Blame It on Van Til

Maybe the Trinity Has Nothing 
to Do with Complementarianism

Like John Paul II in Roman Catholicism Cornelius Van Til was canonized by the Reformed camp almost before the dirt was shoveled onto his casket. Along with Calvin, Kuyper, and Warfield Van Til is a Reformed saint, at least in America. I first experienced Van Til and his Creator-creature circles at the (soon to be revived) Pensacola Theological Institute. Then, in seminary we read him and studied his thought. 

Looking back, I am not sure I ever understood Van Til. Perhaps in addition to Greek and Hebrew the seminary should have offered language courses in Van Tillian and Vossian. I kept worrying that I would be exposed as one of those who did not yet "get Van Til" while all my friends were numbered among the enlightened.

Anyway for any who have been asleep or are caught up in rapturous thought about the the PCA's repentance for its racial sins, I will inform you there has been raging a debate about the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who are excited about the new committee on women's ministry might want to pay attention to this debate.

The reason for this debate, as best I can tell, is disagreements about complementarianism - the ontological natures of manhood and womanhood, the economic roles and role-relationships of men and women, and the spheres of life (just home and church or every area of life in which males and females have dealings with one another?) in which male "leadership" and qualified female "followership" ("headship" and "submission" are impolitic terms) are operable. 

What does Van Til have to do with this? Well, as best I understand him, for Van Til the doctrine of the Trinity is foundational to the understanding of everything else. Everything is grounded in the eternal ontological Trinity and the interpersonal relationships of the Persons of the Godhead. 

So, those who want to argue that the relationship of man and woman is ontological in nature (man was created to lead and woman to follow - leading is essential to manhood and following is essential to womanhood) and therefore extends to every area of life, would like to ground their teaching in the eternal relationships of the Trinity. Is the Son eternally in submission to the Father because submission is essential to sonship? (Tim Bayly uses the curious term "eternal economic subordination" of to describe Son's relationship with the Father.) In other words, was the Son subordinate to Father before his incarnation and will he be after he has subdued all things to himself and then submits himself to the Father that God may be all in all? Is the Son subordinate in eternity past and eternity future?

You can see where the proponents of "fat (compared to Carl and Aimee's "thin") complementarianism and the proponents of patriarchy would like to take this. If the nature of the very Son of God is to be subordinate to the Father and subordinate always in all things, why is it surprising then that man made in the image of the Trinitarian God should exercise headship in every area of life and that woman also made in the image of the Trinitarian God should be subordinate in every area of life? The natures and roles of man and woman are grounded in the Trinity and the eternal interpersonal relationships of the Persons. 

To this others have responded that this is not Nicene (as clarified by Constantinople in 381) Christianity. Historic Christianity confesses that the Persons of the Trinity are the same in nature, all three Persons being fully God, and therefore eternally equal. The Son is voluntarily subordinate to the Father and the Spirit voluntarily subordinate to the Father and the Son in the plan and work of redemption, but in eternity there is no Trinitarian subordination. The Persons of the Trinity are equal in attributes, powers, authority, willing, and glory. They are in perfect harmony not because of the subordination of one to the other but because they are equally God. God does not disagree with himself. (Now there is a whole 'nother rabbit trail here for those who follow N.T. Wright and the linguistic Biblical theologians who don't like systematic or creedal theology. They believe this whole discussion is unnecessary and meaningless inasmuch as it does not arise from the vocabulary and concerns of the Bible but from the imposition of Greek thought categories on the Bible.)

This is Van Til's fault as he taught that everything is related to God the Holy Trinity. So, if the subjects are man and woman, male and female, headship and subordination, the right understanding is to be found by relating the subjects to the Trinity. 

But I ask, Couldn't you leave the doctrine of the Trinity out of this discussion about the sexes? Couldn't those who want to argue about the sexes exegete and debate the texts? The doctrine of the Trinity is not going to settle the disagreements about man and woman, leadership and submission.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am an egalitarian in my understanding of the Trinity. I am complementarian in my understanding of man and woman - too fat for Aimee, I think, but emaciated in the view of the Baylys. To tip my hand on the questions in the previous paragraph, I think that the problem with those who want on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11 to argue for the eternal subordination of the Son is they fail to do their exegesis with sufficient deference to the analogy of faith (historic Trinitarian doctrine). 

Maybe Van Til should be allowed to sleep.


  1. Completely leaving the Trinity out of the conversation of sex would require us to completely strike 1 Cor 11:3 from the Bible. It can’t mean nothing. The connection between the Trinity and the sexes is made by God, not Van Til. I don’t mind arguing about what that looks like, and how much to base on that verse. But leave the Trinity out of the discussion and ignore that verse? On what basis? Just because you think Van Til had a faulty “push the Trinity on everything” approach to Scripture? Even if it is faulty, that’s not what we’re doing.

