Subordinationism, the Trinity, and gender relations

Nick Norelli offers a thoughtful review of Kevin Giles’ book The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate. I have not read the book, but this makes me want to.

But I cannot accept the way that Nick seeks to dissociate the two issues which Giles links in this book, subordinationism within the Trinity and complementarianism in gender relations. I cannot comment directly on the arguments Giles uses to link these matters. But the counter-arguments which Nick comes up with are to me very unconvincing.

Nick claimed that my first comment on his blog pointing out the weaknesses of his argument “completely lacked merit”. To be fair, I had accused him of “expound[ing] bad theology”, so I can’t complain at receiving a robust response. But here I bring my comments to a wider audience for it to judge between us.

There are in fact two issues here. First I will mention what was originally the second one, because it is simpler. I first commented:

You also write:

In my judgment, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a model for male-female relationships and to say that it is, is a gross mixing of metaphors.

The trouble here is that your judgment is not the Apostle Paul’s. He often mixed metaphors, and in 1 Corinthians 11:3 he makes an explicit parallel between these two sets of relationships. Now it may well be that the complementarian functional subordinationists, and Giles, are making too much of Paul’s one-off parallel. But they do have a case to answer, not just to be ridiculed away.

All Nick could find to respond to this was:

And the problem with 1Cor. 11:3 is that Paul’s analogy is not a Trinitarian analogy, sorry.

To this I replied:

If 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not a Trinitarian analogy, then there is nothing Trinitatian in the Bible, and we had better abandon the doctrine of the Trinity altogether! No, Paul is making one of the rather few profound statements in the New Testament about the relationship of the Father and the Son, implicitly in the Godhead. If you don’t allow this to inform your Trinitarian theology, you are cutting that theology loose from its biblical moorings and risking going into serious error.

Is that fair? Please, readers, let me know what you think. I am not insisting that this verse is directly relevant to the Trinity, just that it needs to be looked at carefully and the point needs to be argued properly.

Then for the more complex issue. I wrote to Nick:

You claim:

If the Son must in “some way” be less than the Father because of a “role subordination” it does not follow that this way “must be” ontological.

The issue here is I think with your whole philosophical approach, which apparently differs from mine which is probably similar to Giles’. You seem to believe in some kind of Platonic ideal world in which Christ has “ontological” equality with the Father, even though in no part of the real world (that is, the eternity of heaven as well as the created universe) is there any actual equality. But I reject that argument because I reject the entire concept of Platonic ideals, especially when you are trying to contrast an ideal Trinity with the real one. Rather, I would say that if there is no possibility of the equality of the Father and the Son being realised and made evident throughout the whole of eternity, then this equality simply does not exist. To me it is meaningless to talk of something as ontologically true if it can never be true in actual practice.

This reminds me of the claim that the elements in the Communion are transubstantiated while retaining all the physical attributes of bread and wine: to me, what has the attributes of bread and wine IS bread and wine.

And I would apply the same argument to rebut the claim that women are ontologically equal to men but eternally functionally subordinate. If functional subordination is eternal, the alleged equality simply does not exist, period.

Nick replied:

Concerning Platonic ideals, you’re imagining them. But let’s say that you’re not, I could easily take the Bauckham/Hurtado approach which has the Son and subsequently Spirit included in the divine identity and still see a functional subordination. They are the agents through which the Father mediates, yet accorded the worship that God alone is due.

And I responded:

If there are no Platonic ideals here, what is the meaning of saying that something is “ontologically” or “essentially” true when in fact it is not true in any real or potentially real world for all eternity? This seems to me to be nothing more than a way of calling evil good and lies truth, i.e. this is “essentially” or “ontologically” good and true even though all the evidence shows us clearly that it is evil and false.

As for the Bauckham/Hurtado approach, from your brief summary this sounds remarkably like an essentially lower status, in the same way as a glass of water is essentially less than an ocean although they are both made up of the same substance.

To this Nick replied – his whole comment:

Peter: You didn’t strike me as the unappreciative type. ;) I almost didn’t respond to your comment at all because I thought it completely lacked merit, but as a courtesy I did. Now this bit about calling my theology bad and equating it to calling evil ‘good’ and lies ‘truth’ makes me not want to respond (to this last comment) even more. Your inability to make distinctions is really not my problem. I really would like to address the ludicrousy of this last comment but I feel it would be a waste of time. Good day sir.

Now I am not quite sure what Nick is calling “ludicrousy”. If he is referring to what I said about the Bauckham/Hurtado approach, then he should remember that I am explicitly reacting to his no doubt oversimplified description of this approach, and pointing out that being of the same substance (homoousios) does not imply equality. But more probably he is referring to this question of mine:

what is the meaning of saying that something is “ontologically” or “essentially” true when in fact it is not true in any real or potentially real world for all eternity?

Now I deliberately didn’t link this to any specific philosophies because I would soon be out of my depth. But Nick should recognise here that I am making the same kind of criticism of philosophical assumptions that were made in ancient times against the concept of Platonic ideals, and in mediaeval times by nominalists against realists (including Ockham’s Razor and Wycliffe’s criticism of transubstantiation), and in modern times by empiricists and logical positivists: that there is no meaning to statements about attributes of entities if those attributes are entirely theoretical and hidden from the senses.

I accept that when we are talking about attributes of God, this is not a matter of the senses. Indeed I would differ from empiricists in accepting that there are meaningful attributes of entities which are true without being directly accessible to the senses. But, for me, they cannot be true if they are not true at any point either in space and time or in eternity. So, on my philosophical approach, if there is nowhere in all space, time and eternity where the Father and the Son are equal in reality, then there is no meaningful sense in which the Father is equal to the Son. Thus, in Giles’ words quoted by Nick,

the eternal role subordination of the Son implies the ontological subordination of the Son.

