In my last post, I briefly laid out my argument against patriarchy as standing upon four pillars. Today, I want to look at the first of these pillars, that patriarchy is heresy because it teaches an Arian distortion of Trinitarian theology. A number of scholars have observed this fact, but most prominent among them has been Kevin Giles, who has done extensive research on this issue in his books Jesus and the Father, Trinitarian Subordinationism, and The Eternal Generation of the Son. I am indebted to his work.
NOTE: A brief aside on terminology. Since not all those who teach patriarchical theology want to use the term “patriarchy” to describe their position, I will also use the term “hierarchical-complimentarians” interchangeably with it.
Before we get to Arius, however, we have to start with what patriarchalists and hierarchical-complimentarians say. Beginning in the 1970s with the publication of George Knight’s book The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, hierarchical-complimentarians have argued for the subordination of women by analogy to Christ’s subordination to the Father. They claim that within the Trinitarian life, the Father as “head” of the Son places the Father in a “role” of having authority and power over the Son, and they appeal to 1 Corinthians 11:3 to justify this claim: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of the wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” George Knight III argues that there is a “chain of command” within the Trinity that has “certain ontological aspects” (p. 33, 56).
Hierarchical-complimentarians have generally followed Knight since the publication of his book. Wayne Gruden agrees, strongly arguing that the “fundamental difference” between the Persons of the Trinity are “differences in authority,” (Biblical Foundations, p. 31; Evangelical Feminism, p. 433). Bruce Ware argues that there is an “authority-submission structure” to the Trinitarian relationship, where the Father possesses “supreme authority” and Christ “submits to the Father,” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, p. 11). Reformed Presbyterian scholar Robert Letham also writes that “the Son submits in eternity to the Father” and that His “human obedience reflects his divine submission,” (Holy Trinity, pp. 402-403). R. C. Sproul Jr. also teaches the eternal subordination of the Son: “The Son proceeds from, and is submissive to, the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is submissive to both,” (Family Practice, p. 13; Bound for Glory, pp. 64-66). Douglas Wilson also clearly teaches subordinationism: “God the Son is subordinate to God the Father,” (Father Hunger, p. 43; For a Glory and a Covering, pp. 39-41; Federal Husband, p. 15). Robert Andrews, another patriarchalist, speaks of “Jesus’ subordinate functional position as Son,” and His “submission to [this] authority structure,” (The Family, p. 47, emphasis his).
The odd thing, as Giles points out, is that 1 Corinthians 11:3 barely came up during the Trinitarian debates of the first few centuries of the Church, and was likewise never used by Calvin in his explication of the Trinity, because the text was not considered to teach an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Yet the distinct impression you get from reading these patriarchalists is that it is perfectly obvious that the text does in fact teach eternal subordination within the Trinitarian Godhead. Patriarchalist (and President of the Southern Baptist Convention) Russell Moore even accuses those who argue for a co-equal status of the Persons within the Trinity (as taught by the Athanasian Creed) of abandoning “the orthodox doctrine of God,” (“After Patriarchy, What?” JETS, p. 574).
In any case, the use of 1 Corinthians 11:3 to argue for the subordination of the Son within the Godhead is very new, and its use is designed to ground patriarchal teaching in a “creational hierarchy” that images and reflects a supposed intra-Trinitarian hierarchy among the Persons of the Godhead.
The Arian Connection
We’ve looked at what patriarchalists and hierarchical-complimentarians teach. But what of the Arian connection? Between the second and fourth centuries after Christ, the Church began developing a strong doctrine of the Trinity and was involved in answering the objections of those that found themselves outside the fence of orthodoxy. This discussion was mostly grounded around interpretation of the Scriptures, and many of these post-Nicene Church Fathers spent a lot of time writing answers to the Arians, a group of teachers who believed, among other things, that Jesus was eternally subordinated to the Father in both His ontology (being) and authority (role).
Scholar Robert Hanson writes that the Arians taught that the Son “does the Father’s will and exhibits obedience and subordination to the Father, and adores and praises the Father, not only in His earthly ministry but in Heaven,” (Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 103, emphasis mine). That is, the Arians believed that Jesus was always subordinated to the Father in power and authority, and always would be. In their book Early Arianism, scholars Gregg and Groh write that, for Arius and his followers, “the Father and the Son relationship was a relationship in which the former [was] prior, superior, and dominant” and where this subordination was “conceived relationally rather than ontologically” and “marked by dependence rather than co-equality,” (p. 91).
This is precisely what the patriarchalists and hierarchical-complimentarians teach us. As we have seen, they ground their reading of subordination of women upon the eternal inner-Trinitiarian “hierarchy” of roles and authorities. Knight argued that there was a “chain of command” that even had “ontological aspects.” Ware wrote that the Godhead had an “authority-submission structure.” Letham wrote that “the Son submits in eternity to the Father.” Sproul Jr. while defining Trinitarian roles wrote that “The Son proceeds from, and is submissive to, the Father.” Wilson writes that “with regard to how the Father and Son relate to one another, the Father has all authority,” (Federal Husband, p. 15).
This is not the language of mere “role” distinction or the expression of the economic Trinity. This is a subordinationalism that argues from the shape of the eternal Trinitarian “hierarchy.” This hierarchy has “ontological aspects,” exists “in eternity,” and is grounded in the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, “with regard to how the Father and Son relate to one another.”
