Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Question of Subordination

On the way home from work tonight I thought I'd do a bit of light reading. Taking up dear old pal Mark's recommendation, I snuggled up on the bus with Kevin Giles' 2008 paper, "The Evangelical Theological Society and the doctrine of the Trinity".

Not exactly light reading. (Theology is hard, dude). But it was fabulous reading, and one very fabulous thing about it was that it helped answer a question nagging at the hearts and souls and kidneys of Christian women everywhere: whence all this "subordination" tripe? (If we can find the source-- the root-- than we can pull up the weed) Just where, when, and why did mainstream theologians start incorporating that blasted phrase into everyday theology, most marriage ceremonies, innumerable sermons on gender roles, leadership councils, etc.. and thereby infuse the minds of generations with the repellent notion of a Scripturally-instituted male-female hierarchy? Just when did this heresy become convention?

Yes, heresy. This is what Giles so excellently points out: not only does he begin to explain the source of gender inequality in modern Christian theology, but in a very short space provides knock-down, drag-out arguments to the effect that adopting a "woman as subordinate to man" position is not only disturbingly myopic exegesis of richer (albeit difficult) Biblical texts, but it is at its core a position motivated on grounds that lead straight back to ye old Arian heresy (that the Son is subordinate to, and not of the same essence as, the Father)-- the heresy that inspired the Church to compose the Nicene Creed in response ("...Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, Deum verum de Deo vero, Génitum, non factum, consubstantiálem Patri.." Really, quite beautiful. Well said, Old Church Guys.)

Here are the key points Giles makes:

(1) "The doctrine of an eternally subordinated found only in post 1970s conservative evangelical writings. It is unknown in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic works on the Trinity."

(2) "Virtually everyone who advocates the eternal subordination of the Son is committed to the permanent subordination of women." The idea here being that just as women are "permanently subordinate" to their husbands at home and to male church leaders, so the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in terms of authority. [Giles (I think very successfully) argues here and elsewhere that for these men it is this latter idea (2) which gives rise to the FORMER, i.e., the nature of a human relation is used to understand that of a divine relation. This is hugely theologically suspect (and historically suspect, as Giles points out in note 26). The arrow ought only go the other direction: divine relations instruct us as to the proper human relations. Geez, it's like no one reads Augustine anymore..]

(3) "The principal developers and advocates of this novel teaching on the Trinity...have all been at one time presidents of the ETS." I.e., major authoritative figures in U.S. evangelical theology are proponents of these views.

(4) "Because of the conservative evangelical credentials of these theologicans, and the popularity of their writings, this novel, and I think dangerous, doctrine of the Trinity is now widely assumed by conservative evangelicals to be what orthodoxy teaches."

Aha. So THAT'S (in part) where it came from. Now let's yank that weed. To which end: Giles goes on to argue from terminological grounds and exegetical grounds why subordination doctrine is, to put it colloquially, "horse shit".

I will only take up space to highlight one key aspect of Giles' argument from Scripture, and that concerns that highly contentious passage in I Corinthians 11:3 (NIV):

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man in Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Indeed, this verse is prominent in the minds of those who adopt subordination doctrine. The word Paul uses which is translated as "head" indeed has many meanings, so to insist that it must indicate an authority hierarchy is bad exegesis. Giles gets support here from Thiselton's commentary on Corinthians, wherein Thiselton writes the word in this verse "does not seem to denote a relation of 'subordination' or 'authority over'." In fact, Giles continues, if one insists on the subordination reading of this term, one cannot make sense of Paul's next statement (verse 4) where he talks about women as leaders of prayer and prophesy in the church, which Giles notes are "the two most important ministries in that [the Corinthian] church."

Paul is clearly not talking about a hierarchy of authority like this:

God the Father
God the Son

but instead something richer and more complex and in terms of significance, oriented around notions of differentiation and not of authority or power. And, Giles writes, "Differentiation of course does not imply subordination. Two people can be differentiated yet be equals in dignity and authority."

I've said enough (and more than) for today. In closing, though, I'd like to reproduce a quote Giles gives to sum up his argument from biblical interpretation, this from famous Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til:

A consistent biblical doctrine of the Trinity [implies] the complete rejection of all subordinationism.

Amen, Cornelius.


  1. Is "horse shit" the technical theological term? ;)

    Thanks for posting. Awesome.

  2. Or, bullshit would work too, pace Harry Frankfurt's _On Bullshit_. It's bullshit because the doctrine of the Trinity is NOT about male-female relations. Period. Full-stop.

    This hierarchical view supposes that the second person of the Trinity is female, rather than male; that's counter-intuitive to this very position.

    Moreover, why must we use the Trinity in this way to serve our political or sociological purposes? That seems to reject the whole idea of the beatific vision -- that God is desired because God is God, not because I can use God for some other end. To my way of thinking, this illustrates that such people aren't really doing Trinitarian theology, but just saying stuff about God to justify whatever they want to be true.

    In any case, I'm glad that you've found this criticism of their use of Trinitarian theology. Bad theology does bad stuff to people.

  3. Scott Williams' point can't be overstated. Even Dr. Fred Sanders (Biola), complimentarian and debate partner to Giles at many times, agrees that this projection is a "hall of mirrors" (

  4. Thanks for passing that along, Mark. Very interesting...


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