Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Subordination and the Trinity

On Sunday 21st the service taker at Hull Unitarians referred to John Bidle 1644-1697, while I contributed appropriate 17th century music (and how Purcell's Fairest Isle became a hymn tune for later words). The readings included the Gospel of John where the text clearly indicates Jesus as subordinate to the Father, the basis on which John Bidle and his Bidellians met and worshipped. There is no link from him to Unitarians, and if he was Socinian (he denied it, and the detail supports the denial) then founders of congregations that became Unitarian had harsh views about Socinians. The Calvinists thought they should be locked up; some even thought they should get the death sentence. Bidle's treatment by Oliver Cromwell of being exiled was reasonably tolerant given the alternatives, and he was mainly in prison once the first heresy was marked.

I'm going to be so bold as to partly correct the service taker.
Yes, Bidle first denied the deity of the Holy Spirit (in terms of the Trinity), but also argued for a more pure Trinity (like Servetus) so that Christ had only a human nature, yet was Son of God, and was also God. He read Socinus and the Racovian Catechism and wasn't convinced and preferred the terminology of scripture itself. He preferred the notion of three divine persons. His unorthodoxy spread wider than the doctrine of the Trinity and he went on to deny that Christ was God (but was divine) in a debate that got him swiftly imprisoned and, whilst Presbyterians argued for his conviction some Baptists (with whom he debated) argued for his freedom. This is when he was sent far west for a while but freedom was followed by the Restoration and the imrpisonment that finished him off.

Now for me there was the extra question. The Gospel of John as read clearly had Jesus as subordinate. So the extra question is how come modern Christians retain the Trinity in the light of such obvious texts?

The answer can be found among present day evangelicals and those who want to deny women leading roles in ministry, certainly as bishops and in cases of running a local congregation. There is an article just published online by Ian Paul that rather explains it.

Like Bidle, the evangelicals read the same texts and call it subordinationism. The son is eternally in functional subordination to the Father, an essential matter to their being, but the hierarchy is functional only and not in being. Therefore women, otherwise equal, should be subordinate to males. Ian Paul doesn't get it (neither do I), because it is essential to their being, and rather likens it to the Arian debate [of the post-Reformation kind as discussed]. In other words, evangelicals of this argument are dangerously close to being heretical.

Ian Paul reminds about the kinds of Trinity:

...‘economic’ Trinity (how we see God as Father, Son and Spirit at work), the ‘immanent’ Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit as they really are, so to speak) and the ‘social’ Trinity (how the ‘persons’ of the Trinity relate to one another)...

And it is wrong to base social relationships on the latter, when the texts on authority are between the godhead and humans. But I don't get him either because he says, as a corrective:

Christian faith is about believing in the Trinity, and not believing in a particular doctrine about the Trinity. 

This is a nonsense! The logic is self-defeating! It takes some dogmatic gnosis, surely, to assume a Trinity about which all else is deducted. Anyone can do precisely the same in gnosis about the biblical record, say regarding a Divine Unity, for which trinities may exist but the 'immanent' Trinity of co-equality and co-eternity is not present except by later Church doctrinal escalation, and based on other than the limited texts on the economic or functional trinity and the social or relationship trinity. They are not exactly a Trinity at all, but manifestations of God, simply read. John's philosophical gospel, putting words into Jesus's mouth, is in any case an unreliable basis to build such doctrine. And it is doctrine - philosophical and so doctrinal.

Whilst doubt may be expressed about the biographies in the synoptic gospels, as John gets more philosophical it also gets more stratosopheric and dislodged from reality. John's gospel is pulled towards as well as fighting off the Gnostics (as was Paul) and struggles to keep to a material basis of the Christ concept.

The service taker referred to Biblical Unitarians, these being other than Unitarian Universalists, that are now of a more pluralist condition, including liberal Christians but others too. We've moved on.

And, in the end, here is the real parallel. The debate about women and authority argued out against so-called subordinationism is a clapped-out argument - clapped-out both in having the argument at all and in the texts to justify resistance. It's the same with gay equality and ministry. The source arguments of resistance are simply dismissed as having no legitimacy beyond the members of the sect that uphold them and use them for resistance - in both cases.
John Henry Newman understood the problem. He could see some gospel elements as unitarian, and others like in John as Arian, but what made them trinitarian was all of them taken as a whole under the direction of the Church. Now, taken as a whole (alone) doesn't work: they are simply varied, and so needs the Church.

The matter of the Trinity is developmental, from the escalation of beliefs in the early Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian communities and beyond. In the end, the evangelicals are as Church-directed as the rest. They look at their Bibles through blinkers and tinted spectacles. That's why when a Hooker (the man) puts Scripture first, then reason, and only then tradition (a contrast with Aquinas), it isn't true. Those who simply read the book saw it quite differently. And Bidle was trying to compromise.

1 comment:

Jonathan Clatworthy said...

Enthusiasm for the Trinity works because people who have long since given up biblical fundamentalism still cling to credal fundamentalism. The doctrine of the Trinity took centuries to be hammered out, for reasons people are barely aware of now. Christianity began as a Jewish sect, and Jews were distinctive for their monotheism. Stoics and Middle Platonists were moving towards monotheism, partly influenced by Judaism. To give an illustration of the kind of literature that was around for Christians to borrow on behalf of Jesus, here’s Aelius Aristides, a Second Century AD Middle Platonist, on Zeus and Athena:
He had nothing of the same rank from which to make her, but himself withdrawing into himself generated the goddess from himself and bore her, so that she alone is securely the genuine offspring of the Father, coming to be from a race equal to him... from the most excellent part of himself, that is, from hs head, he produced her... therefore it is not right for her ever to abandon the Father, but she is always present with him and lives with him...
It’s one thing to believe in the Trinity because it makes sense. It’s another to believe it because it’s in the tradition. To believe something just because it’s in the tradition is to kill it.