Subordinationism (out of the blue!)

In the present parlous and precarious state of British theology it’s hard to imagine a controversy suddenly erupting over the question whether within the eternal trinity the Son is subordinate to the Father.  In American Evangelicalism, however, that’s exactly what’s happened.  A web-war (or at least a skirmish) has broken out over this very question.  On the one side stands Dr. Wayne Grudem, whose advocacy of subordinationism has been well known ever since the publication his Systematic Theology away back in 1994.  On the other, stand Dr. Liam Golligher and Dr. Carl Trueman (both originally from Britain, of course), who have used Mortification of Spin, the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, to speak out strongly against Grudem’s views; and he, clearly stung by the criticisms, has posted a response on the website of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organisation dedicated to promoting the view that while women are by nature equal to men they are subordinate in role.  This order, it is argued, reflects an order in the eternal Trinity itself..

            Dr. Grudem’s posting adds nothing to what has long been known about his views, but his language is still capable of raising theological eye-brows and, indeed, hackles.  He speaks, for example, of the primacy of God the Father: a term which immediately suggests to us Brits that the relation between the Father and the Son is akin to that between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a mere Bishop.  Then, in line with this, he speaks of the Son being eternally subordinate within the Trinity, of the Son Being eternally subject to the authority of the Father, and of the Son being eternally submissive (and, as such, the role-model for a woman’s submission to her husband).

            It has to be stressed at once that Dr.Grudem is firmly committed to the doctrine of the eternal deity of the Son and does not see his emphasis on subordination as in any way detracting from the belief that the Son is equal to the Father in his being and in all his attributes.  There can be no doubting his sincerity on this point.  Nor can there be any doubt that his views are broadly in line with those of a long succession of distinguished theologians.   There was a strong subordinationist strain in the ground-breaking trinitarianism of Tertullian (circa 170-220 a.d.), and its echoes can still be heard not only in the Nicene theologians (including Athanasius) but also in such later writers as John Owen, Daniel Waterland and Charles Hodge.

            Grudem also cites Calvin as another who shares his wave-length, but in this instance he offers no direct quotation, relying instead on a statement from Richard Muller to the effect that, ‘Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons.’  No wise man is going to dispute an interpretation of Calvin with Dr. Muller, but ‘some’ subordination may not quite amount to subjection and submission.  Besides, we may well ask whether when he conceded ‘some subordination’ Calvin was being consistent with himself.  As B. B. Warfield pointed out, the tendency of Calvin’s treatment of distinctions within the trinity was towards equalisation rather than subordination, and any suggestion that the Son derived his essence from the Father (the foundation of Nicene subordinationism) was anathema to him.  Indeed, he laid such emphasis on the self-existent deity of the Son that he was accused of heresy by his enemies, who charged him with teaching that the Son, no less than the Father, was autotheos: not only God in his own right, but God from himself.  As it happens, this is exactly what Calvin intended to teach, arguing that if we ascribe deity to Christ it must be self-existent deity, since there is no other.  Besides, the Father and the Son are not merely one generically, like two members of the human species.  They are one and the same numerically: one divine being, not two.  Once we take this position we have to accept that the Father and the Son are not only ‘the same in substance’ but also ‘equal in power and glory.’ (Shorter Catechism, Answer 6).  This leaves little room for subordination.

            But does the very fact of his being ‘Son’ not itself point to Christ’s being subordinate to the Father and under his authority?  This, after all, is how sonship was understood in the ‘ancient world’, where, we are told, fathers still had ‘familial leadership’ even when relating to adult sons. 

            It was to avoid this implication that some modern Evangelicals (notably James MacArthur at one period in his career) were reluctant to endorse the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Christ.  They feared it played into the hands of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  But this is scarcely necessary.  For one thing, whatever was the case in the ‘ancient world’, the Jews did not conceive of sonship as implying subordination.  This becomes clear in John 5:18, where Jesus’ calling God his Father is immediately taken to mean that he was making himself equal with God (Jn. 5:18); and for the Nicene theologians, despite their endemic subordinationism, sonship meant first and foremost that the Son was of the same nature as the Father.  This was the foundation of the homoousios: ‘such as the Father is, such is the Son.’ (Athanasian Creed, 7.  This creed, despite its name is, of course post-Nicene)).  Community of nature, not role-subordination, was the primary meaning of sonship.

