Results tagged “Trinitarianism” from Reformation21 Blog

Dr. Watts' Scheme

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Isaac Watts wrote nearly 600 hymns in the 18th Century. Churches around the world still sing many today. For instance, if you visited a congregation on any given Sunday in the English speaking world, it would not be a surprise for you to hear believers singing one the following hymns penned by the father of modern hymnody:

Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed
Give to Our God Immortal Praise
How Sweet and Awesome is the Place
I Sing th' Almighty Power of God
Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun
Joy to the World! the Lord is Come!
Our God, our Help in Ages Past
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross 

Watts was much loved in his own day, as he is today, for his labors as the father of modern hymnody. Jonathan Edwards has noted that his congregation in Northhampton sang more Watts' hymns than they sang Psalms.(1) Watts' hymns were and are much beloved on account of the poetical beauty with which Watts frame his theological expositions.

Watts was not, however, immune to theological controversy. After his death, certain Unitarian theologians claimed that Watts' had cast off his earlier Trinitarianism and had embraced Unitarianism.(2) Additionally, both Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge strongly criticized Watts' Christological proposal concerning the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ.

Watts' writings on the Trinity and on the person of Christ certainly opened the door for confusion about the precise theological convictions that he held. For instance, in his 1722 publication, The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity, Watts wrote the following:

"I infer that it can never be necessary to salvation to know the precise way and manner how one God subsists in three personal agents, or how these three persons are one God."

He did then nuance this statement, when he stated, "It is our duty to believe the general doctrine of the Trinity."

Underlying Watt's writings on the Trinity and on Christology were debates raging in England. The Socinians, Arians and Unitarians were all surfacing under the influence of false teachers coming out from orthodox Christian circles. One of Watts' 19th Century biographers, Thomas Milner, explained the background of the Trinitarian controversy in which Watts was engaged when he wrote,

"An eventful period now arrived in the history of protestant dissenters, the year 1719, in which the conference at Salter's Hall was held upon the Exeter trinitarian controversy. This unhappy dispute engaged the attention of the London ministers: to maintain the peace of the western churches was the ostensible object of their meeting; but principles were covertly propagated in the contest, which have proved destructive to most of the presbyterian congregations, at that time the pride and glory of nonconformity...At the period of the Salter's-Hall debates, Mr. Watts's opinions upon the Trinity coincided with those now entertained by the orthodox; but he was hurt by the divisions and strife he witnessed, and his love for peace led him to endeavour to conciliate the disputants by attempting a new explication of the doctrine. Here was his error: he sought to discover the modus of the divine nature, which to finite minds is inexplicable; and, as the inevitable consequence, he plunged into a labyrinth, and became at every step the more involved in uncertainty and doubt."(3)

Watts' disposition led him away from sharp conflict. He was, at heart, a peacemaker. This, no doubt, affected both his tone and his approach to the doctrine of the Trinity and to his Christology. Watts wanted to exercise charity toward those who were "on the fence," while not refusing to take a firm stand for the truth. In turn, he certainly came to err on some of his own proposals.

One of the most interesting developments in the theological controversies of Watts' day was his formulation on the person of Christ in relation to the other members of the Godhead. While seeking to refute the Socinian heresy that had made inroads in his day, Watts offered a new way to approach the subordination language of the Son in Scripture. It is clear that the Scriptures teach that the Son is in every way equal to the Father; and, it is clear that the Scriptures teach that according to his human nature, the Son was "for a little while made lower than the angels." The teaching of Scripture on these matters has most commonly been resolved by orthodox divines by distinguishing between the ad intra/ad extra distinction--as well as by the classification of the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. Rather than simply adopting these categorizations, Watts developed his own explanation.

In proposition 5, in his book The Glory of Christ as the God-Man, he wrote,

"Whatsoever Scriptures represent Christ as existent before his incarnation in a nature inferior to Godhead do most naturally lead us to the belief of the pre-existence of his human soul.

