Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the “Economic” Trinity


To those for whom ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) or EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) or ERAS (Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission) or (is that all of them?) does not ring a bell, the following may not be all that interesting. Though debated off and on for at least the last 20 years or so, the popular claim that the Son of God is equal to the Father yet subject to His authority in all eternity, has over the Summer of 2016 come under intense scrutiny; and rightly so. Confessionally Reformed Christians and scholars from many quarters have demonstrated this teaching to plainly run afoul of Nicene Orthodoxy, with the potential to shipwreck some of the very pillars of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

So I was (momentarily) delighted when Ligionier Ministries updated their Statement on Christology to include an addition to “Affirmations and Denials” Article 2 (in bold below):

We affirm that in the unity of the Godhead the eternally begotten Son is consubstantial (homoousios), coequal, and coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We deny that the Son is merely like God (homoiousios) or that He was simply adopted by the Father as His Son. We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity.

My delight quickly evaporated, however, when my very next thought was, “So does Wayne Grudem!”, the popularizer-in-chief of ESS/EFS/ERAS. He and most all proponents of the teaching also deny that the subordination or submission to authority is according to the Trinity as ontologically conceived. They point out consistently that such a position would constitute classic, literal, Arianism—to which we must agree.

The problem is that the Trinity economically conceived (as opposed to ontologically) has been defined any number of ways historically, from simply introducing three-ness into the Monarchia (Tertullian and Hippolytus) to always and only meaning Christ in His flesh (Martyr, Origen, and the Pro-Nicenes). Currently the most common definition would be something in the middle like, “the Father, Son, and Spirit as revealed in their ordered works toward creation and in redemption”, i.e., the ad extra functionings of the Persons.

Unfortunately, there is no end to the definitional liberality of those who would tamper with the Trinity, and so we have an even more curious definition of “economic” used by ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents. Look, for example, at how Grudem defines “economic” in his Systematic Theology, Ch. 14:

The “economy of the Trinity” means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and (as we shall see in the next section) to each other for all eternity.

And further,

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” (See section D.1, above, where economy was explained to refer to different activities or roles.) Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, […]there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.

For Grudem, the economy is the category within which are included the internal relations of the three Persons (ad intra relations) and therefore is also the locus of subordination! This is what allows ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents to say things like, “Within the being of God, you have both equality and authority” and that authority and submission have “always existed in the eternal nature of God Himself”, and yet still adamantly agree with the Ligonier Statement that there is no subordination in the ontological Trinity (quotes from Biblical Foundations For Manhood And Womanhood, pp. 51-52).

Simply stating, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” does not rule out an eternal relation of submission of the Son to the authority of Father; it all depends on how one defines the distinction, or where the distinction is understood to lie. In fact, I intend to show later in a forthcoming post that even the common modern definition of “economic” does not rule out subordination. But my present task is really quite different—I suppose I ought to get to it sooner than later. After some email back and forth expressing my concerns, the lovely folks at Ligonier Ministries sent me this:

DEC 22, 2016 | 03:18PM EST

Here is the official position of Dr. Sproul and Ligonier on the Eternal Subordination of the Son debate:

Dr. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries deny the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the idea that the Father eternally has greater authority than the Son. The Bible clearly teaches the deity of Christ (e.g. John 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8–9; 2 Pet. 1:1), and there are no degrees of deity. All of the attributes of God belong equally to all three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why we confess the Nicene Creed, declaring that the Son is homoousios (i.e. same nature, same substance) with the Father. To use the language of the Athanasian Creed, the Father, Son, and Spirit are “co-equal with each other.” The fifth ecumenical council in AD 553, elaborated on the implications of the homoousios doctrine, explaining that the Father, Son, and Spirit “have one nature or substance” and that they have “one power and authority.” There can no more be levels of authority within the one divine being than there can be levels of deity. The biblical doctrine taught in the early creeds is taught in our Reformed confessions as well. The Westminster Confession declares that the Son is “equal with the Father” (8.2). The Holy Spirit is also equal (WLC Q. 11). The Belgic Confession concurs, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “equal from eternity” (Article 8). All of this is what it means to confess, along with Scripture, the true deity of Christ and of the Spirit.

My delight has thoroughly returned.

The moral of this happy-ending story is that the ontological/economic distinction is probably of little value for framing this ongoing debate. Further, I don’t think that much of anyone in this debate (even the good guys!) have been using the distinction in the historical Nicene sense. To these points I will, Lord willing, return in my next post (or two).

34 thoughts on “Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the “Economic” Trinity

  1. Ronald Eddington January 28, 2017 / 7:12 pm

    “There can no more be levels of authority within the one divine being than there can be levels of deity.”

    This statement sounds a little twisted to me. Why even distinguish one person of the trinity as the father and the other as the son if there are not levels of authority?


    • Brad Mason January 28, 2017 / 7:43 pm

      Hello! The orthodox definition of, and distinctions between, the Persons of the Trinity have nothing to do with authority and submission. The Persons of the Trinity are, in eternity, co-equal and of one Nature and will. To suggest inequality of any divine properties or attributes would be to divide the Nature of God and change the doctrine to a community of three wills (and therefore three gods). The Son of God in His flesh, on the other hand, is both one in will with the Father according to His Godhead and also has a will according to His Human nature. So when the scriptures speak of Christ submitting to the Father, it is a redemptive statement wherein Christ as man fulfills that submission that was required of all men–on our behalf.

      This is why we read in the Athanasian Creed,

      “For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
      But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.”

      “[…]So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
      And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.”

      “[…]And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
      But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.”

