Some Preliminary Notes For A Defense Of Origen On The Biblical Doctrine Of Subordinationism

Every once in a while, my reading triggers a cascading series of thoughts that is too big for a single blog entry, even of the foreboding size that is often the case in my writings. In such cases, the massive scope of the series of thoughts as well as their importance creates a certain sense of tension, in that their scope requires a sense of organization and structure to set the boundaries of the desired examination, but the size precludes an exhaustive examination itself in making the case that I have in mind. When this occurs [1], what I often resort to is the writing of an outline that offers hints and starting points for reflection and research so that if time and resources permit, the research may be followed up at considerable length, or broken into smaller bits that can be taken at greater leisure and tackled one by one but where the overall scope of the project can also be taken into account, to at least provide a jumping off point for writing, given the inevitable scope creep that occurs in my own thinking process and in writing once the actual process of typing comes to mind and I follow various digressions and tangents during the course of research and writing. Before that inevitable process occurs given my intense intellectual curiosity, I like to at least nail down some tentative borders to an investigation and some provisional suggestions for where to start the process of research and writing that would do justice for the research project in mind. And, since I am the sort of person who does not think well inside my own head, I find it necessary to externalize the thought process that most people do privately, and share it with others in the hope that they may provide either questions, suggestions for other matters that would require explanation or research, or provide useful books to read that would contain the information that I am seeking, or provide encouragement/discouragement to whether the project is worth undertaking, as the case may be.

As I was flipping through a book [2] on Sabbath morning as I was packing and preparing for my lengthy day [3], I came across a part in the book where the author, Michael Horton, was discussing the Trinity in a chapter helpfully but unbiblically titled “God Is Three Persons.” In it, he was critiquing the belief of Origen in a doctrine known as subordinationism, in which Jesus Christ (and, for those who believe in a third person in the Godhead, the Holy Spirit) is subordinate to God the Father, in some sense “less divine” than God the Father. As someone with a strong interest in the history of the Church of God within the larger context of those who claim to be Christians, and coming from a denomination that explicitly and openly believes in subordinationism, because that is what the Bible actually teaches rather than the dictates of neoplatonic thought followed by many Hellenistic Christians, I thought it would be worthwhile to investigate what Origen believed about the subordination of Jesus Christ to God, as well as what the Bible says about subordination as well as the problem of the personhood of the Holy Spirit given the future status of redeemed and resurrected believers within the Family of God, and what that does to any nonbiblical speculations and views about the Godhead, matters that are often unrecognized and unexamined by almost everyone. The subject is within an area of strong interest (namely history and biblical doctrine), would be written in a form that is highly congenial to me as a writer (an exercise in case making that defends someone unjustly attacked by many as a heretic, about a controversial subject that is of universally agreed importance, widespread rancor and conflict, and yet nearly universal ignorance about the true biblical position). In addition, it is an area of research that, to my knowledge, has not been undertaken by others within the Church of God, which means that the area is virgin territory, in a matter of speaking. The area, though, may be so obscure as to not be of interest, and the fact of the Church of God’s views on subordinationism may be sufficiently unknown to provide the writer with sufficient defense in the face of potentially unfriendly scrutiny in writing about such a subject.

