This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series: Eternal Submission of the Son
- Grudem: the case for eternal submission of the Son
- Eternal submission: Liam Goligher says “No”
- Eternal subordination not a novel doctrine
- Some theses on the Father and the Son
- Eternal Submission of the Son: the main issues
- Subordinationism: what is it?
- Trinity: unity AND diversity
- Aimee Byrd: confused, or what?
Critics of the doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (such as Liam Goligher) are very ready to assert that it is a novel doctrine: it is inconsistent with the historic creeds of the church, and whenever, in the past, it has reared its head it has been summarily rejected. This has led Goligher and others to accuse those who subscribe to this doctrine of heresy, and of having disqualified themselves from teaching office in the church.
Wayne Grudem has provided evidence that some form of subordination (or subjection) has been taught by a significant number of respected theologians.
Following are the quotations assembled by Grudem (arranged in chronological order). Additional quoations have been added from his Systematic Theology (2nd ed). I have added further material in italics.
John Calvin (1559)
“It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity….The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:142-43.)
[Commentary on John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”:] “Faith is a work of God, by which he shows that we are his people, and appoints his Son to be the protector of our salvation. Now the Son has no other design than to fulfill the commands of his Father.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 252.
Jonathan Edwards (1740)
“1. That there is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another, in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affair of man’s redemption. So that the Father in that affair acts as Head of the Trinity, and Son under him, and the Holy Spirit under them both. 2. ‘Tis very manifest that the persons of the Trinity are not inferior one to another in glory and excellency of nature… 4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another, and so must be conceived of as in some respect established by mutual free agreement…yet this agreement establishing this economy is not to be looked upon as merely arbitrary…But there is a natural decency or fitness in that order and economy that is established. ‘Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting: that as the Father is first in the order of subsisting, so he should be first in the order of acting…therefore the persons of the Trinity all consent to this order, and establish it by agreement, as they all naturally delight in what is in itself fit, suitable and beautiful. Therefore, 5. This order [or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra2 is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption… 6. That the economy of the persons of the Trinity, establishing that order of their acting that is agreeable to the order of their subsisting, is entirely diverse from the covenant of redemption, and prior to it, not only appears from the nature of things, but appears evidently from the Scripture…” 1062. “Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption,” from Jonathan Edwards , The “Miscellanies,” 833-1152 (WJE Online Vol. 20), Ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw.
Charles Hodge (1871-1873)
“The Nicene doctrine includes…the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority….The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ….
The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.” (Systematic Theology, 1, 460-462).
“Subordination, as to the mode of subsistence, and operation, is a scriptural fact; and so also is the perfect and equal godhead of the Father, and the Son, and, therefore, these facts must be consistent. In the consubstantial identity of the human soul, there is a subordination of one faculty to another, and so, however incomprehensible to us, there may be a subordination in the trinity consistent with the identity of essence in the godhead.” (Systematic Theology, 1, 474)
“The Scriptures speak of a threefold subordination of Christ. 1. A subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, of the second, to the first person in the Trinity; which is perfectly consistent with their identity of substance, and equality in power and glory. 2. The voluntary subordination of the Son in his humbling himself to be found in fashion as a man, and becoming obedient unto death, and therefore subject to the limitations and infirmities of our nature. 3. The economical or official subjection of the theanthropos. That is, the subordination of the incarnate Son of God, in the work of redemption and as the head of the church. He that is by nature equal with God becomes, as it were, officially subject to him. The passages the most directly parallel with the one before us are 11:3, and 15:28, but in Phil. 2:6–11; Heb. 1:3, and in many other passages, the same truth is taught.” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:23)
[Additional statement on 1 Cor. 15:28:] “We know that the verbally inconsistent propositions, the Son is subject to the Father, and, the Son is equal with the Father, are both true. In one sense he is subject, in another sense he is equal. The son of a king may be the equal of his father in every attribute of his nature, though officially inferior. So the eternal Son of God may be coequal with the Father, though officially subordinate. What difficulty is there in this? What shade does it cast over the full Godhead of our adorable Redeemer? . . . . The subjection itself is official and therefore perfectly consistent with equality of nature” (Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Wilmington, Del.: Sovereign Grace, 1972 reprint of 1857 edition), 185- 186.
