Is “Only-Begottenness” the Proper Basis for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father?

In this paper, I will propose that the eternal submission of the Son to the Father is based on eternal generation.  To prepare the way for that proposal I will spend some time defining and defending both eternal generation and eternal submission. I will then more specifically show the connection between these doctrines.  Finally, I will talk about some practical implications of my major points.

It seems that the connection between eternal generation and eternal submission has been missing in much of the debate between those who believe in one or the other of these doctrines. Many of those who accept the orthodox, Nicene understanding of eternal generation will not acknowledge that this implies as well an eternal authority structure within the Trinity.  Many of those who contend that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father do not ground that submission in the begottenness of the Son from the Father.  I believe that it is important for these doctrines to fit together, and I hope to convince you of that in this paper.

I. Eternal Generation

a. Definition

Louis Berkhoff defined eternal generation as:

that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change.

Notice that this generation of the Son from the Father is both eternal and necessary. It did not occur in time.  And it did not come about from a choice from the Father.  If it had, then the Son would be contingent and thus less than divine.  Also notice that it is a person that is generated.  The essence of divinity was not generated, for the essence of the Father and the Son are the same. We should say that a person was generated, and that thereby the essence of divinity was communicated from the Father to the Son.  This eternal generation does not cause there to be a division in the divine essence. God remains one.  Because of this eternal generation, the Son is the express image of the Father’s person.

Some think that the concept of eternal generation is self-contradictory, but this impression is based on thinking of generation in terms of physicality and temporality.  Human “begetting” is physical and temporal, but the term generation by definition does not necessarily include those concepts.  The basic idea of derivativeness can be present without physicality or temporality.  The generation of the Son from the Father is both eternal and bodiless.[2]

b. Support from the Bible

Probably the greatest challenge to the doctrine of eternal generation comes from the dispute over the meaning of monogenes, translated ‘only begotten’ in older translations of the Bible and also in the NKJV and NASB, but translated ‘one and only’ in several recent translations, including the NIV.  The problem has to do with the root meaning of genes:

 “Most modern translators understand it to be genos (meaning ‘kind’ from ginomai) instead of the traditional understanding of gennao (birth).  Regardless of which term one derives genes, the stem of both options is based upon gen, which implies the idea of derivation or birth.  Murray Harris, interpretingmonogenes as unique, still sees the term implying Christ’s ‘unique filial relation to God.’ The key term that may help conclude how to translate and interpret monogenes is John’s use of gennetheis in I John 5:18.  Those who are born of God (perfect tense) are kept by the one who was begotten of God (aorist, singular).[3]  The latter use of the gennao word group must point to Christ as John clearly portrays him as the one ‘begotten of God’ explicitly applying the concept of generation to the second person of the Trinity.”[4]

I think that we should accept the idea that monogenes does at least indicate a derivation of some sort.

Now, let’s just look at one of the verses which speak of the Son as monogenes:

“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God [or Son], he has revealed him” (John 1:18).[5]

Whether monogenes should mean “only begotten” or “one and only” should be largely determined by context.  A closer look at John 1:18 will help us understand that monogenes should be translated as “only begotten” at least in that passage.  Read the following two translations of John 1:18 and then allow me to suggest a couple ways that John 1:18 could be paraphrased.

NIV: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

NKJV: No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son [or God (NU text)], who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.[6]

Assuming that the NU text is correct—that the correct reading of the disputed text is monogenes theou, we can paraphrase the verse according to the way one interprets monogenes.  Which paraphrase of John 1:18 makes more sense?

  1. “No one has seen God at any time; the one and only God has revealed God,” or
  2. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God has revealed God”?

The first sentence seems like a contradiction, since two persons are spoken of here.  It is saying that the one God that there is has revealed the God that no one has seen (a different person that the one and only God).  The second sentence makes a lot more sense, and it is not contradictory.  It indicates that the God who has been begotten has revealed the unbegotten God; that is, the eternally generated Son has revealed the ingenerate Father.

