Saturday, October 8, 2011

Subordinationism Revisited.

Earlier today, I received a comment on my post "Barth and Subordinationism" from Tyler Wittman who blogs at Eremos (forgive me, I can't figure out how to put the proper accent in his blog's name). I have never done this before, but I decided to post my reply to Tyler's comment in an entirely new post. I truly don't mean any disrespect to Tyler by posting this exchange. Rather, I'm doing this because I really believe that it is important to properly interpret not only Bruce McCormack's remarks in his recent Kantzer lectures given last week at Wheaton, but also for correctly understanding the Christian tradition in relation to trinitarian theology. Tyler's remarks offer a great opportunity to clarify some prevailing misunderstandings in evangelicalism which I believe Bruce McCormack helpfully highlighted and corrected in his Kantzer lectures. You will have to read my initial post on Barth and subordinationism to gain a full understanding of the context for Tyler's comment and my response. Without further ado ...

Tyler's Comment:

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.

My Response:

Tyler, If I may be so bold without trying to sound rude, I think your interpretation of Bruce McCormack's Kantzer lectures concerning the views of Grudem and Ware "simply smacks of misunderstanding." I am not sure where to start by way of response so I will begin with your interpretation of McCormack's views. I will examine McCormack's views more closely than Giles as such an examination will help to address the heart of the issue more fully (ironically enough, I was pleased when McCormack mentioned and positively affirmed Giles' work on this subject).

1. McCormack's "accusation" is only lacking in charity and cannot be sustained if it is baseless and without good evidence. If McCormack is indeed correct in categorizing Grudem and Ware as subordinationists in the way he explain based upon the tradition as such, then claiming the opposite would in fact be uncharitable and unsustainable. I think McCormack went out of his way to take Grudem and Ware's positions seriously and provided a detailed and carefully researched critique.

2. When I listened to the Kantzer lecture, I heard quite a different line of argument from McCormack. He maintained that Ware and Grudem presuppose a Social Trinitarian understanding of the Trinity when they construct their notions of the relationship(s) between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Social trinitarianism is based upon the idea that each person of the Trinity (and the term person is key here) has their own mind, will, and mode of operation. What makes them unified is that they share the same essence. Thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit harmoniously work together in order to secure the same end and purpose. McCormack argued that this presupposed model of the Trinity, which is a development of 19th century Catholic theology, is not the same model presupposed by the Nicaean fathers. Thus, the egalitarianism among the members of the Trinity is "functional" as McCormack noted. But McCormack argued quite well that such an understanding is a modern theological import to Nicaea and not compatible both with the Christian orthodox tradition or with the biblical witness that testifies to One God. The fathers understood that in order to avoid committing the error of maintaining tritheism in their Trinitarian theology and also a hierarchy of beings (as both McCormack and Giles properly note), they could not simply adhere to "functional egalitarianism." Thus, they maintained that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not merely one in essence but also in mind, will and operation ("principle of inseparable of operation"). It is fine if Ware and Grudem want to argue that the Son has a different will than the Father, which he willfully submits from all eternity, but this is not the understanding of Nicaea. Disagreement with the council of Nicaea has been termed "heresy" by the Christian tradition. McCormack maintains the position that the Son's submission to the Father is one of voluntary, self-submission since he applies "the principle of inseparable operation". Therefore, the submission is not passive at least from McCormack's standpoint (though Giles doesn't seem to support this passivity either given the overall theme of his essay). Moreover, egalitarians fear that such an "eternal" understanding of submission would necessarily equate to subordinationism but that is simply because they are working from within a social Trinitarian framework. Which takes me to my next point ...

3. Ironically enough, both egalitarians and complimentarians use the Social Trinitarian model to support their respective commitments to gender relations. But I think this reminds us that the Trinity is wholly unique and cannot be used as a model to support gender relations between men and women. It is a misplaced analogy also because social trinitarianism essentially equates to tritheism. To maintain that there are three distinct minds and wills yet one substance and then say there is not a hierarchy of beings is simply "fundamentally incoherent" as McCormack argued. McCormack does not seem to be concerned with defending the Nicaean tradition in the way he does because he has a stake in the gender debate. In fact, McCormack even said off the cuff in the Q&A that he does not adhere to any metaphysical notions of "manhood" or "womanhood." But this is rooted, it seems, in his post-metaphyical commitments rather than any prior commitment to the feminist agenda.

