Apologists, Polemicists, and Origen: Guess Who Started This Whole Mess With the Eternal Subordination of the Son?

"History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another."  Max Beerbohm




We are continuing in our Thursday series on church history and hope to make it relevant to current issues in the church. We are also in the midst of revamping our blog so this is a reminder that we post Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.


(In this post, I have also used the Third Edition of Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church by Earle E. Cairns, Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.)


As we discussed initially, the early Christians were misunderstood by the outside culture, often being accused of such things as participating in cannibalism (Lord’s Supper) and orgies (they stressed they loved on another). These accusations were believed at the highest levels of government. At the same time, heresies such as Gnosticism, were gaining ground within the faith. A two pronged response was necessary.


The Apologists

The first apologists arrived on the scene. The persecution of Christians were continuing.Their writings were rational appeals to the pagan authorities and leaders to implement civil tolerance for the Christian faith. They stressed that Christianity was part of the ancient faith of Judaism, and as such, was the oldest religion in the world. They emphasized the ministry of Christ, tying Him to the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Many of these apologists were converts and well trained in Greek philosophy. Two of the most famous of the early apologists were Justin Martyr ( @100-165) and Tertullian (@160-225).


Justin Martyr wrote The First Apology to Emperor Antonius Pius. Besides attempting to convince the Emperor that accusations such as cannibalism, were incorrect, he also laid out the rationale of the faith with an emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. He pled for the abolishment of the persecutions. In his Dialogue With Trypho he targeted the Jews with arguments that Jesus was the Messiah.

Tertullian had been a respected lawyer in Rome when he converted to the faith. His famous work, Apology, was addressed to the Roman governor of his province. Although utilizing similar arguments as Martyr’s First Apology, he also argued that the persecutions of the Christians were based on shaky legal grounds since the Christians led a morally superior life to many of the pagans in Rome. However, Tertullian may be most famous for being the first to clearly state the doctrine of the Trinity in his book, Against Praxeas.


The Polemicists


Many of the leaders in this group came from within the nascent Christian community. They were concerned with a variety of heresies that were entering the church and utilized the New Testament writings as a basis for their arguments. It is important to note that the New Testament books were largely agreed upon by this time period. However, the history of the canon will be discussed at a later time.

Irenaeus (@130-@202) wrote the Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) in 185. It was his attempt to refute the Gnostic doctrines.  Although his work had some factual errors, it is considered one of the best sources for understanding what the Gnostics believed.

Gnoticism espoused a belief in the separation between the material and spiritual worlds. The material world was thought to be evil while the spiritual world was good. The gap between these two worlds were bridged by a demiurge who had spirit in him that allowed him to create and enough matter in him in order to create the evil material world. The God of the Old Testament was this demiurge. Jesus, on the other hand, was totally good and thus was a spirit that only appeared to have material form.


Early Theologians


Origen (@185-254) was  the author of 6000 scrolls. One of his greatest accomplishments was compiling the Hexapla, a massive book in which he placed several translations of the Bible in parallel columns. From this, he developed commentaries that helped many early Christians to study the Bible.


His best-known book, copies of which still survive, is De Principiis or On First Principles. It was the one of the first attempts write a systematic presentation of the Christian faith. He utilized word pictures to help Christians to conceptualize members of the Godhead. For example, he asked the reader to imagine a massive statue that filled the whole world. That statue represents God.  However, because of its immense size, the statue was too difficult for a person to fully see it all. But if a small statue could be made in the exact likeness of the large one, people could study the small one and learn details about the large one. So, If we think of the large statue as representing God, and the small one as representing Jesus, we know we could look at the small one and see the likeness of God. 


But, Origen added, using statues to describe God and Jesus should be done, not to speak of God or Jesus in such a material way, but only to show that Jesus is the exact replica of God. Jesus himself said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father also.”


The Beginning of the ESS Doctrine

For those of you who have followed this blog for awhile, you are aware that we have been quite concerned about a doctrine which has come out of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Bruce Ware is “credited” for it’s development) which is called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). Here is a link to the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which is quite excited about this doctrine because it can be extended to women. They  claim that women are submitted to men in all eternity just as Jesus is submitted to the Father. We wrote on this controversy at this link.

Sadly, we have Origen to thank for starting this debacle that continues to haunt the church. In Earle Cairns excellent book, Christianity Through the Centuries, he says (p110) “Unfortunately, though he (Origen) thought of Christ as eternally generated by the Father, he thought of Him as subordinate to the Father."


Origen also espoused the preexistence of the soul which is a belief common to Mormonism. So I wonder if Bruce Ware, while he is on a roll, might also borrow and legitimize Origen’s belief in the preexistence of the soul. Just imagine how much it would slow declining Baptist numbers if Mormons could be incorporated into the SBC.


