Refuting the Eternal Subordination of the Son within the Trinity 1

By Mark Mullins

From the fourth century onwards there has been a teaching that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father within the inner life of the Trinity. The purpose of this two-part article is to show that this cannot be the case because each person of the Trinity is Jehovah. If each member of the Trinity is Jehovah, then there cannot be any kind of hierarchy within the Trinity without destroying the equality of the persons of the Godhead.

Arianism and Semi-Arianism

During the fourth century the Arian heresy arose. The heresy takes its name from Arius who lived from 256 to 336 in Alexandria, Egypt. He believed that Christ was a created being and therefore subordinate to the Father. Arians argued that there was once a time when the Son did not exist. This was plainly heretical because the Son was the Son was not a created being but begotten in eternity, having the same nature as His Father.

Arianism has appeared in various forms over the centuries. For a brief description of those three forms I refer to The Doctrine of God by Herman Bavinck at pages 288 and 289:

The essence of Arianism is that it denies the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father; in other words that it affirms that in the absolute sense of the word the Father alone is God. It follows, of course, that the Son is a being of inferior rank: that he does not share the divine nature. Arianism places the Son somewhere between God and the creaturely universe but allows a wide margin of interpretation in regard to the exact place which he occupies. The distance between God and the world is infinite and at every point in this distance a place may be assigned to the Son, from the place on the throne next to God, down to the position next to creatures, angels or men. This accounts for the fact that Arianism has appeared in various forms.

First, there is subordinationism. According to its representation the Son is indeed eternal, generated out of the essence of the Father: he is not a creature and was not brought into being out of nothing; nevertheless, he is inferior and subordinate to the Father. The Father alone is “God” with the definite article prefixed to the term (ho theos); he omitted (theos) and is viewed as having received his nature from the Father by communication. This was the teaching of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement, Origen etc, and also of the Semi-Arians, Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, who assigned to the Son a place “outside of the Father” and called him similar, not same, in essence to the Father.” In a later period, the Remonstrants (Arminians) supernaturalists, and many of the more recent theologians have advocated similar views.

Secondly, there is Arianism proper. This ancient form of the error with which we are dealing found favour with many post-Reformation theologians, especially in England. Milton, e.g., taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit, who existed before the creation of the word, owed their creation to the Father’s free will, and that it was only because of their office that they were called God, just as even the Old Testament judges and magistrates were called gods. Slightly modified, this was also the opinion of William Whiston, whose Arianism occasioned the writing of many polemical treatises, and of S. Clare, P. Maty, Daniel Whitby, Hardwood, many Remonstrants in the Netherlands, and later the Groningen theologians.

Socinianism was the third form in which Arianism presented itself. The Father is the only true God. The Son was a holy man, whom God created by means of a direct and supernatural conception, prior to which he did not exist. He was created in order to proclaim a new law to mankind. Having completed this task, he ascended to heaven where he became a partaker of divine grace. The Holy Spirit is merely a divine energy or power. From Poland, Socinianism spread to Germany, The Netherlands, England and America. In the two countries last named, it was advocated by John Biddle, Nathanael Lardner, Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestly the founder of the Unitarian Society, etc.

From Socinianism to Unitarianism was but a step. Socinianism was not able to retain those supernatural elements which it had accepted at the beginning: Jesus came to be looked upon as a mere man, albeit an example of virtue and piety. Christianity was separated from its person: the Christ. This was also done by rationalism and by liberal theology. Neither of these leaves any room for the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. God is one. Jesus was an ordinary human being although, to be sure, he was a great man. Even Ritschl offered nothing else than a new form of Socinianism. Jesus was a man qualified by God to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth and was afterward exalted to the position of God and Lord of the church. It is easily seen that this rationalistic representation of the doctrine of the trinity leaves no room for divine grace, the necessity of which is not felt: consequently, the Holy Spirit is hardly mentioned; His divinity is denied and so is, as a rule, His personality.

This quote from Herman Bavinck demonstrates the breadth of views associated with Arianism. It also demonstrates where any subordination of the Son within the Godhead eventually leads – to Unitarianism. Any attempt to subordinate the Son to the Father within the inner life of God can only occur by allowing reason to take the place of divine revelation. Once that has started, it is a slippery slope that eventually leads to a denial of the divinity of Christ in its entirety, as history sadly demonstrates.

