A Case of Accidental Heterodoxy?

Has the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally submitted himself to the Father? This question identifies the central issue in a contemporary Trinitarian debate. This debate publicly took off in the blogosphere in the summer of 2016. The issues at hand are deeply complex and pertain to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, revealed to us in the word of God. The issues at hand are being argued by some of the most heavyweight minds on the block. To understand the debate and its importance takes serious mental work. Potentially in light of this, a noticeable response to the debate around this question was one of dismissiveness, or apathy. Such a response is inappropriate. We all believe something about the Trinity. Are our beliefs in accordance with Scripture? All teachers of the Bible will teach something about the Trinity. Is what we teach conformed to the Biblical witness? Are we believing and teaching truth or error? This debate matters. So herein I will argue that no, the Son of God has not eternally submitted himself to the Father. To argue this position effectively, my aim is to fairly present the positions of both sides of the debate, first the affirmative, then the negative. Upon attempting to make both positions plain, I will put forward why I am convinced of the latter, as well as answer an objection to my position.

The Affirmative

Vocal proponents of the affirmative in the debate that took off last summer, holding that the Son has eternally submitted himself to the Father, include beloved professors at Southern Baptist seminaries, like Bruce Ware, authors and leaders of well-known evangelical institutions, like Owen Strachan, former President of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and the author of what seems to be the systematic theology of choice among young Calvinists, Wayne Grudem. These men love Christ and his church. In the rest of this paper, I will refer to their position as ESS, eternal submission of the Son, for the sake of simplicity (pun absolutely intended).

Much of the ESS Trinitarian formulation is universally agreed upon in orthodox Christianity. The Grudem Gang affirms that there is only one God, and that this one God has eternally existed as three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Grudem defines the Trinity in his Systematic Theology thusly, “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.”[1] Proponents of ESS self-consciously affirm that there is only one God, that there are three Persons in the Godhead, and that each Person is fully God, not in any way less than God, even if only infinitesimally.

The point of contention arises in how proponents of ESS understand and formulate the distinctiveness of the Persons in the Godhead. ESS locates the distinction of Persons in eternal relationships and roles. So Grudem writes,

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 a 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.[2]

In this helpfully clear quote, Grudem asserts that Christians must affirm the existence of three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for all eternity. This is agreed upon by all parties in the debate. He then argues that the only way for three Persons to exist distinctly for eternity is eternal difference in relating. ESS holds that the Father’s fatherhood is in his authority over the Son and the Spirit, that the Son’s sonship is in his submission to the Father, that the Spirit’s Third Person-ness is in his submission to Father and Son. Grudem is as clear as to say that unless one affirms this eternal submission and authority one cannot hold “a true doctrine of the Trinity.” Elsewhere he writes in reiteration,

But what kind of eternal Father-Son relationship is this? That is the point of difference. Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan and I have understood it in terms of the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son within their relationship…That seems to us to best account for the very names “Father” and “Son” as they would certainly have been understood in the ancient world, and also to best account for multiple passages of Scripture that show a consistent pattern.[3]

In making the argument of eternal submission, The Grudem Gang conceives of the will as a property of personhood, thereby allowing for three wills within the Godhead for all eternity, without self-consciously affirming tri-theism.

The Negative

If I limit my identification of the negative camp, those who argue contra-ESS, that the Son has not eternally submitted to the Father, that there is not a multiplicity of wills within the Godhead, to last summer’s debaters, then they can primarily be listed as Liam Goligher, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and Mark Jones, pastor of Faith Reformed Presbyterian Church in Vancouver. Kevin DeYoung made a belated, yet noteworthy, addition to the negative side with his brief engagement on the matter at The Gospel Coalition website, wherein he examined the Reformed tradition’s understanding of eternal, intra-Trinitarian Personal distinctions.[4]

The primary thesis of the negative side is that ESS is a departure from the testimony of Scripture as stated in the Nicene Creed, and that, therefore, it is a denial of Trinitarian orthodoxy. To establish this thesis, they do not need to prove intent, but simply outcome.

