Editor’s note: This article first appeared on the Oak Hill College blog. 

It is always awkward when someone you like and respect posts a line of argument which strongly suggests you should resign your position, as Liam Goligher has done in his two recent posts on the eternal subordination of the Son, on the Mortification of Spin site (strongly supported by some subsequent egalitarian comments and bolstered by subsequent material to similar effect). The posts are:

Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?

Reinventing God

I am going to disagree with Liam quite sharply, so let me preface my remarks by observing that I am sure Liam’s posts are motivated by a desire to honour and glorify Jesus the Son. Secondly, it is possible to mis-state the eternal subordination of the Son, as for example Arianism did. Thirdly, while committed to the eternal subordination of the Son, I share Liam’s concern about too readily reading from the eternal trinitarian relations onto human relationships.

In the complementarian gender debate, for instance, I do not think eternal subordination means that any given adult male is in a headship position with respect to any given adult female.

That said, Liam’s argument seems to me to revolve around the following propositions:

1. There is no historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son.

2. Asserting that subordination blurs the economic trinity into the eternal, immanent trinity.

3. Any subordination of the Son is by virtue of the incarnation.

4. Historic orthodoxy asserts the Father, Son and Spirit have one will, and if we say the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then we divide that will and so divide the substance or nature of God.

We need to test these propositions and will begin from scripture. Liam contends that it is orthodoxy that God’s will is to be understood as the one will of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Does this fit scripture? If Liam is right, we should be able to gloss all scriptural references to the divine will with this triune meaning. Let us take John 6:38, which reads:

‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.’ (RSV)

On Liam’s view this really amplifies to:

‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will (that is, my human will from my human nature), but the will (that is the one will of myself, my Father and the Spirit) of him who sent me.’

The difficulties here are readily apparent. The ‘will of him who sent me’ appears in the original text as a will that is distinguished from Jesus’ own will and refers specifically to the Father. This specific reference to the Father is confirmed by the context of 6:37-40, where ‘him who sent me’ is to be referred to the Father specifically (as elsewhere in John). But on Liam’s view, this specific reference to the Father’s will becomes a reference to the Son’s will as well. Instead of a reference to ‘his’ will, there is a reference to ‘our’ will.

Similar difficulties arise with the Gethsemane prayer of Mark 14:36, where references to ‘your’ will really mean on Liam’s view ‘our’ will. Put sharply, Liam’s view rewrites texts which refer specifically to the Father and to the Father’s will in distinction from the Son’s as texts which refer to God generically including the Son. This tendency is also apparent in Liam’s use of Ephesians 1, where the reference to God the Father’s plan (1:10) for his Son to be the head of all things is glossed as being the plan of the triune God. This fits very poorly with the prayer of blessing to the Father specifically in 1:3, which is the context in which the reference to the plan occurs.

Certainly Liam is right to be concerned that we do not divide God up, but two issues immediately spring to mind.

First, this risks blurring the distinctions between the persons, as ‘the Father’s will’ becomes ‘the triune God’s will’. The Athanasian Creed does indeed say we should not divide the substance: it also says we should not confound the persons.

Secondly, it risks creating a division in the person of the Son. This occurs because on Liam’s view the Gethsemane prayer means that the Son’s human will is distinguished from and says different things to his shared divine will. The term ‘Arian’ has frequently been employed to describe the eternal subordination position I and others hold. It is very tempting to note that a division within the person of the Son, where his human and divine wills will different things, is redolent of Nestorianism. Two can play at the ‘patristic pejoratives’ game.

Such a division matters soteriologically because we believe that the Son’s obedience as the new Adam is the basis for our being clothed by imputation in justification with a perfect human righteousness. But obviously one has to ask if the Son is really obedient in his humanity when he is simply carrying out what he himself wills in his deity. Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself. When another and oneself actually concur on a course of action, that action is not obedience but agreement. But there is no genuine other will on Liam’s view.

Further, we may ask why the Son’s obedience avails for more than one human person. The response of the Synod of Dort (2nd head, article 4) to the question of the infinite value of Christ’s work was that he is a person of infinite value. But one wonders whether on Liam’s view the person of the Son is not so separated from the human obedience that the appeal to the infinite value of the person of the Son is no longer possible.

Moving to the question of blurring the economic trinity and the eternal, immanent trinity, minimally passages like John 1:18 and 14:9 mean one must say that the economic trinity reveals the eternal immanent trinity and its relationships, not exhaustively, but truly. If we do not say that, then the question is what we know about God in eternity at all. Jesus strikingly links his obedience to his Father here on earth to the revelation of his, Jesus’, love for the Father (John 14:31).

