Is There Hierarchy in the Trinity? A Response to Gons and Naselli

With all the recent discussion about whether there is some sort of eternal functional subordination (EFS) relation between the members of the Godhead, I thought I would post some thoughts in relation to one of the more philosophically sensitive articles that interacted with some of my previous work.

The work I refer to is “An Examination of Three Recent Philosophical Arguments against Hierarchy in the Immanent Trinity” by Phil Gons and Andy Naselli. There goal is to defend a view of authority and submission inherent in the Godhead that is analogous to the authority and submission which they take to be normative in Christian in marriage. They primarily interact with Thomas McCall’s challenge to their view (see chapter six of this book), a challenge I am sympathetic to, but will bypass so as to focus on my own questions.

First of all, I do not understand why anyone would think that “the immanent Trinity” must refer to what God is “eternally and necessarily” in himself (p. 195 n. 1). Why the concern over necessity? Why can’t we conceive of it in terms of how it might contingently order itself, and surmise that EFS is of a contingent nature? I have yet to hear a cogent rebuttal to BB Warfield’s suggestion that “the 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” (link). I would think a contingent view of EFS befits the analogy with “complementarian” (read: patriarchal) marriage better. For on this view, from all eternity, the members of the Godhead mutually consent to enter into a covenant relationship characterized by the roles of authority and submission. Advantages: (1) authority and submission come by agreement, not necessity, which avoids McCall’s homoousion and “omnipotence” arguments entirely; (2) the institution of “complementarian” marriage reflects this arrangement nicely, since husband and wife enter their prescribed roles of authority and submission by agreement. In what way is this contingent view of EFS inferior to the necessary role subordination advocated in Gons and Naselli’s paper? None that I can see. Perhaps the best objection to it would be that the arrangement is unacceptably ad hoc or arbitrary. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. For all we know, there could be a good reason why this covenant was formed that doesn’t have to do with the essential properties of the persons. Taking this position has the advantage of making sense of St. Thomas’ belief that the Son’s incarnation was “fitting” rather than necessary. Hence, my confusion over the claim of necessity regarding the nature of EFS.

We might think contingent EFS is impossible, because whatever is true of God eternally, is true of God necessarily. This sort of move happens on both sides of the debate, and I assumed as much in an earlier article because of its intuitive appeal. But alas, this assumption conflates eternality with necessity and generates counterintuitive results. From all eternity, the Godhead planned to the send the Son to die for sinners. But all parties to this debate are agreed that this did not have to be the plan. God could have just left us in our sins. Thus, necessity does not follow from eternality.

Another point of confusion is found in the ways properties and relations can differ. To be sure, relations are a kind of property, so maybe it would be better to speak of qualitative properties that attach to a single object (e.g. my daughter Julia is cute) and relational properties (e.g. Adam loves Julia or Adam is in between Julia and Rebecca – my wife). Relations can hold in two ways: artifactually or naturally. Very roughly, artifactual relations are imposed on objects regardless of the nature of the things related (though they must be compatible with the natures of the objects!). The marital relationship I have with my wife is an artifactual relation–we are not married by nature, but by covenant. Natural relations hold because of the nature of the things related. For example, the color yellow is brighter than the color purple. According to Gons and Naselli, the relations of subordination and authority appear to hold by virtue of their relata, that is, they are natural. If this wasn’t bad enough for the analogy between Trinitarian relations and the marriage relationship (no man and woman are married by nature), it gets worse. Gons and Naselli further assume that the property of being in authority is among the set of the personal “incommunicable” properties that Father has (Calvin’s words – Institutes 1.13.6; see p. 200 n. 19), which further undermines the intelligibility of any analogy being drawn. This is because relations that are incommunicable cannot be shared with us, and so leave us with an opaque concept of what is being invoked. Therefore, the Trinity cannot serve as a point of reference for making sense of authority and submission in marriage any more than the Father’s “begetting” of the Son can make sense of human procreation.

As for my own view, I deny the claim that the property of being in authority is only a constituent of the Father’s personal nature, because such a property is a necessary condition of the divine attribute of sovereignty. One is sovereign only if one holds the highest place of authority, and since the Son lacks this property, he lacks the property of being sovereign, which entails a denial of homoousios. I tried to say as much in my article that Gons and Naselli cite, but the ellipses they insert when they quote me obscures the point (see p. 199 n. 14). Here is what I say:

God’s authority is a quality that inheres with the attribute of his lordship. Authority, applied to God, means he has the right to govern all things as well as the ability to control all things. If we choose to use the term “authority” as a quality of God’s lordship, we must apply it to both Father and Son, for both share in the divine attribute of lordship. With this principle in mind, it follows that if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then the Father has a divine attribute that the Son does not have. (Omelianchuk, 2008: 27)

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Phil and I had an exchange about this on his blog, and he responded like so:

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. (link)

So qua his relation with creation the Son is as sovereign as the Father, but this is not the case qua his relation with the Father (remember, these relations are natural). I am skeptical of this response, because the property of sovereignty is a great-making property, and locating it in the set of “personal” (non-divine?) properties does nothing alleviate the threat to homoousion; being sovereign is characteristic of the divine, after all.

Does the property of being in authority inhere in the Father’s “personal” (non-divine?) nature (let’s grant that this isn’t a problematic category)? This faces a more general problem, which arises when we consider the nature of the subordination relation in light of traditional Christology. Consider the Chalcedonian axiom: whatever goes with natures, Christ has two of; whatever goes with persons, Christ has one of. If wills go with natures rather than persons, as traditional Christology teaches, then the members of the Godhead share a single will. Thus, it is hard to understand how even a merely functional subordination relation could hold between the Father and the Son. Intuitively, A is subordinate to B only if A’s will is subject to B’s will, which requires that there be two wills related to one another asymmetrically. But the Father and Son share one will, so there is no subordination relation between them. Or if there is, it is wholly unlike anything we could understand and apply to marriage, and it would be prudent to stop speaking of it since it is so easy to misunderstand. Indeed, it is not an accident that such talk is regularly associated with heresy.

More could be said in response to Gons and Naselli, but that is enough for now.

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