Warfield on Eternal Subordination in the Trinity

Those who reject the notion of hierarchy in the imminent Trinity often point to B. B. Warfield as a supporter of their position. In his article in ISBE on the Trinity,1 Warfield discusses at length his reservations about reading what we see in the economic Trinity back into the immanent Trinity.

19. The Implications of “Son” and “Spirit”

. . . To the fact of the Trinity—to the fact, that is, that in the unity of the Godhead there subsist three Persons, each of whom has his particular part in the working out of salvation—the New Testament testimony is clear, consistent, pervasive and conclusive. There is included in this testimony constant and decisive witness to the complete and undiminished Deity of each of these Persons; no language is too exalted to apply to each of them in turn in the effort to give expression to the writer’s sense of His Deity: the name that is given to each is fully understood to be “the name that is above every name.” When we attempt to press the inquiry behind the broad fact, however, with a view to ascertaining exactly how the New Testament writers conceive the three Persons to be related, the one to the other, we meet with great difficulties. Nothing could seem more natural, for example, than to assume that the mutual relations of the Persons of the Trinity are revealed in the designations, “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” which are given them by Our Lord in the solemn formula of Mt. 28:19. Our confidence in this assumption is somewhat shaken, however, when we observe, as we have just observed, that these designations are not carefully preserved in their allusions to the Trinity by the writers of the New Testament at large, but are characteristic only of Our Lord’s allusions and those of John, whose modes of speech in general very closely resemble those of Our Lord. Our confidence is still further shaken when we observe that the implications with respect to the mutual relations of the Trinitarian Persons, which are ordinarily derived from these designations, do not so certainly lie in them as is commonly supposed.

It may be very natural to see in the designation “Son” an intimation of subordination and derivation of Being, and it may not be difficult to ascribe a similar connotation to the term “Spirit.” But it is quite certain that this was not the denotation of either term in the Semitic consciousness, which underlies the phraseology of Scripture; and it may even be thought doubtful whether it was included even in their remoter suggestions. What underlies the conception of sonship in Scriptural speech is just “likeness”; whatever the father is that the son is also. The emphatic application of the term “Son” to one of the Trinitarian Persons, accordingly, asserts rather His equality with the Father than His subordination to the Father; and if there is any implication of derivation in it, it would appear to be very distant. The adjunction of the adjective “only begotten” (Jn. 1:14; 3:16–18; 1 Jn. 4:9) need add only the idea of uniqueness, not of derivation (Ps. 22:20; 25:16; 35:17; Wisd. 7:22 m.); and even such a phrase as “God only begotten” (Jn. 1:18 m.) may contain no implication of derivation, but only of absolutely unique consubstantiality; as also such a phrase as “the first-begotten of all creation” (Col. 1:15) may convey no intimation of coming into being, but merely assert priority of existence. In like manner, the designation “Spirit of God” or “Spirit of Jehovah,” which meets us frequently in the Old Testament, certainly does not convey the idea there either of derivation or of subordination, but is just the executive name of God—the designation of God from the point of view of His activity—and imports accordingly identity with God; and there is no reason to suppose that, in passing from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the term has taken on an essentially different meaning. It happens, oddly enough, moreover, that we have in the New Testament itself what amounts almost to formal definitions of the two terms “Son” and “Spirit,” and in both cases the stress is laid on the notion of equality or sameness. In Jn. 5:18 we read: ‘On this account, therefore, the Jews sought the more to kill him, because, not only did he break the Sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal to God.’ The point lies, of course, in the adjective “own.” Jesus was, rightly, understood to call God “his own Father,” that is, to use the terms “Father” and “Son” not in a merely figurative sense, as when Israel was called God’s son, but in the real sense. And this was understood to be claiming to be all that God is. To be the Son of God in any sense was to be like God in that sense; to be God’s own Son was to be exactly like God, to be “equal with God.” Similarly, we read in 1 Cor. 2:10, 11: ‘For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who of men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God.’ Here the Spirit appears as the substrate of the Divine self-consciousness, the principle of God’s knowledge of Himself: He is, in a word, just God Himself in the innermost essence of His Being. As the spirit of man is the seat of human life, the very life of man itself, so the Spirit of God is His very life-element. How can He be supposed, then, to be subordinate to God, or to derive His Being from God? If, however, the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence and their derivation from the Father are not implicates of their designation as Son and Spirit, it will be hard to find in the New Testament compelling evidence of their subordination and derivation.

