The begotten Son and the subordinate woman

I’m still working on the Trinity and gender question, and I have to say, it still mystifies me that theologians on both sides of the debate will argue that relations between the persons of the Godhead are determinative for relations between man and woman. Egalitarians think that there is no subordination in the Godhead, so there should be no subordination between men and women. Complementarians think that there is an economic or relational or functional or voluntary subordination in the Godhead, so women should economically or relationally or functionally or voluntarily submit themselves to men.

What’s the basis for the argument? I haven’t come across it yet. Certainly not 1 Corinthians 11:3, if that’s what you’re thinking, which has to do with behaviour, not ontology. Peter Schemm even admits that “there is still much work to be done in developing a constructive model for exactly how male-female relations might reflect relations within the Trinity”. Quite.

Subordination, Trinity and gender

The supposed connection between Trinity and gender-equality (or not) has come up for me in a couple of different settings recently. On the one hand, I have been trying to decide whether a statement about the equality of persons in the Godhead has a bearing on Christian Associates’ policy regarding women in leadership. On the other, I have to write an essay for a theological forum in the UK looking at the connection (or otherwise) between a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the subordination of women to men. From a biblical point of view I settled this question in my own mind years ago, but I must admit I did not pay a great deal of attention to the Trinitarian argument.

Trinitarian thought is a muddy business at the best of times. Add gender to the debate and we have a veritable quagmire. To keep things relatively simple here, I think it can be reduced to two questions and two positions.

The wisdom of Trinitarianism

Reading Charles Freeman’s no doubt partial account in The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason of the development of Nicene orthodoxy makes you realize, nevertheless, just how entangled with the intellectual and political interests of Christendom the development of Trinitarian thought was.

I have argued that, historically speaking, the conversion of the Roman empire should be seen as the proper fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding judgment of the pagan world, the confession of Christ as Lord, and the vindication of the persecuted churches. But this “coming” of the reign of YHWH over the nations led inevitably to a fundamental reorientation of the “Christian” mind. The church challenged the state over the question of who ultimately was in charge—God or the gods, Christ or Caesar. That’s the apocalyptic or political narrative. But the church was more than happy to collaborate with the Platonist tradition in Greek philosophy in the construction of a new Christendom worldview. That’s the ontological or cosmic narrative.

As a result, the central theological achievement of early Christendom—the precise identification of Father, Son and Spirit as co-equal, co-eternal persons sharing one divine substance, etc.—can be presented as a thoroughly problematic compromise between philosophical enquiry, political expedience, and biblical interpretation.

Jesus, the gods, and the philosophers

According to the standard evangelical model Jesus died for the sins of the world, and ever since Pentecost the church has proclaimed this “good news” of personal salvation to the world and will continue to do so until Jesus returns. That model is at best a modern theological abstraction. What we actually encounter in scripture is the story of a people as it interacts throughout history with the nations. This story comes to a head in the New Testament in the foreseen clash between the churches and pagan Rome. This conflict is not mere historical background, to be discarded once the necessary beliefs have been prised from it. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what we confess, it is how we understand ourselves.

I have been reading a couple of books recently that add considerable detail to the cultural and religious landscape in which this conflict took place: the first volume of NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God , and Charles Freeman’s very stimulating  The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason . The diagram below attempts to capture—in grossly oversimplified fashion—the main lines and outcomes of the engagement.

Is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles a missional text?

My friend Dan Steigerwald, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has written an excellent little book called Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard . He takes the view that the church after Christendom is a church in exile and he proposes a missional model based on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon in which he urges them to build houses, plant gardens, marry, bear sons and daughters, increase in number, and most importantly “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom“ (Jer. 29:4-7).

Dan asks: “Could it be that God is challenging us to make a radical shift in our self-perception not unlike the one demanded of Israel so long ago?” (28). This would mean, on the one hand, getting used to the idea of doing mission from a place of weakness, on the margins of society; and on the other, redefining that mission as the practical sowing of shalom in our different worlds. We are called, as God’s people in exile, not to be victims but to be a “pervasive force for good” (25).

