Christian theology is quite clear that Jesus Christ submits to his Father according to his human nature. But what about according to his divine nature? In other words, does the Son submit to the Father from eternity apart from the incarnation? This question of Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) has come up in recent years in connection to the ongoing debate about Ephesians 5. There are hordes of feminists who believe that God’s command for wives to submit to their husbands is inherently denigrating–that it makes women inferior beings compared to men. In response, some of those who accept a plain reading of Ephesians 5 argued that submission implies nothing of the kind because even Jesus Christ submits to his Father. In other words, If it’s good enough for God Himself, why do you think it makes you less?
They will also point to the image of God as evidence for their claims. After all, in Genesis 1:27, it says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This explicitly connects our being male and female to our being made in God’s image. And, of course, biology explicitly connects children to our being made male and female. So you have men and women being of one flesh (both in marriage and in woman being made from man) and children who are the very flesh and blood of their parents proceeding from that unity. It would be pretty hard not to the see the analogy between a God who is three persons and one substance (with the third proceeding from the Father and the Son) and the way God designed humanity in his image.
But analogies have limitations, and we must be especially careful when it comes to analogies and the Trinity. After all, while humanity is, in a sense, God’s self-portrait in creation, that doesn’t mean God is the only thing we represent. Going right back to Ephesians 5, Paul points out that husbands and wives represent Christ and the Church to one-another. There’s no necessity that the submission in that relationship also comes from being made in the image of God when we know for sure that it comes from our being representative of Christ and his Church. So it is, perhaps, unsurprising that many Christians are now standing up to declare that ESS is actually an anti-Trinitarian heresy akin to some form of subordinationism.
But is that really the case? Heresy is, after all, a serious charge. It is not merely a false teaching, but a matter of having the wrong God or believing wrong Gospel under the guise of proclaiming Christ. Is ESS really an anti-Trinitarian heresy?
First, a few caveats:
1) Trying to determine Trinitarian doctrine as part of a debate about Ephesians 5 is a terrible idea. Don’t get me wrong, God’s design of the family is an incredibly important topic, and the Church needs to recognize the fact that we’ve largely abandoned God’s word on the subject. That’s why I’ve written about feminist rebellion at length.
Nevertheless, I believe it’s unwise to start nuancing Trinitarian theology specifically for use in that debate. The Trinity is an even more important doctrine, and amidst such contention, it’s just so easy to make poor judgments concerning it. Of course, one side begins with a hatred of God’s word, which is always a poisonous place to begin theology. But at the same, the other side’s temptation to alter/broaden Trinitarian theology for the sake of dialectical convenience more than Biblical truth is dangerous. We must always approach the Trinity with reverence–not with pragmatism in mind.
2) I am undecided on whether or not ESS is true. I really don’t know; I haven’t done the kind of rigorous study that would lead me to affirm or deny it. Because of my first caveat, I believe it’s something that needs to be approached with caution and without an ax to grind. That’s why, when I first heard it a few years ago in the context of people furiously working their whet stones, I didn’t really engage with it one way or the other.
So what changed? Why am I talking about it now? Well, it’s been an odd couple of weeks, and all of the sudden, I keep encountering the topic in different places seemingly independently of one another. Among those, many of the accusations of outright heresy are made in incredibly presumptuous ways that ultimately include error themselves. With those particular sparks flying, I think it’s worth grounding the topic a little bit. So while I’m not going to discuss whether ESS is true, I am going to consider whether it’s heresy.
So Is it Heresy?
The charge always seems to proceed from the idea that ESS is anti-Trinitarian. Orthodox Christianity teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of one substance, co-eternal, co-equal in glory & majesty, and so forth. The anti-ESS side contends that if the Son were in submission to his Father in his divine nature rather than simply his human nature, it would violate that teaching–relegating the Son to 2nd-class status within the Godhead.
But that’s not actually the case. The various forms of subordinationism (like Arianism) portray the Son or the Spirit as inferior with respect to substance–clearly anti-Trinitarian since we proclaim one substance and three persons. Submission, however, is a matter of relationship and therefore person–not substance. And according to orthodox doctrine, the Persons and their relationships are plainly distinct. After all, the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Spirit, etc. Likewise, the Son is begotten, but the Father and Spirit are not; the Spirit proceeds, but the Father and Son do not. Accordingly, I cannot see how the core idea of ESS–that the Son submits but the Father does not–must be construed as anti-Trinitarian. While it would certainly be possible to formulate ESS in a heretical way, I cannot say that it must be heretical.
As long as we’re on the subject of heresy, it’s ironic that the reasoning of the anti-ESS crowd resembles the reasoning of Arius. He firmly believed that the Son being begotten of the Father clearly implies that He must have come into existence at a certain point in time (i.e. there was a time when the Son was not.) And if the Son is not co-eternal with the Father, then he cannot be God in the same sense, but is merely a subordinate deity created by the Father. Arius was wrong, of course, but he was wrong precisely because he projected a temporal and worldly understanding of “begotten” onto eternity without considering the ramifications. Begotten describes a relationship, but if that relationship is between two eternal Persons, then it no longer implies a beginning. The eternal Son is eternally begotten.
