I was reminded recently of the article “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable,” wherein Dr. Christopher Cleveland argues that the current Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) controversy was an inevitable result of the failures of modern academia, specifically noting the failures of Southern Baptist seminaries. He refers, e.g., to SBTS’s replacing doctrinally unsound professors with conservative Biblicist professors in response to rising theological liberalism:
Because of this clash between the conservatives and the liberals within theological institutions of the time, there emerged an entire group of evangelical scholars who were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics. Whether for reasons of neglect in their theological training under more critical theologians or because of their purposeful avoidance of dogmatics in favor of Biblical studies, a generation of evangelical scholars arose who had no serious acquaintance with the classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought. Nor did they have allegiance to those categories. What mattered in the fight against liberalism, in the minds of so many, was the Bible, not theology.
Elsewhere in academia, he continues, there was a resurgence of scholarship focusing on more dogmatic studies, working from traditional Reformed Scholastic categories. The inevitable then occurred: to put it bluntly, the poorly educated Biblicist Baptists, incapable of testing doctrines by historic categories due to poor training or inattention, found themselves on a collision course with the Reformed orthodox likes of Carl Trueman and Willem J. Van Asselt over Trinitarian doctrine.
When I first read this piece last Summer, I was in full agreement. The story line clearly fit the perception at first glance, the public face of ESS being Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachen, etc. But having spent the last several months studying the historical development of the teaching, the picture advanced by Dr. Cleveland seems more and more untenable. To be clear, ESS is not a Baptist cabal. Presbyterian and Reformed believers need to realize that this is an in-house problem, resulting not from the inattention and poor training of modern Baptists, but from the historical inattention and poor Trinitarian scholarship of many of our own heroes.
As we have been discussing in our latest posts, from the latter part of the 4th century until the rise of the Covenant Theology in the 17th century, there was no question that the Son was only subordinate to the Father according to the oikonomia (economy), viz., according to His human nature, supreme God having condescended in our flesh to suffer on our behalf. The introduction of the Pactum Salutis (or Covenant of Redemption), especially in the hands of John Owen, began to expand the notion of the oikonomia of the Son to include the Father and the Holy Spirit. Because the Persons of the Godhead were now understood to have covenanted in eternity to perform this redemption, it was necessary to extend the Double Account of the Savior (i.e., the Son as both economically flesh in time for salvation yet also true and eternally God) to an economy of the whole Trinity, viz., the Father, Son, and Spirit economized toward the redemptive work in time according to voluntary missions, expressive of the one will of God variegated by person according to each’s specific work.
It is my contention that it was this new formulation at the heart of Reformed Scholastic soteriology that ultimately allowed the tail to wag the theological dog in generations shortly following Owen. The most basic doctrines of God quickly became subservient to soteriological categories. Systematizers became all too willing to go lax on Trinitarian dogma, or nearly ignore it, for the sake of another 1,000 pages of soteriology.
Jonathan Edwards (yes, the same one we all love and adore) within 70 years of Owen’s work jettisoned all of the theological nuance and much of the orthodox Trinitarian context of the Pactum Salutis in his own presentation. Owen, if you recall, spoke of an economy of the trinity toward redemption resulting from the Pactum with a consequent subordination according to the temporal missions (and only toward the works of the temporal missions). Edwards immediately turns this on its head, now grounding the Pactum itself on an eternal “economy” of the Persons of the Trinity which preceded and necessitated the specific allotment of tasks in the eternal covenant. Some time(?) in eternity past, prior to the Covenant of Redemption, by “mutual free agreement”, an order of submission was established. Such is the “economy” of the Trinity for Edwards. According to this economy, the eternal Persons “formed themselves into a society.” It is abundantly unclear from the text whether this “society” is an agreement of varied wills, but it very much sounds so.
Edwards gives five supposed proofs from the Scriptures demonstrating that the subordinating “economy” of the Trinity preceded and was the basis for the Covenant of Redemption.