    1. Joseph, here is the text to which you refer: "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife[a] is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." Yes, St. Paul relates the Trinity to, as the ESV translators render it, rightly I believe, husbands and wives. (I would guess you will want to argue that rendering gune wife is incorrect and that the Apostle means "woman" not "wife.") At any rate St. Paul plainly has in mind the economic Trinity, not the ontological Trinity, the relation of the Father and the Son in time in the work of redemption and not the Father and the Son in eternity. One thing that makes that clear in this context is the use of "Christ" - the Messianic Son, not the ontological Son. According to historic Nicene Christianity the Persons are entirely equal in their eternal relations. There is not submission by the Son in eternity. So the Apostle's argument is that the head of the Messiah is God, and the head of man is the Messiah, and the head of the wife is her own (male) husband. This is entirely consistent with the context - the domestic relationship and its expression in the congregation gathered in worship. This is also consistent with the truth that the role relationship between the sexes in the domestic and the ecclesial settings is for this age and not for the age to come. The Bayly position, and that of those who agree with you, wants the submission of the Son to the Father in eternity past and future to undergird your view of the relation between man and woman. If the Trinitarian relations are those of Nicene Christianity, then you lack an important element of our argument. You are left to argue the texts, which is as it should be, rather than to ground your view of the sexes in the eternal relations of the Trinity.

  2. So let me get this straight, you do actually claim that there is nothing about sexuality here and nothing about the Trinity here, and they aren’t connected *at all*?

    You are aware that "man and wife" is sexual in nature, right? And that the Messiah happens to be the second Person in the Trinity sent in human form?

    I’m not going to bother correcting all the assumptions you make about what I think. All I said was that you cannot be faithful to this verse while denying that it teaches us something about sexuality and specifically brings the Trinity in. Since you seem to be intent on doing just that, I guess this conversation isn’t likely to go anywhere.

    1. Joseph, here, unlike the Bayly Blog, we welcome comments,disagreements, discussion. We do not believe in blocking commenters.

      Frankly, I wonder if you understood my earlier response to you. There is indeed something about sexuality in the text, if by that you mean male and female, inasmuch, as you note, men are males and wives are females.

      Is there anything related to the Trinity? Yes, but you have to make the right distinctions. Are you familiar with the distinction between the ontological Son and the messianic Son. I made the point that the headship of God in relation to the Christ is the headship of God the Father in relation to the Messianic Son and relates to redemption and this present age. It does not relate to eternity past or future or the relationship between the Father and Son in eternity. The Son and the Father are one in the divine nature, one in the divine will, one in the divine glory, one in the divine authority. In other words they are co-eternal and co-equal. The Son does not submit to the Father outside of the economy of redemption or outside this present age. There is nothing esoteric or unusual here. It's just the historic Christian view of the Trinity.

      Now, if you want to argue that God (the Father) is the head of Christ, the messianic Son, and that the male in relation to his wife is her head, then there is really nothing to argue about. Yes God is the head of Christ. Yes, the woman's male is her head.

      Where the trouble comes is in what I understand you and Tim want to say about the grounding of headship of males in relation to females in a relationship of submission (subordination) of the eternal Son to the eternal Father. That submission does not exist. Subordinationism is an ancient heresy rejected by catholic Christianity. Inasmuch as that submission does not exist it has nothing at all to do with the submission of the wife to the husband, or, as you would no doubt prefer, the submission of females to males. (I say the latter as a concession to you - not because I agree that there is a general subordination of females to males which would forbid a female magistrate or manager.)

      Faithfulness to the verse is faithfulness to what St. Paul teaches in it. He does not teach submission of the eternal Son to the eternal Father. Thus he does not use any submission within ontological Trinity or in eternity to teach anything about male and female roles. What he does is to coordinate the headship of God in relation to the Messiah and the headship of the male in relation to his wife. So, if you agree with that then there is no disagreement.

      It seems rather strange to me that you would reply to my reply to your comment and assume the conversation is not going anywhere. Where the conversation goes is discussion, disagreement, debate. It might or might not end in partial or complete agreement between us, but that is not what it means for a conversation to go somewhere. I fear this is how you and Tim see it - the purpose for your engaging another person is to correct them and convince them of your rightness and if that does not occur then the conversation goes nowhere and the other person is obtuse.

      Please, if you are seriously interested in discussion, feel free to respond. As I said at the outset, I am not threatened by disagreement or or unwilling to let others have their says.

  3. So we can learn something from the Trinity about sexuality. Odd you seem to say exactly the opposite above.

    And that's the only claim I've made. What exactly are you arguing about?

  4. Joseph, I do not believe you are either so naive or so obtuse as your above comment presents you.

    You know, of course, that the bare statement "we can learn something from
    the Trinity about sexuality" ("sexualtiy" being your curious term, not mine). As my comment above points out, to have a meaningful discussion it is necessary to say what about the Trinity and Trinitarian relations we are talking about, what about sexuality, or, more accurately, male/female, man/woman, we are talking about, and how we propose to relate the Trinity and Trinitarian relations to male/female and their relations. But, of course, though you pretend otherwise, you know that.

