According to the Bible and to orthodox Christian writers over the centuries since the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, power and authority are not different things. The consistent orthodox teaching of the church is to attribute the same power and authority to the Son as the Father. As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary on John 5:19, “He had said that he worked with his Father, by the same authority and power, and hereby he made himself equal with God.”
During the Trinity debate two summers ago, there were a handful of attempts to reconcile orthodox teaching on the Trinity with the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). One approach was to make a distinction between divine power and divine authority. Some proponents of ESS said they affirmed that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in power. However, they believe the Father, Son, and Spirit are unequal in authority. ESS teaches that the Father has authority that the Son and Spirit don’t have.
In November 2016, at the ETS panel on the Trinity, Wayne Grudem attempted to distinguish between God’s divine power and His divine authority. He explained: “authority (as we understand it here) is a property of relationship, not an attribute of one’s being (an ontological attribute) (omnipotence is an attribute).”1
This is important to highlight because the orthodox creeds and confessions say the persons of the Trinity are equal in power. To say that the Son is equal to the Father in power but that the Father is supreme in authority, proponents of ESS have had to make a distinction between power and authority.
Grudem believes that authority is not a divine attribute; it’s “just there,” and it belongs to the Father:
And in this most basic of all relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in all attributes and perfections, but authority is just there. Authority belongs to the Father, not because He is wiser or a more skillful leader, but just because He is Father. Authority and submission is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.2
Does that distinction work? Can ESS be reconciled with the orthodox Nicene doctrine of the Trinity? Can the Father and the Son be equal in power as the creeds and confessions teach but have different levels of authority as ESS teaches? Are power and authority different things?
Not according to the Bible or to orthodox Christian writers over the centuries since the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The consistent orthodox teaching of the church is to attribute the same power and authority to the Son as the Father. As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary on John 5:19, “He had said that he worked with his Father, by the same authority and power, and hereby he made himself equal with God.”3
In the same ETS panel in November, Kevin Giles noted that the words “power” and “authority” are usually synonyms in New Testament usage.4 He’s right. Looking through the various passages that speak of power and authority in the Bible, the terms are used interchangeably along with “might” and “rule.” No distinction is made regarding power and authority.
We do the same in English. We use power and authority to mean the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines authority as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”5 Power is defined as “possession of control, authority, or influence over others.”6 So authority is power, power is authority. It’s senseless to make a distinction between power and authority as if they were completely separate ideas.
In the Bible, God’s power and His authority are declared by two divine titles: “Almighty” and “Lord.” The word almighty is translated from the Greek, pantokrator which Strong’s defines as “he who holds sway over all things; the ruler of all; almighty: God.”7 Almighty defines God’s absolute and universal sovereignty and His omnipotence, or all-powerful rule. It’s used as a title both for Jesus, the Son of God (Rev. 1:8), and for God the Father (Rev. 16:7).