Many complementarians ground their belief in male headship in the authority-submission structure of the Trinity. As Paul writes, “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). A growing number of egalitarians (e.g., Kevin Giles, Scot McKnight) accuse these complementarians of pushing some novel view which borders on Arianism. They suggest that if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in any way—even if it is only in role or function—then the Son must be inferior to the Father—in an important way less than God, which cashes out as Arianism. Even Millard Erickson, in his newly released Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?, alleges that these complementarians have started down the wrong road which may end badly.
I have never understood this claim. If the Son is subordinate to the Father during his time on earth (which everyone admits), then why in principle could he not be eternally subordinate? Why can’t the Son-Father relationship which we see in time be a reflection of the Son-Father relationship in eternity? Doesn’t Paul say that in the eternal future that “the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all”? (1 Cor. 15:28). If subordination exists in eternity future, then why not in eternity past? Besides, Arius taught that the Son was a creature, less than God in his being, and no complementarian is saying that.
With that as background, last week my Barth class came upon his argument for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Understand that Barth has issues of his own when it comes to the Trinity—he is reasonably accused of modalism and he clearly denies the logos asarkos—but the presence of an eternal subordination in his writings at least proves that this view was not invented by evangelicals desperate to ground their belief in male headship.
Here is Barth’s argument:
1. Jesus is subordinate to the Father in the economic Trinity (the revealed Trinity).
2. There is no difference between the economic and immanent Trinity (the hidden, transcendent Trinity). Barth says this because any distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity would separate God himself from his revelation and open the door to the possibility of natural theology, which Barth hates more than anything. If God differs from his revelation, then we might be tempted to do an end around his revelation and attempt to know God in some other, natural way.
3. So Barth reads the Son’s subordination to the Father in the economic Trinity straight into the immanent Trinity. Barth says that we should not be surprised to learn that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, because God is humble. A humble Son does not fight about rights but gladly submits to his Father’s will.
Here is what Barth says (Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 200-2):
“Is it a fact that in relation to Jesus Christ we can speak of an obedience of the one true God Himself in His proper being? …We have…to affirm and understand as essential to the being of God the offensive fact that there is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. And our present concern is with what is apparently the most offensive fact of all, that there is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience.”
“…It cannot be explained away either as an event in some higher or supreme creaturely sphere or as a mere appearance of God. Therefore we have to state firmly that, far from preventing this possibility, His divine unity consists in the fact that in Himself He is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys.”
“…The second idea we have to abandon is that—even supposing we have corrected that unsatisfactory conception of unity—there is necessarily something unworthy of God and incompatible with His being as God in supposing that there is in God a first and a second, an above and a below, since this includes a gradation, a degradation and an inferiority in God, which if conceded excludes the homoousia of the different modes of divine being. That all sounds very illuminating. But is it not an all too human—and therefore not a genuinely human—way of thinking? For what is the measure by which it measures and judges? Has there really to be something mean in God for Him to be the second, below? Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? Why should not our way of finding a lesser dignity and significance in what takes the second and subordinate place (the wife to her husband) need to be corrected in the light of the homoousia of the modes of divine being?”
“As we look at Jesus Christ we cannot avoid the astounding conclusion of a divine obedience. Therefore we have to draw the no less astounding deduction that in equal Godhead the one God is, in fact, the One and also Another, that He is indeed a First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility. The one God is both the one and the other.”