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)

The Truth of Orthodoxy

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

My father is a fundamentalist, a dispensationalist, and an ordained minister. For many years he taught courses on a variety of subjects, and has recently collected his lecture notes into a series of books. In one entitled The Kingdom of the Frauds, he describes a number of Christian and non-Christian religions. In the section on Eastern Orthodoxy he writes:

The Orthodox Church traces its development back through the Byzantine or Roman empire, to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles. It practices what it understands to be the original ancient traditions, believing in growth without change.[1]

Now if what Orthodoxy claims is actually true — if the Eastern Orthodox Church indeed descends from and continues in the teachings of the Holy Apostles — then its truth claims have to be taken seriously. It is not enough to dismiss them out of hand, as the historical evidence is all there. Nor is it enough to claim some great apostasy took place, without pointing to evidence of the early church apostatizing.[2]

My sister recently encountered this all-to-easy dismissal of Orthodoxy. Not long ago she attended her class reunion at Colorado Springs Christian School (CSCS). She was sitting with some of her friends when a former classmate approached. When the subject of my sister’s recent conversion to Orthodoxy came up, her classmate snidely commented: “Oh, they’re the ones who think they are descended from the original Church.” After making this comment, her classmate turned and walked away. My sister’s friends then asked: “So why did you become Orthodox?” My sister replied: “Because I became convinced they are descended from the original Church.” [Cue rim shot.]

The historical evidence is all there. For me, there were perhaps three works that had the greatest impact upon me. The first was the Didache, aka the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.[3] This is an ancient church order, one which scholars now think could date between 50 – 120 AD, although it seems likely to have been written before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.[4] There is a clear continuity of thought and practice between the Didache and other ancient church orders such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, (c. 200-250 AD)[5], the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215A.D., and written by Hippolytus)[6], and the Apostolic Constitutions (c. early 3rd century, with interpolations dating out to 400 A.D.)[7] A comparison of these documents shows a certain creative elaboration, or as my father put it, “growth without change.”

The second major influence was the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins (c. 434 A.D.) St. Vincent wrote following his participation in the third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D.; his Commonitorium was written to capture the methods used by the Ecumenical Council to define Orthodox doctrine over against error.[8] The famous rule of Vincent of Lerins is summed up on three words: catholicity, antiquity, and consent. St. Vincent writes:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.[9]

While the protestant translator chose to use the word “universality”, the actual word is “catholicity.” The term “catholicity” has to do with a faith which is whole, complete, and entirely sufficient.[10] This meaning is clearly different than the term “universal”, which term is generally used as a replacement for “catholic” or “catholicity.” The term “universal” has reference to the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church, that which is made up of all saints, whether dead or alive. This hidden or invisible church is by extension the “universal” church, as opposed to the sectarianism of the visible church. But the idea of catholicity is a rebuke to all schisms, sects, and denominations.

Following the rule of St. Vincent of Lerins, we must search out that which is whole, entire, and sufficient (catholicity); we must search out that which is from antiquity; and we must search out that which is of common consent (not new or innovative.) Thus a new doctrine — such as the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, or the Dispensational Protestant doctrine of the secret return of Christ and the subsequent Rapture of the Church — is automatically excluded. By common consent we refer to the consensus fidelium — the widespread agreement, or the general consensus of the faithful.

The third major influence is The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,[11] which is a rather obscure reference. St. Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, writes concerning St. Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.[12]

What I find most interesting is St. Polycarp’s response to the Roman proconsul who had asked him to recant his Christian faith. Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”[13] St. Polycarp, at that time an 86 year old man, proclaims himself to have been a Christian for 86 years. In other words, this man who was the companion and disciple of the apostles was baptized as an infant. By extension, then, the apostles practiced infant baptism.

In the Didache we see an ancient church order of the apostolic church, one untainted by the supposed “Great Apostasy.” This church order is liturgical, hierarchical, and sacramental, all of which are anathema to the Protestant church of my youth. In the Rule of St. Vincent we see the manner in which the ancient church determined and maintained the apostolic faith over and against all manner of theological errors and heresies. When applying these principles to the Protestant church of my youth, or the Lutheran church of my adulthood, I was forced to acknowledge them to be weighed in the balance and found wanting. And then the witness of St. Polycarp, while not conclusive in itself, was nevertheless the final straw.

The evidence was all there, right in front of me. I could no longer deny that the Orthodox Church was indeed the lineal descendant of the church of the apostles. The only question was whether I was going to accept the historical evidence and adapt myself to the church, or whether I was going to continue to try and get the church to adapt itself to me and my desires. Despite become Orthodox, this is a struggle that will be with me until the day I die.


