Considering Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity: Is All Subordination Out of the Question? (parts I-III in one post)

10 Jun

Part I

What does this mean?


To cut to the chase, “No, I don’t think so.”

Some do though. I asked an online friend about why he thought this issue was so important and he said this: 

“The real concern is the person of Christ – namely who he is, and how He saves us, namely the reason we believe Christ to be equal to the father is because He is our savior. Who else can save us but God? But that is not the only thing we are told Christ does, we are also told we are united under Christ in a single body, and he presents us to the Father. Essentially, we achieve unity and reconciliation with God the Father through our savior, Jesus Christ… We can have no savior other than God, and no one can unite us to God but God…. It’s so important that Christ is equal to the father and not subordinated within the Trinity. Essentially, if there is subordination, we cannot be truly saved.” 

Or consider what the well-known theological blogger Bradly Mason has to say about all of this in this post. Three hard-hitting and thought-provoking quotes:

“Is it not that the GOD, Jehovah Himself, became man and thus in His full Godhead and full humanity, has reconciled fallen and corrupt man to the true, perfect, and eternal God; that full and complete God with all majesty and authority has met together with true humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ? Is not the Gospel itself sapped of its inaccessible majesty and glory if the death and resurrection of our Lord was really the death and resurrection of humanity united with an eternally subordinate God, an eternally submissive God, a lower ranking person within the Godhead; in short, a sort of Jehovah Jr.?”


“[W]ho is this God we meet with in Jesus Christ? The eternally subordinate and submissive One? Blasphemous! No, He is the true God indeed, that the saints of old had always known and worshipped, though the full revelation awaited His coming in the flesh. That is, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ it is Jehovah Himself that is united in perfect personal union with the Human Nature of His fleshy creatures. This is the grandeur of the Gospel message.”


“[O]ne equal with God, one with God, and Himself the true God, voluntarily condescended, taking on the form of a servant through corruptible flesh, and became obedient, though it was not and is not His natural estate. The Gospel message is not and cannot be that an eternally subordinate and submissive being became subordinate and submissive… We must, to uphold the truth and majesty of the Gospel itself, confess with clarity that the mission of Christ was to become submissive—a role contrary to and not a simple corollary of His eternal Nature. In a word, submission was the mission, not the cause of the mission.”

This all sounds pretty important, huh? Now, though, enter Martin Luther, and his great hymn “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice”: 

“He spoke to his belovèd Son:

“It’s time to have compassion.

Then go, bright jewel of my crown,

and bring to all salvation.

From sin and sorrow set them free;

slay bitter death for them that they

may live with you forever.”

The Son obeyed his Father’s will,

was born of virgin mother,

and, God’s good pleasure to fulfill,

he came to be my brother.

No garb of pomp or pow’r he wore;

a servant’s form like mine he bore

to lead the devil captive.”

Now I have never, for one moment, considered anything in these lines to be questionable, or furthermore, as representing anything else than the unvarnished truth of the Gospel. Before the foundation of the world – before time itself was created! – the Lamb of God is slain for our salvation. It is determined that the eternally begotten Son is to be temporally sent, that is sent into the world to undo the curse that would be unleashed in Eden! 

I have been reading the book Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett, which I would recommend that any contemplating this topic take time to read. On the one hand, I can say that I basically agree with a lot of the book’s arguments. For example, as Pastor Jordan Cooper has also pointed out in two videos on the topic (also referencing Barret; also see his most recent videos here and here) there are a number of ways modern EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination)/ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) advocates make errors the ancient church would never have tolerated! 

And here, for more conservative Lutheran readers of this post who are not regularly taking in Pastor Cooper’s content, I should give a little more background for those not familiar with these debates! In sum, evangelicalism is traditionally not strong when it comes to deeper doctrines like that of the Trinity. So as folks like both Barnett and Cooper are pointing out in their own ways, real care should be taken so that the doctrine of the Trinity as presented by Evangelicalism is actually the doctrine of the Trinity with all of its mystery left as mystery! And not – as happened repeatedly in the 20th century and still happens today – not simply what amounts to theological propaganda for some sort of favored social, cultural, or political position.


With all of this said, as I consider both the arguments and the framing of those fighting against EFS and ESS, time and again I am left with the impression that Luther’s words would make them wince at best and become sick at worst, as Christology is thought to swallow up the Trinity. How so? Because, again, when it comes to the activities of the Triune God apart from His activities in the creation and history (known as His “ad intra” activity) the Son is equal to the Father in every way. And since, I think, we all know that obedience and submission go hand-in-hand – and that submission and subordination are basically seen by most everyone as being synonymous – surely the pre-incarnate Son of God cannot be seen as being subordinate! 

At the same time though we all must recognize that the Son is the Word of the Father, and there is no way that this can be turned around, right? And likewise, we all must recognize that the Son is eternally begotten, and hence is temporally sent by the Father, and there is no way this can be turned around, correct? Thomas Torrence in fact spoke of “Patrocentricity” giving an “unreserved place to the Spirit of the Father who is conveyed to us through the Son and on the ground of his saving and reconciling work” (Kleinig, 3). Does this not perhaps all have something to do with why we can say there is “harmony of will” (Greogory of Naziansus, in Barret, 138) when it comes to the persons of the Triune God? After all, one does need particular persons in order to do harmony!

