Home  I  Paul Study  I  Spirituality Study I  Discipleship Study I Worship Perspectives I Worship Songs
About Us  I DISCiple Explained  I Contact Us


The Person, the Trinity, the Church


Wholeness Study

Chapter 3                                                                     printer-friendly pdf version of entire study

Trinitarian Uniqueness in the Whole





Function, Uniqueness, Subordination
In Two Relational Contexts
Subordination in Context
Development of Trinitarian Views
A Different Approach
The Relational Significance of Jesus' Revelation
Reductionist Intrusion in the Process to Family
The Relational Outcome of the Whole

Chap. 1
Chap. 2

Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6

Chap. 7
Chap. 8
Chap. 9
Chap. 10
Chap. 11

Table of Contents

Scripture Index



Since the Trinity is the key for determining the whole person and the relationships necessary together to be whole as God’s family, we need to better understand the Trinity, to further grasp the trinitarian persons and the depth of their relationships together as the whole of God. This discussion will be interrelated to current conversation of the human person and human relationships, specifically as it involves distinctions like gender.


When we talk about trinitarian uniqueness distinguishing the Father, the Son and the Spirit in their persons, the ongoing central issue (along with past concerns about tritheism and modalism) is some variation of subordinationism, particularly as it formulates gender relations. Yet we need to reconsider this issue more deeply in the relational context and process of how God does relationship, first within the Trinity and then in relation to us.


Two related theological issues to keep in mind throughout this discussion will be helpful for our understanding. One involves reducing the persons of the Trinity (intentionally or inadvertently) into the whole of God’s being such that they lose their uniqueness or personhood (the loss of which becomes susceptible to modalism); on the other hand, overstating their uniqueness opens the possibility of shifting into tritheism. The other issue involves reducing the whole of the Trinity (beyond us in eternity called the immanent Trinity) into the economic Trinity (directly involved with us in revelation) so that the eternal God loses mystery; yet God’s self-revelation is only partial (i.e., incomplete) and provisional. Reducing the whole of each trinitarian person or the whole of God’s being are consequential not only for our understanding of the triune God but also for understanding what is important about our persons and our relationships in order to be whole in the likeness of who, what and how God is.


We can rely only on God’s self-revelation to properly understand the Trinity and their relationships. Anything about God and how God does relationship beyond this revelation is mere speculation. While revelation is only a partial picture of the totality of God, we have sufficient parts of the picture (or pieces in a puzzle) to provide us understanding of the whole of the triune God, the persons of the Trinity and their relationship together. The key, however, is properly putting the pieces together. Jesus confronted his disciples about their lack of understanding in putting the pieces together (syniemi, Mk 8:17, cf. Mk 6:52). Paul stated that it was his purpose for us to have this understanding of the whole (synesis, Col 2:2) in order that we would specifically know (not just be informed about, epignosis) the full significance of the various parts of the mystery of God revealed in the face of Christ. 


Function, Uniqueness, Subordination

The main area of disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians over subordination in the Trinity (thus in marriage and the church) involves authority and the roles signified by authority. Whether differences in function also mean differences in being (and essence) or only role differentiation (for example as argued by Wayne Grudem[1]), subordination is seen as the basis for the differences revealed in the Scriptures. These differences in function God disclosed to us about the trinitarian persons certainly establish their uniqueness. Whether this includes subordination depends on putting the pieces together. We need to more deeply understand the significance of their uniqueness and what it means for their relationships as the whole of the triune God. For this, I suggest not the primary focus of further exegesis of the specific biblical passages in question (which has not resolved our disagreement nor deepened our understanding) but the need to see them in the extended and deeper relational context of God’s desires for the eschatological big picture. As noted earlier, this involves a relational epistemic process.


God’s self-revelation (which is partial) is about God and about how God does relationship. Yet the relational context and process of God’s self-disclosure are always related to us, directly or indirectly. Though revelation is about God, God is focused on us. In other words, revelation is about how God does relationship for us and with us. This is true before creation (for us) as well as after (with us)—a point of disagreement over functional differences within the Trinity which egalitarians tend to affirm only during the incarnation. The various references to functional differences prior to creation cannot be ignored but they are clearly about God in relation to us (Jn 1:3; Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 1:4; Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:2).


Whether before or after creation, God’s activity in relation to us is how God does relationship. This suggests how God is throughout eternity because God cannot be inconsistent with the revelation of how God does relationship. This does not, however, define or describe the totality of the immanent Trinity, which cannot be reduced to the economic Trinity—a distinction which is important to maintain. We can only talk about God in terms of how the Trinity is with us—both before creation in anticipation of us and after. 


