I’m still working on the Trinity and gender question, and I have to say, it still mystifies me that theologians on both sides of the debate will argue that relations between the persons of the Godhead are determinative for relations between man and woman. Egalitarians think that there is no subordination in the Godhead, so there should be no subordination between men and women. Complementarians think that there is an economic or relational or functional or voluntary subordination in the Godhead, so women should economically or relationally or functionally or voluntarily submit themselves to men.
What’s the basis for the argument? I haven’t come across it yet. Certainly not 1 Corinthians 11:3, if that’s what you’re thinking, which has to do with behaviour, not ontology. Peter Schemm even admits that “there is still much work to be done in developing a constructive model for exactly how male-female relations might reflect relations within the Trinity”. Quite.
Part of the theological argument for order or hierarchy in the Godhead is that the Father is the source or origin of the Son. That only works one way. We can’t also say that the Son is the source or origin of the Father. It’s an asymmetrical relationship. We believe, as the Nicene Creed has it, “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being.” Schemm quotes Athanasius, who states with his usual lucidity:
…if He is called the eternal offspring of the Father, He is rightly so called. For never was the essence of the Father imperfect, that what is proper to it should be added afterwards; nor, as man from man, has the Son been begotten, so as to be later than His Father’s existence, but He is God’s offspring, and as being proper Son of God, who is ever, He exists eternally. (Orationes contra Arianos 1.14)
So the argument is that Jesus has always been the Son, therefore is “eternally begotten”, which on the face of it is nonsensical—and as we shall see, non-biblical—and always subordinate, though not in a heretical “subordinationist” sense. Therefore women should be subordinate to men. Geddit?
A couple of things…
First, in his defence of the argument that “the Son has an eternal and uncreated relationship with the Father” Athanasius relies heavily on the opening of John’s Gospel.
And since Christ is God from God, and God’s Word, Wisdom, Son, and Power, therefore but One God is declared in the divine Scriptures. For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. (Orationes contra Arianos 4.1)
But there is a reason why John says “In the beginning was the Word…” rather than “In the beginning was the Son…”. There is a difference between “the Word became flesh…” and “the Son became flesh”. It is only once the Word or Wisdom of God has become flesh that it makes sense to say “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14)—not least because that glory is revealed through obedience and suffering. It is at his baptism that Jesus is affirmed as “the Son of God” (Jn. 1:34).
Secondly, when the New Testament speaks of Jesus as a Son who has been “begotten”, it means something quite different to what the Nicene Creed means by it.
The thought is found explicitly in three passages and alluded to in a fourth:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” (Acts 13:32-33)
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? (Heb. 1:5)
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”… (Heb. 5:5)
…concerning his Son, who was… declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:3–4)
As Paul indicated in his synagogue sermon in Antioch in Pisidia, the statement is a quotation from Psalm 2: YHWH establishes Israel’s king, he declares him to be his “son”, that he has “begotten” him today (not “eternally”) because he will possess the nations as his inheritance and will rule them with a rod of iron. Augustine gets it badly wrong:
By this phrase, “today have I begotten you,” the most true and catholic faith proclaims the eternal generation of the Power and Wisdom of God, who is the only-begotten Son. (Expositions of the Psalms 2.6)
When the idea is applied to Jesus, it is not his origin but his resurrection and exaltation to the “right hand of the Majesty on high” that are in view. It is this moment which constitutes the “day” on which he was appointed “Son of God in power”, when he inherited a name superior even to that of the angels (Heb. 1:3-4; cf. Phil. 2:9-11), when he was made a heavenly high priest.
Schemm argues that the eternality of the Son is indicated in Galatians 4:4 and Ephesians 1:3-4. But it is by no means certain that “God sent forth his Son” speaks of the incarnation of a pre-existent Son. Longenecker leans towards Dunn’s view that “When considered part of a pre-Pauline confession, all that need be seen is a functional stress on God’s commissioning of Christ to bring about the redemption of humanity.”1 God sends his Son into the world in the same way that the owner of the vineyard sends first his servants and then his Son into the vineyard (Mk. 12:1-11). I made the point in the previous piece that in Ephesians 1 Paul says only that “the God who would be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ chose Paul and other Jews before the foundation of the world to be adopted as sons”.
So again I stress: the Father-Son language belongs to the central apocalyptic narrative of Jesus’ vocation, obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation and rule as YHWH’s appointed king over the nations. It should not be carelessly conflated with a Wisdom theology that makes Jesus the one through whom all things were made. It does not translate easily—if at all—into classic Trinitarian categories, though I’m happy to allow that it was a good, if perhaps not an inevitable, rationalization of the biblical narrative for European and modern Christendom.
And it gives no warrant whatsoever for eternally subordinating the woman to the man. As David Congdon says, summarizing a complex discussion of the complementarian argument from analogy, “There simply is no analogue to human gender to be found in God.”
- 1. R.N. Longenecker, Galatians (1990), 170.