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Barth and Christ's Subordination

Barth and Christ's Subordination

Amidst the recent Trinitarian flare-up, I have not seen many dropping Karl Barth's name. That isn't really surprising given 1) the complexity of Barth's Trinitarian theology and 2) Barth's relative lack as a name to tack on in a conservative evangelical discussion. What follows will add nothing to the Trinitarian discussion. It's merely an opportunity for me to recall some Barthian concepts and criticisms — you all have been waiting for me to say Barth was wrong right?

A Developing Christology

Karl Barth's theology is unique in a number of ways. One of the more blatant is that it has two or three popular takes on its "history" or stages of development. Almost none though agree that Barth's Trinitarian theology in the early portions of Church Dogmatics fits seamlessly with his later enumeration. While the early volumes deal with the Trinity directly under Theology-proper, Christology in light of redemption occurs much later.

In Church Dogmatics IV/I, Barth makes some statements that I believe land him clearly in the "eternal subordination/submission" camp of the current Trinitarian flare-up. I discard the "functional/economical" distinction because I am convinced Barth would not make such a distinction. In a section entitled "The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country," Barth seeks to instill the idea that obedience-proper is consistent within God. This leads him to read obedience/submission back into eternity,

"His divine unity consists in the fact that in Himself He is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys" (201)

"As we look at Jesus Christ we cannot avoid the astounding conclusion of a divine obedience. Therefore we have to draw the no less astounding deduction that in equal Godhead the one God is, in fact, the One and also Another, that He is indeed a First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility" (203)

It is important to note, Barth says all of this against the subordination and modalistic doctrines of the early church. He is seeking to show Christ "is very God and of the divine nature" in His obedience unto death (177). Barth wants his point to be clear— the obedient person on the cross is fully Divine,

"He humbled Himself, but He did not do it by ceasing to be who He is. He went into a strange land, but even there, and especially there, He never became a stranger to Himself" (180)

Molnar's Criticism

This is a noble cause and position. It is also consistent with Barth's driving emphasise that Jesus Christ is the revealed God — even dying on the cross. Yet, I am in agreement with Paul Molnar that Barth went too far in reading this "Divine obedience" rendered in the historical person of Jesus Christ into the Ontological Trinity. Molnar addresses the subject in his book Faith, Freedom and the Spirit. He begins his chapter saying,


"There is no doubt that both Barth and Torrance wanted to stress that obedience, humiliation and subordination were not simply experiences of the human Jesus but were experienced by God the Son in his divine nature as well" (314)

With that, he takes aim at Barth's reading of this experience back into the Ontological Trinity — something he claims Torrance correctly followed Calvin in not doing. Molnar writes,

"He [Barth] is absolutely correct to argue that God can be one and also 'above and below, superior and subordinate' in the incarnation and the mission of the Son of God obeying God for us. But why does Barth think he must ascribe superiority and subordination to God's inner life in order to make this assertion?" (328)

Molnar believes Barth deserted his own descant "God is who he is in his works but not only in his works" (330). In so strongly desiring to stress "that the obedience of the incarnate Son acting for us is an act of God himself," Barth stumbled needlessly into "obedience within God's inner life" (333). Molnar critically states "missing in Barth's presentation at this point...is any account of perichoresis" (335).

I'll close with an ironic element of Molnar's criticism given the current discussion of Christ's subordination in reference to complementarianism,

"Has Barth not conceived the Trinity here in an all-too-human way? ... Now, it seems, Barth has illegitimately read back into the Godhead the order he thinks he found in male-female relations. Of course he has not done this without insisting that this needs to be clarified by the perfect equality within the triune being of God. But that does not alleviate the problem, because Barth has in fact conceived the inner Trinity in terms of a hierarchy, and that is, according to Torrance, damaging not only to the doctrine of the Trinity but to our relations with God in the economy." (337)

No one is perfect.

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O Soul, Await

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