ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression

George WHitfield

George Whitfield believed that “Africans” were human but subordinate creatures and as such could rightfully be enslaved. He saw this as an act of beneficence on behalf of the white Christian slave holder. In like manner, Robert Lewis Dabney, while discussing “natural equality” states the following:

[…]if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. Hence, his natural liberty is only that which remains after that privilege is retrenched.[1]

While hideous, the metaphysic of such a position was simple: those unequal in nature, being, dignity, and attributes are also unequal in relations, including authority and submission, right to command and duty to obey. “Equality” only extends to the individuals as a requirement for equal duty before God—one to care for his subordinate and the other to obey his superior. Equity was simply the Golden Rule practiced according to one’s natural lot.

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“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 1: Theologia and Oikonomia


[M]en have erred through a want of careful examination or consideration of the whole tenor of the Scriptures, and have endeavored to transfer those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation, and is eternal. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Bk. 1, Ch. 7.14)

In my earlier post, “Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the ‘Economic’ Trinity”, I noted how the revised Ligonier Statement on Christology included the phrase, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” apparently in response to the previous Summer’s Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) debate.  I noted that I was momentarily encouraged by this, but was then immediately struck by the fact that everyone on every side of the debate agrees with this statement as well!  Even the most visible proponent of ESS, Wayne Grudem, argues,

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Systematic Theology)

(Earlier in the text, Grudem defines the economic Trinity: “The ‘economy of the Trinity’ means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and […] to each other for all eternity.”)

While there is so much wrong with these statements, what I would like to note here is: (1) Grudem, while fully endorsing the Eternal Subordination of the Son, would also fully agree with the words of the Ligionier statement; (2) Grudem believes that subordination properly resides within the eternal Trinity as economically conceived; and (3), he believes that this is the position of the Nicene Fathers, that there is subordination in the “economic” Trinity but equality in the “ontological” Trinity.

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For the Calvinist Toolkit: An Outline for Answering Common Sovereignty, Freewill, and Responsibility Questions


We’ve all had these questions (and we all continue to hear them):
“How can man be free if God foreordained all that comes to pass?”
“How can God be sovereign yet man still responsible for his own sin?”
“How can [something, something] predestined [something, something] sovereign [something, something] freewill?” While these are indeed quite complicated questions to answer in full (we can leave that to John Frame), I hope here to at least give a rough outline of how to answer that might be a handy addition to your Calvinist toolkit.

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