Trinity, subordination and narrative in Hebrews 1:1-2

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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.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 06/13/2016 - 22:44 | Permalink

Can you clarify some things here?

You say that Hebrews 1:6 echoes Psalm 88:27 LXX. My version of Hebrews 1:6 says something quite different, and footnotes it as echoing Deuteronomy 32:43 (Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX).

You say “Your throne O God is for ever and ever” (Hebrews 1:8-9) is addressed to Israel’s king (“the “subordinate” Son”). Can you explain how this is the case when the words are addressed to God?

You say that Hebrews 1:1-2 are “a fair restatement of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33-41)” and the narrative it employs. I’d have thought Hebrews as a whole does not so much refer to a narrative of this kind as to a contrast between the old and new covenant, in which the exalted person of Jesus is central: greater than angels, greater than Moses. Israel, its Law and its sacrificial system are relativised to Jesus himself. Theology is very important — in the sense that what we believe about Jesus is central to the letter and to the faith itself — Hebrews 12:2 — “the author and perfecter of our faith” , not just our narrative

You say that Jesus “is subordinate to the Father in the context of a story about the judgment and restoration of Israel”. But Hebrews is not a restatement of Jewish particularism (or a particular narrative about an ethic people: Israel),&nbsp. Rrather it is a warning to Jewish believers not to retreat into particularism in the face of persecution as Christian believers — Hebrews 10:32-34. (That was more of a statement than a request for clarification).

I agree from what I can see that Ware takes it as a given that there is a divine trinity, through which he then interprets scripture. Whether that leads to subordination of agency between the members of the trinity is interesting but somewhat irrelevant to me. I think it goes too far to say, as you do, that “Trinitarian theology has no interest in the story of Israel”. It’s the writer of Hebrews who shows this lack of interest, and focuses much more on the theological meaning of Israel’s practices ands symbols, and their fulfilment in Jesus, who combined in himself the roles of high priest and son of God (Hebrews 4:14), mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 9:15) and sacrificial offering in the new temple (Hebrews 9:11), doing away with sin once for all at the end of the ages “by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

@peter wilkinson:

1. Psalm 88:27 (= 89:27 MT) provides the description of the Davidic king as “firstborn” (prōtotokos). Deuteronomy 32:43 LXX is (supposedly) the source of the exhortation “”Let all God God’s angels worship him”.

2. Psalm 45, from which Hebrews 1:8-9 is taken, is addressed to Israel’s king (“I address my verses to the king”). Whether or why the psalmist calls the king “God” is another question.

3. I don’t see any contradiction here. Hebrews takes has his starting point (this is only the first two verses!) that the Son has inherited the vineyard, and then, if you like, goes on to explain this in covenantal terms. Obviously there is theology in the narrative. Jesus is seen as the “author and perfecter” of the faith of those who were called to make the painful eschatological journey to the age to come.

4. I don’t see anything in Hebrews about a retreat into Jewish particularism. The question is whether they go back to the past and the old covenant or into the future and a new covenant. The new covenant is just as particularist as the old.

5. Can you provide one classical formulation of the Trinity that makes reference to the history of Israel?

6. It seems to me that the author of Hebrews is profoundly conscious of the history of Israel.  The whole story arises from the fact that God made a promise to Abraham (Heb. 6:13-15). Current Israel is in rebellion against God (Heb. 3:7-19). Jesus’ death redeems Jews from the “transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Jesus is high priest, king, great shepherd for a renewed people of God. And so on.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 06/15/2016 - 12:40 | Permalink

Thanks for the clarifications.

1. I’ve something to say about this in 2. below.

2. I was hoping you might have something to say about why the writer of Hebrews selected verses from Psalm 45 which call the king “God”. It may be “another question”, but a rather glaring one, in view of the question raised (and in my opinion answered) about the identity of Jesus in Hebrews 1 and following.

It’s also interesting, and not mentioned by you, that Jesus is bracketed with the creator of earth and heaven in the reference to Psalm 102 (1:10-12), and so bracketed with Elohim, God, in Genesis 1, and YHWH in Genesis 2:4 and following.

This would decisively define what is meant by “Let all God’s angels worship him (the Son)” in 1:6. In any case, the reference in Deuteronomy 32:43 is quite clearly to God, and not some other human figure. Did you omit this reference out of anxiety over its elevation of the Son to divine status?

3. There isn’t any reference to the vineyard or the parable in 1:1-2. You have made the connection, and then assume it to be the case. There are references to Israel’s narrative in Hebrews, but little or nothing to the narrative you propose as a framework for reading it. Rather, the narrative referred to is regarded as having reached its fulfilment in Jesus and the inauguration of the new covenant. You assume it the other way round: that the covenantal fulfilment described in Hebrews is an explanation of that about which the letter says nothing, but you have a priori assumed.

4. ‘Particularism’ may have been a misleading word. I meant that the letter has a background of Jews wanting to retreat into the old covenant — a familiar NT theme. The impetus for this, amongst other things, was persecution (of Christians, but not at that time Jews), as described in 10:32-34.

5. Trinitarian theology, or that theology used as a framework for interpreting the NT, does not override or discard the history of Israel. This is a separate issue from the ‘classical formulation’ of that theology itself.

6. I’ve responded to this in point 3. above.

Always nice to chat with you Andrew, and hope you are enjoying your day.

@peter wilkinson:

There isn’t any reference to the vineyard or the parable in 1:1-2.

I didn’t say that there was a reference to the parable. I said the opening verses are a “fair restatement” of the parable, and I don’t see why that is so far-fetched:

Matthew 21:33-41 (cf. 23:29-39) Hebrews 1:1-2
"He sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit" "God spoke to our fathers by the prophets"
"Finally he sent his Son..." "he has spoken to us by his Son"
"let us kill him and have his inheritance" "whom he appointed the heir of all things"

I agree that the shift from an old covenant to a new covenant is at the forefront of the writer’s mind, but does that mean he had no interest in what was happening to Israel in the first century? Does it mean that there is no eschatological frame to the text? When he quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in chapter 8, is he unaware that the new covenant is God’s response to the punishment of his people?

And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD…. Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jer 31:28, 31)

I think it might be argued that Hebrews 2:2 refers to the events of AD 70 (note the aorists), but even if not, it reminds us that the new covenant is linked to the punishment of Israel:

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?

This passage also may have the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in view, either as a past or as an imminent event:

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.  (Heb 12:25–29)

Or this:

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb. 13:14)

So I think that there is a good case to be made for thinking that the Letter was written against the narrative backdrop of the eschatological crisis faced by first century Israel.

I’ll address the divine Sonship passages separately.