Friday, June 10, 2016

Eternal Relational Subordination of the Son? What are some of the issues?

I do not claim to be any sort of expert on the doctrine of the Trinity, nor to have all the answers, but, as much for my own benefit as anything else, this is an attempt to calmly lay out some of common ground and the issues that might be disputed between conservative evangelicals who want to respect the traditional doctrine. What follows has something of the nature of a series of points which we need to keep in mind.  

(For some further reading of blogs, articles and books, see here).

Of course the divine life is incomprehensible and mysterious to us. We must remember the Creator/creature distinction. Our talk about God is especially analogical. Although we are made in the image of God, it is unsurprising if God’s life is not entirely like our own. It is no simple thing to argue from the nature of human person to the nature of divine persons or from the immanent life of the Trinity to the relations between men and women, for example. Even if we grant that wives should submit to their husbands in a manner analogous to the way in which the Son submits to the Father, of course there will be great differences since, for example, the Triune persons are eternal and perfect and could not disagree.

Arguments for complimentary (equal but different) relationships between men and women need not depend on our doctrine of the Trinity.

Having said that our knowledge of God’s inner life is limited, we still insist that God has revealed himself clearly (if not exhaustively). God’s revelation is directed towards our salvation, but knowing him is involved, indeed, central. Our focus of concern should be the economy of God’s revelation and its practical implications for our love of God and neighbour, not speculation about the hidden life of God, but it is reasonable to think that God’s saving and revealing activity in his economy relates to and flows from his immanent life. It is good and right to want to know God. God’s revelation really reveals something of who he is in himself. When God acts he is not pretending and it is hard to think that his acts are arbitrary. (In fact, even if this is something of a minority report in the tradition, I am inclined to think that all of God’s actions are both volitional and necessary, flowing from who he is and governed by his wise and good will).

If we wish to be orthodox Christians we must affirm the full deity of all three divine persons. The Son is no less God than the Father. His being / substance / essence / deity are no less than the Father’s and he is equal with the Father in this sense, and entirely worthy of the same divine worship. To deny these things is a kind of Arian or semi-Arian / homoian subordinationism.

Yet there is order to the divine life. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. These relationships are not interchangeable. The Father therefore has a kind of (atemporal) priority amongst the persons of the Trinity.

Having said this, the Father is never without his Son. If the Son is from the Father, the Father is only Father because he has a Son. We might say that the persons have a kind of mutual dependence – it is not just that the Son depends on the Father for his identity as Son. Without his Son the Father would not be Father.

(Calvin gives a distinctive account of the Son as having his divinity from himself since asceity is an attribute of deity. This has some plausibility to it).

There is a perichoretic indwelling between the persons. The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. The persons cannot be separated are not to be confused or confounded.

The tradition also teaches the inseperable operation of the members of the Trinity, but again, the persons act in an ordered manner: the Son dies on the cross (as a man); the Father does not, yet the work of the atonement is the work of the Triune God and of all three persons. Some of the Fathers write that all the works of God follow this pattern of from the Father, through the Son, completed in the Spirit.

It is the eternal relations of origin which define the persons. The Son is all that the Father is except Father.

It seems reasonable to say that it was suitable to the Son’s “nature” as Son (or more precisely, his relation of origin to the Father) that it was he who should become incarnate.

The Father sends the Son. The Son does not send the Father. It is tricky to say whether or not there is some kind of sending prior to the incarnation. Is this sending merely a temporal matter of the economy or is there something eternal here? Is there some sort of eternal “decision” that the Son will be sent? Again, the eternal God’s “decisions” would be rather different from our own since our deciding usually involves a process of deliberation.

Augustine speaks of the Son’s involvement in his own sending. The Father sends his Son by the Word such that the Father and the Son can be said to send the Son (De trin. ii.9, 103).

When we speak of the persons of the Trinity we are far from speaking of three people. To speak in this latter manner risks suggesting three gods. Simply to say that all three persons share the same nature is not necessarily sufficient to safeguard the unity of the Trinity since three men might be said to each share a human nature but there are still three men. Neither is it sufficient to safeguard the unity of the persons to say that they always agree. Again, we could imagine three men who did that.

Traditionally it has been argued that wills are a property of natures and not of persons. So the incarnate Christ has two natures, human and divine, each of which has a will. But there is only one divine will, which all three persons share, not three separate (but agreeing) wills. The persons are also traditionally understood to have one divine intellect. What exactly is meant by “persons” with reference to the Trinity, therefore, is hard to say.

