Does Eternal Subordination Entail a Denial of Homoousion?

Shield of the TrinityIn tonight’s debate, McCall and Yandell tried to make the case that the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father entails a denial of homoousion.

The Argument

Here’s their argument:

  1. If the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in all possible worlds, then the Son is necessarily subordinate to the Father.
  2. If the Son is necessarily subordinate to the Father, then the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father.
  3. Thus, the Son, as essentially subordinate to the Father, is of a different essence or nature than the Father, which entails a denial of homoousion.

My First Response

My first line of response is to show that this argument can be equally applied to any eternal difference between the Father and the Son. Let’s take the Son’s property of sonship and apply their own argument to it.

  1. If the Son is eternally the Son and the Father is eternally not the Son in all possible worlds, then the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son.
  2. If the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son, then the Son is essentially the Son and the Father is essentially not the Son.
  3. Thus, the Son, as essentially the Son, and the Father, as essentially not the Son, are of a different essence or nature, which entails a denial of homoousion.

The result of extending the argument this way is that it demonstrates—assuming the legitimacy of the argument—that there can be no eternal difference of any kind without denying homoousion. But Yandell himself affirmed in the debate that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, and the Father alone the property of being the Father, and the Spirit alone the property of being the Spirit. Yet, according to his own argument, he must deny homoousion because these eternal differences constitute necessary differences, which constitute essential differences.

Yandell and McCall are attempting to affirm three propositions that simply cannot stand together. Here are the three incompatible propositions:

  1. The argument is valid.
  2. There are eternal differences among the three persons of the Trinity.
  3. The Father and the Son are homoousios.

If they wish to maintain their claim to rationality, they must either deny (1) the legitimacy of the argument, (2) that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, etc. (which amounts to a denial of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity), (3) the doctrine of homoousion, or (4) some combination of the three. At least one of these has to go. All three cannot coexist.1

My Second Response

My second line of response to this argument is to show that it confuses categories—just like Kevin Giles does in his unhelpful books on the subject.

Assuming for a moment that we should not deny that there are some eternal differences among the three persons of the Trinity, which, again, even Yandell acknowledged when he said that the Son alone has the property of being the Son, there must be some way to account for these differences without abandoning homoousion. I make this claim on the basis that Scripture seems to teach both.

First, it is important to point out that McCall and Yandell seem to be using only two categories: essence and function; while Grudem and Ware use three: essence, person, and function. Thus what Grudem and Ware mean by essence and person end up getting merged together into McCall and Yandell’s single category of essence.

In the two-category system, we need a place to put personal properties like fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness.” Do they belong to essence or function? I doubt anyone would want to maintain that sonship is simply something the Son does and not something that He possesses or is. But does sonship belong to the one divine essence? No. If it did, then all three persons would be the Son, since they all share equally the one divine essence. So where do we put it? We must, in a two-category system, differentiate between the one divine essence shared equally by all three persons and their own individual essences that constitute what each person holds uniquely. This double use of the term essence is what seems to cause confusion for so many, so this might not be the best set of terms to use.2

The important thing to note, though, is that this necessary distinction allows part of their conclusion—with a minor modification—(i.e., “the Son, as essentially the Son, and the Father, as essentially not the Son, are of a different essence different essences”) to be affirmed without denying homoousion, because it is the individual essences, not the shared essence, that the conclusion necessarily has in view (i.e., since the major and minor premises concern not what they share, but what they hold uniquely).

In the three-category system, the term essence is reserved for the one shared divine nature, while the term person is used for those properties that belong uniquely to each. So fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness” would not belong to the one divine essence, but to the category of person. This approach has the advantage of using separate terms and avoiding confusion introduced by the two-category system, but it’s not without its challenges.3

It doesn’t really matter to me what we call the category that accounts for their differences. The fact is that there must be such a category or we are forced to abandon rationality or deny clear biblical teaching.

