Is the Father the eternal head of the Son?

Is the Father the eternal head of the Son? January 8, 2020


More than two years ago I wrote a blogpost on the (recent) disappearance from theology of God the Father. Not completely, of course.  A reader pointed me to two  recent books by Catholics in Europe on the Father.  But while there are piles of books on this side of the pond on Jesus and the Spirit, where are the books and articles on God the Father?  They are difficult to find.

In the last few years evangelical theologians have been debating fiercely whether the Son was eternally submissive to the Father.

This might sound like a strange question. Wouldn’t the Son of God always be submissive to his Father because that is the nature of a good father-son relationship?  And didn’t the ancient world presume this when they heard the words Son and Father?

Of course we must not presume that human fathers and sons are necessarily like the divine Father and Son. We all know bad fathers who are radically unlike God the Father. But Paul does suggest an analogy between human families and the divine family: I bow my knees before the Father (πατέρα) from whom every family (πατριὰ) is named (Eph 3.14-15)  The Greek words suggest a likeness between God’s fatherhood and the fathers of human families.

Why is this now a question in contemporary theology?  One reason, perhaps the principal one, is that opponents of women’s ordination to the presbyterate (WO) have sometimes linked the headship of men in home and church to the Trinity by pointing to Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 11: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3).

Some theologians are accusing these WO opponents of Arianism because they talk about “eternal subordination” of the Son, and this was the language the ancient Arians used for the Son when they said he was ontologically inferior to the Father.

But this seems to me a case of guilt-by-association or what David Hackett Fischer calls the fallacy of the perfect analogy: reasoning from a partial resemblance between two entities to an entire and exact correspondence.  The term “eternal subordination” was used by ancient Arians and is used by some (not all) opponents of women’s ordination.  But while ancient Arians used the term to refer to the Son’s having less deity than the Father because (they said) the Son does not share the Father’s ousia (being and substance), today’s opponents of WO use the term to refer merely to the Son’s role vis a vis the Father: the Father initiates and the Son follows his lead.  The Father commands and the Son obeys.  I don’t know of any mainstream evangelical theologian who comes close to Arianism in his or her view of the Son vis a vis the Father. Every theologian I read who claims to be orthodox (and all in the debate do so claim) insists on the full deity of the Son–that he fully shares the being and substance of the Father.

But some making this claim of Arianism charge that the Bible nowhere speaks of the Son’s submitting to the Father before he took on flesh.  Further, they say, the Fathers never said the Son was submissive or subordinate to the Father in eternity before the Incarnation.  By implication and explicit statement, they then assert that the Son is not subordinate in glory now and never will be.  When they claim that it was only in the Incarnation that the Son submitted to the Father, they imply that this submission ended after the Incarnation.  They also insist that later important theologians in the Great Tradition have agreed that the submission of the Son and priority of the Father pertain only to the Incarnation.

I disagree.  I see the priority of the Father—the headship of the Father over the Trinity in eternity before and after the Incarnation—not only in the Bible but also in the Fathers and the later tradition.  Whether this has any relevance for the debate over WO remains to be seen.


Here are a few of the many places in Scripture where it seems clear that the biblical authors saw the Father as head of the Son before or after the Incarnation.

Ps. 2.6,7, 8 “YHWH declares, ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. . . You are my Son. . . I will make the nations your heritage.’”  This is an Old Testament text written long before the Incarnation.  The New Testament authors regarded this as referring to the Father and the Son (Acts 13.33; Heb. 1.5; 5.5).  Even if the psalmist was speaking at one levelof a future event (I will make the nations), to his mind this Father and Son relationship was already a reality (You are my son)—long before the Incarnation.

Daniel 7.9 “As I looked, thrones were placed and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow . . . . I saw in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was givendominion and glory and a kingdom.”

This vision was given to Daniel centuries before the Incarnation.  It is a scene in eternity, not earthly history per se.  It is not clear when this transfer of power will take place, but the language uses the past tense, which suggests something that had already taken place and was a reality in the eternal realm even if it had not yet been actualized on earth.  All ancient peoples knew that this was a King with a grand first minister to whom is given authority and power.  But the King is foremost and it is he who grants dominion to the one like a son of man.

Matt 26.29 Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until “I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Jesus refers to the eschatological future long after the Incarnation, and says the Kingdom will be the Father’s rather than his.  How does this comport with other claims by Scripture (Lk. 1:33; Rev. 11:15) and the creeds that the Son’s kingdom will last forever?  We will see that some in the tradition (Jonathan Edwards, for example) have tried to make sense of this conundrum.

John 1.2-3 “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him.”  Long before the Incarnation the Father created the world through the Son, which suggests that the Father is the I initiator or primary creator.

John 3.16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

God the Father gave the Son for the salvation of the world.  The Father takes the initiative; the Son did not give himself (here) but was given by the Father.

1 Cor. 15.24-28 “Then comes the end, when he delivers the Kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all of his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.  When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

This is a portrait of the future in eternity, after the end of the world, when in the echatological future God the Father will receive back the dominion of the world which he gave to the Son.

