On Logos christology subordinationism

God's expression of his eternal Word - a highly technical and precise diagram.

God’s expression of his eternal Word – a highly technical and precise diagram.

Now, for a quick break in our Richard of St. Victor series, so that I can explain the point of my  implausible yarn about a gnomeTertullian, Irenaeus, and other late-2nd and early 3rd century catholic thinkers subscribed to what we can all the Logos theory.  This christological theory has three main elements:
  1. God’s internal Word (logos) always existed within God.
  2. At some time just prior to creation, God expressed his Word, so that it was now a he, a helper, an agent alongside God.
  3. Having done this, through Wisdom (logos) God created the cosmos.
The idea – the Word has always been around, so is co-eternal with God, and is divine, because he is “from” God, and in some sense “the same stuff” as God. The crucial assumption here is that the “Word” of John 1 and the “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8 are each just Jesus, numerically the same person as Jesus (but in his pre-incarnate, non-bodily and non-human state).  Biblically, this is all founded an Proverbs 8 and John 1.
In my view, it runs into serious problems as an interpretation of each chapter. More on that another time.  For now, note that it runs into some obvious theological problems as well. These can be seen if we consider the Logos theory is light of a couple obvious truths:
  • This is contradictory: to be a power of a thing at and earlier time  t1 and to be a thing with powers at a later time t2.
  • For any x, if x ever came into existence, then x is not fully divine.

From 1, 2 and the first obvious truth, we infer that Jesus / the Son / the Word began to exist a finite time ago. From this plus the second obvious truth, we infer that this being is not fully divine. Thus, if you hold to the Logos christology, whether you realize it or not,  you are a subordinationist - someone which thinks that the Son exists because of, and has a lesser status than God, that is, the Father. You deny that the members of the Trinity are fully equal.

Interestingly, this seems to have been a (the?) standard view among catholic intellectuals of this time period. It was not the only view, though, and it was controversial. Also interestingly, this basic scheme of divine creation via a newly “expressed” helper seems due not primarily to John, but to the very Hellenized Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria, a rough contemporary of Jesus. (See the sources cited here.) Mainstream trinitarian thinking has left Logos theory behind, and Philo’s influence has been almost forgotten.  Yet most theologians read John 1 and Proverbs 8 in almost the same way as Tertullian; they simply take the “expression” or “begetting” or “speaking” of the Word to be a timeless fact.

But is something like this the best way to read those chapters? I hope to get into that in a future series.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

11 Responses to On Logos christology subordinationism

  1. Scott says:

    I think you’ll find that the Father wears a white bow-tie, otherwise called sub-fusc.:


    But really — I appreciate the humor.

  2. rob says:

    Let us forsake philosophical ideas and deal with this mystery from a more simplistic point of view. Could it be that because God does “all things” by his word. Christ is called the Word (as a tiltle) because God does all things by him.
    In simplicity there abides many truths. Christ is called “bread” not because he is made of flour, but because he gives and sustains life. The title is defining his importance in God’s action in the creted world. ALL THINGS WERE MADE BY HIM. Without him there is no us.

  3. Ryan Herr says:

    Dale, are you sure that you’ve summarized the Logos theory accurately? Wouldn’t Tertullian, Irenaeus, and other late-2nd and early 3rd century catholic thinkers claim that there is no “some time just prior to creation”?

    And therefore, does the theory entail that the Word was “a power of a thing at an earlier time t1″ and “a thing with powers at a later time t2″?

  4. Dale says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Excellent question. I thought that it was Augustine who pioneered the view that God created time along with the physical world. Of course, most Greek philosophers thought both time and the world were beginingless. I suspect that they were none too clear about this, but off the top of my head, I’m not sure what the guys we’re talking about thought about time and creation.

    I’m out of the office and can’t look for the quotes now, but if I recall correctly, both of Tertullian and Irenaeus – surprisingly given later standards – do somewhere imply that there was a time before the Word was expressed. Wolfson calls this a “two-stage” theory. Orthodox theologians typically spin this by pointing out that the Word in their view was eternal – but this obscures the fact that it looks like the Word at stage 1 would not be another self alongside the Father.

  5. Pingback: trinities - Guest Post: Greg Spendlove on Logos Christology

  6. Dale,

    I need to brush up my Early Church history. Did Irenaeus and Tertullian believe that the Word didn’t exist before the Father expressed the Word?

    If they believed that the Word didn’t exist before the Father’s expression, then they were precursors of the Arians. Or if they believed that the Word existed before the Father’s expression, then they were confused.

    Or I’m confused or something like that.:)

  7. Dale says:

    Hey James,

    Under the influence of (the Jewish!) Philo of Alexandria, they held to what scholars call a “two-stage” theory of the Word. First, it exists eternally as the internal reason or thought of God. Then, later, God speaks this Word out, and it is then an agent/self alongside of God, cooperating with him in the creation of the world, etc. This later, expressed Word eventually becomes incarnate. So, how far back does *his* existence go? Pretty clearly, I would argue, back to the point of expression by the Father / God.


    So this is one reason why both of these “fathers” should be classed as subordinationists.

  8. Thank you, Dale. Perhaps you can help me with something related. The Nicene-Constantinople creed says that the Son was begotten before all worlds. But I see the biblical begottenness of the Son is primarily a declaration within the context of creation. And the creed seems to have hints of hierarchy, suggesting everlasting past headship of the Father in the Trinity. Do you think that the creed fell slightly short of declaring an egalitarian Trinity?

  9. Scott says:

    The ‘homoousia’ clause of the creed would seem to tell against subordinationism. Even more, the 381 Creed that dropped the phrase “from the substance of the Father” (from the original Nicene Creed of 325) sometimes is interpreted to entail a stronger egalitarian affirmation. Nevertheless, a weak-monarchy of the Father could be affirmed in the sense that the Son depends on (is generated by; ‘begotten, not made’) the Father.

  10. Thanks, Scott.

    I wish to ask both you and Dale if the view that “the Son depends on (is generated by; ‘begotten, not made’) the Father” was the unanimous view in Imperial Church orthodoxy. Or was there any other ancient meaning of “begotten, not made”?

    As I said earlier, I see the biblical statements about the begottenness of the Son primarily refer to declarations in the context of creation. And I want to know if I’m completely rejecting one of the points of the ancient Trinitarian creeds.

    By the way, I voted “no” to “The Son exists because of the Father, who eternally generates him.” But was that the unanimous view of the Imperial Church fathers?

  11. Pingback: trinitarian or unitarian? 3 – Irenaeus’s 2-stage Logos theory (Dale) » trinities

Leave a Reply

Please use your real name instead of you company name or keyword spam.