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Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Father? Methodological Considerations (Part 1)

In my new book, The Son Who Learned Obedience, I present a case against the position known as the Eternal Submission of the Son (EFS). EFS argues that the Son is eternally characterized in his person by a functional subordination and/or a relation of submission and obedience to the Father. In other words, the Son, by virtue of being the Son, is eternally submissive to the Father, whose personal role is to command. Those who support the eternal submission of the Son typically use the claimed eternal hierarchical relationship between the Father and Son as a basis for wives’ submission to their husbands.

My book argues that the theology of eternal submission is deeply problematic because it represents a deviation from historical orthodox views of the Trinity, and when the doctrine of the Trinity is shifted, classical accounts of atonement, Christology, and the doctrine of God are also jeopardized. Needless to say, this argument takes a book to develop and cannot be reduced to a series of blog posts. For this reason, I intend to highlight in a two-part series certain basic points that can elevate the level of debate concerning this contested doctrine. I will begin with a first post on theological method and the eternal submission debate. A second post on the need to connect Trinitarian debates with other doctrines will follow.

In this first post, I will argue that this complex debate about the Trinity cannot easily be resolved through proof texts from Scripture and from Christian tradition. When I argue this, I do not intend to minimize the authority of either source for Christian theology. I affirm that the Bible alone is the infallible and inspired verbal revelation of God, the only sure source in theology. While tradition is certainly fallible, I nevertheless affirm that it is a valuable test of the truthfulness of a given biblical interpretation. If we read the Bible and uncover an interpretation with no historical precedent, we should be quite wary, as we wonder why God would chose to help us see a new meaning in a text that his Spirit-led (yet fallible) church has read for millennia. A more likely explanation than new insight is misinterpretation. Thus, I do not intend to downplay the role of Scripture or tradition. Rather, I argue that a proper respect for both sources of theology requires a higher quality hermeneutic than has often been used in the debates over the eternal submission of the Son.

Literal and Theological Readings of Scripture in the Eternal Submission Debate

When using Scripture to consider the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, no simple appeal to a passage or series of passages in the Bible can resolve the debate with certainty. This follows from sound exegetical principles, which I deploy in my work, but which I would like to summarize in greater detail here. When seeking the literal meaning of a text, several principles can guide our interpretation:

1) We must attend to grammatical and lexical aids to determine the denotation of the passage

2) We must consider the context of a verse in terms of narrative, argument, and the author’s theology to establish the author’s intent

3) we must pay attention to canonical and historical parallels to provide context whereby we might better grasp a passage’s meaning.

There are certainly other principles, but these suffice to illustrate the exegetical shortcomings in many pro- eternal submission arguments. When considering lexical meaning, context within a passage, and canonical and historical parallels, there is no single passage of Scripture whose literal meaning must be taken to imply the eternal submission of the Son.[1]

I would like to illustrate the role of exegesis in the debate with reference to a common argument deployed by Wayne Grudem, namely, that since the Father sends the Son, and never the inverse, there is an eternal relation of command and submission between the two.[2] There is a seeming plausibility to this argument on first reading it, but we must dig into the text to determine if there is any ultimate validity to it.

When we consider the lexical meaning of the word “send” in verses such as Matthew 15:24, Luke 9:48, and John 3:17, we see that the Greek word used is apostellō. This word, much like its English counterpart, can refer to sending an individual by command who submits, but it can also refer to sending things that cannot submit, such as plagues, food, or letters (as seen in the Greek Old Testament in Exod. 8:21, 2 Chr. 2:15, and 2 Kgs 5:5). The denotation of the word itself does not require submission.

When it comes to the context of the verses about sending, the purpose of the passage is never to explain the eternal relations within the Trinity. It is not clear that the author intends to communicate anything about the eternal relations in the Godhead. When we consider historical and canonical context where sending language is used, we see numerous other New Testament passages that speak of the Son coming, as if by his own volition (Matt. 5:17, Luke 19:10, Mark 10:45, John 9:39, etc.). Drawing on historical and cultural context, Simon Gathercole argues that the Gospels’ “I have come” sayings are intended to convey the pre-existence of the Son and the fact that he has come to earth with a mission in mind.[3] This fits with the view that the Father and Son willed conjointly by the power of their one will that the Son be incarnate, though again the authors intend nothing this metaphysical.

In summary, when it comes to the literal meaning of the text, sending language was not intended by the human author to convey eternal submission. It may fit with this meaning, but such interpretation would be a theological one, rooted in divine intent that exceeds the human author’s intent. Theological interpretation is certainly acceptable, but it is also more provisional. Classically, any theological interpretation was compared with the rule of faith, a concise summary of Christian doctrine summarizing the New Testament. Classically, any theological interpretation was compared with the rule of faith, a concise summary of Christian doctrine summarizing the New Testament. Click To TweetAny theological interpretation would need to agree with the rule of faith, which leads us to the question of doctrine in my next post, where I will argue that the eternal submission of the Son fails at precisely this point.

