Part 2: Subordination without Subordinationism

This is part two of my series on “Trinity, Gender, and Subordination,” which is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality.

Subordination without Subordinationism: The Witness of Karl Barth

Barth is famous for inaugurating the “revival of the trinity” in modern theology. He began his massive Church Dogmatics not with an abstract reflection on method and the possibilities of speaking about God, but instead with a robust doctrine of the trinity. As important as this was, Barth did not remain content with the position he laid out in CD I/1. Twenty years later, in volume IV of the Dogmatics, he began a “a massive recapitulation and a thorough revision of Barth’s entire dogmatics.”1 While he does not set forth a separate doctrine of the trinity in this volume, he does nevertheless engage in a complete overhaul of his earlier position. The details would take too long to develop here, so I will settle for broad strokes and some key quotes to get at the heart of the change. The basis for the change was set forth in CD II/2, where Barth puts forward his mature doctrine of election. Barth makes the historical person of Jesus Christ the subject and object of election. What this means is that God in eternity already includes the historical Christ. Jesus was “in the beginning with God,” as John’s Prologue puts it. Barth’s move here was to make God’s self-revelation in history determinative for who God is in eternity. God’s actions in the economy are not simply reflective, but are in fact constitutive, of God’s immanent being in eternity.

What happens in CD IV is that Barth then develops this in a narratival sense, which is to say, he explicates the historical identity of God’s being by reflecting on the narrative of God’s economic actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The relations of Father, Son, and Spirit are determined by the history of salvation actualized in the life of Jesus Christ. Perceptive readers will immediately see what Barth is then able to do. If the narrated life-history of Christ, in which he is sent by the Father and empowered by the Spirit, is itself determinative of God’s eternal being, then the functional subordination that we encounter in the biblical narrative is itself ontologically grounded in God’s immanent triune being. Barth’s way of developing this is to speak of the command of the Father and the obedience of the Son (with the Spirit being the effective agent of both the command and the obedience). The Son, Jesus, is characterized by his total humility and his complete obedience to the point of death. Barth thus writes:
If the humility of Christ is not simply an attitude of the man Jesus of Nazareth, if it is the attitude of this man because . . . there is a humility grounded in the being of God, then something else is grounded in the being of God Himself. For, according to the New Testament, it is the case that the humility of this man is an act of obedience. . . . If, then, God is in Christ, if what the man Jesus does is God’s own work, this aspect of the self-emptying and self-humbling of Jesus Christ as an act of obedience cannot be alien to God. But in this case, we have to see here the other and inner side of the mystery of the divine nature of Christ and therefore of the nature of the one true God—that He Himself is also able and free to render obedience.2
What Barth is saying here is that humility cannot be confined to the man Jesus but is proper to and grounded in the very being of God. Obedience is internal to God’s own eternal identity.3 “In itself and as such, then,” according to Barth, “humility is not alien to the nature of the true God, but supremely proper to Him in His mode of being as the Son.”4

In case there were any doubt about the location of functional subordination in the being of God, Barth goes on to state without equivocation:
We have not only not to deny but actually to affirm and understand as essential to the being of God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. . . . His divine unity consists in the fact that in Himself He is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys.5
There is an above and a below in the eternal being of God, “a superiority and a subordination” he says. Subordination is not only part of the narrated history of Jesus, but it is truthfully said of God’s inner, immanent being. The trinitarian history of the Father’s commanding will and the Son’s obedient will is determinative of who God actually is. At the same time, this functional subordination does not indicate any ontological superiority of the Father over the Son. The Father’s command and the Son’s obedience are all part of one trinitarian history of salvation.
In his mode of being as the Son He fulfills the divine subordination, just as the Father in His mode of being as Father fulfills the divine superiority. In humility as the Son who complies, He is the same as the Father in majesty as the Father who disposes. He is the same in consequence (and obedience) as is the Father in origin. He is the same as the Son, i.e. as the self-posited God (the eternally begotten of the Father as the dogma has it) as the Father is as the self-positing God (the Father who eternally begets). Moreover, in His humility and compliance as the Son, He has a supreme part in the majesty and disposing of the Father. The Father as the origin is never apart from Him as the consequence.6
Barth’s point here is that the Father’s command as “origin” and the Son’s obedience as “consequence” are equally divine in the being of God. The Son’s humility and obedience gives him “a supreme part” in the glory and majesty of God. The Son is equal to the Father precisely in his willed subordination. His obedience is his equality. What we therefore find in Barth is an ontologically-grounded subordination within the triune divine life without any ontological subordinationism. Whereas subordinationism posits an ontological disparity within God’s being, Barth’s trinitarian subordination depends upon and is the basis of true ontological equality and unity within God’s being. Father, Son, and Spirit are only equal in the subordination and submission of the Son to the Father through the power of the Spirit.