    To put the argument concisely here is a statement by Liam Goligher as quoted by David: "The inner life of the Triune God does not support hierarchy, patriarchy, or egalitarianism." Here is David's response: "Really? Fatherhood is not a social issue? Is not rooted in the Trinity? The inner life of Father and Son does not support patriarchy?" Dr. Goligher's statement is exactly right - nothing but classic historic Christian Trinitarianism. David is at this point heterodox,arguing that the inner life of the Trinity does have something to do the role relationships of man and woman. David misses or dismisses entirely the timeless truth that the Father and Son are of one divine nature, glory, will, power, authority - that they are, as I said earlier, representing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, co-eternal and co-equal.That timeless truth does not tell us anything about male-female roles and relations.

    A side-note. If you want to argue that the eternal inner life of the Trinity has something to do with "sexualitu" then the argument would be that in their "essence" man and woman are equal. But, as Dr. Goligher states, the inner life of the Trinity is unique and therefore is not relevant to the issue of male-female relations.

    That is what we are arguing about.

    Again, since we, unlike the Bayly Bog, do not block people for arguing contrary to our position,you are welcome to continue to disagree, debate, and discuss these matters. We are happy to engage with you and have no desire to stifle your free statement of what you believe.

  5. And I don't for a minute believe you've forgotten that this is what you write and what I objected to.

    Since you've now apparently abandoned this position I'm done.

    "But I ask, Couldn't you leave the doctrine of the Trinity out of this discussion about the sexes? Couldn't those who want to argue about the sexes exegete and debate the texts?"

    As we've seen, the answer is no because the texts connect the two. Fun times.

    1. Joseph, you seem in argument to employ the old Viet Nam strategy: Declare victory and go home.

      For the record, if it is necessary to tell you, and I doubt it is, inasmuch as I think you are playing games, I have not abandoned a position nor have we agreed on the meaning of the text. You seem to insist that there is no distinction between the economic relations of the Father and the Son on the one hand and the eternal interpersonal relations of the Persons on the other hand. The text does not deal with the latter. It remains as Dr. Goligher said that the eternal interpersonal relationships have nothing to do with patriarchy, egalitarianism, or complementarianism. My guess is that you do understand the historic Nicea-Constantinople doctrine and you feign that you do not.

      I think this tendency to declare your opponent vanquished and yourself vindicated, apart from successful argument is a family tendency, inasmuch is this is the sort of thing Tim does frequently.

      You might wish to consider the teaching of the Athanasian Creed on this matter and how this ecumenical Creed relates the doctrine of the Trinity not to male-female relations but to salvation.

      21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

      22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

      23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

      24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

      25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

      26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

      27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

      28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

  6. I'm well aware of everything involved in the discussion. I'm not debating it here. You've claimed so much about what I believe that I think it's funny. All I said here is that we can learn something about sexuality from the Trinity, contrary to your claim quoted above.

    As I said originally, how much we can learn, etc. are open for debate, but not until you will admit that your basic claim goes way too far, and requires us to strike a verse from the Bible.

    1. I refer you to my first response to you above.

      Your style of debate, to use the term loosely, is typical Bayly stuff. You're not "debating." You find what I say "funny." Etc. I am not sure if this is genetic or if it is something learned in the Bayly school o of rhetoric. Either way, it is not effective argument.

      I would suggest that before you can talk about "how much we can learn" there is much you need to unlearn about and then relearn about the Trinity and the eternal interpersonal relations.

      You might notice how open I am to you. If you tried this kind of stuff at the Bayly Blog you would be cut off by down - perhaps in the Pauline sense.

  7. If you can point to one thing I've said anywhere on the Trinity that I should unlearn, I'd be interested in hearing it.

    In the meantime, thank you for how kind you've been to me. I can't imagine what unkind would look like.

    1. Joseph, do hold the positions on this subject stated by David and Tim at the Bayly Blog? if you reject and denounce those views then perhaps you have nothing to unlearn about the Trinity. But I will be surprised since you began this whole discussion by referring to what "we" are doing.

      If you would like to know what unkind would look like all you need do is to look at Tim's treatment of me. His arrogance, dismissiveness, disrespect know no bounds. This is rooted at least in part in his hubris - he is right and those who disagree are wrong and must be rebuked and disciplined by him. This in turn is rooted in his view of his authority and his brooking no challenge of it.

      As I said, I treat you with kindness and respect allowing you to say what you will as often as you will. I consider this a matter of human respect to say nothing of Christian respect.

      You continue to be welcome to say what you will here. I sense that we may be at the end of what can be said, but I would not interfere with your saying what you wish.

  8. Here is an extensive bibliography for the doctrine of the Trinity:


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