Results tagged “subordination” from Reformation21 Blog

In this final part of my series on the debate concerning the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), I will identify a few more of the issues that the debate has brought to the surface.

The Quest for a Deep Structure for Complementarianism

The emergence of the ESS position in its current form is in large part an attempt to provide a 'deep structure' for a complementarian position. It seeks to demonstrate that the biblical teaching concerning the complementarity of the sexes is not arbitrary, but is grounded in something beyond itself.

Unfortunately, this quest for a deep structure is, I suspect, often the flip-side of an ideologization of complementarity. What was once an organic part of Christian social teaching, practice, and imagination, recognized as naturally grounded and inseparably bound up with the broader fabric of Christian and human existence--a creational and empirical reality--has been reframed as a theory, ideology, or social programme. In the process it has been uprooted from the broader creational and scriptural context to which it belongs.

Having abandoned or lost much of its proper grounding--not least as people have sought to restrict its import as much as possible to the pulpit and the marriage bed--this more abstract ideology has needed to discover a new theological rationale for itself. In a context where it is under threat, it must defend itself against the charge that it is contrary to the general tenor of Christian teaching and imposes arbitrary expectations. ESS looks like a promising solution to this problem, yet ends up causing more difficulties and provoking more contention than it resolves. In the past, teaching about the complementarity of the sexes wasn't an 'ism' or ideology. Even when ESS was referenced in connection with it, considerably less weight was placed upon the analogy, and certainly not the sort of weight that would press theologians more in the direction of univocity.

The quest for deep structure is not entirely misguided. However, that deep structure is primarily to be found in the concreteness of nature itself as created by God. Scriptural teaching on the sexes is chiefly descriptive, rather than prescriptive or narrowly ideological. This natural deep structure is fitting to humanity's being in the image of God and in its reflection, representation, and bearing of God's creative rule within the world. That we are male and female is not in Scripture an arbitrary or indifferent fact, but something that fits us for the purpose for which we are created, for fellowship with God, representative service and rule of his creation, and manifestation of its beauty and delight. It also provides a symbolic framework that God uses for certain dimensions of his self-revelation. There are not, however, the sort of direct correspondences that ESS supporters advocate.

Accommodated but Real Revelation

Within these debates, there has been a consistent attempt among the critics of the ESS position to protect the Trinity from accounts which both break with the orthodox doctrine and which speculate and project into the divine nature. A robust Trinitarian theology will constantly expose the limits of our language and concepts of God and resist any straightforward reading back of God's accommodated self-revelation in the context of a fallen creation into his eternal being. God surpasses our understanding, our language, and our concepts.

Yet there are genuine dangers on the other side here. In resisting univocal accounts of God's eternal being and accounts which fail to take seriously the reality of divine accommodation (as God reveals himself to us under the conditions of creation and sin in a manner appropriate to the limits of our understanding), we should beware of dismissing the possibility and the fact of divine self-revelation.

The submission of the incarnate Son to the will of the Father should not be projected back into the eternal being of God. However, even when constrained within the limits of orthodox Trinitarian theology, some important relation remains. No, we cannot posit separate wills or centers of consciousness in God, nor speak as supporters of ESS do of authority and submission in the Trinity. Yet there remains a profound fittingness to the fact that it was the Son who became man, a fittingness that gives us some truthful apprehension of the eternal relation between Father and Son. Although this relation is not one of authority and submission and any notion of eternal obedience is excluded, the manner of the incarnation is revelatory of divine taxis.

Appropriate resistance to the careless employment of univocal predication can overshoot, leading us to resist analogical predication and the truthfulness of accommodated revelation. Indeed, an unprincipled apophaticism can be used precisely in order to escape the unwelcome force of accommodated revelation. The egalitarian side of this debate may be especially vulnerable to this, as the asymmetry of the divine taxis is perceived by some to be incongruent with egalitarian values. Likewise, masculine language and images for God are often resisted for similar reasons. Terms like 'Father' and 'Son' used of the Triune hypostases should not be collapsed into notions of human sonship and fatherhood, but nor should they be hermetically sealed off from each other. Some analogical--and revelatory--relation remains.

In their different ways, both radical apophaticism and univocal predication can involve the subjection of the doctrine of God to human categories and demands. The seeming humility of radical apophaticism can actually function as a wilful attempt to carve out realms of autonomy upon which divine revelation cannot infringe. Univocal predication, on the other hand, trespasses beyond the appropriate bounds of our creaturely state.

Structural Defects in Contemporary Evangelical Theology

These debates have exposed extensive structural problems in contemporary evangelical theology. The ESS position is not an entirely novel one, as many of its critics would like to suppose. It has been gaining prominence for a number of decades in evangelical circles. Its rise has doubtless been powerfully catalyzed by the gender debates, yet it cannot be entirely attributed to these and the position has appeared in various forms outside of contexts shaped by them. Many of the people teaching the ESS position do not regard themselves as theological innovators: they were taught the ESS position in their own theological training. It is important that we do not make them the scapegoats for an error that we have harbored in our midst for quite some time. The doctrine for the Trinity has suffered relative neglect in evangelical circles for quite some time; part of our task in recovering it must be the removal of the dust, cobwebs, and grime of error that have accumulated upon it.

