Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How Divine Is Jesus?

If you asked an Evangelical Christian, as late as the mid-1970s, if Jesus was equal to the Father in all respects, or if he was somehow less or subordinate to the Father in authority or rank, the unanimous reply would have been that each member of the Trinity is equal in all respects, and that any suggestion of hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity is an error likened to Arianism and Jehovah Witness teaching.

But something has happened under the "big tent" of Evangelicalism. And that answer is no longer unanimous.

I cut my theological teeth in the late 1970s studying the orthodox view of the Trinity as a reply to the cults. Resources like Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults, and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project Newsletter, helped me shape my understanding of Jesus' full and complete deity. My studies since then, as a theology student, pastor, and Christ-follower have deepened my love for the Trinity doctrine.

It seems that since the late 1970s a group of Christians with a social agenda aimed at imposing gender-based hierarchy in the family, church, and society have found it convenient and expeditious to harvest examples from church history that cast some doubt on the certainty we Evangelicals once had with regards to the total non-hierarchal and equal standings of each Person in the Trinity.

They call themselves complementarians. But their idea of complementarity is ruler/ruled, leader/led, dominate/submit. Their more honest and proper title might be hierarchists, patriarchalists, or subordinationists.

The idea of subordination within the Trinity is a controversy with roots in the early church and the writings of the church fathers. Yet very early it was rejected as unorthodox during the great Christological and Trinitarian debates. This rejection was articulated in some of the great ecumenical creeds before any schism occurred in the Church. Augustine and Athanasius strongly opposed any form of subordinationism, as did later confessions of the Protestant Reformation.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines subordinationism as:
"A doctrine that assigns an inferiority of being, status, or role to the Son or Holy Spirit within the Trinity." This doctrine was "condemned by numerous church councils," though it "has continued in one form or another throughout the history of the church."
The basis for opposing subordinationism is grounded in a truth expressed by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, that Jesus Christ is "from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father." The council was adamant that "same" means "same," to the degree that the Nicene Creed anathematizes "those who say ... the Son of God is of a different nature or essence," allowing for no variation. Later councils clarified and explained that this sameness of nature means both the Father and the Son are equal in all respects and that there is no subordination within the Trinity. Consider:
"Such as the Father is, such is the Son, such also the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father is infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite. The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal.... And in this Trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal. Thus in all things, as has been stated above, both Trinity and unity and unity in Trinity must be worshipped. So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity."
-- Athanasian Creed, c. 500
"Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality. For according to the nature or essence they are so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (5.017)
"HERESIES. Therefore we condemn ... all heresies and heretics who teach ... that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less...." (5.019)
-- The Second Helvetic Confession (16th Century Reformed)
"The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father...."
-- The Westminster Confession, VIII, 2 (A.D. 1647, Presbyterian)
We believe that there is one living and true God, eternally existing in three persons, that these are equal in every divine perfection....
-- An Affirmation of Faith, Article 2 (Adopted by the Baptist General Conference in 1951)
A question naturally arises due to statements in the gospels that indicate that Jesus was in submission to the Father (cf Mt 11:27, Jn 5:26-27; 6:38; 8:28; 14:28). But such statements must be understood first as within the temporal context of Jesus' mission and his voluntary choice to humble and empty himself of divine rights in order to save humanity. In his exaltation, Jesus returned to the equality he'd known in eternity (cf Jn 1:1, 5:17-23; 10:15, 30; Tit 2:13; Ro 9:5; 1Jn 5:7). In Philippians 2:6-7 Paul marvels that although Jesus was equal to and the same as God, he voluntarily chose to submit himself to servitude. And the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus' incarnation required him to learn obedience as a Son (5:8).

Second, passages that seem to indicate that Jesus was subordinate to the Father must be understood in the context of Jesus setting us an example to submit to one another. When Jesus knelt down and washed his disciples' feet he urged them to imitate him in serving and submitting to each other (Jn 13:13-17).

Third, we cannot forget that the Father also submitted to the Son, as when Jesus says in John 11:42 that God always hears him -- in the sense of granting his requests (cf 1Jn 5:15). So sure is Jesus of the Father's loyalty that he even promises his followers can pray in his name and the Father will grant the request (Jn 16:23-24). Likewise, we're told that the Father has committed all he has to the service of the Son (Mt 11:27). So complete was their mutual submission to one another that in John 17:10 Jesus describes his relationship to the Father by telling him, "All I have is yours, and all you have is mine."

It does not follow that because Jesus chose temporarily and voluntarily to be subordinated to the Father that this means a whole category of people must permanently and mandatorily submit to another class of people. And if the Father also submits to the Son, then it follows that submission between husband and wife, or man and woman should be mutual. This is how Paul could declare that for the baptized Christ-follower:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Ga 3:28)
This mutual submission/mutual authority is beautifully illustrated in Paul's teaching on sex within marriage. Perhaps nothing better depicts the marriage relationship than the act that unites the two into one flesh. And it is here that Paul instructs spouses:
"The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent..." (1Co 7:4-5)
And so the orthodox and biblical view of the Trinity challenges us to understand submission in a new way, a way of true mutuality. Biblical submission is demonstrated for us by One who is equal to the One to whom he submitted (cf Phil 2:6-7). His example explains how it is we are to submit to one another (Eph 5:21) while none of us is authorized to hold authority over another (Mt 20:25-26; 1Pe 5:1-3).