Besides, ‘Son’ is not the only title the New Testament applies to Christ.  In John 1:1, for example, he is expressly called ‘God’ and this is repeated in Romans 9:5, which speaks of him as, ‘God over all, blessed for ever.’  This title certainly caries no connotation of subordination.  Nor does the title ‘Lord’, which is applied to him repeatedly, not only to express the idea of his lordship over creation, but also to denote him as the one who has ‘the name above every name’.  He is the LORD, Yahweh, before whom every knee will bow (Phil. 2:11. Cf. Is. 45:23).  More than any other divine name, this one conveys the idea of self-existent, inexhaustible, ever-blazing deity, and we must surely hesitate before ascribing subjection and submissiveness to the one who bears it.  If we can be so confident in drawing inferences from the title, ‘Son’, what inferences shall we draw from ‘God’ and ‘Lord’?

            But the drawing of such inferences is itself a dangerous thing.  If we interpret Jesus’ sonship in terms of its human analogy, we cannot stop at mere subordination.  We have to go on to infer, first of all, that the Father exists before the Son and, secondly, that the Father generates or gives being to the Son.  Both of these inferences were drawn by the Arians, but neither of them is tolerable.  The Son is co-eternal with the Father; and the Son is self-existent.  This is why the fathers of the early church, despite their tendency to subordinationism, distinguished clearly between ‘begotten’ and ‘originated’.  ‘The Son,’ they said, ‘was not agennētos (unbegotten), but he was agenētos (unoriginate).’  

            Advocates of subordinationism also find support for their case in the fact that the ascended Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father.  But is this not to forget that the heavenly Session of Christ applies to him not as the eternal Son, but as the incarnate Mediator, who is rewarded for his obedience by being highly exalted (Phil. 2)?  Furthermore, in Revelation 7:17 the Lamb stands not at God’s right hand, but in the centre of the throne, and although this again applies to him as the victorious Mediator it is inconceivable that he could occupy this position were he not already co-equal with the Father (and with the Holy Spirit). 

            This equality is emphasised even more strikingly in Revelation 22:1, where the River of the Water of Life flows out of ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb.’  In the first instance this proclaims that the Son, equally with the Father, is the source of redeeming grace, but it also highlights the fact that the monarchy (the absolute sovereignty of the one God) is not the monarchy of the Father alone.  It is the monarchy of the Trinity, and the Son who became the Lamb is at the heart of it.

            Further support for subordinationism is found in the fact that God ‘sent’ his Son.  But such a sending can hardly imply that Jesus’ mission into the world rested on a submission to authority, as if there was no difference between the way that he was sent and the way the prophets, for example, were sent.  God certainly sent ‘his servants the prophets’, but they were sent by an imperious divine commissioning which precluded their own initiative (2 Pet. 1:21).  In the case of the Son, however, his heart was in his mission from eternity, his love not one step or one degree behind that of the Father.  It is this love of Christ that St. Paul describes as ‘surpassing knowledge’ (Eph. 3:19); and it is to it, too, that he ascribes his own salvation.  The Son of God loved him and gave himself for him (Gal. 2:20)

            All this has to be said, of course, without detracting in any way from the love of God the Father, but, equally, the love of the Father must not be regarded as initiating our salvation irrespective of the love of the Son and the Spirit.  We have to speak of homo-agapē (one and the same love) as well as of homoousios (one and the same being). 