Besides this exposure of Trinitarian error, serious and extensive cracks between the disciplines of systematic, historical, and biblical theology have been revealed. Systematic theologians struggle to handle Scripture and biblical theologians manifest a poor acquaintance with orthodox Trinitarianism and historical theology. These breaches between the disciplines must be addressed as a matter of some urgency.

Even among those who hold an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, that doctrine may be much diminished in its role within the broader firmament of Christian truth, not least on account of a failure to explore its capacity to illuminate and enrich our reading of Scripture. Rather than functioning as an integrating and coordinating doctrine, one of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that permeates and relates all else, it risks operating in a manner detached from the rest of Christian truth, chiefly concerned with maintaining its own integrity. Yet the true integrity of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be maintained where a commitment to pursuing its theologically integrating function is absent.

Should we take the various lessons of these debates to heart, I believe that they will have proved to be profoundly worthwhile, serving both the health and the growth of the Church in the future.


*This is the final post in a series that Alastair began running at Reformation21 last June. You can find the previous posts in this series here

In the previous post in this series, I made some remarks upon the meaning of the term κεφαλή, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:3. Challenging the supposed meaning of this term among certain advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position is important. Not only does it unsettle the frameworks within which authority is conceived of more generally, it also checks a tendency in the direction of univocally applying terms to God and humanity. However, there remains more to be said.

In particular, granting, purely for the sake of argument, that κεφαλή means 'one in authority (over),' we still haven't determined over whom the Father would be in authority. The assumption that the term 'Christ' is interchangeable with 'Son' in the dogmatic sense of that term is unjustified, as the first term relates to the Son in his human nature, while the second (in the context of dogmatic theology) more typically relates to the Son in his divine nature.

This distinction is not a trivial one, as orthodox theology has readily confessed a submission and obedience proper to Christ in his human nature, a submission which is not appropriate to his divine nature. Calvin writes:

"God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."1

The question of whether a relation of authority and submission obtains between Father and Son in the eternal life of the Trinity is an important one, as our answer to it will frame our understanding of the work of the Son in the divine economy. Such an emphasis upon the oneness and unity of the divine will and authority protects us from the danger of slipping into conceiving of Christ principally as an obedient functionary of the divine will and authority, both of which are associated primarily with the Father. As a man, Christ stands on the human side of the Creator-creature relation, obedient to the will and subject to the authority of God. However, as divine, the will and authority of God is Christ's will and authority. In Jesus of Nazareth, we meet the authoritative God who wills to save. A robust doctrine of the Trinity allows us to retain the strength of this crucial emphasis.

This does not mean no economic differentiation between the persons can be spoken of here. As John Webster writes:

"Indivisibility does not disqualify personal differentiation or restrict it simply to the opera internae. It indicates that economic differentiation is modal, not real, and reinforces the importance of prepositional rather than substantive differentiation ('from' the Father, 'through' the Son, 'in' the Spirit). Modal differentiation does not deny personal agency, however; it simply specifies how the divine persons act. '[T]he several persons', Owen notes, 'are undivided in their operations, acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, because each person is God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations; and this ariseth from the unity of the person in the same essence.'"

Relating this to divine authority, we could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One--authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God's authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead.

This in turn can serve to clarify our understanding of the incarnate Christ's mission. Rather than understanding the Son's relation to the Father in terms of a framework of authority and submission, this suggests that we should think in terms of different modes of a single, undivided divine authority. It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.

The manner in which the Son brings about the authority of God in history is through the path of human obedience. As a man with a human nature and will Christ submits to and is obedient to the will of God. However, this obedience can only truly be perceived for what it is when it is seen against the background of the fact that he is the authoritative divine Son. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can command the elements, cast out demons, and heal the sick, exercising the authority of God as his own. He is the one who receives the Spirit without measure and the radiant and glorious theophanic revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are left in no doubt of the divine authority of Christ. The obedience and humiliation of Christ is the (paradoxically) authoritative work by which he overcomes human rebellion, reconciles humanity to God, and defeats Satan.

As we recognize this, it is possible to appreciate the work of Christ as revelatory of and congruent with the eternal relation between the Father and Son, without collapsing the necessary distinctions between the two and reading back Christ's human obedience and submission into the being of God. This obedience and submission exists on account of the revelation of the Father-Son relation within the framework of the Creator-creature divide. However, when we look closer, what is seen is not just the Son's self-rendering in obedience to the Father, but also the Father's exhaustive donation of authority to his Son.

This undoes any simplistic authority-submission polarity. God cannot be alienated from his authority nor give his glory to another. Yet God's authority and glory are found precisely in Christ, the Son who bears the divine name (cf. John 8:58; Philippians 2:9). The Father and the Son are mutually defining (as the names 'Father' and 'Son' suggest). The Father is glorified as the authority of his Son is confessed, as the Father is who he is only in relation to his Son (Philippians 2:11). The Son is the one through whom the Father's authority is effected; the Father is the one from whom the Son's authority comes: the authority of Father and Son is the one indivisible divine authority.

