The Son’s Submission to the Father

The Associated Baptist Press recently reported on a debate that took place in October at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The debate concerned the nature of intra-Trinitarian relationships with a particular focus on the nature of the Son’s submission to the Father. On the one hand, Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem argued that the Son has always submitted to the Father (eternity past, present, and future). On the other hand, Tom McCall and Keith Yandell argued that Christ only submitted to the Father during his incarnation.

This debate may seem a little bit odd to some. But because the Bible compares God’s headship over Christ to a man’s headship over his wife (1 Corinthians 11:3), the question of intra-trinitarian relations is somewhat of a hot topic. Readers of this blog no doubt know where I am on this question. I think the Bible clearly teaches that Christ’s functional submission to the Father is eternal (though not ontological).

What caught my eye in the ABP article was a line that I think sets forth a common misunderstanding of a familiar passage. I’m going to give you the line and then make a few comments on the passage:

‘Other passages, like Philippians 2:5-11, portray the pre-existent Christ as fully equal to God, humbling himself voluntarily to die on the Cross, and afterward exalted to the name “above every name.”‘

The interpretation given above is used to show that Christ’s pre-incarnate state was one of equality and not one of submission. Thus since Christ was “equal” with God in eternity past, this shows us that he did not begin submitting to the Father until the incarnation. I think this interpretation is wrong, and here’ why.

Here’s a literal translation of the text:

“Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped for” (Philippians 2:6).

There are a number of knotty exegetical problems in this verse, not the least of which is the meaning of the term Greek term harpagmos (which I have translated as “a thing to be grasped for”). But I want to zero in on one issue that relates directly to the Trinitarian debate.

It is often assumed that Christ’s pre-incarnate existence “in the form of God” is the same thing as the “equality with God” mentioned in the last part of the verse. I think this assumption is unwarranted grammatically, and I have written about it here. The theological upshot of this observation is twofold. First, this verse affirms that Christ has ontological equality with the Father with respect to his deity. That’s what “existing in the form of God” means. Second, the verse affirms that in his pre-incarnate state Christ did not try to obtain (or “grasp for”) another kind of equality which he did not have in his pre-existent state.

What kind of “equality” did he refuse to grasp for? He refused to “grasp for” a functional equality with the Father that would have usurped the Father’s role as Father. In contrast to grasping for that kind of equality, the Son “emptied himself” and took the form of a servant (v. 7). In other words, in eternity past Christ determined not to usurp the Father’s role but decided to embrace his own role in the incarnation. Thus what we have in this text is both an affirmation of Christ’s ontological equality with the Father (vis a vis his deity) and a passing reference to his functional distinction from the same.

This is a mouthful for a blog post, and I should probably stop here. In the not too distant future, I hope to publish another article that develops more fully the theological implications of the grammatical observation I made here. In the meantime, I want folks to know that Philippians 2:6 is not an argument against Christ’s pre-incarnate submission to the Father.

40 Responses to The Son’s Submission to the Father

  1. Adam Omelianchuk December 3, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    I think you an interesting argument here, but I don’t think that is the intent of the text. Millard Erickson pointed out to Bruce Ware that if what you say is the case, then Christ has been eternally emptying himself, for his self-emptying is the contrast with not grasping for equality. The text clearly focuses the concept of Christ’s self-emptying on the moment of incarnation, not something that has been happening for an eternity.

    I think the TNIV captures the intent better:

    “Who, being in very nature God,did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage”

    The point is to show that Christ’s taking on a human form was a humble act for the deity to exercise.

  2. Nick December 3, 2008 at 11:18 am #

    I’m a complementarian, but I agree with Adam over against you here, Denny. I think the traditional exegesis of this passage is completely on target, and that “being in the form of God” (a concessive participle, so crucial!) and “equality with God” are synonomous.

    Also, I think that even if you aren’t persuaded of the traditional exegesis here, I’m not sure why you feel you need your intepretation with respect to this topic…there is nothing here that swings the argument one way or the other if the historical/classical intepretation is correct.

