Eternal Subordination Implies Ontological Subordination

It would seem impossible to speak of the eternal subordination or submission of the Son without falling into both the errors of subordinationism and tritheism. This is why with one voice the church has never allowed differing authority as a basis for differentiating the divine persons. Evangelicals who speak of the eternal subordination or submission of the Son attempt two strategies to avoid the charge of subordinationism. The first and most common is to argue that the subordination or submission of the Son envisaged only speaks of his functional or role subordination, not his ontological subordination. If the so-called differing function or role of the Father and the Son referred only to the operations of the divine persons, which could change and thus would not be person-defining, as these sociological terms normally indicate, then their reply would have force. However, the so-called distinctive roles or functions of the Father and the Son, namely, the Father's ruling "role" and the Son's obeying "role," are in fact eternal, necessary and person-defining.45 They eternally distinguish the Father as the Father and the Son as the Son. If this is the case, then what differentiates them is not their "role" but who they are, their very being. The Son's eternal subordinate "role" is dictated by who he is, his being. This is the error of ontological subordinationism.

The force of these two terms should be noted. The word eternal refers to what is divine. God alone is eternal, all else is temporal. The word necessary, in theological and philosophical usage, refers to what could not be otherwise. It is something true in all possible worlds. If the Son of God is eternally and necessarily subordinate or submissive, then it means this status defines his person or being. It speaks not of how he functions or his "role" but of his ontology-what makes him who he is. He is the subordinate Son, and he cannot ever be otherwise; he does not simply function subordinately.

Divine Self-Differentiation and Eternity

Divine self-differentiation takes place within the life of God in eternity; what takes place in history simply reveals what is true in eternity....God is triune for all eternity; events in the world neither make him triune nor explain how he is eternally triune. God is certainly revealed in the economy as Father, Son and Spirit, three distinct persons, but it is the Bible that tells us these three persons coexist for all eternity and that these three divine persons are in fact one God. Thus what the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit do, and do well, is explain how the one God is eternally three persons and how the divine three persons are the one God.


United Trinitarian Works

The Bible teaches clearly that no divine work is the work of any one person of the Trinity. Their works unite them not distinguish them.5

In the Bible no divine act or operation is ever depicted as the work of one divine person in isolation from the other two. The three persons baptize as one (Mt 28:19), bless as one (2 Cor 13:13) and minister through believers as one (1 Cor 12:4-6). Creation is a work of God involving the Father, Son and Spirit (Gen 1:1;Jn 1:2-3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:10). So too is election (Mt 11:27; Jn 3:3-9; 6:70; 13:18; Acts 1:2; Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2). And so too is salvation On 3:1-6; Rom 8:1-30; 2 Cor 2:6; Eph 1:3-14). When it comes to divine rule both the Father and the Son are named "Lord," the supreme ruler, and it would seem also the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:17). In the book of Revelation the Father and the Son rule from the one throne (Rev 5:13; 7:10). Last, it is to be noted that judgment is ascribed to both the Father and the Son (Ps 7:8; 9:7-8; Rom 2:16; Rev 16:7; Mt 25:31-32; Jn 5:27; Acts 10:42; Phil 2:10).

Theological use of 'Begotten'

The theological use of [begotten] makes the infinite difference between human begetting and divine begetting explicit by the addition of the word eternal.17 What is temporal is part of this world that God created; what is eternal is divine. When God created the world he created time. He himself is not limited or constrained by time. He is the Lord of time. Thus to speak of the eternal begetting of the Son is to speak of what takes place within the life of God, of a reality outside of human experience, not definable in human categories, and not bounded by temporal constraints.


The Word 'Begotten'

...the word begotten, when used of the divine Son, cannot be understood in terms of human begetting, most obviously because, although he had an earthly birth and a human mother, he also existed before his human birth and incarnation, yet he had no divine mother. The early theologians settled on the term "begotten" (gennao) to speak of the eternal generation of the Son because they found it repeatedly in Scripture...


God's actions in the world are not self-explanatory

...what God does in the world does not establish in any sure way what is true in eternity. God may appear in the world as three persons who do different things but this in itself does not tell us God is eternally triune and it could suggest the three divine persons are not in fact one God. We believe that God is one yet three persons not because of God's actions in the world but because Scripture says God is one and three persons. God's actions in the world are not self-explanatory. We need Scripture to tell us what they mean and imply.


