The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 10. Concluding Reflections (Part 1)

1. The Debate So Far
2. Survey of Some Relevant Material
3. Subordination
4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 1)
5. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)
6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine
7. Reconciling Scripture and Dogma
8. κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3
9. Indivisible Divine Authority in Mutually Defining Relations

The tenth, and penultimate, part of my discussion of the debate concerning the eternal subordination of the Son has just been posted over on Reformation21.

The prominence of the ESS position owes a great deal to a theological preoccupation with the notion of authority and the relations appropriate to it. Authority has long been a prominent category in evangelical thought, not least in debates about the place of Scripture in the Church. However, as a category it has often been attended by many unconsidered assumptions and has also often been at risk of occluding much else. Both the unconsidered assumptions and the narrow preoccupation have implications for conceptions of divine relations, relations between the sexes, and understandings of Scripture’s place in the Church. They represent a constriction of the imagination that often produces damaging and stifling understandings and practices.

For instance, authority is overwhelmingly conceived of both as an authority over and as an authority that exists over against others. Yet there are other ways of conceiving of authority. Authority can be an authority for or involve an authorizing of others. Authority is not a zero sum game in which we are weakened by the authority of another in relation to us. For instance, when speaking about the ‘authority of Scripture’, we may be inclined to think of that authority purely as something exercised over us to which we must be obedient. We may forget that Scripture is a manifestation and exercise of God’s authority for the sake of his saving purpose, a dimension of the ministry of the Father’s Word in the power of his Spirit to redeem and renew humanity and the creation. We can also forget that Scripture is an authorizing word, a word that commissions, empowers, and equips us to be God’s fellow workers. Similar things could be said about gender relations, where so often an emphasis upon the authority of the man has been at the expense of, rather than in service to, the woman.

Read the whole post here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Doctrine of God, Guest Post, NT, NT Theology, Sex and Sexuality, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 10. Concluding Reflections (Part 1)

  1. Geoff Graham says:

    Thank you for this.

    I’ve not read all your articles, but from a theological simpleton, I offer the following, having and read Ware’s book on the Trinity, having Grudem’s “Systematic Theology”, listened to Mike Reeves teaching through UCCF online, and eaten his books, “The Good God” and “Christ Our Life”. So the thoughts may be considered be simplistic.

    1 I don’t see how the theology of the Triune God can be properly transposed to the relationship between male and female, complementary, and/or equal, equal but complementary. To me, it is at it’s lowest level, an error of category.

    2 Within the Trinity there is equality of substance, so that in the God Father there is the fullness of God the Son and the fullness of God the Spirit: within God the Son is the fullness of God the Father and God the Spirit: within the Spirit is the fullness of God the Father and God the Son. This is my, no doubt flawed, and incomplete, understanding of “perichorises.” I stand to be corrected. Ever the one not shy to display their ignorance.

    3 Within the covenant relationship of marriage how can I be like Jesus to my wife.? As you say, how can I sacrificially serve her? Equally important, how can she let me? Not without testing and the grace of God, when our fallenness comes to the fore. Day to day, this has no corelation with the theology of and within the Trinity.

    4 Even if the pre – creation “Covenant of Redemption” within the Trinity is accepted, the covenant, of itself, doesn’t presuppose an “Eternal Submission”, although a pre-suppositional (traditional) theology within a denomination may.

  2. Hi Alastair, I waited till after Easter to comment here as I knew you were doing an internet fast for Lent. I’ve really appreciated your treatment of the ESS controversy. I’ve also been learning a lot from your discussions about gender, especially the differentiation of male and female that we can hear in the music of Genesis 1 and 2.

    I’d love to know your thoughts about what complementarianism might look like if ESS were thoroughly expurgated from its platform. Here are mine so far — hope you have the time to read and maybe even respond —

    Btw, I am not egalitarian. I do not call for female ordination, nor do I want women being made pastors and elders.

    • Hi Barbara. Sorry, I only just saw this comment when I was emptying out my spam comments folder. For some reason, my overly eager spam filter zapped it.

      I can only answer briefly now, but I think the biblical order is one in which both male and female display key aspects of God’s creative rule. There is an asymmetry between the two. However, this asymmetry is not the unilateral hierarchy that many complementarians might think. There is a degree of homology between the relationship between the forming work of Christ and the filling work of the Spirit and that between the work of man and the work of woman. The Spirit ‘colours within the lines’ of Christ’s work. Christ’s forming work comes first and is foundational and definitive. However, the work of Christ is everywhere dependent upon the work of the Spirit and is fruitless apart from the completing, filling, and glorifying work of the Spirit.

      The problem we tend to have is that we think in one dimensional terms. For instance, we think of power as a simple and singular thing. However, there are different modes of power. The relationship between man and woman is like the relationship between two fundamental physical forces. They both operate powerfully in different ways in different fields and aren’t in competition. The headship of the man has to do with his mode of power. Yet if this is all that we speak about, we miss half of the picture, for the woman has her mode of power too. Both men and women are dependent upon each other in their differences and are called to serve each other.

      If we are to talk about the man as the ‘head’, for instance, we could speak about the woman as the ‘heart’. The woman is the one who establishes the communion and inner life of society, who gathers around herself. The woman makes the world a home and site of communion (much as the Spirit forms the home of God with humanity and establishes life and communion).

      The woman is the one who has the heart of the man and influences him accordingly. It is important, for instance, to read Genesis 3:16 against the background of the fact that Adam’s sin was in listening to Eve’s voice over that of God. Eve had an immense God-given power of influence over Adam. She used it wrongly at the Fall, and God judged her by making the man less responsive to her influence. However, women’s influence is fundamentally a good force. It is one reason why Wisdom is spoken of as if a woman and why the quest for Wisdom is so closely related to the quest for a wife.

      • Thanks Alastair! Much appreciated.

        I’m with you in seeing a degree of homology — or a common pattern — in the relationship between the forming work of Christ and the filling work of the Spirit, and the relationship between the work of man and the work of woman. And not only the “work” of man and the work of woman… but the respective dispositions, temperaments and gifts of the two sexes.

        I would like, if I may, to amplify and rephrase of your last paragraph.

        Eve had an immense God-given power of influence over Adam. Adam’s sin was in listening to Eve’s voice when Eve was deceived and was voicing something that was in contravention to God’s instruction. Eve, under the deception of Satan, used her influence wrongly at the Fall.

        One import of God’s statement in Genesis 3:16 is that man would be less responsive to woman’s influence. Because of the Fall, men would be somewhat hardened against women’s influence and would rule over (lord it over) women. This is one of the things which would bring sorrow ( Heb: ‘itsebon ) to women. But men would secondarily suffer from this state of affairs because, in their sin-biased disposition to not heed the influence of women, they would not listen to the good counsel which women can give them when women are following God’s precepts. And the whole human race — and the church — would suffer because men and women were biased by sin to not help or be helped by each other in carrying out their joint creational mandate.

  3. Patrick M says:


    I’m very thankful for your work. There are many who have been sharpened and encouraged through your diligence and patience. So thank you for all your work online. It has not been in vain.

    One question- have you ever read or engaged with Ivan Illich? Particularly his works like “Gender”, “Deschooling Society”, and “Shadow Work”? I would very much like to hear your thoughts one day because I assume you are both not busy and you cater to the whims and desires of your readers.


    Patrick M

    • Thanks, Patrick.

      Yes, I have read some Ivan Illich, although I haven’t written much on him. I think Gender, while rather romanticizing a former state of affairs, identifies some of the most important issues underlying current gender debates in society.

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