Book Reviews,  Theology/Bible

Review of “Who’s Tampering with the Trinity”

Stephen Wellum has written a major review of Millard Erickson’s book Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Kregel, 2009). In Erickson’s book, he argues against the idea of an eternal, functional subordination of the Son to the Father. In Wellum’s review, he gives a host of reasons why Erickson’s argument will not stand. The review appears in the most recent issue of JBMW, and it is a must-read for anyone who has been following the “subordination debate” among Trinitarians. Here’s a snippet from Wellum’s critique:

“Erickson’s book is certainly worthy of evaluation and reflection, even much more interaction than I can give it here. Especially given his plea and concern at the end of the book, this issue demands our attention. Anytime we wrestle with the doctrine of God we are not only thinking through the most important subject matter possible, but, given the fact that the doctrine of God is central to our entire theology, much is at stake in these discussions. So in light of this, I will give five reflections, starting with the positive and then moving to the negative.”

Here are the five topics of Wellum’s critical evaluation:

1. Erickson is to be commended for addressing such an important theological issue and for the most part presenting the debate fairly. Often in these heated discussions the tone can be shrill and Erickson avoids this.

2. Even though Erickson is to be commended for his attempt to arbitrate the debate judiciously, unfortunately, in my view, he does not always live up to his ideals.

3. Erickson’s discussion of the biblical evidence for his view is not as compelling as he thinks.

4. Erickson’s discussion of the “nature­person” distinction in chapter 6 is not helpful. It is here that he suggests that gradationists have opened the door to Arian and/or semi-Arian views, even though he admits that no present-day gradationist is Arian/semi-Arian.

5. Erickson’s argument from historical theology is highly debatable.

This is an excellent review, and you can read the rest of it here.


  • Charlton Connett

    Great review, especially in addressing the nature-person distinction within the trinity. Even for those not interested in the debate in question, the issue of how we differentiate between the individual persons and the shared God nature of the trinity is one worthy of consideration.

  • Christiane

    ? Important to the ‘debate’ is this COMMENT/QUESTION:
    “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated Person, One in essence, equal in power and glory.
    Since, in Greek “power” and “authority” are one and the same word, how can Christ be equal to God in power, but not in authority. If the Son is eternally in submission, he is not equal in power and glory.”


    Does the NEW book by Erickson approach this question in a way that is handled SUFFICIENTLY by Wellum, so as to put to rest this comment/question for his ‘side’,
    OR does the comment/question remain still open for debate among ‘both sides’?

    In short, how definitive is Wellum’s response for those who hold to ESS, as regards this extremely focused and important comment/question?

  • Charlie


    The issue with your question is that it is based on a wrong understanding of language. A single word can have multiple meanings with each meaning being distinct. Take the English word, “bear” for instance. It could mean: to hold up; to conduct (oneself);an animal, and many more things. Each is a meaning of the word but they are all distinct concepts and/or things.

  • Jay

    Charlie, I don’t think Christiane’s question is wrong, but rather quite important to the debate. Defining terms is a good first step, and my experience has been that the English word itself “subordination” is a loaded term. Some argue for a better term to describe what is meant by the best comp theologians for the idea of “functional subordination” as it really does not fit any standard definition in use of “subordination.”
    “the act of giving someone or something less importance or power ”
    “To put in a lower or inferior rank or class.”
    “Of lesser importance; secondary”
    “To place in lower order, rank or status”

    Those are the primary definitions in use in modern English, based on Cambridge, Webster’s, American Heritage, and

    In most cases, there are additional notes to the word’s orgin which focuses on order or authority structure, but those are considered less accepted or even archaic.

    My questions would be:
    1)is there another way to say “functionally subordinate” that would mitigate a heretical understanding of the Trinity?
    2) are there not another aspects of the Trinity that we need to consider as equally important to the manhood/womanhood debate? (may I suggest a look at the third person, the Holy Spirit, as well as the woman’s role as “ezer”?)

    Thank you.

  • Sue


    I don’t think that you have answered Christiane sufficiently.

    The creeds and the doctrinal statement of ETS say explicitly that Christ is equal to God in “power.” This doctrinal statement is descended directly from creeds which were written in Latin.

    In Latin the word for power is potestas. This word potestas is the direct translation for exousia in Greek, as it occurs in the Latin Vulgate.

    It is clear and direct fact that the English word “power” is a translation of the Greek word “exousia” which is now translated into English as “authority.” If you read the KJV you will see that the Greek word exousia was often translated into English as “power.”

