The rumor has lingered in evangelical circles over the last couple of centuries that the Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is “subordinationism.” One may hear this rumor already in the writings of Princeton’s B. B. Warfield and his opinion that the Nicene Creed contains remnants of subordinationism. It also comes out in Millard Erickson’s expressed fear that those who defend the eternal functional subordination of the Son are opening a path to Arianism for their spiritual descendants.
Any number of responses may be made to this rumor. The first is that the Nicene Creed affirms in the strongest possible ways the full and true deity of the Son. As we have seen, it affirms that the Son is “very God … being of one substance with the Father.”
The second is that this rumor misunderstands the nature and background of Ante-Nicene Subordinationism. This subordinationism was based on the Logos Speculation that arose within Greek Platonism. To make a long story short, the Logos Speculation was adopted and applied to Christian theology by Justin Martyr and Origen. It was based on the Greek doctrine of an utterly remote God or Supreme Being incapable of coming into contact with finite reality. In order to create and communicate with finite creation the Supreme Being brought forth a subordinate being called the Logos who was by definition and necessity less transcendent and remote from finite reality. Necessarily (in order to fulfill his philosophical function) this Logos possessed only a diluted or mediating form of deity.
When this philosophical construct was used to explain the Trinity, it had a number of evil results. One was the notion that the deity or being of the Son was less than the being of the Father. To put this another way, the Logos Speculation had everything to do with the hierarchy of being taught by Greek philosophy in which everything from the Supreme Being to the world was arranged on a scale of being. One’s place on the scale of being was determined by the level (or density) of being one possessed. Thus, for a Christian Platonist on the scale of being the Father was higher than the Son, the Son higher than the Spirit, the Spirit higher than the created world, men higher than women, and fauna higher than flora and both higher than rocks and dirt. Now this kind of Subordinationism is utterly absent from the Nicene Creed. It is the person of the Son that is generated by the Father. His deity is exactly the same as that of the Father’s.
The third problem with this rumor is that it leads and must lead to the conclusion that both Augustine and Calvin taught Subordinationism since both taught the eternal generation of the Son by the Father. Since even Egalitarians cite Augustine and Calvin as teaching a doctrine of the Trinity that fully equalizes the persons, the implication or notion that they were subordinationists is nonsense.
The fourth problem with this rumor is that it confuses two very different kinds of subordination. To put this another way, those who foster this rumor assume that there are only two kinds of subordination discussed in relation to the Trinity, when actually there are three. All Christians, including Erickson and the Egalitarians, believe that there is subordination in the economy of redemption. We may call this economic subordination. Their mistake is that they think there is only one other kind of subordination—subordination of essence or essential subordination. While they correctly see this kind of subordination to be wrong and false, they do not realize that this is not the kind of subordination implied in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed actually teaches a third kind of subordination. It is neither economic nor essential subordination. It is the subordination of the persons of the Son and Spirit to the Father. Since the Greek word used to describe a real, personal distinction in the Trinity is hypostasis, we may call this personal or hypostatic subordination. Personal or hypostatic subordination is entirely different than the essential subordination of the Logos Speculation or Logos Christology.
Furthermore, since this distinction between essence and person is vital to the Trinity, there should be no logical problem for any Trinitarian in denying a subordination of essence while affirming a subordination of person. It is a subordination of person and not essence that the modern defenders of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper) intend to teach. They are emphatically not guilty of the Subordinationism of Justin Martyr and Origen.