No, Eternal Subordination of the Son is not a Baptist Cabal

The Reformers left a void, having written so little to reaffirm Patristic and Medieval doctrines of God.

To be sure, Grudem, Ware, and others have taken the error of Eternal Subordination of the Son to new heights (or lows). And Southern Baptist seminaries have failed in many ways to train their seminarians in “classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought.” But much more troubling to me is the amount of digital ink spilled maintaining our Presbyterian and Reformed hagiography. Article after article has been written to clear our forebears of any ties to the ESS movement, or to so nuance the content of their works to clear them of any blame for the error; all the while pointing to those Biblicist Baptists as though the problem was born with Wayne Grudem. No, these Trinitarian errors were a long time coming. 


I was reminded recently of the article “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable,” wherein Dr. Christopher Cleveland argues that the current Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) controversy was an inevitable result of the failures of modern academia, specifically noting the failures of Southern Baptist seminaries.  He refers, e.g., to SBTS’s replacing doctrinally unsound professors with conservative Biblicist professors in response to rising theological liberalism:

Because of this clash between the conservatives and the liberals within theological institutions of the time, there emerged an entire group of evangelical scholars who were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics. Whether for reasons of neglect in their theological training under more critical theologians or because of their purposeful avoidance of dogmatics in favor of Biblical studies, a generation of evangelical scholars arose who had no serious acquaintance with the classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought. Nor did they have allegiance to those categories. What mattered in the fight against liberalism, in the minds of so many, was the Bible, not theology.

Elsewhere in academia, he continues, there was a resurgence of scholarship focusing on more dogmatic studies, working from traditional Reformed Scholastic categories.  The inevitable then occurred: to put it bluntly, the poorly educated Biblicist Baptists, incapable of testing doctrines by historic categories due to poor training or inattention, found themselves on a collision course with the Reformed orthodox likes of Carl Trueman and Willem J. Van Asselt over Trinitarian doctrine.

When I first read this piece last Summer, I was in full agreement.  The story line clearly fit the perception at first glance, the public face of ESS being Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachen, etc. But having spent the last several months studying the historical development of the teaching, the picture advanced by Dr. Cleveland seems more and more untenable. To be clear, ESS is not a Baptist cabal.  Presbyterian and Reformed believers need to realize that this is an in-house problem, resulting not from the inattention and poor training of modern Baptists, but from the historical inattention and poor Trinitarian scholarship of many of our own heroes.

As we have been discussing in our latest posts, from the latter part of the 4th century until the rise of the Covenant Theology in the 17th century, there was no question that the Son was only subordinate to the Father according to the oikonomia (economy), viz., according to His human nature, supreme God having condescended in our flesh to suffer on our behalf. The introduction of the Pactum Salutis (or Covenant of Redemption), especially in the hands of John Owen, began to expand the notion of the oikonomia of the Son to include the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Because the Persons of the Godhead were now understood to have covenanted in eternity to perform this redemption, it was necessary to extend the Double Account of the Savior (i.e., the Son as both economically flesh in time for salvation yet also true and eternally God) to an economy of the whole Trinity, viz., the Father, Son, and Spirit economized toward the redemptive work in time according to voluntary missions, expressive of the one will of God variegated by person according to each’s specific work.[1]

It is my contention that it was this new formulation at the heart of Reformed Scholastic soteriology that ultimately allowed the tail to wag the theological dog in generations shortly following Owen. The most basic doctrines of God quickly became subservient to soteriological categories. Systematizers became all too willing to go lax on Trinitarian dogma, or nearly ignore it, for the sake of another 1,000 pages of soteriology.

Jonathan Edwards (yes, the same one we all love and adore) within 70 years of Owen’s work jettisoned all of the theological nuance and much of the orthodox Trinitarian context of the Pactum Salutis in his own presentation. Owen, if you recall, spoke of an economy of the trinity toward redemption resulting from the Pactum with a consequent subordination according to the temporal missions (and only toward the works of the temporal missions).  Edwards immediately turns this on its head, now grounding the Pactum itself on an eternal “economy” of the Persons of the Trinity which preceded and necessitated the specific allotment of tasks in the eternal covenant. Some time(?) in eternity past, prior to the Covenant of Redemption, by “mutual free agreement”, an order of submission was established. Such is the “economy” of the Trinity for Edwards. According to this economy, the eternal Persons “formed themselves into a society.” It is abundantly unclear from the text whether this “society” is an agreement of varied wills, but it very much sounds so.

Edwards gives five supposed proofs from the Scriptures demonstrating that the subordinating “economy” of the Trinity preceded and was the basis for the Covenant of Redemption.

  1. It was the Father’s “law, majesty and authority, as supreme ruler, legislator and judge, that is contemned.” As such the determination to save is the determination of the Father. As “Head of the society of the Trinity, and in the capacity of supreme Lord and one that sustains the dignity and maintains the rights of the Godhead,” the Father alone has the capacity to initiate the eternal Covenant.
  2. “Nothing is more plain from Scripture than that the Father chooses the Person that shall be Redeemer and appoints him, and that the Son has his authority in his office wholly from him: which makes it evident, that that economy by which the Father is Head of the Trinity, is prior to the covenant of redemption.”
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 proves that this “economy” precedes the Covenant of Redemption because the subordination continues after the redemptive work is complete.

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