The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Intent Matters

The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Intent Matters September 20, 2018

Backlit keyboardBecause of the incomprehensible nature of God, our talk about God, even when relying upon revelation and the best theological sources, will never properly reflect who God is in his nature. Human language reflects the human mind, the modalities of human thought, which though significant, is incredibility limited in nature. Our conventions, our words, our expressions of the truth will come out of our experience with it, but will be clothed in conventional representations which, by the nature of our means of communication, will be limited and incomplete. We must not confuse our expressions of the truth through our conventions as the absolute truth in and of itself even as we must not end up saying there is no way to discuss and represent the truth.

As exploring and discussing the truth is difficult, the process of establishing the best conventions to express the truth is difficult. We can be aware of truths which we cannot express, and yet try, realizing that the words we speak fail to achieve our intentions. Likewise, we might fail to see the ramifications of our words, of how they can and will be interpreted with logical analysis, so that our words might end up being erroneous even if we are faithful to the truth. This is why it is extremely important to both give leeway to those who are trying to keep to the fullness of the truth, not condemning them for their mistaken expressions, as well as the need to realize the imperfection of such conventions, leading us to purify them the best we can.

For example, when we read early Christian apologists and theologians talking about the Trinity, though they wanted to present the Trinity, and they understood the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, somehow one and three, they found it extremely difficult to put to words this great mystery of the faith. When we explore the literal meaning of what they said, often they ended up presenting the Trinity as the Father being greater than the Son and Spirit, leading to a subordinationism that denies the equality of the Trinitarian persons. Their goal was the true faith, but they had not developed the conventions needed to discuss the Trinity, and so they went with the best they had without being limited by it. Their subordinationism was not a willful rejection of the teaching of the Trinity; rather we find in them an imperfect beginning of the explanation for it, using what they most understood philosophically as the foundation for their theology.  Thus we can see many greats like St. Justin Martyr, Origen, even Novatian, slowly establishing the vocabulary and distinctions needed in order to properly discuss the Trinity, but because it was in development, their reasoning and explanation of the Trinity was faulty. Their execution was imperfect, needing much refinement. While they were wrong in the words, their intent was correct; they were not proto-Arians, but rather, they were still trying to put to words the best way to express the mystery of God, while the Arians took their words to literal extremes, causing confusion and debate as to the meaning intended by ante-Nicene theologians when talking about the Trinity.

Subordinationism is problematic because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equals, with none of them being greater than any other. How to express this while keeping God one and the persons three has been and continues to be one of the great difficulties of Christian theology.  It is for this reason, when people try to explain the Trinity and talk about the relationship with the persons with each other, subordinationism is often brought up, sometimes rightly, but sometimes also wrongly. It is an easy accusation to throw, but it does not always apply.

One of the worst attempts to throw at the claim for subordinationism is found in debates over the filioque. When the West says the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, in ways which can also be found in writings of many great Eastern authors like St. Cyril of Alexandria, some say this subordinates the Spirit.  They argue that this means the Father and Son share a property with each other which the Spirit does not have, that is the spiration of the Spirit, making them greater than the Spirit.

This confusion is one of relational properties; personal distinctions and relations do not lead to greater or lesser being, nor does the fact that two persons of the Trinity have a property which the third does not possess makes them greater than the rest. This line of thought continues with the erroneous line of thought that Arius used to suggest the Son is subordinate to the Father because the Father is the origin of the Son: because the Father is unorginate and the Son and Spirit are not, Arians indicated that the Father is greater than the Son and Spirit. However, properties which are relational are not substantial, and in reflecting upon the Trinity, there are many properties in which we find two persons of the Trinity have which the third does not. The origination of the Son and Spirit is a case in point. The Son and Spirit share this quality with each other, differentiating them from the Father; does this make the Father less than the Son and Spirit because he does not possess this relational quality? Obviously not. Likewise, the Father and the Spirit remain unincarnate, while the Son alone is incarnate; does that make any of them greater than any other? No, but yet, again, we see two persons sharing a property which the third does not have.  We could, if we want, examine all kinds of distinctions which develop as a result of the incarnation and show how these distinctions could be misread along subordinationist lines. Yet, all of these reflect not the quality of the person, but relative distinctions which are established due to the nature of personal relationships within the Trinity.  Only by denying the distinction of persons is this possible, but that would lead to a monistic understanding of God, an understanding us far from the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

We must remember our conventions, when used to talk about God, imperfectly reflect our understanding of the Trinity. We know the Trinity is true, for it is revealed truth, and we can see the truth of it. When we try to put this to words, we find anything and everything we could say fails to reach the ultimate truth. We cannot confine and limit the truth through our words. Human conventions will never be able to comprehend God; God will be seen as illogical in relation to human logic because God transcends the logical distinctions which the human mind creates and establishes to understand creation. God will always be a mysterious paradox wherein we can see and believe the truth of both sides of the paradox, knowing that the paradox itself forms because of the limitations of the human mind.  The more we treat our words as absolutes,  the more error we will produce. This is why we must always keep the apophatic “no” to all we say about God. When debates arise, it is important to understand not just the words being said, but the point behind them, to read the conventions being employed in the way intended, otherwise it is likely the point being made will be lost. Then, bad faith would easily be cast aside in such debates, for it is when we try to confine the truth to the words people speak and not what is intended beyond the words, we can invent all kinds of reasons to reject them, making us feel smug while in reality not touching the truth which was intended by them. Only those who truly affirm in a positive form a subordinationist position should be seen as holding on to it; like Arius, they will make it clear so we won’t have to play words games to trap them in such error.

[Image=Backlit Keyboard by Colin CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons]


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