Background to the Current Debate

The eternal subordination of the Son to the Father within the inner life of the Trinity has arisen again in our generation in support of the permanent subordination of women in the ministry. Kevin Giles, in his book, “Jesus and the Father, Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity,” traced the recent history of the doctrine which was introduced by George Knight III in his book, “New Testament Teaching on the Role and Relationship of Men and Women”, published in 1977. He taught that men and women are created equal, yet women are differentiated from men by the fact that God has assigned to them a subordinate role. These differing roles given to men and women are based on the “order of creation” – a hierarchical social order given by God before sin entered into the world. For this reason, male leadership and female subordination is the ideal. Thus, the exhortations to women to be subordinate in the New Testament, unlike those to slaves, are transcultural and unchangeable. Mr Knight argued that this God-given permanent subordination of women in role and authority in the church and the home was supported and illustrated by the Trinity. For him the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father, despite the Father and the Son being both fully divine. He thus speaks of a “chain of subordination” and of an eternal subordination of the Son that has “certain ontological[1] aspects.”

This departure from orthodoxy was followed by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. According to Kevin Giles, 135,000 copies have been sold, and the abridged version, Bible Doctrine, with the same teaching on the Trinity and women, has sold over 35,000 copies. The former is now the most widely used systematic theology text in evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges in North America and most other English-speaking countries. In this book Grudem has one chapter on the Trinity where he argues that the Father and the Son are both divine, yet the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father. In another chapter on male and female relationships, he grounds women’s permanent subordination on the eternal subordination of the Son. For Grudem the Son’s role subordination, like that of women, is not a matter of who does certain things, as we might expect on seeing the word role, but rather the matter of who commands and who obeys. He writes, “The Father has the role of commanding, directing, and sending” and the Son has “the role of obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us.” These words disclose the key issue: the Son is set eternally under the authority of the Father. This understanding of the Trinity, he emphatically claims, is historic orthodoxy.

This teaching has become quite widespread in recent times. Don Carson has been at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois since 1978 and is currently Research Professor of New Testament. He has served as an assistant pastor and pastor and has been involved in church plants in Canada. He has written fifty books, serves on several boards and, along with Tim Keller, has recently founded The Gospel Coalition which aims to bring Christian leaders together who have a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, with a view to reforming the church and transforming the broader culture. In a discussion with John Piper and Tim Keller entitled “Only The Triune God is Love”[2] at 14 mins 44 sec Don Carson responds to Tim Keller arguing that the roles of the Son and The Holy Spirit do not demonstrate egalitarianism[3] but servanthood which, incidentally suggests that Tim Keller too is a subordinationist. This is what Don Carson said:

The argument against that, that is often put is that all the subordinationism passages, falsely in my view, have to do with the economic trinity, that is as God has manifested himself in space and time so at this point Jesus is the God-Man and he is somehow limited in some ways as a human being; but the fact of the matter is that John makes it clear that the Father sends the Son. If he sends the Son then you are talking about him sending him before he became a human being. He sends him from eternity past. This is the Father’s own design from eternity past. There the relationship dynamic is always the same. The Father sends, the Son obeys, and to talk about this as some theologians do, as mutually reciprocal deference, is hiding in fact a real distinction in the way the command goes. I have come to do my Father’s will. I always do those things that please him, Jesus says and the Father doesn’t turn round and say, Oh, yes, that’s very good and I always do those things that please him too. I mean, it just doesn’t work that way. From eternity past that was God’s design, but this does not in any sense diminish the Son or take away from his status as one with God; so from eternity past the word was with God, God’s own fellow, the Word was God, God’s own self and we live with that and shape our understanding of their mutual relationships and dynamics by the word of God and so on.

In 2016 Mike Ovey, who was then principal at Oak Hill Theological College, wrote a book called “Your Will be done, Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility.” Mike was a leading complementarian within the Church of England campaigning against the ordination of women. He was a man of many accomplishments and a personal friend who was a wonderful support at a particularly difficult time. Very sadly he died of a heart attack in January 2017. It is a matter of concern that Mike promoted the eternal functional subordination of the Son within the immanent[4] trinity. His intervention in 2016 provoked a flurry of exchanges on internet blogs with Liam Goligher who took a strong position against the eternal subordination of the Son.[5]

It is a worrying trend because for years the accepted orthodox evangelical position has been that there is a complete equality of the divine persons within the inner life of the Trinity which does not allow for hierarchical ranking. Up until recently it has been acknowledged that there is a distinction between the inner life of God within the immanent Trinity (focussing on who God is) and the economic Trinity (focussing on what God does), being the Trinity’s works within creation and redemption. However today we see a blurring of those distinctions allowing man to project the relationships revealed between the three persons of the Trinity in creation and salvation back into the inner life of God. The problem with this approach is that it is liable to destroy the oneness of God.

Trinitarian Ordering and Eternal Generation

An ordering of the Trinity has been recognised (from the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit) but no hierarchy. We can all think of an order which is not hierarchical: for example, calling out names by the letter of the alphabet or joining a queue for breakfast based on who gets there first. However, this does not signify a hierarchy like, for example, ranks in the army where a general is more senior to a brigadier and a brigadier is more senior than a captain and a captain is more senior than a private soldier.

