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Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Father? Systematic Considerations (Part 2)

In part one, I summarized portions of my recent book, The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son, by introducing several methodological concerns regarding recent evangelical debates over the eternal submission of the Son. Many have argued that the Son submits to the Father in eternity, and that this submission is an important component of distinguishing the Father and the Son. Others protest adamantly. I argued that this debate cannot be resolved by appeal to simple biblical or patristic proof texts. This is because no passage in the Bible openly addresses this question at a literal and grammatical/historical level.

We can nevertheless draw conclusions about the eternal submission of the Son by seeking coherent and logical answers to questions that naturally arise from the Bible, ensuring that these answers conform with what is explicitly revealed in the Bible. This is what theologians across the tradition were after, which is why we must pay attention to their larger ideas rather than isolated quotes. This prompts us to turn to systematic theology.

In this essay, I intend to explain how systematic theology provides good reasons for abandoning any claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father. I will illustrate this claim by appeal to one doctrine I discuss in my book, the doctrine of Christology. I will also discuss the practical implications of this debate. But first, I must provide a comment on the divine will.

Preliminary Assumption: Will is a Property of Nature

I was recently reading a book on the theology of the important church father Basil of Caesarea when I came across this quote by Basil: “will… is thought to be concurrent with substance, and… is not only similar and equal, but also identical in the Father and the Son.”[1] Basil is famous for popularizing and clarifying the distinction between substance/nature/being (the terms are more or less interchangeable for present purposes) as terms that speak of the unity of the Trinity and hypostasis as a term that speaks of diversity in the Trinity.

This distinction was central to Basil’s theology, and it became central to a wide range of pro-Nicene theologians to the point that it was part of the theology affirmed by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A. D. In other words, Basil’s most important contribution to systematic theology is the grammar that allows us to say that God is one being and three hypostases. If you explore Basil’s work to understand how he defines being/substance/nature, you will find that it includes will. Since there is one identical substance between Father, Son, and Spirit, there is one identical will. From the time of Basil onward (and in places this view is even earlier), will is treated as a property of nature.

I draw attention to this fact because some who support the eternal submission of the Son patently deny this tradition. Consider Mike Ovey, who writes, “Submission and obedience seems necessarily to involve the will or desire of another which one prefers to one’s own. One has conformed one’s will to the will of another – someone who is not oneself. For that to happen, there must be a will that is not one’s own but belongs to another.”[2] For Ovey, then, “the reference to what each Person wills is to be taken within the context of personal relation rather than of the common nature/substance.”[3] This entails three wills in God since there are three persons.[4] Of course, Ovey is being quite logical here. Submission does imply two distinct wills, so eternal submission of the Son to the Father would mean that will must be a property of the two distinct persons. This is a clear deviation from pro-Nicene orthodoxy, and from most Trinitarian thought from the fourth century until today.

At this point, many readers may be thinking, “what’s the big deal?” I admit that the argument so far seems a bit too academic and irrelevant. However, the fundamental grammar of systematic theology involves the notion of will time and again. The doctrine of sin involves Adam willing to break God’s law and as a result subsequent generations being unable to will the good consistently. The doctrine of the atonement involves Christ living a sinless life by consistently willing the good, and through death satisfying the demands of the divine will. The doctrine of God involves, among other things, considering how God’s will and knowledge relate. The doctrine of predestination involves debates centering on whether God wills that some particular group be saved or whether God wills that whoever believes will therefore be saved. Examples could go on, but the point is that something as subtle as a change in how one explains will in the Trinity could potentially have ramifications across systematic theology. This domino effect is where we truly see the problems behind claiming that the Son eternally submits to the Father.

Christology and the Divine Will

The most obvious problem caused by treating will as a property of persons is in Christology. Any systematic account of the person of Jesus Christ must be able to tackle a number of problems. Drawing on questions raised by the Bible, it must be able to explain how a divine person can take on human flesh (John 1:14) and be truly human (1 John 4:2). The account must make sense of how the divine person can do properly human acts, like sleep (Mark 4:38) or die, which is of course particularly important for our salvation. In terms of the will, this manifests in the problem of explaining how Jesus, who according to the Bible is God, was tempted (Mark 1:12–13 and pars.) while God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). Finally, a clear Christology must explain how the divine and human Jesus is a single reality. The incarnation is different from the Spirit indwelling a believer, for there is a much higher level of unity. It is my contention that claiming the Son eternally submits to the Father destroys the best theological way of answering these questions.

