Is the Eternal Submission of the Son Heresy?

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.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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8 Responses to Is the Eternal Submission of the Son Heresy?

  1. Todd Wilken says:

    1 Cor. 15:24-28
    Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

  2. Charles Lime says:

    Hebrews 5:8- He learned obedience…
    Ausberg Article 1- without parts
    ATHANASIUS, quoted by Theodoret, Dialog 2, p. 330: “Now, whatever Scripture says that the Word received [in time], and as to whatever He was glorified, it says on account of His humanity, and not on account of His divinity.
    47] AMBROSE, lib. 5 De Fide, cap. 6 (tom. 2, p. 109): “You have learned that He can subject all things to Himself undoubtedly according to the operation of Deity. Learn now that He receives, according to His flesh, all things as subjected to Him, as it is written, Eph. 1: According to the flesh, therefore, all things are delivered to Him as subject.”
    48] The same, lib. 5, cap. 2 (p.99): “For God does not give to the apostles participation in His seat, but to Christ, according to His humanity, is given participation in the divine seat.”
    49] And cap. 6 (p. 108): “In Christ our common [human] nature, according to the flesh, has obtained the prerogative of the heavenly seat.”

    Therefore, that passage Todd cited refers to Jesus according to His humanity in accordance with the Catalog of Testimonies in the appendix of our confessions.

  3. Matt says:

    Todd & Charles, thank you both for your comments.

    I do think Charles is right that 1 Cor. 15 should be read as Christ the new Adam and new head of creation (that is, his according to his human nature) delivering all of creation (including his own humanaity) back to the Father.

    That said, I have a hard time wrapping my head around what exactly this passage would ultimately mean if ESS were false–particularly from the strong anti-ESS perspective that such submission would actually be anti-Trinitarian. After all, Christ will be man forevermore and therefore subject to his Father according to that humanity forevermore. If submission were utterly alien to the Son as a divine person… how does that even parse out? After all, while receiving and delivering are matters of substance, submission remains a matter of relationship and person. In other words, it seems like you’d almost have to go to Nestorian lengths to disentangle human submission from divine non-submission and ultimately divide the narrative here.

    To be sure, the incarnation makes lots of seemingly impossible things possible, and my inability to wrap my head around something certainly doesn’t make it impossible. Nevertheless it comes across as a less-than-natural reading of the text.

    • Charles Lime says:

      This is after two years of reflection on this: the only passages we have in Scripture that explicitly teach the obedience of the Son refer said obedience to the Incarnation, that is according to the humanity. Phil. 2:8 in the form of a servant. But if the wife is subject to the husband as the Son is to the Father, even if this is only according to the humanity, in terms of relationships, is that not enough? The glorified humanity of the Son is given a name above all names, and is yet according to His humanity subject to God, and likewise, the wife is subject to the husband. My question is, why isn’t that enough? Why do some have to go further and say the Son is subject from all eternity?
      My other points are specific to Grudem: he says the Father alone predestines and plans. But Scripture says the Son does all that the Father does. The unity of the Trinity is centered in two places most especially: unity of operations and the infinity of God, both of them locked in with the doctrine of coinherence. This unity of operations is voided by Grudem who says that his theory is just like the incarnation, and only the Son is Incarnate so therefore it is no problem for only the Father to predestine. However, Augustine and Gregory both rebut that with the fact that although the Son alone is Incarnate, the Father has not left Him alone (John 8) for the Father is in the Son. They further both understand the two central predestination passages of Grudem’s Romans 8, and Ephesians 1, to refer to the whole Godhead. So does Chrysostom, and so does Basil. They all four get there via the passage “all that the Father has is mine,” coupled with the unity of operations in John 5:19 and the coinherence of John 8:29. They all four use Romans 11:36 to refute the claim that Eunomius made (that Grudem also makes) to attribute “of” to the Father alone and through to the Son (as Grudem uses it in Hebrews 1 and in 1 Cor 8).
      Finally, there are several attributes which in his section on God, Grudem identifies as attributes unique to God. These include absolute freedom of will and absolute independence and absolute sovereignty, and providence, and predestination. Now how can Grudem say these are prerogatives of God alone and then deny them to the Son (no matter how limited this denial is) and yet still claim he is teaching that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father?
      I completely dropped of social media a year ago and have no plan to return, and so have no clue where this conversation has gone since January of 2020. But I have continued to study this. I find that as Lutherans there are many things we are bound to by Article 8 of the Formula, regarding the Incarnation and Christ. These things are important in this debate because it is exactly at these points of disagreement where the Reformed separated from us most fully. Indeed most of Chemnitz’s Two Natures Book is devoted to this, along with Article 8 of the Formula, along with the catalogue, and along with the Apology to Formula against Ursinus.
      One final point, Grudem claims particular quote from Augustine’s the Trinity where it suits him, but seems completely unaware of Augustine’s words concerning unity of operations as he explains in his sermon to catechumens on the creed, and in Bk 2&3 of the Trinity, and in his four tractates on John 5:19.

