Saturday, March 21, 2009

Millard Erickson on Subordination in the Trinity

Roman Catholic theologian James Bellord

In nature, the offspring is inferior to, and dependent on the parent, and owes a duty of submission. This is not the case in the Blessed Trinity. The Son is, and always has been, equal to the Father in all things (emphases in original).

See Matthew Alfs, Concepts of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, page 9.

With these preliminary observations, I will now review Millard Erickson's discussion of subordination found in his
Making Sense of the Trinity.


I. The Eternal Subordinationist View

Erickson describes Trinitarian subordination as the
view that "there is an eternal, asymmetrical
relationship within the Trinity between the Father and
the Son, and by extension, the Spirit as well"
(Making Sense of the Trinity, page 85).

This theological position is based (in part) on
biblical passages that speak of the Father generating
the Son. Such Bible verses are construed as applying
to the Son, not simply during his time on earth, but
from all eternity. Since the Father has putatively
been generating the Son from all eternity and continues generating the Son eternally (according to some ancient fathers), "The subordination of the Son to the Father was therefore not simply during his earthly life. It is from all time" (ibid., 85).

Erickson also notes that those advocating this view "take considerable pains to disclaim an inferiority of the Son to the Father," avidly contrasting their position with that of Arianism (ibid).

II. The Eternal Equality View

Contra this intra-trinitarian model, there are other
trinitarians who contend that the three persons are
eternally equal and symmetrical in relation to one
another. Therefore,

The biblical statements about the
Father begetting the Son are to be applied to the
earthly incarnation, when the second person of the
Trinity stepped down to earth and added humanity to
his deity. Similarly, his statements of apparent
subordination, such as 'the Father is greater than I'
(John 14:28), are to be interpreted within this
framework. This subordination is to be understood as a
subordination of function, not of essence (ibid).

Note that those advocating an eternal equality view with reference to the tres personae generally argue that Jn 14:28 only applies to the incarnate Son. They speak of functional subordination in the sense that God's Son is subordinate to the Father while incarnate on earth. This type of subordination is thus viewed as temporary (i.e. economic) and ceases once Christ ascends back to the Father. Whereas some Trinitarians use the terminology "functional subordination" to reference the Son's pre-incarnate status and incarnate mode of being, others strictly limit the nomenclature to the incarnate Christ. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity, 85-86.

At any rate, an important point that should not be overlooked is what Erickson writes next:

On this latter view, there is NOT an asymmetrical
relationship of generation. Not only do the Son and
Spirit derive their being from the Father, but they
also derive it from one another, as does the Father
from each of them. Beyond that, this view claims that
each member of the Trinity serves each of the others.
There is a mutual subordination of each to the other
(ibid., 86).

According to Erickson, the eternal equality view
posits an intra-trinitarian model wherein the three
persons are mutually subordinate to one another in
that the three relations (i.e. persons) serve each other or
derive their very being from one another. I read "mutually
subordinate" here as co-equal in view of what Erickson
later writes. However one interprets Erickson at this
point, one can definitely say that the author of the
work promoting understanding of the Trinity favors the
latter view and affirms the fact that orthodoxy has
traditionally maintained that the Son is not eternally
subordinate to the Father:

The interpretations the orthodox gave to the passages
appealed to by the Arians are basically that these
should be taken as referring to Jesus' earthly
ministry, rather than his eternal status. The logic of
the argument would seem to apply to the passages
marshaled in support of the subordinationist view as
well. Thus, the begetting passages should be seen as
referring to the earthly residence of Jesus, rather
than some everlasting continuous generation by the
Father (ibid).

III. Erickson Highlights A Difficulty With the Eternal Subordinationist View

Erickson argues that the eternal subordinationist view
finds it difficult to prevent eternal subordination of
the Son to the Father and the Holy Spirit to the
Father and/or Son from "lapsing into the inferiority
of the Son," a position synonymous with Arianism
(ibid., 86-87).

Erickson then alludes to Geoffrey Bromiley's article
in the Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, which avers, based on the eternal generation theory, that there is an eternal "superiority and subordination of order" in
the triune Godhead. See page 368 of Evangelical
Dictionary of Theology
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).

Bromiley further qualifies his statement by noting
that eternal subordination does not imply inferiority
amongst the three opposed relations of the Trinity.
Yet, Erickson thinks that Bromiley's position seems
logically absurd. Why is this the case?

