Review: Trinity Without Hierarchy

Trinity without Hierarchy

Trinity Without HierarchyMichael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.

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.



Review: Knowing and the Trinity

Knowing and the Trinity

Knowing and the TrinityVern Poythress. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed, 2018.

Summary: How various triads of perspectives on both God and the world reflect the Triune God.

John Frame and Vern Poythress are Reformed theologians who have worked together in developing a multi-perspectival, more accurately, tri-perspectival approach to knowledge. This work by Poythress represents, perhaps, the most complete working out of these ideas.

Fundamentally, humans beings are limited to a particular perspective but divine revelation makes it possible to see truth from multiple perspectives. Both Frame and Poythress speak in terms of triads of perspectives which they believe are grounded in the Trinity. One triad on God’s Lordship, for example considers the perspectives of authority, control, and presence, relating to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Therefore the first part of this work considers what perspectives are and the types of perspectives that might be identified. Then Poythress moves on to a discussion of the Trinity. A couple of key truths in this discussion that will recur in the book is the coinherence of the Trinity, and the idea of analogy, and that analogies can reveal something both of God and the world because the world reflects or is an ectype of the character or archetype of God. Part three then turns to perspectives on reflections, Trinitarian analogies, ethics, Lordship, and office. In each of these a triad of perspectives are related that coinhere and relate to the persons of the Trinity.

After proposing a classification system for perspectives, Poythress then applies tri-perspectivalism to a variety of theological questions from transcendence and immanence to human responsibility. Each is grounded both in biblical texts and triads of perspectives relating to the Trinity. Part six then applies the nature of perspectives to our reasoning about God. Part seven shows how a few starting perspectives serve as the basis for deriving further perspectives in a grid-like structure of perspectives on perspectives. Appendices deal with a variety of other short subjects and applications pertaining to perspectives.

I find the basic idea of tri-perspectivalism intriguing, particularly in thinking about how the world and even our knowing may reflect the triune nature of God. I must confess however that the logical working out by Poythress can get confusing at times when he writes about perspectives on perspectives or triads within triads. The diagrams in the text are critical if one is to have any hope of keeping it all straight (alas, my e-galley version did not have these–a major barrier to understanding the architecture of tri-perspectival thought Poythress is erecting and very logically delineating). Throughout, he both derives triads of perspectives from prior triads, and recurs to earlier triads in applicative discussions.

Perhaps the best part of the work is that Poythress is devoting himself to the classic work of the theologian of thinking great thoughts about God rooted in God’s revelation of God’s self. While one encounters a good deal of close reasoning, it is quite apparent that for Poythress, God never remains an abstraction, with many chapters ending in a paean of praise for God in all of God’s glory.

This is a work to be studied slowly and carefully, pen and notebook in hand. Each chapter ends with a series of questions as well as key terms that may be found in a glossary at the end of the book. The questions force one to review chapter content and formulate one’s understanding of the material. This rigor of theological thinking may not be something all are given to, and not all will appreciate Poythress’s approach. But for those who give this the time it properly demands, they will be ushered into thinking deeply and long about the Triune God. One might well ask, particularly for those who lead and teach God’s people to know and follow the living God, whether or not this is essential work that cannot be neglected.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life
Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a boy, I grew up hearing about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Later on, the language was modernized to refer to the Holy Spirit but there was still something mysterious about this person of the Trinity. And so it remains for many of us who functionally are “binatarians”. We speak of Father and Son but have only the vaguest notions of the Holy Spirit.

And so it was with some interest that I turned to this work by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann on the Holy Spirit, or in theological terms, “pneumatology.” This volume is actually the fourth volume in Moltmann’s systematic theology.

The title of the book is significant. Moltmann’s key theme in this book is that the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of life.” Moltmann is arguing not for “spirituality” but for “vitality” in our embodied lives, countering what he sees as Gnostic remnants in the theology and language of the church.