  3. Russ Ware December 3, 2008 at 12:44 pm #

    Does anyone else think the tail is wagging the dog in this matter?

  4. Nick December 3, 2008 at 12:45 pm #


  5. Don Johnson December 3, 2008 at 1:07 pm #

    Whenever people try to claim distinctions like ontological equality yet permanent functional inequality, I urge them to consider the Shema, the words that all Jews (including Messianic Jews) recite every day.

    The Shema contains foundational truths about God, that God is echad, a unity which in these verses is possibly a plural unity and which we know from other verses is the case.

  6. Russ Ware December 3, 2008 at 2:15 pm #


    I know that there is more to it than this, but it just struck me that Denny’s reasoning for why this debate is noteworthy is that it is important to his complementarian argument and views.

    Thus, the complementarian tail wags the trinitarian dog.

    It’s one thing to believe that orthodox trinitarian theology supports and informs the complementarian position. It is a subtle shift to allow trinitarian theology to be informed by complementarianism.

  7. Tom Fuerst December 3, 2008 at 2:53 pm #

    I think Russ is right here. It’s a shame really that our Trinitarian formulations get dragged into our debates in such a way that our arguments determine theological correctness.

    Philippians 2 is about humility and considering others better than ourselves. To use it to prove that “I am right” is the worst of affronts to Paul’s concerns there. It’s a shame and I hope this is not how they are teaching their students to do exegesis and theological analysis there at SBTS.

    My comments do not demonstrate which side of this debate is wrong, they merely suggest that the tail is unfortunately ‘wagging the dog’ as Russ noted.

  8. Don Johnson December 3, 2008 at 4:20 pm #

    Methinks it is not so subtle.

  9. the Reformed Pastor December 3, 2008 at 5:22 pm #

    Thus since Christ was “equal” with God in eternity past, this shows us that he did not begin submitting to the Father until the incarnation.

    But doesn’t that argument presuppose an egalitarian view that one cannot submit and be counted as equal?

    Could not complementarins respond by saying that Christ was submitting and equal at the same time. Since one’s equality does not reside in one’s functionality?

  10. Sue December 3, 2008 at 5:42 pm #


    I have read some of what you have posted on this subject before, and found it quite interesting. But, of course, it contrasts enormously with the very conservative Plymouth Brethren upbringing which still forms much of my thoelogy.

    I would like to ask how you reconcile your understanding of this verse with the doctrinal statement of ETS,

    God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

    SInce, in Greek “power” and “authority” are one and the same word, how can Christ be equal to God in power, but not in authority. If the Son is eternally in submission, he is not equal in power and glory.

  11. Sue December 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm #

    Or does the ETS statement mean that Christ is equal in dynamis but not in exousia, and how can you tell which word the signers of the ETS statement think they are signing to?

    This has been a long time puzzle for me.

  12. Michael Metts December 3, 2008 at 6:25 pm #

    Sue, you don’t find the Brethren to be inconsiderate of your egalitarian views? Shouldn’t it be Plymouth Children?

    Sorry I couldn’t resist!


  13. Sue December 3, 2008 at 7:33 pm #

    I no longer attend a PB assembly. I am sure that must be clear. 🙂 However, I have considerable respect for many of the traditions, and the language most of all.

    There was a distinct difference between “Brethren” as a collective, and “brothers” which was the men only. There was never any confusion between brethren and brothers.

    I have a distinct preference for much of the language of the KJV since “men” clearly included women, which it does not in the ESV. And, of course, we do read “children of God” and “children of Israel” in the KJV.

    But for this post, I am interested in hearing how the members of ETS parse “equal in power and glory.”

    I am wondering how Denny feels able to sign that statement.

  14. Denny Burk December 3, 2008 at 9:31 pm #

    Nick and Sue,

    I have a new rule for commenters. I’m trying to require all to use both first and last names.


  15. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 2:03 am #

    Sorry Denny I did not mean to transgress but I commented at work and my workstation there did not remember my full name and website.

    I would be very interested in your comments on what “equal in power and glory” means in the context of the eternal submission of the Son.

  16. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 2:04 am #

    PS I agree that full name is a good policy.

  17. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 11:55 am #

    But doesn’t that argument presuppose an egalitarian view that one cannot submit and be counted as equal?

    Egalitarians believe rather the opposite. Complementarians believe that submission is always to an authority over one, and therefore propose inequality. Egalitarians believe in voluntary submission to one another as full equals.

    See 1 Clement for a homily on how each Christian should submit to his or her neighbour.

    My question is about whether “equal in power and glory” conflicts with “the Son is in eternal submission to the authority of the Father.”

    I have a specific question about whether “power” in the ETS statement is intended to be an expression of the Greek word exousia, or whether “power” and “authority” are considered to be two different things in English Is the Son equal in power and glory, but unequal in authority, and how is this derived from the scripture?

    It seems that many of those signing the ETS statement must have thought this one through, and discussed it, but I have not seen a public discussion about it.

    I think it is vital to the doctrinal position of members of ETS.

  18. Don Johnson December 4, 2008 at 1:36 pm #

    It is very ironic if what Suzanne about power is true, as Denny is one who did not think the ETS statement went far enough and it might be the case that it went too far for him already!

  19. Michael Metts December 4, 2008 at 3:27 pm #

    Complementarians believe that submission is always to an authority over one, and therefore propose inequality. Egalitarians believe in voluntary submission to one another as full equals.

    This mutual submission idea doesn’t square with the text.

    Three times Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands (vv 22, 24, and 33).

    And children to obey their parents (6:1).

    And slaves to obey their master (6:5).

    To read the text with your suggested understanding causes a considerable problem for understanding the rest of Ephesians.

    I believe your contention is not with Complementarians but with the text, since Complementarians are simply following the Word on this issue.

  20. Don Johnson December 4, 2008 at 3:36 pm #

    Magill’s Transline shows that the rest of the pericope following Eph 5:21 are all subordinate clauses in the Greek and are all to be understood as examples of the principle of mutual submission found in Eph 5:21.

  21. Brian Krieger December 4, 2008 at 5:10 pm #

    My question is about whether “equal in power and glory” conflicts with “the Son is in eternal submission to the authority of the Father.”

    It seems that complementarians won’t and egalitarians would (almost must). The egalitarian rendering of 1 Peter 3, Col 3, Eph 5, it seems, is submission only comes on my terms (a veiled view of retaining power as authority to egalitarians necessarily means power, but not with a complementarian view as the authority is ordained by God, not our personal views……but I think we disagree on that, as well…..). As Michael said, the issues egalitarians have appear to be with the texts. Then again, I seem to think that we’ve had this discussion before on this site at least in one other post.

  22. Don Johnson December 4, 2008 at 6:05 pm #

    The issues egals have is OVER INTERPRETATION of some texts. It is pejorative to claim it is over the texts themselves; I agree to use UBS 4 as the best we have today that approaches the original text.

  23. Michael Metts December 4, 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    The issue is one of will.

  24. Don Johnson December 4, 2008 at 6:55 pm #

    That’s for sure.

  25. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 8:05 pm #

    This mutual submission idea doesn’t square with the text.

    Then how is the Son “in submission to the Father’s authority,” and “equal in power and glory” to the Father.

    I am asking a fairly simple question. How are those who believe that the Son is eternally in submission to the Father’s authority, able to sign a statement that the Son is equal in power and glory to the Father?

    I don’t want to wander off course here. I just don’t see how people can be sure at ETS that other signers actually believe that the Son is equal to God in power, if they deny that he is equal in authority.

    Or does the Son have equal authority and he does not use his authority. In this case, it is submission to someone else who has equal authority. So, does the Son submit to GOd’s authority, if the Son has equal authority as the Father has.

    It is a serious question. How is this resolved at ETS?

  26. Michael December 4, 2008 at 8:08 pm #

    By submitting to the Father, Sue, how is Christ any less equal? Has he lost glory by doing good?

