(These notes by note means attempt a definitive solution to this question, which has become controversial in evangelical circles in recent years.)
The question of whether the Son is eternally subject to the Father is of some significance to debates between complementarians and egalitarians. (This question is, of course, closely related to that concerning the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, but I will set that aside for now).
It is important to note that neither ‘side’ in the debate is monolithic. For example, there are those who support ESS but not complementarianism (Keener). There are those who support complementarianism but not ESS (Goligher). There are those who believe in the eternal generation of the Son but not ESS or complementarianism (Giles). And so on.
‘Subordinationism’ is a term usually used to describe the unorthodox doctrine that the Son was (and is) subordinate to the Father in essence (and not simply in role or function).
Key texts include:
John 6:38 “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. “
John 14:28 “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am.”
John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”
Phil 2:5-11 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!
As a result God exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:28 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
Hebrews 3:2 who is faithful to the one who appointed him, as Moses was also in God’s house.
Hebrews 5:5-10 Christ did not glorify himself in becoming high priest, but the one who glorified him was God, who said to him, “You are my Son! Today I have fathered you,” as also in another place God says, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, and he was designated by God as high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Rev 1:1-2 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ.
Indeed, it was just such texts that were seized upon by the Arians to support their heretical notion that the Son was a created being.
However, there is a debate amongst more orthodox Christians about whether the Son is in any way eternally subordinated to the Father. This debate is of relevance to discussions about the theological underpinning of relationships between men and women. If there is intraTrinitarian subordination with any difference in essence, value or importance, then it could be argued that an analogous relationship exists between men and women.
The Kostenbergers write:
Some reject any form of subordination in the Trinity. But Scripture does seem to affirm such a notion. In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus states, “I and the Father are one” (John 10: 30), and later on says, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14: 28). John thus presents unity of purpose and subordination side by side. Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22: 42), likewise illustrates the Son’s submission to the Father without diminishing his inclusion in the plurality of the Godhead in terms of being. The Son’s subordination doesn’t imply personal inferiority. The Trinity illustrates the possibility of two beings forming an intimate oneness, accomplishing their mission by fulfilling distinct, complementary roles (see 1 Cor. 11: 3). The Father didn’t die on the cross for our sins; the Son did. Role distinctions within the Godhead don’t imply difference in essential being.
(God’s Design for Man and Woman)
It might be argued that, in Jewish thinking, sonship does not itself imply subordination. Consider, for example:
John 5:18 For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God.
Here, Jesus’ calling God his Father is understood to mean that he was making himself equal with God. But the argument is weakened by the observation that the criticism comes from Jesus opponents, who may or may not have been exaggerating at this point.
The case for: Wayne Grudem
Grudem states that
there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person.
(Systematic Theology, 1st ed., p251; 2nd ed., p300)
For Grudem, then, there is an economic, but not an ontological, subordination within the Trinity.
Grudem argues specifically for the eternal subordination of the Son along the following lines:
- The eternal names Father and Son indicate differences in the relationship.
- The Father chose us in the Son “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4; cf. Rom. 8:29; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8), indicating an eternal action in which the Father is the person who initiates or leads in choosing who will be saved.
- The Father “created the world” (Heb. 1:2) through the Son, for “all things were made through him” (John 1:3).
- The Father “gave his only Son” (John 3:16) and “sent forth his Son” into the world (Gal. 4:4), which means that before Christ took on a human nature he willingly obeyed the direction of the Father, who sent him into the world.
- The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son indicates that the Son is eternally “from” the Father, which indicates that the Father has always had some kind of priority in the relationship.
- While Jesus was on earth, he said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), and “I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29).
- Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus said, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
- Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, he “is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34; cf. Heb. 7:25), which means he is bringing requests before the Father on our behalf.
- After Christ’s ascension, he received authority from the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church (Acts 2:32–33).
- Jesus received revelation from the Father to give to John the predictions of the future in the book of Revelation…(Rev. 1:1).
- He now sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3), and being seated at the right hand is a position of secondary authority, subordinate to the king.
- He has received from the Father the authority to execute final judgment (John 5:26–27; cf. Acts 10:42).
- After the final judgment, he will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, and then for all eternity “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
- Grudem cites D. A. Carson as noting the teaching of Scripture on the subordination of the Spirit to the Father (and to the Son), a relationship that cannot be explained in terms of incarnation, because the Spirit has no human nature.
(Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., p302f, somewhat abridged)
Grudem claims ancient support from the Nicene Creed, according to which the Son was ‘begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ Following Charles Hodge, he further claims that this has been the position of the church (in its Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant expressions) at least since that time (AD 325).
Grudem quotes the Baptist theological A.H. Strong:
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, or in other words an order of personality, office, and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority … We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office, and operation, not a subordination of essence.
- the Father elects us in the Son (Eph. 1:4-5),
- creates the world through the Son (John 1:2, 1 Cor 8:6, Heb 1:2),
- sends the Son into the world (John 3:16), and
- delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27),
- sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35),
- receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33),
- makes intercession before the Father (Heb 7:25),
- receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev 1:1), and
- will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28).
In course of urging us not to diminish Jesus’ divinity (as is done by proponents of the so-called kenosis theory) Packer writes that:
since the Son’s nature is not to take initiatives but to follow his Father’s promptings, his reason for not doing certain things, or bringing to conscious knowledge certain facts was simply that he knew that his Father did not wish this done. In other words, Jesus’ human limitations should be explained in terms, not of the special conditions of the incarnation, but of the eternal life of the Trinity.
