We Need a New Name

In the 1980s, a new group was formed to combat the rise of egalitarianism in the church and the home. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), in their early meetings, chose a name for their new movement: complementarianism. While there is debate over the origin of the name, the movement defined itself as the conservative answer to egalitarianism. The complementarian movement has done some good things in affirming the complementarity and equality of men and women. It is good to affirm that husbands are to lead their wives sacrificially and that wives are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. It is also good to affirm the ordination of qualified men.

However, over time, there has been increasing concern about some of what is being taught in the name of complementarianism. Many authors, myself included, have spoken out about these abuses. The recent debate over authority and submission in the Trinity has highlighted a very strong rift within the complementarian movement. The doctrine of the Trinity is of such vital importance to the faith that this divide is not a simple matter of agreeing to disagree.

Recently I have begun to wonder if it’s time for a new name and a maybe a new movement. Let me explain my reasoning. Whether or not CMBW came up with the term complementarianism, they are the public face of the movement and have defined what it means to be complementarian. Many of the CBMW leadership have written affirming Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS/EFS/ERAS) and grounding their view of complementarity in the hierarchy of authority/submission that they see in the Trinity. But they have also gone further than that. As the following quotes illustrate, they believe that ESS is necessary and inextricably linked to complementarianism.

Dorothy Patterson in her essay in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

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. (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 379)

Wayne Grudem in the Appendix of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

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)

And,

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)

Mary Kassian and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth in True Woman 201:

Submission is a concept that goes hand in hand with authority. Like two sides of a coin, the two are inseparable. Both find their origin and meaning in the Godhead – in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The concepts cannot be properly understood apart from each other, nor apart from the context of this divine relationship. (227)

Mary Kassian in 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)

And,

Male-female relationships also teach us something of the inter-Trinitarian relationship within the Godhead itself: Christ submits to and yet is equal to the Father. A wife submits to and yet is equal to her husband. When the male-female relationship functions according to God’s design, it illustrates inherent truths about God. Remember the creation account in Genesis? In the beginning God said, “Let us …” Note the plural “us” – this is a conversation between members of the Godhead: “Let us make man in our image. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27, emphasis added.) Ultimately, therefore, who God created us to be as male and female has very little to do with who we are – and very much to do with who God is. That’s why it’s so important that we honor His design. (298)

Elisabeth Elliot quoting Kathy Kristy in Let Me Be a Woman:

We know that this order of rule and submission is descended from the nature of God Himself. Within the Godhead there is both the just and legitimate authority of the Father and the willing and joyful submission of the Son. From the union of the Father and the Son proceeds a third personality, the Holy Spirit. He proceeds from them not as a child proceeds from the union of a man and a woman, but rather as the personality of a marriage proceeds from the one flesh which is established from the union of two separate personalities. Here, in the reflection of the nature of the Trinity in the institution of marriage is the key to the definition of masculinity and femininity. The image of God could not be fully reflected without the elements of rule, submission, and union. (51)

Wayne Grudem in a discussion on Revive Our Hearts:

The equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity. There is much more at stake in this issue of manhood and womanhood than just how we relate as men and women. … The idea of headship and submission began before creation in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. The Father has a leadership role and authority to initiate and direct that the Son does not have. That means the Father was Father and the Son was Son before the world was created. When did the idea of headship and submission begin? The idea of headship and submission never began. The idea of headship and submission never began. It has existed eternally in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. It exists in the eternal nature of God himself.

Leslie Basham: That’s Dr. Wayne Grudem, helping us understand that biblical marriages are important. When you accept your role in marriage, you are reflecting the nature of the Trinity.

As the recent Trinitarian debate has shown, ESS/EFS/ERAS is simply not compatible with orthodox, confessional Christianity. I had hopes that CBMW would move to distance itself from the ESS teachings. When Owen Strachan resigned as President of CBMW, I hoped they would take the opportunity to bring in someone who was not a proponent of ESS. With the appointment of Denny Burk this week as Strachan’s replacement, it’s clear that they are not moving away from ESS. This is a shame and a wasted opportunity.

So here’s my argument:

  • CBMW defines complementarianism
  • CBMW leadership teach Eternal Subordination of the Son
  • Confessional Christians explain that ESS is contrary to orthodox, Nicene Trinitarianism
  • CBMW leadership (Owen Strachan) says there is room for both Nicene and ESS views of the Trinity within the complementarian movement
  • CBMW leadership/authors say ESS is the foundation of complementarianism
  • CBMW picks new president who also affirms ESS

Given these points, as a confessional, orthodox, Nicene Christian, I don’t believe the name complementarian defines me or my position on the Trinity or gender roles. We need a new name. We need a name that reflects our beliefs that

  • God made man: male and female in the image of God
  • In Christ, male and female are equal before God
  • Husbands are called to servant, sacrificial leadership of their wives, loving them as Christ loves the church
  • Wives are called to willing submission to their husbands, obeying them as the church obeys Christ
  • Ordination is restricted to qualified males in the church
  • Marriage is between one man and one woman
  • Men and women need each other and depend on each other (1 Cor. 11)

Earlier this week, I read Wendy Alsup’s post on nomenclature and doctrine. What she said really resonated with me and how I’ve been feeling for some time:

Many evangelicals claim the name complementarian. I have myself identified that way since the time I first became aware of the term about fifteen or so years ago. For many who identify as complementarian, they use it simply to mean that they are not egalitarian. They believe that Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and on male-only elders in I Timothy 3 transcend time or culture and remain relevant for today. However, I have come to realize that the term complementarian was coined by a group of people with a very specific agenda related to evangelical feminism. The outworking of some of their agenda has been seen in the recent debate on the Eternal Submission of the Son. I personally have some big differences with those who founded the conservative complementarian movement and would love for there to be a different word to identify non-egalitarians.

It’s time for a new name. Instead of saying, “I’m not that kind of complementarian,” we need a new name. So, let’s open up the discussion. What name would you choose?

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)

And,

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.

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)

 

Which is it?

Today, in the continuing discussion over the Trinity,  Dr. Albert Mohler has weighed in to defend the orthodoxy of Drs. Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware.

Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are not just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.

While I respect Dr. Mohler and I appreciate his desire to defend both orthodoxy and his associates,  I have to wonder if he’s aware of statements by Dr. Ware that deny the Nicene creed on eternal generation and eternal procession:

The Western church adapted the Nicene Creed to say, in its third article, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the son” (filioque) and not merely that he proceeds from the Father (alone). While I agree fully with this additional language, I believe that this biblical way of speaking, as found in John 15:26, (But when that Comforter shall come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth of the Father, he shall testify of me.), refers to the historical sending of the Spirit at Pentecost and does not refer to any supposed “eternal procession” of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. The conceptions of both the “eternal begetting of the Son” and “eternal procession of the Spirit” seem to me highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching. Both the Son as only-begotten and the Spirit as proceeding from the Father (and the Son) refer, in my judgment, to the historical realities of the incarnation and Pentecost respectfully.

(Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pg 162, footnote 3, emphasis added)

I agree with Dr. Mohler that Nicene doctrine is extremely important and that charges of being outside Nicene orthodoxy are equally serious.  Those who have made the charge that Drs. Grudem and Ware are outside Nicene orthodoxy have not done so lightly.  I believe their own words are strong evidence to support the charges.

In addition,  the charge is not that Drs. Ware and Grudem are Arian. The charge is that they are subordinationists. In his book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Dr. Grudem writes:

For all eternity there has been a difference in authority, whereby the Father has authority over the Son that the Son doesn’t have over the Father, and the Father and Son both have authority over the Holy Spirit that the Holy Spirit doesn’t have over the Father and Son. (p. 433)

And,

If we didn’t have such differences in authority in the relationships among the members of the Trinity, then we would not know of any differences at all. (p. 433)

All Arians were subordinationists, but not all subordinationists are Arian. To teach,  as they do, that there is an eternal subordination structure in the very nature of God is the very definition of subordinationism. While the Nicene Creed was specific in addressing the Arian version of subordinationism, all forms of subordinationism are denied as well.

Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?

In my last article, I discussed some of my concerns with a teaching called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). ESS was developed as a response to feminists and egalitarian arguments regarding gender roles. Wayne Grudem, one of the proponents of ESS, wrote an article giving 12 biblical evidences for defining the relationship between the Father and the Son as one of eternal authority and submission.

While I can agree that the Son does certainly submit to the Father in some respects, I think ESS is a dangerous departure from orthodox formulations of the Trinity. The relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit is so much more than authority and submission. I believe that ESS is the result of isolating and emphasizing one aspect of trinitarian relationships to the neglect of others.

I intend to address each of Grudem’s 12 points and to respond by using John Calvin and Matthew Henry’s commentaries. The purpose in using Calvin and Henry is that they predate the gender roles debates by centuries. If eternal authority and submission is the predominate Scriptural theme as Grudem contends, then there should be evidence in the Protestant commentaries. If it’s not, then I believe Calvin and Henry’s commentaries will illustrate different emphases in those Scriptural passages.

Grudem’s article was written to respond directly to various egalitarian or feminist writers. My response is not meant to support their arguments necessarily but rather to demonstrate that some who hold to complementarian views of gender roles do not agree that ESS is biblically sound or consistent with orthodox formulations of the Trinity.

In preparing to write this, I read through Michael Horton’s chapter on the Trinity in his systematic theology, The Christian Faith. I recommend it as a good summary of the history and issues debated over various definitions of the Trinity. Horton gives a great quote from Gregory the Nazianzus that I believe should be the focus of all discussions of the Trinity:

‘No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One.’ (361, ebook)

This, I believe, is the failure of ESS. It draws our attention away from the majesty of the Triune God.

1. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission indicated by the names “Father” and “Son”

Grudem argues that the patriarchal audience of biblical times would have understood the terms “father” and “son” to mean an authority/submission relationship:

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.

The problem with using extra-biblical evidences to support an interpretation is that you have no guarantee which evidences are the ones believers are meant to use. The Reformers were very strong on using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Does the Bible teach that adult children are supposed to relate to their adult parents in terms of authority and submission? Not exactly. Genesis 2:24 says that a man is to leave his parents and cleave to his wife. Ephesians 6 tells children to submit to their parents.

Grudem acknowledges this Scriptural evidence in a footnote:

However, one word of caution is appropriate here. I am not saying that the Bible commands all adult sons to be subject to their own fathers for their entire lifetimes, for that is nowhere commanded in Scripture. Instead, the Bible commands, “Children obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1), and the word “children” (Greek teknon, plural) would have been heard by the Christians in the church at Ephesus as applying only to children up to a certain age, and not to adults. At least by the time a man “shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Genesis 2:24), when he establishes a new household, and probably in other circumstances as well, the responsibility of children to obey their parents no longer applies to those who have reached adulthood.

But let’s consider some biblical support that Grudem uses to make his argument. Grudem references passages from John: John 5:18-19, John 6:37-38, and John 8:37-38.

John 5:19: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. 

In the ESV Study Bible notes, which Wayne Grudem edited, it says:

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, all pages from e-book version)

In contrast, Matthew Henry writes that this passage speaks to the Son having the same authority and power of the Father:

This was justly inferred from what he said, that he was the Son of God, and that God was his Father, patera idion —his own Father; his, so as he was no one’s else. He had said that he worked with his Father, by the same authority and power, and hereby he made himself equal with God. (emphasis mine)

John Calvin also sees equality as the point of the passage:

Arius inferred from it that the Son is inferior to the Father, because he can do nothing of himself. …

For the discourse does not relate to the simple Divinity of Christ, and those statements which we shall immediately see do not simply and of themselves relate to the eternal Word of God, but apply only to the Son of God, so far as he is manifested in the flesh. …

The whole discourse must be referred to this contrast, that they err egregiously who think that they have to do with a mortal man, when they accuse Christ of works which are truly divine. This is his reason for affirming so strongly that in this work, there is no difference between him and his Father. (emphasis mine)

John 6:37-38: All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.

Matthew Henry focuses on the Son’s equality with the Father. Henry frames the Son’s submission as relating to His humanity.:

Here he tells that he came to do, not his own will, but the will of his Father; not that he had any will that stood in competition with the will of his Father, but those to whom he spoke suspected he might. … He therefore never consulted his own ease, safety, or quiet; but, when he was to lay down his life, though he had a human nature which startled at it, he set aside the consideration of that, and resolved his will as man into the will of God: Not as I will, but as thou wilt. (emphasis mine)

John 8:28-29: So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 

Matthew Henry:

First, That he did nothing of himself, not of himself as man, of himself alone, of himself without the Father, with whom he was one. He does not hereby derogate from his own inherent power, but only denies their charge against him as a false prophet;for of false prophets it is said that they prophesied out of their own hearts, and followed their own spirits.

John Calvin:

In the whole of these proceedings, which you condemn, no part is my own, but I only execute what God has enjoined upon me; the words which you hear from my mouth are his words, and my calling, of which He is the Author, is directed by him alone. Let us remember, however, what I have sometimes mentioned already, that these words are accommodated to the capacity of the hearers. For, since they thought that Christ was only one of the ordinary rank of men, he asserts that whatever in him is Divine is not his own; meaning that it is not of man or by man; because the Father teaches us by him, and appoints him to be the only Teacher of the Church; and for this reason he affirms that he has been taught by the Father.

