Use and abuse of the fathers and the Bible in trinitarian theology

A review of Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, IVP, Downers Grove, 2002.

The long debate among evangelicals about women’s ministry has brought many issues floating to the surface. It has challenged us to think about our view of Scripture and how it speaks to us today. It has prompted us to re-examine ordination itself and the traditional structures of ministry. And most recently, it has put the doctrine of the Trinity back on the agenda.

Melbourne theologian Kevin Giles has written a book suggesting that many conservative evangelicals, most notably Sydney Anglicans, have adopted an heretical view of the Trinity in order to bolster their opposition to women’s ordination.

It’s a bold claim, and is being taken seriously in theological circles in many parts of the world.

Is Kevin Giles right? Have we become heretics? In this extended review essay, Robert Doyle responds to Kevin Giles’s critique.

(By necessity, Dr Doyle’s essay contains a number of technical theological terms and concepts that may not be familiar to regular Briefing readers. For a ‘primer’ on theological discussion about the Trinity, see Rory Shiner’s short article).

As one expects from InterVarsity Press (USA), Kevin Giles’s latest book is intended for a serious lay audience. It is, in language and purpose, quite unabashedly a polemical book. It is aimed widely at ‘conservative evangelicals’, and most pointedly at the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and many senior faculty of Moore Theological College, past and present.1 The position that Giles attacks in this book is the notion of permanent order or subordination in relationships between members of the immanent Trinity. This notion is sometimes known as ‘eternal relational subordination’. The ‘immanent Trinity’ is a technical term for how God is in himself, in the divine life of love and communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternity. The immanent Trinity needs to be distinguished from the economic Trinity, which is how the triune God appears to us as he works in history. (‘Economy’ is a transliteration of a Greek word which means ‘household management’ [oikos house + nemein to manage], or ‘administration’.)

Giles and a growing number of North American evangelicals allow role subordination in the economic Trinity, but not the immanent or eternal Trinity. Basically, although it is conceded that the targets of this book are not true Arians,2 nevertheless, by the end of the book the clear implication is that we are heretics, and of the nastier Arian kind. This condemnation was reinforced at the launch, and in ongoing exchanges on the internet between Andrew Moody and Kevin Giles, both of Melbourne.3 Moody made the quite reasonable and irenic suggestion that neither Giles’s position nor that of eternal relational subordination ought to be viewed as heretical, but as a legitimate discussion or controversy within the boundaries of the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, which almost every Christian grouping recognizes as a binding and faithful explanation of the Bible’s teaching on the person and work of God. Giles categorically rejected the suggestion.

What are the main concerns of this book? The book is in three parts: the first is an explanation of traditional trinitarian theology which confidently argues that eternal relational subordination was definitely not taught by the great, early church fathers (Athanasius in the East and Augustine in the west), nor by John Calvin and others of the 16th century, and was rejected by the leading 20th century theologians who reignited serious theological discussion about the Trinity (Karl Barth in the Reformed tradition and Karl Rahner in the Roman Catholic tradition). The second and third parts respectively look at how most of the modern evangelical church has changed its mind about subordination of women to men and about slavery. In a particularly directed way, Giles highlights how notions of order in trinitarian relations have been appealed to by conservative evangelicals to justify both degrading practices.

In the first section Kevin Giles develops several key ideas which act as themes throughout the book. Foremost is the question of how we ought to interpret the Bible, or hermeneutics. Quite rightly, Giles argues that the Bible ought to be read theologically, that is, in accord with its main ‘scope’ or focus. But he goes further. When both sides use the same biblical material to argue contradictory positions, then one ought to realize that the reader and his or her culture, is the hermeneutical key. God works in history to change our cultures, and therefore traditional ways of reading the Bible must be rejected in favour of new interpretations. However, Giles argues, with respect to intra-trinitarian relations, the traditional approach of the fathers ought to be embraced because they rejected any notion of permanent roles, function, command structures and obedience between the Father and the Son.4 Finally, Giles asserts and appeals what to him is a self-evident truth: “someone who is eternally or permanently subordinated in an involuntary way can only be regarded as inferior. He is not the equal of his superior in any essential way”.5 By “involuntary”, he appears to mean that even if one wanted to move out of a subordinate function or role, one could not. There can be no permanent, involuntary subordination in role or function if there is to be true equality of essence.

In this way, Kevin Giles pursues two main arguments to expose the heretical stance of his opponents. Firstly, although various parts of the Scriptures may be interpreted to support relational subordination, nevertheless it is the present work of God in our culture overthrowing the old tyrannies of female subordination and slavery which must supply the appropriate ‘reading glasses’ for these passages. Secondly, when dragged to the bar of the Church fathers and the great re-founders of contemporary trinitarian thinking, conservative evangelicals are shown to be well and truly in the wrong.

Before engaging more directly with the book’s arguments, let me first say that the book is noteworthy for its clear writing style, and at places Giles strives to be fair to those he disagrees with. There are interesting summaries of exegetical work in section two and on the sociology of slavery in section three. At places there is good grasp of the basics of theological method, and he has some useful and sensible things to say in an appendix on homosexuality.

But the book’s main section, on trinitarian theology, has problems in two areas: presentation of the historical material, and with theological method.

Misrepresentation of historical material6

Again and again Giles misunderstands or wrongly appropriates the trinitarian thinking of leading theological minds or movements: Athanasius and Augustine, the Reformation, Barth and Rahner, the recent Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity (between the Reformed churches of Europe and the Greek Orthodox), Broughton Knox (former Principal of Moore College), and John Zizioulas, prominent contemporary theologian in the Greek Orthodox tradition.


Repeatedly, and perhaps over confidently, Giles tells us that “Athanasius rejects … any suggestion whatsoever that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in function, role or work”.7 This is based on too a narrow selection of Athanasius’ writings, and failure to understand the nuances of the debate that Athanasius and the other church fathers were engaged in.