  4. Richard Tino says:

    I find myself agreeing with Matthew point after point. 1st he is correct to back this discussion out of Ephesians 5. While it is important for the culture to ask the questions and the church to offer tsound, relevant answers, she must answer by taking doctrines that already stand on their OWN merit and then applying them to the specifics of that age. If ever a doctrine were constructed to counter some falsehood right in front of it, like feminism, it almost always inadvertently backs into a different falsehood right behind it. Doctrines must be constructed solely by comparing Scripture to Scripture in light of the established Apostolic Faith, and stand or fall on that merit. If the doctrine stands, THEN apply it to current questions or errors.
    Matt is also correct, and this point is crucial, that he is discussing relationship, not essence. Where the whole discussion stands or falls is on one’s definition of what love is. To humans in this fallen creation love is centered and how it makes ME feel. My spouse and my friends are valuable because they comfort ME or encourage ME or make ME feel important etc. People say they fall out of love because the person in front of them no longer makes them feel good. This false love is the essence of demonic idolatry. It is centered on self, it is ‘My will, NOT THY WILL be done.’
    True love is the very essence of God and expressed over and over by his Son in our midst. Jesus not only says His Father is greater than he in John 14:28 but he even says the apostles and disciples and by extension the whole church is greater than he in Luke 22:27. He is not describing essence, as in the Father or the apostles have a greater nature than he. He is describing the very attitude, essence and posture of love; namely that the person in front of me is greater than I.
    Saint Paul takes it one step further and says he is the worst of all sinners [yes, including the Weinsteins and Epsteins! I Timothy1:15). Paul, grounded deeply in the same selfless love as Jesus, regards every believer and unbeliever as greater than himself. This is not the love of fallen humanity. This is a foreign love that does not flow from the heart naturally. This is the new heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26) sought in David’s Offertory (Psalm 51:10).
    Incidentally, because we are by nature sinful and by nature turned in on ourselves and by nature self-centered and idolatrous, we also do the same with the 10 Commandments. We use them to make OURSELVES appear to be better people rather than understand that the 10 Commandments turn us outward to God and to our neighbor to love serve and care for them. The Decalogue describes the Son, and Jesus is He who is centered on and submissive to His Father and His neighbor.
    The depth of Jesus’ selflessness is beyond comprehension, but it most certainly is conceivable that in this divine essence of love he would forever regard the Father as greater than himself, as well as you and all His siblings, not in essence, but because he sees all beings through his pure, beautiful, selfless lens of true love.

  5. Sharkly says:

    I think this feminism evaporates easier if we go back to the patristic churches correct unanimous foundational understanding that only men are in the image of God. Adam was created first, preeminent, and God formed him in His own image and breathed His own essence into the man, and then a second class person, a weaker vessel, an inferior, not designed to house the image of God, was created from the man’s flesh and bone, for the man, to serve the man, and was put under the man’s dominion and subjected to the man in all things, as unto the Lord.