A further important passage for the ESS position is found in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, which speaks of the Son delivering up the kingdom to the Father in the end, and being subject to him. Once again, it is important to bear in mind that this reveals Triune relations in terms of the Creator-creature framework. This passage refers, not to the eternal relation between Father and Son, but to the culminating moment in the great drama of redemption, the moment when the submission of the Son arrives at its perfect completion. The submission of the Son in these verses is not a reference to the eternal unbroken relation between Father and Son in the Godhead, but to the climax of the work of the incarnate Son, when his mission arrives at its final telos, the reality of his authoritative obedience has been utterly fulfilled, and the complete divine authority he has effected is exhaustively related back to the Father as its source.

A closer look at this passage reveals the mutually defining relation between Father and Son. All divine authority in the world is effected through the Son and without him no divine authority is effected--all things are put under him. Indeed, the Son's effecting of the divine authority is the precondition for the Father's being all in all. On the other hand, it is the Father who exhaustively authorizes the Son. The Father places all things under his Son; the Son renders all things up to the Father. Once again, the differentiation between the persons is, as Webster observed above, a modal or prepositional differentiation of a single divine property--the one divine authority and will.

Getting these points correct is very important, not simply for orthodox conformity to Trinitarian creeds, but for a clear understanding of the shape of the biblical narrative, and of the authoritative Saviour that we have in Jesus Christ. The creeds exist to serve and advance this clarity. Within my next post, I will offer some concluding reflections that we can take forward from these debates.

1. An excerpt of Calvin's commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3.

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.
In the previous post in this series, we began to consider some of the theological concerns that surface in the teaching of those who hold to a form of the ERAS/ESS position. In this post, we wish to consider these concerns in more detail. In particular, the ERAS/ESS position seems to demand that both Father and Son have different wills. However, according to the Nicene tradition, the Father and the Son have only one will, the will of the single divine nature. God's one will isn't just a matter of the unity, agreement, or coincidence of three wills of the divine persons, but is the single will that belongs to the one and undivided divine nature. There cannot be different acts of willing in God.

Mark Jones has dealt with this point thoroughly and perceptively, demonstrating just how devastating this problem can be for the ESS position. He quotes John Owen to show how affirming the singularity of the will of God need not be inconsistent with speaking of the will of a particular Person of the Trinity:

The will of God as to the peculiar Actings of the Father in this matter, is the Will of the Father; And the Will of God, with regard unto the peculiar Actings of the Son, is the Will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry Wills, but by the distinct Application of the same Will unto its distinct Acts, in the Persons of the Father and the Son.

An important further part of the picture, which helps to explain biblical suggestions of a diversity of will between the Father and the Son in his incarnation, is the teaching of dyothelitism. Christ has a divine and a human nature and a divine and a human will proper to those two natures. This is why it is appropriate to speak of Christ's obedience to the Father and why this does not entail a plurality of wills in God himself. Christ submits to and obeys the will of the Father--the single will of God--as a man with a human nature and will.

The traditional doctrine distinguishes the hypostases by eternal relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The claim that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father is the doctrine of eternal generation, and has been questioned or rejected by people on both side of the debate surrounding ESS. Keith Johnson discusses Augustine's doctrine of eternal generation in some detail. Johnson argues that eternal generation serves to explicate the Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son, maintaining with Augustine that the 'temporal sending of the Son reflects the Son's relation of being eternally "from" the Father' (31). The 'ordered equality' of the Father and the Son work in creation and redemption is ultimately grounded in this relation in the immanent Trinity.

This doctrine does not depend upon speculative arguments founded upon a few isolated proof texts, but upon reflection upon the broader shape of the revelation and acts of God in both the Old and New Testaments. It develops out of the conviction that God's ad extra work and word in creation, providence, and redemption involves the divine persons inseparably acting, each according to their distinct mode of personal subsistence. Although the economy should not uncritically be read back into an account of the immanent Trinity, God as he exists in himself is revealed in the manner of his work in the world. This doctrine of the Trinity seeks to maintain both robust confidence in the revelation and profound humility before the mystery.

Perhaps the difference between the approach of many of the critics of eternal generation and that of the orthodox to the doctrine might be compared to the difference between treating the biblical text as if a flat representation on a wall and treating it as if a stained glass window through which an uncreated light pours. As we gaze upon the surface of the text, we come to encounter an awesome beauty that lies beyond it. While the doctrine of eternal generation is not straightforwardly represented in the text, it is arrestingly visible through it.

At this point, the tradition would also challenge some of the egalitarian critics of ESS, who can dislike this suggestion of a stable relational order in the divine life, favouring notions of fluidity, interchangeability, or pronounced symmetry. Such an approach can push the doctrine of the Trinity into the realm of speculation, divorcing it from the biblical witness through which we see it. As Johnson observes, within such an approach, rather than the work of the Son revealing 'his filial mode of being "from" the Father for all eternity,' the temporal missions are reduced to 'simply willed acts that in no direct way reflect God's inner life.' As the economic Trinity clearly witnesses to a relational order that may not sit easily with certain of their relational ideals, some egalitarians may be tempted to do an end run around the economic Trinity into a speculative doctrine of the immanent Trinity, largely abstracted from the scriptural witness.

