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Words of a Fether

Opinions on Faith and Life

The Hidden Agenda of "Eternal Sonship"

I have written much about what has been given the euphemistic name complementarianism, more accurately called patriarchalism, or most accurately, male supremacism (I’ll abbreviate it as MS). But as bad as the mere belief of MS is, it has begun to sink into outright heresy. They are pushing the belief that Jesus, the Son, has always been subordinate to the Father, a concept known as eternal sonship (ES). Let’s look first at some views of the Trinity in history.

The famous theologian Athanasius (b293/296-d373) fought against early opposition to the scriptural concept of the Trinity in his debate with Arius, and Constantine convened the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325 a.d.) in order to end the controversy. Arius held that Jesus was not just subordinate to the Father in function but that he was of an inferior substance, while Athanasius held that Jesus had to be the same substance as the Father or he couldn’t have died for our sins and rose again. So the concept of all three members of the Trinity as all fully divine was established as a result.

But the language of the Nicene Creed hints at an early belief in ES (see this excellent article): that in spite of being of the same substance as the Father, Jesus was nonetheless always subordinated in role, from eternity past. We’ll get more into the why (motivation) in a moment, but first let’s quote some respectable teachers. Ironically, I’ll use the documentation so nicely provided at This ES Site:

As God, the person we now know of as Jesus Christ had no beginning, was not begotten, was not a Son, and did not come into being... but as man and as God’s Son He was not eternal, He did have a beginning, He was begotten, this being the same time Mary had a Son. Therefore, the doctrine of eternal sonship of Jesus Christ is irreconcilable to reason, is unscriptural, and is contradictory to itself. [Finis Jennings Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales, 1963) 139 (N.T.).]

The Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and He is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament. The term Son itself is a functional term, as is the term Father and has no meaning apart from time... Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical eternal Sonship or eternal generation theory of Roman Catholic theology, unfortunately carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology. Finally; there cannot be any such thing as eternal Sonship ... the word Son definitely suggests inferiority. [Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985) 117-118.]

Some 900 years before Jesus was born God prophesied, I will be a Father to Him, and He shall be a Son to Me (Heb.1:5; 2 Sam. 7:14), indicating that in eternity past that, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son. Those designations apparently came into being only at the incarnation. In the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary, the angel Gabriel declared, He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;...the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God [Luke 1:32,35]. Son was a new name, never before applied to the second person of the Godhead except prophetically, as in Psalm 2:7, which is interpreted in Hebrews 1:5-6 as referring to the event of His incarnation. John wrote, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). Only when the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us as the only begotten God (John 1:14,18) did He take on the role and function of Son [emphasis his]. [John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary--Galatians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), p.108 (see his comments under Galatians 4:4).]

I would like to emphasize the very clear words of Hebrews 1:5, For to which of the angels did God ever say, ’You are my Son; today I have become your Father’ ? Or again, ’I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’? One cannot already be what one will become. And also Philippians 2:5-11, where we see that Jesus (1) was equal with the Father, (2) voluntarily laid aside his position and became human, and (3) returned to his original place beside (not beneath) the Father. But eternal sonship is also an oxymoron which tries to deny that any father must necessarily precede his son in time; it is impossible for a father not to predate his own son.

In spite of clear scriptural backing for the view that Jesus was not subordinate to the Father before his incarnation, nor kept that lesser role after his ascension (except as concerns his humanity, which he will always share with us), many are strongly pushing the opposite. Why? They certainly are not compelled by scripture. What purpose would such a belief serve, and why is it being made into such a pivotal belief, to the point of calling those who reject it heretics? Although they concede we do not deny that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, they count it as blasphemy to deny Jesus’ eternal subordination to the Father.

This insistence on hierarchy among the members of the Trinity has been born of the desire to keep women beneath men. You read that right: lust for male power and rulership is the driving force behind the resurgence of ES, first seen in 1977 in New Testament Teaching by G. Knight III. It is absolutely essential to MS philosophy. It must teach this eternal hierarchy, because if the Father as the head of Christ* does not mean boss, then man as the head of woman does not mean boss either. It seeks to turn temporary roles or functions into a chain of command that exists within the Trinity, in order to justify this same chain of command between men and women. Let me quote something from Ben Witherington which boils down the inherent logical fallacy of this teaching:

The problem arises with the word eternal. If the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, and cannot be otherwise, then he does not just function subordinately, he is the subordinated Son. His subordination defines his person or being. Eternal functional subordination implies by necessity ontological subordination. Blustering denials cannot avoid this fact.