    There is no argument about this. We know, for a fact, that “power” in all the English creeds stands for “authority.”

    So I do not understand how Christ can be equal in “power” but not in “authority.” There is no basis in the creeds or in the Bible for this.

  • Charlie


    hopefully this does not sound to harsh but your argument seems to be based on a bad understanding of language. ἐξουσία has several meanings: authority to rule; jurisdiction; symbol of authority; ruler; control; power; supernatural power; right to judge. Reference:(Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996, c1989). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament : Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (2:92). New York: United Bible societies.) They are distinct meanings that the one word can be used for.

    If I am miss understanding your argument can you please make it more plain.


  • Jay

    Charlie, I don’t think you’re saying anything that Sue (or Christiane didn’t say as well). We all get that a word can have more than one meaning. That actually seems to be the crux of the problem.

    I have no doubt that well-meaning manhood/womanhood comps have no intention of making the subject of the phrase “functional subordination” mean lower status, less importance, less power, inferior class, secondary status, etc.. Yet, the word carries those connotations.

    As an English Ed major in my Bachelor’s studies, I am well aware that post-moderns believe that words are merely symbols that can signify whatever meaning the prevailing culture ascribes to them.

    However, classical semiotics see language in parallel to mathematic/ algebraic equations. Precision is paramount. Because the meaning or truth being signified transcends the word, the most correct and precise word usage is our best hope toward satisfactory communication and understanding.

    Acceptance of the equivocation of terms won’t help to advance this discussion. In my opinion.

  • Sue


    I missed your meaning, because your earlier example was “bear” saying “It could mean: to hold up; to conduct (oneself);an animal, and many more things. Each is a meaning of the word but they are all distinct concepts and/or things.”

    So the example you provided was of two separate words, 1) bear – verb, to hold up, and 2) bear – an animal.

    I think you are the one who must make your argument more plain. Clearly we are not talking about that situation with authority.

    Augustine says that the son was not unequal to the father in potestas [exousia.]

    Potestas was the unique and only concordant translation for the Greek word exousia in the Vulgate.

    So now, going back to the Greek, we have Augustine’s assertion that the son was equal to the father in exousia.

    Now, I believe that you are saying that the son is equal to the father in exousia,(according to Augustine and the creeds); and unequal to the father in exousia (acording to Ware and others).

    You then say that this is okay because exousia has many different meanings.

    That is fine, but at some point this should be discussed in the literature. I have never seen a discussion of this. I feel uncomfortable discussing theology divorced from the language of its origin. I really don’t understand how this concept is derived from the scripture, if the only words we have are in English.

    Do you feel that in certain verses of scripture Christ has equal exousia to the father, and in others he is under the father’s exiousia, and that the word exousia has two different meanings in these verses?

  • Sue

    I guess my question is this. How, in the Greek vocabulary, is it possible to say that Christ was equal to the father in authority, and unequal to the father in authority?

  • Charlie

    Hey Jay,

    thanks for the comment. I agree with you that we should have a term that is as precise as possible. But we are in a bind with the present day English language. Because our society has removed the dynamic understanding of roles. Everything is level. To move to a submissive position is to be come an inferior being. And that is reflected in our understanding of words like: subordinate, submit, etc. Yet, the Bible is not bound by this cultural understanding. Equality is based on our making and our declared function, not on our self imagined function. It could be that we must then move to transform the language of a culture instead of being controlled by it. make sense?

    Thanks for the reply Sue,

    I am reading you comments but not seeing how you have advanced beyond what I have pointed out. Let me rewrite your question with very valid translations of ἐξουσία,

    How, in the Greek vocabulary, is it possible to say that Christ was equal to the father ἐξουσία: “the right to control or command”, and unequal to the father in ἐξουσία:”power exercised by rulers or others in high position by virtue of their office”? (definitions taken from BDAG)

    So, yes. Christ has the same power and right as the Father. He has the authority to rule and command. Yet, He willingly choices to not exercise the authority, but to instead, submit to the authority of the Father.

    For verses you can look at Eph 1:3-10. The plan was set forth by the Father and the Son submitted to the plan. You are not going to find the words “authority” and “power” there but the concept resides there none-th-less.

    Sue, you still seem to be flatting the word in that it means one thing at all times. Hence, the way you ask the question. It presupposes that ἐξουσία has one meaning at all times. Even though you say you get what I am saying your argument still repeats the fallacy I am pointing out.

