14 June 2016

Subordinationism, the Incarnation of the Servant, and Love

So, there’s a web-skirmish (I think someone called it) about Subordinationism. Subordinationism is the idea that within the eternal trinity of God, the second person of the trinity (the Logos, Word or Son) is eternally subordinate to the first person (the Father). Plenty of good stuff has been written in response to the subordinationist position put forward by Wayne Grudem and others, including this excellent article by Professor Donald Macleod. I just want to make a couple of points on the importance of the incarnation when it comes to understanding Jesus’s sonship. And then one more on the question of why it was that the Son became Mediator.

The incarnation of the Son is critical in this debate. The NT title ‘Son of God’ has a strong Messianic background – it’s a title designating Jesus as God’s chosen King. The background is found in OT texts like 2 Sam 7:14, Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 89:26-27. The NT data point us first to the incarnational Sonship of Jesus as the Messiah, the incarnate Servant of the Lord. It’s therefore helpful to think of two aspects of Sonship: divine and eternal sonship, and incarnational or Messianic sonship. And, of course, these are intricately linked. The Messianic relationship of Jesus to the Father as Son of God is rightly used to inform the eternal relationship of the divine second person to the divine first person within the Trinity. The pre-existence of the Logos invites this; the Logos becomes flesh and Jesus speaks of God as Father, and himself as Son. Jesus speaks of the glory he had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5). Perhaps one of the NT data for this movement from incarnate sonship to eternal sonship is in Romans 1:3-4, where Paul seems to write of the Son having an identity wider than simply his human descent, and where ‘son’ seems to indicate more than simply the Messianic Son of God:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4 ESV)
Why is this important to the subordination argument? Because we need to recognise that we learn about the nature of the relationship between Father and Son through the incarnation. The Logos becomes human as the Servant of the Lord, the human Messiah.

So, in the first place, the submission of the Son to the Father in our NT texts (e.g. John 8:28; 14:28; 1 Cor 15:28) is the submission of the Son as Messiah. It is the submission of fulfilling the covenants with Abraham and David as the Servant of the Lord, and of serving the Covenant of Grace as Mediator and Redeemer, not an eternal or ontological submission of the kind proposed by the Subordinationists.

In the second place, I want to consider the nature of submission as an aspect of love. When Jesus speaks about love, it is mutual submission, mutual service (e.g. Mark 10:43-45; John 15:12). When Paul writes about the nature of love, he casts it in the same way (Eph 5:21). This is not subordination, which is a one-way submission. If God is love (1 John 4:16), if the mysterious total unity of the trinity of three persons is, at least in part, understood in terms of a powerful mutual love, then the submission and service of the Son within history is, to my mind, reciprocated in the service of the Father to the Son. This seems to me to be a logical outcome of a co-equal trinity. And the same holds true for the Holy Spirit. In the work of redemption, there is a mutual enacting of love in service between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each play a role as divine persons who are also one God, in order to fulfil the purpose of the one God. The Son’s service is unique, since he is the divine person who becomes human. Yet, the Father serves the Son in directing and empowering his work, whether in his life, death or resurrection. Since the Father does not become incarnate, this work is less visible, less-obvious in history.

Lastly, if the eternal Son is not subordinate to the Father, why was it that the Son became Mediator, and became incarnate? A list of reasons is given here by Dr Mark Jones. I just want to add to the list (and put at the top of the list) another reason conspicuous by its absence. It’s this: the Son becoming Mediator cannot be understood aside from his role in Creation. The prophetic and priestly mediatorial role of the Son is rooted in this (now it may be that you want to subsume the work of creation under the ‘mediatorial role’, but as a biblical theologian that would seem odd to me). In the relationship of God with the created cosmos, each person of the Trinity has a particular role in acting as the One Creator. Perhaps this is clearest in the prologue to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made… (John 1:1-3 ESV)
Paul also sets out the same truth in Colossians 1:16. The eternal Son is the one through whom and for whom all things were made. The Father does not charge the Son to create – there is no subordinationism here. In the words of Bavinck, ‘while the creation is a work of the whole Trinity…it also stands in a peculiar relation to the Son’ (RD 2:423). It is the Logos that becomes flesh, not because he is eternally subordinate to the Father, but because he has a special relationship with creation. The ‘world’ (in Greek, kosmos) language of John 1 is picked up again in John 3. The world, made through the Son, is to be saved through the Son:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV)
Plenty of web-skirmishes come and go, but the reason I bit on this particular one is because it involves something I’ve thought about for a long time, and have been speaking on in the last couple of weeks. The particular advocates of Subordinationism who are in the spotlight at the moment (Grudem and Ware, mostly) use Subordinationism within the trinity of God to argue that the subordination of women to men is essential to a true understanding of human relationships. As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be created male and female as the Image of God for a good long while, and I just don’t see what Grudem argues for in the biblical texts. And, I don’t see any ground for it in a supposed eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.