A final crucial point of Trinitarian doctrine that tells against ESS positions is the traditional insistence that the divine persons act inseparably. The acts of God are not subcontracted out to the persons individually. Rather, all of God does all that God does, in an indivisible manner. The Father works through the Son in the Spirit, but this working isn't such that it could be separated into three distinct roles in some divine division of labour. Rather, Father, Son, and Spirit act as a single agent in unified action. Fred Sanders discusses this point in connection with the baptism and incarnation of Christ. Keith Johnson demonstrates just how serious a problem this account of Trinitarian agency poses for ESS in this Themelios article.

This inseparability of action is 'ordered and irreversible,' and reveals the persons in their indivisible distinctness, rather than as interchangeable. As Jones observes, the undivided works of God 'often manifest one of the persons as their terminus operationis.' The principle of appropriation offers a fuller account of how each person of the Trinity can possess in a unique manner what is the common property of all. According to this approach, for instance, by recognizing the order of the Trinity, names, qualities, or works can be especially attributed to one person, albeit not to the exclusion of the others. So, for instance, as Thomas Aquinas argued (Summa Theologica III, Q.23, Art.2): 'Therefore adoption, though common to the whole Trinity, is appropriated to the Father as its author; to the Son, as its exemplar; to the Holy Ghost, as imprinting on us the likeness of this exemplar.' This account of divine action challenges people on both sides of the current debate.

As our doctrine of God lies at the centre of our faith, speaking with care and precision about the Trinity is a matter of paramount importance. As I will argue in my next post, within which I will grapple with the more Biblicist agreements in the current debate, a strong doctrine of the Trinity can greatly enrich our reading of Scripture.

It has seldom received as public an airing as is now possible in the context of social media, yet controversy surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son position (ESS) is not new. Although it has not usually intruded upon the wider Christian consciousness and has largely been confined to theological books and the pages of scholarly journals, debates on the subject have been ongoing for well over two decades and, in slightly different forms, even further back.

The egalitarian theologian, Kevin Giles, has been one of the most persistent and prominent critics of the eternal subordination of the Son position, challenging it in a number of different books over the years: The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate (2002), Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (2006), and The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (2012). In his 2009 book, Who's Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate, Millard J. Erickson tackled the subject, also from an egalitarian perspective.

Further books have been written in defence or discussion of the doctrine. The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son (2012) brings together a number of writers from different sides of the debate. Bruce Ware and John Starke recently edited the book One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (2015), which offers various arguments for--diverse forms of--ESS (Steve Holmes' highly critical review and Fred Sanders' friendlier review are both worthwhile reading). Mike Ovey's Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (2016) is another recent book in support of the ESS position.

Many articles and reviews of books have been written on the subject. A few examples that I have seen referenced in the current debate include John Dahms, "The Subordination of the Son" (1994); Gilbert Bilezikian, "Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead" (1997); Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm Jr., "A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son" (1999); Craig Keener, "Is Subordination Within the Trinity Really Heresy? A Study of John 5:18 in Context" (1999); Scott Swain and Michael Allen, 'The Obedience of the Eternal Son" (2013); D. Glenn Butner Jr., "Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will" (2015).

One of the most striking features of this material is the diversity of positions represented, even among people presumed to be on the same 'side'. Under closer examination, this is not a debate that tidily separates out into two distinct camps. A wide range of positions on several interconnected questions are represented within it, yet the differences are not always where one might expect them.

For instance, the doctrine of eternal generation is a complicating facet of the debate, cutting across apparent party lines. As I observed in my previous post, Grudem and Ware question this doctrine and tend to place the weight of divine self-differentiation upon eternal relations of authority and submission, quite a significant move and departure from the position taken by various other complementarian advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son. Kevin Giles has argued forcefully in favour of eternal generation, yet his fellow opponent of ESS Millard Erickson rejects the doctrine, in part on account of the connection drawn between it ESS in certain circles.

Reading some of the earlier articles in the debate is informative. Kovach and Schemm argued that ESS was the majority viewpoint among evangelical theologians in the twentieth century. In his response to Goligher and Trueman, Grudem also maintained that the ESS position had a strong evangelical pedigree. That both Charles Hodge (in 1871-1873, see his treatment of the Trinity in sixth chapter of the first volume of his Systematic Theology) and A.H. Strong (in 1907, see 619-620 of his Systematic Theology) appear to advocate some milder form of the position--and the latter compares it to relations between the sexes--tells against the claims of those asserting that the position is entirely a novelty of recent vintage, arrived at in order to support a theory of gender relations (a point upon which Giles agrees).

Nevertheless, the more modest stipulated definition Hodge provides for his use of the term 'subordination' in §2.A.4 of his chapter on the Trinity sets his account apart from the position of such as Grudem, who questions eternal generation and greatly elevates the themes of obedience and authority/submission. Besides, even a milder ESS position was not uncontroversial in the 19th century and most of the critics of ESS are not prepared to grant either that it flows untroubled within or naturally develops out from the Nicene tradition.

