Craig Keener on Subordinationism

I'm finding that I don't like the word "subordinationism". There are better words to describe the belief that we're talking about. However...that appears to be the "word of the day".

Craig Keener (an egalitarian) wrote a rather long article: "Is subordination within the Trinity really heresy? A study of John 5:18 in context."
In the opening page he writes:

Nor, in fact, do Christological views coincide as closely with views on gender roles as some of the advocates of either position claim. Thus, for example, I frequently talk with Christians who espouse a complementarian view of gender roles while expressing surprise that anyone would deny the full equality in all respects of the Father and the Son. By contrast, I and some other scholars I know who support a very broad range of women's ministry affirm the Son's subordination to the Father. To be sure, that subordination may be voluntary, and we do not draw from it the same conclusions many of our complementarian colleagues do; but the fact remains that one's view on gender roles does not enable one to predict one's view of relations within the Trinity, or vice-versa. I do see evidence for the Son's subordination to the Father in rank; I also believe that evangelicals who differ on the matter should do so charitably. (emphasis mine)

The article begins at John 5:18

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (ESV) (emphasis mine)

(A) Does Jesus Claim "Equality"? (5:18)

Jesus is "God the Son", but He is also acting as an agent for the Father. Keener makes the point that when we say that Christ as claiming equality with the Father in this passage, we are following the logic of Christ's enemies, not the actual words of Christ. Yes...clearly Christ is communicating His deity in this passage, but equality of roles with the Father? Keener believes not:

But while Jesus claims deity at various points in this gospel (e.g., 8:58; 20:2829), he also denies equality of rank with his Father. This is particularly clear in his response to those who think he has claimed such equality (5:19-30). Jesus does this by calling attention to his role as Son and agent. (emphasis mine).

In verses 19-23 we see the following points

  • Jesus is following the example of His Father
  • Jesus is saying that He can do nothing of His own accord
  • Jesus has been given authority by His Father

Nowhere in this passage does Christ claim equality - He claims Sonship, with delegated authority and obedience.

(B) Jesus as God Son

Keener brings up a point that I had not heard of or thought of. Jesus was obediently following His Father's example. In the Jewish culture, how did a son learn his trade? By following his father's example - apprenticeship.

Nevertheless, this part of the discourse is framed with Jesus' claim not to act "from himself," or on his own initiative or authority (5:19, 30),25 fitting the Jewish conception of the agent who carries out his commission? Jesus elsewhere emphasizes that he does nothing "from himself" (5:30; 7:17-18, 28; 8:28, 42; 14:10), as the Spirit does not (16:13), and that the disciples cannot produce anything profitable from themselves (15:5).

(c) Jesus as God's Agent

In this section, Keener touches on the argument that yes-Christ was subordinate for the duration of His incarnation. But Keener points out that since Christ was "sent", that the submission started (at least) a little while before His birth.

Also, as a "representative agent" He carried the full authority of the Sender. This was in accordance with the time;

Agency represented commission and authorization, the sense of the concept which provides a broad conceptual background for early Christian agency. In many cases, at least in our later sources, the agent's own legal status was comparatively low. Indeed, under rabbinic rulings, even slaves were permitted to fill the position.32 Yet agents bore representative authority, because they acted on the authority of the one who sent them. Thus perhaps the most common rabbinic maxim concerning a person's agent is that "he is equivalent to the person himself."33 In the broader Mediterranean world envoys or messengers were backed by the full authority of those they represented. (...)

Even when one sent one's son (Mark 12:6), the messenger position was necessarily one of subordination to the sender. Although the concept of agency implies subordination, it also stresses Jesus' functional equality with the Father in terms of humanity's required response: he must be honored and believed in the same way as must be the Father whose representative he is (e.g., Tohn 5:23; 6:29).

(and I'm just a third of the way through the article...)

We have the framework for Christ's submission, obedience, subordination, and agency for the duration of His ministry while He walked this planet - and (at least a little) prior to.
Still...that does not provide proof that this submission is eternal.

Next up: section II: 1 Corinthians 15:28.

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12 thoughts on “Craig Keener on Subordinationism

  1. Leigh Ann

    Interesting stuff. I was reading the website of another egalitarian who believed in eternal subordination as well. This guy ( is doing a dissertation on the subject and has a few blog posts about it that were interesting to me.
    My husband told me to look at Is. 53 in relation to the subject which has made for some interesting conversation.
    Thanks for the good stuff.

  2. But isn't Isaiah 53 referring to the kenosis of Christ, not of His actual eternal position? (Because while on the one hand, we have verses like 53:10 saying that "it pleased the Lord to put Him to grief," we also have Christ on record calling HIMSELF the I Am).

    That Christ came and was submitted to the Father as a human: yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. I'm not sure how anyone could read the Bible and see otherwise.

    It's whether or not Christ is subordinate to the Father in an ETERNAL way---as in, the Father was, is, and will always have authority over the Son. THAT is a pretty big thing to say...and that is where I get a little nervous.

    It seems to me that if one is to say that Father was, is, and always in authority over the Son makes it really hard for me to think of them as "equals."

    To me, and maybe that's just because I'm seeing this all wrong, it makes the Father into the big God and the Son into the next god down the line and the Spirit into the last god in the row. To me, it completely seperates the sense of Oneness and makes for a threesome.

    Genesis 1:26 does not indicate that one of them is in authority over the others---it seems to be much more of a community, communion, a oneness emphasized in decision making and in carrying out the decision, doesn't it?

    Anyways, that's where I'm at right now. I have a hard time reconciling the idea of one being IN a permanent inherent eternal state of AUTHORITY over the other two and yet still calling them things like "equal" and "one."

  3. I forgot to add the link to Keener's is there now if you'd like to read the whole thing.

    As far as separating the Trinity, Keener says:

    In recent years some evangelicals on different sides of the gender roles controversy have questioned the Christological orthodoxy of their opponents, charging them with "tampering with the Trinity" or even with "heresy." While I have great respect for some of these figures on both sides of the controversy who are issuing such charges, "tampering with the Trinity" and "heresy" is strong language, stronger, I think, than the evidence warrants.

    If Scripture appears to indicate that there is a hierarchy - or even a "sent-ness" then I need to accept that, whether or not I can understand it. I cannot logically explain "eternity", I cannot logically explain how I belong to a God that has no beginning - a God who always was. I cannot logically explain the Trinity. I cannot logically explain how the Red Sea was parted and how the trio walked through the fiery furnace or how Daniel lived through the lion's den. I cannot logically explain the resurrection of the dead.

    If there is no hierarchy, I cannot logically explain why the Godhead would choose to use language and terms that directly imply hierarchy.

    With all of the things that I cannot explain logically, what is one more?

    What I do know is that my Lord Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God. There is one "what" (God - the Trinity). Within that one "what", there are three "whos" (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Each person of the Trinity is fully God and the Trinity IS God.

    Isa. 48 tells of the God's Spirit being sent (there is a sent-ness within the Trinity before Jesus' incarnation).

    We know that Christ was sent (as Keener says, telling us that there was a "sent-ness" of Christ at least a little time before the incarnation.)

    We know that when the time comes that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is will be to the "glory of God the Father".

    Again quoting Keener (this time regarding 1 Cor. 15)

    Despite some thorny questions about the meaning of some of Paul's language here, which we have not endeavored to resolve, this passage appears to affirm the Son's willing and loving subordination to the Father in the future era. For Paul, then, Jesus' deity (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6) is presumably not incompatible with his recognition of the Father's higher rank, even in the eternal future. Paul's wording does not indicate the sense in which the Son submits to the Father-it surely differs from the sense in which the rest of creation submits to both of them (Rev 22:3). But it does suggest that the Father and Son embrace roles that remain distinct in some respects even in eternity.

    There are enough passages that speak of Christ's submission to the Father, (past present and future) to at least ask to see where in Scripture it tells us that this submission ends.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts, Ellen. This is a slight rabbit trail, but relevant:

    From a personal perspective, I spent a lot of years "doing what Scripture says, whether I understand it or not."

