The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 8. κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

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)
6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine
7. Reconciling Scripture and Dogma

The eighth part of my treatment of the eternal subordination of the Son debate has just been published over on Reformation21.

The need for a sturdy proof-text pillar for complementarian theology can put considerable pressure upon a term such as κεφαλή. I believe that such scholars as Grudem unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of this term, a multivalency that is important to Paul’s argument in the immediate context (where more metaphorical senses of the term in verse 3 are purposefully brought into connection with literal senses of the term in the verses that follow). Literary word play and expansive breadth of meaning may not be especially welcome when we are looking for clear theological propositions. However, multivalency need not entail ambiguity: multivalency can bring a different sort of clarity, as it establishes illuminating relationships between concepts, realities, and images, rather than detaching them from each other and analysing them individually.

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, NT, NT Theology, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 8. κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

  1. mnpetersen37 says:

    Too short; didn’t read.

  2. Hi Alastair.

    In your article you seem to pit a hierarchical understanding of authority against an preeminent(ial?) understanding of authority. I certainly agree that kephale in 1 Cor 11 is broader than authority – it is difficult to understand the passage if you don’t acknowledge that – but is it fair to leave “hierarchy” shivering out in the cold?

    The biblical description of godly authority compared to pagan authority seems to be one of service vs. “lording it over”. Is hierarchy really lording it over? Can’t hierarchy be empowering? Or has the word taken on such negative connotations that it’s useless to try to use it in a godly sense?

    • κεφαλή can definitely refer to a relation in which there is hierarchical authority. For instance, Christ definitely is over us, without ‘lording over’ us. And such hierarchy can often be an exceedingly good thing.

      My concern is that the term κεφαλή doesn’t get so entangled in our debates about authority that our assumptions about authority start to colonize it. Hierarchy isn’t to be removed, but it needs to be placed in a different frame.

    • cal says:

      My thought in addition: It’s helpful to disentangle preeminence from hierarchy as two distinct, and sometimes separate concepts. Preeminence does not always require a hierarchy and a hierarchy does not always require preeminence. Thus, there may be a Trinitarian taxis that does create a subordinational structure, and there may be hierarchies that do not require forms aristocratic notions of an elite.

  3. peteohall says:

    Alastair a couple of points. First, whilst I agree that some scholars unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of the term kephale, it’s important to recognise that the term was first singled out and contested by egalitarians. In fact, about 15 years ago, the interpretation of kephale as ‘source’ as against ‘have authority over’ was the main argument used to turn the group of churches I was part of from a complementarian to an egalitarian position. So, Grudem and others were pushed into their focus on this word by its misuse by others – and I’m glad they did focus on it because otherwise ‘scholarship’ would be used to pull the wool over our eyes.
    Second, I don’t think it is helpful to say that kephale denotes ‘the dimension of visibility, prominence, eminence, social superiority.’ Think about it: this would mean that a husband is intended by God to be thought of as socially superior, more eminent than his wife – not a NT value (Philippians 2:3). Rather, Paul completes that section of his argument by explaining that this is why a wife ought to have a symbol of *authority* on her head.
    Finally, if I might comment on verse 3 (But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God) and the listing of the pairings out of expected sequence: I think this is because Christ is being presented to both husband and wife as their example, but in different ways. To the husband, Christ is presented as an example of headship (Christ is the head of every man, and every husband should exercise headship over his wife in the same way that Christ exercises headship over him). To the wife, Christ is presented as an example of submission (Christ submits himself to God and so shows her how to submit to her husband). So the focus in not on hierarchy (God – Christ – husband – wife) but on Christ as our example whether we are the head or the one who submits to our head.
    I don’t feel qualified to comment on any Trinitarian implications but I doubt that was Paul’s focus anyway. And thanks for your writing and podcasting – I enjoy them both!

    • Thanks for the comment, Pete.

      It is worth bearing in mind that Andrew Perriman, who gives the definition of κεφαλή I favour, is an egalitarian. Not all of the meanings he lists would pertain in the same way in every instance. However, for that matter, it isn’t inappropriate to speak of the man as ‘socially superior’ in a carefully qualified sense. This doesn’t mean that men are superior in every respect, or that this social superiority can appropriately be expressed in lording it over women. Rather, in most human societies men primarily exercise public authority and rule. They are the chief representatives of the family in the public, political, and legal arena.

      As for 1 Corinthians 11:10, I think Thiselton is probably correct to translate it ‘because of this a woman ought to keep control of her head…’

      • I’m curious as to your last comment there, because, while the passage as a whole still captures the multivalency of the word kephale, and Thiselton’s translation doesn’t have to rule out a discussion of authority, the traditional translation makes authority a far more prominent feature.

        What persuades you of Thiselton’s argument? As far as I can see (I’m only going by his commentary here), Thiselton shows that it is possible to translate exousia in v10 “keep control”, but does not show that it is probable.

        – Thiselton’s appeal to other commentators who recognise that it is possible to read exousia as belonging to the woman, is an appeal to commentators 1800 years after the letter was written (at best), whereas the patristic commentators, some of whom wrote in Greek, didn’t entertain that translation, even though they must have been aware of the linguistic possibilities.

        – The cultural historical background Thiselton appeals to has been shown to be incorrect (see Philip B. Payne’s book, Woman and Man, One in Christ for example). But even if it was correct, men who wrote about the passage who were still living in the Roman Empire did not seem to think the culture of the day was relevant.

        Of course, the Church Fathers, and the rest of the Church throughout history, have not necessarily read v10 correctly, but there has to be more than what I’ve seen in Thiselton’s argument to move his translation from an interesting possibility to a translation that is “probably correct”.

      • Alistair says:

        My apologies: Philip Payne’s book is “Man and Woman, One in Christ”. I was thinking of the name of another organisation at the same time :).

  4. Aaron Siver says:

    Hello Alastair,

    In your (excellent) analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:3 here, you’ve focused on the meaning of κεφαλή. Will you be commenting, or would you comment, on the relationship of Christ to God in this passage with respect to whether or not this is even relevant to relations among the Persons or Subsistences of the Trinity? Is this about God the Son in relation to God the Father in terms of their ‘personal’ properties in the Trinity? Or is this about the Son as man in the form of a servant?


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