A Response To Grudem’s Appeal To Hodge On Eternal Subordination

Recent debates regarding the relationship between Father and Son in the Trinity have brought many issues into play regarding the roles of exegesis, theological method, and appropriation of history. This last issue is the topic of this piece and the main reason to focus on how some have appropriated history is because when we engage historical texts, we are doing exegesis. If we exegete historical documents poorly, then there is reason to think we are susceptible to the same error when we exegete Scripture.

Two recent blog posts have tried to heap up historical claims for the position called “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS) or “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). The post I address is that by Wayne Grudem.

The first issue at stake is the fact the vast majority of his historical quotes come roughly from within the last one hundred years. That can hardly be considered part of the tradition that defines orthodoxy. In fact, some of these quotes come from within the group whose views are under question. Such is not an historical argument at all. Saying, “My contemporaries who helped develop this view agree with me,” does not constitute historical evidence in any sense.

The next and primary issue has to do with contextualizing the quotations. I focus on the example of his citation of Charles Hodge:

The Nicene doctrine includes…the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority….The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ….The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal. (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 460–62) (emphasis is Grudem’s)

The issue is not so cut and dry, however, because Hodge makes various distinctions in the way he uses the terminology of subordination throughout his chapter on the Trinity. For example, Hodge actually describes one tenet of Semi-Arianism thus:

(3) The Son was, therefore, subordinate to the Father, not merely in rank or mode of subsistence, but in nature. He belonged to a different order of beings. He was not αὐτόθεος, ὁ Θεός, or, ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεός; but simply θεός, a term which, according to Origen could be properly applied to the higher orders of intelligent creatures. (Systematic Theology, I:456)

We see here that Hodge may grant a principle of subordination to the Son, but that subordination cannot be one of His nature or the person holding that view is what he calls a Semi-Arian. Grudem would obviously reject some of the other items listed among subordination, but the point stands that Hodge slates a subordination of the Son’s nature among Semi-Arian characteristics. Whatever type of subordination Hodge may accept, it is qualified and is not in the Son’s nature. This would amount to saying that the Son cannot be subordinated in the ontological Trinity.

Hodge goes on to say in his discussion of the Arians that the in Arian view, “this subordination was not simply as to the mode of subsistence and operation, but as to nature.” (Systematic Theology, I:452–53)

In this place Hodge is clearly distinguishing subordination “as to the mode of subsistence and operation” from subordination “as to nature.” This is critical because the phrase “the mode of subsistence and operation” appears in the quotation cited by Grudem to support his view of ESS/ERAS. If we are to assume that Hodge uses apparently technical phrases consistently, which I think we should do, then Hodge precludes any essential subordination of the Son and limits that subordination to “the mode of subsistence and operation.” In other words, in the citation Grudem uses, he skips over a critical phrase that Hodge uses to restrict the application of his statement.

Hodge actually makes this restricted application explicit, “The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.” (Systematic Theology I:461) The point he is making is that there is subordination in “the mode of subsistence and operation” only in the sense that one cannot reverse the orders of relation. They are not said to be subordinate in any sense of eternal submission, but are subordinate relationships in the fact that one relationship leads to the next and we cannot flip those. The Son is Son of the Father and so his Sonship depends on the Father being the Father. Nothing more is entailed or permitted. According to Hodge, the Son is Son in a subordinate way only in the sense that a Son has to have a Father, and that is the mode of subsistence and operation.

Hodge gives several pages to frame the topic of subordination within Nicene terms and states there that, “Gieseler says that the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons, was first asserted by Augustine. It was he, according to Gieseler, who first excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity.” (Systematic Theology, I:463) In other words, the Augustinian formula of the Trinity wholly rejected concepts of subordination. I would think that Augustine is within the Nicene tradition and Hodge would agree,

Gieseler says that Augustine effectually excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity by teaching the numerical sameness of essence in the persons of the Godhead. This does indeed preclude all priority and all superiority as to being and perfection. But it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation. This is distinctly recognized in Scripture, and was as fully taught by Augustine as by any of the Greek fathers, and is even more distinctly affirmed in the so-called Athanasian Creed, representing the school of Augustine, than in the Creed of the Council of Nice. There is, therefore, no just ground of objection to the Nicene Creed for what it teaches on that subject. It does not go beyond the facts of Scripture. But the fathers who framed that creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond those facts. They endeavoured to explain what was the nature of that subordination. While denying to the Father any priority or superiority to the other persons of the Trinity, as to being or perfection, they still spoke of the Father as the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself; so that He alone was God of Himself (αὐτόθεος, in that sense of the word), that He was the fountain, the cause, the root, fons, origo, principium, of the divinity as subsisting in the Son and Spirit; that He was greater than the other divine persons. They understood many passages which speak of the inferiority of the Son to the Father, of the Logos as such; and not of the historical Son of God clothed in our nature. Thus Waterland says of these fathers, “The title of ὁ Θεὸς being understood in the same sense with αὐτόθεος was, as it ought to be, generally reserved to the Father, as the distinguishing personal character of the first person of the Holy Trinity. And this amounts to no more than the acknowledgment of the Father’s prerogative as Father. But as it might also signify any Person who is truly and essentially God, it might properly be applied to the Son too: and it is so applied sometimes, though not so often as it is to the Father.” (Systematic Theology, I:464–65)