    I wish now that I would have waited until my understanding caught up with the Scripture, because I now believe I MISunderstood Scripture many of those times. In acting (in faith, even though it didn't make sense to me), I now look back and see many moments of well-intentioned but WRONG actions and conclusions, and that includes teaching those doctrines to others.

    So now, now that the pain of those experiences is scarred onto me, I am much slower to jump (which is saying a lot for a jumpy person like myself---HA!).

    When the "it doesn't make sense" aspect is involved, my policy now is to WAIT before jumping into the doctrine and/or practice.

    I used to believe my "it doesn't make sense" thought was to be subject to Scripture---that it wasn't to be trusted. I used to scoff at my gut feeling (instinct? intution? whatever it is in there...), but now, I listen to them.

    I now feel my "it doesn't make sense" thought is probably an indicator that something is not right. Sure, maybe the only thing that's wrong is my own heart, BUT it might be the teaching itself. More times than I can count, it's the teaching itself.

    From what I've seen, time and prayer and careful searching/studying bear out the answer (if it's my heart, or if it's the teaching). Then I am able to walk in wisdom, faith, AND understanding----instead of just well-intentioned error. 😆

    I think God is patient enough to wait until I "get" it... The most important thing, after all, is Love---not "getting it all right, right NOW!" 🙂 1 Cor. 13 says that much, no?

    That's where I'm at, anyway. For me, the concept of *eternal* involuntary subordination" of two members of the Trinity is troubling on more than a few fronts. It doesn't make sense to me. Now, it may be a true concept, and if so, I will certainly bend my knee to it----but I'm not going to jump into it until I see how it makes sense, and that includes until I've studied all sides and all positions.

    Now, back to the discussion at hand... (I read Keener's article already, btw)...

  5. Leigh Ann

    Thanks for the link to the article, Ellen.

    Molly, I totally understand where you are coming from. Looking back in the almost ten years since I graduated from undergrad (10 year reunion coming up -- panic, panic), I blush to think of some of my positions which I would have defended to the death. Thank goodness for the patience of the Lord.

    Now to the topic. I think of the submission (kenosis and eternal) as a totally voluntary one, as in, the Father did not have to twist the Son's arm in order to make Him submit because of the unity of the Godhead. When Christ took upon Him the form of a servant, He gave up nothing. He added (took upon Himself) something that He would have eternally which is humanity. Even if Christ's submission were not eternal, we see that even in the times when He did submit, He lost nothing of His deity and Godness. If His submission for a time did not alter His Godness, how can His submission for eternity alter His Godness. This is arguing from the lesser to the greater. If there was nothing in Him (His essense) that made Him "have" to submit when in His kenosis, then to me it seems illogical to say that for Him to have to submit for eternity changes His deity.
    Don't know if that made sense. It is a huge mystery and mindblowing to think of it all. But I guess that is a good thing.
    I will stop my ramblings now 🙂 .

  6. Molly, does that mean that if we don't understand the Trinity - that the Trinity doesn't make sense - we should wait until we do understand before we "buy into" the belief?

    I am still at the point where - if I believe that the answer is to be found in Scripture and not in the logic of humans - and if I find in Scripture that time started with a hierarchy (order) in creation - eternally generated Son, generated from the Father - and there was a hierarchy in salvation (the obvious submission of one person of the Trinity to another - salvation from the Father through Christ) and there will be a hierarchy (1 Cor. 15:28) - where is Scripture do we find that this ordering will cease? Where does Scripture say?

  7. No, of course not---the Trinity is above comprehension, no matter what. I'm just saying that since "eternal subordination" is arguable, I'm not going to settle on the side of it.

    Btw, I'm not sure that 1 Cor. 15:28 proves an eternal heirarchy. It says all things will be summed up in God, which is not necessarily the same thing as saying they are summed up in the Father, unless "God" refers to the Father only, in which case, Jesus and the Spirit are not fully God...?

    See what I mean? This thing gets sticky, and I'm just not willing to put a whole lot of emphasis on something that's not entirely clear at all.

    The subordination-yet-equality of women, for the most part, rests on the eternal subordination of Christ----meaning that in order to say that women are FULLY EQUAL YET FULLY SUBORDINATE, CBMW has to point to another example of someone fully equal yet fully subordinate, so they point to Christ, who they see as fully equal but fully subordinate.

