Karl Barth vs. T.F. Torrance: Subordination Within the Godhead

One of the things I’ve picked up on in reading Barth and Torrance is that some of the most interesting aspects of their work lies in the areas where they parted ways. Perhaps the place where this departure is sharpest is on the issue of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and the implications this has for a doctrine of God as a whole (I’ve discussed the human aspect of Christ’s eternal obedience before here, and this has bearing on the topic at hand). What I find most striking, however, is the force with which both present their arguments and reasons – there are good and solid theological reasons for following either Barth or Torrance on this.

Barth, characteristically enough, looks to the Incarnation to begin his reflections here. Divine obedience, the obedience of the Son, is a type of condescension. The way of the Son into the far country shows, for Barth, that ‘…for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high, to be near as it is to be far, to be little as it it is to be great’ (CD IV.1, p. 192). Barth is keen here to shake up our conceptions of greatness and lowliness, which is what he pegs as being the primary source for our initial recoil from any idea of subordination:

The… idea we have to abandon is that…there is necessarily something unworthy of God and incompatible with his being as God in supposing that there is in God a first and a second, an above and a below, since this includes a gradiation, a degradation and an inferiority in God, which if conceded excludes the homoousia of the different modes of divine being. That all sounds very illuminating. But is it not an all too human – and therefore not a genuinely human – way of thinking? For what is the measure by which it measures and judges? Has there really to be something mean in God for him to be the second, below? Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? (p. 202)

Barth arrives at these conclusions by allowing the Incarnation to determine what can properly be said about the Godhead. It is in Jesus Christ that we see divine action in action. And this center of action is the judge judged in our place, and in the judge judged in our place is where we see ‘…the proper being of the one true God in Jesus Christ the Crucified. Granted that we do see and understand this, we cannot refuse the accept the humiliation and lowliness and supremely the obedience of Christ as the dominating moment in our conception of God’ (p. 199). It is important to note here that Barth isn’t simply arguing for  a functional ordering within the Godhead. This is common coin among the tradition. Barth is arguing for an ordering within the very being of the Godhead on the basis of the subordination of Christ, since, for Barth, whatever God does in the economy necessarily corresponds God as he is in himself apart from the economy. Humiliation and obedience belong to the very inner life of the Godhead. Once our all too human way of thinking about what is or isn’t worthy of God is set aside and the Incarnation begins to inform how we think of God, the initial recoil loses a good deal of force.

Barth doesn’t escape scot free, however. As Paul Molnar notes, in setting subordination within the inner life of God, Barth has ‘…made it more difficult to say that the incarnation is something new even for God’ (Faith, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 350) By ascribing grace, ‘which is God’s turning toward us in condescension, to God’s inner being, he already confused who God is in eternity with God’s free actions of love for us’ (p. 331). By grounding subordination in the being of God, Barth has read the economy straight into the inner life of the Godhead, and implicitly ties God’s being to creation, thus obliterating God’s freedom. The solution to these difficulties lies with Torrance, who picked up on these problems while still affirming that the Son does, in fact, subordinate himself for us. Molnar notes that:

Torrance maintains that what took place in the incarnation was a sovereignly free act of God “to be other in his external relations than he eternally was, and is, and to do what he had never done before” (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 108). To read this back into the immanent Trinity, however, could suggest that humiliation and subordination were part of God’s eternal being before the incarnation. Such thinking would be problematic, because it would in fact make time and eternity indistinguishable at the very point that they are united without confusion, separation or mixture. (p. 348)

Molnar notes three reasons why Torrance’s thinking is more clear than Barths on this point: (1) Torrance understands, to a degree that Barth doesn’t, that there can’t be any confusion in the order of the persons of the Trinity without confusing the immanent and economic. (2) For Torrance, it is absolutely crucial that the incarnation is a new act of God, because if this is not maintained, then the same problem as (1) emerges: the confusion of the immanent with the economic. (3) Because of Torrance’s use of the an/en-hypostatic distinction, he is able place Jesus’ mediatorial work within the inner life of the Godhead without placing subordination within that inner life.

This last point is worth unpacking. Perichoresis plays a large role here – while Molnar sees a tendency in Barth to divide the Father from the Son because of Barth’s statement that God is one who rules and commands and one who obeys, Torrance thinks in terms of a perichoretic union when it comes to the work of Christ. The way of the Son into the far country is grounded in God’s triunity:

Torrance grounds the very suffering an love of the Son in union with the Father and Spirit in “the eternal Love that God is”, saying “The Gospel does not rest simply on the fact that God loves us, but on the fact that he loves us with the very same Love which he is in the eternal Communion of Love in his Triune Being” (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 253). Thus it is imperative to “note the oneness (incomprehensible though it is) between the passion of God the incarnate Son in his union with us in history and the transcendent passion of God the Father” (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 253) (p. 344)

It is difficult to see how Molnar’s charges against Barth don’t hit him square between the eyes. While Barth is adamant that the subordination in the Godhead doesn’t imply a lack, it appears that it does, in fact, imply it, since such a subordination cashes out to the fact that God couldn’t have been God without us. While there are other problems noted above surely this is the most serious. While Barth is correct to maintain that the Incarnation, and not human thinking, should dictate how we conceive of God, the question remains as to whether or not he was able to do so in a way that didn’t fall into the trap that he himself so carefully tried to avoid: the confusion of the immanent with the economic Trinity.


5 thoughts on “Karl Barth vs. T.F. Torrance: Subordination Within the Godhead

  1. cal June 11, 2016 / 10:02 am

    From a glance, one way Torrance escapes Molnar’s criticism is that the love that Mankind experiences in Christ is the mediated love of the Father for the Son. So the Incarnation represents the in-breaking of the life of the Godhead into time and space. Creation is not necessary for this, but merely represents another outworking of something that is eternal. The eternal dynamic of Lover-Beloved in the Father-Son means the Incarnation represents a continuity of God’s life worked out, but also, in the assumption of Human flesh, something “new” (subordination).

    Sometimes I think Torrance’s reading of Athanasius, and (somewhat) rejection of the Cappadocians gets him confused.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cal June 11, 2016 / 10:19 am

      Addendum: And lest the place of “beloved” is misconstrued as passive (and perhaps an eternal subordination), it only represents, linguistically, the eternal begottenness of the Son. The Father begets the Son and loves Him, and the Son is beloved and returns that love. And the Spirit is that hypostatic love between the two. Thus all act, all receive, and yet there are real distinctions between persons. The problem with Torrance is that in denying the monarchia of the Father, our kataphatic distinctions are jumbled. Perichoresis saves this for him, but monarchia and perichoresis are not at odds (at least not as I can tell).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joshua June 11, 2016 / 10:25 am

        Ah, you answered my question RE passivity.


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