June 20, 2016

Submission and salvation in the Trinity

by Jesse Johnson


In 1991 John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited what is one of the most influential and significant books of that decade: Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. The book’s goal was to show that egalitarianism—the idea that men and women should not have any role differences in marriage or in church—is unbiblical. Instead, Christians should embrace complementarianism–the idea that God designed the sexes to complement each other through different roles in both marriage and church life.

Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood dismantled egalitarianism for a generation of evangelicals. Grudem and Piper used a barrage of arguments, hunted down obscure Greek words, and built an air-tight case that men and women are of equal worth/value/dignity/honor, but have different roles.

Of the book’s many postulates, one of the more lasting came from Thomas Schreiner (who at the time was at Bethel Seminary, but who now leads the New Testament department at Southern). He argued that submission in marriage is no sign of inferiority because, after all, isn’t the second person of the Trinity eternally submissive to the first? And one member of the Trinity is obviously not greater than the other, because that would be heretical. Thus in the Trinity we have a model of two persons of equal ontology, but submissive in differing roles.

Shorter version: far from being degrading, submission is actually a high calling, because the eternal Son has always submitted to his Father.

Fast-forward 24 years, and last week Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher have sounded the alarm that this teaching is dangerous and will lead to a generation of Arians walking the streets. Part of me chuckles at this, because the view with which they are taking issue is a prominent feature of a book that is, well…24 years old. I mean, it was Christianity Today’s book of the year in 1993.

But regardless, Trueman and Goligher raise some objections. As I’m sure is evident by tone, I don’t find their objections meritorious, but I want to answer them regardless.

In his first post, Goligher asks this:

Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the Godhead? Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)?

Let me answer his questions one at a time:

Is the Trinity no more than a social program for the world and the church? Yes, the Trinity is more than a social program for the world and the church.

Is the eternal life of the Trinity hierarchical or egalitarian? Because he uses the word life, egalitarian, obviously.

Are there three minds, three wills, and three powers within the godhead? Its complicated, because “will” and “power” speak to the essence of God, while “mind” is generally used to speak to the persons within the Trinity. A better way to say it would be that there are three persons that subsist distinctly, and act differently, and that apply the will of the Triune God with regard to their peculiar nature. This kind of precise language allows for a concept of submission within the Godhead without the implication that the three persons of the Godhead have wills which are in tension.

Are the current Trinitarian views of some evangelical people in danger of leading them out of orthodox Christianity into eccentricity (at best) or idolatry (at worst)? Probably, especially those of a certain segment of former members of The Gospel Coalition. Look—I share Trueman’s concerns about The Gospel Coalition, but Grudem, Schriener, and Ware’s views of the Trinity are certainly not to blame.

Reading through Goligher’s two posts it seems his objection boils down to this: if there is eternal submission between the members of the Trinity, then there must inherently be an ontological division within the being of the Godhead. And if there is that division, that means that one of the members of the godhead must have priority, and there must therefore be a hierarchy within the Godhead, which is unbiblical.

But I’m reminded of a warning in these discussions: when you hear Ralph say, “If Fred believes X, then Fred must also in turn believe Y,” and then along comes Fred, who convincingly states X and denies Y, the problem is most likely with Ralph’s logic.

When Goligher says that if the second person is eternally submissive to the first, then there must be a hierarchy in the Trinity, then along comes an army of people who believe in eternal submission but reject ontological hierarchy, and those people have been consistent in their teaching for 25 plus years, then I’m skeptical about the tightness of Goligher’s logic. In fact, here is Schreiner on this very topic:

[some object] that to make God the head over Christ is to fall into the Christological heresy of making Christ subordinate to God. But this would only be a heresy if one asserted that there was an ontological difference (a difference in nature or being) between Father and Son. The point is not that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Rather, the Son willingly submits Himself to the Father’s authority. The difference between the members of the Trinity is a functional one, not an essential one (p. 128).

