Eternal Submission and the Story of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

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[Editor's Note: The editorial team, being aware of Dr. Glenn Butner's 2015 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society ("Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will") asked him if he would be willing to distill the contents of that article into a post for Reformation 21 while engaging the current controversy. While not necessarily reflecting the position of Reformation 21 on this issue, we do believe that this post contributes helpfully to the present discussion and brings some much needed historical context to the debate.]

Debates about the eternal submission of the Son often follow the approach of medieval florilegia, each side drawing brief quotations from various patristic, Reformation, and contemporary theologians appearing to affirm or reject the author's position. This is methodologically flawed for two reasons: 1) isolated quotes can be misleading when not interpreted in the context of that author's entire work, but more importantly 2) isolated quotes are not situated in the context of the development of theological doctrine. For example, Mike Ovey notes that Athanasius speaks of the eternal obedience of the Son to the Father in Contra Arianos II.3-4. If this is true - and I've not considered the passage in terms of Athanasius's entire work - it proves little given that Athanasius was writing before patristic developments had clarified the relationship between Christ's humanity and divinity at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) and prior to the first ancient Mediterranean philosophy of will was developed by Maximus the Confessor, whose teachings were affirmed at the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81 AD), but Christ's humanity and will are precisely what is under consideration. To fully grasp the implications of eternal submission of the Son, we need to recognize that Athanasius was writing before the necessary metaphysical apparatus was developed, and we need to turn to the history of the development of doctrine to assess not whether there is patristic precedent, but rather what the dogmatic implications of the eternal submission of the Son would be for the doctrinal consensus emerging from the patristic era. For this reason, the debate about eternal submission must be linked with the story of the seven ecumenical councils of the early church, which I will now briefly attempt at a level accessible to an educated lay audience. 

The First Council of Nicea (325 AD) was called to respond to Arianism's challenge to the Son's full divinity. Nicea affirmed the full divinity of the Son while calling the Son homoousios (of one being) with the Father. Decades of debate concerning the Nicene creed's meaning and significance led to the First council of Constantinople (381 AD), where the Nicene creed was reaffirmed and slightly clarified, but also interpreted through an accompanying theology that recognizes Father and Son both as homousious but also as distinct hypostases (or persons) such that the Father is not the Son nor the Son the Father. The standard objection to eternal functional subordination argues that it implies Arianism, but such is not clearly the case in reference to Nicea insofar as theologians like Bruce Ware explicitly argue that they are using "submission" in reference to the distinct hypostases (see Ware, On God in Three Persons, p. 244). The resulting important question is whether words like submission can be retained with subsequent creedal developments, a question which requires us to turn to later ecumenical councils where early Christians attempted to fit the entire Biblical account of Jesus' life and work into a coherent metaphysical and theological system.

If the Son is "very God of very God, begotten, not made, homoousios with the Father" (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) how is the Son also human? The First Council of Ephesus (431 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon provided an answer in the hypostatic union, which taught that in the incarnation the divine hypostasis of the Son must be "acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably" (Chalcedonian Definition). These councils give us the basic grammar of orthodox Christology. Jesus Christ is one person in two natures. The two natures allow us to speak of the distinction between God and humanity, thereby retaining the Creator/creature distinction. The single hypostasis allows us to speak of Christ's unity such that we can make sense of both the gospel narratives and Christ's salvific work. The metaphysics of Ephesus I and Chalcedon were upheld in the Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD). 

One concern of Chalcedon was to affirm that Jesus was "perfect in Godhood and also perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human" (the Chalcedonian Definition). Jesus' full humanity was challenged by a series of doctrinal proposals. Appolinarianism presented a Christ with no human mind, and monotheletism presented a Christ with no human will. Chalcedon rejected the first teaching, and the Third Council of Constantinople rejected the second. We need to affirm that Jesus had a human mind and will to make sense of the whole testimony of Scripture. For example, a human and divine will in Christ makes sense of Jesus being tempted (Matt. 4:1-11, Heb. 4:15) while also being fully God, where God cannot be tempted (James 1:13): Jesus was tempted in his human will. A fully human mind in Christ makes sense of Jesus not knowing the time of the second coming (Matt. 24:36) while still being omniscient God: Jesus, while still fully God and omnipotent, was in some respect only accessing his limited human mind during his incarnate ministry. Of course, the implications of the full humanity of Christ for salvation are also substantial. Constantinople III reveals the problem with speaking of the eternal submission of the Son. In Mike Ovey's own words, "Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself." For the Son to eternally submit to the Father, the Son must have a distinct will from the Father. Constantinople III demands that the incarnate Son has a human and a divine will, but Chalcedon teaches that Christ only has a human nature, not a human hypostasis. If the Son has a human will, then will must be a property of nature. If will is a property of nature, then eternal submission would require that the Father and Son have distinct natures. Or, we can take the approach of monothelitism and argue that will is a property of person, as Bruce Ware and others explicitly argue, but then we lack a savior who is fully human, for certainly full humanity requires possession of a human will, and according to Chalcedon Jesus only possessed a human nature, not a human person.