In Two Relational Contexts

Yet, we also need to distinguish further that God does relationship in two distinct relational contexts. One context is totally within the Trinity and their relationships together. The other context is the Trinity’s relational involvement with us. How God does relationship is consistent for both contexts, though the relational process is different for each context. Understanding the different relational processes is critical for our understanding of the Trinity and trinitarian uniqueness, as well as for grasping how to do relationship with God and with each other.


For God to do relationship with us involves a very distinct relational process which tells us what matters most to God and thus how God does relationships. In ultimate response to the human condition “to be apart,” God extended his love to us in the person of Jesus, the Son (Jn 3:16, 17). Yet, unlike how the trinitarian persons love each other in a horizontal relational process between equals, the natural inequality between Creator and creature necessitates a vertical relational process. The incompatibility between the holy God and sinful humanity compounds this difference between us. In a quantitative framework, we can say God reaches down from the highest stratum of life to the lowest stratum of life; but, more importantly, God pursues us from a qualitatively different context (holy or uncommon) in a qualitatively different process (eternal and relational). In other words, God had to initiate loving action downward to us in response to our condition “to be apart” in order to reconcile us back together to the whole of God.


This response of God’s grace can only be understood in a vertical relational process, which must be distinguished from the horizontal relational process of how the Trinity loves among themselves. Without God’s loving initiative downward, there would be no compatible relational basis for God to connect with us or for us to connect with God.


In this qualitative process, God cannot love us in a horizontal relational process just as the trinitarian persons love each other. God can only do relationships as God and never on any other terms. For God to be compatible with us and us with God, the connection needs to be a vertical relational process because of the inherent inequality between us. Nevertheless, in spite of God’s obvious superior position and authority, in loving us downward the Son came neither to perpetuate nor to expand the quantitative and qualitative differences between us. Nor did he come to put us down or to condemn us to those differences (Jn 3:17). In the qualitative difference of God’s love, Jesus revealed how God does relationship, which the Spirit’s relational work extends for us to experience. It is vital for us to understand the implications of this qualitative process engaged by God—both in our relationship with God and in our relations with others, as we will discuss later. 


Subordination in Context

For the eternal and holy God to be extended to us in loving action downward required the mystery of a quantitative-like reduction (not qualitative) of God. God’s loving action downward underlies the basis for the functional differences in the Trinity revealed to us in the Scriptures. The Son, of course, undertook the most significant aspect of subordinating himself to extend love downward (Phil 2:6-8). This subordinate action of love is further extended downward by the Spirit as the Son’s relational replacement to complete what the Son started (Jn 14:16, 18, 26). God’s initiative downward in the Son, however, must be distinguished from a view that the transcendent God needed an intermediary (that is, Christ) to do this for him—a form of Arianism which claims Christ is less than God in deity, being or substance (ousia). The incarnation was the nothing-less-and-no-substitutes God revealing how God does relationship in love.


The relational context and process of God’s focus on us (even before creation) and involvement with us (during and after creation) constitute the functional differences in the Trinity in order for God to love us downward. Each of the trinitarian persons has a distinct role in functioning together as the whole of God to extend love to us in response to our condition “to be apart.” Thus it is in this relational context and process that the Trinity’s functional differences need to be examined.


As we consider trinitarian uniqueness, there are two approaches to the Trinity’s differences that we can take. One approach is a static and more quantitative descriptive account of the different functions and roles in somewhat fixed relationships. Complementarians use this to establish the primacy of an authority structure within the Trinity that extends to marriage and usually to church. Many egalitarians take the same static-quantitative approach but come to different conclusions about the meaning of functional differences—sometimes even to deny them—yet the primacy of leadership and roles remains.


The other approach is more dynamic and qualitative, focusing on the relational process. While it fully accounts for the different functions and roles in the Trinity, the relational significance of all those involves how each of the trinitarian persons fulfilled a part of the total vertical relational process to love us downward as the whole of God. In this qualitative approach, the primacy shifts from authority (or leadership) and roles to love and relationships.


As we consider differing viewpoints on trinitarian uniqueness and the aspects which are emphasized in those views, we can assess what the whole is that those parts form, and what kind of understanding of God and how God does relationship each view gives us. Central to this assessment is the awareness of the influence of reductionism. 


Development of Trinitarian Views

The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in the fourth century as a response to theological conflict and reductionism. Arius specifically taught that Jesus was subordinate to God in substance (ousia) and was created (begotten) by the Father. The Council of Nicea (the Nicene Creed in 325) countered that Jesus was begotten (that is, generated, not created) from the substance of the Father, of the same substance (homoousios) with God. In further response to another form of Arianism (from Eunomius: divine substance is unbegotten and only belongs to the Father), the Cappadocian fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, between 358-380) formulated the distinction between the same substance of God and the different persons (hypostasis) of God, thus establishing the doctrine of the Trinity: one God existing in three persons.[2]


Essentially, from the fourth century into the twenty-first, we observe one aspect of God emphasized over another (for example, the oneness of God or the divine threeness), and some aspect of God reduced (for example, God’s substance [ousia] or the persons/personhood [hypostasis] of God), as well as redefined or ignored (for example, “begotten” or the relationality of the Trinity). If not in theology most certainly in function, these perceptions/interpretations profoundly affect how we define God, define ourselves and thus how we do relationships together as the church.


