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The Eternal Non-Subordination of the Son in Gregory of Nazianzus

A couple of months ago there was a lot of discussion as to whether the Son, or Word, as such stands in a relation of obedience to the Father. The suggestion was also floated a couple of times that there was a wealth of patristic support for such an idea. The following passage from Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 30.5-6, rather puts paid to that idea, I think–an idea that does not sit coherently within the “grammar” of fourth century Trinitarian theology. The eternal subjection of the Son to the Father was a position associated with the various groups of “Arians” rather than with the pro-Nicene party (or parties). What emerges clearly from this passage is that the subjection of the Son was wholly for our sake, in order that we might be saved–and not because of some fundamental and essential feature of intra-Trinitarian taxis.

V. Take, in the next place, the subjection by which you subject the Son to the Father. What, you say, is He not now subject, or must He, if He is God, be subject to God? You are fashioning your argument as if it concerned some robber, or some hostile deity. But look at it in this manner: that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who takes away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. But when all things shall be subdued unto Him on the one hand by acknowledgment of Him, and on the other by a reformation, then He Himself also will have fulfilled His submission, bringing me whom He has saved to God. For this, according to my view, is the subjection of Christ; namely, the fulfilling of the Father’s Will. But as the Son subjects all to the Father, so does the Father to the Son; the One by His Work, the Other by His good pleasure, as we have already said. And thus He Who subjects presents to God that which he has subjected, making our condition His own. Of the same kind, it appears to me, is the expression, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” It was not He who was forsaken either by the Father, or by His own Godhead, as some have thought, as if It were afraid of the Passion, and therefore withdrew Itself from Him in His Sufferings (for who compelled Him either to be born on earth at all, or to be lifted up on the Cross?) But as I said, He was in His own Person representing us. For we were the forsaken and despised before, but now by the Sufferings of Him Who could not suffer, we were taken up and saved. Similarly, He makes His own our folly and our transgressions; and says what follows in the Psalm, for it is very evident that the Twenty-first Psalm refers to Christ.1

VI. The same consideration applies to another passage, “He learnt obedience by the things which He suffered,” and to His “strong crying and tears,” and His “Entreaties,” and His “being heard,” and His” Reverence,” all of which He wonderfully wrought out, like a drama whose plot was devised on our behalfFor in His character of the Word He was neither obedient nor disobedient. For such expressions belong to servants, and inferiors, and the one applies to the better sort of them, while the other belongs to those who deserve punishment. But, in the character of the Form of a Servant, He condescends to His fellow servants, nay, to His servants, and takes upon Him a strange form, bearing all me and mine in Himself, that in Himself He may exhaust the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mists of earth; and that I may partake of His nature by the blending. Thus He honours obedience by His action, and proves it experimentally by His Passion. For to possess the disposition is not enough, just as it would not be enough for us, unless we also proved it by our acts; for action is the proof of disposition.

Note what Gregory does here: he characterizes “obedience,” “disobedience,” “sin,” “curse,” “subjection,” and so on as all applying to the Son’s work of representation on our behalf, the negative categories being taken up by Christ as substitute and put to death by the exercise of the positive categories. All are ordered to redemption and the economy of salvation rather than to something intrinsic to the Trinity itself. In the nature of the case, it must be this way: “obedience” and “disobedience” are categories that have to do with asymmetrical relationships, viz., those of servants and inferiors (however broadly defined), and as such have no place in a gloss on the essential relationship between two absolute equals. Indeed, the use of such terms among equals only has meaning in something like Aristotle’s discussion of ruling and being ruled in turn in the form of constitution he calls “polity”–a concept that is to some extend ad hoc in order reconcile as best as possible an inherent plurality of competing interests and abilities and that therefore has no place in the infinitely blessed and united life of the Trinity ad intra.

In so far as Gregory is right (and I do think he is right), talk of “subordination” has no place within the dogma of the absolute unity of the Trinity, which has one will, one goodness, and one power. So strong is the unity of the Godhead that even the “forsakenness” of the Son on the cross cannot be referred to a sundering of the Trinity, but rather must be indexed to the Son’s representation of sinful man. Only in this way can monotheism be preserved, as well as the absolute and intrinsic divinity of the Son (for it is a Trinitarian monotheism that Gregory defends)–the Son whom Athanasius calls autologos, “of himself the Word.”

  1. This passage was previously posted here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “The Eternal Non-Subordination of the Son in Gregory of Nazianzus”

Wonderful and succinct coverage of Gregory of Nazianzus on this subject! I remember reading the same basic thing in “On the Trinity” by Augustine not long ago, i.e. that the obedience of the Son is according to the form of a Servant, not according to the form of God, because it’s in the very nature of a servant to obey. The “form of a Servant” language here in Gregory and there in Augustine sounds like it comes straight out of Philippians 2.

To (re)open a recent can of worms, was Denny Burk’s proposed potential interpretation of Philippians 2:6 (i.e. that “being in the form of God” is not the same as or does not confer “equality with God”), based on his proposed grammatical analysis, essentially an Arian-like approach to the passage? That’s certainly how it strikes me as I put that reading against the apparent readings of Gregory and Augustine.

See the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood:


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