Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination

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Craig Blomberg has a pretty detailed review of Philip Payne's Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters, and because of Denver Journal's new comment feature there's a lengthy comment in reply by Payne right below the review. There's a brief statement in Blomberg's review that Payne spends a good deal of time responding to that caught my interest.

The primary debate is over a particular issue in biblical interpretation between complementarians who insist that functional subordination is compatible with ontological equality when it comes to human relationships and egalitarians who resist such a compatibility. Most complementarians consider a similar kind of functional subordination to occur between the Father and Son in the Trinity, and so any egalitarian argument against it has to take into account both levels of the analogy, which makes things tricky to say the least. My own concern with Payne's argument lies primarily in its significance for the Trinitarian debate, but it also has an application in the gender-role issue that gave rise to the overall book that Blomberg is reviewing. I'll quote the relevant part of the exchange before offering my sense of where I think Payne's argument is mistaken.


Payne finds the concept of functional subordination within ontological equality virtually non-sensical


This misrepresents my position. I believe that ontological equality is perfectly compatible with functional subordination as long as that subordination is voluntary and temporary, as was Christ's voluntary and temporary subordination to the Father in the incarnation (e.g. Phil 2:6-11). It seems to me that if subordination in necessary and eternal, it is then an aspect of one's essence. As Millard J. Erickson says in Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 250, "If the Father is eternally and necessarily supreme among the persons of the Trinity, and if the Son eternally is subordinated to him, an interesting consequence follows. The Son in not merely accidentally, but essentially, subordinate to the Father. That means that there is a difference of essence between the two--that the Father's essence includes supreme authority, while the Son's essence includes submission and subordination, everywhere and always." It is the simultaneous affirmation of equality of essence of the persons of the Trinity with this sort of difference in their essence that I find self-contradictory.

I'm not sure I agree. It depends on a couple issues. In the case of the Trinity, it partly depends on what you mean by "ontological equality". Suppose functional subordination is correct, and the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father eternally and necessarily. Does that imply ontological inequality? Well, it implies a difference that is ontological, if it counts as an ontological difference for the Son to have an essential property not shared by the Father and the Father to have one not shared by the Son. If the roles are eternal and necessary (meaning there is no possible world in which the Father and Son don't have these roles), then there is an ontological difference, yes.

But is it inequality? Only in the sense that two things that are different are not equal on the mere ground that they are different. An apple and an orange are different and thus not equal. But they're an apple and an orange and are thus not comparable. It's not as if the apple is superior to the orange or vice versa just because they're different fruits. They're just different. Ah, but isn't the hierarchical relationship of the Father and Son going to be comparable, since one is in authority over the other? Thus it won't be like apples and oranges. That's true. But what the apple-orange relationship illustrates is that you can have differences without having the kind of ontological difference that amounts to inequality. Does a hierarchical relationship involve the kind of inequality we should care about when talking about equals?

Not necessarily. In the congregation I grew up in, the pastor and chair of the elder board was an unpaid volunteer, who had a full-time job in the human resources office of a local manufacturing plant. A member of the congregation was the human resources director and thus was his boss. So they simultaneously were in authority over each other in different respects, one on a spiritual level and the other in a workplace-supervisory role. Each was functionally subordinate to the other. It's true that in this case both are temporary roles, but my point with the example isn't that it's permanent but ontologically equal. It's that a functionally-subordinate role relationship can be hierarchical without being unequal. These two men were fully equal in their rights as U.S. citizens, as members of our congregation, and as employees of their company, but in certain respects one was in authority over the other, while in other respects the other was in authority over the first. So a hierarchical relationship can involve functional subordination with ontological equality.

So it seems to me that functional subordination is compatible with equality in the important sense, and whatever sense ontological differences of the sort Payne points out will be true in a case of eternal and necessary ontological differences, it's not the sense that undermines the relevant kind of equality.

