One of the debates going on within evangelicalism today is the concept of the eternal subordination of the Son. That is, is God the Son eternally–not just in the Incarnation or some other temporal state–subordinate to God the Father? Setting aside the complexities of the debate, one of the central questions is whether this eternal subordination entails ontological subordination. The pro-subordination side says it does not; others charge that it does. There are, of course, many other issues, but here we will examine an article from Denny Burk written about Philippians 2:6 in the book The New Evangelical Subordinationism?. [NOTE: I am not saying that all who argue for eternal subordination would agree with Burk or that the arguments below would apply to all who hold to eternal subordination.]
Burk’s Thesis: The Son should not pursue “Equality with God”
Denny Burk argues that the Son “should” not pursue “equality with God” and the phrases “form of God” and “equality with God” are not synonymous. He surveys the use of the Greek article and concludes that the use in this instance is not anaphoric–basically the use of one expression carrying the meaning of another in context (I’m not linguist, so I hope I explained this adequately). Granting this distinction, I would suggest that Burk goes too far in concluding the Son is eternally subordinate and in fact arguing that the Son is inequal to the Father.
The Son , he argues, is in the form of God, but should not pursue “equality with God.” The final sentences of his article make this clear: “Therefore, in Paul’s Christology ‘form of God’ is something that Jesus possessed by virtue of his deity, while ‘equality with God’ is not. In fact, ‘equality with God’ is best understood as a role that Jesus refused to pursue so that he could pursue his redemptive work in the incarnation” (104, cited below).
Unequal Persons of the Godhead?
I found these statements astonishing, because I think they fundamentally do divide the Trinitarian persons on an ontological level. Consider the following premise:
P1- If two persons are “unequal,” those persons are not of the same essence.
I think this premise is eminently defensible, but simply asserting this premise begs the question against Burk’s position. Moreover, one would have to narrow down the definition and see what is meant by “unequal,” whether it applies to all forms of inequality, and the like. So rather than going down that route (one which I think would be ultimately successful but also highly complex), I’d simply suggest the following:
P2- If the Son is not “equal to God” to the same extent that the Father is “equal to God” then there is ontological division in the Trinity.
Unfortunately, we again run into the problem that without a demonstration of P2, it begs the question against Burk (and subordinationists who would use the same language). However, I think P2 is even more defensible than P1, so the establishing of P2 shall be the brief project to demonstrate Burk (and any who agree) have crossed the line with subordinationism into undermining the ontological unity of the Trinity.
Defense of P2 and Analysis of Burk’s position
There is no little danger in treating “God” as a kind of distinct entity from “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” because we may collapse into not just tritheism but rather quadri-theism where there is God, and then the the other three divine persons. Burk’s lack of defining what is meant by “equal to God” in his expressions seem to cross into this territory.
My defense of P2 will be quite simple. First, Christianity holds that Jesus is God. Period. Ergo, Jesus is equal to God. If Jesus is not just as “equal to God” as God the Father, then Jesus is not God but rather the Father is God and Jesus is some sort of quasi-divine entity having the “form of” but not “equality” with God.
Second, if we argue that two beings, x and y, do not equally share some aspect of nature, z, then it follows that x and y are not both essentially z. Converting that to our discussion of the Trinity, if we suppose that the Son and the Father do not equally have “equality to God,” then surely it must follow that the Son is not essentially God. The substance of the Godhead is not united in this view, but rather divided. If one wants to argue that I am mistaken here, I’d simply ask for a defense of the opposite position. How can there be two entities that are not both reflecting some attribute but who are then said to both be that attribute?
Again, we run into the great difficulty that Burk never does (in this article) adequately explain what he means by “equal to God.” It seems he is using this phrase as though “equal to God” is semantically equivalent to “equal to the Father” but then Burk’s position surely assumes quite a bit and reads subordinationism into the text rather deriving it from this text. After all, we know that Paul is perfectly capable of referencing God as “Father” so if he meant to say that the Son “should not” (using Burk’s terminology) pursue equality to the Father, he could have just said that.
Burk’s own discussion of how “form of God” and equality to God may be distinct is brief:
[A]lthough Jesus actually possessed an identical characteristic of His Father with respect to his deity (i.e. “he existed in the form of God”), he did not want to grasp after another role that was not his–namely, “equality with God.”
…[T]he contrast between “grasping for equality” and “emptying himself” suggests both are functiona categories… Paul argues here that in his pre-incarnate state, Christ’s [sic] existed as theos [I transliterated this word–it is Greek for ‘God’]. Yet in this pre-incarnate existence, Christ Jesus did not seek to be like theos [transliterated] in every respect. (103-104)
These statements lead us to a related difficulty–one related to the first I noted in this section: Burk’s position seems to either turn into equivocation between “God” and “God the Father” without any distinctions (as just noted) or it seems to treat “God” as a distinct entity from the Trinitarian persons. But either of these is extremely problematic.
Moreover, one is forced to wonder how one might say of God the Son that he is God but not like God in every respect. How might one conclude that the persons of the Trinity are of one being if one is “equal to God” in role, but another is not? Burk offers little reason to think this is possible, and simply avers to roles within the Trinity. I contend that this offers little comfort to those with concerns over the possible ontological division within the Trinity coming from subordinationism.
I believe that P1 (properly construed) and P2 are each correct and that Burk’s subordinationism–along with any others who would draw similar conclusions–does indeed ontologically split the Trinity. Moreover, I believe that Burk fails to adequately ground any reason for thinking his position does not break the essential nature of the unity and the one being of the Godhead. It is well and good to assert different roles within the Trinity, but when one “role” is “equality to God,” and that “role” is not shared by all the persons of the Trinity, the implications for Trinitarian theology seem deleterious.
It is certainly possible I am misunderstanding Burk on these points, but it seems the conclusions I’ve drawn follow from his position. I’m happy to be corrected on this. I must, for now, conclude with a rhetorical question: In what sense can we affirm that the Son is God if the Son is not “equal to” God?
Women, Complementarianism, and the Trinity- How getting subordination wrong has undermined the Trinity– I note how some complementarians have distorted the doctrine of the Trinity in order to ground their theological position on women in the ministry
Denny Burk, “Christ’s Functiona Subordination in Philippians 2:6: A Grammatical Note with Trinitarian Implications” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? eds Dennis Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012).
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