From ABC to PhD: One God in Three Persons

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. At its most basic definition, the Trinity means that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. From the time of the early church, Christians have been attempting to explain how God can be both “one” and “three” and how to understand the relationship between the three persons. The Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds were written, in part, to address key aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity. Since then theologians have written many books about the Trinity. Some of these books are helpful. Some not as helpful.

One of the more recent attempts to explain the Trinity and particularly the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is something called the eternal submission of the Son (ESS). Sometimes the doctrine is called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or the eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS). A recent book that explains and defends the eternal submission of the Son to the Father is One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke.

One God in Three Persons is a collection of essays by various theologians. Not all of the authors support or promote ESS, but the purpose of the book is to “argue for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.”[1] Each essay is intended to defend or explain why ESS is the correct doctrine of the Trinity.

So, what is ESS, and why is it important? ESS began as a complementarian response to feminist and egalitarian teachings on the Trinity. As the preface of the book explains, proponents of ESS believe it is the biblical and orthodox teaching that God the Father and God the Son have an eternal relationship of authority and submission.[2]

Proponents of ESS give several reasons to support their belief that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father. They say that the names “Father” and “Son” mean there is an authority/submission relationship, as with human fathers and sons.[3] The Father has a unique leadership role in the work of “planning, purposing, and predestining” salvation.[4] The Father sends the Son.[5] The Son intercedes for us before the Father.[6] The Son is now seated at the right hand of the Father.[7] All these support their belief that the Father has supreme authority within the Trinity.[8]

Complementarians have appealed to ESS to give support to their beliefs about men and women. If God the Father and God the Son are equal in being, but different in authority, then men and women can also be equal in being but have different authority.[9] According to One God in Three Persons, the authority and submission relationship of the Father and the Son should be our example of how men and women relate to each other.[10]

While it may seem appealing to complementarians to have such a solid example of equality and hierarchy, ESS is dangerous. It's unbiblical and unorthodox. Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in their divine nature, the immanent Trinity. It also teaches that in the economic Trinity, in how God acts in the work of redemption, the Father, Son, and Spirit have different roles. The Father sends the Son, the Son accomplishes redemption, and the Spirit applies that redemption. There is order, but not hierarchy in the Trinity.

In contrast, ESS, as defined in One God in Three Persons, teaches that there is a hierarchy within the nature of God, in the immanent Trinity.[11] This is contrary to the Bible and to the historical, orthodox formulations of the Trinity. The Athanasian creed states,“in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.”

If God the Father has more authority than the Son or the Spirit because He is the Father, then there is a difference in the very nature of God. This makes the Son and Spirit less God than the Father. And if the Son is less God than the Father, then can His life, death, and resurrection truly save us? These are the very real and alarming end results of ESS.

As I said at the beginning, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to Christianity. It's crucial that we get it right. We must be careful not to stray from orthodoxy in what we believe about the Trinity. We also need to be aware of what is being taught by others on the Trinity and willing to speak up when errors are being made. As the Athanasian creed says, “in all things …  the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.


[1]    One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, back cover.

[2]    Bruce Ware and John Starke, “Preface,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 11-15.

[3]    Christopher W. Cowan, “'I Always Do What Pleases Him': The Father and Son in the Gospel of John,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 46.

[4]    Wayne Grudem, “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 34-35.

[5]    Christopher W. Cowan, “'I Always Do What Pleases Him': The Father and Son in the Gospel of John,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 44.

[6]    Wayne Grudem, “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 37.

[7]    IBID, 23.

[8]    IBID, 19.

[9]    Kyle Claunch, “God is the Head of Christ: Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 Ground Gender Complementarity in the Immanent Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 84.

[10]  Bruce Ware and John Starke, “Preface,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 12.

[11]  Philip R. Gons and Andrew David Naselli, “An Examination of Three Recent Philosophical Arguments against Hierarchy in the Immanent Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life ed. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), nook edition, 204-205.

 


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