Some Thoughts on Intra-Trinitarian Relationships in the Earliest Church Fathers

Back in 2004, I presented a very long (71-page) paper at the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church.” This paper was the result of research I conducted related to my PhD studies in patristics. In light of recent discussions among evangelicals regarding the issue of subordination and intra-trinitarian relationships, I thought I would make this paper available. It is an exhaustive (some might say, exhausting) analysis of every instance in which the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are even mentioned in the orthodox writings between Didache and Irenaeus. The full paper can be found here as a PDF. Because it was written in 2004, it is clearly not up-to-date in its secondary literature, but my hope is that interested readers will find the primary source data (all included in a lengthy appendix) to be helpful.

Below, I include the excerpt from the paper that summarizes my conclusions and implications based on the work of these early fathers. I would ask that readers first review the analysis of the entire paper before interacting with my conclusions.

Excerpt from Michael J. Svigel, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church,” a Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.


Based on the preceding analyses, we can make the following conclusions regarding the relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the writings of the earliest fathers.

No Clear Arian Ontological Subordination. There is no clear example of an Arian ontological subordinationism in which the Son is a created being or has an inferior divinity to the Father, though Tatian’s concept of the Logos may come close. When their language was clear, the early fathers’ concept of subordination was functional, not ontological. LaCugna rightly stated that “we should not regard this economic subordinationism as heretical or even as an inferior or incoherent Christian theology of God and Christ.”[1] Rather, just the opposite is true: where there was opportunity given by the context, Christ was called “God,” “eternal,” or the essential mediator of the Father’s will.

No Functional Egalitarianism. There is no discernible tradition whatsoever of what is today described as ontological and functional equality or a “communitarian” or “democratic” model of the Trinity. Nor is there clear evidence of a view which states that the persons of the Godhead could have agreed to take on different roles than what has unfolded in the economy of creation (e.g. that the Father could have become incarnate or the Son could have indwelled believers rather than the Holy Spirit).

Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. There is an overwhelming tradition of what is today described as ontological equality and functional subordination within the Trinity that emphasizes the monarchia of the Father. While the Son and Spirit are not creatures, the Father is their head, meaning that all activities conform to his will.

Possible Drift toward Ontological Subordinationism. While the later second century fathers began to speculate more on the specific nature of the generation of the Son,[2] we begin to discern language implying an eternal functional subordination while still maintaining essential (ontological) equality. However, with Tatian the language becomes fuzzy, and the stage appears to be set for greater deviation away from ontological equality toward Arian ontological subordinationism.



If, for the sake of argument, we were to regard the fathers of the first and second centuries as our canon of orthodoxy and the proper understanding of Scripture, then our judgments on various views of subordination and the Trinity become rather clear.     

Eternal Functional Equality and Ontological Equality. Modern day advocates of what I call “eternal functional equality” suggest that “there can be no separation between the being and the acts of God, between the one divine nature of the three persons and their functions.”[3] Therefore, orthodox ontological equality is said to demand functional equality as well, and distinctions in rank between the Father, Son, and Spirit are rejected. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are regarded as functioning in a co-equal fellowship, with one mind and will. Though each member of the Triune community performs distinct activities, these activities are not ordered in rank or hierarchy.[4] Instead of the Son and Spirit functioning in submission to the Father, the three persons are said to function in mutual submission to each other. In light of this study, the problem with such a view is that no extant Christian writings of the first and second centuries suggest anything remotely close to such a model, but rather consistently present the Father as the head and the Son and Spirit as functioning in submission to the Father.

Incarnational Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. Advocates of a temporary or voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father limit the submission of the Son to the time of his earthly ministry or commencing with the incarnation. Thus, the Son’s role of submission to God is a result of his taking on full human nature and living in obedience to the law. However, in light of the early fathers, limiting the functional subordination of the Son to the incarnation would be too narrow. In the first and second century writers, the Son and Spirit consistently submit to the Father’s will, even prior to the Son’s incarnation and Spirit’s sending into the world. Also, such a view of incarnational subordination does not explain why the Holy Spirit is presented by the fathers as functioning in submission to the will of the Father without having become incarnate.