If there be any such Scriptures they must refer either to the human soul of Christ (which was afterward united to his human body, or to some other super-Angelic nature, as some call it, which might belong to our Savior, besides his human soul."(4)

In response to Watts' teaching and the widespread confusion caused by it (many suggesting that Watts had given too much leeway to the Socinian heresy in this proposal), Edwards took to a fairly lengthy 13 point refutation of "Dr. Watts' scheme," as he called it. In his Miscellanies entry 1174, Edwards wrote,

"Reasons against Dr. Watts' notion of the Pre-existence of Christ's Human Soul.

1. God's manner with all creatures is to appoint them a trial before he admits them to glory and confirmed happiness. And especially may this be expected before such honor and glory as the creating [of] the world and other things which Dr. Watts ascribes to this human soul.

2. If the pre-existing soul of Christ created the world, then doubtless it upholds and governs it. The same Son of God that did one, does the other. He created all things, and by him all things consist. And, if so, how was his dominion confined to the Jewish nation before his Incarnation, but extends to all nations since? Besides, there are many things ascribed in the Old Testament to the Son of God, in those very places which Dr. Watts himself supposes to speak of him, that imply his government of the whole world, all nations--the same person that is spoken of as King of Israel.

3. According to this scheme, the greatest of the works of the Son in his created nature, implying the greatest exaltation, [was] his first work of all, viz. his creating all things, all worlds, all things visible and invisible, whether they be thrones and dominions, principalities or powers--or at least before ever he had any trial at all of his obedience, etc. At least this work seems much greater than judging the world at the last day, which the Scripture often speaks of as one of the highest parts of his exaltation, which he has in reward for his obedience and sufferings. And Dr. Watts himself supposes his honors since his humiliation to be much greater than before.

4. The Scripture represents the visible dominion of Christ over the world as a complex person, or sitting at the right hand of God and governing the world as the Father's vicegerent, as a new thing after his ascension. But by Dr. Watts' scheme it cannot be so.

5. Satan or Lucifer, before his fall, was the morning star, the covering cherub, the highest and brightest of all creatures.

6. On this scheme it will follow that the covenant of redemption was made with a person that was not sui juris, and not at liberty to act his own mere good pleasure with respect to undertaking to die for sinners, but was obliged to comply on the first intimation that it would be well-pleasing to God and what he chose.

7. According to that scheme, the man Christ Jesus was not properly the son of the virgin and so the Son of Man. To be the son of a woman is to receive being in both soul and body in a consequence of a conception in her womb. The soul is the principal part of the man, and sonship implies derivation of the soul as well as the body by conception. Not that the soul is a part of the mother as the body is. Though the soul is no part of the mother and be immediately given by God, yet that hinders not its being derived by conception, it being consequent on it according to a law of nature. 'Tis agreeable to a law of nature that, where a perfect human body is conceived in the womb of a woman and properly nourished and increased, a human soul should come into being. And conception may as properly be the cause whence it is derived as many other natural effects are derived from natural causes or antecedents. For 'tis the power of God [that] produces these effects, though it be according to an established law. The soul being so much the principal part of man, a derivation of the soul by conception is the chief thing implied in a man's being the son of a woman.

8. According to what seems to be Dr. Watts' scheme, the Son of God is no distinct divine person from the Father. So far as he is a divine person, he is the same person with the Father. So that in the covenant of redemption the Father covenants with himself, and he takes satisfaction of himself, etc., unless you will say that one nature covenanted with another, the two natures in the same person covenanted together, and one nature in the same person took satisfaction of the other nature in the same person. But how does this confound our minds instead of helping our ideas and make them more easy and intelligible.

9. The Son of God, as a distinct person, was from eternity. 'Tis said, Mic. 5:2, "his goings forth were of old, from everlasting." So Prov. 8:23, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was." So he is called, Is. 9:6, "The everlasting Father." I know of no expressions used in Scripture more strong to signify the eternity of the Father himself.

