Thursday, October 23, 2008

Subordinationism and the pre-Nicene Church Fathers

I have gotten involved in a new thread at Fides Quaerens Intellectum, concerning the issue of Subordinationism and the pre-Nicene Church Fathers. I have long maintained, with John Henry Newman, R.P.C. Hanson, and many other Patristic scholars, that ALL of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers held to some form of Subordinationism. However, this view is being challenged by one who posts under the name “Photius Jones”. In the comments section of the above mentioned thread, Photius wrote:

I believe Hanson to be wrong when he states that every single theologian East and West was a subordinationist. I do not see Subordinationism in the anti-Gnostics. The result of subordinationism falls upon a defective ordo theologiae, taken from pagan philosophy, that starts with the Apologists, Clement, and Origen. This inevitably led to the Nicene Crisis. The explanation of the Faith based on philosophical concepts resulted in this confusion. Look at Justin Martyr, is the Logos a Person, a power, or an attribute to St. Justin? Hence, the problem. (October 22, 2008 at 10:03 am.)

A bit later he posted:

David,
Your are [you are; or you’re ?] ambiguous on subordinationism. Subordinationism in its heretical form is that the Son is inferior in nature to the Father. The Son is however subordinate to the Father qua Person according to Orthodox Theology. Where do the 1st Century Fathers and Irenaeus teach that the Son is inferior in Nature to the Father? Igantius? Clement of Rome? They do not, nor does the New Testament teach this. You beg the question based on your received Augustinism, and read the Fathers through that lense. (October 22, 2008 at 2:43.)

Before moving on to the writings of the Church Fathers themselves, in an attempt to eliminate any charge of ambiguity, I shall provide a few selections from recognized, scholarly sources that delineate “Subordinationism”:


SUBORDINATIONISM. Thus we call the tendency, strong in the theology of the 2nd and 3rd cc., to consider Christ, as Son of God, inferior to the Father. Behind this tendancy were gospel statements in which Christ himself stressed this inferiority (Jn 14, 28; Mk 10, 18; 13, 32, etc.) and it was developed esp. by the Logos-christology. This theology, partly under the influence of middle Platonism, considered Christ, logos and divine wisdom, as the means of liaison and mediation between the Father’s position to him. When the conception of the Trinity was enlarged to include the Holy Spirit, as in Origen, this in turn was considered inferior to the Son. Subordinationist tendencies are evident esp. in theologians like Justin, Tertullian, Origen and Novatian; but even in Irenaeus, to whom trinitarian speculations are alien, commenting on Jn 14, 28, has no difficulty in considering Christ inferior to the Father. (M. Simmonetti, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Early Church, II.797.)

SUBORDINATIONISM. Teaching about the Godhead which regards either the Son as subordinate to the Father or the Holy Ghost as subordinate to both. It is a characteristic tendency in much of Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise orthodox Fathers as St. Justin and Origen. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., p. 1319.)

SUBORDINATIONISM. The term is a common retrospective concept used to denote theologians of the early church who affirmed the divinity of the Son or Spirit of God, but conceived it somehow as a lesser form of divinity than that of the Father. It is a modern concept that is so vague that is that it does not illuminate much of the theology of the pre-Nicene teachers, where a subordinationist presupposition was widely and unreflectively shared. (John Athony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, p. 321.)

Ante-Nicene Subordinationism
It is generally conceded that the ante-Nicene Fathers were subordinationists. This is clearly evident in the writings of the second-century “Apologists.”…Irenaeus follows a similar path…The theological enterprise begun by the Apologists and Irenaeus was continued in the West by Hippolytus and Tertullian…The ante-Nicene Fathers did their best to explain how the one God could be a Trinity of three persons. It was the way they approached this dilemma that caused them insoluble problems and led them into subordinationism. They began with the premise that there was one God who was the Father, and then tried to explain how the Son and the Spirit could also be God. By the fourth century it was obvious that this approach could not produce an adequate theology of the Trinity
. (Kevin Giles, The Trinity & Subordinationism, pp. 60-62.)


I could literally spend hours, typing up like quotations from various other contemporary scholars, but shall refrain from doing so, being somewhat confident that the above references have dispelled (at least for most) charges of ambiguity concerning the sense of the term “subordinationism”, as applied to the pre-Nicene Church Fathers.