In The Son Who Learned Obedience I provide a detailed philosophical and theological account of Chalcedonian Christology and its subsequent development. On this perspective, will is a property of nature, which is singular in God. In the incarnation, according to the council of Chalcedon God’s Son assumed a second complete nature, a human nature, into the divine person or hypostasis. There was no distinct human person or hypostasis that was added to the Son. On this account, Jesus counts as truly human because he has all properties necessary to count as human due to having a human nature. Because acts, including willing, are associated with nature and being, Jesus is able to complete human acts, like being tempted, because he has a human nature. Finally, divinity and humanity have greater unity in Christ than when the Holy Spirit indwells Christians because the two natures are united into a single person, while the Holy Spirit and any given believer remain distinct persons. I explore this Christology in greater detail in the book.

If we claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father, thereby making will a property of person/hypostasis, the classical answers no longer work. If there is only a divine person Christ, then there is only a divine will. No human person means no human will if will is proper to person. It is not clear that Jesus would count as fully human if he lacked a human will. If acts like willing are proper to the person, and Jesus lacks a human person but only has a human nature, it is not clear how Jesus can do human acts like enduring tempted.

This is where those who affirm eternal submission tend to object. Mike Ovey, mentioned above, argues that the position I have summarized above is Nestorian – a particularly hated ancient heresy that was said to divide Christ into two different subjects.[5] In fact, a recent book in defense of the eternal submission of the Son accuses me of precisely this error, suggesting I “wrongly dichotomize the person of Christ.”[6]

The problem with such accusations is twofold. First, some such accusations of Nestorianism misrepresent or misinterpret the tradition. I explain in great detail where Ovey falls short in this regard in The Son Who Learned Obedience.[7] The second problem is that, where such accounts deviate from the historic philosophical explanations of the Trinity and Christology, to my knowledge no supporter of eternal submission has offered any alternative philosophically informed Christology to replace the traditional models. In other words, where Scripture raises questions about the unity of Christ, his conjoint divine and human acts, and his true humanity, I am unaware of any substantive answers to these questions that fit with the notion that will is a property of person because the Son has a distinct and submissive will from the Father. As far as I see it, when we consider the broad theological implications of eternal submission, the problems are myriad and there are no offered solutions. Eternal submission is a theological non-starter. As far as I see it, when we consider the broad theological implications of eternal submission, the problems are myriad and there are no offered solutions. Eternal submission is a theological non-starter. Click To Tweet

Practical Issues

Why should the average Christian in the pews care about this debate? Several points merit attention here. First, since the doctrine of the Trinity touches virtually all other doctrines, changes here can eventually have massive repercussions elsewhere in doctrines that rightly or wrongly feel more practical to the church.

Second, many who point to the eternal submission of the Son do so with the intent of making the Trinity normative for gender roles. The argument is often made that those who question complementarian gender roles are actually resisting and challenging the very nature of God. I argue in The Son Who Learned Obedience that there’s actually very little connection between gender and the Trinity. Making the Trinity/gender connection a major issue has ecclesial implications.

Most Christian denominations have made faith in the Trinity a matter of salvation. This does not mean that someone who cannot explain the finer details of pro-Nicene trinitarianism is eternally damned, but it does mean that if someone rejects the basic ideas behind the Trinity, such as Jesus being God, they are not saved. The problem is, if we claim that those who disagree with our view of gender are actually rejecting the nature of the Trinity at a basic level, it is far too easy to conclude that they are actually not saved. This seems to value gender roles far more highly than is biblically warranted, even granting that particular views on gender may be non-biblical or unethical. These two reasons and others push me to continue arguing that eternal submission is a doctrine that needs to be rejected.


[1] Basil of Caesarea, “On the Holy Spirit,” 8.21, translated and quoted in Stephen M. Hildebrand, The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea: A Synthesis of Greek Thought and Biblical Truth (Washintgon, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 82.

[2] Michael Ovey, Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (London: Latimer Trust, 2016), 110. Emphasis in original.

[3] Ibid., 112. Emphasis in original.

[4] See Ibid., 107.

[5] See Michael Ovey, Your Will Be Done, 101–12.

[6] Jonathan J. Routley, Eternal Submission: A Biblical and Theological Investigation, 51. The specific allegation regards 1 Corinthians 15:28. The debate is beyond the scope of this article, but the problem boils down to fundamental questions in Christology. I hope in due course to have the chance to address Routley elsewhere.

[7] D. Glenn Butner, Jr., The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), 87–93.

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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