Orthodoxy and the Eternal Subordination of the Son

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity

Calvinists have a doctrine they call the Eternal Subordination of the Son. The idea is that by taking humanity into Himself, the Son of God Eternally subjected Himself to the Father. They debate among themselves about whether this eternal subordination is voluntary or not.

There are problems with this doctrine, a doctrine that sets Calvinism apart from historic Christianity. This is a new doctrine, unique to Calvinists, and presents unique problems. The Muslims express the problems the best when they ask how Jesus can be both God and be subordinate to God? Of course, they are viewing this from their non-trinitarian understanding of God, and also their understanding of the submission of humanity to the absolute transcendence of God. Because they have no understanding of the two natures in Christ, they have problems with this doctrine. However, as it turns out, the Calvinists have a faulty Christology, leading to a faulty understanding of the two natures in Christ.

From the Council of Chalcedon, we find the definition of the two natures in Christ defined.[1]

Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.[2]

The incarnation is usually described as God becoming man. But this is only partially correct. We speak of the rising and the setting of the sun, even though we know that what is actually happening is the earth is rotating about its axis. In the same way what actually happens at the incarnation is that the Son of God assumes humanity into Himself. In western Christianity, this is described by the term communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes. This is not a true hypostatic union where no communication takes place; instead, the person of Christ is consubstantial with the Father as touching His Godhead and consubstantial with us as touching His humanity.

Calvinists object to the orthodox understanding of the communication of attributes, being that the Son of God assumed humanity into Himself without being changed by it. They assert a change in the eternal Sonship such that the Son of God is now eternally subordinate to the Father. Christ’s humanity trumps Christ’s divinity; Christ is forever limited by His human form, and therefore in Eternal Subjection to the Father.[3]

The Calvinist’s view of Christ is rotten at its core, as it is a combination of a number of ancient heresies. Calvinism has a hint of Monoenergism[4] and Monothelitism[5] in that it treats “the divine and human as if they are two sides in a zero-sum transaction.”[6] This is why they ascribe divine attributes to the Son of God and to the person of Christ, yet deny the bodily exercise of those divine attributes. Calvinism imagines a Christ who is a tertium quid — a third thing indefinite and undefined, yet related to both divinity and humanity. The Christ of Calvin is somehow less than fully divine, as the Christ no longer expresses the full attributes of divinity. In this, Calvinism has a hint of Nestorianism[7] and Arianism[8]. The only way for the humanity of Christ to not partake of the divine energies is to have the divine and human natures be loosely associated in the person of Christ, which is a subtle restatement of the teaching of Nestorius. By asserting the eternal subordination of Christ to the Father, they are partaking in the error of Arius.

St. Athanasius the Great writes in his Letter to Epictetus (59):

And why any longer blame the Arians for calling the Son a creature, when you go off to another form of impiety, saying that the Word was changed into flesh and bones and hair and muscles and all the body, and was altered from its own nature? For it is time for you to say openly that He was born of earth; for from earth is the nature of the bones and of all the body. What then is this great folly of yours, that you fight even with one another? For in saying that the Word is coessential with the Body, you distinguish the one from the other , while in saying that He has been changed into flesh, you imagine a change of the Word Himself. And who will tolerate you any longer if you so much as utter these opinions? For you have gone further in impiety than any heresy.[9]

St. Ambrose of Milan writes:

Let us follow the course of the Scriptures. He Who came will deliver up the kingdom to God the Father; and when He has delivered up the kingdom, then also shall He be subject to Him, Who has put all things in subjection under Him, that God may be all in all. If the Son of God has received the kingdom as Son of Man, surely as Son of Man also He will deliver up what He has received. If He delivers it up as Son of Man, as Son of Man He confesses His subjection indeed under the conditions of the flesh, and not in the majesty of His Godhead.

I could go on in this vein, but this is enough.

Bibliography

Chemnitz, Martin. 1971. The Two Natures In Christ. Translated by J.A.O. Preus. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Phillips, Robin. 2014. “Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 5″: A Deformed Christology.” Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. January 23. Accessed February 4, 2017. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2014/01/23/why-i-stopped-being-a-calvinist-part-5-a-deformed-christology/.

Schaff, Philip. 2005. NPNF2-14 The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

St Athanasius the Great. 2009. “Letter 59.” New Advent. Accessed February 4, 2017. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806059.htm.

Endnotes

[1] The two natures in Christ is also explained in The Athanasian Creed.

