The topic of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) has become a popular discussion among evangelical theologians in the last hundred years. This is an important discussion because it describes our view of the economy of the Trinity, the works of God, and the nature of Christ. Care and nuance must be given to defend the biblical position while affirming historical orthodoxy.
If you don’t know what some of this means, don’t worry. I’ll do my best to define everything as we go. I will also bold important points if it would be helpful for you to skim. Here is my table of contents:
- How History and Scripture Work Together to Inform Us
- How the Persons of The Trinity Might Work Together
- What Is Eternal Subordination?
- How Jesus Spoke of His Relationship with the Father
- Eternal Subordination Arguments from The Epistles
- The Distinction Between Ad Extra and Ad Intra
- How Augustine Informs Eternal Subordination
- How John Owen Viewed Eternal Subordination
- Contemporary Arguments Against Eternal Subordination
- Contemporary Arguments for Eternal Subordination
- Eternal Subordination and The Glory of the Christ
The Bible teaches that our Lord Jesus is coequal and coeternal to the Father and yet eternally subordinate to God the Father. Christian discussions throughout history inform us on the nuance, implications, and composition of this issue.
How History and Scripture Work Together to Inform Us
Christian epistemology has always affirmed and must always affirm that the Bible is our only source of inerrant, infallible knowledge. The words of Scripture carry utmost authority, and they are God’s intended revelation of himself to humanity.
The climax of the Bible is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who gives us the most clear understanding of God. “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ” (Colossians 1:1).
As such, our understanding of the nature of Christ and the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be gleaned from Scripture. Nothing else has the authority to speak on the nature of God.
Throughout history, many Christian theologians have searched the Scripture to codify a biblical understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Brothers such as Tertullian, Origen, Augustine of Hippo, John Owen, John Calvin, and more have written extensively on the topic of subordination or gradational authority between the members of the Trinity.
We look to history to help us understand the continuing conversation around the Trinity, how Christians have understood the Bible, and what categories might be helpful as we study. The Bible is our source; history can help us interpret and guard us from heresy.
How the Persons of The Trinity Might Work Together
The church has always believed that there is economy within the Trinity. Defined simply, the economy of the Trinity is the way that the persons of the Trinity interact with one another.
God is one in nature and essence, but God is three unique persons
The Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally had a relationship with one another and each has had a unique role in God’s work in creation. There are two helpful examples of the individuality and work of the persons of God.
First, each person of the Trinity has a unique role in salvation. Looking closely at Ephesians 1 can give us a clear picture of Trinitarian soteriology.
- The Father predestined us to be adopted into his eternal family and to receive every spiritual blessing (vv. 3-4). Predestination is an act attributed to the Father who “purposed in Christ” our salvation (v. 9).
- We have redemption through the blood of the Son shed on the cross (v. 7). God the Father did not come to earth as the incarnate Christ, God the Son did. The Son made the propitiation for our sins.
- The Holy Spirit then applies the finished work of Christ and seals us for the day we will be fully redeemed (vv. 13-14).
Second, Trinitarian interaction is also seen at the baptism of Jesus. This is one of the most cited events in Scripture to exemplify the unique interactions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. The work of the Son is clear in the Lukan passage (Luke. 3:21-22).
- The Son is being baptized.
- The Spirit descends on Jesus “in a physical appearance like a dove” (v. 22).
- The Father speaks audibly from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased” (v. 22).
Each member of the Trinity interacts with one another in this passage, and it is plain that there are relational dynamics between the persons. This is what is meant by the term economy. The relevant question for this conversation will be whether there is eternal subordination in the economy of the Trinity.
What Is Eternal Subordination?
The idea of eternal subordination sometimes is communicated in other terms with different nuance.
While I will use the term “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), it is also often referred to as eternal function subordination (EFS).
Theologian Millard Erickson coins the term gradational authority and defines it as the belief that “in essence or being… the three persons are completely equal… [they] differ, however, in the roles they play, and these roles are in turn based on differences of relationship among the three”.1
Erickson explains that eternal subordination refers to the belief that the persons of the Trinity are ontologically equal yet have different roles in their relationship – namely that the Son and Holy Spirit submit to the Father.
How Jesus Spoke of His Relationship with the Father
Jesus spoke of himself as one with the Father. This is the most important and prominent way in which Jesus spoke of his relationship with the Father.
