The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Subordination

Teasing out the many different threads of the current eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) debate is a daunting task. The sheer range of different positions and issues represented within the conversation can be bewildering. Perhaps one of the most immediately pressing ground-clearing tasks is that of clarifying terms and disaggregating some of the positions under discussion.

The term 'subordination(ism)' hasn't done us many favors here. For most egalitarians, subordination necessarily connotes inferiority. No matter how strongly a complementarian might protest that they aren't speaking of a lower rank or status, most egalitarians cannot believe them and the legitimacy of an unchanging order of relations within which one party is 'subordinate' to another won't even be entertained. Complementarian affirmations of the equality of the Triune persons in such a context will appear to be begging the question, as enduring subordination is perceived to involve inequality by very definition. Complementarians could not unfairly charge egalitarians of the same thing, as patient and careful arguments for the incompatibility of equality with the subordination complementarians propose are typically far less forthcoming than direct assertions.

Some ESS proponents such as Bruce Ware have adopted 'eternal relations of authority and submission' (ERAS) to replace 'eternal subordination' terminology. Others speak of eternal functional subordination (EFS), to clarify the form of subordination envisaged. Robert Letham suggests that the language of subordination is inappropriate in such a context as such language 'entails that the one subordinated has no choice but is subjected by his superior' (One God in Three Persons, 122). Letham favors the language of 'submission', by which he refers to a loving yielding to another, challenging Giles' assumption that submission is synonymous with subservience.

'Authority', employed in such a context, is another term whose very definition seems to preclude Trinitarian equality for many minds. It is telling that, in contrast to others like Ware, 'authority' doesn't really feature in Letham's account of the eternal relation between the Father and Son. A free submission of the Son may be more congruent with a non-subordinationist account of the Triune relations than an authority-submission pairing, which seems to imply rank, although that suggestion may be firmly resisted. There are more benign definitions of 'authority' to be found, but within the subordinationist cast of most ESS positions, they don't seem to invite themselves (by contrast, New Testament teaching concerning the 'command' of the Father in relation to the Son are often more suggestive of the Father giving his full authorization to the Son than merely of the Son being under the Father's authority). At this point I will note in passing that biblical teaching about the relations between the sexes mentions the submission of the wife on several occasions, but lacks a strong corresponding emphasis upon the husband's authority over her.

Alternative terms such as 'asymmetry,' 'order,' and 'difference' are also treated warily by critics. Egalitarians--not without justification in many instances--suspect that, rather than adopting such terminology to qualify or replace their infelicitous and injudicious 'subordination' language, complementarian ESS advocates are merely dissembling their objectionable positions beneath them. There are many potential forms of differences, asymmetries, and orders. The onus is on complementarians to speak with greater precision here.

Equivocation in the use of the term 'subordination' is a problem on all sides of this debate. In his remarks upon the controversy, Michel Barnes observes that 'subordinationism' has become a blunt and unserviceable 'scare word' that theologians and church historians increasingly try to avoid or replace. He suggests that 'orthodox Trinitarian theology, pre and post Nicene, has always had some kind of "subordinationism"--whatever that word means--to it.' Lewis Ayres fills out Barnes' point, observing the way that the tradition has spoken of an order in the Trinity.

In certain instances, defenders of ESS don't seem to be asserting much more than the claim that there is a correspondence between the taxis of the immanent Trinity (relating to eternal generation), the 'priority' of the Father as the one sending the Son, and the obedient form of Christ's life lived out in the form of a servant. In Kyle Claunch's essay in One God in Three Persons, for example, he steps back from eternal subordination of the Son terminology, while maintaining that 'the one eternal will of God is so ordered that it finds analogical expression in a created relationship of authority and submission' (91).