It’s a similar case when we take a divine perspective on submission or obedience. From the selfish perspective of sinful humans, submission implies inferiority because the person who submits get less of what he wants. Being bent inward by sin, we often think that one person getting more can only mean that this person is more important (leading us either to idolize the one who has more or to take what he has away lest he outshine us.) But if you remove sin and selfishness by filling the void with perfect sacrificial love, it’s an entirely different story. Athanasius’ image of the Trinity is three Persons who lovingly give themselves to one another so completely that there is only a single substance between them–one God. In such a relationship, there could be no loss through submission for everything always belongs wholly to each person. The substance remains the same despite any submission–each Person remaining coeternal, coequal, and so forth.
The same can be said when people object that ESS must imply a division of wills within the Godhead. After all, from a human perspective, submission must always entail one person setting their own desires aside for the conflicting desires of someone else–altering their will so that it conforms with the will of another. But notice that this reasoning entails a temporal if/then: If my will differs from yours, then I will change my own will to match. Such temporal mutability has no place in eternity. Perfect submission between two perfect persons eternally united in sacrificial love need not imply any division of will. On the contrary, perfect submission implies a perfect unity of will, for no Person seeks to take from the others but instead gives themselves completely. As such, the division of wills argument turns out to be a red herring. Submission suggests no such thing from an eternal perspective.
And this projection of either sinful or temporal reasoning onto the Trinity seems ubiquitous. I have yet to encounter a substantive objection to ESS that avoids projecting a worldly distaste for submission among humans onto any potential submission among the three Persons of the Trinity. Those who cannot fathom a perfect submission without the corruption of sin naturally seek to defend Christ’s honor by refusing to countenance the idea of Him submitting. But exactly what business do we have trying to dictate to the Son what is or is not appropriate in his relationship with his Father?
It is precisely that prejudice against submission that lies at the heart of the entire matter–which is why ESS does little to resolve objections against God’s command that wives submit to their husbands. On one side, many want to use ESS as a demonstration that submission doesn’t make a woman less because it doesn’t make the Son less. But on the other side, many are already convinced that submission makes women less, and therefore they cannot allow it to make the Son less as well. It’s effectively an example of one man’s modus ponens being another man’s modus tollens. It doesn’t really resolve anything.
Consider the two syllogisms at work. On the ESS side, we have the modus ponens:
1) If the Son is in eternal submission to the Father, then submission does not make one less.
2) The Son is in eternal submission to the Father
3) Therefore submission does not make one less.
On the other side, we have the modus tollens:
1) If the Son is in eternal submission to the Father, then submission does not make one less.
2) Submission *does* make one less.
3) Therefore the Son is not in eternal submission to the Father.
Neither argument undoes the other. Because both are logically valid, which one is sound depends entirely on the truth of the premises (specifically the 2nd premise since both arguments share the first.) And that leads us right back to the prejudice against submission. The problem is the fact that so many of us falsely believe that submission makes a person less. That’s not a Biblical teaching, of course. Submission to governing authorities does not mean that peasants are inferior beings compared to princes. Submission to parents doesn’t mean that children are inferior beings. Submission to pastors doesn’t mean that laity are inferior beings. Neither does submission to husbands mean that wives are inferior beings. Accordingly, if the Son submits to the Father, it need not make the Son an inferior being. But false or not, as long as worldly Christians firmly believe it, then arguments based on the eternal submission of the Son will never carry much weight.
Does ESS paint a beautiful picture of submission? Of course! What could be more glorious for humanity than embracing such a place in God’s self-portrait? The thing is, Paul already paints a beautiful picture of submission much more explicitly in Ephesians 5–being an image of the Church’s submission to Christ. The primary problem in the debate over Ephesians 5 isn’t that submission is insufficiently appealing. Faithful Christians will know that it is good simply because God commands it of us. The problem is rebellion against God’s word and ordinance–full stop. You can talk about abuse, inequality, unfairness all you want, but you’re only talking about why you’re tempted to rebellion. You can talk about how submission doesn’t really mean submission all you want, but that’s just a hypocrisy you place over the fact that you wouldn’t obey a divine call to submit even if you had never thought of that particular excuse. After all, if you’re honest with yourself about the timing, you’ll realize that you came up with the excuse after deciding that submission was bad. I’ve yet to encounter a woman who wholeheartedly strove to be a submissive wife because she thought submission was a wonderful & godly thing, but then changed her mind only after rigorous exegetical study revealed that she was submitting the wrong way the whole time.
So even if ESS is true, I don’t think it’s particularly useful when it comes to the controversy that brought it to mind. If we have faith in God’s word, then we will embrace His command to submit no matter how we feel about it, and thereby come to understand the goodness of submission eventually as our faith seeks understanding. Without such faith, we will dutifully believe the word of the Spirit of the Age, and at present, that means embracing feminism. Feminism won’t end because the Son submits to the Father; it will end because its suicidal for the cultures that embrace it.
What then of ESS? Given that it recently sprung up from a debate over Ephesians 5, I’m not sure yet that it will ultimately have any relevance outside of that context. When all is said and done, the ESS debate is probably going to end up in the same mass grave that feminism is bound for. Accordingly, it’s worth keeping the controversy in perspective. I have no problem with Christians exploring the idea of ESS. Neither do I have a problem with skepticism of it–on the contrary, skepticism is our duty on any new theology we encounter. But either way, let’s be careful. Let’s be careful about our enthusiasm for convenient theology. Let’s be careful about how we throw the H-word around against inconvenient theology. But more than all, let’s be careful about honoring God’s word and the key doctrines which proceed from it. After all, we have been given a great treasury, and it’s our responsibility to care for it all.