Phantaz Sunlyk on the Eternal Subordination of the Son

Nick Norelli continues his discussion of eternal subordinationism in the Trinity, which I reported earlier, by posting a link to a critique of Kevin Giles’ work by Phantaz Sunlyk (a.k.a. Matt Paulson). In fact the link that Nick posts is incorrect; this is the correct link.

Sunlyk’s paper is long and complex. I have skimmed a large part of it, although I skipped most of part III and part VI. At this point I can make the following necessarily provisional comments. To summarise, Sunlyk has made some telling criticisms of Giles’ work, although he fails to understand its thrust because of his unfamiliarity with the viewpoint Giles is interacting with. But in fact Sunlyk upholds Giles’ main point concerning the Trinity, that the relationship between the Father and the Son should not be understood in terms like “The Father commands, and the Son obeys.”

Sunlyk is clearly an expert on the nuances of Trinitarian theology, and seems to have good grounds for finding some faults in Giles’ thinking. He makes a convincing case that in the theology of Athanasius “the relationship between the Father and the Son is asymmetrical“, and that this became the orthodox position. I’m not sure that Giles really disputes this, although Sunlyk seems to claim that he does.
In part IV paragraph 5 of his essay Sunlyk makes clear that his doctrine of “functional subordination”

is so distinct from … the doctrine that Giles critiques (under various names and which is never defined, the chief means of illuminating its meaning being comparing it to a husband and wife relationship wherein the husband “calls the shots” and the wife “obeys” …) that it must be made clear at the outset that the two bear no substantial resemblance to one another.

So Sunlyk infers

that Giles has, among other things, missed the point and gone astray, rather than that he has correctly identified the orthodox doctrine and mistakenly rejected it.

Well, it seems to me that Giles missed the point Sunlyk refers to because he was not intending to hit it. He was interacting not with Sunlyk’s version of “functional subordination” but with the quite different teaching under the same name which he found in the works of certain “contemporary conservative evangelicals”, of whose works Sunlyk admits ignorance.

The problem seems to be that these “contemporary conservative evangelicals” have correctly identified that in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity “the relationship between the Father and the Son is asymmetrical“, and inferred from that that it is a relationship of subordination. Giles’ argument is essentially that this is an incorrect inference.

And I agree. Asymmetry in a relationship does not necessarily imply subordination in that relationship. It certainly does not imply that one party is obliged to submit to and obey the other. It doesn’t even imply that one is at a higher level than another, for it is possible for two entities or persons to be different and complementary without there being any ranking order between them. I cannot see any meaningful sense of “subordination” which is implied by Athanasius’ teaching that the relationship between the Father and the Son is asymmetric.

And Sunlyk also seems to agree, at least concerning any obligation to obey, for he writes (part IV paragraph 40):

it must also be agreed that [Giles’] rejection of any form of functional subordinationism wherein one center of consciousness is seen as restricting and dominating another center of consciousness is fully in line with the traditional confession of the orthodox and catholic Christian faith. Thus far, Giles’ case against subordinationism is sound.

And with this, as far as I am concerned, Sunlyk concedes Giles’ main point, which is that the doctrine of functional subordination as taught by Grudem and others, the version summarised as “The Father commands, and the Son obeys”, is not consistent with “the orthodox and catholic Christian faith”.

Sunlyk’s own definition of functional subordination is very different (part V paragraph 28):

the united activity of the persons is such that it originates in the Father and is effected by the Son.

I suspect that Giles would find this version of the doctrine much less objectionable than Grudem’s version.

No doubt some of Sunlyk’s criticisms of Giles are valid and important, although I am astonished by their vehemence. But some of them are absurd. He asks (part V paragraph 15):

As for contemporary Catholic theologians, why was Rahner’s affirmation of this doctrine not mentioned, and why was Yves Congar completely ignored? Why was Kasper’s insistent affirmation of this doctrine relegated to a footnote, and even then watered down to the point that it appears as though he need not even have affirmed it at all? Why is Gerald O’Collins’ clear affirmation of this doctrine unmentioned, though he is cited elsewhere in support of Giles? Why was Hans urs von Balthasar—the twentieth-century Catholic theologian of the Trinity—wholly overlooked on this point?

This from someone who freely admits that he is not acquainted with the works of major Protestant authors on this subject like Hodge and Grudem – and yet despite this he presumes to criticise Giles’ response to them. Giles is a Protestant writing for Protestants, so why should he not ignore these Catholic authors (although he does not ignore the Catholic Rahner), in the same way that Sunlyk has ignored almost all modern Protestant authors?

Sunlyk then claims, even accuses, that Giles holds to an egalitarian model of the Trinity, of which he writes (part V paragraph 18):

The defining characteristic of egalitarian models of the Trinity is the affirmation of the symmetry of relations between the persons within the immanent Trinity—that all three equally “get to call the shots” with respect to operations ad extra is nothing more than a natural outcome of this affirmation.

But is this actually Giles’ view? Maybe he holds that all three equally “get to call the shots”, but the implication in the sentence just quoted is not reversible: this view does not imply symmetry of relations in the Trinity.

Indeed, as Sunlyk writes (part V paragraph 33),

most Trinitarian theologians have done their theology of the Trinity without the benefit of being utterly preoccupied with the contemporary gender debate.

Indeed this is probably true of all the ones that Sunlyk has read. But there are some modern writers on the Trinity who are utterly preoccupied with the gender debate, such as Grudem. And these are the ones whom Giles is attempting to refute. Sunlyk should let him do so and keep out of arguments which he doesn’t properly understand.

