The New Evangelical Subordinationism? (Review)

Published: RTR 72, no. 1, 2013

The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son

Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, eds, Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2012.

ISBN: 9781608998524

This multi-authored publication on the subordination of the Son will hopefully will work towards giving clarity on a contentious issue. Much of the book consists of revises journal articles, but collecting them together has obvious benefits.

The question being faced is whether within the ‘immanent’ Trinity (the Trinity in itself, not in relationship to the world) the Son is eternally, functionally subordinate to the Father. Not only is this a theological question, but also a historical one, for there is dispute about what the early church fathers believed.  Furthermore, it is a contemporary question, for this subordinationist belief has been linked to the dispute over women’s roles. Is there a parallel between the eternal, functional subordination of the Son, and the subordination of women?

This book enters the fray, and there is no shortage of lively disagreement. In a revised edition of a previous article, Phillip Cary argues that Nicene orthodoxy was not subordinationist, and accuses his opponents of the grave error of being projectionist (extrapolating from a subordinationist view of women back to the Trinity). Bruce Ware argues, though, in his revised edition of a previous article, that the Son was the one to become incarnate, precisely because he was eternally subordinate. Why else would the Son be called the Son?

As is the tendency of subordinationists, Ware defends his position by reference to 1 Corinthians 15:28. However, the Son may well be subordinate in the eschaton, but he is still the incarnate Son, and the context casts him as the second Adam and the Christ. Subordinationists struggle to find verses that unambiguously characterise the Son in his divinity apart from his messianic mission and incarnation.

Keith Johnson’s chapter on Augustine is powerfully stated. He finds that Augustine believed that the divine persons differed only in their relations of origin, and otherwise are one in will and action. The Son does what the Father does, so the Son qua divine could not do something subordinate to the Father. There is eternal generation but not eternal subordination.

David Spencer offers the argument that if the Son is one in attributes with the Father, then he must have the same authority as the Father has. To say that the Son is subordinate in authority is to say he is ontologically subordinate.

House argues for subordination from early Church history, and Grudem defends the position theologically and biblically. As may be known to RTR readers, Giles takes the opposite position.

Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker share a chapter, and inter alia raise the matter of the covenant of redemption. This is designed to counter Gile’s argument that there is only one will in God. ‘…the Reformed tradition has felt no insurmountable problem in suggesting a Covenant of Redemption…’ (p. 292).

This needs further thought, though. Federalism gave the Church an eternally covenanting Trinity, or a covenanting Father and Son (the Spirit was not always part of the 17th construction). However, it is not clear that this mutual pact does violence to the divine simplicity. The three are one in will, even as they agree to what each one will be in relationship to the world. The Son, as the eternal Son, was not commanded to become incarnate.

It might help subordinationists, though, if they spoke of eternal, covenanted subordination. This safeguards the Son’s equality of authority, unfetters divine sonship from an unprovable connection to inherent subordination, and makes it clear what the ‘functional’ means in ‘functional subordination’. It is not revealed that there exists or is a need for functional subordination within the Trinity in se, but there is an eternal plan for the Son to take on the role that He does in relationship to the world.

Although it is the penultimate chapter of the book, J. Scott Horrell’s contribution would be a good place to start for a person struggling with the vocabulary of the debate. Horrell takes the time to carefully explain his terms. His argument is not dissimilar to the above: the Son is not of subordinate authority by nature, subordination is still a characteristic function at a relational level, but ‘why the persons of the Trinity prefer to relate to each other in distinctive relationships and functions is hidden within the mystery of the Godhead’ (p. 357). He also argues for ‘three wills and one will’ in God (p. 366), although Jower’s chapter argues staunchly for only one mind and will (whilst still permitting personally differentiated action). Horrell adds that Scripture tells us very little about the immanent Trinity anyway. This calls to mind not a theologian’s but a poet’s maxim about rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Readers will select for themselves which chapter they believe is the real highlight of the book, but the entirety is of the highest quality and thoroughly stimulating.