Recommended Reading:


  1. Dave, you have thought about these things far longer with to a far greater depth than I have. But rest assured I have no "social agenda" to create a "hierarchy within the family". My only agenda is to be faithful to God's word and the testimony of the Church. To put it as you have suggests a conspiracy on the part of those you disagree with who are merely attempting to be faithful to the biblical testimony. Complimentarianism is not knew, it is the egalitarian who must swim upstream against Church History. (Capital "C" and "H")

    I also suggest you have made a fundamental mistake in the main point of this post regarding hierarchy and the trinity. I suggest this with humility because I know that you have done far more work in this area than I have and thus I admit in all probability that I may be wrong. I don't think biblical hierarchy jeopardizes equality (as your article assumes), especially since biblical hierarchy is upside down.

    Frankly, I don't understand the whole egalitarian/complimentarian debate probably because my marriage with my wife is so amazing the in practical terms, that makes the debate moot for us. Have women been abused through the ages as a result of fallen mans devilish authoritarianism? Absolutely. Does that mean we should chuck out the baby with the dirty water? Absolutely not! As you said elsewhere, there is a relational authority among the people of God (I would suggest, even in the home) that is upside down and Kingdom based. There are two words that when married together convey this idea. They are "egalitarian" and "complimentarian".

  2. Derek,

    Again, thanks for taking time to interact with me over these things. I think we are both on a journey in such matters. Your graciousness is always refreshing and inspiring.

    Let me see if I can offer some responses that will help.

    You wrote: "[Complementarianism] is not [new], it is the egalitarian who must swim upstream against Church History."

    Yes, I suppose some will see it that way. But the same was probably said of justification by faith, the radical reformation, and abolition. In each case we (I mean to include myself within these traditions) protested that it was the church that had strayed historically from the intent and spirit of the New Testament's teaching. And we were right. Let's not "beg the question" (in the precise meaning of that phrase); the very debate is over what view was the original view, not how later generations came to regard it.

    You wrote: "I don't think biblical hierarchy jeopardizes equality (as your article assumes), especially since biblical hierarchy is upside down."

    Derek, I'm sure you are sincere in this. But I would put it to you that you have come to accept this idea while missing its contradictory nature. Hierarchy and equality are opposing ideas. I taught my children a basic tenet of logic while they were still learning to talk and I still have to remind myself of it often: "A cannot equal non-A." It amazes me how the misnamed complementarian camp repeatedly breaks this rule by invoking the idea that something can be so spiritually while not so in reality. This is a foreign idea to the Hebraic mind and therefore to the authors of the NT. And I have to wonder, it it is so spiritually, why are they against it being so in reality?

    We experimented with this idea in America during the last century in the area of race relations. It was called "separate but equal" and it failed miserably.

    Jesus told us that whatever his followers declared to be so on earth would be so in heaven, and vice-versa. He did not recognize that it could be any other way.

    And so I contend that the idea that hierarchy can exist between equals is double-speak. They cannot be equal and yet greater/lesser in the same sense they are equal. And so it is only in Jesus' voluntary choice to become human that he assumes a place lower than the angels. It is in his humanity that it is so. But with regards to that which he emptied himself of in order to accomplish this, and in regards to that which is restored when he hands the Kingdom back to the full Godhead, he is in every way equal to God without the slightest hint of eternal subordination or hierarchy. For if such a thing existed within God it would destroy what it means to be One.

    And so I would venture to say your marriage is in a happy state because you both feel mutually valued, loved, and respected. You both probably even "treat each other as more important than yourselves" (Phil 2). Should either of you start treating the other as less than equal, I will guarantee you that the effects will disturb that happiness within one or both of you, and might even cause lasting damage to your relationship and trust.

    Note what Jesus modeled with regards to his Bride. He not only washed his disciples' feet, but he lifted us up with him to reign at his side in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority (Ephesians--note past tense). Those who treat their spouses in this way will enjoy the kind of bliss you describe. But those who feel they have to keep their partner under their authority or control have planted mines that will come back to haunt them.

    I have witnessed this and experienced it, in addition to seeing it clearly presented in God's Word. And this is why I am a convinced mutualist.


  3. (part 2)

    I sincerely wish you and your bride well in your wonderful bliss. And I am sincerely happy for you. However you and she mutually agree to conduct your relationship with each other is between the two of you and your God. I only have the best hopes for you as you do so. Be loving and wise. Make sure your security is not misplaced or based on unverified assumptions about each other. And don't worry about who else agrees with what the two of you choose. I'll be cheering you on as one of your biggest fans!