This is kind of a part II on the subject of authority (part I). Specifically, we have a perfect model for us in our understanding of authority within the Trinity itself.
Christian thinkers since the very early church have asserted the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is One in Three and Three in One. He is One in a sense and Three in a different sense. We cannot understand this, in the sense of getting our heads all the way around it. But we can assert what the Scriptures assert. God is One in the sense of His essence or being. There is but one God. But this one God eternally subsists in three Persons, three centers of consciousness. We know that the Son is aware that He is not the Father, and the Father knows that He is not the Son. They are distinct. They are all equally God, equally in possession of the single divine Essence. They are all equally powerful, knowledgeable, everywhere present and perfect in every sense.
But there is distinction of the Persons. They are aware of one another and that they are not each other. And there is also distinctions among them as to their works and acts. The Trinity always does what it does as a perfect Unity, but the Persons of the Trinity engage in the work of God in distinct ways.
The three Persons are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Scriptures teach us that the Son was begotten of God from eternity, and that the Spirit (which word in Hebrew and Greek means “breath” or “wind”) proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. That does not mean that the Father generates the essence of the Son or that either creates the essence of the Spirit. This would be tritheism. This happens on the level of the Persons, that the Person of the Son has His origin from the Person of the Father, and the Spirit from the Father and the Son. We don’t really know the difference between “generation” and “procession”, except to know that they are distinct, but these are the Biblical ideas, and so we express them that way.
We refer to the way the Trinity operates as the “economic” Trinity. And here, there is an order in the way the Trinity works that always holds, that corresponds to the order of the Persons. In all the works of the Trinity, the Father is always first, the Son second, the Spirit third. The Father decrees and disposes, the Son accomplishes and communicates the power and truth of the Father to creation, and the Spirit implements and applies that work on the level of the particular. In salvation, the Father decrees the method and the subjects of salvation. The Son achieves that salvation. The Spirit applies that salvation to the world. We see this in creation as well, that the Father decrees creation and then communicates it to creation by means of His Word, another name for the Second Person. The Wisdom of God is said to be a “master craftsman” in Proverbs 8, a passage widely recognized as referring to the Second Person, and John 1 asserts that all things were created by the Father through the Son. In Genesis 1 we see the Spirit hovering over creation, as if ready to implement the commands of the Father, and in Psalm 104:30 it is the Spirit of God which goes forth and achieves creation. So this order of the First, Second, and Third echoes throughout all of God’s work.
Therefore, while the Three Persons are absolutely equal as to their ontology or being, there is a certain subordination as to their works. The Son is under the authority of the Father, and the Spirit is under the authority of both, and this is true from eternity, as it is a function of the relationship between the Persons. The subordination has nothing to do with ontology, and therefore the subordination is voluntary, according to the one will of God. The Son voluntarily and joyfully submits to the primacy of the Father in all things.
This provides for us a beautiful model of the way human authority works at its best. As we asserted in the previous article, authority between humans is never a matter of ontology, that is to say that one is superior to the other. Rather, it flows from the role or function. The civil magistrate has a job to do and requires authority to do it. This does not imply his superiority over anyone else, except in relation to the performance of this function. That is an aspect of his person, not of his nature. We can therefore voluntarily submit to the authority of others in their proper spheres without that demeaning us in any way. Jesus constantly holds Himself up as the model in this. He voluntarily submits to His Father. In John 10, for example, He says:
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.
No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” (Joh 10:17-18 NKJ)
This cannot merely be referring to Him as an incarnate man, since He became incarnate for the very purpose of fulfilling this command. It was therefore received before the incarnation, indeed from eternity, since it was from eternity that the plan of salvation was conceived.
Paul likewise calls us to emulate the example of Christ, who was the perfect servant of the Father, in Philippians 2.
When feminists today reject the authority of the husband over his wife, they do so on the basis of a pagan worldview, that authority flows from ontology. They believe that for one to have authority over another, one must be superior to another. But sadly, in doing so, they fall into the pit which they have dug themselves, for they cannot eliminate authority just by wishing it did not exist. Men will always be stronger and more aggressive than women on average, and will therefore usually hold power in society. This has always been the case. But if authority equals ontology, then men are superior to women, since men will always hold the preponderance of authority. It cannot be otherwise; it is written into our nature. But authority on the basis of ontological superiority will always be tyrannical, since it is limited only by the superiority of one over the other; in other words, if I am able to exercise authority over another, and they are unable to resist me, that proves my superior power, and therefore proves the rightness of my authority. A man can exercise any authority over a dog that he wishes. Other people may say he is cruel, but the dog has no real ability to protest. Likewise, man does not voluntarily submit to God; that submission will be compelled if the man rebels, regardless of what the man wants. But ontological equals submit voluntarily.
The Christian model is so superior, that authority implies no ontological superiority, and therefore I can submit to those in authority over me without denigrating my own nature in the process. Further, the authority between equals is necessarily limited to the roles occupied, and is never absolute. This is the great joy of the Christian model, and is seen in the fact that the Epistles call on wives to voluntarily submit to their husbands. In pagan philosophies, such as Aristotle, women are not regarded as capable moral actors, and therefore the man is exhorted simply to force her to submit. The Christian model, while recognizing the existence of order in society, just as there is order in the Trinity, nonetheless recognizes the full equality of every human being ontologically.