Finding Eternal Subordination of the Son in the Oddest Places

As I’ve written before, there are many, many books that teach eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). Books for women, books for children, even notes in a very popular study Bible teach ESS. Most of the time, I’m not surprised when ESS shows up in a book, especially if the author has connections to CBMW, Wayne Grudem, or SBTS (where Bruce Ware teaches).

But every now and then, I’m truly surprised to find ESS being taught. Recently I read Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible by Jerram Barrs. Barrs is a professor at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. In the introduction, Barrs writes about the purpose of the book:

What does God think about women, and how does he treat them? My passionate desire and prayer is that the book will be an encouragement to women and a challenge to men to treat women with the same honor that the Lord himself shows. (9)

Each chapter focuses on a different woman from the Bible and attempts to correct misunderstandings that have gotten in the way of our understanding of what the Bible teaches about women. I was intrigued by the premise and interested to see how Barrs dealt with the topic.

The first three chapters deal with Eve. One of the first things Barrs’ emphasizes is Adam and Eve’s equality in creation. I was pleased that he did. However, when he tries to explain how Adam has a position of authority or leadership over Eve, he introduces classic ESS teaching:

In addition, it is Adam who gives Eve her name, and as we mentioned earlier, this implies a particular significance or authority in the one who does the naming. … This leadership of Adam in relationship with Eve, and her corresponding commitment to him, does not mean that their equality is undermined, for Eve and Adam are like the Trinity in which there is a headship of the Father over the Son, and yet there is also a full equality of Godhead (1 Corinthians 11:, Colossians 1:19; 2:9). (22)

It’s not until the appendix at the end of the book that Barrs develops the ESS theme. The appendix is apparently a wedding sermon that Barrs preached where the couple asked him to speak about headship and submission. Barrs uses the names “Adam” and “Eve” in place of the couple’s actual names.

Interestingly, Barrs brings a twist to ESS that I’ve never seen before. In his formulation, the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in authority, but there’s still a hierarchy of headship:

This pattern of headship comes from creation itself, or perhaps we should say from God himself. The Lord who made us, the Lord we worship, is a triune God. God is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have loved and delighted in each other from all eternity. Within the Trinity there is full equalitythe Son and Spirit are just as fully God as is the Father. The Son and the Spirit have just as much authority, are just as powerful, just as holy, just as wise, just as good just as loving, just as glorious as the Father. To deny this full equality of the persons of the Godhead is heresy, a serious departure from the truth. Yet, within the Trinity there is also a hierarchythe Father is over the Son and the Spirit, and the western churches have taught that the Son is over the Spirit. The Son and the Spirit delight to submit themselves always to the Father’s will; and the Spirit delights to submit to the Son and to do his will. (324, emphasis original)

Barrs points out that the hierarchy isn’t demeaning at all. God the Father gives God the Son the “most significant tasks imaginable”!

This headship of the Father is not demeaning to the Son in any way. The Father is pleased to honor the Son always by giving him the most significant tasks imaginable … The Son, for his part, is ever gladly submissive to the Father. He is always eager to do his Father’s will, committed to obeying his Father’s every word, ready to speak whatever the Father wants him to say, pleased to respect and honor his Father in everything he does, devoted to bringing glory to his Father. We look at this eternal relationship of headship and submission, and it is no vision of miseryrather it is an eternally shared glory! (324-325, emphasis added)

So, in addition to ESS (eternal subordination of the Son), EFS (eternal functional submission), and ERAS (eternal relations of authority and submission), we now have ERHS (eternal relationship of headship and submission).

Having explained the origin of headship and submission in the eternal relationships within the Trinity, Barrs applies this equal but hierarchical relationship to marriage. Instead of the Biblical example for marriage, Christ and the church, Barrs focuses on the Father/Son relationship in the “family of the Trinity.”

Adam and Eve, your relationship is to mirror the relationship between the Father and the Son, for the apostle Paul teaches us that your family, just like every other family on earth or in heaven, is named and patterned after the family of our heavenly Father, the family of the Trinity … Eve and Adam, you are to show to the world the beauty of the eternal love between the Son and the Father. (325-326)

In the study questions at the end of the appendix, Barrs asks:

Have you considered before reading this chapter the reality of equality and headship that exists within the Trinity? As you think about this, how would you express the beauty of the relationship between the Father and the Son as it is described for us in the Scriptures? (328)

To answer his questions, no such “reality of equality and headship exists within the Trinity.” And I would describe such a relationship of authority and submission as heretical. Barrs is right that to deny full equality within the Trinity is heretical. But sadly, he doesn’t recognize that he’s doing so here.

When I read the first paragraph in the Eve chapter that taught ESS, I was really surprised, and I honestly hoped that it was somehow a poorly worded section. Maybe something the publisher (Crossway) wanted to include. But give the fully developed ESS (ERHS?) in the appendix, and given that Barrs preached ESS at a wedding, it seems that Barrs is another who teaches and promotes ESS (at least at the time).