      Of the Son in particular it reads,

      “Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
      Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”

      This has been the historic teaching of the Church as well as the consistent Reformation teaching. I’ve attempted to clarify some key points/questions in a post here:

      Thank you so much for reading and for the feedback!


  2. Matt Powell January 29, 2017 / 7:01 am

    I’d be curious to see your response to some quotes:

    “There are numerous passages in the Scriptures which clearly prove that our Lord is called Son, not merely because He is the image of God, or because He is the object of peculiar affection, nor because of his miraculous conception only; nor because of his exaltation, but because of the eternal relation which He sustains to the First Person of the Trinity…”

    “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 personally of the Father, Son, and Spirit; their mutual relation as expressed by those terms; their absolute unity as to substance or essence, 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.”
    Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 462

    “The distinction of the persons may be principally observed in two things: (1) within (intus), in the persons themselves; (2) without (foris) in their operations. First, as to the persons, with respect to order, because the Father is proposed in Scripture as the first person, who is from no one; the Son as the second, who is from the Father; and the Holy Spirit as the third who is from the Father and the Son. With respect to that order a certain preeminence (hyperoche) is attributed by theologians to the Father, not indeed as to essence and deity (because the persons being consubstantial [homoousioi] the highest equality exists among them), but as to mode (both in subsisting and in working): In subsisting, because both as to order and as to origin, he precedes the Son and the Holy Spirit(as having no principle either of order or of origin, but existing from himself– not positively, but negatively)…. In working (operando), because the order of operating follows the mode of subsisting. Hence the Father operates from himself, but the Son from the Father.”
    Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, p. 280-281

    “Nevertheless, this doctrine of the pact of salvation, despite its defective form, is rooted in a scriptural idea. For as Mediator, the Son is subordinate to the Father, calls him his God (Ps. 22:2; John 20:17), is his servant (Isa. 49f) who has been assigned a task (Isa. 53:10; John 6:38-40; 10:18; 12:49; 14:31; 17:4) and who receives a reward (Ps. 2:8; Isa. 53:10; John 17:4, 11, 17, 24; Eph. 1:20f; Phil. 2:9f.) for the obedience accomplished (Matt. 26:42; John 3:34; 15:10; 17:4-5; 19:30). 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 the Son, but occurs in eternity and therefore also existed already during the time of the Old Testament.”
    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.3, p. 214.

    There is, of course, no question that in “modes of operation,” as it is technically called — that is to say, in the functions ascribed to the several Persons of the Trinity in the redemptive process, and, more broadly, in the entire dealing of God with the world– the principle of subordination is clearly expressed. The Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third, in the operations of God as revealed to us in general and very especially in those operations by which redemption is accomplished. Whatever the Father does, He does through the Son by the Spirit. The Son is sent by the Father and does His Father’s will; the Spirit is sent by the Son and does not speak from Himself, but only takes of Christ’s and shows it unto His people; and we have Our Lord’s own word for it that ‘one that is sent is not greater than he that sent him.’
    B.B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, From the Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume II, p. 165.


    • Brad Mason January 30, 2017 / 5:00 pm

      Hello Matt! Hope all is well. I will attempt to answer in order.

      Charles Hodge: I’ve read through a lot of Hodge on this issue and while I don’t think he means by “subordination” what Grudem and the like does, I do think his Trinitarian theology is subordinationist to some degree. Further, I don’t think he is very good on the Trinity in general. Some argue that since he refuses to give any definite meaning to “subordination” but simply says it “somehow” exists and doesn’t imply any inequality that he is not implying unequal authority. But I still think he is, or at least is very sloppy. E.g., from Hodge’s Systematic Theology 1.5.6,

      “…Augustine effectually excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity by teaching the numerical sameness of essence in the persons of the Godhead. This does indeed preclude all priority and all superiority as to being and perfection. But it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation. This is distinctly recognized in Scripture, and was as fully taught by Augustine as by any of the Greek fathers, and is even more distinctly affirmed in the so-called Athanasian Creed, representing the school of Augustine, than in the Creed of the Council of Nice. There is, therefore, no just ground of objection to the Nicene Creed for what it teaches on that subject. It does not go beyond the facts of Scripture. But the fathers who framed that creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond those facts. They endeavoured to explain what was the nature of that subordination.”

      I think he disagrees with the Pro-Nicene Fathers and has a very limited understanding of the reason for including “Homoousia” in the Nicene Creed.

      Francis Turretin: Having read through Turretin, the most disappointing part is how little time he actually spends on the doctrine of the Trinity! But in the quoted passage, I do believe he is just referring to the order of procession:, Unbegotten, Begotten, Proceeding; and the order of operations: from the Father, through the Son, to the Holy Spirit. These doctrines were developed by the Nicene Fathers to show first that there is a distinction of the Persons that does not divide their one Essence are make any Person more or less God than the others (the processions). Second, the order of operations are cast within the doctrine of inseparable operations. Gregory of Nyssa describes like this:

      “In every work and operation of the Godhead the entire Trinity works and operates: from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit. Thus creation, providence, governance, redemption, etc., are accomplished by the one nature, one will, and one inseparable operation of the Trinity, ‘issuing from the Father as from a spring, brought into operation by the Son, and perfecting its grace by the power of the Spirit.’” (On Not Three Gods)

      For them, none of this implied subordination or unequal authority. In fact, it was intended to explain the data and block any thought of lessening diety in the order of processions and to block the idea that each Person of the Trinity has separate works that could allow for one commanding and another obeying. I think Turretin fits within this understanding nicely.

      Herman Bavink: Here, I really don’t think that many thinkers post-Owen were really keen to what the Pactum Solutis doctrine of Owen could do to Trinitarian theology without being VERY careful. I worry that it may be possible that the language of the Pactum, used loosely without the rich mooring of the Pro-Nicene Trinitarian doctrine, began to eclipse the received language of the Nicene tradition. The Reformers would have never made this mistake, but they by in large did not spend much time on the Trinity as they had received the existing tradition without much ado.

      So on Bavink, I don’t know. I hope he would have rephrased if someone had presented him with the historic and doctrinal consequences of what he is saying there.

      Warfield: I think he should be taken in the same manner as Turretin. If you read carefully though that section, he does a great job of refuting subordination. I’ve clipped the relevant portion here:

      In the first paragraph he argues that sonship, begotten, and “Spirit” do not imply subordination, but exactly the opposite. In the second paragraph he acknowledges that there is undoubtedly a “subordination” in the works and operations of God, i.e., from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit. He rejects the notion that this order of working is necessitated by the nature of the Persons (“subsistences”) but is rather by voluntary covenant. He then introduces the Son as incarnate to handle person subordination language. I think it is quite good.

      I’ve put together a healthy dose of Pro-Nicene Fathers’ quotes, as well as Calvin and Witsius, here:

      I think Kevin DeYoung does a good job dealing with some 16th and 17th Century authors here:

      Thank you again so much for commenting and I hope I am at least giving something of substance in return!


      • Matt Powell February 1, 2017 / 2:23 pm

        Thanks, Brad, that is indeed a substantial response. I’m not really interested in defending Grudem’s view, but I think that some of the language used against him has been intemperate, going much farther than condemning his teaching, but condemning the very common teaching that there is a necessary order within the Trinity. It seems to me that historically there has been an understanding of an order of subsistence within the Trinity, and that this is irreversible- first, second, third. Further, there is an order of operations that likewise is irreversible and reflects the order of subsistence. The word “subordinate” need mean nothing more than “below in the order”. If the Son is second in the order, then He is subordinate in that sense. Eternal Subordination of the Son need mean nothing more than that. And it’s in this sense, it seems to me, that all of the above authors teach- that there is an order of subsistence and an order of operations, and the order of operations reflects the order of subsistence. That means the ad extra and ad intra relations are linked, which indeed they must be. It’s only, for example, because of the ad extra procession of the Spirit that we can say anything about the Spirit’s mode of subsistence. God’s works in creation reveal who He is.

        So would you be comfortable saying that there is a fixed order of operation which is necessarily linked to a fixed order of the mode of subsistence?


      • Brad Mason February 1, 2017 / 5:25 pm

        Hello again! Yes, I believe I agree with everything you have said. As I noted before, we confesses the order of processions which is irreversible (they are intransitive, incommunicable, relational properties that define the Persons or subsistences); and we agree that there is an order to the operations, though inseparable, from the Father, through the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. And if we want to call this “subordination”, while very misleading, then I guess we could–maybe something like “sub-ordered”. And I agree that most of the authors you quoted meant this (with the exception of Hodge). But we must never argue that this order implies unequal authority, submission, obedience, or any form of hierarchy in the eternal relations of the Godhead.

        Unfortunately, ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents (Grudem, Ware, Strachen, Burke, etc.) are not at all saying that. They are very clear that the Father has greater authority than the Son, that the Son is obedient to the Father, that there is hierarchy withing the eternal Godhead, even saying that the Father has great honor and glory than the Son. For instance, Grudem writes, when discussing whether to abandon the term “subordination”, the following:

        ‘However, I recognize the potential for confusing the term with the ancient heresy of subordinationism, and therefore I recognize the importance of specifying that the term should be understood in this discussion as referring to “relational subordination” that accompanies “equality in being or essence.”’

        I am more concerned about the loss of any idea of greater authority belonging to the Father. Horrell’s essay is outstanding in so many ways, but it seems to me that his summary definition, which affirms “the generous preeminence of the Father,” and “the joyous collaboration of the Son” is too weak for the biblical evidence. It can too easily be understood in a way that avoids any idea of the Son joyously submitting to the authority of the Father. “Preeminence” can easily be understood to mean “more noticed” or “more frequently mentioned,” with no nuance of greater authority. “Collaboration” can be understood to mean “cooperation among those of equal rank or authority,” with no connotation of submission to authority. And so with this summary, the idea of greater authority for the Father is gone. But in a secular culture in which all authority (even the authority of God himself) is deeply unpopular, I am unwilling to give up the ideas of authority and submission altogether.’

        He wants to make very sure that when they say subordination, it is understood to mean submission to authority, in eternity. Their whole complementarian program depends on it; equal in all eternity, yet functionally unequal as to authority and submission.

        I truly do, with all respect, after reading through all EFS works I can get my hands on, believe that they are saying and writing some very blasphemous stuff. At first all involved hoped that these good men had simply not considered the logically implications of their attempt to justify their complementarianism by imaging the Trinity, but then they doubled down and dug their heels in.

        I hope I am not coming off caustic, but I am at least confident that I have given a very thorough hearing to all of their arguments. If you would have asked me 2 years ago, “how can husband and wife be equal yet the wife needs to submit to the husband”, I would have said, “just like the Father and Son are equal, yet the Son submits to the Father”. When heavy scrutiny made it into the popular realm, I decided to investigate, and changed my position; I realized, though, I didn’t know much about the Trinity to begin with, hahaha.

        Thank you so much again!