    Otherwise, logic would say that one cannot be fully equal and fully subordinate at the same time, because it's not possible.

    (Most church leaders, from the early church to recently, have called for the subordination of women because of the fact that they felt women were NOT full equals. They've taught that women are more prone to error, etc, etc, etc, and thus proved the goodness of women being under male authority. It is only lately that the claim to full equality has been trumpeted, while at the same time calling for full subordination)...

    If one is in a position of subordination from birth to death, then one is most certainly NOT equal, and to claim full equality is to engage in double-speak.

    However, if one can claim that Christ is fully equal while being fully subordinate, then one can make a case for the full equality of subordinated women. (Clear as mud? Heh heh heh).

    The problem for me is that saying Christ is eternally subordinate to the Father's authority (always was and always will be) seems to say He's not as fully God as the Father is.

    *shrugs* Here's where we just don't see things the same way. But that doesn't mean I would enjoy a cup of java with you, all the same. 🙂

  8. I still have the issue with the word "subordinate", although in 1 Cor., we still have the words "subject to". If we can't deal with the word of subjection, then we are left with - well...subjection.

    If one is in a position of subordination from birth to death, then one is most certainly NOT equal, and to claim full equality is to engage in double-speak.

    Not if it's voluntary and there is no reason to think that God the Son is not in full agreement with God the Father and God the Spirit on this issue.

    I'm reading "On the Trinity" by Augustine (you can download the whole thing at CCEL). I believe he sees an "ordering" within the Godhead, but the thing is 787 pages long so there's a lot to digest.

    If you're ever in Michigan (or California when I'm there)...or I'm in Alaska...a cup of java would be wonderful!

  9. Btw, I’m not sure that 1 Cor. 15:28 proves an eternal heirarchy. It says all things will be summed up in God, which is not necessarily the same thing as saying they are summed up in the Father, unless “God” refers to the Father only, in which case, Jesus and the Spirit are not fully God…?

    You still have to deal with the language of subjection. The passage DOES indicate a future submission of the Son to the Father. Since Paul pretty consistently refers to "God the Father" and "our Lord Jesus Christ" - and both of them as God - AND refers to both "theos pater"(God the Father) and kristos (Christ) in this passage, it is difficult for me to see the logic in referring to "theos" as the Father, and then (after referring to kristos (the Son), referring to both of them as "theos"(which he previously used in conjunction with "pater".

    If one is in a position of subordination from birth to death, then one is most certainly NOT equal, and to claim full equality is to engage in double-speak.

    Only if we are attempting to subject the Godhead to human experience and logic. If, in our sinful present bodies, we cannot imagine Godly hierarchy, yet the Bible speaks of the submission of one member of the Godhead to another, then I can accept that there is a Biblical reality that I cannot imagine.

    I'm right back to looking for (and nobody seems to be able to point me to it):

    Whether eternal or not, 1 Cor 15 does point to a future submission of the Son to the Father. Given that we have a past, present and future submission, where in Scripture do we see God telling us when this submission ends. If it is not there, then we teach from silence and that I am not comfortable with.

    It does make sense that there is no hierarchy within the Trinity. But is that what Scripture teaches?

  10. Leigh Ann

    Just to add a note. Calvin and others teach that when the members of the Trinity are being spoken of in distinction, then the use of "God" refers to the Father. When "God" is used in other places then it denotes the Trinity. Does that make sense? I will try to find the passage if you want me to. But they said that this was speaking to an ordering of the Trinity.

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  12. Dinah

    I think all these passages can be accounted for by the incarnation .... what has always troubled me (especially after some study on early Christian heresies) is how submission/rank/hierarchy in the eternal Trinity can avoid meaning there is more than one will in God .... and if there is more than one will, then ultimately you have three Gods with the Father dominant and the Son and Spirit 'lesser' and so subservient 'gods' ..... and for all the talk of 'role' and not 'essence' one cannot logically take on a role that is grounded in one's essence and not be essentially defined by that role .... at least that is how it seems to me

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