The Nicene creedal concept of “begotten” (giving priority or primacy to the Father) is problematic today not so much in terms of crossing the line into Arianism but more in terms of understating its significance (as egalitarians tend to do) or overstating it (as complementarians do). That the Son was begotten of (not created nor derived his being from) the Father indicates some specific difference in their relationship. What is the significance of this difference?


Wayne Grudem argues that this indicates a functional difference of roles (not substance) that subordinated the Son to the Father eternally. Even though the Son was begotten of the Father, Grudem emphasized that this difference in their relationship never began (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”), which includes the authority of the Father over the Son and the Spirit as always part (also “never began”) of their eternal roles (on the basis of Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4).[3] Grudem affirms the equal substance (homoousios), value and personhood of the trinitarian persons while maintaining their differences in authority and roles. This certainly mitigated an Arian controversy. Yet it is problematic to say that the trinitarian differences indicated by begetting and authority “never began.”


The term “begotten” is associated with two terms used in the Bible. The most common Greek term is monogenes, traditionally rendered “only begotten” with reference to Jesus (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9). Monogenes means unique, one of a kind, one and only, and is more accurately rendered “only one,” “one and only”—defining the unique relationship of the Son with the Father without implying any element of procreation. We will discuss the significance of this designation for Jesus shortly.


The other term for begotten occurred initially in a messianic psalm about the Christ: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Ps 2:7,  yalad, meaning become the father of). This verse is quoted in the NT (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5) with the Greek term gennao meaning to beget, become the father of, generate, originate. This term more directly involves the function of begetting and distinctly defines the relationship between the Father and his Son. Yet when the Father said “today I have become your Father,” the term for “today” (yom) denotes both a point in time and a period in time. This certainly indicates that the Lord became the Father of the Son from some point by a purposeful action—action, however, not to be reduced to the procreation in Arianism, nor to overlook and fail to understand its purpose.


If the Trinity functions in subordinate relationships, either this structure always existed eternally (without beginning as Grudem argues) or it was generated/originated (at some point, however a mystery). I do not think these two can validly be combined. If the structure always existed, the Father did not initiate it by his action or authority; like God, it just is and always was. If generated of the Father at some point, the question “why so?” remains unaddressed—which unanswered leaves open the door to some form of Arianism or even modalism.


The NT quotes of Psalm 2:7 help us understand the Father’s purpose to beget (gennao) the Son. In Acts, when asked to speak words of encouragement Paul summarized God’s ongoing faithful response to their condition “to be apart” and the good news that God fulfilled the promise to be the family of God now in Jesus by repeating the reality of Psalm 2:7 (Acts 13:15ff). The truth of this gospel is established further in the Hebrew epistle by clearly defining the equality of the Son in the being of God (Heb 1:2, 3) and his superiority even to the angels (1:4ff). In this comparison with the angels, what is the significance of quoting Psalm 2:7 and also quoting “I will be his Father and he will be my Son”? I suggest, because this is about being God’s family the Father never said this to the angels. They did not inherit the Father’s family name and its rights (1:4), suggesting that even though they were God’s personal messengers and servants they were not full family members. But, as Paul declared in Acts, this is the good news for the rest of us. And this full membership in God’s family is secured by the Son as the great high priest (Heb 4:14ff). Yet this is not about role identity because Psalm 2:7 is quoted (5:5) to focus on the purposeful action of the Father to extend the Son to us in the function of relationships in family love (not priestly duties) in order to reconcile us to God so that we can be in God’s family.


Role identity and function are not fixed ends in themselves but always serve the whole of God’s design and purpose, particularly as God’s thematic response to the human condition “to be apart.” We also need to understand this more deeply about authority and the function it serves. In addition, the fact that the Father’s authority existed even before the foundation of the world does not automatically mean that it never began. While eternity exists beyond our time and space, whatever exists or took place before this created context are not necessarily “eternal without beginning” (for example, angels). “Never began” has to be assumed by Grudem without biblical support.


Besides assuming “never began,” Grudem also gives a static and quantitative descriptive account of these functions and thus ascribes fixed roles to the trinitarian persons in their eternal relationship. In this framework the eternal nature of these different roles constitutes the basis for eternal subordination in the Trinity and establishes the primacy of trinitarian relations in its authority structure. It is a major assumption, however, to define the immanent Trinity by the economic Trinity (which includes before creation). Since this authority structure and these fixed role differences are also used as the basis for constituting gender relations in marriage and the church, this implies the same authority and role differences to continue eternally for men and women—even though marriage does not exist in heaven. Furthermore, we need to see if authority and subordination adequately define the primary function of the relationship of God within the Trinity and if they signify the primacy given to the relationship of God as revealed by the Trinity in relationship with us.


