There has been a well documented new round in the debate about eternal submission in the Trinity. In a previous post I noted some summaries of the debate, outlined three positions taken by proponents of the eternal submission/subordination and finished by saying I was inclined to the third view.
It’s now time to lay out the case for this third view, which I think is a genuine moderating position. So with some trepidation, since this is a technical and contested discussion, here is my suggestion.
The typical “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS) or “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relationships of authority and submission” (ERAS) position is that the life of the Father and the Son is at all points marked by the authority of the Father and the submission or obedience of the Son. In the last post I quoted Burce Ware who says “the Father always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Father such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses Fatherly authority; the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father correspondingly always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Son such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father”. Similarly, Wayne Grudem writes that the eternal Father-Son relationship should be understood “in terms of the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son” that this gives best accounts for the names “Father” and “Son” and for multiple biblical passages.
The alternative view is that there is no submission in the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. Liam Goligher, whose post sparked the most recent round of debate, asserts “within this eternal life, there was distinction without primacy and order of being without priority of life or authority”. See here and here.
There is, however, a moderating view which I think is held by Scott Swain and Michael Allen, Matthew Barrett, Robert Letham, and Andrew Moody (and maybe Fred Sanders here and here). (Not all of these writers use the same terms and so I may be seeing similarities too quickly and may have to change this list!). The major challenge, it seems to me, is to give a clear and convincing case for the view, and especially to show how it relates to Scripture.
I’ll present this moderating view in my own terms explaining why I think this is the best view. I’m not claiming that this post is a significantly original contribution to the debate, I think most of this has been said by others. It was important for me to write it up to clarify my own thinking (and to help my class at Christ College), having done that I figured it was worth making public. I suspect the main contribution is to clarify the reasons for holding the moderating position.
A full presentation of the relevant issues should be fully Trinitarian, and be a discussion of the various relations and operations of the Father, Son and Spirit. Yet the debate is usually focused on the relation of the Father and the Son, and there is more than enough biblical material relating to the Son which has to be considered here. So I will focus on the Father-Son questions, and make little reference to the Spirit. I assume a similar account can be developed in regard to the Spirit, but I will not pursue that in this post.
Three domains to distinguish
The position depends on distinguishing three different domains in which we can think of the relations of the Father and Son. (I’ll call them D1, D2, D3 to help keep track of them). D1 is the essential relations which correlate with the works of God within himself (opera Dei ad intra), in this case the generation of the Son. D2 is the mission of the Son which is the eternal origin of the works of God outside himself (opera Dei ad extra) and is, therefore, properly called economic since it relates to the formation and redemption of God’s creation — this can be related to the covenant of redemption. D3 is the incarnate life of the Son, and especially his state of humiliation. Notice that these categories overlap: D1 and D2 are both eternal; D2 and D3 are both economic. One of the key elements to this position is that it is appropriate to think of a category of the works of God which are eternal and economic (D2).
So what is the rationale for these distinctions? In part it is how they help to parse the question of the submission of the Son, but there are other reasons as well.
D1: the essential Trinity
Primarily, the distinction between the essential Trinity (D1) and the economic (D2/D3) is necessary because of the aseity of God, that is his possession of absolute life in himself so everything else depends on him, but he depends on nothing else(Ex 3:14; Isa 57:15; Jer 10:10; John 1:4; 4:14; 6:35ff; 5:26; 7:38-39; Acts 17:24-25; Rev 10:6). Since God’s life in and of himself is full and complete, then we need to distinguish his works ad intra from any works ad extra, even those which are located in his eternal glory. Making that distinction does not decide what we say about God’s essential life. (Even Barth, who I think draws the ad intra and ad extra too close together, still insists that the the two must be distinguished — “what would ‘God for us’ mean if it were not said against the background of ‘God in himself’”. CD I/1, 71, see B.D. Asbill The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity (T&T Clark: Bloomsbury, 2014), 74-75.
We must not imagine a strong distinction between what God is in himself and what he is toward us. What God is in his works of creation and redemption (especially redemption) is true to who he is. If that is not so, then we have no gospel. One of the strengths of the revival of Trinitarian thought in recent decades is the insistence on relating God in himself to God as he is for us (highlighted in what came to be known as Rahner’s Rule — “the economic Trinity is the essential Trinity”). Yet one of the weaknesses of the revival is a failure at points to respect the need to also distinguish between the two domains. So trinitarian theology has, in different ways, leant toward tying God’s triune life too closely to his work in the world see S. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: the doctrine of God in Scripture, history and modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) kindle loc. 265-345
All I am arguing at this point is that the distinction must be recognised and respected, without it becoming a division. The way to explicate the distinction is another question, and I will come to that below.
