to a non-subordinationist and non-hierarchical account of the relationships within the Godhead. Second, it attempts to wrestle the doctrine of the Trinity away from the trenches of American evangelical debates about gender and authority.

One fact that is important to note in this work is that contributors differ on gender and authority roles, with some being egalitarians and some complementarians. Both argue for a Trinity without hierarchy.

The sixteen chapters in this work divide into three parts. The first part of the work considers biblical perspectives on the Trinity, particularly in engaging in close exegesis of contended passages in John, 1 Corinthians 11, Hebrews, and Revelation. Beginning with chapter 5, contributors write on the insights to be gained from historical theology for the present discussion with Peter Leithart considering Athanasius, Amy Brown Hughes focusing on Gregory of Nyssa, Tyler Wittman considering Aquinas and the subsequent Reformer: Turretin, Polanus, and Owen, and what their work delineated as to what could and could not be said about the inner life of the Trinity. Other writers focus more deeply on John Owen, the work of Protestant "scholastics," and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Chapters 12 to 16 then engage the current debate more directly, including a lengthy critique of Bruce Ware's methodology by co-editor Scott Harrower.

The final chapter, also by Harrower, was a succinct summary of why all this matters. He notes that semi-Arian tendencies in the 18th century church led to anti-Trinitarian and unitarian formulations over the next two centuries. His contention is that theological cultures have intergenerational impacts that the framers of subordinationist theologies must also consider.

I was impressed with the consistent careful scholarship, the fine-grained discussion pressing against the limits of human grasp of the nature of the Triune God. Nearly every chapter concluded with two to three pages of bibliography, evidence of a resurgence of trinitarian theology. The discussion also both gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan formulations regarding the Trinity and yet raised the question of whether this must, or will always be the church's reference point. At very least, any new formulations must avoid the errors these formulations address. And here it seems, according to these authors, subordinationist theologies of the Trinity are not a step forward, building on the councils, but a step back.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  BobonBooks | Oct 24, 2019 |
I have noticed, recently, that there is some sort of proposition going around (particularly in relation to man/woman husband/wife relationships) that the Trinity does not have any authoritative order, especially, that there is no subordination among the Persons of the Trinity. When I received a notice that I could get a review copy of this book: Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology edited by Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, my dad wanted me to get it and look into the topic.

I did not know that there was controversy over this particular topic, and I don't believe I've ever really considered it before. I unconsciously have always assumed that God the Son does the will of God the Father, and that that is something that has always been the case, as that is what a basic reading of the Scriptures teaching on the Godhead seems to indicate. After going through this book, I don't see any Scripturally compelling reason to change that viewpoint. If you do not understand exactly what this viewpoint entails, you'll get the gist in my critique.

It seems that the main reason all this argument has come on the scene is because some evangelicals have been using the relationship of the Trinity to argue for complementarianism among the sexes. I agree, for the most part, with the authors of these articles that that is not a hermeneutically valid argument. The Trinity's relationship to each other does not necessitate human beings relating to each other in the same way.


I think the most compelling argument they offer is that the Trinity is One and therefore there can be no significant differences among the Persons of the Godhead. But, when looking at their arguments, I see some of the logic of it but I don't see it as overwhelmingly compelling biblically.

Let me give you some quotations from the book to demonstrate some of their arguments and I'll comment on them:

"…To assert relations of authority and submission within a single divine will is similarly impossible: authority and submission require a diversity of volitional faculties. Where there is one single will, there can necessarily be no authority or submission."
In other Words, we know that God the Father and the Son are one, have the exact same will and therefore there cannot be said to be authority or submission in that divine relationship. Now for my commentary: I'm not sure that that is actually the case. Let me give you an illustration to demonstrate how that type of argument sounds to me: If a wife always agrees with every decision her husband makes, because he is her husband, and wants to do whatever his will is in everything, it isn't actually submission because she never disagrees with him? If she agrees with him in what he wants to do and submits to it, her husband doesn't actually have authority and she isn't actually submitting? I don't think that one can say that the husband has no authority and the wife is not submissive simply because the wife always obeys the husband and wants to do the same thing He does.

I don't see how it is biblically inaccurate to say that God the Son willingly submits to God the Father because He is God the Father. I don't see that Christ's complete willingness to do the Father's will indicates that Christ is not obeying the Father and that the Father is not authoritative.

