Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Subordination of the Doctrine of the Trinity

In the last few posts we have examined how the doctrine of the Trinity was relegated to the status of a relatively minor appendix to the doctrine of the One God in Western Christianity. In order to refresh our memories, let's do a quick review to get our bearings and then move on to new material.

As a result of the theological controversies of the 4th century, particularly the Arian controversy (see my posts, "Arians are not Skinheads" and "Athanasius contra Mundi," both from 11/08), theologians began to focus on the eternal, intradivine nature of God (theologia) considered apart from God's self-revelation in the history of Israel, the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit (oikonomia). To answer their Arian critics, the Fathers were forced to consider the eternal nature of God in order to defend the fully divine nature of the eternal Son. Nevertheless, their focus on God ad intra (God in God's eternal divine nature) resulted in a reduced emphasis on God ad extra (God in relation to the world). In technical terms, a conceptual gap was opened between theologia (the eternal intradivine Being) and oikonomia (God's self-revelation in time and space). After the 4th century, theologians in both the Greek Eastern Church and the Latin Western Church focused more and more attention on theologia so that God's self-revelation in history (oikonomia), particularly in the incarnate Son, became less and less important in the formulation of the Christian doctrine of God. To put it in a raw and simple form, after the 4th century, Jesus, the incarnate Son, was largely left out of the picture in the portrayal of the Christian God, particularly in the Latin West.

Again, to review, here's what happened. Augustine, the Father of Western Christianity, developed an innovative approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. His innovations were related to his inability to grasp the significance of divine relationality as developed in the Cappadocians' doctrine of the Trinity (see my posts "A Cup O' Cappadocian," parts 1 & 2, posted 1/09) as well as his commitment to Neoplatonism (see my post, "The Wedding Cake Cosmos: Augustine & Neoplatonism," posted 2/09). As a Neoplatonist committed to divine simplicity, Augustine had great difficulty in conceiving relationship as an aspect of the Godhead. Hence, Augustine emphasized the unitary essence of God rather than the diversity of persons of the Godhead that had been the focus of Cappadocian trinitarianism. As Colin Gunton has noted, Augustine made divine "substance" the "real" God so that the divine persons were reduced to mere "subsistencies" in the essence of God. The unitarian substance became a "fourth something" that appeared to underlie the divine persons. (Note: "Subsistence" literally means "to stand under."). The Father, Son and Spirit were submerged into a vague and mysterious ontological soup of substance. Because of the anti-material bias of his Neoplatonism (i.e., matter is evil), Augustine turned away from God's self-revelation in time and space to look for "vestiges" of the Trinity in the human mind or soul. In turning inward to the human psyche, Augustine turned away from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son and Holy Spirit in order to develop his doctrine of God. In short, Augustine separated theologia and oikonomia. He developed his doctrine of God apart from God's redemptive self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit.

Augustine's emphasis on divine substance considered apart from God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son and Spirit became standard practice in the theology of the Latin West. In the 12th century, Thomas Aquinas, like Augustine, turned away from God's redemptive self-revelation in salvation history to develop his doctrine of God based on the observation of the cosmos. Following Aristotle, he argued that a cause (God) can be known from its effects. Aquinas then took the unprecedented step of dividing his doctrine of God into two parts. First he developed a major treatise on the One God (De Deo Uno) derived from human reason and the observation of empirical phenomena (see my post, "Tommy A. and the Western Split," 3/09). He used various rational methods to arrive at a concept of God as infinite, immutable, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. (see my post, "How to Make a Western OmeletGod," 4/09). Only after he had developed his doctrine of the One God based on the substantialist metaphysics of Aristotle did Aquinas finally get around to his comparatively minor treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino). As the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner is famous for noting, Aquinas makes it appear that everything worth saying about God is said in the treatise on the One God so that the doctrine of the Trinity seems nothing more than a minor, unimportant appendix to a thoroughly developed doctrine of the One God. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna has noted, Aquinas introduced the paradigmatic separation of theologia and oikonomia. Aquinas developed his doctrine of the One God (theologia) apart from God's redemptive self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia).

In the centuries following Aquinas, medieval Latin Scholasticism focused more and more on the intricacies of the divine substance so that the doctrine of the Trinity was hardly studied in the universities of medieval Europe. Because God's self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was so obscured, coupled with the loss of an appreciation of the full humanity of Jesus, the persons in the pews were compelled to turn to the more human saints for solace.

