Note: I want to acknowledge one of our contributors and team members Andrew Warrick for some major changes in this work in reviewing/editing. We try to have each team member review each other’s posts before posting them and sometimes a team member will make changes in the editing process to a work that is up for a particular week. In this case I think it was substantial enough that I want to give Andrew credit.
The Jeffrey Johnson debate surrounding his new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology,” has made waves in the Reformed world with regards to theology proper specifically. But it seems his employee and sidekick Owen Strachan has his own way of stirring the pot. In a book that he and Gavin Peacock authored, “The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them,” there is discussion about authority and submission in the Trinity. Even though this book was published in 2016, his understanding of God ad intra still causes controversy today. Let us begin.
Paul explains this parallel in 1 Cor. 11:3 ‘But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.’ The Son does the Father’s will: ‘I do exactly as the Father commanded me,’ Christ said in John 14:31. He submitted Himself to the Father’s will (John 6:38). This posture of submission to fatherly authority did not begin the day Jesus came to earth. The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been. The Son joyfully carries out the plan of His Father. The persons of the Godhead are not impersonal, with only titles to differentiate them. They are living persons, and their own love has structure and form. The Father as Father has authority; the Son as Son obeys His Father.The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, Kindle Edition
Now before you run away screaming, let us see why this is such a poor (and I dare say heretical) understanding of the Trinity, especially the relationship between the Father and the Son ad intra. Now, to the untrained eye this understanding of the Persons may fly under the radar. Jesus is the Son and it makes sense that he should submit to the Father ad intra. From a human standpoint submission is exactly what happens. I, as a son of my father, submitted to him. But applying that understanding to the Trinity would assume that the Father and Son as the subsisting essence of God function exactly like we do from a human standpoint. God’s “society” must function univocally, at least to some extent, as our society does. But God cannot be made like corruptible man or we have created an idol (Romans 1:22-23).
What must be kept in mind and what is lost in the authors’ discussion above is that Jesus has (yes, present tense) two natures.
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,”Colossians 2:9 ESV
There is no accounting for the fact that in this mysterious union of divine and human nature there are things that are only to be posited of one nature or the other. Jesus slept, ate, grew, learned, all according to His human nature ONLY. This would also include submission. There is submission to God according to his human nature only thereby allowing us to consistently say the head of Christ is God while preserving the unity of the divine essence of God. It is assumed by the authors that Scripture must be talking about God ad intra in addition to the human nature of Christ. This is a fatal mistake. Never mind both John 14 and 6 are during the Incarnation meaning Jesus would be speaking according to His humanity back to the Father or in relation to Him (only Jesus’ human nature taking on relation, with nothing created in the essence of God). Yes, Jesus did act according to His divine nature while on earth, but if we have a proper understanding of God we can understand why this can’t be the case in every instance.
Two cardinal doctrines must be kept in mind: God is simple and God is immutable. If these are held dearly there will be no room for the error that Peacock and Strachan make. God’s simplicity means He is not composed of parts and is not divisible. And His immutability means God does not change. And not just that he doesn’t change and remains still with potency, but that He cannot change in any way as finite creation would. Divine simplicity ensures this. Movement would mean change and God would take on new states of being. Further discussion of these two doctrines can be found in our podcast episode reviewing Jeff Johnsons book here.
Given the backdrop of these two doctrines, we can now move onto a discussion of why Jesus cannot in any way be subordinate (as Owen and Peacock assert) to the Father according to His Deity. Now, Strachan has said in a recent article that,
One of those areas is the eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son (called ERAS, eternal roles of authority and submission). There are a bevy of texts that have led many theologians to conclude that Scripture teaches the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son. As I read it, Scripture presents such truth while continually promoting the full ontological equality of the Father and Son; the Father and Son are coeternal and each fully a divine person.The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy (https://owenstrachan.substack.com/p/the-danger-of-equating-eternal-authority)
This is problematic as we have noted already, but notice there is this distinction made between the Persons and the essence of God, as if each Person is some kind of additional “something” on top of the essence rather than simply being a different subsistence of that essence. In Owen’s model, the Persons submit but somehow there is no submission in the Godhead as it relates to the being of God. Simplicity has already been undermined, as he implies there is a real distinction between the Persons and the essence of God to the point where each Person possesses distinct actual properties (as opposed to the relative properties) that exist outside of God’s being, enabling the Son to have a separate will that can be submitted to the Father. In other words, they have wills outside the essence of Deity. This is not the same thing as subsisting relations in the divine, this is creating a distinction that makes “Persons” and “essence” partite. Understanding the procession of the Persons properly will keep us from errors like this. When we talk about procession of the Son from the Father the question is, a procession from what? There has to be something that Jesus is proceeding from and it has to be the essence of the Father. John 20:21 lays out the procession of Christ from the Father. If the Father is eternal and He is infinite, simple, and immutable, it must be an eternal procession, one that does not divide or start and terminate yet really distinguishes the Father from the Son. But because Jesus proceeds from the essence of the Father, they must be equals since there is but one essence of God that each of the three persons subsist in. Each Person of the Trinity is the essence of God and therefore subsists, and this means there is no real distinction between what the Persons do and what the essence does. They are only distinguished from one another by where their relations “begin.” This preserves the unity of God while providing us with real distinction in the Godhead.
As soon as you insert gradations of authority within the immanent Trinity, gradations that are person-defining and therefore essential for the Trinity to be a Trinity, you forfeit one will in God. You forfeit the Trinity’s one, simple essence. Our God is simply Trinity…no more.Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, page 229
God’s nature is compromised if authority, functions, etc. are posited to the Trinity. Seeing Jesus simply as the Father’s essence is to avoid falling into the trap of breaking God up into parts. John Owen noted that the divine essence is simply subsisting specially for a divine person when he said, “Now, a divine person is nothing but the divine essence, upon the account of an especial property, subsisting in an especial manner.” (A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity and also of The Person and Satisfaction of Christ). Subsistence helps us to avoid falling into the error of division and roles because it’s simply (no pun intended) God existing as three. No division, no subordination, just “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
…subordination would absolutely throw into question the divine equality attributed to the Son. And should EFSers object that they only mean the Son is inferior in authority (person), not essence (divinity), let’s not forget that the Son is a subsistence of the divine essence. Begotten from the Father’s essence from all eternity…the Son can be nothing less than equal with the Father in every way. For the divine essence cannot be severed, wrenched away, or divorced from divine power, authority, and glory, each of which subsists in the three persons equally.Matthew Barret, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit page 236
I will clarify, Owen would not claim to be an “EFSer” (Eternal Functional Subordination) but a proponent of ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission) but based on Barret’s assessment, they have the same problem. Namely, that there is a personal difference in authority, not ontologically so. Being very careful with our words about God and our conception of Him will help us to avoid errors like these. Since Owen has been the center of the subordination controversy lately, I’m picking on him but he is by no means alone although it may present itself differently. Owen is continuing down a dangerous path, one that can only lead to destruction if continued. We need to bring God back to the focal point of our theology. Critical race theory, theonomy, complimentarianism, or abortion should not be our focus. These are important issues and they must be addressed but nothing is more important than who our God is. We must let this stick in our brains and our souls. Idolatry takes many forms, not just in statues made by man. Many idols wear religious garb. They look so appealing and entice with a passion, but the church needs to act like men, and stop sleeping while the enemy takes prisoners and slaughters behind our backs. Only then will we recover a proper doctrine of our incredible God. Men have labored hard by God’s grace to provide us what the Scriptures teach on God — not exhaustively, but in a way we can know Him truly. Let us stand on the shoulders of these vessels of grace.