It seems that the better translation of monogenes here is “only begotten,” especially when you consider the phrase in John 1:18 left out of the paraphrase: “who is in the bosom of the Father.” With this “in the bosom” imagery, “the only begotten God is in the bosom of the Father” seems to be a more coherent statement than “the one and only God is in the bosom of the Father.”

This interpretation is also consistent with other passages that speak of the Son’s relationship to the Father. For instance:

John 5:25 Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, 27 and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

Because the Father has (eternally) granted the Son to have life in Himself, the Son can give life to others.  Because of the Father, the Son is self-existent.  And because the Son is self-existent, he has the intrinsic power to raise the dead from the grave. If Christ’s human, physical life was being referred to in John 5:26 (that God has granted the humanity of Jesus to have life) then how would that qualify Christ to give life to others?  If it had, then I myself could give life to others, since God has also given me life. No, the incarnation was not being referred to; the verse teaches eternal generation.

Eternal generation appears to be the best way to understand the idea that the Father grants the Son to have life in himself.  Eternal generation preserves that idea that the Son is self-existent, and also indicates a derivation of the Son from the Father.

Another passage which seems to teach eternal generation is:

Colossians 1:13-20:

He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

Some theologians who reject the concept of eternal generation talk as if the image of God mentioned here is largely the physicality of the Son. But a look above at the phrases in italics will show us that much more than that is meant by “image of the invisible God.”

This passage is showing Jesus as divine—and preeminent over all creation.  The reference to Jesus as the image of the Father shows that the Son is identified with the Father ontologically. The Son doesn’t reflect the nature of God in the same way we do, and it isn’t the physicality of the Son that is the image of the Father.  It is true that as the “image” of God, Jesus reveals the Father to us.  As the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, and as the Word of the Father, Jesus is the expression of God to us. But the image is not the humanity of Christ.  Jesus always has been the image of the Father. This coheres with the teaching about Christ in Hebrews 1:1-3:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things,through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

The Son is the express image of God the Father.  Is this because he is incarnate? No. He became incarnate because he is the express image of God, not in order to become the image of God.  Was he the brightness of God’s glory before the incarnation?  Yes.  Was he upholding all things by the word of His power before the incarnation? No doubt.  And he was also the express image of the Father’s person before the incarnation.

I think the fact that Jesus is the (express) image of God supports the idea of eternal generation.

c. Support from historical theology

Nicene Creed

Besides the Bible itself, the most established source of the doctrine of eternal generation is the Nicene Creed. T.F. Torrance points to the importance of the Nicene Creed in the following passage:

After more than fifty years during which the Nicene Creed was subjected to detailed analysis, against and in support of it, it became so deeply and firmly established in the convictions of the Church that it was revised and finalized at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. this in turn was reaffirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.; when a canon was passed banning the use of any other Creed.  However, it was evidently only at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. that complete ratification was formally given to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.”[7]

Here is the part of the Nicene Creed that is most relevant to this issue: “…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

Notice the expressions: “begotten of the Father before all worlds” and “begotten, not made.”  The Nicene Fathers certainly did not consider this begottenness to refer to the incarnation, since they stated that that the Son was begotten before all worlds (an eternal generation).

The terms ‘God of God’ and ‘Light of Light,’ actually mean ‘Light from Light,’ and ‘God from God.’  The “of” or “from” indicate derivation.

Church Fathers on Eternal Generation

I will now quote some of the most significant Fathers of the church.

Gregory of Nazianzen:

“This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost.  The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; without passion of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner.  The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Ghost the Emission; for I know not how this could be expressed in terms altogether excluding visible things.”[8]

For almost the entire Oration from which the above quote is taken, Gregory defends the doctrine of eternal generation.

