The Subordination Dust-Up: the observations of a Complementarian


The recent Trinitarian Subordination dust-up, or “civil war” as Mike Bird gleefully calls it, is chronicled heresummarised here by Andrew Wilson and explained over here by Christianity Today.

One of the benefits of Feminism, apart from helping women, is that it forced Complementarians not to be lazy. Rather than relying on chauvinism to enforce male-only-ordination, we had to have actual theological reasons. The modern movement of Complementarianism was born late in the twentieth century – CBMW was founded in 1987 – to explain why the Apostle Paul might instruct only men to have authority within the church (1 Tim 2:11-13) or tell them to take responsibility as husbands (Eph 5:22-33). If this principle of male leadership is trans-cultural, applicable across time and space, then it needs a profound basis, a philosophical foundation that goes beyond a cluster of prooftexts. So the idea of different gender roles but equal value as human beings was traced back to the fact that within God three different persons exist but only one divine being. (The famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, Sydney Diocese Doctrine Commission Report in 1999, argued for ‘equality in essence with order in relation’, p19.)

But because God is holy and true we want to make sure the tracing-back-of-our-ideas-to-God is both accurate and clear. So we take seriously the accusation that “it sounds like we’re making Jesus subordinate to the Father” (Arianism alert). If there is only one divine will (The Son takes on a second human-will when He is conceived as Jesus in Mary’s womb), how can the Son be described as obedient or even having a different role prior to the Incarnation? Obedience ad-intra, within God, is ‘inappropriate’ says Carl Trueman because it breaks apart his unity, or introduces two divine wills adds Mark Jones. Carl is being a Trinitarian minimalist. The minimalists, best represented by Stephen Holmes and his recent Quest for the Trinity, argue that ‘the less said about the internal operations of God the better’. This is in contrast to the maximalists who want to ‘both describe the inner workings of God and relate them to this world’, a view eloquently represented by Catherine LaCugna’s introduction to Karl Rahner’s The Trinity.

So how do we remain Dyothelite – affirming one divine and one human will in Christ – but also draw helpful distinctions between the divine persons? Two concepts point the way towards a solution. The ‘eternal generation of the Son’, arguably more of a relational rather than an ontological concept, does some of the work. The ‘pactum salutis’, a covenant between the Son and the Father is the second concept that helps us describe what’s going on ad intra, within the Godhead. However we can go a little further and say this: the persons of the Trinity relate harmoniously together and towards one another in an ordered way. Andrew Moody calls this a ‘deeper counsel’, if we trust Jesus, we are a gift from the Father to the Son, we are grafted into an aesthetic framework present before creation and sin. So it makes sense that if God made the world, traces of this threefold pattern of existence would be found in all sorts of places including, gender relations and church leadership. But this move isn’t a Complementarian invention as Alistair J. Roberts recently pointed out to Scot McKnight: Colin Gunton and Karl Barth made similar moves.

It’s worth wrestling with all this because the dangers in the opposite direction are just as worrisome. If the persons become indistinguishable then we run the risk of ‘Modalism’ – one god wearing three masks. The other danger is saying that Jesus’ obedience was ‘temporary’, that Jesus’ gender, race and family ‘tell us nothing about who God is’, is that God remains forever unknowable, which is essentially Docetism – the Christological application of Gnosticism. Reactions to Rahner’s Rule (‘The immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.’) are a good guide to these tendencies. Some Egalitarians, for example, argue that the gender of Jesus and his obedience to the Father are localised, telling us little if anything about the persons of God ad-intra. Mike Ovey summarises what’s at stake here. ‘the economic trinity reveals the eternal immanent trinity and its relationships, not exhaustively, but truly.’

Practically, a helpful way to keep a Trinitarian balance as you read the gospels is to be reminded of how God in Jesus experiences all the aspects of our humanity. As we read we should be treating Jesus and the Son as a single person with two natures, the divine Son and a Jewish man with a human body, mind, and will. Sometimes it might be useful to zoom in and discuss how Jesus expresses his supernatural power or experiences human ignorance but always keep in the mind the larger framework of God in Jesus experiencing all the aspects of our humanity. After all, that God is revealed in Jesus is the secret of the Universe (Col 2:2).