The Unspoken Question at the Heart of the Trinity Debate

trinity debate grudem

In this post,  Dr. Peter Leithart weighs in on the recent debate concerning relationships in the Trinity. Don’t miss Michael Bird’s overview of the debate over at the Logos Academic Blog. Then, visit this blog next Tuesday for an exclusive video of Wayne Grudem responding to his critics.

And for multiple perspectives on this issue—including video lectures from Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware—check out the Mobile Ed course Perspectives on the Trinity: Eternal Generation and Subordination in Tension (40% off until June 9). 

The recent Evangelical brawl about the Trinity has focused on the work of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, both of whom have denied the eternal generation of the Son and said that the Son is eternally “subordinate” to the Father.

On the first point, the critics are entirely correct, as both Ware and Grudem now admit. The debate concerning eternal “subordination” has been more chaotic and proportionally less illuminating. Some critics responded as if Ware and Grudem were Arians, teaching that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father, a being somewhat less than fully divine. Both vehemently deny this charge. Ware and Grudem are instead talking about a taxis of equally divine persons, and Grudem has produced an impressive catalog of reliable Protestant theologians who also talk of the eternal “subordination” of the Son. If nothing else, he has demonstrated that his terminology isn’t novel.

To be sure, eternal subordination has taken some odd twists. According to Ware, it’s “not as though the Father is unable to work unilaterally, but rather, he chooses to involve the Son and the Spirit.” (57) If this is what Ware means by “subordination,” then it runs contrary to the orthodox (especially Cappadocian) insistence that, in all God’s works outside of Himself, the Father initiates, the Son executes, and the Spirit perfects. A Father who chooses to deploy the Son and Spirit is a Father who chooses to be Triune. That is not the God revealed in Jesus.

Ware has since clarified by calling his statement a “hypothetical”:

. . . since the Father is omnipotent, there simply is nothing that could hinder him by nature from doing anything he would choose to do. Of course, this is purely hypothetical, and I acknowledge that my wording here could be made more precise. I did not intend to suggest that the Father ever would act in such an independent manner, or could act independently, strictly speaking, in light of the Trinitarian union of persons.”

But the hypothetical indicates that there’s still room for clarification in Ware’s Trinitarian theology. The Father is not, even hypothetically, omnipotent in Himself, because a Father is not and cannot be a Father “in Himself.” One cannot speculate on what the Father would be like if He had no Son, since without His Son He would not be Father. Once we start talking about a hypothetical sonless being, we’re no longer talking about the Father of the Lord Jesus.

Obscuring mutuality

This highlights one of the main problems with talk of intra-Trinitarian “hierarchy”: its uni-directionality obscures the mutuality and dynamism of the relations among the Persons. Relations constitute each Person as the Person He is, and so mutual relations constitute the Trinity as Trinity. Mutuality couldn’t be more basic.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Father, as “first” Person, has some sort of primacy (“made of none; neither created, nor begotten,” as the Athanasian Creed puts it). Even if we accept that “primacy” is a felicitous formula, the Father’s precedence is immediately destabilized, because, as Athanasius insisted, the Father is “first” only by begetting a “second.”

Watch Wayne Grudem and four other scholars explain their positions in this course. 40% off until June 9.

A Sonless Father is as impossible as a Fatherless Son. Only thus is the Father eternally Father, as opposed to a faceless Somesuch who becomes Father. (Note for later that Athanasius’s entire argument assumes a significant, though qualified, analogy between divine and human relations.) The personal identity of the Father is as eternally “dependent” on the Son’s sonship as the Son is eternally “dependent” on the Father’s begetting. Whatever “hierarchy” exists within the Trinity has a self-cancelling quality, a quality that reverberates in human experience. As any attentive parent will tell you, inversion of hierarchy is the arc of family history: Long before children become parents, they begin to remake their parents. Wordsworth was talking about something else, but his line captures the point: “the Child is father of the Man.”

In the economy, mutuality among the Persons manifests itself in a dynamic mutual glorification. “Glorify thy Son together with Thyself, Father,” Jesus prays, “with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Jesus asks the Father to glorify Him with pre-creation glory, now as God-man, Logos-made-flesh. But Jesus prays for the Father to glorify Him so that “the Son may glorify Thee” (17:1). Given the Scriptural connection between the Spirit and glory, we may say that, in the economy, the Father and Son glorify one another in and by the Spirit. If the Father is glorious, it is with the glory by which the Son glorifies Him; if the Son is glorified, it is because the Father has glorified Him in the Spirit. There is not even a slightest sliver of a crack to begin speculating about whether each has glory “in Himself.”

