Eternal Relational Subordination and the History of the Church (Pt. 2)

57KRVGK2H9In the first part of this article I argued that evangelicalism is engaged in a civil war on the theological battlefield of Trinitarianism in regard to the heated and divisive issue of the eternal relational subordination of the Son. For an elaboration of this statement, see Part 1.  One common argument against the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) is that it is a modern invention created in the 20th century by those who were looking for added theological support for discussions of gender and church roles. Opponents of ESS claim that using the eternal subordination of the Son  as a way to support gender distinctions within the church and marital relationships is heretical because it goes against the orthodox teaching of the church.

Is this accusation valid? In the previous article we saw that among church fathers of the patristic period there was no harmonious agreement either rejecting or accepting the eternal relational subordination of the Son from 1 Corinthians 15:27-28. But what about during the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods? The following is an examination of 1 Cor. 15:27-28 in post-patristic church history. At the close of this article I will offer some concluding thoughts and the implications of this study on the current Trinitarian debate.

1 Corinthians 15:27-28 in the Medieval Period

First, a few broader comments should be made in regard to ESS and Trinitarian thought during this time. Thomas Aquinas was the most prominent theologian of the thirteenth century. He continued in his thinking along the lines and tradition of Augustine in many ways. Kevin Giles believes that Aquinas completely rejected subordination in any form. “With his stress on the divine unity of the Godhead, it is inconceivable for him that the Son and the Spirit might be subordinate in any way.”[1] Yet even within this discussion Aquinas is quoted as saying, “For among divine persons there is a kind of natural order but no hierarchic order.”[2] This statement supports the idea of full equality for each person in the Trinity while at the same time a “natural” ordering with the Father primary.

Richard of Saint Victor (12th century) likewise affirms that there is no distinction between the persons in terms of their possession of deity, but there is a distinction in persons in terms of their origin. “The Son, whom [the Father] had from eternity, has been eternally begotten, and with reason we must say that he has eternally received being. Therefore, he is called ‘begotten’; and not even just begotten, but also ‘only-begotten,’ since in the Trinity there is only one Son.”[3] Both Aquinas and Richard of Saint Victor are very systematic and rational in their approach rather than being concerned primarily to comment on the biblical text itself. Yet they both hold to the ontological equality of Father and Son eternally, and at the same time a distinction between persons in their relations based on origin (only the Son is eternally begotten).

We are not, however, limited to making broad Trinitarian claims during this period without ability to speak to our passage. Oecumenius wrote a commentary on Paul’s epistles somewhere between the sixth and ninth centuries AD. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:27, he says, “The things of the Son belong to God as Father, and everything which the Son can do is attributed to the Father, for he who begot him outside time is the source of the Son’s power.”[4] Here Oecumenius claims that God the Father eternally begot the Son outside of time (in the immanent Trinity), and is the source of the Son’s power not only in the incarnation, but eternally. This points toward the idea of there being an order (taxis) among the members of the Trinity, not in terms of rank, but in terms of relation.[5] The Father is the authoritarian as the source of the Son’s power. The Son is subordinate in terms of his role in that he receives power from his Father.[6] For Oecumenius the eternal generation of the Son implies in some sense a subordinate role in relation to his Father.[7]

While Trinitarian thought during the medieval period was not largely advanced, we can see from Thomas Aquinas, Richard of St. Victor, and Oecumenius that there was no received rule of faith that demanded either the acceptance or denial of ESS. There was room in this era for discussions of the distinctions of the Trinitarian persons in terms of their origin. While these discussions did not explicitly affirm the Son’s eternal submission to the Father in role or relation, neither did they rule it out as heretical, as some would propagate.[8]


1 Corinthians 15:27-28 in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Periods

John Calvin, in looking at 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, appears to have had difficulty in interpreting the passage. Letham writes, “his comments on [1 Cor. 15:27-28] have a definitely Nestorian ring to them.”[9] He continues:

At the conclusion of his mediatorial kingdom, Calvin says, Christ will hand the kingdom back to God. He will not abdicate his kingship in any way, “but will transfer it in some way or other from his humanity to his glorious divinity.” This seems to imply a division in the person of Christ. Indeed, he goes on to say that we will then see God plainly in his majesty, “and the humanity of Christ will no longer be in between us to hold us back from a nearer vision of God.” This astonishing statement appears to conflict with Calvin’s otherwise strong, and definitely orthodox, focus on the Incarnation. It is as if in attempting to guard against any diminution of Christ’s full deity, he has momentarily lost his grasp of the union of the two natures of the incarnate Christ.[10]

Calvin’s comments show that in his thinking there is a continuity between the mediatorial kingdom of Christ and his eternal rule, yet the emphasis in eternity is on Christ’s deity.

