In God, subordination is not deprivation

Karl Barth
Karl Barth

It would be helpful to read a prior post: “Subordination in God, modal not personal.” That was a brief distillation of why I disagree with Kevin Giles, in his commendable work against subordinationism within “social trinitarianism” of a conservative persuasion. In sum, I argue that subordination is constitutive of God’s essense, but this cannot be ascribed to any “person” of the Trinity if we define person as a distinct, self-subsisting subject of operation. As such, God’s essence would be divided, and the Son’s subordination would entail a different ontology from the Father — hence, “subordinationism,” Giles’ worry. Yet, if we define “person” as a mode of the single divine subject, per Barth, then subordination can be formulated in God’s essence, necessarily both a se and ad extra.

Yet, Barth consistently affirms a genuine relationality in God, such that the divine unity and oneness are not conceptually opposed to fellowship and togetherness. This puts Barth in a unique position vis-à-vis the current controversies. He can say that God “does not exist in solitude but fellowship.” This is the living God — the God who has life and movement in himself and from himself. He is “alive in His unique being with and for and in another” (II.1, 275). God’s unity is not “for oneself” but “for another,” from eternity as the ground in God for his fellowship with creation and our fellowship with one another. This is the God who “includes in Himself the differentiation and relationship of I and Thou,” which is the basis for the imago Dei as man and woman (III.1, 191-192). In God, there is a One and also Another, a first and a second, an above and a below. This does not mean, for Barth, that there is a “society of persons,” which would introduce an all-too-human conception of divine fellowship, but Barth is clearly treading rather close to that view. The difference, of course, is that Barth is rigorously thinking from God’s side, so to speak, and not beginning with our conception of ideal relationship and fellowship, as if to validate the former.

Thus, it is not entirely wrong to align Barth, in some obvious respects, with social trinitarianism, controversial as that claim is today among Barthians — and even if Barth once said, “Modernism has no Doctrine of the Trinity. The notion of a ‘Social Trinity’ is fantastic” (Table Talk, 50)! He means fanciful and wild. Yet, this is the same Barth who later continues this discussion by saying:

In the one essence of God there is togetherness; so there can be love. There are other things in God, such as authority and humility. Our minds cannot unite these, but these are in the one God. I admit a social threeness. The distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ are our distinctions. Why not something different in God: not a division, although a distinction? Yes, the Son prays to the Father, and the Father hears. But this is the divine life. [Table Talk, 58]

It is helpful to look at CD IV.1, §59 (“The Obedience of the Son”). Barth here refers to “two unfortunate and very arbitrary ways of thinking” from which we must free ourselves (IV.1, 202). In the context, Barth is discussing the astonishing claim — the “offensive fact that there is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. And our present concern is with what is apparently the most offensive fact of all, that there is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience” (IV.1, 200-201). What are the unfortunate and arbitrary ways of thinking that militate against recognizing this astonishing claim?

The first consists quite naturally in the idea that unity is necessarily equivalent with being in and for oneself, with being enclosed and imprisoned in one’s own being, with singleness and solitariness. But the unity of God is not like this. It is, of course, exclusively His unity. No other being, no created being, is one with itself as God is. But what distinguishes His peculiar unity with Himself from all other unities or from what we think we know of such unities is the fact that — in a particularity which is exemplary and instructive for an understanding of these others — it is a unity which is open and free and active in itself — a unity in more than one mode of being, a unity of the One with Another, of a first with a second, an above with a below, an origin and its consequences. It is a dynamic and living unity, not a dead and static. Once we have seen this, we will be careful not to regard that mean and unprofitable concept of unity as the last word of wisdom and the measure of all things. And its application to God will be ruled out once and for all.

The second idea we have to abandon is that-even supposing we have corrected that unsatisfactory conception of unity — there is necessarily something unworthy of God and incompatible with His being as God in supposing that there is in God a first and a second, an above and a below, since this includes a gradation, a degradation and an inferiority in God, which if conceded excludes the homoousia of the different modes of divine being. That all sounds very illuminating. But is it not an all too human — and therefore not a genuinely human — way of thinking? For what is the measure by which it measures and judges? Has there really to be something mean in God for Him to be the second, below? Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? Why should not our way of finding a lesser dignity and significance in what takes the second and subordinate place (the wife to her husband) need to be corrected in the light of the homoousia of the modes of divine being? [IV.1, 202]

There is much to discuss in this passage, and I would especially direct students to Barth’s work in II.1, §28 (“The Being of God as the One Who Loves in Freedom”), for further technical analysis of how Barth negotiates with classical theism. For my interests here and elsewhere, I would highlight Barth’s question, “Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack?” That is the general assumption, and Barth is not exactly beloved today for his unfolding of this in CD III.4, §54.1 (“Man and Woman”), even though it follows from his doctrine of God in II.1, the imago Dei in III.1, and the christology in IV.1.


Image: Karl Barth, probably circa 1910’s or 1920’s, provided by the Universität Freiburg.



  1. Interesting. I’m just starting to dip into trinitarian study, so this is somewhat newer ground for me. I understand that some make the distinction that subordination is an economic and not essential part of the Trinity (I believe that was Rahner?). I also understand that social Trinitarianism seems to focus on the members of the Trinity as three individuals (which seems to lead to tritheism). I do like Barth’s position (as best as I can understand it – he never really says ‘here’s what I think of the Trinity in one helpful statement’).

    • Like many others, I have questions about Rahner’s “axiom” of equating the economic and immanent, namely pertaining to God’s freedom and (in recent Barthian debates) the ordering of election and incarnation. That is a huge debate, which would take us too far afield and which I need greater clarity.

