If God the Father has more authority than the Son or the Spirit because He is the Father, then there is a difference in the very nature of God. This makes the Son and Spirit less God than the Father. And if the Son is less God than the Father, then can His life, death, and resurrection truly save us? These are the very real and alarming end results of ESS.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. At its most basic definition, the Trinity means that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. From the time of the early church, Christians have been attempting to explain how God can be both “one” and “three” and how to understand the relationship between the three persons. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds were written, in part, to address key aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity. Since then theologians have written many books about the Trinity. Some of these books are helpful. Some not as helpful.
One of the more recent attempts to explain the Trinity and particularly the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is something called the eternal submission of the Son (ESS). Sometimes the doctrine is called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or the eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS). A recent book that explains and defends the eternal submission of the Son to the Father is One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinctions of Persons, Implications for Life edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke.
One God in Three Persons is a collection of essays by various theologians. Not all of the authors support or promote ESS, but the purpose of the book is to “argue for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.” Each essay is intended to defend or explain why ESS is the correct doctrine of the Trinity.
So, what is ESS, and why is it important? ESS began as a complementarian response to feminist and egalitarian teachings on the Trinity. As the preface of the book explains, proponents of ESS believe it is the biblical and orthodox teaching that God the Father and God the Son have an eternal relationship of authority and submission.
Proponents of ESS give several reasons to support their belief that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father. They say that the names “Father” and “Son” mean there is an authority/submission relationship, as with human fathers and sons. The Father has a unique leadership role in the work of “planning, purposing, and predestining” salvation. The Father sends the Son. The Son intercedes for us before the Father. The Son is now seated at the right hand of the Father. All these support their belief that the Father has supreme authority within the Trinity.
Complementarians have appealed to ESS to give support to their beliefs about men and women. If God the Father and God the Son are equal in being, but different in authority, then men and women can also be equal in being but have different authority. According to One God in Three Persons, the authority and submission relationship of the Father and the Son should be our example of how men and women relate to each other.
While it may seem appealing to complementarians to have such a solid example of equality and hierarchy, ESS is dangerous. It’s unbiblical and unorthodox.