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. If we were to employ first and second century Christian teaching as a standard, the advocates of an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father would have little clear evidence to support their view. The descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit in the early fathers refer to activities of the Godhead in relation to the created order. Apart from actual activities in creation, the nature of the relationships is vague. This does not preclude the existence of an ordered relationship based on fatherhood, sonship, and spiration, but the actual evidence is minimal and unclear. In this sense, complaints against the language of “eternal functional subordination” seem to be valid, and evangelicals should probably cease using such terms.[5]

Economic Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality.[6] The view of the earliest post-apostolic fathers is best described as one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal with regard to deity and power, but in extra-Trinitarian actions the Father is the head, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the pervasive active presence of God. While we cannot logically project this economic functional subordination into an eternal state apart from creation, this taxis would be consistent with the interpersonal relationships implied by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.”

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Subordination. The fathers’ consistent subordination of the Son to the Father in their will and works has sometimes been mistaken for an ontological subordination relegating either the Son or the Spirit to the realm of finite creation rather than eternal deity. For example, in his polemic against Trinitarianism in favor of Unitarianism, Stannus, citing Polycarp’s prayer on the pyre as evidence of non-trinitarianism in the second century, writes, “The ante-Nicene fathers invariably spoke of Christ as subordinate to the Father.”[7] Although he is correct in this assertion, his conclusion that this necessarily implies an inequality of divinity is an unfounded exaggeration. His error is similar to that of modern assertions that subordination in function necessarily means inequality of eternal nature. Where the early fathers are not silent, they illustrate that one can hold simultaneously to both functional subordination and ontological equality of being. Therefore, attempts by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek sympathetic theology in the early fathers are misguided.[8]


Two Final Questions

Does Economic Functional Subordination Prescribe a Particular Social Order? The ordering of ecclesiastical leadership suggested in 1 Clement and stated explicitly and repeatedly in the Letters of Ignatius was not tied to an eternal role in the Godhead, but to the sending of the Son in the economy of salvation. This ordering is independent of questions regarding the eternal relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. In the context of contemporary egalitarian and complementarian debates—whether in the home, government, society, or church—the debate concerning eternal functional subordination is irrelevant as far as the early fathers are concerned. There appears to have been enough justification for ecclesiastical ordering in the simple fact that the Son was sent into the world. However, we must recognize that the fathers do not extend this divine ordering beyond that of ecclesiastical structures. Although 1 Clement addressed the issue of God’s establishment of human government on earth to which all men are to submit, he linked such authority to his divine decree, not to a Trinitarian model (1 Clem. 61:1). However, one could suggest that the ways in which God orders society in general should be consistent with his work. In short, functional subordination in the Trinity need not be eternal to serve as a basis for social structures, but this type of application of Trinitarian theology outside church order is not found in the early fathers.

Are the Early Fathers “Orthodox” or “Heretical”?[9] Based on an exhaustive analysis of the primary evidence summarized in this paper, the fathers’ teaching can be summed up in Athenagoras’s statement, “power in unity, diversity in rank.” For a moment, allow me a brief fit of rhetoric. Those who want to define historical orthodoxy as discerning no functional distinction in rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forced into one of three solutions with regard to the first and second century fathers. They must either a) anathematize the early fathers as heretics; b) twist their writings to conform to an egalitarian standard; or c) simply ignore them. It appears that most have chosen the final option. I reject this move. Instead, I believe we ought to embrace the early fathers as a solid, though developing, orthodox link in the chain of Trinitarian tradition handed down from the apostles in Scripture, subsequently taught by catechesis and liturgy, and guided in its growth and development by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, orthodoxy must not only grudgingly accept the concept of ontological equality and functional subordination as merely an acceptable option, but perhaps it should cheerfully embrace it as most accurately reflecting the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to “faithful men” who were “able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

Visual Summary of Evidence


[1] LaCugna, God for Us, 26.

