Leonard Hodgson on “Subordinationism”

small-dog-big-dogAnglican theologian Leonard Hodgson’s 1943 book The Doctrine of the Trinity is creative, insightful, and I think believed by no one. It posits what I call a “three self” theory, what others call a “social” theory. But my purpose here is to relay his insights regarding the approach to monotheism in the first three centuries of Christianity.

…”subordinationism.” That term is used to describe theories current in the monarchian controversies of the third and fourth centuries. Those theories were attempts to secure the unity of the Godhead by regarding one Person as ultimately God in His own right and the others as divine in a secondary or subordinate sense. …only one of the three Persons, the Father, was in patristic times regarded in this way as the real God… [the theory is fundamentally an attempt] to find the unity by treating one of the elements as ultimate and reducing the others to terms of it. (The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 88, emphases added)

Subordinationism… attempts to preserve the unity by making one Person ultimately the real God and the others divine because of their relation to Him. Hippolytus of Rome was notorious for the subordinationism into which he was driven in his efforts to refute Sabellius. Although in this connection Origen is chiefly memorable for the doctrine of eternal generation by which he freed trinitarian theology from one element in subordinationism, i.e. temporal secondariness, yet other elements remained… ( p. 100, bold added)

The notion that in the Trinity one Person may be the fount or source of being or godhead for another lingered on to be a cause of friction and controversy between the East and the West, and still persists into much Christian theology of to-day. …[But in the divine] unity, there is no room for any trace of subordinationism… the thought of the Father as the Source or Fount of Godhead is a relic of pre-Christian theology which has not fully assimilated Christian revelation. (p. 102, emphases added)

A few quibbles; first “subordinationism” as so defined was also common in the second half of the second century, with all the “logos theologians.” And in the second quote, it is anachronistic to speak of “trinitarian” theology in the early third century. On the last quote, he’s assuming equal divinity as necessary for trinitarianism, which is correct.

But yeah, his basic points are correct – too many big dogs? It’s really one big dog, and two little ones.

Finally, a couple of quotations I disagree with but think are fascinating:

What was needed was that into the place hitherto held in men’s thought by the one God of their faith and worship [i.e. the Father] there should be put the Trinity as a whole. (The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 101, original emphases)

When you put it this way, you see how breathtakingly bold trinitarian speculations were! How could anything or anyone take the place of the one who, according the New Testament, Peter, John, Paul, and the Lord Jesus himself taught and worshipped as the one true God?

Christianity began as a trinitarian religion with a unitarian theology. The question at issue in the age of the Fathers was whether the religion should transform the theology or the theology stifle the religion. (p. 103, emphasis added)

He’s got this much right – all early Christian theology was unitarian. That’s because Jesus and the apostles taught that, and the ball was not dropped – not in those days.

But in what sense was the “religion” – the practice? – trinitarian? As Hurtado has shown, as far as historical evidence is concerned, Christians always worshipped Jesus. But they simply did not, historians agree, worship the Holy Spirit in the early years, nor the three as one triune God. Were they merely “trinitarian” in that they used some threefold forms of speech, as occasionally in the New Testament, then commonly for baptisms by mid second century? But that practice is wholly consistent with unitarian belief and practice.

I can’t come up with any decent sense in which early Christianity was “trinitarian.” The most one could possibly say, is what more careful trinitarian scholars say, which is that the early theologies “contained the seeds” of trinitarianism – whatever that means!




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.

2 Responses to Leonard Hodgson on “Subordinationism”

  1. villanovanus says:

    @ Dale

    I can’t come up with any decent sense in which early Christianity was “trinitarian.” The most one could possibly say, is what more careful trinitarian scholars say, which is that the early theologies “contained the seeds” of trinitarianism – whatever that means!

    Of course early Christianity was neither “trinitarian” nor Trinitarian in any sense whatsoever. So, the real question to ask is: what, eventually, from those beginnings, led to the full fledged doctrine of the Trinity (co-equal, co-eternal, tri-personal)?