Based on these fixed role differences, what becomes primary in how God does relationship? For Grudem, it is the following: “The doctrine of the Trinity thus indicates that equality of being together with authority and submission to authority are perhaps the most fundamental aspects of interpersonal relationships in the entire universe.”[4] I can understand his bias for order and for the need for constraint on free will. Most certainly, there is need for this. Yet Jesus vulnerably revealed more than this about relationship both within the Trinity and for us. These are parts of God’s revelation which need to be put together to understand the whole of God and God’s desires in the eschatological big picture. 


A Different Approach

I can affirm the functions of begetting and authority of the Father but from a different approach. The other approach to understanding the significance of trinitarian differences is more dynamic and qualitative than the descriptive accounts of authority and roles. This involves examining the relational process. Doing this still accounts for the different functions and roles but shifts the focus to the qualitative aspects of persons and relationships and the dynamic process in which they are involved. This requires redefining the person not based on what they do (for example, roles) or have (for example, authority) but on what they are in qualitative significance, thus understanding relationships as a functional process of the relational involvement between such whole persons (unreduced) and not as relationships based merely on authority and roles. These relationships help us understand what is necessary to be whole as constituted by the Trinity.


When relationships are defined and examined merely on the basis of roles, this becomes a focus on the quantitative definition of the person (at the very least by what one does in a role) and a quantitative description of relationships (for example, a set of roles in a family) according to the performance of those roles—usually in a set order for different roles or even mutually coexisting for undifferentiated roles. Yet this does not account for the variations which naturally occur in how a person sees a role, performs that role and engages in it differently from one situation to another. Nor does it account for the dynamic relational process in which all of this is taking place—a process necessary for roles to have relational significance.


For example, when the primacy of the Father’s authority and role is emphasized as defining of his person and as constituting the relationships within the Trinity, this tends to imply two conclusions about the Trinity—if not theologically, certainly in how we functionally perceive God. The first implication for the Trinity is that everything is about and for only the Father; the Son and the Spirit are necessary but secondary in function to serve only the Father’s desires. While there is some truth to this in role description, the perceived imbalance reduces the oneness of the triune God with the inadvertent perception of their roles being “different and less” thus operating in stratified relationships. Secondly, such primacy of the Father also tends to imply a person self-sufficient from the other trinitarian persons. This unintentionally counters the relatedness or relationality of God as constituted in the Trinity.


These two conclusions (or variations of them) are problematic for trinitarian theology. But they have deeper implications for our practice of how we define the person, how we engage in relationships and how these become primary in the practice of church.


While the primacy of the Father’s authority and role must be accounted for in the revelation available to us, our understanding of trinitarian differences deepens when examined in the relational context and process of the whole of God and God’s design and purpose for us. God’s self-revelation is about how the whole of God does relationship as the persons of the Trinity in relation to us. In what God disclosed, do role differences fully account for how God does relationship and do they help us understand the significance of what is primary and matters most to God? 


The Relational Significance of Jesus' Revelation

What Jesus revealed consistently throughout the Gospel narratives is that he was indeed all about the Father. He came to reveal the Father (Jn 17:6, 26), everything he did was from the Father (Jn 5:19, 20) and all he said was for the Father (Jn 12:49, 50). Even the cross served the Father—not us, though we benefit from it—as the redemptive means for adoption as the Father’s very own daughters and sons in his family together (Eph 1:5; Col 1:20). This relational conclusion is what is primary to God in response to the human condition “to be apart,” what God started with creation (and planned even before, Rom 8:29) and Adam and Eve were supposed to complete (“fill the earth” Gen 1:28), and what matters most to God in the big picture (Col 1:19, 20). And the Spirit serves to bring this relational process to its eschatological conclusion (2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:14); this specific function of the Spirit will be discussed in Chapter 5.


There is a definite subordination indicated in these functional differences. The question we need to answer, however, is what this subordination signifies. Related to this is why the Son originated from the Father and is designated as “the One and Only” (monogenes) of God. Does it define fixed roles in a hierarchy or does it signify the relational process of God loving downward necessitating subordination among the trinitarian persons in order to make a compatible relational connection with us, and thus us with God with the result of becoming God’s family?


A hierarchy is about structure and is static. But authority (arche) is not merely what someone possesses, rather it is always exercised over another in relationship—thus it involves a dynamic process. Hierarchy and authority together need to be understood as the dynamics of stratified relationships which involve more than order and includes how relationships are done. Stratified relationships can range from the oppression of power relations at one extreme to degrees of separation or, intentionally or unintentionally, to merely distance in relationships. At whatever point in this range, the relationships would be less intimate than what is accessible in horizontal relationships. Does this represent the sum of Jesus’ relationship with his Father or are there more pieces to put together for a fuller understanding of the Trinity?


