Calvin: "God shall cease to be the Head of Christ"

This is a follow-up to my recent post on the doctrine of eternal subordination within the Trinity and the related discussion at the Complegalitarian blog. This doctrine has recently become popular among complementarians, many of whom also call themselves Calvinists and so presumably value the teaching of John Calvin. Recently at the CBMW Gender “Blog” (in fact not a real blog because there is no opportunity for discussion) Calvin was listed among ten theologians who, it was claimed, held to this doctrine. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology (as quoted by Molly), takes this further, claiming that

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, … it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicea (A.D. 325).

But can this claim be substantiated? I will not attempt to discuss all the ten theologians’ views. But in a comment on Complegalitarian Suzanne (apparently not Suzanne McCarthy) found a quote from Calvin which clearly shows that he did NOT believe in the eternal subordination of the Son. I have verified the quote from my own copy of Calvin’s Institutes, 2.14.3 (vol. 1 p. 486 in my copy, in the translation by Battles), and here I quote part of what Suzanne quoted with some additional text to introduce it, with my own emphasis:

That is, to [Christ] was lordship committed by the Father, until such time as we should see his divine majesty face to face. Then he returns the lordship to his Father so that – far from diminishing his own majesty – it may shine all the more brightly. Then, also, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as yet it is covered in a veil.

In other words (and this is confirmed by reading the context), it is clear that to Calvin the distinction in honour between Christ and God the Father is only a temporary one which will cease when Christ has “discharged the office of Mediator”, that is, completed his saving work by bring his people to glory. Thus Calvin clearly shows that he believes in the temporary rather than eternal subordination of the Son.

If, as Calvin teaches, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, that means that 1 Corinthians 11:3 is only a temporary teaching. So, if this verse is given the weight that many complementarians put on it, the “headship” of a husband over his wife (whatever that might mean) is also only temporary and will no longer be applicable in the eternal kingdom of God.

12 thoughts on “Calvin: "God shall cease to be the Head of Christ"

  1. Considering that this section is talking of Christ giving over the reign of the Kingdom to the Father, I don’t think many complementarians would mind saying something like “man’s headship only extends as far as our Lord’s lordship”.

    At the same time, I’m also not sure that this passage is as strong as you seem to imply. It speaks of a changing of roles to be sure (currently Jesus reigns, then the Father will reign and Jesus will go back to doing whatever he was doing before creation), but I don’t think that it speaks as strongly against an “eternal subordination”. Just because Christ stops reigning in no way suggests that he stops submitting (or subordinating, or whatever word is supposed to be used here).

    I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems as though the language in Calvin’s passage still has God acting as one greater than in some way (even if it’s just a difference in character).

  2. Nick, Calvin does says (earlier in the same section, also quoted by Suzanne) that Christ “completed this subjection” as mentioned in Philippians 2, before he is “crowned with glory and honor”. I must say it is not clear to me whether this refers to the resurrection or ascension or to the consummation of all things. But it does imply that the subjection (submission, subordination) he showed during his life on earth is not something eternal.

    Surely the whole point of this section is that Calvin is underlining that the Father is in no essential and eternal way greater than the Son.

  3. Not to pick on you at all, Nick, but this entire line of thought (which I hear often) really bothers me:

    but it seems as though the language in Calvin’s passage still has God acting as one greater than in some way (even if it’s just a difference in character).

    Why is it that we say, “God” but really mean the Father. Jesus and the Spirit are equally God, right…? But it’s as if we reserve the title of God for the Father only. I think this is somewhat telling, and symptomatic of the problem (if it is a problem, assuming that subordination is incorrect, that is).

    When a person says that Christ and the Spirit are subordinate, then they really are saying that the Father is the one who is *most* God-ish. And it comes out in our language all the time.

  4. I think you’ve nailed Calvin’s thought here, Peter.

    Christ hands over the kingdom, not so that he can be lessened, but because the role of subjection no longer applies. God – not the Father, but the trinity – then becomes all in all.

  5. Peter,

    I agree with your position on this topic but I haven’t had much time to articulate my thoughts on the subordination of Christ. You are right that it was not me that found the Calvin quote. I am not the only Suzanne in the blogosphere. However, we seem to have some things in common.

    I am much more perturbed by the statement on gender blog that women are to imitate the submission and work of Christ, as in his death on the cross? Then I think of penal substitution and all that is said about how the Father bruised the Son, and then I think of how women fit into this picture as imitators of the Son, and men as imitators of the Father, and then I really can’t go any further. I am trying to figure out how to articulate that I belong to a completely different religion that this crowd.

    I am at the point of trying to block out this terrible teaching. It is emotional abuse to teach this kind of thing.