This means if we ask what reveals Jesus’ love for his Father, Jesus’ answer is his obedience here on earth. To say Jesus’ love for his Father in eternity does not feature obedience risks not so much distinguishing economic from eternal trinities but of severing them from each other. After all, the point would be that what we see on earth is precisely what does not happen in eternity, even though the incarnation is allegedly a revelatory event.

A further issue occurs here as we think about John 14:31 and the revelation of Jesus’ love by his obedience. Love occurs between persons. This helps provide some of the answer to Liam’s point about Father, Son and Spirit having ‘one will’. In terms of the debate between Maximus the Confessor and the monothelites, culminating in the third council of Constantinople, the issue related to a particular definition of ‘will’.

If one thinks of ‘will’ as a faculty of nature, then in the distinction drawn between person and nature, which is the ‘grammar’ of Nicaea and Chalcedon, one must say Jesus has two wills, one for his human nature, and one for his divine nature, because he has both divine and human natures in their entirety. Similarly, if ‘will’ is an attribute of nature, then one has to say the triune God has one will since the triune God has only one nature.

However, ‘will’ can also refer to someone more as a personal agent, where my ‘will’ and ‘I’ become close to synonymous. In this sense, where ‘will’ is being taken not at the level of nature but at the level of person, one has to say Father and Son have distinguishable wills because they are distinguishable persons. Those wills are in immutable harmony, given the immutable loves between the persons, but at the personal level we have distinguishable wills, just as we have distinguishable loves; a paternal love on the Father’s part and a filial love on the Son’s part.

It is this kind of usage that is in play in passages such Mark 14:36 and John 6:38, because the distinguishable trinitarian persons are in view. This is clear from the way Jesus refers to his Father as someone other than himself, understood at the personal level.

Turning briefly to the historical question, Athanasius uses John 6:38 and Jesus doing his Father’s will precisely with regard to the relations of Father and Son outside the incarnation (he has to, because the Arians he was answering were attacking on what happened outside the incarnation between the Father and Son – Contra Arianos III.7). Both Athanasius and Augustine refute the argument that obedience necessarily entails inferiority of nature, both noting we do not say human sons who obey are of a lesser nature than their fathers. Augustine’s words especially repay attention.

But however much God the Son obeys God the Father, is the nature of a human father and a human son different, because the son obeys the father? It is something utterly intolerable on your part that you [sc. the Arian whom Augustine is answering] want to prove from the obedience of the Son a difference of nature between the Father and the Son. Moreover, it is one question whether the Father and the Son have one and the same substance; it is another question whether the Son obeys the Father. (Answer to Maximinus the Arian II, XVIII, 3. For Athanasius see Contra Arianos II.3,4)

Sons have the same nature as their fathers; humans beget humans, and when God begets he begets God. But a son also is in a relation of obedience to his father. This is so for human sons: what text of scripture – rather than a priori reasoning – tells us that God the Son would be a different kind of son? This does not mean that the Son is inferior in nature because of his obedience. Hilary of Poitiers catches the key point well. He sees the Son’s obedience as different from that of a creature.

A distinction [sc. between the Son’s subjection and that of creatures] does exist, for the subjection of the Son is filial reverence, the subjection of all other things is the weakness of things created. (De Synodis 79 – similar references to the Son’s eternal obedience occur in Hilary’s De Trinitate IX.5, IX.53, and XI.12

Accordingly, I have to conclude against Liam that:

1. There is historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son.

2. The texts of scripture require us to recognise at the level of the persons distinguishable wills of Father and Son.

3. The Son tells us in scripture that he reveals his eternal love for his Father by his obedience on earth, and this love at the level of persons includes on the Son’s part eternal obedience.

4. The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons.

5. The eternal subordination of the Son does not entail Arianism, because the Son’s obedience arises from his relation as son and not because he is a creature.

Hence I am reluctant to accept the suggestion that I am making things up about God and therefore should resign.

Rev’d Michael Ovey (PhD, MTh, MA, BCL, BA) is Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in London. His most recent book is: Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility. 



  • Rev’d Ovey,
    Thank you for a helpful and direct response. I know more remains to be said, but this is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion.

    Best Regards,

  • Given that “Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself. When another and oneself actually concur on a course of action, that action is not obedience but agreement.”

    And given if “one has to say Father and Son have distinguishable wills because they are distinguishable persons,” then one would have to add “Those wills are in immutable harmony.”

    We have two premises with which it is difficult to argue that seem to lead to the conclusion that it is inappropriate to speak of obedience as a feature of inner-Trinitarian relations. Surely the “immutable harmony” implies “agreement” and where there is agreement, the question of obedience does not arise.