Notice Schreiner’s point: there can be an eternal submission in functionality, but this does not necessitate ontological distinction.

Interestingly enough, Goligher almost concedes the same in his post. Under the heading “What is at Stake” he grants that in “the economy of redemption, in his state of humiliation there is submission.” By that, I assume he means that in his incarnation, and there only, was Jesus submissive to the Father. Or, to say it differently, submission was a function of his humanity, not his deity.

Which leads to my main concern with Goligher’s posts. He concedes that in matters of redemption there is submission within the Godhead, but he wants to separate that from the ontological nature of God. He says that hierarchy is fine, as long as it is confined to the act of redemption (the economic Trinity) and isolated from the being of God (the ontological Trinity).

But this loses what American theologians from Edwards to MacArthur have always pointed to as the motivation for God’s plan of salvation. God is by nature a savior. Even this year at the Shepherd’s Conference, MacArthur’s keynote address tied the saving plan of God to his Trinitarian existence. Because there are three persons, there is love. And because this love is so intense and perfect, there is the desire to share it with others, and the highest expression of that love is seen through the cross. This ontological love of God for himself is seen between the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and the three are distinct persons yet love themselves in such a way it is self-love of one being. The three persons share the will to enact salvation, and this action entails the submission of the Son to be the one who will go to his creation and bear sin.

There is a great harm to our understanding of God’s motivation in salvation if we make either one of two errors, and I read Goligher’s posts as committing both:

Error one—separate the ontological nature of God’s triune self-love from his “economy of redemption” (Goligher’s phrase), as if the plan of redemption was separable from God’s own self-love seen in the Father-Son relationship (here is a more scholarly post which points out this same error).

Error two—to insist that if there is a submission in the trinity from eternity, there must be a division of being (and here is a longer post showing John Owen warning against this error).

The first error isolates salvation from God’s eternal nature, and the second error “fails to make the historic and crucial distinction between essence and role” (Schreirner’s words).

The right balance is to understand that God by nature is a savior, that the plan of salvation flows from his self-love, and this plan culminates the Father sending and the Son going, but it is a plan decreed in eternity past and flowing from the very ontological nature of God. At the same time, this voluntary submission and subsequent title as “son” are coterminous with the plan of redemption, and DO NOT REFLECT ONTOLOGICAL DIVISION in the Godhead.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Andrew

    Thank you for the two helpful article links which I had missed. Might be worth giving Darren Sumner’s posts on the difference between economic & immanent language a look – I think it helps clarify why Goligher might not be “conceding the point” you think he is. Also, the historic doctrine of eternal generation is of central concern to Grudem/Ware’s critics. Are you arguing that we can jettison this doctrine without consequence? Finally, wouldn’t all parties agree with the concluding sentence to your key paragraph (6th up from the end)?

    • Thanks Andrew. Great questions. Let me answer them in individual comments: Sumner’s posts:
      I did read those posts. In the first of his posts I did not find his appeal to Aquinas’ doctrine of divine simplicity convincing. But his second post was more interesting to me: he split this up into three catagories. I think everyone agrees with his category A. I agree with his category B (until his last sentence) and his category C I found unhelpful (because he adds the phrase “from the Father” which implies origin, which is NOT what Grudem/Ware are even arguing for.

    • Eternal generation is a doctrine I hold to, find essential in understanding the Trinity, and one that I also think is a strong argument in understanding the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. In fact, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1985, Baker), even defines it to include “a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). “Eternal” reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation.”

    • Again Andrew, great questions. Thank you for thoughtful interaction. I hope that all would agree with that final statement, but I really do read in Goligher an unhealthy division between the plan for salvation and the nature of God himself. We must not confuse the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, but we also must not view the covenant of salvation as being isolated from God’s nature. This is a point that the Barrett post I linked to makes very strongly, but here it is again: http://www.credomag.com/2016/06/16/better-late-than-never-the-covenant-of-redemption-and-the-trinity-debates-matthew-barrett/. Thanks Andrew.