That excellent article goes on to expose the fact that without this driving ambition to forever keep women behind men, ES would never have become an issue. That’s the motivation: to keep men in a permanent ruling position over women. And all sorts of dire warnings (the slippery slope fallacy) are proclaimed upon any society or church that entertains the notion of equality between the sexes. Why, if women are allowed to go directly to God instead of through their male intermediaries (← that is blasphemy!), people will think we’re all identical and the next thing you know we’ll be ordaining homosexuals!

One of the assertions I often come across in the writings of MS promoters is in defining mutual submission. They claim that when the man leads and the woman follows, this is mutual submission. But it is not mutual unless all parties share equally in some benefit, per Webster’s Dictionary:

Mutual:

  1. directed by each toward the other or the others (mutual affection)
  2. having the same feelings one for the other (they had long been mutual enemies)
  3. shared in common (enjoying their mutual hobby)
  4. joint

It is the MS contention that he leads, she obeys (and by extension, Father leads, Son obeys) can be considered mutual submission. But let’s test that contention:

Mutually assured destruction: Does it mean each side has the ability to destroy the other, or does it mean one side can destroy but the other side can only be destroyed?

Mutual admiration: Does it mean two people admire each other equally, or does it mean one person admires the other and that other person only accepts the admiration?

Therefore, if one person leads and the other follows, it cannot be defined as the two having mutual roles. That is, hierarchy and mutuality are, uh, mutually exclusive. Further, it means that leading and following are not two different expressions of the same thing. Now let’s define submission (again, Webster’s Dictionary):

  1. a legal agreement to submit to the decision of arbitrators
  2. the condition of being submissive, humble, or compliant
  3. an act of submitting to the authority or control of another

If, as MS claims, submission between men and women is in fact mutual, then this must mean each submits to the authority of the other. Since we’ve already established that mutuality has to be equal to be mutual, then mutual submission must mean that both husbands and wives submit to each other’s authority. This definition of mutual submission is entirely Biblical.

Some may ask how it is possible for every believer to thus submit to every other believer as the Bible commands, and further to ask how a church or a marriage can work unless one is the boss. The answer is in timing. Sometimes one person leads, sometimes the other person leads; each leads in the area of their strength. So in such times as Person A’s strengths are needed, Person A leads and Person B submits to their leadership. Likewise, in such times as Person B’s strengths are needed, Person B leads and Person A submits to their leadership. In this way, all submit, only not all at the same time.

Is this not a picture of the Body of Christ functioning as designed? If the eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you, then the male cannot say to the female, God doesn’t need you for the list of things I made up (which the Bible never lists). The left hand cannot dictate to the right hand, and the right cannot dictate to the left. Both get their orders from the Head, which is Christ. Therefore, since they lead, you follow is not mutual submission, and since the Bible orders mutual submission among all believers, then hierarchy between believers is unbiblical. In addition, if God has ordained mutual submission in Christ’s Body, then who is to say such mutual submission cannot exist among the members of the Trinity?

So rather than the historic and scriptural view, this new ES teaching distorts the nature of the Trinity for the purpose of keeping women behind men while still insisting that both are equal in being. Yet it cannot be denied that a permanent, involuntary, and unidirectional submission is neither mutual nor Biblical.

 


 

* Note: A frequent source of misunderstanding is the practice of arbitrarily interchanging Father and God. The Greek word for father is pater, but the word for God is theos. So when the Bible calls God the head of Christ, it’s not saying the Father is the head, but the Trinity. That is, the whole Trinity is the head or source of the Son. Technically, it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary, not the Father. (And you thought you had this all locked down!)

(Updated Nov. 12, 2007)

Posted 2007-11-10 under Nature of God, Christian Living, women, subordination, eternal sonship, hierarchy