Questioning the Authority?- Towards a Biblical Concept of Submission within the Trinity

March 10, 2009

Every once in a while it becomes necessary for a generation to revisit questions about Christianity that have been settled for many years, in order to put down particular heresies that have arisen in the larger realm of thought for a community.  Many times when this has happened new creeds or confessions or even denominations have been formed (think about the Nicene Creed or the Protestant Reformation).  The most recent such occurance for those of us in the Southern Baptist world was the late 20th century battle over biblical inerrancy.

In light of this, there is one question I see looming on the horizen that I think eventually the larger evangelical world will have to deal with, that being the question over biblically ordained authority.  This one sweeping question is actually playing out in many more specific related questions– some on the authority of Scripture in a Christians life, some on the authority of a husband over a wife– but the particular form I want us to think about is the question about authority within the Trinity.  

In the wave of new postmodern thinking, there exist a number of vocal Christians who are starting to question the idea that certain members of the triune Godhead exercise authority over others, or more particularly, that certain members of the triune Godhead are in submission to others.  And actually, that isn’t quite accurate, since it can’t honestly be argued that there is no submission, but instead we are having to redefine and redistribute what submission must mean in the bibical sense.

It is not my goal to solve this problem today, but I would like to give a couple of thoughts on the matter.

1 Peter 2.13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution . . . ,” where the word here translated as ‘subject’ is the Greek word ‘hypotassō.’  Strong’s concordance defines ‘hypotassō‘ to mean ‘to arrange under,’ ‘to submit to one’s control,’ or ‘to obey.’ In exegeting this passage, Thomas Schreiner says, “Some scholars define ‘submit’ to refer to ‘deference’ or ‘respect’ rather than obedience.  It is lexically difficult, however, to wash the concept of obedience out of ‘submit’” (NAC Commentary on 1, 2 Peter, Jude, p.127)

Frank Viola, in his book Reimagining Church, relies heavily upon the idea that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, that no member is submissive to the authority of another, in order to argue for the abolition of clergy in the New Testament church.  He says plainly “Look again at the triune Godhead.  And notice what’s absent.  There’s an absence of command-style leadership.  There’s an absence of heirarchical structures” (p.36).  He then acknowledges that passages such as John 5.30, John 14.28, 31, and 1 Corinthians 11.3 all seem to teach hierarchy, but in response to that he says,

These passage don’t have in view the Son’s eternal relationship with His Father in the Godhead.  They instead refer to His temporal relationship as a human being who voluntarily submitted Himself to His Father’s will.  In the Godhead, the Father and the Son experience communality and mutual submission through the Spirit. . . .  Christ’s subordination to the Father was temporal, voluntary, and limited to the time of His incarnation (Phil. 2.4-11). . . .  Therefore, the New Testament never supports a heirarchical structure or chain-of-command relationship in the Godhead.  The Trinity is a communion of coequal persons (Matt. 28.18; John 5.18; 10.30; 14.9; Phil. 2.6).  And the fellowship of the Godhead is egalitarian and nonheirarchical. (pp.295-296)

However, in response to Viola, I would offer the following verse:

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. (1 Corinthians 15.28)

Clearly what is being said here is that “When all things are subjected to [Jesus], then [Jesus] will also be subjected to [God the Father], that God [the Father] may be all in all.”  

From here, first, we note that the words ‘subjected’ and ‘subjection’ here are both the word ‘hypotassō‘ from earlier, thus indicating submission and obedience (which I would say qualifies as hierarchy).  I think that Viola makes a common mistake (the same one that feminists who reject Ephesians 5.25 make) in that he associates ‘submission’ or ‘subjection’ with a lack of equality, but this does not need to be the case.  It is not a contradiction for Christ to be submitted to the Father and yet for them to be equal.  To assume such is reading to severly into what submission is.

Secondly, if it is as Viola argues, that this subjection is only limited to the incarnation, then this reference here to subjection must be an incarnation reference that is now passed away upon Christ’s ascension back into heaven.  However I don’t see how this could be true in light of Ephesians 1.20-23, which says,

[God] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

It is thus indisputable that the “put[ting of] all things in subjection to [Christ]” occurs after the exaltation (when Christ is returned to heaven, i.e. no longer incarnate on earth), and therefore, since this is when “the Son himself will also be subjected to [the Father],” then to say that Christ’s “voluntary submission” to the Father lasts only as long as his earthly habitation is a most untenable stance.

Finally, to say that “In the Godhead, the Father and the Son experience communality and mutual submission through the Spirit,” I would be interested to find a passage which argues for the Father’s submission to the Son.  The mutuality of the submission here seems to be without biblical warrant.

In conclusion, the question of hierarchy in the Trinity is a crucial one and is a position that is very much under attack by modern “biblical scholarship.”  Could this lead to another definitive stance being taken by the corporate church of our day?  Time will tell.  I can only attest that this is one conflict I do not see being resolved any time soon.