Besides the functional differences in authority and roles within the Trinity, what other aspects of their relationships are revealed to us? There are two clear overlapping statements Jesus made to define his relationship with the Father: (1) “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30; 17:11, 22), and (2) “the Father is in me and I in the Father” (Jn 10:38; 14:10, 11, 20; 17:21). We need to understand these both ontologically and relationally, thus expanding on the Greek concept of perichoresis in trinitarian theology.


The first declaration revealed the ontological oneness of the trinitarian persons in qualitative substance (homoousios) which cannot be differentiated in any of their persons from the whole of the triune God, as well as undifferentiated in this sense from each other. Each person is wholly God and a part of the whole of God, suggesting that each is incomplete without the others. Yet what is disclosed to us is not the totality of God but the whole of God in who and what God is and how God does relationship. Paul affirms the whole of God (“fullness,” pleroma, complete, Col 1:19) residing in the incarnate Son. Each person is that who, what and how of God without distinctions that would reduce their persons from that whole. Thus they are inseparable, possibly suggesting in a limited sense interchangeable in function. So, on the one hand, if you see one trinitarian person you have seen them all; while on the other, to see the whole of the triune God is to see the trinitarian persons because each person is distinct in the whole but not distinguished from the whole. This constitutes the main basis for Jesus’ bold claim that “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9; cf. 12:45). He did not merely resemble  (homoioma, cf. Rom 8:3) the Father but is the exact copy (charakter, cf. Heb 1:3) of the Father.


Jesus prayed to the Father that his followers may “be one as we are one” (Jn 17:11, 21, 22). Yet, we cannot have ontological oneness with the triune God such that either we would be deified or God’s being would become all of us (pantheism). What Jesus prayed for that is possible, however, involves his second declaration overlapping with their ontological oneness. “The Father in me and I in the Father” further reveals their oneness not only in ontic qualitative substance but also in the qualitative significance of relational oneness constituted by their intimate involvement with each other in communion. This deep intimacy together uniquely made Jesus the only one (monogenes) to fully exegete (exegeomai) the Father (Jn 1:18)—not to merely inform us of the transcendent God but to vulnerably make known the Father for intimate relationship as his family. These relational terms provide the remaining basis for Jesus’ claim that if we truly see him we see the Father.


It is important to understand that when Jesus said seeing him was seeing the Father, he revealed in this twofold ontological and relational reality the importance of both what constitutes God’s triune being as well as what matters most to God. Though unique in function by their differences in roles, what primarily defines their trinitarian persons are not these role distinctions.  To define them by their roles is to define the trinitarian persons by what they do, which would be a reduction of God. This reduction makes role distinctions primary over the purpose for their functional differences to love us downward, thereby reducing not only the qualitative substance of the Trinity but also the qualitative significance of what matters most to God.


God’s self-disclosure is about how God does relationship. As disclosed in the persons of the Trinity: the Father is how God does relationship—not about authority and influence; the Son is how God does relationship vulnerably—not about being the obedient subordinate; the Spirit is how God does relationship in the whole—not about the helper or mediator. In their functional differences, God is always loving us downward. Yet we cannot utilize how each trinitarian person discloses an aspect of how God does relationship in loving downward in order to make reductionist distinctions between them by which to define their persons. Just as we reduce defining human persons (for example, to what we do) and relationships (for example, to role behavior), this becomes a reductionism of God. Likewise, reducing the whole of each trinitarian person to the particular function each one enacts in loving downward becomes a reduction of how God does relationship, thus reducing the primacy of God’s desires, purpose and actions to reconcile us from our condition as well as ongoing tendency “to be apart.” The emphasis on authority and roles does not give us this primacy for relationships nor is it sufficient to reconcile us from being apart—even if our condition “to be apart” only involves relational distance minimizing intimacy in our relationships.


Furthermore, this reduction removes trinitarian uniqueness from the relational context of the eschatological big picture and from its relational process constituted by the primacy of how God does relationship both within the Trinity and in relation to us. What constitutes this primacy in the Trinity’s relationships is how they function in their relationships together in the whole of God as the whole of God and for the whole of God. This functional-relational togetherness of the whole of God is not signified by their authority and roles. Authority and roles would not be sufficient to enable Jesus to say seeing him was seeing the Father.


