Occasionally, I find Evangelicals (Evangelicals!) declaring that the idea of subjection in the Trinity is heretical. Of course, in learning and trying to understand the Trinity back when I was still technically a secret Arian attending an Evangelical church (not really my fault, not like any one properly catechized me in Trinitarian theology), I found out that many Christian theologians throughout the centuries believed that there was some form of subjection in the Trinity and yet, for some reason, in modern times, this subjection within the Trinity has disappeared. Of course, the Evangelical circle I was raised in said “no only no but heck no to subjection within the Trinity!” (at least, if I have interpreted my father correctly). But then again, if I interpret another Evangelical pastor correctly, there seems to be subjection in the Trinity.
While I have mostly read the idea that subjection within the Trinity is heretical from people arguing for radical egalitarianism, I am going to refrain from discussing that issue in this post. Largely, I see nothing that has effectively been contributed on either side of the debate and am comfortable just going with the flow of tradition on this.
Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs argues that “the Church has declared as heresy” subordination within the Trinity. Um, which church? I don’t recall any canons or councils denouncing subordination within the Trinity. It is worthy to note that Trinitarian theology has been read into many church fathers including St. Irenaeus and St. Justin Martyr. If there were official canons condemning subjection within the Trinity, these two would be stripped of their sanctified status and their insights on the Trinity would be condemned. How do I know this?
“For consider, all ye who invent such opinions, since the Father Himself is alone called God, who has a real existence, but whom ye style the Demiurge; since, moreover, the Scriptures acknowledge Him alone as God; and yet again, since the Lord confesses Him alone as His own Father, and knows no other, as I shall show from His very words,-when ye style this very Being the fruit of defect, and the offspring of ignorance, and describe Him as being ignorant of those things which are above Him, with the various other allegations which you make regarding Him,-consider the terrible blasphemy [ye are thus guilty of] against Him who truly is God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.4)
“I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures,[of the truth] of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things–above whom there is no other God–wishes to announce to them.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, ch. LVI)
Note that Origen was condemned by several different canons in the Second Council of Constantinople for his views on apocatastasis. So if there were canons condemning subjection within the Trinity, surely we would have heard the excommunications of St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus, right? But we didn’t.
Over at the Junia Project, one has written that “God is Love, which means God is Perfect Relationship, which means God is Equality. Attempts to emphasize one Person of the Holy Trinity over the other during the Christological Controversies of the 4th Century were declared heresies; the interworkings and weavings of the Trinity a mystery.” Really? Your source of information for this please. I can point to you several church fathers who clearly emphasized the Father over the Son in this time. In fact, the Niceno-Constantinopolotan Creed commits this exact “heresy” you speak of when it declares that the Father is Almighty and does not extend this attribute to the other members of the Trinity! Now, the Athanasian Creed does assert
The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
But this has never gained much attention in Eastern Christian circles but nevertheless, the terms “greater” and “coequal” are generally referring in terms of divine nature. They are coequal in terms of divinity is how this part of the Athanasian Creed is largely understood by most subjectionists. However, this does not mean that in terms of role and of procession there is no paternal monarchy over the Son nor does this actually condemn paternal monarchy over the Son. Many church fathers from the fourth century and beyond have all taught the paternal monarchy over the Son.
“we must say that to the Father alone belongs the property of being unbegotten, for the Saviour Himself said, My Father is greater than I. John 14:28” (St. Alexander of Alexandria, Epistles on Arianism, 12).
“3. But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if the man be the head of the woman, and the head be of the same substance with the body, and the head of Christ is God, the Son is of the same substance with the Father. Nay, say they, it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection. What then are we to say to this? In the first place, when any thing lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression. However, tell me how you intend to prove this from the passage? Why, as the man governs the wife, says he, so also the Father, Christ. Therefore also as Christ governs the man, so likewise the Father, the Son. For the head of every man, we read, is Christ. And who could ever admit this? For if the superiority of the Son compared with us, be the measure of the Father’s compared with the Son, consider to what meanness you will bring Him. So that we must not try all things by like measure in respect of ourselves and of God, though the language used concerning them be similar; but we must assign to God a certain appropriate excellency, and so great as belongs to God. For should they not grant this, many absurdities will follow. As thus; the head of Christ is God: and, Christ is the head of the man, and he of the woman. Therefore if we choose to take the term, head, in the like sense in all the clauses, the Son will be as far removed from the Father as we are from Him. Nay, and the woman will be as far removed from us as we are from the Word of God. And what the Son is to the Father, this both we are to the Son and the woman again to the man. And who will endure this?” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 26 on First Corinthians, 3)
“VII. As your third point you count the Word Greater; and as your fourth, To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater.” (Gregory of Nazianzen, Orations 30.7)
“30. They have also dared to say that the Scripture, When all things shall be subjected unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subjected unto Him that subjected all things unto Him —that this Scripture shows that the Son also shall be absorbed into the Father. Shall you then, O most impious of all men, you the creatures of Christ, continue? And shall Christ perish, by whom both you and all things were made? Such a word is blasphemous. But further, how shall all things be made subject unto Him? By perishing, or by abiding? Shall then the other things, when subject to the Son abide, and shall the Son, when subject to the Father, not abide? For He shall be subjected, not because He shall then begin to do the Father’s will (for from eternity He does always those things that please Him John 8:29 ), but because, then as before, He obeys the Father, yielding, not a forced obedience, but a self-chosen accordance; for He is not a servant, that He should be subjected by force, but a Son, that He should comply of His free choice and natural love.” (St. Cyril, Catechetical Letters, 15.30)
According to Anglican theologian Francis J. Hall, “The doctrine of subordination, or divine monarchy, is well summarized by Bishop Browne. He says that the orthodox fathers held the eternal generation ‘to be a proof that He was of one substance and eternity with the Father; but the relation of the Father to the Son they held to constitute a priority of order, though not of nature or power. They held, that is, not that the Son was, in His nature as God, in any degree different from, or inferior to the Father; but that, as the Father alone was the source and fountain…of Deity, the Son having been begotten, and the Spirit proceeding, so there is a subordination without diversity of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.'” (Dogmatic Theology, v. 4: The Trinity, 238-239)
Hall also says that ““The true remedy for Arian misapplication does not lie in a surrender of the doctrine of subordination, nor even in ignoring it, but in correctly understanding and defining it” (Dogmatic Theology, v. 4: The Trinity, 243).
So how did subordination in the Trinity become a heresy? Evangelicals did it! Yes, some Baptist theologian by the name of Gilbert Bilezikian declared that we should “quit talking about subordination. It is not Biblical terminology. It smacks of the Arian heresy.” (“Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination Within the Godhead”)
I’m not surprised really. Baptists tend to sever themselves from the doctrines of the church. Most don’t even believe that baptism regenerates the soul (which is what many 4th century Christians believed!).
Conclusion: We can, with confidence, dismiss the claims of Evangelical scholarship when it comes to declaring subjection within the Trinity a heresy. They know minimal about the Trinity as it is and rarely discuss it in their churches or catechize people into it.