Eternal Subordination of the Son and CBMW

Continuing the series on books and resources where ESS/EFS/ERAS appear, this article focuses on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). In a recent article, CBMW’s new president, Denny Burk, attempts to distance himself and CBMW from the Trinity debate. While I appreciate the effort, the evidence shows that ESS/EFS/ERAS has been embraced and taught by many who represent CBMW from the beginning. To date there has been no statement by CBMW to reject ESS/EFS/ERAS.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical  Manhood and Womanhood was published in 1991 for CBMW as a collection of essays explaining their view of biblical manhood and womanhood. ESS appears in a couple of essays.

In Raymond Ortlund’s essay “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship Genesis 1-3,” he gives a more orthodox explanation of authority and submission in the Trinity, but the focus is still there:

After all, God exists as one Godhead in three Persons, equal in glory but unequal in role. Within the Holy Trinity the Father leads, the Son submits to Him, and the Spirit submits to both (the Economic Trinity). But it is also true that the three Persons are fully equal in divinity, power, and glory (the Ontological Trinity). The Son submits, but not because He is God, Jr., an inferior deity. The ranking within the Godhead is a part of the sublime beauty and logic of true deity. (92-93)

The fact that a line of authority exists from one person to another in both slavery and marriage, and, for that matter, in the Holy Trinity, in the Body of Christ, in the local church, in the parent-child relationship-the fact that a line of authority exists from one person to another in all of these relationships does not reduce them all to the logic of slavery. (94)

Dorothy Patterson, a CBMW council member, in her essay “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” compares the relationship between husband and wife to the Father and Son:

But subordination is also possible among equals: Christ is equal to God the Father and yet subject to Him (Philippians 2:6-8); believers are equal to one another and yet are admonished to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In fact, one can be called to subordinate himself to someone who is inferior, as Christ submitted to Pontius Pilate, making “no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:11-14). The mere fact that wives are told to be subject to their husbands tells us nothing about their status. It is the comparison of the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship of God the Father with God the Son that settles the matter of status forever. (379)

Wayne Grudem’s “The Meaning of Kephale (“Head”): A Response to Recent Studies” gives the clearest statement of ESS. It’s included as an appendix in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

The orthodox doctrine has always been that there is equality in essence and subordination in role and that these two are consistent with each other. Certainly this is consistent with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that “the head of Christ is God,” thus indicating a distinction in role in which primary authority and leadership among the persons of the Trinity has always been and will always be the possession of God the Father.6 (458)

Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3 simply sets up three distinct relationships: the headship of God the Father in the Trinity, the headship of Christ over every man, and the headship of a man over a woman. (463)

At this point we must object and insist that authority and submission to authority are not pagan concepts. They are truly divine concepts, rooted in the eternal nature of the Trinity for all eternity and represented in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. (464)

Such an attempt to shift the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as it has been held through the history of the church does not appear to be accidental, however, for the fact that God the Son can be eternally equal to God the Father in deity and in essence, but subordinate to the Father in authority, cuts at the heart of the feminist claim that a subordinate role necessarily implies lesser importance or lesser personhood. (475)

In 2004, Wayne Grudem, who is on both the board and council for CBMW, wrote Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth as a supplement to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He explains his understanding of the authority/submission relationship in the Trinity:

The idea of authority and submission in an interpersonal relationship did not begin with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987. … No, the idea of authority and submission has always existed in the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. And this means that the idea of authority and submission in interpersonal relationships never began – it has always existed in the eternal relationship between the Father and Son. The doctrine of the Trinity thus indicates that equality of being together with authority and submission to authority are perhaps the most fundamental aspects of interpersonal relationship in the entire universe. (429)

Bruce Ware, a CBMW council member, wrote a 2002 article “Tampering with the Trinity,” which is available on CBMW. Ware wrote:

The authority-obedience relation of Father and Son in the immanent Trinity is mandatory if we are to account for God the Father’s eternal purpose to elect and save His people through His beloved Son.

Aimee Byrd quotes from the same article in her post, “What Denny Burk Could Do“:

These arguments will be weighed and support and will be offered for the church’s long-standing commitment to the trinitarian persons’ full equality of essence and differentiation of persons, the latter of which includes and entails the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to both Father and Son.

Because the structure of authority and obedience is not only established by God, but it is, even more, possessed in God’s own inner trinitarian life, as the Father establishes his will and the Son joyfully obeys, therefore we should not despise, but should embrace proper lines of authority and obedience. In the home, believing community, and society, rightful lines of authority are good, wise, and beautiful reflections of the reality that is God himself. This applies to those in positions of God-ordained submission and obedience who need, then, to accept joyfully these proper roles of submission.

