Nuts and Bolts 014: Relational Subordination Within the Trinity

nuts and bolts Theology / Biblical Studies

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In this instalment of the Nuts and Bolts series I thought I’d offer an outline of an issue that I was reminded of by some articles suggested to me recently. That issue is the Trinitarian notion of the subordination of the Son to the Father.

In one of these articles (by Ben Witherington), the writer denied that Christians ever believed in the eternal submission of Jesus the Son to his Father until 1977, when this “novel” suggestion was first made. I had to look twice to make sure I was reading it right! But there it was, this claim that simply flies in the face of historical fact. In context it was patently obvious that the goal of the article was not actually to explore or explain historical theology, but to make a claim for a position on a hot-button issue about gender and church (the claim was made that this doctrine was invented in 1977 to justify the oppression of women). The horse was before the cart, and theology in general was being re-read for the sake of a modern conflict. It’s the kind of thing that troubles me greatly, when people appear to approach an issue in theology with one eye looking back over their shoulder at a cultural issue where they feel obliged to come out on the “safe” side of an issue in the modern world, and the cultural pressure they are facing ends up controlling the theological outcome they reach. In light of the fact that such things go on all the time, I thought it would be a good idea to say a word or two to explain the historically orthodox view of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Whether you believe it or not is another matter, as is the question of what implications you think it has, but all I really want to do here is to explain that it really is a historically orthodox perspective, and has very plausible biblical support.

Subordinationism

The idea of any sort of functional or relational subordination between the Son and the Father must first of all be sharply distinguished from the view called subordinationism, rejected by orthodox Christianity as heresy. Subordinationism is the view that the Father and the Son have an unequal “ontological” status, so that the Father is inherently superior to the Son in the sense that he is literally a greater being, has a “divine essence” that the Son does not have, is more inherently worthy of worship, or anything along those lines.

Relational/Functional subordination

Augustus Strong (1836 – 1921) described “Subordinationism proper” as a view that “implies a subordination of the essence of the Son to the Father.” This “essential subordination,” he said, “would be inconsistent with equality.” However, Strong never saw this essential equality as grounds to deny any kind of subordination of the Son to the Father. In fact, he saw the relationship between men and women as evidence that absolute equality was compatible with this:

The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father, or in other words an order of personality, office, and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possiblity of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman second, but woman’s soul is worth as much as man’s: see 1 Corinthians 11:3 — “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man: and the head of Christ is God.”1

Examples like Augustus Strong make me shake my head in wonder at anyone who thinks that the subordination of the Son to the Father was an idea first created in the 1970s.

While you might not share Strong’s view that there exists this sort of distinction in office (or you might not accept that women are equal to men – although obviously I think you should), I have no interest in that here. The point is just that within the Trinity, Strong made it quite clear that equality between the persons of the Trinity does not rule out any and all forms of subordination in function of the Son to the Father. Examples like Augustus Strong make me shake my head in wonder at anyone who thinks that the subordination of the Son to the Father was an idea first created in the 1970s. One more reason why I lament the state of (some corners of) evangelical theology!

While maintaining the Trinitarian emphasis that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all equal, Hodge maintained that “In the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons in relation to the mode of subsistence and operation.”

Another example that should put the “invented in the 1970s to oppress women” fable to rest is Reformed Theologian Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878). While maintaining the Trinitarian emphasis that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all equal, Hodge maintained that “In the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons in relation to the mode of subsistence and operation.” For example, he says, while it is true that “The Father sends the Son” and that “The Father operates through the Son,” still “the Son is never said to send the Father, nor to operate through him.”2

Perhaps uncomfortable (although I think, needlessly so) with the idea of Jesus being fully God and yet still submitting to the Father in any sense, some have sought to interpret biblical passages that speak of the Son submitting to or being subject to that Father as only describing a temporary, less than ideal state of affairs. Because of sin and the desire to save, God the Son temporarily submitted to his Father and become man. But those passages that speak of Jesus submitting to his Father in the Gospels are not the only passages to do so. It’s true that there are passages that speak of Jesus as man during his earthly ministry as depending on and submitting to the Father. Jesus spoke of not doing his own will, but only the will of the one who sent him, and in Gethsemane he famously prayed to his Father, “not my will, but your will be done.”