[2] This may have been the impetus for Irenaeus to assert that the generation of the Son is unknowable (A.H. 2.28.6).

[3] Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 93.

[4] Ibid., 92–96.

[5] In my current thinking on this matter, the second century fathers’ adamant insistence on the utter distinction of Creator and creature, with the latter a creation ex nihilo, makes the notion of eternal functional subordination a problematic description. Subordination or submission to the will of the Father implies some sort of activity or function. Without a creation in which and toward which such actions are aimed, can we really speak about “subordination?” Unless we argue for a subordination of essential nature, we cannot speak of subordination in a timeless, eternal state. My view, of course, assumes a notion of creation ex nihilo. However, if one advances a doctrine of God and time that includes God’s “own time” or some pre-creational activity, then the term “eternal functional subordination” could be a legitimate category. On historical and contemporary issues of God, time, and creation, see William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity—The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001).

[6] My use of the term “economic” here refers to any divine activity in the economy of creation. That is, in all extra-Trinitarian works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not apply to whatever inconceivable and unknowable relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit had in their existence apart from creation.

[7] Stannus, Doctrine of the Trinity, 28.

[8] Cf. for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu, 2000), 215.

[9] This assumes, of course, that we can meaningfully use these terms in their normal sense with reference to the early fathers who precede the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. While historians shy away from them, evangelicals may use these terms because of their belief in a transcendent standard of doctrinal truth against which teachings of every age can be measured.

Avoid the Latest Outbreak of This-Is-That Syndrome!

BloodMoonSome of the first books I read as a young believer had to do with the end times. Okay, that’s actually an understatement. I didn’t just read them. I consumed them. And they weren’t just about the end times. Those books made it sound like we were either in the tribulation itself or at the brink of that climactic world crisis that would usher in the end. Those books had red, yellow, or black covers. They usually featured atomic blasts, fire, smoke, dragons, or demons. All of them alleged that we could (and should) read the Bible alongside the newspaper because current events were fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation almost every day.

Some of the more nuanced treatments said things like, “So-and-so could be the Antichrist” or “This or that technology may be used in the Tribulation as the mark of the beast” or “These events in Europe [or the Middle East, or Russia, or China] might be setting the stage for the rise of the Antichrist’s one world government.” In short, these authors, T.V. preachers, pastors, and end-times enthusiasts sought after signs in the news or in the skies that would point to the imminent end of the world. In fact, I was once told not to waste my time at seminary because “There isn’t time.”

I began to grow weary (and distrustful) of this practice of sign-seeking when some of these teachers kept changing their identifications. First the ten-nation confederacy in Revelation 13 was the European Union . . . then it was a Mediterranean alliance that included the Middle East . . . then it was a Middle Eastern and Asian alliance. Or some suggested the Antichrist would be a New Age guru . . . others a European politician . . . others a Muslim dictator from the Middle East. And the mark of the Beast? Social Security numbers? Bar codes? GPS devices? Smart phones?

Besides looking foolish, sign-seekers can also do damage to people’s faith and to the cause of Christ. How so? When these possible “fulfillments” don’t pan out, weak believers, unbelievers, skeptics, critics, and scoffers might conclude one of two things: 1) Christianity and the Bible are utterly untrustworthy, legitimately leading to the question, “What else does the Bible teach that isn’t really true?” Or, more likely, 2) The Bible is hopelessly ambiguous, because if careful interpreters can wrongly read so many different current events into it, then Scripture can apparently be interpreted to say anything people want it to say. In either case, nothing good comes from repeatedly failed sight-seeking. Rather, those who engage in this dangerous sport make authentic, Bible-believing Christians look bad, as they lump us all together and regard us as misguided, brainless zealots.