According to Henry and Calvin, this passage is not about an inherent authority/submission relationship between the Son and the Father, but rather about Jesus’s rightful authority to teach. He was not teaching on His own authority or power as a man or as a human prophet. He was teaching them by the power of God. He was also claiming equality with God, and this the Jewish audience understood clearly. This was why they accused Him of blasphemy.

In a related note on reading into what it means to be “father” and “son,” Michael Horton warns about the care we should take in using analogies:

In adopting an analogical approach to divine and human persons, we must also recall that creatures are analogical of God rather than vice versa. As Athanasius reminds us, God’s fatherhood is not an analogy of human relations, but vice versa. Therefore, we cannot begin with our concept of ideal human personhood or society. (The Christian Faith, 379)

2. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission prior to creation

Grudem is countering arguments that the Son’s submission to the Father is temporary and restricted to the incarnation:

The “temporary submission” view claims that the Son’s submission to the Father was only for the period of his Incarnation. By contrast, Scripture gives us indications of a unique leadership role for the Father long before the Son came to earth

There are several passages that Grudem uses to support this point. The ESV Study Bible commentary also makes similar claims in a couple of places.

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

In the commentary on John 3:35:

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 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.

The commentary on Ephesians 1:4:

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 mine)

Neither Calvin nor Henry make any particular comments on John 3:35 regarding authority or the eternal counsels of the Trinity. On Ephesians 1:4, Calvin writes that the passage is about salvation being not about our merit but Christ’s:

In Christ. This is the second proof that the election is free; for if we are chosen in Christ, it is not of ourselves. It is not from a perception of anything that we deserve, but because our heavenly Father has introduced us, through the privilege of adoption, into the body of Christ. In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ,it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy.

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 ESV Study Bible commentary on Acts 1:7:

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)

Matthew Henry and John Calvin both write that this passage is meant to warn against seeking to know things that God has not revealed:

Henry:

It is folly to covet to be wise above what is written, and wisdom to be content to be no wiser.

Calvin:

This is a general reprehension of the whole question. For it was too curious for them to desire to know that whereof their Master would have them ignorant; but this is the true means to become wise, namely, to go as far forward in learning as our Master Christ goeth in teaching, and willingly to be ignorant of those things which he doth conceal from us. But forasmuch as there is naturally engendered in us a certain foolish and vain curiosity, and also a certain rash kind of boldness, we must diligently observe this admonition of Christ, whereby he correcteth both these vices.

Grudem also appeals to Romans 8:29.

Romans 8:29: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 

Instead of seeing an eternal authority/submission structure, Matthew Henry, writes of Christ as the “image of his Father” and of Christ’s work as Mediator:

Christ is the express image of his Father, and the saints are conformed to the image of Christ. Thus it is by the mediation and interposal of Christ that we have God’s love restored to us and God’s likeness renewed upon us, in which two things consists the happiness of man

I will agree that there has always been an ordering in the economic Trinity, but I deny that this ordering means there is an authority/submission structure in the immanent Trinity. Michael Horton summarizes it this way:

Rather, in every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always the source, the Son is always the mediator, and the Spirit is always the perfecting agent. (The Christian Faith, 381, emphasis mine)

3. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in the process of creation

Grudem argues that because the Father created through the Son that that indicates an authority/submission structure:

In the process of creating the universe, the role of initiating, of leading, belongs not to all three members of the Trinity equally, but to the Father. The Father created through the Son.

Grudem uses John 1:1 and Hebrews 1:1-2 as support.

John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

Matthew Henry sees John 1:1 differently:

The evangelist here lays down the great truth he is to prove, that Jesus Christ is God, one with the Father.

God made the world by a word (Ps. 33:6 ) and Christ was the Word. By him, not as a subordinate instrument, but as a co-ordinate agent, God made the world (Heb. 1:2 ), not as the workman cuts by his axe, but as the body sees by the eye. (emphasis mine)

Hebrews 1:1-2: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 

Matthew Henry again affirms the equality of the Son with the Father in creation:

By him God made the worlds, both visible and invisible, the heavens and the earth; not as an instrumental cause, but as his essential word and wisdom. By him he made the old creation, by him he makes the new creature, and by him he rules and governs both.

John Calvin also speaks to the unity and diversity of the Trinity in creation:

According to the most usual mode of speaking in Scripture, the Father is called the Creator; and it is added in some places that the world was created by wisdom, by the word, by the Son, as though wisdom itself had been the creator, [or the word, or the Son.] But still we must observe that there is a difference of persons between the Father and the Son, not only with regard to men, but with regard to God himself. But the unity of essence requires that whatever is peculiar to Deity should belong to the Son as well as to the Father, and also that whatever is applied to God only should belong to both; and yet there is nothing in this to prevent each from his own peculiar properties.

As in the second point, there is an ordering in the economy of the Trinity in the work of creation. That ordering does not mean there is an authority/submission structure in the immanent Trinity.

4. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission prior to Christ’s earthly ministry

Grudem’s next point is that the Father’s authority and the Son’s submission is evident in the sending of the Son:

The Father sending the Son into the world implies an authority that the Father had prior to the Son’s
humbling himself and becoming a man. This is because to have the authority to send someone
means to have a greater authority than the one who is sent. He was first “sent” as Son, and then he
obeyed and humbled himself and came. By that action he showed that he was subject to the
authority of the Father before he came to earth.

Grudem uses Galatians 4:4 and 1 John 4:9-10 in the article.

Galatians 4:4: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 

Calvin sees Christ’s eternal equality with God in this verse:

God sent forth his Son. These few words contain much instruction. The Son, who was sent, must have existed before he was sent; and this proves his eternal Godhead. Christ therefore is the Son of God, sent from heaven.

1 John 4:9-10: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Calvin focuses here on why Christ was sent:

And sent his Son It was then from God’s goodness alone, as from a fountain, that Christ with all his blessings has come to us. And as it is necessary to know, that we have salvation in Christ, because our heavenly Father has freely loved us; so when a real and full certainty of divine love towards us is sought for, we must look nowhere else but to Christ.

Grudem’s argument also appears in his commentary on John 14:28.

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.

The ESV Study Bible commentary sees authority and submission in the sending of the Son:

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)

In contrast, Matthew Henry explains that the “Father is greater” means that Christ has humbled Himself in the incarnation and would be returning to His greater estate:

The reason of this is, because the Father is greater than he, which, if it be a proper proof of that for which it is alleged (as no doubt it is), must be understood thus, that his state with his Father would be much more excellent and glorious than his present state; his returning to his Father (so Dr. Hammond) would be the advancing of him to a much higher condition than that which he was now in.

