“The head of Christ is God”: ESS, Complementarianism, and the History of Interpretation


In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3). In this verse, the word “head” refers to one who is in a position of authority over the other, as this Greek word (kephale) uniformly does whenever it is used in ancient literature to say that one person is “head of” another person or group. So Paul is here referring to a relationship of authority between God the Father and God the Son, and he is making a parallel between that relationship in the Trinity and the relationship between the husband and wife in marriage. This is an important parallel because it shows that there can be equality and differences between persons at the same time. […]

Just as the Father and Son are equal in deity and are equal in all their attributes, but different in role, so husband and wife are equal in personhood and value, but are different in the roles that God has given them. Just as God the Son is eternally subject to the authority of God the Father, so God has planned that wives would be subject to the authority of their own husbands. (Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, pp. 48-49)

1 Corinthians 11:3 is a/the linchpin passage in the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS)-meets-Complementarianism argument. Denny Burk, the current President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, has said as much himself (see, e.g., HERE). Three premises are required for the ESS/Complementarian argument to succeed.

  1. “The head of Christ is God” must mean that the head of the Eternal Son of God, even prior to the incarnation, is God the Father.
  2. “Head” (kephale) must mean “authority over” or similar.
  3. There must be an intended analogy (or parallel) between the headship of God over Christ and the headship of husband over wife.

If any one of these premises are found wanting, the edifice falls. And though I doubt very much that an analogy or parallel is found in this passage or that Grudem’s understanding of kephale is correct, much more important to me is the claim that “Christ” in the passage is intended to refer to the Son of God according to His eternal divine nature, thereby eternally subordinating the Second Person of the Trinity in “role” or otherwise. If, alternatively, “Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 refers to the mediatorial condescension of the Son of God in history—that is, the Son in His flesh—then not only is there no whiff of ESS in this passage, but there is also no longer any way to say that this passage gives a metaphysical basis for claiming there can be full equality of nature and attributes, yet also eternal subordination. If “Christ” means “the Son of God in His flesh”, then the passage actually shows that Christ is in fact less than the Father (John 14:28) due to His union with human nature; viz., He is subordinate by virtue of bearing a different nature, not according to the nature He shares with the Father in eternity.

So, in what follows, I have gone back through the history of interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 to see what exactly is the consistent historical witness of the Church catholic with regard to the meaning of “Christ” in the passage. Though I do not personally have access to everything ever written on the subject, I think a pretty wide representation can be found below. Literally every author I consulted prior to the middle of 20th Century has had much the same interpretation of this passage. I welcome all to look for themselves and let me know what you find. Indeed, taste and see that “Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is the Son united to the economy of His flesh.

(Note: I have provided links anywhere I was able.)

Ambrose (340-397)

Let God, then, be the Head of Christ, with regard to the conditions of Manhood. Observe that the Scripture says not that the Father is the Head of Christ; but that God is the Head of Christ, because the Godhead, as the creating power, is the Head of the being created. And well said [the Apostle] “the Head of Christ is God;” to bring before our thoughts both the Godhead of Christ and His flesh, implying, that is to say, the Incarnation in the mention of the name of Christ, and, in that of the name of God, oneness of Godhead and grandeur of sovereignty.

But the saying, that in respect of the Incarnation God is the Head of Christ, leads on to the principle that Christ, as Incarnate, is the Head of man, as the Apostle has clearly expressed in another passage, where he says: “Since man is the head of woman, even as Christ is the Head of the Church;” whilst in the words following he has added: “Who gave Himself for her.” After His Incarnation, then, is Christ the head of man, for His self-surrender issued from His Incarnation.

The Head of Christ, then, is God, in so far as His form of a servant, that is, of man, not of God, is considered. But it is nothing against the Son of God, if, in accordance with the reality of His flesh, He is like unto men, whilst in regard of His Godhead He is one with the Father, for by this account of Him we do not take aught from His sovereignty, but attribute compassion to Him. (On the Christian Faith, Book 4.31-33)

John Chrysostom (349-407)

“But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if “the man be the head of the woman,” and the head be of the same substance with the body, and “the head of Christ is God,” the Son is of the same substance with the Father. “Nay,” say they, “it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection.” What then are we to say to this? In the first place, when anything lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression… (Homilies, on 1 Corinthians 11:3)

Augustine of Hippo (354-450)

And again, “The head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God.” But again, if God is only all three together, how can God be the head of Christ, that is, the Trinity the head of Christ, since Christ is in the Trinity in order that it may be the Trinity? Is that which is the Father with the Son, the head of that which is the Son alone? For the Father with the Son is God, but the Son alone is Christ: especially since it is the Word already made flesh that speaks; and according to this His humiliation also, the Father is greater than He, as He says, “for my Father is greater than I;” so that the very being of God, which is one to Him with the Father, is itself the head of the man who is mediator, which He is alone. (On the Holy Trinity, 9.10)

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

God is the Head of Christ, as man, according to 1 Cor. 11:3, “The Head of Christ is God.” (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 8, Art. 1, Obj. 2)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Let us, for the present, take notice of those four gradations which he points out. God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3)

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)

Objection 8: The Son has a head and is less than the Father. Therefore he is not one and the same essence with the Father.

