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Why Sydney Anglican Subordinationism is Lame

Now that my serialised posting of My Lord and My God is done, we can tackle what is, for Anglicans at least, the obvious question: what relationship does this have with the Sydney Anglicans’ contention that subordination does, in fact exist in the Trinity?  This has been batted around since the issue first hit the Sydney Synod back in 1999.  Defence of same has followed, from this to this and this.

You have to hand it to the Sydney Anglicans: the Archdiocese which has “stood firm” while the rest of the Province has wavered didn’t get that way by messing around.  Subordinationism per se has been generally regarded as heretical since the collapse of the Roman Empire.  For an Archdiocese that prides itself by its orthodoxy, it was a bold move.

The weak point in Sydney’s idea is that one can separate the function of the persons of the Trinity from their essence.  As Mark Thompson put it in his monograph:

Again, the word ‘subordination’ is often taken to mean that one person is somehow less than the other. In this particular case, some suggest the word implies a ‘subordination of being’, that the Son is somehow placed below the Father in being. In other words, he is not as fully God as the Father is. This is indeed the ancient heresy of Arius and those who advocate this view clearly stand outside the orthodox Christian tradition. Yet there is another way of speaking about ‘subordination’: to refer to a difference in function between the Father and the Son. This is ‘functional subordination’ and it is very different from the suggestion that the Son is somehow less God than the Father. Far from being a false reduction of the Son’s divine nature, this way of speaking emphasises both a sameness of nature or being and a difference in function. The Doctrine Commission’s report makes clear repeatedly that it is using the word ‘subordination’ in this second way. It explicitly and repeatedly denies a ‘subordination of being’.

That is simply a theological nonstarter.  God’s essence, his attributes and his actions are one in the same; they cannot be separated.  Back when David Ould attempted his last defence of this topic, I pointed this out to him, to which his response was as follows:

And yet, surely, they do! It’s simply not enough for us to state that “all attributes to God are essential to Him” without also recognising that there is a clear distinction between the Father, Son and Spirit. They are three persons who relate to one another in particular but not identical ways. Thus unless one wants to just blend all three into non-differentiated persons (in which case, why are they three persons in the first place) we have to concede that there are differences.

And this is seen, not least, in the particular relationship between Father and Son.

To which I responded as follows:

Although there is no doubt that there are differences amongst the persons of the Trinity, the requirement that divine attributes be essential to God stands, unless, like Moses Maimonides, you assert that you really cannot state that any characteristic be properly attributed to God.

The problem of the subordination of the Son to the Father vs. the deity of the Son is one of the stickier problems in Christian theology.  Ante-Nicene theology was uniformly subordinationist and (especially in the East) infused with Logos theology which (I think) originated with Philo.  The problem—and anyone who has read Origen wrestle with this issue, esp. in his Commentary on John is aware of this—is that, in the context of Greek philosophy, there was no “clean way” to assert the inequality of the Father and the Son without potentially compromising the Son’s deity.  That became Arius’ sticking point, and his solution was to deny the deity of the Son.  The Church rejected Arius’ solution, and rightly so, but still using Greek philosophy to explain the relationship of the persons of the Trinity amongst each other, has ended up setting subordinationism aside in order to preserve the theistic integrity of the Trinity.

Subordinationism and logos theology, however, are essential in establishing a connection between God and his creation that precedes the Incarnation of the Son.  That’s an important point; it was certainly so in Patristic times, when the Greeks asserted that the “God over all” had little or no interest or connection with the creation, and today with Islam.  I am aware, however, that the interest in Anglican circles re subordinationism has not been driven by this consideration.

Having considered this at length, I came to realise that the solution to this conundrum doesn’t come from philosophy but from mathematics, which is why I wrote My Lord and My God.  This basically allows subordinationists to have our/their cake and eat it too, i.e., assert the essential, uncreated nature of the Godhead in all of his Persons and at the same time recognise the subordination/difference amongst same Persons.

Although I understand Anglicans’ dislike for theological adventurism given 40+ years of hard experience in the matter, I think a solution of this kind is important if we are to understand the God we worship and communicate to the very limited extent that we can the reality of his nature.

He never responded to this.  To my mind, I’m not sure whether he understands what I am trying to do or not.  But what I have done has solved a critical theological problem of their own making, and I always try to appreciate people who bail me out when I’m in a tight place.

But that leads us to the motivation of the Sydney Anglicans’ embrace of this theology; subordinationism above leads to subordinationism below, and especially between men and women.  But here too I don’t think they have thought things out very well.

If we go back to the infinity model, we can show that, within the Godhead, the Son can be less than the Father, and the Spirit less than the Son.  But what does that really mean?  We instinctively see that, if we do the area comparison analogy, the Son’s area is “less” than the Father’s.  Since the days of Dedekind and Cantor it has been shown that all infinities are not equal; establishing a neat “ratio” between them is another matter altogether.  Thus subordination and rank in the Godhead don’t mean the same thing as it does here.  That’s perfectly fitting with the nature of God and the nature of his creatures.  As God himself explained to Isaiah, “”My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways,” declares the LORD. “Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.”” (Isaiah 55:8-9 GW)

Bringing things back to earth, the Sydney Anglicans use subordinationism to buttress their idea that, just as there is subordination in God, so also should there be subordination between men and women.  But that doesn’t take into consideration one important aspect of the classical world: the system was rank-driven from top to bottom.  Modern concepts of “equality” were unknown in the ancient world, and the concept is dicey even today, although we try very hard to hide that fact.  A high-born woman would have been superior to a low-born man, especially if the latter happened to be her slave.  The Roman system had patricians and plebeians built into the system at the start, and ended up with the honestiores and humiliores at the end.  All of these categories were populated by both sexes.