I and the Father are one.John 10:30
While we make distinctions regarding the economy of the Trinity, it is important that we remember the unity and simplicity of the Trinity. Jesus and the Father are of one nature and one essence.
As we look at other passages, the primary question around them is how they apply to both the divine and human nature of Christ.
Through this lens, we see Jesus’ words in John 10:30 to be an affirmation of Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Jesus spoke of the Father as the one who sends him. In the most famous passage in the Bible, we read,
God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son.John 3:16
The Father gave the Son out of his love for the world. The same author later says in an epistle, “He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10, emphasis mine).
This has been affirmed by all Christians throughout history. The Father sends the Son. In this, the economic dynamics in the relationship between the Father and the Son can be seen.
Nowhere does the Son send the Father, but the Father is always the one who sends the Son, as Jesus himself taught.
Jesus asked fo the Father’s will.
Not what I will, but what you will.Mark 14:26
This has been an often-quoted verse by ESS proponents as they seek to give an example of what it looks like for the Son to submit to the Father.
However, this does not pose any threat to ESS critics because it is almost universally accepted that the Son submitted himself to the Father in the incarnation.
Daniel Akin, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides a helpful perspective. He believes that these verses do not show a distrust in the Father or a disagreement among the persons.2
Rather, he sees the Son trusting in his loving Father and submitting to his will. This shows us the love and trust in the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.
Jesus spoke of the Father as greater than him.
Many theologians are rightly afraid to ascribe superlative terms to the persons of the Trinity. No one wants to say that Jesus is greater than the Father because that statement would lack nuance and lend itself toward great misinterpretation.
Nevertheless, Jesus did not back down from this statement as he said,
The Father is greater than I.John 14:28
This verse has been the subject of much misinterpretation, and pseudo-Christian cults have used this to argue for heresies such as Arianism. However, God wisely included this in the canon of Scripture because he intends to communicate through it.
It can be assumed that the Father and Son are equal in glory, honor, and power, but this verse speaks of an economic relationship between the Father and Son; it speaks to how they interact with creation.
This is likely why Jesus taught us to pray to the Father (Matthew 6:9).
Eternal Subordination Arguments from The Epistles
Theologian Thomas Brand argues that all of the passages which teach the subordination of the Son have an incarnational context.3
In other words, he believes that all passages which teach subordination refer only to the time of the incarnation, not to the relationship of the Father and the Son throughout eternity.
Those who oppose ESS almost unanimously agree that the Son was subordinate to the Father on earth. However, they take great exception with the idea that the Son was subordinate to the Father before the incarnation and after the ascension.
While there are multiple biblical passages that have great weight in the conversation regarding ESS, one stands above the rest.
Then comes the end, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. … For God has put everything under his feet. Now when it says “everything” is put under him, it is obvious that he who puts everything under him is the exception. When everything is subject to Christ, then the Son himself will also be subject to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.1 Corinthians 15:24-28
There are a few important points to be made about this passage.
First, Paul did not make it unclear what he was teaching. He mentioned twice that Christ will be subject to the Father.
In other words, Christians can sometimes fall into a trap in which they ask the wrong questions of a text in order to suit their own theological agenda.4 To see eternal subordination in this text is certainly not one of those times.
Second, this passage in no way speaks of the Son with a lesser role or glory. In this passage, Paul exemplifies a high Christology.
Third, this does not have an incarnational context, as Thomas Brand claimed. This passage is clearly eschatological rather than incarnational, which is when it starts with “then comes the end.”
The Distinction Between Ad Extra and Ad Intra
The doctrine of ESS has implications within God’s acts in the world. The doctrine also has implications within the economy of the Trinity that do not pertain to the outside world.
When we discuss the economy of the Trinity in relation to the created order, we speak of the opera ad extra.
When we discuss the economy of the Trinity without relation to the created order, we speak of the opera ad intra.5
ESS proponents believe that the Son is subordinate to the Father both in their acts toward creation and in their internal economy. This distinction is the subject of debate because claiming subordination ad intra is seen to be akin to implying inequality in the ontology of the Trinity.
In addition, the opera ad intra are thought to be a topic outside of our ability to rationalize, discuss, or understand. Theologian Matthew Barrett implies that they are mysteries that cannot be entirely understood.6
How Augustine Informs Eternal Subordination
Augustine of Hippo could be considered the most influential theologian of all time, and his work on the Trinity shaped our understanding of orthodoxy in the church for many hundreds of years.
