Is the Son of God Eternally Subordinate to the Father?
We remarked in an earlier article that contemporary evangelical theology has, to a significant extent, affirmed a view known as the eternal subordination or submission of the Son. This is sometimes abbreviated to the acronym ESS or alternatively, EFS, the eternal functional subordination of the Son. We previously looked at the teaching of Scripture in respect of the Father and the Son and saw that both the Old and New Testaments teach unequivocally that both Son and Father are God. The New Testament teaches that the Son was fully God but also fully man. He did not give up any of the attributes of deity but assumed all of the attributes of humanity in one person. His humanity and deity are permanently united and although Jesus is now glorified at the right hand of God the Father he remains a man. And he will return to this sin cursed earth as a king – to judge and to rule.
Those who espouse ESS do not deny any of this, but they take a specific position in respect of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Godhead – particularly in relation to the divine will. They assert that the subordination of will and obedience that we see in the Gospels is not simply a product of Jesus’ incarnation but a reflection of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son obeys not merely as man but as God. And obedience is the eternal nature of the relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. Just as human sons obey, or ought to obey, their human fathers, so the Son of God obeys his heavenly father. This, we are invited to believe, is the teaching of Scripture.
There are a number of contemporary proponents of this view. In America, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are advocates of this position. In England, it has recently received strong support in the last publication of the Rev. Dr Mike Ovey, the late principal of Oak Hill Theological College. His last work, before his untimely death at the beginning of last year, was – Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility. It is published by Latimer Trust whose catch line is ‘Biblical Truth for Today’s Church.’ But is this true? Is it biblical? It is the contention of this article that ESS is untrue and unbiblical. And that it has dangerous implications for the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity and indeed the doctrine of salvation. It is also unfaithful to the early creeds – particularly the Nicene, the Athanasian and the Chalcedonian. It is also unfaithful to the Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably the 39 Articles, the Westminster Confession and the second Helvetic Confession. These are serious charges and need to be considered carefully – but it is the conviction of the present writer that they are true. We will focus on Mike Ovey’s book because it is a contemporary British statement of an error that is now widespread in evangelicalism. We will then draw some general conclusions about subordinationism.
Your Will Be Done
Before discussing Dr Ovey’s last book it is important to say something about the author. The present writer studied under Mike Ovey at Oak Hill and counted him a friend. He undoubtedly believed in the inspiration and authority of Scripture and sought to shape his theology in light of its teaching. He rendered invaluable service to the defence of Reformed theology with his book Pierced for Our Transgressions which was a defence of penal substitutionary atonement when it was under attack. He was a godly man who gave generously of his time to help others, particularly in the defence of truth. However, none of these considerations should prevent us from subjecting what he wrote to the test of Scripture. Mike’s ultimate concern was God’s truth. If he departed from it then he would certainly have wanted that departure to be corrected.
Your Will Be Done takes its name from Jesus’ words in Gethsemane and these are a particular focus of the book. It deals extensively with patristic (early church) debates about the nature of Christ and also with the New Testament witness. It has a particular emphasis on John’s gospel and the prayer in Gethsemane recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It amounts to a vigorous defence of the view that the divine will of the Son is eternally subordinate to the will of God the Father. In order to evaluate the truth of this claim we will first look at the teaching of Scripture. We will then see whether it is consistent with the early creeds and the Protestant confessions.
New Testament Witness
John’s gospel starts with the strongest affirmation of the deity of the Son – ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ Jn. 1:1. This clearly identifies Jesus with the creator Elohim of Genesis 1. Jesus is God and yet is born a man (Jn. 1:14). He is the predicted Christ or Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. We have already seen that both the Old and New Testament teach that the second person of the Trinity is fully God and fully man. However, Jesus makes a number of statements in John’s gospel which require careful explanation.
The first of these is John 5:19-30. In John 5:30 Jesus says ‘I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent me.’ Does this mean that he and his Father have different wills? And does the fact that the Father sent Jesus mean that Jesus is subordinate to his Father?
