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Why it Matters: Christ’s Eternal Submission

Why it Matters: Christ’s Eternal Submission
Jun 27 Tags: Christ | 2 Responses Print Save as PDF

This is part two of a two part series. Read part one here.

How should we include church history in this debate?

A large element of this debate has been the role that the history of the church should play in deciding what we believe about the Son. Coming from the Reformed tradition, this is not surprising given their adherence to certain creeds and confessions of the church.

What has been more surprising to me has been the level to which these documents are elevated and the authority that is assigned to them. The authority of these extra-biblical documents and decisions, for some, becomes in practice equal to the authority of the biblical texts themselves.

While I believe most would deny in theory the placing of these creeds on the level of Scripture, in practice they do so by advocating that these texts are the faithful outworking of what the Bible teaches by Spirit-indwelt believers.

Here is where I interject a caution about this line of thinking. Scripture itself presents itself as uniquely authoritative in speaking to matters of faith and practice. The creeds and confessions of the church can be a helpful guide to interpreting and understanding the Scriptures at times. At other times they can be more of hinderance.

Church tradition is not authoritative in the same way the text of Scripture is. Scripture trumps all other lower authorities. So when a doctrinal issue arises, the best practice is to go back to the biblical texts for clarity with support from and conversation with the interpretations of the church.

In this debate, sadly, it seems many have gone to church history for clarity with mild support from the biblical texts. Ironically, if we could consult the early church fathers so often cited on these issues, they would probably tell us to go back to the Scriptures.

Should we use the trinity to help explain male and female relationships?

This is a tricky question and demanding of a very cautious and nuanced answer. I think there are possibly two places where the New Testament alludes to the divine relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son as analogous with relationships between husbands and wives and men and women in the church.

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:3

It is possible that this verse alludes to the created order of authority as it relates to marriage; the husband is the “head” (authority) of the wife, just as God is the “head” of Christ as it relates to their inner-Trinitarian relationship. 

It is also possible 1 Corinthians 11:3 relates to the role that women play in the local church. If that is the case, it corresponds with 1 Timothy 2:9-15, instructing that women should occupy a submissive role in the church regarding teaching and leadership. The reason given in 1 Timothy 2 is that Adam was created first and then Eve, and Adam was not first deceived, but Eve.

There is, then, something in the order of the creation of Adam and Eve that teaches about order in the church, and perhaps the implication is that these human relationships reflect the relationships of authority and submission between God the Father and Jesus the Son in eternity.

However, far from being proof-texts that husbands use to force their wives into submission, these should be humbling reminders to husbands that they, too, are under authority—the authority of Christ.

In marriage, husbands should reflect the character of God the Father, who is neither totalitarian nor narcissistic in demonstrating his authority. Rather, he is loving, kind, and good.

And because these texts are difficult to interpret, humility and charity are key when discussing and debating these passages with others.

Where do we go from here?

While some in the Reformed world are convinced that this issue has been settled and eternal submission has been anathematized, the witness of Scripture stands firm. The Son is submissive to the Father not only in his humanity but also in his eternal and inner Triune life.

In our culture any form of submission is offensive and abrasive, even the model of Christ who willingly and voluntarily does the will of his Father out of love. But the Bible does not adapt to culture or bend to sensitivities. The word of God is fixed in the heavens. God’s character (both in his being and in his Triune relations) is unchanging.

Why is this question important? Is this just the useless theological meanderings of those who have too much time on their hands? No, this is important on an ultimate level because we are attempting to speak precisely about the God who has enacted our salvation. This is what Jesus called eternal life (John 17:3).

Christians must not be lazy in their quest for knowledge of God, thinking these things unimportant. Neither should we slide into despair, throw our hands up and say, “It is too much for me! I’ll only know when I get to heaven.”

We have a responsibility to pursue knowledge of God through his word in the here and now. If we shy away from this responsibility, we could perhaps lose something of the character and relationships of God, which has trickle down effects into all other areas of Bible doctrine.

At the same time, because of the depth at which we are thinking with this issue, we should be very generous and gracious toward those who disagree. It is unhelpful to make this issue a test of faith or fellowship.

In the end, we want to be able to speak as precisely as possible about the Triune God revealed in the Bible. And we want to be accurate in our portrayals of who he is in his character and in his relational aspects.

Christ’s eternal submission to God the Father teaches us something important about his disposition, and it is something which he also communicated during his earthly life. This issue is ultimately about speaking more clearly about Christ, and in doing so bringing a greater measure of glory and honor to God.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any other author or an official position of the assemblyHUB team.

JJ Routley

Jonathan Routley has written a book exploring the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son in eternity. The book is titled Eternal Submission: A Biblical and Theological Examination and is now available to purchase.

2 Responses to Why it Matters: Christ’s Eternal Submission

  1. Avatar
    Mark Palmer

    That the Son is subordinate to the Father in his humanity is agreed to by most, including those who hold to the “traditional” view of the Trinity. While the scriptures would seem to indicate that the Son is in submission eschatologically, to say that he is “eternally” submissive is speculation, as is “eternal generation.” I cannot think of one practical implication of importance whether one holds to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed or eternal functional submission, as proposed by Grudem. Theologians on both sides of this debate are solidly evangelical.

    • Avatar

      If the Son is submissive eschatologically but not eternally, doesn’t that indicate some kind of change takes place within the person of the Son? Prior to his incarnation he would be coequal relationally, but after the incarnation he would be submissive into the unending future? God is immutable; he cannot change.

      Eternal generation has biblical basis and has been affirmed throughout the history of the church (cf. John 5:26). I think eternal submission is presented in Scripture as well.

      I don’t think holding to the Nicene creed necessarily puts one at odds with affirming Christ’s eternal submission. There is nothing in the creed that explicitly denies Christ’s willing and voluntary submission.

      As far as practical implications of eternal submission, I believe these were outlined in the article above. Believers who in love submit willingly to authorities in their lives are following the example of Christ who submitted himself eternally to the Father (and continues to do so).

      The question is not whether holding to eternal submission makes one evangelical or not. The question is how precise can we be in our understanding and discussion of how the persons of Triune God relate to one another.

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