Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Study Bible

Over at Mortification of Spin, Todd Pruitt has highlighted a handful of quotes from Dr. Bruce Ware’s book, Father Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships Roles and Relevance. These quotes show very clearly how troubling and how far from orthodoxy the teaching on Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) is:

“God the Father receives the ultimate and supreme glory, for the Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption in his humiliation, and the Father exalted the Son to his place over all creation; in all these things, the Father alone stands supreme over all – including supreme over his very Son. All praise of the Son ultimately and rightly redounds to the glory of the Father. It is the Father, then who is supreme in the Godhead – in the triune relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and supreme over all of the very creation over which the Son reigns as its Lord.” – p. 50

“The Father is supreme over all, and in particular, he is supreme within the Godhead as the highest in authority and the one deserving of ultimate praise.” – p. 51

“…though the Father is supreme, he often provides and works through his Son and Spirit to accomplish his work and fulfill his will. I am amazed when I consider here the humility of the Father. For, though the Father is supreme, though he has in the trinitarian order the place of highest authority, the place of highest honor, yet he chooses to do his work in many cases through the Son and through the Spirit rather than unilaterally.” – p. 55

“In many ways, what we see here of the Father choosing not to work unilaterally but to accomplish his work through the Son, or through the Spirit, extends into his relationship to us. Does God need us to do his work? Does God need us to help others grow in Christ? Does God need us to proclaim the gospel so that others hear the good news and are saved? The answer is an emphatic no. He doesn’t need any of us to do any of this. Being the omnipotent and sovereign Ruler over all, he would merely have to speak, and whatever he willed would be done…. No, the humbling fact is that God doesn’t need any of those whom he calls into his service.” – p. 57

“It is not as though the Father is unable to work unilaterally, but rather, he chooses to involve the Son and the Spirit.” – p. 57

In 2008, Crossway published the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Wayne Grudem was the General Editor, and Dr. Bruce Ware was one of the 95 contributors to the project. When I began researching into ESS doctrine being taught by Drs. Grudem and Ware, I looked at some passages in my ESV Study Bible to see how they were explained. I used several of them in my posts on ESS: Continuing Down This Path, Complementarians Lose and Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?

Given the recent debate over ESS/EFS/ERAS, I thought it would be worthwhile to demonstrate the influence this teaching has had in possibly unexpected places. The following are quotes from the ESV Study Bible study notes on various Bible passages. The page numbers are from the ebook version. The Scripture passages are all from the ESV translation.

Matthew 11:27: All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

All things have been handed over to me by the Father. This reveals the profound divine self-consciousness of Jesus, as well as the supreme authority of the Father within the Trinity, by which he has delegated authority over “all things” to the Son. “All things” probably refers to everything needed with respect to the carrying out of Christ’s ministry of redemption, including the revelation of salvation to those to whom he chooses to reveal the Father.(6026, emphasis added)

Matthew 28:18: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

In his risen state, Jesus exercises absolute authority throughout heaven and earth, which shows his deity. His authority has been given by the Father, which indicates that he remains subject to the Father. (6113, emphasis added)

Mark 10: 40: but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared

is not mine to grant Though Jesus is fully God, yet there are differences of authority within the Trinity and the Son throughout Scripture is always subject to the authority and direction of the Father, who will ultimately determine who exactly receives such positions of honor. Jesus both defers authority to his heavenly Father and implies that he will himself be exalted. (6259-6260, emphasis added)

John 1:3: All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Made through him follows the consistent pattern of Scripture in saying that God the Father carried out his creative works through the activity of the Son. (6738, emphasis added)

John 3:35: The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.