D2: the mission of the Son
The distinction of eternal economic actions (D2) is required because on the one hand God freely determines to create and redeem; and on the other he determines to do so “before the beginning of time” (Titus 1:2; 2Ti 1:1 cf Eph 1:4; Rev 13:8; 17:8). In the traditional reformed terminology God ‘decreed’ and his decree is always in reference to the creation, not to himself. God does not decree that he should exist, nor that he should have his attributes, nor that he should be Father, Son and Spirit; he simply and necessarily exists, he is Triune and he is his attributes — all of that relates to D1. God, in the freedom of his eternity, decrees that the creation should exist and that all things should happen as they do (D2).
Central to the decree (if we may so speak) is God’s determination to work through and send the Son. God determines to make all things through the Son (Col 1:16) and to “reconcile to himself all things” through the Son (Col 1:20).
The Reformed tradition has located the covenant of redemption in this domain, closely related to the decree and especially the decree as it relates to redemption. Berkhof defines the covenant of redemption as “the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given Him”.L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans, 1996), 298. Much of the substance of the doctrine is present in Westminster Confession 8:1 which says that God chose and ordained the Son to be mediator and “did from all eternity give a people, to be His seed, and to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified”.
The doctrine of the covenant of redemption seeks to unify the Biblical material of God’s purpose to have a people for himself in the Son and the presentation of the economy of redemption coming from the Father and Son (Isa 42: 1; 1 Peter 1:20; John 3:16; Heb 5:5; Ps 2:6; John 17:6; 1 Tim 2:6). Speaking of a inter-Trinitarian ‘covenant’ is to speak analogically, it is not a covenant like that between humans or even between the God and humans. John Fesko has just published a book, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption (Fearn: Mentor, 2016), which I suspect will make the case for the Covenant of redemption quite persuasively.
It is possible to present the mediating view of eternal submission without reference to the covenant of redemption, it provides a valuable way of presenting the theme, as I will seek to show below.
D3: the incarnation and state of humiliation
The final domain (D3) is the incarnate life of the Son, especially his ‘state of humiliation’. The Son humbled himself and took the form of a servant (Phil 2:7), he became flesh (John 1:14), giving up his riches (2 Cor 8:9). So we must distinguish between what is proper to the Son in his essential unity with Father and his eternal glory and what he experiences in his humiliation for our sake. As God he is immortal, incarnate he dies; as the eternal Word he knows all things, in his incarnation he learns and does not know. In the incarnation he submits himself to the will of the Father (Luke 22:42). The question, to which we can now turn, is does that incarnational submission indicate submission in D1 or D2.
The difference between Barth’s position and the view I am suggesting is subtle, but significant. The difference, I think, lies primarily in the value of making the D2 distinction. When Barth insists that God’s being-in-act in Christ is his eternal being-in-act, G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth : The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 30-39. he loses this middle domain (and interestingly he critiques the idea of a covenant of redemption).Karl Barth, CD IV/1, 65. Other contemporary Trinitarians — Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jüngel — identify D1 and D3 even more closely.
Three domains and the submission of the Son
Where, among these three domains, is it proper to speak of submission in the relations and works of the Father and Son?
D3: it is required to speak of the submission of the Son
As already stated, the incarnate Son (D3) submits to the Father. He did what the Father commanded him (John 10:18; 14:31); he “became obedient to death” (Phil 2:8); the Father is his head (1 Cor 11:3). See M. Bird & R. Shillaker “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: a response to recent discussion” Trin J 29NS (2008): 274-80 for a careful consideration of some of the key texts, though they refer these more directly to the ‘eternal subordination’ of the Son.
D1: it is not proper to speak of the submission of the Son
At the other extreme, there are good reasons to refrain from speaking of the submission of the Son to the Father in their essential relations (D1.) At present I can identify three reasons.
1) The Son, as God, cannot be subject to another, for to be subject is not to be God, God is absolutely sovereign. Just as the Son is begotten but not made, because to be made is to be a creature, so he is “Lord of Lords” (Dt 10:17; Ps 136:3; Da 2:47; 1Tim 6:15; Rev 17:14; 19:16) and not a subject. To be God is to rule, not to be ruled over. Aquinas makes the point that some things “can be predicated essentially and absolutely” of Christ because he is the eternal Son, “so that we say that Christ is simply greatest, Lord, Ruler”. Summa 3.20.2), my emphasis.