We more readily associate God with authority, but since the Son is the eternal Son of the Father, and since the Son is eternally God, then it follows that the inner trinitarian nature of God honors both authority and submission. Just as it is God-like to lead responsibly and well, so it is God-like to submit in human relationships where this is required. It is God-like for wives to submit to their husbands; it is God-like for children to obey their parents;… We honor God as we model both sides of the authority-submission relationship that characterizes the trinitarian persons themselves.

Former CBMW President, Owen Strachan, and CBMW council member, Gavin Peacock, wrote The Grand Design this year. In it they wrote:

This relationship of love is expressed through relationships of authority and submission. There is order. The Father is the Father because he sends the Son. The Son is the Son because he submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send him. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission. (89)

Mary Kassian, CBMW council member, has written several books that promote ESS. Here is a selection. From True Woman 101:

The discussion about creating man and woman took place among members of the Godhead. It may have been among all three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But at the very least, it involved the Father and His Son, as Scripture draws parallels between that relationship and the relationship of the man and the woman (see 1 Cor. 11:13). We’ll talk more about that later, but for now, just think about this: When God created male and female, He had the dynamic of His own relationship in mind. The Lord created the two sexes to reflect something about God. He patterned the male-female relationship (“them”) after the “us/our” relationship that exists within God. (24-25)

From True Woman 201:

Submission is a concept that goes hand in hand with authority. Both concepts find their origin and meaning in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. They can’t be properly understood apart from that context. (223)

From The Feminist Mistake:

The feminist practice of inclusive Trinitarian language obscures the intra-Trinitarian relation between the Son and the Father. The Son was obedient to the Father though He is equal to the Father. The Father, in love, sacrificed the Son. The Son, who had the right to refuse, submitted to the Father. Denial of the Trinitarian relationship denies the concept of equality and hierarchy that is evident in the Godhead and throughout Scripture. (171)

From Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild:

The discussion about the creation of man in His own image – male and female He created them. The discussion about creation of male and female took place between members of the Godhead. It may have been between all three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But at the very least, it involved the Father and the Son, as Scripture draws parallels between that relationship and the relationship of a husband and wife. When God created man and woman, He had the dynamic of His own relationship in mind. God created the two sexes to reflect something about God. He patterned the male-female relationship (“them”) after the “us/our” relationship that exists within the Godhead. He used His own relationship structure as the pattern. Paul confirms, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, that the relationship between a husband and wife is patterned after the relationship between God the Father and His Son. … God purposefully created marriage to reflect the headship structure that exists within the Godhead. But He also created marriage and sex to reflect some other truths about the Trinity. … the Father and Son experience a divine intimacy. Their relationship is one of closest communion. Communion in marriage bears witness to the spiritual, divine intimacy between the members of the Trinity. (139-140)

Denny Burk, the new President of CBMW, has defended the ESS proponents from the beginning of this debate and claimed to hold to ERAS. Back in June, he wrote:

Recently, Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher have published a series of very serious accusations against those who affirm an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons. Goligher in particular says that the view is heresy and idolatry. He identifies Wayne Grudem by name as guilty of this supposed error, but of course the accusation implicates Bruce Ware and a host of others who hold to this view as well (including yours truly).

Today, both Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have issued very helpful responses to these “false” and “intemperate accusations” of heterodoxy. I recommend that you read both of them. They prove that the accusations leveled by Trueman and Goligher are unwarranted and misleading. They also show that Trueman and Goligher have misrepresented the view held by Grudem and Ware.

I have very little to add to what Grudem and Ware have written. Their essays are very well done. Nevertheless, I thought a handful of additional remarks might be in order:
1. The idea that Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are promoting an idolatrous, heterodox view of God is absurd. Grudem’s and Ware’s articles show that as do their many years of published works.
2. Trueman acts as if the eternal submission of the Son to the Father view is some new teaching that has been sneaked into the back door of the church while no one was looking. This too is absurd. These conversations have been going on in public for over two decades now. The conversation among evanglicals long predates the so-called “new Calvinist” movement that Trueman seems so alarmed about. And if Grudem is correct, the eternal submission of the Son to the Father view itself is no historical novelty.

While I appreciate Denny Burk’s recent statement regarding Nicene orthodoxy, he continues to defend ESS proponents as being orthodox:

This debate started with sharp charges of heresy against my friends and colleagues Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. As I mentioned above, I do not agree with all of their Trinitarian views, but I think the heresy accusations were and are false. I hold out hope for greater clarity and unity on these issues. The heresy accusations—in addition to being false—haven’t helped toward that end.

