Recently, Owen Strachan wrote an article entitled, “The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy: A Response to Charges Made on Social Media.” Strachan expressed his belief that for centuries it’s been a non-controversial fact that Christians have believed the “Son eternally submits to the Father.” He describes his view as the eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son—ERAS (eternal roles of authority and submission). This is also sometimes referred to as ESS (eternal submission of the Son) or EFS (eternal functional submission or subordination).
What should a Reformed Christian think about this? If it’s true that the Son (Jesus Christ) eternally submits to the Father then does the Son have a different divine nature than the Father? Are there then two wills within the ontological (nature of being) Trinity? Possibly three if we include the Holy Spirit? The answers to these questions have serious ramifications for our theology. Many renowned theologians have debated this issue heavily since 2016. In this succinct article, I would like to concisely focus on the possible parallels between the ERAS view and Arianism. Being a layperson, I especially intend this article for men and women who are interested in theology.
Our Triune God
John 1:1 tells us irrefutably that Jesus Christ is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” No qualifications made—From eternity the Son is fully God with no strings attached. The Nicene Creed confesses this truth—The Son is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”
Our historic and orthodox view of the Triune God was laid down in both the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds. In the Athanasian, we read “the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.” These beliefs were also affirmed in the Reformed Confessions.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 9 expresses it as “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”
I am confident that Owen Strachan and all of the involved theologians in this debate would uphold these affirmations. The agreements veer with definitions and failing to make proper distinctions between ontological realities.
Ramifications of Subordination in the Ontological Trinity
Jesus Christ is the Son of God because He is eternally begotten, not because He fulfills a role that qualifies Him to be considered the Son. Strachan makes the statement in his article that the Son is a “soldier under orders.” He’s not clear, but I suspect he’s speaking in the sense of the ontological Trinity.
Think about this: if Jesus is just an eternal “soldier” in the Godhead, and God the Father has a greater glory and power, wouldn’t Jesus then be of a lower rank—as a soldier is of a lesser rank than an Army general?
This would contradict Biblical teaching and the orthodox creeds and confessions that unequivocally tell us the three persons in the Godhead are “equal in power and glory.”
Now there’s no dispute that in the Incarnation Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). The key is that Jesus became a servant (subordinate) during the Incarnation (as the economy of redemption was fulfilled)—meaning he was not a servant for all eternity within the Godhead. This is an important logical point: one cannot “become” something that one already has been for eternity! It’s critical to keep the ontological (being of God) and the economic (activity of God) Trinity distinct.
R.C. Sproul wrote “When we talk about the ontological Trinity, or as some theologians term it, the “immanent Trinity,” we are referring to the Trinity in itself, without regard to God’s works of creation and redemption…When we speak of the economic Trinity, on the other hand, we are dealing with the activity of God and the roles of the three persons with regard to creation and redemption.”
The problem in Strachan’s article is that he staunchly places the roles mentioned (eternal authority/submission) into the ontological Trinity.
Strachan writes“Some argue that this reception of authority [given by the Son to the Father] is located within the covenant of redemption, but it is entirely within bounds to see this reception of authority as following an eternal pattern, not only an economic one.”
Is Strachan correct in saying for centuries it’s been a non-controversial fact that Christians have believed the “Son eternally submits to the Father”? Not if we consider the Nicene and Athanasian creeds as the historical standard. From what I can tell, neither do any of the Reformed creeds and confessions. The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 11 answers how the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal with the Father and mentions nothing about eternal submission:
“The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Spirit are God equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names, attributes, works, and worship, as are proper to God only.”
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof said “there is no division or separation in the essential Being of God” (History of Christian Doctrine, p. 89). To say the least, if one essence of the Godhead is master (Father) and the other is servant (Son), this is a weighty division and a significant separation within the Being of God. One would have a lesser glory than the other. However, the Father and the Son are “equal in power and glory” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, q. 6).
Keith Mathison of Ligonier Ministries writes that during the conflict in Nicaea, the Arians argued that “Even though He [the Son] is subordinated to the Father, still He is God according to His perfect and true nature.” Even Jehovah’s Witnesses would affirm Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but that he is not Almighty. These are very noteworthy things that should not be ignored.