2) It is important to preserve the sense of the free (and so gracious) act of the Son in his incarnation and humiliation (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6-7; Gal 2:20; John 10:18). He gives himself even as he is sent, he humbles himself to incarnate obedience. While proponents of ESS speak of the Son freely submitting, yet I wonder what this terminology means. If there is an essential authority of the Father and an essential submission of the Son, then these are necessary features of the life of God and it is hard to determine what ‘free’ about the Son’s submission. Traditionally the ‘free’ acts of God are located in D2.
3) The Triune life of God is one of mutual interpenetration and love (John 10:30; 14:18-23; 17:11,22; Rom 8:9-10; 2 Cor 3:17). The classical Trinitarian tradition speaks of the life of the Triune God as consisting in “circumincession” or “perichoresis”. The Father and Son fellowship or commune. This mutual giving and receiving, indwelling and loving is the best way we can speak of the essential Triune life.
Because of the essential unity and circuminsession of Father and Son, classic Trinitarian thought has spoken of the ‘one will’ of God. This seems to preclude any conception of one will in submission to another. Yet, there are ways of parsing the will of God to include hypostatic distinctions without separation into three wills. Maximus the Confessor makes a distinction between “deliberative desire” belonging to the hypostasis and the ability to will belonging to the essence Opuscule 3, PG 91.48A-B) see here. Some post-Reformation theologians distinguished the voluntas personalis (the personal will) from the voluntas essentialis (the essential will).R.A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 3:453; see here That is, there is one divine will, but it exists in three persons — one will in three interpenetrating subsistences. This undivided will is not spoken of in terms of authority and submission, but can be said to be from the Father, to and in and by the Son. See the arguments of D.G. Butner, “Eternal functional subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will” JETS 58/1 (2015):131–49 who comments “the Father and Son may hypostatically possess an identical will in a unique way, but it seems to me that this uniqueness must be grounded in the personal properties of unbegotten and begotten, rooted in the relation of eternal generation. The Son does receive the identical will of the Father (along with all of his being) through generation, but I do not see how we can therefore say that the Son possesses this will in a submissive way” (147).
It is not that notions of command and obedience are inimical to a life of fellowship (and I will develop this below); but in the essential life of God we should affirm one will held in communion, rather that authority and submission.
These three reasons seem to me to be enough to hold us back from speaking of submission in the essential relations of Father and Son.
Yet, there is an order in the essential relations. This is built into the basic expressions of Trinitarian theology: the Son is “the only-begotten … begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made”. The Son is ‘from’ the Father; the Father is ‘from’ none. Mark Baddley argues similarly when warns that “notions of obedience and authority” should not “do the heavy lifting for the immanent relationships”, that is the world of “begetting and spiration”. (He retains a place for ‘obedience’ in the eternal, and I take it, essential relations).
This immanent ordering must be recognised and affirmed. It is, I think, a mis-step to term this ‘subordination’. That term has been condemned as representing a heretical position (essential subordination) and it seems far better to speak of an ordering alongside or an ordering together in unity than an ordering of the Son ‘below’ the Father (sub-ordination).
D2: it is proper to speak of the Son as sent and submitting
Now we turn to the sending and mission of the Son, the eternal economic work (D2). In this work the Father sends and the Son is sent, yet in such a way that the Son gives himself freely. The New Testament explains the incarnation as the result of the Son being ‘sent’ (Matt 10:40; 15:24; 21:37; Mark 12:6; Luke 4:18, 43; 9:48; 10:16; 20:13; John 1:33; 3:17, 34; 4:34; 5:23–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21; Acts 3:20; Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4; 1 John 4:10, 14). That is why it is appropriate to speak of something like submission in the mission of the Son. At the Father’s initiative, the Son willingly gave up his riches and glory and became obedient to death. This was consistent with and fitting to the essential relations. It is the Son who comes into the world from the Father, as the Son is always from the Father. Those who argue that it is important to recognise the ordered life of the Trinity as a basis for the mission of the Son make an important point. See the series by Moody and Baddley “The Ordered Godhead”.
Yet, as noted above, the NT affirms that the Son gave himself for the world (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6-7; Gal 2:20; John 10:18).
It is here that the covenant of redemption plays a useful role in thinking about the question of submission. It helps to state the eternal basis of the mission of the Son, grounded in but distinct from the relations ad intra. The covenant of redemption affirms that the Son was sent by the Father as an ad extra work from the perfect ad intra unity of love and will. The Son was sent, because the Son is from the Father. The covenant of redemption is from the Father to the Son, but as in all the life of the Trinity it is expressed in the perfect unity of the Father and the Son. The analogical notion of the covenant of redemption speaks of the mutuality of God’s determination of the mission of the Son which comes not from a decree of the Father alone, but from a shared decree.
