Can Michael Bird Read My Mind? Alas, It Seems Not (Mike Ovey)
“Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son [subjectio] and the likeness of His nature, and then we may preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance.”
— Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis 70
How interesting when some-one claims to know what you think better than you do yourself. Michael Bird (hereafter ‘MB’) writes:
‘The root of the problem is that some Complementarians are willing to ditch Nicene christology for Homoian christology if it will give them a bigger stick to use to keep women out of the pulpit!’
This comes from a piece picking up both on Liam Goligher’s ‘penetrating’ critique of what MB calls homoian complementarians, and on a piece from Carl Trueman which MB describes as speaking ‘frankly and wisely’ on this.
The heart of MB’s case is that:-
1/ some complementarians advocate a species of homoianism
2/ they do so to find an argument to ‘keep women out of the pulpit’
In this connection he cites a book to which I contributed an essay, One God in Three Persons, which, he suggests, ‘looks like an apology for a Homoian or a non-Nicene view of the Trinity.’ Well, has MB read my mind? No. Not even close.
Like some others who argue that the Son eternally submits to the Father, I do so not because it gives me a hand in arguing what 1 Tim 2 means, but because I think the Scriptures teach this, especially in John as Jesus discusses his will and his Father’s will (John 6:38) and the way his obedience reveals his love for his Father (John 14:31), to mention just the most obvious. So for me, MB’s possibly grandiose hermeneutics of suspicion about my motives for arguing for eternal filial submission sounds perhaps a little presumptuous. After all, we’ve not met.
Ditching ‘Nicene christology for Homoian christology’?
But let me now take up the more substantive point, namely, whatever my motives, I and others like me are ditching ‘Nicene christology for Homoian christology’. ‘Homoianism’ sounds impressive and is not an everyday term. Obviously MB thinks it is toxic because it is a kind of semi-arianism and he thinks I and others like me have caught it badly, but the next question is ‘what is Homoian Christology?’
Homoian theology culminates in the pronouncements of the Council of Constantinople in 360, following on from the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia of 359, which were themselves decisively shaped by the 2nd Council of Sirmium 357. The Council of Constantinople says of the Son that he is ‘God from God, like to the Father that begat Him according to the Scriptures’ (from Athanasius De Synodis 30). The critical point here is the refusal to use the Nicene term ‘same substance’ (homoousios), a point appearing in Sirmium 357. The Council expands on this later (Forgive the long quote, but to use the term ‘homoian’ usefully, we need to know a certain amount about it):
But the name of ‘Essence,’ [ousia from which we get homoousios or ‘same substance’] which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offence, because the Scriptures contain it not, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine Scriptures have made no mention of the Essence of Father and Son. For neither ought Subsistence [hypostasis or ‘person’] to be named concerning Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But, we say that the Son is Like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been afore condemned already, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema. (Athanasius’ account De Synodis 30)
Three things are readily apparent.
First, there is the seeming piety of saying that homoousios or ‘same substance’ terminology is not explicitly found in Scripture. ‘All we are doing is being scriptural,’ say the Homoians.
Second, by banning the terms homoousios, ousia [‘substance’] and hypostasis [‘person’] they effectively stop argument in favour of the Nicene position. If you can’t use the word homoousios, how can you uphold Nicaea? This means that one of the decisive aspects of Nicaea that the Arians could not accept (judging by Athanasius’ account) was now no longer available. After all, Augustine sees Arianism precisely as denying that Father and Son and Spirit are of ‘one and the same substance’ (On Heresies XLIX). So the vital common ground between early Arianism and Homoianism or semi-arianism is that functionally the Council of Constantinople also denied one could say the Son is ‘of the same substance’ (homoousios) with the Father. Homoianism is rightly semi-Arian because it shares the Arian refusal to say of the Son ‘homoousios’.
Third, by denying one can use ‘substance’ and ‘person’, the theological grammar of Nicaea by which one can assert both plurality (three Persons) and unity (one substance) in the triune God disappears.
This in turn means that MB is entitled to call me a Homoian if I deny one can say the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and if I deny one can use ‘person’ and ‘substance’. In fact I, and others who argue for eternal submission, assert homoousios and rely precisely on the distinction between substance and person: the Son has the same substance as his Father and is every bit as much divine as his Father is: sons have their fathers’ nature. It is because there is a distinction between Person and Substance that one can say that the Son eternally submits at the level of Person while being no less than his Father at the level of Substance. After all, Athanasius and Augustine both note, human sons properly obey their fathers without being inferior at the level of nature or substance. Hence MB’s charge of Homoianism is wrong.
Hilary of Poitiers on homoousios and subordination
‘Ah, but,’ will doubtless run the argument, ‘You do not mean the same thing by homoousios as the Nicene theologians did. So you’re still really with the Homoians of Constantinople 360.’ An important point lurks here. Homoousios terminology can be wrongly used. After all, it had associations before the Council of Nicaea with the modalist bishop Paul of Samosata in the third century. Part of the task for pro-Nicene apologetics was to rescue the term from this pre-history and establish how it functioned in the Arian controversy to uphold the full deity of the Son without lapsing into modalism.
This means that we cannot simply utter the word homoousios and leave it there. What goes into using it properly? Hilary of Poitiers discusses this. After ruling out various wrong understandings of homoousios, he adds:
Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son [subjectio] and the likeness of His nature, and then we may preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance. (De Synodis 70)
Hilary then goes on to explain why terminology of ‘like nature’ (homoiousios) ultimately has to come down to ‘same substance’. Hilary is clearly not a Homoian (he refers to the seed-bed creed of homoianism at Sirmium 357 as a blasphemia). Yet here he says that a pre-condition of the right understanding of ‘same substance’ (homoousios) is that we see the Son is subject (at the level of Person), while at the same level of nature as his Father.
This is Nicene theology and is exactly the Person-Nature distinction that the Homoian Constantinople 360 formula will not allow. It is the same distinction that I and others follow in asserting both that the Son eternally submits to his Father (as a son at the level of Person) while being of one and the same nature (at the different level of substance/nature).
Nicene after all
Thus, far from being covert homoians as MB suggests, the argument follows the Nicene lines that Athanasius and others set out, that the Son is everything that the Father is except Father. The question is what goes into that ‘except Father’ category. For that we depend not on what we think speculatively goes into being divine ‘Father’, but on what is revealed to us of the Father-Son relations. Jesus clearly reveals he has come to do his Father’s will rather than his own (John 6:38, etc). The issue for those denying eternal submission is how they know either explicitly from the Scriptures or by good and necessary consequence that this and similar passages do not reveal the eternal relations.
Rev’d Michael Ovey (PhD, MTh, MA, BCL, BA) is Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in London. His most recent book is: Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility. Before coming to Oak Hill, Mike was a civil service lawyer drafting government legislation. He trained at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and worked as a curate for four years at All Saints, Crowborough, before teaching for three years at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He joined Oak Hill in 1998 and since then has finished a PhD in the field of Trinitarian theology.