It’s been strangely quiet when it comes to blog posts about the Trinity and eternal subordination. The month of June, ironically the month of synods, assemblies, and conventions, has seen what some have termed a “complementarian civil war” break out amongst broadly Reformed-evangelical scholars regarding eternal roles within the Godhead and temporal gender roles.
While the discussion has been lively and informative, I’ve been disappointed that little attention has been given to the scholarship of Douglas F. Kelly, the now retired Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.
Kelly is beloved by most of his students (including this writer), though his style and scholarship frustrates some. He is beloved due to his exceptional skill and knowledge in conversing with patristic, medieval, Reformed, Puritan, and contemporary theology (which always includes T.F. Torrance). His two volumes of Systematic Theology read less like a typical ST text and more like a journey through historical theology on the Trinity and Christology. In class, his lectures often come across as sermons, and he’ll always emphasize the importance of the weekly prayer meeting!
In particular, Kelly is known for his studies on the Trinity. Perhaps no other scholar alive today has such a broad grasp of sources on this topic than Kelly himself.
In order to illuminate the current discussion on eternal relations within the Godhead, I will share relevant portions Kelly’s Systematic Theology: Volume One: Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church.
Kelly devotes the final chapter of this volume to the topic of subordinationism. Before that chapter, Kelly already notes that subordinationism is a “heretical view” (p. 502) and that “Gregory of Nazianzus said, for instance, that to subordinate any Person of the Trinity to another was to overthrow the doctrine of the Trinity.” (p. 527) The issue of subordination in the eternal relationships of the Godhead is very important, in Kelly’s mind, and it deserves careful scrutiny.
Jumping into his full chapter on the topic, Kelly summarizes that the “Church Fathers, medieval Scholastics and Protestant Reformed understood that the Son and the Spirit are equally ultimate and original as is the Father in the Godhead.” (p. 529) However, this does not mean that subordinationists didn’t exist in the early church. While Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Athenagoras, Melito of Sardis, and Irenaeus of Lyon affirm the basic Nicean view, certain subordinationist theologians such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian (a “borderline figure” who “comes close to grasping the perichoretic, inner-Trinitarian, life” p. 537), Origen, Theophilus of Antioch, Novation of Rome also emerge. This isn’t a problem for Kelly or for creedal Christians today since “it is necessary to remember that the Trinitarian theology of the Church at that time had not yet received the clarity of thought and terminology that it did by the fourth century, so the intentions of several of these writers were no doubt more orthodox than their statements would have been at a later time.” (p. 530)
Something like eternal functional subordination seems more in line with Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus (p. 540) rather than Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, and Epiphanius (p. 542), who John Calvin followed. Kelly notes later that Calvin especially followed Cyril, especially in how the Trinity relates to soteriology. An important quote from Nazianzus is given by Kelly, “For he [Arius] did not honor the Father, by dishonoring his offspring with his unequal degrees of Godhead. But we recognize one glory of the Father, the equality of the Only-begotten; and one glory of the Son, that of the Spirit. And we hold that to subordinate any of the three is to destroy the whole.” (p. 542-43)
In summary of the historical-theological data, Kelly concludes, “The ontological aspect refers to the eternal character of the Holy Trinity, antecedent to all creational and redemptive history, and in their ontology or Being, there is absolute and eternal equality. Athanasius, for instance, especially in Contra Arianos, frequently employs this sort of distinction to explain passages of the Gospels that seem to attribute inferiority to Christ, as does Hilary in De Trinitate. And both of them are following earlier Apologists, not least Irenaeus. The economical aspect has reference to the creational, providential and historic-redemptive work of the Trinity, in which there is a certain historical order and temporary subordination among the Persons in terms of their work in brining salvation. In this respect, the Father is first, the Son second, and the Holy Spirit third. Yet in the ultimate sense, this historical order does not mean that there is any antecedent inequality among the Persons of the Triune Being.” (p. 547)
Clearly, as Kelly demonstrates, the faith-seeking-understanding theology of the church throughout the ages placed subordination within the redemptive-historical and contingent context rather than in eternity. To place subordination in the eternal relations of the Godhead is to go beyond the universal faith of the church. The Father and the Son are not distinguished by an eternal authority-submission structure but rather by being unbegotten and being begotten/filial.
What might account for breaking away from the historic-creedal Trinitarian paradigm? Kelly warns, “Heretical thinking in all ages allows ‘contemporary’ patterns of thought to determine what can or cannot be true about the nature of God and of His salvation. Therefore, Scripture must be reinterpreted in order to fit into this fold.” (p. 554)
May we not fall into the theological methodology of the heretical teachers in the early church or of the example of modern theology with its oscillation between transcendence and immanence. Let’s not allow today’s culture war determine tomorrow’s theology textbook.