Bromiley's position is evidently that "The Father is superior to
the Son and the Son is subordinate to the Father but
without being inferior" to the Father (Erickson,
Making Sense of the Trinity, 87).
But Erickson suggests that Bromiley is working with "some ambiguity of
superiority and inferiority that enables A to be
superior to B without B being inferior to A. Without
justification of this distinction of meaning we have a
logical contradiction. And I would contend that if
that distinction were to be made clear, the
significance of the Father's superiority would vanish.
In other words, if the ambiguity is not removed, there
is a logical contradiction. If it is removed, the
meaning of the assertion is lost" (ibid).

Erickson's point is that the Son cannot simultaneously
be subordinate to the Father (and the Father superior to him) without the Son being inferior to the Father. The only way that such a situation can obtain is
if one uses the term "subordinate" or "superior" in an ambiguous or
non-standard fashion. But if the word "subordinate" is
not used ambiguously, there is a logical
contradiction. For how can a personal entity be
subordinate to another entity and have another entity be superior to it without being inferior to the said entity in some way? On the other hand, if
one defines "subordinate" in a manner that
disambiguates the term, then the Son's putative
eternal subordination to the Father disappears. Either
way, there seems to be an unsolvable problematic feature
associated with the eternal subordinationist view.
Erickson therefore favors the temporary
subordinationist model to account for Jesus'
subordination to the Father.

In conclusion, I believe that Erickson's discussion
demonstrates the position that orthodoxy has
traditionally maintained concerning intra-trinitarian
relations. Church creeds, councils, and post-Nicene
fathers have generally expressed themselves in the way
that Owen Thomas describes. To recap his observation:

God the Father is the ground or presupposition of God
the Son, and God the Father and God the Son are the
ground or presupposition of God the Holy Spirit. God
the Son is of or from God the Father, and God the Holy
Spirit is of or from God the Father and God the Son.
But the Church interpreted this in such a way that
there is no temporal priority or subordination
(Thomas, Introduction to Theology, page 68).



Anonymous said...

I thought I'd comment on the fact that only of the so called trinity does the son, after his resurrection say he has a God as at John 20:17, it is the same God Martha has. It would be deceitful on his part to say this and not mean exactly what he says. Also, we know he uses the same expression at Revelation 3:12.
Thanks again

David Waltz said...

Hi Edgar,

Excellent post! However, I think you may have an incorrect title for Erickson’s book. The quotations you provided in the post that you ascribe to Understanding the Trinity, are found in his Making Sense of the Trinity (HERE FOR DETAILS).

You may have conflated McGrath’s Understanding the Trinity (HERE), with Erickson; if I am all wet on this, please let me know.

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hello again Edgar,

For some reason the links are not working—as such, I am going to provide the full addresses:

Grace and peace,


Edgar Foster said...

Hi David,

You are correct. I don't know how I did it, but I typed the wrong title for Erickson's book. I actually did this piece some time agao when I had Erickson's book, then I pasted this information from my yahoogroup. I appreciate your attentive eye. It will be changed ASAP.


Edgar Foster said...


I agree with what you say about Revelation 3:12. Trinitarians I have encountered in the past try to explain this verse by appealing to the Incarnation concept. They say that Christ as man has a God, but he does not have a God as God.

Jehovah's Servant said...

And doing so, they ignore the fact that Rev. 3:12 is written of Christ as he exists in heaven, after his resurrection to immortality. They also make these claims without Scriptural proof, for nowhere does it say "I have no God in heaven, but did while on earth."

Rev. 3:12 is not the only place where Christ is said to have a God. Many times, the Apostles write of the resurrected Christ as having a God.

"that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give YOU a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the accurate knowledge of him;" (Ephesians 1:17)

"But with reference to the Son: “God is your throne forever and ever, and [the] scepter of your kingdom is the scepter of uprightness. 9 You loved righteousness, and you hated lawlessness. That is why God, your God, anointed you with [the] oil of exultation more than your partners." (Heb. 1:8, 9)

There are others as well.

Either we live and die by Scripture alone, or we might as well make up our own religion and worship sea monkeys. Which, in my opinion, is the very thing trinitarian religions have done. They are so far distorted from the truth that it is hard to consider them following the same religion as that dictated by the Scriptures at all.