A Guest Post by Carlton Wynne

Carlton Wynne, my neighbor in the Bowels of the Earth at Westminster, ST prof, and stalwart of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, offers some thoughts on the Trinity while I head off briefly to Ref21 to address LGBTQ matters.

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Properly identifying the God of Scripture and his relationship to issues of male-female complementarity in marital, ecclesiastical or broader cultural contexts requires exegetical sensitivity and prolonged reflection on historic, orthodox trinitarianism. I do not intend to engage in either of those tasks here.

Instead, I hope to address, albeit indirectly, the specific question of whether “submission” (or “subordination”) properly characterizes relations among the persons of the Trinity and, if so, in what sense. To that end, I offer a common trinitarian distinction and a feature of Reformed federalism.

The distinction is between (a) the necessary and incommunicable personal properties that belong to the persons of the so-called “immanent” Trinity individually (namely, the Father’s paternity, the Son’s filiation, and the Spirit’s procession) and (b) the voluntarily willed missions that characterize intratrinitarian relations of the so-called “economic” Trinity (namely, the Son’s being sent by the Father and the Spirit’s being given by the Father and the Son in redemptive history).

Traditionally, in the Western church, the personal properties of the persons are said to be irreversibly “ordered,” constituted by the Son’s proceeding from (and, occasionally, confusingly, and in that limited sense, “subordinate” to) the Father, and the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son. But this order (taxis) does not denote the kind of authority and obedient submission one finds among the missions of the Son and the Spirit in redemptive history.

The feature of Reformed federalism is the added fact that the missions of the Son and the Spirit in the covenant of grace are rooted in an antecedent, eternal and intratrinitarian covenant (pactum). In this “counsel of peace,” or covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another as distinct willing agents in a way that does not contravene the single, simple will that they are as God and the Author of all divine works ad extra: the exhaustively divine Son, as Son, voluntarily wills to subject himself to the Father in order that he might merit and administer salvation to the elect, to the glory of the Father (cf. John 4:34; Gal 4:4; Heb 10:5–7); and the exhaustively divine Father, as Father, voluntarily promises to send and equip the Son in and with the exhaustively divine Spirit (cf. John 6:38, 10:36, 17:4; Acts 2:33). The “economic” relations among the persons established by this covenant are distinct from the personal properties of the immanent Trinity, and yet these same relations never began in time. They are as timeless as the covenant of redemption of which they are a piece.

Therefore, even though the irreversible order (taxis) of the persons, as they are distinguished by their individual personal properties, does not denote the authority and submission to the Father that one finds in the missions of the Son and the Spirit in redemptive history, there has, nonetheless, at least from the perspective of the covenant of redemption, always been authority and submission in the Trinity. This trinitarian matrix should give pause to those who reject any and all submission of the pre-incarnate Son to the Father, even by way of an eternal covenantal appointment, on the grounds that it allegedly denies the simple will of God; likewise, it should lead those who affirm the pre-incarnate Son’s submission to the Father to do so in terms of God’s voluntary decree alone.   

The point is this: it is important, when venturing to affirm or deny “submission” (or “subordination”) in the Trinity, to identify whether one is referring to (a) the eternal and necessary personal properties of the triune persons, on the one hand, or (b) the distinct and voluntary missions which those same divine persons agreed pretemporally to undertake by virtue of the covenant of redemption. When this is done, one is in a good position to discuss further how one understands each side of the distinction, as well as how the two sides relate to one another.