We might say that economic submission is grounded in the covenant of redemption — as a mutual agreement or commitment to the economy. This would mean that there is that the Son submits in the implementation of the covenant not in the covenant itself. Alternatively, it may be better to say that the Son submits in the covenant. (Or maybe it is not a distinction worth considering). Either way, the covenant of redemption serves to express the eternal, missional submission of the Son to the Father.
So, whether we simply refer to the mission of the Son or if we ground the mission of the Son in the covenant of redemption, it is in this domain (D2) that submission becomes a necessary term.
Aligning the three domains as I’ve suggested, on the basis of the biblical evidence to which I’ve pointed, means that the incarnate obedience of the Son is grounded in the mission of the Son and is consistent with and a revelation of his essential Sonship and eternal generation.
For the reasons I’ve given above, I refrain from speaking of the submission of the Son to the Father essentially; but affirm that the Son submits in the economy and that this is appropriate to and flows from him being the Son from the Father. Such alignment is as important in speaking of the submission of the Son as is the differentiation of the domains.
We should not refer to an “eternal relationship of authority and submission” both because ‘relations’ (if not relationships) are usually used to describe the essential Trinity. And I am cautious of positions which speak of ‘eternal’ submission or subordination; since we should differentiate between eternal essential (D1) and eternal economic (D2) domains. Formally, I can speak of an eternal submission, but not an essential submission and most positions which affirm eternal submission fail to make such a distinction.
It may be ‘eternal functional submission’ is a correct term for the position I have outlined. I am not sure why those who have used this term have chosen ‘functional’ instead of ‘economic’. I suppose the position could be better described as ‘eternal economic submission’. It is the distinctions that matter, not the summary label.
But does the elaboration of these domains truly serve theological thought? Does it risk us becoming losing us in a multiplication of distinctions which have no significance? My defence is that it makes use of conceptual resources already available in the Trinitarian tradition. They are applied to a question about the submission of the Son which has a new force in evangelical theology, but the distinctions are already available. The basis for the distinctions lie in the Biblical revelation of God, who is God in himself and determines to be God for his people through the incarnate work of the Son. The affirmation of submission in D2 and D3 but not in D1 also flows from biblical revelation and its implications.
All our knowledge of God is ectypal and our language about God is analogical, so all the terms used — ‘submission’, ‘generation’, ‘obedience’, ‘covenant’, ‘will’, ‘Son’, ‘Father’— must be qualified when we use them of God and qualified in ways which we cannot fully specify. Nevertheless, the task of theology is seek to speak faithfully of God as he reveals himself in Scripture, developing language and concepts which reflect God’s revelation as truly as possible. With regards to the biblical description of the eternally begotten, sent and obedient Son, this approach seems to me to be the most adequate.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||See here and here.|
|2.||↑||CD I/1, 71, see B.D. Asbill The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity (T&T Clark: Bloomsbury, 2014), 74-75.|
|3.||↑||see S. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: the doctrine of God in Scripture, history and modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) kindle loc. 265-345|
|4.||↑||L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans, 1996), 298.|
|5.||↑||John Fesko has just published a book, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption (Fearn: Mentor, 2016), which I suspect will make the case for the Covenant of redemption quite persuasively.|
|6.||↑||G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth : The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 30-39.|
|7.||↑||Karl Barth, CD IV/1, 65.|
|8.||↑||See M. Bird & R. Shillaker “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: a response to recent discussion” Trin J 29NS (2008): 274-80 for a careful consideration of some of the key texts, though they refer these more directly to the ‘eternal subordination’ of the Son.|
|9.||↑||Summa 3.20.2), my emphasis|
|10.||↑||Opuscule 3, PG 91.48A-B) see here|
|11.||↑||R.A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 3:453; see here|
|12.||↑||See the arguments of D.G. Butner, “Eternal functional subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will” JETS 58/1 (2015):131–49 who comments “the Father and Son may hypostatically possess an identical will in a unique way, but it seems to me that this uniqueness must be grounded in the personal properties of unbegotten and begotten, rooted in the relation of eternal generation. The Son does receive the identical will of the Father (along with all of his being) through generation, but I do not see how we can therefore say that the Son possesses this will in a submissive way” (147).|
|13.||↑||See the series by Moody and Baddley “The Ordered Godhead”.|