The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology

I began reading The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology , edited by C. Marvin Pate, on my flight from London to Los Angeles. The thesis of the book is that the Bible is held together by the “paradigmatic story of Israel” and that this story properly counts as a biblical theology. I like the thesis as stated—apart from the word “paradigmatic”—but there are three critical observations that I want to make here. First, the book puts forward its biblical theology as a literary rather than historical construct. Secondly, the narrative pattern it works with is incomplete. Thirdly, if the biblical theology is genuinely narrative in shape, then the “paradigmatic” element is self-defeating.

“My Lord and my God”

In his discussion of the imperial cult in Paul and the Faithfulness of God Tom Wright notes that Domitian liked to be addressed as dominus et deus (“lord and god”)—a phrase “familiar to readers of John’s gospel” (341).

Domitian was emperor from AD 81-96. He revived the imperial cult, which had languished under Vespasian. He constructed an imperial temple at Ephesus, where, according to Wright, “fragments of what must have been a positively enormous statue of Domitian have come to light”. He also came down hard on foreign religions. Suetonius records that the tax on the Jews was “levied with the utmost rigour” (Suet. Dom. 12.2), and according to Eusebius Domitian “became a successor of Nero in his hatred and enmity toward God”: he was “the second that stirred up a persecution against us” (Eus. Hist. eccl. 3.17). Tertullian accused Domitian of a rather half-hearted approach to persecution:

Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished. (Tert. Apol. 5.4)

Concerning the times and seasons

Reading the New Testament as historical narrative rather than as “Christian theology”—as raw material rather than as over-refined intellectual product—is not a matter of self-contained interpretation. It’s not just about how we understand the text. It’s about how we live with it. If the relationship between God and his people was constructed narratively then, it is constructed narratively now. But how do we get from then to now? Or as James put it in response to “The gospel, the story of Israel, and personal salvation: no compromise”: “how would the historical-narrative approach provide a message that could be propagated in the public square—today in our society?”

Earlier this week I recorded a video lecture for St John’s College Nottingham on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. One of the things I wanted to stress was that if we locate these letters loosely—the fit is not perfect—in the account of the apostles’ journey through Macedonia and Achaia in Acts 17, what emerges is a rather intense and compelling narrative about the power that a Jewish gospel had to transform the pagan world within the cultural and historical purview of its protagonists. The biblical God is all the way through a God of history.

The gospel, the story of Israel, and personal salvation: no compromise

I read a couple of old articles this week responding to Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited from a Reformed perspective: Scot McKnight and the “King Jesus Gospel” 2: Points of Concern by Trevin Wax, and What God Has Joined Together: The Story and Salvation Gospel by Luke Stamps. Both agree with McKnight’s insistence that the gospel cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel, which I think is a pretty clear indicator of the impact that the narrative-historical hermeneutic has had on traditional evangelical/Reformed thinking. But they are troubled by the claim that the “plan of salvation” is not part of the gospel. They think that McKnight has overstated his case, in Stamps words, “by separating the story of Israel from the promise of personal salvation”.

What strikes me about the critique is that the final position is structurally much the same as McKnight’s: the story of Israel finds fulfilment in Jesus, then we have personal salvation in Christ. The only difference is that whereas McKnight wants to associate the term “gospel” with the narrative part of the formula, Stamps and Wax would prefer to keep it with the theological part, as you would expect from the Gospel Coalition.

Anabaptism and the truncated politics of Jesus

A few days ago I raised some questions about how well the characteristically “neo-Anabaptist” emphasis on the cross as the lens through which we must now view God—he is the “crucified God”, the “Jesus-looking God”—works within the overall narrative of the New Testament.

My argument was, on the one hand, that the New Testament does not really bear out the idea that the weakness and suffering of Jesus is to be projected on to God, and on the other, that the core political-religious narrative does not stop at the cross: it makes Jesus judge and ruler of the nations. The Anabaptist critique of Christendom and the exercise of power has much to be said for it. But if we are to read historically—rather than theologically—I don’t think we can get round the fact that the New Testament envisaged exactly the sort of political-religious transformation of the ancient world that came about with the conversion of Rome.


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