Saturday, March 01, 2014

Trinity, Gender, and Subordinationism

Every now and again I get asked my views about how the Doctrine of the Trinity interacts with contemporary debates about Gender and Subordination. I thought I would write up my typical answer.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental misstep by two sides of the debate here, which shares a common yet flawed presupposition. That presupposition is that gender relations can be modeled off Trinitarian relations because they are relations of persons.

What that looks like on the Egalitarian side

This misstep on the Egalitarian side looks like this: There is equality among the persons of the Trinity, and there is mutual subordination among the Three. Now, that last point is very contestable. Egalitarians who are also holding this view of the Trinity I think are often reaching this point in their doctrine of Trinity because they want to apply it to gender relationships. Which is a bad way of doing theology. What's worse is that they lack to accuse their opponents of some variety of Arianism. Which is (sometimes willfully) misunderstanding Complementarians, Arians, and the nature of the resolution of Trinitarian debates in the 4th century. I can almost guarantee that no pro-Nicene theologian of the Fourth Century agrees with modern Egalitarians on how they understand equality within the Trinity. Anyway, because there is mutual subordination in the Trinity there ought to be equality and mutual subordination within gender relations.

Where is the misstep? It's there in the very relationship of "Because X, Y". There is no reason to think that gender relationships should be modelled on the relationship of eternal mutually indwelling persons of the infinite Godhead. This does not follow without further argumentation. Furthermore, what we mean by 'Person' in relation to the Trinity is not necessarily what we mean by 'Person' when we talk about individual existing human beings. Husbands and wives, for example, do not share all qualities except that they are distinct in being Husband and Wife. Nor do they share all their works. Nor are they simple in nature.

What that looks like on the Complementarian side

Unfortunately the inverse mistake is made by some Complementarians. I'm trying to avoid naming names, but it seems to me that Ware is doing this kind of thing. Because there is functional (and possibly eternal) subordination within the Trinity, this is a model for functional subordination between the genders. This is exactly the same logical 'jump' that Egalitarians make. Why do you think the Trinity is a pattern for gender relations.

Where this gets particularly weird is that the model of submission within the Trinity is the submission of the Son to the Father. Which, if you want to use this analogously, means that the Son is being identified with some abstract "feminine principle of submission", while the Father is being identified with some abstract "masculine principle of headship/leadership/whatever you call it". This is doubly disastrous. God (a) does not have gender, it's not a quality of God; (b) does reveal himself in gendered terminology, (c) in the person of the Incarnate Jesus, the Son possesses gender, in relation to his humanity. So you have gendered God, and you have feminised Jesus.

Why it's problematic and what Classic Trinitarianism teach us that is relevant to this debate

There is a fundamental failure to appreciate a very key element of philosophical distinction that is going on in the classic debates that informs this modern issue. That element is our ability to disentangle function from status from ontology. Function in this case describes the actual relation between two parties. Status indicates the degree of honour, respect, glory, etc., that is ascribed to the party. While in talking about ontology we are interested in the very being, the very 'what-ness' of the subject.

Classical Trinitarianism teaches us that function and status and ontology are not anchored to each other. So, on the one hand, the equal honour, glory, and power that the Father, Son and Spirit share, does not mean they are an undifferentiated monad. They exist in three persons. They are co-equal in honour and glory. Furthermore, when the Son becomes incarnate and submits to the Father, and even goes so far as to say "The Father is greater than I", none of this means that the Son is any less God. Change in his functional relationship and his perceived status do not change his ontology nor his eternal status.

What this means for Egalitarians

If you tie ontology to status then you always assume that the greater party leads, the lesser party submits. Which means your view of God is that the Father must, at some point, "take a turn" submitting to the Son (version a of mutual submission), or the Father and Son submit to each other simultaneously (version b of mutual submission), or there is no actual submission (version c - mutual submission is a way of talking about non-submission). None of these options fit the Biblical data.

Worse, they imply subordination within God at an ontological level, if you accept the Biblical descriptions of the Incarnation.

Worst, it implies that submission in human relationships is a sign of lower ontological being and status. Which means how can one ever submit without giving up one's dignity. We are back to the idea of submission being a 'dirty word', and we have in fact reversed the pattern of Christian living exemplified in Jesus.

What this means for Complementarians

If you tie submission to status, and genderise the relations of the Persons of the Trinity, you begin to think that the Father and Son relate as Husband and Wife, which is paganism, not Trinitarian Christianity. You diminish the equality of persons, divinise male headship as Godly Paternalism, and feminise the incarnate Son. Problems all round.

The moderate applicability of Trinitarian doctrine to Gender relations

Let me propose that solid classic Trinitarianism offers a moderate contribution to understanding Gender relations, precisely in severing ontology from function. Phil 2:6-11 is a key text here. Jesus, having the very form of God, or being God in nature, did not hold on to this. That is, having ontological Godness, in the events of the incarnation he did not consider this grounds for insisting upon the status of equality with the Father, *though he always possessed it*. Rather, he both submitted and humbled himself in taking the form of humanity.

The Son shows us that it is possible to be God and choose to submit, without surrendering his Godness. Submission is *possible* because it doesn't diminish who we are. So long as we think it does, we will never submit in any relationship - not to God, not to a husband, not to a master, not to authorities. And yet if God himself can submit without surrendering his divinity and his worth, then so can we.

However else we work out the details of contemporary gender debates within evangelical circles, we must stop distorting Trinitarian doctrine to do so, and we must stop anchoring ontology to status to function.


David Ould said...

Thanks for this Seumas. I think I'm in almost complete agreement.

But one question. You say "It seems to me that there is a fundamental misstep by two sides of the debate here, which shares a common yet flawed presupposition. That presupposition is that gender relations can be modeled off Trinitarian relations because they are relations of persons."

How do you understand this text given what you wrote?

1Cor. 11:3 But I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Surely there's some connection being made between intra-Trinitarian relationships and male-female reationships?

Seumas Macdonald said...

A great question, David. I think I want to treat very carefully because I consider 1 Corinthians 11 the most convoluted and difficult passage in the whole book, and there seems to be a considerable range of things "going on" in the context that warns me off hasty interpretations.

Yes, there is some connection going on between the relations of the Trinity and the relations of gender in this verse, there must be. However we need to exhibit some caution about how we plot that out. Here a quote from Ciampa/O'Brien quoting in turn Chrysostom is very apt: "although the language used for each relationship is the same, the precise nature of the relationship is determined 'according to the occasion'", that is to say that while God as the head of Christ parallels man as the head of woman, what it means to be head is determined by their proper relations, not by the parallel that Paul is drawing.

Furthermore, the main thrust of this passage is arguing for gender distinction, not subordination per se. This is important to realise as we deal with the multivalent possibility of κεφαλή. I would defer to Thiselton's fairly exhaustive review of scholarship on the verse, to reach a point where I say it holds multiple meanings and for that reason I am reluctant to read hierarchical subordination right out of this text.

All of which is to say:
1. Yes, it does parallel intra-Trinitarian distinctions and male-female relations
2. How it does that is still the question
3. I think the answer is that both are distinctive and must be maintained distinctly, without assuming that the nature of the distinction in those relationships is itself parallel to the fact of the distinction.