      • Andrew

        Jesse, thanks for engaging my remarks, though I’ll be ducking out of this thread after this comment.

        Let me try a different angle: I now see that your blog implies that the burden of proof lies with those that disagree with Piper/ Grudem/ Ware/ Schreiner.

        But I’m sure you’ve noticed that many involved in this discussion sense the burden of proof lies with Grudem & co. Why? I’ll just repeat what others have said: because traditionally it was the eternal generation doctrine that was the means for upholding both “equality of essence” and “difference in person”. But Grudem wants authority-submission language to play this role. This is new. We need good arguments for displacing eternal generation’s traditional function.

        • Thanks Andrew. I’ll say two things in regards to this. One: I don’t see it as an either/or, but a both/and. Second: I could agree, but in my reading of Goligher’s posts it sounds like he isn’t even talking about submission in the economic trinity prior to the incarnation, but rather that submission begins at the incarnation. This is new, unwarranted, and overly divisive, if you ask me (and I did ask me).

  • David Pitman

    Never read an essay that more eloquently misses the point.

    • Thanks for reading anyway David. If you have a particular point or question, leave it here, and perhaps I can miss it in my reply to you as well 🙂

      • David Pitman

        I’m sure you would. 😉 But I would recommend you read Dolezal’s ‘God without Parts’ first.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks David. That really progressed the discussion along.

    • Dan Phillips

      I too wish you’d flesh out your accusation. For my part, I think it’s a very helpful essay.

      This keeps haunting me, and I’ll put it like a trialogue:

      Chr A: Wives should submit to their husbands.
      Egal: That makes wives inferior!
      Chr A: No no no, not at all. Submission is functional; has to do with hierarchy, nothing to do with worth.
      Chr B: I get it. Sort of like the Son is in eternal submission to the Father.
      Chr A: Heretic! Arian! If He submits, then He is inferior and worth less!
      Chr B: …??

      • David Pitman

        Eternal submission is the error.

        • Jon45Solas

          I believe that you’re glossing over the point by getting hung up on the word “eternal”.

          The question is in whether or not submission equals ontological inferiority. Laying aside the term “eternal” for a moment, a common argument in this recent dust up is that one cannot be below another in rank and yet possess the same intrinsic worth, i.e. that the persons of the Godhead cannot exist as ontological equals where subordination is present.

          If that is the case, what does this do to the common complementarian claim that subordination in the marital relationship doesn’t imply any inferiority in intrinsic value? Likewise for parents and children.

      • Jon45Solas

        I figured I’d see you again lurking around the interwebz. Miss you on Twitter.

        Good post, BTW. Exactly some of the frustration I’m experiencing.

      • Dan, I think the difference has to do with the fundamental difference between the Trinity and the relationship between a husband and wife. Personal submission has different consequences when we’re talking about submission between two beings (marriage) versus one being (Trinity). Because “will” is a predicate of nature, not personhood, and because submission would seem to involve a distinction of wills, the final line in your trialogue should add, “If He submits, He’s got a different will which means He’s got a different being/nature.” Distinction of being is no problem in marriage, though, because it’s not two persons who share a single being, but two persons with distinct beings.

        At least that’s how I’m thinking about it. Clear as mud? 🙂

        • Dan Phillips

          At least!

          But in some of the anti-EFS rhetoric, I’m wondering, “Then what is a Trinity?” Three in one way, one in another, is the simplest way of saying it. But doesn’t it involve some distinction in roles? So we’ve always said, though, we add, don’t forget perichoresis, and simplicity.

          But if there’s distinction in roles, and one’s called Father and another Son, and the Bible’s fairly univocal as to some of the entailments of that relationship, and we’ve already agreed that submission does not necessarily imply less-worth…?