The slipperiness and equivocation in the use of key terms in these debates is a matter to which I will return. For now, I will observe that both the intense accenting of this doctrine and the proximity to theological anthropology into which it has been drawn do seem to represent more recent developments. Perhaps hairline fractures in poorly articulated doctrines of the Trinity have become more apparent and pronounced as those doctrines have been employed as heavy load-bearing ones in recent gender debates.

Craig Keener is also an interesting case: he is an egalitarian who argues for the subordination of the Son, and who observes--at the time of writing his article--that many other egalitarians he knows share that position, while some of his complementarian friends reject it as heretical. Like Andrew Perriman, Keener firmly resists accounts of gender roles derived from the Trinity, yet has an affinity with the more 'biblicist' and narrative-focused readings of the relationship between Father and Son offered by many complementarians (both Keener and Perriman largely sidestep the 'eternal' dimension of the subordination, as their interest is in the New Testament narrative).

The towering figure of Karl Barth has been an occasional and confusing presence in this debate. In Church Dogmatics, IV.1.202ff., for instance, Barth seemingly draws some of the connections that ESS advocating complementarians have drawn, speaking of God's inner life as involving a 'First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility' (202). Barth also speaks of the wife as 'second and subordinate' and suggests that this relation can be clarified when seen in light of the Trinity. He also speaks of a 'twofoldness' of humanity that is 'a reflection of this likeness of the inner life of God Himself' (203).

Barth's account of subordination in the Trinity was highly contested among his theological successors, not least in disagreements between Colin Gunton and Thomas Torrance on the subject. Barth's connection between the obedience of the Son in the economy and his eternal generation is taken up by Swain and Allen. In his essay in Advancing Trinitarian Theology, Darren Sumner defends Barth's account of obedience and subordination in the Trinity, while demonstrating the problems with a selective adoption of Barth on this point. Barth's approach only works within the context of his broader theological framework, a framework that would not be welcomed by most evangelicals. Josh Gillies discusses Barth further here. The work of Bruce McCormack, who develops Barth's actualist Christological ontology in the direction of a Reformed kenoticism, should also be mentioned here (along with a warning that his approach cannot be appropriated piecemeal in support of a complementarian ESS position).

The examples of Giles and Erickson can provide a sense of some further complexities of the debate. As I've already noted, Erickson rejects the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, while Giles staunchly defends it. Although he now seems to be rather more reticent in advocating such a doctrine, seemingly preferring to advocate a 'communal' Trinitarianism, Giles has formerly aligned himself with Erickson's social Trinitarianism: 'The Trinity is a communion of three persons, three centers of consciousness, who exist and always have existed in union with one another and in dependence on one another.' He has also presented such a doctrine of the Trinity as grounding an egalitarian social agenda, appealing to both Jürgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff (see The Trinity & Subordinationism, 101ff.). Such a position would fall under many of the same strictures as ESS.

Finally, more subtle differences in Trinitarian theology can sometimes surface in this debate between complementarians and egalitarians, even when both deny ESS. Characteristic of some forms of egalitarian Trinitarianism seems to be a minimalistic account of Trinitarian taxis and of the relationship between the economic missions and the processions of the immanent Trinity. Erickson, favourably cited by Giles, writes:

"There is no permanent distinction of one from the other in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons" (The Trinity & Subordinationism, 103).

It should be borne in mind that it is not only complementarians who are at risk of reading their ideals of community and relations into and out from the Triune life of God.

Within my next post I will outline what I believe to be some of the principal questions that need to be addressed in the current debate.

The most recent eruption of the eternal subordination of the Son controversy began with a couple of provocative posts by Liam Goligher, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, over on Aimee Byrd's Housewife Theologian blog.    

Goligher's posts sharply criticized advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son position (hereafter ESS) for projecting the subordination of the Son to the Father within the work of redemption (the economic Trinity) back into the inner life of God (the immanent Trinity). Within his posts, he accuses those who teach the eternal subordination of the Son of 'reinventing the doctrine of God' and 'doing great dishonor to Christ.'   

The eternal subordination of the Son has been a popular doctrine in certain complementarian contexts, being used either to ground the submission of women and authority of men in the life of the Trinity, or, perhaps more commonly, to defend such a position against the charge that naturally hierarchical relations are necessarily oppressive by means of a weak analogy. Goligher implies that, in order to advance a legalistic account of gender roles, a certain group of complementarians are wittingly yet surreptitiously moving the Church away from the historic form of its Trinitarian faith. He concludes:   

Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and reformed understanding of God as He is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake - our own and our hearers' eternal destiny.   

Carl Trueman soon joined his voice to Goligher's. In both Trueman and Goligher's pieces, the controversy is framed as one between different forms of complementarianism.  Given these initial salvoes, it is unsurprising that the ensuing controversy has been a fraught and occasionally quite an unedifying one. In Goligher's posts, the stakes of the discussion were ramped up from the outset, suggesting conscious divergence from historic Trinitarian orthodoxy on the part of complementation ESS advocates.   

