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.
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Are you here concurring with Truman, et al and suggesting that any form of EFS is heretical? That seems to me to be a stretch – and among brothers of similar conviction, an uncharitable one. The clear heretical conclusions supposed are implications drawn by the critics of EFS. There remains much mystery here, and it not only heretics who seek to resolve it by drawing overly unbiblical conclusions for the sake of logical consistency, but also critics of supposed heretics. Consider for example the will of Christ vis-a-vis his humanity and Deity. If we avoid the Nestorian error of dividing Christ’s divine will from his human volitional (dispositional) complex, are we then to conclude that the struggling of Christ’s will to obey in Gethsemane, for instance, was absolutely and ontologically indistinguishable from the Father’s will? I am exceedingly cautious to read too much of our human psychology and sociology into the Nicene term of “persons,” and Trinity, but I also know we can speak analogically from our human experience (however cautiously) by virtue of texts like Eph.3:14-15 (i.e., anthropomorphic language in Scripture also functions along a theomorphic line, to borrow Frame’s term). In short, I can speak of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father (as Paul seems to in 1Cor.15:28) without denying the unity of the Persons as One God. I find myself sympathetic with these reflections: http://www.john-stevens.com/2016/06/are-we-all-heretics-now-reflections-on.html?m=1. What do you think?
Daniel F. Wells said:
Hey James, thanks for the comment.
As a former student of Dr. Kelly, I merely wanted to share his scholarship on this topic from his ST Volume 1. So, I just let Kelly speak for himself.
My own opinion? I would feel uncomfortable labeling Grudem or Ware “heretics” in the sense of damnation or church discipline. I do think they have departed from the Nicean formulation, though, and I think they could be more humble in defending a minority/non-creedal perspective on the Trinity. Their surety on the matter is rather striking!
How have they departed from the Nicean formulation?
Daniel F. Wells said:
Well, read what Kelly has written. In addition, Kyle Klaunch’s summary of Ware and Grudem is quite telling (and Klaunch is a former student of Ware, I believe).
Kelly’s remarks seem to leave the matter open. What he does dismiss is subordinationism, which all (known) adherents to EFS maintain. The two should not be conflated or assumed to be logically related (unless it can be clearly demonstrated, which I have yet to see). The Klaunch summary quoted on this link is doing what I suggested above should not be done in this debate (or any debate), namely: reading one’s own reasoned implications of a position into the essential content of that position. In this case, Klaunch argue: “In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills.” But as Al Mohler and Doug Wilson have argued, this implication (of two distinct wills, threatening the simplicity of God) is not a necessary one. Moreover, as I briefly mentioned above, it seems to me that there is still some hard thinking to be done regarding the hypostatic union of Christ and the Trinity regarding volition. If nothing else, rightly avoiding the Nestorian error ought to leave us cautious about drawing such hard and fast conclusions regarding the will of the Son vis-a-vis his incarnate existence and the Father.
Daniel F. Wells said:
James, again, you should take the argument up with Douglas Kelly himself (one of the world’s leading scholars on the Trinity) and other top historical and dogmatic theologians who have already weighed in.
The final big quote from Kelly summarizes the creedal faith of the church as not placing any subordination or antecedent relations into eternity but rather to reserve them for creational and redemptive-historical contexts. Grudem and Ware deny this.
Now, if Grudem and Ware were to come out and say, “Yeah, subordination is not a good term, we mean something closer to the pactum salutis” or something like that, then this whole debate would go away. I just wonder why they are being so stubborn?
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To be honest, I don’t know any thing about Grudem and Ware’s insistence upon the term “subordination” (I frankly find it unhelpful in light of its historic association with Arianism).
But I don’t think my issue is with Kelly. In fact, I heartily agree with Kelly’s conclusion, very precisely: “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.”
Amen. The economic order implies no inequality among the Persons. And of course, no one in this debate is arguing that it does.
However, your conclusion goes one step further: “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.”
This has not been demonstrated – by the quotes you’ve provided from Kelly or elsewhere that I have seen. On the contrary, as Grudem has demonstrated, this is not a novel position within the historic church – neither reformed nor among the fathers (e.g., Athanasius and Hilary have been quoted, and Kelly above argues that ESF was consonant with the writings of Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus). Moreover, I think there is clear theological warrant to ask what is the immanent-Trinitarian analogate of Jesus’ earthly obedience to the Father. The order of the economic Trinity has always suggested an order (or taxis) within the immanent Trinity. Supposing that this order entails an authority analogate (revealed in the Son’s sentness and the Father’s sending, which are essential to the [eternal] pactim salutis, and indeed, according to tradition, the Godhead) is surely within the bounds of Nicean, Chalcedonian, and Reformational orthodoxy.
It seems to me then that you have overstated your case in denying any authority/submission analogue to the Father/Son relationship (subsisting within the Trinity but revealed in redemptive-history). Have I misunderstood you? If not, show me where I am wrong?
Daniel F. Wells said:
James, this will probably be my last response as the main thing I will say is that you just need to reread Kelly’s words. Again, in eternity, this “absolute” equality. The subordination in the Godhead is relegated to the “historical order” and is “temporary” (not eternal). It really is simple.
Kelly’s point with various “subordinationists” is that their formulations were prior to the creedal formulations and the clarification of language.
I mean, I think it is pretty simple if we aren’t trying to save of substantiate our favorite Bible teachers.
I’m sorry you’re bowing out at this point. I have re-read Kelly’s quotes 5-6 times now. I’m still not seeing what you’re asserting. So I suppose we are left with your insistence and my question.
Nor am I interested in “saving” any particular teachers in this discussion (I am no Grudem fan-boy, as much as I have appreciated some of his work through the years, and I have actually never interacted with much if anything of Ware’s). The accusation that this is the motivation behind people raising questions about this widespread evangelical position purportedly being outside the bounds of Nicean orthodoxy is, I think, unwarranted and unfair.
Finally, one thing that seems clear to me in this debate, Daniel, is this: it is not a “pretty simple” matter.
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