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

10 Jun
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”


Part I

Part II

So do the ESS or EFS folks have a point? 

I have every impression that the respected Lutheran theologian John Kleinig would think so. In his paper “The Subordination of the Exalted Son to the Father” he also speaks to the matter of eternal relations: “The Son… is ‘subordinate’ to the Father as the eternal source of his sonship and his divinity as Son… to speak of mutual dependence [for example]… does not do full justice to the asymmetrical order and character of the relation of the persons to each other” (2). Even though Barrett says himself that the Son was “appointed to be our Redeemer from eternity,” “it was established in the crown of heaven as the Father commissioned his Son” and this was “just as the Father intended from the beginning” (307) he still doesn’t see anything suggesting primacy here. Furthermore, he quotes Richard Muller saying this is a “pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement of the Father and Son” (306). Does this not sound like some kind of primacy, and hence some kind of eternal sub-ordination in the sense that I have been talking about it here? I do not understand how one can insist that it is not, even if this is not something the Son would ever choose differently, as this one will simply unfolds according to the Godhead’s very nature of love…

Barrett, however, does seem to give mixed messages here. For example, when critiquing EFS in footnote 92, he writes: 

“Submission is not merely an economic appropriation for [Eternal Functional Subordinationism]; it is intrinsic to the immanent identity of the Son. For the Reformed, the Son’s obedience in the covenant of redemption[, made between Him and the Father,] is optional, an economic deliberation that is not necessary for God to be triune. For EFS, the Son’s obedience in the covenant of redemption is necessary, an extension of the submission that defines him as a person within the immanent Trinity, necessary for the Son to be the Son and therefore necessary for the Trinity to be triune” (346).

If the Trinity has one will, should we really be saying the Son’s obedience is “optional”? Would it not be better if we said that since it is the one will of the Triune God to redeem man, that the Son desires and wills and does nothing else than what His Father desires? In other words, we certainly can say that the Son did not need to save man – but only because we first say that the Triune God, the Godhead – even the Father Himself! – did not need to save man. Also, I understand that Barrett believes that what Fesko said of Barth’s Trinitarian view – “Christ’s mission ends up defining the Trinity rather than revealing it” (345) – is equally true of the EFS or ESS view. While I think that is likely the case, I am left wondering about the assumptions of men like Barret as well. How would the Godhead have communicated a simultaneous equality and subordination had he wanted to do so (and, per above, I believe He has in John 3:16 and 17)? After all, Barrett himself wants to communicate that he simultaneously believes in earthly equality and subordination (affirming his belief in the book about male headship)!  

Nevertheless, we should also point out the following here: those who would argue against any notion of subordination seem to be insisting on defining subordination in a wholly temporal fashion instead of recognizing that this would need to be understood in a way consistent with the Eternal nature of the Godhead. That said, even in an earthly sense any definition of subordination should not necessarily need to involve the reconciliation of two opposing wills (with one accepting overrule by the other). This would be to insist on understanding everything only according to the law, where not only matters of fatherhood (from which wisdom flows and which begets honor and love), but matters of kingship and judgeship (which insists on jurisdiction, that the law be followed, and that power be used in the service of enforcement) play a role. While these terms ultimately all describe the One True God (in the Godhead’s entirety as well) the nuances in distinction are critical. Recognizing that there is action born primarily of love and action taken primarily in light of power (and corresponding threat) is critical to proper understanding.

In line with matters regarding what it means to honor a father, Barrett recognizes that “mere compliance is not enough” (283) – we must go deeper. Obedience in a biblical sense is ultimately about adopting the will of another for the sake of an internal unity while mere compliance involves a will bending and distorting to the other’s for the sake of some external unity. Surely we must be able to see that subordination, subordination understood in a truly biblical sense, could also conceivably go hand-in-hand with an innate desire for the primary person – who is indeed distinct in some fashion! – to be the one who initiates and determines… As a friend put it to me “[t]he reality of sin makes us much more familiar with compliance than obedience, but that’s not exactly an issue in the Godhead.”

This is exactly right. While it is important that we human creatures confess “the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty” there are also three Persons who do not have any sin problems and are in no need of such confessions or exhortations. We, for example, need to be told not only that it is enough for earthly servants to become like their masters (Matt 10:25), but even admonished to not seek our own glory (John 8:50, 54) and to rather consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). The Triune God, on the other hand, simply is this way. For the Father, this can be seen as He delights in His Son. For the Son, this can be seen as He embraces the fullness of love and harmony which originates from the Father. And the Spirit can be seen to exult in and proclaim this blessed eternal relationality that always bears good fruit!

