Eternal Subordination is the Evangelical Heir to Origen

I was listening to a T. F. Torrance lecture the other day (one from his Ground and Grammar of Theology series, which can be downloaded here), and I had an apostrophe. It was a like lightning struck my brain. I do not remember exactly what he was speaking on at the time (it was either lecture 4 Q &A or lecture 5), but it has something to do with how the terms such as Father and Son relate to God. He insisted that one must be able to image God (i.e., Father and Son), imagelessly. That is, one must take what is appropriate of the Father and Son language for our understanding of God, but leave what is creaturely behind. That is, one cannot apply a literal gender identity (the Father isn’t really male or beget the Son in a normal human way) to God. While he was saying this, I suddenly recalled the debate held a couple years ago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (outline and audio/video). Now, I will confess right away that I do not remember everything about the debate (except that theologians should try to use philosophy to support their argument when arguing with an actual philosopher). If I create a strawman, I do not do so on purpose but only for lack of time.

It seemed that as the debate continued, both sides agreed that the Son was subordinate to the Father, but the question was how. Keith-Yandell seemed to be arguing for a functional subordination; i.e., the Son willingly subordinated himself for the economy of salvation. Ware-Grudem seemed to be saying that imagery of the Son being subordinate to the Father in the economy of salvation point to the reality of an eternal subordination of the Son. Where does Torrance come in in all of this? It seems to me that Ware-Grudem were reading the image of Father and Son back into the Trinity. Where does Origen come into all of this? Origen pulled a similar stunt in his book, On First Principles. In 1.4.3, he makes the comment that the terms used of God in Scripture must be true of God eternally because God cannot change.

We can therefore imagine no moment whatever when that power was not engaged in acts of well-doing. Whence it follows that there always existed objects for this well-doing, namely, God’s works or creatures, and that God, in the power of his providence, was always dispensing his blessings among them by doing them good in accordance with their condition and deserts. It follows plainly form this, that at no time whatever was God not Creator, nor Benefactor, nor Providence.

Origen, On First Principles, tr. by G. W. Butterworth (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973), 42.

Thus, if one says that God (I think he is referring to the Father here) is Lord, then he always was Lord. This is the same logic that caused him to think that the creation existed eternally, even if only in the mind of God. Thus, upon returning to Ware-Grudem and their position, it appears that they read inappropriate aspects of the Father-Son relationship back into the Trinity and apply them eternally the same way that Origen did. Thus, in this way, these conservative, Reformed, Evangelical, complementarians (and all those that follow them) are heirs to Origen.

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4 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination is the Evangelical Heir to Origen

  1. You know, St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t think that we could prove one way or another that the universe was not from eternity. Rather, he claimed that it is a matter of faith that we say the universe had a beginning in time. Although, strictly speaking, I’m not sure whether I agree that it is necessary to think that we need to believe, on matter of faith, that the universe is not from eternity. I leave that option open (I do presently think that it is not from eternity in a temporal manner).

    • My point of referencing Origen’s doctrine was not about the doctrine itself, but about his method–i.e., reading inappropriate features of human terms back into the nature of God instead of allowing the nature of God to re-define and determine what the words mean in reference to His nature.

      • Haha, I know 🙂 I just didn’t have anything to say about his method as such but figured I could say something about the eternality aspect. I guess we could blame Aristotle for all of this, he seems to have been the real Origin of much of this conflict.

      • First of all, I want to congratulate you on making the 100th comment on my blog. Huzzah!

        Second, as to your last sentence, “BOO!”

        Third, I suppose one could blame Aristotle, but I don’t know how much Aristotle influenced Origen’s thought. I have heard some say he was affected by Middle Platonism, but I don’t remember enough about it to draw any substantial conclusions. To Copleston! 🙂

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