The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity by Kevin Giles (Cascade, 2017)


The terms ‘page turner’, ‘un put downable’ and ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ would not often be found in the same sentence, but they are appropriate in the case of Kevin Giles’ most recent book, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity. It is not a long book (five chapters, 114 pages) and I read it in a single sitting. I found this story of a recent theological dispute absolutely riveting, even though I was already reasonably familiar with it and knew how it would end! It is an extraordinary story, told by someone with a unique perspective, being one of the major players in the drama. As Kevin writes, “I am uniquely positioned and informed to write this book on the complementarian civil war over the Trinity, because arguably my writings on the Trinity, more than anyone else, precipitated this civil war” (7).

Like many good stories, this one begins with a puzzling question: how was it that a majority of Reformed evangelical theologians changed their mind on an aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity, almost overnight? As Kevin says, “On 1 June 2016 it seemed that the complementarian hierarchical doctrine of the Trinity had won the day” (8). The few dissenters, of whom Kevin was the most vocal, were dismissed as ‘evangelical feminists’ and accused of framing the co-equality of the three persons of the Trinity in order to provide a foundation for their egalitarian views on gender.

But everything changed two days later, on June 3, when “a deep and sharp split among those who call themselves complementarians suddenly and unexpectedly appeared” (35). By complementarians is meant those who believe that women have a subordinate ‘role’ in the church and the home (and for some, in the world as well) and that men have the ‘role’ of leading. The terms ‘complementarian’ and ‘egalitarian’ are widely used although they are unhelpful in that complementarians generally affirm the equality of the sexes, and egalitarians affirm their complementarity.

The split was not in relation to their understanding of gender and the subordination of women to men, but to their understanding of the Trinity. Some complementarians (ironically, two women theologians, Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd, who both wrote endorsements for Kevin’s book) had been raising concerns earlier about the doctrine of the eternal (functional) subordination of the Son to the Father, but the real crisis arose when Liam Golligher, a self-described “biblical complementarian” denounced the teaching of the main proponent of this view, Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, accusing them of “reinventing the doctrine of God”, moving into unorthodoxy and departing from “biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions”. Exactly what Kevin Giles had been saying for years. But what complementarians could not hear from Giles was at last being heard, and as Kevin says, “the evangelical blogosphere exploded” (37).

So how and when did this ‘unorthodox’ understanding of the Trinity come about? If the fall of the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity took place in 2016, when was its rise? Kevin dates it to George Knight III’s 1977 book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women. In order to justify the continued exclusion of women from positions of leadership and teaching in the church, and an understanding of male headship that meant wives should be (unilaterally) subordinate to their husbands, when appeals to male superiority and female inferiority were no longer culturally acceptable, Knight introduced the novel idea of men and women having different ‘roles’, although they are equal. By ‘role’ he meant simply that men’s role is to lead and women’s to submit.

But this raised the question, how can the permanent subordination of women be reconciled with their (newly recognised) equality with men? Knight responded that the relationship between man and woman is analogous to the relationship between the Father and the Son, who are equal, and yet the Son is permanently, or eternally, subordinate to the Father in function or ‘role’. And he based this on a particular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”, which he said establishes a hierarchy with the Trinity as well as between men and women. Thus for Knight and the complementarian theologians who embraced this idea, the question of the relationship between men and women was inextricably linked to, indeed based on a particular, hierarchical understanding of the Trinity. Yet complementarians accused egalitarians of corrupting the doctrine of the Trinity in order to support their views! Giles says he knows of no egalitarians who have argued from the relations in the Trinity to an egalitarian understanding of the relationship between men and women.

It took some years, but by 1994 a hierarchical view of the Trinity had become integral to the complementarian case. This was first articulated in Wayne Grudem’s enormously influential Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, the most widely used theology text in evangelical bible colleges worldwide. Bruce Ware’s 2005 book, Father Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Role and Relevance spoke of the ‘priority’ and ‘pre-eminence’ of the Father, and Ware was widely praised, together with Grudem, as a champion of the ‘orthodox’ doctrine of the Trinity that ‘heretics’ like Giles denied. In 2013, Denny Burk (the current president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote:

analogy between gender roles and Trinity derives not from mere speculation but from the Bible. The central text in this regard is 1 Corinthians 11:3.

[This text] explicitly links the masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic. The apostle Paul himself makes the analogy.., the link between intratrinitarian relations and gender relations is transparently biblical.