            When we look at the great kenosis passage (Phil. 2:5-11) it is very hard to see it in terms of Christ simply submitting to authority.  He was not commanded to make himself nothing.  Instead, his epic journey from glorious pre-existence through abysmal humiliation to magnificent exaltation is firmly rooted in his own ‘mind’ and in his own morphē.  Far from being of the essence of his relationship with the Father, his servanthood was a voluntary expression of his interest in others (Phil. 2:4) and of his heartfelt concern for their salvation.  Not only did he serve beyond the call of duty.  His entering upon his service was not a duty at all. 

            All the other alleged instances of subordination follow from this initial assumption of the servant-form and of the self-limitation it involved. He comes into the world as Mediator; he intercedes with the Father as Mediator; he receives revelation as Mediator; he receives the gift of the Spirit as Mediator; he will sit on the judgement-seat as Mediator; and it is as the Mediator, the Last Adam, the Head of the Church, that he will be eternally subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28).  This is precisely what the Mediator does with the glory that God gives him: he glorifies the Father (Jn. 17:1).

            The talk is of ‘role-subordination’, and the language is deliberately chosen to safeguard the Son’s equality of nature with the Father.  But what ‘role’ did the Son play in eternity, when there was no world to govern or redeem?  Was sonship itself a role?  Hardly.  It was of the very essence of God; and God was love.  Was, then, the Son’s love of the Father an act of submission or an exercise in subordination; and if so, what of the Father’s (and the Spirit’s) love for him?  Have we, indeed, any right to read the concept of ordo (a Latin word which means ‘rank’ or ‘class’) back into the eternal being of God?  Far safer, surely, to worship the triune God under the rubric of the Athanasian Creed (25): ‘none is before, and none is after; none is greater, and none is lesser.’

            But what of ‘Rahner’s Rule’ that, ‘The “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity’?  It is certainly true that in the work of redemption we do not see a God different from what God is in himself.  The Redeemer is God; and the Redeemer is the Father, the Son and the Holy spirit, distinct from each other, yet one in love, and one in being, and one in redeeming.   The ‘economy’ is a true revelation of God.  But this does not mean that whatever is true of the earthly Christ (for example, his confession of ignorance, Mk. 13:32) is also true of the pre-existent heavenly Christ, or of God as he is in himself.  Even less can it mean that the servant-form which we see in the economical Trinity must be read back into the eternal Trinity.  Quite the reverse!  The incarnate Son’s servant-form was not original.  It was assumed, and not of necessity, but voluntarily.  ‘Flesh’ is not what he was (Jn. 1:1).  It is what he became (Jn. 1:14).

            Yet, voluntary though it was, it was no unilateral decision on the Son’s part.  Behind it lay the agreement of the three divine persons to act together to save the human race.  This is what 17th century theologians such as John Owen came to call the Covenant of Redemption, but it is no figment of the theological imagination.  Instead, it reflects the language used by our Lord himself at the Last Supper, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Mt. 26:28, ESV).  If his advent was at one level a sending, it was at another a mutual agreement, though we must always bear in mind the anthropological nature of covenant language.  It was not a case of the Father, the Son and the Spirit sitting round a table to negotiate an agreement with regard to the salvation of the human race.  Each knew, without discussion, the mind of the other; all Three were united in love for the world; all Three agreed that the Son should become Mediator; and all Three recognised that this would involve a whole new dimension to his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  He would become what eternally he was not, a servant; the Father would instruct him (Jn. 10:18); the Spirit would anoint him; and his thorny crown would gain for us, ‘A crown of glory, which doth flower always.’ (John  Donne)

            All the New Testament’s language with regard to the subordination of the Son flows from this eternal covenant in which the Father and the Spirit consent that the Son may humble himself unto death, and that the Three will find mutual delight and satisfaction in the salvation of a multitude too great to count.

            Are we, then, to conclude in the light of Rahner’s Rule (and, indeed, his personal suggestion) that since it was the Son who came, only the Son could have come? 

            For me, that is a question too far.  When we see him face to face, which of us will dare to ask the Father, ‘Why didn’t you come yourself, and suffer and die?’ 

Personally, I am perfectly happy with what was agreed.