Gregory of Nyssa:

“But when they say ‘if He was, He was not begotten, and if He was begotten, He was not,’ let them learn that it is not fitting to ascribe to His divine nature the attributes which belong to his fleshly origin.  For bodies which do not exists, are generated, and God makes those things to be which are not, but does not Himself come into being from that which is not.  And from this reason also Paul calls Him ‘the brightness of glory’ that we may learn that as the light from the lamp is of the nature of that which sheds the brightness, and is united with it (for as soon as the lamp appears the light that comes from it shines out simultaneously), so in this place the Apostle would have us consider both that the Son is of the Father, and that the Father is never without the Son; for it is impossible that glory should be without radiance, as it is impossible that the lamp should be without brightness.[9]


“If any one, therefore, says to us, ‘How then was the Son produced by the Father?’ we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.”[10]


“[The Son] proceeds in His goodness from the Father as from a good Fountain, and orders all things and holds them together” (Against the Heathen).

“Neither can we imagine three Subsistences separated from each other, as results from their bodily nature in the case of men, lest we hold a plurality of gods like the heathen. But just as a river, produced from a well, is not separate, and yet there are in fact two visible objects and two names. For neither is the Father the Son, nor the Son the Father. For the Father is Father of the Son, and the Son, Son of the Father. For like as the well is not a river, nor the river a well, but both are one and the same water which is conveyed in a channel from the well to the river, so the Father’s deity passes into the Son without flow and without division. For the Lord says, ‘I came out from the Father and am come’ (John xvi. 28). But He is ever with the Father, for He is in the bosom of the Father, nor was ever the bosom of the Father void of the deity of the Son.”[11]


“And let him who can understand, in that which the Son says, ‘As the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself,’ not that the Father gave life to the Son already existing without life, but that he so begat Him apart from time, that the life which the Father gave the Son by begetting Him is co-eternal with the life of the Father who gave it.”[12]

In 1439, the bishops at the Council of Florence wrote the following statement (and much more).  The eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit were assumed in this Council.  No one was questioning these concepts.  The debate was concerning whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father only or from both the Father and the Son.

Council of Florence:

“In the name of the holy Trinity, Father, Son and holy Spirit, we define, with the approval of this holy universal council of Florence, that the following truth of faith shall be believed and accepted by all Christians and thus shall all profess it: that the holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and has his essence and his subsistent being from the Father together with the Son, and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration. We declare that when holy doctors and fathers say that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, this bears the sense that thereby also the Son should be signified, according to the Greeks indeed as cause, and according to the Latins as principle of the subsistence of the holy Spirit, just like the Father.”

“And since the Father gave to his only-begotten Son in begetting him everything the Father has, except to be the Father, so the Son has eternally from the Father, by whom he was eternally begotten, this also, namely that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.”

“We define also that the explanation of those words ‘and from the Son’ was licitly and reasonably added to the creed for the sake of declaring the truth and from imminent need.” [13]


“We place Him [the Father] ‘first’ in the Holy Trinity: for so hath Christ taught us, by commanding us to ‘baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ (Matthew 28:19.)…

“We attribute to Him [the Father] ‘active generation,’ which likewise comprised under the word ‘Father’ but of its mode and ratio, we willingly confess ourselves to be ignorant. But yet, since all generation, properly so called, is made by the communication of the same nature which He possesses who begets, we say with correctness that ‘the Father of himself begat the Son,’ by communicating to him his Deity, which is his own nature. The principle, therefore, which begets, is the Father; but the principle by which generation is effected is his nature. Whence the Person is said to beget and to be begotten. But the nature is said neither to beget nor to be begotten, but to be communicated.”

“We call Christ ‘the second person,’ according to the order which has been pointed out to us by Himself in Matthew 28:19. For the Son is of the Father, as from one from whom he is said to have come forth. The Son lives by the Father, (John 6:57,) and the Father hath given to the Son to have life in himself. (5:26.)… 15. We say ‘that the Son was begotten of the Father from all eternity.’ (1.) Because “his goings-forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” and “these goings-forth” are from the Father. (Micah 5:2, 3.) If any one be desirous to give them any other interpretation than ‘the goings-forth’ of generation, he must make them subsequent to the ‘goings-forth’ of generation; and thus likewise he establishes the eternity of generation.”[14]

It seems that there is strong support for the doctrine of eternal generation from both the Scriptures and the history of biblical interpretation or theology.

