Eternal Subordination of the Son and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology

After I posted my article on Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Study Bible notes, a few friends sent me quotes by Drs. Ware and Grudem from other books. Today I’m looking at what Dr. Wayne Grudem has written in his Systematic Theology. First published in 1994, Dr. Grudem’s Systematic Theology has sold over 300,000 copies. It is a frequently recommended resource.

All quotations from “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine” Wayne Grudem, Zondervan, 1994. HT: Persis Lorenti 

Dr. Grudem teaches in his Systematic Theology that eternal subordination is necessary in the Trinity and is part of Nicene doctrine since the 4th century:

If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox expressions), a least since Nicea (A.D 325). (251.)

At first glance, it would seem that Dr. Grudem is affirming the orthodox teaching of ontological equality and economic submission. However, when he explains that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father because He is the Son, Dr .Grudem is making a statement about the nature (or ontology) of the Son and the Father. The Nicene teachings of eternal generation of the Son and eternal procession of the Spirit are not about subordination or hierarchy. That is a misrepresentation of Nicea and a misunderstanding of the definition of the terms.

Dr. Grudem demonstrates his misunderstanding of the terms eternal generation and eternal procession in the following quotes:

Some systematic theologies give names to these different relationships: “paternity” (or “generation”) for the Father, “begottenness” (or “filiation”) for the Son and “procession” (or “spiration”) for the Holy Spirit, but the names do not mean anything more than “relating as a Father,” and “relating as a Son,” and “relating as Spirit.” (254)


eternal begetting of the Son: Description of the eternal relationship that has existed with the Trinity between the Father and the Son in which the Son has eternally related to the Father as a Son. (1241, emphasis original)

Eternal generation is not simply the Son “eternally related to the Father as a Son.” And eternal procession is more than “relating as a Spirit.”

A.A. Hodge defines eternal generation this way:

an eternal personal act of the Father, wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will, He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead, without division, alienation, or change, so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person, and eternally continues, not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son. (Outlines of Theology, 182.)

And eternal procession as:

the relation which the third person sustains to the first and second, wherein by an eternal and necessary, i.e., not voluntary, act of the Father and the Son, their whole identical divine essence, without alienation, division, or change, is communicated to the Holy Ghost. (Outlines in Theology, 189)

The terms speak to the unity of the Godhead and also the distinctions, but this is not about authority and submission or hierarchy. The Westminster Confession of Faith says:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, not proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (WCF II.3)

The Athanasian Creed explains:

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Dr. Grudem’s reduction of eternal generation to Father and Son relating eternally as Father and Son is related to his view of eternal subordination in the Trinity. He teaches that just as a human father has authority over his son, God the Father has eternal authority over God the Son. From his article,  “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father”:

Therefore, what is everywhere true of a father-son relationship in the biblical world, and is not contradicted by any other passages of Scripture, surely should be applied to the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. The names “Father” and “Son” represent an eternal difference in the roles of the Father and the Son. The Father has a leadership and authority role that the Son does not have, and the Son submits to the Father’s leadership in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son. The eternal names “Father” and “Son” therefore give a significant indication of eternal authority and submission among the members of the Trinity.

This understanding of authority and submission in the Trinity also appears in Dr. Grudem’s Systematic Theology:

Between the members of the Trinity there has been equality in importance, personhood, and deity throughout all eternity. But there have also been differences in roles between the members of the Trinity. God the Father has always been the Father and has always related to the Son as a Father relates to his Son. Though all three members of the Trinity are equal in power and in all other attributes, the Father has a greater authority. He has a leadership role among all the members of the Trinity that the Son and Holy Spirit do not have. In creation, the Father speaks and initiates, but the work of creation is carried out through the Son and sustained by the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:1-2; John 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Hebr. 1:2). In redemption, the Father sends the Son into the world and the Son comes and is obedient to the Father and dies to pay for our sins (Luke 22:42; Phil. 2:6-8). After the Son has ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit comes to equip and empower the church (John 16:7; Acts 1:8; 2:1-36). The Father did not come to die for our sins, nor did the Holy Spirit. The Father was not poured out on the church at Pentecost in new covenant power, nor was the Son. Each member of the Trinity has distinct roles or functions. Differences in roles and authority between the members of the Trinity are thus completely consistent with equal importance, personhood, and deity. (459)

Eternal generation and eternal procession are not about authority and submission. They are statements about the unity and distinctions within the Trinity.

One of the applications of the Eternal Subordination of the Son doctrine is to explain the relationship between husband and wife. Dr. Grudem teaches that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son mirrors the relationship between husband and wife:

In fact, in the relationship between man and woman in marriage we see also a picture of the relationship between the Father and Son in Trinity. Paul says, “but I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Here, just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to God the Father and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood. (256-257)

When I first started reading about Eternal Subordination of the Son and the parallels being drawn between Father/Son and husband/wife, I wondered what those who teach ESS did with the Holy Spirit. It seemed to me that He was left out of the analogy. I jokingly wondered if the husband is the Father and wife is the Son in the analogy, then were the kids like the Holy Spirit? It seemed so farfetched to me, but that is exactly what Dr. Grudem teaches in his Systematic Theology. Continuing on from the last quote:

And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity. (257.)