Jesus’ declaration to be in the Father and the Father in him was not simply to inform us of God but to provide the primary means to truly know and experience God and be his family. As we grasp this, we more fully understand the significance of his designation as “the One and Only” (monogenes). This primacy of relationship within the Trinity is signified only by their intimate communion and love (Jn 3:35; Mk 1:11; Jn 5:20; Mt 17:5; Jn 14:31). Relationships of intimate communion and love are both sufficient and necessary to constitute the whole of the triune God (homoousios) as well as to identify the significance of the trinitarian persons (hypostasis) and their relationships. This intimate communion of love is what matters most to God because it reflects what’s most important in God and represents what’s most important of God—not authority, different roles, unique functions. And this is what Jesus foremost wants us to experience relationally together, and, therefore, is the primary purpose of his formative prayer summarizing his incarnation (Jn 17).


This intimate relational involvement of love signifies both the relational oneness which we can have with the triune God in likeness to the Trinity’s oneness and which we need to have also with each other in the intimate relational process vulnerably revealed by Jesus as the One and Only (Jn 14:20; 17:23, 26). Yet, this relational oneness is not about the structure of authority and roles but the function of relationships in the intimate relational process of love. These ongoing dynamic relationships of love, however, require the qualitative substance of God (Eph 1:4; Mt 5:8) and thus relationships only on God’s terms (Jn 14:21; 15:9, 10; 17:17-19). Intimate communion with the whole of the triune God cannot be based merely on love because God is holy. This relationship requires compatibility of qualitative substance, therefore the need for our transformation in order to have intimate relationship with the holy God. God’s love downward does not supersede this necessity, only provides for it.


From creation, God constituted the human person in the image of the qualitative substance of God (signified by the heart). The trinitarian persons and human persons cannot be separated from this qualitative substance and still be defined as whole persons. This substance is necessary for the primary definition of the person, not the secondary definitions of what they do (roles) or what they have (authority). The Cappadocians formulated the initial doctrine of the Trinity by distinguishing the persons (hypostasis) from substance (ousia) but advanced the person as ontologically more important than substance in order to give priority to the relationality of the triune God—establishing a social trinitarianism—though their persons were based on begotten and spiration. While this significantly countered the prevailing idea of God’s essence as unrelated (or nonrelational), we should not reduce the importance of the qualitative substance of God because both interacting together are necessary to define the whole (oneness) of God and the relationships (threeness) necessary to be whole.

Moreover, to better grasp the qualitative significance of God helps us to more deeply understand the relationality of the Trinity. In trinitarian theology, the predominant explanatory basis for relationality is the Greek idea of perichoresis: the interpenetration of the trinitarian persons in dynamic interrelations with each other. The importance of perichoresis is certainly critical for our perceptual-interpretive framework and it may be a conceptually more complete term to define the ontology of the Trinity. But we need to expand this idea of relationality because it lacks the functional clarity to be of relational significance to more deeply grasp the whole of God and to intimately experience the who, what and how of God in relationship. I suggest this is primarily due to the functional absence of the whole person in their relationships together as church—given the reduction of ousia inadvertently diminishing the function of the heart. Jesus provides this clarity in how he functioned during the incarnation.


Without this clarity of relational significance, we function less relationally specific—though the intention may be there—to the whole of God, and thus we practice church apart from the relationships necessary to be whole as God’s family constituted in the Trinity—even though the idea may be understood. The lack of functional clarity has further ramifications for how the human person is perceived in the image of God and how our persons function in the relationships necessary to reflect the whole of God’s likeness signified in the Trinity as well as to represent and build God’s family. This lack results in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions of the whole with reductionist substitutes.


The need for our understanding of the Trinity is not to be informed of God—which perichoresis merely tends to do—but to experience the whole of God for relationship: specifically to be involved with God as whole persons in the whole of God’s family constituted in and by the Trinity. In the incarnation, the whole of God ultimately coheres for this relationship. The experience of this relational reality of the whole has been the integrating theme of the Trinity’s response to our condition “to be apart” from the whole ever since the creation of the first person. God’s desires indeed were formulated even before creation to restore us to the whole in the new creation to be completed at the eschatological conclusion.


Reductionism counters all this relational work, as we will see demonstrated by the churches in Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea (in Rev 2, 3). 


Reductionist Intrusion in the Process to Family

Reductionism of the person (trinitarian and human) affects how relationships are done—affecting what we give priority to or minimize, even ignore. The basic issue involves defining the person in quantitative terms from the outside in (which does not include “in” very far) based, for example, on what one does or has, versus in qualitative terms from the inside out based on the primary substance of the inner person (signified by the heart), yet including the whole person, physical as well. The qualitative approach makes secondary any outer distinctions used in a quantitative approach to establish primacy for those differences. This is not to say, for example, that role differences are unimportant—only that they become secondary in priority to what is primary.


While there are functional differences in the Trinity and in the church, to focus on authority and roles to define persons in order to differentiate them from one another as well as to determine the primary way in which they will do relationships together becomes quantitative reductionism of the whole person and of the primary relations necessary to be whole—as revealed by Jesus in how the Trinity does relationship.