 

Bibliography

Ancient Christian Writings. n.d. “Didache.” Ancient Christian Writings. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

Carlson, Norman. n.d. “The Kingdoms of the Frauds: The Major Religions And Cults Of The World.” The Colorado Free Bible College. Edited by Norman Carlson. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.thecfbc.com/sites/thecfbc.com/files/The%20Kindoms%20Of%20The%20Frauds60a.pdf.

Chapman, Henry Palmer. 1913. “Didascalia Apostolorum.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed June 9th, 2013. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Didascalia_Apostolorum.

Hippolytus. 1997. “The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.” Kevin P. Edgecomb. July 8. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html.

Martini, Gabe. 2015. “Vincent of Lérins and the Catholicity of the Church.” On Behalf of All. May 24. Accessed May 25, 2015. blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/vincent-of-lerins-and-the-catholicity-of-the-church/.

Schaff, Philip. 1884. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

—. 2004. ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 7. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

—. 2004. NPNF2-11 Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Edited by Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 11. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.


 

Endnotes

[1] (Carlson n.d., 167)

[2] When I was a young man, I remember being taught that the “Great Apostasy” took place immediately after the death of the last apostle. The evidence for this was taken from Revelation chapter two, in the letter to the church of Ephesus, where it is stated: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” (Rev 2:4) Additional evidence is from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, where he says there will be “a falling away” before the “day of the Lord.”(2 Thes 2:1-3) No historical evidence was ever provided to back up this claim, even though those making the argument claimed to be using the “grammatical-historical method” of exegesis. As it turns out, the greatest proponent of the “Great Apostasy” occurring immediately after the apostolic era is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormons.

[3] (Schaff 2004, 552)

[4] (Ancient Christian Writings n.d.)

[5] (Chapman 1913)

[6] (Hippolytus 1997)

[7] (Schaff 2004, 573)

[8] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 207)

[9] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 214)

[10] (Martini 2015)

[11] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 65)

[12] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 688)

[13] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 69)

Turning East

Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (Orthodox Christan Profiles)Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith by Rico Vitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating book. Each of the philosophers provides some rationale for being Orthodox, finding in Orthodoxy a way to resolve — or at least come to grips with — the antimonies that are all around us. While this is no formal apologetic for Orthodoxy, yet it is interesting to find Western intellectuals coming to terms with the limitations of materialism, rationalism, and the academic method. One common theme is that the Western model of philosophy is purely intellectual, whereas for the ancient philosophers it was about discovering the right way to live, and therefore a way of life. Another theme is that the western method of doing theology is really philosophizing about theology, as opposed to theology as a lived out faith.

View all my reviews

Salvation and the Veneration [honoring] of Saints

The Synaxis of the Seventy Apostles

The Synaxis of the Seventy Apostles

Book cover for "The Orthodox Church" by John Anthony McGuckin

“It is a great mistake to think that the soul finds Christ nakedly and alone. The Lord always comes to us in the family, and through the medium of the love of other members of the communion. He came to his world through the Holy Virgin. He comes to us in faith, even to this day, through the ministry of those who have loved us and nurtured us, and formed our minds and characters in a thousand ways. He comes to us in the Scriptures, directly, yes, but also through the countless hundreds of thousands who have transcribed, collected the texts, and preached them to society over centuries. There is no direct and solipsistically solitary path to the Christ. If we find Christ we find the heart of love and communion. Those who wish to find the Lord alone, and possess him alone, have not found the true Lord. In some places in the world superstition may indeed have perverted the cult of the saints, so that it has degenerated into a disturbingly non-Christian phenomenon. Orthodoxy does not generally manifest that social condition. If it does appear, the clergy correct it energetically. The Orthodox veneration of the saints is widely understood by all levels of the faithful, educated or not. And the celebration of the saints is deeply integrated with the sense of the church as a communion of word and sacrament. This has been a pattern of Eastern Christian life since the earliest centuries, when the tombs of the martyrs grew into being the local parish churches.
“Orthodoxy, in its heard, does not understand a personalist attitude that issues in the form of a latent (or not so latent!) hostility to the saints, and finds it to be defective in its comprehension of the communion of salvation. It is difficult to express the significance of family to those whose experience of earthly families has been insignificant, or worse, damaging. But the action of the saints, still philanthropic and still assisting the lives of Christians on earth, is a fact of authentic Christian family life, and for the Orthodox is part of their very faith-confession that Christ has saved hot a host of solitary righteous people, but rather an elect communion of beings: humanity and angels, who are brought together in him and through him in a bond of love that constitutes the New Being of the Kingdom.” (McGuckin 2011)
Bibliography
McGuckin, John Anthony. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

 

 

a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing