Regarding Eternal Subordination

Getting Christology right is important. We certainly do not want to be guilty of believing in “another Jesus” than the authentic Jesus Christ that scripture presents to us. The earliest wars within Christianity were fought over this notion, and more than one form of heresy attacking Christ’s identity was propagated. In recent years, the concept of the “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS) has gained popularity among some conservative evangelicals, particularly in Reformed circles. For instance, one pastor who served as the main editor of the popular ESV translation holds this viewpoint, causing some to mockingly refer to that translation as the “Eternal Subordination Version.”

Regarding history, in the early centuries of church history, on one hand, you had gnostic heretics who claimed Jesus to be a lesser deity who lacked a physical form. As widely spread as this antichrist idea was, it didn’t gain anywhere near the popularity as Arianism did. Arius (AD 256–336) taught that Christ was not eternal, being at some point begotten by the Father, using that word in the sense of being created. Therefore, Arians asserted that he was not co-equal with the Father in nature or power. Obviously, this is heresy.

These issues would be hotly debated for years, and summarizing greatly, the orthodox and biblical position was favored, agreed upon, and articulated at the Counsel of Nicaea (AD 325). An interesting note about Nicaea as we approach Christmas…it’s a Christian legend that many have believed to be true that the actual man “Saint Nicholas” lost his cool, stormed across the room, and slapped Arius in the face over his obstinate devotion to that false teaching. We don’t endorse violence, but that story has made much fodder for memes and jokes in recent years.

Returning to our subject, the biblical and only acceptable position is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, one with the Father, the Word that was made flesh, being co-equal with the Father in power, eternality, and nature. Or to borrow from Nicaea, of the same substance as the Father. Of course, the biblical view of the Godhead is a Trinitarian view, so while the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds forth from both the Father and the Son, the three persons are co-equal and co-eternal. There are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one. That is, one eternal Godhead. I say that just so as not to omit the Holy Spirit in our thoughts for this blog entry.

What Does Scripture Say?

Aside from perhaps John 1, the easiest place to make the explicit case for the co-equal nature of the Son is Philippians chapter 2.

“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…” Philippians 2:6-7

First of all, prior to His incarnation, the Son of God’s “being” was “in the form of God.” Fundamentally, from scripture, God is eternal with no God before Him and no God after Him. He alone is God, from everlasting to everlasting. Since the Son was “in the form of God,” biblical teachings about God’s eternality, immutability, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence apply to Him. He is verily God.

Secondly, He thought it not robbery to be “equal with God.” If you or I thought ourselves “equal with God,” we would be guilty of theft (robbery) and also of blasphemy. Yet Jesus thought it not robbery, because He was equal with God. This is why the correct, orthodox position to take on Christology is that of Christ being co-equal with the Father.

Lastly, the Son of God “made” Himself of no reputation in His incarnation and “took” the form of a servant. Both the words made and took refer to His humbling Himself, condescending to such a low estate as to being “made flesh.” But my point, if Jesus were always subordinate to the Father and not co-equal, He would not have had to take this position, he would have already occupied it. When the Son of God became human flesh, He served His Father in perfect obedience and suffered for our salvation. In fact, Hebrews says He “learned obedience” by the things He suffered.

Summarizing, the Son was in the form of God. The Son was equal with God (the Father). The Son took the form of a servant. The son learned obedience in His incarnation.

Making Helpful Distinctions

So in light of this clear teaching, what do we make of passages that do teach Christ’s submission to His Father’s will? It’s simple and any Primitive Baptist will understand what I am about to say; we must rightly divide the word of truth. That is, we place scripture in proper categories and contexts, making all the distinctions we need to make to understand and correctly apply scripture.

As such, one helpful distinction to make is to recognize whether a passage is referring to Jesus in His humanity or His Divinity. Jesus was completely God and Jesus was completely man. He was not a demigod. He was not half God and half man. Jesus was the Godman. We refer to this as the hypostatic union and yes, it is very difficult for fallen sinners to grasp though we receive it by faith. As Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, “without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh…”

Is this distinction between the two natures of Christ biblical? Absolutely. Jesus had two titles communicating this in the New Testament: the Son of God and the Son of Man. Being called the Son of God, the Divinity or Deity of Christ is referred to. As the Son of God, He is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. This is obvious to the unbelieving Jews in John chapter 10. Upon saying He and His Father were one, they attempted to stone Jesus for “making himself equal with God.” And yet when Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man, His humanity is expressed. He was the virgin born Messiah, the Son of David who would be born in Bethlehem and suffer for the sins of God’s people on the cross. Heretics ignore this distinction.

Another helpful distinction to make is between what theologians refer to as the Ontological Trinity and the Economical Trinity. This doesn’t mean to say there are two Trinities! Rather, when someone refers to the Ontological Trinity, he has reference to the eternal nature of the Godhead: co-equal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Ontology is the study of nature. When someone refers to the Economical Trinity, he has reference to God’s actions in time, including salvation, wherein we see the Father (who represents God’s sovereign prerogatives) choosing a people, the Son’s obedience to the Father in dying for the elect, and the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father at the Son’s request, both in regeneration and as “another Comforter” to the disciples (Jn 14:16). But even in this, the three-in-one Godhead is in complete agreement and perfect harmony in will and purpose.

Again, and simply stated: Ontological refers to God’s nature. Economical refers to God’s actions here in time.

In Conclusion

The concept of the Eternal Subordination of the Son is wrong, dangerous, and contradicts clear and explicit passage such as John chapter 1, Philippians 2, and 1 John 5:7. This notion is usually born out of a misunderstanding of Christ’s humanity without regards to His deity. Clearly articulating takes careful precision. Even so, this is a great mystery, even the incarnation of the God whose ways are as high above our ways as the heavens are the earth. We’d do well to get this one right.

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