When subordinationism is placed within the ontological trinity, but the person espousing subordinationism caveats with an affirmation of the Son as fully and equally God, we can be glad for the inconsistency. For if you believe there was a time when the Son did not have authority, then you are confessing he has not always had the full attributes of God. At what point did He acquire these attributes? John 1:1 tells us He’s had them from the beginning.
The Essence of Arianism
Dutch Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck is excellent in spotting Arian tendencies. He writes “The essence of Arianism is its denial of the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father; in other words, its assertion that the Father alone and in an absolute sense is the one true God. It follows, of course, that the Son is a being of inferior rank; that he does not share in the divine nature. Arianism places the Son somewhere between God and the created universe” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 290).
I want to point out that Owen Strachan and other ESS theologians would completely anathemize the Arian belief that the Son is a created being. They would say Jesus is fully God and that Arius was a heretic. Strachan wrote in his article that “There is no sense in which I hold to Arianism. I disavow it with every fiber of my being.” However, while Strachan’s view of the Trinity is not identical to Arianism (Arius believed the Son was a created being), I fear it’s on an Arian trajectory. In case this may sound alarmist, consider what else Herman Bavinck points out:
“Arianism has appeared in various forms. It appeared, first of all, in the form of subordinationism. According to this view, the Son is indeed eternal, begotten from the essence of the Father, not a creature and not brought into being out of nothing, yet inferior and subordinate to the Father.”Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 291
Do you see that in the Arian scheme they can surprisingly affirm the Son is “eternal” and “begotten” but is “subordinate to the Father“? This is what Bavinck is saying is the essence of Arianism!
Could Strachan or an ESS/EFS advocate affirm this statement: “the Son is indeed eternal, begotten from the essence of the Father, not a creature and not brought into being out of nothing, yet inferior and subordinate to the Father.” From what I have read, this statement tracks very closely with the writings of modern ESS proponents.
Notice Strachan in a quote from Grand Design that gained attention on Twitter last week: “The Father is the Father because He sends the Son. The Son is the Son because He submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send Him. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission.” First, let us examine some logical out workings of Strachan’s statements, and then let us compare Strachan’s view side by side with Arius, for a view of what makes this teaching so perilous.
Strachan contends that the Father is the Father because He sends, and the Son is the Son because He submits. He concludes that the Trinity would not exist without authority and submission. This makes authority essential to the Father, and submission essential to the Son. The logical conclusion of Strachan’s position is that “The Son does not have authority in the same way that the Father has authority.”
Arius is famous for saying “there was a time when the Son was not.”
Compare Arius’ famous quote with the logical consequence of Strachan’s position: One makes the Son the weaker portion in the godhead (Strachan) and the other makes him a weaker God (Arius).
The parallel seems obvious, and I believe this does serious damage to the supreme glory and majesty of Jesus Christ. Why? Because if “The Son does not have authority in the same way that the Father has authority” the Son wouldn’t have some attributes of God—this robs him of sovereignty and glory. It says there was a time the Son was not sovereign and there was a time He did not have supreme glory. How could the Son be God but not have the attributes of God?
It’s not orthodox Christian belief to say the Son is not equal to the Father in all attributes.
Walking the orthodox pathway
Strachan gets passionate in his article that if you critique his position, and liken it to Arius, you’re making him a heretic and condemning him to hell. I don’t think that’s true because ESS is not an obstinately Arian affirmation. It’s possible to be ignorantly wrong on ESS without being a heretic. We’re not saved by perfect theological knowledge. Our theological knowledge grows and is refined during our Christian life. In Acts 18:24-26 we read that Apollos was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures, and was fervent in the Spirt. Yet, Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, explained to Apollos the way of God more accurately.
We need to ask ourselves—what was it that originally caused Arius to drift off the orthodox pathway? Every theological journey has a first step. Road warning markers are there for a reason. Why veer off a proven path even slightly—especially knowing Arianism is more insidious and prevalent than a casual glance at history might suggest. This is why orthodox creeds and confessions are so beneficial to our Christian faith! In them we have the privilege to humbly learn from fellow Christians who have walked the same treacherous pathway as us during the past 2000 years. In their writings they have provided us with warning signs to help us finish the race.