The Father and the Son – navigating a minefield in the Eternal Subordination debate

Here are some of the specific challenges that those negotiating the debate about how The Son relates to the Father have to negotiate:

1.       It is important that we do not deny the unity of the Trinity, that there is one God. There are two concerns raised here:


          Is it possible to talk about the Father and the Son both having “wills” and also to identify one divine will? If not, then we risk “tritheism” with three distinct beings?

          If we talk about the Father having authority and the Son submitting, do we end up describing something about their nature so that they do in effect have a different substance 


2.       Linked to this is the question of equality. We do not wat to deny that the three persons are equal. Is it possible for the Son to submit without being in some way inferior to the Father? If not then we risk Arianism.


3.       At the same time, we must not deny the distinction between the persons. What does it mean to say that the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons? If there is no meaningful distinction then


          Are those titles mere labels which are interchangeable?

          Do we actually have distinct persons or merely specific revelations of the one God? In other words, we risk modalism.


4.       We do not want to end up with an unknowable God who hides behind the revelation we see. So, whilst theologians distinguish between The Immanent Trinity (who the Triune God is with reference to His inner life) and the Economic Trinity (How God is known in relation to his works specifically in Creation and Redemption), they would not want to over distinguish this as though God behaved differently in relation to his Creation to what he was really like. So for example, Kark Rahner insisted that “The economic Trinity IS the Immanent Trinity.” There may be a concern on the part of EFS advocates that their opponents who distinguish how the Son relates to the Father in Creation may be at risk of over emphasising this distinction. Does this make God unknowable? Worse still, does it mean that God’s revelation to us is in some way fictitious?


5.       Here’s the other side of the coin. Whilst we can know God, this does not mean that we can know everything about God, that our knowledge is exhaustive.


6.       We want to describe Christ in way that honours both his full human nature and his full divine nature without dividing them leading to a kind of split personality or confusing them.


Now, it is important to state very clearly at this point that within the Reformed debate on this we are dealing with people who genuinely want to avoid the pitfalls. They want to describe and know God rightly and therefore we are not dealing with people who deny the unity, equality and diversity of the three persons in the one God.

That’s why getting the tone of the debate is right. That’s why it is important to listen carefully to each other. If we think someone is in danger of falling into a trap within the field of discussion then find out how they are taking care to avoid that trap and ensuring they don’t cross the line. We may have something to learn from them. 

For example, the question about how to recognise the distinction between the three persons without ending up with three different gods or difference in nature or status isn’t new. This has been the age-old challenge. One way of navigating this has been to distinguish clearly between the substance of the three persons and the relationships between each person. In other words, when The Son submits to the Father regardless of whether or not this is eternal or limited to his incarnation (and note that the decision for the Son to come is one taken in eternity so the debate may be moot) this is always a description of the relationship between the two and never about the Son’s nature. So, we would want to stay clear of describing “subordination” as an attribute.

Also, it is important to recognise that each of those concerns is not about mere technicalities but is about honouring how Scripture describes God.

So, take time to look at both sides of the argument. Draw your own conclusions but however you do it, be careful to avoid the pitfalls described.