The Nicene Creed states,

I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.

This Nicene position is stated in the Athanasian Creed as follows,

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is: such is the Son: and such is the Holy Spirit…The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created: but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten: but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers: one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after another: none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.

By arguing that the Son has eternally submitted to the Father, the Goligher Gang states that ESS introduces more than one will in the Godhead, and therefore more than one nature, as will is not of person but of nature. In so doing, they contend that ESS denies the singularity, the simplicity, of God’s essence, that he is one in being, in eternality, in power, and in glory. Mark Jones writes,

The orthodox view of God’s will insists that God has one ad intra will. All three persons share the same will: “The will of the Father and the Son is one, and their operation is inseparable” (Augustine). There are not three wills in God but one will because God is one (una essentia). That is to say, the will of God is identical with the divine essence. If there is more than one ad intra necessary will then there is more than one divine essence.[5]

How then does the Goligher Gang distinguish the Persons of the Trinity, in light of the ESS claim that the only way to do so is by recognizing eternal relationships of authority and submission? The distinction of Persons comes in the modes of origin. The Father is unbegotten. The Son is eternally begotten, eternally generated, of the Father. The Spirit eternally proceeds, or spirates, from Father and Son. The Father is eternally Father as he is eternally unbegotten, the Son eternally Son as he is eternally begotten, and the Spirit eternally Spirit as he is eternally proceeding. And so in these modes of origin we find the distinct Personal properties of the Trinity, Personal properties that do not include differences of will or authority.

A Hobbit’s Take

I contend that the Son has not eternally submitted to the Father. As is obvious, I am contending for my rightness and the wrongness of the Grudem Gang, and that its wrongness is very bad. Yet I do so recognizing that the men in the ESS camp with whose writing I am acquainted, specifically Grudem, Ware, and Strachan, are better men than me. My arguing against them, convinced of the veracity of my position, is experientially like a hobbit arguing against lords of men and elven kings, like a muggle against wizards. My head is low, but my feet are firmly planted. I stand with the Goligher Gang in its articulation of Nicene orthodoxy. Primarily because of the newness of ESS, it is possible to establish why one holds to a traditional, Nicene Trinitarian view by levying criticism against the main arguments put forward by ESS proponents as they attempt to establish their position as legitimate. My critique of the Grudem Gang can be organized in the areas of hermeneutic methodology, ad intra modes of origin vs. ad intra relational authority structures, and the connection of complementarian truths with Trinitarian truths.

The Grudem Gang is exemplary in its concern to establish all its beliefs according to the word of God. These men are Biblicists, a word I use without any pejorative intent. Protestants stand on the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. This in no way guarantees our correctness, made plain by the persistent existence of Presbyterians and Anglicans, but it is the correct posture of the creature under God. I take no umbrage with where the ESS men are looking, but rather with how they are looking, their hermeneutic methodology. ESS seeks to establish its claims regarding necessary truths and distinctives of the Persons of the Trinity in eternity past based upon God’s revelation of the Divine Persons’ operations in creation, providence, and salvation. But this is a blurring of what is necessary to God, God being God in himself, and what is accidental to God, what God has freely chosen to do externally in creation and redemption. Mark Jones makes this point well in writing, “We should be clear on the distinction between God’s ‘natural will’ that relates to internal (ad intra) Trinitarian relations and God’s ‘free will’ that relates to God’s ad extra works.” [6] James White, using some of the language found in ESS, helpfully warns against the hermeneutical misstep of the Grudem Gang.