But I think there's another problem with Payne's argument. Should we assume that eternal functional subordination implies necessary subordination? Should we think eternal functional subordination of the Father to the Son involves some essential property of the Father involving authority and a different essential property held by the Son involving subordination? I'm not sure myself that such a view would be heretical, as Kevin Giles claims. As long as the property is relational, it need not be part of the essence of the Father or the essence of the Son (which on traditional orthodox assumptions should be the same essence and thus have the same properties). After all, there has to be something that distinguishes the Father from the Son for them to be two persons, even if they are also the same God and thus can't have essential properties that are different. Perhaps an essential relation between them, a functional one rather than an ontological one, that would do that trick. (By a relation here, I mean a property corresponding to a two-place predicate that's held between two things rather than a property corresponding to a one-place predicate held by one thing.)

But you might instead be able to make sense of the Father-Son relation as contingent but eternal. In other words, isn't it possible that the functional relationship between the Father and Son is a voluntary, agreed-upon relationship that the Father and Son eternally and timelessly settle on but that in another possible world they might have eternally and timelessly settled on a different relation, namely one that puts the person who actually is the Father in the Son role and the person who actually is the Son in the Father role? I'm not aware of anything in the creeds or the scriptures that precludes such a view. Something's being true at every time certainly does not imply that it had to be true. If that truth is grounded in a timeless decision that God might have made differently, then in a different possible world God would have had some other contingent fact true of him timelessly and eternally. So it simply isn't true that functional subordination across all time implies necessary functional subordination.

I think there's yet a third problem too. Complementarians think functional subordination relations among human beings in this life should not involve a woman in authority over a man in marriage or in spiritual authority over men in the church. Regardless of whether that view is correct, I don't think it's true that they hold this to be true eternally. Marriage relationships end in death, and there's no reason to think elder-congregation relationships continue with any authoritative relationship post-death. So, for the only two functionally-hierarchical relationships most complementarians today even believe in, there's no reason to think complementarians must extend those relations beyond death, and thus that functional subordination isn't even an eternal relation, never mind a necessary one. I'm sure most complementarians would insist that women will not be in authority over men in the resurrection in any way like the husband-wife or elder-member relations in this life. But that doesn't mean such relations will continue. It's consistent with complementarianism that no human being (besides Jesus) will have any authority over any other human being in the resurrection. So even if Payne were right that eternality implies essentiality (which he certainly is not), he'd have the further problem of extending his critique toward complementarians who won't even insist on eternal functional subordination, and I don't see why complementarians should insist on that.


It seems to me that there might be two other relevant factors, but I am not quite sure how they might come into play. (1) The Spirit seems to have the same type of functional subordination, but it seems harder to see it as "voluntary" in the sense that Erickson/Payne are looking for. (2) The term "voluntary" seems vague and I wonder if a sense can be worked out that proves what they want it to prove.

With (1), there are lots of Johannine parallels between Christ and the Spirit, in particular that both are "sent" and both do not speak on their own "initiative." Both of those ideas are key ideas in the Gospel of John as a whole. But we have no references about the Spirit that are anything like Phil 2:6-8. In other words, we don't get anything showing some sort of "voluntary" choice like with Jesus. Now, I suppose one could argue that we should assume the Spirit made some sort of analagous choice just because they both have the same sort of functional subordination. But one problem with that is that the "emptying" in Phil 2:6-8 is specifically talking about the incarnation and death on the cross, so are we justified in seeing an analagous choice by the Spirit on that basis when clearly the Spirit made no choice to become incarnate and die on the cross?

I am less clear with what I am thinking with respect to (2), but I sense there is some issue in that region. By "voluntary" do they mean that (a) somebody consents to subordination when specifically asked to be subordinate? Or do they mean that (b) somebody "volunteers" to be subordinate without being asked? Or maybe that (c) when asked to be subordinate it is within one's rights to decline and thus in agreeing to be subordinate they did so "voluntarily."