Friction between opposing visions of complementarianism is an important aspect of these fault lines and a matter to which I will return at a later point. While the doctrine of the Trinity is the epicentre of dispute in this instance, it is a point where far broader institutional and theological systems and visions are colliding. Once such political tectonics are appreciated, both the theological alignments in and the rhetorical temper of the debate may start to make more sense.

The principal initial responses to Goligher and Trueman came from Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. Both Ware and Grudem insisted that their position was in keeping with Nicene orthodoxy, had historical precedent, and was firmly grounded in the scriptural witness. As representatives of the ESS position, Ware and Grudem's stance is greatly complicated by the fact that both of them have questioned the historic doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son in the past--a doctrine that many in their own camp would strongly advocate--and have grounded divine self-differentiation within relationships of authority and submission. Grudem and Ware's defences of the ESS position have since been joined by those of Denny Burk, Mike Ovey (who has recently written a book on the subject), and Owen Strachan.    

Although the controversy has predictably excited considerable party sentiment, despite its heat it has also occasioned much light and some valuable engagement. There is good reason to hope that it might yet prove to have been a profitable one. The last week has witnessed a multitude of posts and comments, addressing the matter from a host of different angles. Even where party spirit has been in evidence, there have been some extremely constructive, clarifying, challenging, insightful, and generally worthwhile contributions to the conversation. The following are a few examples.   

Derek Rishmawy argues for the usefulness of Trinitarian controversy, properly engaged, in developing a theological awareness that is often lacking in the Church. Andrew Wilson provides a brief survey of the issues currently under debate. The inimitable Fred Sanders offers 18 theses on the Father and the Son, challenging, among other things, egalitarian attempts to flatten out the distinctions among the Triune persons and complementarian 'overdrawing' of them. Darren Sumner gets into some of the theological issues at stake in connecting the relations of origin of the immanent Trinity with the missions of the economic Trinity. The importance of having a clear theological understanding of the relationship between the will of God and of Christ's divine and human natures is emphasized in these posts by Mark Jones. Andrew Perriman highlights the need for greater communication between biblical and systematic theologians in the task of Christology, observing theological failure to engage closely and attentively with the scriptural narrative. Luke Stamps also laments the lack of interaction between theological sub-disciplines, arguing for the need for exegetes who are well acquainted with the history of interpretation. Finally, Glenn Butner, Michel Barnes, and Lewis Ayres each provide some clarity on some of the contested historical details.   

In my next post, I will review some of the literature surrounding the question.
Many of you are no doubt aware of the current controversy within the Reformed complementarian community about the issue of grounding male and female roles of subordination in the inner-Trinitarian life of the Godhead. The desire to establish the rationale for how men and women relate to one another in how the persons of the Triune Godhead relate to one another certainly has the initial appearance of soundness and wisdom. But the reality is significantly more complex than a prima facie reading of the situation would reveal. Good men stand on both sides of this dispute and I do not claim to have read every last blog post or Twitter feed on the matter. I am not concerned with personalities so names will be left out of my musings. I do take a side in the controversy. I side with the classical consideration of the Triune nature of our great and glorious God that stems from the Nicene tradition (perhaps all sides of this debate could read Lewis Ayer's Nicaea and It's Legacy and ponder its detail?).

Discussion of the Trinity is necessary and hashing out the intricate issues is healthy. I am mindful of Saint Augustine's warning about dealing with the Trinitarian glory of our God. At the beginning of his monumental De Trinitate (On the Trinity) the bishop of Hippo Rhegius noted that there was nothing more treacherous than approaching the hallowed ground of Trinitarian theology. At the same time there is nothing more rewarding and soul-stretching. I do want to avoid turning meditations on the Trinity into a geometrical puzzle that needs solving. That is not my desire. I hope to shed a modicum of light on the present impasse. First I will say something about deriving guidelines of male-female relations from the inner-Trinitarian life of God. Second, I will offer a thought or two on the technical matter of subordinationism in theological formulations. Third, I want to say something about how the covenant of redemption relates to this discussion. Fourth, and finally, I want to conclude with a pastoral note.

I think there is a helpful way to draw implications for male-female relations from the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as long as we recognize certain limitations. The first limitation is the Creator/creature distinction. God is not just some bigger, better form of us. God is also incomprehensible. While we can have true knowledge about God and his ways with us, we never possess exhaustive knowledge of God. By definition only God has infinite, exhaustive knowledge of himself and his plan of redemption. Because God has revealed himself to us (in this case, he has revealed to us something of his Trinitarian nature) what we do know is true and not the product of our imaginations as long as what we think conforms to and is consistent with his revelation. Related to the above, our knowledge and theological language is analogical. That is, it is neither univocal (or identical with God's self-knowledge) nor equivocal (completely different from God's knowledge).

