Subordination in Scripture: Indivisible Divine Authority in Mutually Defining Relations

In the previous post in this series, I made some remarks upon the meaning of the term κεφαλή, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:3. Challenging the supposed meaning of this term among certain advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position is important. Not only does it unsettle the frameworks within which authority is conceived of more generally, it also checks a tendency in the direction of univocally applying terms to God and humanity. However, there remains more to be said.

In particular, granting, purely for the sake of argument, that κεφαλή means 'one in authority (over),' we still haven't determined over whom the Father would be in authority. The assumption that the term 'Christ' is interchangeable with 'Son' in the dogmatic sense of that term is unjustified, as the first term relates to the Son in his human nature, while the second (in the context of dogmatic theology) more typically relates to the Son in his divine nature.

This distinction is not a trivial one, as orthodox theology has readily confessed a submission and obedience proper to Christ in his human nature, a submission which is not appropriate to his divine nature. Calvin writes:

"God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."1

The question of whether a relation of authority and submission obtains between Father and Son in the eternal life of the Trinity is an important one, as our answer to it will frame our understanding of the work of the Son in the divine economy. Such an emphasis upon the oneness and unity of the divine will and authority protects us from the danger of slipping into conceiving of Christ principally as an obedient functionary of the divine will and authority, both of which are associated primarily with the Father. As a man, Christ stands on the human side of the Creator-creature relation, obedient to the will and subject to the authority of God. However, as divine, the will and authority of God is Christ's will and authority. In Jesus of Nazareth, we meet the authoritative God who wills to save. A robust doctrine of the Trinity allows us to retain the strength of this crucial emphasis.

This does not mean no economic differentiation between the persons can be spoken of here. As John Webster writes:

"Indivisibility does not disqualify personal differentiation or restrict it simply to the opera internae. It indicates that economic differentiation is modal, not real, and reinforces the importance of prepositional rather than substantive differentiation ('from' the Father, 'through' the Son, 'in' the Spirit). Modal differentiation does not deny personal agency, however; it simply specifies how the divine persons act. '[T]he several persons', Owen notes, 'are undivided in their operations, acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, because each person is God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations; and this ariseth from the unity of the person in the same essence.'"

Relating this to divine authority, we could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One--authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God's authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead.

This in turn can serve to clarify our understanding of the incarnate Christ's mission. Rather than understanding the Son's relation to the Father in terms of a framework of authority and submission, this suggests that we should think in terms of different modes of a single, undivided divine authority. It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.

The manner in which the Son brings about the authority of God in history is through the path of human obedience. As a man with a human nature and will Christ submits to and is obedient to the will of God. However, this obedience can only truly be perceived for what it is when it is seen against the background of the fact that he is the authoritative divine Son. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can command the elements, cast out demons, and heal the sick, exercising the authority of God as his own. He is the one who receives the Spirit without measure and the radiant and glorious theophanic revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are left in no doubt of the divine authority of Christ. The obedience and humiliation of Christ is the (paradoxically) authoritative work by which he overcomes human rebellion, reconciles humanity to God, and defeats Satan.

As we recognize this, it is possible to appreciate the work of Christ as revelatory of and congruent with the eternal relation between the Father and Son, without collapsing the necessary distinctions between the two and reading back Christ's human obedience and submission into the being of God. This obedience and submission exists on account of the revelation of the Father-Son relation within the framework of the Creator-creature divide. However, when we look closer, what is seen is not just the Son's self-rendering in obedience to the Father, but also the Father's exhaustive donation of authority to his Son.

This undoes any simplistic authority-submission polarity. God cannot be alienated from his authority nor give his glory to another. Yet God's authority and glory are found precisely in Christ, the Son who bears the divine name (cf. John 8:58; Philippians 2:9). The Father and the Son are mutually defining (as the names 'Father' and 'Son' suggest). The Father is glorified as the authority of his Son is confessed, as the Father is who he is only in relation to his Son (Philippians 2:11). The Son is the one through whom the Father's authority is effected; the Father is the one from whom the Son's authority comes: the authority of Father and Son is the one indivisible divine authority.

A further important passage for the ESS position is found in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, which speaks of the Son delivering up the kingdom to the Father in the end, and being subject to him. Once again, it is important to bear in mind that this reveals Triune relations in terms of the Creator-creature framework. This passage refers, not to the eternal relation between Father and Son, but to the culminating moment in the great drama of redemption, the moment when the submission of the Son arrives at its perfect completion. The submission of the Son in these verses is not a reference to the eternal unbroken relation between Father and Son in the Godhead, but to the climax of the work of the incarnate Son, when his mission arrives at its final telos, the reality of his authoritative obedience has been utterly fulfilled, and the complete divine authority he has effected is exhaustively related back to the Father as its source.

A closer look at this passage reveals the mutually defining relation between Father and Son. All divine authority in the world is effected through the Son and without him no divine authority is effected--all things are put under him. Indeed, the Son's effecting of the divine authority is the precondition for the Father's being all in all. On the other hand, it is the Father who exhaustively authorizes the Son. The Father places all things under his Son; the Son renders all things up to the Father. Once again, the differentiation between the persons is, as Webster observed above, a modal or prepositional differentiation of a single divine property--the one divine authority and will.

Getting these points correct is very important, not simply for orthodox conformity to Trinitarian creeds, but for a clear understanding of the shape of the biblical narrative, and of the authoritative Saviour that we have in Jesus Christ. The creeds exist to serve and advance this clarity. Within my next post, I will offer some concluding reflections that we can take forward from these debates.