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Harpagmos II: Denny Burk’s Subordinationism

January 18, 2012

I want to be very clear that I am not trying to sensationalize this discussion through the use of an inflammatory title. I am working directly from Burk’s articles and trying to comment on what seems most significant in them. If Burk’s primarly application to humans for Phil. 2:6 is that wives obey their husbands, what is the implication regarding the trinity? Here is his explanation from his paper of 2000. He seems quite aware that finding subordinationism in this passage is new  and not grounded in the history of interpretation. The bolding in the following is mine,

If aJrpagmov” be understood according to the above analysis, then Christ is said not to have snatched at or grasped for equality with God. Though he was himself true deity existing in the form of God, he did not try to grasp for this other aspect which he himself did not possess—namely, equality with God. On the contrary, Christ emptied himself. This emptying consisted in taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men (v. 7). Therefore, the contrast between verses six and seven is made very clear. Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, did not try to snatch at an equality with God which properly belongs only to the first Person of the Trinity. On the contrary, Christ embraced those duties which were appointed for the second Person—taking the form of a servant and being made in the likeness of men. In this way, Christ did not attempt to usurp the peculiar role of the first Person of the Trinity, but in submission he joyfully embraced his own in the incarnation.

Theological Implications

I think this interpretation opens the way for us to see an orthodox subordinationism within the Godhead.41 Although the Father and Son are one in their essence (that is, both of them existing in the form of God), they are distinct in their persons (that is, they each respectively fulfill certain roles and functions that are peculiar to their own Person).42 The character of this intra-Trinitarian relationship is what makes redemption possible. According to the Father’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:23), the Father sends the Son into the world as a man and as a servant.43 The Son does not try to abdicate his role by grasping for functional equality with the Father (Phil 2:6). On the contrary, the Son obeys the Father and enters onto the stage of human history (Phil 2:7). In this sequence of events, we see that the Son not only obeys the Father in his incarnation but that he also obeys the Father from all eternity. For this reason, if the Son were not obedient to the Father’s sending him into the world and if he were not distinct from the Father in his Person (and thus in his role and function), then redemption would have been impossible, for the Son never would have obeyed the Father, and there never would have been an incarnation.

What  Burk does not say is whether the Son is subordinate for eternity to come. This is not found in any of his articles, but I have found a defnitive statement on the CBMW website relating to subordinationism which I presume Burk would assent to. It reads,

let us state the doctrine:

The eternal subordination of the Son means that Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God, equal in essence and in eternal divine nature with the Father, that the Father exercises eternal authority over the Son in function, and the Son eternally submits to the authority of the father.

To quote Ware in summary, “There is, then, an eternal and immutable equality of essence between the Father and the Son, while there is also an eternal and immutable authority-submission structure that marks the relationship of the Father and the Son.”

This doctrine is rejected by some scholars, including many who hold the egalitarian position regarding gender roles in the home and church, but it is has been affirmed among many evangelical scholars and teachers throughout the history of the church as will be seen later in the series.

According to this statement, the father-son relationship is immutable and is one of subordination for eternity to come. It is crucial to establish this in order to make any sense of the different positions on harpagmos laid out by N. T. Wright in The Climax of the Covenant and it is the writing of Wright, here and elsewhere, which Burk interacts with and is eager to rebut.  (I found that in the series on the CBMW website, “teachers throughout the history of the church”  were mentioned but no citations or evidence was offered.)

Here are three major positions regarding the meaning of harpagmos from The Climax of the Covenant by Wright, pages 64,65. These are the first two,

Lightfoot distinguished two senses of the key clause, that of the Latin Fathers (properly called res rapta, in which Christ is said not to have regarded his divine equality as something obtained by snatching, i.e. to have regarded it as being his by eternal right) and that of the Greek Fathers (properly, though not usually, called res retinenda, in which Christ is said not to have regarded his divine equality, already possessed, as something greedily to cling on to).

and the third is that of R. P. Martin,

Christ existed eternally in the form of God, but refused to snatch at the further honour of world sovereignty (‘being equal with God’), choosing instead to receive it as the result of obedient suffereing and death.