But consider (a) and (c), can Jesus really turn down the request to be subordinate? According to Payne/Erickson, insofar as he is ontologically equal with the Father he can turn down the request. But it seems to me that he would be constrained in some other sense due to his divine nature or the relations amongst the Trinity (mutual love), in the same way that divine perfect goodness precludes doing evil. Although this is a fairly rough argument, the point seems to me that Jesus would not be able to turn down the request, but it would be for a reason other than ontological inequality.

If this is true, then it seems to me that the same could hold for men and women. In a certain sense women can't decline the functional role, but it is not because of ontological inequality with men but because of divine fiat. Of course in the case of Jesus the constraint is the divine nature or something like that while in the case of women the case is divine fiat, so there is a disanalogy. But the key point would be that there is a similarity in that in both cases the constraint is not the result of ontological inequality.

Now, they could try and counter by saying that Jesus is not really constrained because he is doing what he wants to do (or some other compatibilist response) while women are not. So Jesus' case is voluntary while it is not with women. But why should that difference matter? Jesus is not constrained to make the choice by ontological inequality placing a moral obligation on him and so it is voluntary in that sense. Women are not constrained to make the choice by ontological inequality (i.e. according to the complementarian God doesn't give women the functional role because he deems ontological inequality) placing a moral obligation on them and so it is voluntary in that sense.

Isn't that supposed to be the intuition behind saying that the voluntary nature of Jesus subordination is supposed to make a difference? It was voluntary, or not stemming from ontological inequality and that is why it is an OK subordination.

These are fairly rough ideas, but what do you think?

Keith, I'm not sure I see a problem with any of that, but I'm also not sure I'd be prepared to endorse any of it either. A good deal of it is pretty speculative.

Do you see (1) as speculative? In Johannine biblical scholarship the parallels between Christ and the Spirit are often pointed to (e.g. Burge). And the "sending" theme is prominent in the Gospel of John. So it doesn't seem speculative to me to say that Christ and the Spirit have analagous functional relationships. So why not point to the Spirit as an illustration of fuctional subordination and ontological equality? With Christ they appeal to Phil 2:6-8 to show it was "voluntary" but they have no passage to appeal to like that for the Spirit. My point is that the burden of proof falls on them to show that it was voluntary and any such attempt to me seems "speculative" since there is no Phil 2:6-8 passage to appeal to. At best they could appeal to an analogy with Phil 2:6-8 but there is the problem that it is speculative and that there is disanology there. So my point would be that they are the ones who would have to be speculative if complementarians pressed the case with respect to the Spirit. So do you think this is a speculative argument on my end?

I completely agree that if the incarnation was "voluntary," whether it was so in terms of (a) - (c) is completely speculative. But I don't think my point depends upon choosing between (a) - (c) (or even another sense for that matter). My point was to point out why "voluntary" should even matter. The "voluntary" nature of subordination is supposed to account for subordination in a way that does not stem from ontological inequality. So it isn't the voluntariness that is vital; all that it vital is that the functional subordination does not stem from ontological inequality. The complementarian can say that the functional subordination stems from divine fiat and not from ontological inequality. Hence the divine fiat would play the same function as voluntariness in preventing the subordination from being the result of ontological inequality.

The part in (1) that is speculative is the inference from what's true of the Son being true of the Spirit, without anything like Phil 2:6-8, as you yourself pointed out. Now you wanted to use that point to show that it's unclear whether it's voluntary, but I think it can show that it's unclear whether there's even subordination. It doesn't seem like an airtight argument. There is sending language, and there is representation language, but there's no subordination language the way there is with the Son. On an issue that led the Orthodox to disfellowship the entire Western church, I'd want a stronger argument than that.