Since those early days of my end times enthusiasm, I’ve watched countless sign-seekers, date-setters, and victims of this-is-that syndrome come and go. The latest misguided miscreants pointing at red moons in the sky aren’t the first . . . and won’t be the last. But balanced Bible-believing Christians need to be inoculated from this disease with a healthy injection of truth about the end times. We of all people need to correct, rebuke, and reject the end times hacks and quacks pointing at current events to boost their book sales while bamboozling believers.


[Adapted from Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 3, available here.]

Your Questions Answered: Is It Heresy to Reject a Literal Hell?

Question MarkQUESTION:

You mention in RetroChristianity that rejecting belief in hell is heterodoxy, not heresy. But why? Why wouldn’t that be heresy? Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven, we are told. And the apostle’s creed says he descended into hell.


It is definitely true that the view of a literal conscious place of eternal torment for the lost is the overwhelming view of most orthodox Christians, in most places, at most times. However, it has never been the universal position, nor has it ever been dogmatically articulated in an ecumenical creed. Passages that speak of fire and smoke and darkness and “forever and ever” have been read by Christians throughout history in different ways ranging from literal and metaphorical. However, even those who have tended to read the language metaphorically have still affirmed a literal conscious torment that is indescribable. Nevertheless, some have read the language as a metaphor for universal purification by fire or as a figure for absolute irreversible annihilation as if by fire.

So, is a non-literal view of the fires of hell heresy or heterodoxy?

Part of this confusion may be how narrowly I apply the word “heresy.” When I use the term “heresy,” I mean damnable doctrine, that is, “If you believe this, you cannot be saved.” When I use the word “heterodoxy,” I mean, “If you believe this, be careful! You’re holding to something very few Christians have held and you’re standing against the vast majority of thinkers throughout history, and this view has sometimes led to more dangerous doctrines.”

So, I call the views of universalism and annihilationism “heterodoxy” rather than “heresy” because: 1) there has never been a complete agreement on how to understand those hell passages even among those who hold to eternal conscious torment; 2) there has never been a universally adopted creed that reflects a clear teaching on this matter one way or another; and 3) those errors in personal eschatology don’t necessarily and directly distort the Trinitarian creation/redemption story or the person and work of Christ.

I think rejecting eternal conscious torment of the lost fits the category of heterodoxy the best. And not a heterodoxy of the harmless kind, like whether angels have actual wings. Rather, I think those who deny a view of hell as eternal conscious torment and instead hold to annihilationism or universalism are sailing in dangerous waters. Pushing those views too hard could cause them to capsize or shipwreck, distorting other important doctrines. But if a figure in history or even today held firmly to all the other essential tenets of orthodoxy but flirted with a figurative interpretation of hell, I would not put that person in the category of a heretic. I reserve that label for those who reject the fundamentals of the faith like Arius, Pelagius, or Joseph Smith.

One more note with regard to the creedal language. The Creed states that Jesus descended to “hades,” which in the early centuries was a reference simply to “the place of the dead.” Throughout history there has been no complete consensus on what was meant by the term; all acknowledged it was a term borrowed from Greek after-life concepts, so it meant, simply, “Jesus went to the place dead people go when they die.” Some took it as referring to His physical place of burial, so “hades” = “the grave.” Others took it to mean the place of the departed righteous, thus, “hades” = “Abraham’s bosom” or “Paradise.” Others took it to refer to the place of the wicked spirits, including demons, so Christ descended there and proclaimed victory over the spirits of wickedness. In any case, there was no clear consensus on the descensus ad infernos, as it is called, and, in fact, not all of the articulations of the Regula fidei (“Rule of Faith”) and the various baptismal confessions contained that line. So, it is not a good place to go to affirm a universally binding orthodox view of a literal fiery eternal hell. The mention of Christ’s descent to hades was not intended to affirm anything about the literal fires of hell.


