The Eternal Perfection of the Son

The revival of debate over the “eternal subordination of the Son” boils down to yet another attempt by Christian academia to solve the biblical jig saw puzzle with no reference to the picture on the box.

Once again, the evangelical world gets itself tied up in knots over something that could be solved with a simple “algorithmic” diagram. As usual, it will require hundreds of words to explain something which is, in “covenant-literary terms,” quite simple, just as a single Feynman diagram makes redundant many pages of complicated calculations.1See The Language of Rainbows.

The reason for the confusion and the lack of a conclusion is Christian academics’ failure to interpret the Bible – its narratives, covenants and sacred architectures – as processes of transformation, from glory to glory. Both sides of this debate, which pitches the subordination of the Son as the Son, and the equality of the Son as God, against each other, fail because they insist on defining the living God in static terms.

The truth is that God Himself, being triune, is a process, and He is a process because He is a relationship. So, both sides of the debate fail, and yet both sides are also correct. This is because the crux of the debate is a false dichotomy: the Son is both equal and subordinate. The apparent paradox is solved when we realise that the Son is subordinate and equal at different points in a single process.

This fact is already clear to all sides, to some degree, when delineated by the boundaries of Christ’s life on earth. In his 2012 essay, “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father,” Wayne Grudem writes:

There is no question that, during the time of Jesus’ life on earth, he was subject to the authority of God the Father. He said, “’Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7). He also said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). And he said, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28).

But some evangelicals today claim this was only a temporary submission to the authority of the Father, limited to the time of his earthly life or at least to actions connected to the purpose of earning our salvation. They argue that prior to his coming to earth, and after he returned to heaven, God the Son was equal in authority to God the Father. Gilbert Bilezikian writes,

The frame of reference for every term that is found in Scripture to describe Christ’s humiliation pertains to his ministry and not to his eternal state… Because there was no order of subordination within the Trinity prior to the Second Person’s incarnation, there will remain no such thing after its completion. If we must talk of subordination it is only a functional or economic subordination that pertains exclusively to Christ’s role in relation to human history.

In this paper, Grudem hits the nail on the head again and again in his answer to those who argue for temporary submission. The Father and Son were Father and Son before the incarnation, which indicates a hierarchy of authority within the Trinity, and this is not affected by the various orders in which these names are found in the New Testament. It is clearly stated that the Son was subordinate to the Father in the act of Creation, and again in His sending of the Son into the world. But Grudem also points out that in His ministry as our Great High Priest, the Son advocates for us before the Father, and that being seated at the right hand of the Father indicates an authority that is second only to the Father as ruler of the universe. At the end of His reign, once all enemies are subjected to Him, Christ delivers His kingdom to the Father. Obviously, Christ’s subordination is not limited to His time on earth, nor to previous Covenant history.

How, then, are we to reconcile Jesus’ subordination with His equality with the Father and the Spirit as members of the Trinity? And consequently, regarding the secondary aspect of this debate, do Jesus’ subordination and/or equality have any relevance to the subordination of a wife to her husband? Some have claimed that this is an entirely different subject, but I believe that the solution to the primary debate is also the solution to this secondary aspect. In fact, we might observe that the question of the correspondence of this human aspect “fractally” images the question in the primary debate: is the question of authority within human marriage both subordinate and equal to that question within the Trinity?

As I wrote in Inquiétude, bad theologians need to learn to think in pictures, and good theologians need to learn to think in moving pictures. In a chapter entitle “Educating Jesus,” this was then applied to the relationship between the Father and the Son, where the assertion was made that the emptying/humiliation of the Christ in His incarnation and His filling/exaltation in His Ascension was in fact a microcosm of His role in all of Covenant history, beginning right at the beginning and ending right at the end:

The relationship between the Father and the Son is an eternal to-and-fro. It is this primary “chiasm,” Forming and Filling, which gave shape to the Creation Week and every event in the Word of God. Every facet of human life is also a “there-and-back-again.”

Most importantly, it is also the shape of human history. All of antiquity up to the Ascension of Christ was a Forming which resulted in a Glorified Adam, the blameless Firstfruits. Pentecost began the Filling, the maturity of humanity in the maturity of Christ. But what if all of history, not just the incarnation, was also part of the process of perfecting the Son?2Michael Bull, “Educating Jesus” in Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes, 27.

My argument is this: since Christ tells us the glory He would receive at His ascension was not the glory He emptied Himself of at His incarnation but instead the glory He once enjoyed with the Father before the Creation (John 17:4-5), His role in heaven throughout Old Testament history was one of subordination. Moreover, it was one during which He did not fully know the purpose of the Father behind the decree of Creation.

