I would like to thank Josh Tinkham, pastor of Covenant Community Church, for proof reading this article while making helpful suggestions along the way prior to publication.
As the all-too-familiar trinity debate rages on, one vital piece of the “discourse puzzle” is still missing—hermeneutics. It is easy to forget that the pre-, present-, and post-Nicene conclusions concerning the triunity of God did not drop out of thin air. It is also easy, given the now-unfamiliar language and methodology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, to assume they were speculating well beyond the bounds of holy Scripture into a kind of philosophical no-man’s land. As Dr. James White has recently indicated, it has come to be thought that the trinitarian formulations found during the first five centuries of the church are too philosophical in scope, or that they at least should be questioned. First, it was Thomas Aquinas who came under fire for being too Aristotelian. Now, it’s the early church fathers. It seems the most agreed upon doctrine of the first 17 centuries of church history was merely the product of over-speculation and philosophical abuse. As a result, multi-millennial theology proper has been placed in the dock. White writes:
There really seems to be no end to where backwards-engineering based upon temporal creation could take us when it comes to speculation about that which the Scriptures leave in silence. “But early church writers we really benefit from speculated about these things!” Yes, yes they did. But anyone who reads those men filters out a large amount of unprofitable speculation already in many areas, and it might be good to do so in this one, too.
Unfortunately, those questioning and encouraging revision of the church’s nearly 2000-year old confession of the trinity have not yet meaningfully engaged patristic (or medieval for that matter) hermeneutics. I say this as a newbie to the inner-workings of early patristic exegesis myself. I do not want to be taken as an authority in this area. Instead, I will let an actual expert speak in my place, Lewis Ayers. And I will also interact here with Augustine, per Ayers’ commentary, since on this issue Augustine represents the mature thought of the patristic age and serves as a magisterial guiding influence for the subsequent medieval and reformational eras.
Primary Source Material: Augustine
First Corinthians 15:20-28 has become an anchor text for proponents of contemporary subordination models, such as Eternal Relations of Submission and Authority (ERAS). It reads—
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
The specific area in question is v. 24 in relation to v. 28. The Son appears, in this text, to bear a lesser authority than the Father. In this case, vv. 23-28 may be read in terms of relative, voluntary or functional submission of the Son to the Father. Dr. James Hamilton concludes:
First Corinthians 15:24 and 28 indicate that Christ will hand the kingdom over to the Father, that Christ will be subject to the Father, and that God will be all in all. God’s glory will cover the dry lands as the waters cover the seas, and the best way to talk about Jesus the Son being subjected to God the Father is to affirm that they are ontologically equal as God while the Son takes up a functionally subordinate role (One God in Three Persons, 108).
Kyle Claunch, after discussing the immanent/economic Trinities and how the economic reveals the immanent, namely, that there are relations of authority and submission in the eternal Godhead, he writes:
By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. This model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons (One God in Three Persons, 88-89).
Before we look at Augustine, I should note his employment of what might be called partitive exegesis. Partitive exegesis takes into consideration the identity of Christ’s two natures regarding Christological passages found in Scripture. Texts proper to God are applied to Christ’s divine nature; texts proper to creatures are applied to Christ’s human nature. Throughout his exegesis Augustine consciously distinguishes between God (theologia) and God’s works (oikonomia). An example of this distinction in play might be his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of Christ is God.” In his De Trinitate, book 6, ch. 9, he writes:
But again, if God is only all three together, how can God be the head of Christ, that is, the Trinity the head of Christ, since Christ is in the Trinity in order that it may be the Trinity? Is that which is the Father with the Son, the head of that which is the Son alone? For the Father with the Son is God, but the Son alone in Christ: especially since it is the Word already made flesh that speaks; and according to this His humiliation also, the Father is greater than He, as He says, “for my Father is greater than I;” so that the very being of God, which is one to Him with the Father, is itself the head of the man who is mediator, which He is alone.
Augustine brings the assumption that God really is all God into his exegesis. In other words, he presupposes the absolute co-equality and consubstantiality of the divine Persons. For Augustine, it would be absurd to suggest one Person might retain an eternally supreme authority over another because all three Persons are all God, and since this is the case all three Persons have all authority proper to God. Concerning the “kingdom” in 1 Corinthians 15:24, he says, “in this ‘kingdom’ He means the sight of His own form also to be understood, the whole creature being made subject to God, including that wherein the Son of God was made the Son of man.” Augustine is apparently reading the text partitively, that is, he is assuming a distinction between that which is proper to the divine essence, i.e. God in Himself, and that which is proper to creatures. He goes on:
Because, according to this creature, “The Son also Himself shall be subject unto Him, that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” Otherwise if the Son of God, judging in the form in which He is equal to the Father, shall appear when He judges the ungodly also; what becomes of that which He promises, as some great thing, to him who loves Him, saying, “And I will love him, and will manifest myself to him?” Wherefore He will judge as the Son of man, yet not by human power, but by that whereby He is the Son of God; and on the other hand, He will judge as the Son of God, yet not appearing in that [unincarnate] form in which He is God equal to the Father, but in that [incarnate form] in which He is the Son of man.