In respect of the issue of will this must be a reference to Jesus’ incarnate human will. Jesus is incarnate and speaks as the second Adam. He obeys on our behalf as Adam did not. And he resists temptation as Adam did not. This is precisely why the human obedience of Christ is so important. His human will differs from the divine will, and can be tempted – but never yields to temptation. This is why he is our perfect redeemer and the head of a new, redeemed humanity. His perfect obedience is imputed to all who repent and believe. In respect of the sending this is part of Jesus’ role in the covenant of redemption which has no implications for the issue of will. In eternity there was an agreement between the three members of the Trinity to redeem fallen mankind. This was an expression of the one divine will, but the functions of the different persons of the Trinity differ in this covenant. The Father wills to send. But the Son wills to be sent. This is not an example of the divine Son’s submission of will to the Father. Rather it is an example of the Son’s assumption of a role necessitated by the divine agreement.
In John 6:38 Jesus says ‘For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me’. The explanation of this verse must be similar to that for 5:30. Jesus came down from heaven as part of the covenant of redemption. The plan of the covenant is that he as a man willingly obey the will of his heavenly Father. The obedience relates to Jesus’ will as a man.
John 14:28 – ‘I am going to my Father, for my Father is greater than I’. Here Jesus is undoubtedly speaking about himself in his state of humiliation as a man. Although it is possible to see this as in some sense a reference to the order of the Trinity – the Father begets, while the Son is begotten – it does not in any sense suggest that the Son is less God than God the Father.
The three passages in the synoptic Gospels that describe Jesus’ prayer in the garden at Gethsemane are central to the argument of Your Will Be Done. The title is a quotation from Matthew 26:42 – ‘O my Father, if this cup cannot pass away from me unless I drink it, your will be done.’ The three passages are Matthew 26:39-46, Mark 14:32-42 and Luke 22:39-46. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is not recorded in John’s gospel. In all three synoptic accounts Jesus says ‘not as I will, but as you will’ Mt. 26:29 – also in Lk. 22:42 and Mk. 14:36. How are we to understand this statement? Is it reflective of a difference of will within the Godhead?
The answer to this question must be no. Jesus in Gethsemane is speaking as a man who recoils at the thought of his own death. The Son, as man, is speaking to God his Father and asking to be spared from death. It is equally true that, as a man, Jesus willed to die and to obey the will of his heavenly Father. Both the request to be spared death and the resolution to endure death come from Jesus the man. The will of which Jesus speaks in Mt. 26:39 is his human will of inclination. He does not want to suffer death. But it is equally important to remember that, ultimately Jesus willed to die. This is not an example of Jesus’ divine will prevailing over his human will. This is a wonderful example of Jesus’ human will acting in conformity with the will of God. This is why Jesus can be the second Adam. He perfectly fulfilled on our behalf all the requirements of God’s law. He also, willingly, endured the punishment of God’s law. The punishment was death. And he endured death in our stead. Let us be thankful for that great truth.
There is no sense in which the passages speaking of Jesus’ will can or should be referred to his divine will. As God, he has the same nature or substance as his Father. He therefore has the same will as his Father. If one suggests that Jesus has a different will to God the Father one is suggesting either that he is not of the same substance as God the Father or that he is a lesser God. Both are grievous errors.
Early Church Debates
Before we conclude it is necessary to consider the creeds of the early church. These creeds are the product of debates about the person of Christ. They sought to answer the scriptural question ‘What think ye of Christ?’ Mt. 22:42. As conservative Protestants we rightly regard Scripture as our supreme authority. But we also recognise the wisdom of Christians of the past and we can see that God in his providence led the early church into a correct understanding of who Jesus was. We can and should accept the early creedal statements as an expression of Scriptural orthodoxy. The most important of these are the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon. There is also one much later creed, from the third council of Constantinople in 681, which is very important for us to consider.
The Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles but is an early creed which affirms the basic New Testament teaching about Jesus. The Nicene Creed of 325 AD was expanded in Constantinople in 381 and is a much fuller statement of the biblical teaching about Jesus. It was formulated in response to the teachings of an early heretic, Arius (256-336) who taught that Jesus was not of the same substance or being as God the Father. He also taught that Jesus was created. That is to say that Jesus was not eternal. Jesus therefore was not truly God. The denial of Jesus full divinity has ever since been known as Arianism. This is a fatal error and anyone who believes it cannot be a true Christian. Nicaea affirms that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of the Father. He is also fully and eternally God.
