No doubt, when many people hear the word subordination, they immediately conjure up images in their minds like this one above, or worse.
And, outside of Christian circles, if you mention the word “Trinity” many people might immediately think of this:
There’s no question the words can appropriately be used in those ways, and yet, when referring to the trinitarian God of the Bible, none of them would actually be accurate. Problem is, the propensity for our minds to jump to these sorts of images – particularly the first one – is one of the first hurdles that needs to be overcome when we try to deal with the subject of the eternal functional submission of Christ within the Trinity. For the minute you hear “subordination” and think “subjugation” or “superiority” you’ve immediately lost the true picture of what is meant.
There are two key terms often used in theological circles when referring to the Trinity. The first refers to the nature or being of the Trinity both corporately and with respect to each Person of the Trinity (Ontological/Immanent Trinity). The second refers to how the various persons of the Trinity operate, basically what they do (Functional/Economic Trinity). Opponents of the eternal functional subordination (EFS hereafter) of Christ often state that these are, essentially, one and the same thing but, respectfully, and logically, I see difficulties in saying that who someone is in the essence of their being (deity or not) is the same thing as what they do or their function – the two are, no doubt, very closely aligned, but certainly not interchangeable. I will not labour to prove that premise further, but simply leave it there as a largely self-evident truth.
So what is meant when referring to the eternal functional subordination of Christ? I’ll deal with this in two parts:
1. The subordination of Christ in His incarnation
Here, actually, both sides generally agree that Christ was – in some measure – subordinate to the Father in His incarnation. After all, Jesus is the One who is sent, not the Father (John 20:21); Jesus is the One who suffered and died and was raised back to life, not the Father (1 Cor. 15:3-4); Jesus is the One who left His glory in heaven and took on flesh (Phil. 2:5-11), all according to the Father’s will (John 6:38), not the Father. So most would agree that Christ was subordinate to the Father in His incarnation and all that His earthly life entailed, carrying out the will of the Father who sent Him.
2. The eternal subordination of Christ within the Trinity
The real disagreement comes when one begins to say that Christ was only subordinate to the Father in His incarnation, and that now He is no longer so. This is where those fancy terms I mentioned earlier become so important. Opponents of EFS often are quick to say that all the members of the Trinity are equal and it is problematic to speak of hierarchy within a co-equal Trinity. Proponents of EFS would actually agree and quickly point out that this is why the position is called eternal functional subordination, not eternal ontological subordination. To speak of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit for that mater) as in any sense being less God, contradicts both the Scriptures and what is clearly laid out in both the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. All three Persons of the Trinity are absolutely co-equal in essence (ontology). And yet, for someone to function in a role that is subordinate, submissive to, or “beneath” another person, in no way necessitates seeing them an ontologically inferior. If you have a boss that you work for, doing his will and performing your job in no way means that you are somehow less of a person by nature; a lower form of humanity somehow. Wives are commanded to be submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24) and yet that in no way makes them inferior human beings and not co-equal image bearers of God; co-equal in significance and dignity. The same could be said of children and parents (Eph. 6:1).
So we see that functioning in a role beneath someone, does not mean that they are in any sense lesser. This is how we can say that Christ (as well as the Holy Spirit for that matter) are functionally subordinate to the Father. Along with that, we could say the Holy Spirit – though equally God Himself) is also functionally subordinate to Christ in that one of His primary roles is to point, not to Himself, but to Christ (John 15:26).
Where do we see Christ eternally functioning in a subordinate role in Scripture?
Good question – I’m glad you asked. There are a few key passages where I see this:
1. 1 Cor. 15:27-28
Here Paul is very clear that Christ will deliver the kingdom to the Father, and that the Father will put all things in subjection under Christ, but he is also clear that the Father will not be put under Christ, basically b/c He (the Father) is the One placing all rings under Christ, so He Himself must have a superior role. “The Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things in subjection under Him, that God may be all in all.” (v.28)
2. Rev. 13:8
Here John describes Christ as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (NIV84).” Therefore, as above, if we are already in agreement that Jesus’ function as the One sent to accomplish the Father’s will, as coming to live and die for the sins of mankind, was a subordinate function, then here the Scriptures tell us this was, in some sense, accomplished before the foundations of the world. This is surely how the saints of the OT could be justified by a forward looking faith in the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) b/c Christ’s mediatory function was already, in some sense, accomplished. From this we could say Jesus was functionally subordinate before His incarnation.
3. Acts 1:11 (cf. Phil. 2:5-11)
This is, perhaps, less obvious but if we are in agreement, again as above, that Jesus’ function was a subordinate one in His incarnation, then Acts 1:11 tells us that a part of the subordinate function (taking on of flesh) actually continues on to this day (albeit it is now a glorified flesh) b/c we are told that Jesus will “come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” Therefore, Jesus continues to this day, and until He returns, in His humble, subordinate nature that He took on and we read about in Phil. 2:5-11. Now yes, Paul tells us in Phil. 2 that b/c of Jesus willingness to do this God “exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him a Name that is above every other” but He does not say that His now glorified body was taken off. In fact, given what we said in the verse above (Rev. 13:8) it also may not be inaccurate to say that, for Jesus to be “slain before the foundation of the world” that He already had taken on human form, in some sense anyways, in order to be able to be slain. The point is, however, that Christ still continues in His subordinate form that He “took on” and we read about in Phil. 2, and so we can say that He continues to function in willing subordination to the Father even after He ascended into heaven.
Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge are quoted as saying,
“The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul.“
This is undoubtedly true. And yet I trust I have proved (at the very least) that it is entirely acceptable to speak of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (Jesus) to the Father, w/o doing any damage to biblical, Nicene and Chalcedonian understandings of the nature and Person of Christ; the second Person of the Trinity.