There are at least a few potential jumping off points where writing and research would be immediately fruitful. For example, some background reading about views of the godhead could be undertaken fairly readily, especially regarding the way that Hellenistic Christians attempt to justify a belief of God as one essence in three persons. Finding books on Origin, and his writings, would also be of fundamental importance. I know, for example, that the Home Office in Cincinnati had a hardcover set of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers in its library, and as Origen was an Ante-Nicene Father, and a very well-noted one, it is quite likely that his relevant writings on the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father is present in this volume if it could be properly obtained. Biographies of Origen, or critiques of this thought and belief, would also be helpful insofar as to discuss his controversial status among Hellenistic Christians as being a thinker of the highest order but one whose striking originality of thought has made him rather poorly viewed by those whose thinking went along other routes, something I can relate to all too well. As a matter of course, it would also be helpful to research and write about the relevant biblical scriptures, in the approach of “problem scriptures” and using biblical principles of hermeneutics like letting the Bible interpret itself, seeking understanding here a little and there a little, rather than looking at a few cherry-picked verses taken out of context, and letting clear scriptures explain unclear ones, and using a hermeneutic of charitability to avoid contradictions that pit verses against each other. These scriptures would point out cases where Jesus Christ proclaimed the superiority of the Father, showed himself as learning obedience, as being at the right hand of God and not His equal, and as recognizing the difference between His own will and the will of the Father, but accepting the will of the Father as supreme, as well as verses that show that redeemed and resurrected believers will be of the same nature and substance as the resurrected Christ and will be worshipped by those in the second resurrection, which creates all kinds of problems for the mistaken view of the Godhead expressed in the closed Trinity. Besides the biblical scriptures themselves, it would be of great use to also research what the Church of God has said about these matters in doctrinal papers, official writings, as well as messages. In some cases [4], there is a great deal of preexisting writing that I do not wish to duplicate, except insofar as to present the position already given that expresses my own beliefs and the perspective I am defending. In other cases, such as a formal discussion of our beliefs on subordinationism, I am not sure that our beliefs on the matter have been clearly and specifically described, even if they are mentioned in messages in passing from time to time. It goes without saying that this is a massive research project that would require a great deal of time and effort in writing and reading to do it well, and that would require significant effort to make it accessible to its intended audience.

Besides the sheer audacity of the scope and ambition of the task itself, there are other concerns that I feel at pains to mention. There is within the Church of God a widespread deal of hostility to intellectual study of the sort that I am drawn to like a bee to nectar. There is also a widespread disinclination to support and endorse the works of lay writers, such as I am, in areas of obvious importance and deep controversy. There is no question that the subject of the Nature of God and an effort at qualified support for any Ante-Nicene Father in any manner are matters of great importance at the heart of our identity as a denomination. After all, it is our beliefs on the nature of God that make the deepest difference between us and the wider body of Christendom. It is entirely understandable that I might be viewed as unqualified and unsuitable to undertake such a task with approval, especially given that the whole matter of the debate of the nature of God is one of the fundamental areas of disagreement that led to the final crisis of the Worldwide Church of God in 1993, with the release of some thirty tapes on the subject and the release of the ominously unbiblical booklet God Is… Even the knowledge or recognition of my interest in the subject may itself be seen as somewhat alarming, and as an example of someone far overstepping the boundaries of acceptable areas of historical and biblical study for someone of my own lack of rank and status. My own voluminous reading and writing, and my fondness for areas of both obscurity and controversy may mean that even where others may be disinclined to read about or write about or speak about such a matter, my own efforts may be singularly unwelcome, and so this is an area where encouragement and something approaching political cover from the inevitable carping and fault-finding which plague such areas of study induce in others would also be greatly to be appreciated. If such an effort is being undertaken by others, I would not wish to duplicate such efforts myself, but would wish to encourage those efforts and be kept appraised of them, so that I may bring them into more open discussion, as desired. After all, in areas of such obvious importance and considerable delicacy, it is of the utmost importance that all is done for the glory of God and for the edification of His Church, and not for mere intellectual vanity and selfish ambition.

[1] See, for example:



[4] See, for example:

Booklets/articles on the Trinity

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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20 Responses to Some Preliminary Notes For A Defense Of Origen On The Biblical Doctrine Of Subordinationism

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  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for this post. I was wondering if the Churches of God were subordinationist. Last year, Roger Olson wrote a post on Grace Communion International, and he said that the WCG under Herbert Armstrong denied the deity of Christ. People in the comments, including myself, challenged him on that in the comments, but he said that he got his impressions from something he read in the Plain Truth, and I vaguely remembered that, even though the Church of God in which I grew up said Jesus was God, it somewhat portrayed him as subordinate to the Father. Here is the post:

    On the church fathers, you can find the volumes online. The volumes even have a Scripture index, which is helpful.

    • You’re very welcome. I would argue that the Churches of God are subordinationist, largely based on the same passages of John that Origen and C.S. Lewis quote, but I would strenuously argue with anyone who accused the Churches of God of being Arian or denying the divinity of Jesus Christ.

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