Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part III: Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)
Chapter 19 – The Subordination of Christ and the Subordination of Women. Kevin Giles.
Giles opens his essay noting that:
Contemporary conservative evangelical arguments for the permanent subordination of women frequently tell us that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. (334)
Dr. Wayne Grudem is probably the most notable proponent of this position in the US. Giles is from Australia and there the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has been the leading proponent. The two groups differ on a very key point. The Sydney Diocese teaches that the Son is subordinate to the Father in both his being and function. This formulation has emerged at various times in history, only to be rejected as contrary to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The American version teaches that the son is eternally subordinate to the Father in some functional capacity but not in being. To Giles knowledge, this is a completely novel formulation of the Trinity that emerged circa 1980 as the debate about women re-emerged. Both camps claim there positions are historic orthodoxy found in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, Calvin and other theologians like Edwards, Berkhof, Hodge, Dabney, Packer and Knox.
As Giles points out, there is no question the Son subordinated himself to the father for the purpose of redeeming the world. Passages can be found throughout scripture where Jesus talks about doing the will of his Father. But he also speaks of being one with the father and telling people that if they have seen him they have seen the Father. So is there eternal subordination? Giles writes:
I will argue that to teach the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in being or role, person or function, is to teach contrary to the way the best theologians have interpreted the Bible across the centuries and to reject what the creeds and Reformation confessions of faith affirm. (336)
From here, Giles gives a brief analysis of three noted figures from Church history.
Athanasius (c. 296-373) – Athanasius pioneered a way of understanding the Trinity that has prevailed to this day. He wrote of “a double account of the savior.” There is an eternal aspect and a temporal one. He championed the formulation of the Father and Son as “one in being” (homoousios). “For Athanasius, ontological equality demanded functional equality. One implied the other.” Athanasius was also the one who wrote about a “mutual indwewlling or coinherence of the Persons. This later would become the doctrine of perichoresis. Whatever the three do they do cooperatively and conjointly. Because of perichoresis, it is not possible for the Son to be subordinate to the Father. Wofhart Pannenberg wrote, “Athanasius vanquished subordinationism.”
Augustine (354-430) In reference to the scriptural passages that seemed to teach Jesus’ subordination, Augustine developed a hermeneutical principle “…to interpret them as referring exclusively to the incarnate Son who took ‘the form of a servant.’” Augustine stipulated that the metaphorical language of “sending” the Son is not a subordination. The sending is about “mission.” “The ‘begetting’ of the Son and the ‘procession’ of the Spirit are eternal, whereas ‘mission’ of the son and the Spirit are temporal.” They are distinguished relationally and not by function. Scholar J. N. D. Kelly wrote that Augustine “rigorously excluded subordinationism of every kind. (341-341)
John Calvin (1508-1564) Giles writes that Calvin understood “the divine three ‘subsist,’ or as we might say, “exist as,” Father, Son and Holy Spirit, being distinguished ‘by an incommunicable quality.’ What this quality is he does not say.” Calvin allows for distinction not division. “Calvin never depicts the eternal Father-Son relationship in terms of differing authority. Nineteenth century Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield maintained that Calvin sought the “elimination of the last remnants of subordinationism.” (342-344)
After reviewing these men, Giles turns to the historic creeds. In the Nicene Creed are found the statements “true God from true God” and “one being with the Father” who “for us and our salvation came down from heaven.” It teaches that the son was eternally equal with the Father but temporally subordinated himself for the purposes of salvation. One the most significant statements comes from the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, which was the most widely received Reformed Confession. Giles writes:
This confession opposes “all those who blaspheme” and heretics who teach that the Son and the Holy Spirit are “created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or less … something different with respect to character or will.” (345)
Giles notes that in the modern era, until the past generation, the doctrine of the Trinity has been sorely neglected. Subordinationism emerged in the teaching of Nineteenth Century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge wrote that three essential facts sum up the doctrine of the Trintiy. “unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination.” Dr. Wayne Grudem claims that Hodge endorses his position but this is not true. Grudem teaches that Father and Son were “equal in being, but not equal in function.” Hodge makes no such distinction. The Son is simply subordinate and this is the position of the Sydney Diocese. Giles points out in footnote 58 that it should be noted that applied this model of subordination in the Trinity to subordination of women and subordination of slaves. B. B. Warfield he succeed Hodge at Princeton dismantled and reputiated Hodge's subordination teaching.
Closing out the section on contemporary scholarship, Giles notes several contemporary theologians like David Cunningham, Ted Peters, Millard Erickson who oppose this subordination formulation. Even Wayne House who is an ally of Grudem’s movment does not support the formulation.
From here Giles briefly looks at biblical passages that touch on the topic. Philippians Chapter 2 has to be one the most significant biblical statements illustrating the Son’s equality with the Father and his temporal nature of his submission. He also looks at Grudem’s analysis of "head" in 1 Corinthians 11 and shows that Grudem’s insistence that “head” means authority carries little weight.
In short, Giles shows that there is historical grounds for the new
“equal in being, unequal in function” Trinitarian formula that has emerged in
the last thirty years. Giles has written two excellent books on this
topic. The most recent book is Jesus and the Father: Modern
Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity, released in June of
this year. I wrote a lengthy review which you can find by clicking
here. His earlier book was The Trinity and Subordinationism: The
Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. These two books
overlap some but both contain valuable material. Online, you can read a
lengthy article by him on the topic called The Doctrine of the Trinity and
While I know that there can be honest disagreement over the interpretation of certain passages and how they apply today, I find the theological distortion of the Trinity fostered here to be one of the most disturbing things in American evangelicalism. I fear the culture wars have blinded some to the historic nature of the faith and they are doing grievous harm to sound theology.
Kevin Giles received his D. B. from Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, his M.A. from the University of Durham, England, and his Th.D. from the Australian College of Theology. He has served as an Angclican minister for more than thirty years and is currently the vicar of St. Michaels, North Carlton, Diocese of Melbourne. His publications include Women and Their Ministry; Created Woman; The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate; What aon Earth is the Church? along with contributions to Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels and Dictionary of the Later New Testament and It Developments. Kevin and his wife Lynley, a marriage educator and counselor, have four children and four grandchildren.
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