Does the Son eternally submit to the Father? Jonathan Routley thinks so. Actually, Routley argues that he has a moral obligation to define God in terms of submission and authority. He explains, “Scripture teaches that the Son eternally submits to the Father willingly, voluntarily, and lovingly” and affirms his “moral obligation to speak up for that conviction” (xii).
Yet his moral obligation to understand God rightly means that he wants to persuade those who no longer speak about the doctrine eternal submission to reaffirm their beliefs: “I am hopeful that this volume might challenge some who have formerly supported the doctrine of eternal submission and have more recently taken a position of silence to regain their voice and reaffirm their support” (xii-xii).
Should the silent speak up? Should we all affirm the eternal submission of the Son to the Father? In answer to that question, we need to see if Routley’s thesis accurately interprets Scripture and uses theological reasoning. My conclusion will be that Routley does not successfully prove his case either scripturally or theologically.
Perhaps the concisest summary of Routley’s view of God comes appropriately by way of praise. He exclaims:
“May the eternal Son be worshipped rightly as Almighty God who, from eternity, in voluntary love, submitted himself to his Father to become incarnate in order to redeem and restore lost humanity, who continues to exhibit that eternally submissive disposition while seated at the Father’s right hand today, and who, in the unending ages of future human history, will always volitionally subject himself to his Father.” (xiii)
We should note a number of items here. (1) Routley affirms the deity of the Son. (2) The Son eternally submitted to the Father to become incarnate. (3) He remained submissive during the incarnation and “will always” remain so.
Routley, therefore, affirms that the Son submits to the Father before time, in time, and after all time (I am using the word time here loosely). The Son always was submissive, was submissive on earth, and will always remain submissive.
To make his case, Routley turns to Scripture—not history. He explains, “so much of this debate has focused on the development of Trinitarian doctrine in church history that the biblical sources have largely been neglected” (xii). He refers to the Trinity Debate that started in 2016 and mainly was prosecuted via online articles.
In this sense, Routley’s book-length argument aims to contribute to the 2016 Trinity Debate by affirming the biblical and theological position that the Son eternally submits to the Father.
I, therefore, follow Routley’s lead by evaluating his work according to its biblical and theological coherency. In my judgment, Routley’s thesis does not succeed for a number of reasons.
First, he makes historical overstatements
Routley focuses on Scripture but mostly ignores historical interpretation of Scripture—the historical authors who argued biblically for eternal generation, triune relations, and so on. He explains, “So much of the submission conversation has bypassed the Bible for its interpretation in the church, and I think that is a dangerous deviation from what the early church itself would have demanded” (x). Undoubtedly, the biblical text must be interpreted.
Yet Christian theologians had spent years interpreting it in light of theological crises and challenges. So why should we ignore this chorus of theological interpretation? Routley does engage early Christian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. But he seems to do so “to illustrate that the question of eternal submission is not one that will ultimately be decided by an examination of church history” (5).
After surveying early interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, he concludes, “Contrary to what many are saying in the evangelical community today, there was no general consensus on the topic of the eternal relational submission of the Son to the Father in the history of the church. While some voices seem to oppose ESS, others appear to embrace it” (63). Routley overstates the case, as even his own evidence does not back up his claims, however.
When he quotes Ambrosiaster, he finds phrases like “single originating principle,” “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named,” “unique authority” as indicating something like eternal submission. The first two phrases say nothing about submission. The phrase “unique authority” is suggestive. But it by no means signifies, against the large consensus of patristic scholarship, that Ambrosiaster affirms eternal submission. As far as I am aware, no patristic scholar maintains that eternal submission was a viable option among orthodox Christians. It was precisely this issue that the Arian and Eunomian debates concerned.
His citation of Cyril of Jerusalem has greater weight since Cyril does use language that sounds like the Son eternally obeys the Father’s will. This could be construed to affirm to eternal submission.
But even if we grant Ambrosiaster’s support of eternal submission (which is tenuous based on the citations), Routley has provided two theologians who lived during the times of Nicaea and Constantinople. During this time, much language about the Father and Son was uncarefully presented. But the consensus on trinitarian language added much needed clarity. So his argument here does not bear out the facts as he wants it to.
In any case, Routley cannot claim that eternal submission was a viable option during the Nicene era on the basis of two authors. It may be some used language approximating eternal submission, but that does not mean they understood and intended the whole concept. That would be to commit a high anachronistic fallacy. Besides, the Arian and Eunomian debates showed clearly where the consensus lies: namely, that the Father and Son relate to each other by means of filiation and paternity. These relational attributes do not indicate authority and submission like Routley claims.
