There was a furious debate many months ago about whether or not the Divine Son was “eternally subordinate” to the Father. It was a perhaps a simpler time, at least from behind the veil of forgetfulness the current pandemic placed on even the recent past, but we move on.
The reason I’m recalling this is to call attention to a blog post by Michael Bull I don’t think many saw, but was groundbreaking for me then. A particular quote caught my eye, and seemed to resolve the aporia completely:
Both sides of this debate, which pitches the subordination of the Son as the Son, and the equality of the Son as God, against each other, fail because they insist on defining the living God in static terms. The truth is that God Himself, being triune, is a process, and He is a process because He is a relationship. So, both sides of the debate fail, and yet both sides are also correct. This is because the crux of the debate is a false dichotomy: the Son is both equal and subordinate. The apparent paradox is solved when we realise that the Son is subordinate and equal at different points in a single process.(The Eternal Perfection of the Son – Bible Matrix, n.d.)
Now, kick out all your fears about Mr Bull espousing open theism or process theology here. He isn’t. He is putting in tensed language the eternal “event” beyond both the static and motive. Not to mention this eternal “event” plays out in time in the incarnation, and on an even bigger scale in the Story of Israel, and on the ultimate stage, in the story of creation. The latter two stages centred on the former, more “original” outplay of eternity in the incarnation.
Related to this understanding of the Divine Son is the late Dr James Cutsinger (1953-2020) and his understanding of the Trinity. He says similar things in several places:
Strange as it may sound even to some Christian ears, there is a hierarchy within the divine order itself. Even though Jesus can in one sense be rightly called “God” since He has the same essence as His Father, the “God” that He is has a God. This astonishing claim is born out, among other places, in the risen Christ’s encounters with Thomas Didymus and Mary Magdalene, as recorded in John 20. Having touched Christ’s wounded hands and side, the erstwhile “doubting Thomas” is moved to utter the most exalted profession of faith in the entire New Testament: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28), a profession Christ in no way rejects or rebukes him for. But when Mary attempts to embrace Him, Jesus stops her, saying, Do not cling to me … but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God (John 20:17). We find this highly paradoxical point reaffirmed in the Nicene Creed, where the grammatical apposition in the opening article shows beyond doubt that the Father alone is unequivocally “God”. The Christian recites, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Once again it is evident that the unity of God is not to be understood as residing in some generic nature shared by three specific Persons. The oneness of God is the specificity of the Father; it is He who is the “one God” in whom Christians believe. As Saint Gregory the Theologian puts it, “The union is the Father, from whom and to whom the order of the Persons runs its course”. As for Jesus Christ, the second article of the Creed makes it clear that His divinity, while entirely real and efficacious, is in some sense derivative. For He, “the only-begotten Son of God”, is confessed to be “Light of Light” and “Very God of Very God”. In Orthodox liturgical texts, this subtle but extremely important distinction is often conveyed by using the word “God” on its own when speaking of the Father while adding the possessive pronoun “our” in phrases referring to the divinity of the Son, as in the frequently recited prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us and save us”. It is as if the tradition were endeavouring to remind the Christian of the difference between Jesus’s words to Mary and Thomas’s words to Jesus. Once again it would be misleading to suggest that there is anything systematic or invariable about this usage—devotional piety is not mathematics—but it occurs frequently enough to be worthy of note.(Cutsinger, 2010)
He even puts a footnote regarding what would most probably be the most common objection to his argument (concerning Jesus’ words about the Father being greater):
According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, these words are to be predicated of Christ’s human nature alone (Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 20, Article 1). From the Orthodox point of view, however, words can be spoken and deeds performed only by a person, not a nature, and like all of Christ’s words this witness to the superiority of God the Father must therefore be attributed to the divine persona or hypostasis of the Son of God.(Cutsinger, 2010)
He also explains this in “technically metaphysical” terms in his book “Advice to the Serious Seeker”:
Used in a technical metaphysical way, Being refers to a degree of Reality one step down from the pure Absolute or the Absolute as such. In our second image, it corresponds to the circle closest to the center. Being is the first fruit, as it were, of the Infinite, and it is the highest level of Maya. “Beyond-Being-or Non-Being-is Reality absolutely unconditioned, while Being is Reality insofar as it determines itself in the direction of its manifestation.” It is important to emphasize that while the level of Being is conditioned or relative with respect to the Infinite, it is nevertheless far beyond the relativities with which we are familiar in the world around us. It participates in the eternity and impassibility of the supremely Real. As a metacosmic Reality beyond all Manifestation, it is sometimes called the uncreated Logos. From the point of view of Atma, Being is relative, but from the point of view of creation, it is absolute. And this is why it can be referred to, paradoxically, as the relative Absolute. “There cannot be an ‘absolutely relative,’ but there is a ‘relative absolute.” Being corresponds to the personal God of the various religious traditions, who is the Creator, Legislator, Preserver, and Judge of the world. Religious believers are sometimes scandalized by this teaching, for they mistakenly think that it demotes or belittles God. But this is false. Far from making God less, it can assist us in seeing that the Divine Person opens onto a Reality far more stupendous than we ever imagined. For the distinction between Beyond-Being and Being is a distinction in fact in divinis – that is, within God Himself – and it is intended to point us ultimately toward a more adequate valuation of His plenitude. To be sure, this “key notion of Maya in divinis,” of relativity in God, is not an idea that you will find outside a purely metaphysical exposition, and it may take some getting used to. The same distinction was noted earlier, in our reflections on the limits of logic, in the difference between the Divine Essence and the Divine Intellect or uncreated Logos. It will be stressed several times in what follows, though unless otherwise stated, when speaking of God, I shall continue to mean both Essence and Person. “The word ‘God’ does not and cannot admit of any restriction for the simple reason that God is ‘all that is purely principial.”‘(Cutsinger, 1997)
That this is perfectly congruent with orthodox Trinitarianism is perplexing, and exhilarating. The Father (infinite centre, beyond being) can only be seen through His Son (infinite edge, manifestation, absolute being, being in the sense of unity and not composition, who assumes composition precisely because He is unity. He who is God yet man, their very unity) by His Spirit (Unity yet difference of Centre and edge). In other words, although the Father is in some sense “Prior” to, and “greater than” the Son, all that He has, and all that He is, He gives to the Son. The Son is equal because the Father is the Gift that He eternally receives, yet subordinate in that He receives at all. The Spirit “results” from this giving of Father to Son. He is the “distance” of Father and Son, their separation and unity, and this all depends on the “priority” of the Father.
