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Considering Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity: Is All Subordination Out of the Question? (part I of III)

06 Jun
What does this mean?

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To cut to the chase, “No, I don’t think so.”

Some do though. I asked an online friend about why he thought this issue was so important and he said this: 

“The real concern is the person of Christ – namely who he is, and how He saves us, namely the reason we believe Christ to be equal to the father is because He is our savior. Who else can save us but God? But that is not the only thing we are told Christ does, we are also told we are united under Christ in a single body, and he presents us to the Father. Essentially, we achieve unity and reconciliation with God the Father through our savior, Jesus Christ… We can have no savior other than God, and no one can unite us to God but God…. It’s so important that Christ is equal to the father and not subordinated within the Trinity. Essentially, if there is subordination, we cannot be truly saved.” 

Or consider what the well-known theological blogger Bradly Mason has to say about all of this in this post. Three hard-hitting and thought-provoking quotes:

“Is it not that the GOD, Jehovah Himself, became man and thus in His full Godhead and full humanity, has reconciled fallen and corrupt man to the true, perfect, and eternal God; that full and complete God with all majesty and authority has met together with true humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ? Is not the Gospel itself sapped of its inaccessible majesty and glory if the death and resurrection of our Lord was really the death and resurrection of humanity united with an eternally subordinate God, an eternally submissive God, a lower ranking person within the Godhead; in short, a sort of Jehovah Jr.?”

And: 

“[W]ho is this God we meet with in Jesus Christ? The eternally subordinate and submissive One? Blasphemous! No, He is the true God indeed, that the saints of old had always known and worshipped, though the full revelation awaited His coming in the flesh. That is, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ it is Jehovah Himself that is united in perfect personal union with the Human Nature of His fleshy creatures. This is the grandeur of the Gospel message.”

And:

“[O]ne equal with God, one with God, and Himself the true God, voluntarily condescended, taking on the form of a servant through corruptible flesh, and became obedient, though it was not and is not His natural estate. The Gospel message is not and cannot be that an eternally subordinate and submissive being became subordinate and submissive… We must, to uphold the truth and majesty of the Gospel itself, confess with clarity that the mission of Christ was to become submissive—a role contrary to and not a simple corollary of His eternal Nature. In a word, submission was the mission, not the cause of the mission.”

This all sounds pretty important, huh? Now, though, enter Martin Luther, and his great hymn “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice”: 

“He spoke to his belovèd Son:

“It’s time to have compassion.

Then go, bright jewel of my crown,

and bring to all salvation.

From sin and sorrow set them free;

slay bitter death for them that they

may live with you forever.”

The Son obeyed his Father’s will,

was born of virgin mother,

and, God’s good pleasure to fulfill,

he came to be my brother.

No garb of pomp or pow’r he wore;

a servant’s form like mine he bore

to lead the devil captive.”

Now I have never, for one moment, considered anything in these lines to be questionable, or furthermore, as representing anything else than the unvarnished truth of the Gospel. Before the foundation of the world – before time itself was created! – the Lamb of God is slain for our salvation. It is determined that the eternally begotten Son is to be temporally sent, that is sent into the world to undo the curse that would be unleashed in Eden! 

I have been reading the book Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett, which I would recommend that any contemplating this topic take time to read. On the one hand, I can say that I basically agree with a lot of the book’s arguments. For example, as Pastor Jordan Cooper has also pointed out in two videos on the topic (also referencing Barret; also see his most recent videos here and here) there are a number of ways modern EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination)/ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) advocates make errors the ancient church would never have tolerated! 

And here, for more conservative Lutheran readers of this post who are not regularly taking in Pastor Cooper’s content, I should give a little more background for those not familiar with these debates! In sum, evangelicalism is traditionally not strong when it comes to deeper doctrines like that of the Trinity. So as folks like both Barnett and Cooper are pointing out in their own ways, real care should be taken so that the doctrine of the Trinity as presented by Evangelicalism is actually the doctrine of the Trinity with all of its mystery left as mystery! And not – as happened repeatedly in the 20th century and still happens today – not simply what amounts to theological propaganda for some sort of favored social, cultural, or political position.

