McCall on subordinationism in the Trinity

Nick Norelli has posted a really nice review of Tom McCall’s new book Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. This is one that I’m hoping to read myself (some day). Although he’s appreciative overall, he does push back on Tom’s argument that a strong view of eternal functional subordination (i.e. the Son is functional subordinate in all possible times and all possible worlds) entails a denial of the homoousios because it means that the Son necessarily and essentially has a property that the Father does not have.

Tom’s argument basically works like this (as I understand it from a paper he presented at ETS some time back). Everyone in this particular debate agrees that the Son is functionally subordinate the Father in the incarnation. The question is whether he was so before the incarnation. Tom is willing to concede that this might be so as long as it was conceivably possible for him to not be functionally subordinate (i.e. even if the functional subordination is eternal, it must still be voluntary). If, he argues, it is not even conceivably possible that the Son could have chosen not to be functionally subordinate (i.e., it is essentially necessary in all times and possible worlds), then it is not a voluntary subordination. Instead, it is a necessary and essential attribute of the Son to be subordinate to the Father. And, Tom concludes, since this is clearly not an essential and necessary attribute of the Father’s, then the Son and Father are not homoousios.

Since many of you have recently spent some time in the Greek Fathers wrestling with precisely these kinds of questions, I’m curious as to how you would respond to this argument. Would you agree with Tom that there must be an essential egalitarianism (at least conceptually) within the Trinity so that the Son’s subordination is eternally voluntary, or would you contend that the Son can be necessarily subordinate to the Father while still remaining homoousios with the Father? Or, are you so confused by my explanation that you have no idea what to think?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 25, 2010, in Theology Proper and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. From my reading of the Fathers it seems to me that nearly the entire catholic tradition (East & West) recognized an asymmetry in the Trinitarian taxis where the Father enjoyed causal personal priority yet they staunchly defended an essential equality. This is certainly represented in the N-C Creed when we read that the Son is “Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…” As I see it, the monarchy of the Father is pervasive in the writing of the Fathers and its something that they conceived of eternally. E.g., in Or. Con. Ar. 3.15 Athanasius clearly identifies the Father as the “origin” and uses the analogy of his being the “sun” while the Son is his “radiance” and he says that the Father “exist[s] by himself according as he is above all,” and all of this in the context of arguing for consubstantiality! There is a picture of dependence painted so that what we see played out in time is simply a reflection of what has always been in eternity.

    I think the problem that folks have with the idea of eternal subordination is that they see authority as akin to dominance of some sort and submission as akin to weakness. I prefer to think in terms of filial obedience whereas the Son out of genuine love for the Father always obeys his commands. This is also the reason why I believe that only the Son could have become incarnate. It’s good and well to speculate about possible worlds but at some point we have to deal with the real one. And in that world it was the Son who became incarnate and came into the world in obedience to his Father’s sending.

    Sorry for the rant…

    • No apologies necessary, those are good thoughts. I have to admit that I have reservations on both sides. Egalitarian views of the Trinity often seem to be creating too much distance between God in-himself and God as-he-reveals-himself. That makes me nervous. Not only does it run the risk of developing a view of God that is more hypothetical/abstract than historical/biblical, but it also runs the risk of leaving us without any confidence that we really know God. I realize that Tom and others would say that God’s self-revelation ad extra is fitting to the triune relations ad intra, but the conceptual distance between the two still makes me nervous.

      But, on the other hand, I’m also concerned that some are making too strong a distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit such that an almost implicit tritheism lurks in the background. The more that we try to press on the nature of the three relations and seek to identify the personal attributes that distinguish the three persons, the closer we get to a theological framework that views them as three particulars of a generic essence (precisely what Nyssa was trying to avoid!). So, I’m also sympathetic to the argument that we should just affirm the three relations and resist attempts to identify properties that are particular to each.

  2. Such is the tightrope of orthodoxy. If it weren’t easy to fall off it then nobody would be a heretic!

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