The Eternal Subordination of the Son Debate: Concluding Reflections (Part 1)
In an online context, where conversations move at a breakneck speed, we so often fail to carve out time for proper deliberation and reflection. After the firestorm of one debate has passed, we can swiftly move on to the next dispute, failing to reflect upon the lessons that can be gleaned from the conversation that we have just had. Disciplined and patient retrospection is, however, a rewarding activity and our neglect of it robs us of much of the potential profit of experience.
In this article, I want to offer an unapologetically ‘cold take’, a reflection at some distance in time upon some of the principal points that we can take forward from the conversations surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS).
The prominence of the ESS position owes a great deal to a theological preoccupation with the notion of authority and the relations appropriate to it. Authority has long been a prominent category in evangelical thought, not least in debates about the place of Scripture in the Church. However, as a category it has often been attended by many unconsidered assumptions and has also often been at risk of occluding much else. Both the unconsidered assumptions and the narrow preoccupation have implications for conceptions of divine relations, relations between the sexes, and understandings of Scripture’s place in the Church. They represent a constriction of the imagination that often produces damaging and stifling understandings and practices.
For instance, authority is overwhelmingly conceived of both as an authority over and as an authority that exists over against others. Yet there are other ways of conceiving of authority. Authority can be an authority for or involve an authorizing of others. Authority is not a zero sum game in which we are weakened by the authority of another in relation to us. For instance, when speaking about the ‘authority of Scripture’, we may be inclined to think of that authority purely as something exercised over us to which we must be obedient. We may forget that Scripture is a manifestation and exercise of God’s authority for the sake of his saving purpose, a dimension of the ministry of the Father’s Word in the power of his Spirit to redeem and renew humanity and the creation. We can also forget that Scripture is an authorizing word, a word that commissions, empowers, and equips us to be God’s fellow workers. Similar things could be said about gender relations, where so often an emphasis upon the authority of the man has been at the expense of, rather than in service to, the woman.
The recent ESS debate has exposed significant diversity among complementarians. All too often, the term ‘complementarian’ has functioned chiefly as a rallying label and shibboleth, serving the purpose of aligning people with one or the other party in gender debates. Indeed, the terms ‘complementarian’ and ‘egalitarian’ (and the polarized group dynamics that they fuel) have often so dominated the debate that it has been difficult to discover the actual diversity of positions beneath them.
This debate has made it more apparent that the term ‘complementarian’ applies to a diverse range of positions, whose differences are sometimes quite significant. It has also revealed that, on certain issues of deep theological importance with secondary relevance to the gender debates, the actual alignments that matter may cut across our divisions in the gender debates, dividing us from people we may have considered to be in our own camp and joining us with people with whom, in the gender debates, we find ourselves in disagreement.
The need to maintain a unified stance in the face of the external challenges of egalitarianism and the shifting sexual and gender norms of contemporary culture has often led to some degree of a self-imposed stifling of disagreement within the complementarian camp. However, a besieged mentality can produce dangerously brittle and unexamined systems of thought and practice and encourage us to turn a blind eye to serious errors. As the polarizing magnetism of party designations is weakened, a far more complicated picture emerges, along with promising possibilities for progress. Complementarians have always had internal debate, but this and other recent debates further unsettle notions of a shared ‘party line’ and have thereby expanded the scope of such intramural discussion.
The potential of this space remains ambivalent. It could lead to a fracturing and weakening of the complementarian position in general, as people divide into various squabbling camps. Concerns about this possibility may be heightened by the fact that party mentalities are often still very much in evidence among complementarians on either side of these debates. Alternatively, it could make possible a shared commitment to a challenging conversation among complementarians, through which all of our positions are honed and certain errors are rooted out, even if we do not finally align. Within such a space, it is possible to articulate more developed proposals, as we are no longer primarily concerned with defending a narrow party line.
The Crosswinds of the Gender Debates
Throughout the debate surrounding ESS, it has been concerning to witness the degree to which theological and exegetical argumentation has been caught up in the politics, the antagonisms, and the concerns of the broader gender debates. Reading many egalitarians and complementarian critics of ESS, it has often been difficult to tell what is driving the arguments–genuine concern about the proper handling of the doctrine of the Trinity, or animus against the supposed wrong sort of complementarians. My suspicions that this debate has been peculiarly afflicted by motivated and politicized reasoning have been intensified, as people who have not otherwise shown any interest in or extensive study of the doctrine of the Trinity have exhibited a peculiar concern in this particular case, often while still ignoring related errors in their own contexts. This is a time for all of us to examine our motives, to ask whether we are as alert to error in Trinitarian doctrine when those errors are harnessed to the service of doctrines that we ourselves favour. Is Trinitarian orthodoxy merely being weaponized for our squabbles about the theology of gender?
As I have become more acquainted with the writings in support of ESS in the course of this debate, it has been deeply troubling to see the way in which a framework of authority and submission has become almost programmatic for an understanding of the Trinity for some theologians. While there are instances in which the language of authority and submission is employed of the Trinitarian relation between the Father and the Son in the more recent tradition, the prominence that this has assumed more recently–a prominence that threatens to occlude so much else–is, I believe, unprecedented. It is also, in my assessment, a development that almost certainly has been catalysed by the gender debates.
The intense institutional politics and personal feelings that attend the gender debates make it incredibly difficult to have productive conversations and to reason in a balanced and consistent manner on issues that impinge upon them. It should be a matter of considerable concern that the doctrine of the Trinity has been blown off course in the manner that it has, but also that the integrity of the motives of critics of ESS can so often be in doubt on account of party mentalities. Both this distrust and its corresponding untrustworthiness contribute in their own way to the perpetuation of the problems, as most voices that will be raised against it are compromised or easily dismissed.
The progress that has been made in this debate has primarily occurred as the debate has been removed from a realm dominated by the fickle, capricious, and frequently untrustworthy reasoning of partisan antagonists, and has occurred in contexts sheltered from or opposed to such dynamics. It has also revealed the importance of and need for persons who can stand above partisanship and demonstrate the intellectual integrity necessary to criticize their own colleagues and friends. Where such integrity and courage has been lacking, it is not surprising that even genuine warnings of error have been unheeded.