  6. Sue, I think we have to realise that men as well as women are called to be imitators of Christ in his voluntary submission, in following the way of faith of which he is the pioneer, i.e. the one who opens up the way, and perfecter. We are not of course to repeat his unique work on the cross. But we, men and women, are to submit to one another and to God, even if this does take us to the cross. The message to men is of course that we should not bruise or lord it over others but should submit to them, including to women. It was not the Father who bruised the Son, but the wicked men who crucified him.

  7. Peter,

    Perhaps I was reading that bit improperly. I had thought, if Christ finishes subjecting in this way, that he doesn’t mean that he stops subjecting altogether. I might complete a project given to me by my boss, but that doesn’t mean that I stop subjecting myself to him. That’s why I thought you read it a bit too strongly.

    But I’d definitely agree with your broader comment on Calvin’s message in this passage. I’m just not yet convinced that submitting to someone else makes you lesser.


    Sorry about not being more precise in my wording. However, it seems that if thinking Father and saying God is that big of a mistake, it’s a very much a mistake rooted in the Biblical authors’ texts.

    If you’re right that people who talk of subordination in the Trinity think that Christ and the Spirit are less God, then I’m with you. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I tend to think that Godliness is more a matter of character, not of power. When Christ gave up that power (Phi 2) that didn’t make him any less God, it just reflected who he was.

    Does that help?

  8. in fact not a real blog because there is no opportunity for discussion

    A blog is very clearly a weblog, and it may well be that a lot of people prefer them to have comments, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real blogs simply because they don’t. The Wikipedia entry has no whiff of this restriction. The earliest blogs didn’t have comments, and the word hasn’t changed its meaning even if the typical examples do have comments.

    It reminds me of the KJV-only guy who said that someone isn’t a real man for peeing sitting down. What makes someone a man has nothing to do with whether he is sitting down when he pees. What makes something a blog has nothing to do with whether it allows comments by others who aren’t the blog author(s).

  9. For the record, Calvin’s commentary on I Cor 11 is here.

    There he makes a distinction that I think actually answers your worry about what you were calling Platonic equality. Calvin doesn’t have ontological equality in some abstract realm. Ontological equality for him is what it is for most complementarians, in the realm of salvation. In Christ’s spiritual kingdom we’re all equals, but then he insists that how we outwardly relate to each other can involve role distinctions. Christ is the head of man and woman directly when you’re dealing with inward, spiritual matters. Christ is head of a man who might be head of a woman when it comes to other matters.

    It’s interesting that he doesn’t comment on the issue you raise in this post in his actual commentary on I Cor 11, though. I wonder which work was first. One would think that if he considered his claim about the Father ceasing to be Christ’s head to be so important why he wouldn’t even mention the view in his commentary on the text that explicitly deals with that issue.

    In his commentary on I Cor 15:27-28, he does affirm that Christ will be subjected to the Father after handing over his delegated authority as something like a vice-regent. One fascinating component of how he views this transfer of authority is that he’s transferring the authority from his humanity to his divinity. The classic view of Christ’s natures is that his divine nature just is God’s nature, and thus transferring it to the Father is the same thing as transferring it to his own divine nature. But he must still be subjected in his human nature. That seems to be the implication.

    So what I think is going on here is something of a paradox. He sees Christ’s divinity as taking over in some sense, and Christ’s divinity is not subject to the Father, since it is the Father’s divinity. But is he denying that Christ is also fully human? I doubt it. I think perhaps the best way to put both statements together is that he in his humanity is subordinate but in his divinity is not, and it is his divinity that shines forth in terms of how we as humans relate to him, whereas his humanity is what was essential in his mediatory role, which will no longer be active in how we relate to him once the new creation is initiated.

    I’m not sure there’s any easy way to put together his two statements without affirming some sense in which Christ still will be subordinate, not without denying orthodox teaching about the Incarnation and Trinity. I do think there are things he could say to put them together, though. It just would prevent the interpretation of the Institutes passage you quote that takes it at face value the way you’re doing. So a charitable interpretation in terms of Calvin’s own internal consistency prevents taking him to be denying eternal subordination in any absolute and complete way.

  10. Thank you, Jeremy. Well, it seems to me that you are putting Calvin’s own consistency above his actual words. Perhaps we should accept instead that he may not have been entirely consistent.

    But I am concerned about your suggested interpretation that Christ “in his humanity is subordinate but in his divinity is not”. That sounds rather Nestorian to me, Christ having separate human and divine persons. Now I accept an eternal subordination of the human to the divine, but not an eternal subordination of the divine Son to the divine Father, at least not in the sense “The Father commands, and the Son obeys”.

  11. The classic doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation accept a human nature and a divine nature for Christ, and any other view is declared heresy. There’s no idea of two persons, but two natures are essential to the orthodox picture. Lots of theological puzzles are then solved by saying that Jesus has one property with respect to one nature and a contrary property with respect to his other nature (e.g. whether it was possible for him to sin). I’m not sure why the same can’t be said here.

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