Does the Son Submit to the Father from Eternity?

*updates below, including new quote from Warfield.

My last post  got me embroiled in a bit of a controversy that’s been brewing regarding the idea of authority and submission within the Trinity, though I was planning these articles on authority before I knew this was happening.  There are some that are asserting that such an idea is contrary to Trinitarian orthodoxy, but I just don’t see it.  So I thought I would share some quotes regarding this matter from several well-regarded theologians, followed by some Biblical passages and some analysis of my own.

“There are numerous passages in the Scriptures which clearly prove that our Lord is called Son, not merely because He is the image of God, or because He is the object of peculiar affection, nor because of his miraculous conception only; nor because of his exaltation, but because of the eternal relation which He sustains to the First Person of the Trinity…”

“The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity.  They assert the distinct personally of the Father, Son, and Spirit; their mutual relation as expressed by those terms; their absolute unity as to substance or essence, and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 462

(Note- subordination as to the mode of operation.  That speaks of authority- it has to do with the way the Trinity works, not just the order of subsistence.)

“The distinction of the persons may be principally observed in two things: (1) within (intus), in the persons themselves; (2) without (foris) in their operations.  First, as to the persons, with respect to order, because the Father is proposed in Scripture as the first person, who is from no one; the Son as the second, who is from the Father; and the Holy Spirit as the third who is from the Father and the Son.  With respect to that order a certain preeminence (hyperoche) is attributed by theologians to the Father, not indeed as to essence and deity (because the persons being consubstantial [homoousioi] the highest equality exists among them), but as to mode (both in subsisting and in working):  In subsisting, because both as to order and as to origin, he precedes the Son and the Holy Spirit(as having no principle either of order or of origin, but existing from himself– not positively, but negatively)…. In working (operando), because the order of operating follows the mode of subsisting.  Hence the Father operates from himself, but the Son from the Father.”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, p. 280-281

(So Turretin asserts that there is a pre-eminence that the Father possesses, not just with regard to subsistence, but also in their work.  The Father operates first and from Himself, the Son from the Father, and this is part of the eternal relation, not limited just to some particular work.)

“For it is the Father who works through the Son, and the Son works on behalf of His Father (John 5:19)”

Wilhelmus A Brakel, “The Christian’s Reasonable Service,” p. 143.  A Brakel here is speaking of the nature of the Trinity, and the relations between the persons.  Clearly he ascribes a primacy of operation to the Father, and a secondary (or subordinate) role to the Son.

“The name “God,” ascribed to the Father in particular, means that in the divine economy he is first.  It is an official title, as it were, a designation of his rank and position, just as among humans, all of whom participate in the same nature, there are nevertheless distinctions of social standing and honor.”

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 273

So these all assert an order within the persons of the Trinity, not just in their mode of subsistence, but in their works and operations as well.  So the Father has primacy, and works through the Son and Spirit.

Edit: More from Bavinck, added, 9/12/2016

“Nevertheless, this doctrine of the pact of salvation, despite its defective form, is rooted in a scriptural idea. For as Mediator, the Son is subordinate to the Father, calls him his God (Ps. 22:2; John 20:17), is his servant (Isa. 49f) who has been assigned a task (Isa. 53:10; John 6:38-40; 10:18; 12:49; 14:31; 17:4) and who receives a reward (Ps. 2:8; Isa. 53:10; John 17:4, 11, 17, 24; Eph. 1:20f; Phil. 2:9f.) for the obedience accomplished (Matt. 26:42; John 3:34; 15:10; 17:4-5; 19:30). Still, this relation between Father and Son, though most clearly manifest during Christ’s sojourn on earth, was not first initiated at the time of the incarnation, for the incarnation itself is already included in the execution of the work assigned, to the Son, but occurs in eternity and therefore also existed already during the time of the Old Testament.”

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.3, p. 214.


There is, of course, no question that in “modes of operation,” as it is technically called — that is to say, in the functions ascribed to the several Persons of the Trinity in the redemptive process, and, more broadly, in the entire dealing of God with the world– the principle of subordination is clearly expressed.  The Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third, in the operations of God as revealed to us in general and very especially in those operations by which redemption is accomplished.  Whatever the Father does, He does through the Son by the Spirit.  The Son is sent by the Father and does His Father’s will; the Spirit is sent by the Son and does not speak from Himself, but only takes of Christ’s and shows it unto His people; and we have Our Lord’s own word for it that ‘one that is sent is not greater than he that sent him.’

B.B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, From the Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume II, p. 165.  Warfield is more uncertain whether subordination can be posited with regard to the mode of subsistence, but with regard to the mode of operation he has no question.  And this is clearly a relationship of authority. (added 6/18/2016)

This is expressed in the Scriptures in more than one place in terms of authority:

“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)

Note there, the command that Jesus received was received before the Incarnation occurred.  Therefore Jesus must have received that command as the Second Person.  In fact, it must have come from eternity, since that is when the plan of redemption was formulated.

“Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:28 NKJ)”

This speaks of the Son being eternally subject to the Father after the work of redemption is complete.  True, He now possesses a human nature, but he speaks of “God” (as distinct from the Son, and therefore referring to the Father) being “all in all”, meaning that the Father is now the highest and supreme.  Within the Trinity itself, the Father as the First Person has pre-eminence, and it is no slight upon the Son to submit eternally to that pre-eminence.

“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (Joh 16:13 NKJ)”

Here, the Spirit is operating with regard to what has been given to Him by the Father and the Son.  The word “authority” appears there, denying that the Spirit operates according to His own authority, but rather operates on behalf of others, clearly implying a subordination of authority.

