Isaiah (Part 33): Authority (Lesson 2)
In our last discussion, we spoke of three heresies that evolve from emphasizing an aspect of Godhood to the detriment of others. Modalism loses sight of the three Persons, emphasizing the oneness of his essence only acting in three ways. Tritheism loses sight of the one essence by assigning too much to the three Persons. Subordinationism also distorts the one essence by limiting the transcendence of two in favor of the third. Those whom we call the church fathers debated these issues and helped establish what we understand as the orthodox view of the Godhead. At the Council of Nicea in AD 325, a creed was formed that helped in clarifying what we mean by the one essence and three Persons of the Trinity. But in that creed we have the following statement: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.”
What does eternally begotten mean? Or, more to the point, what did the council mean by it? In this, the council was attempting to speak against the Arian idea that the Son was the first being created by God. “No,” the council would have said, “the Son has always been.” Actually, the traditional wording of the creed (more closely aligning with the original Latin) reads: “I believe in…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God,” and continuing, “begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” From this reading we learn a little of how the modern reading (“eternally begotten”) came about. The moderns changed it because we no longer understand the concept of “worlds” as they did in earlier days as “ages.” (KJV often translates the Greek aion, from which we get eon, as world, as in Matthew 24:3). So, “before all worlds” actually meant something like “before time began.” Notice the next phrase (somewhat similar in both traditional and modern versions of the creed) “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” The intent here was this: the Son was not made or created as the Arians said. The Son issued forth from God, being of the same essence as God. Athanasius described it as light coming from the sun. Both the light and the sun have always been. As long as the sun has been, light has been issuing from the sun.
We can see how the council attempted to settle the eternality and essence of the Son in this manner. But the council’s argument incorporated the idea that “begotten” meant “issuing forth from.” As we fast forward now to our time, we have orthodox Christians (meaning those who hold to the Trinitarian idea of one essence and three Persons) understanding “begotten,” as the church fathers did, to mean “issuing from.” This then, they reason, must mean that the Father, who issues, stands in relationship to the Son, who issues from, as an authority. The Son, issuing from the Father, is subordinate to the Father. This idea differs from the heresy Subordinationism because in this modern view the equal essence of the Trinity is still defended.
This new view is often called the Eternal Subordination of the Son. Here are its points:
1. The Godhead is equal in essence.
2. The Godhead is different in function/role.
a. The Father functions in authority.
b. The Son functions in subordination to the Father.
3. The functional differences are voluntary.
4. The functional differences are eternal.
Thus, we see in these points that an orthodox idea of the Trinity is affirmed by asserting the equality of essence and by calling the authority and subordination a matter of voluntary role-playing and not forced by the Father on the Son through some inherent superiority. We also see that these functional differences of authority and subordination are said to be eternal. That means they always acted in this manner; the roles existed from eternity past and will continue to eternity future.
Although, as we discussed last time, I agree that Jesus the man was in subjection to the Father because of the limitations of transcendence which he voluntarily placed on himself, I deny that Jesus as God, the second Person of the Trinity, is in a subordinate role to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity. I deny this for two reasons. One is ontological (a reason of being), and the other is epistemological (a reason of knowledge or understanding).
Ontologically, I think it is impossible for one Person of the joined-essence Trinity to function in subordination to another, even voluntarily. Here’s why, and I will form this argument in a couple syllogisms. I will also use the term gradationist for those who believe in gradations or levels of authority within the Trinitarian Godhead.
Premise 1: Eternality is a quality of essence.
This statement simply means that the transcendent quality of eternality is a quality of the one essence of God.
Premise 2: Functions of the Godhead is eternal.
The functions spoken of here are those of authority and submission—those that the gradationists insist are eternal.
Conclusion: Functions of the Godhead are elements of essence.
This statement concludes that if eternality is a quality of essence and functions of the Godhead are eternal, then functions of the Godhead must be contained within the one essence of God.
Continuing with a second syllogism, then, and using the conclusion from the previous as the first premise, we may state the following:
Premise 1: Functions of the Godhead are elements of essence.
Premise 2: The Godhead is equal in essence.
Conclusion: The Godhead is equal in function.
But our conclusion here is precisely opposite the conclusion of the gradationists who say that the Godhead is UNequal in function. We must be careful to remember that we are dealing with the Trinity here, not three gods of a tritheistic structure. It is not three Persons with three similar essences. It is three Persons with one essence. That one essence belongs to and is part of each Person. Therefore, while we could see two or three different persons with different essences each being equal in certain respects but voluntarily role-playing an authority/subordination activity, the Trinity with its one essence, whose quality of eternality defines the elements of function, cannot ontologically be in an authority/subordinate relationship due simply to the singleness of the essence.
The second argument is one of epistemology (or knowledge and understanding). This argument, I believe, shows the gradationist viewpoint to be actually incoherent. Authority is defined (by Webster) to be power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior. Another definition is simply a person in command. Of course, the simple definition of a person in command raises the question of commanding what? And the answer goes back to the previous definition of commanding thought, opinion, or behavior. But according to the gradationists, this function of authority or command is not due to power or any essential difference in the Godhead; it is merely a function or role undertaken.
Now, let’s imagine two beings of infinite knowledge coming at a puzzle or decision. Would their answers be different? Possibly. They may still bring some emotion to the decision to influence one way or the other. But suppose these two people each bring an infinite knowledge, an infinite goodness, and an infinite appreciation for beauty to the table. Would their answers be different? Could their answers be different? If infinitely good, infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely intelligent persons of infinite appreciation for all that is beautiful and right come to decide on something, I can’t imagine any way that would result in differing opinions. Now, add to that the fact that with God, the infiniteness of essence is the one same essence of each. It is impossible for that to result in two different decisions, two different approaches, two different wills. The will of the Father then could not be different from the will of the Spirit or of the Son.
The point, then, is that in any real sense of authority and subordination, you must have one will subordinated to the will of another for the construct to be meaningful. In the Godhead, you can’t possibly have a will that must be subordinated to another will. Thus, authority and subordination in the Godhead make no functional sense; the concept is incoherent.
While Jesus, in his incarnation as a man, gave up (for one thing) the transcendence of his knowledge, he was, as Son, subordinate to the Father. However, within the purity of the Godhead, it is a different story. Three Persons exist within the Trinity of one essence. These three don’t play functional roles of authority and subordination. They are God, and God is all in all.