Specific examples of subordination from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers corpus will have to wait until after lunch, a workout, and beach run. Until my next thread, I would like to urge my readers to reflect upon what I contributed in THIS OLDER THREAD.

Grace and peace,

David

7 comments:

Ayres said...

David,

Doesn't all this imply that Triadology was a development and, indeed, the very case for development?

David Waltz said...

Hi Ayres,

Thanks for your question. Before I attempt to answer it, could you define for me what you mean by the term "Triadology", and its relationship to the term "Trinitarianism."


Grace and peace,

David

Ayres said...

My mistake; yes, the latter.

David Waltz said...

>>Doesn't all this imply that Triadology [Trinitarianism] was a development and, indeed, the very case for development.>>

Me: I certainly think so, and so did John Henry Newman. Newman’s theory of development was essentially built upon the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.


I think Raymond Brown’s comments on this are worth repeating:


“Three different figures, Father, Son, and Spirit, are brought into conjunction in the NT. Some NT formulas join the three; other references unite the Father and the Son; and still other references relate the Spirit to the Father and/or Son. Nevertheless, in no NT passage, not even in Matt. 28:19, is there precision about three divine Persons, co-equal but distinct, and one divine Nature—the core of the dogma of the Trintiy. Greek philosophy, sharpened by continuing theological disputes in the church from the 2nd to the 5th centuries, contributed to the classical formulation of the dogma. On the one hand one may say, the, that the precise Trinitarian dogma is not detectable in the literal sense of the NT, i.e., was not observably understood by first-century authors and audiences. On the other hand, reflection on NT texts played a crucial role in leading the church to the dogma to the dogma of three divine Persons and one divine Nature, a dogma that employed new terminology and embodied new insights as a response to new questions. There is no need to posit new revelation to account for the truth ultimately phrased in the trinitarian dogma, since that truth was already revealed when God sent Jesus Christ and when the risen Christ communicated his Spirit. Yet the development was not simply a matter of logic. In faith, one can claim that the Spirit guided the church as it moved from the NT triadic passages to perceiving and proclaiming the trinitarian dogma. Christians should not be embarrassed to affirm that they depend upon the Spirit’s guidance in such an essential dogma., for that guidance is really an application of Christ’s promise to be with his community and to send the Paraclete to guide them along the way of all truth…If ‘tradition’ implies that first-century Christianity already understood three coequal but distinct divine Persons and one divine Nature but had not developed the precise terminology, I would dissent. Neither the terminology nor the basic ideas had reached clarity in the first century; problems and disputes were required before the clarity came…Precisely because the ‘trinitarian’ line of development was not the only line of thought detectable in the NT, one must posit the guidance of the Spirit and intuition of faith as the church came to its decision.” (Raymond E. Brown, Biblical Exegesis & Church Doctrine, 1985, pp. 31-33.)


Grace and peace,

David

Iohannes said...

David,

Have you by any chance read Robert Letham's book on the Trinity?

The OPC where I worship when in Virginia just started a series in the adult Sunday school working through the book. I haven't read it yet but it is going on my to read list.

Hope you are doing well.

John

David Waltz said...

Hi John,

So good to see you back at AF. You posted:

>>Have you by any chance read Robert Letham's book on the Trinity?>>

Me; Yes I have, though it was a little over 3 years ago. I first became aware of Dr. Letham via his critical review of Robert Raymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith in the Westminster Theological Journal. In the review one gets a glimpse of some of the features that would become integral aspects of his future book, including the necessity of including EO theological reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, Dr. Letham, in his book, does not include Jonathan Edward’s explorations into the Trinity, as found in he all too often neglected “Essay On the Trinity” and “Observations On the Trinity”, for Edwards clearly shows his affinity towards EO concepts of the Trinity in those two essays. If you have not as yet read Webber’s essay on Edwards’ Trinitarian theology (Richard M. Weber, “The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: An Investigation of Charges Against Its Orthodoxy”, Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society, 44/2 – June 2001, pp. 297-318), I highly recommend that you do so.

>> Hope you are doing well.>>

Me: I am, and thank you. I too hope that all is well with you and yours.

Grace and peace,

David

Iohannes said...

David,

Thanks for the recommendation of Weber's article. I once tried to read Edwards on the Trinity but found him too ponderous to wade through. But perhaps it is time to revisit Edwards.

All the best,

John