Alongside of his affirmation that the Father, in the divine mutual indwelling, shares everything with the Son except the name Father, Athanasius also affirms that there is a proper order among the trinitarian persons such that roles and functions are eternal, and not interchangeable. Giles’s position is that:

If the Son must always obey the Father, then he must in some ways be less than the Father. He lacks something possessed solely by the Father. His role is determined by his being.8

The logic of Giles’s denial that the roles/functions/work of the Persons of the Trinity are eternal means that these roles ought, at least in theory, be interchangeable. But this is not Athanasius. Let me explain this in four steps:

  1. Background: To understand Athanasius, it is necessary to remember that the fathers’ response to the Arian heresy was not only about the Son’s nature and relation to the Father, but was set against the need to affirm and safeguard that the Father is really Father in himself; they contended that ‘Father’ as applied to God is not a merely figurative expression but names who he actually is eternally: the eternal Begetter of the Son, the eternal Source or Origin of divinity, the eternal Monarch. That is, the Father in his Person is not just the unique King and Source of divinity in the economy of salvation, but, as Athanasius is at pains to point out, is so eternally, in the relations of the immanent Trinity.Thus, by showing the Son is truly God, Athanasius is also defending the eternal fatherhood of the first member of the Trinity, for a father cannot be a true father eternally unless he has a son eternally. This priority of the Father, which John’s gospel and Paul’s writings attest to, includes the Father’s rule, his monarchy, in which the Son as eternal Son shares by way of defining himself in subordination to that monarchy.
  2. Meaning of monarchy masked: Unfortunately, Giles seriously clouds the issue by interpreting the ‘monarchy of the Father’ only as the Father being the sole Origin or Source of Divinity. ‘Monarchy’ is a compound word comprised of the Greek words monos (‘alone’ or ‘unique’ or ‘sole’), and arche (‘origin’ or ‘rule’, or both). In the writings of the fathers, including Athanasius, when the monarchy of God the Father is talked about, discussion about his unique rule is not far away. The best of the early church theologians understood the monarchy of the Father not merely, as Giles would have it, in that he is origin, but also as the Father’s authority/rule which he gives to the Son as the eternal Son. To pick up the later language of Augustine, it is proper to the eternal personhood of the Son that he is sent, and likewise to the eternal personhood of the Father that he is the sender. In Athanasius and Augustine, these roles/functions/work are not interchangeable, that is, they are not temporary, as seen in the economic Trinity, but eternal. And all this, without any subordination of their essence. Both, and likewise the Spirit, are truly God.
  3. What Athanasius said: Now, it may be true that Athanasius does not use the term ‘monarchy’ himself, except when quoting others. However, neither does he attack the term, but, on the contrary, seems to endorse the notion it contains.9 Further, even without the term ‘monarchy’, the concept of the single rule of the Father is not uncommon, especially when Athanasius is combating polytheism:

    [Against polytheism] For we must not think there is more than one ruler and maker of Creation: but it belongs to correct and true religion to believe that its Artificer is one … Who then might this Maker be? … the God we worship and preach is the only true One, Who is Lord of Creation and Maker of all existence. Who then is this, save the Father of Christ, most holy above all created existence, Who like an excellent pilot, by His own Wisdom and His own Word, our Lord and Saviour Christ, steers and preserves and orders all things, and does as seems to Him best?10

    These are discussions about relations in the immanent as well as the economic Trinity. The Father is the Ruler over all things, and gives the authority over all things to the Son, and—because it is to his eternal Son he gives it—the Father yet remains the Lord of all things because the Father works through his Word.11 The Son is the unique Image of the Father, his proper Offspring, and has his being in the Father.12 Note that here and in Athanasius’ wider writings the priority (that is, the order) of the person and work of the Father in defining who the Son is: from the Father to the Son; from the Father who is the monarch, the one ruler as well as the one origin. In this way, Athanasius recognizes the asymmetrical, yet mutually conditioning nature of the relations between Father and Son. By locating the monarchy in the Father, and his wielding of it through that which is also truly God, his very own Word, the Son, Athanasius keeps the Son and the Father as both truly God, and safeguards this differentiation in the one God from slipping into polytheism.

  4. Significance of Athanasius’ teaching: The clear implication of this in Athanasius is that in the relations between the triune members, God is no ‘egalitarian’. In the immanent Trinity the roles and functions of Father and Son are not interchangeable, but permanent. The Son is Lord by sharing in his own way the monarchy of the Father who gives it to him.

For Athanasius, recognizing the priority of the Father in trinitarian relations ought not to imply that the Son is inferior in essence. On the contrary—and here his skill as a theologian shines—the Father cannot really be the eternal Father unless he has such an eternal Son, of the same substance as himself, and to whom he gives his authority. The Father does not hand over his authority to an agent who is his essential inferior. Further, if the Father is not the final locus of authority, how indeed can he really be a ‘father’? It is proper for the divine Father to ‘give’ and the divine Son to respond to that. The triune Father is a real father and the triune Son is a real son. Neither names are metaphorical.

It is important to note the deeper (theo)logic of Athanasius’ thought. Although asymmetrical in the way they relate to each other eternally, the Persons of the Trinity share or hold their one common divine essence in a special way: by mutually indwelling each other. This divine mutual indwelling, in which each Person finds the centre of existence or unique personhood in the other, means that even with the Father alone being the ultimate centre of rule, this asymmetricality does not on the its own terms infer that the Son or the Spirit are inferior in essence as they carry out the Father’s rule. That is, the Son is not only from the Father, but also in the Father. The language of ‘in’ is one that Athanasius stresses again and again, but he does not allow it to swallow up the from language.

