Answering Four Common Laymen Objections to ESS Critics

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[This post was originally published nearly 2 years ago on a different blog site, but has since been removed. So that my readers may still have access to this article, I have republished here under a different title.]

As the layman class, of which I am a member, begins to come to terms with the possibility that their Sunday School teacher may have led them astray by teaching that the Son of God has been subordinate to the Father for all eternity, recurring questions and rejoinders are nevertheless heard in small groups and church foyers across the reformed-ish world.  They may have already come to terms with, for example, the multiple wills objection[1] and have become thoroughly convinced of the historical novelty of ESS/EFS/ERAS[2], even rightly concluding that the Council of Nicea and Athanasian Creed roundly contradict the teaching.  But, being students of the Scripture, submitting admirably to its authority, and seeking peace within the Church of God and charity towards those who may err, I have in my experience heard the following responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS critics over and over, and have read very little direct response to these rejoinders at the popular, accessible level:

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Surprised by Orthodoxy: Wayne Grudem’s ESS vs. the Fathers & Doctors of the Church

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[This post was originally published nearly 2 years ago on a different blog site, but has since been removed. So that my readers may still have access to this research, I have republished here under a different title.]

[…]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.” Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox expressions), a least since Nicea (A.D 325). (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 14)

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Upon myself being surprised by Wayne Grudem’s “surprise” that Carl Truman and Liam Goligher would publicly accuse his work of not being consistent with Nicene Orthodoxy (see “Whose Position on the Trinity is Really New”), I thought it potentially fruitful, for the interested student, to compile in one place a hearty helping of Pro-Nicene sentiment.  As my eloquence does not compare with that of the Cappadocian Fathers or Augustine (or Grudem himself for that matter), I intend to get right to the meat and potatoes and not rehash the controversy or assess it Biblically; many others have ably done this already.

Rather, I have selected 13 points used by Grudem to defend his claim that the Son is and was in a relation of eternal submission to the authority of the Father, and have put them in apposition to many passages from the corpus of the Pro-Necene Fathers (and, of course, Calvin).  All of these points are present in his article, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father”, though my numbering does not correspond directly with Grudem’s.

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“The head of Christ is God”: ESS, Complementarianism, and the History of Interpretation

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In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3). In this verse, the word “head” refers to one who is in a position of authority over the other, as this Greek word (kephale) uniformly does whenever it is used in ancient literature to say that one person is “head of” another person or group. So Paul is here referring to a relationship of authority between God the Father and God the Son, and he is making a parallel between that relationship in the Trinity and the relationship between the husband and wife in marriage. This is an important parallel because it shows that there can be equality and differences between persons at the same time. […]

Just as the Father and Son are equal in deity and are equal in all their attributes, but different in role, so husband and wife are equal in personhood and value, but are different in the roles that God has given them. Just as God the Son is eternally subject to the authority of God the Father, so God has planned that wives would be subject to the authority of their own husbands. (Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, pp. 48-49)

1 Corinthians 11:3 is a/the linchpin passage in the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS)-meets-Complementarianism argument. Denny Burk, the current President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, has said as much himself (see, e.g., HERE).  Three premises are required for the ESS/Complementarian argument to succeed.

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The Semi-Arianism of ESS Arguments

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Proponents of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) are indeed aware of and openly opposed to the Semi-Arian teaching of an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, that is, a subordination and hierarchy within the very nature, essence, or being of God; for such a position clearly contradicts the Nicene Creed, dividing the one Nature and Will of God, calling into question the co-equality of the Persons. Rather, they locate this subordination and hierarchy of authority within relations of function or role amongst the persons of the Godhead. This, they claim, distinguishes their position from the Arian heresy and shields them from their critics. As Bruce Ware puts it,

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“But He Who Sends is Greater Than He Who is Sent”: Augustine Answers Definitively

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But being proved wrong so far, men betake themselves to saying, that he who sends is greater than he who is sent: therefore the Father is greater than the Son, because the Son continually speaks of Himself as being sent by the Father; and the Father is also greater than the Holy Spirit, because Jesus has said of the Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name; and the Holy Spirit is less than both, because both the Father sends Him, as we have said, and the Son, when He says, But if I depart, I will send Him unto you. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, 2.5.7)

By this point in the treatise, Augustine has demonstrated the unity of the Divine nature and will, the trinity of Persons, the full divinity of each, the order of processions, the one inseparable order of working, the double account of the savior (the “canonical rule”), and is in process of answering objections to the full co-equality of the Persons.