But if the Father alone is God [unbegotten], while the Son is so [begotten], and the Holy Ghost [expirated] does not this introduce something like subordination among the three Persons, so that Arius may seem to have been unjustly accused of heresy? If the subsistence of the Son is grounded in that of the Father and the subsistence of the Holy Ghost in that of the Father and the Son…how is the statement of the Creed to be understood, ‘And in this Trinity none is afore or after other, none is greater or less than another ‘? Unquestionably there is a difference, but one that does not necessarily imply a gradation of dignity, or at any rate inferiority of nature. The difference consists not in reference to time, for all three Persons are co-eternal; nor in reference to essence, for all three are God; but in reference to the order of subsistence, according to which the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Ghost the third Person. (Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, p127f)
William G.T. Shedd (1888)
While there is this absolute equality among the Divine persons in respect to the grade of being to which they be long, and all are alike infinite and uncreated in nature and essence, there is at the same time a kind of subordination among them. It is Trinitarian, or filial subordination ; that is, subordination in respect to order and relationship. As a relation, sonship is subordinate to fatherhood. In the order, a father, whether divine or human, is the first, and a son is the second. Hence the phrases ‘filial subordination’ and ‘trinitarian subordination’ are common in trinitarian writers.
The trinitarian subordination of person, not of essence, must not be confounded with the Arian and Semi-Arian subordination, which is a subordination of essence as well as of person. Neither must it be confounded with the
theanthropic or mediatorial subordination. This latter in volves condescension and humiliation ; but the trinitarian subordination does not. It is no humiliation or condescension for a son to be the son of his father. That the second trinitarian person is God the Son, and not God the Father, does not imply that his essence is inferior to that of the Father, and that he is of a lower grade of being, but only that his sonship is subordinate to the Father s paternity. The Son of God is an eternal, not a temporal son ; and an eternal son must have an eternal nature in order to be eternal. In the theanthropic or mediatorial sonship, there is an humbling, though no degrading of the eternal Son, be cause of the assumption into union with the Divine nature of an inferior human nature. But in the Arian or SemiArian subordination, there is not only humiliation, but degradation. The Son of God, upon this theory, is of a lower grade of being than the Father, because he is of a different essence or nature. (Dogmatic Theology, 301f)
Geerhardus Vos (1896)
“Although these three persons possess one and the same divine substance, Scripture nevertheless teaches that, concerning their personal existence, the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Spirit the third . . . . There is, therefore, subordination as to personal manner of existence and manner of working, but no subordination regarding possession of the one divine substance.” Reformed Dogmatics, translated and edited by Richard B Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2012-2014, from hand-written lectures in 1896), vol. 1, p. 43.
Herman Bavinck (1895–1901):
‘For as Mediator, the Son is subordinate to the Father, calls him God …, is his servant … who receives a reward … for the obedience accomplished.… Still, this relation between Father and Son, though most clearly manifest during Christ’s sojourn on earth, was not first initiated at the time of the incarnation, for the incarnation itself is already included in the execution of the work assigned to this the Son, but occurs in eternity and therefore also existed already during the time of the Old Testament.’ (Reformed Dogmatics)
A. H. Strong (1907)
“…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation…The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman’s soul is worth as much as man’s; see 1 Cor 11:3.” (Systematic Theology, 342).
Louis Berkhof (1938)
“The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship….Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity.” (Systematic Theology, 88-89).
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973)
“Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other….It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son’s part, and find all His joy in doing His Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven.” Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.
Carl F. H. Henry (1982)
“The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son’s subordination to the Father, and the Spirit’s subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations” (God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.)
“Christians must . . . avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity” (p. 210).
Charles Ryrie (1986)
“The phrase ‘eternal generation’ is simply an attempt to describe the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity and, by using the word ‘eternal,’ protect it from any idea of inequality or temporality…Priority without inferiority as seen in the Trinity is the basis for proper relationships between men and women (1 Cor. 11:3).” Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 54, 59.
Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest (1987)
“Alongside the essential equality of persons there exists an economic ordering or functional subordination. Paul implies that, within the administration of the Godhead, the Father has the primacy over the Son…and over the Spirit…And the Son has priority over the Spirit….the ordering relation is eternal and not limited to Christ’s state of humiliation.” Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 266-267.
Thomas Oden (1987, 1989, 1992):
‘The obedience of the Son to the Father (John 15:10) does not imply that the son is inferior to the Father. The Son did not become less than the father by becoming eternally obedient to the father’s will (Philippians 2:5–11).’ (Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology)
Robert L. Reymond (1998)
“We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will.” A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 336.
