Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barth and Subordinationism.

I went into the Princeton Theological Library today only intending to find one specific book. Before I knew it, I made my way to the printed journals and starting perusing one after another. Note to self: this is a horrible time killer. Per usual, I picked up the Scottish Journal of Theology and immediately flipped to Kevin Giles' article entitled "Barth and Subordinationism". At first glance, the charge of subordinationism against Barth seemed rather odd. Many of Barth's notable conservative North American evangelical critics have always critiqued Barth as being a modalist. Apparently, a trend has emerged among a few global conservative evangelical scholars who have used Barth to support their view of the eternal subordination of the Son. I was completely puzzled before I even began reading the article. How could this be? Modalism is a charge that in some ways is understandable to some (small?) degree, though ultimately incorrect in my opinion (modes of being, anyone?). But subordinationism not only would threaten Barth's entire christocentric project (this is truly and fully God present in the person of Jesus Christ), but it would make him a tritheist to whatever extent. What is even more troubling and interesting to me is that these same scholars are trying to further the cause of the eternal subordination of the Son to justify their complimentarian view of the female gender. Just as Jesus Christ is supposedly eternally subordinate to the Father, women are also eternally subordinate to men. However, such subordination does not mean ontological inequality (Sidenote: Giles notes that this heresy of eternal subordinationism is ironically being championed as orthodoxy within such circles, which is a fascinating piece of theological amnesia!). I can not recall how frequently I have heard some evangelical pastors preach growing up that even though Adam and Eve were fully made in the imago Dei and possess ontological equality, they have distinct roles. Women are to submit and be subordinate to men. And men are supposed to serve as Christ-like leaders (taken most often from Ephesians 5). In some circles, it is explicitly stated that Adam was made for God while Eve is made for Adam. Therefore, the woman is to always concern herself with supporting and furthering the purpose of her husband. I should note here that the article didn't grab my attention for its details concerning Barth's trinitarian theology, but rather what Giles says about the use of subordinationism in trinitarian theology to further the subordination of women. I really appreciated his words on this trend as it clearly articulates my personal concerns with the implications of such female subordination, namely that it logically equates to ontological inequality between the genders:
"These often undeveloped and passing claims that Barth teaches the eternal subordination and obedience of the Son in the Godhead in mainline scholarly works now find frequent expression in conservative evangelical literature promulgating 'male headship'. The argument that the eternal subordination of the Son explains and theologically grounds the permanent subordination of women is now endemic in socially conservative evangelicalism, and in recent years Barth has been frequently quoted in support. For example, in Australia Robert Doyle says Barth teaches 'the eternal relation subordination' of the Son, while Mark Baddeley says much the same. He argues that for Barth God the Father eternally commands and God the Son eternally obeys, adding that 'Barth rejects a purely economic submission as modalism'. In Great Britain this appeal to Barth in support of the eternal subordination of the Son is also found in writings by evangelicals committed to the permanent subordination of women. For Example, Thomas Smail in his book, Like Father, like Son, argues that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in function and authority to the Father, apart from ontological subordination, and he claims Barth as the basis for his views. For him the Father is 'sovereign' and what is proper to sonship, human and divine, is 'obedience'. He says 'God the Father is the prototype of leadership'. In Smail, and most other conservative evangelicals who argue for the permanent subordination of women, the governing premise is that it is possible to have permanently ascribed functional subordination and ontological equality. I think not. If one is permanently subordinated solely because of one's sex, race or divine identity then the subordinated party is not only subordinated in role or function: they are the subordinated sex, race or divine person. Simply denying this does not alter this fact. What must be recognised is that in this usage the terms 'role' and 'function' do not refer to characteristic behaviour that can change and is not person defining, as a dictionary would suggest, but to unchanging power relations, who rules and who obeys. The terms 'role' and 'function' are used to obfuscate what is actually being argued: the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to the Father and this hierarchical ordering prescribes the permanent subordination in authority for women."
- Kevin Giles, "Barth and Subordinationism", Scottish Journal of Theology 64 (3): 327-346 (2011).