John Calvin argues the same:

This passage has been tortured in various ways. The Aryans, in order to prove that Christ is some sort of inferior God, argued that he is less than the Father …

Christ does not here make a comparison between the Divinity of the Father and his own, nor between his own human nature and the Divine essence of the Father, but rather between his present state and the heavenly glory, to which he would soon afterwards be received

The Father is not “greater” because He sent the Son, but returning to the Father is much “greater” than the voluntary humiliation of the incarnation.

John Calvin makes this point clear in his Institutes:

Thus, when he says to the apostles, “It is expedient for you that I go away,” “My Father is greater than I,” he does not attribute to himself a secondary divinity merely, as if in regard to eternal essence he were inferior to the Father; but having obtained celestial glory, he gathers together the faithful to share it with him. He places the Father in the higher degree, inasmuch as the full perfection of brightness conspicuous in heaven, differs from that measure of glory which he himself displayed when clothed in flesh. … Accordingly, John, declaring that he is the true God, has no idea of placing him beneath the Father in a subordinate rank of divinity. (Institutes, I.13.26)

5. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission during Christ’s earthly ministry

Grudem makes the point that the Son submitted to the Father during Christ’s incarnation:

While on earth, Jesus often speaks of his submission to the authority of his Father.

He uses John 6:38, John 8:28-29, and John 15:9-10. We’ve already looked at the first two in the first point. But I will add John Calvin‘s commentary on John 6:39 here:

As to the distinction which Christ makes between his own will and the will of the Father, in this respect, he accommodates himself to his hearers, because, as the mind of man is prone to distrust, we are wont to contrive some diversity which produces hesitation. To cut off every pretense for those wicked imaginations, Christ declares, that he has been manifested to the world, in order that he may actually ratify what the Father hath decreed concerning our salvation.

John 15:9-10: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 

Where Grudem sees eternal authority and submission, Henry and Calvin describe Christ’s work as mediator and His human nature. Grudem’s views are evident in three excerpts from Grudem’s ESV Study Bible commentary.

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. 

ESV Study Bible:

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)

Matthew Henry:

All things are delivered unto me of my Father. Christ, as God, is equal in power and glory with the Father; but as Mediator he receives his power and glory from the Father; has all judgment committed to him.

John Calvin:

We now see that he connects faith with the eternal predestination of God, — two things which men foolishly and wickedly hold to be inconsistent with each other. Though our salvation was always hidden with God, yet Christ is the channel through which it flows to us, and we receive it by faith, that it may be secure and ratified in our hearts.

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.” 

ESV Study Bible:

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)

Calvin:

By this reply Christ surrenders nothing, but only states that the Father had not assigned to him this office of appointing to each person his own peculiar place in the kingdom of heaven. He came, indeed, in order to bring all his people to eternal life; but we ought to reckon it enough that the inheritance obtained by his blood awaits us. As to the degree in which some men rise above others, it is not our business to inquire, and God did not intend that it should be revealed to us by Christ, but that it should be reserved till the latest revelation. We have now ascertained Christ’s meaning; for he does not here reason as to his power, but only desires us to consider for what purpose he was sent by the Father, and what corresponds to his calling, and therefore distinguishes between the secret purpose of God and the nature of that teaching which had been enjoined on him. It is a useful warning, that we may learn to be wise with sobriety, and may not attempt to force our way into the hidden mysteries of God, and more especially, that we may not indulge excessive curiosity in our inquiries about the future state.

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. 

ESV Study Bible:

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)

Henry:

Christ, as Son of man, did not speak that which was of human contrivance or composure; as Son of God, he did not act separately, or by himself alone, but what he said was the result of the counsels of peace; as Mediator, his coming into the world was voluntary, and with his full consent, but not arbitrary, and of his own head.

Calvin:

For I do not speak from myself. That the outward appearance of man may not lessen the majesty of God, Christ frequently sends us to the Father. This is the reason why he so often mentions the Father; and, indeed, since it would be unlawful to transfer to another a single spark of the Divine glory, the word, to which judgment is ascribed, must have proceeded from God. Now Christ here distinguishes himself from the Father, not simply as to his Divine Person, but rather as to his flesh; lest the doctrine should be judged after the manner of men, and, therefore, should have less weight.

There is no doubt that the Son submitted to the Father during his incarnation. His role as Mediator and His human nature are both referenced throughout the New Testament regarding His submission. This does not mean, however, that there is therefore eternal authority and submission in the immanent Trinity.

6. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in Christ’s ministry as Great High Priest

Grudem writes that Christ’s intercession for believers is proof of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father:

To “intercede” (entygchanō) for someone means to bring requests and appeals on behalf of that person to a higher authority, such as a governor king, or emperor (cf. Acts 25:24 which uses the same verb to say that the Jews “petitioned” the Roman ruler Festus). Thus Jesus continually, even today, is our great high priest who brings requests to the Father who is greater in authority. Jesus’ high priestly ministry indicates an ongoing submission to the authority of the Father.

Grudem uses Romans 8:34 to support this point.

Romans 8:34: Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Calvin, on the other hand, writes of Christ’s role as Mediator in His intercession for believers:

Who intercedes, etc. It was necessary expressly to add this, lest the Divine majesty of Christ should terrify us. Though, then, from his elevated throne he holds all things in subjection under his feet, yet Paul represents him as a Mediator; whose presence it would be strange for us to dread, since he not only kindly invites us to himself, but also appears an intercessor for us before the Father. But we must not measure this intercession by our carnal judgment; for we must not suppose that he humbly supplicates the Father with bended knees and expanded hands; but as he appears continually, as one who died and rose again, and as his death and resurrection stand in the place of eternal intercession, and have the efficacy of a powerful prayer for reconciling and rendering the Father propitious to us, he is justly said to intercede for us.(emphasis mine)

Far from seeing a difference of authority and submission, Calvin shows Christ as highly exalted and as having reconciled us to the Father.

7. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in Christ’s pouring out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

Grudem writes that Christ needed the Father’s authority to send the Holy Spirit:

After his ascension to heaven, after his earthly ministry was over, after God highly exalted him, he still did not have the authority on his own to pour forth the Holy Spirit in new power on the church. He waited until he received that authority from the Father, and then he sent forth the Holy
Spirit in his new, more powerful work

Grudem uses Acts 2:33 to support this point.

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. 

In the ESV Study Bible commentary, it explains:

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)

Instead of an inherent authority and submission in the immanent Trinity, Calvin explains that receiving or obtaining from the Father speaks to Christ as Mediator:

Furthermore, whereas it is said that he obtained it of the Father, it is to be applied to the person of the Mediator. For both these are truly said, that Christ sent the Spirit from himself and from the Father. He sent him from himself, because he is eternal God; from the Father, because in as much as he is man, he receiveth that of the Father which he giveth us.

This is consistent with the Nicene Creed’s filioque clause: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Spirit proceeds from both God the Father and God the Son.