  3. Matt Powell February 1, 2017 / 5:47 pm

    Thanks again for the response, Brad. It seems to be the argument of many who are opposed to any idea of authority within the Trinity that any such idea compromises the equality of the Persons- that is, if the Father has authority over the Son, that means that the Father is necessarily ontologically superior to the Son. Is that your belief? That a subordination within the economic operations entails an ontological subordination?


    • Brad Mason February 2, 2017 / 5:46 pm

      I think there is something much more fundamental at stake than even that. Authority and submission are intransitive, incommunicable, relational properties, like “begotton of the Father” and “proceeding from the Father and the Son”. Such properties can either be ascribed to the ousia of God or the Persons of God, if in all eternity. If these relational properties are attributes of God’s one ousia, then the ousia is divided and co-equality in attributes rejected, just as if we attributed the relation of “begotten of the Father” or “proceeding from the Father and the Son” to the one ousia. If, on the other hand, these are properties of the Persons, then a multiplicity of wills is required or there is literally no sense to “authority” or “submission”, as only wills submit to wills. The Son is homoousias with the Father and therefore is of the one will of Father, Son, and Spirit. So ascribing relations of authority and submission to the Persons of the Godhead only makes any sense, or can really only be possible, if we ascribe to each Person His own will and therefore and ousia each. So, by simply ascribing one ousia to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by itself rules out the possibility of relations of submission and authority.

      The orthodox and creedal understanding, to stay consistent and avoid all of these pitfalls, has been that relations are properties of wills and that only of the Son in His two natures does makes sense to ascribe Son’s submission (human will) to the authority of the Father (divine will).

      But in more direct answer to your question, yes, I do believe that it is unbefitting at the very least to ascribe submission to One who is true God, possessing all that is concomitant with eternal Lordship by His very Nature. When the Son empties Himself, and takes on the form of a servant, and submits Himself, even unto to death, this is His humiliation on our behalf, to live as subject of the Father, on our behalf. This is why in Phil. 2 we are called by Paul to have the same mind as Christ, who though true God, nevertheless voluntarily set aside His natural right to submit. Phil 2 is not telling us to be like Christ who was eternally in submission so became submitted.

      And last, I don’t know why we would even need to travel down this path. There is literally no scripture that requires us to speak of the Son as eternally in submission to the Father; none even to suggest it, to my lights. We are happy to accord statements like, “the Father is greater than I” and many similar to Christ in His flesh (Ware not withstanding), so why not interpret all like passages about authority in like manner, as has the majority of the Church since Nicea? As good ol’ Greg Nanzianzus wrote,

      “But in opposition to all these, do you reckon up for me the expressions which make for your ignorant arrogance, such as My God and your God, or greater, or created, or made, or sanctified; Add, if you like, Servant (Philippians 2:7) and Obedient (Philippians 2:8) and Gave (John 1:12) and Learnt, (Hebrews 5:8) and was commanded, was sent, can do nothing of Himself, either say, or judge, or give, or will. […]To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate— yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature.”

      (Of course I don’t mean to suggest his words are not directed at you!)

      I know it is a really lame thing to do, but if you ever have any free time and are interested, please take a look at this article: Again, I know it is lame to suggest another whole thing to read rather than just answer it now, but if you have the free time…..hahaha. (And I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this conversation!)


  4. Matt Powell February 2, 2017 / 8:03 pm

    Hi Brad,
    I’ve read that article as well as the other one you wrote. You did really thorough work. But I do have some issues.

    First, there is Scripture, much of it. I’m preaching through John for the second time right now, and I’m struck by all those statements indicating a submission to authority. I know you and some say that this is just Jesus speaking of Himself as incarnate. (There are many who interpret that differently of course- my commentaries from Morris, Kostenberger and Hendriksen all take a different view.) And remarkably, in virtually every one of those statements in John, there is in very close proximity a statement asserting the absolute equality of Jesus with the Father. If Jesus is speaking only of Himself in His manhood, why would He make those statements together with statements asserting His equality with the Father? Wouldn’t that be pretty confusing?

    See John 5, for example. In v. 17, He claims to work together with the Father, a strong statement of equality. The Pharisees attack Him for making Himself equal with God, and by way of explanation, He asserts a complete unity with the Father in His works, but teaches an order- the Father first, and then the Son- He can do nothing of Himself, but does what He sees the Father do. The Father commits judgment to Him. The Father has life of Himself, and grants to the Son that He might have life. In verse 27 Jesus says the Father gives Him authority, and in verse 30 He says He does not seek His own will, but that of the Father. So there, right in the same discussion, Jesus makes Himself equal with God, and by way of explanation, asserts that He does not act independently, but follows the will of the Father. The Father has pre-eminence throughout in terms of the works of Christ, yet right there He also makes strong statements asserting His equality.

    Take also for example, this–
    “55 “Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say,`I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word. 56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”” (Joh 8:55-58 NKJ)

    Within three verses, right in the same discussion, Jesus asserts that He obeys the Father (“keep His word”) and that He is equal to the Father (I AM).

    And again:
    ” 17 “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”” (Joh 10:17-18 NKJ)

    Within two verses, He has both asserted His deity- who but God has absolute power over life and death? And His obedience to the Father.

    If all these passages are speaking only of Jesus as incarnate, then they are very confusing. He never signals a shift in his discussion in any way.

    One other quick passage outside of John- Psalm 110. When does that statement happen? Jehovah there gives a command to the Anointed- sit at My right hand- itself a position of high but subservient authority, second only to the High King Himself.

    Much more could be said, but that should suffice for now.