      Yes, tritheism is one of the big questions. Social trinitarianism has been very popular among feminist theologians (in terms of egalitarian relations), which has elicited an opposite response from conservatives (in terms of complementary relations). I am, obviously, more sympathetic to the latter than the former, but I think both have an impoverished understanding of trinitarian metaphysics, which is admittedly difficult and not without ambiguity.

    • I do like Barth’s position (as best as I can understand it – he never really says ‘here’s what I think of the Trinity in one helpful statement’).

      Yes, and that is why I am working with three of his major part-volumes in this post: II.1, III.1, and VI.1, with some help from Table Talks. And I am presupposing his basic work in CD I.1. So, that covers the first part-volumes of the entire CD! This is fundamental to understanding Barth’s theology.

  2. WRT tritheism: I don’t see a way around such a conclusion if ‘persons’ is defined in a basically analytic philosophical way – i.e, an individual center of consciousness/volition, and that’s usually how it goes.

    I find Wright to actually be pretty helpful in Trinitarian study – his ‘greek philosophy’ criticisms may be overblown but I think he’s got a fairly valid point when he says that the Trinity and the necessary grammar/framework for articulating the doctrine of the Trinity is built-in to Scripture.

    • From what I’ve gleaned from Wright on this, I have little with which to disagree. Thanks for the Hart essay — Jenson is someone who elicits contradictory responses from students of Barth.

  3. As a former practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which holds the philosophical doctrine of non-duality, I’ve always struggled with the question of how not to find implications for the nature of all existence in the Christian assertion that God is trinity, which seems to involve exactly the same kind of non-duality as the Zen idea where the one and the many exist as a kind of phenomenal and ontological dance. My concern arises out of the obvious need to keep distinction between Creator and created, which the idea of non-duality seems to undermine and deconstruct. If the divine being can paradoxically be one and many, then why can’t all existence, and for that matter the shared existence of what Christianity distinguishes as Creator and created? I know that this would lead to philosophical pantheism, which I wish to avoid, because it contradicts the plain teaching of the Bible, but it is a logical sticking point.

    If anyone has a reply that might be helpful for me regarding this matter, please be aware that I have no formal theological training, and try your best to give a reasonable approximation of laymen’s language.


    • Thanks, Robert — your question touches upon the the most debated aspects of trinitarian theology today. There are tendencies toward duality and non-duality. The work of Jürgen Moltmann, Robert Jenson, and Bruce McCormack are instances of emphasizing the non-duality, so they each approximate rather closely to Hegel’s philosophy of God’s historical “coming-into-being” or “being-in-becoming,” to borrow from Eberhard Jüngel.

      Contrariwise, the work of Thomas F. Torrance, John Webster, George Hunsinger, and Paul Molnar are instances of emphasizing the duality, even though each are technically “non-dualist” (especially Torrance) if we are thinking in Kantian categories. This means that everyone who identifies with Barth, more or less, wants to be non-dualist insofar as we begin our conception of God through his self-revelation in Jesus Christ and through the awakening of the Holy Spirit. This claim is, obviously, a historical phenomenon. The debate is whether history constitutes the divine or vice-versa, or whether (or how) these are mutually constitutive. As you can guess, this is a highly technical debate.

      With this second group, I emphasize the Creator-creature distinction, which has been the emphasis within the history of the church — until the modern period, especially among liberals. The grace that “unites” the gap between Creator and creature does not involve any identity between the two. At the christological level, the human does not become divine, as if the predicates of each are interchangeable. Likewise, we do not become divine through our union with God in Christ. The human is elevated and perfected, proper to her integrity as God’s good creation, but she does not become divine.

      I know this explanation is still “technical,” not “layman’s language,” but (in my defense) the question of dualism is invariably technical!

    • I’m fairly ignorant of Buddhist doctrine (something I’m trying to rememdy) so I won’t comment on that aspect – but according to Christianity, the divine being, God, isn’t one and many. ‘Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God is one.’ There is one God – that’s a fairly significant point – not one that is paradoxically many.

  4. It’s probably helpful to note that Barth’s method here is thinking *after* God’s revelation. Basically, if I read him right, his approach is: God has spoken, what must be true of God for that to be so? (with help from Alister McGrath)

    • Yes, but more precisely: the reality of God’s revelation establishes the possibility of God’s revelation. Thus, “what must be true of God” for revelation is given in revelation.

  5. I’m totally high-jacking this thread for my own ends…but I guess blogs are not really that important are they? Will there be extra jewels in our crown for our blogging righteousness? anyway, for the day that’s in it. Friends asked me a q and I though id ask some brighter people than me… Did Jesus go to hell after he died?

    • The creed states that Jesus “descended into hell” or, in some renderings, “descended to the dead.” This has generally been understand as Jesus’ triumphant declaration of victory to the departed souls in “hades” (the realm of the dead).

      Balthasar caused a controversy in Catholic circles by teaching that Jesus suffered during his descent to hades/hell — as such, it was an extension of his humiliation on the Cross for our sins. For Balthasar, the descent on Holy Saturday was the completion of the Son’s forsakenness on our behalf, bearing the full separation from God caused by sin/evil. Apparently, this understanding was in accord with the mystical revelations of his friend, Adrienne von Speyr.

      Contra Balthasar, a number of theologians have noted that there is little or no exegetical support for his thesis and that the tradition has long understood the Cross as the completion of the Son’s forsakenness (“It is finished”). Also, the tradition has long understood the descent into hell as a triumphant descent, not a further sharing in the Father’s rejection of sinful man.

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