In our day, the above objection is not so much cast in the language of greater/lesser, but in the language of authority/submission. That the Son is sent by the Father “proves” that the Son was in subordination to the Father in eternity (“functionally” or otherwise). On the face of it, the claim looks quite reasonable and even Biblical.  Clearly Christ says He is sent of the Father, and each together send the Spirit.  And we are familiar with passages such as the following:

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“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 2: the Pactum Salutis

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In this post, I intend to move beyond the theologia/oikonomia distinction of use Class 1 and begin to piece together the developments that led to our current usage of the distinction (Classes 2 and 3), at each step assessing the orthodoxy of the claim that the Son is economically subordinate to the Father in eternity.  I will focus largely on the works of Herman Witsius and John Owen due to their popular work on the Pactum Salutis and the corresponding expansion of the oikonomia beyond the use of the Fathers. Also, an important contrast between these two great theologians will prove polemically valuable to our study as they differ on the implications of their shared doctrine re: the subordination of the Son to the Father.

“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 2: the Pactum Salutis

We began this study by considering the revised Ligonier Statement on Christology’s inclusion of the clause, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” noting the debilitating ambiguity of the denial.  There are simply too many ways that theologians define the ontological/economical distinction such that the most ardent opponents of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) as well as its most ardent proponents can affirm the Statement’s denial. I went on to identify three different use classes of the distinction as found most commonly among those discussing ESS:

Class 1. The “economy” as in the oikonomia employed by the Church Fathers in contrast to the theologia.

Class 2. The “economy” as in the Economic Trinity, “the activity of God and the roles of the three persons with regard to creation and redemption,” as contrasted with the Immanent Trinity, “the Trinity in itself, without regard to God’s works of creation and redemption” (via Ligionier).  The former is the Trinity considered in se, as God is in His inner most life and being and the latter as He is considered ad extra in His works and operations revealed in history.

Class 3. The ESS usage of “economy,” which includes all of Class 2 Economic Trinity, but also illicitly includes the internal, interpersonal, relations of the Trinity.

(I say “use classes” because the defining edges of these groupings are admittedly rough.)

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Complementarity Without Subordination

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Adam and Eve Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918) 1917-1918 Oil on canvas *Belvedere, Vienna * © Belvedere, Vienna *Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some Background and Statement of the Question

In my previous post, “ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression,” I first rejected the simple metaphysic of “unequal in nature, therefore unequal in authority” as Biblically inapplicable to human relations.  I next noted that with the failure of the simple metaphysic, defenders of slavery within the Church turned to a metaphysic of “equal in nature, yet subordinate in subsistence”, or a metaphysic of the inequality of equals.  I next noted that Complementarians in modern evangelicalism have also turned to the metaphysic of “equal in nature, yet subordinate in subsistence” to rescue male headship from the feminist onslaught, but with a much more robust footing supplied by the supposed Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) teaching.  I rejected this position as well as a metaphysic of oppression, grounded as it is in Trinitarian error and the subordination of persons as to their very subsistence.

Of course the questions/push back from evangelicals has been to question how one could still believe in male headship in the home, as I do, yet reject both of the above metaphysical principles.  It is a good question and warrants more than a brief answer. If the metaphysic grounded in the ESS view of the Trinity is a metaphysic of oppression, then one must believe in the inequality of nature to maintain male headship, right?  And if one rejects both, then aren’t we left with egalitarianism as the only remaining option? I, of course, have no newfangled answer, nor my own special way of treating the subject; it has been treated better and more extensively by others.  Rather, I believe that the very asking of this question just shows how much subordinationist thought has infiltrated evangelicalism, so I hope only to point the reader in a different direction and perspective to continue studying the issue.

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ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression

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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

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[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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