[2] (Schaff 2005, 388)

[3] In practical terms, the physical body of Christ could be omnipresent without changing anything essential to Christ’s humanity. Thus, in the Eucharist the bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ. Calvinists assert that if the human body of Christ can be locally present in multiple places (as in the bread and wine), Christ ceases to be truly human. If Christ is seated at the right hand of God, He cannot also be physically present in the bread and wine. (As if God the Father had a right hand or a localized presence such that one could be physically seated next to him.)

[4] Monoenergism: Christ did not have divine energies and human energies.

[5] Monothelitism: Christ did not have a divine nature and a human nature.

[6] (Phillips 2014)

[7] Nestorianism: that Jesus was host to two natures; the divine and the human, with only a loose association between them.

[8] Arianism: The Son of God was created in time, and is subordinate to the Father.

[9] (St Athanasius the Great 2009)

Theology is in the Prepositions

 

Fresco depicting the First General Council of Constantinople in the narthex of St. Athanasius church on Mount Athos.

1st Council of Constantinople.

A seminary professor once told me that all of theology is in the prepositions. This is mostly true. Take the Nicene Creed, for example. The second clause concerns the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the first half of that clause with which we are concerned.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made.

I recently heard someone quoting the creed incorrectly. He was intending to quote from the original creed from the council of Nicea when he said: “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.” That tiny change of preposition makes all the difference. When we say “Light of Light,” the first is not contingent upon the second. This is a statement of identity. Were we to say “Light from Light,” the first is contingent upon the second. The two are not the same; the first is lesser than the second.

When we say “Very God of Very God,” we are making a statement about the self-existent God existing in a multiplicity of persons. When we say “Very God from Very God,” we are saying only the second is self-existent; we are saying the second preceded the first; we are saying the second is the source of the first; we are saying our Lord Jesus Christ is a created being.

A contingent being owes its existence to something else. My existence is contingent upon my parents; upon the people who employed my father; upon the farmers who grew my food; upon the truckers who transported my food; upon the supermarket that sold my food; upon the government that provided basic infrastructure; etc. I am not a self-existent being. My life is not my own.

The bible tells me that when I see Him, I shall be like Him, for I shall see Him as He is. I shall not be Him, but I shall be like Him. The Orthodox call this theosis; that we shall become gods by grace, but not God in essence. In other words, we shall be god from God, but not God of God.

The New Atheism

The Four Horsemen of Atheism: Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, Hitchens

The Four Horsemen of Atheism

I am amused by the New Atheists. They think their arguments are new when in fact, they are more than two millennia old. In the Wisdom of Solomon we read the following:

For the ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright, Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy: neither was there any man known to have returned from the grave.

For we are born at all adventure: and we shall be hereafter as though we had never been: for the breath in our nostrils is as smoke, and a little spark in the moving of our heart:

Which being extinguished, our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air,

And our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, that is driven away with the beams of the sun, and overcome with the heat thereof.

For our time is a very shadow that passeth away; and after our end there is no returning: for it is fast sealed, so that no man cometh again.

Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present: and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth.

Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments: and let no flower of the spring pass by us:

Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered:

Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness: let us leave tokens of our joyfulness in every place: for this is our portion, and our lot is this. (Wisdom 2:1-9)

Iconography

In his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould discusses the impact of iconography on the way we interpret data. By iconography he means visual representations of our ways of thinking. His argument is that the visual depictions of evolution as the March of Progress or the Tree of Life not only are a misrepresentation of evolution, but also impact the way scientists themselves interpret data.

The March of Progress has become a visual trope used in a variety of mediums. The idea is to show the gradual evolution from primitive organisms to more complex, “evolved” organisms, culminating in modern man.

The March of Progress

The March of Progress

This trope is used in popular culture a lot, as in this amusing example I included for the Dr. Who fans.

The Dalek March of Progress

The March of Progress, along with its analogue, the Tree of Life, is wrong. It promotes the idea of evolution as a progression from disorder to order, from simple to complex. It hides the actual complexities involved, and causes scientists to try and shoehorn fossils into a place on the tree of life as ancestors of modern creatures.

 

Modern paleontology had to undo and reinterpret much of the work done by earlier scientists who were wedded to the idea of evolution as the March of Progress, and who therefore tried to fit morphologically distinct organisms into the Tree of Life. In fact, as Stephen Jay Gould likes to point out, evolution looks more like a bush (although I think it looks more fern-like). After the Cambrian explosion, there were more than twenty kinds of arthropods that have no living descendants. These different body plans died out in the Late Devonian extinction, leaving only the current four families of arthropods. (Arthropods are a phylum of invertebrates which currently is made up of spiders, insects, crustaceans, and myriapods like centipedes.)