The medieval bifurcation of theologia and oikonomia was carried on by the Protestant Scholastics of post-Reformation Europe and enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). T.F. Torrance boldly and rightly declares that the God of Westminster theology is "not distinctively or essentially Christian." To be sure, the God of Westminster theology appears more related to the substantialist metaphysics of Aristotelian paganism than to the biblical God who stoops to save his creation. In the 19th century, Charles Hodge, a well-known Protestant (Calvinist) theologian wrote a three-volume, 2,300 page systematic theology wherein only four pages are dedicated to the doctrine of the Trinity. As is apparent, in Western Latin theology, the doctrine of the Trinity was gradually relegated to the status of an unimportant appendix to the doctrine of the One God (or what Baxter Kruger calls the "omniGod.") This was the state of the Western doctrine of God until the 20th century.

This ends our review. Let's move on from here with new material. I think you will like it!

In the 20th century, Karl Barth (Protestant) and Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic) were the first to launch significant critiques of the Augustinian-Thomist approach to the doctrine of God. Both theologians rejected the centuries-old Western habit, formalized by Thomas Aquinas and developed in post-Reformation Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, of bifurcating the doctrine of God, as though the doctrine of the One God could be explicated rationally, based upon the presuppositions of pagan Greek metaphysics, while the doctrine of the Trinity was developed separately and subsequently on the basis of the biblical witness. Rahner (1997:17, 18) argues that the Augustinian-Thomist method of developing first a treatise based on the "unicity of the divine essence" results in an articulation of the One God that is philosophical, abstract, and hardly refers to salvation history. As Karl Barth argues, this is tantamount "to splitting the fundamental concept of God" (Torrance, 1996:10, 11).

The basic split in the Western concept of God caused Barth to attack the division of theology into "natural" theology and "revealed" theology (Torrance, 1980:147, 148). Barth repeatedly emphasized the inappropriateness of developing a doctrine of God from the speculative metaphysics of natural theology. According to Barth (1959:36):

The God of the Christian Confession is, in distinction from all gods, not a found or invented god or one at the last and at the end discovered by man . . . But we Christians speak of him who completely takes the place of everything that elsewhere is usually called "God," and therefore suppresses and excludes it all, and claims to be alone the truth.

For Barth, we can bring no presuppositions to our knowledge of God, for God is his own presupposition. God is not an object we discover through our own reasoning; God is a subject who, in sovereign freedom, chooses to reveal himself in the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit (Busch, 2004:67-72; cf. Torrance, 1970:121ff). Barth rightly argues that a doctrine of the One God based on natural theology and a doctrine of the Triune God based on revelation creates a "schizoid state of affairs" in the foundation of theology (Torrance, 1980:148).

Other Trinitarian theologians have followed Barth and Rahner in their critique of the Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God. T. F. Torrance (1996:8, 9) argues that separating the doctrine of the One God from the doctrine of the Triune God gives expression to a "deistic disjunction" between God and the world that is far removed from God's self-revelation in both the Old and New Testaments "as the God whose covenant love undergirds the whole creation and embraces all humanity with his mercies." Thompson (1994:20) argues that by starting with the One God derived from abstract speculation, the Augustinian-Thomist tradition subordinates the Trinity to a preconceived understanding of God. Likewise, Gunton (1990:35) asserts, following Rahner (1997:17), that everything worth saying about God appears to be given in the treatise, On the One God. Because the doctrine of the Trinity is relegated to a comparatively minor appendix to the doctrine of the One God, Gunton argues, God's triune self-revelation seems irrelevant to the Western doctrine of God, with the result that God in se (theologia) appears to be conceivably other than the God made known in space and time as Father, Son and Spirit (oikonomia). Finally, and perhaps most persuasively, Schwöbel (1995:5, 6) argues that in the Western Latin approach to the doctrine of God, wherein the Trinity is separate from and subsequent to the doctrine of the One God, Trinitarian reflections appear as an adjunct to a thorough exposition of the One God, leaving the impression that Trinitarian statements are not significant for reflection on the nature and character of God. The threefold self-revelation of God in the economy of salvation (oikonomia) appears to be merely a "complicating factor" or a "mystery" that clouds what is already established about the unity of God. The Thomist separation of the One God from the Triune God leaves the impression that all that is important to be said about God is said in the treatise on the One God, while God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in the history of Israel, as attested in Scripture, seems relatively unimportant in the Latin Western development of the doctrine of God.

Nevertheless, Schwöbel (1995:6, 7) continues, if a Trinitarian understanding of God is to be constitutive for Christian faith, then the doctrine of the Trinity must not be relegated to the status of a mere "appendix" to the doctrine of the One God. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity must be the "gateway" through which all theological exposition about God must pass, so that all our speech about God, including all our theological doctrines, is grounded in God's triune self-revelation as Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit.


Barth, K. 1959. Dogmatics in Outline. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 155pp.

Busch, E. 2004. The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302pp.

