Generally, complementarians believe that Scripture teaches (in this verse and elsewhere) a kind of functional (not ontological) subordination of Christ to God. While the Father and the Son are equal in essence (pertaining to ontology), the Son voluntarily submits his will to that of the Father (i.e., the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father). This functional subordination between Father and Son is then seen as the anti-type of the functional (not ontological) subordination of the wife to her husband. Or to state it again, the voluntary submission of the wife to the husband is seen as an expression/image/type of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. Of course, the whole complementarian position in this regard hangs on the idea that Christ is indeed functionally subordinate to God. Egalitarians (naturally) don’t agree, and have accused complementarians of espousing a neo-Arian Christology. Consequently, both sides have sought to recruit the church fathers to their side. Did the church fathers recognize a functional subordination between the members of the Godhead (Christ to God, and the Holy Spirit to both God and Christ)? Or is any form of subordination beyond the pale of Trinitarian orthodoxy?
It seemed to me that a profitable way of determining the Church father’s position on this subject (beyond reading the secondary literature) was to examine the ways in which the fathers handled the key texts of the current debate, most notably 1 Corinthians 11:3, John 14:6, 1 Corinthians 15:28-29, and the various passages which speak about the Father sending the Son. Key to this whole discussion is the extent to which the Son as God submits to the Father. Everyone agrees that the Son voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father during his brief sojourn on earth. But egalitarians insists that this subordination was a mere thirty-three year ordeal, and that upon Christ’s ascension he returned to “equal footing” with the Father, so to speak. What do the fathers say? I read the Trinitarian writings of Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nanzianus, and Gregory of Nyssa—arguably the four most important early Church fathers regarding Trinitarian theology. Generally speaking, here’s how they handled the passages noted above. . .
When the Scriptures speak of Christ submitting to the Father, we should understand this to be a submission of Christ’s humanity. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature in him which is superior to suffering and incorporeal: but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him whofor your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate—yes, for it is no worse thing to say—was made man, and afterwards was also exalted (Theological Orations, 18).And Augustine writes,
But because, on account of the incarnation of the Word of God for the working out of our salvation, that the man Christ Jesus might be the Mediator between God and men, many things are so said in the sacred books as to signify, or even most expressly declare, the Father to be greater that the son.This is their general interpretive rule of thumb for handling the texts that seem to suggest a subordination of the Son to the Father. The Son does not submit to the Father as the divine Son per se, but rather submits to the Father as the incarnate God-man—the theanthropos. This is seen pretty clearly in the way the fathers handle 1 Corinthians 15:28-29. In this passage, Paul states that Christ will subject himself to God in order that God may be all in all (the time frame of this passage is clearly eschatological). Augustine interprets this to mean that Christ as theanthropos submits his himself as anthropos—and thus all of humanity with him—to God the Father (of whom the Son as theos is an equal). Further, in as much as the incarnation is an eternal reality, a perpetual inequality of nature (indeed ontology!) is present in the relationship between God and Christ. While the Son remains ontologically equal to the Father in his divinity (he is eternally God of very God, begotten not made, etc.), the Son as theanthropos—in as much as he is now also fully human—is at the same time ontologically inferior to the Father and thus in proper subjection to the Father. In short, the Son is ontologically equal to God in his divine nature, and ontologically inferior to God in his human nature. Which is to say that the Son is both equal to, and less then, himself!
At first pass, this reading of the fathers may seem to support the egalitarian position. The Son doesn’t submit to the Father as the divine Son, but only as man. But hold on. The egalitarian position depends on a finite incarnation—it doesn’t deal with the fact that the incarnation is not a mere thirty-three year sojourn. Christ remains eternally theanthropos. Thus even is if the Son as Son does not subordinate himself to the Father, the Son as theanthropos does voluntarily submit himself to the Father—and eternally so. The Son is now and forever theanthropos, and thus in some fashion he is in perpetual subjection to the Father. The egalitarian logic would require that somehow the resurrection of the Son renders the Son’s finite human nature of equal ontology to that of his infinite divine nature. But such is impossible; the created can never ascend to the uncreated.
So the complementarian typology holds. But in as much as it wants to be in harmony with the fathers, it needs to be adjusted slightly. Rather than the man/woman relationship serving as a reflection of the eternal Father/Son relationship, it is perhaps more proper to speak of said relationship serving as a reflection of the God/Christ relationship—specifically of God the Father being the head of Christ as theanthropos. The logic could run thus: God, foreseeing the necessity of the incarnation, ordained the physical and cultural disparity between the man and the woman to be a reflection of Christ’s (as theanthropos) inequality with God as such. The man/woman relationship is a reflection of the relationship between God the father and his incarnate Son. In this way, the beauty of unconditional trust and love that exists perpetually within the Trinitarian relationship is expressed perpetually within humanity. Pragmatically speaking, the end result is still the same—submission and authority are viewed as everlasting elements of the Godhead, and as beautiful aspects of creation—and the complementarian typology is more adequately grounded in the fathers.
It should be pointed out that the fathers were battling against Arianism, and thus were very hesitant to in any way suggest that Son was subordinate to the Father. One wonders if they would have been more favorable to complementarian logic under less polemical circumstances. One can get this sense in that in at least two areas the fathers affirm at least some form of subordination (if that’s even the proper word) between Christ and God. In the first instance, God the Father sends God the Son as Son, not as theanthropos. It was fitting, Augustine says, that the Father would send the Son and not the Son send the Father. (This gets pretty convoluted in Augustine, and frankly, I’m not sure I follow his logic.) Augustine also seems to be working from the logic that the greater sends the lesser. Additionally, the fathers interpret John 14:6 as a reference to the Father’s generation of the Son as Son. The Father is “greater” than the Son in as much as the Father generates the Son and not vice versa.
Trinitarian theology is not my specialty, and I have no desire to be innovative. I may need to adjust the way I’m stating things, so if you see anything amiss, please speak up.