But by August 2016, Burk had changed his mind. He wrote “I now believe in the whole Nicene package”, that he now did not agree “with the specific formulations of Grudem and Ware”, and that “it is good and right to leave behind the language of subordination”. Post June 2016, the position of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is that belief in a hierarchically ordered Trinity is no longer required for complementarians.

If you want to know exactly how things changed so drastically, including Kevin’s role and the role of two complementarian women theologians, you’ll need to read the book. One of those women, Aimee Byrd, endorses Kevin’s book with these words:

I wish complementarians would read this book! While I can happily disagree with his argument that eternal subordination of the Son was the complementarian position on the Trinity, Kevin demonstrates how pervasive it was… This is a book that demands the church uphold first-order doctrines and warns it never to be led again by a social agenda.

Apart from telling the story, Kevin includes a chapter on “doing evangelical theology” because he is convinced that Grudem at al arrived at a wrong doctrine of the Trinity because they had “a wrong understanding of how evangelical theology is ‘done’” (67). This involves believing that theology is simply establishing what the bible teaches, without reference to tradition or reason. In formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, tradition as expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church is especially important. The next chapter outlines the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the first four centuries of church history, which was considered orthodoxy until corrupted (as Giles contests) by complementarians late in the twentieth century, and now, thankfully, recovered by at least some complementarians.

What does all this now mean for complementarianism? According to complementarian theologian Carl Trueman, it is in crisis. “But this is a crisis of its own making- the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them”. English complementarian Andrew Wilson thinks the crisis brings a positive challenge, the opportunity for a radical rethink. Kevin hopes that it will prompt a rethink of the complementarian position on the subordination of women. But things might not be so straightforward. Changing our minds is sometimes very difficult.

A fundamental question that is raised by The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity is “Why did it take so long for complementarian theologians to call out this doctrine as unorthodox?” How did Grudem and Ware go unchallenged for so many years? Kevin discusses five possible reasons, and Scot McKnight has an excellent discussion of these at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/08/17/why-did-it-take-so-long/

One of the reasons Kevin offers and the one I want to focus on is that the cost for complementarians of challenging the ‘consensus’ was too great in terms of potentially ‘splitting’ the community, being marginalised or even shunned. As Kevin recounts: “The huge importance for complementarians to endorse without any criticism the whole complementarian package became very clear to me when a one-time friend and fellow graduate of Moore theological College in Sydney said to me very angrily, ‘Kevin, we [complementarians] will never give way to you on the Trinity because to do so would weaken our case for male headship, and nothing is more important for us’” (60-61).

In other words, holding to the ‘whole complementarian package’ had become an identity marker for some evangelicals, making it very difficult for them to change their minds even if presented with good reasons to do so. A recent article in Eternity by Simone Richardson sheds light on this phenomenon: https://www.eternitynews.com.au/opinion/why-it-is-so-hard-to-change-our-minds/

Simone describes Jonathan Haidt’s theory that our brains have two systems of reasoning: one is fast, unconscious, non-verbal and instinctual, and one is slow, conscious, language-dependent, and effortful- what we call rational thought. The first system is much more powerful. And here is why it is so hard to change our minds, to break free of ‘group think’: we are social creatures and one of our most powerful needs is to be part of a group. So any new idea which might threaten our membership of that group will tend to be rejected by our unconscious instinctual reasoning, and we then use our rational processes to come up with reasons for rejecting it. So, as Simone Richardson concludes, “Changing our minds is not impossible, but it is relationally costly” and all our instincts fight against it. And so, “We align ourselves with those who share our views and our personal identity and acceptance becomes wrapped up in that group”. The sting in this argument, of course, is that it applies equally to us as well as those who might consider as belonging to a different ‘tribe’. If some of the world’s finest theologians could accept a heterodox view of the Trinity for so long, which of us can claim to be immune to error? Can we honestly admit the possibility that we might be wrong about some things? When put like that, it seems self-evident. Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fall-Complementarian-Doctrine-Trinity/dp/1532618662

Denise Cooper-Clarke is a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. She is a researcher for ethos (Centre for Christianity and Society), an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and is a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality.

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All images, words and materials are copyright protected and are the property of the author and / or Fixing Her Eyes. Please contact us at fixinghereyes (@) gmail.com for permissions. January 2020