One thing is for sure, there really is nothing new under the sun.


Lydia's Corner: 1 Samuel 26:1-28:25 John 11:1-54 Psalm 117:1-2 Proverbs 15:22-23


Apologists, Polemicists, and Origen: Guess Who Started This Whole Mess With the Eternal Subordination of the Son? — 17 Comments

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    Bravo for discovering the “origen” of the ESS heresy!!! What you have shared is so important because it discredits anyone who promote ESS.

    Nothing smells worse that warmed over heresy…

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    This is an interesting post! Put down that NIV, huh?

    I do not agree with the concept of eternal submission or subordination of the Son.

    But having said that, I understand that concept has had adherents among Christians for centuries and even today. It is an incorrect summary of the Trinity in my opinion, but I wonder about the use of the term “heresy.”

    When do we use that term? Does that term apply to any incorrect interpretation of scripture?

    What is the history of that term? How is it used today?

    I remember a movie, I think it was called “The Rose” or something like that with Sean Connery. It had different Catholic orders in the middle ages where one group was charging the other with heresy because they believed Jesus owned the clothes he wore while here on earth, or something like that.

    Is it an “in the eye of the beholder” type standard?

    Is any aberrant interpretation a heresy? Is claiming women can be elders, or that baptism can be performed on infants who have not confessed their faith and in a manner that is not found in Scripture a heresy? I would not want to use that term in those circumstances.

    I understand that this doctrine (ESS) is particularly bothersome to you guys because some have used it to support their views on gender roles in the Church, and that appears to be a reason why you have such an interest in the topic.

    But setting that aside for a moment, how is a particular interpretation that many faithful Christian scholars today consider, while aberrant, to be within the proper discussion of the Trinity a heresy?

    I mean, I don’t hear most NT scholars in this country at the various seminaries calling this a heresy and asking for the expulsion of people who promote it from theological societies etc.

    Maybe I am missing that (and it is possible – you guys keep up more than I do). But even if scholars can be found in some quarters to call it a “heresy”, it brings me back to my original point – how is that determined?

    I would be really interested in your take, and the thoughts of the other readers here.

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    Actually, I was in the middle of an intense read in my new, very favorite Bible. Here is a link.

    You ask a good question, especially for one asking about our interest in the SBC. The SBC leads the way in defining the most current “things” for which to get your church thrown out of the SBC or causing missionaries to be recalled from the field. I guess the SBC defines heresy to mean private prayer languages (missionary no no) and having a woman as pastor. However, no problem whatsoever with appointing a pedophile trustee in a church-those get to stay. Sarcasm now ends.

    Perhaps the easiest definition of heresy is one I have heard on a number of occasions.” Most heresies begin as a misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of God.” I like this definition because it excludes issues such as the age of the earth or “prayer languages “(I am not charismatic but like this example).

    This issue was part of the discussion at the Council of Nicea although some guys try to get around it and say the the Council only addressed the creation of Jesus.

    Webste’rs defines subordinate as :
    placed in or occupying a lower class, rank, or position : inferior
    2: submissive to or controlled by authority

    This raises potential problems for the fundamental nature of Jesus.

    However, I believe there is a deeper issue here has to do with the role of women. The SBC has long been under fire about their stands on the role of women in the church and marriage. I contend that the guys in charge were looking for a doctrine that could, once and for all, quell the debate. What better way to do this than to use Jesus as a model? If Jesus can be submissive in all eternity, then you women should too. How could these women fail to follow Jesus’ example.Thus, women are now subservient to men in eternity, according to these guys.

    I also believe that it demonstrates an even deeper agenda. The guys at SBTS are big on “authority of pastors” and also advocate for men as patriarchs. This is a game for power and control and they often sound like the sons of Zebedee.

    I believe this is a dangerous precedent and one that almost caused a split in the church so long ago. I think we must be very, very cautious in making assumptions about the nature of Jesus. And, in this case, I do not believe it had as pure of motive as it did back in the time of Origen. In that time, they were truly struggling to define the nature of God. In today’s circles, this is being adopted as a standard to define the role of women.

    For proof, I offer how quick CMBW latched onto this doctrine.Bruce Ware was also the President of this group. If he had been academically cautious, he would have excused himself from this debate on how his doctrine related to the role of women. He did not. In fact, he pushed it and that is indication enough for this women to become suspicious of the intent.

    When one uses a doctrine to permanently define what is true, both for Jesus and then extend it into the arena of gender relationships, i would say one is beginning to mess with very, very deep issues and i think this one might qualify as a heresy.

