The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy
A Response to Charges Made on Social Media
You may have heard that some theologians and pastor believe that the Son eternally submits to the Father. For many who read and love their Bibles, this is an uncontroversial statement. Indeed, for centuries, this was an uncontroversial statement; it occasioned no charges of heresy, no censure, no rebuke. For a handful of theologians today, however, this view is akin to Arianism (either full-on Arianism, or for the shrewd among us, semi-Arianism). As a recent example of such a posture, see this tweet by a man named Casey Hough, unfamiliar to me, but impassioned about my supposed Arianism.
For many, the primary response to these claims has been, in a word, confusion. Confusion is everywhere with regard to this debate, and good people have good and understandable questions as a result. This is because this subject involves a great many scriptural texts, doctrines, and historical threads. It is not easy to sort out quickly.
Questions abound, and lead to more questions. What is divine simplicity, and what should it entail? Is God actus purus, and if so, how? Are all representations of God engaging his creation anthropomorphic or analogical? If so, what do these terms mean? How is God one God in three persons? How do we view the will of God? How do the three persons relate? What is the connection of their pre-temporal engagement to their work in the unfolding of the plan of redemption? What happens to Father-Son communion at the cross? What precisely does it mean to be a divine person?
As we can already see, it is easy to pontificate on Twitter about the Godhead. This is not hard. What is hard is the work of theology. To begin tackling the questions above—just a tiny sampling of those we ponder in the area of theology proper—is not a quick-work job. It takes years. It takes study. It takes humility. It takes a lot of reading. It takes much prayer. It involves confession and repentance for our failures and ungodly thoughts. It is humbling, deeply humbling.
My comment about the humbling nature of studying the Godhead does not represent a posture of postmodern skepticism. Instead, I speak here of convictional humility. By this I mean that we stand firmly upon what Scripture has clearly revealed, yet we readily confess that when it comes to knowing God, we are creatures. We are finite. We work to arrive at the best possible systematic conclusion, but in numerous areas, we understand that we are not perfect theologians, and that others will differ from us on a good number of matters.
Biblical Support for Eternal Authority and Eternal Submission
One of those areas is the eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son (called ERAS, eternal roles of authority and submission). There are a bevy of texts that have led many theologians to conclude that Scripture teaches the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son. As I read it, Scripture presents such truth while continually promoting the full ontological equality of the Father and Son; the Father and Son are coeternal and each fully a divine person.
Here is a small sampling of texts that lead theologians to ERAS conclusions, with some noted elements put in bold by me, and with some very brief comments from me in parentheses:
 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
(The Father sent the Son, which for many theologians and pastors entails pre-temporal and pre-economic authority—the authority to “give” and “send” the Son into our world.)
 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.
(The Son consistently makes clear that he is not doing his own will, but the Father’s will, indicating a primacy of Fatherly willing.)
 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.  So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.
(Here as in many places we see both the total ontological equality of the Father and the Son and also the personal following of the Father’s work by the Son. The Son nowhere presents himself as having the same authority or headship as the Father; by contrast, all the Son’s confession goes the opposite way. He is the obedient Son; he always has been, he expressed that obedience in climactic form in his life and especially his ministry, and he always will be.)
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.
(The Son cannot here be saying that the Father is ontologically—in his essence—greater than the Son. Among other possibilities, he is saying that the Father’s authority is greater than his own, a conclusion that makes sense in light of other texts.)
 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.
(The Son carries out the Father’s commands. He is divine and human, and obeying the Father’s commands does no violence to his person. He is a soldier under orders; he is a true Son.)
 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
(The Father has given the divine “charge” to his Son to die for the sins of the covenant people of God. It is not the Father and the Son and Spirit have huddled, made suggestions to one another, and resolved to do the work of redemption; it is that the Father has authoritatively given his son a commission to fulfill, and the Son is glad-heartedly keeping it.)
 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.
(The Father, Christ indicates here, is the one who has appointed or “fixed” all things that come to pass. It is not a generic Trinitarian council that has done this; it is God the Father.)
 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
(This is a prayer of praise to the Father that shows, as seen elsewhere, that agency for the plan of salvation is ascribed to God the Father.)
 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
(Here as in other texts it is the Father who has “appointed” the Son as judge. Normally, when the New Testament speaks of God, it does not mean a generic divine person, nor a combination of all three Trinitarian persons, but God the Father. This very important grammatical detail is rarely discussed in Trinitarian conversations, which no doubt accounts for much confusion that follows.)
1 Corinthians 11:3
 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.
(It is entirely reasonable to conclude from this text that the Father’s headship is eternal; this makes elegant with numerous other passages. Some argue that “Christ” as the title limits the Father’s headship to the economy of redemption, which deserves consideration. However, it is entirely within scriptural bounds to see the Father as exercising eternal headship of the Son.)
