Equal in Power, Unequal in Authority?
During the Trinity debate two summers ago, there were a handful of attempts to reconcile orthodox teaching on the Trinity with the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). One approach was to make a distinction between divine power and divine authority. Some proponents of ESS said they affirmed that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in power. However, they believe the Father, Son, and Spirit are unequal in authority. ESS teaches that the Father has authority that the Son and Spirit don't have.
In November 2016, at the ETS panel on the Trinity, Wayne Grudem attempted to distinguish between God's divine power and His divine authority. He explained: "authority (as we understand it here) is a property of relationship, not an attribute of one's being (an ontological attribute) (omnipotence is an attribute)."1
This is important to highlight because the orthodox creeds and confessions say the persons of the Trinity are equal in power. To say that the Son is equal to the Father in power but that the Father is supreme in authority, proponents of ESS have had to make a distinction between power and authority.
Grudem believes that authority is not a divine attribute; it's "just there," and it belongs to the Father:
And in this most basic of all relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in all attributes and perfections, but authority is just there. Authority belongs to the Father, not because He is wiser or a more skillful leader, but just because He is Father. Authority and submission is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.2
Does that distinction work? Can ESS be reconciled with the orthodox Nicene doctrine of the Trinity? Can the Father and the Son be equal in power as the creeds and confessions teach but have different levels of authority as ESS teaches? Are power and authority different things?
Not according to the Bible or to orthodox Christian writers over the centuries since the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The consistent orthodox teaching of the church is to attribute the same power and authority to the Son as the Father. As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary on John 5:19, "He had said that he worked with his Father, by the same authority and power, and hereby he made himself equal with God."3
In the same ETS panel in November, Kevin Giles noted that the words "power" and "authority" are usually synonyms in New Testament usage.4 He's right. Looking through the various passages that speak of power and authority in the Bible, the terms are used interchangeably along with "might" and "rule." No distinction is made regarding power and authority.
We do the same in English. We use power and authority to mean the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines authority as "the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience."5 Power is defined as "possession of control, authority, or influence over others."6 So authority is power, power is authority. It's senseless to make a distinction between power and authority as if they were completely separate ideas.
In the Bible, God's power and His authority are declared by two divine titles: "Almighty" and "Lord." The word almighty is translated from the Greek, pantokrator which Strong's defines as "he who holds sway over all things; the ruler of all; almighty: God."7 Almighty defines God's absolute and universal sovereignty and His omnipotence, or all-powerful rule. It's used as a title both for Jesus, the Son of God (Rev. 1:8), and for God the Father (Rev. 16:7).
The divine title, Lord, is used both in the Old and New Testaments to refer to God. In Hebrew, the word for Lord is adonai. In Greek, it's kurios which Strong's defines as "supreme in authority, i.e. (as noun) controller; by implication, Master (as a respectful title) -- God, Lord, master, Sir."8 Scripture uses kurios both for Jesus, the Son of God (Rev. 19:6), and for God the Father (Rev. 11:15).
Jesus, the Son of God, is both the Almighty and Lord. These divine titles declare His power and authority. The Bible doesn't make a distinction between God's authority and His power. To confess that God is one in power or omnipotence is to confess that God is one in sovereignty and authority. There is no orthodox way to allow for a difference in authority within the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit must be equal in authority, or they aren't equally God.
This is why it's particularly disturbing to read Grudem's comment on what it means to sit at the right hand of God. He says the right hand is "a position of authority second only to the LORD, the king and ruler of the entire universe."9 But when we're talking about Christ, He isn't just sitting next to the LORD. He is the LORD. As God, He is the king and ruler of the universe. He is equal in power and authority with the Father.