Regardless of which system we go with (perhaps there’s a better option?), we must account for what the three share in common and what they hold uniquely, even if we do have to struggle to find the right terms. My main point is this: if the persons of the Trinity can equally share the one divine essence without obliterating their differences of being Father, Son, and Spirit, then we at least have a way to conceive of how they can equally share the one divine essence without obliterating their differences of authority and submission.

In the next post, I’ll respond to the second argument concerning the Father’s supposed inability to become incarnate.

See these previous posts of mine for the context of this post (most recent on top):

Update 1: For clarification, I added “in all possible worlds” to the first premise of the argument. I was assuming it all along, but should have stated it explicitly to represent the argument most faithfully and avoid misunderstanding.

Update 2: Replaced my misuse of homoousian, which typically refers to someone who believes in homoousion, with the more appropriate homoousion.

Update 3: The discussion has continued over on James Gordon’s blog, Conquering Thirst.

Footnotes

  1. One other possibility would be to demonstrate that this eternal difference (i.e., fatherhood, sonship, and “spiritness”) is categorically different from the other eternal difference (i.e., authority and submission) and thus the argument cannot be extended in this way. However, I cannot conceive how such a step could be successful.
  2. Yes, this does essentially become a three-category system as well: (shared) essence, (individual) essences, and function.
  3. What really is person? And how precisely does it relate to essence? Is person really any different from the individual essences mentioned above? If essence is what someone or something fundamentally is, aren’t the things assigned to person (i.e., fatherhood and being in authority on the one hand and sonship and being in submission on the other) also part of what the persons fundamentally are? I’m inclined to think that person is a somewhat arbitrary label whose merit is that it avoids the confusion of (shared) essence and (individual) essences. For more on this, see my previous post: Is the Trinity One “What” and Three “Who’s”?

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14 Responses to Does Eternal Subordination Entail a Denial of Homoousion?

  1. Mike October 9, 2008 at 11:29 pm #

    It seemed that they were trying to go with denying the uniqueness of the son and maintain orthodoxy by the whole discussion of the potentiality of any member of the trinity becoming incarnate, but that line didn’t work either for reasons that Ware outlined nicely.

  2. Phil Gons October 10, 2008 at 12:02 am #

    Yeah. That was, IMO, actually the weaker of the two arguments. I hope to address it tomorrow.

  3. Jeremy Pierce October 10, 2008 at 2:21 pm #

    The first premise of the argument is blatantly false. A property is essential to me if I couldn’t be me without it, in other words if there’s no possible world in which I exist without that property. A property is eternal if there’s no time in the actual world in which I don’t have the property. It’s pretty easy to see that I could happen to have a property in this world that I didn’t have to have. For example, I’ve always had the property of never having an identical twin, and I always will. But I could’ve have one. I just didn’t. So that’s a property that I have eternally but not essentially. There is never any time in the history of the world and never will be any when I have an identical twin. But it doesn’t follow that the property is essential to me.

    I addressed this same argument (Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’ version of it anyway) a couple years ago here.

  4. Phil Gons October 10, 2008 at 2:57 pm #

    Jeremy, thanks for the comment. I inadvertently left off an essential piece in the first premise: “in all possible worlds.” That was clear in their argument, and I mistakenly omitted it. I’ve updated the post. The addition of this phrase addresses your objection that eternal doesn’t equal necessary.

    Thanks for the link to your article. I’ll definitely have to give it a read.

  5. Jeremy Pierce October 10, 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    Ah, good. Then the argument isn’t as bad as I thought. I do think the Groothuis argument makes that error, and it’s a devastating error in that case, because it either assumes eternal subordination of women in all possible worlds, which many complementarians would deny, or it moves from eternal subordination in this world to essentiality of subordination, which is a clear non sequitur given what it means to be an essential property. Groothuis herself seems to prefer the latter, from my online discussions with her, so she’s at least not being uncharitable to complementarians, but that means she’s relying on a fallacious inference.

    I think you’re right that in the corrected argument the only way to maintain orthodoxy is to distinguish between two different senses in which something can be an essential property, and only one of them is tied to the credal sense of essence.