What if the mind of the Father was also hidden by a “firmament” from the Son, the Creation itself being the greatest good for the Son yet wrapped in a riddle and not yet complete? This would mean that the process of bringing the Son to a “bridal” maturity began not at the incarnation but at the Creation.3Inquiétude, 32.

Legally-speaking, the Old Testament was a time of childhood/servanthood not only for the people of God but also for the Son of God. The Son Himself became a servant, the “angel of the Lord,” not fully knowing His Master’s mind, until He came of age (Galatians 4:1-7), being qualified through obedient service as an heir who now not only knows completely His Father’s mind but declares it as His own, the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). This “growth into equality” via “voluntary subordination” is not only observed in Christ, but shared by Him in a secondary way with His disciples:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Creation)
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (Division)
ETHICS: Priesthood
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; (Ascension)
ETHICS: Kingdom
but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (Testing)
ETHICS: Prophecy
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, (Maturity)
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (Conquest)
These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (Glorification)
(John 15:12-17)

This process of growth is the fundamental purpose of the Bible Matrix. Like the Creation Week, it is not merely a chiasm, but a symmetrical process that actually changes things in history, moving mankind from a lesser glory to a greater one via humility and exaltation:

At TRANSCENDENCE, the authority of the speaker over the hearer is declared. In Covenant history, this corresponds to the era from the priesthood of Adam to the priest-kingdom of Noah.
At HIERARCHY, the hearer is given a delegated authority, but it is authority to serve. This corresponds in Covenant history to the circumcision.
At ETHICS, the hearer is given the mission, which is the entire process in microcosm. He serves firstly through humble Priesthood in the Garden, graduates via this obedience to Kingdom over the Land, and finally speaks for God as a Prophet to the World.4The expansion of Ethics into the triune office transforms the fivefold legal Covenant into a sevenfold pattern of history. For more discussion, see Michael Bull, Bible Matrix II: The Covenant Key.
At OATH/SANCTIONS, the ministry of the hearer is assessed, and blessings or curses are decreed. If the hearer, like Adam, fails to serve God, rule over sin, and speak for God, he is disqualified and his legacy is cut off. If, however, he was faithful, like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus, he is given greater authority, expressed ultimately through a lasting legacy in history.
At SUCCESSION, a greater domain – that promised in the beginning – is opened to the hearer, who not only serves, acts and speaks for God (the Triune office), but now also legally represents, or images Him. For all intents and purposes, the voice of the faithful man is now truly the voice of a god, an elohim.

The same process is seen in the order of sacrifice, which begins with Initiation by God and ends with Representation of God by the reconciled Man. In Israel’s annual festal calendar, this process began with the initial weekly Sabbath which was corrupted and lost by Adam now restored to God’s “firstborn,” and ended with a purified and qualified Israel representing the holiness, order and beauty of God to the nations of the world at the Feast of Booths.

How does this relate to the subordination and equality of the Son of God? God Himself is a process, a relationship which moves from law to love, in every single interaction between the Father and the Son, via the Spirit. As in human history, and indeed in every human life, the two way conversation moves from the external law (stoicheia) on tablets of stone, like the Ten Words, to the internal government of the Spirit, a state in which one not only submits to God’s law but is animated by it, sharing the same mind.

This is also the reason for the shift in the Covenant sign from circumcision (being under authority: subordination in flesh) to baptism (voluntarily submitting to and thus receiving authority: legal equality in Spirit). Circumcision concerned the sons of men according to the flesh. Baptism concerns the sons of God according to the Spirit. When one shares the mind of Christ, submission, subordination and service become redundant, because that which was once commanded is now the natural outworking of love. When faith came, both circumcision and uncircumcision became redundant (Galatians 3:23). Through Creation and Covenant history, the Son has become a father (Hebrews 1:1-2:18). Because He is faithful, like Joseph, like Daniel, He rules the nations with all the authority of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar because He is its embodiment. 5In a very real sense, the prophet serves the king as a spiritual father (Genesis 45:8). Equality can never be seized, only bestowed. This brings us to a consideration of subordination and equality in marriage.

When modern secularists identify the Mosaic Law as primitive, they do so to disparage it. This is most obvious when they condemn the laws which prescribe the treatment of women and slaves as “chattels” or possessions. The truth is that all of Covenant history moves from subordination to equality, and that includes the emancipation of slaves and women.6For more discussion, see The Emancipation of Eve. The problem with secularists is that they do not realise that it is only Christianity which has brought these two things to pass in history. More importantly, they fail to understand that the freedom of women and servants depends entirely upon the obedience of men – those with priestly and kingly authority – before God. Thus, a wife is firstly subordinate but through the faithfulness of her husband she becomes an equal.