Despite claims to the contrary, there are many examples of equating God's power and authority from the early church. We find several of these in Rev. Daniel Waterland's writings on the Athanasian Creed addressing Arian-like errors in the 1700s. He quotes from several of the early church fathers to specifically answers the claim that the Father is supreme in authority. Of Tertullian (160 AD - 220 AD), Waterland states:
Tertullian's notion of one common supreme authority is exactly the same as mine: that the three Persons are of one state, one substance, one divinity, one supreme power and authority, as being one God.10
Waterland also appeals to Alexander of Alexandria (250 AD - 326 AD) to deny his opponent's claim that the Father has supreme authority:
Alexander no where says, with you, that the Father alone has "supreme authority, sovereignty, and dominion:" he was too wise and too good a man to divide the Son from the Father.11
He also quotes Gregory Nyssen (335 AD - 394 AD) who wrote that the Son must have the same power and authority as the Father:
For while he is in the Father, he is together with his whole power, in the Father: and as he hath the Father in himself, he must contain the whole power and authority of the Father. For, he has the entire Father in himself, and not a part only: wherefore having the Father entire, he must have his authority also entire.12
When Waterland's Arian-esque opponent claimed not to be able to find any church fathers who said the Son had equal authority with the Father, Waterland replies, "It is either a poor quibble upon the word authority, or else betrays your great want of reading."13 Seems the arguments haven't changed much over the years.
Another of the church fathers, John of Damascus (676 AD - 749 AD) wrote:
We believe, then, in One God, ... one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty.14
All of these sources demonstrate that the orthodox Christian faith has never taught that there's a distinction between God's divine power and His divine authority. They're one and the same. This equality of authority is crucial because without it God the Son and God the Spirit are diminished in their divinity. They are somehow less than God.
The doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is contrary to classic, orthodox teaching on the Trinity. It's contrary to Scripture. It denies the full divinity of Jesus and tends towards a hierarchy where the Father alone is worshipped and glorified as supreme. While these are no doubt unintended consequences, they are the unfortunate end results of ESS.
If the contemplation of who God is and what God does, both as the Triune God and as the Father, Son, and Spirit distinctly, doesn't drive believers to worship and glorify the One Triune God, then those thoughts aren't teaching the truth about God. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are co-equal in power, majesty, and authority. And together they are worshipped and glorified as God.
As Gregory of Nazianzus (329 AD - 390 AD) wrote:
No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.15
1. Wayne Grudem, "Why a Denial of the Son's Eternal Submission Threatens both the Trinity and the Bible" paper presented at the 66th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, San Antonio, Texas, November 15-17, 2016).
2. "Marriage and the Trinity," accessed July 2, 2018, https://www.reviveourhearts.com/radio/revive-our-hearts/marriage-and-the-trinity/.
3. Matthew Henry, "John 5:19," accessed July 2, 2018, http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/john/5.html, emphasis added.
4. Kevin Giles' "What is the Trinity Debate All About A Reformed Confessional Perspective" paper presented at the 66th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, San Antonio, Texas, November 15-17, 2016).
5. Merriam-Webster, s.v. "authority," accessed July 2, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority.
6. Merriam-Webster, s.v. "power," accessed July 2, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power.
7. "Strong's Number: 3841," accessed July 2, 2018, http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/pantokrator.html.
8. "Strong's Number: 2962," accessed July 2, 2018, http://biblehub.com/greek/2962.htm.
9. Wayne Grudem, "Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father," in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 248.
10. Daniel Waterland, The Works of the Rev. Daniel Waterland, D.D., Vol. 2 (Oxford: University Press, 1856), 459.
11. Ibid., 421.
12. Gregory Nyssen contr. Eunom. Orat. 1. p. 13, 14, 15, quoted in Daniel Waterland, The Works of the Rev. Daniel Waterland, D.D., Vol. 2 (Oxford: University Press, 1856) 401-402.
13. Daniel Waterland, The Works of the Rev. Daniel Waterland, D.D., Vol. 2 (Oxford: University Press, 1856), 538.
14. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book I), transl. by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 9. Ed by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1899).
15. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 40.41, transl. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Ed by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894).