Riding the Metaphysical Helter Skelter

In preparing for our next Doctrine Study Day on ‘Preaching the God-Man: Defending and Delighting in the Incarnation’ I have been reading some of the excellent recent books on Christology. One that contains some fresh arguments against the supposed eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) is D. Glenn Butner’s The Son Who Learned Obedience. Rather than accusing proponents of EFS of being Arian, Butner seeks to prove that EFS is incompatible with the trinitarian conviction that the ad extra works of the triune God are indivisible (because their unity stems from there being one will in God, not two or three), and that EFS has a destabilising effect on other key doctrines such as the atonement (because the divine Son no longer offers himself voluntarily but in submissive obedience, rendering his obedience non-supererogatory). These are profound points that should be more prominent in the ongoing debate, but it was a comment near the end of thebook that caught my attention and felt like it summed up the wider implications of the weighty case that Butner makes. It is a comment worth sustained attention from the metaphysically casual or indifferent:

‘When you modify the fundamental metaphysics of Christian doctrine by changing the meaning of terms like person, nature, and essence and fully work out the consequences, the theological change must be enormous’ (p. 196).

Indeed it must. To argue that the Son as God has a distinct will from the Father (let alone an antithetical will, pushing the payer of Gethsemane back into the Godhead) is a massive change in the church’s understanding of persons and natures. The seeming ease with which this move is made by some reminds me of N. T. Wright asking of his own Christological work: ‘What might it do to our systematic Christologies to make the Temple, rather than theories about natures, persons, and substances central to our reflection?’ and answering ‘I do not know’. In the same article he writes that his approach might bring ‘a flood of new possibilities’ and might ‘slice through the denser thickets of theological definitions’.

Call me timid, but I do not view the prospect of such a fresh start in Christology as a cause for celebration. In fact, I do not think that the specific arguments that Wright makes for a high Christology on the basis of the depiction of Jesus as the new temple and Torah would have this effect – they seem to me to be largely true and where they are true a fillip for Chalcedonian Christology. But that is not my point here. My point is that we ought never to view the possibility of such metaphysical revolutions with equanimity, for the reason that Butner gives: the entirety of Christian doctrine has been worked out in tandem with the metaphysic that it itself entails, and changing the metaphysic will threaten the entire system. That is not to say that the metaphysic is narrowly defined in every possible way. For example, there is a good case to be made for the view that Chalcedon itself was a mediating document that avoided locking down all the metaphysical issues that had arisen in the previous decades; it was not metaphysically exhaustive. But nor was it metaphysically neutral. It did not answer every question about persons or natures, but it did entail certain positions on both. As Butner shows, if we start redefining the will of God in relation to his nature and persons, we may have failed to reckon with the magnitude of what will happen next.

(Details of the study day on the incarnation are available here: https://www.pastorsacademy.org/ways-to-study/study-days/doctrine/)