Dr Cutsinger notes in a blog post of his that:
Of course, as you’ve seen from your brief study of this issue—and as I admitted in “Disagreeing”—the Eastern Fathers are themselves by no means entirely consistent on this point, sometimes using the word “God” in a broader sense to refer to the whole Trinity. This is because they were troubled at the prospect of becoming “subordinationists”, that is, subordinating Christ (in particular, but also the Spirit) to the Father in a way that might end up calling into question the true divinity of the Second and Third Persons.Needless to say, they needn’t have worried. The “relative Absolute” is relative only at a metaphysical level, where the legitimate demands of bhakti do not obtain.(The Name of God as Such | James S. Cutsinger, n.d.)
I invite whoever is interested to ponder this mystery. Dr Cutsinger and Mr Bull, who seem to be in totally different Christian worlds (The former was Eastern Orthodox, the latter is Reformed) seem to have hit common ground. Even better, because of Dr Cutsinger’s beliefs (He was a Perennialist), we can see that the common ground isn’t even uniquely “Christian”. To end this post, let me show you one last quote. David Bentley Hart has noted that although the doctrine of the Trinity is itself unique to Christianity, the metaphysics underlying it is not, and similar language can be found in other religious traditions:
The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of this volume announces, are “being,”“consciousness,” and“bliss.” This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition: in Sanskrit, the terms are sat, chit, and ananda, which are often fused into the single substantive satchidananda (there are alternative spellings). The word sat is often rendered as“truth,” admittedly, rather than as “being,” and for certain schools of Indian thought this has come to be its primary connotation. But it is in fact the present participle of the verb as, “to be,” and has come to mean “truth” chiefly in the sense of “essential truth”or “reality”; it more or less encompasses the meanings of, in Greek, both on and ousia or, in Latin, both ens and essentia, and its privative form, asat, can mean both “nonbeing” and “falsehood.” In any event, the three terms taken together constitute a particularly venerable Indian definition of the Godhead, with roots that reach back into the metaphysics of the Upanishads, and I have chosen to use them for a number of reasons. The first is that, as a set, they provide a particularly elegant summary of many of the most ancient metaphysical definitions of the divine nature found in a number of traditions. One of the special appeals such language has for anyone familiar with the history of Christian theology, for instance, is how hauntingly close it comes to certain classical formulations of the Trinitarian nature of the divine. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, describes the divine life as an eternal act of knowledge and love, in which the God who is infinite being is also an infinite act of consciousness, knowing himself as the infinitely good, and so is also an infinite love, at once desiring all and receiving all in himself. “The life of that transcendent nature is love,” he writes, “in that the beautiful is entirely lovable to those who know it (and the divine does know it), and so this knowledge becomes love, because the object of recognition is in its nature beautiful.” Augustine describes the divine Son as the perfect and eternal image of the Father, God’s self-knowledge as infinite beauty, and hence “that ineffable conjunction of the Father and his image is never without fruition, without love, without rejoicing”; moreover, “that love, delight, felicity or beatitude” is “the Holy Spirit, not begotten, but of the begetter and begotten alike the very sweetness, filling all creatures, according to their capacities, with his bountiful superabundance and excessiveness”: thus, “in that Trinity is the highest origin of all things, and the most perfect beauty, and the most blessed delight.” Other examples drawn from the Church Fathers, mystics, and divines could be multiplied at great length. Many Christians in India, moreover—like the Benedictine monk Henri le Saux (1910–1973), also known as Abhishiktananda, or like Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861–1907), the author of the great Trinitarian hymn Vande Satchidananda— have used these ancient Sanskrit words to describe their own understandings of God. And one finds analogous descriptions of the divine in all of the major theistic traditions. The great Sufi thinker Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), for instance, plays upon the common etymological root of the words wujud (being), wijdan (consciousness), and wajd (bliss) in order to describe the mystical knowledge of God as absolute Reality.(Hart, 2013)
The God we call “Father, Son, and Spirit” seem to have been revealing themselves in ways beyond the categories we often associate with “Historical Christianity”, and has apparently (especially in the Christian context) shattered our static understandings of equality and subordination. That is at least a point for Dr Cutsinger’s Perennialism, Mr Bull’s “Method” of exegesis, and Dr Hart’s Universalism. It would help to see what else they have to say.
- Cutsinger, J. S. (1997). Advice to the serious seeker.
- Cutsinger, J. S. (2010). Disagreeing to agree: A Christian response to “A common word.” Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of “A Common Word,” 2(March), 111–130. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230114401
- Hart, D. B. (2013). The experience of God: Being, consciousness, bliss. In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.51-3784
- The Eternal Perfection of the Son – Bible Matrix. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2020, from http://www.biblematrix.com.au/the-eternal-perfection-of-the-son/
- The Name of God as Such | James S. Cutsinger. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2020, from https://www.cutsinger.net/whether-monarchy-should-be-a-cause-for-concern/