This post is part of the ETS Women’s Project. Our goal is to get more women to attend the national ETS meeting in Milwaukee, November 14-16. For more information on the annual meeting or to join ETS, click on the link in the left-hand column. Click here for Amanda MacInnis’ posts about the ETS Women’s Project.
This is the second installment of my series on how some complementarians are using the Trinitarian doctrine to prop up a theology that makes male headship and female submission the divinely-mandated natural order of things. For a primer on what has been the traditional—dare I say “orthodox”—understanding of the Trinity, check out my previous post here.
In its simplest form, there are just two questions that need to be asked here. First, what does the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father do to the orthodox understanding of the Trinity? (and are we willing to go there?) Second, even if someone does subscribe to the eternal subordination of the Son, does it really have any ramifications for human gender roles?
While I was hoping to tackle this issue in just two posts, this is too important an issue to rush. For now, I’ll just be addressing the first of these issues. What, exactly, are the theological implications of eternal subordination of the Son?
Yes, I know this sounds heavy, but stay with me here. It’s not as convoluted as it sounds—and it’s really important stuff.
A Primer on Eternal Subordination of the Son
Anyone who’s read my blog for more than a few months knows that I am not afraid to engage new ideas if there’s enough biblical support (hence the word “ruthless” in the name of the blog). For example, I think Open Theism has a whole lot of scripture going for it, and I think Matthew 24 requires at least a partial preterist interpretation. Even I, however, am hesitant to make the move that people like Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem seem to be making regarding the Trinity.
First of all, let’s clarify the difference between subordinationism and subordination. As David Congdon notes, the “ism” makes all the difference here. Subordinationism is an ancient heresy that claims that Jesus is a created being, making Him subordinate to the Father in an essentially ontological way. As far as I know, I don’t see anyone involved in this debate purposely going down that particular rabbit hole.
Eternal subordination, on the other hand, is the idea put forth by Ware and Grudem that the Son has submitted to the Father from eternity past and will continue to submit for all of eternity future. In a debate between Ware, Grudem, Tom McCall, and Keith Yandell at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School back in 2008, Grudem used Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29, and John 1:14 to argue that “The role of planning, purposing, predestining — the entire history of salvation — belongs to the Father, according to Scripture. There is no hint of any such authority for the Son with respect to the Father.”
And in a Paper submitted to the ETS back in 2006, Ware wrote:
I will defend the thesis that while Scripture clearly teaches, and the history of doctrine affirms, that the Father and Son are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully the identically same divine nature, yet the eternal and inner-trinitarian Father-Son relationship is marked, among other things, by an authority and submission structure in which the Father is eternally in authority over the Son and the Son eternally in submission to his Father.
Ware refers to this as “an eternal and immutable authority-submission structure that marks the relationship of the Father and the Son.” And later in the paper, Ware explicitly clarifies how his Trinitarian theology supports a complementarian view of gender relations:
It is not difficult to understand why some find the Son’s eternal submission to the Father an objectionable concept. For if the Son eternally submits to the Father, this would indicate that authority and submission are eternal realities that are inherent in the intrinsic relations of the Persons of the Godhead. But if so, does it not stand to reason that when God creates the world that he would fashion the world in a way that pictures these eternal structures? Does it not make sense, then that the authority and submission structures in marriage and in church leadership are meant to be reflections of the authority and submission in the relations of the Persons of the Godhead?
The interesting thing about this view of the Godhead is how subtly and insidiously it has crept into the everyday language of some evangelicals—almost as if it’s always been there. In a post on The Gospel Coalition website, Joe Carter wrote that “Rachel Held Evans claims that complementarianism is patriarchy and here she stumbles upon the truth. She doesn’t appear to recognize, however, that the patriarchy of marriage models the patriarchy of the Godhead.”
The patriarchy of the Godhead? Really? Dianna Anderson’s response to this statement is worth reading. But I also have to ask myself that if Ware considers authority and submission “eternal realities” that God has “fashioned into the world,” and if Carter sees the Godhead as essentially patriarchal, what is keeping this paradigm solely within the bounds of gender relations? If this is a universal paradigm built into creation, couldn’t the same argument be used in support of specific forms of government, or even benign slavery? I’m not a fan of the slippery slope argument, but I see a giant waterslide here.
What is Really at Stake?
The bigger issue, however, is how this view of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son foundationally alters our understanding of the Trinity itself. In the last post, I described the traditional, orthodox, Nicene understanding of the Trinity as one in which one God with a single will exists simultaneously as three “persons” (to use the Nicene word).
However—and this, to me, seems to be the central issue—if the Son is eternally in submission to the Father, doesn’t that logically mean that they must have two separate wills, making them, essentially two separate entities? “Which,” as Phillip Cary says “is what the Nicene creed says they don’t have.”
Even way back in the 2008 debate, Keith Yandell summarized Ware and Grudem’s theology with this little bombshell:
The Son has as an essential property, being subordinate to the Father, and of course the Father lacks that property. So the Father has an essential property — a property that is part of the Father’s nature — that the Son does not have as part of the Son’s nature, and the Son has an essential property — a property that is part of the Son’s nature — that the Father does not have as part of the Father’s nature. This entails that the Father and the Son do not share the same nature after all.
Bruce McCormack went even further in his series of Kantzer Lectures in 2011. Although I haven’t listened to these lectures myself, Princeton Theological Seminary Students David Congdon and Kate Dugan both agree with McCormack that what the new subordinists are doing is appealing to what is called “social trinitarianism,” in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are three independent centers of consciousness with their own distinct intellect and wills. They still manage to be in communion, however, because they share the same essence and work together for a common purpose.
McCormack argues that the Nicene fathers saw the dangers of this view, realizing it was just a hop, skip, and a jump from social trinitarianism to tritheism (the belief in three gods). No wonder they worked so hard to emphasize the Triune unity of mind and will.
David Congdon even comes right out and says that “social trinitarianism is a disguised form of polytheism.”
In a sense, I agree with Congdon. I honestly don’t see how anyone can say that two or three entities who don’t share a common will are still one being. I just don’t. On the other hand, I also don’t think that any of the eternal subordinists think that that’s what they’re doing. Trying to comprehend how three “persons” can still be one God is just plain hard, and we’re all bound to tip the boat to one side or the other in our effort to maneuver it through the water.
Because I’m not afraid to consider any new idea if it can muster biblical support, I have to acknowledge that the scriptural evidence does provide at least some support for the eternal subordination of the Son. As my friend Stephen pointed out in the comments of the previous post, 1 Corinthians 15: 27-28 is probably one of the strongest of these.
However, in the end I cannot rectify the Son’s eternal submission to the Father (and the Spirit’s eternal submission to the Son, for that matter) with the concept of a single triune God. In my view, any authority/submission dynamic that is not temporary or, to use the theological term, “economic,” must, by definition, describe three separate beings.
Am I too committed to an orthodox understanding of the Trinity? Am I a fundamentalist as far as this is concerned? Possibly. (Although it would be really, really ironic to find myself on the conservative side of Wayne Grudem.)
But I’m OK with the paradox. What I’m not OK with is polytheism.
Stay tuned for the final post in which I come to the conclusion that using the Trinity to support any human social paradigm—whether complementarian or egalitarian—is just a bad idea.