Sunday, February 13, 2011

Re-thinking hierarchy (2)

As with the previous post, I need to touch on a few initial comments of a more technical nature, but hang in there with me.

There is a notional distinction made between ‘working relationships’ within the Godhead (known as the ‘economic Trinity’), and the ‘essential being’ of God. However, the distinction is arbitrary, and it is widely held that we can know nothing of God’s ‘essential being’ other than what glimpses we see through God’s dealings in and through creation. There is no other ‘portal’ into perceiving God other than what is discovered in history as God has engaged with his world.

God is as God is observed to be, inasmuch as we finite beings can discern the being of God.

Why is this significant? Because the distinction between the ‘subordination of the Son’ in terms of God’s outward ‘working relationships’, and of more essential and eternal dimensions to the inner being of God is not so neatly delineated.

Now all this is much discussed and nothing particularly new. Yet it shapes how we approach Scripture. What do we observe of God, and the interaction between the distinctive entities of Father, Son and Spirit?

Note: I have chosen not to fill these posts with chapter and verse. This is not an exercise in proof-texting, but a consideration of the contours of New Testament theology. I invite readers to fill in the gaps and make the connections. (I have an academic paper being drafted that will provide a more detailed engagement with specific passages and terminology). This post is more of the ‘musing aloud’ variety…

We can note that there is not reciprocal identity—they are distinct and not to be confused. And without making the error of suggesting that there was a time when the Son did not exist, we also observe the Father is the kephale – source of the Son, and the Son is ‘begotten’ of the Father, while the Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father. This much is not the point of this post, but the backdrop to what follows.

While the hot issue is whether the Son’s submission is eternal (and if so, whether this is functional or ontological), I wonder whether the wrong question is being explored. It is less the timeframe of such submission, but how that ‘submission’ is understood. Is it necessarily a hierarchical notion, of command and submission?

In what sense may we understand the ‘submission’ of Jesus to Father? In similar terms, we hear of the ‘obedience’ of Jesus to the Father, although this is largely to be understood in contrast to the disobedience of Adam to God. Jesus, the new man and ‘second Adam’ was and is obedient where the original Adam was wilfully rebellious. Such obedience is also a reflection of love and trust here. The willingness to be obedient is the outworking of such love.

In like measure, talk of the submission of Jesus to the Father is better located in the sense of the depth of respect and love. The will of the Father becomes the will of Jesus. The ‘convergence of will’ better reflects what we observe about Trinitarian relations. The Trinity exists in the ultimate ‘oneness of mind’ and purpose, and it in this—and this alone—that we discover the possibility of ‘mutual submission’.

The adoption of some form of ‘hierarchy’ as a paradigm to understand relationships within the Godhead take us in the wrong direction, and places strain on the affirmation of ontological equality (ultimate equality of ‘being’). Yet the biblical windows into the inner realm of the Trinity lead us elsewhere, to a mutual indwelling and complete alignment of values, will and purpose.

In similar measure, the reduction of human relationships between males and females along the delineation of roles and hierarchy of order is ill-considered. The goal set before the fellowship of God’s people, those transformed in their thinking towards the will of God and participating in the Spirit, is to be of one mind, that is, the same mind as that of Christ.

Ideas have consequences, and the preoccupation with reducing every gender relationship to some form of hierarchy in terms of ‘who is the boss?’ and exercise authority reflects more of our culture than the gospel.


arthurandtamie said...

Hi Tim

I'm normally suspicious of the whole Trinity discussion with hierarchy and gender, mainly just because the Trinity is so unique and tricky that it seems like shaky territory to start arguing from.

But your discussion here I love, especially the re-defining of submission. I think you're right - understanding submission in hierarchical terms may be a red herring. I wonder what cultures that are less hierarchical than ours make of 'submission' when they read it in the Bible?

I'm looking forward to hearing more about this and what it looks like in practice!


Tim Harris said...

It is interesting that evangelical theologians from less hierarchical modes of ministry have been at the forefront in rethinking the nature of submission - scholars of the stature of FF Bruce from within his Bretheren background, and theologians such as John Howard Yoder reflecting Mennonite culture. They just don't see 'hierarchy' sitting behind every form of orderly relationship, and are much more open to mutuality and inter- dependence.

Peter Carrell said...

Two great posts!