In What Sense the Son is Subordinate to the Father [Commentary on Browne: Article II (1)]

The question of whether, or in what sense, the Son can rightly be characterized as “subordinate” to the Father has been a contentious topic in recent decades. The controversy reached a fever pitch in 2016 with an explosion of online posts and exchanges, in which many self-identified evangelicals defended what has been variously termed “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), “eternal functional subordination” (EFS), and “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS).[1]

The basic idea is that “at the ontological level, there is absolute equality of deity as all three share fully in the one and undivided divine nature. But at the functional level, in the roles that each carries out, they can be ‒ must be! ‒ distinguished from one another.” On this account, a defining feature of the Son is that “he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father.” Put differently, “The position of greater authority is always held by the Father, while the position of submission to that authority is always held by the Son.”[2]

Part of the felt need for EFS among many who hold to it arises from the rejection of the traditional doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. However, there is no reason to seek such an alternative account of the Son’s relation to the Father when eternal generation is affirmed, as we find in Article II.

In his historical account of the doctrine, Browne emphasizes that even though the Son is “generated” by the Father, this in no way should be taken to mean the Son is inferior to or lesser than the Father:

It is hardly necessary to observe that the orthodox fathers held that the Son was begotten of the Father from all eternity, so before all time deriving His Divine Essence from His Father (μόνος ἐκ μόνου γεγέννηται τοῦ Πατρός. Cyril. Alexandr. in Act. Concil. Ephes.) This eternal generation they held to be a proof that He was of one substance and eternity with the Father; but the relation of Father to Son they held to constitute a priority of order, though not of nature or power. They held, that is, not that the Son was, in His nature as God, in any degree different from, or inferior to the Father; but that, as the Father alone was the source and fountain (πηγή, ἀρχή, αἰτία) of Deity, the Son having been begotten, and the Spirit proceeding, so there was a subordination, without diversity, of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son [emphasis original].

Browne holds that the Son is not “in any degree different from, or inferior to the Father,” with the Father’s priority only being one of “order” rather than “nature or power,” and the Son’s “subordination” being “without diversity.” He elaborates further in his treatment of the Scriptural proof for eternal generation:

This peculiar relation of the Father to the Son is that which has authorized the Church, while she confesses an equality of nature, to admit also a priority of order in the Persons of the Trinity. The Father hath this preeminence, that He is not only uncreated, but unbegotten, too. He derives His essence from none, being Himself the Fountain of life and the Source of being. The Son, too, is uncreated, deriving His being, not by creation but by generation, from the Father. Yet in this He is subordinate to the Father; not that His attributes are lower, or His nature inferior, but that both are derived. The Father begat; the Son is begotten. The Father is Life, Christ too is Life; but He confesses that He has life from the Father (John vii. 29), and that “He liveth by the Father” (John vi. 57). “The Father hath life in Himself:” so too has the Son. But the Father not only in Himself but from Himself. The Son in Himself, but from the Father (John v. 26). On this account, therefore, and in this sense, “the Father is greater than the Son” (John xiv. 28); greater as regards priority of order, not greater as regards infinity of nature.[3]

Thus we find that Browne uses the word “subordinate” to describe the Son’s relation to the Father only in a strictly delimited sense. His language is redolent of the Athanasian Creed, which says “the Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.”[4] Crucially, the Creed goes on to state that “in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal together and coequal.”[5] This directly strikes against the claim that “the position of greater authority is always held by the Father” articulated by EFS proponents. Given that Article VIII commends the Athanasian Creed as one that “ought thoroughly to be received and believed” because it “may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture,” no subordinationist doctrine, even of a merely “functional” sort, has any place within confessional Anglicanism.

As noted above, EFS advocates may object that they, too, affirm the “absolute equality of deity [in the Trinity] as all three share fully in the one and undivided divine nature,” at least at the ontological level. The problem lies precisely with parceling the Trinity into an “ontological” level and a “functional” level, for this is to divide the undivided nature and introduce “parts” into the Trinity, which is forbidden by Article I. A truly undivided (i.e., metaphysically simple) Trinity entails that each Person shares the same divine essence, yet this cannot be the case “if the Son has an eternal personal property [i.e., being in submission] in addition to the relation of origin [i.e., eternal generation] which constitutes the real relation in the divine essence that is the Son”—for “then the Son’s essence would be non-identical to the Father’s essence.”[6]

Whatever the professed intentions of EFS proponents, subordinationist doctrine—functional or otherwise—cannot be reconciled with Christian classical theism, which the Articles uphold in their affirmation of divine simplicity (Article I), the eternal generation of the Son (Article II), and the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds (Article VIII). Browne’s use of the word “subordinate” in reference to the Son must therefore be understood in light of these three Articles and should not be compared with how contemporary EFS defenders use the term.

Notes

  1. For an account of this online debate, see Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).
  2. Bruce Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father,” Reformation21, 9 June 2016, https://www.reformation21.org/blogs/god-the-sonat-once-eternally-g.php, emphasis original. While it is true that the Son submits to the Father, to say that he does so from eternity is a serious error. See Thomas Joseph White, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 277‒307; D. Glenn Butner Jr., The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018); Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021), 213‒60; Thomas H. McCall, Analytic Christology and the Theological Interpretation of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 114‒36; and Steven J. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology in Light of the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 112‒30, 243‒314.
  3. Compare Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 1, Bk. IV, The Trinity (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 448, 486‒88. For more on the doctrine of eternal generation, see Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 27‒28; Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Francesca Aran Murphy, trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 57‒61; Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God, Matthew Levering, trans. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press, 2011), 69‒73, 125‒28; Fred Sanders, The Triune God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2016), 126‒30; Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, eds., Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017); Barrett, Simply Trinity, 155‒212; Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 480‒82; D. Glenn Butner Jr., Trinitarian Dogmatics: Exploring the Grammar of the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 47‒74; and Thomas Joseph White, The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022), 415‒18, 471‒80.
  4. Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, eds., The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 28.
  5. 1662 Book of Common Prayer, 29.
  6. James R. Gordon, “Subordination or Simplicity? Why eternal subordination undermines simplicity in the Trinity,” Credo Magazine 11.1, 4 April 2021, https://credomag.com/article/subordination-and-simplicity/. See also Butner Jr., Trinitarian Dogmatics, 75‒100, and White, The Trinity, 239‒60.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


'In What Sense the Son is Subordinate to the Father [Commentary on Browne: Article II (1)]' has 1 comment

  1. February 27, 2023 @ 2:10 pm Don Warrington

    God attributes and actions are essential to him. It is impossible to separate functional and ontological subordination. I discuss this here: https://vulcanhammer.org/2013/11/05/why-sydney-anglican-subordinationism-is-lame/

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