I am in hearty agreement with Fred Sanders’ critique of Larry Crabb’s new book on gender. The connections that Crabb makes between Trinitarian doctrine and gender roles seem to be entirely speculative and not founded in what the scriptures actually say. In short, Crabb’s paradigm is unmoored from the Bible, and Sanders has shown the flawed basis of Crabb’s thesis.
Having said that, there’s one detail in Sanders’ critique that I would take exception with. I’m reluctant to mention it because I’m a big fan of Sanders. He’s one of the bright lights of evangelical theology and has produced some remarkable work on the Trinity. If you haven’t read his 2010 book on The Trinity, you need to. He’s one of the good guys, and I’m glad he’s on the team making the case for classic Trinitarianism.
So what’s the disagreement? It’s these lines from Sanders’ critique:
I wish [Crabb] didn’t connect gender to the relationship between the Father and the Son. The main reason is that Scripture itself does not explicitly link gender to Trinity, or the masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic.
Sanders not only rejects Crabb’s argument, but he also rejects as unbiblical any attempt at connecting Trinity to gender relations. This I think goes too far. Nevertheless, I seem to be hearing such statements a lot lately—not just from Sanders. I’m hearing it from both sides of the evangelical gender debate. On the complementarian side, Michael Bird/Robert Shillaker have warned that the analogy between gender and Trinity breaks down and is often pressed merely to advance a theological agenda. On the egalitarian side, John Stackhouse has argued that the analogy is “a bad theological move to attempt—by anyone, on any side of this issue.”
I understand the reasons why people are wary of theologizing about gender via the Trinity. First, such theologizing can quickly become speculative and disconnected from Scripture (as in Crabb’s book). Second, there is the danger of forcing the Trinity onto the procrustean bed of one’s views on the gender debate. In both cases, this central doctrine of the faith becomes the handmaiden of a second tier theological issue. I am completely sympathetic to that concern. The gender debate is so pitched that the tail can get to wagging the dog really quickly.
Nevertheless, such abuses should not diminish the fact that the analogy between gender roles and Trinity derives not from mere speculation, but from the Bible. The central text in this regard in 1 Corinthians 11:3:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
Egalitarians and complementarians still do not agree over the meaning of the word “head” in this verse. Does it mean “source” or “authority”? The debate over that question has been going on for decades, and there’s no sign that the controversy has abated. The reason that debate is so heated is because both sides recognize that the apostle is making an analogy between the Father’s headship relation to the Son and the man’s headship relation to the woman. The precise nature of that relation is disputed, but the presence of the analogy is not. Even if the analogy is limited to the Son’s submission during the incarnation, the analogy is still relevant.
I have no illusions that that this debate about gender and Trinity will be resolved anytime soon. Nevertheless, no one can get above the fray on this one. First Corinthians 11:3 explicitly links the “masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic.” The apostle Paul himself invokes the analogy, and our challenge is to understand it and receive it. It’s a debate worth having precisely because the link between intratrinitarian relations and gender relations is transparently biblical.