In each of these views Christ is equal with God for eternity to come. The reason for this does not reside in one’s view of harpagmos, in verse 6, but rather in the fact that verse 11 cites Isaiah 45:23,

 22Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.

23I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

Christ is the God who speaks in Is. 45. He is God and fully equal to God for eternity to come. This is what the author of Philippians 2 is saying. Dr. Burk believes that there is a way to introduce a new orthodox theology of subordinationism because just possibly Christ was not equal to God in Phil. 2:6. But Christ’s equality to God, as Lord, is proclaimed in Phil. 2: 9-11

9Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I cannot make Burk’s and the CBMW view of the eternal subordination of the Son line up with anything in the history of interpretation. More about the grammatical point that Burk makes  later.

 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 12:50 pm

    If Burk’s primarly application to humans for Phil. 2:6 is that wives obey their husbands, what is the implication regarding the trinity?

    Suzanne,
    This is a great post. If Burk really is regarding a hierarchy within the trinity, and you’ve shown that he is, then where does the third person of the trinity belong?

    Burk’s focused on Christ and the Father (assuming Christ, for Paul to the Philippians, is equal to “the Son”). Let’s look at your quotation of Burk again:

    The Son does not try to abdicate his role by grasping for functional equality with the Father (Phil 2:6). On the contrary, the Son obeys the Father and enters onto the stage of human history (Phil 2:7). In this sequence of events, we see that the Son not only obeys the Father in his incarnation but that he also obeys the Father from all eternity. For this reason, if the Son were not obedient to the Father’s sending him into the world and if he were not distinct from the Father in his Person (and thus in his role and function), then redemption would have been impossible, for the Son never would have obeyed the Father, and there never would have been an incarnation.

    But does Paul ever write the word, Υἱός, for Son, for Jesus, for the Christ, anywhere ever in the whole of his epistle to his readers in Philippae? No, this is not Paul’s metaphor. He is not stressing or even mentioning a Father-Son relationship. The terms for Jesus in the epistle are the words for Messiah (Anointed) and for Master (or Lord).

    Oh, and there is this other mention, one that makes Father-Son un-equal hierarchy from eternity a bit difficult. In the ESV translation, Paul writes:

    Yes, and I will rejoice, [1:]19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

    Then closer to 2:6 and 2:7, we read:

    1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

    What does the Spirit do with the Father up on high, at the highest, and the Son eternally unequally low? Where is this Spirit, also in Christ, also below the role and the rank of the Father? Is this not the Spirit of God the Father too?

    And one other note, since we’ve just re-read 2:1-5: Are the readers Paul is writing to unequal to start with? How then can they be like Christ, if that Son is eternally un-equal functionally under that Father? Is the hierarchy already present among believers and an un-equal set of functions for-ever? Or is Paul asking these Christians, who are already equal creations and are already equal in function, to do something their Christ did? Isn’t he asking them to relinquish given equalies then?

  2. January 18, 2012 1:39 pm

    ps – Victoria Gaile Laidler at the blog Gaudete Theology has this post up to consider the trinity (and notably “the hardest Person of the Trinity for Christians to relate to”) in ways that Denny Burk does not. Sorry for this aside, but I wonder why one has to read Paul’s Greek descriptions of his God as inherently and eternally and functionally hierarchical.

  3. January 18, 2012 5:18 pm

    Suzanne: Thank you for doing this, so I don’t have to.

    Annoying. Very annoying.

  4. January 18, 2012 6:15 pm

    I thought that there was a Christian tradition as viewing Song of Songs as a metaphor for the Trinity (in addition to the more usual interpretation of the relationship of God and the church.) For example, I recall seeing the Trinity interpretation in some of Gregory of Nyssa’s writings. If one also views Song of Songs a metaphor for human passion, than I suppose one could try to make some sort of argument by transitivity (although it seems to me more like the child’s game of “telephone” where the same phrase is repeated many times.)