Second, he assumes his theological conclusions and then interprets biblical texts likewise
Everyone interprets Scripture theologically. So does Routledge. For example, he interprets Revelation 1:1 to mean that “God the Father possesses highest authority in that the message originates with him and he gives it to the Son” (54). But this is because he has already assumed the conclusion that taxis in God means relations of authority and submission—not origins of relation.
That the Father is the source (arche) of the one whom proceeds (the Son) may indicate a taxis, but why must it mean authority? That is the point of the original formulation, namely, to say as little as possible about the inner life of God while still speaking according to the biblical idiom. To import authority into taxis simply assumes the conclusion that Routledge desires to prove.
But that’s what Routledge does when he writes, “This passage displays one divine authority when viewed through the lens of the divine essence, and yet also displays multiplicity of authority (the Father gave the revelation to the Son, and yet the revelation is the possession of the Son) when viewed through the lens of the divine persons” (55). So, since God gives Jesus the revelation, then the text “displays multiplicity of authority” according to Routley. As will become clear, this multiplicity of personal authority has wide-randing theological implications.
Since Routley assumes his theological conclusion here, the main test will be to see if Routledge’s theological explanation coherently fits together and can make sense of the biblical texts.
Third, he unsuccessfully defends the ontological equality of the Son and Father
“Does relational submission effectively subordinate the Son ontologically?” (81) He answers “no” (82) “In response, I contend that Jesus is eternally submissive to his Father in their intra-Trinitarian relationship, and at the same time possesses full deity.” (82)
Why? Because eternal submission is proper to person, not essence (82). So submission refers “to divine diversity” not “divine unity” (82). Nevertheless, he still maintains, “There is also an internal range of authority within and among the persons of the Godhead as evidenced in Scripture. In the way that they relate to one another, the Father possesses absolute authority and the Son submits to that authority. Externally, however, both Trinitarian persons share supreme authority.” (83).
He explains further:
Jesus as the eternal Son can be submissive to the Father in their intra-Trinitarian relations and at the same time maintain full deity. This is because we can talk about the distinctions between the persons in a way that is separate from the unity of the divine essence, as demonstrated by use of the term “eternal generation.” The eternal Son can at the same time both possess all the authority of the Godhead in relation to the created world (external authority) and also yield to the authority of his Father within their intra-Trinitarian relationship (internal authority). Jesus can eternally submit to the Father relationally and simultaneously be fully God. (86)
Routley cites eternal generation to explain how eternal submission can both say something true about God’s internal relations while at the same time affirming the Son’s equal authority in relation to creation.
So internally, the Father rules absolutely. Externally, the Son is seen to be equal to the Father. And somehow eternal generation can contribute to the coherence of this notion. Now, the doctrine of eternal generation, in fact, aims to say as little as possible about the inner life of God. It says that the names of the Father and Son signify a relationship: of fatherhood and sonship, paternity and filiation.
These relational properties do not indicate some positive traits in God such as authority and submission. And pointedly, these two personal properties relate in God according to his simple nature which precludes the idea of the Father being supreme over the Son—since they both are the divine essence. And the divine essence has will, power, and authority. The persons in God do too of course, but only because they subsist in God; they are God. They have one will, power, and authority.
While it may be that eternal relations of authority and submission do not entail ontological differences in God, Routley has not demonstrated why this must be so. His appeal to the doctrine of eternal generation seems to evince a misunderstanding of the doctrine.
Fourth, he misunderstands the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinity
Christians distinguish between the divinity and economy of God. The first relates to God’s inner life. The second relates to God’s works that we perceive. We cannot know God as he knows himself—his archetypal knowledge. But we can know what he reveals in his ectypal knowledge, that which he shares with us. This means that we cannot know him univocally (in the same way he does); but it does not mean that we cannot know anything true of God (equivocation). We know God ectypally by way of analogical knowledge of God.
Routley might formally affirm these distinctions but not carry them out consistently. He explains, “While not every aspect of the immanent Trinity is revealed in the economy, everything visible of the Trinity in the economy must have its counterpart in the immanent Trinity. Therefore, if Jesus is submissive to the Father in the economy of salvation, there must be some correspondence between this temporal reality and the eternal life of God.” (90). There must be some “correspondence,” but of what sort?
If it were the analogical sort, then we would be forced to affirm that Christ’s obedience to Father cannot be imputed directly into the inner life of God. There must be some analogy, some distinction between ectypal and archetypal knowledge.
