The Trinity Debate revisited: How are the Son and the Father revealed?

Over the past few years, a little debate keeps cropping up about the Trinity and how The Father and The Son relate to each other.  There are three parts to the question.

  • Does the Son submit to the Father?
  • If the Son does submit, is this with regards to his human nature only or is it something that relates to his divine nature?
  • If the Son submits with regards to his divine nature, then is this something he only does within the context of the incarnation or does the Son submit in eternity?

There’s been a lot of name calling and a lot of heat. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone comes out the debate particularly well and it’s been pretty off putting for pastors engaged in day to day Gospel ministry whilst I think it’s past a lot of church members by.  Yet just when you think it has all gone quiet, someone decides to kick things off again.

Now, if academic theologians want to hold debates and write books then fair enough, knock yourselves out. However, I would make this appeal.

Please make sure that your conversations are marked by grace, truth and love. Specifically, please strive to represent those you disagree with accurately.

Anyway, here’s a look at Sanders’ argument. First of all, he expresses concern at the risk that external frameworks are being imposed onto our understanding of the Trinity.

He is absolutely right to express this concern, particularly with regards to the risk of attempting to understand the Trinity through a lens of human authority and power relationships. Now whether that is a fair criticism of those who argue that the Son eternally submits is another matter.  It is certainly possible that some approaches give that impression.  However, not all. I am most familiar with Mike Ovey’s work in this area and would argue that the criticism of him is unfair. There are others too whose views would be distinct from the likes of Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware (the Eternal Functional Subordination -EFS/ESS- position) but also have reached different conclusions to the likes of Matthew Barret, Kevin Giles and Liam Goligher (Neo-Classical Theism).[1] Bob Letham for example is worth a read.

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that if ESS proponents are accused of importing an external framework into the discussion that over the past few years they have also bene consistently been accused by their opponents of being “Biblicists” for insisting that we should look primarily to Scripture in order to discover who God is.  Neo-Classical Theists should also be careful not to base their understanding of the Trinity on external philosophical speculation and formulations.  This is not to say that the formulae we find in the creeds and confessions are unhelpful but to insist that there truthfulness and helpfulness is so because and only because they arise out of Scripture and provide helpful summaries of what the Bible says. If we feel compelled by our creeds to say things about God that seem distant from what Scripture says and how it says it then we are running into problems.

Indeed, this is part of the unease that many Christians and pastors feel about how theological conversation is conducted in evangelical academic circles. Too often it feels so distant from the God we know through Scripture and the Cross.

Now coming back to Sanders.  He then goes on to state that:

I want to return to the first of the two tweets shortly but first of all, we can affirm the second.  Scripture does point to the Son’s “generation” or “begotteness” to show his Sonship. In particular we have John 3:16, Colossians 1:15 -20 and Hebrews 1:5 citing Psalm 2:7.  He is right to affirm that The Son is “co-equal, coeternal and coessential” with the Father as John 1:1-3 makes clear and as the Jewish leaders rightly understood Jesus to be claiming in John 5:16-18.  This is something that all within the debate would affirm.

However, the problem there is that the Neo-classical Theists seem to assume that this settles the matter and everything is now clear.  However, there are a couple of problems with that assumption. First of all, and I understand this to have been Grudem and Ware’s complaint, if we use the word “generation” we do need to give some indication of what we might mean by this technical term. Further, it’s not only the Father-Son distinction that we need to make. We also need to show how the Son is distinguished from the Spirit.  What is the difference between the generation of the Son and the Spiration of the Spirit.  And to be honest, there is an element of mystery there.  We know that generation is to do with The Son being “begotten” however we also know that this isn’t directly equivalent to human generation because it is eternal so that there is an absence of beginning, process and time. Further, that Christ only has a mother with regards to his human nature, not his divine nature.

This, I think is the point.  There has been a strong attack on attempts to understand The imminent Trinity (God in eternity) from what is revealed in the economic Trinity (God revealed in the work of redemption, particularly the incarnation).  Yet, this is exactly how God chooses to reveal who he is to us.  Further, when Jesus wants to help us understand what it means to say that he is the Son, he doesn’t simply repeat phrases about generation, rather he talks in terms of who he is, his work and his relationship to the Father, especially within the context of the economy of salvation. He says:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. 

(John 5:19-20).

His Sonship is expressed in terms of the Father’s love for him. The Father shows him things and the Father gives him authority in order that the Son might receive honour.

21 For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son gives life to anyone he wants. 22 In addition, the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge, 23 so that everyone will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son is certainly not honoring the Father who sent him.

John 5:21-23


The Son in return shows his love for the Father by doing his will and sharing his work (John 5:19). He seeks the Father’s glory (John 12:28).  In other words, in regards to his incarnation, the Son submits to the Father.

This is crucial because in Sander’s earlier quote we were told that eternal sonship is different to human sonship. Humans have fathers and mothers, they have to grow physically and mentally and they obey their older parents.  Sanders insists that The Son does none of those things. That’s a little cheeky because he has generated a list of things that The Son doesn’t do, most of which would be agreed with by his opponents but then sneaks in the very point of dispute. Grudem, Ware, Ovey etc would affirm that the Son doesn’t have a mother, didn’t start out small in eternity and wasn’t younger than the Father. However they would insist that the Son does obey. The basis of that is the Son’s expression of submission including in the Garden of Gethsemane so that his incarnation and his crucifixion are acts of obedience to the Father.

Whilst some people have argued that the obedience there is purely in terms of his human nature, I believe that Ovey has effectively demonstrated that we can’t say that because it would be to divide the person of Jesus. 

So, the problem for Sanders is that yes, Scripture reveals a Son who is co-eternal and co-existent with the Father, a son without a mother, a Son who has the fullness and therefore the full authority and power of deity. However, it also chooses to reveal a Son who obeys.

Now, I agree that we cannot read all of that back, like for like into the eternal relationship, before time began.  The reason for that is the difference between creator and creation means that there is always an accommodation in God’s language and revelation to us. It’s not that the Father and Son change in the incarnation. It’s that if we assume that the words used to describe The Son including “begotten” and “obedient” define him in a way that is directly equivalent to our finite and fallen human relationships then we are getting ourselves into trouble. Yes, the Son is begotten but not in the same way that we are. In the same way, I should not assume that my experience of submitting to my father and doing his will corresponds exactly with the experience of the eternal Son.  You see, the nature of eternity, the oneness as well as the three-ness (including the one will) etc rule out the kind of transactional and process based relationships which we experience.

It is perhaps better to say that rather than seeing God’s love, power, wisdom etc as being a bit like ours, we say that ours are a bit like his. God isn’t a Father, a bit like you are a Father, Jesus is not a son a bit like I am a Son. We are a fathers and sons, a bit like The Father and The Son.  We are not to think in terms of the Son submitting to the will of his Father, a bit like the way we obey our Fathers. Yet when we do submit to our fathers, we do get a tiny insight into the love of the Son for the Father, just as when wives submit to their husbands and husbands sacrificially love their wives, we get an imperfect and fragile insight into Christ’s relationship to the church.

The problem in the ESS debate is that one side end up trying to say too much, the other too little.  A careful reading and exposition of Scripture will enable us to say just the right amount.

[1] Who themselves might also argue that they don’t represent an entirely uniform viewpoint.

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