The Father … has given all things into his hand indicates supreme authority for the Father in the counsels of the Trinity, and a delegated authority over the whole created universe for the Son, as is indicated also in many other NT passages. Yet at the same time, the Father, Son and Spirit are fully God in the unity of a single divine being.(6754-6755, emphasis added)

John 5:18-19: This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Jesus’ claim that the Son can do nothing of his own accord, taken with vv. 17-18, affirms two themes: (1) Jesus is equal to God, i.e. he is fully divine; (2) the Father and the Son have different functions and roles, and the Son is subject to the Father in everything he does, yet this does not deny their fundamental equality. (6769, emphasis added)

John 12:49: For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.

Not … on my own authority indicates again that supreme authority in the Trinity belongs to the Father, and delegated authority to the Son, though they are equal in deity.(6809, emphasis added)

John 14:28: You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

In saying that the Father is greater than I, Jesus means that the Father as the one who sends and commands is “greater” (in authority or leadership) than the Son. However, this does not mean that Jesus is inferior in his being and essence to the Father. (6816-6817, emphasis added)

Acts 1:7: He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.

the Father has fixed by his own authority. Ultimate authority in determining the events of history is consistently ascribed to God the Father among the persons of the Trinity.(7012, emphasis added)

Acts 2:33: Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

The interactive and differentiated relationship among the persons of the Trinity is clearly evident in this verse. Thus God the Father first gave the promise that the Holy Spirit would come in a greater, more powerful way to accomplish his work in people’s lives (as indicated in Peter’s quote from Joel 2 in Acts 2:17-19). Then, when Christ’s work on earth was accomplished, Christ was exalted to the second highest position of authority in the universe, namely, at the right hand of God, with ruling power delegated to him by God the Father. Then Christ received authority from the Father to send out the Holy Spirit in this new fullness. (7020-7021, emphasis mine)

Ephesians 1:4: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

He chose us in him means that the Father chose Christians in the Son (Christ), and this took place in eternity past, before the foundation of the world. This indicates that for all eternity the Father has had the role of leading and directing among the persons of the Trinity, even though Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in deity and attributes.(7579, emphasis added)

1 Corinthians 11:3: 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.

The head of Christ is God indicates that within the Trinity the Father has a role of authority or leadership with respect to the Son, though they are equal in deity and attributes. (7366, emphasis added)

1 Corinthians 15:24-28: When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

the Son … will also be subjected. Jesus is one with God the Father and equal to the Father in deity yet functionally subordinate to him, and this verse shows that his subjection to the Father will continue for all eternity. (7385-7386, emphasis added)


28 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Study Bible

  1. C says:

    Wow. This is why I wrestle with and ultimately veer away from complementarianism. It’s too much of a stretch to say that someone is subject to someone else in ALL things for ALL of time eternal, yet still their equal. For years the extreme teachings on male and female roles have reminded me too much of the old racist idea of “separate but equal.” It will never be equal if your station is lower, your conditions inferior, your posture constant deference.
    Do I believe men and women often have different gifts that play out in differing roles? Yes. Society runs on various hierarchies but they can’t be compartmentalized neatly into gender, race or other demographic distinctions. We all are both under and over others in various ways. But I refuse to blanket it as an ontological or eternal distinction. If I go to court, I submit to the judge’s authority in the courtroom. But I don’t submit to him if I run into him at a restaurant, walking down the sidewalk, at our kids’ little league game.
    Jesus, being in very nature God, made himself nothing. He willingly gave up the idea of equality with God during his time on earth. But in a great mystery, he was fully God while considering equality with God not something to be grasped and taking on the very nature of a servant. But now, he is exalted at the right hand of the Father. This is where I believe he remains for eternity. Shoulder to shoulder, not subject in everything. And I believe male and female, slave and free, will submit to no authority but God in the new heavens and the new earth.


    • Joel M. Ellis says:

      Complementarianism is not about ontological subordination, even with regard to human social relationships. That is the version of “complementarianism” promoted by CBMW, but it is not the version taught in the Scriptures. Your analogy of submission to a judge is an appropriate illustration of functional submission and is consistent with biblical complementarianism. We can accept the specific roles God assigns to men and women in the church and home without affirming an ontological and/or eternal relationship of authority and submission between men and women.


