The Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father

I’ve been having an email conversation with the man in the denomination where I am ordained about the lack of conviction regarding the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. I’ve a concern that the denomination has a creeping egalitarianism that at root is because the denomination doesn’t affirm the eternal subordination of the Son.

Here is what he recently wrote, “The eternal generation of the Son is affirmed, but not the eternal subordination of the Son. There certainly is obedience of the Son to the Father in the economic Trinity, but there is not in the immanent Trinity. Contra Rahner’s rule, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa, (Karl Rahner) consider that the economic Trinity communicates the immanent Trinity (Kevin Vanhoozer). It is not necessary to affirm the former to be complementarian. There is ample biblical support to affirm the complementarian position apart from attempting to embed it in the doctrine of the Trinity, a view which is problematic.”

I’m wondering what you make of this? I understand, at least to some degree, Rahner’s Rule (the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity). What I don’t get is how one can be complementarian apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, at least not for very long. Why is it problematic to “embed” male first and female from male in the Trinity?

Then, along with this, the gentlemen with whom I am having the discussion brought up Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. He wrote, “Once you (referring to me) address the complementarian position through creation you are addressing the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity. For your information, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware who has espoused the view of the eternal functional subordination of the Son have changed their views on the issue.”

I assume he is using Grudem and Ware to confirm his position that the complementarian position doesn’t need to be founded upon the Trinity and that the economic Trinity isn’t the immanent Trinity.

What do you all think? What of Rahner? What of the ordering of the sexes and the Trinity?


We’ve discussed this a lot through the years and I’ll defer to son Joseph for precise explications, but note carefully that no one has ever imported authority and submission into the Trinity in order to protect complementarianism. It’s the egalitarians who have sought to deny any meaning to Fatherhood and Sonship in the Godhead beyond (for instance) eternal generation who initiated this fight and they must be opposed. They are at work adding to Trinitarian orthodoxy declarations never made before.

Of course what they are seeking to deny is authority and submission in an age when no one can be trusted to say one thing true about authority and submission. We—all of us—hate authority and submission, so it’s likely we won’t improve the doctrine of the Trinity when we seek to add further limitations to the Godhead’s authority and submission.

Sadly, though, complementarians are running for cover on this. Decades ago Roger Nicole showed up at ETS and started to charge complementarians with being “subordinationists” and therefore believing “heresy.” He was such an august figure in ETS that his blustering started complementarians’ knees knocking and trembling, so some of them started saluting his flag. On the other hand, I spoke to him personally (we were quite close) and challenged him to file heresy charges against me and seek my removal from ETS membership. Of course, he declined to do so, to which I responded that he knew very well none of us were subordinationist or heretical. At that time, Dr. Nicole denied father-rule in the church AND in the home. All for now. Love,


Because it is against the direction the wind is blowing.

From what I’ve seen, the majority of Reformed men today would stand with this man you write of - he’s not in a minority. Since you asked, here’s what I think: The Trinity, the Father’s Authority and the Obedience of the Son and Spirit_v1.5.pdf (449.3 KB)

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To answer your question, I’m afraid this quote could be interpreted as problematic by both sides of the debate. Regardless of whether you go with Rahner or Vanhoozer, the moment you posit economic subordination, either it communicates something about the immanent Trinity or it actually is something in the immanent Trinity. Either way, I think anti-EFS men will balk.

In my experience, opponents of EFS will only acknowledge that the Son is subordinate in his form as a Servant—that is to say, in his human form. That can certainly be called economic, in a sense, but it is much more specific than that. It is what Shedd calls the “theanthropic” subordination. The other type of (non-Arian) subordination that Shedd defines is filial. I have yet to see any real support for filial subordination from anti-EFS men. For filial subordination to be distinguished from theanthropic, filial must mean some sort of subordination that extends beyond Jesus’ perfect human obedience. In other words, it has to be the Son as Son in the Trinity that is subordinate in some way.

As Bishop Westcott wrote in 1896 in an extended note on John 14:28:

The superior greatness of the Father, which is affirmed by Christ in the words the Father is greater than I, has been explained mainly in two ways.