On any account of Trinity, the Son who is fully divine receives from the Father, which means that there is such a thing as divine receptivity. God has and bestows glory, but when that truth is refracted Trinitarianly, we discern that God has, bestows, and receives glory. If we may, with caution, introduce “subordination” into our account of the immanent Trinity, there is such a thing as divine subordination, and we may follow Barth in concluding that humility is a divine attribute. Current debates aside, it’s hard to see how we can say anything less, once we affirm that Jesus reveals the Father: If you have seen Me, He tells Philip, you have seen the Father, because the Son does nothing except what He sees the Father doing. If the Son humbles Himself, it can only be because He’s taken cues from His Father.

The Soul-altering consequences of the Trinity

The consequences are soul-altering. The difference between the Triune God and the multiple gods of polytheism isn’t mathematical. Trinitarian theology doesn’t distribute standard-issue Unitarian attributes among three divine Persons. Trinitarians worship and declare a God unlike any God human beings have or could conceive. As N.T. Wright has said, to say that Jesus of Nazareth is God is to say something remarkable about Jesus. It is also to make an astonishing claim about God. It’s not merely that Jesus is God or Godlike. The momentous truth is that God is like Jesus.

Ware, Grudem, and others have argued that Trinitarian theology illuminates sexual difference. Some critics have retorted that the Triune God is more than a social program (absolutely true), but others, fearing a slip into social Trinitarianism, have argued that the Trinity has no implications for our understanding of human relations.

Paul would beg to differ. 1 Corinthians 11:3 states three analogous relationships of headship: Christ : every man :: man : woman :: God : Christ. The relation of a man and a woman is analogous to the relationship of God to Christ. To argue that Paul refers to the relation of the Father to the incarnate Son implies that the incarnate Son’s relation to the Father is something other than the Son’s relation to the Father, and that implies that the incarnate Son is, in His Person, someone other than the eternal Son. Must we, to protect a supposed Trinitarian orthodoxy, slip into a Christological muddle?

Jesus would beg to differ too. Jesus prays that His disciples would be one as the Father and Son are one (John 17:21). Father and Son are one in a unity of mutual indwelling (“perichoresis”). And Jesus prays that a unity of mutual indwelling would characterize the community of disciples. Jesus wants the church to be an earthly, human analogue of the communion of Father and Son. He wants us to be a communal expression of Triune life.

Some critics of Ware and Grudem make the dictum that the Trinity has a “single will” the touchstone of orthodoxy. I’m dubious that this formula functioned as a test of orthodoxy in the patristic period, and the formula itself is dogmatically problematic. Consider the incarnation. Father, Son, and Spirit will as one that the Son be sent. It’s not as if the three come to a consensus after deliberation. Further, we should take to heart  Lewis Ayres’ caution against speaking incautiously of “the Father who sends, the Son who is sent,” remembering that the Son comes of His own volition. Still: There is a distinction between the Father willing to send the Son and the Son willing to send Himself and the Spirit’s willing to be the agent by whom the Son is sent. Does the Father say, “I will that I be sent”? On the other hand, how could the Son not will that very thing?

One might evade this dilemma by saying that none of the Persons is capable of knowing, pronouncing, or being an “I.” If none can say “I,” none can say “I will.” This runs contrary to what is self-evident in the economy, where Jesus says things like “I and the Father are one” and where the Father says “I will glorify your name.” Unless the Father is capable of an “I Father” and the Son capable of “I Son,” we are left with the conclusion that the only “I” in the Trinity is the “I” of the one essence, a conclusion that is hard to distinguish from modalism.

Gregory of Nazianzus

Many in this debate have repeated Gregory of Nazianzus’s claim that we cannot think of the one without immediately thinking of the three, or of the three without immediately thinking of the one. When they begin to speak of “one will,” however, they leave Gregory behind. When it comes to will, it is oneness, the purest unity, all the way down. This cannot be correct. In speaking of God’s one will, we must talk, certainly in carefully nuanced fashion, of a single will that, like everything else in the Trinity, exists only as the will of distinct Persons.

Modalism lurks around another corner as well. Some have argued that the axiom of “one will” follows from the linkage of will and nature, which was an axiom of patristic Christology. The incarnate Son has two natures, and therefore two wills; if nature is the seat of will, then God, who has only one nature, must have one will. This raises serious difficulties. Will is a personal quality: Whose will is this one will? It cannot be the will of an undifferentiated divine nature, for no such nature exists. The only divine nature that is is the nature personalized as Father, Son, and Spirit. There’s no “extra” essence, nor any modalizable nature behind or beyond the three. God’s one nature-will is, necessarily, differentiated as the one will of the three who are one.