Answer: The Son has a head in respect to his human nature, and his office as mediator. These things, however, do not detract any thing from his Divinity. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 374)

George Gillespie (1613-1648)

Christ, as the Second Person in the Trinity, is equal and consubstantial to the Father, but, as Mediator, he is not equal to his Father, but less than his Father, and subject and subordinate to his Father—a distinction used by our divines against the Anti-Trinitarians and Socinians. Now by his [Mr. Hussey] not admitting of this distinction, he doth by consequence mire himself in Socinianism; for Christ, as Mediator, is the Father’s servant, Isa. xlii. 1; and the Father is greater than he, John xiv. 28; and as the head of the man is Christ, so the head of Christ is God, 1 Cor. xi. 3. If, therefore, it cannot be said of Christ, as he is the Second Person in the Trinity, that his Father is not greater than he, and that he is not subordinate to God as his head, then farewell Anti-Socinianism. I dare boldly say, it is impossible to confute the Socinians, or to assert the eternal Godhead of Jesus Christ, except somewhat be affirmed of him as the Second Person of the Trinity, which must be denied of him as he is Mediator, and something be denied of him as he is the Second Person in the Trinity, which must be affirmed of him as he is Mediator. (The Works of Mr. George Gillespie [Vol. 1 of 2] [Kindle Locations 8808-8816])

John Owen (1616-1683) [Sorry, took a larger block quote to get at his meaning. (It is Owen after all.)]

That our religious, divine, and spiritual worship, hath a double or twofold respect unto Jesus Christ: (1.) As he is the ultimate formal object of our worship, being God, to be blessed for evermore, as was before declared. (2.) As the way, means, and cause, of all the good we receive from God in our religious approach to him.

In the first sense, we call upon the name of Christ, 1 Cor. i. 2: in the other, we ask the Father in his name, according to his command, John xvi. 23. In the first, we respect him as one with the Father, as one who thinks it no robbery to be equal with him, Phil. ii. 6; the “fellow of the Lord of hosts,” Zech. xiii. 7: in the other, as one that doth intercede yet with the Father, Heb. vii. 25, praying him yet to send the Comforter to us, being yet, in that regard, less than the Father; and in which respect as he is our head, so God is his head, as the apostle tells us, 1 Cor. xi. 3, “The head of every man” (that is, every believer) “is Christ, and the head of Christ is God.” In this sense is he the way whereby we go to the Father, John xiv. 6; and through him we have an access to the Father, Eph. ii. 18, Dia Christou pros ton Patera. In our worship, with our faith, love, hope, trust, and prayers, we have an access to God. Thus, in our approach to the throne of grace, we look upon Christ as the high priest over the house of God, Heb. iv. 14-16, by whom we have admission, who offers up our prayers and supplications for us, Rev. viii. 3. In this state, as he is the head of angels and of his whole church, so is he in subordination to the Father; and therefore he is said at the same time to receive revelations from the Father, and to send an angel as his servant on his work and employment, Rev. i. 1. And thus is he our advocate with the Father, 1 John ii. 1. In this respect, then, seeing that in our access to God, even the Father, as the Father of him and his, John xx. 17, with our worship, homage, service, our faith, love, hope, confidence, and supplications, eyeing Christ as our mediator, advocate, intercessor, upon whose account we are accepted, for whose sake we are pardoned, through whom we have admission to God, and by whom we have help and assistance in all that we have to do with God; it is evident, I say, that in this respect he is not eyed nor addressed to in our worship as the ultimate, adequate, formal object of it, but as the meritorious cause of our approach and acceptance, and so of great consideration therein And therefore, whereas, Rom. iii. 25, it is said that “God hath set him forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood,” it is not intended that faith fixes on his blood or blood-shedding, or on him as shedding his blood, as the prime object of it, but as the meritorious cause of our forgiveness of sin, through the righteousness of God.

And these two distinct respects have we to Jesus Christ, our mediator, who is Theanthropos, God and man, in our religious worship, and all acts of communion with him: As one with the Father, we honour him, believe in him, worship him, as we do the Father; [430] as mediator, depending on the Father, in subordination to him, so our faith regards him, we love him and hope in him, as the way, means, and meritorious cause, of our acceptance with the Father. (The Works of John Owen: The Mortification Of Sin, Catechisms, Of Justification by Faith, Pneumatologia, Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy … [Kindle Locations 141459-141483].)

Matthew Henry (1662-1714)

I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Christ, in his mediatorial character and glorified humanity, is at the head of mankind. He is not only first of the kind, but Lord and Sovereign. He has a name above every name: though in this high office and authority he has a superior, God being his head. And as God is the head of Christ, and Christ the head of the whole human kind, so the man is the head of the tow sexes: not indeed with such dominion as Christ has over the kind or God has over the man Christ Jesus; but a superiority and headship he has. (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11)

John Gill (1697–1771)

And the head of Christ is God; that is, the Father, not as to his divine nature, for in respect to that they are one: Christ, as God, is equal to his Father, and is possessed of the same divine perfections with him; nor is his Father the head of him, in that sense; but as to his human nature, which he formed, prepared, anointed, upheld, and glorified; and in which nature Christ exercised grace on him, he hoped in him, he believed and trusted in him, and loved him, and yielded obedience to him; he always did the things that pleased him in life; he prayed to him; he was obedient to him, even unto death, and committed his soul or spirit into his hands: and all this he did as to his superior, considered in the human nature, and also in his office capacity as Mediator, who as such was his servant; and whose service he diligently and faithfully performed, and had the character from him of a righteous one; so that God is the head of Christ, as he is man and Mediator, and as such only. (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3)

Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

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. (Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:3 [Kindle Locations 3460-3463]. Titus Books. Kindle Edition.)

Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)

“And took upon him the form of a servant.” That was the great condescension, yet is it not possible for us to fully grasp the infinity of the Son’s stoop. If God “humbled himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth” (Psalm 113:6), how much more so to actually become “flesh” and be amongst the lowly. He entered into an office which placed Him below God (John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3). He was, for a season, made “a little lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7); He was “made under law” (Galatians 4:4). He was made lower than the ordinary condition of man, for He was “a reproach of men, and despised of the people” (Psalm 22:6). (The Nature of God)

At least the ESS/Complementarian interpretation has novelty going for it, eh?

11 thoughts on ““The head of Christ is God”: ESS, Complementarianism, and the History of Interpretation

  1. Phil September 20, 2017 / 3:44 pm

    I didn’t see any novelty.


    • Brad Mason September 21, 2017 / 9:20 am

      Why, because the Arians already made the ESS arguments?


  2. Barbara Roberts September 20, 2017 / 7:51 pm

    I”m printing this out to read and digest it all. Thanks for compiling all these quotes, Brad!


  3. Amy Mantravadi September 20, 2017 / 8:40 pm

    Brad, how does Hodge’s interpretation here square with his teaching elsewhere? I know you have pointed to his works as containing some ESS- like qualities.


    • Brad Mason September 21, 2017 / 9:27 am

      Hello Amy! I really just think that the text demands it, as well as the well known unbroken history of interpretation of the passage. Plus, Hodge was not going for the modern form of Complementarianism, so he did not need to argue that the passage was about the Eternal Son of God. It is also important to note that while Hodge saw some analogy here, he was very careful to limit it so narrowly that it doesn’t at all square with ESS/Complementarian analogy.


  4. timedisplaced March 3, 2019 / 5:41 pm

    It seems like there are a number of orthodox (meaning trinitarian, non-ESS) writers in history who did take “Christ” to refer to the eternal Son, not simply post-incarnation.

    Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3, says that two interpretations are acceptable. The first is the one that you highlighted in this post: “This name, ‘Christ,’ signifies the person mentioned by reason of His human nature: and so this name, ‘God,’ does not refer only to the person of the Father but the whole Trinity, from which as from the more perfect all goods in the humanity of Christ are derived and to which the humanity of Christ is subjected.” But then he says an alternative interpretation is also acceptable: “This name, ‘Christ,’ stands for that person by reason of his divine nature; then this name, ‘God,’ stands only for the person of the Father, Who is called the head of the Son not by reason of a greater perfection or by reason of any supposition, but only according to origin and conformity of nature.”

    Rufinus says in his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed: “Although in glory, everlastingness, virtue, dominion, power, He [the Son] is what the Father is, yet all these He has not unoriginately as the Father, but from the Father, as the Son, without beginning and equal; and although He is the Head of all things, yet the Father is the Head of Him. For so it is written, ‘The Head of Christ is God.’”

    In Basil’s work Against Eunomius, Book IV (which may or may not be authentic, but has been used approvingly by the church through the ages), it says: “God is head of Christ, as Father; Christ is head of us, as Maker.”

    Cyril of Alexandria says in De Recta Fide ad Pulcheriam et Eudociam: “As God according to his nature, the one Christ and Son and Lord has as his head the heavenly Fa­ther, having himself become our head because he is of the same stock according to the flesh.”

    Athanasius says in De Synodis: “Whosoever shall say that the Son is without beginning and ingenerate, as if speaking of two unbegun and two ingenerate, and making two Gods, be he anathema. For the Son is the Head, namely the beginning of all: and God is the Head, namely the beginning of Christ; for thus to one unbegun beginning of the universe do we religiously refer all things through the Son.” (Obviously in calling God the “beginning” of Christ, he doesn’t mean in a temporal sense.)

    I believe I agree with these interpreters, rather than with those who say that “Christ” refers in this passage exclusively to Christ in his humanity.

    I think a good illustration of this would be what Alastair Roberts says in his Reformation21 articles on the place of 1 Corinthians 11:3 in the ESS debate. While he seems to take the opposite position as I do about whether “Christ” refers to the eternal Son or not, he does say that *if* one takes it to refer to the eternal Son, then it could be taken as a “claim about the priority of the Father, as the ‘first person’ of the Trinity, the one of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds,” rather than an affirmation of eternal submission.

    Indeed, I agree with Roberts’ overall conclusions about how the headship of God over Christ works itself out: “We could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One–authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God’s authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead. … It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.”


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