Subordination in God, modal not personal

After reading this painful dumbing-down of the Trinity/gender debate by Zack Hunt at Evans’ blog — painful for those of us who do not consider trinitarian metaphysics as “boring” — I read the article from Kevin Giles that was linked. In fact, some trinitarian metaphysics may help all of us out.

Both sides are wrong. Let’s first ponder the critical move in Giles’ thesis:

If the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, and cannot be otherwise, then he does not just function subordinately, he is the subordinated Son. His subordination defines his person or being. Eternal functional subordination implies by necessity ontological subordination. Blustering denials cannot avoid this fact.

First of all, whether subordination “defines his person or being” is not the same thing, but Giles is correct to see the same result. If subordination defines the Son’s being (and not the Father’s being), then there is a division within the being of God — which is heresy. If subordination defines the Son’s person, then the same division occurs in the being of God, because the person (per Nicaea) is wholly God. So, an attribute of the person must necessarily be an attribute of the being, or else the logic of homo-ousia (same-being) breaks down.

However, we must properly define “person.” If we agree with Barth (and John Webster and Lewis Ayres et al.) that “person” in trinitarian metaphysics is not a distinct, self-subsisting subject of operation, then “person” needs to be defined as a mode of the single divine subject. As such, the modal operation of the Son’s subordination can indeed be eternal without causing a division in the being of God — because subordination itself is an attribute of this single divine being. Subordination, thereby, signifies an attribute that is not foreign to the Father. But, in order for this attribute of subordination to exist within the being of God, the persons of Father and Son eternally enact this subordination, of one mode to the other. Otherwise, subordination would be foreign to God altogether, with no immanent ground in God for the work of redemption ad extra.

This “enactment” is derived from the common agency of the singular divine subject, so it is not “forced” upon the Son nor is it proper to say that “the Son cannot do otherwise,” as Giles puts it. This is why Giles (and Hunt and Evans) continually move from subordination to oppression, as if the latter obviously follows from the former. That would be the case if the Son had a distinct agency apart from the Father who may “impose” the subordination of the Son, but it is not the case if we follow Barth (and Nicaea) as defined above.



  1. Thanks, Kevin — Zack’s post on RHE looks like a train wreck of imprecision and presupposition. For starters, as you point to here, he seems to assume that the Son does not (and logically cannot) subordinate himself to the Father as a free act of loving condescension (kenosis).

    This, and the sort of definition of personhood and will necessitated by the doctrine of the Trinity, marks out space in which theologians may carefully speak about the Son’s functional (not ontological) subordination.

    Now, Zack is right in his ultimate conclusion that one cannot base human gender relations on this bizarre rendering of trinitarian relations. But he is certainly right for all the wrong reasons.

    • Yes, he’s inserting a strange sort of volitionalism, which should not be too surprising for an American I suppose. Giles is obviously better, but he is playing off of the same imprecision in regard to volition and agency. Honestly — and I’ve read Giles before — I think he participates in the same “blustering denials” of his opponents.

      My problem with Giles’ opponents (Grudem, Ware, etc.) is that their trinitarian metaphysics is too modern, in the way that social identity politics has infected everything, whether on the left or right. But, they’ve got subordination right — insofar as it does not necessarily slip into oppression. As for the analogy to human relations, this can be done in a more responsible way — which is to say, I do not rule it out of court. Barth does it, carefully. There is nothing, ipso facto, wrong with using the subordination of Christ to God as a way to conceptually determine how subordination can function without oppression in human relations — obviously, Paul is doing that.

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