Interestingly, Barrs brings a twist to ESS that I’ve never seen before. In his formulation, the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in authority, but there’s still a hierarchy of headship.
As I’ve written before, there are many, many books that teach eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). Books for women, books for children, even notes in a very popular study Bible teach ESS. Most of the time, I’m not surprised when ESS shows up in a book, especially if the author has connections to CBMW, Wayne Grudem, or SBTS (where Bruce Wareteaches).
But every now and then, I’m truly surprised to find ESS being taught. Recently I read Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible by Jerram Barrs. Barrs is a professor at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. In the introduction, Barrs writes about the purpose of the book:
What does God think about women, and how does he treat them? My passionate desire and prayer is that the book will be an encouragement to women and a challenge to men to treat women with the same honor that the Lord himself shows. (9)
Each chapter focuses on a different woman from the Bible and attempts to correct misunderstandings that have gotten in the way of our understanding of what the Bible teaches about women. I was intrigued by the premise and interested to see how Barrs dealt with the topic.
The first three chapters deal with Eve. One of the first things Barrs’ emphasizes is Adam and Eve’s equality in creation. I was pleased that he did. However, when he tries to explain how Adam has a position of authority or leadership over Eve, he introduces classic ESS teaching:
In addition, it is Adam who gives Eve her name, and as we mentioned earlier, this implies a particular significance or authority in the one who does the naming. … This leadership of Adam in relationship with Eve, and her corresponding commitment to him, does not mean that their equality is undermined, for Eve and Adam are like the Trinity in which there is a headship of the Father over the Son, and yet there is also a full equality of Godhead (1 Corinthians 11:, Colossians 1:19; 2:9). (22)
It’s not until the appendix at the end of the book that Barrs develops the ESS theme. The appendix is apparently a wedding sermon that Barrs preached where the couple asked him to speak about headship and submission. Barrs uses the names “Adam” and “Eve” in place of the couple’s actual names.
Interestingly, Barrs brings a twist to ESS that I’ve never seen before. In his formulation, the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in authority, but there’s still a hierarchy of headship:
This pattern of headship comes from creation itself, or perhaps we should say from God himself. The Lord who made us, the Lord we worship, is a triune God. God is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have loved and delighted in each other from all eternity. Within the Trinity there is full equality—the Son and Spirit are just as fully God as is the Father. The Son and the Spirit have just as much authority, are just as powerful, just as holy, just as wise, just as good just as loving, just as glorious as the Father. To deny this full equality of the persons of the Godhead is heresy, a serious departure from the truth. Yet, within the Trinity there is also a hierarchy—the Father is over the Son and the Spirit, and the western churches have taught that the Son is over the Spirit. The Son and the Spirit delight to submit themselves always to the Father’s will; and the Spirit delights to submit to the Son and to do his will. (324, emphasis original)
Barrs points out that the hierarchy isn’t demeaning at all. God the Father gives God the Son the “most significant tasks imaginable”!
This headship of the Father is not demeaning to the Son in any way. The Father is pleased to honor the Son always by giving him the most significant tasks imaginable … The Son, for his part, is ever gladly submissive to the Father. He is always eager to do his Father’s will, committed to obeying his Father’s every word, ready to speak whatever the Father wants him to say, pleased to respect and honor his Father in everything he does, devoted to bringing glory to his Father. We look at this eternal relationship of headship and submission, and it is no vision of misery—rather it is an eternally shared glory! (324-325, emphasis added)
So, in addition to ESS (eternal subordination of the Son), EFS (eternal functional submission), and ERAS (eternal relations of authority and submission), we now have ERHS (eternal relationship of headship and submission).
Having explained the origin of headship and submission in the eternal relationships within the Trinity, Barrs applies this equal but hierarchical relationship to marriage. Instead of the Biblical example for marriage, Christ and the church, Barrs focuses on the Father/Son relationship in the “family of the Trinity.”
Adam and Eve, your relationship is to mirror the relationship between the Father and the Son, for the apostle Paul teaches us that your family, just like every other family on earth or in heaven, is named and patterned after the family of our heavenly Father, the family of the Trinity … Eve and Adam, you are to show to the world the beauty of the eternal love between the Son and the Father. (325-326)
In the study questions at the end of the appendix, Barrs asks:
Have you considered before reading this chapter the reality of equality and headship that exists within the Trinity? As you think about this, how would you express the beauty of the relationship between the Father and the Son as it is described for us in the Scriptures? (328)
To answer his questions, no such “reality of equality and headship exists within the Trinity.” And I would describe such a relationship of authority and submission as heretical. Barrs is right that to deny full equality within the Trinity is heretical. But sadly, he doesn’t recognize that he’s doing so here.
When I read the first paragraph in the Eve chapter that taught ESS, I was really surprised, and I honestly hoped that it was somehow a poorly worded section. Maybe something the publisher (Crossway) wanted to include. But give the fully developed ESS (ERHS?) in the appendix, and given that Barrs preached ESS at a wedding, it seems that Barrs is another who teaches and promotes ESS (at least at the time).
Barrs ends his introduction by calling for men to treat women better. Ironically, he says:
Many women experience discrimination and poor treatment in their churches and in their homes. In conservative circles this is sometimes defended and justified by specious appeals to Scripture. (11)
ESS and its application to marriage are part of the “discrimination and poor treatment” that many women experience in the home and in churches. As a popular author and teacher, many men and women have read and will read his book. I hope that in the intervening years, and given the Trinity debate of 2016, that Barrs has changed his mind about ESS. If so, I hope he’ll clarify his position publicly.
Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She is also a homeschooling mother of 3 boys and member of a PCA church. This article first appeared on her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and is used with permission.