What can we say about how men and women are to relate to one another from the Trinitarian nature of God? I think we can say, as Paul does in 1st Corinthians 11:3 that Christ is the head of the husband, the husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. But we need to reckon with some distinctions as we seek to properly understand this text and apply it in our lives. Paul is talking here about Christ's relation to the Father as it exists in the economy of redemption. In other words, we are not talking about the relation of the Son to the Father outside of and apart from the execution of the plan of redemption in time and space. Christ is spoken of here as the God-man Mediator, not as he was in his pre-incarnate state. The wife submits to her husband as the God-man Mediator submits to the Father in the economy of redemption. This filial submission was voluntary for the purpose of redeeming a people for the Son's possession.

Second, we rightly seek to avoid subordinationist language when discussing the internal relations of the persons of the Trinity. John Calvin, I believe, furthered Trinitarian theology when he helpfully noted that the Son of God, considered as to his godness or divinity, is autotheos. The son as to his divine essence is co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. There is no subordination here. But as to his person the Son is derived from the Father and the Spirit is derived from the Father and the Son. Theologians such as Geerhardus Vos (Reformed Dogmatics 1.3.12.c & d) and Sam Waldron (Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith) discuss subordinationism and reject ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. However, they seem to allow for a kind of subordination of manner of existence and mode of operation. The mode of operation is what I have already referred to here as economic subordination for the purpose of redemption. The manner of existence subordination has to do with the fact that the Father is unbegotten and begets the Son, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is not begotten but proceeds. It is arguable whether applying the moniker "subordination" is appropriate for consideration of the personal properties of the divine persons or their ordering or taxis. The only seemingly appropriate use of subordination language regards economic subordination. This is what Paul describes in Phil.2:5-9 and what we see throughout the gospels as we see how Jesus relates to the Father. Why is this even an issue? If the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father, then he is a demi-god who cannot save us from our sins. It's that basic.

Third, I want to bring this conversation into contact with what our theology says about the covenant of redemption or pactum salutis or covenant of peace. The covenant of redemption is that covenant that the Father, Son, and Spirit entered into to save a people out of sin and misery. In this pre-temporal covenant (which we can see evidence of in John 17, for instance), the Son agreed to take to himself a "true body, and a reasonable soul" (WSC 22). This was a completely voluntary act on the Son's part. The Father did not arm twist or cajole the Son into becoming incarnate for our sakes. The Son determined to become incarnate and live a lowly life and die an excruciating death in order to glorify the Father (who in turn glorified the Son) and to redeem lost sinners. While the nature of the Son's personal properties does lead to his incarnation, to make the incarnation and work of redemption arise from the subordinate nature of the Son's relation to the Father is to verge on removing the voluntary nature of the Son's work. Undoubtedly there is more work to be done here or at the very least, more study of what the church has already said instead of thinking we need to reinvent the wheel every time we do exegesis or biblical theology.

Fourth, and finally, we need to be cognizant of the pastoral implications of this dispute. Theological controversy is not to be avoided simply because it is controversial. Jesus himself had an ongoing controversy with the religious leaders of his day. I have been interacting with more than a few laymen who do not know what to make of this current civil war in the ranks of Reformed complementarians. I have tried to stress that theological controversy can be healthy (I am, after all, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and so am gladly one of "Machen's warrior children") and that we should not be overwrought about doctrinal disputes as such. There are, of course, proper ways to conduct theological disputation. But I am not personally bothered by vehemence or the passionate presentation of an argument. However, we do need to reckon with how a dispute is seen by laity and even those outside the church. This controversy can lead to greater understanding of our great and glorious God if it is conducted in a biblical, godly way. We should focus on the issues rather than on personalities. I do need to note that we live in a day and age when we hate to challenge anyone's orthodoxy. I am not providing license to heresy hunters or discernment bloggers. But truth matters. Orthodoxy is not a dirty word. The nature of God's Triune being as it is revealed in Scripture is paramount.

In conclusion, while we can derive some conclusions about how men and women relate to one another by considering the role relations of the persons of the Triune Godhead, we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge. We need to use technical terms like subordination clearly and carefully and where we are nuancing our use it should be clearly stated that that is what we are doing. We need to reckon with how the covenant of redemption relates to this whole discussion. And we need to remember that this controversy is not just an academic disputation but has pastoral implications. We need to debate in a godly manner.

Editorial Note: Our friends, Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher, have raised concerns about the Trinitarian theology employed by some scholars who support gender complementarianism (see thisthis and this posting). Ref21 is pleased to publish a response from Dr. Bruce Ware.  While letting Dr. Ware speak for himself (and not as representing any official position of the Alliance), we hope this reply will clarify both the issues and the specific views held by our fellow evangelicals.

Postings in recent days by Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman have sought to spotlight what they perceive to be possible departures from orthodoxy by those evangelicals who affirm an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons. The charges in these postings are serious but in our judgment false. They accuse us of things that we explicitly deny and they do not represent our view fairly. Some brief reply seems appropriate. 

First, what is never stated by Goligher or Trueman (perhaps just an oversight?) is this: those who affirm the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son uniformly and adamantly affirm also the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature. There is no hint of Arian subordinationism or of tri-theism in what is being proposed by advocates of this intra-Trinitarian relationship of authority and submission. One may, if one chooses, level the charge that our view entails a denial of homoousios, or that it implies tri-theism, or the like. But be clear, such supposed entailments or implications are not only denied but are strongly refuted by advocates of our view. We stand fully with the early ecumenical councils in embracing all that they say about the eternal deity of the Son and the full unity and co-eternality of the one God who is three. And we reject all forms of ontological subordinationism in affirming the full, unqualified, co-eternal deity of the Son, with the Father and the Spirit. 