The (theo)logic of asymmetrical relations between the Persons of the Trinity in favour of the priority of the Father, and of the divine mutual indwelling, come together in this way: even though he rules through his Agent, the Son, “the Father [still] wields the Lordship”. That is, because the Father wields his lordship through a Son who is eternally of the same essence as himself, and in the divine mutual indwelling, the Father is no absentee father working though an inferior entity, but truly remains the Lord eternally, ruling his creation, wielding ‘universal providence’, and therefore: eternally Father because ‘providing/providence/rule’ is what fathers do. Let me say it again: a careful reading of the texts referred to above shows that in Athanasius’ writings, the giving of authority to the Son by his Father belongs to the immanent Trinity, and not the economic alone. Moreover, the having of unique authority and the giving of it by the Father, and the wielding of it by the Son, is thoroughly appropriate to their divine, eternal Persons.

In this carefully nuanced way, Athanasius fends off both polytheism (many gods—multiple sources of ultimate rule) and Arianism (degrees of divinity within a ‘trinity’). It is the priority of the Father, and the subsequent ordering of relations between the Father and the Son, coupled with the divine mutual indwelling, that guarantees both the fatherhood of the Father and the true divinity of the Son. This is absent in Giles’s presentation.


Neither, as claimed, is Augustine quite on Giles’s side. Augustine is absolutely insistent that in the eternal counsels and life of God, only the Father could ‘send’ and the Son be ‘sent’. ‘Sender’ and ‘sent’ are permanent roles or functions, not interchangeable. For the triune God to act truly according to his eternal being or essence, only the Father could be the Sender, and the Son the Sent One. In Augustine’s thought there is no possibility of these being interchangeable. Contrary to Augustine’s train of thought, Giles describes the possibility of an eternal obedience of the Son to the Father in pejorative, even offensive terms: “a ‘chain of command’”;13 “to argue that the Father eternally rules the Son … implies … he must always do as he is told”.14 But the incarnate Son says that he delights to do the Father’s will (John 4:34). If so under the conditions of incarnation, how much more so in the immanent Trinity?

More broadly in his writings, Augustine is concerned with inseparability and distinction in both the eternal relations in the Trinity and in their actions in time.15 Often this is expressed in the saying: ‘the works of the Trinity outside the Trinity are not divisible’ (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). Giles does this too. But the saying is not Augustine’s.16 His preferred term is not ‘indivisible’ but ‘inseparable’. ‘Indivisible’ tips over into ‘indistinguishable’ and may signal one entity, whereas ‘inseparable’ implies the existence of at least two entities. Giles’s avoidance of Augustine’s preference for ‘inseparable’ assists Giles’s assertion that biblical statements which in the economy of salvation show that the Son subordinates himself to the Father ought not be understood as speaking about the eternal relations between them, but only about God as a whole, as the one, eternal, divine substance.

But that is not Augustine, whose foundational theological concerns, and the careful language he uses to express them, keep the economic and the immanent together so that economic subordination does speak of the eternal relations, not just the one substance. Jesus states that, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19ff). And in that way he—at least in the economy—is subordinating himself to the Father. Augustine, however, makes it clear that this economic relation is to be tied closely to the eternal relation. As related in eternity, so the Son operates on earth.

… that the work of the Father and the Son is inseparable [inseparabilis est operatio], and yet the Son’s working is from the Father just as the he himself is from the Father; and the way in which the Son sees the Father is simply by being the Son. For him, being from the Father, that is being born of the Father, is not something different from seeing the Father; nor is seeing him working something different from his working equally; and the reason he does not work of himself is that he does not (so to put it), be of himself …17

There are many references in Augustine to inseparable operations in which both Father and Son are ‘equally involved’ and yet not symmetrically so.18 The Father operates by the Son. The Father creates by the Son, and not vice versa. That is, the roles/functions/work are not interchangeable. This can be clearly seen in Augustine’s account of the missions: the Sending by the Father and the Being Sent by the Son.

It was not fitting that the Begetter be sent by his Son, but that the Son be sent by his Begetter. This is not inequality of substance, but the order of nature.19

The pattern seen in them is not arbitrary, but reflects the eternal relations.20 It is foolish, Augustine says, to think that the Son or the Spirit could send the Father.21 However, because the Son is truly of one substance with the Father and the operations of God are inseparable, it can rightly be also said that the Son sends himself.22


This misreading of the evidence by Giles also extends into the second period of church history discussed in his book, the Reformation. Giles quite rightly points out that the very important Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 “opposes the ‘blasphemies’ of those who teach that any person within the Trinity is ‘subservient or subordinate … unequal in it, are greater or less … [or] different with respect to character or will”.23 This includes, Giles says, those who believe that the Son is eternally subordinate in role/function/operations. Not quite. The Confession makes it clear that there is not only distinction between the Persons of the Trinity, but also order, and order without inequality.

Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal and coequal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other, but without inequality. For according to the nature of essence they are so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.24

Giles has quoted out of context, and omitted several important words.25

Barth and Rahner26

In the contemporary period, to make his case that tradition is against conservative evangelicals who affirm order in the Trinity, Kevin Giles seeks to lay deep foundations in the writings of arguably the two most distinguished theologians of the 20th century: Karl Rahner (a Roman Catholic) and Karl Barth (Swiss Reformed).

Kevin Giles opens with a useful summary of the insights of Karl Rahner into how trinitarian theology works. However, he shifts Rahner’s emphasis so as to assert what Rahner, in fact, denies. Giles’s view is that the incarnation only leads to generic truth about all of God, not knowledge of intra-trinitarian relationship. Rahner, he asserts, stands here.