John Feinberg (2001):
‘Even as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit deeply love one another, work together to accomplish their goals in our universe, and when needed, submit their individual will to the wishes and plans of the other member of the Godhead (e.g., Matt 26:39, where Jesus says not his will but the Father’s), we find our model for interpersonal relations.’ (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God)
John Frame (2002):
‘The persons of the Trinity voluntarily subordinate themselves to one another in the roles they perform in respect to creation. As we have seen, the Father sends the Son into the world, and the Son joyfully obeys his Father’s will.… The Son and the Spirit are voluntarily subordinate to the commands of the Father, because that kind of subordination is appropriate to their eternal nature as persons.’ (The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 719–20.)
Norman Geisler (2003)
“One final word about the nature and duration of this functional subordination in the Godhead. It is not just temporal and economical; it is essential and eternal. For example, the Son is an eternal Son (see Prov. 30:4; Heb. 1:3). He did not become God’s Son; He always was related to God the Father as a Son and always will be. His submission to the Father was not just for time but will be for all eternity.” Systematic Theology vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 291.
Robert Letham (2004)
“The Son’s submission to the Father is compatible with his full and unabbreviated deity. Therefore, we may rightly say that the Son submits in eternity to the Father, without in any way breaking his indissoluble oneness with the Father or the Holy Spirit, and without in any way jeopardizing his equality. Being God, he serves the Father. Being God, the Father loves the Son and shares his glory with him (John 17:1-4, 22-24). The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402.
Michael Horton (2011):
‘Furthermore, biblical revelation identified each of these persons as a thinking, willing, and active agent. Nothing exhibits this fact more than the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) made between the divine persons in eternity.… Although all three persons are mutually active in every external work of the Godhead, they are active differently.’ (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 303.)
Bruce Ware (2005, 2019)
“…the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and hence, the Son stands in a relationship of eternal submission under the authority of his Father” Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway 2005), p. 71.
‘Within the relations and rules of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, one finds a prevailing authority and submission structure that flows from the eternal relations of origin and gives order and direction to the ways the three Trinitarian persons relate and function. This claim finds wide and uniform biblical support.’ (“Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” in Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, ed. by Keith Whitfield (Nashville: B&H, 2019), 60.)
Malcolm B. Yarnell III (2016)
“John [in Revelation] has splendidly portrayed Christological monotheism in its eternal and historical dimensions…He has brought together the titles, the functioning, and the worship that indicate Jesus’s equality with, yet subordination to, the Father in the one place where we can view them simultaneously, the eternal throne of God… “There is an eternal subordination in John’s portrayal of the three. God receives upon his throne the victorious Lamb through whom he sent to be a sacrifice. And the Spirit is sent from the throne into all of creation through the Lamb in order to reveal God and the Lamb. There is no hint here that the subordination of the Lamb and the Spirit is merely historical or merely functional. This is an eternal setting….There is eternal equality in John’s portrayal of the three, too.” God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 211, 217.
Mike Ovey (2016)
1. There is historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son. 2. The texts of scripture require us to recognise at the level of the persons distinguishable wills of Father and Son. 3. The Son tells us in scripture that he reveals his eternal love for his Father by his obedience on earth, and this love at the level of persons includes on the Son’s part eternal obedience. 4. The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons. 5. The eternal subordination of the Son does not entail Arianism, because the Son’s obedience arises from his relation as son and not because he is a creature.” (Cited from http://oakhill2.ablette.net/blog/entry/should_i_resign/)
John Frame (2002)
“There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role b e compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination? The biblical answer, I think, is no.” (The Doctrine of God (2002), 720; see also his Systematic Theology (2013), 500-502).
Additional statements on the Nicene formulation
Philip Schaff (1819-1893)
“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed.” (History of the Christian Church, 3:680).
Geoffrey W. Bromiley
“Eternal generation….is the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. “Generation” makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). “Eternal” reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued ….Nor does his subordination imply inferiority….the phrase….corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being….It finds creedal expression in the phrases ‘begotten of his Father before all worlds'” (Nicene) and “begotten before the worlds” (Athanasian). Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Eternal Generation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 368).
Harold O. J. Brown
“Nicaea clearly affirmed that the distinction between the Father and the Son is not ontological or substantial, inasmuch as both are God. It did not clearly specify wherein that distinctiveness does lie. Inasmuch as it is not ontological, it must be relational, as the language of the Bible continues to assert even when we have stripped “begetting” of its ontological implications. At this point, in order to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, the language was allowed to carry its economic implications; that is to say, the Persons of the Trinity were seen to differ in the relationship of commissioner and commissioned, the one sending and the one sent (John 3:16, 14:16). Here, finally, the distinction was allowed to rest; the Son, under (sub) the orders of the Father is clearly subordinate in the relationship, although not by nature; the same holds true for the Holy Spirit.” (Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 133.