Acts 2:33 does speak to the work of the Trinity, but I do not believe that it proves a authority/submission structure within the immanent Trinity.

8. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in Christ’s receiving revelation from the Father and giving it to the church

Grudem believes that the Father’s authority is evident in Jesus receiving the revelation that is revealed to John:

Jesus did not initiate the book of Revelation on his own, but he was given this revelation by the Father and authorized by the Father to deliver it to the church.

Grudem refers to Revelation 1:1.

Revelation 1:1: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John 

Calvin, of course, did not write a commentary on Revelation, but Matthew Henry did. Henry explains that Jesus received the revelation in His office as Mediator:

It is a revelation which God gave unto Christ. Though Christ is himself God, and as such has light and life in himself, yet, as he sustains the office of Mediator between God and man, he receives his instructions from the Father. The human nature of Christ, though endowed with the greatest sagacity, judgment, and penetration, could not, in a way of reason, discover these great events, which not being produced by natural causes, but wholly depending upon the will of God, could be the object only of divine prescience, and must come to a created mind only by revelation. Our Lord Jesus is the great trustee of divine revelation; it is to him that we owe the knowledge we have of what we are to expect from God and what he expects from us.

Again, this passage is further evidence of Christ’s work as Mediator, and it is not evidence of the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son.

9. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in Christ’s sitting at God’s right hand – a position of authority second to that of the Father himself

Grudem writes that Christ being at the right hand of the Father indicates a position of secondary authority:

To sit at the LORD’s right hand is not a position of equal authority, for “the LORD” (Yahweh) is still the one commanding, still the one subduing enemies. But it is a position of authority second only to the LORD, the king and ruler of the entire universe.

Grudem uses several passages to support this point. Some (Acts 2:33) have been considered in other points. Grudem particularly uses Psalm 110:1 to prove that the right hand is a secondary authority. However, Calvin, Henry, and Charles Spurgeon see the right hand of the Father to be an indication of great honor and power.

Psalm 110:1: The LORD says to my Lord:“Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 

Calvin explains that the Father is ruling through Christ:

The simile is borrowed from what is customary among earthly kings, that the person who is seated at his right hand is said to be next to him, and hence the Son, by whom the Father governs the world, is by this session represented as metaphorically invested with supreme dominion.

My favorite explanation of this passage comes from Charles Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David:

How condescending of Jehovah’s part to permit a mortal ear to hear, and a human pen to record his secret converse with his co-equal Son!

Ephesians 1:20: that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places 

Calvin defines “the right hand” as being the place of highest royal power:

And set him at his own right hand. This passage shews plainly, if any one does, what is meant by the right hand of God. It does not mean any particular place, but the power which the Father has bestowed on Christ, that he may administer in his name the government of heaven and earth. It is idle, therefore, to inquire why Stephen saw him standing, (Acts 7:55,) while Paul describes him as sitting at God’s right hand. The expression does not refer to any bodily posture, but denotes the highest royal power with which Christ has been invested. This is intimated by what immediately follows, far above all principality and power: for the whole of this description is added for the purpose of explaining what is meant by the right hand.

Hebrews 1:3: He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high

Matthew Henry also describes “the right hand” as a place of highest honor:

From the glory of his sufferings we are at length led to consider the glory of his exaltation: When by himself he had purged away our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, at his Father’s right hand. As Mediator and Redeemer, he is invested with the highest honour, authority, and activity, for the good of his people; the Father now does all things by him, and receives all the services of his people from him. Having assumed our nature, and suffered in it on earth, he has taken it up with him to heaven, and there it has the high honour to be next to God, and this was the reward of his humiliation.Now it was by no less a person than this that God in these last days spoke to men; and, since the dignity of the messenger gives authority and excellency to the message, the dispensations of the gospel must therefore exceed, very far exceed, the dispensation of the law.

Calvin, on the same passage, says Christ is governing in the place of the Father:

The right hand is by a similitude applied to God, though he is not confined to any place, and has not a right side nor left. The session then of Christ means nothing else but the kingdom given to him by the Father, and that authority which Paul mentions, when he says that in his name every knee should bow. (Philippians 2:10) Hence to sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth. As, then, he ought to be loved on account of his redemption, so he ought to be adored on account of his royal magnificence

Hebrews 8:1: Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven

Matthew Henry describes the authority of Mediator at the right hand of the Father:

Where he now resides: He sits on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty on high, that is, of the glorious God of heaven. There the Mediator is placed, and he is possessed of all authority and power both in heaven and upon earth. This is the reward of his humiliation. This authority he exercises for the glory of his Father, for his own honour, and for the happiness of all who belong to him; and he will by his almighty power bring every one of them in their own order to the right hand of God in heaven, as members of his mystical body, that where he is they may be also.

Hebrews 10:12: But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God

Matthew Henry sees this passage as describing the exaltation of Christ as man and Mediator:

To what honour Christ, as man and Mediator, is exalted-to the right hand of God, the seat of power, interest, and activity: the giving hand; all the favours that God bestows on his people are handed to them by Christ: the receiving hand; all the duties that God accepts from men are presented by Christ: the working hand; all that pertains to the kingdoms of providence and grace is administered by Christ; and therefore this is the highest post of honour.

1 Peter 3:22: who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. 

John Calvin explains that sitting at the “right hand” is a mark of the supreme power that Christ wields:

Who is on the right hand of God. He recommends to us the ascension of Christ unto heaven, lest our eyes should seek him in the world; and this belongs especially to faith. He commends to our notice his session on the Father’s right hand, lest we should doubt his power to save us. And what his sitting at the right hand of the Father means, we have elsewhere explained, that is, that Christ exercises supreme power everywhere as God’s representative. And an explanation of this is what follows, angels being made subject to him; and he adds powers and authorities only for the sake of amplification, for angels are usually designated by such words. It was then Peter’s object to set forth by these high titles the sovereignty of Christ.

Far from teaching that the right hand of the Father is a place of secondary authority, Matthew Henry and John Calvin use the phrase to describe the exaltation of Christ as man and Mediator to the place of highest honor and power. In his commentary on Philippians 2:9-10, Calvin explains:

For what need, I ask, had he, who was the equal of the Father, of a new exaltation? … The meaning therefore is, that supreme power was given to Christ, and that he was placed in the highest rank of honor, so that there is no dignity found either in heaven or in earth that is equal to his.

10. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission in giving the Son authority to rule over the nations

Grudem sees the Father’s authority in His giving the Son authority over the nations:

The Father’s authority over the Son is seen in how he delegates to the Son authority over the nations

Grudem uses Daniel 7:13-14 to support this point.

Daniel 7:13-14: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. 

Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, explains that Christ became subject to the Father in His role as mediator:

For if we hold this principle that Christ is described to us, not as either the word of God, or the seed of Abraham, but as Mediator, that is, eternal God who was willing to become man, to become subject to God the Father, to be made like us, and to be our advocate, then no difficulty will remain.

And:

Behold, therefore, a certain explanation. We will not say it was bestowed with relation to his being, and being called God. It was given to him as Mediator, as God manifest in flesh, and with respect to his human nature.

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

In the ESV Study Bible’s commentary on Matthew 28:18, it explains that because Jesus was given authority by the Father, then the Son remains subject to the Father:

All authority. 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)

Matthew Henry, on the other hand, writes of Christ’s equality with God and His role as mediator:

As God, equal with the Father, all power was originally and essentially his; but as Mediator, as God-man, all power was given him; partly in recompense of his work (because he humbled himself, therefore God thus exalted him ), and partly in pursuance of his design; he had this power given him over all flesh, that he might give eternal life to as many as were given him (Jn. 17:2 ), for the more effectual carrying on and completing our salvation.

Calvin also points to Christ’s role as Mediator in this passage:

Yet let us remember that what Christ possessed in his own right was given to him by the Father in our flesh, or—to express it more clearly—in the person of the Mediator; for he does not lay claim to the eternal power with which he was endued before the creation of the world, but to that which he has now received, by being appointed to be Judge of the world. Nay, more, it ought to be remarked, that this authority was not fully known until he rose from the dead; for then only did he come forth adorned with the emblems of supreme King.

So for Henry and Calvin, Christ has a delegated authority in His role as Mediator. This is not the same as an eternal submission of the Son to the authority of the Father.

11. The Father’s authority and the Son’s submission after the final judgment and then for all eternity

Grudem believes that the authority of the Father and the submission of the Son will continue for all eternity:

Here is an indication of what will happen after the final judgment, when all enemies are destroyed and we enter into the eternal state. Just to be sure that there is no misunderstanding, Paul specifies that it was always the Father who always had ultimate authority, for it was the Father who“put all things in subjection” to the Son – all things, that is, but of course not the Father! Paul explicitly says, “He is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.” The Father has never been subject to the Son. “He is excepted.”

And then Paul specifies that once every enemy has been conquered and even death has been destroyed, the submission of the Son to the Father will not cease even at that time, for even 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” (v. 28). The Son has been subject to the authority of the Father since before the
foundation of the world, and here Paul specifies that the Son will continue to be subject to the authority of the Father forever.

Grudem uses 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 as support for this point.

1 Corinthians 15:24-28: Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 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.

In the ESV Study Bible commentary on this passage, it says:

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. God will be all in all, not in the sense that God will be everything and everything will be God, as some Eastern religions imagine, but in the sense that God’s supreme authority over everything will be eternally established, never to be threatened again.(7385-7386, emphasis mine)

Matthew Henry explains in his commentary on this passage that Christ has a delegated authority in his role as Mediator:

As man, all his authority must be delegated. And, though his mediation supposes his divine nature, yet as Mediator he does not so explicitly sustain the character of God, but a middle person between God and man, partaking of both natures, human and divine, as he was to reconcile both parties, God and man, and receiving commission and authority from God the Father to act in this office. The Father appears, in this whole dispensation, in the majesty and with the authority of God: the Son, made man, appears as the minister of the Father, though he is God as well as the Father. Nor is this passage to be understood of the eternal dominion over all his creatures which belongs to him as God, but of a kingdom committed to him as Mediator and God-man, and that chiefly after his resurrection, when, having overcome, he sat down with his Father on his throne, Rev. 3:21 .

This is separate from His unlimited power as God:

This is not a power appertaining to Godhead as such; it is not original and unlimited power, but power given and limited to special purposes. And though he who has it is God, yet, inasmuch as he is somewhat else besides God, and in this whole dispensation acts not as God, but as Mediator, not as the offended Majesty, but as one interposing in favour of his offending creatures, and this by virtue of his consent and commission who acts and appears always in that character, he may properly be said to have this power given him; he may reign as God, with power unlimited, and yet may reign as Mediator, with a power delegated, and limited to these particular purposes.

He also writes that Christ, as Mediator, will deliver up the kingdom to the Father in completion of His work of redemption:

That this delegated royalty must at length be delivered up to the Father, from whom it was received (v. 24); for it is a power received for particular ends and purposes, a power to govern and protect his church till all the members of it be gathered in, and the enemies of it for ever subdued and destroyed (v. 25, v. 26), and when these ends shall be obtained the power and authority will not need to be continued.

The meaning of this I take to be that then the man Christ Jesus, who hath appeared in so much majesty during the whole administration of his kingdom, shall appear upon giving it up to be a subject of the Father. Things are in scripture many times said to be when they are manifested and made to appear; and this delivering up of the kingdom will make it manifest that he who appeared in the majesty of the sovereign king was, during this administration, a subject of God. The glorified humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, with all the dignity and power conferred on it, was no more than a glorious creature. This will appear when the kingdom shall be delivered up; and it will appear to the divine glory, that God may be all in all, that the accomplishment of our salvation may appear altogether divine, and God alone may have the honour of it.

Calvin also interprets this passage to be referring to Christ’s role as Mediator:

In the first place, it must be observed, that all power was delivered over to Christ, inasmuch as he was manifested in the flesh. It is true that such distinguished majesty would not correspond with a mere man, but, notwithstanding, the Father has exalted him in the same nature in which he was abased, and has given, him a name, before which every knee must bow, etc.

He also explains that Christ will deliver up the kingdom of believers to God in completion of His role as Mediator:

We acknowledge, it is true, God as the ruler, but it is in the face of the man Christ. But Christ will then restore the kingdom which he has received, that we may cleave wholly to God. Nor will he in this way resign the kingdom, but will transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity, because a way of approach will then be opened up, from which our infirmity now keeps us back. Thus then Christ will be subjected to the Father, because the vail being then removed, we shall openly behold God reigning in his majesty, and Christ’s humanity will then no longer be interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God.

As is true in other passages discussed previously, where Grudem sees support for his belief in the eternal submission of the Son to the authority of the Father, Calvin and Henry interpret the passages in terms of Christ’s role as Mediator and His human nature.

12. Are all the actions of any one person of the Trinity actually the actions of all three
persons?

Grudem’s last point is specifically a response to certain arguments that seem to make no differentiation between the persons of the Trinity in the work that each does:

And so we must conclude that Erickson is incorrect in saying that an action of any member of the Trinity, such as predestining, sending, or commanding, “should not be taken as applying to the Father alone but to all members of the Trinity.” To say this is actually to come very close to
obliterating the distinctions among the members of the Trinity. It is coming very close to the ancient heresy of modalism, which said that there was only one person in God who manifested himself in different ways or “modes” of action. And it is certainly not a position which is consistent with hundreds of texts which show unique activities being carried out by one person of the Trinity with respect to another person of the Trinity.