However, Rahner strongly insists that the Father could not die. The roles/functions/operations of the Persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable, but eternal. What happened in the economy is rooted in the eternal differentiation of the three Persons. If every divine member of the Trinity could become man, become incarnate, that would ‘create havoc with theology’ and ‘be against the whole sense of holy Scripture’. Rahner also affirms that theincarnation reveals not only something about God generally (which we already knew anyway), but particularly about the Person of the Son or the Logos, “his own relative specific features within divinity”.27 Later, Rahner ties the obedience of the Son in the economy back into the immanent Trinity.28 Giles’s misreading has completely inverted Rahner’s meaning and intention.29

Giles’s use of Karl Barth is even a greater misreading. In the first place, he takes an argument that Barth outlines and treats it as Barth’s opinion. But in fact Barth outlines an ‘egalitarian’ position in order to refute it, and assert strongly that there is, properly understood, eternal relational subordination within the Trinity, and that it is necessary to salvation!30 The methodological point made by Barth, which is also that of Athanasius and Rahner (amongst others) is that unless the ordering in the relations we see in the economy actually witness to the relations in the immanent Trinity, then we are in fact not in touch with God himself. Therefore, Barth continues, we have no grounds for being sure of “any reconciliation of the world with God”!31 That is, the ordering in the relations within the immanent Trinity is a salvation issue.

Further, Giles also quotes Barth out of context, a context that keenly denies Giles’s assertion about Barth. For Barth, in God eternally there is a First and a Second (and a Third), there is ordering—and that without denying equality. There is One who commands and One who obeys, “without any cleft or differentiation but in perfect unity and equality …”.32 Barth regards Giles’s position, that subordination between Father and Son is purely economic, as Modalistic, a heresy rejected by the early Church.

Barth, in his thorough christological way, goes on to apply this to man-woman relationships. Giles is aware of Barth’s position on these relationships, but overlooks the fact that Barth finds the foundations for these in Christ and thus within the Trinity.33

Broughton Knox

As frequent reference to Broughton Knox and Moore College shows, Giles’s earlier main theological influence was Broughton Knox, whom he now opposes with respect to eternal relational subordination and theological method.

In some ways, his understanding of Knox is the least generous and accurate of all the theologians he interacts with. With respect to eternal relational subordination, his omission of key material presents Knox at his ‘worst’. Quite rightly, Giles gives high praise to Karl Barth’s theological analysis of the polarity in the man-woman relationship:

Barth’s treatment of the man-woman relationship should be studied carefully by both sides … Barth’s stress on the polarity of the sexes, their equality and reciprocity lifts his case above everything else in the literature … he is right in recognizing that husbands are called to give a lead in loving, sacrificial service for their wives.34

But Giles does not acknowledge how his teacher, Broughton Knox, likewise conceptualized the asymmetricality of the man/woman relationship as the male having the primary responsibility in serving the woman. This was foundational in Broughton’s thinking. He arrived at it on the basis of New Testament christology and by perichoretic thinking. The divine mutual indwelling, or perichoresis, Broughton expressed in terms of the ‘other-person-centred’ nature of God, and therefore, us. Where there was asymmetry in this ‘other-person-centredness’ in the male-female relationship, it was biased towards the man having the primary responsibility to serve his wife, sacrificially, as did Christ the church. This Knox preached, taught, and wrote about openly and often.35

Giles vociferously criticizes his earlier theological education under the heading, ‘The Bankruptcy of the Old Approach’. Giles was taught to believe “that theology is nothing more than the gathering of what the Bible teaches on any matter”, this is a doing of theology which demands that we do no more than “simply gather texts from the Bible and give ‘our’ interpretation of them”, and “[these] men began with a doctrine of Scripture that depicted the Bible as a compendium of timeless, transcultural precepts or propositions which only had to be systematized to give a divinely authoritative answer to any question”.36

Broughton Knox taught that the Bible was a compendium, and theology was simply gathering texts? This is an absurd and monstrous claim, as anyone who has browsed in the two volume collection of Knox’s writings will attest.37 Does the theological portrait of Broughton that I painted on his death, and published in The Briefing,38 look like that of a man who treated the Bible as a mere compendium and as a simple gathering of texts? Broughton Knox constantly brought the teaching of the texts against the broad theological concerns of the Bible, and the doctrine of God in particular.


Giles mistakenly seeks to bring John Zizioulas, Orthodox Bishop of Pergamon, to his side.39 He outlines some main thoughts in Zizioulas concerning the fact that koinonia (fellowship) between Persons is fundamental to understanding the ‘one substance’ of God. Although this is a little superfluous to his case against conservative evangelicals, it is good reading in itself. Then in the next paragraph, Giles states that:

In this Eastern Orthodox picture of the Trinity it is impossible to think that there is a ‘chain of command’ within the Trinity, that the Father gives orders and the Son obeys.40

Shorn of its pejorative presentation, Giles is saying that Zizioulas supports his ‘egalitarian’ understanding of relations between the Persons. However, as far as Zizioulas is concerned, in line with Athanasius and the Cappadocians, there is a profound and non-negotiable asymmetricality and hierarchy in the relations in the Trinity. Later, in a footnote, Giles comes close to admitting this is the Bishop’s real opinion.41 To cite Miroslav Volf’s well supported encapsulation of Zizioulas’ position on asymmetry in trinitarian relations and its application to ecclesiology:

The Father constitutes the Son and the Spirit, while the Son and the Spirit only condition the Father; Christ constitutes the church, while the church only conditions Christ. Accordingly, the bishop constitutes the church, but is only conditioned by the church.42

Giles so misreads sources that he cannot see what is patent—that in accusing of heresy those who hold within the boundaries of the Creed of Nicea and Constantinople eternal relational subordination, he has managed to place outside the pale, not only those he opposes in the ongoing debate about man-woman relations in English speaking evangelicalism, but also the mainstream of Roman Catholic and Protestant thinking in the West, and the Orthodox tradition of the East.

