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

08 Jun

Andrei Rublev’s Troitsa, a Trinitarian interpretation of Gen 18:1-16. Showing “the Monarchy of the Father”?: “…it is the angel on the left that becomes the center of the relationships.”


Part I

Overall, I am not sure Barrett and I are at odds but it appears to me that we are. I agree that the Son and the Spirit, by nature, always share in the will and actions of the Father. The Father’s desires, purposes, and goals – and actions! – are theirs’ as well. To do justice to Luther’s language about the Son obeying His Father’s will without making it wholly figurative, we could say that the even though we all equally honor the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, something important nevertheless happens within the Trinity itself.

Here the Son, being essentially begotten, always honors His Father, of course being one with His desires, purposes, and goals. If the Son is the Word of the Father, how could He not want only and ever what the Father wants? And of course, the Father, from whom the Son is begotten, is the beginning, the source, the [eternal] origin of the Son. This is highly significant because the Father is also the beginning of the coordination that occurs within the Trinity. Does the importance of this escape us today? Consider, for example, what Paul says to Timothy in the ever-controversial chapter 2 of the first book, “A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve.” 

I know some heads might be exploding now! Isn’t talking about these things in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity exactly the kind of problem Mattew Barrett is trying to counter? Yes, true. At the same time, even though the Son is not formed or made but eternally begotten, Paul is nevertheless pointing out something important here that people have always understood: Order matters. The numbering matters. Primacy matters (see 172). For Barrett, “[P]rimacy [is] precluded by the very nature, will, power and glory of the three persons held in common.” (172). Nevertheless, the order is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and not otherwise!  And the one divine will, along with the one divine substance, is originally from the Father.

And therefore the Son – at least it seems to me – eternally honors His Father as Primary! 

And so it is only in this sense and not another that the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, is “subordinate” to His Father. When He, for example, says in the Gospel of John “[f]or God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him…” (see also I John 4:9) we should not think of Him as saying that He is unequal or less than the Father, even as He eagerly obeys. Bradley Mason, mentioned above, addresses this passage by looking to Augustine, and notes that because of the Trinity’s inseparable operations “as true God [the Son]… sent Himself [as well]” and comments that “[t]ruly sending refers to unequal authority” (see comments here). Presumably, Mason would then have something similar to say about Luther’s “obey”. Why absolutely insist on this however? Because obedience is not really obedience and sending is not really sending unless the will of the sender is backed up with power and force? Where is the willingness to consider a submission based on love that I heard so much about in the 1980s and 1990s when “mutual submission” was being discussed regarding Ephesians 5:21?*

No, contrary to Mason’s take, I believe we should see the pre-incarnate Son of God as vigorously embracing His role in the order, being this “co-ordinate,” this point on the graph and not another point! In other words, we should see Him as glorying in His given position, His given and necessary role, His given “co-ordinate”. Hence, being “sub-ordinate”. Barrett, however, says that subordination means inferiority (114), and that “the minute someone projects authority and subordination into the inner life of God (imminent Trinity), the burden of proof is on them to explain how there is not now three wills in the Trinity (tritheism) rather than one will (simplicity)” (229). “Where there is one simple will,” he states, “ there can necessarily be no authority and submission” (229), also insisting that subordination “is appropriate in the economy of salvation” but not in the immanent Trinity.” In the passages from John 3:16 and 3:17 however, what do we see? We see actions pertaining to the economy of salvation, i.e. the Son’s taking on “the form of a servant” (which Barrett, following Augustine, takes to mean he lowers himself to become a man) that do in fact reach “back into eternity, even into the immanent Trinity” (239)! I think Luther, in spite of largely agreeing with critiques of EFS and ESS, might tell us here, “that will preach!” On the other hand, even as Basil says “[t]he Father is the initiating cause’; the Son ‘the operating cause’; the Spirit, ‘the perfecting cause’” (302), Barret is ever eager to avoid any hint of subordination and confidently asserts “the order… does not introduce time into the essence of God, as if there is a before and after for God. If it did then one person would be superior to another” (300). 

Barrett says that the word “order” “reflects who the triune God is in and of himself” (Calvin), and also “communicates how the persons are distinguished by their eternal relations of origin, all the while being coequal and coeternal” (300). Further, he says that when the word “subordination” is used by past theologians it “merely refers to the order within the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) due to the eternal relations of origin” and “suborder is not the same as subordination. Processions, not authority [or hierarchy] are in view”. “Past theologians,” he says, “never considered the Trinity in anything but Nicene categories” (256). I’m not saying I necessarily disagree here. At the same time, I think if we stop there regarding this point about order (and, I think, primacy), we are cutting off any hope of seeing where the ESS or EFS folks just might have a point! 

(to be continued…)

*Thomas Winger’s Ephesians commentary discusses “the oxymoron of ‘mutual submission’” (669, see also 639-646).

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Posted by on June 8, 2022 in Uncategorized


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