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Christianity Today recently interviewed Larry Crabb about this new book, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Crabb draws on the dynamic between Father and Son within the immanent Trinity to get at the distinctives of masculinity and femininity. CT then published a response from Trinitarian scholar Fred Sanders, a complementarian who argues for the decoupling of Trinitarianism from gender discussions. (You can read a fuller discussion from Sanders here, or watch this dialogue with Kevin Giles.)

Denny Burk’s response to both Crabb and Sanders matched my own, so I thought it’d be worth reprinting his introduction:

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.

You can read the whole thing here. (Hint: It’s about 1 Cor. 11:3.)

For a multi-author look at this question, see the forthcoming book from Crossway, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life.

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10 thoughts on “Should We Connect the Trinity and Gender?”

  1. Mike Reeves makes an observation in his book, *Delighting in the Trinity*, that is relevant to this discussion. In this section he offers humanity as God’s chosen way of imaging His trinitarian nature as opposed to the impersonal analogies that Christians often use.

    “If the Bible ever comes out with an image, it is in Genesis 1 and 2.
    [Quotes Gen. 1:26-27]
    “There is something about the relationship and difference between the man and the woman, Adam and Eve, that images the being of God–something we saw the apostle Paul pick up in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Eve is a person quite distinct from Adam, and yet she has all her life and being from Adam. She comes from his side, is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, and is one with him in the flesh (Gen 2:21-24). Far better than leaves, eggs, and liquids, that reflects a personal God, a Son who is distinct from his Father, and yet who is of the very being of the Father, and who is eternally one with him in Spirit.”
    (This quote is from the Kindle Edition, loc. 480-511, near the end of chp. 1.)

  2. Dave Moore says:

    It is concerning that Denny being a “big fan of Sanders” makes him “reluctant” to offer any critique. He goes on to give it, but why the reluctance?

    I speak as mad, but in my own life I find it extremely important to critique (and be critiqued) by my institutional and theological colleagues. For example, Dr. Bill Bright and I got into a very public discussion/debate on drinking. Dr. Bright kept making a personal point (he did not want Cru staff drinking), but this is nor was the official policy of Cru. We went back and forth in front of 100 fellow staff members who were fine with not correcting Dr. Bright on his error in making a personal issue a policy issue. In the end, Dr. Bright voiced public respect for me and took a keen interest in our ministry at Stanford.

    Organizations like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Gospel Coalition desperately need “insiders” who are willing to offer their critiques. No reluctance whatsoever should be an issue.

  3. EMSoliDeoGloria says:

    Sanders is correct. While humanity’s image bearing is a very important theological truth, attempts to employ the Trinity in an attempt to construct or prescribe gender roles are doomed to error because there is not precise correspondence to human relationships in the mystery of Trinity.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Denny quotes 1 Cor 11:3 to show that there is.

  4. John says:

    Here’s Sanders’ statement: “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”. Did he just forget about 1 Cor 11:3? I don’t think so. His statement is exactly right even if you factor in 1 Cor 11:3–as long as you accept his classical Nicene starting point.

    “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.” (1 Cor 11:3). In this verse, is Paul drawing a comparison between the relationship of the eternal Father and the eternal Son and gender relations? Or is he drawing a comparison between the relationship of Father and the incarnate Christ and gender relations? Which one must it be?

    The key to answering this question is to focus on the distinction of wills. Two human beings have distinct wills. If the headship of God and Christ is to be a model for two human beings (man and woman) to imitate, then God and Christ must also have distinct wills. Otherwise, the comparison doesn’t have much value, because there would be no way for those with distinct wills to imitate a single will.

    Social trinitarians believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit have three distinct wills that work together as one. That’s Bruce Ware’s position, and apparently Denny’s position as well.

    The classical Nicene tradition (shared by the likes of Gregory Nyssa, Maximus, Aquinas, Calvin, and Sanders) holds that the Father, Son, and Spirit have one divine will. The incarnate Son has two wills, one divine and one human.

    Which position you hold determines how you’ll answer the question: “Should we connect the Trinity and gender?”

    If you’re a social trinitarian, you’ll answer yes on the basis of 1 Cor 11:3, because you believe that “God is the head of Christ” can and does refer to the eternal Father and eternal Son, and that pattern of headship in their wills can be directly imitated by two human beings with their own distinct wills.

    If you’re in the Nicene trinitarian tradition, you’ll answer no because you believe that “God is the head of Christ” cannot be about the eternal Father and eternal Son, since it does not make sense to talk about the headship of one over the other when they share one and the same will. Rather, you’ll say that the passage refers to the incarnate Christ’s human will, which was under the headship of the Father and always perfectly aligned with Christ’s divine will (which is the one will of God shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit). So, you’d say: “We do not connect the Trinity and gender. Rather, we connect gender to Christ. Male and female relations are to be patterned after the example of the incarnate Jesus.” And you would argue that this reading stands directly in line with how Paul began his argument in 1 Cor 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul is not saying we should imitate the eternal Son (how could we?), but rather, that we should imitate the incarnate Christ.

    So, when Sanders says, “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”–he’s exactly right on Nicene terms. The question isn’t whether or not you’re paying attention to 1 Cor 11:3. It’s whether or not you hold to the Nicene trinitarian tradition or embrace social trinitarianism.

    That’s why Denny is hearing so many evangelicals talk in the way that he does (Bird, Shillaker, Stackhouse, Sanders, etc.). They’re embracing Nicene orthodoxy and working out their reasoning from there.

  5. I haven’t read his book, but the roles within a family are to a degree mimicking the roles within the Trinity. Without that understanding, gender based clothing standards lose some of their significance. There is a book draft that will be updated later this month, but can be downloaded for free that makes the connection. Though it is written in a casual manner on purpose, there is enough theological explanation to show the connection between gender based roles and the Trinity. Go to and use coupon CV98J before Aug 25.

  6. butterlight says:

    Denny Burk and other likeminded Complementarians make what should be a obvious eisgetical twist out of I Cor 11:3>

    The text reads “God is the head of Christ” and the Grudem/Ware/Burk complementarians read it back to themselves as saying “the Father is the head of Christ.”

    Do you see the switcheroo happening there?

    We should come to every text where God is mentioned and assume at the start it word “God” when referring to the one true God (not supposed gods) is always meaning Yahweh.

    Yahweh is the head of Christ. Christ comes from Yahweh, thus Yahweh is both the head and source of Christ. Yahweh is triune and thus the true reality that is Christ comes out of the true reality that is triune Yahweh.

    Every time ‘theos’ is mentioned in the NT we should not automatically read it as referring ONLY to the Father. The whole NT is informed and weighted down by who Yahweh is and who He has revealed himself to be in the foregoing Revelation. By the time one reads from Genesis into Romans it is clear even before we begin reading I Corinthians that Yahweh is God and the Yahweh is triune in his Being.

    I Cor 11:3 cannot be a proof-text for gender relations within the Trinity any more than Genesis 24:64 is a proof-text for Isaac’s wife having been a smoker.

    “And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel.” kjv


  7. Sue says:

    Crabb’s thesis is astounding – that we interact in community as neqebah and zakar, vagina people and penis people. Please tell me he doesn’t know this is what he said with the Hebrew words that he used. I know he says it means women are open and invitational, and men are movers, but it really refers to body parts.

  8. Sue says:

    I amI just reading in google books that he thinks the vagina represents the shape of a woman’s soul. So he is saying this deliberately. And the male penetrates and moves deeply onto another’s soul. He is deliberatley saying that the sex act is a parable for the rest of our life, how we relate in community. Is this of Christ, of Paul, of the Bible? Do you recommend this book?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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