Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jesus obeyed the Father so wives would obey husbands?

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.


Rev R Marszalek said...

This is excellent and I think your analogy of mother/father dynamics is hugely helpful. I will update and suggest people read this. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


My understanding of ESOTS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) is that the nature of the subordination is one of function, and it is not ontological.
Your question:
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? is a good one.

A couple of comments:
1. After his resurrection, Jesus is given a seat that is subordinate to God. He is seated at the right had of the Majesty, the Power of God: [Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69; Acts 5:31]

2. The Father has bestowed the kingdom to the Son just as the Son will bestow the kingdom to his disciples (Luke 22:29).

3. Jesus declares that he cannot give specific positions in the coming heavenly kingdom but only the Father has that authority. [Matthew 20:20-23 (Mark 10:35-40)]

4.Jesus hands the kingdom to his Father and is eternally subjected to God. [1 Corinthians 15:24-28]

These texts show that even though the Son has all authority over others (Matthew 28:18) this authority is not over his Father and that Jesus always receives the authority from his Father. He will give it back to his Father but he never bestows authority on his Father. Even though he has all authority over others, some authority will continue to be reserved for the Father alone, even in the Kingdom.

Though as I said previously, Jesus subordination is functional not ontological.

Anonymous said...


Oh one more thing,

I am not certain that there is a direct correlation between the nature of trinitarian relationships and the relationship between husband/wife etc.

Thus I think to use the relationship between the Father and the Son to buttress the case for male headship is a wee bit overstated. I think the case for male headship is clear without having to appeal to the divine nature.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Jesus' intercession is that the Father will accept us. In every instance the Father accedes to the Son's direction". - Peter Carrell -

A very tricky supposition here Peter. The word about his intention - re the interaction between Jesus and The Father - is *intercession*. This does not equate with with the word 'demand'.

In other words; The Father agrees to the request of Jesus, graciously
There is no question of submission.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for wise comments, Joshua and Ron!

Matt Kennedy said...

Joshua Bovis,

excellent points.

One comment: while it is true that no one should make the leap from subordinationism to Eph 5:22 (though there are some texts that do suggest it 1 Cor 11), the subordination position does provide an important biblical principle: beings may be ontologically equal while functionally inequal.

The Principle does establish a basis for suggesting that the submission of wife to husband does NOT, contrary to the egalitarian argument, imply an inequality of being between the two.

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,
Just for a bit of added flavour to the thread, our former Australian primate Peter Carnley held a collquium on this issue a number of years ago, entitled "Is the diocese of Sydney Arian?" Only problem was he didn't invite them to attend (it was in Melbourne), but invited the Principal of Ridley College Melbourne, Peter Adam, to respond. Before getting to the substance of his remarks, Peter Adam accused the Primate publicly of dishonoring Christ by using the event as a political attack rather than a genuine theological discussion! So, let's be a bit careful (as you were Peter) about throwing around accusations of Arianism. See the whole address here:

For people who usually hold to the Bible so strongly, those who use the eternal subordination argument as a model for husbands and wives are on pretty thin ground scripturally. (NB I'm not considering here the broader subordination debate, just its applicability to husbands and wives) Eph. 5 uses the model of Christ and the church for husbands and wives, not Christ and the Father. In 1 Peter 3, submitting to kings and rulers is used as a model. 1 Cor 11:3 is about as close as it gets, and yet many seem to believe the meaning is closer to "source" rather than "head". Not exactly a compelling case.

PS To declare an interest, Andrew Moody (whom you link to) is from my home parish in Melbourne.

Peter Carrell said...

In some ways, Andrew, the significant challenge for some theologians based in Sydney is not so much avoiding Arianism, but finding a theological method which rises beyond such a close adherence to texts from Scripture that it ends up looking like Arianism!

canoewolf said...

Where I think your analogy falls down is the reference to women as 'sperm receivers'. This is automatically a subordinate view. Women produce the egg to which the sperm must join - thus an equal partner in the act of procreation. Moreover, the doctrine of the immaculate conception does not undermine the role Mary had biologically.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Sal Bateman (canoewolf),
Thanks for commenting (but please use at least your first, legal name).

I do not think a receiver is automatically subordinate. My way of expressing that was to refer to a difference between men and women which applies for the whole of married life ... but I accept that it is hard to get it completely right when trying to come up with the best and also perfect analogy.

liturgy said...


I think Sal Bateman may be confusing the immaculate conception of Mary with the virginal conception of Jesus?

I also think the majority of Christians are either Arian or Docetist – be it Sydney, Melbourne, or elsewhere; this century or any other.



Peter Carrell said...

So which crowd are you with, Bosco? The Docetists or the Arians? :)

Unknown said...

I've just read the Adam article, which is an astonishing 'ticking off', especially from such a gentle man.

Thanks for that!

liturgy said...

I’m fine with the Chalcedonian minority, thanks Peter.

Peter Carrell said...

Weren't the Chalcedonians pawns in ancient imperial power games?

Peter Carrell said...

You are right, John, it is astonishing. Knowing Peter Adams a little I imagine the ticking off was given deservedly!

I also unsurprised that such a wise man makes no link in that article between the subordination of women and the Trinity!

Brother David said...

So I understand, Bosco, you are comfortable with the Oriental Orthodox position, correct?
In the one person of Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity are united in one nature, the two being united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration.

As opposed to the Chalcedon view;
The humanity and divinity are exemplified as two natures and that the one hypostasis of the Logos perfectly subsists in these two natures.

I am probably a Spongian;
That in the person of Jesus Christ the disciples believed that they had encountered the living God.

liturgy said...

Greetings David

The only difference in my view is that I wouldn’t tend to use “opposed to” where you do. I affirm Jesus fully human and fully divine (in spite of Peter’s reduction of that as a political solution – I have no issue with seeing God acting through messy politics, and flawed human motivation – in fact I struggle to find any non-flawed processes – including in the church!). And can see that expressed in different ways in your sentences. I have had wonderful fellowship (particularly) with Armenians (Oriental Orthodox) and understand how language can be understood differently by different peoples. Certainly in NZ we have little awareness of the history of Oriental Orthodoxy, and most, if they think about it at all, would be unaware of its significance a thousand years later than the 5th century most would think that diminished. I have personally seen their influence as far East as China – a wonderful possibility for dialogue still awaits there.
I would suggest that many Christians balk at understanding Jesus as fully human. Others as fully divine. I think the development and relationship with Islam is in that also – but that’s probably doctoral thesis, rather than blog-type comment.