Notice the way in which Augustine puts Scripture into discourse with itself, and how such a discussion prevents him from drawing any subordinationist conclusions. He brings John 14:21 into conversation with 1 Corinthians 1:15-24, 28. “If,” so his reasoning goes, “the Son promises to manifest His Person to His people at long last, it stands to reason He must be referring to Himself according to His human nature, i.e. as the Son of man.” But if God being all in all, per 1 Corinthians 15:28, means what the subordinationist wants it to mean—that such a return to the Godhead is an indication of Christ’s eternal submission to the Father—then the human nature of Christ either goes away at that point, or it is divinized by being absorbed into the divine essence such that it is no longer distinguishable. But this could not be, since John 14 tells us the Son will manifest His Person to His people. Such a manifestation of His Person must be according to His human nature since if it were not, Jesus would be implying that the divine nature would become directly perceptible to the human senses—an impossibility. One could logically opine such manifestation would be a sort of shekinah glory, as God often manifested Himself in the temple under the Old Covenant. But this would be inferior to an experience of God through the incarnate Person of Christ, and it would represent a regression in the redemptive scheme rather than an eschatological progression and climactic punctuation at the end of time.
Augustine, for good reason, keeps God in Himself distinct from His works. This is not an egg-headed quest for vain philosophical or speculative glory, but is reasoned upon the foundation of the Scriptures themselves by way of a partitive method of exegesis. This method of exegesis, as we’ve hopefully seen, is necessary to maintaining the integrity of theology proper and consistency in our dogmatic reflections upon Scripture.
Secondary Source: Lewis Ayers
Lewis Ayers, a prominent commentator on Augustine, addresses the subordinationist attempts to use 1 Corinthians 15:28 within the framework of Augustine’s approach. He writes:
Augustine reads 1 Corinthians 15:24-8 as an eschatological narrative in conjunction with Matthew 5:8 (‘the pure in heart shall see God’) to show that there is a progress towards vision at the end, when the pure in heart gaze upon the form of a servant, and see ‘through’ that form the form of God in equality with Father and Spirit. Neither the Old Testament theophanies nor the Incarnation itself make God available to sight; they enable faith that knows it will become sight and knowledge only at the end (Augustine and the Trinity, 143-144).
Quoting Michael Barnes, he writes:
Salvation came from faith—this is faith’s ‘utility’. Such a judgment is not merely one about discipline, as though the virtue of faith was primarily the act of obedience. The utility of faith for salvation lies in the fact that it marries an epistemology with a moral anthropology, and then grounds them both in Christology: ‘Everything that has taken place in time… has been designed to elicit the faith we must be purified by in order to contemplate the truth, [and] has either been testimony to this mission or has been the actual mission of the Son of God’ (pg. 144).
In other words, the Person of Christ according to His glorified human nature will be the object of eschatological sight through whom we will experience God at long last. To claim or imply God being all in all, and the surrounding texts in 1 Corinthians 15, argue the point of subordination is to actually obscure the profound relevance of the Person of Christ according to His human nature. Ayers goes on to write:
With this argument Augustine attempts to undermine all Homoian exegesis of passages which apparently suggest the ontological subordination of Christ to the Father. All such exegesis should be seen, according to Augustine, as misunderstanding the role of the Incarnation in the shaping of faith and thus misunderstanding the very nature of the Incarnate Word (pg. 144).
According to , Augustine took on Arianism by relating biblical passages concerning the Son partitively. In other words, Augustine distinguished between Christ’s divine and human natures by consistently appropriating the biblical data proper to either. What is proper to creatures only, Augustine would apply to the human nature of Christ. Conversely, what is proper to God only, Augustine would apply to the divine nature of Christ. Christ’s subjection in 1 Corinthians 15, therefore, should be understood of His Person according to the human nature only.
ERAS, on the other hand, appears to blur the lines between the divine and human natures, often applying what is proper only to the human nature of Christ to the divine nature, e.g. Christ’s submission to the Father’s will. As a result, the Person of the Son is understood to have properties appropriate to a human nature prior to the incarnation which seems to cash out in an ontological difference between Father and Son in eternity past. Most ERAS proponents would deny such ontological gradation in the Godhead, affirming sameness and equality of essence. But an explanation in terms of how affirming the same essence in God yet different qualities (greater and lesser authorities, wills, powers, etc.) is yet to be seen.
Hopefully I have achieved my goal in this article, which was to introduce another way to understand the “subordination passages” in Scripture by looking at Augustine’s approach to 1 Corinthians 15:28 (and other related passages) with the help of Lewis . The doctrine of God and the biblical language requires a theologically robust hermeneutic that doesn’t necessarily try to retool a doctrine of God from the ground up at every turn. Christological passages ought to be understood partitively, that is, consciously reading them in light of Christ’s two natures and what those natures entail. If God does not change, we cannot ascribe change to Christ’s divine nature. If creatures change, then we should ascribe change to Christ’s human nature, but not His divine.