Something of a Civil War has kicked off in the complementarian camp over the last couple of weeks. I’m not a complementarian, but I’ve been following this debate quite closely. I have friends who are engaged in the conversation, and so I have a bit of an interest. I’ve stayed quiet throughout the debate because I haven’t felt that it’s my place to jump in. But I’ve grown more and more concerned with some of the assertions being thrown forward by a group that is arguing for something they call “The Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son” or EFS for short. The argument goes something like this.
Throughout the New Testament Jesus is seen to be doing the will of the Father (John 6:38). He quite explicitly submits to and obeys the Father (John 15:10). These writers then argue that this subordination is not something unique to the incarnate Son but reflects and reveals an eternal subordination present in the Eternal Godhead himself. They assert that the Son by virtue of his being Son is eternally subordinated to the Father by virtue of his being Father. In the same way, wives should submit to their husbands, for if there is submission within God’s own self, it makes sense that he would order creation and human relationships to reflect his own eternal state.
Lately some strong voices have come out refuting this position. And so exploded this “Civil War”. I will let much smarter men and women than I critique the entire EFS position being advocated. Instead, I want to respond to an article posted yesterday by Owen Strachan, an important voice for the EFS camp. In the article he wrote, “One might think, in other words, that if (our critics are) correct, then the Son would have returned to heaven with authority equal to that of his Father. But this is not so.” He then goes on to argue why the Son is submissive for the rest of history and, presumably, into eternity future.
This is an incredibly disturbing statement. To claim that the resurrected Son of God does not have the same authority as God the Father is shocking. It’s also quite outside the realm of the Reformed tradition, the consensus of orthodox Christianity throughout the ages and, most importantly, Scripture itself. Again, in this post I am not critiquing the whole of the EFS system. Instead, today I want to look briefly at two passages that explicitly refute Strachan’s claim that the risen Christ does not share the same authority as God the Father.
First, we turn our attention to one of the most famous passages in all of the New Testament, Matthew 28:18 which is the beginning of what we call “The Great Commission”. Jesus begins this way: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Strachan has criticized those who disagree with him for not holding to a plain reading of the text. Well let’s do just that. All Authority. All means all. Total authority. Meaning that there is no authority outside of what the Son possesses. The Son in his post-resurrection state, the very state in which Strachan says Jesus will not possess full authority, claims complete authority for himself.
And he does not limit his authority to the earthly realms. It is all authority in heaven and on earth. By necessity, then, it is authority that is co-extensive with the Father. For who would claim that the Father has authority that goes beyond the risen Christ’s “all”? But don’t just take my word for it; if the plain reading was not plain enough, let’s allow John Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 28 to help us here. (Heads up, it’s a long quote. The italics are from Calvin.).
Before relating that the office of teaching was committed to the disciples, Matthew says that Christ began by speaking of his power; and not without reason. For no ordinary authority would here have been enough, but sovereign and truly divine government ought to be possessed by him who commands them to promise eternal life in his name, to reduce the whole world under his sway, and to publish a doctrine which subdues all pride, and lays prostrate the whole of the human race…Never, certainly, would the Apostles have had sufficient confidence to undertake so arduous an office, if they had not known that their Protector sitteth in heaven, and that the highest authority is given to him; for without such a support it would have been impossible for them to make any progress. But when they learn that he to whom they owe their services is the Governor of heaven and earth, this alone was abundantly sufficient for preparing them to rise superior to all opposition…He expressly calls himself the Lord and King of heaven and earth, because, by constraining men to obey him in the preaching of the gospel, he establishes his throne on the earth; and, by regenerating his people to a new life, and inviting them to the hope of salvation, he opens heaven to admit to a blessed immortality with angels those who formerly had not only crawled on the world, but had been plunged in the abyss of death.
Here is the authority the risen Jesus claims for himself: the ability to grant eternal life, to totally govern the whole world, to establish divine teaching. He is identified as the “Governor of heaven and earth” and “expressly calls himself the Lord and King”. And it is Jesus who not only paves the way for salvation for sinners but actively admits them into eternal life. Does that sound like someone who doesn’t have the same authority as God the Father?
