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