0 thoughts on “Phantaz Sunlyk on the Eternal Subordination of the Son

  1. the united activity of the persons is such that it originates in the Father and is effected by the Son.

    I have just commented on complegal the following from Calvin 1:13,

    I am not sure whether it is expedient to borrow analogies from human affairs to express the nature of this distinction. The ancient fathers sometimes do so, but they at the same time admits that what they bring forward as analogous is very widely different. And hence it is that I have a great dread of any thing like presumption here, lest some rash saying may furnish an occasion of calumny to the malicious, or of delusion to the unlearned. It were unbecoming, however, to say nothing of a distinction which we observe that the Scriptures have pointed out.

    This distinction is, that

    to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things;

    to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action,

    while the energy and efficacy of action is assigned to the Spirit.

    I do not think that this equals “authority and submission.”

    Calvin also says,

    namely, that while there is one God, his Word, however, is with dispensation or economy; that there is only one God in unity of substance; but that, nevertheless, by the mystery of dispensation, the unity is arranged into Trinity; that there are three, not in state, but in degree -not in substance, but in form – not in power, but in order.

    ETS also affirms,

    God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

    Power and authority are the same thing aren’t they? Christ surely cannot be unequal in authority but equal in power.

  2. I think I am going to side with Giles (not just because he is refuting Grudem, which I can appreciate) but that I am not sure I agree with the notion of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.

    In my opinion, it is really hard to develop a perfect theology of the Trinity (though some are better than others). I might side with the EOC that much of how the Trinity “works” is mystery.

    It is also really sad that Grudem would resort to attempting to redefine Trinitarian theology to fit his opinions on women in ministry.

  3. Nick, I spent more than two hours on Sunlyk’s paper. I don’t intend to spend more as I am not actually very interested in his theology. Nor am I very interested in Giles’. I am interested in Grudem’s, and in particular to find that an obvious expert like Sunlyk, despite his serious disagreement with Giles on many points, agrees with him in rejecting Grudem’s version of the Trinity.

  4. Asymmetry in a relationship does not necessarily imply subordination in that relationship. It certainly does not imply that one party is obliged to submit to and obey the other. It doesn’t even imply that one is at a higher level than another, for it is possible for two entities or persons to be different and complementary without there being any ranking order between them. I cannot see any meaningful sense of “subordination” which is implied by Athanasius’ teaching that the relationship between the Father and the Son is asymmetric.

    A lot of complementarians hesitate to describe their view in such terms as well. I hesitate to use subordination language, because it often doesn’t seem appropriate to me with voluntary submission. I sometimes hesitate to speak of higher and lower levels, because that often conveys elements that I don’t think are part of the complementarian view I see in scripture. The same goes with ranking order.

  5. Power and authority are the same thing aren’t they? Christ surely cannot be unequal in authority but equal in power.

    I can’t accept this inference. In English, people use ‘power’ to refer to God’s omnipotence and ‘authority’ to refer to something other than ability. Imagine two persons of the Trinity with complete agreement in will, with one’s will submitted to the other. Both persons have full power in terms of capability, but given one’s will submitted to the other they do not have the same authority.

    Now there are Greek words sometimes translated as both “authority” and “power”, but I don’t know how that means the English word used in the ETS statement has to be equivalent with ‘authority’.

  6. Jeremy, if some complementarians are simply saying that there is an asymmetry between men and women, I don’t have too many problems with that. It is when they teach that men “call the shots” and women have to obey, i.e. the classic relationship of subordination, that alarm bells ring in my mind. That includes when men “call the shots” about what ministries women are allowed to exercise.

    I agree with you that there is a difference between power and authority, in modern English. But I do not accept that there is a distinction in either power or authority between the divine Father and the divine Son. Note the risen Jesus’ words “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me …”, Matthew 28:18.

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Giles and Sunlyk head to head on the Trinity

  8. I actually think the standard complementarian view is somewhere between mere asymmetry and commands to be obeyed. I don’t see the church governance model where there are people to be obeyed as a very helpful way to capture biblical views of authority, so I don’t see why it should follow from that + complementarianism that women should all obey commands of some men. That’s not the role of biblical eldership. We obey God’s commands, and elders teach God’s commands, but it’s God’s commands that are obeyed, not those of any mere human. This is so in the church and in the home, and I don’t think complementarianism ought to go as far as adopting a command/obedience model, even if asymmetry doesn’t quite capture it without specifying further what kind of asymmetry there is.

  9. “I agree with you that there is a difference between power and authority, in modern English. But I do not accept that there is a distinction in either power or authority between the divine Father and the divine Son. Note the risen Jesus’ words “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me …”, Matthew 28:18.”

    But WHO gave the Son all authority? The Son could not be given something He allready had? And what about 1 Cor 15:27,28?

  10. Alex, that’s an interesting question. But I don’t think the passive “given” needs to be taken as implying that some third party gave it. I can imagine one member of the board of a small business saying “authority to sign company cheques has been given to me”, meaning that it was a decision of the board of which that one is a member, even if this was the position since the company was founded. Similarly this “given” can be understood as an eternal corporate decision of the Trinity, with no implication that there was previously a different situation.

  11. Love – through unity – is really the question at stake. The Father IS love – He sent the Son. The Son said and did ONLY what the Father said. That exemplified true unity. A unity based on true, self giving love – not humanistic, egosentric needs of power and self-esteem. Jesus is King of kings – because He was the greates servant. Let us ponder that – instead of arguing about who not to submit to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image