The Eternal Subordination of the Son

By Scott Keith

There is a theological disagreement stewing in the evangelical world with which I think the Jagged Mafia should be made aware. The controversy is over something called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). This week on the Thinking Fellows podcast, we talked with Elyse and Joel Fitzpatrick about the controversy, and the show has stirred up some lively conversation. What I’d like to do today is simply introduce our readers to what is going on, define some terms, and provide a very slight commentary.

First, what is ESS? Well, one of the leading proponents of the doctrine is the popular author and systematician Wayne Grudem. Dr. Grudem’s Systematic Theology contains perhaps the most concise explanations that I have found.

“This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase ‘ontological equality but economic subordination,’ where the word ontological means ‘being.’  Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say ‘equal in being but subordinate in role.’  Both parts of this phrase are necessary to the true doctrine of the Trinity. 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. (pg. 251).”

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Now, while I think this is a good and rather succinct description, it is still a bit confusing. While tooling around on the Interweb, I found an author, Dave Miller, who managed to bullet-point the various aspects of the doctrine. Mr. Miller says that ESS makes the following assertions:

  • “The members of the Trinity are equal in essence. Each is fully God and equal in glory and divinity.”
  • “The members of the Trinity have an economic order (ranking in the way they relate to one another and to this world.) The Father, Son, and Spirit are different persons with different roles and different ranks within the Godhead.”
  • “Those roles are essential to the persons of the Trinity. They are not just revelational or temporal, they are eternal and are essential parts of the nature and character of the persons.  The Father is not just some kind of explanatory construct – it is the essence of the First Person of the Trinity.  ‘Son’ is not just some kind of understandable illustration – it is the essence of the Second Person of the Godhead; it is who he is eternally.”
  • “The subordinate role of the Son in no way demeans his essential equality with the Father.”

So why does this matter? Well, the genesis of the discussion seems to be intertwined with a movement that occurred in the 1990s called Complementarianism. “Complementarianism is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are formed to complement each other via different roles and responsibilities as manifested in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. It is rooted in more literal interpretations of the Creation account and the roles of men and women presented in Scripture. It is also known as the Traditionalist or Hierarchical view. Though the notion is found in other religions, this article focuses on how certain Christian groups understand their theology to require a complementarian view of gender.”

Now, on its face, I think that I agree with the Complementarian point of view, at least as this brief explanation describes the position. But what seems to have happened, at least in some cases, is that the doctrine of ESS is being used to unequivocally connect the concept of the eternal subordination of the Son to the idea of the subordination of women to men, especially wives to husbands. I have read and heard that, in some cases, this has had dire consequences.

Nonetheless, I will not pretend to be well-read enough on this topic to offer great insights. What I will say is that my initial reading of more than twenty or so articles on ESS has caused one phrase to come to mind: “Methinks thou dost protest too much!” What do I mean? Most discussions or defenses of ESS begin by stating that it is not classic Subordinationism, which is a heresy. When reading these articles, I often cannot help but think if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck… Well, you know the rest.

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Further, it seems that, while the protestations that ESS was not developed to support the Complementarian position are plentiful, it does feel that it was, at the very least, re-purposed for that express purpose.

My conclusions (if they can be called that) are this: 1) I believe it is dangerous to use language such as “subordination” when describing the Trinity because this language has been historically connected to a condemned heresy; 2) I cannot shake the idea that, no matter how many caveats the various authors provide, ESS sounds like Arianism as well; 3) As Dr. Rosenbladt suggested on the podcast, the entire argument employs the Special Pleading Fallacy. This is apparent especially when the proponents of the doctrine, at least in many circles, attempt to make a sometimes dangerous and unneeded connection to the ideas that women ought to remain subordinate to men, especially wives to husbands. Among this group, the concept of gender roles has become so central that the doctrine of the Trinity is being used to lend support to their initial thesis of female subordination versus egalitarianism. (Again, reference the Special Pleading Fallacy.)

At the end of the day, I think that, if the Jagged Mafia is interested in this topic, they ought to read more. There are countless articles on the topic on the internet, but some of the most thorough can be found on the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood website. (Keep in mind that this is not easy reading.) Next, read Just Holcomb’s book Know the Heretics. Lastly, check out the Thinking Fellows episode on the Eternal Subordination of the Son.

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8 comments

  1. The thing that irks me about it all is that complementarianism is so focused on the roles of men as husband/father/authority and women as wife/mother/one who submits that single men and women can often be ignored entirely or viewed as immature or less than the married parents who are catered to Christianity.
    This hierarchical God, whose central attribute is authority and submission, puts love and mutual respect in strange terms. Yes, I get it that the Father doesn’t come down from heaven and has himself crucified in place of the Son, I get it that the Holy Spirit doesn’t wander the countryside healing the sick and teaching in synagogues while the Son remains in heaven or waits to be sent. But that doesn’t mean that because 1 Corinthians 11:3 says “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” that it is beneath a husband to wash the dishes or cook dinner or change a diaper; that God forbids women from working in public at all, that all women – single and married – must always have a male authority who has headship over her to act as a go-between in order for her to get to God.

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  2. So much to think about, it feels uncomfortable. At the least, doesn’t this undermine the Nicene Creed – “by whom all things were made”, John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”? Should we ask if the Holy Spirit finishes with us in Word and let’s the Son take over in sacrament? Does the Father sit back and watch these two work? Or, does He micromanage them? Is the Father, the Creator and preserver, more a king and less a servant? After all, He sustains our physical lives even though all of us in the Church and as citizens fall under Christ’s rule? Does this make the Father an emperor, Lord over a King and smaller kingdoms? Feels like trying to define God in our own terms, to make Him a creature of Himself, in some sense.

    It seems like they are trying to posit an assumed role as a clear division of labor and place God under some existential notions similar to mankind – His “Godness” merely preceding His actualization of being according to assumed role. Even here, I think confounding role with rank is an error whether with the Godhead or men and women.

    I look forward to hearing and reading more about this! Thanks.

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    1. I agree, but they would argue that they are in line with the Nicene Creed. I think you hit it on the head, “it feels unconfortable.” Thanks for reading!

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      1. I guess I should have added the caveat that I think they are wrong to say this kind of language is in line with the Nicene Creed.

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  3. It seems to me that the Athanasian Creed should help with this, at least in the relationship of Christ to the Father. If I’m not mistaken, it was even brought forth to answer this particular issue.

    As for Adam and Eve being complements for each other, I think the Hebrew speaks that very thing in Genesis 2:18. As for subordination of any person (including divine ones) to any other; that seems to be an issue of roles within the orders of creation. All of that is null and void, pointless really, in the heavenly scheme (Galatians 3:26ff).

    It amazes me how we are always trying to reinvent orthodoxy and heresy.

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  4. I read Grudem’s Systematic Theology and for years was a member of a church that taught the same kind of Complementarianism that Grudem teaches. Elyse’s comments on the podcast were spot on in terms of how their obsession with Complementarianism effects many aspects of how men relate to their wives and to other women in the church. It also effects the way in which men relate to women in the workforce, or other arenas outside of the church or the home.

    They’ve sort of turned the Biblical notion of complementary gender roles into a neo-patriarchy. The podcast made me want to apologize to my wife for the early years of our marriage when we were still being taught that stuff at church.

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