    If greater authority indicates a higher ontological status, then what does that do to any human authority? The husband to the wife, the pastor to the congregation, the magistrate to the people- does that too indicate a higher ontological status? The pagans thought so- that was their view of authority, that if one had authority over the other, that indicated a higher ontological status. It’s the Trinitarian model that actually reshapes our conception of authority, giving us the possibility of authority between equals, a whole different conception.

    And it does not indicate different wills, at all. There is one will of the Trinity, and true to the order of the modes of subsisting, that will is always called the will of the Father. So Jesus, as the second Person, always shares the one divine Will, which He calls the will of the Father. That doesn’t indicate a separate will; it is the one will of the Trinity.

    If will is a property of nature (which I concur with), then that tells us what kind of thing we’re talking about. It’s important to recognize that natures don’t do anything. Persons do things. The will is not the actual act of choosing; the will is that which the nature desires and delights in. The person chooses according to that person’s will. So the Second Person, Jesus Christ, does not act in one minute according to the divine will and the next according to the human will. He does not switch from human to divine, minute by minute. He, a person, acts always according to the two wills which He possesses. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see the great struggle He undergoes to conform His human will to the Divine will. So when He submits to the Father, He is submitting both as a human and as the second person. Otherwise, you’re essentially teaching Nestorianism, that Jesus is two persons. He is not- He is one, always fully human and divine.

    So if it is demeaning to Jesus as the second Person to submit to the Father, then it’s demeaning whether He is incarnate or not, because He never stops being God. It is as God that He is submitting to the Father. That person who says, “This command I have received from the Father” is God Eternal, and it is as God Eternal that He makes that statement. Otherwise, you’ve got either the Kenotic error or just plain Nestorianism.

    This is different than when Jesus states that there are things He doesn’t know. Knowledge is a property of nature, so that Jesus can say that His human nature doesn’t know something. Even then, He does not stop being God, so that in that instance it must be true that He both does know and does not know. A great mystery, but still we can say what the Scriptures say.

    Jesus said that He was sent by the Father. And when was He sent? As Bavinck makes so clear, He must have been sent before He became incarnate, for becoming incarnate was itself a fulfillment of the sending. And “sending” indicates authority. If I send someone to do something, that indicates authority over them. Jesus Himself says so, as Warfield points out, in John 13:16. And it’s simply the meaning of the word- to send someone is to give them some mission, purpose or goal, and then have them do it. It was in the eternal divine counsels that the Father sent the Son. And the Son’s submission is voluntary; as the Father’s equal, He cannot be compelled, but He shares the divine will (the will of the Father) and thus it is His will that He carry out the Father’s command.

    And what of the Spirit? He too was sent by the Father and the Son. He was never incarnate. So does Jesus’ statement John 13:16 apply to the Spirit? And if so, in what sense?

    And finally- I have a problem with the way this discussion is carried out. One of the great problems of historical theology is that there are an awful lot of theologians, and they all wrote an awful lot of things. So everyone claims the authorities for themselves, a process that always involves a certain amount of cherry-picking. I’ve seen a lot of that in this discussion already. But we have to be very careful about letting the tradition dictate what the Scriptures can or cannot say. The Scriptures everywhere reject this. They alone are the infallible authority. Otherwise, why aren’t we all Greek Orthodox? The same Nicene Fathers you quote also believed in bishops and baptismal regeneration. How would they interpret the Nicene statement, “I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins”? And is that binding and authoritative on us? Yes, the tradition should certainly inform us, and we should be humble and listen. But in this discussion, there are various opinions, as the quotes I provided above show (and I have more, lots more). That was the reason I provided those quotes- not to say they are binding and authoritative, but to show that opinion on this subject among the orthodox is not as uniform as some have been making it. The historical theologian doesn’t get to be the pope. I cannot ask the layman to cede all interpretive authority to me because I have read Augustine and Tertullian and he has not. So the Scriptures must be our final authority and guide. I’m all for quoting the church fathers, but this discussion is often not carried out with any acknowledgement of the fact that the fathers might be wrong on this, as they were on other things. Maybe that makes me a “biblicist”? 🙂 If so, I wear the label proudly.

    So my cards are on the table. Do with it what you will. I too have enjoyed the discussion. I haven’t even been called a heretic yet- always refreshing!


    • Brad Mason February 8, 2017 / 3:16 pm

      So sorry that I still have not responded. I have been swamped with work but will indeed get back to you.


    • Brad Mason February 22, 2017 / 12:29 pm

      Hello again! Sorry for the horrible delay, and still, I fear my answers will be trite and sloppy. But thank you nevertheless for bearing with me.

      First of all, I don’t quote the Fathers because I believe them to be the highest authority, but rather quote them because they debated this, from the Scripture, for a couple hundred years. We see the Creeds as the culmination of true Biblical discussion ultimately assented to by the ecumenical church. Their arguments are powerful and are scriptural throughout.

      And one thing the Fathers came to realize and treat as a canon (Augustine) of reading the Scripture is the Double Account hermeneutic. When we read Christ’s words in the NT, we are confronting God and man in one Person throughout. When He speaks of His unity and equality with the Father, we know this not to be true of His human flesh and soul but rather of His divine nature, just as when we read of His lack of knowledge. It goes both ways. When He dies on the Christ, His divine nature does not perish. I don’t think we are willing to throw out the Simplicity and Impassibility of the divine nature. This is what the Fathers were constantly pointing to. When Christ discourses, He is no more always presenting Himself as true God than He is presenting Himself as true man. The Gospel is that He is both. So the same hermeteutic ought to be applied throughout. We must read His words seeing at points Him declaring His divine Nature and at points His servant role on our behalf in order to get His whole story, and much error results from compounding the two.

