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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Does the Trinity Prove Anything about Gender? Not Much

Amid all the arguments among Christians regarding the roles of men and women in home, church, and society, one of the most prominent nowadays is the argument from the Trinity, namely, that the way the persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) relate and are related to each other tells us something important about how men and women are related and ought to relate to each other.

And no wonder some argue this way. What a trump card! “Our view of gender is rooted in the very nature of God!”

The first troubling thing to notice here, however, is that this argument is deployed by both complementarians/patriarchalists and egalitarians/feminists.

Complementarians argue that the members of the Trinity are indeed co-equal, as the Nicene Creed makes clear, but also that the Son and Spirit willingly submit to the Father, and the Spirit humbly bears witness, not to himself, but to the Son. Thus, the argument continues, women can submit to men, as they ought to do (which is a point argued on other grounds) without feeling automatically devalued.

Egalitarians argue from the co-equality of members of the Trinity to the opposite conclusion. They say that the members of the Trinity do play different roles, but none of them dominates the others. Indeed, they are all involved in all aspects of divine work, from creation through redemption to consummation, in an interplay of mutual joy and cooperation.

For my part, feminist/egalitarian that I am, I think the complementarians get the better of this sort of argument. The Father is always pictured in the Bible in the supreme position and never “rotates off” that position for another member of the Trinity. The Son always is pictured as deferring to the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father in the name of the Son, and delights in drawing attention to the Son, not to himself

But my complementarian friends are getting the better of what is, in fact, a pretty useless argument.

The problem I have with the complementarian reference to the Trinity is that it is a bad theological move to attempt—by anyone, on any side of this issue.

For one thing, the Trinity is/are three and when it comes to gender we are instead talking about two. So the parallel is not neat, which may suggest that it’s not a parallel at all.

For another thing, the divine Father and Son are depicted as, yes, two males, and even the Biblical pronouns for the Spirit are masculine—even though our theology reminds us that God is not actually male. So there is no connection between hierarchy and gender in the Trinity, no female/feminine person submitting to a male/masculine person. Again, the parallel is not at all exact, which may suggest that it’s not a parallel at all.

Finally, it is Genesis 1 that introduces human beings—male and female—as created in the image of God. And in this passage there is no reference to the Trinity as implying anything about gender—nor does any other Bible passage so argue.

(The one text that comes to mind—although it doesn’t mention the Trinity or the Holy Spirit either—is I Corinthians 11. But this is a notoriously obscure passage, what with head coverings, angels, and other complications of what might seem initially to be a nice, clear hierarchy. Just what Paul is arguing and just what he is trying to get the Corinthians to do as a result has occupied commentators for two thousand years. Maybe the complementarians are right about this one, but it’s not exactly a transparent case.)

So all that the complementarians are incontrovertibly left with is a Trinity that “proves” that hierarchy sometimes can be a good thing and can be present among equals. And we all already knew that.

You don’t need to probe the mysteries of the Godhead to show what any sports team, or large business, or military unit already shows you: some groups do better when they are arranged hierarchically even among members of equal dignity. And some don’t. The End.

Many theologians (I among them) strongly endorse circumspection when it comes to the attempt to use one of the great mysteries of the faith—the internal life of God in the Trinity—to shed light on some other doctrine. Some doctrines do require deployment of the doctrine of the Trinity to understand them properly—most notably Christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. But the question of gender seems to be one of those theological subjects not much improved by reference to the Trinity—as is evidenced by the fact that everyone seems to be able to selectively access this doctrine in the interest of contradictory understandings of gender.

In short, I find this whole line of theological reasoning unhelpful to an investigation of gender. There are lots of good arguments to consider on both sides. But this isn’t one of them.


(I offer my own set of arguments in Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender, from which this post is revised.)


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