I think you're right that functional subordination can be shown to be not from ontological subordination is it's from divine fiat. Egalitarians' usual response to that is that such a decree would be immoral for God to give in the gender case, because it's instituting subordination without a basis, but if the subordination isn't bad then that argument fails. Since complementarians think the subordination in question is parallel to the Trinitarian subordination, which is also eternal, then a fortiori the human case isn't bad, since that's not even eternal. They might claim that it's voluntary on Christ's part but not voluntary for all women. But again, if it's not a problematic subordination, then it doesn't matter if it's voluntary. God imposes things on us by creating us with the limitations we have and so on, and I've never seen an egalitarian assert that that's immoral just because we don't choose such things for ourselves.

I'm a complimentarian; however, I can't help but wonder why we concentrate so much on Paul's simple analogy of the Father and Son, which was meant to show that taxis among human beings is possible without implying inferiority in essence, when there is so much more richness in covering the wife's likening to the Holy Spirit (ezer) all throughout the scriptures.

The idea of an "Ezer" (completer, help-meet, etc.) is the basis of a lot of women's studies that have been developed by some of the key complimentarians out there. Why do we not factor this into the Trinitarian proofs for complimentarianism?

For that matter, why do we not cover the likeness of the man to Christ and the wife to the church in more detail? Perhaps if the leaders of our churches faithfully submitted to Christ, and the women of the church were better equipped to be better "ezers," feminism within the church would more readily be quelled?

Hovering at the ethereal level of "functional submission" is frustrating, because it emphasizes passivity and sacrifice. I think we should give more attention to what the active obedience of the woman ought to look like -- the idea of "ezer" or Proverbs 31 woman or things of this nature. More focus on the essence of the woman would be immensely more helpful.
Just a few thoughts/questions.

I would contend that "sending" language in John implies some sort of functional subordination or hierarchy (or whatever is better langauge). See Father, Son, and Spirit by Kostenberger and Swain in the NSBT series and Kostenberger's book on mission in John (or the cowritten volume with O'Brien in the NSBT series). I think it is a fairly theologically loaded term for John in the way it is used with the Son, the Spirit, the disciples, and John the Baptist. Moreover, the parallels drawn in the "sending" involve a lot of other verbal parallels (not on own "initiative," pattern of "seeing" and "witnessing" etc.), indicating that there is a strong analogy being drawn in the roles both explicitly and implicitly. In all those cases, excluding the one you are saying is somewhat disputable (the Spirit), there is a definite functional subordination (of course in the case of disciples/John the Baptist it is ontological as well). Thus, from the whole thrust it seems that a subordination is inherent in the theme. This fits with the Jewish background for the concept as well. Again, one should appeal to the exegetical sources I have cited.

Also, I don't think this is the same issue as the filoque clause. I am contending that the Spirit is functionally subordinate in a sense analagous to the Son. The filoque, as far as I understand it, concerned whether the procession of the Spirit was just from the Father or from both the Father and the Son.

Of the volumes you list, I have Kostenberger/O'Brien. If I get the chance, I'll have to take a look, but the point you're making seems plausible. It's more that I'd want some serious exegetical backbone to it if I want to rest a serious contention about the Trinity on it.

You're right that the primary issue we've been discussing here isn't the filoque issue. But the sending language and so on does occur in passages where Jesus is doing the sending of the Spirit. So it does arise, especially if that's the language that carries the weight in the argument for subordination to the Father, as it seems to be on your view.

I know that the O'Brien/Kostenberger volume addresses it, but I can't gaurantee that it does so in the same depth as the others. I read that one the longest ago and, obviously, since it is an entire biblical theology of mission it isn't as focused on John as the other volumes are.

When you speak of the possibility of the Father-Son relation as contingent but eternal, are you speaking of their relationship as father and son, or of which of the two they decide will be subordinate? That is, is the one who is the Father in this world the Son in another possible word, and vice versa; or is it that in this other possible world the Father does the will of the Son? I do understand the concept of timeless decisions that might have been different, and that x being true across all time does not imply that it is necessarily true. But I'm not sure that either of these possibilities concerning the Father-Son relation would actually work.

