Eternal Relational Subordination and the History of the Church (Pt. 1)

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Evangelicalism is engaged in a civil war on the theological battlefield of Trinitarianism in regard to the heated and divisive issue of the eternal relational subordination of the Son. In short, there are those who assert God the Father and Jesus the Son are fully equal in every way within the immanent Trinity (God as he exists in eternity, apart from creation), and only in his humanity does the Son willingly subject himself to the Father (the economic Trinity, God in his interactions in this created world).[1] Others say that the Son’s submission to his Father in his humanity is an accurate reflection of their eternal relationship: the Son is eternally “subordinate” to the Father in terms of their roles.[2] Advocates of this second position make clear that the Father and Son are equally God ontologically in eternity, but in their relationship with one another there is an ordering where the Son always voluntarily submits to the Father. Since we are talking about the inner workings of God, tempers quickly flare and discussions quickly turn to arguments in this debate.

One common argument against the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) is that it is a modern invention created in the 20th century by those who were looking for added theological support for discussions of gender and church roles. Opponents of ESS have sought to show that in the history of Trinitarian development within the early church, the church fathers do not speak about the Son as subordinate or submissive to the Father eternally but only in relation to redemptive history.[3] They claim that using the eternal subordination of the Son  as a way to support gender distinctions within the church and marital relationships is heretical because it goes against the orthodox teaching of the church.

So who is right? Did the early church fathers accept or reject the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son as it relates to his relationship with the Father? What about during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods? Contrary to what many are saying the in evangelical community today, there was no general consensus on the topic of the eternal relational submission of the Son to the Father in the history of the church. While some voices seem to oppose ESS, others appear to embrace it. Here are just a few brief examples from one relevant passage: 1 Corinthians 15:27-28.

1 Corinthians 15:27-28 in the Patristic Period

Many opponents of ESS point to Trinitarian scholars of the Patristic period for justification. Theodoret of Cyr (late 4th-5th century AD) says of 1 Cor. 15:27, “The Arians and Eunomians love to play with this and the next verse claiming that it proves that Christ is not God. But here they are confusing two different things. The apostle is not speaking about Christ in his divinity but about his humanity, since the whole discussion is about the resurrection of the flesh.”[4]

Augustine (4th-5th century AD) likewise dichotomizes the person of Christ to help interpret this passage. “The rule of Catholic faith is this: when the Scriptures say of the Son that he is less than the Father, the Scriptures mean in respect to the assumption of humanity. But when the Scriptures point out that he is equal, they are understood in respect to his deity.”[5]

John Chrysostom (4th century AD) summarizes well the interpretation of this passage which suggests it relates only to the humanity of Christ:

The apostle speaks in one way when he is talking about the Godhead alone and in another way when he is speaking about the divine dispensation. For example, once he has established the context of our Lord’s incarnation, Paul is not afraid to talk about his many humiliations, because these are not inappropriate to the incarnate Christ, even though they obviously cannot apply to God. In the present context, which of these two is he talking about? Given that he has just mentioned Christ’s death and resurrection, neither of which can apply to God, it is clear that he is thinking of the divine dispensation of the incarnation, in which the Son has willingly subjected himself to the Father.[6]

With voices like Theodoret, Augustine, and Chrysostom, should we not conclude that this was the consensus of the early church concerning this passage? That would be too hasty of an assertion.

Ambrosiaster’s (mid-4th century AD) commentary on 1 Corinthians repeatedly points to the Son being subordinate to the Father in role or function. In commenting on vv. 24-27 he says:

No one should doubt, therefore, that the Son will reign with his Father forever. This is the standard teaching about the kingdom, that once all things have been subject to the Son and they have worshiped him as God, and once death has been destroyed, then Christ will make it clear to them that he is not the ultimate source of all things, but that it is only through him that all things exist. To hand over the kingdom to God the Father will be to show that the Father is the one from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.[7]

Ambrosiaster goes on to further clarify the relationship between Father and Son:

The Father has subjected everything to the Son in order for the Son to be honored in a way similar to that in which the Father is honored. Therefore, when everything has confessed that Christ is God and been subjected beneath his feet, Christ the Lord will also be made subject to God the Father, so that God may be all in all. What Paul is saying is that when the pride of all rulers and powers and dominions has been put down that they have all worshiped Christ as God, then even Christ, because of the Father’s unique authority, will show that although he is God, he is also from God, so that the sublime and ineffable authority of the single originating principle may be preserved.[8]

In these two sections of his commentary, Ambrosiaster views God the Father as the “single originating principle” and the one “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.” The Father possesses a “unique authority” which the Son, “although he is God,” does not possess. Ambrosiaster did not regard this passage as only speaking about the humanity of Christ, but of his deity as well, and does not divide the two as sharply as Augustine and Chrysostom.

Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century AD) also gives strong support to ESS in 1 Corinthians 15:28 when he says:

For He shall be subjected, not because He shall then begin to do the Father’s will (for from eternity He “doth” always “those things that please him” [Jn 8:29] but because, then as before, He obeys the Father, yielding, not a forced obedience, but a self-chosen accordance; for He is not a servant, that He should be subjected by force, but a Son, that He should comply of His free choice and natural love.[9]

This conveys both the idea of voluntary submission on the part of the Son out of his “free choice and natural love,” and the idea that this submission to the Father’s will occurs in eternity.

While some early church fathers interpreted 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 as referring only to the humanity or incarnation of Christ, others interpreted these verses as referring to the order that exists within the Godhead eternally where the Father is in some way the source of the Son’s power and authority.[10] Among church fathers of the patristic period there was no harmonious agreement either rejecting or accepting the eternal relational subordination of the Son from this passage. In the second part of this post I will examine the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 during the medieval and Reformation periods, and draw conclusions for the present Trinitarian debate.

 

Notes

[1] Kevin Giles, The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 24-25. Giles is representative of the group discussed above.

[2] It must be said that the term “subordination” is an unfortunate one for its history and use in conjunction with the Arian debates of the fourth century. Robert Letham says, “the phrase ‘eternal subordination of the Son’ is outside the boundaries of the tradition.” Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 490.

[3] Rachel Miller, “Does The Son Eternally Submit To The Authority Of The Father?” A Daughter of the Reformation. May 28, 2016, accessed April 28, 2017, https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com /2015/05/28/does-the-son-eternally-submit-to-the-authority-of-the-father. Liam Goliger, “Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?” Housewife Theologian. June 3, 2016, accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/is-it-okay-to-teach-a-complementarianism-based-on-eternal-subordination. Carl Trueman, “Farenheit 381.” Postcards from Palookaville. June 7, 2016, accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/postcards-from-palookaville/fahrenheit-381.

[4] Gerald Bray, ed., 1-2 Corinthians, (vol. 7 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; ed. Thomas C. Oden; Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 163.

[5] Ibid, 164. Although Augustine’s commentary here does not explicitly bring out any ordering of the Trinitarian persons, Keith E. Johnson has shown that there does exist in his theology an ordered relationship between Father and Son. Johnson criticizes both opponents and proponents of ESS in that opponents “ignore or subtly deny this reality,” while proponents are wrong in assigning to Augustine’s ordering the idea of submission when the eternal generation of the Son was what constituted this ordering in his mind. Keith E Johnson, “Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son: An Augustinian Perspective,” Themelios 36, no. 1 (May 2011): 7–25.

[6] Ibid, 163.

[7] Ambrosiaster, Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, Gerald L. Bray, ed. and trans. (Ancient Christian Texts, Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray, eds.; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 195.

[8] Ibid, 195.

[9] H. Wayne House, “The Eternal Relational Subordination of the Son to the Father in Patristic Thought,” The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, eds., (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 177-178.

[10] In his response to Gilbert Bilezikian’s article “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Trinity,” Letham writes, “Bilezikian does not appear to realize that an order (taxis) among the persons is part of Trinitarian orthodoxy. He states that after the Arian controversy ‘order or ranking’ is excluded among the persons ‘concerning their eternal state.’ He conflates two different concepts, one heretical, the other orthodox. The idea of rank is certainly heresy, of that we both agree… Basil and Gregory of Nyssa at times implied that the three persons constitute a causal chain, with the Father being fully God, and the two others deriving their deity from him. However, the true order is not a rank, but an orderly disposition.” Letham, The Holy Trinity, 482-483.

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