Saturday, June 24, 2017

Nicene subordinationism and unitarian subordinationism

The core of Clarke's subordinationism is as follows. Certain names or titles in the Bible, including “God”, always are nearly always refer to the Father, giving him a kind of primacy among the three. The word “God” is used in higher and lower senses, and in his view the former always refer to the Father. The God of Israel, the one true God, just is the Father of Jesus. Further, he is the main and the primary and ultimate object of Christian worship and prayer, and as the sole recipient of the highest kind of worship. In his view, the Son of God has all the divine attributes but one, that of existing a se that is, existing and not being in any sense derivative of or dependent on anything else. To the contrary, “The Father Alone is Self-existent, Underived, Unoriginated, Independent” (Clarke, Scripture, 123). It is contradictory to suppose that something has this property in any sense because of another thing. In his view the Son and the Holy Spirit (like the Son, a personal agent or self distinct from the Father) exist and have their perfections because of the Father. Both are functionally and ontologically subordinate to him, and in the Spirit is at least functionally subordinate to the Son. What sort of dependence relations are these? The Son and Spirit derive their being from the Father as from a “Supreme Cause”, but we are not to infer from this that the Father existed before them. The Bible doesn't enlighten us on the nature of this dependence relationship, but seems to presuppose that it always was (i.e., that infinitely back in time, the Son and Spirit existed in dependence on the Father). Thus, “Arian” subordinationists (see section 3.1 above) are speculating groundlessly when they say there was a time when the Son didn't exist. And if a “creature” must at some time begin to exist, then neither Son nor Spirit are creatures. Still, Clarke thinks that we should affirm with some of the early church fathers that this derivation of the Son from the Father is “not by mere Necessity of Nature, (which would be in reality Self-existence, not Filiation;) But by an Act of the Father's incomprehensible Power and Will” (141, original emphases). Clarke argues that the New Testament teaches the eternal existence of the Son, and that he is (co-) creator of the world.

1. What's striking about Clarke's position is how Nicene subordinationism and unitarian subordinationism (a la Clarke) share a common platform. There's not much difference. In both cases, the Father is the fons deitas. The Father is unoriginate while the Son is originate. The Son has divine attributes derivatively. 

We might say unitarian subordinationism is a modification of Nicene subordinationism or Nicene subordinationism is a modification of unitarian subordinationism. I'm referring to their logical relationship, not chronological relationship. 

That's one reason I reject Nicene subordinationism, The scheme is inherently unstable. A gateway drug to unitarianism. By contrast, I take the same position is B. B. Warfield, John Frame, John Feinberg, and Paul Helm (among others).

2. On a related note, it's common for Catholic apologists to claim that you can't derive the Trinity from Scripture alone. Orthodox Christology and Orthodox Trinitarianism are postbiblical developments. Only the authority of the church can bridge the gap.

It wouldn't surprise me if some modern-day unitarians are lapsed Catholics. They agree with Catholic apologists that the Trinity can only be warranted by the makeweight of the magisterium, but having lost confidence in "the Church", they lost confidence in the Trinity. So Catholic apologetics is another gateway drug to unitarianism. 


  1. Interesting post, Steve. When you say "Nicene subordination" who do you have in mind? Do you mean those catholics against the Nicene creed c. 340-380, or modern people, or some eastern orthodox, or what? Can you give an example of such a person, and say more about what the position is?

    Like any Protestant, Clarke thought that catholic tradition went to seed at some point. He isn't too precise, but seems to think this is in the 4th c. - some time around or after Nicea. Says, I think a bit inconsistently, that things went south when people starting putting their metaphysical speculations into their creeds - and he cites the wholly unmetaphysical baptismal creeds of the first three centuries which were, more or less, the same everywhere in the catholic churches. He's got a point there.

    He explicitly says that his view is consistent with the "same essence" claim as understood in 325. I think he's right about that, so long as a nominalist can read that without commitment to Platonic essences, which I think one can. I think he'd not agree with the 381 version, and it was meant to imply a triune God, and he's very firmly of the view that the one God is the Father. I think he thinks that all but the first ecumenical councils are unfortunate repositories of unintelligible speculations about God and Christ. He has the Lockean distrust of medieval philosophy in general.

    But he doubles down on quoting pre-Nicenes - Origen, Justin, Tertullian, Clement, Irenaeus, and esp. Novatian as supporting his type of theology - and so they do, in various ways, to various degrees.

    About 2, the Catholics are right. This means, surprisingly, that often their biblical scholarship is more honest! They'll just admit that their later ideas, e.g. the one bishop system or the Trinity just aren't in the NT. In contrast, the more catholic a Protestant is, the more he has to find some way, any way, to shoehorn all his favorite later ideas into the NT. Conservatives had gotten very creative at this lately, and I don't mean that in a good way.

    I've never heard anyone cite Catholic apologetics as a factor in their adopting a unitarian theology. And honestly, I can't think of any unitarian Christian who switched from being a serious, religious Catholic... There've got to be some out there somewhere. But no, the typical person who switches from trinitarianism to unitarianism is someone who just consistently follows the principle that later catholic developments should lose out when the conflict with clear NT teaching or practice.

    All they have in common is some factor that makes them less resistant to the immense social pressure there is to toe the trinitarian line. Some are naturally stubborn and especially studious about the NT and church history. Others come from or are now in some non-trinitarian Christian group, such as Oneness, non-trin restorationist groups, the JWs, etc - so they never bought into the idea that the Trinity is somehow the defining essence of Christianity. Some will just tell you that they grew up in Protestant trinitarian churches but that the whole Trinity thing just never made any sense to them, and that (as a result of Bible reading) a unitarian view is how they actually always thought, all those years sitting the the pews of an officially trinitarian church.

    Catholics, I would think, typically lapse into being just non-believers. But I'd be interested to see the stats.

    The gateway drug to unitarianism is just the desire to understand the NT as its 1st c. readers would have. It's just a farther degree of Reformation than some want. It's an interesting question why the spiritual descendants of Luther and Calvin so vigorously fight against this sort of further reformation. I think it's just that they still hold to a lot of those 4th c. views. It's Catholicism lite in many ways.

    1. "When you say 'Nicene subordination' who do you have in mind? Do you mean those catholics against the Nicene creed c. 340-380, or modern people, or some eastern orthodox, or what? Can you give an example of such a person, and say more about what the position is?"

      No, I don't mean opponents of the Nicene creed. In the case of eastern orthodox, belief in the monarchy of the Father. In Latin theology, the standard paradigm of the Father as the fons deitas, eternal generation of the Son, eternal procession of the Spirit. The Father as unoriginate, the Son and Spirit as originate.

      Aquinas presents a lucid statement of this position:

      The role of a father is “to beget,” just as the meaning of sonship is “to be begotten.” The Father, therefore, is unbegotten, but is origin and progenitor of the Son, who himself does not beget, for there is no “Son” in the Godhead other than himself. That is to say, the whole reality of the Father is to beget, to generate, to give all that he has, namely, his whole divine nature, to the Son. And the whole reality of the Son is to be begotten, to be generated, to receive all that he has, namely, his whole divine nature, from the Father.

    2. Oh - well, unlike the 4th c. people I mentioned, those would just strenuously deny that there is any subordination there. They insist that aseity is not a divine attribute, so that you can be fully divine without having it. Not a convincing line, no. It seems like the greatest possible being, or the unoriginated origin of all else must have that property. This is why evangelical scholars have repeatedly called into question and even denied the traditional generation and procession claims. They rightly point out that these are based on the flimsiest of proof-texts, that these simply are not taught in the NT. In contrast, people like Eusebius and Origen just accepted the lesser status of the Son and Spirit.

    3. Well, Dale, that's one thing we agree on. Perhaps we should quit while we're ahead!

  2. Agreed. Hope you have a great Sunday.