The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Need for Trinitarian Clarity

Most criticisms of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position have focused upon deficiencies in its Trinitarian theology. In my last post I commented upon some of the problems with the term and concept of subordination. Within this post, I will sketch some of the contours of Trinitarian theology, to make clearer some of the areas where it may be at risk of being compromised.

Perhaps the most basic distinction that frames such a discussion of the Trinity is that between the 'immanent' and the 'economic' Trinity and the related terminology of ad intra and ad extra. Darren Sumner makes some helpful observations concerning this distinction. The term immanent Trinity refers to God with respect to his own eternal life; the term economic Trinity refers to God with respect to his action in creation and redemption.

The economic Trinity, as Karl Rahner insisted, is the immanent Trinity: there aren't two different Trinities. God isn't lurking behind a mask, but truly is present and revealed in his work and word in creation. However, the economic Trinity is God revealed under the conditions of time, sin, and incarnation. God himself is present and known, but in a manner refracted by temporal realities. While we can be confident in God's presence with us and self-revelation to us, then, an understanding of the immanent Trinity--of God as he is in his own inner life, without respect to creation--cannot simply be arrived at through a retrojection from the ad extra works and revelation of God in the economy.

This distinction may not be quite so clear in the case of God's actions and determinations 'before the foundation of the world' or of those events that occur at or after 'the end' (for instance, as Christ delivers the kingdom to his Father). Some have unhelpfully used the language of 'eternity past' in this context. It might be more appropriate to speak of aeviternity, the higher, yet still created, time of the heavenly realm, which precedes, surpasses, and endures beyond terrestrial time. However, as Sumner stresses, this still pertains to the economic rather than the immanent Trinity. The same is true of the relation that existed between Father and Son before the Son took on the form of a servant in coming as a man. So, for instance, Jonathan Edwards can speak of a 'natural'--presumably immanent--order of the Persons of the Trinity, an economic order, and, further, the subordination that the Son came into by virtue of the covenant of redemption. These orders are congruent and fitting with respect to each other, but they are not to be conflated.

The immanent/economic distinction is blurred in the arguments of Craig Keener and others who don't seem to have a clear account of the eternal Trinity--the immanent Trinitarian self-existence of God beyond and above all created time, whether heavenly or earthly--operating instead only in terms of the aeviternal Trinity--the unending existence of the economic Trinity in a higher heavenly time, stretching out both before and after our terrestrial time. When God is so conceived, the immanent can easily collapse into the economic and God's being never truly exceeds the horizons of the cosmos he created.

The manner in which various ESS positions speak of the relations between the persons of the Trinity and of the persons more generally is a further area of concern for critics. Within the ESS position there often seems to lurk at least an incipient social Trinitarianism. Social Trinitarianism conceives of the persons of the Trinity as if they were three distinct subjectivities--three 'I's--in communion and speaks of their relations accordingly.

This is a significant departure from the Church's historic doctrine of the Trinity, within which the language of 'person' functions rather differently and does not carry the meaning that it does in popular parlance. The 'persons' of the Trinity are not three distinct centres of consciousness or agencies--which would suggest something resembling tritheism and undermine the oneness (and the simplicity) of God. The persons, or hypostases, are three instantiations of the one divine nature. However, most of the things that we would associate with personhood--knowledge, will, love, wisdom, mind, etc.--are grounded, not in the three hypostases, but in the one divine nature. In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term 'person', in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one 'person' with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though.

When the divine persons are conceived according to an analogy with human persons, there is a dangerous resulting tendency for the doctrine of the Trinity to become entangled with our social theory and agenda, often leading to projection of our social ideals into the Triune life of God. While this has been a huge trend in theology over the past hundred years (Jürgen Moltmann, John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff, etc. all hold social Trinitarian positions, or positions that tend in that direction), it is something that theologians such as Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby [doc file] have strenuously opposed, demonstrating its departure from the tradition. As I've already noted, some prominent egalitarian critics of ESS such as Millard Erickson and Kevin Giles have advocated distinctly social Trinitarian viewpoints in the past and connected such visions to their egalitarianism (although Giles at least seems to have moderated his stance somewhat).

A number of the criticisms of ESS can be traced back to this point. For the ESS position to work, its critics suggest, it depends upon conceiving of the three hypostases as if akin to persons in the more modern sense of the term--as three distinct agents and centres of consciousness. Yet, from the standpoint of the tradition, this clearly will not do.

This problem is keenly felt when talking about the wills of the Father and the Son. For eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) to exist, it would seem to be necessary to hold that the three divine hypostases are in key senses like persons in the modern sense of that word, which is not the orthodox position. It is to this problem and the question of the eternal generation of the Son that I will turn in my next post.