All of this would seem to be clearly in support of the complementarian position. And it would be, if it were not for one crucial point: Barth’s rejection of social trinitarianism. Barth’s doctrine of the trinity changes with respect to the methodology by which he develops it. But one thing remains the same throughout, namely, the single subjectivity of God. In this regard, Barth remains firmly in line with the orthodox tradition of the church. There is one divine will, one divine being. The tri-personal character of God is never in conflict with the oneness of God’s eternal identity. This is why Barth replaces the language of “persons” of the trinity with the alternative conception, “modes of being.” He does this because the modern concept of person is not the concept held by the ancients when they spoke of Father, Son, and Spirit as “hypostases” of the one God. To explain this—and thus to demonstrate why the complementarian appeal to the trinitarian being of God is theologically impossible—we need to turn to the two-part critique of the complementarian presuppositions that lie behind their appeal to functional subordination.


1 Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, trans. Garrett E. Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 46.

2 Barth, CD IV/1, 193.

3 Barth can say that this is the case without having to say that God changed by becoming incarnate. This is because God’s being is determined by an eternal act of election in which God determines God’s own self to be who God will become in time and space in the history of Jesus Christ. God’s eternal act of election is an act of self-constitution which means that God is in eternity who God will be in history. For this reason, the Logos is not an abstract Logos asarkos but instead the Logos incarnandus. For the fullest explication of these ideas, see the work of Bruce L. McCormack. See especially the following essays: “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110; “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 201-33; and “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 185-242.

4 Barth, CD IV/2, 42. Emphasis mine.

5 Ibid., 201.

6 Barth, CD IV/1, 209.


Bros. Jimenez said…
Excellent series so far. You explain Barth's position with such clarity. Can't wait to see how this series is headed...
Chris E W Green said…
Thanks, David, for these posts. A quibble: I don't quite agree that Barth provides the only way out of this problem. I think it's possible—it has been done IMO, by Jenson, and perhaps others—to hold to "superiority and subordination" within God's own "private" life without necessarily agreeing at every point with Barth's articulation of God's oneness. But, like I said, a quibble. Thanks again for this work. I'm glad you've Farved (i.e. unretired) pro nobis!
That's true, Chris. I certainly do not mean to say that Barth is the only person who has ever articulated this idea (Jüngel is my personal preference), but I do want to say that his work pioneered the modern articulation of this idea. Jenson and Jüngel, among others, are entirely parasitic upon Barth. Barth made it possible for others to develop this view in their own ways.
Ian Paul said…
Yes, spot on. I think that is why I would always want to argue that creation was as much an act of God's self-empty love as redemption. There must be a temporal unity to God's action as much as there is a 'modal' unity as expressed here by Barth. It is impossible to see creation as a manifestation of God's power, after which he then gets a bit cross and starts judging everyone, after which he then has another change of heart and decides to be all forgiving and self-emptying. This is the heresy behind Marcion's reading of the canon.

For this reason I am drawn to the kabbalist doctrine of the tzim-tzum. This describes God's self-withdrawal in order to make space for the created order. It also appeals to the mathematician in me!
Dec said…
Came across the following quote

"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?"

in CD IV/1 and don't know what to make of it. I found your exposition of Barth helpful, but just wondering if Barth doesn't betray himself here? He seems to be using the Trinity as a model for understanding human relations, or at least as a justification for his own take on male-female relationships.