What Is Subordinationism?
What is Subordinationism?
Subordinationism is a heretical doctrine on the Trinity which describes the Son and Holy Spirit as subordinate to the Father in nature and being. To put it another way, although Christian orthodoxy holds that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinate in their roles (sometimes called “economic subordinationism”), Subordinationism in this sense considers the second two persons of the Trinity to be lesser beings, rather than co-equal persons* of the Trinity.
Origins of Subordinationism
Although Subordinationism as a concept doubtless existed well before, the codified form of this doctrine seems to have originated in the 3rd century A.D.. Origen is often cited as its originator, though this is likely based upon an incorrect and limited reading of his works1. It is more likely that Lucian of Antioch bears the responsibility.
Lucian, like Origen, was very well esteemed as a thinker in his time, but his theological school conflicted with the orthodox church. Lucian would eventually seek to be reconciled with the church before his death, but his disciples would go on to be infamous champions of the Arian Heresy. Indeed, Arius – from whom Arianism derives its names – was one of his students. Lucian taught that the Son of God had not always existed, but has come into existence sometime before creation2. He did not believe that Jesus was a mere creation, but never the less the later developed credo of “there was a time when he was not,” established Jesus as, by nature, less than the Father. Lucian died in the Roman persecutions c. A.D. 311-312.
Arius took up his master’s mantle alongside other Lucianists, including a number of bishops. Although Arius’ doctrines might be considered conservative compared to those purveyed by later so-called Arians, his name has become synonymous with the most extreme forms of Lucianism and “Arianism.3”
Arguments for Subordinationism
The two most common arguments from scripture historically presented by advocates of Subordinationism are their interpretations of two terms applied to Jesus Christ in the Bible: “begotten,+” and “firstborn.”
“If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was a time^ when the Son was not.4”
With this understanding of the term “begotten,” it is hardly difficult to understand why Subordinationists would interpret Christ’s description as the “Firstborn of all creation,5” to mean the literal first to come into existence.
Having determined the Son’s nature is inferior to that of the father, Subordinationists then point to Jesus’ submission to the will and authority of the Father as further evidence that the Son is, by nature, subordinate.
It is interesting to consider how many dissentions would have been rendered toothless had the Church not become so quickly alienated from its Jewish roots. Few examples of this are so striking as with the controversies surrounding these two terms, “firstborn,” and “begotten.” Both terms are drawn from the picture of Jesus’ “Sonship,” and both were intended to illuminate aspects of the Son’s relationship with the Father – particularly as it pertained to the fate of creation.
To the Jews, the “firstborn” was of particular importance. While most nations favored the firstborn son with a number of exclusive birthrights, to the Jews the firstborn’s status was tied to the preservation of Israel not merely for reasons of secular interest, but for the restoration of God’s kingdom. It was from the Jewish line that the Messiah was promised – the one who would rescue God’s elect from the desperate plight their sin had brought about.
Because of this, the term firstborn became synonymous with “preeminence.” This can be seen throughout the Old Testament. For instance, God refers to Israel as “my firstborn son.” In this instance, Israel – the man – becomes representative of the Jewish nation at that time captive in Egypt, but Israel was not the firstborn, he was the younger son who nevertheless received his brother’s birthright. A similar instance is seen in Jeremiah 31:9, where Ephraim, the younger brother, is called “firstborn.” When one examines the account of Ephraim’s life in Genesis 48, we see that Ephraim was given the firstborn’s blessing because he was prophesied to be the father of a far greater nation. This term even finds itself used to describe preeminence in negative circumstances, as in Isaiah 14:30 where those in most desolate poverty are called the “firstborn of the poor.”
Likewise, Orthodox Christianity has always viewed “Begotten” to be a term meant to illuminate an aspect of Jesus’ relationship with the Father without suggesting an actual comparison to human procreation.
“Begotten” is only used as an active verb to describe the son in the context of Psalm 2:7 (“I have begotten you”). In this instance, the term cannot be construed as literal:
“The king says, ‘I will announce the Lord’s decree. He said to me: you are my son! Today I have begotten you,’ ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance…6”
Here we see not only a non-literal use of the term, but also an extension of the metaphor of Christ as the “Firstborn” who will receive his inheritance from the Father.
Elsewhere, the term rendered “only-begotten” (monogenes) is used. Here, Christians have understood the term to emphasize the uniqueness of the Son. He is not merely A son of God, but the only-begotten son – that is, the only son who is alike in nature with the father. This is particularly important when contrasted to God’s elect (those being saved) who are described as sons of God by adoption7. By calling Jesus God’s only-begotten son, the scripture writers distinguished him as wholly unique by right of his like-nature with God.
Subordinate in Roles
It cannot be overlooked, however, that the Son and the Holy Spirit have submitted to the authority of the Father, and that their roles are subordinate to Him8. Indeed, the Holy Spirit has even submitted himself to the Son9. But should this be construed as a sign of being “by nature” subordinate?
In writing to the church of the Philippians, Paul gave them a striking example of humility to follow. He reminded them to follow the example of Jesus Christ,
“who, though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross!”
Here, the Son exists in the form of God by nature, yet submits himself to the Father as an obedient Son.
There is much that could be said concerning Subordinationism, but as much of the responsibility for this doctrine has been laid at the feet of Origen, it is perhaps only suitable that he should have the last word:
“But it is monstrous and unlawful to compare God the Father, in the generation of His only-begotten Son, and in the substance of the same, to any man or other living thing engaged in such an act; for we must of necessity hold that there is something exceptional and worthy of God which does not admit of any comparison at all, not merely in things, but which cannot even be conceived by thought or discovered by perception, so that a human mind should be able to apprehend how the unbegotten God is made the Father of the only-begotten Son. Because His generation is as eternal and everlasting as the brilliancy which is produced from the sun. For it is not by receiving the breath of life that He is made a Son, by any outward act, but by His own nature.10”
* For those not familiar with the distinction: orthodox Christianity holds that there is only one God, but that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are unique, individual persons of that being. The bishops are the First Council of Nicaea agreed to express this doctrine by stating that the three persons of the Trinity are “of one substance,” (that substance being God).
^ “A time” is a loose, but necessary translation. Arius was careful not to use the term “time,” as he fully believed the Son “by his own counsel existed before times and ages, fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable.” [Arius’ letter to Eusebius, cited from Bettenson, Docs of the Christian Church]
+ c.f. John 1:14, 1:18
1. Cortez, https://westernthm.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/origens-subordinationism.pdf
2. Schaff, Introduction to Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, section 5
3. See - Johnson, https://owlcation.com/humanities/What-Was-the-Arian-Controversy-Arius-and-the-Background-to-the-First-Council-of-Nicaea
4. “The Arian Syllogism,” from Socrates, Eccl. Hist. Book 1, chapter 5. Cited from: Bettenson, Docs. Of the Christian Church
5. Colossians 1:18
6. Psalm 2:7-8, c.f. Hebrews 1:5
7. c.f. Romans 8:15, Ephesians 1:5
8. c.f. John 5:30, 14:26
9. c.f. John 15:26
10. Origen, On First Principles, Book 1, Chapter 2 - http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04121.htm