What makes this peculiarity of theological judgment even more acute is Routley’s insistence that distinctions between Christ according to his divinity and according to his humanity entails Nestorianism: “The point must also be made that to limit Christ’s submission to the Father to his humanity or to the economy of salvation divides the person of Christ into two parts: the incarnate Christ and the divine or eternal Christ. This brings one dangerously close to, if not guilty of, Nestorianism.” (91).
To prosecute his case, he cites the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (91-2). And he goes on to state: “What changes is that the divine nature or essence is joined with a human nature or essence. Therefore, if we place Christ’s submission to the Father on the level of person, what is seen economically in the interactions between the person of the Father and the person of the Son must have its basis in eternity.” (93). But this statement misunderstands (or at least does not articulate) that the Logos added to himself what he was not (humanity) while remaining what he was (divine).
In this discussion, Routley does not integrate the traditional notion of simplicity to an understanding of Christ’s divine nature. In Routley’s discussion, the person of Christ possesses a unified or mixed will such that we cannot distinguish between his divine and human will. This is a breach of Chalcedon, the very creed that he cites. He will make his view of simplicity clear later in the discussion, but here it operates in a rather peculiar way.
And what also seems unaccounted for is Routley’s inconsistent affirmation of something like analogical knowledge of God. Consider this statement: “His personhood does not undergo change and is not affected by his taking on of humanity. The relations between Father and Son during the earthly life of Christ, therefore, must be a true and accurate representation of what occurs eternally” (93). Accordingly, the economy is divinity. We have archetypal and univocal knowledge of God. The persisting person of the Logos must be the same in the incarnation as he is according to his divinity.
Note also how personhood here takes on the common characteristics of being, namely, that the Logos qua person has a centre of consciousness (presumably) and remains the exact same in both divinity and humanity. Rather, God the Logos incarnates anhypostatically and thereby there is only one person in Christ: the Logos. He assumed what he was not while remaining what he was. He added to himself true humanity. The incarnation does not therefore preclude the addition to the Logos. In the spirit of Cyril of Alexandria, the impassible became passible; the immutable mutable; immortal mortal.
And moreover, Cyril the great opponent of Nestorianism can say this while also interpreting according to the principles of partitive exegesis—i.e., what is appropriate to say of Christ according to divinity or to humanity. Yet nobody accuses him of Nestorianism—well, except Routley!
I understand that Routley would want to nuance statements and plausibly disagree with my inferences. But he clearly communicates these ideas in the citation above. Hence, he has effectively made the case for Rahner’s rule (what we see in the economy is what is true in the divinity).
In summary, Routley’s theory of knowing God is incoherent and his words breach Chalcedon despite the peculiar fact that he cites Chalcedon in support of his argument.
Fifth, he misunderstands and misapplies the doctrine of simplicity
Routley affirms that God’s will may be viewed from the perspective of his unity (what he understands wrongly to be simplicity) and from God’s personal distinctions (that is, persons of God; 95).
When viewed from outside of the being of God, there is one absolute and unchanging will, just as God is one in essence. Yet on the level of personal distinctions, in the internal life of God there is a multiplicity to his will. Each of the persons of the Trinity contribute to or collaborate in the one divine will, but in diverse ways. This coincides, I believe, with Claunch’s model of “thinking about the one divine will according to an eternal Trinitarian taxis,” and fits nicely within the realm of Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy. (98)
It does not. No pro-Nicene theologian would affirm a multiplicity of will according to person. Will properly belongs to the nature or essence of God. Since God is one will, power, and energy, we can remain monotheists while affirming three subsisting persons in God.
Not only does this not accord with simplicity, it implicitly undercuts the logic of triune relations which aim to say nothing about will but everything about how God remains one and three. The answer is that a person is an individual substance of a rational nature (Boethius) or a concrete instance of a nature (Leontius). To suggest multiplicity of will in God according to personal distinctions fails to accord with Pro-Nicene theology and fitting theological reason.
In biblical support, he cites Ephesians 1:11. His argument partly includes a word-study: “The term “counsel” (βουλὴ) is used at times in the LXX and NT to refer to a collective decision arrived at by a group. The will of God in this verse is both individual and collective” (99). But this method cannot fully explain God. God is an abiding substance. And all biblical language is analogical. So counting words across the LXX and NT does not equal a persuasive interpretation. We have to talk about God according to the whole of Scripture and theological reasoning.
