St. Athanasius on the Subordination of the Son to the Father

I came across the following Evangelical statement attempting to decree all who believed in subjection within the Trinity heretics on the basis of Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology. According to Evangelical scholar Kevin Giles where he asserts claim St. Athanasius does not teach the subordination of the Son to the Father. I was curious about this so I looked up some stuff on St. Athanasius. Here’s what I found…

“(4.) Nor again, in saying that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one only God, the only Ingenerate, do we therefore deny that Christ also is God before ages: as the disciples of Paul of Samosata, who say that after the incarnation He was by advance made God, from being made by nature a mere man. For we acknowledge, that though He be subordinate to His Father and God, yet, being before ages begotten of God, He is God perfect according to nature and true , and not first man and then God, but first God and then becoming man for us, and never having been deprived of being.” (De Synodis, 2.26)

“(7.) And at the same time those who irreverently say that the Son has been generated not by choice or will, thus encompassing God with a necessity which excludes choice and purpose, so that He begot the Son unwillingly, we account as most irreligious and alien to the Church; in that they have dared to define such things concerning God, beside the common notions concerning Him, nay, beside the purport of divinely inspired Scripture. For we, knowing that God is absolute and sovereign over Himself, have a religious judgment that He generated the Son voluntarily and freely; yet, as we have a reverent belief in the Son’s words concerning Himself Proverbs 8:22, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways for His works,’ we do not understand Him to have been originated like the creatures or works which through Him came to be. For it is irreligious and alien to the ecclesiastical faith, to compare the Creator with handiworks created by Him, and to think that He has the same manner of origination with the rest. For divine Scripture teaches us really and truly that the Only-begotten Son was generated sole and solely. Yet , in saying that the Son is in Himself, and both lives and exists like the Father, we do not on that account separate Him from the Father, imagining place and interval between their union in the way of bodies. For we believe that they are united with each other without mediation or distance , and that they exist inseparable; all the Father embosoming the Son, and all the Son hanging and adhering to the Father, and alone resting on the Father’s breast continually. Believing then in the All-perfect Triad, the most Holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being Head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.” (2.26)

“(18.) Whosoever, hearing that the Father is Lord and the Son Lord and the Father and Son Lord, for there is Lord from Lord, says there are two Gods, be he anathema. For we do not place the Son in the Father’s Order, but as subordinate to the Father; for He did not descend upon Sodom without the Father’s will, nor did He rain from Himself, but from the Lord, that is, the Father authorising it. Nor is He of Himself set down on the right hand, but He hears the Father saying, ‘Sit on My right hand’ Psalm 110:1.” (2.27)

“But since many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called in Latin ‘Substantia,’ but in Greek ‘Usia,’ that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ‘Coessential,’ or what is called, ‘Like-in-Essence,’ there ought to be no mention of any of these at all, nor exposition of them in the Church, for this reason and for this consideration, that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them, and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding; and because no one can declare the Son’s generation, as it is written, ‘Who shall declare His generation’ Isaiah 53:8? For it is plain that the Father only knows how He generated the Son, and again the Son how He has been generated by the Father. And to none can it be a question that the Father is greater: for no one can doubt that the Father is greater in honour and dignity and Godhead, and in the very name of Father, the Son Himself testifying, ‘The Father that sent Me is greater than I’ John 10:29; 14:28. And no one is ignorant, that it is Catholic doctrine, that there are two Persons of Father and Son, and that the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him, and that the Father has no beginning, and is invisible, and immortal, and impassible; but that the Son has been generated from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, and that His origin, as aforesaid, no one knows, but the Father only. And that the Son Himself and our Lord and God, took flesh, that is, a body, that is, man, from Mary the Virgin, as the Angel preached beforehand; and as all the Scriptures teach, and especially the Apostle himself, the doctor of the Gentiles, Christ took man of Mary the Virgin, through which He has suffered. And the whole faith is summed up , and secured in this, that a Trinity should ever be preserved, as we read in the Gospel, ‘Go and baptize all the nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’ Matthew 28:19. And entire and perfect is the number of the Trinity; but the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, sent forth through the Son, came according to the promise, that He might teach and sanctify the Apostles and all believers.” (2.28)

The only reason I can gather why Evangelicals are so worked up about this issue is because they feel if the Son is subordinated to the Father, then this means women should be subordinated to men. But I don’t follow the logic because a) even if it is accurate to say that the 4th century theologians condemned subjectionist views on the Trinity (which they did not), these same 4th century theologians also certainly condemned women’s ordination and b) a Father-Son relationship is not equivalent to a husband-wife relationship–subjection of the Son to the Father (if not found in 1 Cor. 11:3) is found in 1 Cor. 15:25-28 and in John 14:28. Nevertheless, it does seem that Athanasius argued for the subordination of the Son to the Father.


About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
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8 Responses to St. Athanasius on the Subordination of the Son to the Father

  1. Aren’t these Athanasius’s account of some semi-Arian doctrinal statements (with which he disagrees)?


    • One of my quotes comes from section 2.27 in which St. Athanasius starts his list of rebuttals of the Arian heresy with the statement “(1.) But those who say that the Son was from nothing or from other subsistence and not from God, and that there was time or age when He was not, the Holy and Catholic Church regards as aliens.” This hardly sounds as if he is making an account of semi-Arian statements that he disagrees with.

      In 2.26, he writes “But those who say, (1) that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God; (2) and that there was a time or age when He was not, the Catholic and Holy Church regards as aliens. Likewise those who say, (3) that there are three Gods: (4) or that Christ is not God; (5) or that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God; (6) or that Father and Son, or Holy Ghost, are the same; (7) or that the Son is Ingenerate; or that the Father begot the Son, not by choice or will; the Holy and Catholic Church anathematizes” before he starts his list of statements and the part of 2.26 which I quote in this article shows a differentiation between what the Church affirms about the nature of the divinity of the Son and Paul of Samosata affirmed. These do not read as doctrinal accounts with which St. Athansius disagrees with.

  2. Hi again, I do agree that the authors of the creed are anti-Arian, but still Athanasius is opposed to them. 2.26 begins: ‘As if dissatisfied with this, they hold their meeting again after three years, and dispatch Eudoxius, Martyrius, and Macedonius of Cilicia, and some others with them, to
    the parts of Italy, to carry with them a faith written at great length, with numerous additions
    over and above those which have gone before. They went abroad with these, as if they had
    devised something new.’ And then follows the text of their statement of faith from which you quote. Likewise for 2.27. Andrew

    • Thanks for drawing this to my attention. Regardless, I don’t think Athanasius is condemning their view but is rather stating that their maintenance of the subordination of the Son as if it is the only orthodox doctrine is wrong.

  3. It seems like you are quoting Athanasius himselft, but you are not. All of your quotes are from local synods that Athanasius mentions, but he does not fully agree with them.

  4. Kevin McGrane says:

    “Nevertheless, it does seem that Athanasius argued for the subordination of the Son to the Father.”

    As the other commentators have pointed out, at this point in De Synodis Athanasius is quoting the opinions of his opponents with whom he disagrees. It is perfectly normal to quote one’s opponents at length and verbatim in order to deal with their arguments, and this is what Athanasius was doing here. One needs to read what Athanasius is saying in context. Then it is obvious that Athanasius certainly did NOT argue for the subordination of the Son.

    It is very dangerous to use search tools (e.g. for words like ‘subordinate’) and thereby throw up references in a treatise without regard to the thread of the argument. Without proper care this can end up putting words in the mouth of men who are merely citing words found in the mouths of their opponents.

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