Now it is tricky to discern how this can be reconciled with other Scriptures and the creeds that speak of the Son’s kingdom being forever (Lk. 1:33; Rev. 11:15).  I will discuss this below.  But Paul seems clear here, that the Father has authority in some sense over the Son, and will continue to do in the “future” of eternity.

Eph 1.3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed usin Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he [the Father] chose us in him [the Son] before the foundation of the world. . . . In love he [the Father] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ.” 

The Father chose us before the creation or incarnation, and predestined us then. It was throughthe Son, but the Father was the initiator and leader here. And this was in eternity: before the foundation of the world.

2 Tim 1.9  “God [the Father] saved us and called uswith a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, given to us in Christ Jesus before the times of the ages.”

Again, God the Father called from eternity, before the creation.  He was the Father then and the Son was the Son then.  The Father was able to call us because of the grace of the Son, but it was the Father calling us–not the Son calling us.  The Father took the lead and used the grace of the Son.  The Father is the head of the Son here, long before the creation.

Heb. 7.25 “[The Son] is able to save to the very end those who draw near to God [the Father] through him [the Son], who is ever living to make intercession for them.”

This is the present priestly ministry of the Son in heaven, long after the incarnation.  He comes before the Father’s throne to plead for the church.  In the ancient mind, the Son takes the position of the inferior (in role) to plead before the throne of a superior (in role). This does not mean of course any ontological inferiority, but the role the Son plays now in eternity is of a supplicant before a higher authority.

Eph 1.20 “[The Father] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenlies.”

This is another picture of Christ in the eternal realm now—after the end of the incarnation on earth (when all appearances of submission ended, according to some)—nevertheless still taking the role of a subordinate to the Father.  All the ancient world knew that the one on the right hand of a king was subordinate to the king, even though he might be his prime minister.  Again, in the case of God the Father and God the Son, this does not mean subordinate in being, but subordinate in role.

Rev. 2.26 “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.

This is the risen Christ in eternity, after his ascension and Incarnation. Here too he says his authority is from the Father.

Rev. 4.2-3, 10-11; 5.6 “At once I was in the Spirit , and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. . . . The living creatures . . . cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. . . . And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.”

This is in eternity, after the Incarnation and ascension, and the Father on his throne is separated from the Son who is a Lamb. The imagery is of a King on his throne with someone before and apart from the throne.  All ancient minds knew this was a great being—the Lamb who can break the seals–but one who is subordinate in some way to the One on the throne. Not subordinate in being or substance or divinity but secondary in role.

The Fathers

Generally the Fathers eschewed the term “eternal subordination of the Son” because that was a favorite term for Arians, and the Fathers did not want to appear to suggest that the Son was in any way ontologically inferior to the Father.  Instead, as they agreed at Constantinople, he is “God from God, Light from light, true God from True God.”

But as Philip Schaff the great church historian (and expert on the Fathers) wrote, “The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality [the Father and the Son sharing the same ontological substance].   But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed” (History of the Christian Church, vol. III, 681; orig. emphasis).

Schaff points to Hilary of Poitiers, the champion of Nicene doctrine in the West, who used with Athanasius and Tertullian “comparisons of fountain and stream, sun and light,” which “lead to a dependence of the Son upon the Father.”  Even the words of the creed which I quoted above suggest this: the Son is God of God, Light of Light, true God of True God.  Schaff notes that the later Nicene fathers give “the Son and the Spirit only their hypostases from the Father, while the essence of the deity is common to all three persons, and is co-eternal in all.” (ibid, 682)

Let me give two other examples from a preeminent Father.  In John Chrysostom’s commentary on the 1 Cor. 15 passage about the end when the Son subjects himself to the Father, he writes, “[This shows the Son’s] great concord with the Father, and that He [the Father] is the principle of all other good things and the first Cause, who hath begotten One so great in power and in achievements” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1stseries vol. 12, 239; Hendrickson, 1994).

In his homily on Philippians 2.5-11, Chrysostom argues that the Son emptied himself voluntarily and was not “constrained” to do so, nor did he do so in order to show the “superiority of the Father, but His own inferiority. For is not the name of the Father sufficient to show the priority of the Father?  For apart from Him, the son has all the same things.  For this honor is not capable of passing from the Father to the Son” (ibid, vol. 13, 213).

Chrysostom’s point is that while the Son is equal in deity to the Father since he “has all the same things” that connote ontological equality, he is inferior in the divine taxis or order: their very names Father and Son, he explains, show that the Father has priority.

Augustine is famous for eschewing any subordinationist theme from his massive De Trinitate.  Yet, as Schaff notes, “he too admitted that the Father stood above the Son and the Spirit in this: that he alone is of no other, but is absolutely original and independent; while the Son is begotten of him, and the Spirit proceeds from him, and proceeds from him in a higher sense than from the Son” (History, III, 685; referring to De Trinitate Bk 15, section 47; Edmund Hill translation from New City Press, 1991).