II. Eternal Submission

Eternal Submission is the concept that God the Son has always submitted to the Father even “before” time/space began (and will forever submit to the Father) in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son. This concept does not imply that the Son is a lesser being than the Father, or inferior in any way; it simply refers to an authority structure within the Trinity, which is reflected in human relationships: “The head of woman is man; the head of man is Christ; the head of Christ is God” (I Cor. 11:3).

a. Support from the Bible

John 14:28 — “You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.”

How is the Father greater than the Son?  Not in essence, for the Son is both God and man.  The Father is greater in the sense that He has authority over the Son.  This does not make the Son inferior to the Father, any more than my administrative assistant is inferior to me simply because she is under my authority.

Some will apply the statement “My Father is greater than I” to the incarnation itself. With this interpretation, one is saying that because Jesus is human and humanity is less than deity, then in that sense the Father is greater than Jesus. I think this is a dangerous interpretation, because accordingly, you must look at Jesus as a lesser being than the Father—as a personal pronoun, “I” refers to Jesus the person, not simply to his humanity.

John 16:12 —  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.”

The Spirit does not speak on his own authority, but that what he hears he speaks, not because he was human—he was not incarnate—but because he is under the authority of the Father and Son. This does not imply that the Spirit is inferior; he is simply under authority.  Assuming the economic Trinity/ontological Trinity distinction, we can infer that the authority structure in the economic Trinity shown in this passage points to some sort of order in the ontological Trinity—based on the Spirit proceeding from the Father (through the Son).

In the same way, the Son does not speak on his own authority.  He is under authority—not simply because he became a human, but because He is the Son (he was sent because he was the Son; he isn’t the Son because he was sent).  The submission of the Son to the Father in the economic Trinity points back to a deference of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity—based on the eternal generation of the Son from the Father.

If the Spirit is under the authority of the Father (and Son) apart from being incarnate, there is no need to ground the submissiveness of the Son to the Father exclusively, or even primarily, in the incarnation.

b. Support from historical theology


“‘But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.’ Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if ‘the man be the head of the woman,’ and the head be of the same substance with the body, and ‘the head of Christ is God,’ the Son is of the same substance with the Father.”

“For what if the wife be under subjection…to us? It is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also,though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also his liberty is greater …. we ought to admire the Father also, that He begat such as son, not as a slave under command, but as free, yielding obedience and giving counsel. For the counselor is no slave …. For with us indeed the woman is reasonably subjected… to the man…”[15]


“The subjection of Christ to the Father means that every creature will learn that he is subject to Christ, who in turn is subject to the Father, and will thus confess that there is only one God. But Christ’s subjection to the Father is not the same thing as our subjection to the Son, because our subjection is one of dependence and not the union of equals.”[16]


“And thus in all things God has the pre-eminence, who alone is uncreated, the first of all things, and the primary cause of the existence of all, while all other things remain under God’s subjection. But being in subjection to God is continuance in immortality, and immortality is the glory of the uncreated One. By this arrangement, therefore, and these harmonies, and a sequence of this nature, man, a created and organized being, is rendered after the image and likeness of the uncreated God,—the Father planning everything well and giving His commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing [what is made], but man making progress day by day, and ascending towards the perfect, that is, approximating to the uncreated One. For the Uncreated is perfect, that is, God.”[17]

III. Eternal Submission is Based on Eternal Generation

Proposed: that the eternal relational submission of the Son to the Father is based on the eternal generation of the Son.

a. Scriptural Support

I Cor 11:3 

I Cor. 11:3, 7-10 — “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”

This passage helps us understand the following: Since woman came from man, she is under the authority of man (though they are equal in nature, essence), and since the Son is begotten of the Father, he is under the authority of the Father.  This passage is clear evidence that relational submission is based on who is the source of each relation.  The Father is the (eternal) Source of the Son, the Son is the Source of man (the Son created him) and the Man is the “source” of woman (woman came from man’s side).  That is why man is the head of woman, Christ is the head of man, and God the Father is the head of God the Son.