Nothing that takes place in history determines God's life in eternity

...nothing that takes place in history determines God's life in eternity, God is free. God's actions in the world should be understood strictly in terms of what God reveals in his Word. God's revelation of himself in historical acts in the economy is certainly to be trusted-God is not other than he reveals himself-but what we conclude about God in eternity from his acts in the economy should not be based on human experience, ideas and agendas but on what God reveals in Scripture.


Summary of Eternal Begetting

  • The eternal begetting of the Son does not involve a change in God. God is eternally triune; he does not become a Trinity in time. There never was a time when the Son (or the Spirit) was not.

  • The eternal begetting of the Son cannot be likened to human generation, except on one matter: like produces like, and thus fathers and their offspring are of the same nature. Divine begetting is "immaterial," "spiritual," like the unceasing light coming from the sun, or "light from light," or the utterance of the divine Word.

  • The eternal begetting of the Son is not to be understood in terms of temporal, contingent causation or as human begetting in the created order. The eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit are necessary divine acts ad intra. Nothing is produced outside of God.

  • The Son, on the basis of his eternal begetting, is to be confessed as "true God from true God, one in being [homoousios] with the Father."

  • The eternal begetting of the Son eternally and indelibly differentiates the Father and the Son as "unbegotten God" and "begotten God." It does not differentiate or separate them in being or power, or as underived deity (the Father) and derived deity (the Son and the Spirit), or as contingent and noncontingent God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit all possess aseity. They are each "true God," each self-existent God.


Cappadocian Fathers and Knowing God Christologically

[The Cappadocian fathers] would not allow that logic or rational arguments are ways of knowing God, which for them is what theo-logy is all about, or that human analogies or the meaning of words as they apply to creation can tell us anything about God. For them the path to knowing God is prayerful reflection on the Scriptures read holistically and christologically.


Perverse Evangelical Interpretation, Univocal Language, and Idolatry

..."perverse" evangelical interpretations of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son not only disclose a profound ignorance of doctrinal history but also a profound misunderstanding of what theology is and how all theological language works. They assume that the meaning of words used of God must be derived from their use in everyday speech, referring to created realities, particularly words related to human birth. For the Nicene fathers, as we have shown, giving meaning to words used of God in this way only leads to error and heresy. To do so is to depict God in human terms, which is idolatry. Words used theologically are not to be given content or definition on the basis of human experience but are to be adapted to the proper object of reference-namely, God. No word can be used of God in exactly (univocally) the same way as it is used of creation since God is not a creature. This means specifically that the Son's begetting cannot be understood in terms of human begetting, nor can the divine names Father and Son be understood in terms of human fathers and sons.


Calvin and the Full Equality of the Divine Three

Calvin's insistence that the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son spoke not of the Father deifying the Son and thus of his subordination but rather of the full equality of the divine three in being and power and of their eternal divine self-differentiation became a characteristic of Reformed orthodoxy, maintained by Beza and by most Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century.


Begetting and Fromness

For him "fromness" does not imply subordination. What these metaphors speak of, he argues, is the "intimacy" of the Father and the Son and their indelible differentiation-one begets, the other is begotten, one sends, the other is sent. He writes that one is not greater or less because "one is the Father and the other the Son; one is the begetter, the other begotten; the first is the one from whom the sent one is; the other is the one who is from the sender."


Athanasius and Ad Intra and Ad Extra Distinctions finally exclude completely the idea that the Son is a creature, a work of God, Athanasius argues that the Son's eternal begetting takes place within the life of God. Nothing is produced or created outside of God. "A work," he says, "is external to the [divine] nature, but the Son is a proper offspring of the essence."103 Athanasius did not contrast internal and external divine acts using the later Latin terms ad intra and ad extra, but he certainly made this very important distinction before anyone else had even thought of the idea. The Son's begetting was for him a divine work ad intra to be contrasted with the divine works of creation and salvation ad extra.


Arianism subordinated the Son is being and authority

Many think that Arianism involved solely the eternal subordination of the Son in being/nature/essence. This is not so. All the Arians subordinated the Son in being and authority. The two were correlated by the Arians, who advocated both, and by the Nicene theologians, who rejected both. Both sides agreed they were two sides of one coin. If the Son is subordinate in being, he is subordinate in authority; if he is one in being with the Father, then he is one in authority.


The Terms "The Father" and "The Son" giving the names "the Father" and "the Son" to the first and second persons of the Trinity, eternally differentiates and relates them analogically in terms of a human father-son relation. These names supplied by divine revelation strongly suggest that no better human word can be found to speak of the eternal self-differentiation of the Father and the Son than the words "generation" or "begetting."


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