10. Dr. Watts supposes the world to be made by this pre-existent soul of Christ, and thinks it may properly be so said, though the knowledge and power of this pre-existent soul could not extend to the most minute parts, every atom, etc. But 'tis evidently the design of the Scriptures to assure us that Christ made all things whatever in the absolute universality. John 1:3, "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." Col. 1:16-17, "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist." Now if we suppose matter to be infinitely divisible, it will follow that, let his wisdom and power be as great as they will, if finite, but a few of those individual things that are made were the effects of his power and wisdom; yea, that the number of the things that were made by him are so few that they bear no proportion to others that did not immediately fall under his notice; or that of the things that are made, there are ten thousands times, yea, infinitely more not made by him than are made by himself, and so but infinitely few of their circumstances are ordered by his wisdom.

11. 'Tis said, Heb. 2:8, "Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him." Here 'tis represented that God the Father has put every individual thing under the power and government of another person distinct from himself. But this can't be true of the human soul of Christ, as it must be, according to Dr. Watts' scheme, let the powers of that be never so great, if they are not infinite. For things and circumstances and dependencies and consequences of things in the world are infinite in number and, therefore, a finite understanding and power cannot extend to them. Yea, it can extend to but an infinitely small part of the whole number of individuals and their circumstances and consequences. Indeed, in order to the disposing of a few things, in their motions and successive changes, to a certain precise issue, there is need of infinite exactness, and so need of infinite power and wisdom.

12. The work of creation, and so the work of upholding all things in being, can in no sense be properly said to be the work of any created nature. If the created nature gives forth the word, as Joshua did when he said "Sun, stand thou still" [Josh. 10:12], still is not that created nature that does it. That being that depends himself on creating power don't properly do anything towards creation, as Joshua did nothing towards stopping the sun in his course. So that it cannot be true in Dr. Watts' scheme that that Son of God, who is a distinct person from God the Father, did at all, in any manner of propriety, create the world, nor does he uphold it or govern it. Nor can those things that Christ often says of himself be true, as, "The Father worketh hitherto, and I work"; "Whatsoever the Father doeth, those doeth the Son likewise" (John 5:17, 19). 'Tis very evident that the works of creating and upholding and governing the world are ascribed to the Son, as a distinct person from the Father.

13. 'Tis one benefit or privilege of the person of Christ, when spoken of as distinct from the Father, to have the Spirit of God under him, to be at his disposal and to be his messenger, which is infinitely too much for any creature. John 15:26 and 16:7, 13-14; Acts 2:33."(5)

There are a few important take-aways for us from Edwards' refutation of Watts' Christological proposal. First, Edwards treated the subject with the gravity it deserved. He did not shy away from bringing the strongest refutation of Watts' novel proposal. Second, he did not deal with Watts in a overly ostracizing manner. Edwards continued to sing Watts' hymns in Northhamption. Furthermore, he spoke in many other places in his Works with gratitude for much of what Watts had written and done for the good of the church. Edwards tempered the need to bring strong correction to serious theological error with an appropriate manifestation of Christian love and gratitude for the gifts of his brother in Christ. 

Though we praise God for raising up Isaac Watts to fill our hymnbooks with some of the greatest hymns the saints will ever sing in this life, we must readily acknowledge--as did Edwards--the serious errors he proposed in his attempt to reconcile those with differing theological leanings. Watts' Christological scheme is a prime example of the deep waters of theological error into which we may wade if we are discontent with the otherwise convincing Trinitarian and Christological categorical distinctions that have been made from Nicea and Chalcedon to the post-Reformation scholastic era. 

1. See Edwards May 22, 1744 Letter to Benjamin Coleman;  Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn and Harry S. Stout, vol. 16, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 144-145.

2. Scott Aniol "Was Isaac Watts Unitarian? Athenasian Trinitarianism and the Boundaries of Christian Fellowship," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 22 (2017): 91-103.

3. Thomas Milner The Life, Times and Correspondence of the Rev. Isaac Watts (London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1845) pp. 320-321

4. Isaac Watts The Glory of Christ as God-Man (London: Printed for J. Oswald, 1746) p. 153

5. Jonathan Edwards, The "Miscellanies": (Entry Nos. 1153-1360), ed. Douglas A. Sweeney and Harry S. Stout, vol. 23, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2004), 89-92.

