Subordination and the Immanent Trinity (pt5)

Update: I originally wrote this series of posts in 2015 and since then I have changed my view. I’ve decided to keep the posts live, but wish to add that caveat at the outset. 

In this final post I briefly consider Augustine and Barth, before offering my conclusion. Follow the links to read the firstsecond, third and fourth posts. 

Augustine – De Trinitate

Giles argues that Augustine affirms the ontological equality of the members of the Trinity, and denies any eternal authority-obedience relationship seeing language of sending as metaphorical and analogical,[1] and used to differentiate the Father, not to subordinate the Son.[2] He rightly notes that Augustine stresses that differentiation does not imply inequality, but claims that the language of sending refers only to ‘temporal obedience’ related to the period of the incarnation.[3] However, in the very same passage Giles cites, Augustine speaks of the Father and Son’s eternal roles, and demonstrates that the Son’s being sent precedes the incarnation,

not because the one is greater, the other less; but because the one is Father, the other Son; the one begetter, the other begotten; the one, He from whom He is who is sent; the other, He who is from Him who sends. […] the Son is not only said to have been sent because “the Word was made flesh,” but therefore sent that the Word might be made flesh, and that He might perform through His bodily presence those things which were written; that is, that not only is He understood to have been sent as man, which the Word was made but the Word, too, was sent that it might be made man’ [4]

Augustine has often been criticised for opening the door to Modalism. Rahner was concerned by Augustine’s separation of On the One God from On the Triune God, which suggested that ‘everything which matters for us in God has already been said in the treatise On the One God.[5] Thus ‘salvation history comes to appear irrelevant to the doctrine of God.’[6] Eager to combat Arian-Subordinationism, Augustine emphasised the unity of essence and the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, perhaps to the detriment of personal distinctions.[7] Gunton writes that Augustine ‘flattens out the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, a process which can only encourage belief in the irrelevance of conceiving distinct persons.’[8] ‘It is for reasons such as this that there is in Augustine, and in most Western theology after him, a tendency towards Modalism,’[9] a danger which is equally problematic for non-Subordinationists today.

Karl Barth – Church Dogmatics

In an appendix to Jesus and the Father, Giles assesses the contribution of Karl Barth. He emphasises Barth’s rejection of ‘every form of Subordinationism,’[10] and therefore admits surprise at finding him write, ‘the person of the Revealer is the person of Jesus Christ, who is subordinate to the Creator revealed by it, yet who is indissolubly co-ordinate with Him.’[11] Barth quickly clarifies, ‘this subordination and sequence cannot imply any distinction of being; it can only signify a distinction in the mode of being.’[12] The first observation we can make is that Barth felt able to speak of a form of subordination that he didn’t consider to be included in the ‘every form of Subordinationism’, which he so strongly rejected.

In vol.4, Barth writes of Christ’s obedience, and says that at the incarnation the Son ‘is not untrue to himself but genuinely true to himself’[13] and ‘the humility in which he dwells and acts in Jesus Christ is not alien to Him, but proper to Him.’[14] He continues

In the condescension in which he gives Himself to us in Jesus Christ He exists and speaks and acts as the One He was from all eternity and will be to all eternity. The truth and actuality of our atonement depends on this being the case.[15]

This raises a number of questions:

We cannot conceal the fact that it is a difficult and even an allusive thing to speak of obedience which takes place in God Himself. Obedience implies an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superior and a junior and subordinate. Obedience as a possibility and actuality in God Himself seems at once to compromise the unity and then logically the equality of the divine being. Can the one God command and obey? Can the one God be above and below, the superior and the subordinate? If we speak of an obedience which takes place in God, do we not have to speak necessarily of two divine beings, and then of two beings who are not equally divine, the first and commanding properly divine, the second and obeying only divine in an improper sense?’ [16]

To these penetrating questions he considers two unsatisfactory approaches. One is Arian-Subordinationism which ‘has solved the mystery of the deity of Christ by dissolving it’,[17] and the other is to treat Christ’s subordination as purely economic. This second approach is unsatisfactory because it has to do ‘only with a kind of forecourt of the divine being’[18] and ‘if His economy of revelation and salvation is distinguished from His proper being as worldly, does it bring us into touch with God Himself or not?’[19] This second approach, he clearly labels as ‘the direct opposite of Subordinationism […] Modalism.’[20]

One is struck, upon reading Barth’s description of the Modalist approach, how similar it sounds to the non-Subordinationism of Giles and Bilezikian. Barth holds such a view in contempt, since it leads to problems with the atonement.