Second, positing an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons does not conflict in any way with this orthodox heritage, because the issue here is how the three persons function as Father, Son, and Spirit, not whether one has a nature that is superior to or inferior to another (the latter, of course, is flatly denied). At the ontological level, there is absolute equality of deity as all three share fully in the one and undivided divine nature. But at the functional level, in the roles that each carries out, they can be - must be! - distinguished from one another. To take the most obvious example, only the Son - not the Father, nor the Spirit - embraced the role of becoming incarnate. So, yes, while there is an inseparability of operations among the Trinitarian persons, this does not, and cannot, mean that the Trinitarian operations are not distinguishable from one another. Distinguishable, yet inseparable - this is not only consistent with the pro-Nicene heritage, it is demanded by Scripture. 

Third, one of the ways Scripture presses the distinction among the roles of the Trinitarian persons is by highlighting the ultimate authority of the Father, and the willing submission of the Son and Spirit, in all that God does. To cite here just one text, consider the opening of Hebrews: 

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Hebrews 1:1-2). 

The primacy of the Father (in role, not in nature!) is evident by noting the subject and verb in each of the clauses: 

God . . . spoke long ago to the fathers (1a) 
God . . . has spoken to us in His Son (2a) 
God . . . appointed [the Son] heir of all things (2b) 
God . . . made the world [through the Son] (2c) 

It could not be clearer or more precise that it is the Father specifically, not God generically or another other member of the Trinity, who does all of these activities through the agency of the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, what this brief text demonstrates is the primacy of the Father, in relation to his Son, in eternity past ("through whom he made the world"), in the incarnation ("in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son"), and in eternity future ("whom He appointed heir of all things"). Interestingly, this text also shows the primacy of the Father over the work of the Spirit in its opening declaration ("God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways"), assuming as Hebrews even states several times (e.g., Heb 3:7; 10:15), that the Spirit is the Trinitarian person most directly associated with moving the prophets to speak what they did. Yet here we see that the Father directed the Spirit, who in turn directed the prophets. 

What we see, then, is this: Because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, the Father always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Father such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses Fatherly authority; the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father correspondingly always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Son such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father. The Bible's discussion of the roles and functions of the Trinitarian persons points to this repeatedly. The Father sends and the Son goes. The Father plans and the Son executes the plan of the Father. The Father designs and the Son implements the design of the Father. One never finds the reverse. One never sees the Son commanding and the Father obeying, the Son sending and the Father going. There is a stubborn irreversibility in the outworking of the Trinitarian roles, along with other clear, unambiguous teaching that the Son is fully equal to and one with the Father. 

To press this point a bit further, notice that the Father elects us in the Son (Eph. 1:4-5), creates the world through the Son (John 1:2, 1 Cor 8:6, Heb 1:2), sends the Son into the world (John 3:16), and delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27), while the Son after his Ascension sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35), receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33), makes intercession before the Father (Heb 7:25), receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev 1:1), and will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28). Again, not one of these relationships is ever reversed - the Son does not elect us in the Father, does not create the world through the Father, does not send the Father into the world, does not delegate judgment to the Father, nor does the Father sit at the right hand of the Son, or bring intercessory prayers to the Son, or receive revelation from the Son to give to the church, or become eternally subject to the Son. 

We agree that the actions of any one divine person involves the other Trinitarian persons in corresponding ways. But whenever Scripture specifies actions that occur between two or more members of the Trinity, the position of greater authority is always held by the Father, while the position of submission to that authority is always held by the Son and the Spirit. This principle is simply inviolable in Scripture. 

God the Son, then, is both God and Son. As God, he is fully equal with God the Father, in that both Father and Son possess fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. As such, the equality between the Father and Son (and Spirit) could not be stronger - they are equal to each other with an equality of identity (i.e., each possesses fully the identically same divine nature). As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father's will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish. The eternal Son, God the Son, is both fully God and fully equal to the Father, while he is fully Son and eternally in a relationship of Agent of the Father, carrying out the work and implementing the will of the Father in full submission and obedience to all that the Father has planned. God and Son, i.e., fully God (in nature) and fully Son (in person)--this is who this Second Person of the Trinity is as Hebrews, John, and the New Testament declare. 

Fourth, none of this glorious Trinitarian theology is being devised for the purpose of supporting a social agenda of human relations of equality and complementarity. I do believe there is intended correspondence, indeed. But that is a far cry from saying that we are "reformulating" the doctrine of the Trinity to serve our social purposes. God forbid! Let God be God, regardless of what implications may or may not follow! And may our sole aim be to know the true God through his self-revelation in Scripture--the one and only true God, who is God only as he is Father, Son, and Spirit. 


Bruce A. Ware 
Professor of Christian Theology 
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary