The subordination of the Son, and why it has nothing to do with gender

Read time: 6 minutes

There has been a furious flurry of posts (see below) from various directions this week laying into the argument of some neo-Calvinists (Wayne Grudem prominent among them) that the eternal subordination of the woman to the man is directly underpinned by the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. I don’t want to get into the Trinitarian debate here, though I might mention a piece I wrote a couple of years back on subordination, Trinity and gender, if anyone’s interested. But I would venture to suggest that the theological subordinationists are on firmer biblical ground than the theological egalitarians. Up to a point.

There are two stories about Jesus in the New Testament (click here for the chart). There is the vertical or theological story about the Word which was God in the beginning and which became flesh and lived among his Jewish disciples, the Son who came from above and returned to the Father. This story is found in John’s Gospel. And there is the horizontal or apocalyptic or historical story, which is found everywhere else in the New Testament. 

According to the apocalyptic narrative, Jesus is the Son who, in the power of the Spirit, faithfully and obediently serves the purposes of YHWH in his controversial mission to the vineyard of Israel (Matt. 21:33-41). Little if any consideration is given in these accounts to the possibility that the Son had an existence prior to the physical birth of Jesus.

This manner of sonship accords with prominent Old Testament and Jewish paradigms: the king, David in particular, Israel, Isaiah’s servant of YHWH, the persecuted saints of the Most High represented by the Son of Man, and the oppressed righteous.

The Son is killed by the wicked tenants, but the master of the vineyard does not allow him to see corruption (cf. Acts 2:31). Jesus is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God in accordance with the narrative of Psalm 110:1

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!

He is given all authority and power; he is given the name which is above every name, which is the name “Lord” (Phil. 2:9-11); he is instructed to rule in the midst of his enemies, until the last enemy, death, is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:25).

He has been made Lord, therefore, precisely because the people of God will face a severity of opposition that can be overcome only by a Christlike attitude towards suffering. This crucified and risen Lord guarantees the future integrity and survival of the communities that will bear witness to YHWH’s new future. All things have been put under his feet for the sake of his body (Eph. 1:22-23).

But more than that, Jesus has been made Lord of that new future. He has been given the authority to judge and rule over not only Israel (Acts 2:36) but also, eventually, the idolatrous nations of the pagan world, which have for so long rejected the one true living God and have oppressed his people (Acts 17:31).

This rule or kingdom is concretely expressed in the epochal political-religious developments of the coming centuries. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple demonstrated the rightness of Jesus’ stance vis-à-vis Israel and vindicated the disciples’ trust in him. But it is with the overthrow of Babylon the great, that is, Rome, finally, that the rule of Christ with the resurrected martyrs is established (Rev. 20:4).

The rule of the crucified Messiah will last for a thousand years—that is, presumably, for the rest of human history. But once the last enemy has been destroyed, there will be no further need for Christ to rule. Authority and kingdom were given to him for the duration of human history. So Paul states: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Lordship is reabsorbed into the godhead.

Fee argues that the language of subordination is functional, referring to Christ’s work of redemption, not ontological.2 But redemption is not in view here. Jesus will hand back to God the authority or kingdom that he received from God, as the Son of Man, when he ascended into heaven. In Paul’s argument, Jesus is not the second person of the Trinity but the second Adam, who was raised as the firstfruits of those who would share his resurrected life, who would bear the same image (1 Cor. 15:47-49).

Conzelmann gets it right:

During the messianic age (the present) Christ accordingly exercises the sovereignty of God in a specific area. When this commission has been fulfilled… God once more rules alone and directly; for then there is no more struggle, only pure sovereignty.3

He also draws attention to the earlier statement, “you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:23), as evidence of a “systematic and essential” subordinationism.4 Fee again tries to explain this away as soteriological and functional rather than ontological, but on what basis is the distinction asserted? Fee recognises that “most such soteriological statements, when they include words about the Father and Son, express subordination”, but he does not offer evidence for an ontological non-subordinationism.

Thiselton quotes Hays: “It is impossible to avoid the impression that Paul is operating with what would later come to be called a subordinationist christology.”5

So a few conclusions…

  • The New Testament presents this apocalyptic narrative as a comprehensive account of the relation between Jesus and God. It runs right through to the end, to the point at which Christ no longer needs to exercise lordship. It presumes to be an adequate, compelling and coherent narrative for God’s people in the age to come. 
  • It is not easily integrated into a Trinitarian model. It seems to me that if we try to combine the vertical and horizontal stories, we end up with something along these lines: the Word or Wisdom of God became flesh and lived among his people as the obedient servant of the Lord, the Son of God; and the flesh was given the right to exercise divine lordship, for the sake of God’s people, until the last enemy is destroyed and the Son hands back the right to rule to the Father, so that God may be all in all. But that is still story, not ontology.
  • The narrative as a whole is functional—not primarily soteriological, in my view, but having to do with kingdom. It rather misrepresents scripture to pick out a few sayings in John’s Gospel about the unity of the Father and the Son and make that the controlling theological paradigm.
  • I hold to the view, nevertheless, that the Fathers were right to answer the questions that they asked in the way that they did. That is also part of the story that we have been telling about God and his people.
  • Any attempt to use this narrative about the Father and the Son to “bankroll a particular view of gender”, as Michael Bird nicely puts it, is laughable.
  • 1Cf. Matt. 22:44 and par.; Matt. 26:64 and par.; Acts 2:34-35; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22.
  • 2G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 760.
  • 3H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 274-75.
  • 4H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 81.
  • 5A.C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1237.
Ben Lima | Thu, 06/16/2016 - 21:26 | Permalink

Thank you very much for writing on this topic. Now I know why NT Wright’s “For Everyone” New Testament commentaries read the way they do! He overwhelmingly emphasizes one of these “two stories” (the historical one, of course).

If I could ask you (and others) a question, speaking as a not-very-theologically-minded layman: what books or articles should an ordinary person read on the subject of the Trinity, to get a clearer understanding of how all this might relate to the day-to-day life of the faithful church member?