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    I think heresy comes from developing a position that describes the Trinitarian God as having characteristics or internal relationships that are contrary to the New Testament scriptures. That is why we treat ESS as heresy. BTW, one of my favorites nostrums is that theology is not the study of God, but the study of humankinds’ thinking and writing about God. It also explains why so much of theology is arguing of the size of the pinhead on which angels dance.

    A lot of theology is the result of people taking a position with limited scriptural support, ignoring other scripture, and then basing other positions and concepts on their first position. That is one of my complaints against strong 5-point Calvinism, which emphasizes God’s sovereignty over his love and his justice, and thereby creates a God that creates people for the purpose of sending them to hell, because in his sovereignty, he predestines everything that happens. To me, that makes God a monster not worthy of worship. So, I consider that form of Calvinism heresy.

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    What I boil down from your comment is that it deals with the nature of God, and maybe that raises it to another level.

    I would never call women’s ordination or ppl matters of heresy.

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    Thanks. I agree with you about many theological systems.

    But I note that Cecil Sherman and other moderates have said (even though they themselves affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity) that Baptists should be free to reject the doctrine of the Trinity altogether.

    To me, that is a serious matter, and for me is a dividing line.

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    “But setting that aside for a moment, how is a particular interpretation that many faithful Christian scholars today consider, while aberrant, to be within the proper discussion of the Trinity a heresy?”

    An interesting side note to this question. If you spend anytime at all studying cults like Mormon, JW, etc., etc., that have a “christian” flavor to them, you start seeing they all tamper with the Trinity in some way, shape or form.

    The question is not: Was Jesus subordinate to the Father during the Incarnation. It is: Is theire a hierarchy within the Trinity eternity past and future. And the answer is a resounding: NO. The Trinity is perfection and a perfect community with a united will. The Trinity even performs some of the same functions (As you can find passages where Jesus says He raises Himself from the dead, God raised Him and the Holy Spirit raised Him)

    What ESS proponets say is this: “We are not saying what we are really saying’. Therefore the confusion. They really do make Jesus Christ, Lord of Hosts, a lesser “God” for eternity past and future. It is blasphemous. Worse than heresy.

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    Add one other thing in your boiled down analysis. When people define a doctrine which is meant to describe the Godhead as a means to an end in order to make another “doctrine” acceptable, I believe they are really playing with fire and are disingenuous (the nicest word I could think of).

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    ‘But I note that Cecil Sherman and other moderates have said (even though they themselves affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity) that Baptists should be free to reject the doctrine of the Trinity altogether.’

    What on earth does that have to do with this conversation? I know a subtle suggestion when I see one…if one does not support ESS then one is saying there is no “Trinity” or are open theists. Nice try.

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    I think the ESS was a simple smokescreen for the eternal subordination of women, and as such, was a deceitful way to make the doctrine palatable. The fact that Bruce Ware became the President of CBMW is either a strange coincidence or was part of the plan. A true academic would have recused himself from the position, knowing that his work on the doctrine led to this new view on women.

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    For the ESS proponets: Why is Jesus referred to as “Everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9?

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    You are a woman. They don’t have to listen to you. Submit, darn it!

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    Lydia, sorry. You missed it by 1000 miles.

    Arce and I have dialogued before. I believe that he is a moderate Southern Baptist. He commented above on why he thought ESS should be called a heresy.

    I was bringing up the fact that some moderate leaders who at one time presented themselves as leaders for the SBC did not even think the doctrine of the Trinity itself (not just ESS) was required to be believed to be a teacher in a seminary or other denominational position.

    I thought that Arce might have some recollections he might share.

    I do not believe in ESS, and I believe in the Trinity. If you had read my comment above you would have understood that, and jumped to an incorrect conclusion.

    Hope the explanation brings you up to speed.

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    “Freedom of conscience” is a Baptist principle from the earliest days of Baptists in the early 1600s. There are more things one should not do or believe than things that are thought of as required to believe to be a Baptist. One of the problems with the fundies who call themselves Baptists is that they do not believe in freedom of conscience — they believe that what the pastor says is what you have to believe.

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    I think the issue was not whether someone believed in the Trinity, but what one believed about the Trinity. The Trinity is a very difficult theological concept. Those who believe that God is one, but that we experience him and can think of him in three different ways, and somehow deal with an incarnate on earth while the “father” is in heaven, and a sense of indwelling that we call the Holy Spirit, are not very far from a full trinitarian theology, while emphasizing the unity of God.

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    from the sidelines, and as someone who has never had any involvement with the SBC: these posts and comments are quite an education! (meant in a good way. :))

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    I believe that most people do not understand the Trinity. I once said to a friend that, if a theologically correct explanation for the Trinity was required to maintain one’s active status in a church, most churches would experience a near fatal drop in membership. My simplistic, albeit theologically acceptable explanation is one What; three Whos.