Thursday, March 23, 2006

Against the New Subordinationists

One of the most disturbing trends in Trinitarian theology is the massive resurgence of a new subordinationism, usually called 'functional subordinationism'. It is often justified by saying that it isn't an ontological subordinationism. That this is false is easily seen in a passage by one of the most prominent of the functional subordinationists today:

Scripture frequently speaks of the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity, a relationship in which the Father "gave" His only Son (John 3:16) and "sent" the Son into the world (John 3:17, 34, 4:34, 8:42; Galatians 4:4). But if the Father shows His great love by the fact that He gave His Son, then He had to be Father before He could give His Son. The Son did not suddenly decide to become Son on the day He came to earth. The Trinity was not just Person A and Person B and Person C before Christ came to earth, for then there would have been no Father who could give and send His Son. The idea of giving His Son implies a headship, a unique authority for the Father before the Son came to earth. So even on the basis of John 3:16, the egalitarian claim that Jesus' submission to His Father was only during His time on earth is incorrect.

But the Father-Son relationship also existed before Creation. The Father created through the Son, for "all things were made through Him" (John 1:3), and "there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things...and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things" (1 Corinthians 8:6). The Bible tells us that in these last days God "has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world" (Hebrews 1:2). When the Bible discusses distinct actions of the members of the Trinity in Creation, this is the pattern: things were made "by" or "from" the Father and "through" the Son. But this also means that before Creation the Father was Father and the Son was Son. The Father had to have a Son before He could create a world through His Son. This means that they are related as Father and Son before Creation. Again, the egalitarian claim that limits the Son's submission to the Incarnation is incorrect.
[Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 406-407, emphasis in original]

The functional subordinationist is caught upon a dilemma from which there is no escaping: either the subordination of the Son is only in the Incarnation, or the Son is not equal to the Father. For if the Son is subordinate purely in virtue of being the Son, and if the Father is purely superordinate in virtue of being the Father, then it follows that the Son is simply subordinate and the Father is simply superordinate. For, as Grudem rightly says, the Trinity is not Person A, Person B, Person C; the Trinity is nothing other than Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Nor can it be said that this is merely functional; for we know nothing of the Father, of the Son, or of the Spirit distinctively except what we know of them in relation to each other under the Scriptural designations; and the Scriptural designations, which Grudem rightly notes is eternal, are Father, Son, Spirit. But Grudem has claimed that these indicate subordination. Such a claim is as absurd as if he had said they indicate disparity in age; but, granting the claim, we are committed to saying that the Son is simply subordinate, and to denying that the Father and the Son are one in every God-befitting dignity.

And we see, moreover, how functional subordinationists read ghosts of subordination into every little thing. The Father gave the Son; therefore the Son is subordinate. The Father sent the Son; therefore the Son is subordinate. The world was made through the Son; therefore the Son is subordinate. But we have seen these claims before; we battled them in the Eunomians sixteen hundred years ago. They were no more plausible then. The Father sent the Son, yes, but 'to send' tells us nothing of authority. A child may say to his parent, "Go and see how well I have cleaned my room." The parent goes; and, behold, in going, the parent is sent. But this tells us nothing of who has the greater authority. My friend and I are in perfect agreement that she should help you on some matter; I say to you, "I am sending you my friend to help you." Have I arrogated an authority over my friend? Hardly, for my purpose does not rule the agreement. Was I lying? Certainly not, for I am sending my friend. This supposed proof is dubious in our own case; shall we think it conclusive in God's? It is even less likely to be legitimate there. For if I and my friend are in perfect agreement, it can be nothing in comparison to the agreement of the Father and the Son and the Spirit, who are so united that the work of the Father is through the Son and in the Spirit, so that one and the same action belongs to three persons, whether it pertains to creation or salvation. What human unity of purpose could possibly compare? But in unity of purpose, as such, there is no subordination; if there were subordination there would not be unity, but one purpose subordinating another purpose, however congenially. And so if the Father gives the Son, and this giving is eternally purposed by the Thrice-Holy Trinity, there is no subordination in being given, for there is no subordination of purposes, only a perfect unity of purpose: that the Word be made flesh and come among us a Savior, a gift of life. Thus from the mission of the Son, nothing follows about subordination. And likewise from the making of all things through the Son, nothing follows about subordination; indeed, the reverse: for that all things are made through the Son shows clearly that the Son is one with the Father with a unity that we can scarcely comprehend. But so eagerly do the functional subordinationists grasp after straws that they see elaborate subordinations lurking in every difference of preposition.