He adds that the debated passage in 1 Cor. 15.24-28 means not that the Son has given over the Kingdom to the Father in a literal sense but that his mission will be completed when the the church is able to see the Father through him: “That is what is meant by When he hands the kingdom over to God and the Father, as though to say ‘When he brings believers to a direct contemplation of God and the Father'” (De Trinitate Bk 1, section 15, Hill trans.).  Augustine stresses that the Son and Father are not two persons as we think of persons (separate personalities) but are two modes of the one divine being. (This is one reason that the Western temptation historically has been to modalism, while the East put more stress on distinctions among the Three.)

Calvin and Edwards

Calvin wrote in Bk I of the Institutes, “It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture.  It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity . . . . The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit” (Institutes 1.142-43).

The great Calvin scholar Richard Muller concludes, “Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in his order of the persons. . . . But he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence” (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 4:80).

Edwards battled Arians in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless he saw no need to avoid using the word “subordination” of the Son.  He too never allowed any subordination of being or essence, but only one of order and role.

Besides that economical subordination of the persons of the Trinity that arises from the manner and order of their subsisting [in eternity], there is a new kind of subordination and mutual obligation between two of the persons, arising from this new establishment the covenant of redemption [in which the three Persons decided on a plan to redeem a fallen world]” (Ms 1062, WJE Yale edn. 20:436-37).

Edwards says here that there are two kinds of subordination of the Son—the first in eternity and the second during the Incarnation. The second is the manifestation of the first.

This order[or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption, as we must conceive of God’s determination to glorify and communicate himself as prior to the method that his wisdom pitches upon as tending best to effect this” (ibid., 431-32).

These roles of Father and Son, with the Son being subordinate to the Father, is prior to the incarnation: “[T]he Father, who determines whether a redemption shall be allowed or no, acts as the head of the society of the Trinity, and in the capacity of supreme Lord, and one that sustains the dignity and maintains the rights of the Godhead antecedently to the covenant of redemption; and consequently that that economy, by which he stands in this capacity, is prior to that covenant” (ibid., 433).

On the mysterious passage in 1 Cor 15 about the Son giving up his kingdom to the Father, Edwards opines that the Son will never give up being the mediator between the Father and the church, or his headship of the church, but “that relation that Christ stands in to his church, as the Father’s viceroy over her, shall cease, and shall be swallowed up in the relation of a vital and conjugal head, or head of influence and enjoyment” (Ms 742, in WJE 18: 374).  “The church now shall be brought nearer to God the Father. . . . And her enjoyment of him shall be more direct: Christ God-man shall now no longer be instead of the Father to them, but, as I may express it, their head of their enjoyment of God, as it were, the eye to receive the rays of divine glory and love for the whole body, and the ear to hear the sweet expressions of his love, and the mouth to taste the sweetness and feed on the delights of the enjoyment of God . . . . hereby God’s communication of himself to them shall be more direct than when it was by a vicegerent(ibid.).”

For his part, Christ will go from having “employment” ruling a “delegated kingdom . . . for a season” to greater “enjoyment” of the Father, which is “more honorable” (ibid., for a season 373, employment and enjoyment 375).

It is fitting that the Son should return the Kingdom to the Father because the kingdom “don’t belong to the Son but to the Father, by the economy of the Trinity. ‘Tis the Father that is economically the King of heaven and earth, Lawgiver and judge of all; and therefore when the Son is made so, he is by the Father advanced into his throne, by having the Father’s authority committed unto him, to rule in his name and as his vicegerent” (Ms 1062, in WJE 20: 439).

Gerhardus Vos and Charles Hodge were 19th-century divines who held to essentially the same view.  Hodge uses the term “subordination of the Son to the Father” as a principle without “inferiority” because it only “concerns the mode of subsistence and operation” (ST, 460-62).

In the 20thcentury, Louis Berkhof and Geoffrey Bromiley said the same.  Berkhof wrote of “a subordination in respect to order and relationship” and “manner of personal subsistence” but not regarding divine essence (ST, 88-89).

Bromiley wrote that “eternal generation” means there was divine sonship prior to the incarnation and that between the Father and Son “there is a superiority and subordination of order.”  The generation means it “is not merely economic . . . but essential.”  But this “subordination” does not “imply inferiority” (“Eternal generation” in Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, 368).


We have seen that an headship of the Father over the Son in subsistence and order is taught in Scripture, the Fathers, at least one of the great Reformers, and significant modern divines from Edwards on.  All teach ontological equality between the Father and the Son.  None comes close to Arianism.

Does this relate to the debate over WO, which seems to have brought this question to the fore?

I am not sure.  For on the one hand, an argument for or against WO should not be made principally from the order and economy of the Trinity, since the Great Tradition seems rarely to have moved from the Trinitarian order to male and female roles in the church and worship.

On the other hand, proponents of WO are now denouncing their opponents for even considering an appeal to Trinitarian order, on the grounds that any mention of eternal headship for the Father (which could suggest a certain submission or subordination of the Son) is heretical.

Yet Paul clearly links relations between men and women to order in the Trinity: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God [the Father]” (1 Cor 11.3).

So . . . arguments for and against WO should proceed principally from Scripture and tradition without primary appeal to order in the godhead.  But appeals to the Trinity as a corollary argument are not wholly unbiblical, and the notion of the Father’s eternal headship over the Son is neither heretical nor against the tradition.

Browse Our Archives