Regardless of any precedent among earlier theologians, attention to Constantinople III reveals the fact that advocating eternal submission of the Son creates a great rift in the metaphysical foundations of the edifice of Christian doctrine. What is present here is perhaps best labeled a dangerous inconsistency, rather than a heresy. Ware, Grudem, Ovey, and others affirm the homoousios and the Chalcedonian definition, just as they reject monothelitism, but they simultaneously teach a doctrine whose logical implications undermine those same affirmations. What today is an inconsistency may tomorrow become heresy as subsequent generations of evangelical theologians work out the implications of eternal submission for systematic theology and move away from orthodoxy. Granted, advocates of eternal submission have adopted several ultimately failed lines of metaphysical defense. For Ovey, this means affirming that, yes, will can be treated as a property of nature, but it is also a property of hypostasis. Setting aside for the moment the fact that, historically speaking, hypostasis did not mean what Ovey means in speaking of persons, I must point out the metaphysical problem of Ovey's argument: if properties like will belong to both nature and person, how do we distinguish between the very idea of "nature" and "person?" Without such a distinction, Chalcedon's solution to the Christological problem collapses, and we lack a way to speak of how Jesus' humanity and divinity are distinct while retaining the unity of Christ. Perhaps the best metaphysical option here is to distinguish between will and mode of willing, where will is a property of nature but each divine hypostasis has a unique mode of willing. Even here, I do not find it acceptable to speak of "submission" as the Son's mode of willing. If will is a property of nature (as Constantinople III demands) the Son has a will numerically identical to the Father with whom he is homoousios. The Son's eternal foreknowledge entails he would have known what must be done and would eternally have planned to do it. The Son cannot do anything but the good action in accordance with the divine character. This mode of willing doesn't fit the word "submission," nor does it illuminate the time-bound, sin-laden, finite relationship between a husband and wife who each have their own will.

Of course, if the metaphysics of the ecumenical councils cannot be salvaged, and if they do not agree with the Bible, they must be abandoned. This is what evangelicals have rightly done with the seventh ecumenical council, Nicea II (787 AD), which upheld the veneration of icons. However, I simply don't see the scriptural warrant for such a move in the case of eternal submission. Biblical language about the sending of the Son, eternal election in the Son, or the Father as the head of the Son can be interpreted along medieval lines, where the mission of the Son is rooted in the eternal procession of the Son from the Father through generation. The only passage that explicitly speaks of the Son submitting before the incarnation or after the resurrection is 1 Cor. 15:28. Given the context of 15:21 calling Christ the man who brought resurrection, and 1 Cor. 15's use of the Second Adam motif, I believe that Christ's humanity is in view here. Therefore, I consider eternal submission Scripturally unwarranted and deeply problematic. Of course this blog post is woefully underdeveloped. Full treatment of historical context and of the systematic implication of eternal submission will require a much lengthier work. However, apart from such treatment, we lack an adequate basis for analyzing the issue of eternal submission of the Son, and we are left with a series of all-too-brief blog posts that are heavy on accusations of heresy and debates about precedent, but light on analysis of the systematic ramifications of one's view of the Trinity. And make no mistake: one's view of the Trinity affects every dimension of systematic theology. This is why it is so important to stop an inconsistency today, before it becomes heresy tomorrow.

D. Glenn Butner, Jr. graduated with a Ph.D. in Theology from Marquette University in May. In the fall he will move with his wife and son to assume the role of Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Sterling College in Sterling, KS.

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