    Satan sought to cloud God’s patriarchal creation by having Constantine take over the church in the fourth century AD. The Roman state church then became a great whoring political power of this world. To appease forcibly converted goddess worshippers, women were claimed to be in the image of God, so that Mary could then be deified and offered up as a substitute to be “reverenced”.

    A close reading of Genesis and the entire Bible shows that God took great care to never say that any woman is in his image.
    Within Genesis 1:26-27 Adam or the “man” also translated as “him”, four times is called the image or likeness of God, but then “them” is only stated as being created by God. So we are being asked to assume that vast committees of the best Hebrew experts for centuries have intentionally twisted God’s word to leave Eve unassociated with the image of God. We should remember that Hebrew didn’t have punctuation. Genesis 1:27 is considered to have been a three sentence Hebrew poem. Where twice it is made crystal clear, first forwards and then stated backwards, that Adam was created in the image of God,(reversed parallelism) and that then is contrasted to “them” whom we are told were only created by God,(a refining restatement) conspicuously leaving off any mention of God’s image.
    Perhaps the truth is clearer when translated from Greek:
    1 Corinthians 11:7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

    The patristic church father’s writings unanimously hold that women by themselves do not image God, but are instead under subjection.

    Ephesians 5, which was mentioned, teaches that the husband images Christ(God) and that the wife images the church(repentant sinners). And in verse 33 the wife is told to “reverence” or “fear” her husband depending on your translation. The fear of man is a snare, but the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly the wife is being asked to reverence or fear the image of God, not just the same flesh and bone that she is made of. We as men are God’s own graven images, likenesses, little self portraits, lesser gods.

    Psalm 82:6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. 7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. (See also John 10:34)
    God again clearly does not mention any goddesses that die like princesses. Women are not in the image of God, women cannot be equal to men, they only usurp men if they try to pretend equality.
    God is entirely masculine and patriarchal, A Father, giving dominion over to His Son, and their united masculine Spirit who Himself impregnated Mary with a Son.

    To say that women are also the image of God, is a blasphemous emasculation of God, that makes God androgynous or hermaphrodite, and it is Satan’s oldest, most used temptation to women, “ye shall be as gods”.

    Get with the “current decade”! God’s preferred pronouns are He, Him, and His. The feminine sex is a weaker vessel, last created and first to transgress, natural defilers(Rev. 14:4), who monthly hemorrhage uncleanness. Believe God. Feminism is a Lie. Women are not image and glory of God, but are the inferior glory of man.

  6. Richard Tino says:

    So Sharkly, now that you’ve gotten THAT off your chest, is the Son in eternal submission to His Father?

  7. Andrew Preus says:

    This teaches that the Son submits (and will submit) to the Father. I like the author’s clarification about the distinction between substance and person. I also am intrigued (not in a scoffing intellectual way, like someone always learning but never asserting) by his response to this. That this passage assumes (in context) the assumed human nature of the Son is something I hadn’t considered. Of course, I know the caveat that any mention of obedience is according to the human nature. But I was never quite satisfied with that, since the context of such passages doesn’t always seem to call for that explanation. But the point that the Son submits as the exalted God-Man (according to his human nature) submits to the Father is intriguing. Our human nature is finally consummated in the Father so thT God may be all in all. I’d like more conversations on this passage from 1 Corinthians 15. Also, I wrote a paper about five years ago on Patriarchy. I had never read any of these debates on ESS until a few years later. And I drew analogies based on 1 Corinthians 11 and 15. This is why I have befuddled by the knee-jerk reaction.

    Thanks for this post. It helps me think through it more. I also find the vicarious obedience to be central to this all. The eternal submission of the Son, the giving of all authority to him, is the the Father glorifying him with the glory the Son has shared with the Father from eternity. Thus the submission expressed in 1 Corinthians 15 and implied I’m 1 Corinthians 11 is the exalted state of his obedience first rendered in his humiliation, ready to be revealed in the last time. The consummation of the union between God and man, already fulfilled in the incarnation and atonement of the God-Man.

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