Yet he nevertheless claims: “In Ephesians 1:11 there is ultimately one divine will (presented as the Father’s will), but at the same time this will is something proper to the Father in a way that it is not proper to the Son” (99). So the language implies two persons with two proper wills which somehow also have “one divine will.” Could it be then we have three wills (including the Holy Spirit) plus one divine will? Is the divine will a fourth thing to which three willing agents attach? In judgment, this position is incoherent.
Although he follows Michal Ovey, it is worth mentioning that he appears to reject the dyathelite reading of Matthew 26:39: “The first possibility is that Jesus refers only to his natural human will. This option does not deal directly with the divine nature of Christ, and so must lead to two additional possibilities“ (99). Yet he understands the danger here of breaching dyathelite Christology. So he asserts, “Differentiating between God’s internal will on the relational level of divine persons, and God’s external will on the level of divine unity, or being, reveals that eternal submission does not contradict the tradition of the church as it relates to simplicity and the divine will, but actually reinforces it” (101). It does not.
Maximos in his famous Opusculum carefully articulate both the redemptive and textual case for Christ’s submission in the garden. It is here where Christ hands over his human will to God (since will belongs to nature not person), which he does for us and for our salvation. He perfectly obeys the divine will according to his human will. In his body, he obeys in our behalf. In this sense, yes the person of Christ does obey God. But Routley thinks this is because persons in God have a sort multiplicity of will. So his notion of personal obedience differs starkly from tradition and right theological reasoning of Scripture.
Finally, he misunderstands God’s pure act, eternal generation, and inseparable operations
While discussing inseparable operations (and how this doctrine does not defeat eternal submission), Routley makes a number of interesting claims. First, Systematic theologians are not necessarily convinced of its legitimacy while patristic scholars have argued its centrality to Nicene Trinitarianism” (107). So he tips his hat to the non-essential nature of this doctrine. Then he makes a fascinating argument: “if eternal submission cannot be true because of the inseparable operations of the Trinity, then by comparison eternal generation cannot be true as well” (108–9).
But it is not clear that he rightly understands eternal generation, inseparable operations, nor simplicity. Consider Routley’s words here:
If eternal generation is one eternal and divine act, then there is ultimately only one divine person. The Father has to do something to generate the Son, and in the same action, the Son who is generated works with the Father to spirate the Spirit. Holmes is clear this eternal action is simple, single, and unrepeatable. However, that it is an action at all implies it is something done outside of oneself. If it is something the Father does, then there must be an object or objects acted upon—in this case, the Son and the Spirit. This stands in contrast to viewing generation and spiration as proper to the relations between the persons, which implies an order or taxis to the three persons in terms of their internal authority. Additionally, if eternal generation is a divine act, the implication is that there was something prior to or apart from that act. One can deny all day long that generation implies inferiority among the divine persons, but if one speaks of an event as initiating generation and spiration there is one kind of God before this event and a different God after.” (111-112).
Routley claims of eternal generation “that it is an action at all implies it is something done outside of oneself” and “if eternal generation is a divine act, the implication is that there was something prior to or apart from that act.” These inferences may surprise readers. But what is most surprising is Routley’s fundamental misunderstanding of simplicity and divine act.
Earlier in the book, Routley had affirmed simplicity through the language of unity. Well, that gets at part of it. But simplicity means that God has no parts, passions, or possibilities. Hence, he is said to be pure act; he has actualized all potencies in him timelessly and always. He has to have done so because this ensures that nothing precedes God, whether another cause, or composition, or anything.
To say, then, that eternal generation is the act of God has nothing to do with sequential acts in history as Routley seems to assume—note this once again brings up the point that he collapses creation into divinity, ectypal knowledge into archetypal, and implicitly assumes univocal reasoning about God. The act of eternal generation has no time at which it occurred because it is identical to the nature of God which is timeless.
This is why eternal generation can sustain monotheism while affirming threeness in God. And this is why Routley’s submission doctrine of a semi-complex God fails.
Further, in the above quote, Routley asserts, “This stands in contrast to viewing generation and spiration as proper to the relations between the persons, which implies an order or taxis to the three persons in terms of their internal authority.” Again, this evinces a failure to understand to eternal generation. This taxis implies taxis not authority. That is why eternal generation was included in trinitarian theology—to communicate relational distinctions while saying little about the inner-reality of God.
The doctrine merely affirms the names of God the Father and Son without making the univocal assertion that these relations exactly correspond to human fathers and sons. So no authority is implied. Origin is. Hence, the Son is God from God, Light from Light. But he is not Light in submission to Light.