  2. roscuro says:

    As a young person, growing up in the Church, I remember being taught that if Christ was not God, then there could be no salvation. Fast forward several years, to a short term I had serving in missions. My teammates were telling me of someone who had studied the Bible and came close to conversion. “I don’t believe Jesus is God,” the person had said, “but I believe he is the son of God.” It was a unusual admission from someone from a Muslim background, but my thought when I heard this was, this person has not become a Christian, because one must believe that Jesus is God, not just the son of God, for salvation.

    When the idea of the Eternal Submission of the Son came to my knowledge, at first I thought it was a bit strange, but it was only trying to know the unknowable – how the persons of the Trinity relate. However, when I read Ware’s quotes, I see that the teaching goes far beyond speculation about what we cannot know for certain. In saying that the Father is supreme, Ware is teaching that God the Father is more God than the Son and the Spirit. Now, I do not claim to fully understand the Trinity, and I admit I do not think entirely accurately about how they relate. But one thing I do know and think, that the Son and the Spirit must be fully God or the Gospel is meaningless.


  3. Anon says:

    Wow. I looked up some of these references in my ESV study Bible (Lutheran Study Bible) to see if they said what yours does.

    The commentary on Acts 2:33: “Jesus has equality with God the Father.”

    John 14:28 notes on the phrase, “Father is greater than I”: “Not with respect to His being or essence, for Jesus is equal to God, as John often testifies… Jesus here speaks about His human nature, His humiliation as the Word made flesh, and His obedient suffering and death…”

    I Corinithians 11:3 notes, “The relationship does not make the Son inferior. A husband and wife live in a relationship with different roles, yet without implication of superiority or inferiority (Eph 5:22-23). Chrys[ostom]: ‘Had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection … he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master.’ (NPNF1 12:150).”

    Some of the other ones don’t even comment on the role of Father/Son, let alone in such a heterodox way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rachel Miller says:

      I’ll try to find time to listen to this. However, unless he says, “I was wrong in all that I’ve written before regarding this, and I’m repudiating ESS in all it’s forms” I’m not sure it will give me a different perspective.


  4. Rick Wise says:

    This is sad and this conversation (ESS & the Trinity) has really opened my eyes to things I thought I understood. It’s been very helpful. I’m curious though….what is a good Reformed Study Bible? Does the Reformation Study Bible have that in there as well?


  5. Tim says:

    Rachel, just reading those study notes for the passages turned my stomach into knots. Mr. Grudem stated the purpose of the ESV was to have a translation that would be faithful to the complementarian position. It was actually designed for a more narrow agenda: support of the extremely unorthodox ESS position. He has denigrated the Son and that is blasphemy.


  6. wonderingeagle says:

    Interesting post….I remember when I was being pressured to attend a Sov Grace church in the D.C. area. The guy involved gave me the ESV Study Bible and touted it as the best version. I wrote a post at my blog asking if the ESV can be trusted given Wayne Grudem’s views on the trinity and ESS.


  7. MarkO says:

    Wow. Excellent sleuthing Rebecca. Although the ESV remains the English Study Bible I think I have a new nickname for it – “Eisegesis Subordination Bible”


  8. Wendy K. says:

    Thank you so much for bringing these to light. I have this edition of the ESV, and since last year I’ve been growing increasingly aware of the strong, biblically unsupported complimentarian stance in the study notes. When I saw that Grudem was one of the main editors about a year ago, that explained a lot and I’ve been reading my study notes with a lot more caution, and inking them up as necessary. As an aside, a fun exercise is to compare Gill’s Exposition on the passages above to the awful misinterpretations in Grudem’s ESV study notes.

    On a sadder note, I’ve noticed that many of my friends and family have this same edition. I can only pray that Grudem’s bias does not quietly seep into their theology. I will be sharing this article for sure!


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