This last quote is perhaps the most troubling of all that I’ve read. Todd Pruitt at Mortification of Spin has done an excellent job of explaining the danger here:

This goes far beyond reasonable speculation. In an effort to be charitable I want to call it exotic. But that will not do. It is worse than exotic. It may well be blasphemous.
I chose that word with no small amount of thought and sobriety.
The stubborn insistence of Drs. Ware and Grudem to force a parallel between the Father and the Son to a husband and wife is worse than troubling. And, as we can see from the passage cited above, it leads to the inevitable comparison of the Holy Spirit to the child of the divine husband (Father) and wife (Son). These parallels have far more in common with pagan mythology than Biblical theology.
I hope that those who have read and recommend Dr. Grudem’s Systematic Theology will go back and reconsider what is being taught. The doctrine of the Trinity is key. It’s not adiaphora. We really can’t agree to disagree on this one.

14 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination of the Son and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology

  1. Tim says:

    The Son’s issuance from the Father is by “by necessity of nature, not by choice of will” – that goes right to the heart of the issue, and applies to the Spirit being sent by the Father and Son as well. The Spirit is not sent because he does what the Father and Son tell him to do in subordination to their will(s); it is because this is their nature as the Persons of the Trinitarian God we worship.

    Blasphemy is not too strong a word to put on the derogatory teaching known by the initials ESS.


  2. roscuro says:

    Wayne Grudem is doing exactly what John Chrysostom and other early church fathers warned against. He is drawing conclusions from earthly things to heavenly things. Such analogies become absurd. To use an example which we are told of in Scripture, the Tabernacle was said to be a shadow of the heavenly reality. Yet, no one would think that God dwells in heaven in a tent covered in animal skins, and when the Throne of heaven is seen by the prophets, the terrible cherubim around the throne make the golden images of cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant seem poor and pale imitations. Drawing conclusions about the heavenly pattern by regarding the earthly copy as an exact reproduction leads to confusion. And the analogy which Grudem draws is further confused. He says that the husband is analogous to the Father, the wife to the Son, and the child to the Holy Spirit; yet at the same time he states that the Son must be submissive to the Father in the Trinity because the names of Father and Son indicate a father-son relationship, so that he is seeming to say that the Son is both analogous to a wife and also to a son in earthly relationships. It would be better and more reverent to avoid any such analogies.


  3. C says:

    I mentioned this jokingly on Twitter, but if I had known as a kid that my role was the “holy spirit” of our family, I may have used that to get away with much more! After all, how can you deny the spirit? 🙄

    Also, I make no bones about being egalitarian, so I know I come at things from a different angle than women like Rachel and Aimee Byrd. I’ve interpreted Paul’s comments about women’s roles to be cultural. However, I won’t pretend that these verses aren’t complex and tough to decipher. I can also see how different roles could benefit the economy of marriage. But I look at is as a fully informed self-sacrifice to defer to others’ requests or give up a job to care for children, etc. just as Jesus took on the role of a son in order to accomplish salvific purposes. I don’t believe he was “born that way” and had to submit, just as I don’t believe women by nature are more gullible, weak, and uninformed and therefore must defer to men’s authority.

    I also don’t believe that the Son stays in a childlike role for all eternity. Even the children who are admonished to obey their parents in the Bible grow up to be adults and no longer need to obey. To equate Jesus to a functional child obviously infantilizes him. And children, while equal in worth and dignity to adults, are NOT equal in maturity, intelligence, and capability. That’s part of why they submit to adults. It’s unlike male/female and CERTAINLY unlike the Trinity.


    • roscuro says:

      I think that every mature Christian should agree with you that women who stay at home and care for their children should be doing it by their own choice. The pastor who preached during my teen years used to emphasize during marriage services that it is never the responsibility of the husband to make his wife submit. When I looked up the Greek word for submission, the lexicon noted that particular word was always used for an equal voluntarily yielding to another equal.


  4. Jeff Moss says:

    St. Augustine wrote that since the Son is sometimes called “the Son of His [i.e. the Father’s] love” (Colossians 1:13, literal translation), and the Spirit *is* (in some sense) the love of God, then the Son is not only the Son of God the Father, but also in a way the Son of the Spirit of God. (This insight lines up well with the creedal language of “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” although I don’t remember if Augustine ever makes this connection.)

    While Augustine is careful to qualify this statement and make clear that it is speculative and metaphorical at best, his ponderings go far to preserve the mystery of the Trinity and keep the inner life of God from being demoted into mere human categories.


    • roscuro says:

      I seem to remember G.K. Chesterton having similar speculative and metaphorical thoughts. Here is the thing though, neither Chesterton nor Augustine drew any conclusions from those speculations to how people should behave. They were seeking metaphors to illustrate, not doctrines to teach.


  5. markmcculley says:

    What agency does the Holy Spirit have in “the Covenant of Redemption”?

    Are we to submit to the pagan nation-state state in the same way a wife submits to the husband? As volunteers, so that the nation state is not what forces obedience. Is the exousia of one of the powers to be compared with other powers, but only contrasted with the authority of the Trinity?


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