  • Jay

    A bit of a rabbit trail with concern to the topic of language/linguistics and the essence of the discussion is this statement from Exodus 3:14:

    “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

    Two points that I’d make in this regard:
    1) Jesus claimed this title for himself also in John 8, verse 58, while people were disputing his testimony and who he was. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am! (ἐγώ εἰμι)” This is the same reference used in Exod 3:14.

    2) Linguistically, since that seems to be the thrust of the conversation here, I think the grammatical structure is quite telling.
    I am that I am
    Independent Clause (I am) – subordinator (that/which/what) – complementary phrase (I am).

    In all the Bible, this statement has always been the most powerful way that God has identified himself. And when Jesus used it, they tried to stone him.

    Does anyone else think that has any bearing on this discussion? Thanks.

  • Jay

    Charlie, the Bible uses the word submit or submission, but there are no references in the ESV or KJV to subordinate or subordination. In the NIV you can find a reference to it in Kings, speaking of the subordinates or subjects of a kingdom.

    Someone can submit to the will or authority of another without losing status, rank, position or worth. However, the same is not true with subordination. That is why I see using “Function Subordination” as equivocation and an unhelpful ambiguity that should be reworded.

    I can give you an example from my time in the Army. As a Captain, I was a company commander. My best friend was a Captain on staff, working in a Battalion. We both served the exact same amount of time and in terms of rank, we were perfectly equal. However, in my AO (area of operartion), I had the authority to make and enforce policy. When he would make staff visitations to my company from the Battalion, he was subject to the authority of the rules I had in place (for the welfare of the troops and equipment), but he was never my subordinate.

    Bottom line of what I’m getting at:
    1) To submit to the will of another does not require subordinaton.

    2) To invent and attempt to use the phrase “functional subordination” is highly problematic, for it:
    a) obsures the denotation/meaning of the word subordinate and
    b) employs loaded language by attempting to make subordinate mean something that it is not intended to denote (similar to what politicians frequently do by saying things like “investing in public service” as opposed to “public spending”).

  • Sue


    (You deny that your example was faulty. This sets an uncomfortable basis for dialogue. You are switching track without an admission of the awkwardness of your comment to me. So be it. I will take note.)

    The doctrinal statement of ETS says that Christ is equal to the father in power and this word power descends from exousia. “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”

    So, in the doctrinal statement of ETS, the son is equal to the father in exousia. But in the books written by Bruce Ware, Christ is under the authority of the father.

    Both of these statements are rather unembellished by modifiers. How is a reader supposed to know that there is such a difference in meaning?

    I would propose that the ETS doctrinal basis be rewritten to indicate this, so a misunderstanding does not occur. Let us not forget that Ware suggests that we address prayers to the father rather than to the son, because the father has sovereign authority over the son. For Ware, the father is eternally sovereign in authority over the son.

    But I assume that you mean that Christ has in every way equal authority to the father, but he chooses not to act on it, but submits to the father. THis refers to some specific action, it appears.

    If we accept that, it means that in a particular circumstance, Christ makes a deliberate choice to submit. I am not sure that this is “eternal subordination.” In Augustine in seems completely clear that Christ is equal in authority and substance, and is sent by the father ( and later Augustine says that the son is co-sent by the son, that is he sends himself.)

    So, in being sent, the son submits. But he is always of equal authority.

    This can hardly be transferred over the the husband and wife, or to any humans. Being sent, is being sent to live a mortal life, and to die as a sacrifice. This is intrinsic in being sent. If someone in authority deliberately sent those under him to die, we would question that authority. The wife, the slaves, etc, are not suitable as sacrifices. The only suitable sacrifice is someone of equal and full authority, who is “one in essence.”

    The one who is sent is one in essence to the father, the rays of sunlight cannot exist without the sun, they are the sun.

  • Sue

    So while it would be a terrible sin, the worst, to sacrifice one’s own son, this stands in as a metaphorical example of Christ’s sacrifice. Only the son, or rather one’s own child, can metaphorically be said to be “one in essence.”

    The wife can never be, even metaphorically, the sacrifice of the one who has authority over her. In fact, the husband must sacrifice for the wife because her physical circumstances as child-bearer require that someone else devotes themselves to her nourishment.

  • Charlie

    Yeah, I see what you are saying. Funny, I was about to use military ranking as an illustration as well. So I believe that we are in essential agreement here. If a term is unhelpful then it should be replaced.

    So what term do you have in mind to use?

  • Charlie


    I did not say that my first example to reply to you was faulty. It still proves the point that one word can care different meanings. That has been my point from the very beginning :/. I just switched to the greek word at hand because it was more relevant and it prove the point as well.

    you said,

    “So, in the doctrinal statement of ETS, the son is equal to the father in exousia. But in the books written by Bruce Ware, Christ is under the authority of the father.”

