Following on from yesterday’s piece on “The subordination of the Son, and why it has nothing to do with gender”….
In response to accusations that his subordinationist Trinitarianism is a departure from orthodoxy Bruce Ware, who is Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has published a defence, firmly repudiating the charges. Fair enough. My interest is not in the theological dispute per se but in how it mangles scripture.
Ware’s argument, if I’ve understood him correctly, runs roughly as follows:
1. Trinitarian orthodoxy affirms “the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature”.
2. Scripture affirms a distinction among the roles of the Trinitarian persons “by highlighting the ultimate authority of the Father, and the willing submission of the Son and Spirit, in all that God does”.
The example is given of Hebrews 1:1-2: God spoke to us in his Son; he appointed the Son heir of all things; he made the world through the Son. The text clearly shows the primacy of the Father in eternity past, in the present, and in eternity future. Indeed, throughout scripture the Father acts with authority, he initiates; the Son “eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father”. The functional relationship is never reversed.
3. Therefore, the eternal subordination of the Son must somehow be incorporated into the model of the Trinity as three equal persons—for example, by differentiating between ontology and function.
So we go from theology to scripture and back to theology again. Ware’s claim that “Scripture presses the distinction among the roles of the Trinitarian persons” makes it clear that this is being done on the theologians’ terms. It is simply assumed that it is appropriate to discuss Hebrews 1:1-2 as a statement about the roles of the Trinitarian persons.
Now, it might be pointed out that Ware is actually taking scripture seriously here by highlighting a pervasive emphasis on the subordination of the Son that is, on the face of it, difficult to accommodate in the standard Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead as three equal persons. But there is an important dimension to the biblical argument about the Father and the Son that easily gets overlooked when we start from, and aim to return to, the Trinitarian postulate.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world (aiōnas).
The Letter to the Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians—that’s what it says on the tin. The opening two verses, therefore, are a fair restatement of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33-41): first, God sent prophets to “us”, that is, to Israel, to seek the fruit of the vineyard; then, God sent his Son to Israel; the wicked tenants thought that they would inherit the vineyard if they killed the Son, but God has appointed his Son “the heir of all things”. The writer states, therefore, that God appointed Jesus heir to Israel’s future.
He then introduces the idea that God made the “ages” (not “created the world”) through the Son, who is the “radiance” (apaugasma) of the glory of God. Presumably Jesus is here being identified with divine Wisdom as an agent in creation. Wisdom of Solomon speaks of Wisdom as “a reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26).
But the dominant theme in the ensuing acclamation of the “subordinate” Son in Hebrews 1 is that he has inherited the right to rule over Israel. He is the king seated at the right hand of God in order to rule in the midst of his enemies (Heb. 1:3, 13; cf. Ps. 110). He is the king who will receive the nations as his heritage (Heb. 1:5; cf. Ps. 2:7-9). He is the Davidic king to whom God will be a father (Heb. 1:5; cf. 2 Sam. 7:14). The “firstborn” brought into the world is the king who calls upon God: “My Father you are, my God and supporter of my deliverance!” (Heb. 1:6; cf. Ps. 88:27 LXX). Even “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” is addressed to Israel’s king (Heb. 1:8-9; cf. Ps. 45: 6-7).
So in biblical terms, the Son is not simply subordinate to the Father, as a matter of pure abstract relationality. He is subordinate to the Father in the context of a story about the judgment and restoration of Israel. And as I said yesterday, in bibical terms that appears to be sufficient. Yes, the story identifies the Son with the creative force of divine Wisdom, but the use of aiōnas (“ages”) underlines the narrative-historical dimension to the christology.
Trinitarian theology has no interest in the story of Israel. It’s not part of the model. So inevitably this aspect gets filtered out of theological readings of the New Testament.
What Ware has done, in effect, is extract the relationship of subordination from the narrative context, rather as we might extract the DNA from a cell, and has injected it into the new organism of the Trinitarian model—perhaps over-complicating things theologically, but that is for others to decide.
But in the process, the whole point of the Father-Son relationship has been lost, which is the management of the existence of God’s people in history until the last enemy has been defeated.
With respect to Michael Bird, the more fundamental battle here is not the one between Nicene and Homoian complementarians, whether or not the two sides have been properly classified. It is the one between theologians and historians over the interpretation of scripture.