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 2)

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Oliphint's discussion of Aquinas' view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas' "idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation."1 In Van Til's view,  the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that "all being is essentially one" and that "all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being."2 What Van Til missed is that if Aquinas assumed "all being" is "essentially one," he would have had no need for analogy and simply identified the same attributes in God and in human beings as predicated univocally. But since Aquinas clearly affirms the Creator-creature distinction, resting on creation ex nihilo, he argued for non-univocal, namely analogical predication. Failure to understand the connection between Aquinas' understanding of analogy and his doctrine of creation is also characteristic of Oliphint's critique.

Oliphint also makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God. He dismisses Aquinas' use of Exodus 3:14 as insufficient to show the Christian context in which the proofs are deployed on the rather slim ground that, had Aquinas really intended to be biblical, he would not simply have cited the verse he would have "shown how the content of revelation grounded his arguments" instead of proceeding by "natural reason."3 But citation of texts, presumably interpreted exegetically elsewhere, is a common practice, and this understanding of Exodus 3:14, rooted in Augustine, was a commonplace--not, by the way, available to "natural reason."

Nor is the citation of Exodus 3:14 the only indication of a theological and biblical backdrop to the proofs: in the first article, on whether the existence of God is self evident, Aquinas bases his argument with an objection drawn from John of Damascus' De fide orthodoxa and John 14:6--and then counters the objections with a point from Aristotle's Metaphysics interpreted by way of a reference to Psalm 52:1. In the second article, whether it can be demonstrated that God exists, draws objections from Hebrews 11:1 and from John of Damascus, countering them with a citation of Romans 1:20. Then, when Aquinas poses the question leading to the proofs of whether God exists, he offers no references in his objections and counters them with Exodus 3:14. The process of argument is on the basis of reason, but the argument with the objectors is an argument among Christians.

The second mistake is also categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the "proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself," (p. 90, n77) but what Cajetan actually held was that the proofs do not demonstrate the existence of God "per se" but "quasi per accidens," his point being that the proofs establish properties that, as Aquinas himself put it, "everyone understands to be God."4 These are not merely possible properties of "a god"--they are the presumed properties of the one and only God.

Another mistake concerns Oliphint's reading of Aquinas' cosmological proof. Oliphint draws on Stephen Davis to argue that "for any version of the cosmological argument to work, the conclusion must presuppose some aspect of temporal causality" and concludes that since Aquinas' does not place God into a temporal sequence, Aquinas' proof fails (p. 81). Aquinas, however, assumed creation ex nihilo and that there is no time, finite or infinite, before the moment of creation.  Aquinas' view of the impossibility of an infinite sequence of causes, therefore, does not rely on temporal sequence but follows precisely what Davis assumed might produce a valid argument, namely, an essential or ontological sequence of the hierarchy of causes in which contingent being (even if it were in an infinite temporal sequence) is not sufficient to explain its own existence.5 Indeed, contra Oliphint, Davis concludes that Aquinas rightly recognized that "No hierarchical causal series can regress infinitely; it must have a beginning."6

One particular aspect of Aquinas' approach to the traditional notion of divine simplicity comes to the fore in Oliphint's discussion, namely, the relationship between simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity. His discussion is focused on a distinction between esse and id quod est. Oliphint has the correct translation of id quod est as "that which is," but his definition is wrong: "that which is" does not mean "essence or nature" (pp. 105, 130). Aquinas uses the Boethian esse-id quod est distinction to indicate the same issue as his own essence-existence distinction, which points directly toward Aquinas' stress on God as "He who is" (Exodus 3:14).

Oliphint's Van Tilian critique not only ignores what Aquinas actually argues, it is also quite untenable, whether from a historical, theological, or philosophical perspective. Thus, Oliphint:

If we begin with biblical revelation, however (something that Thomas's natural theology cannot do) we can begin with, instead of the categories of esse and id quod est, the one essence of God as three hypostases, or subsistences. In other words, we can begin, contrary to Aquinas, with the ontological Trinity. With these biblical categories in view, we are able to affirm both that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise, and that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence (p. 109).

