The Coequal Godhead of the Father and the Son
Contemporary evangelical theology has recently, to varying degrees, affirmed a view known as subordinationism. This is the view that, within the Godhead itself, the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. It is the purpose of this article to look at what Scripture tells us about the relationship within the Godhead between the Father and the Son. In a subsequent article we will consider whether the subordinationist views expressed by some evangelical theologians are consistent with Scripture, the early creeds and the Protestant confessions. We will argue that they are not, and that they represent a serious departure from Scriptural orthodoxy. But first and foremost we need to consider what the Bible, God’s inspired word, says about the issue.
The Old Testament
First we will look at the Old Testament teaching in respect of the Godhead, with a particular emphasis on the first and second persons of the Trinity.
The theological term Trinity was coined by the second century church father Tertullian (c.155 – 240 AD). The word Trinity is not found in either the Old Testament or the New. It is a translation of the Latin word trinitas meaning three or a triad. However, the doctrine that God is one being in three persons is evident throughout the Bible, including the Old Testament. Genesis 1:1 starts with the famous words ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. This is echoed by the apostle John in the opening of his gospel – ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Here John is speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ and clearly identifies Jesus with the God of Genesis chapter one. It is interesting to note that the word translated God in the opening of Genesis is Elohim, the plural of the Hebrew word for God. The singular noun is Eloah. Interestingly, the plural noun is used with a singular verb – ‘created’. This is observed throughout the Old Testament revelation and is a clear indication that the Godhead is singular as well as plural. The great and godly Congregationalist theologian Dr John Pye Smith comments in his work The Scripture Testimony to the Messiah –
This plural appellative (Elohim) is generally put in agreement with singular verbs, pronouns and adjectives as in Gen 1:1 – Elohim created – ‘creavit Dii’. This is the ordinary construction through the whole Hebrew Bible. But sometimes the apposition is made with verbs, pronouns and adjectives in the plural number likewise, and sometimes singulars and plurals are put together in the same agreement.
It is also noteworthy that although the plural noun is the usual Hebrew usage, the singular noun, Eloah, is also frequently used – Deut. 32:15 ‘He forsook God which made him’. The book of Job uses Eloah extensively as the word for God. Dr Pye-Smith observes – ‘The fact which principally requires our attention, is the constant use of Elohim to designate the one and only God. It is not a little remarkable that, in the sacred books of a people who were separated from all other nations for this express object, viz. that they should bear a public and continual protest against polytheism – the ordinary name … of the only living and true God should be in a plural form.’ Moses, in writing Genesis, is deliberately ungrammatical in his use of language in order to draw our attention to a vital truth – God is three in one, both plural and singular.
The Holy Spirit is also explicitly mentioned – ‘the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ Gen. 1:2. We further find in Genesis 3 the account of the Lord (Jehovah – Gen. 3:8) walking in the garden and speaking to Adam. We are told in Exodus 33:20 ‘there shall no man see me and live’. Yet here Adam and Eve see God and speak to him. And he has a body. This is clearly an instance of the preincarnate Christ. And we thus have, in the first three chapters of Genesis, the plurality and unity of the Godhead and the clear identification of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as persons of the Godhead.
It is also worth noting that in the Genesis account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah Moses describes the judgment of God in these terms – ‘Then the Lord (Jehovah) rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord (Jehovah) out of heaven’ Gen. 19:24. It is clear here that there was a Lord on earth who acts to implement the judgment of the Lord in heaven. Clearly the Lord in heaven is God the Father and the Lord on earth is God the Son. The singular word Jehovah is used to refer to two distinct members of the Trinity while Elohim is used to describe the Godhead. It is the plural word Elohim, together with the singular noun Jehovah, which is used in the passage in Deuteronomy affirming the unity of the Godhead – Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Throughout the Old Testament we have mentions of the, somewhat mysterious, angel of the Lord. It is evident from the testimony of the whole of Scripture that this is the Lord Jesus Christ before his incarnation. The angel of the Lord encounters a series of Old Testament saints who always declare after their encounter that they have seen God. Jacob wrestles with the angel and says he has seen God – Gen 33:30. Moses speaks with the Lord ‘face to face’ Ex. 33:11. Manoah feared that he would die, saying ‘We shall surely die, because we have seen God.’ Judges 13:22. Isaiah cried, ‘Woe is me! For I am undone . . . for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’ Is. 6:5. John’s gospel tells us that Isaiah here saw Christ’s glory Jn. 12:41. Scripture here clearly interprets itself to tell us that Jesus appeared to the saints of the Old Testament before his incarnation.
We conclude then that all three persons of the Trinity appear in the Old Testament. Scripture teaches that God the Son and God the Father are one God in two distinct persons, fulfilling different roles.