As the subject of the act of atonement He can only touch the world from without, not affect it from within, not truly convert it to Himself. It would not, therefore, be a real reconciliation of the world with Him […] the atonement made in this economy is not a true atonement.[21]

Barth concludes that both ontological-Subordinationism and Modalism are inadequate, and the only answer, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, is to

affirm and understand as essential to the being of God the offensive fact that there is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. And our present concern is with what is apparently the most offensive fact of all, that there is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience […] It cannot be explained away either as an event in some higher or supreme creaturely sphere or as a mere appearance of God. Therefore we have to state firmly that, far from preventing this possibility, His divine unity consists in the fact that in Himself He is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys.’ [22]

Barth proposes that we acknowledge subordination within the Trinity, defined not ontologically, but in terms of authority and obedience. He considers whether this implies rank:

Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity?’ [23]

So how does Giles treat these comments? First, he argues that rather than distinguishing between members of the Trinity, ‘what Barth actually speaks of is a subordination “in God himself.”[24] Letham points out the weakness of this, when he writes that ‘Throughout, Barth refers to Jesus Christ as the acting subject in the Incarnation, while Giles interprets this of God, the whole Trinity, on the basis of Augustine’s dictum opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.’[25] In fact, Barth’s own words, which Giles ignores in his early work, and refers to only as ‘complex’ in Jesus and the Father,[26] clearly states, ‘As we look at Jesus Christ we cannot avoid the astounding conclusion of a divine obedience’[27] To see subordination as being intrinsic to God in Himself rather than between the members of the Trinity only continues to blur distinctions between the persons of the Godhead, thus risking Modalism.

Second, Giles dismisses the force of Barth’s arguments, claiming, ‘When he speaks of the subordination of the Son, he uses elusive, paradoxical, and dialectical language that makes it impossible to “box in” what he is saying.’[28] Certainly Barth’s dialectical style does make it difficult to ‘box in’ his meaning, but if Giles can accept Barth holding together paradoxes, might we not extend the same courtesy to Subordinationists who argue strenuously that authority and obedience in no way imply ontological inequality?

Giles is similarly dismissive of Colin Gunton who, following Barth, has made comments which seem to suggest the Son’s eternal obedience. Giles says there are ‘three Colin Guntons, figuratively speaking’,[29] the disciple of Barth, the conservative preacher and ‘the innovative, questioning, and critically minded academic theologian.’[30] The first, he claims, became less prominent in his later years as he became increasingly critical of Barth. The second had no room for Subordinationism of any sort. Of the third Gunton, he writes that his comments should only be taken as ‘the penetrating academic questioning of a clever mind […] his questioning or rejection of the tradition. They are not evidence that I have read the tradition wrongly.’[31] At any rate, he argues that it was Gunton’s personal view that ‘in the Scriptures there is an element of economic subordination – to be strictly distinguished from ontological Subordinationism,’[32] citing a few quotes to substantiate his claim. However he fails to mention quotes such as the following, which affirm ontological equality, but also suggest eternal voluntary obedience of the Son to the Father,

Whatever the priority of the Father, it must not be conceived in such a way as to detract from the fact that all three persons are together the cause of the communion in which they exist in relations of mutual and reciprocal constitution. Thus the Father is what he is not only because he begets the Son, but also because the Son responds in the way made known in his obedience as incarnate, and so can be understood to be the one who shares in the constitution of the being of God by means of his eternal response of obedience and love.’ [33]


To conclude this all-too-brief exploration, I am unconvinced that subordination in terms of authority and obedience relates only to the economy. I am largely convinced that both Scripture and orthodox Trinitarianism, allow for the subordination of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity; subordination which is not to be understood as implying ontological inequality, and which exists in part as a relationship of authority and obedience.

The manner in which such a doctrine has been expressed, taking as its starting point three persons in relationship, can, if not careful, tend towards Arian-Subordinationism or Tritheism. By the same token, the non-Subordinationist position tends to, following Augustine, begin with the unity of God which takes precedence over the persons, thus flattening out personal distinctions and leading towards Modalism. Both are serious errors, and must be avoided.

Image: Sancta Trinitas by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


[1] Giles, (2006) p153

[2] Ibid., p155

[3] Ibid., p193.

[4] Augustine, 4.20.27, p83

[5] Rahner, (1970) p17

[6] Gunton, (1991) p33

[7] See Horton, (2011) p285 and Gunton, (1991) p137

[8] Gunton, (1991) p36

[9] Ibid., p42

[10] Barth, CD 1.1.382

[11] Ibid., 1.1.412. See Giles, (2004) p279 and 285

[12] Barth, CD 1.1.413

[13] Ibid., 4.1.193

[14] Ibid., 4.1.193

[15] Ibid., 4.1.193

[16] Ibid., 4.1.195

[17] Ibid., 4.1.196

[18] Ibid., 4.1.196

[19] Ibid., 4.1.196

[20] Ibid., 4.1.196

[21] Ibid., 4.1.198

[22] Ibid., 4.1.200-201

[23] Ibid., 4.1.202

[24] Giles, (2006) p297

[25] Letham, (2004) 492

[26] Giles, (2006) p297

[27] Barth, CD 4.1.202. Emphasis added

[28] Giles, (2006) p297

[29] Ibid., p303

[30] Ibid., p304

[31] Ibid., p305

[32] Ibid., p305

[33] Gunton, (1991) p165. See too p166

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