1 Corinthians 15:28
 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.
(In another little-discussed reality, everyone who believes Scripture must confess the Father’s headship over the Son to some degree. It does no violence to the Son—truly God, truly man—to be “subjected” to the Father in eternity future. Clearly, this indicates that submission is not a negative reality with regard to the divine nature of Christ.)
 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,  which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight  making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ  as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
(Paul weaves between Father and Son in this section and its broader context. Here, for those tracking closely, he emphasizes the Father’s role in purposing salvation. It is the “mystery of his will, according to his purpose” that he brings to pass “in Christ” the salvation he has planned. This salvation is not a small element of biblical consideration; it is the central work of all history, the doxological reason for which God created the earth, the greatest display of love there is. All this work is anchored in the Father’s “plan”; some read this as a covenant of redemption, while others—like John Murray—do not.)
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(The Son “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” as Paul puts it here. What beauty! What mystery! The Son did not exalt himself, but rather obeyed the Father’s will in executing the work of redemption. Note who has “exalted” the Son in response, and given him a high and holy name: the Father. The Father blesses and exalts the Son, and all who confess the Son’s Lordship give glory to the Father.)
 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.
(The Son speaks here of receiving authority from the Father, which makes claims about the eternal authority or headship of the Father non-controversial at worst. Some argue that this reception of authority is located within the covenant of redemption, but it is entirely within bounds to see this reception of authority as following an eternal pattern, not only an economic one.)
There is much I could unpack in what we have just seen. I will make just one comment here: as referenced a moment ago, some argue that all the above texts should be read only in light of the covenant of redemption, such that authority and submission obtain only within the context of the pactum salutis. Others argue that the authority-submission relationship sketched between Father and Son is pre-temporal. Both views have been held in the Christian tradition, and theologians in both camps have generally gotten along quite well and not anathematized one another (praise God).
Nonetheless, of the handful of theologians arguing that ERAS is Arianism, some have alleged that the ERAS position compromises the ontological nature of divinity. Theologians on the ERAS side would respond by taking the challenge seriously, and also by noting that the anti-ERAS view is in danger of presenting not one Trinity, but two different Trinities—one pre-economic, the other following it. This is no small consideration for the other side.
What Is My Personal Confession Regarding Arianism?
Our God-hating world has poisoned so many wells. It has subtly and also directly cast doubt on many biblical themes and teachings. One of these is submission; another is authority. We have been trained, as Mike Ovey’s elegant monograph Your Will Be Done shows, to read these principles in thoroughly negative lights. But it will not do to be cultural; we must be biblical. We do not read doctrines in light of culture; we read culture in light of doctrines. Tragically and regrettably, a handful of theologians who claim the evangelical tradition—a number of them indisputably gifted, respected, and learned—have, as we’ve observed, argued that eternal authority on the Father’s part and eternal submission on the Son’s part compromise the essence of Godness.
But this is not a necessary conclusion—not in the least. Let me, in good faith and in pursuit of clarity for any interested folks, answer the charges of Arianism sent my way. There is no sense in which I hold to Arianism. I disavow it with every fiber of my being. In the fourth century A. D., Arians promoted the idea that Jesus was a sub-divine being, created by God as the highest and most exalted creature. Others tracked with Arius and developed his argument into the “semi-Arian” position: they argued that the Father and Son are not homoousios (the same divine essence), but are homoiousios (of like or similar essence). As I was trained to understand in my MDiv, the distinction here in the Greek is that of a dipthong, but in doctrinal terms is the difference between heaven and hell. I not only learned such a distinction, but have taught it in all my systematic theology classes.
The Father and Son are not of a different essence. They are of the very same divine essence. Not one of the Trinitarian persons is more God than any other. The three are equally God; they are, as Calvin beautifully captured, autotheos—roughly translated “God in themselves.” They share all divine attributes and each possess all the majestic prerogatives of deity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, three persons. So it should be clear, for me as for others, that I fully affirm the Nicene denial of Arian dogma as follows: “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” I agree with every word of this, and offer no qualification of any kind to it.
There need be no tension between biblical doctrine—and Nicene doctrine—and ERAS. While good-hearted evangelicals disagree on the matter in question, I believe based on numerous texts that the Son eternally submits to the Father. The duty of submission in the biblical mind does not signal a diminished ontology. It communicates a distinctiveness of person. The Son as Son submits to the Father; the Father as Father is head of the Son.
In brief, the Father sends the Son, calls the Son to do his will, appoints the Son, hears the prayers of the Son and answers them, and displays what can only be called loving heavenly fatherhood of the Son. This direction of authority and submission in terms of person (not essence) flows, as D. A. Carson has indicated, in one direction, not both. The Son honors his Father beautifully in revering him; he shows us what true humility, true Sonship, true submission looks like. It never means a diminution of person or essence; it always means a glad, full-throated, loving trust of authority.
