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Revisiting Jesus’ Subordination to the Father Pt. 1

In this series of posts I am going to address specific texts that anti-Trinitarian groups and/or cults, i.e. Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ etc., use to show that Jesus is not equal to God due to the fact that the Scriptures teach that the Son is subject to the Father.

Distorting the Doctrine of the Trinity

Realizing that they cannot refute the overwhelming Biblical evidence in support of God being Triune, anti-Trinitarians are forced to distort what the doctrine of the Trinity actually teaches. They argue that since the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are fully God, and are all equal to the other, this basically means there is no hierarchy within the Godhead, and that none is greater than the other.

The fact is that it is simply wrong to say that Trinitarians believe that there is no hierarchy within the Godhead. This either exposes the ignorance or the dishonesty of the one making this claim.

Historically, the Church has always affirmed on the basis of God’s inspired Scriptures that the three eternally distinct Persons of the Godhead are co-equal in respect to their Divine substance, e.g. the Father and the Son (as well as the blessed Holy Spirit) are homoousion (of the same substance). However, the Church throughout the centuries has also taught and believed that the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father in terms of order or function. Early Christians have understood that the eternal Son’s functional or economic subordination to his eternal Father is due to their paternal/filial relationship, e.g. by virtue of being the eternally begotten Son Christ is subservient to the Father prior to, during, and after his Incarnation. After all, the NT does speak of the Father sending the Son, whereas the Son is never said to have sent the Father, a point which speaks volumes.

To state this in a different way, the Church has always held that there is an eternal hierarchy within the Godhead, one that implies that the three distinct Divine Persons are both equal in one respect but not so in another sense. On the basis of the Holy Scriptures the Church has emphasized that the inequality is not in relation to the uncreated Divine essence or eternal Being that is fully and equally shared by all of the eternally distinct members of the Godhead, but in respect to their function and relation to one another. Noted Evangelical NT scholar and systematic theologian Wayne Grudem puts it this way:

“Finally, it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God, and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person.

“This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase ‘ontological equality but economic subordination,’ where the word ontological means ‘being.’ Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say ‘equal in being but subordinate in role.’ Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally ‘Father’ and the Son is not eternally ‘Son.’

“This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son ‘was begotten of the Father before all ages’ and that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son.’” (Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 14. God in Three Persons: The Trinity – How can God be three persons, yet one God?, D. What Are the distinctions Between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?, 2. The Persons of the Trinity Eternally Existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, p. 251; underline emphasis ours)

Grudem then addresses those Evangelicals who would deny this essential truth, which has been affirmed and held from the very beginning of the Christian faith:

“Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicea (A.D. 325). So Charles Hodge says:

The Nicene doctrine includes, (1) the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority…. The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation….

The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothingand it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.

“Similarly, A. H. Strong says:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation….

The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father, or in other words an order of personality, office and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority…. We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father, but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office, and operation, not a subordination of essence.” (Ibid., pp. 251-252; underline emphasis ours)

It is evident why Zaatari chose to misrepresent the historic, orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity. He had to do so in order to attack a straw man since he knew he couldn’t refute the doctrine if it is properly defined.

With the foregoing in perspective, we can now proceed to the prooftexts that anti-Trinitarians employ against Christ’s essential coequality with the Father (

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