The most obvious biblical example is the transformation of Esther firstly into a queen in name only, and then via obedience into a co-regent ruling over half the kingdom. Of course, the narrative pictures the process of the glorification of the Church. As the Bridegroom bows to, and thus embodies, the Word/Seed of the Father, so the Bride bows to, and thus embodies, the Word/Seed of the Son (1 Corinthians 13:7).

When moderns speak about achieving and maintaining equality for all, they do so without any understanding of the processes of God. Such equality comes only as a gift, via subordination to God – by the masters and husbands first (vertical delegation) – and then by those who desire equality (horizontal delegation). Unfortunately, at every instance in modern society, equality is grasped rather than delegated (Philippians 2:6), stolen rather than given as a gift (Genesis 3:11).Authority in society is no longer understood as authority given by God to serve as His representative. The world’s remedy for exploitation is more exploitation.

In the nature of God, patriarchy and equality are not at odds with each other. As it is in the human body, hierarchy is the God-given means for the transmission of life and blessing. Our problem is our blindness to the nature of living things, which are never static, but always growing to maturity. So also it is with God, within whom the Son is ever-perfected, His humility and glorification the troughs and peaks of an eternal sine wave whose ripples describe everything which exists.

The source of all inequality in the world, and its remedy, are found in the relationship between the Father and the Son by the Spirit.

If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]

1. See The Language of Rainbows.
2. Michael Bull, “Educating Jesus” in Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes, 27.
3. Inquiétude, 32.
4. The expansion of Ethics into the triune office transforms the fivefold legal Covenant into a sevenfold pattern of history. For more discussion, see Michael Bull, Bible Matrix II: The Covenant Key.
5. In a very real sense, the prophet serves the king as a spiritual father (Genesis 45:8).
6. For more discussion, see The Emancipation of Eve.


  1. Carson Spratt

    So are there eternally two wills in the Godhead, and a lack of omniscience in all three persons?

    • Michael Bull

      I understand what you are saying, but I would express it like this: the Father’s omniscience is shared with the Son, by the Spirit, in an eternal conversation of obedience and faith. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Michael Bull

    Lots of wisdom there. Thanks, Chris.

  3. Amen and Amen Mike.

    If I may, I’d like to speak to this at the pastoral level.

    I am a complimentarian. And my getting there had more to with Philippians 2 than Ephesians 5.

    Simply put, if Jesus grasped at equality with the Father, there would be no cross. And if Jesus were not equal with the Father, there would be no resurrection — no justification.

    As a pastor, I have long preached the incarnate condescension of Jesus as the bedrock hope and inspiration for all human submission (wives to husbands, husbands to bosses, children to parents, citizens to government, etc…)

    When we humble ourselves and submit to a biblically legitimized authority, we invest our rightful claim to equality into the power of Father.

    And trusting God in this way always results in an exponential ascension — far above where our own actions would have gotten us.

    So in this sense, the Eternal Subordination of the Son “feels right” to my pastoral sensabilities.

    What surprises me about the ESS debate is the recoil that is happening amongst less complimentarian, more egalitarian brethren. After all, the most legitimate beef that these folks have with my side is the very real abuse of power that has been all too evident amongst certain complimentarians (though I would argue the same thing happens on the other side – we are all prideful people!).

    It seems to me that if I were concerned about complimentarian abuse of power, I would be delighted to see those folks embracing ESS. Why?

    Ask yourself, what is the real functional problem complimentarians have? Where are they likely to go wrong?

    They are likely to develop subtle attitudes of inequality toward women (and other biblically subordinated roles) because they struggle (as all humans do) with investing full personhood in someone with less functional power (even when that power is voluntarily laid-down).

    But doesn’t the Eternal Subordination of the Son push back against such an error? In other words, if complimentarians are embracing ESS, aren’t they exposing themselves to a trinitarian antidote to the poison of equating power with prominence?

    Seems to me that ESS prevents the very problem that the egalitarians identity (sometimes rightly) in the complimentarian camp. Eternal Subordination of the Son forces the issue of true equality, equal personal value in spite of differentiated or even subordinated roles.

    Nobody in the ESS camp is trying to subordinate the worth, or the deity of Jesus. If they do that, they’ve got much larger, truly heretical problems.

    If Trinitarian Complimentarity really is a thing, then it seems to me that this doctrine would have a very positive effect on marriage, on church polity, on vocational life, etc…

    Complimentarian husbands will be tempted to devalue their wives because of their diminished power under that system. This is human nature. But ESS seems to be an eternally high firewall against doing so.

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