I was reminded recently of the article “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable,” wherein Dr. Christopher Cleveland argues that the current Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) controversy was an inevitable result of the failures of modern academia, specifically noting the failures of Southern Baptist seminaries. He refers, e.g., to SBTS’s replacing doctrinally unsound professors with conservative Biblicist professors in response to rising theological liberalism:
Because of this clash between the conservatives and the liberals within theological institutions of the time, there emerged an entire group of evangelical scholars who were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics. Whether for reasons of neglect in their theological training under more critical theologians or because of their purposeful avoidance of dogmatics in favor of Biblical studies, a generation of evangelical scholars arose who had no serious acquaintance with the classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought. Nor did they have allegiance to those categories. What mattered in the fight against liberalism, in the minds of so many, was the Bible, not theology.
Elsewhere in academia, he continues, there was a resurgence of scholarship focusing on more dogmatic studies, working from traditional Reformed Scholastic categories. The inevitable then occurred: to put it bluntly, the poorly educated Biblicist Baptists, incapable of testing doctrines by historic categories due to poor training or inattention, found themselves on a collision course with the Reformed orthodox likes of Carl Trueman and Willem J. Van Asselt over Trinitarian doctrine.
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.)