Take the first, that the Father in this world is the Son in another. The creeds speak of the persons of the Trinity, not simply in terms of what they've decided to call themselves, but in terms of what makes these relationships true. From the Athanasian creed- “The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.” The relationship between Father and Son is that between begetter and begotten. Switching which person is which would necessarily switch which person begets and which is begotten. Begetting and being begotten would no longer be essential distinguishing attributes between the divine persons, but would be a matter of the divine will. This leads to two equally unacceptable possibilities. In the first, the Father decides whether or not to beget, and the very existence of the Son is contingent on that decision. Even worse, the Son, by definition, is no longer God. Arius has won. Moreover, this doesn't even allow for the possible world in which the roles are switched- the Son either exists as a son or he doesn't exist at all. In the second, the existence of each of the Persons of the Trinity is logically prior to how they decide to be related. While this does have the advantage of allowing for a possible world in which the roles are switched, it also allows for a possible world in which the relationships don't exist. If each of the persons could exist independently of whether he is related to the others, this begs the question of whether each could exist as God. Unless we wanted to make divinity itself contingent by having it result from the decision to be related, we would have to affirm either atheism or polytheism.

The relationships that exist among the persons of the Trinity, therefore, are necessary, not being based on any timeless decision. But does the nature of the relationship imply a necessary manner of relating? That is, could the Father, as the Father, have been subordinate to the Son? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely. Because human relationships are patterned after those within the Trinity, a possible world with a subordinate Father would not have this as its only difference. But would it actually work to have a world in which, for instance, parents were expected to obey their children? Or there could be a world in which there simply was no pattern; which would be worse. Inasmuch as this relational pattern is a consequence of our being created in God's image, I don't see how the absence of the pattern would not imply the absence of the image.

On a somewhat different point concerning Payne's position that Christ's subordination to the Father was temporary: what does he do with I Corinthians 15:28? “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

It depends on whether you take the begetting of the creed as an ontological ground or as a reflection of the roles. It obviously can't be causal, or else you get a denial of "not made". Is it clear that there's ontological dependence, though? I'm not sure. If it's not, then I think there's room for a possible world with the roles reversed. It it's ontological dependence, then you're right. That paragraph of my post would not be correct, so that would be one option of avoiding Payne's argument that would be unavailable. But I'm not convinced that it has to be ontological dependence to be consistent with the creed. Since the biblical use of the term in John does not mean anything of the sort but simply means "one and only", it's hard for me to know what to make of the creed's use of it, but I'm not going to insist that it means what people have more recently falsely taken the biblical use of the term to mean since at least the KJV.

As for I Cor 15:28, I don't know what Payne says about it, but it does seem to be a decisive refutation of his view. I know of one influential egalitarian who has something to say about it, and that's Craig Keener. He simply acknowledges the point that the Trinity involves ontological equality but functional subordination and thus refuses to give that argument Groothuis, Payne, and Giles give against complementarianism. I haven't seen an egalitarian taking their view even making an attempt to make sense of I Cor 15:8.

I could be completely wrong about this, but I vaguely remember an egalitarian comment on 1 Cor 15:8. I think they were saying that this refers to the millenium but not beyond that. I may not have it precisely, but I think it was something along those lines. I think it was a theology prof from Trinity, who does some work in analytic theology, debating the other side in recent theological journals.

The occasion of the Nicene Creed was a debate concerning the ontological nature of the Son. One of Arius' arguments in favor of the Son being a creature and not God was that the Son was begotten. By analogy with the same process within humanity, he inferred that this involved an act of volition on the part of the Father and that, consequently, the Son might not have been- something which cannot be predicated of God. Had his opponents thought of the language of begetting as a mere reflection of roles, they would have made this more obvious. Or better yet, denied it. Arius' point was too good for them to risk agreeing that the Son was, in some sense, begotten unless they had a compelling reason not to discard the term. There was such a reason; namely, that they believed the begetting of the Son to be the explicit teaching of Scripture.