One final example: On page 100 he says that the important Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity, issued in 1991 by the those engaged in the Official Dialogue between the Orthodox church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, denies that the Father has some pre-eminence. Giles asserts that the Agreed Statement makes “the Godhead the arche of the Trinity”. However, Giles’s citation does not come from the Agreed Statement, but from a commentary on the Statement, which T. F. Torrance cites with approval.43 Even in using the citation from T. F. Torrance, Giles has somewhat missed the point. In his broader writings, Torrance may be close to Giles’s position, but he does not deny the priority of the Father. Rather, Torrance (quite rightly) insists that, without losing that priority, because of the divine mutual indwelling, “the Arche … or Monarchia … cannot be limited to one Person”. Here, the key word is ‘limited’. The relevant section in the Agreed Statement says in part:

In the trinitarian formulae of the New Testament, as Gregory the Theologian, among others, pointed out, there is a variation in the order in which ‘the Father’, ‘the Son’, and the ‘Holy Spirit’ are mentioned, which indicates that the order does not detract from full equality between the three Divine Persons … Nevertheless, as we learn from the institution of Holy Baptism, there is a significant coordination which places the Father first, the Son second, and the Spirit third … The priority of the Father does not imply that there is something more in him compared to the Son, for all that Father is the Son is apart from ‘Fatherhood’, and likewise all that the Son is the Spirit is apart from ‘Sonship’. Thus the order inherent in the trinitarian relations is grounded on the fact that the Son is begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father … The priority of the Father or the Monarchy of the Father within the Trinity does not detract from the fact that the Father is not properly … Father apart from the Son and the Spirit, that the Son is not properly Son apart from the Father and the Spirit, and that the Spirit is not properly Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. Hence the Monarchia of the Father is perfectly what it is in the Father’s relation to the Son and the Spirit within the one indivisible Being of God. “The perfection of the Holy Trinity is an indivisible and single Godhead” (Athanasius, Ad Ser. I.33).44

… In proclaiming the divine Monarchia we do not err, but confess the Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, One Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit … (Epiphanius, Haer. 62.3) … As such the Monarchy of the Father within the Trinity is not exclusive of the Monarchy of the whole undivided Trinity in relation to the whole of creation.45

(For the meaning of ‘Monarchy’ in Athanasius and the fathers more generally, refer above.)

What is encapsulated in the brief quote from the Agreed Statement is that the Father’s monarchy must be understood in concert with the divine mutual indwelling. The Father’s nature as origin and sovereign ruler is a shared monarchy, but not a denial of his priority in this. The implications of this for Christian anthropology are worth careful consideration. The further implications of this for the doctrine of God espoused by Kevin Giles I will return to later.

Methodological and theological errors

Giles’s analysis of trinitarian thought is also skewed by faulty method and theology. Several of these have already been highlighted above. Because the main focus of this review has been to consider the book’s use of major trinitarian texts, I will only outline problems in method and theology.

1. Hermeneutics and sola scriptura

Giles argues that when faced with conflicting interpretations we ought to realize that the reader and his or her culture is how the Holy Spirit works to bring about new and true interpretations of the Bible. God works in history to change our cultures, and thus the way we rightly read texts. Giles’s foundational hermeneutical principle is “context contributes to meaning”.46 Putting aside the fact that literary studies have known this for 2500 years, what is fatally missing in this declaration of basic interpretive principles is the important coordinate truth: texts have their own objectivity.

The 16th century Reformers had the highest view of the objectivity of the text of the Bible. Not only did it along with all texts posses the ability to express ‘the character of the writer’s mind’ (character mentis, Calvin), but because the Holy Spirit had breathed out this text and continues to teach us by speaking or proclaiming this exact same text to us, we ought to have the utmost confidence that the Scriptures can break through our own pre-suppositions, hurts, cultural distortions, and sinful ignorance to re-assert its own objectivity so that our minds change and we apprehend the truth as it is in Christ and enter by faith into a redemptive union with him. It is important to note that as much as the Reformers appreciated the fact that human culture gave them keen tools in understanding how to read text, in resolving contradictory interpretations they did not appeal to a human culture changed by the Holy Spirit (as Giles does), but to the Bible itself which the Spirit himself breathed and taught using its very own words. Thus, Thomas Cranmer spoke of being freed by the reading of Scripture from the “stinking puddles of men’s traditions, devised by men’s imagination”.

This living and dynamic objectivity is sometimes know as the ‘clarity’ or ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture. Further, ‘perspicuity’ is one of the foundational evangelical truths which is encapsulated in the theological catchcry, sola scriptura: the Bible alone as the final authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

By the by, sola scriptura does not mean ‘the Bible exclusively’, which Giles comes close to as he thinks of the sola in the context of his adversaries’ use of the Bible. ‘Bible exclusively’ would be a caricature of the 16th century understanding, let alone that of the wide body of scholars who stand in their tradition.

Effectively, Giles presents a crippled understanding of the Bible’s authority. This is further accentuated by his obvious distaste for propositional revelation, and propositional truth.47 On page 232 (footnote 7), Giles states his own position: the words of the Bible fundamentally have a sacramental connection with God’s own words or thought. But that is to believe too little. Because of the work of the Spirit, and because Christ (and thus the triune God) comes to us clothed in his promises, clothed in the Scriptures, we must also posit a much more direct relationship. Fundamentally, evangelical theology is realist, not merely sacramental. The words of the Bible are as sacramental, and substantial, in their connection to the fundamental reality underlying them as is data coming off a meter measuring the behaviour of electricity in a laboratory.

In the task of interpreting and obeying the Bible, Giles’s view leaves us placing foundational reliance on culture, even if it is cultural change.

2. How the Bible functions in trinitarian theology

Although Giles is aware that all our knowledge of God from the Bible is in the end ‘economic’, he does not quite understand how biblical statements, which are interpreted as economic, work in trinitarian theology.

