The Eternal Subordination of the Son Debate: Concluding Reflections (Part 2)

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.

*Editor's Note: This is the last post in a series that ran at Reformation21 from June 2016 to June 2017. You can find other posts in this series here