is a doctrine
in Christian theology
which holds that God the Son
and God the Holy Spirit
are not merely relationally subordinate to God the Father
, but also subordinate in nature and being. This implies a hierarchical view of the Trinity
, and the inferiority of the Son and the Spirit.
Subordinationism is sometimes mistakenly confused with Arianism. While Arius and his followers were certainly also subordinationist, the Arians went even further to assert that there was a time 'before all ages' when God the Son did not exist. Thus, they claimed that the Father created the Son ex nihilo. Subordinationism thrived at the same time as Arianism (fourth century A.D.), but long survived it. Its chief proponents in the fourth century were Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, both of whom had once given support to Arius. Athanasius battled Subordinationism throughout his career as bishop of Alexandria, often labelling it as Arianism. This was a rhetorical tactic which both highlighted what he believed was its logical outworking, and caricatured it.
Subordinationism is to be distinguished from the widely held view of "relational subordination". In relational subordination, both God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are said to be subordinate to God the Father because they never command the Father, but rather do the will of the Father. However, this does not mean that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in any way inferior to the Father by nature or being. On the contrary, both the Son and the Spirit are held to be co-equal and co-eternal with the Father because they are of the same being or substance as the Father.
In many Christian theological circles (mostly orthodox), subordinationism is treated as heresy, while "relational subordination" is not. In other circles, subordinationism is seen as biblical middle ground between extremes of Modalism and Unitarianism. (Christology has been the source of many (if not all) hot disputes and subsequent divisions of Christianity since the 1st century A.D.)
New Testament Era
Some of the bible verses used to arrive at this position are:
- John 3:35, 5:26,27, 10:29, 13:16, 14:28
- 1 Cor 8:4-6, 15:28
- Heb 10:7,9
Perhaps the most elaborate of advocates in favor of Subordinationism was Origen of Alexandria
. Origen taught that Jesus was a "DEUTEROS THEOS. He also said the Son was "distinct" from the Father. Finally Origen insisted that the Son is other in substance than the Father. It should be noticed that some of these same references are used to defend the concept of the Trinity. However, Subordinationism is not a differentiation from the Trinity in distinction of persons. In this doctrine, they agree. Nor is Subordinationism a distinction in terms of essence or substance. Subordinationism defers from Trinity doctrine solely in terms of the inequality of persons in terms of status and authority.
Other pre-Nicean references which could be interpreted as Subordinationist views include (but are not limited to):
- Clement of Rome (A.D. 45-101) : "The apostles received the gospel for us from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent from God. So Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ: thus both came in proper order by the will of God. Also, "Let all the heathen know that thou [the Father] art God alone, and that Jesus Christ is thy Servant...
- Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 50-115) : "Jesus Christ . . . is the expressed purpose of the Father, just as the bishops who have been appointed throughout the world exist by the purpose of Jesus Christ." "Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was subject to the Father and the apostles were subject to Christ and the Father, so that there may be unity both fleshly and spiritual. "All of you are to follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery [the elders] as the apostles.
- Polycarp (A.D. 70-155) : "Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... give you a lot and portion with his saints, and to us along with you, and to all men who are under heaven who will believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead."
- Mathetes (A.D. 75-135) : "As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent he him; as God he sent him; as to men he sent him; as a Savior he sent him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God.
- Epistle of Barnabas (ca A.D. 100) : "And furthermore, my brethren, consider this: . . . the Lord submitted to suffer for our souls--he who is Lord of the whole world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world: Let us make man in accord with our image and likeness. "The Scripture is speaking about us when he [God] says to the Son: Let us make man in accord with our image and likeness, and let them rule over the beasts of the earth and the birds of heaven and the fish of the sea. . . . These things he said to the Son.
- Shepherd of Hermas (A.D. 100-150) : "The Son of God does not appear in the guise of a slave, but appears with great power and authority ... Because God planted the vineyard ... and he turned it over to his Son. And the Son appointed the angels to protect every one of them [Christ's followers] ... "...the Son of God ... was counselor to his Father in his creation."
- Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) : "I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures, of the truth of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things" "But to the Father of all, who is unbegotten, there is no name given. For by whatever name he be called, he has as his elder the person who gives him the name.
