For over four years now, I’ve been writing about a popular doctrine of the Trinity called the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). I’ve written several posts highlighting the various ways ESS is taught in the conservative Christian world. Today I ran across another example of ESS from a well-known conservative Christian resource.
Focus on the Family published an article, “Submission of Wives to Husbands,” answering a woman’s question about wives submitting to their husbands. Early in their answer, Focus on the Family compares the relationship between husbands and wives with the relationship between God the Father and God the Son:
As in marriage, so in the Godhead we find diversity within unity. But while all three Members of the Trinity are fully equal and mutually identified in the sense that all three are God, we can also detect a certain hierarchy or subordination of function in their relationships with one another. For example, though Jesus made several statements clearly making Himself equal with God (see John 5:18), He also said, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). As the Creeds express it, “The Son is begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The seeds of Paul’s doctrine of marital submission can be discerned in this statement. (emphasis added)
What’s interesting is the appeal to the “Creeds” to explain this hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity. First off, I’m not certain where the quotation they use comes from. The sentence,”the Son is begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son,” does not appear in any of the creeds as quoted. But beyond that, the creeds which do discuss the Son being begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son do so for the express purpose of rejecting any hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity.
The Nicene creed was formulated, in part, as a response to the Arian heresy which taught that the Son was created and subordinate to the Father. The full statement was carefully written to emphasize the equality of God the Father and God the Son. The wording “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” doesn’t suggest any hierarchy or subordination.
The section on the Holy Spirit, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,” was also written to emphasize the unity and equality within the Trinity.
The Athanasian creed goes further in explaining the relationship within the Trinity:
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 Ghost 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 Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together, and co-equal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. (emphasis added)
Again, the creed emphasizes the unity and equality within the Trinity, and it specifically denies any hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity. The article by Focus on the Family also uses Jesus’s statement that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) as an example of the supposed subordination. However, the Athanasian creed addresses such statements and explains that Jesus, the God-man, is “equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.” All subordination and hierarchy within the Trinity is rejected by the orthodox creed and confessions.
We need to stop doing damage to the doctrine of the Trinity in our attempts to explain how submission works in marriage. ESS, while tempting, is not a viable answer to the question of marital submission. There is nothing to be gained by appealing to an eternal relationship of authority and submission within the Trinity, and plenty to lose. Hopefully, more conservative Christians will recognize the danger and stop promoting ESS.