Does the Submission of the Son to the Father Contradict the Notion that He has “one will” with the Father?

The authoritative headship of the Father over the Son was an important point of doctrine frequently emphasized by the fathers of the ante-nicene and Nicene eras. It was viewed by them as a clear teaching of scripture, and an important aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example:

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“XVII. If any man says that the Lord and the Lord, the Father and the Son, are two Gods because of the aforesaid words: let him be anathema. For we do not make the Son the equal or peer of the Father, but understand the Son to be subject. For He did not come down to Sodom without the Father’s will, nor rain from Himself but from the Lord, to wit, by the Father’s authority; nor does He sit at the Father’s right hand by His own authority, but because He hears the Father saying, Sit on My right hand.

51. The foregoing and the following statements utterly remove any ground for suspecting that this definition asserts a diversity of different deities in the Lord and the Lord. No comparison is made because it was seen to be impious to say that there are two Gods: not that they refrain from making the Son equal and peer of the Father in order to deny that He is God. For, since he is anathema who denies that Christ is God, it is not on that score that it is profane to speak of two equal Gods. God is One on account of the true character of His natural essence and because from the Unborn God the Father, who is the one God, the Only-begotten God the Son is born, and draws His divine Being only from God; and since the essence of Him who is begotten is exactly similar to the essence of Him who begot Him, there must be one name for the exactly similar nature. That the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him is chiefly shown in the fact that He was subjected to Him to render obedience, in that the Lord rained from the Lord and that the Father did not, as Photinus and Sabellius say, rain from Himself, as the Lord from the Lord; in that He then sat down at the right hand of God when it was told Him to seat Himself; in that He is sent, in that He receives, in that He submits in all things to the will of Him who sent Him. But the subordination of filial love is not a diminution of essence, nor does pious duty cause a degeneration of nature, since in spite of the fact that both the Unborn Father is God and the Only-begotten Son of God is God, God is nevertheless One, and the subjection and dignity of the Son are both taught in that by being called Son He is made subject to that name which because it implies that God is His Father is yet a name which denotes His nature. Having a name which belongs to Him whose Son He is, He is subject to the Father both in service and name; yet in such a way that the subordination of His name bears witness to the true character of His natural and exactly similar essence.” (De Synodis, Quoting and commenting on the decision of the Council of Sirmium against Photinius)

“Believing then in the all-perfect triad, the most holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.” (The Macrostich)

That the Son is subordinate to the Father as His Head is important as an aspect of Christian monotheism (see Why There is Only One God: Headship). There is only one God because there is only one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and one Supreme Authority over all -the Father. If the Son were equal to the Father in authority, and not under His headship, there would be two Supreme Authorities over all, and on that grounds, two Gods. The scriptural truth that “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) is important then to how scripture teaches us that there is only one God.

Yet this teaching has come under fire in recent years. The argument leveled against this patristic and scriptural doctrine is that the Son cannot “submit” to the Father because this implies that They do not have the same will. In order for the Son to submit to the Father, it is argued, He must have a will contrary to His Father. Such a teaching, it is argued, goes against the historic doctrine that the persons of the Trinity share a common will.

For many this line of argument seems convincing, a good enough reason to jettison a view held by the early church. Yet upon close examination, this argument is shown to be seriously flawed.

Firstly, the argument hinges upon an assumption that in order for there to be submission of the Son to the Father, the persons must have conflicting wills. This assumption is unwarranted; the Son submits to the Father willingly, and as being in agreement with His Father, and thus having “one will” with Him. We can even borrow from human analogy; if a man tells his son to do something, and his son loves his father and delights to do whatever his father says, his son will happily and willingly submit to his father. This sort of willing submission is precisely how the church fathers described the submission of the Son to the Father. For example Hilary of Poitiers, as quoted above, refers to it as “the subordination of filial love”.

Secondly it is noteworthy that the fathers of the early church also acknowledged that the persons of the Trinity share one will, and yet in their view, this was in no way contradictory to the Son’s subordination to the Father as His Head.

“Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things,—numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world—above whom there is no other God—has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho)

Here we see the way the Justin understood the Son’s subordination to the Father, and the Father and Son sharing “one will” fitting together; far from being contradictory, in Justin’s view we see the truth that the Son does not have a distinct will from the Father manifested in the Son’s perfect submission to the Father. It is His submission to the Father in which we see the Son’s perfect agreement with Him, as the Son willingly “ministers to the will of the Father” in “the subordination of filial love”.

If we are going to insist that the fathers are wrong on this point, especially in light of so much clear scriptural support for their position, we ought to have some good reason to do so. The fact is, we do not. The Son’s submission to the Father is a willing submission, grounded in the Son’s relationship to the Father as Son, stemming from His eternal generation.

Here a further distinction is worth noting, already mentioned in passing above, which yields further clarity. The persons of the Trinity possess one will in that They are each in perfect agreement with each other; each person, however, distinctly possesses the power of will. Thus the Father wills to send the Son and the Son wills to be sent; the Father wills to create through the Son, and the Son wills to be the Father’s instrument in the creation of the world. The perfect agreement and harmony between the persons renders the will “one”, similarly to how we see many distinct persons in the early church being described as “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32 NKJV).

This is contrasted with the view of those who conceive of the Trinity as a whole, or the essence shared by the persons, as a single person. Those who hold this view almost always mean something quite different than the fathers such as Justin and Hilary did when they speak of the persons of the Trinity sharing “one will”; what they refer to is that there is only one power of willing belonging properly to the sole person who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus the real persons of the Trinity possess the same will and mind because They are all ultimately a single person with a single power of will and mind. This bizarre ‘hive-mind’ view of the Trinity falls apart as soon as it is acknowledged that there is no such thing as a single subsistent individual who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that rather the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individual realities or persons.