  6. James Gordon October 11, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    Phil,

    You can see my complete response to your question here. I basically argue that, per your request, that the Yandell/McCall position sufficiently meets the objections of your counter-example.

    God bless,

    James Gordon

  7. Adam Omelianchuk March 13, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    I came across this post just after the debate, and I thought your raised a good argument against McCall and Yandell. Even though I was skeptical of it, I could not put my finger on what I thought was wrong with it. Now I am thinking I have an account of what is wrong with it. You write,

    “My first line of response is to show that this argument can be equally applied to any eternal difference between the Father and the Son.”

    I think there is a good reason to think it is false that this argument can be applied to any necessary difference between the Father and the Son. The property of “sonship” as explained by your counter argument amounts to this: “the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son.” The first conjunct, “the Son is necessarily the Son” is the exemplification of self-identity: necessarily, everything is identical with itself. The Son has this property as does the Father as does every concrete particular. Yet such a property is what philosophers have recognized as an ‘impure property’—that is, a property that presupposes the notion of a concrete particular! To say the Son has the property of being identical with the Son and the Father as having the property of being identical with the Father is to assert a trivial truth that elucidates nothing about their constituent ontologies. What McCall and Yandell are worried about is a pure property, one that does not presuppose a concrete particular, distinguishing the Father and Son’s constituent nature. If the Father has the property of being in authority, and the Son qualitatively lacks this property, then neither the Father nor the Son is identical in their constituent ontologies.

    One might try to wriggle out of this problem by claiming that the ‘being in authority’ property is not a constituent of the divine nature; rather, it is only a constituent of the Father’s personal nature. But there is good reason to doubt this as such a property seems to be a necessary condition of the divine attribute of sovereignty. One is sovereign if and only if one has the ability to control all things and the right to govern all things. It is very plausible to envisage the right to govern all things as exemplifying the property of being in authority, something the Father has that the Son lacks.

    This distinction helps explain how there is compatibility between the three propositions. First, the argument is valid. There is no logical fallacy or false inference occurring between the premises. Second, the property of self-identity, while not sufficient to elucidate the constituent nature of a concrete particular, is sufficient for naming a difference between at least two concrete particulars, that is the Father and Son. Third, pure properties, those that make up the constituent nature of a concrete particular without depending on a concrete particular, make up identical sets of properties that are both necessary and sufficient for the divine nature of the Father and Son, thus both are homoousios

    What do you think?

    • Phil Gons March 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Adam. Let me think through this and get back to you.

    • Phil Gons June 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

      Adam, thanks for your comment. Part of the problem in my argument was the ambiguity of what sonship and fatherhood entails. I was referring to more than self-identity. I was referring to what the church fathers called ungenerateness and generateness. I think there may be other attributes associated with what it means to be the eternal Son and what it means to be the eternal Father (authority and submission in their relationship with each other perhaps being included).

      That being the case, McCall’s and Yandell’s argument, if valid, cuts against real distinctions of any kind, and in so doing indicts the church since at least Nicaea of denying homoousion. That’s a pretty weighty charge. Is it really possible that McCall and Yandell have come up with an argument that demonstrates that the church has never gotten this doctrine right at a very fundamental level? Is belief in homoousion necessary for salvation? Have any been saved prior to McCall and Yandell setting things straight? I’m being a little extreme here, but the ramifications of their argument being valid and properly and consistently applied are far-reaching and devastating.

      On your point about sovereignty, I think it’s important to talk about the Son’s sovereignty as it relates to the Father and His sovereignty as it relates to His creation. The Father and Son can equally possess the property of sovereignty as it relates to their creation but have personal properties that apply only to their relationship to each other.

      • Mike Aubrey October 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

        Is belief in homoousion necessary for salvation? Have any been saved prior to McCall and Yandell setting things straight? I’m being a little extreme here, but the ramifications of their argument being valid and properly and consistently applied are far-reaching and devastating.

        Well, thankfully, neither Jesus nor the apostles ever laid down as prerequisite for salvation having a perfect comprehension of the interrelationships of the Trinity.

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