This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series: Eternal Submission of the Son
- Grudem: the case for eternal submission of the Son
- Eternal submission: Liam Goligher says “No”
- Eternal subordination not a novel doctrine
- Some theses on the Father and the Son
- Eternal Submission of the Son: the main issues
- Subordinationism: what is it?
- Trinity: unity AND diversity
- Aimee Byrd: confused, or what?
Trinitarian orthodoxy teaches that the members of the Godhead are equal in nature but distinct in their roles.
In the recent debate about the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son, critics are in danger of over-emphasising the first of these, whereas advocates are at risk of placing too much stress on the latter.
This is not, of course, the only area in theology where a tension has to be maintained between two (or more) truths that human reason cannot fully reconcile. Such as:
- The full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ
- Divine sovereignty and human responsibility
- The Holy Scriptures – word of God, and word of man
Dangers of over-emphasising the unity of the Trinity
J. Scott Horrell observes that the early church, eager to distance itself from the heresy of Arianism, tended to head towards an egalitarian Trinity. Augustine, then, supposed that there was no connection between what God is in his eternal self and how he acts in time. The choice of trinitarian roles (the Father sends; the Son is sent) begins to look arbitrary; and there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that they are in any way interchangeable. As this author states: ‘if each member is foremost in everything, then real differentiation is gone.’
Horrell quotes Gerald O’Collins:
The relational quality of personhood in God entails acknowledging that the three persons are persons in different ways. Because of the intradivine order of origin (in that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the origin of the Father), there is an asymmetry between them. They are ordered to one another in an asymmetrical way. The self-giving of the Father, which is the condition of the self-giving of the Son, for example, happens in a way that cannot be reversed.
A social model of the Godhead that does not recognize eternal differentiation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit based firmly in divine revelation loses all significant distinction. Indeed, an egalitarian model entirely collapses the meaning of the divine names that distinguishes one divine person from the other. Conversely, an eternally ordered social model of the Trinity argues that the activities and roles of each member visible throughout divine revelation are analogously correspondent with the immanent triune relationships. This would mean, for example, that the Son’s role in salvation history is reflective of his eternal relationship with the Father and the Spirit.
It seems to me that Scott Harrower is guilty of minimising the distinctions between the members of the Godhead when he argues:
“Here’s a really good test of any theology, and this is something from Lombard, from the Middle Ages. This is how far back this goes. He asked, ‘Could any other person of the Trinity become incarnate?’ The answer is: any person of the Trinity could have become incarnate, because there’s nothing particular of the Son, no feature like submissiveness, that meant that he alone could become incarnate. OK, well why did the Son become incarnate, if any of the persons could become incarnate? Well, as Athanasius said, ‘Because the world was made through the Son, it was appropriate that it be re-made through the Son.'”
Dangers of over-emphasising the diversity of the Trinity
Arian subordinationism posits an inequality of essence or nature between the three persons of the Trinity. Christian orthodoxy insists that the divine nature is manifest equally in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The term subordination, however, has been used ‘to denote a role of eternal obedience of God the Son to God the Father.’
Horrell insists that the view that one member of the Godhead freely and eternally defers to another ‘can hardly be construed as a historical heresy!’ Nor does it imply inferiority.
But an important caveat is entered:
Nevertheless, in a fallen world, the term subordination immediately implies hierarchy, top-down authority, power over another, subjugation, repression, and inequality.
For this reason, Horrell thinks that the term ‘subordination’ should be abandoned, but not the ‘trinitarian pattern’ which the term seeks to explicate.
One problem with an exaggerated or ill-defined subordinationism, according to Horrell, is that it ‘may overstate hierarchy and minimize divine mutuality.’
(Although not mentioned by Horrell, one immediately thinks of the caricature according to which a vengeful Father unleashes his wrath on a loving Son. Such a caricature not only grossly misrepresents the attitude of the Father, but also fatally undermines the loving mutuality of the Father (who lovingly sent) and the Son (who lovingly came) for us and for our salvation.)
Horrell further suggests that some ideas of functional subordination run the risk of minimising the distinctions between the immanent Trinity – the three-in-one God as he exists eternally in himself, and the economic Trinity – God as he manifests himself in space and time.
In Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology, (eds. Sanders & Issler), pp70-73.