He furthers misunderstands eternal generation and simplicity by associating the former with persons and not essence: “Both eternal generation and eternal submission relate directly to the persons of the Godhead and not directly to the divine essence. Therefore, opponents of ESS who accuse it of being incompatible with God’s inseparable operations must be willing to either say eternal generation is a divine action/event, or recognize that generation and inseparable operations relate to two different categories: the internal life of God and the external works of God” (112). This is incorrect.
Eternal generation does distinguish the Father from the Son by their relations, or personal properties. But they precisely relate to the divine essence according to the mode of subsistence in one simple nature. To divide personal generation from essence misses the theological force of eternal generation, namely, to explain our worship of Jesus who is divine while affirming monotheism.
His clinching argument fails too. Eternal generation is God’s act is God’s essence. The one God does all things according to one will, power, and energy that subsists in his one simple essence. He wants to make eternal generation an act of God in the sequence of time or the like; but this completely misses, once again, the doctrine of simplicity (or God as pure act).
Triune personal properties may fittingly correspond to the mission of God in history. But these economic acts of God flow from God himself. We can understand these missional acts of God ectypally and analogically. But attaching eternal generation to persons and not the essence does not work. It is both. The personal properties of filiation and paternity distinguish persons in God, yet the persons still subsist simply in God. Hence, Christian theology can address God as you. God is you because he has intellect, will, and power. He is one God.
Certainly, we could suppose that Routley does grasp these distinctions but wants to rebuff them. For example, he writes:
Giles understands eternal generation as a “divine act ad intra.” This is largely based off his reading of Thomas Aquinas, who “spoke explicitly of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s ‘spiration’ as divine acts ad intra, to be contrasted with divine acts ad extra.” Yet, as I have argued above, this terminology superimposes an economic Trinitarian activity (God’s “doing” or actions) to the internal, relational life of God. Perhaps it would be better not to talk about God’s actions ad intra, but rather to take eternal generation to apply solely to the relations of the Trinitarian persons apart from actions. (118)
But even here where he refers to the ad intra divine act, he somehow believes this represents “an economic Trinitarin activity.” He is wrong. And he adds to his argument by asserting: “Perhaps it would be better not to talk about God’s actions ad intra, but rather to take eternal generation to apply solely to the relations of the Trinitarian persons apart from actions.” Well, perhaps. But that’s because God’s divine act is eternal relations. All that is in God is God. Therefore, theologians do not impute the economic actions into the inner life of God; Routley thinks so only because he seems to misunderstand the concepts of pure act and divine simplicity.
We can end this discussion by quoting Routley’s own summary:
“To summarize the discussion in this section, eternal generation and eternal submission are inseparably related. The Father’s role in generating the Son and the Son’s role in being generated reveal not only the irreducible order between the two divine persons, but further the primacy of the Father in generating and the receptive/submissive role of the Son in being generated. Eternal generation is proper to the relations between the Trinitarian persons and not to the divine nature.” (120)
Routley wrote out of a moral obligation to inform the church of what the Bible says about God. Yet he bypasses most of what the Spirit has done in the church over 2,000 years; the Spirit has led the church’s theologians to read the Bible and reflect on God. Certainly, he draws on some modern theology (but not, say, Lewis Ayres or John Webster). So he does prosecute his case with some other scholarly assistance. But he does not ask Augustine what he thinks, nor Gregory of Nyssa nor Gregory of Nazianzus. Since these men too had the Spirit and sought to know God as revealed in Scripture, should they not help us?
While this over simplifies matters, Routley at heart discovers God in Scripture without consulting (at least in any substantive way) the great cloud of witnesses that we have. Scripture alone remains our final authority, but Christian theology does provide wisdom and acts as an authority (just not the final authority).
Had Routley done so, he would not have made certain theological judgments in his discussion on simplicity and eternal generation. He might have seen these doctrines as being true and judicious judgments based on the revelation of God.
Instead, we have an absolutely authoritative father and a submissive son, in whose life exists a multiplicity of will which somehow manifests as one will only to creation. We have kataphoric theology about the inner-life of God, which unintentionally engages in univocal reasoning rather than analogical reasoning. We have archetypal knowledge of God because accommodated knowledge (ecyptal) has become moot. What God does, he is. We are left with a submissive son and authoritative father within a being that contains a multiplicity of will.
This simply does not work because God simply is a triune being in whom three persons subsist. This still represents the best biblical and theological understanding of God.
Disclaimer: Wipf & Stock provided me a review copy of the book.