Perhaps it might also be helpful to consider the matter in the following way. Eastern Orthodox Christians, in discussing how they view the papacy, emphasize the difference between there being a primary of jurisdiction – which they do not believe the Pope has – and a primacy of honor, which they do attribute to the Roman See. As best I understand matters, they are saying that the Pope may well have the position he does through a kind of “divine right” (as opposed to a merely human right and arrangement), but that he is also to be understood as the “first among equals”. Both the “first” and “equals” are important here, along with the fact that they are saying that – ideally, at least – one would honor this primary one and his direction. All this speaks to how we could conceivably speak of there being authority and submission within one divine essence and will.  All of this should not be controversial, but simply can go along with how “specific acts of God, acts that are attributed to the entire Godhead, can also be appropriated to specific persons” (310), as “each person possesses… a distinct mode of action” (Giles Emery, 309) and all this, of course, is “consistent with each persons’ eternal relation of origin (311), that is paternity, filiation, and spiration. 


As we conclude, I want to deal with one last thing that Barrett speaks about. Take this paragraph:

“Paul, Andrew, and James are three persons, and they all have the same human nature. We might say they all possess the nature we call humanity. But can we say they are one human? We cannot. Paul, Andrew, and James all participate in what they call humanity, but they are not a single human being. They are, rather, three separate individuals, three separate beings. They are not only distinct but independent. They may have much in common, but three they remain, not one. The illustration buckles: what we call human nature can be divided. Never can it be a single human essence and at the same time three humans. ‘The common humanity of the three human persons does not indicate as it must in God, a numerical unity of essence, only a generic unity.’ And a generic unity will not do when we are speaking of the triune God” (144).

He goes on to say that “Paul, Andrew, and James can exist without one another; they do not need one another, nor is their identity dependent on one another…” but I think this underlies how many points he is missing above. 

First of all, human beings actually do need one another, do depend on each other for both their creation and sustenance, and even if one particular human being does not help us directly, this point is not diluted. We can see this clearly in that if our three individuals were husband, wife, and child, that is, not only sharing the same nature but the same flesh and blood, then the interdependency of human creatures becomes just as obvious as any “individuality”. And as a friend puts it “since we’re all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, those relationships are only where it’s most obvious, not the only place it’s real. The very fact that we can all fall in one man and rise in one Man also testifies to that deeper unity.” 

Second, even though I do not have the references before me, I am aware that at least one of the Cappadocian church fathers – men who Barrett seems to be very keen to follow in other respects, did analogize about the persons who are “humanity” to the Persons who are Divinity. In other words, in some sense they do share a human nature in a similar fashion to how the three persons of the Godhead share a divine nature. We can say they share one human nature or one humanity, just as the three persons of the Godhead share one divine nature or one divinity (and so I have, I confess, often pondered what might be wrong, if anything, with the phrase “Tri-Personal Being,” which I heard a friend once [helpfully?] use to describe the Trinity…). So what is significant here is that what it means to be divine and what it means to be man are two fundamentally different things, and this is because man is a creature while God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal and immutable. This means, for example, that it is possible for man to not share one will, even if God would indeed have this be the case!: the will of all men – as one body united in Christ! – should indeed always be in full accordance with God’s desires, purposes, and goals!

Finally, there are two more things that I think need to be brought up as well. While I think we can all see how the equality of the three persons of the Trinity could potentially be popular among those who are more culturally progressive, I do not see how the sub-ordination of the Son could ever be. In like fashion, again, if someone is absolutely against any kind of “subordination” (is “suborder” OK? Why?) in the Trinity because of concerns about equality and is also pro-male headship – as Barrett says he is – I don’t understand how such a person escapes the charge of implying women are of some sort of an inferior nature. That might seem like a brutal thing to say, and probably doesn’t seem very conciliatory either, but the logic of it all and the direction this discussion seems to be moving does weigh on me. That was confirmed for me further when the online friend I quoted to begin this article also said to me: “I think you are correct to be honest. I don’t know how a pro-male headship person who is against ESS can escape the charge a woman’s nature is inferior which is why I tend to support women’s ordination.” Even persons like Bradly Mason, who argue that male headship is only temporal due to the Fall, will need to face those deeply angered and irritated by their insistence on such a temporary arrangement. 

But order, a “numbering”, a primacy — if not a hierarchy — appears to be rather fundamental. Because of Love, and Love which honors, and Love which glories in and glorifies all of this. 


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Posted by on June 10, 2022 in Uncategorized


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