Harpagmos II: Denny Burk’s Subordinationism
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.
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.