Christ’s Eternal Submission: Does it Matter?
Several summers ago, while working on my master’s degree I was alerted to a major debate taking place among evangelicals over the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son. I was immediately interested because I had written a paper on that very issue just a few months before for a class I was taking.
As I started to read blog posts from persons involved in the debate, it became clear how invested people were in this issue. Tempers were flaring, the intensity was high, the rhetoric was bombastic, and some were even dropping the H-bomb (heresy, that is) on those they disagreed with. What could be so significant as to rile all these people up in this way?
What is this trinitarian debate?
The debate centers around the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son in eternity, apart from creation and the world we know. If we could talk about the Triune God as he exists in himself, what is the relationship between the divine persons like? On one hand, some argue that the Father and Son enjoy not only equality as it relates to their being (so that both are fully God), but also equality in terms of their relationships and roles.
On the other hand, some assert that while they are both equal in essence, sharing the same full divinity, they relate to one another in terms of the Father’s authority and the Son’s submissive disposition. Sometimes this has been positioned as Jesus the Son is equal in essence but submissive in role.
To complicate the matter further, some have argued that the Son’s submission to the Father is reflected by women’s submission to men in the created order. Others see this as dangerous, reading the relationships between men and women in the church and home back into the inner life of God, and empowering at times tyrannical males who subjugate and even abuse women. Though the issue is a theological one, it absolutely has real world applications (and distortions).
What are the biblical passages that relate to eternal submission?
To begin to approach this conversation, we must start with the Scriptures. A simple reading of the Gospel records reveals to us that Jesus submitted himself to the will of his Father while on the earth. But does this submission relate only to his humanity, as some argue, or does it reflect an eternal mindset apart from creation? Several biblical texts point us toward the later. Time does not permit an exhaustive study here, but several key texts will illustrate the point.
John’s Gospel presents us with “sending” language, where the Father sends the Son into the world (John 3:16; 5:24, 30, 36-38; 6:38-39, 44, 57; 8:18, 29, 42, etc.). This language presents us with a picture of the Triune relationship between Father and Son as one in which the Father has authority to send and the Son willingly comes.
Philippians 2:5-11 also presents a chronological picture of the Son with God in eternity, taking on humanity in the incarnation and being obedient to the Father to the point of death on a cross, and then being raised by the Father and exalted to the highest position.
1 Corinthians 15:24-28 seems to me the strongest biblical case for Christ’s eternal submission. In the eschatological future, when all things are subjected to Christ, the Son hands his kingdom back to the Father. Paul makes clear that all things are subjected to Christ, except, of course, the One who subjected all things to him (God the Father). The Father’s authority is therefore seen as absolute and unending, and at the end Christ willingly subjects himself to God the Father “that God may be all in all.” In other words, Christ submission to the Father continues now as he is risen and exalted, into his glorious future kingdom, and beyond the millennium into the unending future.
What theological issues relate to eternal submission?
Theological issues surrounding Christ’s eternal submission are extensive and complex. I will only highlight a few briefly. First, if the Father is fully God, and Jesus the Son is fully God, how can God submit to God? Wouldn’t this have to mean that the Father is in some way superior to the Son, making the Son inferior? The response to this is that both Jesus and the Father are fully God in their essence, or being, and yet in their relationship or roles the Son submits to the Father.
An analogy would be the marriage relationship. Wives submission to husbands is a relational submission that does not imply in any way their inferiority. Husbands and wives are equal in their humanity, yet distinct in their relational role. So, the Son can submit relationally to the Father without being inferior in his possession of the divine nature.
Another key issue involves divine unity. Out of the first four centuries of church history and based on a systematization of biblical teaching on the Triune God, concepts like the one divine will, inseparable operations, and divine simplicity emphasized the unity of God. Without getting in too deep, the basic premise is that eternal submission dissolves the divine unity of God, making too sharp of a distinction between Father and Son.
My response is twofold. First, there is a difference between talking about God as he is in himself and talking about God as he relates to everything else outside himself. When we view God externally we often see God’s unity as primary. I would argue when we examine God’s inner life we see diversity between the persons come more to the foreground. Second, Jesus speaks of a difference between his will and his Father’s will that perhaps gives us a window into the internal life of the Trinity and their intra-personal relationship.
One of the biggest issues is the consistency of the person of Christ. If Jesus only submits to the Father in his humanity, that recreates a sharp distinction between the divine nature and human nature of Christ that was particularly shot down in the history of the church.
The Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God, and fully man. But these two natures are not presented as contentious or waring in the Gospels. Instead, Jesus speaks of himself as a unified “I.” Not, “my divine self,” and “my human self.” He just refers to himself as “me” and “I.” There is one person of Christ, which includes both a divine nature and a human nature. Those natures are distinct, but complimentary and consistent.
If Jesus submits to the Father in his humanity, then it stands to reason this is consistent with the eternal relationship he holds with his Father. If he submits to the Father in his humanity but not eternally, he is inconsistent in his person, dissolving the hypostatic union.
Furthermore, we would have to reinterpret John’s words in John 1:18, that Jesus as the only begotten God reveals God to us. We would have to say this is true as it relates to Jesus’ deity, but not to his relationship with his Father.
To be continued