The debate’s fundamental question

Behind this entire debate runs a fundamental question about the relationship between the gospel and the God of the gospel: Does the incarnation and history of Jesus disclose God as He is? Or, is the economic Trinity so radically different from the immanent Trinity that we cannot draw any firm ontological conclusions from the economy? If we are to have any Trinitarian theology at all, we have to answer the first question with a firm Yes, and then do the hard work of figuring out what that means in detail. The alternative is a non-starter. If the Son’s entry into flesh distorts the Father-Son relation, then how can we see the Father in Jesus? If the history of Jesus doesn’t unfold the life of the Trinity, where can we find it? If God created the world to manifest His glory, why would we conclude that the creation cannot manifest His glory after all?

When theologians spread questionable doctrine, they need to be corrected and the church needs to be purified. Sometimes we need a brawl. But I fear the recent debate will have a chilling effect on Evangelical Trinitarian theology. After Nicea, theologians continued to write long treatises on the Trinity, and they didn’t confine themselves to mantra-like repetition of creedal formulas. Augustine had summarized Nicene orthodoxy by Book 5 of de Trinitate, and spent the remaining ten books expansively exploring, elaborating, speculating, wondering, worshiping. Evangelical theology would be ill-served if theologians were discouraged from following his example.


Dr. Peter Leithart is the founder and president of Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural studies. His Mobile Ed course Trinitarian Theology is included in the Tough Topics Sale for 40% off.


Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware speak for themselves in the new course Perspectives on the Trinity: Eternal Generation and Subordination in Tension. Get a complete overview with video lectures featuring scholars from across the spectrum of this debate. Grudem and Ware are joined by Millard Erickson, Fred Sanders, and Kevin Giles as they each personally present their own viewpoints. And best of all, the course is 40% off through June 9.

And don’t miss all the other courses included in the Mobile Ed Tough Topics sale. You can save up to 70% on fascinating courses from trusted scholars. See all Mobile Ed courses on sale. 


  1. Harlan P. Hock Jr. says

    Dr. Peter J Leithart, one of the great authors at First Things magazine. Glad to see you writing for Logos as well.

  2. Acevedo Frank says

    It is unfortunate that Logos continues to give a platform to men like Peter J Leithart who are involved in heterodox teachings. Thier reasoning is that Logos affords their customers access to products that offer differing viewpoints so that both sides can be studied.

    While this practice is the basis for developing critical thinking skills, this method fails to warn the customer of any controversy said author, is involved with particularly within core doctrinal teachings such as justification and assurance. Buyer beware!

  3. Rod Bristol says

    I am troubled by the lack of respect for the mystery of God shown by theologians past and present. Theological philosophy has extrapolated the “three persons” concept from scripture, then labored over the logical and spiritual implications of the extrapolation. Such labor employs theologians, but does not lead others to saving faith.

    The ideas of “divine economy” and “divine community” are mere speculation and should be recognized as human ideas, not revealed truth. People have speculated and argued themselves into referring to God as a special “one another,” but Scripture does not teach the idea. Christians should recognize the gulf between the infinite reality of God and our paltry capacity to understand. We should not separate God into parts, persons, modes, or anything else. God is One.

    The Son of God is God with us. The Spirit of God is God in us. Jesus prayed, NOT that humans would mutually indwell one another, but that God and humans would mutually indwell one another in Christ. Unity of Christians would be a visible byproduct of God’s indwelling, but that was not the thrust of his prayer. Jesus demonstrated to us both the character of God and the terrifying fact that human beings can glorify God by partaking of the divine nature.
    “…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 17:21–23.

    Respect the mystery!

    • Ron Kersey says

      I agree with your comments, Mr. Bristol. Being new to this website, I came across this discussion/argument about Who’s Who in a three person Godhead. I wonder what hubris must be involved when human intellect attempts to explain that which cannot be understood by the human mind. Have many theologians taken the place of “scribes and pharisees”? Oh, wait, it’s ??% off. Itching ears like a fire sale!

  4. Scott Horrell says

    Leithart cuts through nicely amidst the rather messy debates on the Trinity. The one will of God must also be understood as three wills (the “I Am’s” of the Father, the Son, and the first personal pronouns of the Spirit)—thus something unique to each person distinct and (as Vladimir Lossky puts it) “outside” the divine essence. Thank you, Peter, for a finely tuned article.

  5. Ken Gould says

    I have two questions the first is directly related to this post and the second is related to the first.

    What is this thought of a divine economy? I don’t understand the concept.

    What is meant by referring to the temple services as the Jewish economy? I understand the temple services provided the economic support for the priests. Like wise church services provide the economic support of pastors. However, I would not refer to church services as the Protestant economy.

    Referring to these as economies is currently confusing to me. Help me understand how these references are enlightening instead of confusing.