Grudem identifies the differences in authority among Father, Son, and Spirit as the only interpersonal differences existing eternally in the Trinity. In his approach, he needs this difference not only to define the trinitarian persons but also to determine how they will do relationship. Moreover, he boldly declares that functioning without this quantitative distinction “would destroy the Trinity.”[5] Since Grudem defines the person by one’s role in order to differentiate the trinitarian persons and to delineate the way they relate to one another, he argues that without this they would be identical not only in being but also in role and how they relate together. This stands in contrast to Jesus’ declarations noted earlier.


Grudem’s confusion of what is primary about God and thus matters most to God is a result of reductionism—which is not unique to complementarians but includes egalitarians also. To define the person and to maintain this identity in relationships as the primary way to do relationships (and church) based on quantitative terms are contrary to the God in self-revelation. It is one matter to affirm functional differences (with or without subordinationism) but a contrary matter to use those quantitative distinctions as the primary way to define the person and to engage in relationships—which is a practice of both complementarians and egalitarians.


Further, Grudem uses the name “Father” and “Son” to support these distinctions. Though he suggests a biblical basis that only indirectly may define the immanent Trinity (in eternity), he makes assumptions for a syllogistic-like conclusion: since “those names have belonged to the Father and the Son forever”[6] then their roles are also eternally theirs “because by nature they have always existed as Father and Son,”[7] therefore the Son is eternally submissive to the Father “simply because He eternally existed as Son, and submission to the Father was inherent in that relationship.”[8] Yet he does not account for the Son as messiah also named “Everlasting Father” (Is 9:6), not to mention Psalm 2:7 noted earlier. Besides making assumptions for the immanent Trinity based on the economic Trinity (as revealed even before creation), Grudem does not adequately put the pieces of revelation together to understand (syniemi) the triune God because he focuses on the quantitative distinctions of reductionism. Such an epistemic process is always inadequate to grasp the qualitative whole of God.


In addition, along with his position that this authority and submission “never began,” Grudem supports his conclusion that it will “never end” with 1 Corinthians 15:28: “the Son himself will be made subject to him.” This text refers to after the Son hands over the Kingdom to the Father signifying the beginning of the eternal state, which suggests to Grudem that it will continue for eternity.[9]


Two things strike me about this verse. The Son was already subject to the Father even in the plans made before creation. So why does the Son need to be subject to the Father again at this future point if this was the eternal nature of their relationship? The term for “subject to”  (hypotasso) is in the Greek future tense passive voice which could be either the regular passive (the Son receives the action by the Father) or the reflexive passive (the Son is acting upon himself). If the regular passive is used here, it also begs the question why future action by the Father is indicated to subject the Son. If it is the reflexive passive in use, then we have to ask what the Son’s purpose would be in this action upon himself. I have no answer to the former other than to try to understand this from a qualitative approach examining the variability of a dynamic relational process as opposed to a static quantitative approach of fixed roles and relationship structure. Regarding the Son’s action upon himself, I will suggest a purpose in the discussion ahead.


God’s self-revelation is how the Trinity does relationship in loving us downward in response to our condition “to be apart.” We need to extend our understanding of the names of the trinitarian persons, their roles in the Trinity and their relationships together by seeing them more deeply in the relational context and process of God’s response to us—the response God planned even before creation. Yet this response exceeded not only what is commonly perceived at creation (as discussed previously) but also goes beyond the limited perceptions of sacrificial love (agape) defined only by “doing something” on the cross.


When the cross serves the human individual instead of the Father, it becomes only about atonement for our sins. While atonement is certainly a necessary outcome of Christ’s sacrifice, the cross serves only the Father as the redemptive means to make us compatible relationally in qualitative substance to be adopted as the Father’s very own daughters and sons in his family together. As Psalm 2:7 is used in the NT, this is about being the family of God, not merely about being saved from our sins.


God’s love is always relational—about how to be involved with others in relationship, not about doing something especially on the basis of a role (for example, the Son as the obedient subordinate). To love us God had to extend love downward to be involved with us, as discussed earlier. By further examining this love in the relational context and process of God’s response, a deeper understanding emerges. This is how God’s response functions in relational terms: God as Father extended God down to us in the trinitarian persons (the Son and the Spirit) to pursue us in our condition “to be apart” in order to take us back to their family and attend to our needs—not for a visit or to be their guest (or to become an employee in the household)—so that the Father did not merely receive us into his house but more importantly formally adopted us to be his very own as a full member of his family permanently in intimate interdependent relationship together with all the rights and responsibilities just as the Son, which the Spirit makes an experiential reality and brings to completion at the eschaton. This is the process of God’s family love. This trinitarian relational process of family love gives coherence to all the doctrines and aspects of Christian faith but most of all to the primacy of God’s desires.