I completely agree that there is both unity and diversity in the Trinity. There are distinctions made in Scripture regarding the roles each person plays in the various works of God. I think John Calvin explained this well in his commentary on Hebrews 1:2 explaining how both the Father and the Son can be said to be “Creator”:

According to the most usual mode of speaking in Scripture, the Father is called the Creator; and it is added in some places that the world was created by wisdom, by the word, by the Son, as though wisdom itself had been the creator, [or the word, or the Son.] But still we must observe that there is a difference of persons between the Father and the Son, not only with regard to men, but with regard to God himself. But the unity of essence requires that whatever is peculiar to Deity should belong to the Son as well as to the Father, and also that whatever is applied to God only should belong to both; and yet there is nothing in this to prevent each from his own peculiar properties.

However, believing that there are distinctions and differences in the persons of the Trinity and especially in the eternal work of God is not the same as believing that there is an inherent authority/submission structure in the immanent Trinity.

In conclusion, I don’t believe that Grudem has proven his case for an eternal submission of the Son to the authority of the Father. Matthew Henry and John Calvin repeatedly interpret the above passages as being about Christ’s role as Mediator and not about authority and submission. There is a distinction in the persons of the Trinity, but there is not a hierarchy of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity. This is consistent with what Calvin writes:

It were unbecoming, however, to say nothing of a distinction which we observe that the Scriptures have pointed out. This distinction is, that to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of action is assigned to the Spirit. … though in eternity there can be no room for first or last, still the distinction of order is not unmeaning or superfluous, the Father being considered first, next the Son from him, and then the Spirit from both. (Institutes, 1.13.18)

The Westminster Confession of Faith explains it this way:

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 nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (WCF 2.3)

There is unity and diversity in the Trinity, but any discussion of the Trinity should be done with caution as our finite minds are not particularly capable in comprehending such a mystery. All of our consideration of the Trinity should cause us to worship and glorify God. If it doesn’t, we should be concerned.

I’ll close with a quote from Calvin that sums up the caution we should have:

Therefore, let us beware of imagining such a Trinity of persons as will distract our thoughts, instead of bringing them instantly back to the unity. The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, certainly indicate a real distinction, not allowing us to suppose that they are merely epithets by which God is variously designated from his works. Still they indicate distinction only, not division. (Institutes I.13.17)

May God be glorified even if we never fully understand how He can be One and Three at the same time.

Continuing Down this Path, Complementarians Lose

Recently I saw an article at Jared Moore’s blog called “The Complementarians Win.” This is a review of a new book, One God in Three Persons, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke. The book’s blurb on Amazon says:

Challenging feminist theologies that view the Trinity as a model for evangelical egalitarianism, One God in Three Persons turns to the Bible, church history, philosophy, and systematic theology to argue for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.

Having read portions of the book, I believe that Moore’s review is an accurate summary of the book. Moore summarizes the book this way:

Complementarians believe that God has created men and woman as equal image-bearers of God, yet with differing roles in the church and home. Many, however, balk at this notion arguing that a hierarchy in the church or home necessarily means that one gender is less valuable than the other. But if complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in the church and home. If God the Father leads the Son and Spirit infinitely, and if the Son submits infinitely to his Father, and these Three remain fully and equally God, then the hierarchy in the home and church, and the submission of women to men in the church and home does not necessarily mean that women are less valuable than men. Just as the Son and Spirit are not less valuable than the Father, women are not less valuable than men, though a hierarchy has been given by God based on gender in the home and church. In the new book, One God in Three Persons, the complementarians win. They have argued persuasively that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. (emphasis mine)

This is very, very interesting. Here’s what’s happening for those who might not be familiar. There are some theologians who teach a doctrine called “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS). This includes Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, both of whom have chapters in the above linked book. Using the human relationship of father and son as a model for the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, ESS teaches that the Son, because he’s a son, submits to the Father from all eternity and for all eternity.

Proponents of ESS have been accused of teaching a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity, but they used to deny this. This book is the first time I’ve seen it clearly stated that they believe that the Son’s submission to the Father is ontological and not merely a function of the economic Trinity. At one point, the book claims that it is promoting functional subordination and equality of nature/essence. However, it goes on the make arguments for authority/submission as inherent in the nature of God as Father and Son.

Immanent or ontological Trinity refers to the nature, being, or essence of God. Economic Trinity refers to the way in which the persons of the Godhead relate to each other, for example in the work of creation and salvation. Basically the discussion is over who God is versus what God does and how He does it.

The term “complementarianism” was first coined as a response to feminist and egalitarian discussions of gender roles in the church and home. The basis is that men and women were created to complement each other and that men and women, while equal, have different roles in marriage and in the church. The challenge is maintaining equality given the differences in roles. Some complementarians have looked to ESS as a way to ground gender complementarity in the Trinity. The above quote explains the connection:

if complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in the church and home.

There are several problems with this approach, however.

First, ESS is more the result of eisogesis, or reading into the text, than exegesis, or interpretation of the text. It’s always dangerous to use one’s presuppositions as a starting point when interpreting Scripture. The article (and book) accuse feminists and egalitarians of using their beliefs about gender roles as the guide for understanding the Trinity. Unfortunately, some complementarians are equally guilty on this count. They have started with a particular understanding of how men and women are meant to relate to each other, and from there, they have built a doctrine of the Trinity.

Second, it is extremely dangerous to tamper with the historic, orthodox formulations of the Trinity. The inner workings of the Trinity is a mystery. We have been given some small glimpses into understanding aspects of the Trinity. Our creeds and confessions, especially the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, give evidence of the careful study and consideration that the early church fathers gave to the doctrine of the Trinity. Any departure from those formulations should be done with great caution.

Third, there is considerable damage done both to our understanding of the Trinity and also to our understanding of men and women and how we relate to each other. ESS has a trickle down effect on doctrine in many areas. Despite it’s claims to the contrary, it makes the Son inferior to the Father and misinterprets aspects of the work of redemption.

It also creates an environment in which women are more likely to be mistreated, devalued, and abused. If men and women were created with an authority/submission structure, how does this get applied? Does it apply only to the church and the home? If women are by nature (ontologically) submissive, how does this not lead to all women should submit to all men? And, given that close to 90% of men will not be ordained leaders in the church and therefore must submit to the leaders in the church, how is being submissive uniquely feminine? What it means to be male/female must be more than authority/submission.

In this article, I want to answer several claims made in the article/book. My contention is that if complementarians choose to promote ESS and especially a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity, they will not win. In fact, they will lose.

As part of this article, I will use a couple of quotes from Matthew Henry and John Calvin to contrast the way in which proponents of ESS interpret Scripture. I will also have a second article that gives more comparison quotes with a discussion of the differences in interpretation and why it matters.