    Hebrews 5:8, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” This suggests that for the Son obedience is an experience that relates to suffering and hence to the incarnation. (And in terms of the claim that Father-Son language of necessity entails not only begetting-begotten but also commanding-obeying, the “although” with which this verse begins, καίπερ, appears to be a problem as well.)

  • 3. Any subordination of the Son is by virtue of the incarnation.

    Regardless of any potentially misguided application to male/female gender roles, the weight of evidence for eternal submission is significant.

    “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” – 1Cor 15:28

    Verse 27 is clear that the subjection of all things to the Son does not include the One who subjected all things to Him (namely the Father). The Father is not subjected to the Son, yet the Son is said to be subjected to the Father “so that God may be all in all”, which is a reference to the eternal Triune relationship.

    So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” — John 8:28-29

    Notice that these passages refer to the Son in His Sonship, not simply to the state of incarnation. The Son always does the things that are pleasing to the Father.

    We are clearly told that it was the Father who “sent” His only begotten Son. If we suppose, appealing to Hebrews 5:8, that the Son, as a unique person of the Trinity, was incapable of obedience to being sent in this way until after the incarnation had already been accomplished, then we deny the Son any role of honoring and obeying His Father’s will in being sent in the first place. It becomes an affront to the personhood of the Son, and to the mutual honor and love and fellowship that existed between them in eternity.

  • katecho – the two passages to which you appeal both refer to the incarnate Son, that is they refer to the person who at the times to which these passages refer has a divine and a human nature. I am not sure I know what you mean when you say that “these passages refer to the Son in His Sonship” — do you mean they refer to this person only with reference to his divine nature? But on what grounds?

    I did not and would not say that the Son “was incapable of obedience” prior to his incarnation. Rather, to speak in these ways entails a category mistake. The critical point here is that when we speak of three *persons* within the Trinity, we do not refer to three *people* (which would lead us to tri-theism) but to three *hypostases* within the one God.

    You did not actually explain how you understand Hebrews 5:8.

  • I was too brief above in my reply to katecho. I do not mean to deny that in so far as the sending involves a before and after, there is a pre-incarnation reference in John 8 (or Gal 4). I think I am in happy agreement with Augustine: “If however the reason why the Son is said to have been sent by the Father is simply that the one is the Father, and the other the Son, then there is nothing at all to stop us believing that the Son is equal, and consubstantial, and co-eternal, and yet that the Son is sent by the Father. Not because one is greater and the other less, but because one is the Father, the other the Son; one is the begetter, the other begotten; the first is the one from whom the sent one is; the other is the one who is from the sender. For the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son. In the light of this we can now perceive that the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh, and by his bodily presence to do all that was written. That is, we should understand that it was not just the man who the Word became that was sent, but that the Word was sent to become man. For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance, or anything in him was not equal to the Father; but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father from the Son.”

    So far we are agreed, I suppose. Augustine continues: “The Son of course is the Father’s Word which is also called his Wisdom. Is there anything strange, then, in his being sent, not because he is unequal to the Father, but because he is a ‘certain pure outflow of the glory of almighty God’ [Wis 7:25)? But in this case what flows out and what it flows out from are of one and the same substance. It is not like water flowing out from a hole in the ground or the rock, but like light flowing from light…” (De Trinitate 4.27) You might still agree but I think “outflow” and “obedience” go in two different directions of thought, the former interprets the begetter-begotten still with reference to the essential unity, the latter does not in that the unity constituted by obedience is not one of essence.

    “What we are saying may perhaps be easier to sort out, if we put the question this way, crude though it is: In what manner did God send his Son? Did he tell him to come, giving him an order he complied with by coming, or did he ask him to, or did he merely suggest it? Well, whichever way it was done, it was certainly done by word. But God’s Word is his Son. So when the Father sent him by word, what happened was that he was sent by the Father and his Word. hence it is by the Father and the Son that the Son was sent, because the Son is the Father’s Word.” (De Trinitate 2.9)

    Augustine stresses that this was not a word in time but that in the Wisdom of God “there was timelessly contained the time in which that Wisdom was to appear in the flesh.”

    “Since then it was a work of the Father and the Son that the Son should appear in the flesh, the one who so appeared in the flesh is appropriately said to have been sent, and the one who did not to have done the sending.” (De Trinitate 2.9)

  • Good points. I’m not a proponent of ESS but I do believe it is well within orthodox thinking. Also, good to hear your thoughts on the will of God. I did my ThM work on this, arguing for will as a function of person not essence. It seems many too quickly place will (as an ability to choose/prefer, not as in divine plan) in the nature of God. I believe the very distinctions of Son and Father revealed in the incarnation lead the other direction.

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