This is what 1 Corinthians 11:3 shows us quite clearly. The very terms Father and Son speak to this dynamic in their relationship of love; authority (or headship) and submission are essential elements of the Fatherly and Sonly identities. So too do we learn much about fathers and sons of varying kinds. Authoritative fatherhood is true fatherhood; submissive sonship is true sonship. If we have been commanded to shy away from such conclusions—simply there for the taking in Scripture—we shall do no such thing.
This is also why the Son refers to Father as “greater” than he is; he is not signaling higher degree of divinity on the Father’s part, but rather a personal distinction of authority. What wondrous truth this is—God the Son honoring and celebrating God the Father, taking no umbrage at a distinction in authority. How instructive for us all.
Do Any Trusted Theologians Read Such Texts and Argue for ERAS, Or Am I Alone?
Some may wonder at this point—and it is reasonable and understandable to ask such a question—whether I stand all alone in seeing ERAS in Scripture. In actuality, many theologians have held some form of ERAS.
A quick word: several of the theologians I cite below use the term “subordination” instead of “submission.” They will always distinguish between subordination of essence (which necessarily leads to Arianism, and which they all disavow) and subordination of function or role (which they affirm, as it is located not in the divine essence, but in personhood, being equivalent to personal submission). It only follows that if making this distinction—as I gladly do—renders you an Arian or semi-Arian, then the following theologians are heretics as well.
Now that we have that marked and noted, let us hear from numerous theologians across time and denominations:
Historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893), author of the eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1910), editor of the standard reference work Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1931), and also editor of the 23-volume series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:
“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence and of subordinationism of hypostasis, of order of dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed. The essence of the Godhead being but one, and being absolutely perfect, can admit of no degree. Father, Son, and Spirit all have the same divine essence, yet not in a co-ordinate way, but in an order of subordination.” Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:680.
“If true reasoning admits that the equal Son obeys his equal Father, we do not deny the obedience, but if you want to believe that he is inferior in nature by reason of this obedience, we forbid it.” (Answer to Maximinus the Arian, II, XVIII, 3).
Hilary of Poitiers:
“One is not superior to the other an account of the kind of substance, but one is subject to the other because born of the other. The Father is greater because He is Father, the Son is not less because He is Son. The difference is one of the meaning of a name and not of a nature” (De Synodis, 64).
Hilary of Poitiers part 2:
“Let no one think that the word ought to be used by itself and unexplained…Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son and the likeness of His nature, and then we preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance” (De Synodis, 70).
The Father operates through the Son, and the Father and Son operate through the Spirit. The converse of these statements is never found. The Son is never said to send the Father, nor to operate through the Him; nor is the Spirit over said to send the Father, or the Son, or to operate through them. The facts contained in this paragraph are summed up in this proposition: In the Holy Trinity there is subordination of the Persons as to the mode of subsistence and operation. (1:445).
James Petigru Boyce:
“[T]here is also a subordination of office or rank still more plainly taught [in Scripture]. By virtue of this, the Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son send the Spirit. . . . The order of this subordination is plainly apparent from the scriptural names and statements about the relations. The Father is unquestionably first, the Son second, and the Holy Spirit third. This is their rank, as well because of the mode of subsistence, as of its order. Hence they are commonly spoken of in this order, as the First, Second and Third Persons of the Trinity.” Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 155.
“Although these three persons possess one and the same divine substance, Scripture nevertheless teaches that, concerning their personal existence, the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Spirit the third . . . . There is, therefore, subordination as to personal manner of existence and manner of working, but no subordination regarding possession of the one divine substance.” Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, translated and edited by Richard B Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2012-2014, from hand-written lectures in 1896), vol. 1, p. 43.
“I have to conclude against Liam [Goligher] that:
1. There is historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son.
2. The texts of scripture require us to recognise at the level of the persons distinguishable wills of Father and Son.
3. The Son tells us in scripture that he reveals his eternal love for his Father by his obedience on earth, and this love at the level of persons includes on the Son's part eternal obedience.
4. The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons.
5. The eternal subordination of the Son does not entail Arianism, because the Son's obedience arises from his relation as son and not because he is a creature." Cited from http://oakhill2.ablette.net/blog/entry/should_i_resign/. (Ovey tragically died around the time of the Trinity Debate in the summer of 2016; I believe he died of a heart attack.)
"There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role be compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination? The biblical answer, I think, is no." Frame, The Doctrine of God (2002), 720; see also his Systematic Theology (2013), 500-502).
"The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship....Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity." Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 88-89.
Carl F. H. Henry:
"The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son's subordination to the Father, and the Spirit's subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations" Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.