As a side note, the authors of the book are using a different acronym from ESS. They have termed the doctrine, “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS). As far as I can tell, the two are functionally the same.

Back to the article’s claims, contrary to what the article says:

  • A father/son relationship does not necessarily mean there is a hierarchy of authority and submission.
  • Arianism is not the only form of subordinationism denied by the Nicene Creed
  • A difference in roles in the Trinity does not necessarily mean there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.
  • A hierarchy in the immanent Trinity is not the historic, orthodox teaching, and teaching that there is a difference between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity is not new or innovative.
  • Egalitarians are not the only ones who deny a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.

Point one, the article claims that because God defines the relationship as Father and Son and because the Father sends the Son, then there must be a hierarchy of authority and submission:

The Son and Father are God, but there is an eternal hierarchal relationship, in that the Son submits to the Father according to John’s Gospel. The Father sends the Son, and the Son willing goes. The Son submits to his Father and is willingly obedient to him. The apostle John clearly uses Father and Son language to indicate a Father and Son relationship. At least, that is how his recipients would have understood his language.

Some have argued that the Father sending the Son highlights their unity not hierarchy, but that is only half the story concerning the background. In Jewish institution, the one sent has the authority of the sender, that is true, but according to Jewish agency, the sent one is subordinate to the sender.

Whatever was true of Jewish understanding and culture of the time, father/son relationships do not necessarily mean authority and submission. We are not talking about an adult father and his adolescent son. The Son of God is not an eternal child. Consider rather an adult father and his grown son. Should that relationship have the same authority/submission structure? Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 6: 1 might indicate otherwise.

Jesus is the Son of God. He is equal to God. He is the very image of God. He has a unique relationship with the Father different from created humanity. Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” He is God with us. His designation as “Son” speaks to His glory not to His being second in the hierarchy of the Trinity.

Second, Arianism is not the only form of subordinationism. Subordinationism is an old heresy that teaches that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinate in nature and being to the Father. Arianism was one form of subordinationism that went so far as to say that the Son was created and not of the same substance as the Father.

All forms of subordinationism, or hierarchy in the ontological or immanent Trinity, were condemned by Athanasius and in the final form of the Nicene Creed. This is part of the split between the Eastern and Western church. The Eastern church taught a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity: Father-Son-Spirit. The Western church taught equality in nature and being: “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

The authors of the book, One God in Three Persons, are not Arians. They do not believe the Son was created by the Father. They are, however, teaching subordinationism or hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. Despite what the article claims, this is not the historic, orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

From the Athanasian Creed:

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.

Third, a difference in the roles between the persons of the Trinity does not mean that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. This is the very reason why theologians discuss the “economic Trinity.” The economic Trinity and immanent Trinity are different in description.

Fourth, the orthodox creeds and confessions illustrate these differences. God: Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in being and nature. One God, not three. One being, not three. One essence, not three. But there are distinctions and differences in the tasks they perform. To claim that the distinctions require a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity is to run contrary to the historic, orthodox formulations of the immanent and economic Trinity.

Making a distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity is not new or innovative. You can see these distinctions in the commentaries Matthew Henry and John Calvin wrote on the Bible. Here is an example of the difference in interpretation between a proponent of ESS (Wayne Grudem) and those who hold to a distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity (Henry and Calvin).

First are two quotes from the commentary in Wayne Grudem’s ESV Study Bible. Notice the emphasis he makes on the supreme authority of the Father within the Trinity:

John 12:49 (6809, ebook)
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.

1 Corinthians 11:3 (7365-7366, ebook)
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.

Here are excerpts from Matthew Henry’s commentary on the same passages. Notice that Henry makes it clear that Christ, in his role as mediator, submits to God:

John 12:49

Christ, as Son of man, did not speak that which was of human contrivance or composure; as Son of God, he did not act separately, or by himself alone, but what he said was the result of the counsels of peace; as Mediator, his coming into the world was voluntary, and with his full consent, but not arbitrary, and of his own head. (emphasis mine)

1 Corinthians 11:3

Christ, in his mediatorial character and glorified humanity, is at the head of mankind. He is not only first of the kind, but Lord and Sovereign. He has a name above every name: though in this high office and authority he has a superior, God being his head. (emphasis mine)

Lastly, here is John Calvin on the same passages. Calvin also makes a distinction between the Son’s equality of essence with the Father and His submission to the Father in His role as mediator:

John 12:49

For I do not speak from myself. That the outward appearance of man may not lessen the majesty of God, Christ frequently sends us to the Father. This is the reason why he so often mentions the Father; and, indeed, since it would be unlawful to transfer to another a single spark of the Divine glory, the word, to which judgment is ascribed, must have proceeded from God. Now Christ here distinguishes himself from the Father, not simply as to his Divine Person, but rather as to his flesh; lest the doctrine should be judged after the manner of men, and, therefore, should have less weight. (emphasis mine)

1 Corinthians 11:3

God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. (emphasis mine)

Both Matthew Henry and John Calvin repeatedly interpret the passages that refer to Christ’s submission or subjection to be speaking of Christ’s role as mediator. This is a consistent application of the orthodox understanding of the economic Trinity.

Lastly, contrary to the article, egalitarians are not the only ones who deny a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. Many complementarians make a distinction between the economic and immanent when discussing the Trinity. Not all complementarians agree with Grudem and Ware that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that the authors have proven their point. They claim that a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity does not mean inequality:

If there is hierarchy and equality in the immanent Trinity, then the complementarians win, for it means that men and women can be equal even with an order of authority.

A hierarchy in the immanent Trinity will always lead to inequality. It is more than a difference in roles. It is about the nature or essence of God. I can’t help but conclude that their argument is the biblical, trinitarian equivalent of “separate, but equal.” No matter their intention, the result is the same. It’s not equal.

As for the desire to ground complementarity of men and women in the Trinity, there is good Scriptural support for the main claims of complementarianism without changing the historic, orthodox teaching on the Trinity. While egalitarians and feminists may disagree with the complementarian interpretation of those passages, there is clear, Biblical evidence for teaching the following:

  • Men and women are made in the image of God and equal before God in Christ.
  • Husbands are the spiritual leaders of the home.
  • Wives should submit to their own husbands.
  • Ordained leadership in churches should be male.
  • Christ, in His role as mediator, submitted to His Father, and He is our example in all of life.

While I understand the reason these theologians want to find support for complementarity in the doctrine of the Trinity, I believe, on the whole, that we are safer when we hold fast to what the Bible teaches and stick close to the creeds and confessions. The Trinity is a mystery and should be handled with great care. Departing from the historic, orthodox formulations of the Trinity is not a winning move, no matter what the motivation.