- Irenaeus (A.D. 115-200) : "...the Father himself is alone called God...the Scriptures acknowledge him alone as God; and yet again...the Lord confesses him alone as his own Father, and knows no other. " . . this is sure and steadfast, that no other God or Lord was announced by the Spirit, except him who, as God, rules over all, together with his Word, and those who receive the spirit of adoption, that is, those who believe in the one and true God, and in Jesus Christ the Son of God; and likewise that the apostles did of themselves term no one else God, or name no other as Lord; and, what is much more important, since it is true that our Lord acted likewise, who did also command us to confess no one as Father, except he who is in the heavens, who is the one God and the one Father." Irenaeus also refers to John "...proclaiming one God, the Almighty, and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten, by whom all things were made." Also he taught that Jesus was inferior to the Father in divine knowledge
- Didache (A.D. 90-200) : "We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known unto us through Jesus your Servant. "We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge, which you have made known to us through Jesus your Servant. Glory to you forever!
- Tertullian (A.D. 165-225) : "Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, in as much as he who begets is one, and he who is begotten is another; he, too, who sends is one, and he who is sent is another; and he, again, who makes is one, and he through whom the thing is made is another. "So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both.
- Pope Dionysius (A.D. 265) : "Neither, then, may we divide into three godheads the wonderful and divine unity.... Rather, we must believe in God, the Father Almighty; and in Christ Jesus, his Son; and in the Holy Spirit; and that the Word is united to the God of the universe. 'For,' he says, 'The Father and I are one,' and 'I am in the Father, and the Father in me'. Yet, Jesus is not treated as synonymous with God.
To Deacon Athanasius's mentor Bishop Alexander, describing Jesus as anything other than God in the flesh was outright heresy. However to the Presbyter Arius, this was inconsistent with the recent decisions against Sabellius at the Synod of Rome. Arius stood up to Alexander and called him a heretic. What ensued was a power struggle between the role of church and state.
Probably the most vocal subordinationists were Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. Although not as extreme as the Arians in their definition of who Jesus is, neither did they agree with the Modalists in equating Jesus with his Father in authority or person but were flexible concerning ousia (substance). For the reasons of him being moderate in the religious and political spectrum of beliefs, Constantine I therefore made Eusebius of Caesarea his court theologian and personal religious advisor. As the debates raged in Nicea, Constantine turned to Eusebius to sooth the crowds.
In his book, On the Theology of the Church, Eusebius of Caesarea explains how the Nicene Creed is a full expression of Subordinationist theology, starting with an emphasis in the Creed of saying, "We believe in One God..." Eusebius goes on to explain how the Nicene Creed was not written to expel Arius, but rather to unite Christians of all beliefs together.
Apparently neither Alexander's belief, nor Arius's, were commonly shared at the time, because the Church found a dire need to hold several ecumenical councils for the next 800+ years to define exactly what beliefs in the church were right.
, in particular, categorically rejected subordinationism in all its forms, possibly as a reaction against Arianism.
In the pseudonymous Athanasian Creed
, all three divine persons are almighty
; no divine person is before or after another, none is greater or less than another
… all three are co-equal.
Later, when Arius submits to the Nicene Creed before Constantine, it ends up being Athanasius who is not only excommunicated from the Church but also banished from the Roman Empire
Among the Cappadocian Fathers, who were the first theologians to popularize the term "Trinity" (Theophilus of Antioch coined it), they yet consistently asserted the supremacy and authority of the Father in all things. When the Cappadocians began releasing their beliefs in writing, it helped unify the semi-Arians with the Unitarians and Subordinationists. (The Greek Fathers and the whole Christian Orient speak, in this regard, of the "Father's Monarchy," and the Western tradition, following St. Augustine, also confesses that the Holy Spirit takes his origin from the Father principaliter, that is, as principle. In this sense, therefore, the two traditions recognize that the "monarchy of the Father" implies that the Father is the sole Trinitarian Cause (Aitia) or Principle (Principium) of the Son and the Holy Spirit.)
The origin of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone as Principle of the whole Trinity is called ekporeusis by Greek tradition, following the Cappadocian Fathers. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Theologian, in fact, characterizes the Spirit's relationship of origin from the Father by the proper term ekporeusis, distinguishing it from that of procession (to proienai) which the Spirit has in common with the Son. "The Spirit is truly the Spirit proceeding (proion) from the Father, not by filiation, for it is not by generation, but by ekporeusis." Even if St. Cyril of Alexandria happens at times to apply the verb ekporeusthai to the Son's relationship of origin from the Father, he never uses it for the relationship of the Spirit to the Son. Even for St. Cyril, the term ekporeusis as distinct from the term "proceed" (proienai), can only characterize a relationship of origin to the principle without principle of the Trinity: the Father.