There is a problem here of making too sharp of a distinction between Christ’s humanity and his deity. Letham charges Calving as being close to Nestorianism, and makes a point which should be considered not only in regards to Calvin but also to interpreters of this passage throughout the church’s history. Does our understanding of the incarnation of Christ really allow us to view some passages as only being in reference to his humanity or his deity, as per Augustine? Or does the hypostatic union force us to see Christ’s actions in his humanity as inseparable from and consistent with his divine eternal disposition? Apparently Calvin struggled to understand the answer to these questions in his interpretation of this passage.

Martin Luther’s commentary on 1 Corinthians is instructive here as well. In commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, he speaks of Christ handing over his kingdom and subjecting himself to the Father eternally:

This is what St. Paul calls delivering the Kingdom to the Father, that is, presenting us and His whole Christendom openly to the Father into eternal clarity and glory, that He Himself may reign without cloak or cover. But Christ will nevertheless retain His rule and majesty; for He is the same God and Lord, eternal and omnipotent with the Father… Everything must be subject to Him, “excepting Him who put all things under Him,” until the Last Day. Then He will abolish all of this and subject Himself with His entire kingdom to the Father…[11]

Thus Luther envisioned a future when the temporal kingdom of Christ would be given over to the Father “into eternal clarity and glory,” a reference to unending rule in eternity future. The subjection of Christ then continues for all eternity, since he would “subject Himself with His entire kingdom to the Father.” It appears Luther was very comfortable assigning to the Son an eternal submission to the Father in role, while at the same time affirming their ontological unity.

Finally, in the Post-Reformation, early American era Jonathan Edwards’ notes on 1 Corinthians 15:28 tease at the idea of eternal subordination in role. He begins by noting of Christ, “He is to be respected as God himself is, as supreme, and absolute, and sovereign Ruler.”[12] For Edwards, clearly Christ is fully God. He concludes, however, by saying, “But with respect to government, God will be respected as Supreme Orderer, and Christ[13] with his church united to him and dependent on him, shall together be received of the benefit of his government.”[14] Edwards regarded God the Father as “Supreme Orderer,” and Christ in some way depends on him, being the receiver of benefits from the Father’s government. This demonstrates an order of authority and submission in the Godhead.

In the Reformation period and following, some of the strongest theological voices supported the idea that Christ was fully God ontologically but subordinate to the Father in terms of their relationship. In their writings, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards give support to the eternal relational subordination of the Son to the Father. This conclusion was arrived at in part by their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

Implications for the Modern Trinitarian Debate

In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 shows a lack of uniformity in interpretation throughout the history of the church in speaking to the eternal subordination of the Son in role, and this is reflective of the relationship between ESS and the church fathers more broadly. Far from being the nail in the coffin of ESS, as some would convey, the evidence of church history shows in this passage a variety of interpretations and no general agreement one way or the other. This does not mean that voices from the community of faith throughout the ages should not be appealed to in the ESS debate. Rather, theologians on both sides of the debate should realize wide-ranging claims of universal historical-theological support for their position do not align with the evidence and are ultimately unhelpful.

Kevin Giles has said, “The best guide to a right interpretation of the Scriptures in relation to any historically developed doctrine is the theological tradition, especially given in creeds and confessions.”[15] I fully agree. However, in the case of ESS, we have seen there is no uniform theological tradition. If church history cannot decisively affirm or deny ESS, we must look to biblical and theological studies for more definitive answers. Scholars on both sides of the Trinitarian debate, then, must stop citing the church fathers as their death blow to the other side. The battle over eternal subordination will not be won on the field of church history, but rather in the trenches of biblical and theological studies.


[1] Giles, Jesus and the Father, 160.

[2] Ibid, 160. Emphasis mine.

[3] Ruben Angelici, Richard of Saint Victor, On the Trinity: English Translation and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 222.

[4] Bray, 1-2 Corinthians, 163. Emphasis mine.

[5] Letham says this idea of an order in the Trinity in terms of personal relations exists within Augustine’s writings as well. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 193.

[6] Interestingly, Oecumenius also contrasts 1 Cor. 15:27-28 with Greek mythology: “Paul is writing to converted Greeks, because the Greeks worshiped Zeus, who revolted against his own father in order to seize his kingdom. He was concerned lest they should imagine something similar in the case of Christ and his Father.” Bray, 1-2 Corinthians, 163.

[7] Contra Giles, who argues that eternal generation does not imply eternal relational subordination, and the two must be kept separate. Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 231-233.

[8] Giles, Jesus and the Father, 160.

[9] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 255.

[10] Ibid, 255-256.

[11] Martin Luther, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15,” trans. Martin H. Bertram, (Luther’s Works, Vol. 28: Selected Pauline Epistles, ed. Hilton C. Oswald; Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 141. Emphasis mine.

[12] Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture, Stephen J. Stein, ed. (vol. 15 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Harry S. Stout; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 95.

[13] There is a note in the text that Edwards scratched out which originally said, “as subordinate unto him together” at this point. Ibid, 96.

[14] Ibid. 96.

[15] Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 57.


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