The New Testament
In the New Testament, both in the Gospels and the Epistles, we get a much fuller revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is, of course, the account of the Son of God after he has taken upon himself, permanently, human flesh. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all begin with Jesus’ life and birth. John’s gospel begins with a unique theological statement which identifies Jesus with the Elohim who created the world in the first chapter of Genesis. Jesus the Word is coequal with God and co-eternal with God – Jn. 1:1. In Matthew, together with the other gospels, Jesus’ life is clearly shown to be a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in respect of the Messiah. It is particularly noteworthy that Old Testament prophecies about Jehovah are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Is. 40:3 – ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ is fulfilled in Matthew 3:3. Isaiah predicts John the Baptist’s preparatory ministry for Jesus Christ. Equally, Peter shows that Is. 8:13,14 is fulfilled in Christ – 1 Pet. 2:7,8. Christ is therefore the Lord of Hosts. Paul in Colossians says of Jesus – ‘in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ Col. 2:9. The New Testament teaches that Jesus was God. Our Lord himself teaches that he and the Father are one – Jn. 10:30. It is therefore correct to say that Jesus, as God, shares with God the Father all the attributes of Godhead.
However, this raises a problem. Jesus is both God and man. Theologians have helpfully distinguished between the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. The communicable attributes are those qualities of God which can be communicated to us human beings. Among the former are love and holiness, which are attributes which we, as human beings, can share. However, there are attributes, like omnipotence and omniscience, which are unique to God. Only God can have such attributes because he alone is God. It is not possible for a man to have such attributes. Therefore Jesus at times acts and speaks as man, because his real human nature has all the limitations of manhood. Jesus gets tired, needs to eat and sleep and indeed grows in knowledge – Lk. 2:52. None of these things can be true of Jesus as God. They are clear expressions of the reality of his manhood. The reality of Jesus’ manhood should never be used as an argument to suggest any diminution of his deity. This means that, as a man, Jesus sometimes does not know things. In Mark 5:30 he is touched by the woman who has an issue of blood and does not know who touched him. In Mark 13:32 we are told that Jesus does not know the day of his second coming. If this is taken of his Godhead it would mean either that Jesus is a lesser God, or simply not God at all! As a man Jesus is not omniscient, if he were, he would not really be a man. As God, Jesus is omniscient. If he is not omniscient, he is not God. The 19th century Anglican evangelical bishop Edward Bickersteth expresses this vital truth beautifully in his superb book on the Trinity.
Believe me we yield to none in the strength of the conviction with which we hold to the humanity of Jesus Christ. ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’. We take our stand fearlessly on this. This unlocks all those texts on which Unitarians are wont to insist, asserting the inferiority and subordination of the Son of Man to the Father. We do not hide these truths. We do not gloss them over. We do not explain them away. They are essential to our faith. As combined with the revelations of his essential Godhead, they form that inimitable grace which is our salvation. The foot of the ladder must rest on earth, as the top of it reaches to heaven.
In his life on earth Jesus shared in the limitations and weaknesses of humanity. As God, he remained the omnipotent and omniscient king of the universe. His humanity is now glorified but remains real. Let us thank God that we have a great high priest who, unlike the false God of Islam, can be ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities’ Heb. 4:15. He was a man who experienced all the difficulties of fallen manhood, yet without sin. ‘Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need’ Heb.4:16.
This leaves one final and vital text which deals with Jesus’ will. It is the passage in Luke’s gospel, also dealt with in Mark and Matthew, where our Lord prays in the garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion. He asks his Father that the cup of suffering be removed from him and says ‘not my will but thine be done’ Lk. 22:42. How are we to understand this statement? Are we to conclude that, as God, Jesus has a different will to that of his father? This is simply impossible! The decision that the Son should suffer and die for his elect people was taken ages ago in the eternal Trinitarian counsels of God – Rev. 13:8 ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’. Jesus in Gethsemane is clearly speaking as a man. As a man he draws back from the prospect of his terrible death and suffering. But, let us all thank God, he submitted his human will to the divine will of his Father in heaven and secured salvation for all his believing people. Jesus, as man, submitted to the triune will of the Godhead.
The Bible teaches that God is one being in three persons. This truth is evident throughout God’s revelation. All the persons of the Godhead are equally God and share all the attributes of Godhead. At the incarnation Jesus took upon himself real human nature with all its limitations. He was without sin but he experienced, in his human nature, the consequences of the fall. The most extreme example being his suffering and death on the cross as an atonement for our sins. The reality of the incarnation means that there are things which are true of Jesus as man which cannot be true of him as God. He has a divine will and a human will. But his divine will, which is an aspect of his being as God, can never differ from that of his Father. Jesus is equally and fully God with God the Father. As he himself said – ‘I and the Father are one.’ Jn. 10:30. As man, therefore, he is subordinate to his heavenly Father. As God, He is coequal.
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