The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)

ESS is being shaped by gender debates, not the other way around.

For some, the debate is primarily academic and is best left to those who have spent years reading Trinitarian theology. But for others, the debate has very practical implications. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, in particular, have cultivated the doctrine of ESS in direct response to modern evangelical feminism and use it to bolster their very real world views on gender, particularly submission of women. This teaching then filters down through books, conferences, and pulpits and has significant influence on how men and women are taught to relate to each other in their churches, marriages, and society at large.

 

There is a debate right now over the implications of a teaching called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), which explores the intra-Trinatarian relationship between God the Son to God the Father. Here are two summary articles that will bring you up to speed if you are unfamiliar with this discussion and would like to learn more.

Eternal Submission in the Trinity? A Quick Guid to the Current Debate 

A Different Way Forward 

Opponents of ESS like Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher believe that ESS represents a departure from long-held confessional statements of the Church. ESS advocates Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have responded by saying that they keep the confessions, and their theological beliefs are not being accurately represented. To complicate matters, the debate is actually more than one debate, as Andrew Wilson helpfully points out in the above article by identifying 10 essential questions underneath it. ESS adherents respond to these questions differently which even further impedes dialogue. It is not sufficient to say “ESS proponents” believe XYZ without designating which proponents and which beliefs.

For some, the debate is primarily academic and is best left to those who have spent years reading Trinitarian theology. But for others, the debate has very practical implications. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem in particular have cultivated the doctrine of ESS in direct response to modern evangelical feminism and use it to bolster their very real world views on gender, particularly submission of women. This teaching then filters down through books, conferences, and pulpits and has significant influence on how men and women are taught to relate to each other in their churches, marriages, and society at large.

Some scholars see the link between ESS and gender as unhelpful. But we would like to submit that the link is much worse than simply unhelpful. We believe it is actually corrupting and confusing the Trinitarian debate.ESS is being shaped by gender debates, not the other way around. And this, in our opinion, is precisely where the disconnect lies. This is why so many have pushback against the ESS presentation of submission in the Trinity.

Grudem and Ware have unapologetically set gender relationships as the frame for their handling of ESS. In the book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (co-edited by Ware with essays by both Ware and Grudem), Grudem introduces the topic with the essay: “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity.” In Grudem’s book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, his first chapter in response to evangelical feminism teaches that the “equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity.” Ware, Grudem, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on which they sit fundamentally link their understanding of ESS and Trinitarian relationships to gender.

In his Institutes, John Calvin famously wrote that without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self, and without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. While scholars are handling the question of “the knowledge of God” in this debate, we believe it’s essential to give attention also to “knowledge of self.” How has Ware and Grudem’s knowledge of human gender influenced their knowledge of God? Has the tail wagged the dog here? We think so.

In this sense, we are not offering solutions to the Trinitarian debate. We are instead suggesting that faulty anthropology has infiltrated it. We are suggesting that Ware and Grudem’s understanding of gender is the reason that their opponents believe their argument is ontological (essential to God the Son’s very existence – the foundational topic of debate among the scholars) while Ware and Grudem insist that it is not. Their gender angst is importing faulty categories into the Trinitarian debate.

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