What Makes C.S. Lewis’ View Of Subordinationism Orthodox?

Although I have spent some time in dealing with the thorny question of C.S. Lewis’ belief that Jesus Christ was subordinate and obedient to God the Father [1], something I imagine many readers will take as an obvious article of faith and will wonder why any time needs to be spent on it, much less time spent quoting immensely complicated and nuanced and difficult to understand text where any reader would be entirely justified to wonder why any of it is worth arguing or fighting over, since the difficulty of merely understanding what is being said in the first place is sufficiently challenging to make arguing over the text entirely fruitless and without value, the reader will find no disagreement with this author. Nevertheless, there is a point in bringing up all of this complexity and controversy, not least because the stark contrast between what men say and what God says is sufficiently clear that a familiarity with the arguments of mankind, and the self-contradictions of those who let human reasoning trump divine revelation leave the reader in such a state as to rejoice when they can drink from the crystal clear waters of the Word. Sometimes it is worthwhile to know the contrast between what we believe and what others say, so that we can better appreciate what we have been given, and the difficulties which others can be drawn to in their attempts to define what in their own worldview is undefinable.

In his book C.S. Lewis—On the Christ of a Religious Economy, author P.H. Brazier says the following about Lewis’ views: “If, as outlined by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, the second person of the Trinity—the Word—is the immanent self-expression of God, this creative divinity is expressed to us, in our reality, in human form. The Father is essentially invisible and unoriginated: the Son is the visibility and the knowability of God. This concurs with the Reformed theologian Karl Barth—who was only too familiar with the dangers of subordinationism (the belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to God the Father in nature and being; that the Son is obedient to the Father is not a form of subordinationism, a common mistake) and modalism (that God appears in three modes, first the Father, then the Son, then the Spirit). The second person of the Trinity is the self-communication of God, and the self-possession of God. The danger with Trinitarian thinking is always the separation, the compartmentalism of God into separate “gods” (tritheism), and of progression (modalism) [2].”

About this passage there is much to say, although even reading the passage is enough to give one a headache when one examines the tricky language. Suffice it to say that for Trinitarians even the attempt to describe God’s action is fraught with all kinds of tripwires that lead one to be accused of various heresies. It is, in this light, little wonder that a thinker like Origen who lived before the Chalcedonian consensus of the nature of God would have run afoul of the difficulties inherent in speaking about the Nature of God through the use of seemingly contradictory logical rules rather than clear biblical texts. What is most notable about this passage is the fact that the author separates the understanding that Jesus Christ is subordinate to God the Father in terms of obedience from questions as to whether Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (however one views it) possess the same nature and the same uncreated status. In the eyes of the author, one can show that Jesus Christ is obedient to the will of God the Father without falling astray of wandering heresy hunters, and in other places in his book he shows how Lewis is careful, even in writing children’s fiction, to give an orthodox description of the behavior of the Narnian Trinity in such a way that would pass muster in avoiding both tritheism and modalism, although perhaps Lewis’ care in meeting the standards of orthodoxy are part of what accounts to the seeming incoherence of the Chronicles of Narnia from a logical perspective.

Other writers are not as keen on giving Lewis a pass for his beliefs on the hierarchy within the Godhead. For example, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, on page 73 of her book A Sword Between The Sexes?: C.S. Lewis And The Gender Debates, brings Lewis’ thoughts on subordination into the thorny issue of gender politics, because of Lewis’ belief in a hierarchical chain of being, as described in 2 Corinthians 11:3 [3], saying: “Eastern and Western Christian Creeds, from the Council of Nicaea to the Protestant Reformation and beyond, have concluded that the Bible’s basic message is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in being and power. Lewis was certainly familiar with these historical documents. Yet at least through midlife, he apparently preferred to understand the relationship between God and Christ as essentially—not just functionally—hierarchical. In 1941 he wrote frankly about this to his Benedictine friend and former student, Dom Bede Griffiths, while preparing the radio talks that were the basis of his book Mere Christianity: “About the Son being subject to the Father (as God—of course [He is] obviously subject as Man in the Incarnation)—yes, that’s what I think.”