Barrs ends his introduction by calling for men to treat women better. Ironically, he says:

Many women experience discrimination and poor treatment in their churches and in their homes. In conservative circles this is sometimes defended and justified by specious appeals to Scripture. (11)

ESS and its application to marriage are part of the “discrimination and poor treatment” that many women experience in the home and in churches. As a popular author and teacher, many men and women have read and will read his book. I hope that in the intervening years, and given the Trinity debate of 2016, that Barrs has changed his mind about ESS. If so, I hope he’ll clarify his position publicly.

23 thoughts on “Finding Eternal Subordination of the Son in the Oddest Places

  1. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve had this book on my list of books to read for a while, but not anymore.

    I don’t understand the line of reasoning that says “the one who names someone is in authority over the one being named.” If this was always true it would mean Hagar was in authority over God (Gen 16:13).

  2. meredithmuddles says:

    I’ve read most of this book, though it’s been a few years. I remember feeling uncomfortable with that section. My husband and I are egalitarian though I grew up in complementarian teaching. I am really tired of people trying to square a circle and say that you can have a hierarchy and still be equal. It’s just completely illogical. As my husband says, “In a two-person situation, 51% of the vote is the same as 100%.”

  3. Dominic Stockford says:

    It is a very strange picture to use for a marriage relationship. We have the Biblical picture of Christ and his church, yet Barrs shoehorns his ESS in by inventing a new picture that we don’t get given in the Bible (because it isn’t there).

    There is some premeditation in his using this false picture, it seems to me. Not just preaching, but going out of his way to promulgate ESS. IMHO.

  4. Alexander Thomson says:

    Are not the two versions, AD 325 and AD 381, subordinationist? Is it not the later “Athanasian” Creed that is non-subordinationist?

    • Rachel Miller says:

      This language was added to refute Arianism, the subordinationism of that time period, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”

      • Alexander Thomson says:

        It may refute Arianism, in that Arianism proposed that the Son was created. Nicene denied that proposition, and said that the Son was generated, not eternally nor from or in all eternity or the like, but before all worlds/ages. The first proposition of the Creed is that there is one God, the Father, and that squarely reflects John 17:3, where the Father is said to be the only/sole/alone true/genuine/real God. Nicene does not make the one God to be Father and Son, or Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It makes him to be true/genuine/real god/God from/out.of true/genuine/real God – preserving the primacy and suprriority of the Father and the derivation and subordination of the Son.

  5. Alexander Thomson says:

    What, exactly, do you think that the actual words of the Creed establish? Do you think that an honest examination of the words can support an interpretation that the Son is fully equal in all respects to the Father?

  6. Alexander Thomson says:

    Would you care to formulate an argument setting out your interpretation of the Creed? I realize that would take some time. For my part, I undertake to go through your blog from the beginning, and this also will take some time. Meanwhile, it being 2300 hours here in the UK, and as I must depart early tomorrow morning for a longish car journey, may I bid you a good night/day, and thank you for the exchange between us.

  7. Trent says:

    It is so unfortunate that this error is moving into weird places, all so it can reinforce upper class Victorian domesticity. There are better ways to differentiate between men and women without one always subordinate to the other.
    Philip Payne (as well as the ECF) has really persuaded me that ‘head’ does not mean ‘chief.’

  8. Alexander Thomson says:

    While indeed some, or even many, may see the alleged error as reinforcing, or even meant to reinforce, the domesticity of which you speak, I have never taken that line, and I have opposed those who do.
    Are you, or will you be, formulating an argument setting out your interpretation of the Creed?
    I am pressing on with reading through, and considering, your blog.
    Every blessing!

    • Trent says:

      From your previous comments, you flirt heavily Arianism. Its not an ad hominem. It is true. If you deny the Son is not fully equal, that speaks volumes.
      The burden of proof is on you to prove that Christ is not equal.

      • Alexander Thomson says:

        I am not Arian; and, even if I were, that would not remove from those – as in this forum – who opened matters by asserting that the Son is not subordinate. The burden of proof lies with the proponent and not the opponent : it is for you to set out your case, and for me to reply to it. I was trying to keep things on a scholarly and non-emotional footing; and Inhope that we may so proceed.

      • Rachel Miller says:

        Actually teaching that the Son is fully equal with the Father is the historical orthodox teaching of the Christian church. I do not have to prove my position. The Bible does that clearly.

      • Alexander Thomson says:

        Whether the Bible clearly teaches what you believe, is precisely the point at issue! In this blog, the assertion was made that the Son is not subordinate. I disagree, and I am prepared to debate the matter. It is for the proponent of the proposition to set out the case for that proposition, and for the opponent to set out a case in answer. Are you not going to set out your case, please, rather than merely giving a short quip or retort?

      • Rachel Miller says:

        I have set out my position here again and again. And in particular I’ve done so in response to those who teach the heresy that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. You can read what I’ve written here. And you can find the historical position of the church through the church fathers specifically Athanasius and the others since who have combatted subordinationists like yourself.

    • Trent says:

      Read Athanasius? Put down Grudem.
      Eternal subordination implies that the Father ontologically that the Son does not, because it is eternal. Subordination means that there is a clash of wills, rather than a perfect will that is shared in the Godhead.
      Adhering to such a view logically leads to Tritheism.

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