- It was the Father’s “law, majesty and authority, as supreme ruler, legislator and judge, that is contemned.” As such the determination to save is the determination of the Father. As “Head of the society of the Trinity, and in the capacity of supreme Lord and one that sustains the dignity and maintains the rights of the Godhead,” the Father alone has the capacity to initiate the eternal Covenant.
- “Nothing is more plain from Scripture than that the Father chooses the Person that shall be Redeemer and appoints him, and that the Son has his authority in his office wholly from him: which makes it evident, that that economy by which the Father is Head of the Trinity, is prior to the covenant of redemption.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 proves that this “economy” precedes the Covenant of Redemption because the subordination continues after the redemptive work is complete.
- “[T]he place and station that the Son attains to by this establishment is entirely distinct from that which he stands in by the economy of the Trinity, insomuch that by the covenant of redemption the Son of God is for a season advanced into the economical seat of another Person, viz., of the Father, in being by this covenant established as the Lord and Judge of the world, in the Father’s stead and as his vicegerent, and as ruling in the Father’s throne, the throne that belongs to him in his economical station. For by the economy of the Trinity, it is the Father’s province to act as the Lawgiver and Judge and Disposer of the world.”
- And last, the Father alone is capable of rewarding the Son with the “honor and reward” due for completing the covenanted work.
I am simply unable to keep myself from pointing out how absurd and blasphemous this all is. Edwards did not come to these conclusions by attending SBTS and was certainly no Baptist; he was a Yale man. And he has left no small mark on the Reformed tradition.
We can advance forward a bit to Charles Hodge, the great Princeton professor whose Systematic Theology became the standard Presbyterian theology textbook. Again we see soteriology either trumping Trinitarian clarity or at least causing culpable inattention to it. In his Systematic Theology he states outright, “In the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons as to the mode of subsistence and operation.” But be not alarmed,
[T]his subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its infinite perfections is common to the Father, Son, and Spirit, there can be no inferiority of one person to the other in the Trinity. Neither does it imply posteriority; for the divine essence common to the several persons is self-existent and eternal. The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and the Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.
What we are seeing here is a progression from subordination only according to the economy of Christ in His flesh (the Fathers and Reformers), to a subordination only according to the economy of the temporal works of redemption via the Pactum Salutis (Owen), to an eternal subordination according to an economy of the Persons of the Trinity itself grounding and dictating the nature of the Pactum Salutis (Edwards), to a subordination among the very Persons of the Godhead in their modes of subsistence due to eternal processions and order of operations (Hodge).[*] For Hodge, the eternal processions themselves dictate a subordination of persons, thus explaining the specific economy of redemption settled upon amongst the Divine Persons. Hodge believes that “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.”
Throughout he betrays a weak understanding of the Fathers, a misunderstanding of the actual consequences of the Nicene and Athanasian formulations, and little to no care or attention to how radical a claim subordination as to Persons or subsistences really is (historically speaking).[**]
Again, this is not a Baptist theologian, an evangelical product of a failed academic institution, but the great Professor of Presbyterianism.
To keep this brief, I will only note that we find this same language in Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, in Shedd and Gomes Dogmatic Theology, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, more recently John Frame’s Systematic Theology, and more. We also find, at a minimum, dangerous lack of clarity on the subject in other historic Reformed works. For example, Wollebius in his Compendium writes on one page that “The differences between the persons are seen in rank, attributes, and manner of working,”[***] and on the very next page writes that the Persons are “equal in essence, attributes, essential actions, glory, and honor.” Or Herman Bavinck while presenting the Pactum Salutis writes that “as Mediator, the Son is subordinate to the Father” and “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”—leaving us to wonder if this is exclusively toward the temporal redemptive works, as in Owen, or an illegitimate reading back into eternity the temporal redemptive relationships, as in ESS. (Fortunately, there is much more evidence in Bavinck for the former.)
These are not obscure works at the outskirts of Reformed Theology, but rather the textbooks by which we have been trained as Reformed pastors and parishioners.
Further, it was not Baptists who introduced the idea of the husband/wife relationship being analogous to the supposed subordinate relationship between the Father and the Son. To be sure, this is not Wayne Grudem’s offspring. We can again thank Presbyterians. Princeton professor Dr. W. Brenton Greene, at the beginning of the 20th century, taught the following:
[T]he relationship of husband and wife…is such that the position of the wife is distinct from and dependent on that of the husband. This does not imply that the wife as a person is of inferior worth to her husband: in this respect there is neither male nor female; for they are both “one in Christ Jesus.” Neither does it mean that the mission of the wife is of less importance than that of the husband. There are certain functions, moral and intellectual as well as physical, which she fulfills far better than her husband; and there are other functions of supreme necessity which only she can fulfill at all. What is meant, however, is that as there are some things of primary importance that only a wife can do; so there are other indispensable functions that only the husband ought to discharge, and chief among these is the direction of their common life. He, therefore, should be the “head” of the “one body” that husband wife together form. Whether we can understand it or not, such a relationship is not inconsistent with perfect equality. It is not in the case of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power and glory. Yet the Son is second to the Father, and the Spirit is second to both the Father and the Son, as to the “mode of their subsistence and operation.” Whatever, therefore, the secondary position of the wife as regards her husband may imply, it need not imply even the least inferiority.
Hodge had alluded to this a century and half before in his Commentary on First Corinthians, but here it is in full fruition. Further, it was OPC minister George Knight III who ushered this idea (the very basis for ESS Complementarianism) into the modern discussion with his “The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female With Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church” (1975), and the larger work, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (1977). In the former, he writes of 1 Corinthians 11:3:
Paul begins his argument about the role relationships of men and women in terms of headship (kephale) by placing it in the hierarchy of headships[…]. By doing so he has established the propriety of headship by appealing to that of Christ to man and God to Christ, and at the same time has shown that such headship is not derogatory to one’s person, being or essence. He sandwiches the disputed relation within those not disputed to set it in a proper framework.
It needs to be noted that Paul not only speaks of Christ as the head and authority of every man, but also that the head of Christ is God. […]the headship of God in reference to Christ can be readily seen and affirmed with no threat to Christ’s identity. This chain of subordination with its implications is apparently given to help with the objection which some would bring to the headship of man in reference to women.
In short, “the basis of man’s headship and woman’s submission, the apostle Paul appeals to the analogy of God the Father’s headship over Jesus Christ, His incarnate Son (1 Cor. 11:3).”
Neither Grudem, nor Ware, nor Strachen, nor Burke, nor any other Baptist I can think of, first crafted this supposed analogy. It was Princeton and Westminster Seminary graduates and professors—which, after all, include Grudem himself.
To be sure, Grudem, Ware, and others have taken the error of Eternal Subordination of the Son to new heights (or lows). And Southern Baptist seminaries have failed in many ways to train their seminarians in “classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought.” But much more troubling to me is the amount of digital ink spilled maintaining our Presbyterian and Reformed hagiography. Article after article has been written to clear our forebears of any ties to the ESS movement, or to so nuance the content of their works to clear them of any blame for the error; all the while pointing to those Biblicist Baptists as though the problem was born with Wayne Grudem. No, these Trinitarian errors were a long time coming. The Reformers left a void, having written so little to reaffirm Patristic and Medieval doctrines of God. Those that followed preferred to spend as much time (or more) in their dogmatic works discussing predestination than discussing the Trinity. Add the Pactum Solutis to this soteriology driven Scholasticism, and yes, the controversy was inevitable.
Meanwhile, we have Baptists like Fred Sanders or the Center for Baptist Renewal, Luke Stamps, and Matt Emerson, working diligently toward ressourcement, renewal, and retrieval of our wider Patristic to Protestant Catholocity. Sure I believe the covenantal and baptistic side of such a pursuit to be difficult, but I am thankful to have such folks in the trenches vigorously defending the most basic doctrines of God that form the core of our common faith. On the other hand, I have lost all patience for propping up Presbyterian and Reformed “heroes” when it comes to doctrines so sacred.
 Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8400-8401). GLH Publishing.
 Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8692-8697). GLH Publishing.
 Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8769-8776). GLH Publishing.
 John W. Beardslee III, Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 44-45
 As quoted by Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology, p. 120
 p. 86
 As quoted by Millard Erickson, “The Gradational View,” from Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate, p. 34
[*] Dr. Scott Swain has noted to me that Edwards should be considered an outlier in the development of Trinitarian doctrine. Edwards is included here as an example of a popular and influential theologian in the broadly Reformed tradition, but should not be taken as necessarily causally related to later Trinitarian developments.
[**] Some have argued that Hodge is not here using “subordination” to mean anything except order of procession, order of operations, and taxis, and as such is not intended to convey subordination as taught by ESS proponents. I had considered this possibility as well since others (e.g., John Owen) had used “subordination” in the former sense, implying no rank or order of submission. So to be clear, I offer the following sample of evidences in support of my position:
1) Hodge throughout his writings contrasts subordination as to mode of subsistence with equality as to essence. The pattern is always the same: there is subordination “but” nevertheless still equality, because the former is according to personhood and the latter according to essence. So, whatever he means by “subordination” he clearly believes it would contradict equality without further qualification.
2) In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:23, Hodge writes the following:
The Scriptures speak of a threefold subordination of Christ. 1. A subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, of the second, to the first person in the Trinity; which is perfectly consistent with their identity of substance, and equality in power and glory. 2. The voluntary subordination of the Son in his humbling himself to be found in fashion as a man, and becoming obedient unto death, and therefore subject to the limitations and infirmities of our nature. 3. The economical or official subjection of the theanthropos. That is, the subordination of the incarnate Son of God, in the work of redemption and as the head of the church. He that is by nature equal with God becomes, as it were, officially subject to him. The passages the most directly parallel with the one before us are 11, 3, and 15, 28, but in Phil. 2, 6-11. Heb. 1, 3, and in many other passages, the same truth is taught. [Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Kindle Locations 1222-1229). Titus Books.]
3) Hodge clarifies further in his Systematic Theology:
If the Scriptures teach that the Son is the same in substance and equal in power and glory with the Father, then when the Son says, “The Father is greater than I,” the superiority must be understood in a manner consistent with this equality. It must refer either to subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, or it must be official. A king’s son may say, “My father is greater than I,” although personally his father’s equal. [Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 3723-3729). GLH Publishing.]
4) He condemns the teaching of the Platonists, the Arians, and the Semi-Arians because their subordination was as to essence as opposed to just subsistence. For example, he describes the error of the Semi-Arians as follows:
The Son was, therefore, subordinate to the Father, not merely in rank or mode of subsistence, but in nature. He belonged to a different order of beings. [Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8605-8606). GLH Publishing.]
5) Hodge throughout argues that subordination is a fact that one should simply not attempt to explain, and that it was an error of the Fathers to do so. For Hodge, equality and subordination are both Biblical facts and therefore must be consistent, even if we cannot explain how:
Subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, is a Scriptural fact; and so also is the perfect and equal Godhead of the Father and the Son, and therefore these facts must be consistent. In the consubstantial identity of the human soul there is a subordination of one faculty to another, and so, however incomprehensible to us, there may be a subordination in the Trinity consistent with the identity of essence in the Godhead. [Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8940-8943). GLH Publishing.]
More evidence can be mustered to show that he was indeed teaching an illicit form of subordination, but this is already almost a whole post in itself. I will add, though, to Hodge’s credit, he is much more careful when discussing specific passages, such as 1 Cor 11:3 and 15:28, to apply the subjection spoken of as the Son according to office, as theanthropos, viz., as the God-man, unlike modern ESS proponents.
[***] Pastor Stefan Lindblad, after checking the original language, has pointed out to me that “rank” is a poor translation by Beardslee; taxis does not imply rank. So the lack of clarity is not due to Wollebius, but the translator.