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.