So I think we’re going to have to look elsewhere to the solution of this problem.  In the meanwhile I think I have demonstrated that the Sydney Anglicans’ concept of subordinationism in the Trinity is lame and subject to revision.


10 Replies to “Why Sydney Anglican Subordinationism is Lame”

  1. It rather seems to me that if this were a discussion about an objective reality then reasonable people would say “It seems to me that….” and “Your perception of it might differ slightly.” Isn’t that how you handle questions like whether or not there’s oil down some particular well?

    It is only if the discussion is about what formulas are allowed inside some club that an insistence upon precision can come to the fore.



    1. You’ve obviously never taken a theorem and proof course in mathematics, where precise definitions are de rigeur. And that goes for other hard sciences, too.


  2. Don,

    A definition is not a finding. One posits beliefs, but searches for fact.

    Although mathematics is romantically referred to as “queen of the sciences,” it is in fact, like theology, a form of metaphysics. (The queen of a ccitizenry is not a citizen.)

    Measurement and experiment, the foundations (your rigor) of the hard sciences, are always given with limits and margins of error.

    The sine qua non of a science is that it be falsifiable, and the one thing that is certain about genuine knowledge, as opposed to belief or dogma, is its uncertainty.



    1. First, for all of the frustrations the rest of the scientific community may have with it, mathematics is the queen of the sciences, or alternatively the mother science. Science is but a toy without mathematics, which is a key reason why the U.S. struggles with STEM education.

      Mathematical theorems, lemmas, conjectures and definitions are certainly falsifiable; some of these have gone for centuries before they are proven or dis-proven. And mathematics has developed theorems and methods that then sit for years before they have practical application; in that respect they are road maps to the acquisition of knowledge and methodology.

      As far as your obsession with margins of error, being (as you correctly assert) in the earth sciences, I am very much aware of the uncertainties of science and engineering. These stem (sorry!) from two things: the complexity of the environment, and our ability (or lack thereof) to process the data we have and project what might happen if things change either from natural causes or our own doing. The former is there; the latter is improving, in part because of the improvements of our ability to simulate the environment around us. And the basis for that simulation was laid in mathematics before it came into science and engineering (although, in some cases like finite element analysis, the start came from the latter, and then it was enriched by the former).

      I think, however, that you are attempting to characterise my objections to Sydney Anglicanism’s subordinationism as nit picking. That may do wonders for your idea as a sophisticate but it does nothing to commend your understanding of what I was saying. My problem with Sydney Anglicanism’s subordinationism is that it undercuts their concept of God. This is a big deal. It subjects them to the same criticism that Moses Maimonides (one of your sages) made of Christian and Muslim scholars, one that can also be applied to many things in the sciences as well. (You’ll need to scroll down to just about the end of that post for the Maimonides quote).

      I would also caution you about taking swats re private clubs; where I come from, these are also a big deal.


  3. No, Don, I was not accusing you of nit-picking, nor had I any intention of suggesting that your argumentation was unimportant to you.

    I simply wanted to say that in its concern for a precise exactitude it separated itself from those fields of discourse in which any objective reality is in play. Where there is truth there is doubt; where there is certainty there are arbitrarily adopted rules, it seems to me.




    1. I find your line of argumentation odd, to say the least. And it’s subject to mischievous interpretation, too.

      One of the things about theism that atheists routinely attack is the so-called “God in the gaps” idea. For that to persist there have to be gaps in natural laws. I just came from a Numerical PDE class where one of my classmates invoked the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is one of those gaps of deterministic certainty. You, for your part, seem to want to expand gaps when the whole idea of scientific advance is to shrink those gaps to their natural minimum. And our chief weapon (but certainly not our only one) is mathematics.

      You said at the start of the series that you were looking for a “Hilbert spaceish” God. Well, you got one.

      But let’s turn things around: consider the topic of the hour, climate change. You say “Where there is truth there is doubt”, and in a backhanded way that was the point I was trying to make here. But if you were to make your same point re climate change, you will be branded as “unscientific” along with other expressions too vile to be expressed on this blog. Why? Because its proponents believe that, in climate change, there is certainty! So are you prepared to make the challenge there?

      One thing I was hoping for was a dialogue with another part of the Commonwealth, i.e., the Sydney Anglicans. And given my visibility in the Anglican blogosphere, that isn’t as unreasonable an expectation as you might think. Although I’ve heard from one of them, in the back and forth with you I think I’ve figured out why the silence from Down Under.

      The whole point of the Sydney Anglican subordinationist idea is that, just as there is functional subordination among the persons of the Trinity, so also there is same between men and women. My case against the separation of essential and functional subordination shreds this (albeit that wasn’t my original objective). For Sydney Anglicans to adopt my idea would force them to admit that there was essential subordination between men and women, which they are not prepared to do, not only from the politically correct view but because the New Testament doesn’t support such a concept.

      What’s really needed here is a more careful consideration of the nature of authority in Christian churches, but that’s a topic that this layman won’t hold his breath while waiting for it to take place.

      And that, my friend, is what could be accomplished when we think things through rather than fall back on conventional wisdom.


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