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It seems as if everybody accepts that the Bible represents the Son as subordinate to the Father. For example, in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to his Father, “yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39).

However, people identify different types of subordination and regard certain types of subordination as consistent with equality and others not.

One type of subordination was the two natures theory that was formulated at Chalcedon in 451. In this, following the Hypostatic union, the one person of Jesus Christ has two distinct natures, human and divine. (Two natures of Jesus | Theopedia). And His statements of subordination, such as that He does not know the day and hour of His return, but only the Father (Matt 24:36), were made from His inferior human nature. As the Athanasian Creed states,

“Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood.”

Consequently, “He will always and forever exist in heaven as a glorified man, albeit God at the same time” (Two natures of Jesus | Theopedia).

However, the two natures theory only explains the subordination of the Son after His incarnation while the Bible says that the Son always was subordinate to the Father. For example:

  • The Father sent the Son, gave Him what to do and what to say (John 6:38; 8:42; 12:49; 17:4).
  • The Father created the Universe “through” the Son (Heb 1:1-2).

Furthermore, the Bible says that the Person of the Son (not only His human nature) will always be subordinate to the Father. For example:

  • God created all things “through” His Son (Heb 1:1-2) and, when all sin and consequences of sin have been removed from creation, the Son Himself also will be subjected to God so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).
  • Statements such as that “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3) and that the Father is His God (Eph 1:3; Rev 3:12) refer to Him as a Person; not to one of His two natures only.

Therefore, another type of subordination that is suggested is an eternal functional subordination between the Persons, including that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father:

“The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father … which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality.” (Augustus Strong (1836 – 1921) Systematic Theology, Volume 3)

“All three Persons of the Godhead are equal in nature. … What the Bible does teach is an economic (or relational) subordination within the Trinity. The three Persons of the triune Godhead voluntarily submit to each other respecting the roles They perform in creation and salvation.” (GotQuestions)

Hodge maintained that “In the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons in relation to the mode of subsistence and operation.” For example, he says, while it is true that “The Father sends the Son” and that “The Father operates through the Son,” still “the Son is never said to send the Father, nor to operate through him.” (Reformed Theologian Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878), Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1952, p445)

“Some have sought to interpret biblical passages that speak of the Son submitting to or being subject to that Father as only describing a temporary, less than ideal state of affairs … Any possibility of the submission of the Son to the Father being a temporary or less than ideal state of affairs seems out of the question here (1 Cor 15:28).” Glenn Peoples)

My question is, does this second type of subordination replace the two natures theory? Does it explain all indications of subordination that we find in the Bible, or is the two natures theory still required to explain some indications of subordination that are not explained by eternal functional subordination?

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    Can you give a link to a clear definition of "eternal functional subordination"? I'm not sure exactly what it means, but if it is incompatible with the hypostatic union, then it would be considered heretical by Nicene/Chalcedonian Christians (ie, the majority today.)
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 2 at 7:23
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    But you're mistaken if you think the primary reason for the hypostatic union is to explain passages that suggest a subordination. The primary purpose of the doctrine of the hypostatic union is to explain the passages indicating both the divinity and humanity of Christ. So many Christians who reject subordinationism will still see the necessity of the hypostatic union.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 2 at 7:25
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    Since 'Father' and 'Son' are the concepts uttered by Deity to reveal Deity, why do you have such a problem with the relative relationships and the inherent attitudes of a Son to a Father and a Father to a Son ? Human fatherhood and human sonship only exist because the reality is true of Deity. I think the question needs a good deal more clarity as to what exactly you have a problem with in the scriptural expression of Fatherhood and Sonship.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 3 at 9:02
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    No. You asked 'does it replace the two natures theory' ? It is not simply about the different types. You are seeking to set aside the duality of nature of Christ. And you do so by questioning subordination and its relational reality in the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father
    – Nigel J
    Jan 3 at 13:14
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    You confuse 'function' with 'loving relationship'. I wonder why that is ?
    – Nigel J
    Jan 3 at 14:04

3 Answers 3

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Both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches believe in the eternal hypostatic subordination of the only-begotten Son to His everlasting Father; however, the former affirm two natures in Christ, whereas the latter confess to just one.

The Roman Catholic and traditionally Protestant churches, on the other hand, whilst also following Chalcedon's wholesale rejection and condemnation of Monophysitism, nevertheless espouse certain scholastic views, partially at odds with the theology of the other two ancient and apostolic churches, best captured by an omission in the aforementioned quotation from the Athanasian creed:

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood.

What matters here is not so much what is actually being said in the statement, but rather what is conspicuously absent from it, namely timeless personal obedience of the other two divine hypostases towards the one God and Father, their equality of nature notwithstanding.

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  • I think that your answer is very important. I realized that when I recently read in Paul Pavao that Eastern Orthodox Christians represent at least half of Christian tradition after Nicea. You state that both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches “believe in the eternal hypostatic subordination of the only-begotten Son to His everlasting Father.” I understand that to mean that the hypostasis (person) of the Son is subordinate to the hypostasis (person) of the Father. We Westerners should not assume that we have all the right answers.
    – Andries
    Jan 20 at 3:32
  • @Andries I do not think that Jesus' hypostasis was only begotten Son and Everlasting Father. The Hypostasis was Human being and eternally begotten Son and therefore the subordination can be understood as being of the entire hypostasis to God the Father. Jan 20 at 13:15
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To my mind, the two issues are orthogonal.

The questions of the relationship between the Father and Son and whether or not the Son is eternally generated, whether the Father has authority over the Son, whether the Father is above the Son only in their work in the universe or also ontologically, these are all questions that monophysites must deal with also.

On the other hand, the questions of the nature of the union between God and man in the person of Christ, to what extent he had a human nature, whether Christ has any dual faculties, whether the divine nature is limited by the human nature and whether the human nature obtains omni- characteristics from the divine nature, these are all questions that need to be answered regardless of whether you think that it is right or wrong to say the Son is subordinate to the Father.

So no, no theory of subordination replaces the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The two natures of Christ are not recognised in order to resolve the passages that appear to show the subordination of the Son under the Father, but to resolve the passages which show the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ.

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Yesterday, when I again read in the Chalcedonian Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as God AND homoousios (of the same substance) as man, I realized what the answer to my question is. My question involves a category error. There are different categories of equality/inferiority:

  • Ontological (Essence or substance)
  • Relational (Begotten, implying that the Father is the Ultimate Source of all things)
  • Functional (role)

Since the two natures theory addresses the substance of the being of the Son and the Father, it deals only with the first category while eternal functional subordination deals only with the third. Eternal functional subordination, therefore, does not replace the two natures theory because these are different categories of things.

I think Curiousdanni makes the same point when he says that these two matters are orthogonal (at right angles with one another) and when he says that the two natures theory does not explain the subordination of the Son; it explains how the Son can be both human and divine.

I think Lucian also made the same point when he quotes the Athanasian Creed:

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood.

And points out that that states “their equality of nature” but does not address the matter of “obedience.”

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