The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine

1. The Debate So Far
2. Survey of Some Relevant Material
3. Subordination
4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 1)
5. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)

The sixth part in my series of posts on the debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son has just been posted. Within this post I start to explore the tension between systematic theology and biblical studies, as it has been expressed within the recent debates.

The neglect of Scripture is common even in the work of the most able dogmaticians. For instance, I recently read Webster’s superb treatment of Trinity and creation, and was struck by how it largely functions in a manner independent of exegesis, or reflection upon the biblical narrative (I would have loved to have seen Webster engage closely with something akin to Francis Watson’s suggested Trinitarian reading of Genesis 1 in Text, Church, and World). ESS is, more than anything else, about the reading of key biblical texts, rather than about the parsing of a theology of God that, no matter how orthodox, increasingly floats free of the text.

When readings of Scripture that have a prima facie plausibility to many readers are met with forceful objections from Trinitarian doctrine, but little by way of careful alternative exegesis, it is unsurprising that tensions will arise between exegetes and dogmaticians. Indeed, there is a danger that dogmatics may come to be regarded chiefly as the creator of obstacles, burdens, and Kafkaesque demands for interpreters of Scripture.

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, Bible, Controversies, Doctrine of God, Guest Post, Hermeneutics, NT, NT Theology, Scripture, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine

  1. Well said, Alastair.

    Ps Sam Powell, who blogs at myonlycomfort is going to post an article exegeting 1 Corinthians 11:3. You might like to read it when it comes out. Sam is in the Reformed creedal tradition and he opposes ESS.

    • I look forward to reading it. I have written a piece challenging the ESS exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:3 myself, which should be coming out at some point in the next month or so.

      • Looking forward to your piece, Alastair!

      • Alistair says:

        That would be great. It has been one of my frustrations that so little exegesis has been on display. Of course, ESS is not a monolith position, so I assume that would be defined with that in mind…unless you think they are all essesntially the same.

      • I know that ESS is not a monolithic position. Whether Sam Powell is going to address those differences is something I don’t know.

        I confess I’m not fully across the differences between the various versions of ESS, though I know that Grudem’s version is influenced by his doubt about the doctrine of eternal generation. (And how he can doubt that doctrine is beyond me.)

      • I found your piece on the ESS debate interesting and helpful and am also looking forward to reading your piece on 1 Cor.11:3. From a theological point of view I am a bit out of my depth with the ESS debate, but I am interested in the word ‘head’ in English translations of 1 Cor.11:3. In modern English usage ‘head’ is often a descriptor for a position of authority, as in Head of State, so it is easy to get the impression that Paul was describing a pecking order in this verse! And yet… I still have my L-plates on as a student of NT Greek but I understand that ‘kephale’ had quite a wide area of meaning/symbolism and that it did not necessarily suggest a position of authority. Just a thought!

  2. And because my interest in the ESS debate stems mostly from how I know ESS is affecting the lives of women, I have focused more on that than on the fine differences between different proponents of ESS.

    From where I sit, the effects of ESS on women are a very serious matter. I respect that orthodox theologians see the most serious issue as the distortion of the doctrine of God, and I agree that IS a very serious matter, so I value the theologians’ input in the debate. But I guess I’m bringing a female viewpoint to the table more. Bad doctrine always has bad consequences; bad doctrine and its bad consequences are two sides of the same coin. And because I know intimately about the bad consequences of ESS for women (especially women who are victims of domestic abuse) that’s the point of view I am trying to bring to the debate. If that point of view is not attended to sufficiently, the debate is not fully fleshed out, in my opinion.

    I know that some pastors and theologians who are writing against ESS are mentioning the effects on women. But I’m longing to hear more of them speak about the harmful effects ESS has on women and especially on women who are victims of domestic abuse. If ESS is like a pinched nerve, that is where the pinched nerve is most painful in the body of Christ.

    • Alistair says:

      Hi Barbara,

      First, I’d best clarify in case you missed it, I am not the Alastair of this blog. I am a different Alistair. My name is spelt with one letter different and can easily be missed. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear.

      Second, I am horrified by the abuse that ESS has been used to support. I am confident that the main teachers of this doctrine would be even more horrified. It is clear that something in what they are saying is being translated into permission for inexcusable sin.