Pace Oliphint, distinction between essentia and subsistentia is not directly given in biblical revelation. It took the church more than three centuries after the close of the canon to arrive at this terminological solution to the problem of divine triunity. Aquinas, moreover, both confesses the doctrine and meditates at length on the issue of one essence in three subistences or hypostases. It is not clear why the post-biblical distinction between essence and subsistence, as used to explain the biblical issue that God is One and is also Father, Son, and Spirit, is any more "biblical" than the distinction between esse and id quod est, as used to explain the biblical point that God is Who He is.

Even with the post-biblical trinitarian language in view, we are quite unable to make clear "that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise." A series of qualifications of the term essence must be added, including the point that in God there is no real distinction between essence and existence, a point, as Aquinas indicated, that can be gathered from Exodus 3:14. Just setting forth the trinitarian formula of one essence and three hypostases does not satisfy the requirement for affirming, in Oliphint's words, "that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence." Indeed, just to say that each of the three subsistences "can and does act" as one essence itself is a problematic usage that verges on tritheism: the issue of the trinitarian formula is that the three subsistences are the one essence. In order to complete the doctrine and clearly affirm that the three subsistences are the essence in such a way as not to imply composition, the doctrine of simplicity also needs to be present.   And it is present in Aquinas' theology, and was present in the major patristic and Reformed orthodox formulations concerning the Trinity.

All of these aspects of Oliphint's argument are problematic, but they do not quite rise to the level of the underlying problem, namely, that Oliphint confuses epistemology with ontology. Both Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox writers begin with prolegomenal discussions in which Scripture is set forth as the primary authority in doctrinal matters--so that both actually do begin biblically. Neither Aquinas nor the Reformed orthodox begin with the "ontological Trinity" because both recognize that the proper beginning point of knowledge (as distinct but not separate from faith) cannot be a point of doctrine like the Trinity that is neither self-evident nor demonstrable. Oliphint has confused the principium essendi with the principium cognoscendi, and has failed to recognize that cognitive principia, more generally understood, are self-evident, incontestable notions, some directly available to reason, some given by revelation.

To be continued in part 3...


1. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley: P&R, 1969), p. 160; cf. idem, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (S.l.: Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 60.

2. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 60; idem, Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 160.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 60-61, referencing McInerny's reading of the preambles; cf. ibid., pp. 27, 51.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.2, a.3, corpus.

5. Cf. Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), p. 66, especially note 165.

6. Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 73.


*This is the second post in a short series by Dr. Muller

Subordination in Scripture: κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

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Perhaps the text that is closest to the heart of the ESS (eternal subordination of the Son) debate is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The prominence of this text is in large measure due to the manner in which it supposedly provides the basis for a connection between the relationship between the Father and the Son and that which exists between the man and the woman. While this apparent parallel has previously provided for some a helpful analogy by which to resist the charge that complementarian theology maintains the inequality of the sexes, more recently this analogy has come to assume a greater theological centrality and to bear more theological weight.

As this text has increasingly become architectonically foundational to the complementarian edifice for many, a great deal of effort has been required to shore it up against challenge. Wayne Grudem stands out as someone who has particularly worked to reinforce and tighten the bond between each element of this complementarian use of the text: he has written at length on the relations of authority and submission between man and woman, has argued for such relations in the Trinity, and has extensively treated the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλή (typically translated 'head') in this and other key verses, insisting that it has the import of 'one in authority (over)'.

At such points, the exegete is at considerable risk of being blown off course by the crosswinds of the gender debates. I do not believe it accidental that gender debates have increasingly come to focus upon the questions concerning the meanings, not just of particular proof-texts, but of isolated words and phrases. Slight differences in translation are used to justify remarkably different accounts of appropriate relations between the sexes. Different sides of the debates can construct vast theological edifices upon the slender pinnacles of terms such asכנגדו עזר in Genesis 2:18 or התשוק in Genesis 3:16, for instance.