4. I don't think Giles is so much concerned with the gender debate either. But sometimes it is necessary to show, as he does in his article, that using the Trinitarian model to support a specific view of gender relations is problematic. I realize that I can't use the Trinity to support my understanding that men are women are ontologically equal and submission in the way it is conceived my complimentarians compromises such equality. To maintain anything less is also fundamentally incoherent and simply saying that it isn't and then pointing to the biblical witness to say they maintain the same isn't helpful. This understanding of complimentarianism is also rooted in a metaphysical understanding of the genders which I find unbiblical.

5. McCormack and Giles' point seem to be that the biblical witness testifies to the revelatory understanding that the Church confesses one God who is revealed in the eternal relations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, subordinationism as conceived by Ware and Grudem compromise monotheism.

6. This issue, in the end, doesn't seem to be McCormack's unconscious Feuerbachianism, but rather who interprets the Christian tradition - particularly Nicaea - correctly. Moreover, you might maintain that the tradition interprets Scripture incorrectly. That is an entirely new debate and one that might be worth having as good Protestants do.

P.S. McCormack's position is hardly new. In fact, during the Q&A session of one of John Webster's Kantzer lectures, he noted that the pactum salutis must be conceived and explained very carefully if there is not an unintentional support of competing wills between the Father and the Son (hinting that anything less would support tritheism). McCormack noted the difficulty of competing wills in the penal substitution model of the atonement at the Croall lectures this past year since this would mean that the innocent Son is suffering at the hands of the vindictive Father. But the problem only arises to a very real extent when the Father and Son have competing wills. Thus, it is rightly understood as a self-sacrifice since the Father and the Son share but one will.


Tyler Wittman said...


I'm sorry this warranted an entire separate post. My original comment was perhaps misleading. I wasn't focused on McCormack's position at all, I simply heard of this accusation from several people who were there; I haven't had time to listen to the lectures myself. I mentioned him only to show that this is a common accusation, made very recently. I should have left his name out of it, mea culpa.

Secondly, I didn't mention the gender debate at all. Moreover, I'm not committed in any fashion to deriving one's view of the genders from the Trinitarian relations (nor do I think Paul did). I'm just talking about the charge of subordinationism from Giles, of which I'm still not convinced.

The issue I was primarily addressing was the lack of warrant in Giles's argument (and the charge of unconscious Feuerbachian odes was directed at Giles alone). Giles assumes that the "subordinationists" in question rank the persons of the Trinity according to their personhood. But this is not representative of evangelical theology. Bruce Ware and Robert Letham correctly note that the issue is not about deity or rank, but about the taxis (order) among the persons: their relations. To be sure, Arians used taxis in their own way to argue that the Son was of a lesser rank, but this is not how orthodox theologians used it.

The Son is autotheos according to his nature, but He proceeds from the Father eternally according to his person. It is impossible to understand 'Son' apart from 'Father'. What we have to focus on is the category of obedience as it concerns the Son, not subordination. The Eternal Son obeys the Father. Thus Barth: "As we look at Jesus Christ we cannot avoid the astounding conclusion of a divine obedience" (CD IV/1 202). To equate obedience with ontological inferiority is to misread what's being said, yet this is precisely what Giles does.

You mention that McCormack follows Giles in affirming a voluntary self-submission. Good, because Giles is on the right track there. But we have to follow that logic where it goes: if the self-submission of Jesus Christ is not anathema, then why is the self-submission of the Son from all eternity heresy? Can the three not will to be this way and not another (thus preserving opera ad extra indivisa sunt)?

Again, I only wanted to point out the inadequacy of Giles's argument and the corresponding charge of subordinationism to anyone who attends to the distinctions among the divine persons. Yes, there should be no use of the word "subordination" when talking about these distinctions. Giles is right about this, but he's wrong about obedience and submission entailing inferiority. This is cultural-theological argumentation, not biblical-theological. Such is his hermeneutic.

I regret that I appear to be a representative of evangelical misunderstanding. Truth be told, this is less a matter of misunderstanding than it is of disagreement. I actually agree with a lot of what Giles and (ostensibly) McCormack are after, but Giles's logic fails when pressed to the wall. I will cede any final comments to you, Kait.

All the best!

Tyler Wittman said...

One more mea culpa: I slipped up in my original comment,

"Rather, they are eternally, yet freely subordinate."

Nein! They are eternally, yet freely ordered. Much better. :)

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