The above passage convincingly shows that eternal submission (if true) is based on eternal generation (if true). What follows is another crucial passage in this debate:

I Corinthians 15:23 — “But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Verse 28 clearly states that Christ will be submissive to the Father in the future.  We can reasonably infer that this will be forever. Why will the Son be forever submissive to the Father?  Was it because he decided to become a man?  That would make it seem that the Son becoming a man forever altered the relationship between the Father and the Son, possibly making the Son ontologically inferior to the Father.

Some attack the idea of eternal submission by saying that being permanently submissive makes one ontologically inferior.  But won’t Christ forever be submissive to the Father according to this passage? If that is the case, would not this make Christ ontologically inferior to the Father? But it is not the case that permanent submission necessarily makes one ontologically inferior.

Will the Son permanently submit to the Father because in eternity past all three members of the Trinity decided among themselves who would be the Father, who would be the Son, and who would be the Spirit?  And that Sonship would imply submission and that therefore the Son will be submissive?  That position seems far too unnatural; far too arbitrary.

It seems that the best answer is the doctrine of eternal generation. It seems to account the best for the above passages and all the other passages in the Bible that give priority to the Father.

“At times Paul writes as if Christ is ‘subordinate’ to the Father. For he tells us that ‘God sent forth his Son to redeem’ (Gal 4.4) and ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Rom 8:32). And in a notable passage he declares that ‘when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one’ (1 Cor 15.28). Taken by themselves these passages might warrant the conclusion that Paul held a merely subordinationist view of Christ and did not place Him on the same divine level with the Father. But if they are taken together with the passages cited above in which Paul does put Christ on the same divine level as the Father by presenting Him as the creator of all things and the ‘image of the invisible God’ who was ‘in the form of God’ and equal to God, it becomes clear that Paul views Christ both as subordinate and equal to God the Father. Possibly he thus means merely to subordinate Christ in His humanity to the Father. But more probably he wishes to indicate that while Christ is truly divine and on the same divine level with the Father, yet there must be assigned to the Father a certain priority and superiority over the Son because He is the Father of the Son and sends the Son to redeem men, and there must be ascribed to the Son a certain subordination because He is the Son of the Father and is sent by the Father. Nowhere, however, does Paul say or imply that the Son is a creature, as the Arians subordinationists will say later on. On the contrary, he makes it clear that the Son is not on the side of the creature but of the Creator and that through the Son all things are created …”[18]

b. Support from historical theology


“But if the Son is said to be sent by the Father on this account, that the one is the Father and the other the Son, this does not in any manner hinder us from believing the Son to be equal, and consubstantial, and co-eternal with the Father, and yet to have been sent by the Father. Not because the one is greater, the other less, but because one is the Father, the other Son; the one begetter, the other begotten; the one He from whom He is who is sent; the other He who is from Him he sends.”

“And according to this manner we can now understand that the Son is not only said to have been sent because ‘the Word was made flesh,’ but therefore sent that the Word might be made flesh, and that he might perform through his bodily presence those things which were written; that is, that not only is He understood to have been sent as manbecause He was not sent in respect to any inequality of power, or substance, or anything  that in Him was not equal to the Father; but in respect to this, that the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son; for the Son is the Word of the Father, which is also called His wisdom.”[19]

Notice that Augustine says that the Son was sent because he was the Son, though not just because he was the Son, but because he was the begotten Son.  The eternal submission of the Son to the Father is not grounded simply in the fact that the Son is called the Son, but is grounded (according to Augustine) in the eternal generation of the Son to the Father.