          Maybe at the very least some should sneer and smirk a little less when accusing brothers of inventing wholly new deities.

  • Jon45Solas

    Thanks. I found this to be helpful, and I think the eternal redemptive plan of God to be key in resolving this Trinitarian conflict.

    One small suggestion. Employ the services of a proofreader. I was a little distracted.

    • Thanks Jon.

      • Jon45Solas

        You bet. Keep up the good work.

    • Alex

      I agree, Jon. As Pastor MacArthur points out (via Jesse’s mention), even if we confine the Son’s submission to the plan of redemption – this is an eternal plan, established by the Father “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4) and continuing into perpetual eternity forward (1 Cor 15:27). So, I am comfortable limiting the submission of the Son to those restrictions.

      • Jon45Solas

        Did you happen to read Grudem’s post yesterday on Reformation 21 with the compilation of the quotes from the various theologians throughout history? It was a heavy blow, to say the least.


        I’m not sure yet about narrowing the scope of subordination language strictly to the plan of redemption. It would seem that a lot of theologians, including Jonathan Edwards, believe that the roles of the members of the Trinity in redemption is the natural outworking of something deeper within the roles of each. I’m still working on this one in my own thinking.

        • Alex

          Oh, I am also not particularly a proponent of limiting the Son’s subordination – precisely because I see it as a natural outworking of the character of the triune Godhead.

          My comment was meant as a tongue-in-cheek acquiescence to those who would.

          • Jon45Solas

            Sorry. I’m a little slow sometimes. Plus, the outerweb technology hasn’t developed enough for me to see whether or not anyone’s tongue might be planted in his cheek! ;-p

            Anyway, I’m thankful for this dust up in that I’m gleaning a lot of information that’ll be useful in solidifying my thinking on the matter. I guess you could call me someone who has basically taken the EFS position for granted, more or less oblivious to the idea that people with mostly similar orthodox views would ever find fault with it. I was quite surprised (to say the least) when I read Goligher’s belief that adherents should be stripped of their offices in the church. My guess is that he’s going to regret several statements he’s made, and maybe does already (his tone seems quite a bit softer in his latest post).

  • Lyndon Unger

    Wow. The comments on here.

    “You totally don’t get it at all”

    “Get a proof-reader”.

    Some of us with “good theology” are sadly the biggest bunch of bed-wetters imaginable.

    Thanks for the hard work of researching and writing something that helps those of us who haven’t had the time or concern to bother sorting through this recent theological indigestion. I appreciate your hard work Jesse.

    • David Pitman

      Calm down there pardner! BTW, giving up thumb-sucking might help you with your bed-wetting problem. 😉

    • Jon45Solas

      Asking for a little more care in avoiding typos is bed-wetting?

      I figured it was just the sort of helpful criticism that I would appreciate if others did for me.

    • Thansk Lyndon.

  • Roger Ball

    Great post.
    Not sure what this is worth, but I came up with different approach, or at least one I’ve never heard before, that I found somewhat helpful.

    Ontologically speaking, I believe it can be said that God, God, and God had a meeting and decided to send God.

    To escape heresy, it would seem necessary to create a kind of “functional separation” between the personages and the divine.

    For instance, if you use the idea of “eternal means” or “the eternal means of personage,” I believe it helps to eliminate the problem of subordination disrupting their ontological equality.

    • Right. Although if you call it “the economic Trinity” it sounds more nuanced then “God, God, God had a meeting and decided…”

      • Roger Ball

        I understand what you’re saying, but I was using the ontological Trinity as a kind of play on words to show the necessity for a separation between the personages and the divine. By using the idea of “eternal means” it helps, in my opinion, to understand eternal generation.

  • Michael Beck

    As you say, it is interesting that EFS was clearly stated in 1993 but just now causing such a big concern. Also interesting that all the recent dust up began when Trueman/Byrd came off so strongly that women can teach men in Sunday School in a podcast on May 18, 2016. Others have said that this whole debate is motivated by an attempt to dismantle complementarianism as we currently understand it.