Obviously, the Father, Son, and Spirit have taken different roles in creation and in redemption. Hence, we find different relationships between them in the economical Trinity as we see them working out redemption and bringing about salvation. We must be very careful to distinguish between relationships as we observe them outwardly and the eternal relationship that exists between the persons inside the triune nature of God, that is, the ontological Trinity. [7]

The methodology of the Grudem Gang becomes even more apparent when it examines Christological texts and from them makes assertions about eternal, intra-Trinitarian realities. Grudem writes,

[The Father] delegates judgment to the Son (Rev 2:27), while the Son comes into the world to do his Father’s will, not his own (John 6:38), after his ascension sits at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-35), receives from the Father the authority to pour forth the Holy Spirit in New Covenant fullness (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:33), makes intercession before the Father (Heb. 7:25), receives revelation from the Father to give to the church (Rev. 1:1), and will eternally be subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28). [8]

These passages, and others like them, are also cited by Bruce Ware in defense of ESS. But the problem with seeking to establish ESS by these passages is that to do so ignores the fact that, upon the inimitable miracle of the incarnation, the Son took to himself a complete human nature, and thus added to himself a fully human will by which he submitted to God, obeyed God, intercedes before God, etc. Philippians 2 explicitly teaches that in the incarnation, the Son took to himself that which he had not before, the form of a servant. In the incarnation, he took to himself that which allowed him to learn to obey. Philippians is rendered uneventful and confused if the Son submitted and obeyed always and forever. As Tony Shepherd has pointed out, to conflate truths about the transcendence and the immanence of the Son of God in explicitly Christological texts is to set yourself up for false conclusions about God.

Though ESS proponents self-consciously, publicly affirm the Nicene Creed, and do so by identifying the will as a property of personhood, such a step is not possible. It is a false step, even if not malicious. Will is not a property of personhood, but a property of nature. It is nonsense to say, “I am will/I am a will.” It is plain speech to say, “I have will/I have a will.” The “I”, the subject, the person, possesses a nature, has a will. Because will is of the nature, to affirm three wills in the Godhead for all eternity is to affirm three natures, and thus tritheism, even if such an affirmation is made without a consistent journey to its conclusions. This is a dramatic enough point as to render ESS incapable of residing within the bounds of the Nicene Creed, which states the catholic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity. This is understood by a student of Ware, Kyle Claunch, writing in a Ware-edited book, One God in Three Persons, “In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills.  This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it” (emphasis mine).[9] While Dr. Al Mohler very clearly refused to label Bruce Ware and others as heterodox, he stated plainly that, “Affirming separate wills within the Trinity would be heresy…”[10] This is exactly what Claunch, with the editorial approval of Ware, claims ESS does.

Not only does the hermeneutic methodology of ESS present crucial problems, it also misidentifies wherein the ad intra distinctiveness of Persons lies, namely, in the modes of origin. This seems to have been given space by D.A. Carson’s influential book, Exegetical Fallacies, in which he successfully persuaded many evangelicals that the meaning of μονογενής is “only and unique”, not “only begotten”, the traditional and creedal label.[11] Without eternal generation being the key to understanding the Personal distinction of Father and Son for all eternity, there was a need to mark this distinctiveness somewhere, which is why Grudem goes as far as to say that without eternal submission of the Son there is no eternal Sonship. Lee Irons has effectively countered Carson’s exegesis with recent research demonstrating the appropriateness of understanding μονογενής to mean “only begotten”, identifying how the Son is eternally distinguished from the Father. Irons’ work is presented briefly with clarity on The Gospel Coalition website. His concluding sentence puts forward the importance of his work. “We have good reason to restore one of the bricks in the wall of scriptural support for the belief that the Son is begotten of the Father, as the church fathers taught and as the church confesses in the Nicene Creed.” [12] In short, Irons’ work helps restore Biblical confidence in the doctrine of eternal generation, a doctrine key to the Nicene statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and undermines the legitimacy of Grudem’s claim that ESS is necessary for Biblical Trinitarianism.