      Third, I believe a case can be made for a form of ESS that does not allow for an interpretation that condones abuse. In fact, I’m struggling to understand how drawing on the relationships between the members of the Trinity can result in abuse, where the one will of God is reflected in the teachings of the New Testament where Paul, for example, encourages Christians to be of one mind (Phil 2:1-2 and following), and leaders are to approach those who think differently with kindness and patience (2 Tim 2:24-25), an attitude that should be present even more within a marriage. If ESS results in permission to abuse, what on earth do they think the relationships between the members of the Trinity look like?

      I say that, but I accept that ESS has been used in that way. Yet I personally want to move away from a knee-jerk reaction, and consider whether a better understanding of Trinitarian relationships traced through to New Testament teaching on relationships in general would be more productive than divorcing them from human behaviour altogether. And the best place to start with that is to return to the Scriptures, which is why I am also excited by the prospect of reading Alastair’s take on 1 Corinthians 11:3.

      Thanks for your input, Barbara. I am not going to be around for the next few days, so I’ll make this my last contribution and trust that I’ll learn from any continued comments when I get around to reading them.

      • Alistair — thanks for explaining that you’re different from the Al -A -stair who writes this blog. And thanks for your comment. I’m glad you are horrified by the abuse that ESS has been used to support.

        Unfortunately, I don’t share your confidence that the main teachers of this doctrine would be even more horrified. Let me explain why. I’m fully aware that the main teachers who support ESS (and the main teachers associated with CBMW) have stated that they do NOT support domestic abuse and that their complementarian principles are not in any way a justification for men to abuse their wives. I know these folk get quite hot under the collar when other people assert that comp teaching enables or intensifies domestic abuse by male perpetrators.

        But the fact is, abusive men take many things these teachers have said and ‘translate’ them into permission for inexcusable sin. I could provide hundreds of examples.
        I also can provide testimonies from women whose husbands became abusive, or became MORE abusive than they were already, when they were influenced by complementarian teachings particularly what I call the Hard Patriarchy end of complementarianism.

        And I can provide hundreds of testimonies from women whose suffering in domestic abuse has been prolonged because of how the complementarian church has responded to them when they disclosed the abuse.

        Complementarian teaching and ESS do not cause domestic abuse, but they certainly can enable and empower and magnify the entitlement mentality of abusive men, and contribute to the suffering of abused wives. And the leaders of complementarian movement have, in my view, been negligent in not addressing this problem enough, and in not listening to or heeding the constructive criticism and suggestions that people like me have been making to them.

        I am convinced that complementarian leaders could reconsider and modify quite a lot of their teaching so that it is much less likely to be used by abusers to enable and empower the abusive husbands and further entrap the abused wives. And I’m convinced that such revising and reshaping would be Scripturally sound, and it wouldn’t entail having to adopt egalitarianism.

      • It’s not only that comp and ESS teachings have been utilised wickedly by abusive husbands. At least one of the key teachers has actually taught things that provide an excuse to men who choose to abuse their wives. I have documented what Bruce Ware said that provides an excuse to abusive husbands — you can read it if you search for “Bruce Ware teaches that a wife’s lack of submission threatens her husband’s authority, and he responds to this threat by abusing her (ERAS part 3)”

        I’ve tried to communicate with leaders of CBMW but they get indignant as soon as I start telling them that some of their teaching helps enable domestic abusers. They appear to see me as hostile; they appear to write me off because I’m offering them constructive criticism. But in my view, they (and the church) would be much better off if they listened to folk like me who have constructive criticisms and suggestions to offer. And I am not an egalitarian.

  3. Truit says:

    I find responses like Butler’s rather frustrating, personally.

    “For the Son to eternally submit to the Father, the Son must have a distinct will from the Father. Constantinople III demands that the incarnate Son has a human and a divine will, but Chalcedon teaches that Christ only has a human nature, not a human hypostasis. If the Son has a human will, then will must be a property of nature. If will is a property of nature, then eternal submission would require that the Father and Son have distinct natures. Or, we can take the approach of monothelitism and argue that will is a property of person, as Bruce Ware and others explicitly argue, but then we lack a savior who is fully human, for certainly full humanity requires possession of a human will, and according to Chalcedon Jesus only possessed a human nature, not a human person.”