Since God’s self-revelation is about how God does relationship in loving us downward, this purpose is the significance of functional subordination in the Trinity—necessary for the relational significance of God connecting with us in the context of relationship. Further revealed is how the whole of God does relationship by vulnerably extending family love to us, thus the significance of the functional difference in familial names—particularly the Father and the Son, though including the Spirit as their relational extension (Jn 14:18; 16:13-15; Rom 8:15, 16), to be relationally specific and significant as the family of God. Other names could have served to define functional differences for the Father (for example, King or CEO) or the Son (for example, Prince or chief operations officer). But it is neither an empire (kingdom notwithstanding) nor a corporate organization which can be relationally specific and significant to God’s design and purpose, God’s response of love and God’s desires for us. Only family, the family of the Father, the Son and the Spirit intimately in relationship together as the whole of God fulfill God’s purpose and desires. While “kingdom” certainly describes God’s covenant people, family is what deeply defines in ongoing function the redeemed children of God in the likeness of the Trinity.


This is who, what and how the whole of God was fully extended, directly revealed and vulnerably responding to us. The dynamic of family between the Father and Son does not describe the primacy of fixed roles in a permanent structure of authority and submission but rather reveals the process for the primacy of their intimate oneness together and their deep relational involvement of love—for which perichoresis lacks functional clarity. This relational process can only be experienced in the function of relationships as family—the family of God. The Son was uniquely the only one (monogenes, Jn 1:18) to extend the Father (as “nothing less and no substitutes”) to us in family; and the Son in function and relationship defined for us how to be the Father’s very own as his family together. In “the One and Only” there is clarity, which is why the Father told us to listen to his Son (Mt 17:5) and planned for us to be exactly like his “firstborn” (prototokos, pre-eminent) in his family together (Rom 8:29). No one else could fulfill this except “the One and Only” (as Son, not another name)—not at the exclusion nor subordination of the Spirit—because this was totally about the relational context of God’s family and the relational process of God’s family love, which the Spirit brings to completion. 


The Relational Outcome of the Whole

Going back to 1 Cor 15:28, the relational context and process of the whole of God’s response to us to build the family of God suggest a purpose to the Son’s action upon himself (reflexive passive of “subject to”). When God’s family is complete in heaven, we will be ontologically whole with each other in the likeness of the whole of God as in the Trinity, as well as relationally whole with the Trinity in the whole of God—the complete fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. God’s family will not need intercession by the Son and transformation by the Spirit. These functions cease to be needed because God’s family will be whole (complete); and the trinitarian persons can continue on to be the whole of God without the distinctions in vertical function necessary to do relationship in loving us downward in response to our condition “to be apart.”


It is the whole of God that I suggest is the Son’s purpose to subject himself. That is, as the Son’s purpose originated from the Father at some point in eternity—not created in essence but originating in function—to extend family love to us is completed, this allows the Son and the Spirit to “return” to the Father in function fully in the horizontal relational process as the whole (oneness) of the triune God without the functional differences previously necessary in the vertical relational context. This is not about only the Father but only about the whole of God together as one. When this is all enacted, the relational outcome will be the result that “God may be all in all” (pas, the whole, cf. Eph 1:23; 4:10). Though God will certainly be over all things at this future point, this result is not about the primacy of authority structure and role subordination. As Paul emphasized in 1 Corinthians 15, this is about the resurrection of the new creation—what Jesus saved us to. This is the relational outcome of the whole of God’s family as constituted and signified in the whole of the Trinity. This is the relational progression of God’s self-revelation in Christ which together with the relational work of the Spirit is brought to eschatological completion.


To be in intimate communion together in the primacy of the relational involvement of family love (not role behavior) has always been God’s design and purpose (which are functionally whole and wholistically relational) and what matters most to God because this is who, what and how the whole of God is. Trinitarian differences in name and function cohere in how God does relationship with us in order to be family together, and any reduction of these differences (for example, to quantitative matters) affects the integrity of the whole of God and the primacy of the relationships necessary to be whole. Such reductionism, in turn, affects what we will pay attention to or ignore in defining our persons and where our focus will be in how we do relationships and thus practice church. And while reductionism may be convenient and simplify our perceptions and interpretations, it always comes with great cost to us at God’s expense.

We must understand further how the influences of reductionism in our modern context affect this whole of God and the relationships indwelling the whole.




[1]Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sister, OR: Multnomah Publishers: 2004), 405-433.

[2] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004), 252-269. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology: the Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: Harper, 1993) 85-87. Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 7-8.

[3] Grudem, 405-418.

[4] Grudem, 429.

[5] Grudem, 433.

[6] Ibid., 413.

[7] Ibid., 438.

[8] Ibid., 435.

[9] Ibid., 414.

back to top        Wholeness Study Intro        home

©2006 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.