The Athanasian Creed is a Latin creed named after the great Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (296-373) who was a zealous opponent of Arianism. Athanasius did not write the creed but it accurately reflects his thought. Christ is fully man and fully God. But within the Trinity every person is equally God and, in respect of his divinity, no person can claim precedence.
The creed of Chalcedon (451) is the fullest statement of the early church about the person of Christ and is rightly regarded as the benchmark of Christological orthodoxy. It affirmed that Jesus was one person (hypostasis) in whom two natures were fully united. The Greek word for person is hypostasis and the phrase hypostatic union means no more than the personal union of two natures – human and divine. Both natures retain all their attributes in this union and therefore Jesus is fully man and also fully God. Chalcedon not only repudiated Arianism but also Apollinarianism, Eutychianism and Nestorianism. Apollinaris (died 390) taught that Jesus had an incomplete human nature. Eutyches (380-456) taught that Jesus has only one nature which was a blend of human and divine. Nestorianism, from Nestorius (386-450), taught that the two natures were so utterly distinct as to constitute two persons. All of these heresies crop up periodically in the history of the Church and Chalcedon is a vital bulwark against them.
The last creed is from the third Council of Constantinople (681). This council affirmed that Christ has two complete natures and that therefore he has two wills. This position is known as dyothelitism. Its opposite is monothelitism, which says that Christ only has one will. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) was the great defender of dyothelitism and suffered terribly for taking a stand for this vital Scripture truth. He had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off by monothelites and died of his wounds shortly afterwards. But his views prevailed in Constantinople not long after his death. There can be no question that if we affirm, as Scripture teaches, that Christ has two complete natures then he must have two wills. Otherwise one or the other of his natures would be incomplete.
The Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries affirm the teaching of the early church in respect of Christ. The articles of the Church of England require belief in the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds – Article 8. The Second Helvetic Creed of 1566, drafted by Bullinger, has a full statement of the Trinity and of Jesus’ full humanity and divinity. The Westminster Confession also clearly affirms the teaching of Chalcedon. Protestantism therefore affirms that Jesus has two wills in two complete natures. And if the will of one person of the Trinity is subject to that of another then they cannot have the same nature.
Your Will Be Done does not make out its case for the eternal submission or subordination of the Son to the Father. The New Testament does not teach that Jesus’ divine will differs from that of God the Father. But it does teach that his human will obeyed the will of God the Father. This is a vital truth. Mike Ovey was accused of Arianism and that is not strictly true. Mike affirmed that Jesus was eternally God. And Mike certainly did not suggest that Jesus was a created being. However, in suggesting that there is a difference of will between the Father and the Son and that the Son eternally submits his will to that of his Father Mike is going against the testimony of Scripture. Mike affirms in his book that Jesus has two natural wills and he suggests that the difference of will in Mt. 26:39 is the difference of the personal wills of Father and Son. But a person can only act in accordance with his nature. If, in Mike’s view, the human and divine wills in Christ are in agreement and Jesus’ personal will differs from that of his Father, then Jesus’ human and divine will both differ from that of God the Father. There is then no single divine will. That means that, as we have already said, that either Jesus does not have the same nature as his Father so that he is another, separate, God (tritheism), or that his nature is different and inferior. This would make Jesus a lesser God. While this is not full blown Arianism it tends dangerously in that direction. Both positions are grievous errors. The eternal submission of the Son is not taught by Scripture. It undermines the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not faithful to the early creeds or the Protestant confessions. If we wish to preserve the gospel and sound doctrine we should reject it.
Of Further Interest
We remarked in an earlier article that contemporary evangelical theology has, to a significant extent, affirmed a view known as the eternal subordination or submission of the Son. This is sometimes abbreviated to the acronym ESS or alternatively, EFS, the eternal functional subordination of the Son. We previously looked at the teaching of Scripture in […]
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