The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Survey of Some Relevant Material

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.