But this is not the full story by a long shot. The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels as a man dependent on God the Father is just part of the wider picture of God the Son willingly submitting himself to the Father.

Perhaps the clearest such passage outside of the Gospels is found in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

Any possibility of the submission of the Son to the Father being a temporary or less than ideal state of affairs seems out of the question here. In context we have the Apostle Paul describing the history and future of salvation history. Jesus has risen from the dead, bringing eternal life to those who belong to him. Eventually the victory over death will be complete and the dead will be raised, death being no more. Death is defeated and is under Christ’s feet, but then even Christ himself will be subjected to the Father so that all things will be as they should be. Attempts to downplay this meaning in the text are awkward to say the least. Calvin had little choice but to grant that, according to this passage, “then Christ will be subjected to the Father.” At the same time, however, he cobbled together a contorted way of explaining this, where Jesus does not really hand over the kingdom to his Father, but rather “will transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity.”

A few commentators say at this point that when Paul wrote that God will be “all in all,” it is a reference to there no longer being any important distinction between members of the Trinity, all three being “all in all,” where “God” is a reference to the entire Trinity. This would suggest that when the Son is said to be subject to the one who put all things in subjection to the Son (“God”), this refers to Christ being subjected to Himself as well as to the Father and the Spirit, so that all three may be “all in all.” But this is both extremely awkward as well as quite unnecessary. The sentences before us just don’t read that way, instead referring to the actions of different persons: One of them who is not Christ putting all things under Christ, and Christ in turn being subject to that person.

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary (1871) looks in my view to be on the mark when it says that here the Son is

subject – not as the creatures are, but as a Son voluntarily subordinate to, though co-equal with, the Father. In the mediatorial kingdom, the Son had been, in a manner, distinct from the Father. Now, His kingdom shall merge in the Father’s, with whom He is one; not that there is thus any derogation from His honor; for the Father Himself wills “that all should honor the Son, as they honor the Father” (Joh 5:22, 23; Heb 1:6).

As I do every now and then, I also think Thomas Aquinas got it right when he drew on Augustine, speaking of Christ bringing the faithful members of his kingdom and handing them over to the Father, and “He will be totally subject to the Father not only in Himself, but also in His members by the full participation of the Godhead.”

Any reference to the Son commanding or sending the Father would immediately jar with the biblical picture.

There are other passages that reflect this relationship between Christ and the Father as well. As Hodge notes, there are scattered comments that reveal the difference between the way the Son relates to the Father and the way the Father relates to the Son. The Father sent the Son. The Father created the Universe – through the Son. Any reference to the Son commanding or sending the Father would immediately jar with the biblical picture. The Apostle Paul practically breaks into song about how highly exalted Jesus is in Philippians 2 , but is at pains to add (in verse 11) that even though every tongue in creations confesses that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” this is still ultimately done “to the glory of God the Father.” This does not take away from Christ’s status as truly divine, of one substance with the Father or just as worthy of worship as the Father. After all, Jesus is clearly said to receive worship in the New Testament, perhaps climaxing in the proclamation in Revelation 5: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ ”

In short, it is simply wrong to claim that the idea of the subordination of Jesus to his Father was invented in the 70s to oppress women. Can the doctrine be exaggerated? No doubt. Can it be abused, and used towards ends that it should not be? Of course – sinners are nothing if not inventive! But when trying to understand issues that are first and foremost issues of biblical and historical theology, what I want to say is: Forget your pet issues for a moment. If you want to understand this issue, you have to focus on this issue, and not continually adjust what you find (and exclude what you’d prefer not to find) so that you don’t provide ammunition to those who disagree with you on some other issue. That’s self-critical integrity.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology Volume 3, electronic edition []
  2. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), vol 1, 445. []
{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Jason February 19, 2012, 2:47 pm

    Ontological equality and functional subordination seems such an obvious thing I’m surprised anyone would question it.

    Even David, in the Psalm Jesus quoted as referring to himself, said “the Lord said to my Lord, sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” Implicit in that is that the Lord is the ultimate authority.

  • Steven February 19, 2012, 10:41 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post! I think that the reality is that when you speak of father, son, and holy spirit, you are making divisions that don’t exist in reality. The being of God permeates the cosmos, and there is no separateness from God. Jesus was an expression of God, but we are all expressions of God, as God is the life force or animating power in each of us. The degree of separateness between Jesus and other human beings is troublesome for me, as I can’t see how we are any less God than Jesus was…

  • Glenn February 19, 2012, 11:17 pm

    “I think that the reality is that when you speak of father, son, and holy spirit, you are making divisions that don’t exist in reality.”

    Well, this is just to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is false. What I have tried to explain here is how the concept of the Son’s submission to the Father is compatible (or has been thought to be compatible) with the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is true.

  • bethyada February 20, 2012, 8:50 pm

    The point is just that within the Trinity Hodge made it quite clear that equality between the persons of the Trinity does not rule out any and all forms of subordination in function of the Father to the Son. Examples like Augustus Strong

    Do you mean to say “Strong” Here?

  • Glenn February 20, 2012, 10:31 pm

    Whoops – thanks bethyada, fixed now.

  • Ben Nasmith November 3, 2013, 6:49 pm

    Hello,
    I read your article and fully agree that exploring the Trinity ought not be hijacked by other issues, such as gender. Here is my pushback from an Trinity-equivalent authority perspective.
    It is easy to see how temporary and/or contingent authority differences between two people are compatible with equality (i.e. boss and employee, who could potentially subsequently start a business and hire his ex-boss). Most egalitarians would agree this far.
    The crucial question is whether necessary and/or eternal authority differences between two people are compatible with equality (i.e. an aristocrat and their subjects, a slave and their master, or–controversially–a man and a woman in marriage).
    To the Trinity specifically, all parties to the debate ought to agree that the Son submitted to the Father during the incarnation (and perhaps even into the eternal future). That does nothing, in and of itself, to show that this submission was always the case or even necessarily the case. The leap from “what happens to be presently the case” to “what always is and necessarily must be the case” is too great for most equivalence people to cross based on the typical arguments they are presented.
    Accordingly, some careful modal analysis of this problem is needed if these two positions are to stop talking past each other. We must not confuse necessity and eternity with contingency and present-case.
    All the best,

  • Glenn November 3, 2013, 10:12 pm

    To the Trinity specifically, all parties to the debate ought to agree that the Son submitted to the Father during the incarnation (and perhaps even into the eternal future).

    Agreed. This rules out the objection that, according to the new Testament, the submission of the Son to the Father is merely a temporary arrangement during the earthly ministry of Jesus. It seems we both reject that objection.

    That does nothing, in and of itself, to show that this submission was always the case or even necessarily the case.

    I don’t think the claim that this is a “necessary” relationship has come up yet. The point is that biblical theology informs us that in fact the Son is submitted to the Father, not just in his earthly ministry but forever. And this is not a position that is lept to. Rather, this is the starting point painted by the relevant evidence, in this case the teaching of the New Testament. The other point, of course, is that it is mistaken revisionism to say, like Witherington did, that this was a concept made up in the 70s to resist feminism. This is obviously false. So the point really can be made without bringing up the issue of necessity as you have.

    That being said, it is not clear why throughout eternity (i.e. in the future forever) the relationship between the Son and the Father should be one that is merely incidental. One of the important aspects of the nature of God is that God has all of God’s attributes necessarily. Any change at all in God would represent a loss of perfection. So while we can speak of the Son’s incarnation beginning in time, we shouldn’t speak of the logos changing – or of his relationship to the Father changing. So as far as orthodox conceptions of God are concerned, it is unlikely that God could be a certain way – but only incidentally, and not necessarily. It isn’t easy to see why we should think of the eternal future relationship between Father and Son as one that really could have been any number of other ways.

    Besides which, if you don’t think that the relationship between members of the Trinity is a necessary one, then surely God has a choice when it comes to the eternal future of the relationship between Father and Son. Why pick the submission of the Son to the Father? If the eternal future relationship between the Son and the Father will be a given way, it is hard to see why that relationship would be chosen if there was a better way.

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