    After reading your latest comment I am about to call it quits with this discussion. Not to sound harsh but it sounds as if you are going to believe what you want to believe. You continue to use one flat meaning for ἐξουσία while I have proven other wise.

    And my point still stands. Not to sound cold in all this, but to make the point again. A word can have multiple, distinct meanings. And ἐξουσία, is one of those words. I have proved this by referring to authoritative Greek sources. I know I have repeated this again and again, but it is the answer to the one issue I engaged in and my argument has been plainly ignored. And with the prof saying that ἐξουσία has multiple meanings the charge that, “descriptives of Authority and Power having to be equally held but those it refers to” falls. Plain and simple. There is no evidence in the word which supports such a conclusion presented by you Sue and Christina.

    If you can prove other wise then present the evidence.

    I am not going to engage in any of the other issues about headship and such because that is not the issue I have been talking about. The issue has been linguistic fallacies in a question about the position held by Ware and Wellum. That is what I have sought to answer.

  • Sue

    I see the same problem with “authority.” If authority can mean one of two different things, then the creeds should be tailored to indicate that. If the creed says that Christ is equal to God in authority, but books on the trinity says that Christ is under God in authority, it would help if some further discussion of this took place.

  • Sue


    “Bear” the verb, and “bear” the animal are two separate entries in a dictionary and are called two distinct words. If you continue to insist that this is comparable to a list which describes the range of meaning of one word then we are at an impasse. You cannot discuss “linguisitic fallacies” if you are not aware of what a word is.

    Next, you point out the range of meaning for exousia in the dictionary. Clearly, then, if the range of the word exousia means that the son is equal and unequal to the father in authority, the creeds are not enough. They do not use a word that is sufficiently exact.

    I would be interested in knowing if Bruce Ware, or others writing on this topic, ever say that the son is equal to the father in authority, since that is what Augustine and the creeds say.

    Scot McKnight asked Denny the same question a couple of years ago.

    Here is Augustine’s quote, and Wares’s discussion of it.


    “In the light of this we can now perceive that the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh, and by his bodily presence to do all that was written. That is, we should understand that it was not just the man who the Word became that was sent, but that the Word was sent to become man. For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power [potestas/exousia] or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father, but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father being from the Son.”

    Here’s Ware:

    “I cannot say why Professor Giles omitted the very portion of the quotation that supported my claim that Augustine affirms the pre-incarnate authority of the Father over the Son,” Ware said in his paper.

    “But whatever the reason, the fact remains that Augustine affirms both the essential equality of the Father and the Son along with the pre-incarnate functional submission of the Son to the Father. Giles’ own discussion, by its attenuated quotation of Augustine, turns out to be the treatment of Augustine which in fact denies what Augustine affirms.”


    This is the conversation that I felt has not been answered. Ware says that Augustine affirms the pre-incarnate authority of the father over the son. But Augustine says that the son is equal to the father in authority, but he was sent by the father.

    There is no way to derive eternal authority of the father over the son from this citation from Augustine, because Augustine is careful to affirm the equality in substance and in authority of the son to the father.

    One can only derive that the father sent the son. However, elsewhere in Augustine we see that he says that the son has also sent himself. It is not a difference in authority which means that the son is sent, but that the son proceeds from the father.

    There is NO talk about subordination in Augustine. There is only a discussion of equal authority, three who are one in essence, and cannot have a difference in authority.

  • Christiane

    ESS, the ‘eternal subordination’ of the Son ?

    This doctrine assumes ‘separate’ wills for the Father and for the Son;
    and that the Son renounces His own will in favor of the Father’s will.

    This seems to be the red light in the ESS theory:
    can a group promote a ‘doctrine’ that denies that the Holy Trinity shares the same will. Would this denial then represent an attack on the Church’s historic orthodox teaching on the nature of the Holy Trinity?

    I think the answer is ‘yes’.
    ESS seems to be a departure from that historic orthodox teaching, which holds that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity share the SAME Will. Hence, no need to subordinate one will to another will.

  • Sue

    ESS seems to be a departure from that historic orthodox teaching

    I understand that the creeds say that the son is equal to the father in authority. However, I am not aware of any place in the books of Bruce Ware or in any other articles by those who believe in ESS, that the equal authority of the son to the father is affirmed.

    At this point, I have not seen how ESS affirms the orthodox creeds. Does anyone know of any place that an ESS book or article affirms the equal authority of the son?

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