” And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6 NKJ)”

Here, the Spirit of God is “sent” by God out into all the earth.  That implies authority, that the Father sent the Spirit.  To “send” someone is to give them direction, to give them a job to do, and for them to go do it.  The Spirit never sends the Father or the Son.


But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Gal 4:4-6 NKJ)

Both of these speak of the Father sending the Son and Spirit, in the same sense, ruling out any sense that this is referring only to Jesus’ human will or nature.  The Father is acting authoritatively here, and the other two Persons are obeying.

Many other passages speak of the Son and the Spirit being sent.  John 3:16, for example, speaks of God sending His Son into the world.  Therefore the command comes before the incarnation, for the incarnation is what is being commanded.

In God’s works, God is revealing Himself to His creation.  So from what God does we can discern what God is.  God being eternal and simple, He cannot operate contrary to His own nature, and therefore when we see the Persons operating according to a particular order, we can discern some truth about the nature of the relations between the Persons themselves.

One very legitimate concern here regards the will of God.  Does this imply three wills?  If the Father exercises authority over the Son and the Son submits, does not that imply separate wills?  It’s an understandable concern, since Trinitarian orthodoxy asserts only one will in God.  But the concern is only there if you think of this act of authority as something that needs to be negotiated between different parties, and might possibly be disobeyed.  It is not.  All three divine Persons share one nature and therefore one will, and according to this one will the order in the Trinity will be what it is, and all are perfectly united in this will, so there is no disagreement or possibility of it.

If that is a problem, then there can be no authority or submission in the Trinity outside of the Incarnation itself, and then that flatly contradicts all the passages quoted above, that speak of an authority within the Trinity outside of just the relation of the Father to the Incarnate Son.

When we recognize the authority of the Father over the Son and of both over the Spirit, and yet also acknowledge the absolute ontological equality (meaning equality of essence or being) of all three, then we see a beautiful basis of authority between human beings (made in God’s image) that need not be destructive of anyone’s worth or dignity as a human being.

Addendum:  One of the things I find interesting about this debate is how quickly some are willing to throw around the term “damnable heresy” for anyone they disagree with.  Understanding the Trinity is no small matter of course.  But it’s telling that even those who are opposed to the idea of an eternal subordination cannot agree with each other about what exactly the right answer is.  Some have said that there is a subordination, but only within the economic Trinity which they extend not to the eternal relationships between the Persons, but only their working in history.  Some limit the subordination only to the working of the Trinity in redemption.  Some limit it only to the incarnation.  And that’s all fine, except I think you should be a lot slower to call other people heretics when it’s clear this is a question there is a lot of debate about, and the church has never had (contrary to the claims of some) just one answer on this.  Read any systematic carefully and you’ll see the breadth of discussion on the subject.  That doesn’t mean there are no minimums, but that within those minimums there are a lot of questions.  The creeds and confessions lay out the minimums, but given that, there are still a lot of questions, as the diversity in the systematics easily demonstrate.  Calvin really emphasizes the ontological equality of the Trinity, while Hodge expresses a stronger position on the economic subordination.  But this doesn’t mean they contradict each other, and it doesn’t mean one of them is definitely a heretic.  It means it’s a big complex subject with a lot of mystery and a lot of questions we’re still asking.  A little bit of humility goes a long way in these discussions.  And remember, everyone, you’ll be judged by the same measure you use against others.

If you limit the subordination to the work of the Trinity in history, then my question would be, doesn’t God reveal Himself in His works?  The church has always held that what God is is seen in what He does.  So if He operates according to a particular order, and that order involves authority and submission, is it really wise to insist that God’s acts in history reveal nothing at all about the internal relations of the Trinity?  Seems to me that if God is revealing Himself, then we should be listening.  If we see the same order operate in both God’s work of creation and redemption, and we see a certain subordination operating within those works, then I don’t think it’s totally out of line to see in that something about the internal relations of the Trinity which have existed from eternity.  When that order we see in God’s works corresponds exactly with the order of subsistence (the Father first, of Himself; the Son second, being eternally generated from the Father; the Spirit third, proceeding eternally from both the Father and the Son), then that’s a lot of data pointing to something fundamental about the Trinity, and not something God just arbitrarily decided to do later.  In fact, God cannot deny Himself; He cannot be other than what He is.  So if He acts in history according to a particular order, how can that be contrary to what He is?  (And frankly, if all we can confidently say is that God always ACTS according to this order of subordination, but that says nothing about what He IS, I don’t know how different that is, since we’re still going to be driven by what we know about God.  If all we know is how He acts, then that’s what we’re going to be driven by, even if we think the “IS” is essentially unknowable.

If you limit the subordination to just the works of redemption, then in addition to the questions asked in the previous paragraph, I’d also ask, what do you do with the discussions of creation in Genesis 1, Proverbs 8, John 1, and Colossians 1, all of which speak of the Second Person and / or the Third Person being involved in the creation, not in a primary sense but in an instrumental sense (through / by Him)?

If you limit it just to the incarnation, when did Christ receive the command to lay down His life, as He says in John 10?  He came to earth for that purpose.  Did He not receive the command long before?  Wasn’t the plan of salvation conceived in eternity?  And what about the fact that the Father sends not only the Son but the Spirit as well, and that the Son exercises authority over the Spirit, though the Spirit was never incarnated?  If the incarnation alone makes it OK for the Second Person to be subordinate to the First, isn’t that the Kenotic Heresy, that Christ emptied Himself of His divine attributes when He was incarnated?  Otherwise, how do you avoid the issue?  It’s not the human nature of Christ which is subordinated to the Father.  It’s the person, and both natures are united in the person.  So you still have the problem.

In order to show that an eternal subordination within the relationships constitutes a subordination in the essence, one has to show that authority in a relationship is tied to a superior essence, and this is what I think cannot be done.

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