It is important to retain one of the most solid gains of early trinitarian thought, the difference in the Bible between economic and immanent statements. The distinction arises because on the one hand Jesus Christ is in various ways affirmed as truly God, and yet on the other he does and suffers things that the rest of Scripture teaches God does not do or suffer. God is all knowing, all sovereign, and present everywhere, whereas Christ confesses ignorance about when he will return, suffers thirst and hunger, and patently in his mission is not everywhere. To honour Scripture, and thus God, instead of weakening or even denying one side or the other of this conflict, we have to accept both ways of talking about Christ. We need to understand economic and immanent statements on their own terms, and try to understand them together. That is, interpret both types of statements by way of a confluence, against the incarnation and mission of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The fathers’ distinction, then, between economic and immanent statements about Christ, and ultimately the Trinity, humbly seeks to preserve this honouring of the speaking and acting God.

But—and a deep appreciation of this is missing in Giles’s book—every biblical statement is made under the conditions of the economy of salvation, in the context of the history of Israel and the world. This means that even ‘immanent’ statements are (at least on the surface) able to be interpreted economically, patent of a human, an historically limited, interpretation. The classic case of course is the title ‘Son of God’ as applied to Jesus. It can just, and at least means, ‘God’s chosen King’, like David. That it also may signify God’s unique, fully divine Son, comes from the wider context.

Why then can we with any stability assign a particular text as either immanent or economic, ‘Christ in the form of God’ or ‘Christ in the form of a servant’? Well, we cannot; and Augustine and the other fathers knew this. With keen insight, Augustine refined a third way of classifying statements, statements of origin. Further, interpretations of texts like John 5:19ff become ludicrous if only interpreted by one category (usually economic). So Augustine at various times uses all three categories to uncover the meaning of John 5:19ff: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’”.

Because these texts speak of the God incarnate, then even if they are strongly economic, they must also with contextual propriety be allowed to say something of the immanent Trinity. Why? Because the fathers (and Karl Barth and Karl Rahner) grasped what is the most fundamental truth: it is God who speaks, God who causes Holy Scripture to be written for our edification, God who takes on human nature and lives under our human conditions, and it is thus God who saves.

So even the really hard economic text needs to also be read immanently, and not (as with Giles), as just saying something about God generically. Taking the cue from the actual content of these texts, they need to be allowed to speak of the relations between the Persons, because God’s essence of substance is triune.

Examples from the fathers abound. So Basil, considered by some to be the greatest of the Cappadocian fathers, could say on John 5:19, “Through all these words, He [Jesus] is guiding us to the knowledge of the Father, and referring our wonder at all that is brought into existence to Him, to the end that ‘through Him’ we may know the Father … the Word [is] full of His Father’s excellences; He shines forth from the Father, and does all things according to the likeness of Him that begat Him”.48 Indeed, later on Basil can say on John 5:19, “To me this saying too seems distinctly declaratory of the Son’s being of the same nature as the Father”.49 Thus, the text speaks of: the order of our knowing (through the Son); the priority of the Father; and that the Son is of the same nature or essence of the Father.

Against the Arian interpretation, in a similar vein to his treatment of John 5:19, Matthew 24:36 (=Mark 13:32) is addressed: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father”. First of all, Basil explains verses which speak of Jesus’ inferiority according to his status “in the form of man”. However, he is not content to leave it there. “Now let us enquire into the meaning of the text from a higher point of view. Let me knock at the door of knowledge, if happily I may awake the master of the house”. Basil then goes on to show that it is the Son’s proper function, as the eternal Son of the Father, to point towards the fount of Godhead: that is, to the Father.

Only the Father, He says, knows, since He is Himself the end and the ultimate blessedness.

For all material knowledge is said to be the kingdom of Christ; while immaterial knowledge, and so, to say, the knowledge of actual Godhead, is that of God the Father.50

What Basil is tentatively suggesting is that even the difficult text of Matthew 24:36 truly says something about Jesus’ eternal relation to the Father: that is, Jesus in the form of God, not just in the form of Man.

Giles has missed the importance of allowing all trinitarian texts, in an appropriate way, to speak of God on the inside, of his eternal relations. Giles does this because he has already made a prior commitment, from his reliance on cultural change, that permanent order means inferiority. Economic texts may only, at best, speak of the ‘whole God’.

3. No exegesis of critical passages

Surprisingly, for an author whose main field is biblical studies, there is no exegesis of critical passages. Prominently, Giles appeals much to Philippians 2:5-11.51 But his understanding is not established exegetically, and in part, looks to me as question begging.

In section two, where exegetical summaries are evident, they tend to be somewhat tendentious, and ignore connections in the text to its context that may lead to opposite conclusions. For example, on Ephesians 5:23, Giles does not, in the wider context of Ephesians (and also 1 Corinthians 11), trace ‘headship’ back to Christ and God, the Father.52

Again, in section three, Giles engages with the biblical text by way of summaries of biblical scholarship. However, I surmise that a more direct engagement with Philemon, as a case in point, may have yielded even more insights, some of which are amenable to his position.

4. Difference between Persons with reference to common divine essence and Persons with reference to their relations

As Andrew Moody has pointed out, in assessing the historical evidence Kevin Giles confuses or overlooks the difference between statements that speak of the three, triune Persons with respect to their common divine essence, and statements that speak of the Persons with respect to their relations. This careful distinction is typical of the ecumenical creeds and Reformation statements. It is in their one undivided essence that the Persons are equal, but they are differentiated in their relations, a differentiation which includes order, and the priority of the Father. Giles tends to equate them, as seen in his comments on the Second Helvetic Confession. By confusing these two, he illegitimately uses creedal and confessional statements against those who affirm order in the Trinity.53

5. Monarchy of Father: polytheism, or the Son not cosmic Lord?

In addition to what has already been said above regarding the fathers and Karl Rahner, the denial that authority and rule is included in the monarchy of the Father, and not just origin, has very serious implications for Giles’s doctrine of God.

Does the Father have the right to delegate authority to the Son (which because of delegation implies filial subordination)?

Since Giles’s limiting of the monarchy to that of origin denies that right, then there are only two possible choices: either Giles must establish an alternative basis for the Son’s cosmic kingship, or surrender the Son’s kingship.

