The recent spate of blog posts about the eternal submission — or subordination — of the  Son the Father gets very complicated very quickly. I recently worked out at least one reason for the complexity.

For some general background Adam Parker gives a good catalogue of the various contributions (most are blogs) and Andrew Wilson has a useful summary of the issues which have been raised.

The basic claim, which is either asserted or denied, is that the Son, from eternity, submits to the Father. Everyone agrees that the incarnate Son submits to the Father, as a godly human must submit to God. The question is whether this submission is something that is also the pattern of the eternal life of God. There are lots of articles and blogs out there which look at the details of the debate and the relevant biblical and theological arguments. For my money I think that best review of the key biblical passages is M. Bird & R. Shillaker “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: a response to recent discussionTrin J 29NS (2008): 267-283 and the best theological discussion is S. Swain & M. Allen. “The Obedience of the Eternal Son.IJST 15/2 (April 2013): 114-134. (This is so complicated it takes two authors to write a decent article on the topic!)

Through all of the debate, I slowly worked out that different people mean different things by eternal submission.

Some thinkers mean that submission is an aspect of the relation of the Father and Son simpliciter. That is, they think that submission is part of the Son being the Son, and since the Son has always (that’s an eternal ‘always’!) been the Son; then he has always submitted, and the Father has always been the head of the Son with an authority over him. For this position eternal submission and eternal (functional) subordination are synonyms.

Here is Bruce Ware on that position:
Because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, 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. [1]B. Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father” June 9 2016; http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/06/god-the-sonat-once-eternally-g.php

Mark Thompson says something similar:
’Functional subordination’ does not quite say enough … What we want to highlight is an eternal feature of the relationship between the Father and the Son, recognising that this relationship itself is what constitutes their being. The Father is always the Father and the Son is always the Son; what is more the Father has always involved headship while to be the Son has always involved submission and obedience … This is part of God’s perfection where the Father and the Son act willingly and lovingly according to their nature. [2]M. Thompson, “Are we really heretics and who cares?” ACL, Sydney, August 2004

A second position is to affirm ‘subordination’ but not submission. Bird and Shillaker write that subordination “cannot mean submission of the Son’s will to the Father’s within the Godhead, as they have the same divine will” [3]Bird & Shillaker, 271.

Finally, there are some thinkers who affirm an eternal submission which takes place in the mission of the Son, that is as he is sent. This is not a submission or subordination which constitutes the being of the Son, but one which takes place in the purposes of God directed toward his  creation (the external works of God — opera ad extra). This is eternal, it is not about the incarnate Son, but neither is it a subordination of the Son to the Father essentially.
This is the position which Jeff Waddington argues for in his post “Some Thoughts on the Current Complementarian Trinitarian Civil War” and that he and Lane Tipton present on  Reformed Forum episode “Trinity, Processions, and Missions: Gaining Clarity in the Current Debate”. In this position of the mission of the Son is related to the covenant of redemption. This position is willing to speak about “eternal submission” as long as it is understood as ad extra.

Mark Jones also takes a similar position — though he is more clearly critical of the ‘eternal submission’ position and I think he is stricter in not allowing any attribution of will to the persons apart from the one undivided will of God.

The act of the Father’s begetting and the begottenness of the Son are necessary relations because of their personhood. What is not necessary in these relations is any form of subordination, as if subordination is as axiomatic as begottenness or spiration … When we speak of the eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) we are speaking not of God’s necessary will. The covenant of redemption presupposes God’s free decision to create and redeem. Thus, we speak of the eternal covenant of redemption as an “agreement” between the Father, Son, and Spirit. [4]Mark Jones, “Propositions & Questions (for Fred Sanders) on the Trinity”, (15 JUN 2016), The Calvinist International

So that’s three positions … submission is necessarily part of the relationship of the Father and Son; subordination cannot include submission; and allowing an eternal ad extra submission.

I’m inclined to think that the third position is best, and can be fitted with the view of Swain and Allen that “as the economic extension of his eternal generation, the Son’s obedience to the Father in the economy of salvation constitutes the proper filial mode whereby he executes the Trinity’s undivided work of salvation”.[5]Swain and Allen, 117. Nevertheless, its complicated!

References   [ + ]

1.B. Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father” June 9 2016; http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/06/god-the-sonat-once-eternally-g.php
2.M. Thompson, “Are we really heretics and who cares?” ACL, Sydney, August 2004
3.Bird & Shillaker, 271.
4.Mark Jones, “Propositions & Questions (for Fred Sanders) on the Trinity”, (15 JUN 2016), The Calvinist International
5.Swain and Allen, 117.