      This is not Nestorianism. The principle opponent of Nestorius, Cyril, writes in his letter to Nestorius:

      “On this account we say that he suffered and rose again; not as if God the Word suffered in his own nature stripes, or the piercing of the nails, or any other wounds, for the Divine nature is incapable of suffering, inasmuch as it is incorporeal, but since that which had become his own body suffered in this way, he is also said to suffer for us; for he who is in himself incapable of suffering was in a suffering body. In the same manner also we conceive respecting his dying; for the Word of God is by nature immortal and incorruptible, and life and life-giving; since, however, his own body did, as Paul says, by the grace of God taste death for every man, he himself is said to have suffered death for us, not as if he had any experience of death in his own nature (for it would be madness to say or think this), but because, as I have just said, his flesh tasted death.”

      He applies this to every other aspect of Christ’s human nature contra divine. Nestorianism is not speaking of two natures expressed distinctly in the one Person of Christ.

      As for sent, I do think Augustine handled that Biblically, as in the first section of that article I linked earlier. As true God He as well sent Himself, as we agree to inseparable operations, I assume, and in His economy of the flesh, He is the sent-one. Truly sending refers to unequal authority. On Bavink’s, I think his explanation is simply unsound and unnecessary.

      Last, men and women are constitutively different in many ways, just as individuals are. Each are equal are images bearers and in Christ. None are equal in every way and in every context. For instances, the husband has headship over the wife because God has ordained it and created them each to fulfill this order. Children are under authority of parents, servants to masters, parishioners to elders. Parishioners are not elders because they are not equal to them in the senses necessary to be an elder, including the call; but we don’t then say there is unequal dignity.

      But all of this is strange and lacks Biblical warrant to be true of the persons of the Godhead in eternity. There is no parichoresis among humans, no unity of all attributes, no simplicity, no inseparable operations, etc. Humans are not one in nature and will. There really is nothing there for us to draw such direct parallels without much error and confusion coming with it.

      And last, there is simply no sense to saying a will submits to itself and has authority over itself. To submit is to submit to the will of another (as Christ did in the economy of His flesh). To have authority is to have right and ability to have your will obeyed. I really don’t see how it could be otherwise. This also was debated by the Fathers—for a long time—and they concluded that Christ must have two wills for all of these things to be true of Him.

      I to am troubled by this debate, but for different reasons. It seems to me there is a lot of unnecessary wheel reinvention going on here. We can just look at a passage like 1 Cor. 11:3, starting in the like the 3rd century and follow it’s consistent interpretation through history, including the Reformers, etc., all of the way until we find it totally reinterpreted by George Knight III in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Why did he move away from (what I believe to be) consistent Biblical interpretation of this passage? Because he had a concern extraneous to Trinitarian theology, viz., a need for a metaphysic of equal inequality to deal with the feminists of his day. Then his students glommed on and here we are today.

      Gender issues, I believe, is trumping historic theology at this point.

      Again, I am so sorry for the long delayed response and this has been a great discussion. Thank you so much for reading to begin with; it is an honor. (P.s., I’ve heard so many good things about you. I pray that God will continue to bless your ministry!)


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 8:33 am

        Thanks, Brad, for the substantial response. I’d suggest that you consider that given the quotes I gave you above, this debate precedes the struggle with feminism by quite a bit. I just pulled my copy of Hodge’s commentary on 1 Corinthians off the shelf 150 years ago, and he explicitly does not limit Christ’s subordination to God to His human nature, consistent with what he says in the systematic. And if in fact “the head of Christ is God” can only speak of him in His inferior human nature, then what does that do to “the head of woman is man”?


      • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 9:29 am

        Hello again. Yes, I do fear that Hodge had subordinationist tendencies. But to the contrary, even he on 1 Cor. 11:3 very definitely agrees with my assertion. He points out in his commentary on 1 Cor 11:3:

        “23. It need here be only further remarked, that the word Christ is the designation, not of the Logos or second person of the Trinity as such, nor of the human nature of Christ as such, but of the Theanthropos, the God-man. It is the incarnate Son of God, who, in the great work of redemption, is said to be subordinate to the Father, whose will he came into the world to do.”

        Hodge, Charles. Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Kindle Locations 3460-3463). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

        The ESS reading of 1 Cor 11 is indeed aberrant and a-historical, and in fact just plain unbiblical.

        Further, there is no analogy set up in 1 Cor 11:3, as I made pains to point out in my other article. There is in fact an analogy given in Ephesians 5 that is explicit. So the question of whether it makes women inferior to interpret 1 Cor 11 like all of the Fathers, the Reformers, and Hodge himself, unmotivated and not implied in the text.

        THank you again!


    • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 8:59 am

      I also realized I failed to respond to Psalm 110. This is a Messianic Psalm, David the king as a type of Christ, the Messiah. It is a prophesy fulfilled by the incarnate Son, as per all of the New Testament references. Further, when Isaiah saw Him in His glory, there were not a multiplicity of thrones or seats. After the ascension of the incarnate Son, Stephen sees Him standing at the right hand.

      I was also thinking as I was driving this morning: for eternity, in the New Heaven and Earth, there will be no elders, kings, heads of households, etc. In fact, in Christ, there is no male or female, slave or free, etc. So why would the eternal inner life of the Trinity, if including equal inequality, be a model only for our current, very temporary, sin stricken dispensation and inapplicable to how we will spend eternity? Equal inequality, if true, certainly isn’t a model of our eternal state or how we are conceived in Christ even right now (in realized eschatological terms; don’t want to suggest that there is not currently a God ordained order).