And did God predestine us in His Son, and choose us in Him before the foundations of the world? Certainly. And where is the alleged subordination of the Son in any of this? Does it follow from the fact we attribute this predestination and election in the Son to the Father that the Son is subordinate to the Father? Why would it? Suppose you and I were to collaborate in a plan, and part of the plan were attributed to me. Would it follow from this that you have less authority than I do? Any such inference would be sophistical. Why then should it somehow introduce disparity into the relationship of the Father and the Son, who are more one than you and I? Particularly when the Scriptures as preached, prayed, and practiced in the Church through the ages have not been understood in this way?

But, the functional subordinationists reply, the Church has always believed what we believe, that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father. For, as Grudem says later (p. 415), they held that the Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third. But they also said, lest it be forgotten, that there is no inequality among any of the three, whether it is with regard to power, or authority, or knowledge. Did they contradict themselves? Not in the least, for as the Cappadocians noted, everything had by the Father, except being the Father, was had by the Son and the Spirit, so that every willing of the Father was a willing also of the Son and of the Spirit. The point can be read in countless places. The Father is first not in rank, not in authority, not in power, but in order. Only by confusing the ordinate with the subordinate can we deny this. If we sing a song, and I sing the first note, would it follow that my note had more authority? If one is the first number, does it mean that two is subordinate to it? When Grudem and others argue that the order of the Trinitarian names indicates a first, second, and third in authority or subordination, they are arguing (or claiming, rather, since they don't actually argue for it) for what is traditionally called subnumeration. When we are determining what the traditional view is, are we to ignore completely the explicit warnings of Basil and others about the folly of subnumerating the persons of the Trinity? But we have to if we are to accept the claim of functional subordinationists that theirs is the traditional view of the Trinity. Functional subordinationists often become very angry if we orthodox call them neo-Arians; but by advocating subnumeration, they are doing nothing other than advocating an Arian position.

Ah, say they, but the Son is begotten. Yes, for He is the Son; and as all the Fathers argued, this means He is equal to the Father. But there is an eternal difference between the Father and the Son! Yes, the Father is always the Father and the Son is always the Son; what about subordination follows from this? The two persons are distinct; this no one denies. Does it follow from the fact that the Son is eternally begotten that the Son is eternally younger than the Father? And in fact the Church has never read the eternal begetting of the Son as a proof of inequality, but as a proof that the Son is equal to the Father in every God-befitting dignity. And such an equality is contrary to any sort of subordination. If one is subordinate to the other by nature, they are not equal, but unequal in nature, since one is subordinate by nature to the other. If one is subordinate to the other by subsistence, they are not equal, but unequal by subsistence, since one is subordinate by subsistence to the other. If one is subordinate to the other by operation, they are not equal, but unequal in operation, since one is subordinate by operation to the other. There is no getting around this. But we know that the Son is eternally of the Father, so as to be Light of Light, very God of very God. This is not a subordination; it is a perfect unity.

At the slightest provocation functional subordinationists are leaping like mountain goats to conclusions they have taken no trouble to justify. If the Father does anything, they say it must be because He has special authority; if the Son does anything, they say it must be because He does not. If the Word incarnate submits to God, they say it proves their point, although all it proves is that men should submit to God; if the Word is sent, they say it proves their point, although all it proves is that the Word came among us; if the Word is called 'the Son', they say it proves their point, although all it proves is that the Son is from the Father. If the world is made through the Word, they say it proves their point, although all it proves is that without Him was nothing made that was made. If the saints are predestined in Christ, they say it proves their point, although all it proves is that the saints have been predestined in Christ. Such people cite Scripture at every turn, but without regard for the analogy of it, or even at times for logical consistency. Ignoring the overwhelming number of authorities against them, they cherry-pick a handful who agree with them. Faced with the charge of being neo-Arian, they piously deny it, and then brazenly affirm the same arguments and subnumerations as the Arians.

There is an unfortunate tendency among opponents of the functional subordinationists as well. Some in their attempt to avoid subordinationism make all every person subordinate to every other. Such a strategy surpasses all understanding. Functional subordinationists unreasonably twist the doctrine of the Trinity to fit their doctrine of marriage; it is perversely unreasonable to respond to this by doing the same. There is too much at stake to be frivolous about these matters.

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