If Giles opts for an alternative basis for the Son’s cosmic kingship other than its delegation to him by the Father, there is no final centre of rule (monarchy), but authority in the Trinity comes from more than one source. This, the fathers saw, including Athanasius in Against the Gentiles, clearly implied polytheism. In our relativistic, contemporary culture the polytheistic implication of Giles’s position is conspicuous.

If Giles opts to surrender the Son’s cosmic kingship, then the Son is not cosmic king, and this affects the security of our salvation.

Again, these problems arise because Giles has departed from the principle that the economy reveals the immanent, and because he understands the Son’s authority other than as the Son himself reveals it. Giles defends the Son despite the Son’s express statements. As Hilary of Poitiers (missing in Giles’s review), John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others stress, we must let God be his own witness.

Thus, as Rahner warned, Giles has created havoc.

6. Speaking about ‘Persons’ involves ontological language

Kevin Giles makes much of the statements in the Sydney Doctrine Commission Report, which describe the ordered relations between the Persons in terms of ‘essence’, ‘mode of being’, ‘differences of being’, and ‘the very Persons themselves in their eternal nature’.54

The language may well be inelegant, but what Giles seems not to understand is that unless one conceives of the Relations in the Trinity as merely logical (which Giles does not), the use of words like ‘essence’, ‘being’, and ‘eternal nature’ in talking about who they are in their differences is close to inescapable.

These statements ought, as they are by Giles at least in passing, to be understood in the context of the Report’s strong affirmation of the one, undivided essence of God, and the repeated denial of essential subordinationism (the heresy of Arius), and the Report’s clear distinction between essential subordinationism and eternal relational subordination.55 To not give full weight to these aspects of the Report is to invite a hostile reading.

The Persons are ontological entities, and God is his Relations, and ontological language (‘essence’, ‘being’, ‘eternal nature’) is involved in describing their differences unless we are to imply that the differences are merely accidental, ‘surface’ differences, or that the names are merely figurative, or that the essence of the triune God is in fact not intelligible at all. God’s one, undivided essence is not an undifferentiated essence, for the God of Israel and of the church is the one, true God who is as this one God eternally differentiated within himself. Even in the Old Testament there is internal self-reflection in God: “Let us make man in our image”. Undifferentiated monotheism is the radical monotheism of Neoplatonism, where the one, true divine substance cannot even have self-knowledge, for that would imply two entities, a knower and his self-knowledge. This ‘one god’ is but the centre of an unmarked circle, about which we cannot speak.

What holds these Christian realities of ‘Persons’ and ‘undivided essence’ together is the fact that in the eternal, divine mutual indwelling, the Persons in their relations (including the monarchy of the Father), and the one essence, arise together. God is his Relations. God’s one essence is personal, and in a hierarchy of loving relations between the Persons. It is because God is personal in this unique way where the one essence and the Persons arise together that we can articulate what his essence is—how it is one and yet differentiated. Although ever with caution, we need not fear precision when God’s self-revelation presses precision upon us. We need to fear presumption and ill-discipline, not precision.

7. Ground assumption that permanent submission means inferiority

In the end, the only way that Giles can maintain his ‘egalitarian’ case with respect to no permanent roles/functions/work among the three Persons is his appeal to the ‘self-evident truth’: “someone who is eternally or permanently subordinated in an involuntary way can only be regarded as inferior. He is not the equal of his superior in any essential way.”56

But as Barth has pointed out in the section appealed to by Giles, that is to speak in all too human ways. Even if, in human terms, we could by critical philosophy or indubitable human experience establish this as a fundamental truth of being and life, it must as a human truth in the presence of the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ—Christ clothed with his Scriptures—stand with its hand over its mouth. We must understand God on his own terms, as he is in himself; and in doing so turn to this axiom and poke it with hard questions. Even if these questions can be answered to our human satisfaction, this earthly truth must even in its loud contradiction still remain silent, as we contemplate and worship and seek to proclaim the person and work of the triune God in way that honours him as he truly is in his self-revelation, and by faith await the consummation which then and only then will resolve the contradiction in whichever way God wills.

But even at the human level, I am unconvinced. In my relationship with my mother, I remain permanently subject to her. I owe her honour in a way that she will never owe me. The form of that subjection and debt has changed since I became an adult, but the asymmetricality of it remains, and will be so until the relationship is broken by death. In the matter of familial obedience and honour, I am her inferior; but to claim, therefore, that I am her inferior as a human being is nonsense.

8. Why can the book be so persuasive?

Yet, for all this, Giles’s book has been warmly received in various theological circles in the English-speaking world. It may be asked, against the weight of what the text of the New Testaments says about the incarnate Son’s subordination to his heavenly Father, why can Kevin Giles’s book appear so persuasive, to some at least?

As I have read the book, his strategy for coping with the difficulty has been fivefold:57

  1. He invokes the post-modern suspicion of truth claims because of bad intentions by the authors, thus portraying the opposing position as an unattractive straw man that no-one would want to associate with (e.g. they make women inferior, their ancestors were slave holders, they treat the Bible as a mere compendium).
  2. He admits that at first glance there appears to be a great deal of biblical evidence for the straw man position.
  3. But then, he by-passes exegesis of the biblical material by asserting a log jam in interpretation—there are so many different views; how can we possibly arrive at the truth? He then suggests that his opponents’ use of the Bible is at best na?e, at worst, culturally conditioned to justify the straw man’s wrong bias (towards oppression).
  4. He finishes the job by calling on the support of other authorities, such as the experience of those involved (women, slaves, the author’s theological upbringing), elements of Christian tradition, and the opinion of eminent scholars and theologians.
  5. Having read their evidence with a high view of the reader as determiner of meaning, he writes very confidently.