The Bush of Life

The Bush of Life

I find this argument fascination, as it provides an interesting way to think about the functioning of religious iconography. Take, for example, this representation of Jesus that is popular with Protestants. This Jesus has distinctly European features with classic movie star good looks.

Protestant Jesus

Protestant Jesus

If you think about this theologically, you’ll notice that the Protestant Jesus looks like us. He is clearly human; this representation provides no clue to His divinity. This is a Jesus you could have a crush on, a Jesus who would not be out of place in People magazine. In addition, the Protestant Jesus is not looking at us. While we are gazing at Him, He is gazing elsewhere. This Jesus is seemingly not engaged with us; he does not look at us with either compassion or judgment.

By contrast, Roman Catholic versions of Jesus are often more sentimental. One stylized depiction is called The Sacred Heart of Jesus, and is often used by various Roman Catholic Churches. In this depiction, Jesus has classic European features but is somewhat effeminate looking. He is gazing out at us with love. Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has to do with the human and Divine Heart of Christ, particularly as it represents and recalls His love for us. This painting is designed to use as an aid in stirring up our imaginations and increasing our devotion to Christ.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Note, as well, the aureola (halo, or glory cloud), representing the holiness of Christ. While this Christ is clearly human, the aureola serves to indicate His divinity as well. Like the Protestant Jesus, Catholic representations of Jesus pay great attention to representing the humanity of Christ. Christ and his surroundings are painted so as to simulate reality. This is true even in their stylized depictions of the crucifixion.

The Crucifixion of Christ

Catholic Iconography of the Crucifixion

The crucifixion is often depicted with a certain sentimentality. This Christ is the object of desire. As such, this is not the Christ of scripture, the one who has no beauty that we should desire Him. This is not the Christ who had been beaten and scourged to the point that he was unable to carry his own cross. And this Christ is, once again, not looking at us with love, but looking up to heaven. The intent of this painting is for us to use our imaginations to stir up our devotion to Christ.

Contrast this with one of the oldest extant representations of Christ the Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt. This is a representation of Christ as God Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. This icon famously shows the two sides of Jesus. On the left side, He is looking at us with compassion; on the right side, with judgment. Instead of a standard halo, we see Jesus depicted with a halo containing a cross, although only three arms are visible. These three arms represent the trinity. On each arm is written one of three Greek letters (omega, omicron, nu) representing the phrase “He Who Is”. This phrase reminds us of The Name of God as revealed to Moses: “I am that I am.” Jesus Christ is God, and His existence is not contingent on anyone. We, on the other hand, do not exist of ourselves; our existence is contingent.

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Note the position of the hands. Jesus right hand is held up in blessing, with two fingers extended (representing the divine and human natures of Christ), and with the ring finger and the little finger touching the thumb (representing the Holy Trinity).

There is much to love about this depiction of Christ, but there is no sentimentality. This Christ is gazing upon us, just as we are gazing upon Him. This is the Christ who is the Captain of the Host, the one who could have called upon 12 legions of angels, but who at the same time is involved with us.

The Book of Adam and Eve

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

The Book of Adam and Eve is a Christian work written by a pious Egyptian in the 5th or 6th century. The author is evidently documenting what Christians then believed. The author lived about the time when the Byzantine Empire was at its largest extent. Because the document was valuable enough to have been copied and translated, it is reasonable to assume the Book of Adam and Eve accurately reflects Christian belief of the post-Nicene Church.

There are a number of things in this book suggesting the Protestant Reformation was not a recovery of ancient Christianity. For example, the early Church did not believe the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, as the following quote makes clear.

And the Lord said unto Adam and Eve, “You transgressed
of your own free will, until you came out of the garden in which I had placed you. Of your own free will have you transgressed through your desire for divinity, greatness, and an exalted state, such as I have; so that I deprived you of the bright nature in which you then were, and I made you come out of the garden to this land, rough and full of trouble.”

First, it is made clear that Adam and Eve sinned of their own free will. It was their choice to sin, and God did not stop them. Moreover, God created Adam and Eve with free will, even knowing they would sin.

For I knew you would sin and transgress. …
Yet I would not [force you, nor] be hard upon you,
nor shut you up; nor doom you through your fall.
For I made you of the light; and I willed to bring out
children of light from you, and like unto you.
But you did not keep one day My commandment; until I
had finished the creation and blessed everything in it.