Augustine was responsible for codifying and explaining the depth and implications of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is written extensively in his book De Trinitate or On The Trinity.7
Historical theologian Keith Johnson has written multiple works exploring the Augustinian view on the Trinity and the implications of those views on the contemporary conversation of eternal subordination.
Johnson argues that Augustinian trinitarianism would leave no room for inequality within the Trinity ad intra.8 To imply or explicitly claim that the Son is inequal to the Father because of his submission is anti-Augustinian.
However, subordination does not necessarily imply inequality – this has never been true.
Subordination is a matter of function and role rather than ontology. ESS proponents should be careful to never imply inequality in their language, and ESS critics should be careful not to falsely equivocate subordination with inequality, thus unjustly bearing false witness against their brothers and sisters.
Adjacent to the conversation of eternal subordination is the historical doctrine of eternal generation.
Eternal generation is the idea that the Father begets the Son, and thus the Son’s essence or shared nature with the Father comes through being eternally generated from the Father.
Thus, you have complete unity between the nature of the Son and Father and clear distinction of the persons of the Son and Father.
Eternal generation was an influential doctrine that was formative to Augustine’s understanding of the economy of the Trinity.
Some ESS proponents have questioned the doctrine of eternal generation, but Johnson argues that Augustinian theology cannot survive without it.9 Because the doctrine is biblical, foundational, and historical, it would be unwise for ESS proponents to reject eternal generation.
How John Owen Viewed Eternal Subordination
Benedict Bird published an article in the Westminster Journal of Theology comparing the views of the renowned Puritan theologian John Owen with the claims of modern ESS proponents, namely Bruce Ware.
Owen is not shy with claiming that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, but Bird shows that Owen’s view needs to be viewed with more nuance. Owen distinguished between the opera ad intra, opera ad extra, and ontological issues regarding the Trinity.10
Owen viewed the subordination of the Son as eternal, ad intra, and ad extra, but Bird argues that Owen did not view the subordination of the Son as ontological.
These distinctions are important because they might make the difference between dividing the nature of the Trinity or maintaining the unity of the Trinity.
While some ESS proponents have claimed that the members of the Trinity have distinct wills, John Owen clearly taught and believed that there are no distinct wills within the Trinity.11
Contemporary Arguments Against Eternal Subordination
The idea of eternal subordination is often labeled a heresy, and there has been much authorship and scholarship dedicated to the conversation of ESS in recent years.
A recent book from theologian Matthew Barrett entitled Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has greatly contributed to the debate. Barrett spent multiple chapters arguing for eternal generation and against ESS by engaging with ESS proponents, including and especially the theologian Bruce Ware.
Some theologians believe that subordination necessarily implies inequality in the godhead. This might be due to poor phraseology by those by those who hold to ESS, but it is an important issue in the conversation.
The heresy of subordinationism, as it has been called, makes the Son to be inferior to the Father in “being, status, or role”.12
However, ESS advocates such as Wayne Grudem are quick to say that subordination does not speak to being or status. Rather, “The only difference between [the persons of the Trinity] is the way they relate to each other and to the creation.”13
The doctrine of ESS is considered to be novel by many critics.14 When speaking of the Trinity and introducing a novel idea, one can easily stand under the charge of rejecting orthodoxy.
This is why ESS proponents have been labeled heretics at times. Biblically understood, heresy is the teaching of one who intentionally seeks to cause division.15 However, we also understand that a heretic is one who frivolously rejects primary doctrines of orthodoxy.
Barrett claims that “[ESS] undermines biblical orthodoxy and threatens to sink evangelicalism in the swamp of social trinitarianism”.16
According to the influential theologian Louis Berkhof, early church fathers such as Tertullian and Origen confessed both the Trinity and the subordination of the Son to the Father. Berkhof believes that this was unwarranted and sacrificed the unity and consubstantiality of God.17
Contemporary Arguments for Eternal Subordination
There have been many contemporary arguments made for the eternal subordination of the Son.
Two professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Stephen Kovach and Peter Schemm, have written a journal article defending ESS using biblical and historical argumentation.
They argue that the Nicene Creed’s language “begotten from the Father” implies subordination within the ordering of the Trinity.18 While ESS critics would claim that this phrase only implies eternal generation, ESS proponents claim that this is evidence that the early church believed in eternal subordination.
