Does the Son submit to the Father … or are people who say that heretics?

I was going to write something about this earlier in the year but didn’t because events overtook. My intention was to review Mike Ovey’s book “Your will be done” which was published shortly before his untimely death earlier this year.

The book engages with an ongoing debate within Reformed thinking. The controversy is sometimes referred to Eternal Functional Subordination or EFS for short.

The question is this: We know that God the Son submits to the Father in terms of his earthly ministry but does that mean that he is eternally subordinate to the Father?

Those who say “No” argue that because the Father, Son and Spirit are equal in nature that any suggestion of subordination in the Trinity is wrong. They point out that the early Trinitarian disputes were over this exact battle. Specifically, Arius could not see how there could be a second person co-equal with God the Father and therefore Jesus was subordinate meaning he was not fully God.  In so far as Scripture refers to Christ submitting, it is purely in reference to his earthly ministry and therefore reflects his human nature.

The argument is that the EFS position is novel, that orthodox Trinitarians in the early church did not hold to it.

EFS advocates respond as follows:

1.       We want to make a vital distinction between nature and role. It is possible to be equal in nature whilst submitting in terms of role. Or perhaps better still we want to recognise a unity of nature and a distinction of persons.

2.       That when you read church fathers like Hilary of Poitiers carefully, this is the position they take.

3.       That this was the necessary response of orthodox believers during the Trinitarian battles. The correct response to Arius is “Yes it is possible for the one who submits to be fully equal with God in nature.”

This is a quick summary and I am probably by no means doing either side justice here! The best thing to do is to go away and read the literature. I do specifically recommend Mike Ovey’s book. Whether or not you agree with his conclusion, you will find:

          A fantastic model of close textual reading (both of Scripture and the church fathers) combined with clear logical argument and even more importantly warm pastoral care.

          That it is impossible -and sheer laziness on the part of his interlocutors – to accuse him of novelty let alone heresey.

          As Ovey points you through Scripture to our glorious God, your own heart will be warmed and you will be moved to worship.

Now, some brief comments

1.       Biblically we do need to pay careful attention to texts like 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 which put Christ’s submission in eschatological terms and therefore outside of the narrow parameters of his incarnation.  Such texts may feel uncomfortable but we shouldn’t ignore them or just try and gloss them over. Additionally, even within his earthly ministry we get interesting questions. For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, what exactly does Jesus mean when he says “Not my will but yours?” Is this about Jesus submitting his human nature to his divine nature or is it about a conversation between the Father and the Son.

2.       Systematically, I find it helpful to go back to what Mike told us were th three key boundaries for discussion on the Trinity

          No denial of unity -we believe in one God

          No denial of equality – this one God has one nature

          No denial of distinction – there are three different persons

Linked to the third point, one commentator (I can’t remember who at the moment) was wisely cautious but said that there is something fitting to the persons that it is the Son who is sent. 

In that regard, I think Ovey and others are drawing our attention to something important. However, I am not completely comfortable with their conclusions – and here is the reason why.

I think it comes down to two things.

1.       There is a language problem. At times it is clumsy. Very specifically “subordination” sounds horrendously passive, especially when most people will not read the lengthier argument but will just get the headlines. It sounds like the Son simply exists for the Father’s pleasure and purpose.  I would rather that we use language that reflects the Son’s active and willing obedience.

2.        There is an understanding problem meaning that people keep talking past each other. The issue is that however you put it, a lot of people simply cannot get their head around the “role/nature distinction.” Who we are is so tied up with what we do.  It’s why in modern society we must submit to no man, why church elders are unable to exercise legitimate authority and why the media makes it its business to belittle, mock and undermine national leaders.  Mike used to talk about how historical works could describe friendship that crossed class barriers (you could swear loyalty to your lord who could also be your loyal friend) in a way that is unthinkable today.

This reminds me of some of the things that I noted when doing my Master’s dissertation on marriage. There I talked about mutual submission and noted that this is the historical position of people like Calvin who saw that a husband could submit to his wife, a parent to his child and a master to his slave.

I think this is the point. Whilst there is a context in which we are subject to some because we are subordinate, specifically animals are subject to humans and all creation to God, there is also a different type of submission which we need to distinguish from the former.

There are contexts when we willingly submit to another not because we are inferior – nor indeed despite the fact we are equal but exactly because we are equal. This is what makes it willing submission and that’s what makes it beautiful. It means that we could resist and compete but we choose not to. We submit because there is a bigger picture, a greater plan, a common purpose.

Now, you will see here what one of the big problems has been in this debate. It doesn’t just touch on our Doctrine of God. As we often note on “What we believe affects how we live.” One of the problems is that the EFS debate is being fought as a proxy battle over the question of egalitarianism and complementarianism in the church.

If those arguing for EFS are right, so it is supposed, then it is game over for the egalitarian approach to marriage and church leadership. You see, if The Son can be equal in nature with the Father and submit to his Father, then so too wives in marriage.  On the other hand if we can show them tob e at least “novel” and possibly “heretical” then it is game over for them.

Now in reality things are a little more complicated because:

1.       There isn’t an exact read across if you accept my argument for mutual submission within the context of headship.

2.       Not all complementarians take an EFS position. Indeed, they would argue that it is better to focus on Christ’s relationship to the church rather than his relationship to the Father.

The risk is that we see the politics going and choose to align with a specific side because it supports our ethical and pastoral conclusions. This can make us hard of hearing to the insights of others and sloppy and careless in making our own arguments because we assume they are obvious.

So in conclusion I suspect that those arguing EFS need to pay attention to thinking out and explaining more carefully and more clearly their position. Meanwhile I think their opponents might need  to work on listening more carefully.