Submission revisited – why the Trinity debate matters

What we believe affects how we live. This means that you can’t really just have academic debates about Theology. Recent debates about the Trinity matter for two reasons.  First because the most crucial aspect of how we live is our desire to know, love, worship, glorify and enjoy God. If we get our doctrine wrong then we get our worship and enjoyment wrong.  This is of first importance.

Secondly, the debate matters because of its potential application to human relationships.  Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to be

“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

I think that one of the greatest challenges to this is a misunderstanding of what  submission means. That’s because as fallen and finite humans we tend to place the idea of submission within the framework and category of “power/hierarchy relationships.” I submit to someone because they are more powerful to me, because they carry greater status to me.

When ESS advocates create a functional hierarchy within the Trinity they fall into that trap. The give the impression that the Son obeys the Father because he is weaker and lower than the Father. This is unintentional as the distinction between nature and function demonstrates but it is still too often the result. This is not helped by comments attributed to some advocates that suggest that Jesus is the Son because he submits/obeys. Early church fathers were clear that it was not “obedience/submission” that defined the relationship between the Father and the Son. He is not the Son because he obeys. That’s crucial because the Arain attack was predicated on the argument that his obedience identified a servant’s relationship so that he could not be God. However, saying that “because he is the Son who loves the father, he submits” is in fact very different from saying “because he submits he is the Son.”

This is important because opponents of the ESS position, those I’ve termed “Neo-Classical Theists” make the same mistake. They too assume that “submission” is a consequence of weakness and inferiority. They too place the action within the relational category of power/hierarchy.  The result is that they want to insist that God The Son does not submit. There are two problems with this. First by insisting that it is the human nature that submits, it (again unintentionally) risks implying  change and a lessoning in The Son at his incarnation.

Secondly, we end up with a situation where complementarians refuse the possibility that someone can be equal in nature and yet choose to submit. The implication of this is concerning. When egalitarians reject the possibility, they do so in order to insist that submission is not required within marriage. However, complementarians do believe that submission is required. They (once more unintentionally) risk implying that such submission is about power/hierarchy within the relationship.

Now remember that we talk analogically about God. We are not saying that our relationships and our submission is a direct equivalent for the eternal relationship between Father and Son. However, what we are saying is that in some small way, when we submit to one another it is a little like what the Son does. 

That’s why it matters. When Jesus said “not my will be done” it is was not about hierarchy and not about weakness or helplessness. It was about a fully voluntary alignment of his will to the Father’s. Jesus shows that it is possible for one who is powerful to stoop and to serve. This is not to say that authority//power and hierarchy don’t exist. It is clear that God has all authority, power and dominion over us. However, when the Son submits to the Father, when he comes not to be served but to serve and when the Spirit comes as helper, none of these reflect inferiority or hierarchy between the persons.

There are a couple of helpful things to consider here.  One in particular strikes me. When we talk about the divine nature, we insist that God has one will not three. His will is an aspect of his nature not of the different persons.  When the Son says “your will” there is an alignment of will between the Father and the Son. That alignment arises out of their unity, it is because they are one.  In Ephesians 5, Paul reminds his readers that marriage is about becoming one flesh.  Submission in marriage is about becoming one. It is about an alignment of wills. The Son and the Father are aligned and united in will because they are one. A husband and wife are one because they are united and aligned in will.

A careful, Biblical look at the Trinity and at how the Son relates to the Father can be helpful as we think about what it means to live faithfully for Christ.

It may be helpful to summarise my position here which is that

  1. We must not deny the oneness of God, the distinction of persons and the equality between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  2. It is unhelpful to talk about eternal subordination. The language is at best unhelpful, clumsy and misleading as it risks implying that the Son is inferior
  3. It is clear that The Son does willingly submit to the Father in regards to the incarnation. This does not imply weakness or inferiority.
  4. That the Son’s relationship to his Father in the incarnation must in some way be fitting to the nature of the relationship in eternity. We need to be careful not to read this back the other way. However it is important to remember that God is knowable, he is not hidden like a puppet master and his self revelation is truthful.
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