Whilst the persons are identical apart from their relation of origins, perhaps it might be said that each of the persons possesses all of the divine attributes in a way that is conditioned by their relation of origins. The Son might be said to possess the divine will in a Sonly manner (though of course there can be no sense of the Son yielding to a different or superior will of the Father, since all three persons are equally wise and good and so on)? This might allow us to think of certain dispositions analogous to submission as existing between the divine persons.

If we accept the traditional view of the divine will outlined above, it is also hard to see that a Covenant of Redemption by which the divine persons agree that the Son would become incarnate would make sense. Or else it becomes a trivial point: of course the divine persons “agree” because they timelessly share one divine will.  

When Christ speaks in the gospels, he may be speaking according to his human nature or according to his divine nature. Some statements may apply only to the incarnate state. “God” might refer to one of the persons or to the Triune God.

No doubt there is much more to say which others have / can say much better than I can!


Thomas Renz said...

I think we are on the same page. I started reading Ratzinger's "Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology" recently - must finish it, as it seemed promising. It's at

Marc Lloyd said...

Thanks for the pointer, Thomas.

Thomas Renz said...

It is worth pondering. By the way, have you seen that Mike Ovey has responded to Liam Goligher at

Marc Lloyd said...

Yes, thank you. I had. I'd like to hear him more on the idea that if the persons are to be "I"s at all they need a personal will and how he would relate that to the idea of one divine will.

And I'd like to follow up the quotes from the Fathers.

Still awaiting his book!

I also have a question arguing about that in the incarnation the son must be submitting to the Father’s will, not just to the divine will which the Son might be thought to share:

“But obviously one has to ask if the Son is really obedient in his humanity when he is simply carrying out what he himself wills in his deity. Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself. When another and oneself actually concur on a course of action, that action is not obedience but agreement. But there is no genuine other will on Liam’s view.”

But I wonder if that becomes problematic when related to Mike’s own view of the eternal obedience that the Son shows to the Father? If there is to be genuine obedience would we not need to posit some kind of disagreement or at least the potential for a disagreement? Otherwise don’t we just have agreement? (Which might be fine, of course, but it would weaken the language of obedience and submission which could be used of the Son, perhaps?)

(I have been trying to keep up a list of reading on this subject at:

Thomas Renz said...

I posted pretty much this question on the Oak Hill blog (not read and approved yet). I agree that "Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself" and "When another and oneself actually concur on a course of action, that action is not obedience but agreement." Also if, as Mike argues, "one has to say Father and Son have distinguishable wills because they are distinguishable persons," then one must say, as Mike does, that "Those wills are in immutable harmony". But if there is immutable harmony, how can there be obedience?

I can well believe that "Athanasius and Augustine refute the argument that obedience necessarily entails inferiority of nature" - they are right in doing so. But it is not sufficient for a Trinitarian doctrine to affirm that Father and Son are equal in nature - that would be true for two men as well, or indeed a husband and a wife. (And Augustine and Athanasius therefore have a little more to say on this matter.)

I wonder whether at this point the gender debate unduly influences Mike's thinking in that the "complementarian" shorthand "equal in status, different in roles" might lead him to focus on stressing the equality of nature and status in spite the difference of roles because it is important to stress in the gender debate but maybe fails to pay heed sufficiently to the unity of God.

If the Son "learned obedience through the things he suffered" (Heb 5:8) since the incarnation, this is an expression of the eternal Father-Son relationship within the Trinity but it need not entail that there is eternal obedience, as if there cannot be a fully harmonious, obedience-not-being-an-issue paternal-filial relationship. Once obedience becomes an actuality (due to the weakness of human flesh which opens up a potential for divergence of wills), it is proper that it is the Son who should obey the Father rather than the Father who obeys the Son. In this sense the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity, not in the sense that all actions/events that belong to the God-Christ relationship must have already been happening in the eternal Father-Son relationship. That's how I see it at the moment anyway.

Thomas Renz said...

PS I use "complementarian" because this is how Mike and others want their view described rather than "hierarchical" but I add "" because it does not adequately mark out their view because there are many "egalitarians" who affirm that men and women are not interchangeable and complement each other. They merely reject the notion that the relationship is necessarily hierarchical, that is one involving subordination, submission, obedience.

Marc Lloyd said...

Thank you. Mike's book has just arrived and I look forward to seeing if there is any discussion on the OH blog.

Myself I would be open to some kind of idea that the Son has an eternal Sonly disposition / manner of subsisting towards the Father which would result in obedience if they ever disagreed and if in fact they had 2 different wills! :)

Andrew Moody said...

Hi Marc,
You might be interested in our new post on TGCA on the structure of trinitarian willing:

Marc Lloyd said...

Thank you, Andrew. I am. Though this discussion is requiring some stamina!