Concerning their use of the term: the dispute over the Greek compound word 'monogene' is focused on the last part. If 'gene' come from 'gennao', then 'only begotten' would be the correct translation. If it comes from 'genos', then a translation closer to 'one of a kind' is possible. However, I am not convinced that this translation would be required. The word 'genos' is also translated in Scripture as 'kindred' and 'offspring'. Even if John's term is a combination of 'mono' with 'genos' rather than with 'gennao', this doesn't seem to be enough to insist that 'only begotten' is an invalid translation. Then there is the Latin translation of 'monogene' both in the Vulgate and in the Nicene Creed. 'Unigenitum' means 'only begotten'. It does not mean 'one of a kind'. The term 'begotten' occurs three times in the creed. Only on the first, in the phrase 'the only begotten Son of God' does it translate 'monogene'. The other two times, in the phrases 'begotten of the Father' and 'begotten, not made', it translates the word 'gennethenta', which is a form, not of 'genos', but of 'gennao'.

Arius' claim had been 'begotten, therefore made'. The council at Nicea responded with 'begotten, not made' (gennethenta, ou poiethenta). Yet, this was not a denial of causality as such, but of certain non-essential aspects of causality. [Other causal language in the creed includes, 'Light of Light, very God of very God.] The word 'poieo' fits in with Arius' idea that the Son was created. First, creation involves an act of the will such that the thing created might never have been. Second, God's sustaining of the thing created is not the same thing as his creating it in the first place. As long as something is in the process of being created, it is incomplete. Consequently, creation is a one-time event. But, if this is the case, then it is something that, having happened in the past, might have been otherwise. Among humans, any particular act of begetting is a one-time event, it is (semi-)volitional, and there is a temporal sequence between the begetting and the individual who is begotten. It can be no other way with human beings (or any other creature), and so Arius mistakenly assumed that these were essential limitations to begetting as such. But there is no reason that these limitations need to apply to an ontologically eternal being. The Son is eternally begotten. Not that he was begotten in eternity past, for this would concede Arius' point, but that the process of his being begotten, i.e., of the Father's begetting, is itself eternal. As long as the Father's begetting is neither voluntary nor limited to a moment in the past (even if eternity past), then the deity of the Son is not in jeopardy because it turns out that he has (not had) a cause.

Keith- The verses immediately preceding I Cor. 15:28 state, "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet.' But when it says, 'all things are put in subjection,' it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him"(ESV).

Whatever your view of the millennium, whether pre-, post-, or a-, this passage is about what Christ does once the millennium, i.e., the kingdom that he delivers to God the Father, is over.

I wasn't trying to say that it was a good response to 1 Cor 15:28. I was just responding to the comment that egalitarians taking the Payne view don't deal with the passage. In looking online, I remembered it was Thomas McCall and he was saying that the passage underdetermines the discussion because it doesn't necessarily imply that the subordination is eternal or even that it continues forever. I vaguely remember the millenium fitting in there somewhere, but I could be wrong about that since I haven't gone back and looked at the article itself. My point was simply that they do discuss the passage and attempt to deal with it; whether the "attempt" is good or works is another issue.

To be clear, I wasn't saying that egalitarians never discuss it, just that I wasn't familiar with any particular egalitarian responses. I have actually presented this verse in discussions online, and no one has ever offered one that I've seen (but it may have come after I left the discussion and didn't check back, though).

I have discussed this issue in a new post on my blog.


I clicked over to Peter Kirk's blog. And I have to echo what this commenter said:

"Wow, Jeremy has taken on the world! I must say that he is both brave and articulate and we all stand in his debt for his preparedness to dialogue here."

Sue, TL, and Peter Kirk, ... yeeeeesh.

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