Finally, while I think it unhelpful to charge the Grudem Gang with intentionally innovating teaching on the Trinity to aid their admirable defense of complementarianism, it is only fair to recognize that when we immerse ourselves in thinking about and teaching on a subject, that subject is likely to flavor how we read other parts of the Bible. So if I regularly, and rightly, beat the complementarian drum, that men and women are of equal value, each naturally and fully made in the image of God, and have distinct roles in their relationships with one another, it should not be a surprise if I mistakenly read 1 Corinthians 11:3 to teach the same dynamic between the Father and Son for all eternity. This is precisely the ditch Strachan has fallen into. “It is entirely natural to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 and come away assuming that it maps the Father-Son relationship in all stages (while recognizing that the full display of this dynamic came when the Son took on flesh).”[13] What Strachan misses is the obvious, that 1 Corinthians 11:3 is a Christological verse, stating a truth about the incarnate Son, when the Son of God has two wills, and a human will by which he can submit and obey. Nowhere in Scripture does God establish the rightness and sensibility of complementarianism by the eternal, ad intra truths about the Trinity. Neither should we.

Grudem puts forward an objection to my position that is worthy of answer. He argues that throughout the Reformed tradition there have been theologians who have affirmed ESS. Grudem seeks to establish this claim by quoting men like Charles Hodge and A.H. Strong.[14] The problem with his argument is that he misunderstands the men he quotes, reading his new position into their old affirmations. Kevin DeYoung responds well to this line of Grudem’s argument.

Hodge clearly limits his use of “subordination” to the mode of subsistence and operation. The word does not imply authority for Hodge, but simply a sub-ordering (i.e., an ordering under) in which the Father is the first person of the Trinity, the Son the second, and the Spirit the third…They all argue for a certain order in the Trinity related to personal properties ad intra and operations toward the world ad extra. None of them equates order (or sub-order) with roles of authority and submission.”[15]

In no way do I think Grudem cites Hodge and others in an ill-motivated effort. It seems he has honestly misread them. His position does not have historical standing in the Reformed Christian tradition, from which the Baptist denominational identity has grown.


[1] Grudem, Wayne A. (2009-05-18). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (p. 226). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2] Grudem, Wayne A. (2009-05-18). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (p. 251). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] “Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father,” Reformation21 Blog, accessed April 14, 2017, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/06/another-thirteen-evangelical-t.php.

[4] Yes, most of the outspoken “negative” men of the summer are Presbyterians. Yes, all the above-mentioned, prominent ESS men are Baptists. Do all Baptists affirm ESS? No. Thank you James White. Were Baptists more hesitant to outspokenly join the debate contra-ESS because of how many of their friends hold to it? Maybe. Al Mohler is a Baptist of note who denies ESS without the firm implications drawn by Jones, Goligher, et al.

[5] “Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!,” New City Times, accessed April 9, 2017, https://newcitytimes.com//news/story/eternal-subordination-of-wills-nein.

[6] “God’s Will And Eternal Submission,” New City Times, accessed April 14, 2017, https://newcitytimes.com//news/story/gods-will-and-eternal-submission-part-one.

[7] White, James R. (1998-11-01). The Forgotten Trinity (Kindle Locations 2531-2534). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] “Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father,” Reformation21 Blog, accessed April 14, 2017, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/06/another-thirteen-evangelical-t.php.

[9] “A Reply to Dr. Mohler on Nicene Trinitarianism,” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, accessed April 9, 2017, http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/postcards-from-palookaville/a-reply-to-dr-mohler-on-nicene-trinitarianism.

[10] “Heresy and Humility – Lessons from a Current Controversy,” AlbertMohler.com, June 28, 2016, http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/06/28/heresy/.

[11] Carson, D. A. (1996-03-01). Exegetical Fallacies (p. 30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[12] TGC-The Gospel Coalition, “TGC – The Gospel Coalition,” TGC – The Gospel Coalition, accessed April 9, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-go-back-to-only-begotten.

[13] Owen Strachan, “The Glorious Godhead and Proto-Arian Bulls,” Thought Life, June 13, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2016/06/the-glorious-godhead-and-proto-arian-bulls/.

[14] “Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father,” Reformation21 Blog, accessed April 11, 2017, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/06/another-thirteen-evangelical-t.php.

[15] “Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within the Reformed Tradition,” Kevin DeYoung, accessed April 14, 2017, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2016/09/27/distinguishing-among-the-three-persons-of-the-trinity-within-the-reformed-tradition/.


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