And within the Nicene:

I do not view Grudem and Ware as outside Nicaea, but neither do I agree with some of their particular formulations.

Burk also states that CBMW doesn’t need to take part in the Trinity debate:

CBMW exists to promote the Danvers vision, which is silent on this current controversy. For that reason, my view is that CBMW does not need to be adjudicating the Trinity debate.

I can appreciate his desire to distance the work of CBMW from the ESS debate, however, CBMW has been part of the debate, promoting ESS and ESS proponents from the very beginning. Unless and until CBMW makes a statement rejecting ESS and those who hold to it, they will continue to be associated with ESS and those who teach it. My hope is that CBMW would speak clearly regarding their commitment to Nicene orthodoxy, but my concern is that their approach will continue to be hoping that we can just agree to disagree on our doctrine of the Trinity.

As Denny Burk said in his last article:

I would also add that there is room for all Nicene evangelicals in the complementarian coalition, regardless of one’s views on the current controversy. If you can affirm Danvers, we welcome you to be a part of what we are trying to do. For more on that, read my vision statement here. We need all hands on deck to meet the current challenges facing the church with respect to gender and sexuality. That is the vision we will be working on, and I am eager to build a coalition toward that end.

It seems that the tie that binds is Danvers. That’s disappointing.

17 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination of the Son and CBMW

  1. elnwood says:

    Dear Rachel,

    I have read a number of your articles as they have been posted on the Aquila Report. I’ve noticed that you have focused your critiques of EFS on CBMW, and more specifically, Grudem, Ware, Burk, and other Baptists.

    I am curious why you have not spent your effort calling out those within your own denominational tradition (Presbyterian) who hold to EFS. For example, John M. Frame’s Systematic Theology upholds EFS, and it was endorsed by representatives of almost every major Reformed seminary, including Westminster, RTS, and Covenant Seminary (PCA).

    If CBMW should be held accountable for upholding non-Nicene orthodoxy, shouldn’t John M. Frame be also? Shouldn’t the Presbyterians who are endorsing him be called out as well?


    • Rachel Miller says:

      My articles have focused on these authors for various reasons. First, Grudem and Ware are the main originators of ESS. CBMW, and its authors, has heavily promoted ESS. Most, but not all, of the ESS proponents are in Baptist, or non confessional, churches. It has not been my intention to overlook those in the PCA or those in confessional churches. I am happy to look into anyone’s writing for examples of ESS. I have never read Frame. But I’ll be certain to look into it.


      • elnwood says:

        Dear Rachel,

        Thank you for your reply. Here are excerpts from the relevant section from Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, pgs. 500-502.

        So we may summarize by saying that biblical Trinitarianism denies ontological subordination, but affirms economic subordination of various kinds. But there is a third kind of subordination that has been discussed for many centuries and has played a major role in the contemporary literature. That might be called eternal subordination of role.

        This kind of subordination is not the ontological subordination of Arius rejected by the church. Nor is it merely economic, for it has to do with the very eternal nature of the persons, their “personal properties” that distinguish each from the others. Dahms calls it “essential and eternal,” but perhaps “essential” is misleading in this context, since it suggests a difference in nature, but orthodox theology teaches that the three persons have the same nature, essence, being. But it is right to describe this difference of role as eternal. We may put it this way: (a) There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. (b) There is subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. (c) Because of (b), the persons subordinate themselves to one another in their economic relationships with creation.

        But how can the one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role be compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination?
        The biblical answer, I think, is no … Scripture presents God, even the Father, as One who serves, who accepts affliction for his people … Even more obviously, the incarnate Son comes into the world as the Lord, but not as the lords of the Gentiles (Matt. 20:25–28). He is the Servant King, who rules for the benefit of his people, and who calls the rulers of his church to do the same. Subordination, in the sense of serving others in love, is clearly a divine attribute, and one that serves as an explicit model for our behavior. Such service does not compromise the full deity of the Son and Spirit; rather, it manifests their deity.

        … other writers have made the case for the “eternal subordination” of Son and Spirit as I have done above … we should be careful of trying to derive too much by way of analogy between the historical appearances of the Trinitarian persons and their eternal relations. But I do think that analogy at least suggests eternal roles of submission within the Trinity, which do not detract in the least from the intrinsic deity of each person.


