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.

Evangelical Modalism

If I polled members of most evangelical churches in America today, I’m afraid I would discover that most are basically modalists in their understanding of the Trinity.

Modalism is the heresy that confuses the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit—equal in divine essence and power but distinct in person. However, heretics throughout church history have veered off this way into one of two ditches. The first is tri-theism, which separates the three persons and basically confesses three gods, three essences, and three separate persons (and usually one of the gods is greater than the others). The second is modalism, which confuses the three persons and confesses one god and one person with three different names, depending on what role he happens to be filling.

It has become more and more evident to me that evangelicals—while avoiding tri-theism—have inadvertently run headlong into the ditch of modalism. They have done so primarily by three means: modalistic pictures, modalistic prayers, and modalistic praise.

Modalistic Pictures

If you were asked to explain the Trinity to a five-year-old, how would you go about doing it? Most evangelicals would probably resort to some sort of illustration they learned in Sunday school, read in a book, or heard from the pulpit. Two pictures prevail: “The Trinity is like water: solid, liquid, and gas” (that’s modalism). “The Trinity is like a person with different names: I’m a son to my father, a father to my son, and a husband to my wife” (that’s modalism, too). Both of these well-intentioned illustrations communicate a modalistic—not Trinitarian—doctrine of God.

Two facts emerge from two thousand years of attempting to illustrate the Trinity: 1) no picture can adequately illustrate the unillustratable God; and 2) every picture results in communicating a non-Trinitarian heresy. (For a longer discussion about the dangers of illustrating the Trinity, see my essay, “The Unillustratable God.”)

I believe the evangelical knack for illustrating spiritual truths has unwittingly misled many evangelicals into a false understanding of the Trinity. This has to stop, even if it means resorting to bare creedal Trinitarian language to define (not illustrate) the Trinity.

Modalistic Prayers

Besides modalistic pictures, evangelicals spread a confused view of God by means of modalistic prayers.

Some time back I visited a somewhat progressive evangelical church led by a pastor who I know is not a modalist and could probably state the doctrine of the Trinity as clearly and concisely as anyone could hope. However, several times during the Sunday morning service he engaged in what amounted to a modalistic prayer, confusing the Father and Son.

His various prayers went something like this: “Our great heavenly Father, we love you, we praise you, we thank you for dying on the cross for our sins, etc. . . . Lord Jesus, we give you all the glory and honor, Father, etc. . . . In Jesus’s name, Amen.”

Over and over again this pastor kept mixing up the persons of the Trinity, attributing works of the Son to the Father and vice versa. It irritated me so much that I actually felt like walking out. All the while I couldn’t help but wonder how the people in the congregation were understanding the doctrine of God based on those prayers. Contrary to the gist of that pastor’s prayer, the Father did not die on the cross for our sins (an ancient modalistic heresy called “patripassianism,” or “the suffering of the Father”). Jesus is not the Father. Although the Father is God and the Son is God, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit—though united in deity—are distinct in their persons.

Now, I know all of us slip up once in a while when we pray and end up accidentally mixing up the Father and Son and Spirit. That doesn’t make us modalists. But it does cause us to confuse those who are listening—especially if they already have a shaky understanding of what we mean by “Trinity.” One easy way to solve this problem is to actually follow Christ’s teaching on prayer—direct all prayer to God the Father in Jesus’s name and by the power of the Spirit. Address the Father, thank Him for sending His Son, praise Him for giving you the Spirit. By keeping your prayers addressed to God the Father, not only will you be following the overwhelming majority of biblical examples, but you will also avoid communicating a modalistic misunderstanding of the Trinity to those listening.

I believe the evangelical penchant for spontaneous prayer sometimes leads to a confusion of Father, Son, and Spirit, which in turn communicates a modalistic concept of the Trinity. This has to stop, even if it means writing out and reading our prayers to avoid errors.

Modalistic Praise

Along with modalistic pictures and modalistic prayers, evangelicals unwittingly engage in modalistic praise. This comes in the form of popular worship songs and hymns that convey an inaccurate concept of Father, Son, and Spirit.

One worship song that particularly troubles me is “You Alone.” The problematic chorus states: “You alone are Father / and You alone are good. / You alone are Savior / and You alone are God.” But that’s just not true. A Trinitarian Christian cannot confess that God the Father (the first person of the Trinity) is alone good, Savior, and God. These are appellations that Father, Son, and Spirit share. These lyrics could be fixed in one of two ways: 1) change “Father” to a different word, such as “holy,” which would render the address to the Triune God in unity. Or 2) somehow remove the word “alone,” because this suggests that a single person—the Father—is alone God, and for those who also believe in the deity of Christ, this would suggest that the Son and the Father are the same person with different names.

