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June 05, 2020 Q & A

Eternal Subordination of the Son

Question

At our small Bible discussions group, in studying the doctrine of the Trinity, we came across the so called Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father (ESS). Sadly we divided in this point—that’s to say, some thought Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father (following theologians like Grudem and Ware), while the majority resisted that idea and affirm the Westminster Confession by saying, “No, Jesus was temporarily subordinate to the Father in his humiliation, to accomplish our redemption, but he is in no way less or inferior to the Father; he just emptied himself voluntarily and was submissive to God the Father.” So could you please help us here?

Answer

Thank you for your question. This is a question of great importance and broad scope. Herman Bavinck says, “… the Trinity is of incalculable importance for the Christian religion. The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands with the Confession of God’s Trinity. It is the core of The Christian Faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the New Covenant.”

The early Christians defended the Christian faith as a whole against pagan opposition. But during the third and fourth centuries, the attack became primarily concentrated on the doctrine of the Trinity, mainly through two heresies: modalistic monarchianism and Arianism. Monarchianism taught that Christ and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father; not only in the work of redemption but also in their essence. The Modalists taught that God is one Person who assumes three identities, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only one at a time.

Then there was Arianism (named after Arius, a priest). Arianism holds that Christ and the Holy Spirit are merely created beings. In other words, the Father alone is the one true God, and the Son is a being of inferior rank, and thus subordinate to the Father.

Against these heresies and other similar errors the Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) began to formulate the biblical faith of the church in the great creedal documents.

The Nicene Creed denied Arianism. It repudiated any subordination of the Son to the Father and affirmed the full deity of Christ and the true unity of the Godhead. It states that the Lord Jesus Christ is “… begotten, not made, being of one substance (essence or nature) with the Father.”

Today’s form of Arianism (or at least, as some put it, “semi-Arianism”) is the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). And although Mr. Grudem and Mr. Ware, who seem to be the best-known proponents of ESS, have been debated and rebuked by many for their teaching ESS, they have remained unchanged in their views.

The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) explained it this way: Jesus is truly man and truly God, and the two natures of Christ are so united as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, each nature retaining its own attributes.

The Westminster Larger Catechism makes this very clear with Q&A 9 and 10: “How many persons are there in the Godhead? There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God. The same in substance, equal is power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead? It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.”

There are many proof-texts for these assertions: John 1:1–4; 5:17–18; Matthew 8:27; Luke 1:35; 6:8. But two of the most helpful and explicit are Philippians 2:5–11 and Hebrews 1:3.

In Philippians 2:5–11 we have most of the distinctive articles of The Christian Creed (what we believe). We read of the deity of Christ, his pre- existence in the form of God, his equality with God the Father, his incarnation and true humanity, his voluntary death on the cross, his ultimate victory over evil, and his eternal reign.

Hebrews 1:3 declares that the Son is “the express image of His (God’s) essence (nature).” In other words, the Divine Being is one indivisible essence—three Divine Persons, not three individuals alongside each other and separate from each other. We distinguish the three Persons by their personal properties: the Father’s paternity (unbegotten), the Son’s filiation (generated or begotten by the Father) and the Spirit’s procession (being sent). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personal self-distinctions.

The great theologian Charles Hodge put it this way: “The three Persons of the Trinity are equal, share the same essence, and that this precludes all ideas of priority and superiority, as to the being and perfections among the three Persons.” I cite Hodge here because Mr. Grudem and Mr. Ware cite Hodge as support for their position on ESS.

We of the OPC hold that the Word of God clearly teaches the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, that there is no such thing as degrees or levels of deity, and that all attributes of God belong equally to all three Persons of the Trinity. We believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit have one nature or substance, and that they have “one power and authority” (from the Fifth Ecumenical Council, A.D. 553).

The problem is this: If authority over the Son is an essential, not an incidental, attribute of the Father, and subordination to the Father is an essential, not an incidental, attribute of the Son, then something significant follows: Authority is a part of the Father’s essence or nature, and subordination is part of the Son’s essence or nature. And that would mean that the essence of the Father is different from the essence of the Son. But we profess that though there are three distinct Persons of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—yet the Persons are not separate, are without parts (“simplicity” of the Trinity), are one in essence, are the same being, all sharing the same divine perfection.

 

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