Patriarchalists are sensitive to this charge of Arian heresy, and have tried to avoid the charge in a few common ways. They roundly reject the idea that their view is a neo-Arian subordinationalism, arguing that their structure is based on “roles,” not ontology (essence or being). Wilson, for example, is typical when he writes that the argument for the subordination of the Son does not mean “that Christ is less than God in His nature or being,” who is “equal to the Father with regard to His nature,” but it “does mean that the Father exercises authority over the Son,” (Federal Husband, 15; Father Hunger, 42-43, see also Schreiner, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 128-130).
But is this, in fact, what patriarchalists teach?
It is not enough to claim to have avoided a neo-Arian heresy; it must be reflected in the actual structure and content of what they teach. As we have already seen, they believe that this hierarchical structure within the Trinity has “ontological aspects” and exists “in eternity.” So it is not true that patriarchalists limit the subordination of the Son to areas of “role” and “authority.” It bleeds over into areas of essence, nature, being, and ontology. Wilson, for example, bases his patriarchal claims for fatherhood not on the economic Trinity or in “roles” as distinguished from the “essence” or “nature” within the Godhead. Rather, he appeals to a statement by Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who said, “The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence,” (Father Hunger, 28), and then later interprets this to mean an eternal subordination of the Son (pp. 42-43).
Likewise, we have seen that the Arians did not limit their subordinationalism to ontology and being, but likewise insisted that the Son was unequal with the Father in matters of power, role, and authority. The Arians taught that the Father was “prior, superior, and dominant” over the Son, a doctrine “conceived relationally rather than ontologically” and “marked by dependence rather than co-equality.” Even were it proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that patriarchalists do not teach ontological subordinationalism, they still cannot escape the charge of neo-Arianism, because Arianism included relational subordinationalism. The universal Church, in rejecting Arianism, also rejected such relational subordinationalism of the Son.
What is more, the very distinction upon which such subordinationalism rests is a rather tenuous Greek notion of distinction between essence (being) and role (action), which hinges upon an internal/external distinction which does not exist in God. The very nature of a God of revelation is that He can only reveal Himself to man by His deeds. To look upon the Incarnate Son is to see the Father perfectly (a view that does not depend upon subordinationalism, but rather on mutual indwelling and oneness), and to see God’s saving acts is to know God Himself. As Karl Rahner, the first theologian to lead the Trinitarian revival, wrote in 1967, “the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity,” (The Trinity, p. 22). That is to say, all we know about the “inner” life of the Trinity is by the “outer” Trinity, the Trinity who works in the world and gives the revelation of Himself. Thus, our choices are to either see a co-equality in both inner and outer expressions of the Trinity, or to see subordinationalism within both the inner and outer expressions of the Trinity.
We finish by looking at Biblical Trinitarianism. The first thing to note is that no one denies that Jesus humbled Himself by becoming Incarnate as a man (Phil. 2:5-8). This passage gets a lot of play by patriarchalists, who use this as an example of the Son’s subordination to the Father, which in context strongly implies that the passage teaches what they claim, that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father (Wilson, Father Hunger, 42-43; Federal Husband, 15), even though they have failed to note that they are actually changing subjects. But the submission of the Son was voluntary and temporary, not a matter of being subordinate by nature or role, but rather because He exercises one part of the inner-Trinitarian practice of mutual submission, by which all three Persons submit to one another in a never ending spiral of self-surrender.
His submission was also only for His time on earth, and refers only to His Incarnate form. Paul’s argument for Jesus’s perfect obedience refers to His work as the Second Adam, not as the eternal Son of God (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22; Phil. 2:8). The obedience which the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of refers only to the “days of His flesh,” (Heb. 5:7-9). As the eternal Son, Jesus never stopped being co-equal with the Father and Spirit. Once ascended to take the throne, the Son as the God-man takes up what He set aside so that the Incarnation is now co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. In heaven, Jesus is declared by the Apostles to be co-equal with the Father, holding equal power and authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-21; Col. 2:10), cooperating with the Father as an equal to rule all things from the same Throne (Rev. 7:10-12; 11:15).
The gospel of John does speak of the Son imitating the Father in what He says and does. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works,” (John 14:10). But does this verse depend upon the subordination of the Son to the Father, or to the mutual submission and mutual indwelling between the Father and the Son, who are co-equal? Jesus justifies this claim of speaking the words of the Father as on the basis of mutual indwelling: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” (John 14:11). In the same way, Jesus images the Father (John 14:9) not because the Father has authority over Him but because they indwell one another so closely and intimately that everything that can be spoken about the Father is equally true for the Son, and everything that can be spoken about the Son is equally true of the Father. The Trinity is non-reducible: “The aspects [of each Person] are inseperable, and in fact each belongs to all three persons of the Trinity,” (Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, p. 41). Jesus imitates the Father because He and the Father are one, not because He is a subordinate who must obey His superior. Such a view injects earthly obsession with power into the heart of the Godhead and thereby distorts everything else.
As the Athanasian Creed declares, “the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal,” and “in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”
It remains only to briefly address 1 Corinthians 11:3: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” What does this mean, if Paul is not arguing for the subordination of the Son to the Father in power and authority. A full discussion must be reserved for a later time, but for now it will satisfy to point out that the Greek word (kaphale) translated “head” does not refer to authority, but rather to source or origin. Reading the passage in this light, we see that Paul is not discussing gender roles of power or authority, but simply the source and origin of the corporate realities of creation. Christ is the source of every man because He is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2-3). The “man” (not husband) is the source of the “woman” (not wife) because woman was extracted from man’s side. And finally, the source of Christ is the Father, because He is begotten by the Father. Paul’s observations are not hierarchical in the slightest, and simply represent a reflection on the origins of man and woman.