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.