Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Translation

One of the questions I was asked in my interview with the Theology Gals was about the connection between the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) and the ESV Bible translation. My response was that I had not seen any evidence ESS in the translation itself, although there are several instances of it in the ESV Study Bible notes. I also noted that I have other concerns about the ESV translation, like the influence of Susan Foh’s work on the meaning of “desire” in Genesis 3:16, but that I had not seen any influence of ESS in the text itself.

The day after the Theology Gals’ podcast aired I came across another podcast from the guys at Gentle Reformation that gives examples from the ESV translation that demonstrate the influence of ESS. I so wish I’d seen that before my interview as I think it’s an extremely important concern. ESS does indeed appear to have influenced the translation of the ESV.

Here are the two texts that the 3GT podcast mentioned as evidence of ESS in the ESV:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. John 14:10 ESV (italics mine)


When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:13 ESV (italics mine)

As the guys on the 3GT podcast explain, the issue is the translation of the word “heautou” or “emautoú” as “on his/my own authority.” The Greek words used, heautou/emautoú, means “himself, herself, itself.” It does not mean “authority.” Most other translations use either  “of himself, herself, ourselves, myself” etc. or “initiative.” For example, John 14:10 from the NASB:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. John 14:10 NASB (italics mine)

Or John 16:13 from the KJV:

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. John 16:13 KJV (italics mine)

The ESV consistently translates heautou/emautoú as “on his/my own authority” in every passage referring to Jesus or to the Spirit. Examples include John 7:17, John 8:28, John 10:18, and John 12:49. They do not translate it “on his/my own authority” in the 300+ other occurrences of heautou/emautoú

In all of the other occurrences, heautou/emautoú is translated as “himself, herself, itself” etc. For example in Luke 14:27:

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29 ESV (italics mine)

The ESV is not the only translation of the Bible that uses “authority” in this way, but the use of “authority” in these passages is a minority position. And with good reason. While it is not uncommon to speak of the incarnate Son as submitting to His Father’s authority, it is necessary to qualify what is meant by authority and submission.

Proponents of ESS teach that there is an eternal relationship of authority and submission between God the Father and God the Son. They teach that authority and submission are in the very nature of God. This is contrary to classic, orthodox teaching on the Trinity which does not allow for any difference of authority within the nature of the Trinity. As the God-man, Jesus did, of course, submit His human will to the authority of the Father. But that does not mean that the Father and the Son are eternally defined in their nature or being by authority and submission.

The truly dangerous result of the ESV translation of heautou/emautoú as “authority” is apparent in the John 16:13 passage. That passage is speaking of the Spirit. While the Son, after the incarnation, has a human will and a divine will, the Spirit does not. The Spirit’s authority is always the one divine authority. If the Spirit is not speaking on His “own authority,” whose authority is He speaking on?

I’m very grateful to the guys at 3GT for bringing this to my attention. I hope you will all check out their podcast and share this development with others. I continue to be amazed at the reach and influence ESS has had and is still having in the Reformed world.


11 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Translation

  1. Hanna says:

    Wow. The ESV has been my prefered Bible translation for a long time, but I’m now starting to see the problems with it. Thanks for reporting on this.


  2. roscuro says:

    I recently took an elective course in Ancient Greek, just out of interest in the language; and the curriculum covered the use of the reflexive pronoun ἑμαυτοῦ (hemautou, first person) or ἑαυτοῦ (heautou, third person). A reflexive pronoun is one which reflects attention back to the subject of the sentence, so that the reflexive itself is in the Greek never in the nominative (subject) case, but only in the genitive (showing ownership or origin), dative (indirect object), or accusative (direct object). I cannot see why any translator worth the name would translate it as ‘authority’. It is as much of a linguistic stretch as translating the Hebrew preposition ‘el in Genesis 3:16 as ‘contrary to’ when the basic meaning of the preposition is ‘direction towards’:

    Speaking of that Hebrew preposition, I was reminded of it when, during class, we read (this was a secular course in Classical Greek by the way) John 1:1, “In the beginning…” because the professor said John’s Greek was simple, yet profound: ‘Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.’ The Greek pronoun there is pros (πρὸς) in the phrase, “and the Word was with God”. Here is what Strong’s Greek lexicon says about the pronoun pros: “a preposition of direction; forward to, i.e. toward” The case it is used with in John 1:1 is the accusative as τὸν θεόν is the accusative form of ὁ θεὸς, meaning ‘the God’. If the translators who insist on applying the meaning of ‘contrary to’ to the Hebrew ‘el in Genesis 3:16 did so with the Greek prepositional equivalent in John 1:1, they would have a heresy on their hands.


  3. Amanda says:

    Thanks for posting this. The translation of Gen 3:16 in the new revision was enough to move me away from the ESV, but since my church still uses it and most of my friends do, too, this is really good information for me to have.


  4. Bonnie Long says:

    Rachel! I love you for this! Thanks for getting this out there. I posted it on my timeline just now. God bless you, and your ministry! On the side…I love the Theology Gals. I’m proud to be a member of such a fine group of reformed, and reforming women!


  5. Grover Jones says:

    Are you really going to accuse the RSV translators of holding to ESS? After all, the ESV is a reworking of the RSV, and the RSV translates those two verses the same way. A little historical context in your piece would have been nice, and more honest.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      I mentioned that the ESV isn’t the only translation to use authority in those passages. I don’t know why the RSV translators used it. But for the ESV, that translation is consistent with the ESS beliefs held by some on the committee.


  6. Stephen Welch says:

    Rachel, thank you for your postings on this issue. You have done an outstanding job, and I appreciate it. I am an ordained PCA teaching elder and am not convinced that the ESV is a valid translation, and I refuse to use it. When it first came out I was excited like most to have this new version, but as time went on I began to see the problems with it. Most evangelicals are critical of the RSV and the NRSV, but the ESV is a revision of these two versions. I am going out on a limb here, but the problem with the ESV is that the publisher has marketed it for profit, and not necessarily for use in studying the word of God. I have come to the position that many translations are simply being published by marketing companies like Zondervan, Crossway, Collins and others for profit. The word of God should not published for profit but to be read and proclaimed for all to hear the truth it reveals.


  7. Rachel Miller says:

    If you read my article, you’ll notice that I’m highlighting what a group of pastors have noted regarding the ESV translation. They have both training in Greek and in theology. I am reporting their concerns with the influence of ESS on the ESV translation.


  8. jcameronduguid says:

    It’s also worth mentioning for interpreting these passages, that “not” sometimes equals “not only” in these types of statements by Jesus. So, Mark 9:37:

    “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.” (CSB)

    ‘does not welcome me’ obviously is not intended to contradict ‘welcomes me,’ but the sense is that it is not *only* Jesus you are welcoming, but the Father as well. Likewise with the passages you have cited, the point is that the Son and the Spirit do not speak for themselves alone, but speak and act as one with the Father. The Christian Standard Bible actually captures this quite well: “For he will not speak on his own”.

    Actually, might I suggest the Christian Standard Bible as a good alternative to the ESV? I often find it to be an excellent balance between literalness and readability. And it seems to have avoided some of these problems in the ESV. But I have to admit I am biased, since my dad was a translator and was on the CSV revision committee.


  9. Neal Pixley says:

    I’ve seen and heard the phrase “God the Son” many times from many different people but cannot remember ever seeing it in any English language Bible translation. Do you know about the origin of that phrase ? A number of years ago I took a course on The Trinity and learned about the early Church Theologian who is believed to have introduced that word into Christian lingo.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s