In summary, this is a very bad book. Its argument is tendentious, and consistently and grossly distorts the evidence from a long tradition of trinitarian reflection. It seems unaware of the consequences of its misunderstanding of theological method and basic theological truths, and is marked by pejorative dismissals and portrayals. The level of ill-discipline and consequent untruth in this book does not serve the church well.

It is thus particularly distressing to witness the warm reception it has received in certain evangelical circles in North America, and in a broader grouping in Australia.

It is distressing because these are not trivial or unimportant matters. The priority of the Father in intra-trinitarian relations, the equality of the Persons in the one essence, and the application of both to human relations, are all vital theological matters. They are gospel issues. All we who wish to stand under the sovereignty of Holy Scripture, and within the boundaries of the teaching of the Bible well-recognized by the Nicene Creed, need to listen to both axioms, ‘equality of essence’ and ‘order in relations’, and think carefully about their relation. For our doctrine of God and theological anthropology, there are appreciable dangers in not doing so.

There is much to be gained from further theological and exegetical work on these questions, and there is a wealth of historical scholarship and reflection to draw on for the task. But we need studies which are careful in scholarship, have a deep understanding of method and foundational theological truths, are exegetically scrupulous, and humble.


1 Myself included.

2 Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, IVP, Downers Grove, 2002, p. 81.

3 See This excellent site pays careful reading, for Moody has acute biblical and theological insights into how Giles’s arguments work.

4 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 21, 25, 85.

5 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 81, 85.

6 With respect to the trinitarian theology of the early church, I am much indebted to Michael Ovey who has been kind enough to share with me the results of his ongoing Ph.D research at the University of London.

7 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 38 (emphasis original).

8 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 85 (emphasis original).

9 Quoting Bp Dionysius of Rome, Defence
of the Nicene Council/[Definition]
, paragraph 26; and for his general approval of Dionysius, On the Opinions of Dionysius. Using the table of contents, these can be read in English translation in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, Vol IV, Eerdmans reprint, Michigan, 1978.

10 Athanasius, Against the Heathen, paragraphs 39-40; emphasis mine. See also Against the Heathen, paragraphs 6-7; also Defence of the Nicene Council/[Definition], 26, 30-31; and On Luke 10.22.

11 See Defence of the Nicene Council/[Definition], 30, On Luke, 4-5.

12 See Defence of the Nicene Council/[Definition], 31, On Luke, 4-5.

13 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 113.

14 Giles, Subordinationists: Arians in another Role?, refer Moody, section 4.

15 Augustine, On the Trinity, book I, section 7. Two English translations can be consulted, that of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, Vol III, and more recently by Stephen McKenna, The Fathers of the Church; a new translation, volume 45.

16 Giles acknowledges this (p. 47, fn.
63), although he continues to use the language of ‘indivisible’ and not

17 On the Trinity, II.3.

18 See, for example, sermonic material on John 5:19; Sermon 52 on Matthew 3:13; and Answer to Maximus.

19 Augustine, Answer to Maximus, II.xiv.89.

20 See On the Trinity, IV.27-28, 32 answering a question raised in II.20-22.

21 On the Trinity, IV.32; cf. II.22.

22 On the Trinity, II.9.

23 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 59.

24 Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 3; refer, emphasis mine. Thanks again to Andrew Moody,

25 The parts Giles quotes are at the end of the chapter, and set within the parameters of discussion given earlier; refer above. Giles has also omitted words that point in a different direction to his interpretation.

26 For a more detailed examination of Giles’s treatment of Barth and Rahner, refer to two forthcoming articles by Mark Baddeley, in Southern Cross and Reformed Theological Review.

27 Karl Rahner, On Trinity, p. 28.

28 Rahner, On Trinity, pp. 62-63.

29 Refer to Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 29-31; cf. Rahner, On Trinity, pp. 22-33.

30 Refer Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 88; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1.196.

31 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1.196.

32 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.202; cf. Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 88-89.

33 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1. Pages 157-210 are worth reading in full (the designation of IV as 3 is a typo in Giles, p. 89, fn. 12).

34 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 91, fn. 26.

35 D. B. Knox, ‘The Everlasting God, Appendix A’, in Tony Payne (ed.), D. B. Knox Selected Works: The Doctrine of God, Vol 1, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2000, pp. 153-170; see also Kirsten Birkett (ed.), D. B. Knox Selected Works: Church and Ministry, Vol 2, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2003, pp. 59, 201-203.

36 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 266.

37 Tony Payne (ed.), D. B. Knox Selected Works: The Doctrine of God, Vol 1, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2000; see also Kirsten Birkett (ed.), D. B. Knox Selected Works: Church and Ministry, Vol 2, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2003, pp. 59, 201-203.

38 The Briefing #129, Matthias Media, Sydney, 21 February 1994, pp. 1-5.

39 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 99-100.

40 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 100.

41 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 110, fn. 16.

42 Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness: the church as the image of the Trinity, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 215. Volf is a leading evangelical writer in North America. Although I disagree with his ‘egalitarianism’ in intra-trinitarian relations and between men and women, I read his publications with much profit.

43 Giles leads into his citation with: “The following paragraph, taken from the agreement, could not be more explicit” (p. 100).

44 Cited from Thomas F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: toward doctrinal agreement, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 119.

45 Op. cit., p. 120.

46 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, p. 11 (emphasis original).

47 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 11, 232, 263f, 266.

48 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, volume VIII, p. 13.

49 NPNF, series 2, VIII, p. 120.

50 NPNF, series 2, VIII, pp. 118-119, cf. p. 276.

51 Giles, Trinity and
, p. 116.

52 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 206, 254-256.

53 In his exchange with Moody, for his polemical purposes, Giles seeks to make much of creedal affirmations of the equality of the essence. See

54 Giles, Trinity and Subordinationism, pp. 79-80.

55 See, especially sections 5-28; or Giles’s Appendix B.

56 Giles, Trinity and
, pp. 81, 85.

57 Adapted from Tony Payne, ‘More on the meaning of “church”’.

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