While there is usually an order in the Trinity of the Father first, the Son second and the Holy Spirit third, this is not an invariable order in the Bible. For example, in 2 Corinthians 13:14, the Lord Jesus appears before the Father:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

In Revelation 1:4,5 the Holy Spirit is placed before the Lord Jesus:

John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth.

The fact that the Son is eternally begotten or eternally generated might imply to some, the permanent subjection of the Son to the Father. Whatever inequality sonship may imply among men, to quote from John Gill: “it implies no such thing in the divine nature, among the divine persons; who in it subsist (exist in) perfect equality with one another.”[6]

The Two Natures of Christ

There are a number of passages where it would appear that the Lord Jesus is subordinate to the Father. For example,

John 14:28 “Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.”

If the Lord Jesus is equal to God, then how is it that He can also say that “My Father is greater than I?” The answer lies in understanding that the Lord Jesus was both fully man and fully God. When He became a man He did not stop being God. He was not half man and half God but fully man and fully God.

In 1 Timothy 2:5 we read these marvellous words:

Forthere isone God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

For the Lord Jesus to be a man He must act as a man. Therefore, we find that He was tired (John 4:6), hungry (verse 7) and thirsty (John 19:28) and that he was subject to His parents when a child (Luke 2:51). However, the Lord Jesus was also God, as 1 Timothy 3:16 tells us, “God was manifest in the flesh.”

We would therefore expect to see evidence that the man Christ Jesus was also God. We see this most clearly in the healing of the paralytic when the Lord Jesus said to him, “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke 5:20), because only God could forgive sin.

We see the Lord’s humanity and His divinity in His calming of the elements in Mark 4 Before the Lord Jesus calmed the storm, he was asleep on a pillow (verse 38). When He awoke, He had only to rebuke the wind and tell the sea to be still and a great calm followed (verse 39). In Psalm 107:28-30 it was the Lord Jehovah who calmed the storm foreshadowing this great event in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Only Jehovah can command the wind and the waves to obey Him. As Solomon wrote in Proverbs 30:4: “Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?”

Further, in Mark 2, the Pharisees challenged the Lord Jesus when His disciples began to pluck ears of corn as they went through a wheat field on the sabbath. The Lord Jesus told the Pharisees: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (verses 27,28). Who was it but God alone who had the power to dispense with certain requirements of the sabbath which was given by the Angel of Jehovah to Moses on Mount Sinai?

Worship is reserved for God alone. The Lord Jesus Himself quoted this verse to Satan when he was tempted by him in the wilderness,

Mark 4:10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

We read of four instances when the Lord Jesus received worship:

1. Matthew 14:33 after the Lord Jesus had walked on water, “Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”

2. In John 9:38 the man who gained his sight after being born blind said to the Lord Jesus, “Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.”

3. In John 20:28 after Thomas had seen the wounds in the Lord Jesus’ risen body he said to the Lord Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”

4. In Hebrews 1:6 we read that the Lord Jesus received worship from angels, “And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.”

So, we see that The Lord Jesus had both a divine nature and a human nature combined in one person. He was not a mixture of God and man. In the 5th century the Monophysites held that the Lord Jesus possessed one nature only (this teaching is known as monotheletism). Therefore, they believed that the Lord Jesus only had one will.

Monotheletism was condemned as heretical by the sixth Ecumenical Council in 680 AD consisting of the Catholic Church in the East and West. They adopted the following addition to the Chalcedonian Christology:

And we likewise preach two natural wills in him [Jesus Christ], and two natural operations undivided, inconvertible, inseparable, unmixed, according to the doctrine of the holy fathers; and the two natural wills [are] not contrary (as the impious heretics assert), far from bit! But his human will follows the divine will, and is not resisting or reluctant, but rather subject to his divine and omnipotent will. For it was proper that the will of the flesh should be moved, but be subjected to the divine will, according to the wise Athanasius. For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of the God Logos, so is also the natural will of his flesh the proper will of the Logos, as he says himself: ‘I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of (the Father) that sent me.’ (John 6:38) … Therefore we confess two natural wills and operations, harmoniously united for the salvation of the human race.[7]

Next time, God willing, we will consider the two wills of the Lord Jesus which is a function of His two natures and how it is only in His human will that the Lord Jesus was subordinate to His Father. We will also consider some of the scriptures relied upon by those promoting the eternal subordination of the Son within the immanent Trinity and show that these refer to the Lord Jesus’ human nature and not His divine nature.


[1] “Relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.”

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivT3JbV4R40&t=686s

[3] “The doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”

[4] “Present throughout the universe” (Collins).

[5] www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/dr-liam-goligher-responds-to-dr-mike-ovey

[6] Complete Body of Divinity (Book 1) by John Gill at page 216.

[7] History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff at page 2398

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