What Do We Do With All of This?
If what we saw in part 1 is what the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions teach, and if this is where the biblical data point, then what do we do with all of this? I suggest that there are two doctrinal arguments that make the best sense of the biblical data.
The Covenant of Redemption
One historical Reformed doctrine in particular that provides a reason to reject the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son is the Covenant of Redemption.36 Theologians in the history of the church can and have explained the interactions within the Trinity without using the concept of covenant, but the Covenant of Redemption gives a surer foundation and makes the most sense of what the Bible teaches.37 When it comes to an adequate definition of this covenant, we need look no further than Louis Berkhof: the Covenant of Redemption is “the agreement between the Father and the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given him.”38 This is able to balance four strands of biblical teaching.
First, it shows that the Son is true God just as the Father is true God.39 Christ prays in John 17:5 that the Father would glorify the Son once again with the glory they both shared before the creation of the world. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18 we read that the Son has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Sharing in glory and authority indicate sharing in essence. Indeed, only God is able to possess all glory and all authority.40
Second, Christ’s obedience to the Father is voluntary, not necessary for him as Son.41 In other words, he was not forced into coming to earth and taking on flesh in order to live, die, and rise again for his people. Instead, he did this of his own volition. God the Son redeemed his people as a volunteer, not a hostage who was bound to submit to God the Father from all eternity.
Third, the obedience that Christ offered to the Father had to do with his earthly mission.42 In the Gospel of John alone, Christ explicitly states that he was sent by the Father thirty-one times, and these occurrences are all for the purpose of his mediatorial mission.43 He was sent to redeem a people for God’s great name.
Fourth, it avoids the tendency to imply an authority/submission structure within the Trinity. This is because the mediatorial office and function of the Son is the result of the covenant between Father and Son. In other words, the Son was not eternally subordinate to the Father’s authority, but rather voluntarily covenanted to become subordinate as mediator in order to fulfill his task as the Second Adam (Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49).44 Therefore “when we read about Christ’s work and His interaction with the Father, it takes place within a covenantal context.”45 The divine will is the foundation of redemption, and the persons who share this one undivided will covenanted together to accomplish it.
Fifth, and finally, the Covenant of Redemption avoids the temptation to make the Doctrine of the Trinity nothing else than an extended discussion of Christology.46 The Son covenanted to obey, and this covenant was made between the equal persons of the eternally blessed Trinity. The cross is not a scandal if it was necessary according to the Son’s Sonship, and it is not a scandal if the Son had already obeyed for eternity.47 Instead, it would be par for the course. J. V. Fesko argues for a “better way forward”—understanding the Son’s obedience to the Father within the framework of Deuteronomy’s covenantal context.48 This is the major theme that we often find in New Testament texts that speak of the obedience of Christ (the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 22:15 is one such prominent example).49
The Mediatorial Kingdom
The second historical Reformed doctrine that helps us make sense of the biblical data is the idea of Christ’s mediatorial kingship—the Father is ruling through the God-man. Historically this concept has been included in what is known as the twofold kingdom. This is a better explanation for the “submission” in 1 Corinthians 15 than the one provided by those who argue that the Son has been subordinate from all eternity. The essential kingdom is what the Son rules (alongside the Father and Holy Spirit) because he is God of the entire creation.50 The Second Person of the Trinity would still be the ruler of the heavens and earth even had he not become incarnate and redeemed his people. We also read many places in the Bible where the Father gives a kingdom to the incarnate Christ, however.51 This is because the God-man completed the work of redemption and was raised and enthroned as a reward, which is his mediatorial kingdom. Making a distinction here allows us to affirm Christ’s full participation in the divine essence and the prerogatives that accompany it (such as glory and authority), as well as the giving and returning of a kingdom and authority between the Father and incarnate Son.
In light of the reality of the Covenant of Redemption and Christ’s mediatorial kingdom, we must always differentiate between ontology and economical function when it comes to the Trinity.52 That is a technical way of saying that we must not assume that what God does in history tells us exactly what God is in himself. We may not simply assume that what we see God doing in history exhausts who he is, nor may we assume that God is who he is only in relation to us. We do not want to thrust salvation back into the divine essence or even the eternal trinitarian relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because if we make a mistake in our doctrine of God, then all other doctrines suffer. After all, theology is the study of God, and we only study other things (like creation, salvation, etc.) as they relate to God. If the foundation is cracked, the house cannot stand for long.
How does this affect us in our worship and Christian life? If we believe all of this, then what difference does it make for us? As I see it, this debate has at least three major implications.53
First, it is a debate about the God whom we worship, and so it has any number of implications for our piety and practice. Nothing could be more important than thinking rightly about our Creator and Savior. Specifically, is Christ worthy of the same worship as the Father?54 The evidence says yes, he is, therefore we must worship our Savior as true God. Does Christ deserve the same worship and adoration as the Father (and the Spirit)? When we answer our Lord’s call to worship and sing praises to him, do we sing to all three persons equally? A million times yes, since Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are true God, deserving of all worship, glory, and honor. For another example, we and our covenant children are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Does the Father have priority of place here, or are all three persons of the Trinity active? We should affirm the latter.
