Driving home from dropping our daughter at her place of work this morning I felt the car wobble while stationary at an intersection. Well, cars wobble from time to time as the engine does its thing. But I also saw a traffic light pole wobble and slowly my half-sleeping brain told me 'Another earthquake!' (Quite a severe 5.1 as it turns out). Every so often the Canterbury earthquake rumbles back into life. Something else rumbling back into life is debate about eternal subordinationism. Rachel at Re-vis.e Re-form has a post with oodles of links (as well as a very interesting post about a dialogue between two organisations with opposing views on the ordination of women, Reform and Awesome).
I know theology needs lots of reason but sometimes I have an uneasiness in my bones about a matter and the approach to the roles of men and women associated with advocacy of the eternal subordination of Jesus Christ the Son is one of those matters. But before trying to bring reasoning to the issue, a couple of observations:
(1) There is a potential absurdity in making the link between human roles and divine roles too strong, namely as the title of this post implies, that the big issue is not the Trinity's inner workings but women submitting to men (wives to husbands, women to male leaders in church) and effectively the purpose of Jesus' subordination to the Father becomes the offering of a much needed role model for wives/women!!
(2) I am not sure if it was offered wittily but a comment on another site, by William Witt, struck me as very witty. In my words: on the representational theory of priesthood, a woman may not be a priest because she is not male like Jesus; but on the subordinationist theory of priesthood, a woman may not be a priest because she is like Jesus, destined to be 'eternally' subordinate!!
Some (hopefully) rational concerns:
(i) A trick to good trinitarian theology is to always be thinking 'both/and' rather than 'this' or 'that'. Is God one? Is God three? Some approaches to understanding the Trinity get stuck on one or other question. Generally the resolution is not to rule out the other but to come to a both/and conclusion, God is One and God is Three (or, better, God is Three-in-One). If the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father then that is associated with the 'and' of the Son is one with the Father. Trinity is subordination and mutuality. But some of my reading of contemporary arguments in favour of eternal subordination seem to sit lightly to the 'and' of mutuality between Father and Son.
(ii) Much is made (by eternal subordinationists) of the Father's distinctiveness from the Son: the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father; the Father directs the Son; the Son never directs the Father. In sum: by definition the Son is always subordinate to the Father; by implication, rule out subordination then you undermine the Fatherness of the Father and the Sonness of the Son. But is that all there is to say?
Think for a moment about marriage (i.e. one entered into in early adult life with potency for being fruitful through producing children). Yes, the husband's lifelong role is to be sperm giver and the wife's lifelong role is to be sperm receiver; and, where a child is born as a result, the husband also takes on a lifelong role of father and the wife has a lifelong role of mother. In these roles there is a permanent distinctiveness between the two parties to the marriage. Even if the husband dies, as a mother, the widow may at best take on some aspects of also being a father to the children; she never becomes a father. But that is not all there is to the marriage relationship. As husband and wife the couple will communicate about finances, choices in the rearing of the children, choices in the spending of time in leisure, and so forth. In those communications they will function as two persons, not only equal in status as persons, but also contributing equally as people able to express a view, offer a judgment, and engage in a process of coming to a decision (similarly as each would as persons working outside the family home, or engaged in community groups outside the family home). As two persons they enter into an experience of mutuality in which they contribute equally.
Back to God as Trinity. As Father, Son and Spirit engage together as a divine communion, do Son and Spirit eternally work from the Father's lead, or do Father, Son and Spirit engage together in a mutuality of divine persons, co-equal not only in status but also in role? Here I am thinking of a co-equal contribution to God being God. Clearly as we read Scripture we mostly are drawn to God in relation to humanity, in respect of which Father, Son, and Spirit have distinctive roles as creation comes forth from God, as the Son is sent into creation to redeem it, and as the Spirit proceeds from God to indwell us.
(iii) Does the Son never tell the Father what to do? I suggest that Scripture points us to one important instance in which the Father is responsive to the Son's role as Son. In Hebrews 7: 25 we read,
"Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them."
Jesus' intercession is that the Father will accept us. In every instance the Father accedes to the Son's direction.
(iv) The charge of Arianism is sometimes made against eternal subordinationists, and hotly refuted with vigorous assertions of orthodoxy. I do not think this charge is so easly refuted, however, because the more I read of eternal subordinationists arguments (e.g. here in this interesting exchange) the more concerned I am that great emphasis is placed on the Father as originator, source, director, commander, and the like. The more eternal subordination is promoted over concerns to preserve the mutuality of Father, Son and Spirit, the more emphasis is placed on the distinctiveness between Father and Son. How then do we distinguish between eternal subordinationism and Arianism? Protesting that the Son has equal status in divinity does not work, because this equality is not worked through in terms of its implications for mutuality. If the Son (and the Spirit) are co-equal and co-eternal then there is less rather than more distinction between Father and Son (and Spirit). Just to be clear here: I am not myself charging eternal subordinationists with the theological crime of Arianism, but I am pressing the question whether eternal subordinationists really do enough to distinguish between their version of eternal subordinationism and Arianism.
(v) Just as children rarely if ever understand the true intimacy within the mutuality of their parents' inner relationship (until, perhaps, the children when adults themselves enter into the intimacy of marriage), how do we know that the mutuality within the Godhead (of God being God, rather than God as revealed to us as God who comes to us as creator and redeemer) is chiefly characterised by eternal subordination of the Son to the Father? We do not know that, but it is not a great exercise of theological imagination to understand that the God who is love, who is Three-in-One, is a dynamic communion, a lively mutuality not well characterised by the staticness of 'eternal subordination.'
Remember: Jesus obeyed the Father so we could obey the Father as participants in his sonship.