“Because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, the Father always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Father such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses Fatherly authority; the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father correspondingly always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Son such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father.”
Postings in recent days by Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman have sought to spotlight what they perceive to be possible departures from orthodoxy by those evangelicals who affirm an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons. The charges in these postings are serious but in our judgment false. They accuse us of things that we explicitly deny and they do not represent our view fairly. Some brief reply seems appropriate.
First, what is never stated by Goligher or Trueman (perhaps just an oversight?) is this: those who affirm the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son uniformly and adamantly affirm also the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature. There is no hint of Arian subordinationism or of tri-theism in what is being proposed by advocates of this intra-Trinitarian relationship of authority and submission. One may, if one chooses, level the charge that our view entails a denial of homoousios, or that it implies tri-theism, or the like. But be clear, such supposed entailments or implications are not only denied but are strongly refuted by advocates of our view. We stand fully with the early ecumenical councils in embracing all that they say about the eternal deity of the Son and the full unity and co-eternality of the one God who is three. And we reject all forms of ontological subordinationism in affirming the full, unqualified, co-eternal deity of the Son, with the Father and the Spirit.
Second, positing an eternal relation of authority and submission among the Trinitarian persons does not conflict in any way with this orthodox heritage, because the issue here is how the three persons function as Father, Son, and Spirit, not whether one has a nature that is superior to or inferior to another (the latter, of course, is flatly denied). At the ontological level, there is absolute equality of deity as all three share fully in the one and undivided divine nature. But at the functional level, in the roles that each carries out, they can be – must be! – distinguished from one another. To take the most obvious example, only the Son – not the Father, nor the Spirit – embraced the role of becoming incarnate. So, yes, while there is an inseparability of operations among the Trinitarian persons, this does not, and cannot, mean that the Trinitarian operations are not distinguishable from one another. Distinguishable, yet inseparable – this is not only consistent with the pro-Nicene heritage, it is demanded by Scripture.
Third, one of the ways Scripture presses the distinction among the roles of the Trinitarian persons is by highlighting the ultimate authority of the Father, and the willing submission of the Son and Spirit, in all that God does. To cite here just one text, consider the opening of Hebrews:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The primacy of the Father (in role, not in nature!) is evident by noting the subject and verb in each of the clauses:
God . . . spoke long ago to the fathers (1a)
God . . . has spoken to us in His Son (2a)
God . . . appointed [the Son] heir of all things (2b)
God . . . made the world [through the Son] (2c)
It could not be clearer or more precise that it is the Father specifically, not God generically or another other member of the Trinity, who does all of these activities through the agency of the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, what this brief text demonstrates is the primacy of the Father, in relation to his Son, in eternity past (“through whom he made the world”), in the incarnation (“in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son”), and in eternity future (“whom He appointed heir of all things”). Interestingly, this text also shows the primacy of the Father over the work of the Spirit in its opening declaration (“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways”), assuming as Hebrews even states several times (e.g., Heb 3:7; 10:15), that the Spirit is the Trinitarian person most directly associated with moving the prophets to speak what they did. Yet here we see that the Father directed the Spirit, who in turn directed the prophets.
What we see, then, is this: Because the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, the Father always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Father such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses Fatherly authority; the Son as the eternal Son of the eternal Father correspondingly always acts in ways that befit who he distinctively is as Son such that, among other things, he eternally possesses and expresses a submission to act gladly and freely as Agent of the Father. The Bible’s discussion of the roles and functions of the Trinitarian persons points to this repeatedly. The Father sends and the Son goes. The Father plans and the Son executes the plan of the Father. The Father designs and the Son implements the design of the Father. One never finds the reverse. One never sees the Son commanding and the Father obeying, the Son sending and the Father going. There is a stubborn irreversibility in the outworking of the Trinitarian roles, along with other clear, unambiguous teaching that the Son is fully equal to and one with the Father.