In an incredibly relevant statement, Hodge writes, “As in reference to the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father, as asserted in the ancient creeds, it is not to the fact that exception is taken, but to the explanation of that fact.” (Systematic Theology, I:468) It is hard to see how Grudem reads Hodge to support a view of ESS/ERAS and it is apparent that his historical exegesis is well off the mark. Hodge may indeed use the terminology of subordination in some sense, but proof-texting is never acceptable and it has been shown that the way Hodge implements the term “subordination” has nothing to do with the nature of the Son and only to do with the way we describe a filial relationship.


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    “I AM what I always was: – GOD.”
    “I was not in eternity what I now am: – MAN.”
    “I am in eternity now: – GOD & MAN.”

  2. “it has been shown that the way Hodge implements the term “subordination” has nothing to do with the nature of the Son and only to do with the way we describe a filial relationship.”

    I may not be understanding the various stated positions in this argument correctly, but it seems to me that no one on the EFS side is proposing a submission of the Son that arises from a subordinated/lesser nature.

    • Thanks for the comment. First, what you quote is closing summary statement regarding the whole of the post. I’m not implying what someone else believes, but restating what I proved about Hodge. I do think Grudem significantly misquoted Hodge, and that Hodge was not saying what Grudem claimed. Grudem did try to use Hodge to prove a subordination of the person of the Son. Hodge was saying that the order of the persons has a given and irreversible order in which the personal properties of the Son are dependent on Him having the Father. That is not what Grudem meant, at least as I read him.
      Second, I do think that some of the ESS/ERAS advocates are conflating the economic and ontological Trinity. To cite 1 Corinthians 11:3 about the ontological Son only works is you merge economic and ontological categories (additionally it would be interesting to see how they get the rest of that passage to fit their view, e.g. the continued argument in verses 11-12). To pose a subordination of the person of the Son seems to me to be saying He is subordinate in His ontological nature. I’m not trying to put words in their mouth, I just use “nature” because it is part of Hodge’s terminology. I have acknowledged in this comment that some of the advocates are doing this, and maybe not all are. Yet they are not all that clearly distinguishing themselves from each other. If Grudem is not on the same page as the others about this, I’ve not seem him clarify that. On that note, the fact that the view does not seem all that unified is an indicator that it actually is not all that historical. Those who have challenged the views seem consistently seem unified.
      Lastly, although I do not agree with Grudem’s position, the point of my post was not to say the whole view is wrong (though I think it is). The point of this post was to indicate an erroneous view of historical sources. Grudem misconstrued Hodge’s meaning. That does not prove he is totally wrong, just that he is wrong about Hodge. Grudem is a well known scholar and should have been more careful in his historical work. Others have written regarding how his citation of Edwards is actually arguing the opposite point a than what Grudem claims.

    • Thanks for the reply. Doesn’t Hodge’s phrase “as to the mode of subsistence and operation” imply both ontological and economic categories respectively?

    • Considering that he contrasts the whole statement “as to mode of subsistence and operations” against an full-orbed ontological subordination, no. He pits this whole phrase against a subordination of the nature of the Son. Subsistence has to do with personal properties, which are incommunicable between the persons. We have always described the Son as the Second person of the Trinty and so as to person the is an order of subsistence. The Son receives personal properties from the Father to subsist as Son and so receives the property of Sonship from the Father. Hodge is acknowledging that this can be called a subordination of the mode of subsistence or operations. I take “operations” to be in apposition to “mode of subsistence,” meaning the former merely restates the latter for refinement. Calling this relationship an “order” or persons in the Trinity is part of the limitations of talking about the infinite with finite words, which is why Reformed thinkers affirm all language is analogical when applied to God. Additionally, we have always denied that an order of persons does not imply an ontological subordination.
      To be responsible readers of history, we have to take phrases and words in their historical context. If you go and read Hodge’s chapter on the Trinity (which is not overly long, is well worth the time because it is very edifying, and is available as a free PDF various places online), then you will see he is at pains to situate himself in the ecumenical tradition and even this post records citations where he denies ontological subordination as at least Semi-Arian. If someone were to read Hodge as if he was just a floating head disconnected from the whole Christian tradition, then I suppose one could import an ontological meaning into Hodge’s phrase, but that would be a very post-modern approach to meaning and would do damage to Hodge’s intended points. Additionally, as I indicated above, one of the reasons why doing responsible exegesis in historical texts is because we will likely make the same decontextualizing mistakes in biblical exegesis if we do them in other texts. In other words, if an American theologian cannot properly read and interpret a theology book written by another American, just a few hundred years ago, why should I trust they can read a biblical text properly that is thousands of years old, from a radically different culture, and is in a foreign language?

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