June 6, 2016
On Friday, I posted Part One of a guest post by Dr. Liam Goligher, Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination. Hopefully it has opened some eyes regarding some troubling teaching in the name of complementarianism. Here is the Part Two that I promised:
While we were sleeping, feeling secure that they were not tampering with the glory of the gospel, they were in fact tampering with the glory of the eternal Son of God!
My last article ended assuring that God as He is in himself requires our faith and adoration, not our speculation. We can however be sure that His eternal being is faithfully expressed in how God deals with the world. It is at this point we move to what we know of God in Christ. The NT tells us that He is the Son of the Father; this describes His filial and eternal relationship with the Father; as the Divine Son He shares the nature of His Father. He existed 'with God in the beginning’ and He ‘was God’ (Jn.1:1-3). This tells us that He shared eternity and equality with the Father. There are not degrees of Godness; one is either God or one is not. Paul later tells us that the Son is ‘by very nature God’ and ‘equal’ with God. Since God is God, He cannot be God by nature without being God in all His thinking, willing and acting.
Indeed, that is where the early Christians located Jesus, within the identity of the God of Israel. And they went further; by using a person-centered reading of the OT, they found embedded in the texts accounts of conversations between divine persons that gave them clues as to how to speak of God as Trinity. Our Lord located Himself there when He used the emphatic "I, I am;" when He claimed power and authority normally attached to God Himself (e.g. to have "life in Himself;" to "forgive sin;" to be the locus and focus of worship (Jn. 4); to speak as God to Israel (Matt.5-7); to be ‘one’ with the Father); and when He spoke of the "glory" He shared with God the Father before all worlds began (Jn.17). He was the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush; and who appeared to Isaiah (when the prophet had a vision of the heavenly temple, the council chamber of God). To hear Him is to hear the Father; to know Him is to know the Father. From all eternity, He was ‘face to face’ with God; His sonship is utterly unique.
Primacy of the Father?
The church long ago rejected any form of primacy of the Father within the eternal Trinity, though there were some among the fathers who wanted to assert primacy to justify bishops in the church, just as there are some among evangelicals who want to assert primacy to justify patriarchy in the home and beyond. And the church long ago rejected any form of eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. The language of Psalm 110 makes it quite clear that when the Son speaks to the Father, He speaks as God to God, as Lord to Lord. Jesus quotes that psalm in Mark 12 where He claims to be Lord, and is completely understood by the rabbis as claiming to be the 'Son of the Most High' that leads to their charge of blasphemy. In other words, the Pharisees understood Jesus’ claim to be Son as an ontological claim.
It was this Son who humbled Himself (notice the voluntary nature of the movement in Phil.2) by taking "the form of a servant" by being found ‘in fashion as a man.’ He did not ‘empty Himself’ of deity or of ‘all but love’, but He humbled Himself and emptied Himself by ‘taking’ something He never had before – servanthood (He took the nature of a servant) and humanity (He was found in fashion as a man). The grammar tells it all, ‘himself He humbled taking…’ He takes the form of a servant, and becomes the second and last Adam to win our salvation by His active obedience in the life He lives and in His passive obedience in the death He dies.
This movement is quite obvious in Isaiah's revelation of the Messiah. First, His divine identity is established - He is the Son "given" to us; divine titles belong to him: He is "mighty God, everlasting father.” The coming Son is ‘Immanuel,’ God with us. By the time we reach Isa 40 we are expectantly looking for the appearance and arrival of God Himself ("Behold your God"). And it is precisely at this point that we are introduced to the Servant of the Lord. Care is taken to locate the Servant alongside God - He too is "exalted, high and lifted up" with divine honors. John’s gospel makes it clear that the thrice holy ‘Lord God the Almighty’ of Isa.6 is the ‘Servant’ of Isa.52-53 (John 12). The movement from divine Son to divine Servant, from exalted Sovereign (ch6) to the despised and rejected Servant (ch52-53) is clear. It is this humiliation that distinguishes His eternal and divine life before His incarnation, from the creaturely and earthly life He lived in His flesh. The Son continues as God after His incarnation, and what He does in the flesh He does as one person, the God-man. So, in His earthly life we see this mixture of the earthly and heavenly. What is creaturely about His life on earth cannot be read back into the life of the Triune. When it comes to us His people we can only imitate the earthly and godly aspects of His life. Then, after the resurrection Jesus is exalted as “Son of God with Power,” the Mediator of our salvation, who reigns as the glorified God-man.
What Is at Stake
The internal life of the Trinity is neither egalitarian nor hierarchical because of the very nature of God as God. Only in His voluntary state as a servant do we read that ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1Cor.11:3). Only in the economy of redemption, in His state of humiliation, is this true. As the second and last Adam, acting for and in place of His people, He is placed in a covenant of works relationship with the Father, charged to obey where we disobeyed and to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ on our behalf so that His righteousness might be ‘accounted’ to us (Isa.53; Romans 4). As such, His ‘food’ is to do the will of Him who sent Him and to ‘finish’ His work. His obedience was entirely congruous with His having taken our creatureliness into Himself. We derive our model of servanthood, submission and obedience from His perfect example. To confuse Christ in His state of humiliation with the eternal Son as He was ‘with God in the beginning’ is to move beyond Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as historically understood.
So, here is the bottom line: God has revealed Himself as Trinity. To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry. Idolatry is to believe or say of God something which is not true of Him. Scripture is our authority in the matter; and the church’s confessed faith is a safety check on our understanding of it. This gospel clarity is imperative for the pastor/preacher. With the souls of men and women at stake, confusion or unwarranted speculation (in the interests of novelty or academic advancement) at this point is fatal. The church took so long to articulate its position on the Trinity and Christology because it recognized the danger of heresy and blasphemy. What we face in evangelicalism today is at best shoddy thinking and at worst ungodly thinking about the first principle of our religion – “Who is God?” The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ's church. 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.
Dr. Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Window on Tomorrow (Christian Focus, 1994), The Fellowship of the King (Carlisle, 2003), The Jesus Gospel (Milton Keynes, 2006), and Joseph—The Hidden Hand of God (Fearn, 2008). Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children (Louise, Ruth, David, Sarah, Andrew) and nine grandchildren.