Appeal to Tradition in the Eternal Submission Debate

A second methodological shortcoming in much of the debate concerning the eternal submission of the Son concerns proof texting of church fathers to make a point. Thus, figures on each side are able to provide long lists of quotations that appear to support their position. More concerning, those against eternal submission tend to accuse it of Arianism, while those in favor affirm the homoousios and thereby claim to fit entirely within Nicene orthodoxy. Neither perspective is accurate.

Any analysis of historical theology inevitably deals with numerous texts and authors. Each author typically develops their thought over time, and a given movement (such as pro-Nicene orthodoxy) includes a wide range of variation. Therefore, to identify what makes a given account of the Trinity pro-Nicene or anti-Nicene, one must attend to three factors:

1) anything centrally pro-Nicene must be found within a large number of pro-Nicene theologians

2) any element identified as pro-Nicene should play an important role in those figures’ thought

3) any central element must have played a key role in debates against anti-Nicene theologians.[4]

Based on these criteria, many quotations deployed by either side do not provide strong support for either the pro- or anti-submission positions. The matter is further complicated because such proof-texts ignore the complete theological system behind pro-Nicene thought, misinterpreting central ideas to reach erroneous conclusions.

To illustrate this second methodological problem, I would like to attend to disputes around the term homoousios – of the same being or essence. Many who are critical of eternal submission have argued that attributing anything to the Son that is not attributed to the Father (for example, eternal submission) logically entails that the two cannot be homoousios.[5] The intent here is to show that theologians in favor of eternal submission are anti-Nicene (i.e., Arian), but the argument is itself anti-Nicene. One key element of pro-Nicene theology is the distinction between being/essence and person/hypostasis, where each person has unique personal properties or idiomata (for example, the Son is eternally generated, but the Father is not). To argue that personal properties entail a denial of the homoousion is itself a rejection of pro-Nicene thought. Many who defend eternal submission respond by claiming that since they verbally affirm that Father and Son are homoousios, they are pro-Nicene. Here again, this falls short, because what the pro-Nicenes meant by this term included a singular divine will, which does not easily fit with eternal submission, whereby the Son yields with his distinct will to the Father’s separate will.

Limiting the discussion to the homoousios confounds the debate by missing the unique nature of claims of eternal submission as a new theological challenge. Arius argued on the basis of eternal generation that the Son must be inferior,[6] and later anti-Nicenes like Eunomius of Cyzicus argued on the basis of divine simplicity that the Father’s essence is ungenerateness, so the Son cannot be God.[7] Pro-Nicenes did not contest eternal generation or simplicity, but simply added theological concepts such as inseparable operations (the idea that the Father, Son, and Spirit work together in all divine acts toward creation) that help fit the divinity of the Son, the homoousios, and the distinctions of the persons with the ideas of eternal generation. Many who support eternal submission have questioned or modified divine simplicity and have downplayed or questioned eternal generation, but they have also challenged ideas such as inseparable operations.[8] Therefore, they are neither Arian nor pro-Nicene, but something else altogether.

The Need to Turn to Systematic Theology

This limited survey of historical and exegetical methodology reveals that neither simple scriptural proof texts nor citations of the church fathers out of context can rightly resolve the debate concerning the eternal submission of the Son. There is no text in the Bible that clearly requires or rejects eternal submission, and those who support eternal submission of the Son are not easily categorized as pro-Nicene or as Arian. What is the best path forward? The best method is to consider how the eternal submission of the Son fits with other doctrines in systematic theology, and I will show that EFS does not fit well at all. Therefore, the eternal submission of the Son should be rejected not on exegetical or historical grounds alone, but for purely systematic reasons. That will be the subject of my next blog post.


[1] For my full argument, see D. Glenn Butner, Jr. The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), 160–92.

[2] Wayne Grudem, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 243–45.

[3] Gathercole, The Preexistent Son, 179, 189, 290.

[4] Butner, Son Who Learned Obedience, 30.

[5] For example, Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2009), 172.

[6] See Arius, “The Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia,” in Christology of the Latter Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy with Cyril C. Richardson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1954), 329–331.

[7] See Mark Delcogliano, Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names: Christian Theology and Late-Antique Philosophy in the Fourth Century Trinitarian Controversy (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 38–42.

[8] See Butner, Son Who Learned Obedience, 31, 41–46, 138–39.

Glenn Butner, Jr.

Glenn Butner, Jr. (M.Div., Duke Divinity School, Ph.D., Marquette University) is assistant professor of theology and Christian ministry at Sterling College in Sterling, KS. His first book, The Son who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son was released in 2018.

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