“Who, indeed, would deny that the Father is the greater; the Unbegotten greater than the Begotten, the Father than the Son, the Sender than the Sent, He that wills than He that obeys? He Himself shall be His own witness:-The Father is greater than I. It is a fact which we must recognize, but we must take heed lest with unskilled thinkers the majesty of the Father should obscure the glory of the Son.”[20]

Hilary sees the Son’s submission as deriving from his (eternal) begottenness as the Son.


“We place Him [the Father] ‘first’ in the Holy Trinity: for so hath Christ taught us, by commanding us to ‘baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ (Matthew 28:19.)”

“‘The First’ not in relation of time but of orderwhich order has its foundation in this: The Father is the fountain and origin of the whole Divinity, and the principle and the cause of the Son himself… (John 5:26, 27.) Pious Antiquity attempted to illustrate this [mystery] by the similitude of a fountain and its stream, of the sun and its beam, of the mind and its reason, of a root and its stalk, and by similar comparisons. On this account the Father is called ‘unbegotten’ and the Christian Fathers ascribe to Himsupreme and pre-eminent authority.” 

“It is on this account also that the name of God is often attributed in the Scriptures peculiarly and by way of eminence to the Father.”[21]

Following is what Kovach and Schemm had to say about the church fathers’ views on this issue:

“Following the Arian controversy, the Church had to deal for the first time specifically with the issue of whether the Son was a created being or God. To deal with this issue, the Nicene Creed added to the earlier Apostles’ Creed. Whereas the Apostles’ Creed declared only that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, and our Lord, the Nicene Creed added the following declaration dealing with eternal subordination: ‘and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being.’ As Schaff makes clear, these statements reflected a belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. The Nicene Fathers believed that the Father, Son and Spirit have the same divine dignity, but in an order of subordination. The idea that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten means that the Father is primary and Sonship secondary. The dependence of the Son on the Father is reflected in the statements of the Creed which call the Son ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God.’ Schaff declares that ‘all important scholars since Petavius admit subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.'”[22]

Many of the Church Fathers appeared to have based a belief in the submission of the Son to the Father in the doctrine of eternal generation.  This is a much better rationale for the submission of Jesus to the Father than other options.

If one grounds the submission of Jesus to the Father in the incarnation—if the Son is submissive only because he humbled himself and became a man (because if he always had been submissive, then he would be less than God), then Jesus seems to be less than God while he is on earth.  If one grounds the submission of Jesus in some mutual decision within the Trinity before the ages, this seems arbitrary, unnatural. Imagine the conversation: “Ok, which one of us is going to be the Father, which the Son, and which the Holy Spirit?…Now that we’ve decided that… since you are the Son, then you be eternally submissive to me, ok?”

IV.  Practical Implications

The idea of eternal submission of the Son to the Father matters because the authority structure seen in the Father/Son relationship is a model for us as well.  It helps us understand how to obey God and it helps us understand the nature of human relationships in the home and in the church.  It models the authority structure we see in these institutions.  It demonstrates that submission in the home or church does not make the one who submits inferior to the one in charge.  It shows that authority/submission can happen in the context of mutually loving relationships.

The doctrine of the eternal structure within the Godhead helps us understand that it is godly to have structures in relationships; the ideal isn’t necessarily completely mutual submission.  Order and structure is good.  Even permanent order and structure is godly.

The position that eternal submission is grounded in eternal begottenness helps me accept any permanent authority/submission structures I might be in. Jesus has always been submissive and will always be submissive to his Father because he was begotten by his Father.  This structure/order was not an arbitrary order that came about by a consensus within the Trinity.  Jesus will permanently submit to his Father because he is the Son, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. The Son freely and willingly submits. I may not necessarily get to choose whether or not I am the “boss” as opposed to the submitting “employee”.  But I still can freely choose to submit, just like Jesus did.

The position that eternal submission has its grounding in eternal generation is important to preserving orthodoxy. Holding to eternal submission without the historic understanding of eternal generation contradicts the most important Creed in Christian history.  Do we really want to deny that creed, when the doctrine in question does have a biblical basis?  If we have doubts, shouldn’t we give this universally accepted creed the benefit of the doubt?