Second, this debate clarifies whether Christ came to save his people voluntarily or necessarily. In other words, did Christ come for his people because he loved them or because he was necessarily obedient to his superior, the Father?55 We see that the former option is best once we take into account all of the data. As one writer summarizes, “Orthodox Trinitarian theology and Christology are the precondition for the gospel’s true intelligibility.”56 In other words, we cannot be truly “Christ-centered” or “gospel-centered” if we continually waffle on the doctrines of God and Christ, and turning Christ into a hostage on the cross is a terrible thing to do. Christ came to save his elect because he loved them, even though we are often tempted to reverse this and think that he loves us only because he saves us. Praise him because he willingly came to suffer for us!
Finally, this discussion, at least implicitly, has to do with the use of creeds and confessions in our churches and lives. Are we as modern Christians reading the Scriptures on our own or are we reading them with our brothers and sisters across the world and throughout the ages?57If the latter is true (and it is), then the Christians who came before us have things to teach us. Although the antiquity of a doctrine does not automatically make it right, it should get our attention. We all bring preconceived notions and expectations to God’s Word. Therefore we should seek to learn from those who came before us, especially as they have agreed about the major doctrines of the faith in ecumenical creeds and confessions. The Holy Spirit is not just at work in our own time and place.58
The notion of the Son as eternally equal to the Father in divinity, authority, and glory makes the most sense out of our Christian lives: we worship Christ as equal to the Father, all persons of the Trinity are active in our lives, and Christ came to save his people voluntarily. Christian, please accept nothing less than this, because this is what God’s own Word teaches.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
36 For three excellent summaries of the Covenant of Redemption from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives, see J. V. Fesko, The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, and Reception (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015); Gary M. Richard “The Covenant of Redemption.” In Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether, eds., Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 43–62; B. Hoon Woo, The Promise of the Trinity: The Covenant of Redemption in the Theologies of Witsius, Owen, Dickson, Goodwin, and Cocceius, Reformed Historical Theology, Volume 48, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2018).
37 J. V. Fesko, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 176.
38 Berkof, Systematic Theology, 271.
39 Jn 5:18; See also Fesko, Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, 191.
40 1 Chron 29:11; Ps 8:1; Ps 57:5; 108:5; 113:4; Is 42:8; Dan 7:14; Matt 24:30; 25:31; Rom 11:36; Jude 25; Rev 4:11; 5:13.
41 Bilezikian, “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping,” 59; Fesko, Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, 145; 190; Lk 22:29; Ps 40:7–9; Heb 10:5–7.
42 Jn 17:4; cf. Fesko, Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, 177.
43 Jn 5:30, 38; 6:29, 38–39, 44; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 12:44–45, 49; 13:16; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 18, 23, 25; 20:21; See Fesko, Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, 170.
44 See Bruce A. Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 98; Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationship, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 2; 46; 71; Bruce A. Ware, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 237; Bruce A. Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead.” In Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, eds, The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2012), 28; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 249–52; Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm, Jr., “A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son.” JETS 42/3 (September 1999): 461–476; John V. Dahms, “The Subordination of the Son.” JETS 37/3 (September 1994): 351–364; Michael J. Ovey, Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy, and Divine Humility, Latimer Studies 83 (London: The Latimer Trust: 2016).
45 Fesko, Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, 173, 177.
46 See Fesko, Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, 190.
47 1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11.
48 Fesko, Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, 191.
49 Fesko, Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, 188.
50 Ps 95:3; Jer 10:10; Jn 17:5.
51 Ps 2:6; 45:6–7; 72:8–11; 89:3–4; 110:1; Is 9:6; 11:1–5; Jer 23:5–6; Dan 2:44; Zech 9:9–10; Matt 28:18; Lk 1:32; 22:29; Eph 1:20–22; Phil 2:9–11; Col 2:15; Heb 2:7–8.
52 See Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen, “The Obedience of the Eternal Son: Catholic Trinitarianism and Reformed Christology.” In Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, eds, Christology: Ancient and Modern (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 74–94.
53 For the sake of space, this essay will not interact with complementarian or egalitarian issues related to eternal subordination.
54 See Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), 257–58.
55 If Christ came necessarily, then we must reckon with a number of texts that clearly present God as working exclusively according to his will and for his own glory: Ps 135:6; Is 43:7; 46:9–10; 48:9–11; Dan 4:35; 1 Cor 10:31; Rom 11:36; Eph 1:9, 11; 1 Pet 4:11; Rev 4:11; 21:23.
56 Roberts, “‘Arid Scholars’ vs. The Bible?,” 121.
57 See Barrett, Simply Trinity, 255–57.
58 This does not mean that the creeds and confessions are on par with Scripture, but it does mean that we must only change or amend them if we have very clear biblical reasons for so doing.
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