And my second quotation from the book, which is actually a quotation of a quotation that the author of this particular chapter makes about the Trinity, "neither with regard to nature nor activity is any distinction beheld".
Let me list some questions I have in regard to this statement which really make me reluctant to agree with it:

When the Son said, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?" (Matt 27:46), Did God the Father say the same thing to the Son? Say the Same thing to the Holy Spirit? Did Christ and the Holy Spirit also separate from the Father? Forsake Him? Did the Father and Christ forsake the Holy Spirit?

When the Son says, "Not My will but Thine, be done"(Luke 22:42), does the Father at any point also say, "Not My Will but the Son's be done?"

At the end of time, God the Father puts everything under God the Son's feet (1 Cor 15:27). Does God the Father ever put everything under the Holy Spirit? We also find that the Son Himself is then subjected to God the Father and the Bible makes it very clear that it is not a vice-versa thing. God the Father is NOT subjected to God the Son: "Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says 'everything' has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all."(1 Corinthians 15:27-28 NET)

Some of the writers, to varying degrees, seem to concede some sort of submission but only as a part of the Trinity's plan to save people did Christ submit to the Father. But they seem to think that it wasn't quite God the Son who submitted. At least that's what they seem to be saying. It is posited that Jesus had a human will and a divine will and that "the human will of the Son is subordinate to the divine will." But can we actually separate His human will from His divine will? Where are we ever told that there was a discrepancy between Christ's human will and His divine one? Where are we ever given an indication that Christ ever had a Romans 7-like scenario? I know, I know, people will say, "in the Garden of Gethsemane!" (Luke 22:42). But I see no Biblical reason to believe that that was actually God the Son in His humanity speaking separately from His Divinity. Why would we assume that Jesus' flesh EVER 'took over' or 'manifested itself' over against His Divinity? Don't we believe that Christ's humanity was completely untainted by sin? That even His human nature, his flesh, did not include a tendency to sin?

To show how the book carries the thought further let me give you another quote: "It is Christ's humanity that will submit to the Father, not Christ's divinity." Jesus submitted His human will to the Father but not His divine will? I am very, very nervous about that statement. I see what they are trying to do, but I don't know that they have a biblical right to say that. Why would we assume that when God the Son, embodied in flesh, ever speaks of Himself He isn't necessarily speaking of His WHOLE self, His 'real' Self, but merely of His physicality? It seems almost a direct contradiction to the texts about the Son talking about His submission to the Father to assert or think that He Himself wasn't actually submissive, that it was just His flesh that was subordinate. Besides, wouldn't that make God the Son not 'wholly man', so His divinity is not actually joined with flesh? Couldn't it be used to say also that, when people are worshiping Christ, they are worshiping His humanity, not His divinity? That only God the Son, DISEMBODIED, is truly God?

"Eternal submission is to misunderstand the Son, and therefore diminish his glory, power and will…" Who says? Where does the Bible say this? How does submitting to the Father diminish Christ's glory? It was veiled during the incarnation, but He always had it, right? How does it diminish His power? His power over God the Father? Does it diminish the Son's will because the Father's will is done and not His in particular(even though the Scripture indicates that He wants the Father's will done)?


Another concept that is propounded throughout the book is the eternal 'generating' of the Son by the Father. It's a proposition of what we are actually supposed to be deducing from the terms "Father" and "Son" in the Godhead. The writers of this book seem to think that, though God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always been God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, those terms specifically have reference to origin, not hierarchy. That the Father eternally generates, or begets, the Son. "For the pro-Nicenes, the Father was 'first' among the three persons of the Trinity. He is the one who generates the Son and who spirates 'the Spirit'."The Son was always eternally generated, eternally begotten by the Father before He was physically begotten in the flesh. This is pretty much, solely, according to this book, the only thing we are to glean from the terms "Father" and "Son" in the Trinity. As one of the essay writers puts it: ""…there is nothing other than eternal generation that we can say of the Father-Son relation."

I don't understand how that is so definitive. Why is it that they can dogmatically say that the terms "Father" and "Son" only have reference to 'generation' and that they absolutely, positively, CANNOT possibly have reference to a hierarchy? What if they actually do? What if that's EXACTLY what we are to understand about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? What if they really do mean that, though the Son is of the same essence as the Father, He is subordinate to the Father? And that both can be true at the same time? The New Testament presents that viewpoint, it indicates that God the Son submits to God the Father.

That leads me to another question, several questions, actually: Is submission glorious? Can we say that it is not? Seeing that the Son humbled Himself and yet did not need to 'grasp' glory, as it were, because it was already His? Is submission to the Father not a natural part of the divine Son's character? Why do we assume the Son is lesser if He eternally obeys the will of the Father? Isn't the Son doing a glorious thing in submitting to the Father? The Bible seems to plainly indicate that the Son's submission to the Father is a glorious, not a demeaning, thing.

Do we actually believe that there should be NO paradoxes in our understanding of God? That we should be able to completely understand everything about Him? That nothing about Him will go beyond our comprehension? The Bible seems to indicate that all the Persons of the Trinity are One and yet that having authority and submission among the Godhead does not negate that equality.

Can we take everything the Bible says about God in simple faith, not having to understand everything about Him but simply believing that what God says about Himself is true? And that everything God the Son, even in His incarnate state, says about Himself, is also true, and true about His whole Self, not merely about His physical self, even if it boggles our minds? Shouldn't we take Him at His Word?

When Christ says, "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30) and, "The Father is Greater than I" (John 14:28), Shouldn't our first response be to assume that both statements are wholly true of Him and not merely of His physical body but of His Divine nature as well? And shouldn't we assume that, without our having to fully understand it, the Father being greater than the Son does not diminish the Son's glory or take away from His Oneness with the Father?


The book seems to make the case that Ancient 'Christian' Creeds and traditions are a part of forming our faith. That we ought not to depart from the writings and traditions of the early Christians who lived after the time of the Apostles. I'll give you an example of what I am talking about by quoting the book again:
"I am aware that some involved in defending EFS have also denied eternal generation; I do not have much to say about that except that to deny eternal generation is certainly to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and, given that 'eternally begotten of the Father' is a confession of the Nicene Creed, is in grave danger of departing from what can meaningfully be called Christianity - it is, once again, to side with Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses in claiming that the Christian doctrine of God is unbiblical."

So if we depart from the conclusions and interpretations of ancient professing Christian writers we are departing from Christianity? We can't just use the Bible, we have to agree with the interpretations of the Bible written by ancient professing Christians? This might sound horrible to say, but the Nicene Creed is not something that I hold to. I don't think I even knew what it said before I read this book, and even then I don't remember a lot of it (don't think I could quote any of what I read verbatim), and I don't know what the whole thing says, but I don't feel guilty about that. The Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, the London Baptist Confession…etc. are not, and never have been the Biblical measurement of faith. And I think that's rather obvious as they do not form a part of the canon of Scripture.

The writers of this compilation of essays seem dangerously close to canonizing the Nicene Creed. I know that they would deny it, but, as saw from the above quotation, they really seem to exalt it's authority. I think that L. S. Chafer warned us well when he said: "It is a bad indication when, in any period, men will so exalt their confessions that they force the Scriptures to a secondary importance, illustrated in one era, when as Tulloch remarks: 'Scripture as a witness, disappeared behind the Augsburg Confession' ...No decrees of councils; no ordinances of synods; no 'standard' of doctrines; no creed or confession, is to be urged as authority in forming the opinions of men. They may be valuable for some purposes, but not for this; they may be referred to as interesting parts of history, but not to form the faith of Christians; they may be used in the church to express its belief, not to form it."

I must admit, this argument about the Trinity is a topic I'm nervous about as it seems too easy to come to a wrong conclusion about God, to be dogmatic where the Scripture is silent, going beyond the bounds of revelation. But I’m really scared of where these people are going with their argument as their foundation seems to be the Nicene Creed. In the book, one of the writers states: "It may be that EFS/ERAS is biblical and correct, but if it is, the classical Christian tradition of orthodox Trinitarians must inevitably be unbiblical and wrong." But that shouldn't drastically shake us up because our faith shouldn't be based in the "classical Christian tradition" anyway, but in God's written Word.

Many thanks to the folks at Kregel Academic for providing me with a free review copy of this book (My review did not have to be favorable) ( )
  SnickerdoodleSarah | Aug 31, 2019 |
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Surveying Scripture, church history, and theology, sixteen contributors present a defense of the full and equal authority and majesty of all three members of the Trinity while critiquing approaches that border on semi-Arianism. Readers will learn why the strong statement of the equality of the Father and Son made at the council of Nicaea is necessary for a biblical and evangelical faith, having significant impact on our doctrine of God and the person of Christ. While some contributors hold complementarian and some egalitarian viewpoints, all agree the gender roles are not a proper basis for understanding Trinitarian relationships. Book jacket.

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