This can occur for various reasons. For some, it accompanies the attempt to kick the debate into the long grass of hopelessly contestable exegesis, thereby preventing Scripture from playing a deciding role in our conversations. When so many interpretations are floating around, Scripture can no longer arbitrate and personal choice--with its tendentious, eccentric, and often wilful readings of particular texts and terms--steps in to take its place.

For others, it results from the desire for incontrovertible readings that can decide the gender debates in our favour, or for proof-texts that will serve as a foundation for our systems. When our reading of Scripture is framed by controversy, we can easily be tempted to focus our efforts upon looking for unambiguous and explicit scriptural propositions, proof-text pillars for the superstructure of our theological positions. This quest is frequently misguided and unhelpful. It has the tendency to concentrate weight that should be more widely distributed. The strength of biblical teaching lies less in a number of large and visible proof-text trunks than in the deep and extensive root system of scriptural narrative and intertextuality beneath them. Cut off from this root system, proof-text trunks can easily be toppled. Furthermore, Scripture rarely forces its meanings upon those wilfully resistant to it, even though those with ears and hearts to hear will do so.

The need for a sturdy proof-text pillar for complementarian theology can put considerable pressure upon a term such as κεφαλή. I believe that such scholars as Grudem unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of this term, a multivalency that is important to Paul's argument in the immediate context (where more metaphorical senses of the term in verse 3 are purposefully brought into connection with literal senses of the term in the verses that follow). Literary word play and expansive breadth of meaning may not be especially welcome when we are looking for clear theological propositions. However, multivalency need not entail ambiguity: multivalency can bring a different sort of clarity, as it establishes illuminating relationships between concepts, realities, and images, rather than detaching them from each other and analysing them individually.

I mention this pressure for singularity and extreme clarity in the meaning of terms in large part because this pressure can produce a secondary impulse towards theological univocity when interpreting the statements 'the κεφαλή of woman is man' and 'the κεφαλή of Christ is God'. Where this impulse exists, a far closer relation between the headship of God with respect to Christ and the headship of the man with respect to the woman may be drawn than would have been drawn otherwise.

I have been persuaded by Andrew Perriman and others (including Gregory Dawes and Anthony Thiselton) that, in the metaphorical uses of the term under consideration, κεφαλή does not mean 'one in authority over' or 'source', but refers to 'the dimension of visibility, prominence, eminence, social superiority' (Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 33). Of course, in many of the instances of the use of the term, authority over may be contextually connoted, but this is not what the term itself actually means.

Even were we to take the description of the relationship between 'Christ' and God in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to apply to the eternal relations of the Trinity, this recognition may unsettle the ESS case at this juncture. Rather than claiming that the Father has 'authority over' the Son in the Trinity, it might be making a weaker claim about the priority of the Father, as the 'first person' of the Trinity, the one of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.

This shift in translation/interpretation may suggest further changes in our understanding of the relationships being discussed. When κεφαλή is interpreted as 'one in authority (over)' it typically functions as a polarizing term, setting one party over against the other in each of the pairings in 1 Corinthians 11:3: one party exercises authority over the other, who responds with submission. For instance, 'the κεφαλή of every man is Christ' would mean that Christ hierarchically exercises authority over every man. However, slightly shift the meaning of κεφαλή and suddenly, rather than place Christ over against every man, Christ may be set forth as the one preeminent among us: the firstborn of many brethren, the firstborn from the dead, the one Man who works on our behalf, the one who represents us in human flesh in the heavenly places, the one in whose name and power we act.

Although it is not my intention to explore this point here, it should also be noted that such a change may have important implications for the way that we conceive biblical teaching concerning relations between man and woman.

There is still undoubtedly an authority involved, but this change is a very significant one: κεφαλή becomes a term describing an empowering union, not just a hierarchical relation. The temptation to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 in terms of a chain of hierarchies is a real one. However, this temptation, as Francis Watson has observed, is challenged even by the ordering of the text itself, which disrupts any such chain by listing the pairings out of expected sequence.

In my next post, I will continue to reflect upon 1 Corinthians 11:3 and some of the other texts under discussion.