By inserting two phrases into the Nicene Creed without holding council, the Bishop of Rome showed a disdain for both the pre-existing Nicene Creed and its implied Subordinationism. The two additional phrases were the filioque clause and the "Deum de Deo" clause, commonly interpreted in English churches as "God from God" (although that would technically be "Deo de Deo" in the Greek.)
In the Eastern Church, the debate surrounding subordinationism came to be submerged into the later conflict over the monarche, or single-source of divinity. This idea was that the Father was the source of divinity, from whom the son is eternally begotten and the spirit proceeds. As the Western church came to implicitly deny the monarchy and explicitly assert the papacy, this split eventually helped fuel reasons for rejection of the filioque clause, and ultimately the Great Schism of 1054.
Modern theologians of the eastern tradition mostly disagree as to whether their belief in a unique "monarchy of the Father" can fully classify them as Subordinationist.
"Orthodox do not regard the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father to be one which they can accept. This teaching is opposed to the monarchy of the Father and to the equality of the Spirit to the Father and the Son as a hypostasis or person distinct from both, as expressed by the original Creed. ... That the Holy Spirit eternally comes forth from the Son, so as to depend for his being and his possession of the one divine nature on the Son as well as on the Father, is a teaching which Orthodox uniformly oppose.
Also a more “liberal” position on this issue is “also held by many Orthodox at the present time.” One author writes,
“According to the ‘liberal’ view, the Greek and the Latin doctrines on the procession of the Holy Spirit may both alike be regarded as theologically defensible. The Greeks affirm that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, the Latins that He proceeds from the Father and from the Son; but when applied to the relationship between Son and Spirit, these two prepositions ‘through’ and ‘from’ amount to the same thing.”
Although yet firmly non-Subordinationist regarding Christology, for various reasons, the Vatican has officially dropped the Athanasian Creed
(the first creed to vocalize equality of persons) from liturgy.
Dr John Kleinig (Dean of worship and Head of biblical studies at Australian Lutheran College) promotes a form of subordinationism in his paper, 'The subordination of the exalted Son to the Father'. He concludes:
"Well then, is the exalted Christ in any way subordinate to the Father right
now? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. It all depends on whether we are
speaking about Him in His nature as God, or about Him in his office as the
exalted Son of God. On the one hand, He is not subordinate to the Father in
His divine essence, status, and majesty. On the other hand, He is, I hold,
subordinate to the Father in His vice-regal office and His work as prophet,
priest, and king. He is operationally subordinate to the Father. In the present
operation of the triune God in the church and the world, He is the mediator
between God the Father and humankind. The exalted Christ receives
everything from His Father to deliver to us, so that in turn, He can bring us
back to the Father. To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for
ever and ever. Amen."
Others within Lutheran circles are critical of Dr Kleinig's position including Dr Mark Worthing who presented the problems with Dr Kleinig's position in a paper presented to pastors in Queensland.
Not because of Subordinationist views, but rather for the reasons of lack of proof and doubtful authorship, the United Methodist Church
no longer accepts the Athanasian Creed.
Traditionally, subordinationists have asserted that the Son is eternally and therefore ontologically
subordinate to the Father. Recently, subordinationism has regained currency in evangelical
circles by the suggestion of George W. Knight III, in his landmark 1977 book, "The New Testament Teaching on Role Relationship with Men and women." In this book, Knight suggests that the Son is functionally but not ontologically subordinate to the Father. He also maintains that eternal subordination does not necessarily imply ontological subordination. The assertion of eternal subordination in function, combined with the denial of ontological subordination, is Knight's unique contribution to the teaching of subordination. Knight's publication has led to an unprecedented popularity of this new, modified subordinationist Christology in conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist circles.
Many Christians favor the NIV
version of the bible, which included research into the critical texts. Two noteworthy changes of the NIV compared to the KJV
) are that the NIV omits two scripture references often used by Trinitarian
to justify their Christology, which were first brought to light by Sir Isaac Newton
while studying Patristics
One is the word "God" from 1 Tim 3:16 and the second is the entire verse of 1 John 5:7; both of which did not exist in any of the 500+ Greek manuscripts (only the Vulgate.) 1 John 5:7 is commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum. Besides the NIV, these two passages are also corrected to reflect the Greek majority in the following versions: ASV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, NWT, etc.