Matt Frost said...

Solid. The connection is well-made. Parallel to the error reinforced by the councils that the Father was always God -- that the eternal Godhead is more Father than Son or Spirit, which is the presupposition that demands that we say that They are equal to Him, just as we are stuck always having to assert that women are equal to men. The terms of the discussion reinforce the error they're designed to counter -- it's always pitched as an uphill fight. And the Son can get past that glass ceiling better than the Spirit can.

I'm increasingly fond of the idea that the Spirit is the basic form of the Godhead -- leveraging the more acceptable position that Father-Son is a relationship mutually created in the incarnation, since Mother is human. A faithful filling of roles in relationships, and not just a Verbal insemination. But we're fighting a bias in the witnesses. The stories always land at "the Boy and His Dad" -- his "real" biological Father, his divine inheritance, just as God has always been metaphorically the Father of the inheritance from Abraham on. Mother is written out; the Spirit becomes the Bond between the Boy and His Dad (the Love between the Lover and the Loved). But in the beginning was the Spirit over the chaos. In the beginning was Wisdom that persists. In the beginning was the Logos before any biological gender. The presence of God in the sanctuary, who had no interest in seeing your maleness -- keep it under your garments, if you please.

But the witnesses prefer a nice, respectably masculine deity. No whoring around with feminine deities, if you please. We have been God's woman for a very long time, especially when we refuse to keep our place in the relationship. Hierarchical subordination is written in from the beginning of our accounts. Each generation has to decide again that that really is an error, and how far it goes, rather than simply following it and deifying the culture of the witnesses. Which gets harder to do, once you've deified the testimony itself!

David Baruch said...

Wow, I will never use the word mode, God forbid I write an entire 18,000 pages only to have somone read one section withthe word mode and totally miss the chalcedoian formula that I have spiraled around so many times it can make one sick! I don't get it!

Tyler Wittman said...

I understand where Giles is coming from, but this doesn't suffice as a sound argument.

First, the simplistic equation of authority structures within the Godhead with the heresy of subordinationism is uncharitable and unsustainable. Bruce McCormack recently made a similar accusation towards Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware that simply smacks of misunderstanding. There is more rhetoric than substance here. The heresy of subordinationism maintained that there was an ontological inequality amongst the three persons. Evangelicals like Grudem and Ware (and ostensibly Smail) advocate no such heresy. People like Giles simply don't want to grant that the persons of the Godhead can be functionally subordinate but ontologically equal. In effect, they want to equate function and ontology, but...

This is perhaps the most damning mistake I see Giles making, and it's a 'Feuerbachian slip' (to use Vanhoozer's phrase). The implicit assumption is that submission to authority equals inequality. This is a cultural, and not a biblical, value. This is the canon, if you will, for scholars like Giles who hastily categorize opponents into the heresy of the first three centuries. What Giles leaves out is that those divine persons (like the Son and Spirit) who are subordinate are not subordinate simpliciter, and therefore ontologically. Rather, they are eternally, yet freely, subordinate. He's making the relationships passive, when in fact, they are active. The Son has authority to lay his life down and to take it back up, but he freely obeys the Father's (eternal!) will and lays it down.

Thus, the equation of function and ontology cannot accomplish what Giles desires if our ears are attuned to the biblical witness.

Tyler Wittman said...

Sorry to keep at it, but this further clarification occurred to me as I was biking today...

Giles writes, "If one is permanently subordinated solely because of one's sex, race or divine identity then the subordinated party is not only subordinated in role or function: they are the subordinated sex, race or divine person."

There's the rub, isn't it? That's one hell of an "if." If a theologian is found affirming this, then Giles' case is stronger. For me and my house, the subordination in question is a determination of freedom, not the other way around.

Kait Dugan said...

Hi Tyler, thanks for your comments. I posted an entirely separate post to reply to your comment. I look forward to your response.

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