“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 1: Theologia and Oikonomia

There are three major use classes of “economy” at play in the current debate, and it is of utmost importance to discuss them separately and on their own terms as they relate to ESS

The problem, as I stated in the last post, is that there are too many definitions and variant uses of “ontological” and “economic” at play for a statement such as Ligonier’s to constitutively rule out the supposed Subordination of the Son that has been called into question.  This has lead each participant to see His position as orthodox, with lofty origin in the Fathers, and yet all still disagreeing on what is and isn’t biblical and orthodox subordination of the Son.

 

[M]en have erred through a want of careful examination or consideration of the whole tenor of the Scriptures, and have endeavored to transfer those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation, and is eternal. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Bk. 1, Ch. 7.14)

In my earlier post, “Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the ‘Economic’ Trinity”, I noted how the revised Ligonier Statement on Christology included the phrase, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” apparently in response to the previous Summer’s Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) debate.  I noted that I was momentarily encouraged by this, but was then immediately struck by the fact that everyone on every side of the debate agrees with this statement as well!  Even the most visible proponent of ESS, Wayne Grudem, argues,

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Systematic Theology)

(Earlier in the text, Grudem defines the economic Trinity: “The ‘economy of the Trinity’ means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and […] to each other for all eternity.”)

While there is so much wrong with these statements, what I would like to note here is: (1) Grudem, while fully endorsing the Eternal Subordination of the Son, would also fully agree with the words of the Ligionier statement; (2) Grudem believes that subordination properly resides within the eternal Trinity as economically conceived; and (3), he believes that this is the position of the Nicene Fathers, that there is subordination in the “economic” Trinity but equality in the “ontological” Trinity.

I wish I could say that this is all peculiar to Grudem, but in fact, many, even the majority, of those participating in last Summer’s Trinity debate also agree that subordination is appropriately applied to the Trinity as economically conceived. To iterate quotes to demonstrate this from many on both sides would be easy, but voluminous, and I promise this post will already be too long.  Having engaged in this debate for months, I hear it at least twice a week, “we deny ontological subordination and only believe in economic subordination!”

The problem, as I stated in the last post, is that there are too many definitions and variant uses of “ontological” and “economic” at play for a statement such as Ligonier’s to constitutively rule out the supposed Subordination of the Son that has been called into question.  This has lead each participant to see His position as orthodox, with lofty origin in the Fathers, and yet all still disagreeing on what is and isn’t biblical and orthodox subordination of the Son. I believe there are three major use classes of “economy” at play in the current debate and that it is of utmost importance to discuss them separately and on their own terms as they relate to ESS:

Class 1: The “economy” as in the oikonomia employed by the Church Fathers in contrast to the theologia.  The Greek word oikonomia is a compound of oikos, roughly translated “household,” and nemein, which may be translated as “management” or “stewardship”. Thus it is most common to translate the compound as simply “economy”, as in home economics and the general ordering aright of family, home, and property including the notion of arrangement or ordered dispensation. We will discuss the Church Fathers’ use fully below.

Class 2: The “economy” as in the Economic Trinity, “the activity of God and the roles of the three persons with regard to creation and redemption,” as contrasted with the Immanent Trinity, “the Trinity in itself, without regard to God’s works of creation and redemption” (via Ligionier).  The latter is the Trinity considered in se, as God is in His inner most life and being and the former as He is considered ad extra in His works and operations revealed in history.

Class 3: The ESS usage of “economy,” which includes all of Class 1 Economic Trinity, but also illicitly includes the internal, interpersonal, relations of the Trinity.

My goal in this series is to assess the value of casting the Eternal Subordination of the Son controversy in terms of Economic vs. Ontological/Immanent Trinity.  Is there value in employing the line that divides economy and ontology to also demarcate biblical, Nicene, subordination from unbiblical, unorthodox, subordination? We will begin by clarifying use Class 1, economy as oikonomia in the Fathers, and in the next posts assess the value of Class 2 with reference to ESS as well as the (frankly) profound absurdity of Class 3.

Introduction to Part 1

Much of the confusion surrounding Eternal Subordination of the Son and the Economic Trinity is that it has become very common, pervasive even, to assume that our modern definition of the Ontological/Economic (or Immanent/Economic) conceptual distinction finds its genesis in the Church Fathers, particularly the Nicene and Pro-Nicene, and that the distinction of theologia and oikonomia equates in principle to our modern usage.  We see this in most popular level explanations, e.g., Dr. Daniel Treier’s explanation of the duo on the Third Millennium Ministries education site:

The distinction between the economic and the immanent or ontological Trinity is the distinction that corresponds to the early church’s distinction between theology proper and economy – between God in himself and what we can say about God in himself apart from creation – and God engaged with his creation – God administering his purposes in the world that he has made. (Ontological and Economic Trinity)

We find it in the most respected Nicene scholars, such as Lewis Ayres, who discusses Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration 38 and concludes: “Oikonomia here indicates God’s dispositions, his activity in ordering all that is external to God” (“Theologia and Oikonomia”). We also find it in some of my favorite Trinitarian theologians, e.g., Fred Sanders: “The fathers reached for this pair of terms [theologia and oikonomia] to make the crucial distinction between God’s own eternal nature, on the one hand, and God’s actions toward creation, on the other hand” (“Theology and Economy in the Scripture”)[1].  This conflation is even enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 236:

The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). “Theology” refers to the mystery of God’s inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and “economy” to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God’s works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works.

As such, I believe it would behoove us to make a diligent search of the Fathers to grasp exactly how they use the conceptual distinction theologia and oikonomia, with a view toward finding clarity in our discussion of the supposed Eternal Subordination of the Son.  I also believe this must be a thorough (read lengthy) investigation in order to leave no doubt as to the Fathers’ intentions, capturing as much of the semantic range as possible. Last, I believe it will become perfectly clear that the Fathers in no wise use theologia/oikonomia to be a distinction describing the Trinity as “the mystery of God’s inmost life within” in contrast “to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life.” In fact, I don’t believe the Fathers’ distinction even relates to the Trinity at all, except tangentially, but is primarily a Christological distinction.

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