“Stinson asked Allison to explain the discrepancy in the debate if both sides are claiming church history as their ally. Because the early church did not specifically discuss authority and submission in their teaching on the Trinity, Erickson takes this as the early church fathers not holding to authority and submission. Allison said that the church fathers saw authority and submission as SO NATURAL THAT THEY DID NOT HAVE TO MAKE IT EXPLICIT IN THEIR WRITINGS.” (https://www.cbmw.org/Blog/Posts/Trinity-Panel-Wrap-up-Part-1)
Our series on the Trinity will begin with a few articles regarding the intense debate amongst conservative evangelicals over the Trinity—and what this means for women in ministry.
Reading the quote above (from the article link above) made me laugh immensely. This
morning, I finished reading Millard Erickson’s chapter on “The Historical Considerations” from his book “Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate,” and the entire chapter revolved around tracing the church fathers who are claimed by both sides in the debate. Erickson wanted to show what the church fathers really said regarding the Trinity, and whether or not the fathers ever claimed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father.
I can tell you this: while Jesus was considered to be “eternally generated,” that is, “begotten of the Father from all eternity,” He was never unanimously labeled as “subordinate.” One church father, Hilary of Poitiers, comes out in his language and labels Jesus as “subordinate”; but none of the others do. Eternal generation does not imply eternal functional subordination. However, if Jesus is “eternally subordinate” in His function, then He is also “eternally subordinate” IN HIS ESSENCE—and this is the old ancient heresy of Arianism repackaged!
Gilbert Bilezikian, an egalitarian and equivalentist (believes in the equality of the Trinity persons), writes the following with regard to eternal functional subordination and eternal essence:
“a subordination that extends into eternity cannot remain only functional...it also becomes ipso facto an ONTOLOGICAL reality” (quoted by Millard Erickson, “The Equivalent-Authority View,” from “Who’s Tampering With the Trinity?” page 71).
If Jesus has existed from all eternity, and He has been “forced” to do what He’s told to do from all eternity, then He has been “ontologically subordinate” (inferior in Deity) from all eternity.
Here’s a simple way to approach this. Think about slavery times in this country. When it was reported that new land was available in America, European landowners and workers of all types decided to come to America. At first, there were those who couldn’t pay their way to America—they didn’t have enough for the fare. As a result, landowners began to help these everyday people make it to America. When the workers got to America, they placed themselves under the landowners with the title “indentured servants.” Such a title was meant to be “temporarily subordinate in function”: the only reason why the workers were servants to the landowners was to pay off their debt. In a few years, the indentured servants believed they would be free of their debt and would go their own way. As time passed, though, they began to understand that they wouldn’t be able to pay off their debt; as a result, not only would the indentured servant remain in service for his entire life, but GENERATIONS more of his kinsfolk would remain in slavery as well.
If we look at the subordinationist belief, they would say, “Well, Jesus IS God; He’s just SUBORDINATE in function.” They attempt to separate function from essence. But let’s get back to my slavery story above...
If the subordinationist belief is correct, then the slaves should have been considered the “equals” of the slaveowners, even though they were functionally subordinate, right? Isn’t this how it should have gone? yes. But the problem is, this is NOT how history unfolded; instead of the servants being considered the equals of their “functional superiors,” they began to be treated as “ontologically subordinate” to their superiors. Once blacks were enslaved in what seemed to be an unceasing spiral, no longer did the surrounding society deem them as “equals.” Instead, what we find in reading history is that society began to argue the INEQUALITY of persons. Blacks now were deemed BIOLOGICALLY INFERIOR, labeled as the “chattel” or property of their slaveowners, and deprived of rights in this country like voting, citizenship, etc.
But wait a minute! Blacks were equal, right? Yeah, in theory...but the fact that society enslaved them and THEN found “genetic” arguments to “prove” the reasons for enslavement and inequality shows that even a society can’t maintain an “equal, but subordinate stance.”
The truth is, subordinationists cannot maintain “equal, yet subordinate” and hold them both in balance. If an “equal essence” exists, then it is “essence” we must emphasize. If we don’t, then even “blacks” in my story above become nothing more than “animals.” To stress the differences of human beings at the expense of the human quality creates a whole new category of “species” for the “black” person.
And it is no different with the Trinity. To stress the subordination of Jesus at the expense of His equality as Deity is to make Him less than God.