The ancient Church did not believe that God forces anyone against their will. Indeed, the early Church believed the human will was free, and that humanity could choose for and against God. It troubles me when some deny the existence of free will, for they are basically equating their description of the human person with the scriptural description of the idol. In the book of Jeremiah, we read:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good. (Jer 10:2-5)

One of the interesting points Jeremiah makes is that idols are made and fashioned to match a certain image, but that they lack free will. They do not move of their own volition, but must be borne everywhere. They do not speak, so someone must speak for them. They are entirely passive; just as it is not in them to do good, so also it is not in them to do evil.

What we believe about humanity necessarily affects what we believe about God. The bible tells us we were made in the image and likeness of God. In saying the human being has no volition and is merely is passive, Calvinists make humanity into something impotent. This necessarily implies something about the One in whose image we were made. If we are not free beings created in the image and likeness of God, then it could be argued that God is not free either. If God acts of necessity or compulsion, then God is no God at all, but only a being like unto us.

The Calvinist argument is different. In formulating their Doctrine of Man (also known as Theological Anthropology), Protestants begin with the fall. This is different from ancient Christianity, for as we see in the Book of Adam and Eve, they began with the creation; the fall is accounted for God’s ultimate plan, but does not change the basic nature of humanity. Calvinists, in particular, see the fall as total, and that humanity after the fall is evil; that God chooses some to be saved and others to be lost, and that the decision to believe is not up to us, but is predestined and is forced upon us by God. This is not what the ancient Church believed. As we read in the Book of Adam and Eve, God does not force Himself upon us, nor does He doom us by our fall.

Sin is a sickness that adheres to our humanity, a disease we need healing from. The sin that so easily besets us prevents us from enjoying full communion with God. The Book of Adam and Eve tells us that instead of seeing the world through spiritual eyes, we see only with our eyes of flesh, and see only material things.

When you were under subjection [to Me], you hadst a bright nature within you, and for that reason you could see things afar off. But after your transgression your bright nature was withdrawn from you; and it was not left to you to see things afar off, but only near at hand; after the ability of the flesh.

Our bright nature has withdrawn but is not destroyed. The sin that so easily besets us prevents the expression of the image of God from being significantly expressed within us, yet that nature still exists. Thanks be to God.

Does God Exist?

Jesus casting out demons

Jesus casting out demons

“To oppose something is to maintain it. …To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.” Ursula K. Le Guin.

If God exists, why does He not provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? I believe in the existence of God. I have been blessed by experiences that constitute, for me, proof. But those experiences do not, and indeed cannot, prove God’s existence to you. I believe, but I cannot believe for you. I have had certain experiences, but those experiences were meant for me, and me alone.

One definition of a miracle is that it provides access to the divine. It is, therefore, personal. Even when a miracle is performed in public, that miracle is interpreted individually. The individual may choose to internalize or rationalize what they have seen, to accept or deny the event. A person’s response to the miracle is what is important, not the miracle itself.

In the case of Jesus’ miracles, we see at least two reactions. Some people were astonished and praised God. Others argued that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub. The same miracle occurred before all, but it was interpreted and assimilated differently.

What if God were to provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? What then? The interpretation and assimilation of that proof take place within each person. Some would love God, some would hate Him. But to provide absolute and incontrovertible proof would be to end the question. Each person’s reaction would, at that point, be fixed and immutable. For some, the love of God would be paradise; for others, the love of the God whom they hate would be a torment. And so God, in His mercy, leaves the question open and provides the opportunity for true repentance.

Thou Shalt Not Desire

Decalogue parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer 1768

Decalogue parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer 1768

The 10th commandment is summed up by the following two statements:

  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
  • You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

That word “covet” is not a word we use much anymore. The only place I ever hear it is while reading the Bible or listening to a sermon. We don’t use the word in everyday speech, and we’ve lost the sense of what it actually means. In one of Rene Girard’s books I learned that in other languages, it is translated as “desire.” This changes everything. What is obscure is suddenly clear.

  • You shall not desire your neighbor’s wife
  • You shall not desire anything that belongs to your neighbor

To desire is to lust after. In the book of James we read:

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (Ja 1:14-15.)

An old proverb comes down to us in many variations, but the modern variation is known as “For Want of a Nail.”

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost.
For want of a message, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The meaning of the 10th commandment boils down to cutting the chain of events that leads to sin. If we can cut off our desire for what is not ours, we end up not murdering, stealing, bearing false witness, and a host of other sins. But the only way to cut off our desire is not by sheer willpower, but by the keeping of the summation of the law — to love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, and spirit, which leads to loving your neighbor as yourself.