Note to readers: I consider this article to be a work in process. It represents my fresh and therefore incomplete view of 1 Corinthians 15. I offer them in this light and in this light only.
Does 1 Corinthians 15:28 teach that the Son eternally submits to the Father: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all”?
Some argue the case. Bruce Ware claims, “There is no question that this passage indicates the eternal future submission of the Son to the Father, in keeping with his submission to the Father both in the incarnation and in eternity past” (2005: 84). Wayne Grudem cites 1 Corinthians 15:28 to affirm the Son’s “subordinate” role (ST 249).
With the respect due these theologians, I disagree with their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. By tracing the Adam-Christ relationship in 1 Corinthians 15, the citation of Psalm 8 in 15:27, and the meaning of the final phrase “that God may all in all,” we discern another and better conclusion of the text’s meaning. 1 Corinthians 15:28 indicates that the Son redeems physical humanity and subjects all physical things to God, so that God may be all in all Spiritual creatures through his abiding Spirit.
Paul Contrasts Adam with Christ, the New Adam
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that the resurrection will occur because Christ rose from the dead first. So we will follow him since he is the new Adam. Adam became a living-physical being; Christ becomes a life-giving spirit, that is, the Spirit abides in him and thus in us (1 Cor 15:21–22 with 45–49).
The Spirit’s abiding in us defines how we become Spiritual (on this, see Irenaeus, Heresies, BK V). After contrasting the physical Adam and the Spiritual Christ (1 Cor 15:45), Paul explains the order of salvation, “The Spiritual did not come first but the physical—then the Spiritual” (1 Cor 15:46).
The key point here is that Christ’s rising as the first fruits of humanity occurs precisely in his role as the New Adam who grants the Spirit: “the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). This contextual explanation concretely explains what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
It is important to note that the Greek verb in verse 22 is ζῳοποιηθήσονται, while in verse 45 it is: ζῳοποιοῦν. The linguistic overlap provides a further textual cue that these two verses mutually explain each other. The way in which the last Adam makes us alive (v. 22) comes via the Spirit (v. 45), which then defines our resurrection bodies as “Spiritual” (v. 46).
Paul’s words recollect Jesus’ words when he says: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you–they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63).
In summary, life in Adam is death; live in the last Adam is live by the Spirit. Paul clearly and pointedly makes this contrast throughout 1 Corinthians 15.
The contextual contrast then is our human past in Adam and our glorified human future in the new Adam, Christ. While we cannot separate the divinity from Christ’s humanity, Paul underscores his role as the final Adam, the perfect human.
In a 2015 essay by James Hamilton, he argues for the eternal functional submission view. And while summarizing the context of 1 Corinthians 15, he concludes: “Paul does not appear to be discussing the difference between the human Jesus and the divine Jesus” (2015: 99).
Hamilton attributes an unusual partitive reading as an alternative to his view here. But the Chalcedonian Christology that I am attempting to affirm here does not permit the language of the “human Jesus” and the “divine Jesus.” It affirms only one person exists in Christ’s two natures. The language of a “human Jesus” or “divine Jesus” does not make sense here—it actually represents the Nestorian position.
I grant that Scripture highlights Christ’s human nature, while at other times underscores his divine nature. Still, the one Christ acts always through both his natures. So the point here is not to divide Christ, but to use the language of Paul and Augustine, to discern the accent of Christ’s act “in the form of slave” or in “in the form of God.” So Hamilton’s critique seems misdirected.
One other reason why Hamilton sees functional submission in 1 Corinthians 15 has to do with his reading of the Adam–Christ comparison Paul makes. Actually, Hamilton only provides a brief statement about the Adam–Christ connection in 1 Corinthians 15 (2015: 98).
Further, when he speaks of the citation of Psalm 8, Hamilton rightly correlates it to Psalm 110 (1 Cor 15:25 alludes to Psalm 110:1). But he does not bring out Psalm 8’s creational and Adamic context despite Paul’s contextual argument concerning Adam (1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49).
This oversight may contribute to his claim: “Christ is functionally subordinate to the Father” (2015: 106). If he means that Christ obeyed the Father during his incarnation, then we would agree. Yet the key question is: does Christ’s submission occur according to his mission as Mediator or according to his divine and eternal nature?
Hamilton does not precisely make a claim one way or the other. He does, however, imply eternal submission in two places. First, he claims, “Christ was ‘sent’ by the Father not just during the incarnation” (2015: 106). Second, Hamilton writes: “I see no indication that Paul means to distinguish between the Son as incarnate man and the Son as divine Logos” (2015: 108).
The implication seems clear: if the sending occurs prior to the incarnation and if Paul refers to both Christ’s humanity and divinity as being subject to the Father, then 1 Corinthians 15:28, for Hamilton, demonstrates Christ’s eternal submission to the Father.
But Paul clearly contrasts the first Adam with the last Adam, old humanity with the new. The last Adam transforms us from physical beings according to the image of Adam to Spiritual beings according to the image of the last Adam (1 Cor 15:49).
The point is that Christ according to his humanity united humanity to himself, thus bringing about a kingdom, and then handed over all creating things to God. The Father subjected all things to Christ, the Messiah, the second Adam. And in his role as second Adam, as Messiah, Christ returns all things to the Father.