I accept that I was being needlessly provocative when I wrote about “a way of calling evil good and lies truth”. These words were not aimed at Nick, but at those complementarians who claim that they believe in “ontological” equality between men and women while denying any reality to that equality, in any real world past, present, future or timeless. By making such a claim they seem to imagine a Platonic ideal world in which men and women are equal. Now if they equated that world with paradise or the kingdom of God, I would have no serious problem with their position, for they would then be agreeing with me that gender inequalities started with the Fall and will be eradicated in the eternal kingdom. They deny that, holding that gender inequality is eternal, but that there is some sense an ideal world where there is equality. But if that ideal world never has existed and never will do, never even exists in timeless eternity, then it is a non-existent world about which it is meaningless to make any statements.

I can see that Nick finds this hard to understand because he presupposes a different philosophy. But he should at least learn to recognise that my philosophical position is a tenable one, and one which is widely held, and has been with some variation for millennia, since the pre-Socratic Heraclitus. He refers to my “inability to make distinctions”, but he should realise that for someone like me there is simply no meaning in any distinction between the essence of something and its immutable attributes. He should then learn not to reject any expression of my position with words like “completely lacked merit”.

Again, I would welcome any feedback on the philosophical issues here.

9 thoughts on “Subordinationism, the Trinity, and gender relations

  1. Peter: Thanks for bringing this over here. I’ve settled down a bit from earlier since I’ve gotten my copy of 30 Days of Night! 🙂

    I will not get into everything just yet (there’s so much) but instead focus on the first point in regard to 1Cor. 11:3. When I originally read the comment:

    If 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not a Trinitarian analogy, then there is nothing Trinitatian in the Bible, and we had better abandon the doctrine of the Trinity altogether!

    I wasn’t sure if you were using hyperbole or guilty of false dilemma or non sequtur or what. I’ll chalk it up to hyperbole since I think we can both agree that in the various salutations/benedictions as well as Jesus’ baptismal formula and Paul’s way of speaking about salvation that there are things in the Bible that are Trinitarian even if 1Cor. 11:3 is not.

    Having said that, what we have in 1Cor. 11 is not an analogy of the Father/Son/Spirit relationship (specifically) as compared with the man/woman (or husband/wife) relationship. The Spirit is conspicuously absent (as he seems to be in the gender debate in general). This isn’t to say that the passage doesn’t have any bearing on Trinitarian theology, obviously it gets factored in, but it is to say that this is simply a broad argument for order in relationships in general. It happens to be that Paul is focused on some disorder and misconduct in the setting of corporate worship. I simply don’t see the level of correspondance here that those who are entrenched in the gender debate do.

    There’s more I could say but I’ll leave it at this for the moment. Hopefull later on I’ll be able to respond to the rest of your post.

  2. Yes, Nick, there was some hyperbole. Of course there are formulae in which the three persons are mentioned together. But if you want to find out about relationships between the various persons you need to look elsewhere. And this is one of the places where, if you look, you are likely to find something helpful – at least that there is some analogy between the Father-Son relationship and the husband-wife relationship. Of course what the word “head” in that analogy means is fiercely contested; “source of” and “in close unity with” work perhaps better than “authority over” for the Trinity as well as for husbands and wives.

    So you should not write the verse off as irrelevant because it is “not Trinitarian” in some superficial way. That is really my point about this verse.

  3. This was interesting, Peter (and Nick). Thanks for the food to chew on…

    I have to agree…the idea of 100% equal and yet 100% subordinate…? It’s hard to reconcile. I agree, God is the master of paradox, but at the same time, we humans are also the masters of miscomprehension…

    Could it be possible that we Fall-based humans have a hard time comprehending things OUTSIDE of a hierarchal view, being that we are fallen and therefore cannot concieve of true equality? Is it possible that the Son is eternally begotten and yet NOT eternally subordinate—but that our Fall-based minds cannot concieve of that as possible, and therefore we read in hierarchy where there is none?

    If we are made in God’s image, then it does matter, Nick, if God exists in permanent dominant/subordinate heirarchy. I am hard-pressed to see how it would not. If the very make-up of God is hierarchal, and we are made in God’s image, then it would appear that hierarchal relationships would be how we were designed to relate too.

    Maybe I’m missing something, though, and perhaps it stems from being raised up to think of God as a hierarchal being, and therefore human relationships being the same. Maybe I just can’t seperate the two, when in reality they don’t necessarily correspond. I’m willing to admit that may be the case.

  4. Thanks, Molly, for bringing out another link between subordinationism in the Trinity and the hierarchical worldview underlying complementarianism. Indeed I think the best response to complementarianism is not on the level of particular verses in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy but in terms of the biblical rejection of the general hierarchical worldview (see 1 Samuel 8:11-18 and Mark 10:42-45), which I see to be rooted in a Trinity which is not hierarchical but characterised by voluntary mutual submission.

  5. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » The Bible overthrows the hierarchical worldview

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Calvin: “God shall cease to be the Head of Christ”

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Phantaz Sunlyk on the Eternal Subordination of the Son

  8. One complementarian view I’ve seen is that the persons of the Trinity are equal in their atemporal existence but functionally occupy different roles as the effects of the divine plan manifest themselves in time and in three persons. That’s one way to capture the “equal ontologically but functionally hierarchical” formula without saying what you’re expressing as the equality never being true of God.

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