June 19, 2016 / Geoff Holsclaw

Eternal Submission? Thinking (all the way) Through the Issue

Imagine this preposterous exchange. At a party, I enter a conversation when I hear that someone else is a Giants fan. “I love the Giants,” I say. “Yes, I love how the Giants hit,” comes the response. “And how they get after the ball,” he adds. “I really like their helmets,” I reply, knowing that sounds weird. “Well, I have a man-crush on the guy who throws the ball,” he admits.

Who knew we could find so much agreement!

Then he asks, “How did you become a Giants fan?” “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area so it was only natural to become a fan of the San Francisco Giants. I’ve loved baseball ever since.”

“WAIT!” comes the shocked response. “I thought we were talking about the New York GIANTS, the FOOTBALL TEAM!

The small facts seemed to line up (the team name was right, people hitting things, wearing helmets, and chasing a ball). But in the end we were talking a different team, a different sport.

The Trinity, or the Trinity?

When it comes to talking about the Trinity, we often have conversations like this.

Are we talking about how God is working for our salvation, or who God is from all eternity? Are we talking about Scripture or early church Creeds (or both)? And if we agree the Creeds are important, do we understand them in the same way?

When it comes to the recent online kerfuffle about the Trinity and the Eternal Subordination of the Son, it is easy to think either “What’s the big deal?” or “There is nothing more important!”

So, what is the big deal?

Some (Bruce WareWayne GrudemDenny BurkMark ThompsonMike Ovey, Owen Strachan) want to say that in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) there is an “Eternal Functional Subordination” of the Son (EFS), or an “Eternal Submission of the Son” (ESS), or that Father, Son, and Spirit consists of “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS) (I stick with this last one). These believe they are being faithful to Scripture and adhering to the Creeds. Others (Michael Bird, Liam GoligherCarl TruemanDarren SumnerMark JonesScot McKnight) are concerned these views are not faithful to either Scripture or the Creeds (see this or this for a full summary).

“So, are you a fan of the Giants or the Giants?” is how this conversation has been proceeding.

For readers, these questions about the Trinity fall equally into the category of “There is nothing more important!” and “No big deal.”

Big Deal? Theologians teach a subordination in Trinity—Others say unfaithful to Bible and Creeds. Share on X

The Trinity: Nothing More Important & No Big Deal

In reality, there is nothing more important than the doctrine and experience of the Trinity. At the very bottom of it all, to the questions “Who is this God we love, worship, and serve?” the Trinity is the answers that says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And that is really important!

But equally, this dispute is no big deal because those who support a view of the “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS) are not so much wrong in their claims about Scripture and God. Rather, they are incomplete. The ERAS view needs to think ALL THE WAY through this issue according to Scripture, taking into account more passages than they normally do.

Let us, then, think along with those who affirm an “Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). But also, let us think through all of Scripture and see where this leads us.

So, as a thought experiment, we will agree that speaking of “authority” and “submission” is proper of the Trinity because it is found in Scripture. But let us see where Scripture takes us as we think through the issue to the end. (Now, thinking through all of Scripture is not easy. It ask of us a persistent attention to detail and a seriousness of mind. Let us not take the easy way out and only read the passages of Scripture that affirm what we already think. Rather, let us submit to the full council of God, wherever it might lead us and not accuse others of scholasticism merely because we seek to understand all of Scripture rather than just a portion).

“Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” is not so much wrong, but incomplete. Share on X

The Father’s Commanding Authority

The idea of ERAS comes from experience and from Scripture. It is claimed by several that a human father naturally has authority and his son naturally submits to it. Likewise, it is claimed, God the Father has authority and the Son submits, from eternity. Texts of Scripture seem to support this view (John 5:19 where the Son does only what the Father does; John 6: 38 where Jesus submits to the will of the one who sent him; John 14:31 where the Son does what the Father commands; 1 Cor. 1:28 where the Son gives all things to and is subject to the Father; 1 Cor. 11:3 where the Father is the head of the Son).

These seem rather clear and compelling. But let us think through, according to Scripture, the idea that the Father has authority over the Son. To do this let us ask questions about this authority the Father has over the Son.

How is this authority known or expressed by the Father to the Son?

The Son must know the will of the Father because the Father communicates it in some way (speaks or commands in some form from all eternity). The Father must communicate so the Son can know, submit, and obey. Now the speech or word of the Father is affirmed by all to be the Son who is the Word, the Word which was with God in the beginning (John 1:1-2), through whom God has spoken to us (Heb. 1:2). If the Son is the Word of the Father, as Scripture proclaims, and the Son submits to the authoritative Word of the Father, then the Son submits to himself, both as the authoritative Word of the Father and as the submissive Son. Now if the Son submits to himself then he is not submitting to another. And if the Son submits to himself it is best to say that he is free, or at least the he freely submits, making it fitting that Jesus is the leader and liberator of freedom, “for it is freedom that you have been set free” (John 8:36; Gal. 5:1).