20. The Question of Subordination

There is, of course, no question that in “modes of operation,” as it is technically called—that is to say, in the functions ascribed to the several Persons of the Trinity in the redemptive process, and, more broadly, in the entire dealing of God with the world—the principle of subordination is clearly expressed. The Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third, in the operations of God as revealed to us in general, and very especially in those operations by which redemption is accomplished. Whatever the Father does, He does through the Son (Rom. 2:16; 3:22; 5:1, 11, 17, 21; Eph. 1:5; 1 Thess. 5:9; Tit. 3:5) by the Spirit. The Son is sent by the Father and does His Father’s will (Jn. 6:38); the Spirit is sent by the Son and does not speak from Himself, but only takes of Christ’s and shows it unto His people (Jn. 17:7 ff.); and we have Our Lord’s own word for it that ‘one that is sent is not greater than he that sent him’ (Jn. 13:16). In crisp decisiveness, Our Lord even declares, indeed: ‘My Father is greater than I’ (Jn. 14:28); and Paul tells us that Christ is God’s, even as we are Christ’s (1 Cor. 3:23), and that as Christ is “the head of every man,” so God is “the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). But it is not so clear that the principle of subordination rules also in “modes of subsistence,” as it is technically phrased; that is to say, in the necessary relation of the Persons of the Trinity to one another. The very richness and variety of the expression of their subordination, the one to the other, in modes of operation, create a difficulty in attaining certainty whether they are represented as also subordinate the one to the other in modes of subsistence. Question is raised in each case of apparent intimation of subordination in modes of subsistence, whether it may not, after all, be explicable as only another expression of subordination in modes of operation. It may be natural to assume that a subordination in modes of operation rests on a subordination in modes of subsistence; that the reason why it is the Father that sends the Son and the Son that sends the Spirit is that the Son is subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. But we are bound to bear in mind that these relations of subordination in modes of operation may just as well be due to a convention, an agreement, between the Persons of the Trinity—a “Covenant” as it is technically called—by virtue of which a distinct function in the work of redemption is voluntarily assumed by each. It is eminently desirable, therefore, at the least, that some definite evidence of subordination in modes of subsistence should be discoverable before it is assumed. In the case of the relation of the Son to the Father, there is the added difficulty of the incarnation, in which the Son, by the assumption of a creaturely nature into union with Himself, enters into new relations with the Father of a definitely subordinate character. Question has even been raised whether the very designations of Father and Son may not be expressive of these new relations, and therefore without significance with respect to the eternal relations of the Persons so designated. This question must certainly be answered in the negative. Although, no doubt, in many of the instances in which the terms “Father” and “Son” occur, it would be possible to take them of merely economical relations, there ever remain some which are intractable to this treatment, and we may be sure that “Father” and “Son” are applied to their eternal and necessary relations. But these terms, as we have seen, do not appear to imply relations of first and second, superiority and subordination, in modes of subsistence; and the fact of the humiliation of the Son of God for His earthly work does introduce a factor into the interpretation of the passages which import His subordination to the Father, which throws doubt upon the inference from them of an eternal relation of subordination in the Trinity itself. It must at least be said that in the presence of the great New Testament doctrines of the Covenant of Redemption on the one hand, and of the Humiliation of the Son of God for His work’s sake and of the Two Natures in the constitution of His Person as incarnated, on the other, the difficulty of interpreting subordinationist passages of eternal relations between the Father and Son becomes extreme. The question continually obtrudes itself, whether they do not rather find their full explanation in the facts embodied in the doctrines of the Covenant, the Humiliation of Christ, and the Two Natures of His incarnated Person. Certainly in such circumstances it were thoroughly illegitimate to press such passages to suggest any subordination for the Son or the Spirit which would in any manner impair that complete identity with the Father in Being and that complete equality with the Father in powers which are constantly presupposed, and frequently emphatically, though only incidentally, asserted for them throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament.2

I appreciate Warfield’s concerns. (1) We must be clear when we’re drawing inferences from what the Scripture says, (2) we must draw those inferences cautiously—especially when we’re dealing with the very nature of the triune God, a subject that has been fraught with heresy since dawn of the NT church—and (3) we must evaluate whether there are better options that account for all the data. Warfield’s reservation is healthy, and I think we’d all do well to take it to heart and tread carefully when discussing the nature of the eternal Trinity.

However, I think that anti-hierarchicalists want to see in Warfield more than is really there.3 What’s clear is that Warfield’s chief concern is to eliminate the kind of subordination of the Son or the Spirit that “would in any manner impair that complete identity with the Father in Being and that complete equality with the Father in powers.” He is not necessarily opposed to a kind of subordination that preserves them, even if he does have some reservations about it. Instead, he’s open to the possibility that the relations in the economic Trinity are rooting in the eternal relations in the immanent Trinity.4

Footnotes

  1. Trinity,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by James Orr (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 5:3,012–22.
  2. Note: This section is in smaller print in the original, indicating, perhaps, that Warfield viewed it as something of an aside.
  3. Strangely, hierarchicalist Wayne Grudem cites Warfield in support of his position and is, I think, a little misleading (even if unintentionally) in doing so: “Several evangelical theologians speak of the subordination of the Son to the Father. . . . See also B. B. Warfield: ‘There is, of course, no question that in “modes of operation,” . . . the principle of subordination is clearly expressed.’” “The Meaning of κεφαλή (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 1 (2001):  35n23.
  4. Cf. Fred G. Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on the Trinity,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10, no. 1 (2005): 58–71.

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One Response to Warfield on Eternal Subordination in the Trinity

  1. Ted Hans August 18, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    Thanks Phil. Great post, very helpful.

    This brings to mind Millard Erickson’s recent take on Warfield over the debate on subordination.

    Have you any thoughts on – Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate by Millard Erickson?

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