Functional Subordination

“But how can the Son, according to his divine nature, ‘submit’?”

– Mark Jones

He’s nailed it. There is the issue. If you haven’t been following it, then never mind me. It is extraordinary in that a serious and difficult issue is being blogged at a pace that print would simply not have sustained.

It is a difficult issue, and I can see why people would be confused; but if you are confused you ought to stay out of it, unless you are Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware and are being called to account. Those two should get unconfused (the theology editor of Christianity Today, of all people, has a good handle on it). You aren’t going to figure out what is going on unless you enter into the doctrine by way of its history. Historical theology is how you understand what is at stake.

Here is one thing that the debate does make clear to me: the antidote to biblicism is a consideration for historical and systematic theology. Evangelicals tend to be biblicists. Biblical theology tends to be biblicist. When you think you can do biblical theology without consideration for the other theological disciplines because it is somehow more important, you don’t understand how humans do theology. History can help because it is about the hermenutical considerations that take into account life, not just the text. The context of the formulation of doctrine is as important as the ANE backgrounds of the text you’re exegeting.

Biblicism is when you say that Scripture is your only authority (or source), rather than saying it is your only infallible authority. When you say the first, all you end up doing is smuggling in all the necessary fallible authorities unexamined and unacknowledged. There can be no worse way to handle fallible authorities.

For me one of the basic indications that history is necessary is this: if Christian doctrine really would arise from a simple examination of Scripture, then we would have had it all very early on. But we do not see Christian doctrine springing up all at once. Instead, we see it developed gradually and in a way grudgingly. Gnostics made us start doing systematic theology, made us engage carefully and properly with ancient philosophy. If you are a protestant you have to recognize that the formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone took 1500 years. It was not a matter of losing it and recovering it, it was a matter of not having developed the doctrinal formulation necessary to understand it as we should. We did not simply recover a pauline understanding, we defined it with greater precision, using special terminology within an advanced framework of doctrine.

Here’s another consideration: the Covenant of Works. The Covenant of Works is a concept that arises from Systematic Theology. I don’t say you have to accept it. I do say in order to understand it and evaluate it you have to appreciate when it arose, what it was meant to do, what function it has for theology. If your attitude is that you don’t see it by exegeting Genesis, or another passage (an attitude of which I have sometime been guilty), then you don’t understand how doctrinal formulation comes about.

You can be that way. You can be a biblicist. The thing is, there have been biblicists before: Socinians, for example, or Arians. Hmmm, seems like all my examples are from the same genus of theological deviation. I think American Christianity really needs to figure out how to integrate historical theology better. Have you noticed that the historian’s attack on Functional Subordination is led by British historians? Isn’t that interesting?

Here’s a third consideration: there are questions that do not arise until others have been answered first. There is a logic to the development of doctrine. It is related to the concept of the progress of revelation, I believe, and my point is that you don’t really understand what is being addressed until you see the problem to which the doctrinal formulation is a solution. Exegeting a passage can provide the solution without ever raising the problem. Heretics usually raise it, sometimes by giving the wrong exposition of Scripture. But the issue is not resolved simply by expositing Scripture, not when the problem is not one Scripture directly but only obliquely addresses.

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2 thoughts on “Functional Subordination

  1. Good points all, but especially incisive, at least to me, is:

    [A]ll [biblicists] end up doing is smuggling in all the necessary fallible authorities unexamined and unacknowledged.

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