  1. Some have thought that they have reference to the essential Personality of the Son, and correspond to the absolute idea of the relation of Father to Son, in which the Father has, in Pearson’s language, “something of eminence,” “some kind of priority.” According to this view the eminence of the Father lies in the fact that the Son has the divine Essence by communication.

  2. Others again have supposed that the words have reference to the position of the Son at the time when they were spoken. On this supposition the eminence of the Father lies in His relation to the Son as incarnate and not yet glorified.

Both views are perfectly consistent with the belief in the unity of the divine Nature, and therefore with the belief in the equality of the Godhead of the Son with the Godhead of the Father. And it will probably appear that the one view really implies the other; and that, as far as human thought can penetrate such a mystery, it is reasonable to “ground the congruity of the mission” of the Son upon the immanent pre-eminence of the Father.

Note carefully that last paragraph. In his view, even theanthropic subordination must imply an immanent subordination. He then goes on to quote and explain the views of most of the major early church fathers, starting with Irenaeus in 202. Among others he includes Athanasius, Basil in 379, Gregory of Nazianzus in 390, Chrysostom in 407, and of course Augustine in 430. The earlier fathers almost all held to the first view, but then he says it gradually began shifting to the second view “towards the close of the fourth century… perhaps [as] a natural consequence of the later developments of the Nicene Christology.”

But, I’m quite pleased to say that he and Shedd and I are all in agreement about Augustine. Here’s his summary:

Augustine commonly refers the superior greatness of the Father to the Incarnate Son; but he acknowledges that it can be understood of the Son as Son: The words are written “partly on account of the Incarnation… partly because the Son owes to the Father that He is; as He even owes to the Father that He is equal to the Father, while the Father owes to no one whatever He is.”

Though he says that “in later times the interpretation by which the words are referred to the humanity of Christ became almost universal in the West” remember that he already pointed out that they cannot really be separated. Why was it the Son that took on human flesh, as opposed to the Father? The egalitarianism of the anti-EFS men would seemingly have us believe that it is entirely happenstance.

However, Westcott continues and points out that the Greek fathers did not adopt the second position, and then he closes with this intense statement:

If we turn from these comments to the text of St John, it will be seen that (1) The Lord
speaks throughout the Gospel with an unchanged and unchangeable Personality. The “I” is the same in John 8:58, 10:30, 14:28. (2) We must believe that there was a certain fitness in the Incarnation of the Son. (3) This fitness could not have been an accident, but must have belonged, if we may so speak, to His true Personal Nature. (4) So far then as it was fit that the Son should be Incarnate and suffer, and not the Father, it is possible for us to understand that the Father is greater than the Son as Son, in Person but not in Essence. Among English writers it is sufficient to refer to Bull; and to Pearson, ‘On the Creed,’ Art. i, whose notes, as always, contain a treasure of patristic learning.

(Bull is indeed quite helpful on this topic, though I don’t remember off-hand where to recommend reading. If anybody is interested, I’m happy to look it up again.)

It’s problematic for some of them because they reject anything that smells like “social trinitarianism.” This paper opposing social Trinitarianism.pdf (with my highlights), ironically makes the case that social Trinitarianism gives feminism a foothold.

It’s problematic for others because of the implication in the idea of the Son submitting to the Father that there is more than one will in God. I won’t attempt to address that in this post.

This is the really ironic thing. Those who I’ve argued with have essentially replied to the above with one word: “taxis” or “order.” They insist that nothing more is meant by the Scripture, and often by the church fathers than the fact that the Father comes first. Thus, your friend affirms eternal generation, but he sees it as inconsequential. But let’s take a step back. “Order” is precisely what Paul appeals to to prove the authority in the relationship between man and woman! It seems to me that if these men prove that the Father is merely the source of the Son, but that there is no relational implication to that, then we ought to aspire to a similar outcome in the relations between the sexes.



Been reading and thinking on this more. What follows is my attempt to summarize what I believe regarding the subordination of the Son to the Father:

  1. Since we are speaking of things related to the being of God there is mystery. We can and do know what God has revealed, but what God has revealed, especially in relation to His essence and the inner workings of the Trinity are awesome and we know but little. But what we do know is truly known.

  2. God the Son and God the Father are equal in every way.

  3. There are not two (or three) wills in God, but one. And yet, each Person of the Trinity is not the other and responds to others in Himself. This is the area I remain most in need on. I am still somewhat confused on this point.

  4. The Father is the eternal source of the Son begetting Him from forever unto forever.

  5. The Father is superior to the Son in that the Father communicates the Son, and in that the Son became incarnate. The former implies the latter.

  6. The Son submits to the Father from forever unto forever (immanent Trinity).

  7. The Son submits to the Father in regard to the creation of the world, governance of the world, and in the salvation of the elect (economic Trinity).

  8. The Son submits to the Father as God made man taking the form of a Servant (theanthropic).

  9. The priority and order within God are the ultimate grounds for the ordering of man as male and female (extending to all social relationships of authority and submission).


Point two is too absolute. And by your later points, you recognize that there are differences.

I don’t know what words to use to express Their equality. Does Their equality need to be so high on the list? Your list seems prioritized.

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I think the wording of points 6, 7 & 9 are going to make people very nervous, including those who hold to something like EFS, in part because of the opposition and heterodoxy/heresy calls it will bring forth from some. The argument will be that this is not how the church has spoken of things historically and that you are inventing a new doctrine of the Trinity never confessed before. I’ll let others speak to that, but will make a comment on the Nicene Creed below.


If I recall, in order to comment at Sanityville you have to assent to the Nicene Creed. The 381 version says of the Son that:

He… ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father

The phrase is also found in the Apostles Creed and I think the term ‘right-hand’ quite clearly indicates a hierarchy in the Godhead. Other references to the Son sitting at the Father’s right-hand include: Matt 26:64; Mark 12:36; Mark 14:62; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; Acts 7:56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb1:3; Heb 1:13; Heb 8:1; Heb 10:12; Heb 12:2; 1Pet 3:22. I think the genesis of most of these references is Psalm 110:1, where we see equality in divinity and hierarchy entwined together:

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”

Some might say things are different post-incarnation and post-ascension because the Son is the God-man for all eternity etc. I think there are other problems with this response, but one thing I’m curious about the use of this phrase in scripture is that the Apostle John says:

John 6:62: ‘What then if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before’

Since we know that the Son ascended not just to heaven, but to the Father’s right-hand, does this verse not imply that the Son was at the right hand of the Father before the incarnation also? Are there any other verses that substantiate this? If so, a good argument can be made that both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed have something like EFS embedded in them - despite the fact that the context for the writing the Nicene Creed was to defend the divinity & equality of the Son with the Father (rather than to defend hierarchy in the Godhead).


Commenting is open to the public. It is a requirement for citizenship.


I believe in allowing a bit of leeway when working through these things. Many of us have not thought in depth about everything in the Nicene Creed, and affirm it because we trust that it is an expression of orthodoxy rather than because we have worked it all through ourselves.

I think there is value in considering that the relationship between Father and Son before the incarnation became more specifically applied in the incarnation. In other (more convoluted?) words, the Son’s begotten-ness means there is always a form of submission, but his human-ness as Christ directed that submission into a particular expression of heirarchy required by a human-God.

On another note, I found this series of posts on the Ordered Godhead very helpful when the EFS argument was raging a few years ago, especially the last three. I don’t think Mark Baddeley got enough attention.


Well said. Twenty characters.

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Honest question…I don’t recall anywhere in scripture where there son speaks to the father in eternity past. Certainly in his incarnation, but even then only in humble submission. If the distinctions which I have yet to fully grasp are true, and Christ’s subordination was only expressed in his incarnation, why don’t we see the son initiate, speak to the father, direct Him.

I’m sorry if this is a dumb question, and maybe hashed our elsewhere but Pope Trueman never seemed to bring it home for me when he was railing against complimentarianism.


So true. And it it seems to fly in the face of so much explicit Biblical teaching.