Your Questions Answered: Pastoral Ministry Transitions

Question MarkQUESTION:

I really enjoyed the article on calling. But how do you counsel pastoral transitions?

I’ve had friends in ministry who were released from their positions by their churches’ elders, even though they didn’t feel called to leave. In one sense, I guess it was time for them to go because our leadership made the decision. But I really struggled with one of the decisions because of how it was handled. I’m confident God is sovereign, but I was frustrated by the process.

What would you say to these men? Do they aggressively pursue other ministry? Do they wait until someone asks them to come work for them?

I think your comment that “I don’t do anything without being asked” is helpful. So if you are in a pastoral job where you like what you do and are having a good season and another church comes along and says, “Your gifts would really help us,” would you consider it? What about when a friend says, “I know this church is looking and you might be a good fit.” Would you pursue it?



Over the years, I’ve developed a dimmer view of lay eldership, so I tend to be pretty skeptical about elder decisions in churches when “elders” mean lay people who are not ordained making decisions instead of (and even against) the ordained, trained, experienced pastors (the biblical elders). So chances are pretty good that I would more or less reject dismissals of this kind as the wrong people making decisions. (But you’re right, it could still be the right decision arrived at by the wrong people in the wrong way.) At that point, it would be completely appropriate for the dismissed pastor to begin pursuing a new ministry position elsewhere. My general principle of not doing anything without being asked is a rule of thumb, but a rigid regulation.

On the second question, I would at least consider every “ask”—if even for a just a few minutes. I would listen for God’s leading in explicit opportunities and offers, but the rule for me (this is a personal thing) is this: “Don’t do anything you’re not asked to do, but don’t do everything you’re asked to do.” One of my own professors in seminary once told me, “You can’t do everything.” Another told me, “I don’t do anything I’m not asked to do.” Between these two bits of wise advice by two godly men, I find both freedom and direction in my own pursuit of the will of God. It doesn’t make decisions easier, but it does relieve me of both pressure and guilt.

In short, when it comes to ministry transitions, I would say we need to listen, pray, think, discuss with close confidants and family, and set aside those offers that don’t seem to fit at the time. I’ve tried to pray something like, “Lord, I’m going to turn this down. But if you do want me to take that path, please make that clear to me through circumstances. I want to do your will, not mine, so make your will known.”

One final point. I think the “burden of proof” for saying “yes” to an offer is greater when moving from something to something than when moving from nothing to something. The reason? The current call, having been God’s will, is the default. If we’re not reasonably assured that He’s moving us elsewhere, we’re responsible for being faithful to the place where we know He called us—that is, our current place of ministry.


[NOTE: The original question was edited to better fit the purposes of this post.]

[Church] Family Principles #2: Only Be Scared When I’m Scared

Compass.Every family has them. Little rules, proverbs, or general orders that govern everyday life. The Svigel family has several. Hang out with us for a day and you’ll hear at least two or three of them spoken by me, my wife, or sometimes even my kids. I can’t always rest these rules on profound biblical, theological, or philosophical foundations. Instead, we derived them from experience, common sense, and sometimes tradition.

As I’ve thought about the small collection of proverbs or principles that have developed over the last decade or so of parenting, I realize that the good advice that works in the Svigel household can also apply to the household of God. So, in this ten-part series, I’m going to briefly work through ten Svigel family rules, describe how they function to keep my own family healthy and safe, and then discuss how a local church family might benefit from their practical benefits. 

Family Principle #2: Only be scared when I’m scared.

A couple years ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom that have become a standing rule in the Svigel family: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

The non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity, cultural crises, and doctrinal controversies: only be scared when I’m scared.

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But think about it. When we behave as if every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to the family of faith that the Church is in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, in essence, only be scared when I’m scared. Yes, there are times we need to sound the alarm, to retreat, to take cover, to be defensive, or to go on the attack. But we should always measure our reactions responsibly. Most of the time a calm, quiet, and fearless answer will teach those in our spiritual care not only what to respond, but how.