Here, we see that this thinker, who is more concerned about justifying a feminist opposition to the Bible, and specifically to the misinterpretation of Paul as being hostile to women, views any sort of subordination between Jesus Christ and God to be inimical to the interests of women, because if Jesus Christ is subject in any way to God the Father in the Godhead, then there is not perfect equality to be found politically speaking among the Godhead, and if there is inequality in the Godhead, then there can certainly, and entirely justly, be inequality among human beings, and particularly between women and men. Let it be on earth as it is in heaven, after all. It is this gender political basis that makes Van Leeuwen unwilling to concede Lewis’ view as Orthodox and acceptable, because to concede this would be to concede her desire for women not to be seen in any way, ceremonially or politically or otherwise, as in the least inferior of men. We may certainly sympathize with her position, but in leading her to go far beyond what other theologians do is to do violence to her credibility when she speaks about any supposed consensus about the nature of God, even among her fellow Hellenistic Christians and Trinitarians.

Is there any way to resolve this muddle? Jordan Ferrier, in his book Calvin & C.S. Lewis: Solving the Riddle of the Reformation, page 62-63, says the following: “The best argument I can think of to counter Classical Theism and “Divine Essentialism” would be to say that sovereignty is essential to the nature of God, since god the Father is sovereign over the Son and the Spirit. This line of reasoning introduces a hierarchy into the divine essence and is called the heresy of subordinationism by both Calvinists and Classical theists. Norman Geisler explains the view of Subordinationism: “This heresy was held by Justin Martyr and Origen and condemned at the Council of Constantinople (381). It asserts that the Son is subordinate in nature to the Father. Subordinationism is not to be confused with the orthodox belief that the Son (Christ) is functionally subordinate to (i.e. subject to) the Father, though essentially equal with Him.” (ST 2, p. 297).

It seems impossible for Trinitarians, when discussing the difference between heresy and Orthodoxy, to be internally consistent even over the space of a few sentences. If the author is trying to make an argument against C.S. Lewis, who he defines as a Classical Theist, by arguing what Lewis did about there being a hierarchy between God the Father and Jesus Christ, which is a straightforward reading of the biblical texts, something few people do when they argue about the nature of God, unfortunately, his quote from Norman Geisler that a belief in the functional inequality of God is entirely Orthodox is at odds with his contention that a hierarchy within the Godhead would of necessity be a heretical belief in subordinationism. This muddled account manages to support both sides of the question of whether C.S. Lewis’ view of subordinationism was heresy, although since Lewis would have been quick to defend that his view was speaking about obedience and not of a different nature, it seems that Lewis would at least have some grounds to cover his belief, if not to the satisfaction of Van Leeuwen. What all of this would seem to suggest is that we would do far better to read the Bible than try to understand anything about the nature of God from the turgid and self-contradictory writings of theologians. And this we will do, if time permits.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/c-s-lewis-an-acceptable-place-for-orthodox-subordinationism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/the-subordination-of-jesus-christ-to-god-the-father-in-c-s-lewis-the-four-loves/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/comparative-evaluations-of-essentially-different-excellencies-subordinationism-in-c-s-lewis-discarded-image/

[2] See, for example:

https://books.google.com/books?id=_0NJAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT257&lpg=PT257&dq=C.S.+Lewis+subordinationism&source=bl&ots=5QtNUmp0I7&sig=qyzR1kMp16BDZJoKfyljTYmO_x0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiwnv-uwqrMAhVW2WMKHQTGCWIQ6AEIKzAD#v=onepage&q=C.S.%20Lewis%20subordinationism&f=false

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/1-corinthians-113-the-biblical-doctrine-of-the-chain-of-being/

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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8 Responses to What Makes C.S. Lewis’ View Of Subordinationism Orthodox?

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