    There are no passages in the NT whose “trinitarian” interpretation cannot be debunked, except for one (the Comma Johanneum at 1John 5:7-8 doesn’t count, because it is manifestly spurious and apocryphal), this:

    Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, … (Matt 28:19, with Trinitarian Baptismal Formula)

    Although ALL extant NT mss have it, I believe (with the commentators of the Bible de Jérusalem) that it was an insertion in the text of Matthew’s Gospel (rather early, as the parallel in the Didache suggests). BTW, it is rather amusing that the (literalist inerrantist) JW don’t find it problematic, whereas, obviously the formula “in the name of … the Holy Spirit”, with that reference to the “name” (=authority) clearly suggests that the Holy Spirit would be a person.

    You speak of the early worship of Jesus as a possible “seed” of later of trinitarianism. BUT the worship was NOT applied to Jesus in general, it was applied to the resurrected Jesus inasmuch as he had been made Lord by the One God and Father (see Acts 2:32-36; Rom 10:9; Phil 2:9-11; etc.).

    OTOH, as you rightly remark, Christians “simply did not, historians agree, worship the Holy Spirit in the early years”.

    So, perhaps, rather than dubious “seeds” of later trinitarianism, we have to look for the real root. For the umpteenth time, for those who read the history of Christianity until Nicea 325 and right to Constantinople 381 without indulging in “hindsight trinitarian apologism”, it is quite transparent that there is a specific root: the filching of the theo-philosophical Philonian understanding of the Logos/Dabar as deuteros theos (“second god”), which is radically different from the Johannine Logos, as is evident especially now that we can make comparisons with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    From this “original sin”, from here on, it is all a gradual worsening towards a heathen-philosophical pollution of the Scriptural source: even the struggle against Gnosticism becomes an occasion for assimilating the Gnostic notion of hypostases and the Hermetic homoousios. Paradoxically, it is Arius, with his rationalism, that precipitates the situation, until one of its two possible outcomes is reached: the “co-eternal, co-equal, tri-personal” trinity. What Anthony Buzzard calls “Christianity’s self-inflicted wound”.

    The other outcome (the ONLY scripturally legitimate outcome) would have been a return to the original Strict Monotheism, whereby God’s Word/Logos/Dabar and Spirit/Pneuma/Ruwach are NOT distinct hypostases, BUT God’s eternal “hands”.

    And Jesus is the true Son of God (NOT an imaginary “god-the-son”), the Incarnation of God’s Eternal Word/Logos/Dabar, His Messiah, and, after his Resurrection and Ascension, proclaimed Lord and exalted to His right by God Himself.

    And the Holy Spirit is God’s power and gift (NOT an imaginary “god-the-spirit”), in which and by which all God’s elect will be deified, “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).


  2. Christian Thinker says:

    Hello MdS,

    I am Christian who in his view of Godhead would identify to a large degree with the views of Samuel Clarke (thanks Dale, I hope and wish the Clarkian view will gain a traction in the years ahead). From time to time I visit this blog and other humanitarian Unitarian (hereafter HU) webs to better understand this position. Now here are several friendly questions that I am asking in order to better understand your position:

    Is Holy Spirit numerically identical to God the Father or not?

    Before Word became flesh, was God’s Word/Logos/Davar numerically identical with God YHWH or not?

    Who ate lunch with Abraham in Genesis 18:1 – 8?

    Who stood in front of Abraham in Genesis 18:22?

    Who is the Angel of the Lord in Exodus 23:20 – 21?

    Who is standing there next to laying Samuel in 1. Samuel 3:10?

    In Isaiah 63:9 – 10, who or what are the angel of Lord’s presence and His Spirit? Are they simply literary devices along line of “hands” to describe the activity of one personal God so that no personal agents are in view in any form what so ever?

    I wish nice weekend to everyone who is following this thread.

    Christian Thinker

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