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 9:42 am

        It’s an interesting point about eternity. Though I’m not entirely sure there will be no kind of hierarchy in heaven. Certain passages, like the parable of the talents, seem to potentially imply otherwise. I don’t think we can know much of anything about what that might look like but it might be premature to assert there is none.

        As to your point about Hodge on 1 Cor. 11- you’re failing to quote the whole passage. Earlier he clearly asserts the point I’m making. He says,

        “And still further, as the subordination of the woman to the man is perfectly consistent with their identity as to nature, so is the subordination of Christ to God consistent with his being the same nature with the Father.”

        And even in the bit you quote, as I said, he’s not limiting it to the human nature of Christ, but the theanthropos, including His divine nature. That’s why the passage works- Christ has two natures, and thus can be subordinate to the Father, though equal in nature, and also the man is subordinate to Him, though equal in nature, just as the woman is subordinate to the man in authority, though equal in nature. That is the exact comparison made. Hodge’s whole point is that the parallels work because Christ is the theanthropos, both God and man. The whole point of it is subordination within equality.

        Take away the Trinitarian subordination, and the passage makes no sense. On the interpretation you’re advancing, the only possible conclusion is that the woman is ontologically inferior to the man, this being the basis you’re claiming for Christ’s subordination to the Father. Otherwise, where is the basis of her subordination under him?


  5. Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 9:43 am

    And my main point about Hodge is just to show that this interpretation didn’t begin with the feminist wars in the last thirty years, as you claim. It far predates that.


    • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 10:06 am

      I was pointing by quotation that Hodge’s interpretation is in line with all interpreters up until George Night III and the complimentarians, and theirs was a motivation to oppose feminists by finding a metaphysical footing for equal inequality; they introduced the idea that 1 Cor 11:3 is about the the Father being head of God the Son in eternity and an analogy. Hodge says, no, it is only as He is incarnate that He is subordinate to the Father, which is perfectly in line with Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Calvin, Ursinus, heck, even John Gill. The other interpretation is very new and for a specific purpose.


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 10:14 am

        I addressed that in my previous comment. I don’t think he’s saying what you say he is.


      • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 10:31 am

        Sorry, I missed the earlier reply. Not doing well at keeping up on this. And let me know when I should stop, hahaha; I certainly can be annoying.

        To be clear, Hodge writes,

        “Before mentioning the thing which he intended first to condemn, he states the principle on which that condemnation rested; so that, by assenting to the principle, they could not fail to assent to the conclusion to which it necessarily led. That principle is, that order and subordination pervade the whole universe, and is essential to its being. The head of the man is Christ; the head of the woman is the man; the head of Christ is God. If this concatenation be disturbed in any of its parts, ruin must be the result. The head is that on which the body is dependent, and to which it is subordinate. The obvious meaning of this passage is, that the woman is subordinate to the man, the man is subordinate to Christ, and Christ is subordinate to God. It is further evident, that this subordination is very different in its nature in the several cases mentioned. The subordination of the woman to the man is something entirely different from that of the man to Christ; and that again is at an infinite degree more complete than the subordination of Christ to God. And still further, as the subordination of the woman to the man is perfectly consistent with their identity as to nature, so is the subordination of Christ to God consistent with his being of the same nature with the Father. There is nothing, therefore, in this passage, at all inconsistent with the true and proper divinity of our blessed Lord. For a brief statement of the scriptural doctrine of the relation of Christ to God, see the comments on 3, 23. It need here be only further remarked, that the word Christ is the designation, not of the Logos or second person of the Trinity as such, nor of the human nature of Christ as such, but of the Theanthropos, the God-man. It is the incarnate Son of God, who, in the great work of redemption, is said to be subordinate to the Father, whose will he came into the world to do.”

        He said it is an order of subordination but also makes plain that it is not an analogy as ESS proponents would have it: “The subordination of the woman to the man is something entirely different from that of the man to Christ; and that again is at an infinite degree more complete than the subordination of Christ to God.” If the analogy/complementarian reading were accepted, it proves way too much, for the passage runs that God is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man the head of woman. If man being the head of woman is analogous to God being the Head of Christ, then the middle term, Christ is the head man, is also part of the analogy. Thus, if the purpose of the passage were to teach that just as Father/Son are co-equal, then man/woman are co-equal, then we must also conclude that the middle term shows that God and man are co-equal!—an absurd conclusion. And there is nothing in the text to indicate analogy. Paul does not say “as”, “just as”, “so as”, “in like manner”, or anything similar. When Paul does give an analogy to the husband wife relationship in Eph. 5, it is between Christ and the Church and is explicitly an analogy, with “as”, “just as”, “so as”, “in like manner”, and the like, making plain the intended analogy.

        Hodge goes on then to point out that this passage is about the God/man. It is only the incarnate Son of God who is said to be subordinate to the Father. There is no way to read this as saying, “but He was already subordinate before He was incarnate as well.”


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 10:41 am

        I’m not trying to say that Hodge was saying the same exact thing as anyone else. I’m saying that the idea that the Son was subordinate to the Father before the incarnation is not a brand-new idea, or that the idea that 1 Corinthians 11:3 teaches that, and that it bears an analogy to male-female relations, is not a new idea, as it’s what Hodge clearly teaches, and he’s not the only one before the last thirty years. That’s all I’m saying.

        I’m also not trying to say that Hodge is teaching an exact parallel. Obviously there’s a difference. But there is an analogy, which Hodge clearly asserts-

        “And still further, as the subordination of the woman to the man is perfectly consistent with their identity as to nature, so is the subordination of Christ to God consistent with his being the same nature with the Father.”