I admit the whole Christ subjected himself to God—but what can be subject to God except his humanity? He shares his essence with God. So the last Adam hands over all those who are in him by transforming the physical into the Spiritual so that God may be in all.
Psalm 8 Grounds “Subjection” In Humanity’s Glorification
The meaning of subjection revolves around Psalm 8 because Paul cites the psalm in 1 Corinthians 15:27: “For “[He] has put all things in subjection under his feet.” Paul explains that He, that is God, cannot be subjected since he is the subjector. On this basis, Paul affirms in verse 28 that Christ too will subject himself to God.
Hence, Psalm 8 supplies reason why Paul even uses the word “subjected”; Paul borrows the word from the psalm. Psalm 8 must clarify Paul’s meaning. According to Hamilton, Paul cites Psalm 8 simply to show that the Father is not subject to Christ (2015: 100).
I agree. But cannot Paul cite Psalm 8 for more than one reason?
Since Paul focuses on the Adam–Christ relationship and since Psalm 8 concerns humanity’s creational dignity, then the apostle likely means that Christ as the new Adam crowns human nature with “glory and honor” (Ps 8:5) through his work as Mediator—a point that Hebrews 2:9–10 makes when its author interprets Psalm 8.
Psalm 8:4 defines human humiliation (in the neutral sense) by saying: “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings.” Yet God has given humanity dignity by putting all things under his feet. This creational reality finds its full expression in Christ who not only subjects all things on behalf of humanity but also raises human nature above the angels in the world to come (Heb 2:5).
Given this reality, we should not infer from Paul’s citation of Psalm 8 that the Son according to his divinity will submit eternally to the Father. Rather, we should conclude that Christ by assuming humanity has given humanity dignity, honour, and glory in the world to come.
Yet Ware concludes his discussion of 1 Corinthians 15 by affirming: “It is the nature of God both to exert authority and to obey in submission.” He then claims, “this is the eternal nature of God” (2005: 85). This cannot be true.
Instead, Christ recapitulates humanity in his role as Messiah and Mediator so that by his gaining of glory, he might taste death for everyone. The result, by our union with him according to his humanity, is our glorification and salvation.
God Becomes All in All by the Holy Spirit
In Christ, physical beings are subjected to the Father. He leads humanity as a perfect human through whom the Spirit comes to us, making us Spiritual humans. Subjection can mean salvation (on this, see Gregory of Nyssa “The Son Himself Will Be Subjected”, 127ff).
This salvific subjection sometimes appears in the apostolic preaching of Christ. Consider Acts 15. Peter cites Amos 9:10–11 to conclude that gentiles are included into the people of God as gentiles. Yet Amos 9:11 speaks of David “possessing” Edom (i.e., militaristic action), an idea that Peter appears to interpret as seeking God.
In Philippians 2, Paul identifies submission (“every knee shall bow”) with the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 2:10–11). So submission or subjection to God can have a positive sense as when enemies of God become reconciled to him (Rom 5:10). The subjection of the enemy sinner can sometimes come about by means of reconciliation.
The order of 1 Corinthians 15:25–28 also suggests that subjection signifies both judgment and salvation in context. Verse 25 speaks of the judgment of enemies (a negative subjection). In verse 26, the final enemy death dies. Then Paul cites Psalm 8 in verse 27 to show that, in Christ, humanity has gained a distinct glory (1 Cor 15:41–42). Our new bodies will no longer be physical according to Adam but Spiritual according to the Son who gives us the Spirit (1 Cor 15:45–49).
So when all things are subjected to the Son either by judgment (v. 25) or by the Spiritual transformation of our bodies (a positive subjection), Christ hands over all physical (Adamic) creatures over to God who are in him. At this time, the Spirit of God will abide in all, and all will be transformed into Spiritual beings (1 Cor 15:45–49).
Hence, God will be in all by means of the Holy Spirit abiding in all. Theologically, this makes sense if Christ has defeated death and evil. “For it is obvious,” writes Gregory, “that it will be true that God is in all at that time when nothing evil is discerned in existing things” (2015: 125).
For God to be in all at the end, evil must be absent. The dead, corruptible, sinful bodies of flesh bearing of Adam submit to God’s salvific transformation into sinless, incorrupt, and immortal bodies at the end in the twinkling of an eye. When evil is absent, God is all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:29 also suggests a positive notion for the subjection of verses 27–28: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” Whatever the exact sense, Paul speaks of the practice of baptizing on behalf of dead people because some good end will come via the process described in verses 27–28.
That is Paul’s historical-redemptive argument that focuses heavily on Christ’s role as Mediator between God and man via his incarnate union.
Paul highlights Jesus’ role in the form of a slave, the last Adam. He does not make any specific points about the divinity of Christ per se except that the Son has become a life-giving spirit. The subjection to the Father means Christ brings all Adamic physical beings to God by transforming them by the Spirit into Spiritual beings.
God becomes all in all people by his abiding Spirit. Since the Son shares in the Godhead essentially, no eternal submission occurs, and the text here does not even hint at that reality. If anything, it leaves that question unanswered because Paul does not even raise it.