HomeArticlesSubordinationism (Part 1) An Ancient Heresy Revived

Subordinationism (Part 1) An Ancient Heresy Revived

It is no surprise that heretics teach heresies, but grave concern arises when prominent Christian leaders make such errors. Consider Walter Martin, the father of the counter cult movement, of whom Robert Bowman points out that “The similarities between [Walter] Martin’s view and [Kenneth] Copeland’s are striking. They both agree that Jesus did not exercise his infinite power of deity while he was a man on earth…. They both agree that his miracles were not performed by his own power.”1)Robert M. Bowman Jr., The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel, Baker Books, 2001, p. 152 This he concluded after quoting Martin’s Essential Christianity. “The New Testament irrefutably teaches that Christ did not exercise at least three prime attributes of deity while on earth prior to His resurrection. These were omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Had He done so while a man He could not have been perfect humanity…. The miracles of our Lord offer further proof of His limitations as a man, for He did not hesitate to teach that He personally worked none of them, that it was the Father who performed the works (John 5:19, 30; John 8:28; 10:37, 38; 10:32; 14:10)….”2)Walter Martin, Essential Christianity: A Handbook of Basic Christian Doctrines, Vision House. 1962, p. 37-38; as cited by Robert M. Bowman Jr., The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel, Baker Books, 2001, p. 152 Dr. Martin further asserts “John tells us that Christ was by His own admission equal in deity to God the Father (John 5:18; cf. Philippians 2:8-11; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3), yet inferior in position and form during His earthly ministry (John 14:28) as a man.”3)Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, Revised, Updated, and Expanded Edition, Bethany House Publishers, 2003, p. 169 (italics in original)
This statement is in accord with the Athanasian Creed which states, “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead: inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”4)Athanasian Creed .33; as cited by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Hendrickson Publishers, 2011, originally published in 1867, Vol. 3, p. 694 Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology text addresses the issue of carefully defining the “truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase ‘ontological equality but economic subordination,’ where the word ontological means ‘being.’ Another way to express this more simply would be to say ‘equal in being but subordinate in role.’”5)Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p. 251 Subordinationism is a condemned heresy originated by Tertullian which Grudem erroneously accuses Origen in order to preserve Tertullian as an orthodox theologian so Grudem can utilize him as a link for his pet doctrine of continuationism.6)Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p 244-245 Grudem elaborates, “If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally ‘Father’ and the Son is not eternally ‘Son.’ This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.”7)Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p 251
In “form,” Christ was made lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:7; Psalm 8:5), but ontologically, by His very being, “he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36) only by co-equality. Yet eternally the Son submitted to the Father hence Grudem’s expression subordinate in His “role” or as Martin said, “position” (if that is what he meant?). “The Lord lacked recognition and glory by men while He was on earth as the incarnate God. However, as far as God was concerned, Christ never lost His position before God….The fact that He came as a human being did not remove His position in heaven, but allowed Him to carry out His Father’s will. Christ was still equal with God even while He was dying on the cross.”8)Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D., Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (KJV), AMG Publishers, 1984, 1991, p. 1474 It is odd how these great minds seem biblically confused at times yet fully proclaim the correct creedal truths. For example, Walter Martin fully affirms what he also denies. “As often stated in creedal form, we do not confuse the persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), nor do we divided the substance (one eternal, omnipotent, omniscient God.).”9)Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, Revised, Updated, and Expanded Edition, Bethany House Publishers, 2003, p. 382 This is correct, but if Christ during the incarnation lost any omni-attributes proportionally, He would thus be mutable, ontologically inferior to the immutable Father. Note that it is accurate and appropriate to express the concept of economic subordination; however, it may be advisable to refrain from the use of the word “subordinate” and/or “inferior” in order to avoid causing confusion. There is a potential of spreading false doctrine inadvertently if such words are misunderstood.
Dr. Martin’s error is based on his confusion of the doctrine of Christ’s kenosis, from the Greek word “kenoo” meaning “to empty” (Philippians 2:7). “He did not empty something from Himself, but He emptied Himself from something, i.e. the form of God. The figure presented is similar to pouring water from a pitcher into a glass. The form is different, but the substance remains the same…. Christ emptied Himself of His Divine glory (Jn 17:3[, actually should be v. 5]), but not His divine nature…. In His incarnation, He clothed Himself in with humanity. He was like a king temporarily clothing Himself in the garb of a peasant while still remaining king, even though it was not apparent.”10)Edward R. Roustio, Th.D. , Liberty Commentary On The New Testament, Jerry Falwell, D.D., D..Litt. Executive Editor, Edward E. Hinson, Th.D., D.Min., Woodrow Michael Kroll, Th.D., General Editors, Liberty Press, 1978, p. 542 Charles C. Ryrie explains the false interpretation of the kenosis concept is what Dr. Martin presented of Christ surrendering His divine attributes. “This misconception states the kenosis means our Lord actually gave up His attributes of deity or at least the relative attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Biblically this is false, and theologically it is impossible. If He surrendered any attribute then He ceased to be God during His earthly life. There would be no way He could have said what He did in John 10:30 that He and the Father were One in essence. Christ did not denude Himself of any aspect of His deity.”11)Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, 1986, p. 262
Notice how Martin’s focus was that Christ could only be “perfect humanity” if not lacking divine attributes while Ryrie correctly states surrendering any attributes would diminish His deity. Walter Martin theology goes astray with his interpretation of the hypostatic union as defined in the Athanasius Creed “Perfect God and perfect Man.”12)http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html, accessed 5/28/12 Lewis Sperry Chaffer explanation of the hypostatic union reveals the weakness of Martin’s reasoning. “While thus recognizing the true and perfect humanity which the Second Person acquired through the virgin birth, it is, nevertheless, the undiminished and unaltered Deity which is the primary factor in this unique philanthropic Christ of God.”13)Lewis Sperry Chaffer, D.D., Litt.D., Th.D., Systematic Theology, Vol. V, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948, 1974, p. 49
Dr. Henry M. Morris followed the error of the kenosis concept commenting on Luke 2:52; “We are told that Christ ‘emptied Himself’ (the essence of the Greek term translated ‘made Himself of no reputation’ in Ph 2:7), thereby implying a voluntary setting aside of His ‘omni’ attributes in order to take ‘the form of a servant.’”14)Dr. Henry M. Morris Ph.D, LL.D., Litt.D., The New Defender’s Study Bible (KJV), World Publishing, Inc., 1995, 2006, p. 1505 Remember, it was His form that was changed, not His substance.



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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