    Indeed, Trueman did write, “Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis. But this is a crisis of its own making…” And also, “So why, I wonder, have the Diva and I been slapped with the ‘downgrade’ label for distinguishing women teaching Sunday School from women holding ordained office and preaching, while the eternal submission of the Son to the Father is deemed quite acceptable – as long as it serves New Calvinists in their proposals about gender?”

    At what point does someone call red herring fallacy?

    • I totally agree. Plus, as Mike points out in today’s post, the argument for complementarianism should still stand even if submission is confined to his incarnation. At the very least, both sides of the EFS debate should be able to agree that there is submission in the incarnation of two ontologically equal persons, and it does not diminish the Son’s deity. But in reading Goligher’s post, I’m frankly not even sure if he would grant that, or if he would say submission is confined to the humanity of Christ, in which case it loses the ontological equality argument (I guess).

  • John

    Thanks Jesse. This is very helpful. FYI – here’s another article (part 1) that clarifies issues along similar lines:

    • Thanks John. I hadn’t seen that post, and I found it very helpful. Especially this warning:
      “However we speak about the triune God, we must not collapse the economic Trinity into the ontological Trinity just as we must not separate them. God is as he reveals himself to be.”

  • Tim Bates

    Will women submit to men in Heaven?
    Or was such submission only for wives and only to their living husbands?
    There’s clearly a temporal limitation to such submission and its submission is restricted to a presence on Earth.
    I would argue that Christ’s submission is limited to His incarnate presence on Earth as well.

    I’m also struggling to see eternal functional submission in Revelation. I know you recently preached through it (or still are) so are you seeing it there?

    • Alex

      I’m not sure if you can argue eternal submission from this passage, but 1 Cor 15:24-28 certainly seem to present everlasting submission by Christ of all things the Father has given Him returned to the Father in heaven. So, we can say that the argument for an unending submission to the Father is strong. The question would be whether or there is reason to see this submission into eternity past.

    • Here are a few reasons I see submission existing before the incarnation. This was going to be part of the post above, but I cut it for space:

      • The plan of salvation was conceived before creation, and as part of that plan, Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
      • The Father sent Jesus before his incarnation. Over 30 times, John’s gospel says that Jesus was sent by the Father, and it is simply unnecessary to tie all of those verses to the act of incarnation. It makes more sense to see the Father’s sending as something agreed upon in eternity past.
      • The term “Son” is often used in relation to the plan of redemption, and clearly this plan was put in motion before creation (Eph 1:4 ; 2 Thess 2:13 ; 2 Tim 1:9 ; Titus 1:2 ; 1 Peter 1:20 ; 1 Cor 2:7 ). Call it a covenant, a plan, a decree, or a sending, but clearly the second person of the Godhead participated in these plans, and submitted himself to the Father to enact them.
      • The theophanies of the second person of the Trinity in the Old Testament often portray the physical manifestation of deity as the “messenger” of God. By acting as his Father’s messenger, the Son certainly implies submission pre-incarnation.

      • calebkolstad

        I appreciate your research and your gracious back and forth interaction with Mike. This debate has brought many related issues to the surface.

      • Tim Bates

        I’ll let more qualified folk reply to those points (which are admittedly strong).

        For further semi-related discussion: Did Jesus have a body prior to His incarnation?

        • Tim Bates

          Also, you didn’t answer my questions…which is typical of heretics like you!!!!
          *Please don’t remember my accusation in a week when I’ve changed position.

    • Thanks Tim: I don’t see any teaching that women will submit to men in heaven, and agree that there is a temporal limitation to submisision in marriage.
      Great point on Revelation. I mean he is the Lamb that was slain, but he is also the Lamb standing in the center of the throne like a lion. I’ll need a few more months to work through that question 😉

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