Thus, ESS is not a novel idea, but a continuation and further explanation of a deeply historical doctrine.
The great theologian Augustine of Hippo is claimed by both ESS proponents and critics as supportive of their views.
Kovach and Schemm write that even according to an anti-ESS theologian, “Augustine taught that the Father stood above the Son, and that he alone is unbegotten. Augustine also declares that… the Father is higher than the Son.”19
In this passage, Kovach and Schemm seem to wrongly conflate the view that Christ was temporally subordinate with the view that Christ is eternally subordinate.
However, there is a likely reason for this. Anti-ESS theologians often claim that subordination implies ontological inequality, yet they clearly believe that the Son was subordinate during the incarnation.
Was the Son unequal while he was on earth? ESS proponents would argue that Christ is eternally subordinate and has never been unequal with the Father. This is a logical inconsistency that can sometimes be seen in the writings of ESS critics.
Proponents of ESS do not see the doctrine as a new way to think about the Trinity. Rather, they see it as the continual conversation around historical orthodoxy.
“The historical position of Christian orthodoxy is to accept the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son.”20 Eternal subordination has been confessed, and often assumed, by the early church fathers and theologians through all ages.
They even point to Calvin who seemingly supports gradational authority, the same language that we see Millard Erickson use to describe eternal subordination.
As Calvin wrote, “The observation of order is not vain or superfluous, while the Father is mentioned as first; in the next place the Son, as from him; and then the Spirit, as from both.”21
Eternal Subordination and Complementarianism
While ESS and complementarianism may be seemingly unrelated issues, this has been a large part of the contemporary conversation.
Complementarian is the biblical understanding that men and women have been given unique roles on earth. The man is called to lovingly lead his family, and offices of the church such as eldership are reserved for men. Women are called to joyfully submit to their husbands, and churches are called to submit to their leaders.
ESS advocates often use complementarian terms to defend eternal subordination. ESS critics believe that these conversations are miss-guided. There are two important realities to understand in this conversation.
Complementarianism is not in any way an argument for eternal subordination. The submission of a wife to her husband is not biblically compared with the Father and the Son.
Rather, it is compared to the submission of the church to Christ (Eph. 5:22-33). ESS proponents can easily misapply this comparison as an argument for submission in the economy of the Trinity, but that is not what is explicitly taught by the Bible.
However, this does not mean that the two doctrines do not inform one another.
The way that we understand subordination biblically relating to the members of the Trinity will affect our understanding of the biblical idea of subordination in other areas.
If we understand that the Son submits to the Father and maintains ontological equality and glory, we can also understand that the submission of a wife to her husband means that they maintain ontological equality and value.
ESS can be well used to as an example of subordination between two completely equal parties. Because both doctrines are gleaned from the Bible, use the language of the Bible, and speak of the same ideas, they can be used to understand and apply one another in some ways.
Eternal Subordination and The Glory of the Christ
We must be careful that we never let eternal subordination become the heresy of Arianism or subordinationism.
Matthew Barrett notes that ESS proponents have said that the Father has “ultimate glory”, which Barrett believes would imply that the son has a lesser glory.22 We must be careful to communicate that while the Son ascribes glory and honor to the Father, the Son has no less glory.
The church has always confessed that the members of the divine Trinity are coequal in glory, and this theological point has many important implications.
The doctrine of eternal subordination shows us the glory of Christ.
If one looks to Christ’s subordination of himself to the Father and sees a lesser-Christ, the beauty and truth of the doctrine has been completely lost.
If one looks to Christ’s subordination and sees beauty, glory, humility, and majesty, this doctrine is shining in the fulness of its biblical glory. In these conversations it is important to remember:
I think we ought to speak of God with the same religious caution that should govern our thoughts of him. … How can the infinite essence of God be defined by the narrow capacity of the human mind? … How can the human mind, by its own efforts, penetrate into an examination of the essence of God, when it is totally ignorant of its own?23
Graciousness and patience must come when studying the Trinity.
These doctrines, including ESS and eternal generation, are deeply important, which is exactly why we must be intentional with our words as we seek to describe the nature of God.
I’m currently pursuing a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Biblical Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. My desire is to be able to help connect people with the eternal truth of Jesus Christ.