Essence, nature, or genus do not possess the power of will, mind, or consciousness. These properties belong to persons. For the persons of the Trinity to be described of as “one will”, then, is appropriate as a way to describe the perfect agreement between Them, but erroneous if this is meant to ascribe the power of will to the common essence the persons share, and so to treat that essence as a person.

Finally, some will object that the Son’s submission to the Father was merely an aspect of the economy of the incarnation, and therefore, speaking of this as a permanent and eternal character of the Son’s relationship to His Father is a mistake. Such an objection ignores the many places in the Old Testament in which we see the Son as the Angel of the Lord, ministering to the Father’s will in bringing messages from the Father to men (“angel” means ‘messenger’). It was the Father Who sent, and the Son Who obeyed; the Son is the Messenger of the Father, never the other way around. Likewise it ignores that the Father created all things through the Son, not the Son through the Father. The fact is, throughout all history and from the beginning we see the Son’s loving subordination to the Father, as to His authoritative Head.

Additionally we may note that it is natural and common to all cultures to associate authority with fatherhood and submission to that authority to sonship. We know that all fatherhood in creation is a reflection of the eternal relationship between God and His Son; we see that authority structure even in the Law of Moses, where sons are commanded to honor, submit to, and obey their fathers. Because of this, it is most natural and reasonable to assume that the Son, simply by virtue of being Son, would be subordinate to His Father as His Head. In light of all this, if someone wishes to ague that the Son is not eternally subordinate to His Father, they ought to have some very good reason for saying so, seeing as this goes against all natural reason, and the pattern of authority and submission that we see between God and His Son throughout the whole of history. And the truth of the matter is, no such reason exists. Nowhere do we find scriptural warrant to limit this relationship to the incarnation, or the economy of redemption. Instead, everywhere we are given reason to understand that this relationship is eternal.

What Really Constitutes a Rejection of Modalism?

Most Christians are willing to recognize that modalism is heresy; yet at the same time, what passes for a rejection of modalism today is so lacking that many closet modalists can seemingly vindicate themselves of being modalists ( in name, at least) while still holding to the same fundamental doctrines as those who openly hold to modalism.

This is because it has become acceptable to respond to modalism by stating that the persons of the Trinity are not identical to each other; the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. And yet, this does not exclude all forms of modalism, nor does it address the fundamental underlying tenet of modalism that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one person.

As noted in Equivocation Over the Term “Person”, many modern Christians effectively state their belief in trinitarianism as a belief in one person (the Trinity or the essence) who is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is almost always done by using a synonymous word for “person” in respect to the Trinity as a whole, such as “being”; a word vague enough that it can be used either for an abstract essence or for an individual person, which in most cases like this, is used to mean the latter (a fact often betrayed by the use of singular personal pronouns such as “he” for the “being”). Others will use terms such as “reality”, “thing”, or some other term to describe the person who they conceive of as being three persons; yet using a different word in place of “person” hardly alleviates the problem, since what we ought to primarily be concerned with is not the modes of expression people employ (although these are important), but what is meant by them.

Since, then, the fundamental problem posed by modalism is that it conceives of God as a single individual who somehow is the Father, Son, and Spirit, if we merely require someone to affirm that there is some kind of distinction between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” such as that they are not totally synonymous with each other, we have failed to address the primary issue. Many modalists are willing to affirm such a distinction. While they believe there is only one divine individual, they are also willing to affirm that the names “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” refer to three things that are not totally interchangeable with each other.

This distinction may be as shallow as the names themselves; it may extend to seeing them as signifying historically distinct modes by which the one individual manifests himself to the world; or they may view each name as signifying a distinct mode of subsistence within a single individual. Others would view them as effectively signifying different parts of this one individual. All these notions are blasphemous and false; yet by merely accepting the affirmation of some difference between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” as being enough to clear a person of being a modalist, we will have let most modalists pass themselves off as trinitarians with little difficulty.

Even Sabellius himself was willing to say that there were three distinct “personas”, after all. Other early modalists would also try to affirm that while in their minds “Father” and “Son” were the same individual, only the Son died, not the Father. Yet today, it seems we have pushed the threshold of what constitutes trinitarianism so low that those who call the Trinity as a whole a single person, and a single individual, are not regarded as modalists. While they are not given the label they deserve, the underlying beliefs are fundamentally the same. Just as the Sabellians of old taught, if “Father” and “Son” are the same individual, then the Father became man and died on the cross. And yet today this view is tolerated, so long as the person specifies that it was the mode of “Son” that died, not the mode of “Father”.

To really be cleared of modalism, a person must be willing not only to to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, but that They are distinct as three individuals, three real persons. A modalist can say that they are somehow distinct, especially if that modalist is willing to equivocate over the term “person”, using it to mean something less than a really distinct individual. A trinitarian must affirm that there are in reality three distinct individuals of one divine nature, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

If we wish to guard against semi-modalism, we must go farther still. A semi-modalist does affirm that there are really three distinct persons; however, the semi-modalist believes these three persons to be one person as well. This view is nonsensical; yet, it is held by many, more often than not as an unconscious inconsistency in their own thinking. Yet, some would venture to hold such a view consciously, being willing to say that they believe in one person who is three persons, and really mean “three persons” by those words. The only way to guard against such an error is to not only require a confession of three distinct persons, three distinct individual realities, but to also require a denial that those three are one person or individual reality.

Thus the ancient Macrostich says:

“3. Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.”

“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”

It is not enough that someone be willing to say the words “three persons”; they must be willing to affirm that they mean that in the sense it is intended, that they believe in three distinct individual realities, not merely three modes or manifestations termed “persons”. Likewise, a trinitarian must be willing to affirm that there is only three persons; this guards against the semi-modalism that imagines a fourth distinct individual (or person) who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.