Since the Father is the “source” of the Godhead (John 1:18: John 3:16: John 5:26), he is rightfully the “head” of the Son (I Cor. 11:3).  He will always be the head of the Son (I Cor. 15:24-28).  I would affirm the idea that the begottenness of the Son is a natural personal property that the Son has that the Father does not have.  This does not affect homoousios; the Father and the Son are absolutely equal in their essence (John 10:30).  I think we should also say that the natural relational submission of the Son to the Father is also a distinctive personal property. Eternal generation entails the idea that the Son is always submissive to the Father in a way that the Father is not submissive to the Son, though all the members of the Trinity live in and for the others.  Because he is the only begotten Son, the Son freely submitted to the Father and “came to do the will of the Father” (John 6:38).

I believe that I have at least begun to show that eternal generation should be accepted as a biblical and orthodox doctrine, that eternal submission should be accepted as a biblical and orthodox doctrine, and that eternal generation is the proper grounding for the doctrine of an eternal authority/submission relationship in the Trinity.

Republished from


Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: NT 7 Downers Grove: IVP, 1999.

Arminius, Jacobus. Public Discourse 429: 14.

Berkhoff, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996.

Fortman, The Triune God — A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, Oregon, February 1999.

Kovach, Stephen D,  Schemm, Peter R Jr. “In defense of eternal subordination.”Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society,  Sep 1999.

Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed.  Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

———. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. IX. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

———.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XII. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volume IV. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

———. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol V. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

———. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Torrance, T. F. The Trinitarian Faith. New York: T & T Clark, 1997.


[1] Louis Berkhoff, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), p. 94.

[2] Objectors also think that the concept of generation actually diminishes the essence of the Son to something different or less than the Father.  But the definition is clear: it is the Person of the Son that is generated, not the essence.  The essence of the Father and the Son are exactly the same.

[3] Even if I John 5:18 means that those born of God keep themselves (and that there is no direct reference to Christ here), the verse still indicates that the sons of God are born of God. It would make sense that the Only Son of God is to be seen as born of the Father as well, yet in a deeper, unique sense (the Father and Son being ontologically equal).

[4] Keith Goad, in a paper presented at the 2007 ETS conference.

[5] Unless otherwise stated, I have used the NKJV in this paper.

[6] Emphasis throughout the rest of this paper is shown by this writer by with both bold and italics.

[7] T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith ( New York: T & T Clark, 1997), p. 28.

[8] Gregory of Nazianzen, “Oration XXIX. The Third Theological Oration. On the Son.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volume VII. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1978),  p. 301.

[9]Gregory of Nyssa, “To the Tribune Simplikios:Concerning the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol V. Schaff and Wace, ed.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 338.

[10] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies, 2.28.6.” Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 1. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 401.

[11] Athanasius, “Statement of Faith.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV. PhilipSchaff and Henry Wace, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 84.

[12] Augustine, “On the Trinity.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. Philip Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 225.

[13] Ecumenical Council of Florence (1438-1445) Session 6—6 July 1439.

[14] James Arminius, “Public Disputation 5:4,5,14.” The Works of James Arminius, Vol. II.  James Nichols, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), pp. 138, 139, 142, 143.

[15] Chrysostom, “PG 61.214, 216.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. XII. Philip Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 150.

[16] Ambrosiaster, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: NT 7 (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 163.

[17]Irenaeus,  “Against Heresies 4.38.3.” Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 1. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 522.

[18] Fortman, The Triune God — A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, Oregon, February 1999), p. 18.

[19] Augustine,“On the Holy Trinity.“ Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. Philip Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 83.

[20] Hilary, “De Trinitate, Book 3.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol.IX. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 65.

[21] James Arminius, “Public Disputation 5:4.” The Works of James Arminius, Vol. II.  James Nichols, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), p. 139.

[22] Stephen D Kovach and Peter R Schemm, Jr. “In Defense of Eternal Subordination” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Sep 1999).