Subordinationism: Some Major Questions

By Jamin Hübner at CBE:

As many of you are aware, a particular debate involving the doctrine of the Trinity is causing no little stir in American evangelicalism. This past Thursday (June 16, 2016) Christianity Today even felt it necessary to write a primer on the discussion.

Since my area and career focus is on systematic theology (and gender), I have watched with particular interest but have let others (more seasoned) do the “heavy-lifting.” I also happen to be the moderator for the Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at the annual ETS meeting this October, which is themed “the Trinity.” I did not think this topic would publicly escalate so fast in the months prior to this event, but it apparently has. (So, although I won’t be speaking there, I may be wearing a flak jacket…).

In a word, the debate exists because some patriarchalists (“complementarians,” such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware) have appealed to the Trinity to substantiate female subordinationism. The Son is (“functionally”) eternally subordinate to the Father and yet is ontologically equal to the Father, so women are eternally (“functionally”) subordinate to men and yet are ontologically equal to men. A basic concept of complementarianism is therefore established. So the argument goes.

The first problem with the argument is the premise: is the Son really “eternally (‘functionally’) subordinate” to the Father? The Nicene tradition, Cappadocians, Athanasian Creed, and other classical Christian references all strongly point away from this characterization. Why? Because the Bible does not seem to teach it, and its consistent application would potentially (or inevitably) result in a denial of Jesus’ full divinity.

Furthermore, virtually all Christian theologians, churches, and denominations from the first century to the 21st century do not affirm an “eternal functional subordination” of the Son, whether Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. While tradition and the church of ages past are not an infallible guide, they are an authoritative and important guide nonetheless. And when 99.99% of the past and present Christian tradition does not favor a particular view—about God’s nature, no less—it might be wise to set it aside. At the very least, it would be unwise to promote it. It would be grotesque to criticize Christians for not believing it. Yes, sadly, we have witnessed this in contemporary complementarianism.

The third problem is, do unique relations between members of the Trinity really provide the basis for finite temporal relationships between human beings—especially regarding male and female human beings? There are good reasons to question this analogy.

Our understanding of personhood in the essence of God is extremely limited—just as all knowledge of God is. One must also remember that God is absolutely unique; the Trinity and internal relations are virtually unfathomable. The “doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God” is absent in Grudem’s Systematics, a subject that has historically and traditionally been central in the discipline of dogmatics and systematics. By the time one assembles a semi-coherent analogy on top of an already analogical and metaphorical knowledge of God, we have traversed a long way from a dogmatic ethic that would demand, say, a universal, world-wide ban on women preaching the gospel and serving as ministers in their own churches.

A fourth problem is another potentially illegitimate premise: what is the meaning of a person that is eternally subordinate in what they do but not, supposedly, subordinate in their basic “nature” or “being”? There really isn’t any.

Imagine a man telling a woman, “you are equal to men, but in everything you do in your life, you will do it as if you’re not. That’s God’s design.” The absurdity should be obvious. So imagine a theologian saying, “everything the Son does is as if he’s not equal to the Father, but he is.” Is this any less absurd? In Grudem, Ware, and others’ “evangelical” view, the Son’s submission to the Father is viewed as both (a) eternal and (b) distinctive of the son’s identity. This really isn’t any different than saying that the Son is “by nature” subordinate to the Father.

Arguments from this patently heretical perspective crumble upon the first initiation of critical thinking. For instance, Grudem says, “If we did not have such differences in authority in the relationships among the members of the Trinity, then we would not know of any differences at all” (EFBT, 433; cf. Systematic Theology, 251). Really? This is an odd claim given that differences in authority have never been the primary way of distinguishing members of the Trinity in Christianity. What about differences in their names (“Father,” “Son,” “Spirit”)? Or in how the Father sends the Son, and Spirit comes as the comforter to the church? Differences don’t seem that difficult to identify.

Some of you are probably wondering how such a fringe heresy by such a small group of people could cause such a kerfuffle (if it is even that in the global picture of Christianity). That’s another question entirely. At any rate, I cannot fathom how these desperate attempts at hi-jacking Trinitarian dogma in the service of patriarchy will survive much longer.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.