  27. The Reformed Pastor December 4, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    Complementarians believe that submission is always to an authority over one, and therefore propose inequality.

    The first part of the statement is true. The second part is just your own thinking projected upon complementarins. The Danver statements says clearly:

    “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood”

    Now you would have to prove the validity of the statement you are making if it is going to hold water. Other wise it is just a mantra egalitarians repeat.

    Another thing. Why don’t you appeal to God’s word for support of your idea of submission? Instead you appeal to a work of man? You might have a reason for this. But I suspect that the deeper reason is that your idea of submission cannot be found in God’s word!

    So until you can disprove that complementarin’s fundamental assertion that one can have different functions for all their lives yet be counted as equal with actual arguments then my position still stands. Christ can submit and be equal!

  28. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 8:20 pm #


    This is my question. Perhaps you can explain it in more detail.

    If Christ is in submission to the Father’s authority, does he have the same authority as the Father or less authority than the Father?

    If he has the same authority, then he does not submit on the basis of the Father’s authority – it is the same – but on some other basis.

    If he has less authority than the Father, then how does he is he equal to the Father in power?

  29. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    I wrote,

    Complementarians believe that submission is always to an authority over one, and therefore propose inequality.

    The meaning I intended was that complementarians propose inequality of authority.

    This is what I am puzzled by – is Christ equal to God in authority, or less than God in authority – according to complementarians.

    Your final comment is this,

    Christ can submit and be equal!

    My question is this. How can Christ be in submission to God’s authority, and at the same time be equal to God in power?

  30. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 8:44 pm #

    “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.” (John 17:2 KJV)

    “since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him.” (John 17:2 RSV)

    “since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:2 ESV)

    Here is my problem. I would think that when the ETS was set up, the translation referced was either the KJV or RSV.

    So, when the ETS statement said Christ is “equal in power” the intent may have been equal in εξουσια.

    But my understanding is that some are saying that Christ may not be equal to God in authority.

  31. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 8:57 pm #

    Bruce Ware writes,

    The Father, then, as supreme authority over even his own Son and the Spirit, is the one to whom we gladly, but humbly, address our prayers.

    Father, Son and Holy Spirit page 152

  32. The Reformed Pastor December 4, 2008 at 8:59 pm #

    My question is this. How can Christ be in submission to God’s authority, and at the same time be equal to God in power?

    Very good question. I will have to muse over this for quiet a while but let me give some initial thoughts.

    1. God the Son can have the same power that God the Father have yet cannot God the Son use that power differently?

    2. Power is not the ability to do whatever the sole member of the Trinity desires to do. They have absolute power yet work in perfect unity. Just because the Son’s function is to do nothing of His own accord does not mean that he is less powerful in strength. He never does anything of His own accord. The Son is not a singular entity that goes off and does what He pleases and then the Father and the Holy Spirit just have to conform to His actions. That is not how the different members of the Trinity work. They always have to work in unity.

    So my initial thoughts are these Suzanne: Christ’s power is not manifested in the fact that He can do whatever He wants to do (an impossibility for the fact of the Trinity). Christ is as still powerful as Father. Yet He uses and manifests the power differently.

  33. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 9:04 pm #

    Thanks Charlie,

    The main thread of your response seems to be that Christ has the same power as God but differs in authority.

    How is this demonstrated by the scripture?

  34. The Reformed Pastor December 4, 2008 at 9:24 pm #

    Eph 1:4-6 “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he[Father] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his[Father’s] will, to the praise of his[Father’s] glorious grace, with which he[Father] has blessed us in the Beloved.”

    As this verse demonstrates, the plan of salvation was crafted and commanded by the Father. If that is the case, is not the Father acting out an authority that the Son cannot imitate? And verse four gives us the time frame of this authoritative decrees by the Father, “before the foundation of the world.” So salvation was decreed by the Father and accomplished by the Son. The Father predestined those for salvation and the Son submitted to the Father’s decrees by incarnating Himself in this world and spilling His own blood so that wicked rebels could be redeemed.

  35. Suzanne McCarthy December 4, 2008 at 10:29 pm #

    “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Acts 4:7

    “For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” Luke 4:36

    “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” 1 Corinthians 15:24

    “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” Eph. 1:21

    My sense is that “power” and “authority” were generally treated as synonyms in the NT by the KJV and the RSV. So, I wonder if those who formulated the ETS doctrinal statement would be comfortable with the notion that Christ is unequal to God in authority? It seems like a drift away from the original intent of the statement.

  36. John Starke December 5, 2008 at 12:11 am #

    Hey Denny, Looking at the comments on this post makes me a little weary on writing you this. But we over hear at CBMW’s Gender Blog are going to post a 3 part response to the Trinity Debate. Thanks for the post. Both you and Phil Gons have had good posts on the subject recently.

  37. Cheryl Schatz December 6, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    The teaching that Jesus has less authority than the Father has very serious consequences. This teaching has allowed people like Bruce Ware to teach that Jesus is not to be prayed to since it is only the Father who has the authority to answer prayer. It is about time that we stand up for the full Deity of the Lord Jesus in his equality in authority. If we do not, we are not only dishonoring Jesus who said that we are to honor the Son even as we honor the Father, but we will find ourselves more in common with the JW’s who also refuse to allow Jesus to be prayed to believing that he does not have the authority to answer prayer.

    I have done 2 segments in our new DVD defending the full Deity of Jesus and against the teaching that Jesus’ authority is less than the father. The 2 DVD set is called “The Trinity Eternity Past to Eternity Future Explaining Truth Exposing Error”. An 8 minute set of preview clips can be found on Youtube at

    Can Jesus be prayed to? The teaching in the DVD shows not only why Jesus can be prayed to but why it is necessary to come to Jesus in prayer. Those who want to devalue Jesus’ authority have not a leg to stand on in the Old Testament. Instead they use the incarnation and Jesus’ humility in coming to earth as the foundation for forcing an eternal submission of the Word of God. However a careful study of the work and actions of the preincarnate Son from the OT gives a very different view.

    In my DVD set, part 2 focuses in on the authority of Jesus in eternity past from the OT and part 3 focuses in on his present authority and eternity future. My own pastor after reading the script said that it really opened his eyes to who Jesus is throughout the entire scriptures not just the New Testament.

    The bottom line is that if we do not honor the Son in his equality with the Father in authority, we are giving dishonor to the Father. Is this what we are called to do as Christians? I find it so sad that the hard work that I did to bring the gospel to JW’s and prove to them that Jesus is Almighty God equal in all things with the Father, is now having to be used with Christians to prove that Jesus is not eternally under the authority of a full authority God.

  38. Suzanne McCarthy December 6, 2008 at 6:53 pm #

    I have posted on this topic on my own blog since John Starke has kept the discussion going on his blog.

    It is curious that up until 1973 and the NIV, a Dynamic Equivalent translation, εξουσια, in John 17:2 was translated as “power” in English, “pouvoir” in French, “Macht” in German, and “potestas” in Latin – essentially “power.”

    Complementarians will have a busy time in heaven convincing Augustine, Luther and Calvin among others, that “power” and “authority” are two different things altogether.

  39. Suzanne McCarthy December 7, 2008 at 7:22 pm #

    I have found out where Ware missed Augustine’s point. Augustine wrote,

    “For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father”

    But what Augustine wrote was in Latin, of course,

    “non secundum imparem potestatem uel substantiam uel aliquid quod in eo patri”

    This is best translated as

    “not unequal in authority or substance, or any other thing which was in him, to the father.”

    So, once again, it would be impossible for anyone who believes that the Son is not equal in authority to the Father to claim continuity with traditional Christianity. In traditional Christianity Christ is equal to God in power and authority, because they were both the same word, in Latin, and German and French.

  40. Don Johnson December 29, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Payne’s new book “Man and Woman, One in Christ” has an extensive (egal) discussion on 1 Cor 11:3, showing how lexicons and ECF understood kephale as source, contra Grudem.

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