This is a response to John McClean’s blog post (‘The Eternally Begotten, Sent and Obedient Son – developing and defending a position’, August 2016) about the Subordination controversy. Broadly speaking, that debate is about how much of the Trinity can be communicated into gender roles, if any. Essentially, the debate was intramural, between two groups of complementarians, pitting those who see traditional gender roles within church and marriage as a theological outworking of the Trinity, and those who see traditional gender roles as commanded by Scripture, and not as a logical consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity. In other-words those who would agree with the infamous Sydney Anglican Doctrine Commission Report (1999) about ‘gender and the Trinity’ which concluded “equality in essence with order in relation” versus those who disagree with the Report’s conclusion.
John’s suggestion is that because there are three different aspects, or in his words “domains”, when it comes to describing God; the “essential Trinity”, the “mission of the Son” and “Jesus’ humiliation,” it’d be wise to restrict what we say about God to the appropriate domain. While John and I would share many presuppositions about the Trinity, I want to focus on the problematic aspects of his suggestion and how it highlights the heart of the Subordination controversy. Fundamentally, I’m arguing that it’s misleading to talk about an “essential Trinity” as something separate from what is revealed about God in Scripture and history. John is aware of this danger and observes:
One of the strengths of the revival of Trinitarian thought in recent decades is the insistence on relating God in himself to God as he is for us (highlighted in what came to be known as Rahner’s Rule — “the economic Trinity is the essential Trinity”). Yet one of the weaknesses of the revival is a failure at points to respect the need to also distinguish between the two domains. So trinitarian theology has, in different ways, leant toward tying God’s triune life too closely to his work in the world. All I am arguing at this point is that the distinction must be recognised and respected, without it becoming a division. The way to explicate the distinction is another question, and I will come to that below.
Yet “distinguishing between these two domains” simply enflames the central problem of the Subordination controversy, particularly if one of the domains, the “essential Trinity” remains only partially revealed and disconnected from our knowledge of God in Scripture and History.
The self-communication of God in Scripture and history reveals to us who God is and how he saves. From the call of God in the Garden to the Annunciation, Scripture is surely about only two things; the defeat of evil and the self-revelation of God. As Catherine LaCugna wryly observes: “there are not two trinities.” (212, God For Us) ‘Rahner’s Rule’ puts an end to speculation about a hidden God (deus absconditus), the unrevealed God behind the supposedly temporary activity of the economic Trinity. “God is by nature self-communicating.” (210, God For Us) Note carefully though that Rahner’s theological aphorism is about communication, not ontology.
He and LaCugna aren’t saying God is history, but that God is truly communicated in history. Let me put what I’m saying another way. It can be theologically useful to think about God ad-intra, how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to each other. But the moment we equate God ad-intra as something disconnected from God’s self-revelation in Scripture and history, we’ve introduced a second, speculative (and unnecessary) layer to the doctrine of God. John can say Complementarians should be careful about which aspects of Trinitarian relationships they choose to apply to Gender roles or how they apply them in ordinary life, but to say some part of God is beyond application to Gender roles is problematic.
This is the beating heart of the Subordination Controversy. That the distant Creator, glimpsed at times in theophanies through the Old Testament, for example to Abraham in the mountains above Sodom, experiences and expresses himself in his creation. If it’s really God who is doing this, and not a Gnostic sub-deity or temporary apparition, then the theophanies and the Incarnation give us reliable clues about who God really is and form the highest model for our faith and life. Dorothy Sayers calls this the “scandal of particularity”, (The Man Born to be King) that the Son of God choose to express himself and his relationships with the Father and Holy Spirit in first-century Jewish Palestine, and all that act of transcendence implies. Gender roles, therefore, aren’t the result of dull Pharisaical obedience of Scripture, disconnected from any ultimate reality but traceable back to the fundamental reality of who God is and how he saves. This is controversial, in part of because of the scale of appeal, you can’t get higher than God and partly because while Scripture is clear, application to our ordinary lives is both muddy and messy.