Postmodern praise songs aren’t the only ones producing modalistic melodies, however. The ancient Irish hymn, “By Thou My Vision”—which is one of my favorites—precariously approaches the borders of modalism. The second verse says, “Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word; / I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord; / Thou my great Father, I Thy true son, / Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.” In the ancient church, the names “Wisdom” and “Word” often referred to the Spirit and the Son, and in any case the “Word” (logos) is a name exclusively used in the Bible to refer to the Son in distinction to the Father (John 1:1–3, 14). Yet in the third line “Wisdom” and “Word” are both called “Father.” Then, in the last line, the normal function of the Holy Spirit—who indwells believers—is assigned to the Father. This is confusing.

I believe the evangelical approach to worship music—which sometimes emphasizes the emotional experience over doctrinal discernment—occasionally leads to a confused and confusing doctrine of God. This has to stop, even if it means changing worship songs and rewriting ancient hymns.


A modalistic concept of God that confuses the Father, Son, and Spirit is far too common among evangelicals today. Through sloppy pictures, prayers, and praise, the misunderstanding continues to be confessed over and over again in churches large and small. Because most believers learn their theology from preaching, prayers, and worship—that is, learning by observing and participating—we must all reevaluate our presentations and conform them to the biblical and orthodox doctrine of God.

The Unillustratable God

What do the following things have in common? An egg . . . a pretzel . . . water . . . a man . . . and Aquafresh toothpaste.

The answer? Each of these has been used as an illustration of the Trinity. An egg has three parts—a shell, a yolk, and a white—but it’s all one egg. A pretzel is one long finger of dough twisted into three loops. Under the right conditions, water can simultaneously exist in three different modes: solid, liquid, and gas. A man can be somebody’s father, another person’s son, and another person’s husband—three different names and roles, but one person. And triple-protection Aquafresh strengthens teeth, fights cavities, and freshens breath—thee distinct functions all in one unique toothpaste!

These illustrations of the Trinity have something else in common: they all illustrate heretical views of the Trinity. Not a single illustration of the Trinity communicates what the Bible and orthodox Christianity teach about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every single illustration falls short, often leading to misunderstanding, confusion, and a false doctrine of God.

The true doctrine of the Trinity states that there is but one God, but in the unity of that one Godhead, there are three distinct (not separate), co-eternal, and equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is fully God; the Son is fully God; the Spirit is fully God. However, the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Spirit; and the Spirit is not the Father. While there is equality of divine essence, each Person of the Trinity functions in a unique role in His relationship to creation and to each other.

Common pitfalls with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity include: 1) separating the three Persons into independent gods; 2) collapsing the three names into a single Person; 3) divvying up divinity in a way that makes each Person one-third God; or 4) distinguishing the Persons so that the Father is God in the proper sense, while the Son and Spirit are lesser generated beings.

Both the egg and pretzel illustrations divvy up divinity, so each part represents only one third of the whole. The water and man illustrations best fit the heretical view that Father, Son, and Spirit are different modes or names for a single Person. And the Aquafresh illustration? Let’s not even go there.

A Historical Warning

Anybody who has been exposed to church history will recall the heretic Arius of Alexandria. He was the presbyter who taught that the Son was a lesser being than the Father, and that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius also insisted that the Son was of a different essence than the Father, but was still the highest of the created beings and co-creator of the universe. Only in a relative sense could the Son be called “a god” by humans. In most respects, the view of the Arians is similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses today. The false teachings of Arius were condemned as heresy at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in AD 325. From that council we have the Nicene Creed, which confesses Jesus as having “the same essence” as the Father, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

Arius fell into his heresy partly because he built his doctrine of God around faulty illustrations of the Trinity set forth by several teachers before him. For example, Dionysius of Alexandria, who died in AD 263, taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all co-eternal and fully God, but he used illustrations and analogies of these relationships that communicated inequality. He said the relationship of Father and Son was like that of a shipbuilder and a ship, or a farmer and a vine. Arius later appealed to the illustrations of Dionysius and other teachers of the third century for his heretical view on the relationship of the Son and the Father.(1) In short, the misleading illustrations of Dionysius and others helped confirm Arius in his heresy.

The same thing can happen today when we attempt to illustrate the Trinity with pretzels, pizzas, or apple pies. It just doesn’t work because every illustration grossly distorts the truth.

The Unillustratable God

I’m a fan of making theology simple, but if it means distorting and twisting the doctrine of God, forget it. I like the view of Irenaeus of Lyons at the end of the second century. After exploring all the various possible explanations for the Son’s “generation” from the Father, Irenaeus urges us to leave the mysterious matter unresolved. He writes:

If any one, therefore, says to us, “How then was the Son produced by the Father?” we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers possess this knowledge, but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.(2)

I don’t know about you, but I like the fact that Christians believe in a God who is utterly indescribable, incomprehensible, and unillustratable. Think about it: would you really want to worship and serve a God whose very essence can be accurately described by an egg, a pretzel, or a tube of toothpaste?

Let’s teach the doctrine of the Trinity accurately. That means dropping all illustrations of the Trinity from your teaching, because every illustration only distorts the unillustratable God.


(1) See Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451),
trans. John Bowden, 2d rev. ed. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 157–158.

(2) Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.28.6.