If we think of the “Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission”, and indeed mean “eternal”, without beginning or end, or before or after, then within this freedom of the Son both to have “authority” and to offer “submission”, the ideas of authority and submission now cancel themselves out. To say the Son both eternally submit to and eternally has authority from the Father is to lose grip on the meaning of those words as they cancel themselves out.

In this way, by thinking through the issue, thinking all the way through according to Scripture, there is no controversy or innovation about the Trinity. Both authority and submission are cancelled out and all that remains is the eternal relation between Father and Son. And this is the case logically and ontologically, and biblically.

The Father’s Glorious Authority

Perhaps it will be said that the Father does not communicate authority by words or commands, but rather the Father perfectly and immediately manifests His authority before which the Son submits. Indeed, is this not just what the “glory” of the Lord is, the manifestation of God’s overwhelming presence, before which none can stand? Israel quaked at the presence of God in the think cloud and devouring fire when the glory of the Lord rest on Sinai (Ex. 24:16-17). And Moses could not enter the tabernacle because the glory of the Lord filled the place (Ex. 40:34-38). Likewise if we permit ourselves to speak this way, the Father’s glorious authority must compels the Son to bow in submission.

And certainly this is biblical. We see that the “God of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the “Father of Glory” (Eph. 1:17), who by his glory raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 6:4). And the Son seeks to glorify the Father by obediently finishing the work given to him, as is stated in John 17:4, when the Son says, praying to the Father, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” This indicates that the Father has glory and the Son both seeks to add to it and submit to it.

But let us again think through this according to Scripture. In John 17: 4 we hear Jesus glorifying the Father an obeying him, but in the very next verse we hear the eternal Son say, “Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5).

What conclusion is to be drawn from this? When one says that the Son eternally gives glory obediently to the Father, we must immediately add that the Father gives glory to the Son. This is a reciprocal actions (two-direction; two-way), not a unilateral action (one-direction; one-way). And we must ask, “From where is the glory that is given from the Father to the Son?” (see John 17: 22,24) If this “glory” is a gift from the Father given to the Son, giving to the Son something he didn’t already have, then this would not be “from all eternity” or “before the world existed” (according to Scripture). If at one time the Son did not have this glory, and then latter did, then it is not eternal. It is for this reason the text plainly teaches that the Son already had this glory “before the world existed.”  So, even if the Father glorifies the Son, it is not that the Father is giving something that he didn’t already have. This is why John says “with the glory that I had” indicating the Son was not only given glory, but already had it. It is this glory which John speaks of when the Word became flesh when he says, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father” (John 1:14: ESV).

By thinking through Scripture we see that as the Father has glory, so too does the Son have glory. The Son both radiates glory and submits to glory. If this is the case, as Scripture indicates, the Father, in giving the Son glory, necessarily gives the Son an eternal share in the Father’s authority (even though the Son always already had this glory and therefore his own authority, if we assume that glory grants authority). Therefore, ontologically, logically, and biblically, the Father and Son give mutually glory to each other, such that speaking of the “authority” and “submission” of one to the other neither adds nor subtracts (except that we have added many lines of dialogue, argument, and proof) to what is already the common orthodoxy of all.

Is God Love?

At the end of the day, those who advocate for ERAS are not necessarily wrong in their views. Rather, they have not completed their thoughts concerning the Trinity. We have found that whenever “authority” and “submission” are filled out according to Scripture they become completely reciprocal (which is not in the nature of those terms). And if there is reciprocity in the application of the terms, but not in the terms themselves, then it is best to focus on different terms to discuss the eternal life of the Trinity.

Indeed, much of church doctrine has done just this, focusing on terms like love and light. Arriving at “God is Love” from the non-reciprocal and hierarchical terms like authority and submission is not impossible, but perhaps not worth the work involved or the possible misunderstandings.

Showing Your Work

But this discussion is important for two reasons (that will be explored in future posts).

  1. It highlights the many paradoxical statements in the Scripture need to be understood somehow together, requiring that theologians and biblical scholars “show their work” rather than just repeating the Creeds (which it seems every adheres to and therefore help little).
  2. It prompts us to attempt, as we read Scripture, to affirm both the unity of God and preserver the diversity of persons when considering the actions of God in salvation. This again is to “show the work” so critics don’t think you are just cheating.

The first leads us to the topic of interpreting statement about the Son according to his two natures (human and divine).

The second leads to the topic of “inseparable operations” of God and the “appropriation” of actions to particular persons of the Trinity (I know, “What is he talking about” is what you’re thinking).

And just in case I lost you all, we must in the end return to the topic of “God is love” and understanding the Trinity from this angle.