This is very far removed from the 'subordination' of an Arian or Homoian. However, it also contrasts sharply with the 'subordination' of someone such as Grudem, who questions eternal generation, rejects inseparable operations (see Grudem's opening essay in One God in Three Persons), and speaks of eternal divine self-differentiation in terms of authority, submission, and subordination. While Grudem may appeal to earlier uses of the language of subordination, in his account of ESS, a marginal and disputed position in Trinitarian theology appears to have displaced and substituted for some elements that have traditionally been at its heart.

When assessing such a theology, a wide angle lens is necessary, with attention not only to the terminology employed and particular theological assertions made, but also to how everything is related together and how the doctrine is employed. This is especially the case when a doctrine, even in its more chastened forms, seems to be evolving in no small measure under the intense stress of a discussion that is at most only tangentially related to it.

The key terms at the centre of the ESS debates--subordination, authority, and submission--also seem to be at the centre of a number of their advocates' doctrine. There is no reason why this need be the case, and it raises the question of the aptness of the terms in question for their purposes. Characterizing a relationship as involving subordination is one thing; defining the relationship as subordination is quite another. Likewise, authority and submission can be one dimension among very many of a given relationship. However, when such a dimension is accorded centrality, the character of the relationship can change significantly.

Even if we were to grant the legitimacy of the ESS or ERAS positions for the sake of argument, we still must ask how useful such terms are for characterizing the relations in question and how this can be squared with the prominence that is accorded to them by their advocates. When characterizing the relationship between the Son and the Father in the New Testament, for instance, subordination, authority, and submission aren't necessarily the most obvious or promising terms to focus upon. Love, revelation, sent, gift, word, or image are a few of the many other terms that might prove more illuminating in this context (without shedding such a sense, the term 'head' might also be discovered to be rather richer than the definition 'authority over' might suggest). The more that terms such as subordination, authority, and submission dominate our account of the relation between the Son and the Father, the more distorted our Trinitarian doctrine can become.

It is this same dangerous tendency to present a one dimensional and reductive account of a richly multifaceted relation that egalitarians can react against in some complementarian accounts of relations between men and women. Within such a one dimensional account, it is indeed hard to see how subordination does not entail inferiority. Unfortunately, this reductive tendency has been encouraged by the fact that complementarian accounts of the sexes have--like egalitarian accounts--largely been developed in the context of controversy, against the foil of and in conflict with the opposing camp's position. The result has been a centralizing of controverted points and a relative neglect of that which exists outside the scope of the controversy. Accounts of the relations between the sexes have become narrowly framed by the question of authority. Without neglecting this question, much could be gained from confining it to its proper place.

There is, furthermore, a great gulf between occasional appeals to a relatively uncontroverted (albeit theologically erroneous) ESS position as a useful counter-example to egalitarian claims that subordination necessarily entails inequality on the one side and determined advocacy of ESS as a disputed doctrine that grounds the submission of women to men upon the submission of the Son to the Father on the other. The second approach unhelpfully entangles our doctrine of the Trinity with our account of relations between the sexes and overloads isolated texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3--a slender bridge that must now support heavy theological traffic--in the theological formulation of both of these positions.

Egalitarians have developed various highly speculative doctrines of the Trinity that conform to their assumptions about ideal communal relations. Such doctrines often weaken the unity of the immanent and the economic Trinity and struggle to do justice to the relational order of taxis. Complementarians are far better placed to criticize egalitarians at these points when they themselves are not invested in tendentious doctrines of the Trinity that supposedly ground their own stance on the sexes.

There are, I believe, genuine grounds for concern that the desire for complementarian co-belligerency and visible consensus against the threat of egalitarianism is preventing some complementarian advocates of ESS from forthrightly addressing serious theological divergences within their own camp. This recent controversy--even though marred by partisanship--has demonstrated that, at its best, the family of complementarian viewpoints can be robust and mutually sharpening in its self-criticism. However, fruitful self-criticism is considerably less likely to occur the more that we are encouraged to circle the wagons and as conflict with non-complementarian opponents dominates our theological horizons.

In the next post in this series, I will proceed to explore some of the matters of Trinitarian theology that are at issue in this debate.