      • elnwood says:

        John Frame’s book contains 69 endorsements. I won’t list them all, but here are some of them. As you can see, many are prominent confessional Presbyterians representing confessional Presbyterian seminaries. It also includes a certain prominent PCA pastor in Philadelphia:

        Charles Dunahoo, Chairman of the Board, Westminster Theological Seminary; Coordinator for Christian Education and Publications, Presbyterian Church in America
        Ligon Duncan, Chancellor and CEO, Reformed Theological Seminary
        Michael J. Kruger, President, Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
        Peter A. Lillback, President, Westminster Theological Seminary
        Michael A. Milton, Fourth President/Chancellor, Reformed Theological Seminary; Presbyterian (PCA) minister
        Andrew J. Peterson, President, Global Education, Reformed Theological Seminary
        John Scott Redd Jr., President, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC
        John T. Sowell, President, Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta
        Don Sweeting, President, James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
        Kenneth Gary Talbot, President, Whitefield Thological Seminary
        Steven T. Vanderhill, President, Redeemer Theological Seminary
        Luder G. Whitlock Jr., Interim President, Knox Theological Seminary
        James N. Anderson, Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
        Stephen W. Brown, Professor of Practical Theology Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
        D. Clair Davis, Professor of Church History Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary
        William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary
        Carl F. Ellis Jr., Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, Redeemer Theological Seminary
        Richard C. Gamble, Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary
        R. J. Gore, Jr., Professor of Systematic Theology, Erskine Theological Seminary
        Howard Griffith, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean, Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC
        W. Andrew Hoffecker, Emeritus Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
        Peter R. Jones, Scholar in Residence, Adjunct Professor of Practical Theology, Westminster Seminary California
        Kelly M. Kapic, Professor of Theological Studies, Covenant College (PCA)
        Douglas F. Kelly, Richard Jordan Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
        Simon J. Kistemaker, Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
        Reginald F. McLelland, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Covenant College (PCA)
        K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
        J. I. Packer, Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology, Regent College (Packer also wrote the foreword for the book)
        Vern B. Poythress, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Westminster Theological Seminary
        Derek W. H. Thomas, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
        Liam Goligher, Senior Minister, Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia


      • elnwood says:

        Hi Rachel, let me ask the original question again. I think my question wasn’t as clear as it could have been, so I will rephrase it to be more explicit.

        If CBMW, as an organization, and Denny Burk, as its president, should be held accountable for endorsing non-Nicene orthodoxy, even if it is not an “offical position” of the organization, shouldn’t confessional Presbyterian seminaries, and those who represent them, be likewise held accountable for publicly endorsing teachers of non-Nicene orthodoxy, especially given that they are responsible for the education of confessional Presbyterian ministers?


      • Rachel Miller says:

        I’m not sure an endorsement of Frame’s book equals endorsement of ESS. If the head of a seminary was writing about ESS, I’d certainly want to mention that. It may have been unwise for those men to endorse the book without qualifying what their endorsement meant. I have been suspicious lately that those who endorse many books haven’t actually read them all.


      • elnwood says:

        Hi Rachel,

        I don’t know whether or not those who have endorsed the book have read it or not. Having read some of the endorsements, they certainly speak like they have read it. The above quotes were taken from Frame’s earlier work The Doctrine of God, published in 2002, so these are not new statements. Since the book has so many endorsements, many from those who teach Systematic Theology themselves, I suspect that many have read it, and have no problem with the contents.

        Frame has been teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando since 2002, so presumably those at Reformed Theological Seminary understands what Frame teaches about EFS and has no problem with it. Ligon Duncan is CEO and chancellor of Rreformed Theological Seminary, and was formerly the moderator of the General Assembly of the PCA. Duncan is a current CBMW board member and endorsed Frame’s book.

        In an earlier post, entitled “What Denny Burk Could Do,” when Burk tried to distance himself from EFS, you called it “plain irresponsible.” One of the reasons given was that Burk, Ware, and Mohler all endorsed Stachan’s book. Granted, that was one of many reasons you gave, but if you don’t think an endorsement of a book supporting EFS means an endorsement of EFS, I don’t know why you mentioned it as problematic there.

        Anyhow, I am pointing this out because it seems to me that you are unbalanced in your criticism. Jesus says to take the plank out of your own eye, and Paul writes to judge those on the inside, not those on the outside, and I think this applies to your confessional Presbyterian tradition as well. If those outside your confessional tradition violate the confessions, what is that to you? Shouldn’t you expect that? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with those within your confessional tradition that violate the confessions?


  2. Celia Galorenzo says:

    ESS/EFS/ERAS? It would be helpful to know what these letters stand for by defining them the first time they’re used. Looking them up online I found only some references to “employment services.”
    I understand this is a theological discussion, but I have to start learning somewhere.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      Sorry about that. That article was part of a series during the Trinity debate. I had defined the terms early on, but you’re right that it would be helpful to have them defined in each post. ESS is eternal submission/ subordination of the Son. EFS is eternal functional submission. ERAS is eternal relations of authority and submission.


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