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 18, 2012 7:55 pm

    Clearly the human behaviour that Paul intends one to undertake is this,

    Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.

    4Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

    This is not the same thing as being an obedient servant who does not grasp after being the master.

  6. Deb W permalink
    January 18, 2012 9:09 pm

    This is a great discussion. One thing that J.K. Gayle wrote stood out: “Or is Paul asking these Christians, who are already equal creations and are already equal in function, to do something their Christ did? Isn’t he asking them to relinquish given equalies then?”
    I think this is getting after an issue that I haven’t seen explored much in relation to the concept of submission. For is it not a requirement that one must put aside previous rights or position in order to submit to another? Yes? Unlike subordinationism, which, by definition, requires a lower rank or status to be in place first?

    In other words, I don’t think that one even has to hold to hard and fast egalitarianism to see all of these problems with Burk’s (and CBMW’s) eternal subordinationism. That’s my novice $.02. Thanks again!

  7. January 19, 2012 7:00 pm

    Deb,
    Thank you for restating what I was trying to say. Yes, how you explained it doesn’t force anyone into any position (egal or compl) but it does point out some problems with Burk’s conclusion. Your $.02 must be worth a whole lot!

  8. Chrysostom permalink
    December 10, 2012 9:07 am

    I thought this tripe was condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople when Origen’s similar theory was condemned for different reasons. I don’t see how one can read the Christological Hymn as Burk does and come away with an orthodox Trinitarian theology; Christ is equal to God, and Christ also must eternally submit to God’s authority of his own will, laying all things before the Father, so that God may be “all in all”, as Paul says.

    I’m a complementarian of the strongest kind (what Grudem would call a “two-point” complementarian or even an outright patriarchalist, but I find my views receive a warmer reception if called “new feminism” and couched in the language of “difference feminism”, except for the few barely-audible gasps of “essentialist!” – I digress, and will not dissemble here), but this exegesis – or eisegesis – rubs me the wrong way six ways from Sunday. In the shortest analysis, it is irresponsible, novel (this is a /bad thing/ when dealing with a subject of an ecumenical creed), and utterly without regard for the – to my knowledge – nearly-unanimous historic tradition of Trinitarian speculation and interpretation, East and West.

    The exegete here stretches a legitimate emphasis (Christ’s submitting of his will to the Father) and interprets the entire passage through it, seemingly making it an ontological necessity that Christ submits his will to his Father, and thus destroying any real equality (and, by consequence, consubstantiality) between the two Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Even for the application intended, my interpretation of his interpretation (how postmodern of me!) of the passage is incompatible with reality, as it implies a wife /can not/ disobey her husband – in effect, abrogating the free will of the wife as well as of Christ, and denying even the hypothetical possibility of rebellion*, in the face of all experience, theology, and exegesis: “For your desire shall be [to rule over] your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

    *Much the same way as monothelites denied the human will of Christ, thus denying even the hypothetical possibility of his rebellion; the fact that his human will was in perfect accord with his divine will is here of no consequence for the point I attempt, clumsily, to make. (I believe a cautious analogy could be drawn from the monothelite controversy, and believe as well that I have not done the possible analogy justice with the one instantiated here.)

    Can’t you find enough warrant in the inerrant and inspired Bible for the proper roles of the genders in 1 Timothy and other writings of the Apostle, superintended by the infallible Holy Spirit, dealing specifically with gender issues, for his time and for all time, without dragging theology itself in to the fray (in the Eastern Orthodox sense of dividing “theology”, the study of God qua God, from “economy”, the study of God’s actions in history)? (And quite possibly damaging it, in order to prove a subsidiary point? For, if a man is not an orthodox Trinitarian, hope is lost until he is reconciled to Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity; but, if a man be a gender egalitarian, he is merely misguided, not anathematized.)

    Here doth my article end. Terminus.

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