Moltmann takes an approach different than some others. He begins with our experience of the Spirit and moves to a theology of the Spirit rather than the other way round. It is through the Holy Spirit that the immanent Triune God is experienced in our lives. He looks at this in our experience, in the Old Testament and in the relationship of Christ and the Spirit. One of the implications of the work of the Spirit is the presence of God in all things and in all of life. There are no divides between “spiritual” and “secular” or material existence.

The second part of this work is titled “Life in the Spirit” and explores the work in the Spirit in what is classically known as the Order of Salvation beginning with giving life to our mortal bodies and to liberating us from sin, in which he also engages Latin liberation theologies. He explores the role of the Spirit in justification, distinguishing victims and perpetrators. He considers the work of the Spirit in regeneration and its relation to justification, in sanctification and in the giving of gifts to the church (which he would extend beyond the typical “gift lists” in scripture to all our talents and skills employed for God’s purposes). Finally, he explores the work of the Spirit in mystical experience.

The third and last section of the book is titled “The Fellowship of the Spirit.” He explores the relations within the Trinity and the implications of that Fellowship for the Spirit’s work in making fellowship possible in the life of the church–including discussions of intergenerational community, fellowship between the genders, and the relation of various action, self help, and other groups that may operate under the auspices of the church. The concluding part of the work contains what one might most classically consider when thinking of the theology of the Holy Spirit. Here Moltmann considers various “metaphors” for the Spirit and comes to his own definition of the Personhood of the Spirit within the Trinity:

The personhood of God the Holy Spirit is the loving, self-communicating, out-fanning, and out-pouring presence of the eternal divine life of the triune God.

He concludes the work with a discussion of the filioque clause added to Western versions of the Creed and a key factor in the schism between East and West. He argues for the East here, that the clause is superfluous at best and unnecessarily subordinates the Spirit within the Trinity and ignores the reciprocity existing between Spirit and Son.

A few comments on this book. I most appreciated Moltmann’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in all of embodied life. I agree with the need for a corrective to an over-spiritualized, gnostic view of life that denies our bodily, material existence and the goodness in this. At the same time, I wondered if Moltmann had moved from simply the immanence of God to a kind of Christian panentheism, God in all things (language he uses at points).

In addition, I do think it a challenge always in Trinitarian theology to discuss the nature of any of the “persons”, with all of the human associations of this language. I sense this difficulty in Moltmann who moves between “it” and “he” in referencing the Holy Spirit. I’m left wondering, in Moltmann’s definition of the Personhood of the Spirit and his uses of language whether he considers the Holy Spirit a “person” in the same way as Father and Son.

I read this work apart from the preceding three volumes in his systematic theology, or any of Moltmann’s other works, which may place me at a disadvantage. (This is what comes of picking up a book in a bargain section of a used book store!). Still, if I were to make a recommendation, I would start with Basil the Great’s, On the Holy Spirit, which is so helpful in understanding the development of the early church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

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Review: Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith

Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith
Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delighting in the Trinity was indeed a delight to read! I’ve read several books on this truly delightful aspect of Christian belief that were turgid tomes that seemed to confirm the suspicions many have that doctrine is the dry, dusty stuff of human invention.

For Michael Reeves, the Trinity is a joyous essential of Christian belief. He observes how in fact the contention that “God is love” makes no sense if God is a unitary, singular being. He shows how in fact the good and beautiful relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit overflow into a good and beautiful creation. And when we used our freedom to love God to rebel, the Triune God worked to restore us with Father and Son acting as one to make atonement for us. Likewise, the Spirit of God brings us into the intimacy of relationship by not only making sense to us of the deep things of the Trinity but through actually residing in us and drawing us into the life of the Trinity.

Reeves contends that the problem in fact with God that so many atheists and “anti-theists” have is with a monotheistic conception of a God far removed from his creatures and creation, that is puritanically holy but with no real connection with his creatures. The Trinity gives the lie to this idea. He even argues that even the wrath of God is in fact the love of God fighting for his good intentions in the face of evil–or as Jonathan Edwards would say, his “strange work”.

This is a short work (130 pages) but one written with great clarity and warmth turning what is often thought dry and dusty and obscure into joyful truth that nurtures our love and intimacy with the Triune God.

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