Subordination and the Immanent Trinity (pt1)

The other day Andrew Wilson posted a summary of Glenn Butner Jr’s critique of Eternal Functional Subordinationism, which reminded me that I attempted to write an essay on that subject during my M.A. three years ago. And since I am struggling for fresh content at the moment and occasionally like to post pieces that use long words and make me seem more erudite than I really am, I thought I would publish my essay!

So here, in five (relatively-bitesize) parts, is my attempt to answer the question ‘Is the Son Subordinate to the Father in the Immanent Trinity?’ 

Forgive the ridiculous number of footnotes. And for those of you for whom this is deathly boring, rest assured, I’ll post a recipe or something light in the not-too-distant future!


Historical orthodox Trinitarianism holds that there is one God, eternally existing and fully expressed in three Persons; Father, Son and Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is equally, eternally and fully God. Each person is equal in essence, possessing fully and eternally the identically same nature, yet each is also an eternally distinct personal expression of the one undivided divine nature.

Whilst affirming the full ontological equality of the persons, some theologians argue that within this eternal coequality, there is order, consisting in part of authority and obedience. It is this claim that I wish to explore; in particular whether the Son is subordinate to the Father in the immanent Trinity.[1]

Much of the language employed in this debate is particularly charged and open to misunderstanding. Those who argue for the Son’s eternal subordination distinguish their brand of Subordinationism from that of the Arians, who taught not only functional but ontological subordination.[2] That both the Arian and purportedly-orthodox forms get labelled Subordinationism causes confusion.[3] Even those who argue for subordination recognise the shortcomings of terminology such as ‘hierarchy’ and ‘subordination’ since, in a fallen world, they connote inequality, subjugation and inferiority.[4] Some resist such language entirely, preferring to speak of ‘the submission of the Son eternally.’[5] Still, within this essay, I shall use the terms Subordinationist and non-Subordinationist to delineate between the debating parties. Subordinationism should be understood as the proponents would wish; implying personal distinction within the Trinity, particularly pertaining to functions, but complete ontological equality.

In recent times, this discussion has been closely wedded to the subject of gender roles in marriage and the church, with Complementarians typically arguing for functional subordination, and Egalitarians denying it. Critics suggest that Subordinationists ‘assume the risk of appearing to devalue the sovereignty of Christ for agenda purposes.’[6] Kevin Giles writes,

Those who speak of the eternal subordination of the Son deliberately […] turn to the Bible, the historical sources, and the writings of modern theologians simply to find comments that would support what they already believe or to refute their critics.[7]

Of course, the charge of agenda-bias could equally be levelled at Giles, who has been a vocal campaigner for female ordination for over 30 years.[8] I have no intention to engage the gender discussion here, but note Keener’s convincing argument that Subordinationism does not ‘coincide as closely with views on gender roles as some of the advocates of either position claim’[9]; Keener being both an egalitarian and a Subordinationist. I agree with those on both sides of the debate who condemn tampering with the Trinity to advance ideological agendas.[10]

The Shape of the Debate

Evangelical Subordinationists claim that ‘The equality of the persons of the Trinity exists in the form of an order, which includes a relation of authority and obedience’.[11] To my knowledge, few deny that the Son is subordinate to the Father in his incarnate state,[12] but Subordinationists argue that this relational dynamic extends into eternity. Grudem argues that the Father-Son relationship, including the submission of the Son to the authority of the Father, existed before Creation[13] and was demonstrated in the act of Creation, in which the Father created through the Son.[14] The Father ‘gave’ or ‘sent’ His Son,[15] and delegated authority to him.[16] The various texts which speak of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God[17] – a position which only the Father has authority to designate[18] – show that ‘someone can be subordinate in authority to someone else but still be equal in being, equal in importance, equal in personhood.’[19]

Despite regularly affirming the ontological equality of the Persons, and distinguishing between heretical and orthodox forms of Subordinationism,[20] critics claim that Subordinationists revive features of the Arian heresy. They contest that if subordination extends into eternity it cannot remain purely functional, but becomes ipso facto an ontological reality.[21] All expressions of Subordinationism imply tritheism, and are at odds with orthodox Trinitarianism.[22] Subordinationists have therefore ‘broken with how the best of theologians and the creeds and confessions have concluded the Scriptures should be read and understood.’[23]

Non-Subordinationists assert that ‘if we must talk of subordination it is only a functional or economic subordination that pertains exclusively to Christ’s role in relation to human history.’[24]

We shall proceed by looking at the relationship between the economic and immanent Trinities, before addressing some of the logical, and historical-theological considerations.

Image: Baptised into the Holy Trinity, by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


[1] Modern Evangelical theologians who affirm this position include Robert Letham, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, J. Scott Horrell, Andreas Köstenberger, Craig Keener and John Frame. Key critics include Kevin Giles, Gilbert Bilezikian and Roger Olson.

[2] Grudem, (1994) 425

[3] cf. Grudem’s complaint in (2004) p426

[4] Horrell (2004) p419; See too Bilezikian (1997) p67

[5] Letham, (2004), 398. Also p399, 480

[6] Bilezikian, (1997) p63

[7] Giles, (2006) p91

[8] cf. Letham, (2004) 489

[9] Keener, (1999) p39

[10] Bilezikian, (1997) p68; Carson, (2000) p86; Giles, (2004) p54

[11] See in particular Letham, (1990) p67, 69

[12] cf. Olson (2011a) and Keener, (1999) p45

[13] Rom 8:29; 1 Pet 1:2; Eph 1:3-5

[14] John 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2

[15] John 3:16, 17, 34 ;4:34; 8:42; Gal 4:4; Grudem, (1994) p406-407

[16] John 5:22; Grudem, (1994) p408

[17] Matt 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12-13; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22; cf. Psalm 110:1

[18] Matt 20:23

[19] Grudem, (1994) p411

[20] Ibid., p245; Letham, (2004) p399

[21] Bilezikian, (1997) p63-64; Giles, (2006) p57

[22] Giles, (2006) p62

[23] Ibid., p309

[24] Bilezikian, (1997) p60