J. I. Packer:
"Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other....It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son's part, and find all His joy in doing His Father's will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven." Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.
After reading material like that just presented (by Wayne Grudem and others), it is simply impossible to conclude that ERAS is a novel view. It is not novel in the least. It has been held for millennia. It is not heresy; in fact, many of our best theologians have held it due to deep biblical grounding, including a number not listed here. Many others hold this view (I know this firsthand, I assure you) who are silent in our time because they know that speaking up on this count will bring a rather unpleasant response.
Let me warm to my theme for a minute. Since 2016, I have lost track of how many folks have approached or contacted me and indicated sorrow for the charges of Arianism I and others have suffered. Some of these people agreed with my view, and some did not, but many have recognized—long ago—that this “debate” is more an attempted purge than a genuine conversation. The purge has not proven successful, and God has shown himself faithful to me and to several others of like mind.
These men, my tutors and forebears in the faith, are heroes to me. I have learned much from them, and they have taken far more heat than I have, and it has been a joy—if a joy realized at times through deep grief—to see them, in real time, store up many crowns and treasures as a result of suffering with Christ. Though wronged, they have not wronged in return; though reviled, they have chosen to suffer with the Son over giving vent to fleshly vengeance. I find their example as instructive as I do their theology, and indeed, have only deepened in my convictions on these matters as a result.
Theology, it seems, has a way of revealing the heart—either unleashing it to the glory of God through humble proclamation, or exposing it as the work of the glory of self.
Five Conclusions from the Preceding Material
It is time to end our brief survey, admittedly leaving many issues on the table. I have attempted to take the charges before me seriously, and though I hesitate to answer accusations that hold no water in my case, I do wish to answer existing questions so that genuine students of the Word are not left wondering where I stand. Divisiveness confuses the sheep and disturbs the body of Christ. Here, in this insufficient essay, is my very humble and meager effort to lend what little clarity I can.
In the interest of clarity, let me conclude by sharpening the point already suggested above. Here are five entailments of equating Arianism with ERAS:
First, equating Arianism with ERAS is fundamentally unsound. There is much conversation around authority and submission, and there are born-again Christians on all sides of this issue. But in both biblical and historical terms this charge will not hold; ERAS is a viable view, even a well-supported one, against the stereotypes.
Second, equating Arianism with ERAS is a zero-sum game. Either ERAS-affirming theologians like me are heretics, or else the other side is leveling a slanderous and divisive charge, the most damning there is. These are the only options available; the accusers apparently wanted to play a game of chicken, and they got it.
Third, equating Arianism with ERAS means that numerous theologians must be seen as heretics. Packer, Hodge, Hilary, and others never have been treated as heretics, but now—if the accusers are correct—they must be (see 1 John 2:22-23). I am no one’s huckleberry, but I am eager to see that case be made in public: J. I. Packer, Heretic. Charles Hodge, Heretic. Hilary of Poitiers, Heretic.
Fourth, equating Arianism with ERAS means the preceding theologians are in hell. Heretics do not live eternally with God. They suffer God’s just wrath for all eternity. This means that Packer, Hodge, Hilary, and others are in hell. It also means that Wayne Grudem and John Frame are headed for hell. I can scarcely type such blasphemous and evil words, but this is what these charges entail. Of course, these charges also entail that I am right now, at this moment, a child of wrath surely bound for destruction (Ephesians 2:3).
Fifth, equating Arianism with ERAS shows just how off the rails a handful of anti-ERAS voices are. Praise God, the super-majority of evangelical pastors and theologians have not made the case sketched in this piece. They understand that ERAS has many trusted advocates; whether they hold this view or not, they understand—biblically and historically—that it is a viable view, one worthy of study and careful consideration. Perhaps some of this number end up disagreeing with ERAS, and yet they follow two millennia of Christian tradition in honoring brothers who hold this view and not anathematizing them.
ERAS deserves careful thought and discussion. It is not heretical, it is not Arianism, and it is not semi-Arianism. It is supported by numerous texts and held by many of the church’s most faithful theologians. While I am fully and unrestrainedly convinced by it, seeing it as truly beautiful, I know that it is not the only view recognized as viable in biblical terms by evangelical Christians. There is room on this precise count, as on others, for charitable and principled disagreement. This is in fact what the vast majority of pastors and theologians practice: charity in disagreement. How pleasant is unity, true unity, in the gospel!
Tragically and regrettably, a handful of voices in our time stand apart from the pack. They are issuing a unique charge, freighted with the greatest possible weight, equating ERAS with Arianism, thus rendering proponents of ERAS as heretics. These are charges that, once made, you cannot take back. You can only repent of them. I pray they do. I am no better than them, after all. May God have mercy on them, and may God grant much grace to us all, needy as we desperately are.