    The problem is that ‘will’ can be a very vague and nebulous word.

    Just because two persons have the same nature, does not mean that they must necessarily perform all of the same acts. And will is not just a property, it is an act. Jesus does some things, and experiences some things, in virtue of his human nature, other things in virtue of his divinity. But the same person does, and experiences, both.

    I think there are different kinds of willing that are being treated as being the same. There can be distinctions in will between the Father and Son without a conflict in will; for example, the Son can actively will to be incarnate as a man, while the Father wills that the Son be incarnate. Their ‘position’ relative to the thing they are willing is different, but the goal is the same.

    So likewise, the Father wills the Son’s submission and the Son wills to submit. Their will is directed at the very same thing. It doesn’t require any deprivation, limitation, or humanity to make sense of. It isn’t something Jesus does just in virtue of his humanity.

    • cal says:

      You ought to read St. Maximus to understand the essence of Constantinople III. Maximus utilized a very precise set of terms to articulate the ‘will’. It doesn’t have to be a nebulous term.

      When it comes to Humans, Maximus designates the differences between ‘will’ as a property belonging to a nature and the individual utilization of the will, its enhypostasization. It’s this distinction that avoids the rock of Origen (nature overrides hypostasis) and hard-place of Augustine (hypostasis overrides nature) (ala. Joseph Farrell’s work).

      This fits with a Phillipian’s hymn definition of the Word’s willing to “not count divinity something to grasp at, but emptied Himself”. But you’d have to make the case that this kenosis is an eternal enactment of the will in an eternal state of affairs. And while this might be more theologically neat, it’s biblically untenable, as God the Word was once not Incarnate, and He is presently reigning and not yet returned the Kingdom to the Father.

      But we have to be careful not to confuse the Divine Nature as within the category of the more broader ‘Natures’, of which the Divine is one alongside Human, Dog, etc. Your construction of Father-Son relations is on the verge of doing that, unless understood completely metaphorically. But then it looses the whole force of its argument.

      The quite obvious and clear Monarchia of the Father, throughout the Scripture, does not justify, entail, or argue the ESS, but represents a confusion of categories. Butler does this, but your rebuttal as well. The question of generation/begottenness is the key, at least per the good Origenists (the Cappadocians), as it does require issues of less (essence) or subordination (will). The Father asks of the Son & Spirit, and the Son asks of the Father & Spirit, and the Spirit asks of the Father & Son, but does not require any hierarchy, even if we understand a taxis.

      • Truit says:

        Thanks for the reply cal.

        – I’m not familiar with St Maximus, but that is the kind of distinction I had in mind.

        – I don’t think the Philippian hymn refers to ESS and I’m not sure why you think I should.

        – I do tend to talk about the divine nature as though it were a genus, but that’s because I see that distinction as leading to either modalism or just incoherence. How can e.g. the Son’s love be exactly the same instantiation of love as the Father’s love?

        – I think I have tended to see the monarchy of the Father as entailing eternal subordination. Thanks for reminding me that they are distinct issues.

  4. cal says:

    Truitt:
    -I was saying that the Philippians passage doesn’t argue ESS, nor was I attributing it to you (my use of “you” was the general, anyone type). I was using that as an example for conceptualizing the moment of emptying with a kind of always emptying, implying a kind of eternal subordination. I was just addressing that as a passing issue.

    -I advocate for the use of Divine Nature, conceptually, but with caution. The begottenness of the Son and Procession of the Spirit are not events, they are not time-based, and yet they reflect not separation. I am always at a loss of words for this. I’ve read in Christopher Beeley’s work on Gregory Nazianzus that Gregory, ‘the’ Theologian, believed something like the Father Himself was the Divine Nature, a Person as the Nature, This is probably problematic, but it was interesting in that it makes sense of how the Son is distinct, but not divided or different, without making Divine a subset of Nature. However, the distinction ought not to be voided because it’s tricky, otherwise we’re bound for Tritheism, incoherence, or Arianism.

  5. Heads up: Crossway have pulled the article in which they listed all the changes in the latest ESV translation, but it’s on the WebArchive. Email me Alastair you want the link.

    And Crossway have reversed their decision to make the latest translation permanent.

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