But some may object that the risen Jesus does not have this total authority in and of himself because it was given to him by someone else, namely God the Father. Here again is John Calvin:
Yet let us remember that what Christ possessed in his own right was given to him by the Father in our flesh, or – to express it more clearly – in the person of the Mediator; for he does not lay claim to the eternal power which he was endued before the creation of the world, but to that which he has now received, by being appointed to be Judge of the world. Nay, more, it ought to be remarked , that this authority was not fully known until he rose from he dead; for then only did he come forth adorned with the emblems of supreme King.
This authority is given to Jesus by the Father not because the Son is somehow in a position of continual submission, but because he has taken on flesh. He already possess power and authority “in his own right”. What is given to the Risen Jesus here is something brought about in his role as Mediator, not in his person as Son. That’s an important distinction.
And so it is clear that the Son has equal authority with the Father in his post-resurrection state. And as John Calvin points out, he already had full and total authority with the Father in his pre-incarnate state (Phil 2:6). So it is absolutely untrue that the Son has less authority than the Father in eternity past or in eternity future. The only time that God the Son did not have the same authority as God the Father was in his humiliation, when he added humanity to himself so that he may save humanity.
Yet this taking on of humanity was in itself decided in eternity past by God: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Son goes of his own volition (Phil 2:7)! He is not forced, cajoled or convinced by the Father that this is the right action. He does it because God saves sinners and the Son’s actions bring about that salvation.
But if Matthew is not convincing enough, let us turn to Revelation. The book of Revelation is confusing and difficult to understand. That’s on purpose. John is writing a book revealing to us a sneak peek into the heavenly realm where God reigns on his throne. In order to best communicate, John uses a genre called “apocalyptic literature”, which by nature is difficult to interpret. It is not linear and it is not necessarily logically ordered. It is, as Vern Poythress describes it, a picture book.
In this picture book, John describes God on his throne. In chapter four it is clear that the figure on the throne is God in his fullness. The Triune God sits on the throne. And yet in chapter five, it is clearly the Father who sits on the throne. The Son, poetically described as a Lamb, approaches the throne and takes a scroll from the one who was sitting on the throne. Then later the heavenly host worship both the figure on the throne and the Lamb by saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” Note the co-equality here.
If we fast-forward to the end of Revelation, however, someone else is sitting on the throne. The Judge sits on the throne in Revelation 20 who has already been identified as the Son (Rev. 19:11-16). The Son judges and sits on God’s throne. So at one point it is the whole Godhead who sits on the throne, at another it is the Father and yet another it is the Son. So who sits on the throne? It seems confusing. And that’s the point. Each member of the Godhead is co-equal, co-eternal, and shares the same authority for each one is God. To claim that the Son does not have the same authority as the Father in eternity future is simply wrong.
But why does this matter to someone in the pew who doesn’t normally care about these kinds of theological debates? Two reasons.
First, this has immediate impact on how we worship God. Take, for instance, the song “In Christ Alone.” Are we instead to sing “In Christ Alone-ish”? Should we qualify the line “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny” with a “but it’s really the Father who commands and Jesus is his sub-commander.” Of course not. That’s ludicrous! And Strachan would agree with me. I’m just not sure what Strachan leaves us that would stop such a silly move.
In fact, all of worship is to be centered around the person of Christ. The Father puts forward the Son that we may worship him and the Spirit leads us in that worship. At no time are we worshiping someone who is somehow less than the Father or who is subordinated to the Father. The confusion between the God the Son in his role as mediator in his incarnate state and God the Son as he exists co-equally and co-eternally with God the Father is rampant in Strachan’s piece.
Secondly, if we begin diluting the authority of Christ we begin chipping away at our ability to trust him with our lives. If the Son is always waiting for his Father’s permission or leaning on his Father’s authority as if it’s greater than his, then why should we lean on Christ? Why not go “beyond” Christ to the Father? No, our full hope and trust is in the Risen Christ who has all authority over life and salvation. To call into question the fullness of Christ’s authority, then, is to call into question the core of our faith.
If this is where the logic of EFS goes, no wonder there are complementarians speaking out against it. And I am thankful that they are, for this view of the Trinity is not just defective, but it is a dangerous path toward heresies that have popped up in the history of the church time and time again.
We are headed towards a time in the Western church when we must rally together around the truth of the Gospel. We must commune with one another because the world will have no communion with us. This is impossible if we can’t agree on one of the fundamental truths prompted by one of humankind’s fundamental questions: who is God?