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With all of this said, as I consider both the arguments and the framing of those fighting against EFS and ESS, time and again I am left with the impression that Luther’s words would make them wince at best and become sick at worst, as Christology is thought to swallow up the Trinity. How so? Because, again, when it comes to the activities of the Triune God apart from His activities in the creation and history (known as His “ad intra” activity) the Son is equal to the Father in every way. And since, I think, we all know that obedience and submission go hand-in-hand – and that submission and subordination are basically seen by most everyone as being synonymous – surely the pre-incarnate Son of God cannot be seen as being subordinate! 

At the same time though we all must recognize that the Son is the Word of the Father, and there is no way that this can be turned around, right? And likewise, we all must recognize that the Son is eternally begotten, and hence is temporally sent by the Father, and there is no way this can be turned around, correct? Thomas Torrence in fact spoke of “Patrocentricity” giving an “unreserved place to the Spirit of the Father who is conveyed to us through the Son and on the ground of his saving and reconciling work” (Kleinig, 3). Does this not perhaps all have something to do with why we can say there is “harmony of will” (Greogory of Naziansus, in Barret, 138) when it comes to the persons of the Triune God? After all, one does need particular persons in order to do harmony!

And this, I think, gets to the main issue with this book and the main issue with this debate, as odd as this may sound: even as some cases might seem obvious enough to many of us in the day and age that we live, the church has nevertheless never really agreed on a good definition of “person” for created persons much less divine ones! 

Classically, Barrett notes, the Trinity is three distinct persons that are nevertheless not separate from each other, but “always coexist; wherever one is, there the other really is” (Francis Turretin, 136). Furthermore, the actions of the Trinity are co-inherent, identical, indistinguishable, and indivisible (see 151, 228, 291): it is not like any members of the Trinity exist, think, will or act apart from the others, acting as separate persons. Therefore, since the Son of God is one with the Father and Spirit in intellect, will, and even act, He is not, in any sense, His own “center of consciousness” (see Barret, 82)! For if we said this, it is thought that this would also necessarily mean that the Son had His own intellect and will as well, and He would therefore not be one with God’s essence, substance, being. Barrett expands on this elsewhere, insisting that thinking about the Trinity as three distinct agents, or three “centers of knowledge,” or three “centers of consciousness” is wrong. It may be correct, he says, to think about created persons this way, as individuals who are able to cooperate in a harmonious fashion, but this cannot be true of divine persons, otherwise the Godhead would be divided (see 57-59). Barret goes so far as to say “where there are three separate centers of consciousness there are three separate gods” (149, see 148-150). 

He then goes on to point out how the modern psychological category of “relationship” should not be confused with the “relations” of the Trinity, which are ultimately reducible to paternity (the Father), filiation (the eternally begotten Son), and spiration (the Holy Spirit). And yet, again, the persons are somehow distinct, as Barrett, for example, favorably mentions Augustine speaking of the three as Lover (the Father), Beloved (the Son), and Love (the Holy Spirit) (283, see 273 as well). Finally, even if a modern definition of person, perhaps something like a “center of autonomy gifted with consciousness and freedom” (Boff, on 82, 226) clearly would not apply here (should a Christian even say this is true of created persons!? – more on this below), it would definitely seem odd to feel the need to assert that distinct Persons of the Trinity would not be aware of, that is conscious of, their own love for one another or their own particular “everlasting provenances” (59). Indeed, as Barrett himself points out regarding modalism or Sabellianism, such a heresy does not have “a plurality of persons to love” (283).

Again, however, even though we are using all of these terms, evidently assuming a basic understanding, exactly what a person has never been agreed upon, much less a “center of consciousness” or “relationship”. I get every impression from the way that Barrett puts things that when we speak of the persons of the Trinity, this term, “person,” is much like the term “begotten”: it needs to be understood not in an earthly sense, but perhaps a rather strange or “otherworldly” eternal sense. I am actually sympathetic here, but I come back to the fact that, unlike “begotten”, the church (or even the world!) has not even really agreed on a good definition of what a created person is! Furthermore, I cannot stop thinking about this picture:     

I mean, perhaps some find this picture compelling and attractive and true, but all of these terms, particularly “true”, seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I not only prefer but think I should prefer the picture of Jesus’ baptism, with all three persons of the Trinity making an appearance, so to speak, individually, as a much more appropriate picture, don’t you? That is what faith like a child would say, right?

(to be continued….)

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

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