Grudem (Countering) points out fatherhood entails headship, and that texts that teach that the Father sent the Son (John 3:1f, 34; 4:34; 8:42; Galatians 4:4) must imply that this relationship existed prior to that sending.
Moreover, says Grudem, the Father-Son relationship must have existed eternally, because Scripture teaches the agency of the Son in creation itself (Jn 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2).
Again: there was an eternal choice of people ‘in the Son’ (Eph 1:4), and a predestination to be conformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom 8:29).
During the days of his flesh
All are agreed that the Son subjected himself to the Father during the days of his flesh.
We can agree with Giles on this point:
Virtually all Christians agree that in the incarnation the Son subordinated himself to the Father. He functionally assumed the role of a servant.
(Discovering Biblical Equality)
A classic text is Philippians 2:5-11, which teaches that Christ, though equal with God, voluntarily humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant, before being exalted to his position as Lord. This would be uncontroversial, except that Giles and others insist that this exhausts revealed truth on the matter, and excludes any notion of eternal subjection.
After his exaltation
Many passages tell us that the Son was exalted to God’s right hand (see, for example, Acts 2:33; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22), and this implies his being subject to the Father’s authority. This pattern, comments Grudem, is never reversed: ‘the supreme authority always belongs to the Father. The egalitarian claim that Jesus was subject to the Father only during His life on earth is simply wrong.’
According to Jesus’ words in Mt 20:23, that the allocation of places at his left and right hand was not his to grant: the prerogative lay with his Father. This, says Grudem, ‘shows that someone can be subordinate in authority to someone else but still be equal in being, equal in importance, equal in personhood.’ (Countering)
Scripture teaches that Jesus ‘intercedes’ for us (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25). The Son does not command the Father; he brings requests to him.
In 1 Cor 15:28 Paul teaches that ‘the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all’. We may infer from this that ‘along with equality in attributes and deity and value and honor, there is also a subordination in role, and the Son is subject to the Father’s authority.’ (Grudem, Countering)
In Your Will Be Done, Michael Ovey defends the view that Christ was eternally subordinate to the Father. Ovey’s case has been critiqued by Duncan Boyd in this article.
The case against
Critics claim that it is unscriptural, that it is a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, that it entails an incoherent account of God’s will. and that it is driven by, and inappropriately linked with, a concern to defend gender complementarity.
Giles has written quite extensively on this subject. I am focusing here on his chapter entitled ‘the Subordination of Christ and the Subordination of Women’ in the book Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (eds Pierce & Groothuis)
Non sequitur – ‘Women—simply because they are women—are the subordinate sex and this can never change. Surely this suggests that women are inferior to men in some way.’
Privileges tradition over Scripture. Giles writes: ‘No one denies that there are texts that can be read to subordinate the Son to the Father and women to men; but the question is, how do these texts relate to the texts that speak of or imply the equality of the Father and the Son and of women and men?’ It appears, then, that Scripture cannot be used to settle this (and at least some other) theological disputes.
Ignores the distinction between subordination of role and function and subordination of essence (i.e. subordinationism).
The church doctrine
Giles claims that the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role and function, but not in essence or being is ‘entirely novel’. Indeed, Giles goes to some lengths in his attempt to show that any kind of subordination of the Son to the Father is alien to Christian thought down the ages. Further he says that it ‘undermines the complete unity of person and work in the Godhead so clearly taught in Scripture’ (Giles cites Jn 5:19; 10:30; 14:9).
Grudem, on the other hand, thinks that ‘the vast majority of the church has affirmed equality in being and subordination in role among the persons in the Trinity, not simply during the time of Incarnation, but in the eternal relationships between the Father and the Son.’
The ancient creeds of the church consistently affirmed the eternal generation of the Son. Writing about this in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1st and 2nd editions) Bromiley says: ‘“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).’
Referring to 1 Cor 15:23-28, Fee writes that
Although it could easily be argued that this implies some form of “eternal subordination” of the Son to the Father, it is unlikely that Paul is thinking in terms of Christ’s person here, but rather of his role in salvation history. The Son obviously does not cease to exist, nor is he here being placed eternally under the Father’s authority; rather, in the event described in this passage, his functional subordination in his role as Messiah, and thus as currently reigning messianic Lord, is now completed,81 so that the “one God” from whom and for whom are all things (1 Cor 8:6) is “all in all.” The whole universe finds its meaning once more in the final glory of the one God.
(Pauline Christology, p113. Fee adds, in a footnote, that ‘in some evangelical circles the discussion of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father came into existence altogether as an attempt to bring women under subjection to men.’)
‘In Church Dogmatics, IV.1.202ff….Barth seemingly draws some of the connections that ESS advocating complementarians have drawn, speaking of God’s inner life as involving a ‘First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility’ (202). Barth also speaks of the wife as ‘second and subordinate’ and suggests that this relation can be clarified when seen in light of the Trinity. He also speaks of a ‘twofoldness’ of humanity that is ‘a reflection of this likeness of the inner life of God Himself’ (203).’ (cited here)
One way of conceptualising the debate would be to say that proponents of ESS focus on exegetical theology (the meaning of particular biblical texts), whereas critics focus more on systematic theology (and therefore the logical problems posed by it)
At the risk of over-simplification, it seems to me that much of the heat in this debate has been generated by friction between those who wish to give (a) pre-eminence to the triunity of God (as over against tri-theism) and (b) to the deity of Christ (as over against Arianism) on the one hand, and those who wish to stress the ways in which Scripture (a) differentiates between the members of the Trinity, and (b) recognises some kind of order in their collective roles.