        You say,
        “There is no way to read this as saying, “but He was already subordinate before He was incarnate as well.””

        But there is, because that’s what Hodge believes, as other quotes I provide show. Hodge absolutely believes that the Second Person is subordinate from eternity to the first, and teaches that in this very passage. Hodge’s point here is not that Jesus was only subordinate as a human; he explicitly rejects that. His point here is that because Jesus is the theanthropos, with two natures, the link is complete between God and man- with both relationships (God to Christ and Christ to man) there is subordination within equality.

        So then, if God only can have authority over Christ because He has a superior nature, where is the parallel in 1 Cor. 11:3 regarding the man being the head of the woman?


      • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 11:02 am

        I guess I just don’t see that in what Hodge is saying. It is only the Son of God as incarnate that is subordinate to Father. I agree that Hodge has subordinationist leanings (I also believe his Trinitarian theology is poor in general). But I don’t see any evidence here that He is saying anything other than what the Fathers and Reformers said, viz., that God is said to be head of the incarnate Son, not the Father being said to be head of the Son even before His condescension. I mean, all of the passages referring to Him becoming subject by condescension become pointless, especially Phil. 2.

        And I see no analogy here. Paul is simply giving an order of authority, not saying that just as God is head of Christ, so man is head of woman, or in like manner, or anything. He does this explicitly whenever he actually gives an analogy (e.g., Eph. 5 and Rom. 5 and Galatians), but not here. To me it reads no differently than saying the magistrate has authority over the business owner who has authority over his employees. This in no way implies that the businessman’s authority over his employee is grounded in analogy to the authority of the magistrate.

        Paul speaks later in ch. 11 of different glories for each, which I believe. Are we next going to say that the Son of God has a different glory than the Father? Nothing in the text even implies that Paul is speaking of the Son of God in eternity being subject to the Father in eternity, or that an analogy is built on that relationship.


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 11:10 am

        OK. Well, I find it pretty tedious to argue back and forth about what theologians teach. we’re just going round and round. Thank you for the discussion.


  6. Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 10:52 am

    Here’s what Hodge says on 1 Cor. 3:23, to which he refers in the section on 11:3:

    “Christ is God’s”. As the church is subject only to Christ, so Christ is subject only to God. 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 and 3 speak of the incarnation).

    That’s from page 63 in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. That’s consistent with what he taught in his systematics. So the idea of a second person subordinate in some sense to the first from eternity is not a brand-new teaching.

    This is a voluntary submission between equals. And the beautiful thing about it is that it completely reshapes our understanding of authority. Andrew Murray makes this point beautifully in “Humility” (another book that teaches the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, incidentally)- that by Christ’s example from eternity we can learn the joy of voluntarily submitting one to another, not as a compelled obedience to superiors, but the willing submission modeled by Christ to His Father from eternity.

    This whole discussion destroys that Christian teaching of submission, and grounds all authority in superior nature. That’s why I keep returning to this. If the Son’s submission to the Father would entail an inferior nature, what does that do to all human authority? I find your answer above inadequate.


    • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 11:30 am

      “So the idea of a second person subordinate in some sense to the first from eternity is not a brand-new teaching.”

      I totally agree with that, I was at the time just referring to 1 Cor. 11:3 as an example, not saying that there weren’t other subordinationists in history. On that score I would say something more like that you won’t find anything like Hodge’s view on subordination from the Fourth century until maybe the 18th century, at the earliest, among orthodox theologians. I really wanted to point out the novelty of building gender order out of interpreting the 1 Cor 11 in a way unheard of until very recently. I think 1 Cor 11 is the wrong place to look. Ephesians 5 is actually an analogy.

      And I believe answered the question about human authority. Men and women are constitutively different in many ways, just as individuals are. Each are equal are images bearers and in Christ. None are equal in every way and in every context. For instances, the husband has headship over the wife because God has ordained it and created them each to fulfill this order. Children are under authority of parents, servants to masters, parishioners to elders. Parishioners are not elders because they are not equal to them in the senses necessary to be an elder, including the call; but we don’t then say there is unequal dignity. And then there is what I pointed out about the eternal sate and our current in Christ-ness in the other comment.

      And we are not saying that human authority is grounded in the notion of inferior nature. Why would what I’ve said suggest that? It only appears that way because current subordinationists can’t get the idea out of the way that there is an analogy set up in 1 Cor 11. We deny that there is an intended analogy, so saying that it is about God and Christ in His flesh implies nothing about the relation of authority between man and woman, etc. IF we were arguing that God is the head of Christ by reason that He has taken upon Him flesh AND THEN went on to say this is the analogy for husband and wife, then the charge would stick. But as it is, we say the former, as the text gives, and avoid the latter, as the text does not.

      If one does not base human order of authority on the Trinity in eternity, then one can argue that the Son is only subordinate to the Father as incarnate. (In fact, He is not equal to the Father as incarnate, as He says.)

      Ephesians actually gives an analogy. What is it saying? That the Church and Christ are unequally equal and so that’s how it is with husband and wife? It says nothing of the sort and it is totally unnecessary and would ultimately distort much more important doctrines.


  7. Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 11:41 am

    Thanks again for the discussion, Brad.


    • Brad Mason February 23, 2017 / 11:45 am

      Thank you as well. I apologize for going on and on and being argumentative. I will continue to study and will in no wise dismiss your points, but will continue to consider them as coming from a place of wisdom.


      • Matt Powell February 23, 2017 / 11:45 am

        You’ve got nothing to apologize for! I was debating at length myself. And I appreciate all your work on this subject.


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