In the world of philosophy, Bilezikian (whom I just quoted above) uses what is called “The Law of Non-Contradiction,” which states that two OPPOSING ideas cannot be the same in all respects AT THE SAME TIME. Let’s take for example, the words “tall” and “short.” Now we all know that these two adjectives are in direct contradiction to each other. To reconcile them, we must “qualify” the adjectives themselves—in other words, specify TO WHAT EXTENT these two adjectives can peacefully co-exist. So, if Sue is “both tall and short,” we must explain HOW this can be. Sue cannot be “EQUALLY TALL AND EQUALLY SHORT” at the same time. However, Sue can be “tall” and be “shorter than her grandmother” at the same time. The second phrase, “shorter than her grandmother,” tells us the extent to which Sue is “short.” With the qualifying statement, though, we see that Sue’s “shortness” is relative. It doesn’t change the fact that when we see her walking in the mall, because she is six feet tall, she will be labeled “tall.”
But, can Sue be “taller than her grandmother” and “shorter than her grandmother” at the same time? Of course not! When a person is using a qualifying statement, if one quality is absolute (unqualified), the other must be qualified. Now, both statements can be qualified (for instance, “taller than her aunt, shorter than her grandmother”); but both CANNOT be unqualified (tall and short).
And this is where the subordinationists fall into a trap.
Essence is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
1 a : the permanent as contrasted with the accidental element of being.
What is “function”?
Merriam-Webster defines “function” as that which “implies a definite end or purpose that the one in question serves or a particular kind of work it is intended to perform.”
If essence, then, is “permanent,” then function must be “temporary,” for it “implies a definite END,” in and of itself. Seeing this, then, “essence” and “function” are opposites.
Because they are opposites, they cannot co-exist (like tall and short) without some sort of qualifier. If a person cannot be “equally tall and equally short,” then neither can they be “the same in essence and the same in function.”
There are, then, three choices:
(1) Qualify the essence
(2) Qualify the function
(3) Qualify both essence and function
First, let’s qualify the essence. Since this is important to Jesus as Deity, we will say that He is “equal in essence” to the Father.
Next, let’s qualify the function. Since this is where Jesus differs from the Father, we will say that He is “different” in function. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Last, we are left to qualify both essence and function.
Now, look at what we have. Jesus is equal in essence, but unequal (different) in function. Have we solved the problem here? No, absolutely not! By saying that Jesus is “equal in essence, unequal in function,” all we’ve done is pile MORE OPPOSITES on top of the OPPOSITES! Look at it:
EQUAL in ESSENCE
UNEQUAL in FUNCTION
All we’ve done is piled two more opposites (equal and unequal) on top of two previous opposites (essence and function). We’ve still got two absolute statements without qualifiers. So now, we’ve got to find two more adjectives to qualify the two statements above. The end result of these two must be in such a state where one is permanent (absolute) and the other is temporary (qualified).
What do the subordinationists do? They present to us the following:
ETERNALLY EQUAL in ESSENCE
ETERNALLY UNEQUAL in FUNCTION
But this only compounds the problem we had above! We notice that they’ve added another qualifier, but it’s the SAME. They have failed to add two qualifiers that will distinguish the two statements.
By using the word “eternally,” all they’ve given us are “equally opposing statements”! We are no better off than where we started. Sue is still “always tall” and “always short” (if we use the same qualifier, “always”).
Therefore, if Jesus is “eternally equal in essence,” He cannot be “eternally unequal (or subordinate) in function.” There must be a qualifier to the equality and a qualifier to the subordination (for both essence and function are opposites).
If we qualify Jesus’ essence, what shall we do? Well, if we say that He is “temporarily” equal in essence, then we have committed the old ancient heresy of Arianism (where Arius believed that Jesus had a “point of beginning” and was “created”). However, we would then be forced to keep the other opposing phrase, “eternally unequal in function”; this would then mean that Jesus is “less God” than the Father (because He would only share Deity for a time—“temporarily equal”). We end up with this:
TEMPORARILY EQUAL in ESSENCE
ETERNALLY UNEQUAL in FUNCTION
If, then, we decide to say that Jesus is “temporarily unequal in function,” then we end up with this scheme:
ETERNALLY EQUAL in ESSENCE
TEMPORARILY UNEQUAL in FUNCTION
This fits what we know about Jesus and His existence. In the case of Jesus, we see that one exists for a shorter duration than the other, that being Jesus’ subordinate function is “temporary,” as compared to His “essence,” which is “eternal.”
Even if we had not used “essence” and “function,” we can still see the problem with the subordinationist view:
In this case, we still have TWO EQUALLY OPPOSING PHRASES that would still need a qualifier to distinguish them. Jesus would then have had to be either
Bilezikian makes the argument that “eternal” subordination becomes part of the “eternal” essence. Here, however, I’ve shown you that, according to the rules of philosophy and logic, the subordinationist view doesn’t hold up.
About the Allison quote? I'll tackle it in my next post...