Rahner, K. 1997. The Trinity: Introduction, Index, and Glossary by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. New York, NY: Crossroads. 122pp.

Schwöbel, C. (ed). 1995. Trinitarian Theology Today. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 176pp.

Thompson, J.R. 1994. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives. Oxford: OUP. 165pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1970. The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth. Religious Studies, vol 6, pp. 121-135.

Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.


  1. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the trinitarian worship of the early Church. The Fathers solemnly reflected on both the doxology of the early Church as well as the New Testement witness to the threefold self-revelation of God as Father, Son and Spirit. After CENTURIES of consideration and reconsideration, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in the 4th century. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was reaffirmed by the magisterial Reformers of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, while they firmly denounced the anti-trinitarian rationalists of the day. While it is true that the doctrine was rejected in the Enlightenment (along with miracles, the incarnation and the resurrection), it was brought back to center stage in the 19th century by Schleiermacher, who might be regarded as the morning star of the contemporary renaissance in trinitarian theology.

    The doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in the Nicene Creed is accepted and believed by all major branches of the Christian Church, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox and has been supported by all the great theologians in the history of the Church.

    Why should I reconsider a doctrine that has the support of such a great cloud of witnesses?

  2. I found this great clip off YouTube from Rob Bell on the Trinity in Genesis:

  3. Thank you, Martin, for clearly and painstakingly showing how the dominant, unitary concept of God in the West was developed by human, rational thought processes, apart from the Biblical revelation of the Triune God! The consequences have been enormous.

  4. Dear Martin,

    Reduce and simplify: Here is the Trinity affirmed by things created, (Romans 1). The Trinity is the Father, The Seed, and The Chemistry. They are looking for a woman - that's us. For nearly 2,000 years what's been calling itself "church" has been trying to do the woman without chemistry, and even the world knows that's date rape.

  5. Hello fellow posters:

    I think everyone is right and wrong. Jesus is the Son of the living God and that only true God is the Father. The Father is the Most High. (John 14:28) Psalms 83:18 tells us that the Most High is YHWH, Yahweh/Jehovah.

    However, the Son did have a pre-human existence and certainly was with the Father, was alongside his Father. (John 17:5) The Son positively did see his Father which no other man could claim. (John 6:46)

    One thing that is often overlooked is that Jesus had a God. There is always someone who is God to him. (Ephesians 1:17; Revelation 3:12) Not just when he was a man but even after his glorious resurrection to heaven where he sits at His God and Father's right hand.

    Jesus is given a high position but not the Most High. He is superior over all but with the exception of his Father who is Supreme. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28) He is mighty but not Almighty.


    Nick Batchelor

  6. Thanks Nick for being a part of the conversation.

    Rather than saying Jesus had a God, I would said Jesus had an intimate realtionship with his Father.

    When we talk about subordination, we need to distingusih between ontological and functional subordination. There is NO ontological subordination in the Father-Son relation. As the Creed says, Jesus is homoousios to Patri, of one being with the Father, God of God, etc. Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God.

    On the other hand, funtional subordination is not so clear cut. Jesus does only the Father's will, yet all authority and judgment have been given to the Son.

    In neither case, however, can we use a supposed subordination to justify the subordination of one group of people to another, whether women to men or one race to another. Even if one embraces funtional subordination, one cannot assert that Jesus is "less God" as a consequence. I realize, of course, that you are not indicating this. I am simply mentioning this for future readers.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  7. Hello Mr. Martin Davis,

    I appreciate your feedback. Great interaction.
    I have to agree with you that Jesus definitely had an intimate relationship with his Father. Afterall, he was alongside His Father, with his Father, before he came to earth.

    However, the Bible does CLEARLY tell us that there is one who is God to Jesus. He calls his Father "My God" on many occasions.

    Ephesians 1:3 is another place in Scripture where it says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (See also verse 17)

    Jesus tells us that there are some things that are not for him to give. The Father has some prerogatives for himself. (Matthew 20:23)

    All authority has been given him over all creation, WITH THE EXCEPTION, of HIS GOD AND FATHER. (See 1 Corinthians 15:24-28)

    Yes, I do agree with you that there is subordination of one group over another. For instance the Bible indicates subjection for a wife to her husband. TAnd the Christ is also in subjection to God. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

    But my wife is never the same being as I am. We are completely seperate, distinct individuals understanding our positions within the family.

    When it comes to worship though, Jesus clearly worships his God and Father and teaches us to do the same. The Father has no head as Christ his Son does and is in no subjection to anyone.

    Just because Jesus has "power of attorney" to do things God can do we must remember he is GIVEN this authority that has been delegated to him by His God and Father, the MOST HIGH YHWH, Jehovah.


    Nick Batchelor


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