Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Subordinationism and the ante-Nicene Church Fathers: the saga continues—today’s readings

From the pages of Bloesch’s, God The Almighty, we read:

The dogma of the Trinity emerged in the church only through a continuing struggle with heresy…

Subordinationism posed a more subtle danger to the Christian faith in view of a palpable subordinationist motif in the New Testament. Subordinationism holds that Christ was subordinate and inferior to God. The Father was the source of the Son and the Spirit. This was an attempt to preserve the monarchy within the Trinity. The apologists were generally subordinatinist, since they considered the Godhead a triad rather than a Trinity, with the Son and Spirit totally subordinate to the Father. For Tertullian both Son and Spirit derive from the Father by emanation and thus are subordinate to him.

The most influential subordinationist in the early church was Origen…

Subordinationism and orthodoxy also coexisted in Athanasius and Novatian…

It is misleading to portray the Father as the “source” of the Son, though this language was used by the early church fathers and is still prevalent in Catholic and Orthodox circles
. (Donald G. Bloesch, God The Almighty, pp. 171, 173, 174.)

Bloesch’s assessment that there exists, “a palpable subordinationist motif in the New Testament”, reminded me of something I had read years ago from the pen of one the foremost patristic scholars of the 20th century:

For him [Irenaeus] the Son is “the visible one” of the Father, as the Father is “the invisible one” of the Son…He is eternal like the Father,—On the other hand, we find most assuredly in the Adversus haereses some expressions savoring of subordinationism, as, for instance: the Son has received sovereignty from His Father (III, 6, 1; V, 18, 3); He is supported by the Father with creation, “for there exists but one God Father above all” (V, 18, 2); [see this THREAD for other examples] but, St. Irenaeus here only repeats the expressions of the Gospels and of St. Paul, and any one who considers the Father as the source of the Trinity can scarcely avoid a certain subordinationism. (J. Tixeront, History of Dogmas – Volume I, p. 234.)

And subordinationism did not end with the forging of the Nicene Creed (at Nicea 325, and Constantinople 381). One Dutch Reformed scholar wrote:

Now we must not suppose that Scripture by means of these various elements of divine revelation [i.e. the material used to develop the doctrine of the Trinity] gives us a fully defined trinitarian dogma. (Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. William Hendriksen, Baker 1979 ed., p. 274.)

After delineating varying degrees of subordination among the ante-Nicene Fathers, Bavinck then states:

…Augustine’s starting point is not the person of the Father, but the one, simple, uncompounded “essence” of God…consequently, Augustine rejected all the earlier theories that posited a dualism between the Father and the Son. The Son, being himself very God, is not less invisible than the Father and is perfectly equal to the Father. All subordinationism is banished. Augustine insists even more strongly upon the Son’s equality with the Father than did Athanasius. In the writings of the latter a few remnants of subordinationism may still be found, c. Ar. I, 59, but Augustine has completely abandoned every trace of the idea that the Father is the real, the original God.* (Ibid., p. 283.)

It seems that the more reading I do, the more support I find for Hanson’s following assessment:

Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology. (R.P.C Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy, New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, p. 153.)

And as we have seen, some Reformed scholars go even further than Hanson on this issue of subordinationism.


Grace and peace,

David


*Note: some recent scholars take issue with Bavinck’s last sentence; also, bold emphasis in citations is mine.

4 comments:

CrimsonCatholic said...

I'd take issue with Bloesch's characterization of St. Athanasius as subordinationist in any respect. He was adamant about the Trinitarian order not involving any degree of subordination or inequality. I'd argue that he was the first clear exponent of what was later articulated as "pro-Nicene" theology, presuming that he was also at least partly responsible for what his predecessor St. Alexander of Alexandria wrote. And I would argue that the principle probably follows from what St. Irenaeus said regarding the Father as the "overseer" of the Trinity, even if he never confronted the issue head on. If there is any necessary subordination in viewing the Father as the source of the Son and Spirit, then the doctrine of the Trinity is absurd, because the monarchy of the Father is absolutely required for the dogma (Calvin's autotheos being blatantly tri-theist, as you already know).

The only reason that subordination would follow from the Father being the source of the spirit is through holding several unnecessary metaphysical assumptions regarding causality and dialectic (particularly the notion of opposed powers, as in distinction is opposition).

If the Bible isn't read with those assumptions, then I think it is at best completely neutral on the issues you've outlined, really not even giving them much consideration at all apart from a concept of Logos that was more Hebrew than Greek in origin. The problem isn't that the Bible implies anything one way or another, but that it is really completely silent on the issue, because the metaphysical nature of causation and whether it entailed subordination was not an issue that was in the view of its authors in any respect. It was only when those metaphysical assumptions were brought to bear that it became necessary to formulate a response.

While I consider much of the Orthodox criticism of the West to be nothing but a bugaboo, Western scholars saying things like this disturbs them with good reason. We shouldn't speak of what is actually orthodox doctrine as if it smacks of heresy. St. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen were probably legitimate exponents of the sort of metaphysical beliefs that do cause the monarchy of the Father to be subordinationist, but it's not clearly the case with Irenaeus and probably not at all the case with Alexander or Athanasius. Personally, I think that Bloesch and Tixeront are both bringing their own metaphysical assumptions to bear without adequately analyzing whether those assumptions would be shared by (or necessarily result from) the authors they are studying.

David Waltz said...

Hello Jonathan,

Excellent post! Your following contribution is particularly helpful:

>> The only reason that subordination would follow from the Father being the source of the spirit is through holding several unnecessary metaphysical assumptions regarding causality and dialectic (particularly the notion of opposed powers, as in distinction is opposition).>>

This reminds of something Tertullian wrote:

“Do you really suppose that Those, who are naturally members of the Father’s own substance, pledges of His love, instruments of His might, nay, His power itself and the entire system of His monarchy, are the overthrow and destruction thereof? You are not right in so thinking. I prefer your exercising yourself on the meaning of the thing rather than on the sound of the word. Now you must understand the overthrow of a monarchy to be this, when another dominion, which has a framework and a state peculiar to itself (and is therefore a rival), is brought in over and above it: when, e.g., some other God is introduced in opposition to the Creator, as in the opinions of Marcion; or when many gods are introduced, according to your Valentinuses and your Prodicuses. Then it amounts to an overthrow of the Monarchy, since it involves the destruction of the Creator.” (Against Praxeas, 3 – ANF 3.599.)

Grace and peace,

David

Edgar Foster said...

Hello David,

I'll try to offer more extended comments later. I just wanted to let you know that I did read a number of your posts dealing with subordinationism and really enjoyed them. They seem well-researched and documented. I hope you continue to post the primary materials from the ANF.

Best wishes,
Edgar

David Waltz said...

Hi Edgar,

So good to see you here at AF! You wrote:

>>I'll try to offer more extended comments later.>>

Me: Looking forward to it.

>>I just wanted to let you know that I did read a number of your posts dealing with subordinationism and really enjoyed them. They seem well-researched and documented.>>

Me: Thanks Edgar; this means a lot to me.

>>I hope you continue to post the primary materials from the ANF.>>

Me: I hope to continue my series on subordinationism in the ANFs in the near future.


Grace and peace,

David