And this, I think, gets to the main issue with this book and the main issue with this debate, as odd as this may sound: even as some cases might seem obvious enough to many of us in the day and age that we live, the church has nevertheless never really agreed on a good definition of “person” for created persons much less divine ones! 

Classically, Barrett notes, the Trinity is three distinct persons that are nevertheless not separate from each other, but “always coexist; wherever one is, there the other really is” (Francis Turretin, 136). Furthermore, the actions of the Trinity are co-inherent, identical, indistinguishable, and indivisible (see 151, 228, 291): it is not like any members of the Trinity exist, think, will or act apart from the others, acting as separate persons. Therefore, since the Son of God is one with the Father and Spirit in intellect, will, and even act, He is not, in any sense, His own “center of consciousness” (see Barret, 82)! For if we said this, it is thought that this would also necessarily mean that the Son had His own intellect and will as well, and He would therefore not be one with God’s essence, substance, being. Barrett expands on this elsewhere, insisting that thinking about the Trinity as three distinct agents, or three “centers of knowledge,” or three “centers of consciousness” is wrong. It may be correct, he says, to think about created persons this way, as individuals who are able to cooperate in a harmonious fashion, but this cannot be true of divine persons, otherwise the Godhead would be divided (see 57-59). Barret goes so far as to say “where there are three separate centers of consciousness there are three separate gods” (149, see 148-150). 

He then goes on to point out how the modern psychological category of “relationship” should not be confused with the “relations” of the Trinity, which are ultimately reducible to paternity (the Father), filiation (the eternally begotten Son), and spiration (the Holy Spirit). And yet, again, the persons are somehow distinct, as Barrett, for example, favorably mentions Augustine speaking of the three as Lover (the Father), Beloved (the Son), and Love (the Holy Spirit) (283, see 273 as well). Finally, even if a modern definition of person, perhaps something like a “center of autonomy gifted with consciousness and freedom” (Boff, on 82, 226) clearly would not apply here (should a Christian even say this is true of created persons!? – more on this below), it would definitely seem odd to feel the need to assert that distinct Persons of the Trinity would not be aware of, that is conscious of, their own love for one another or their own particular “everlasting provenances” (59). Indeed, as Barrett himself points out regarding modalism or Sabellianism, such a heresy does not have “a plurality of persons to love” (283).

Again, however, even though we are using all of these terms, evidently assuming a basic understanding, exactly what a person has never been agreed upon, much less a “center of consciousness” or “relationship”. I get every impression from the way that Barrett puts things that when we speak of the persons of the Trinity, this term, “person,” is much like the term “begotten”: it needs to be understood not in an earthly sense, but perhaps a rather strange or “otherworldly” eternal sense. I am actually sympathetic here, but I come back to the fact that, unlike “begotten”, the church (or even the world!) has not even really agreed on a good definition of what a created person is! Furthermore, I cannot stop thinking about this picture:     

I mean, perhaps some find this picture compelling and attractive and true, but all of these terms, particularly “true”, seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I not only prefer but think I should prefer the picture of Jesus’ baptism, with all three persons of the Trinity making an appearance, so to speak, individually, as a much more appropriate picture, don’t you? That is what faith like a child would say, right?

Part II

Andrei Rublev’s Troitsa, a Trinitarian interpretation of Gen 18:1-16. Showing “the Monarchy of the Father”?: “…it is the angel on the left that becomes the center of the relationships.”


Overall, I am not sure Barrett and I are at odds but it appears to me that we are. I agree that the Son and the Spirit, by nature, always share in the will and actions of the Father. The Father’s desires, purposes, and goals – and actions! – are theirs’ as well. To do justice to Luther’s language about the Son obeying His Father’s will without making it wholly figurative, we could say that the even though we all equally honor the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, something important nevertheless happens within the Trinity itself.

Here the Son, being essentially begotten, always honors His Father, of course being one with His desires, purposes, and goals. If the Son is the Word of the Father, how could He not want only and ever what the Father wants? And of course, the Father, from whom the Son is begotten, is the beginning, the source, the [eternal] origin of the Son. This is highly significant because the Father is also the beginning of the coordination that occurs within the Trinity. Does the importance of this escape us today? Consider, for example, what Paul says to Timothy in the ever-controversial chapter 2 of the first book, “A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve.” 

I know some heads might be exploding now! Isn’t talking about these things in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity exactly the kind of problem Mattew Barrett is trying to counter? Yes, true. At the same time, even though the Son is not formed or made but eternally begotten, Paul is nevertheless pointing out something important here that people have always understood: Order matters. The numbering matters. Primacy matters (see 172). For Barrett, “[P]rimacy [is] precluded by the very nature, will, power and glory of the three persons held in common.” (172). Nevertheless, the order is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and not otherwise!  And the one divine will, along with the one divine substance, is originally from the Father.

And therefore the Son – at least it seems to me – eternally honors His Father as Primary! 

And so it is only in this sense and not another that the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, is “subordinate” to His Father. When He, for example, says in the Gospel of John “[f]or God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him…” (see also I John 4:9) we should not think of Him as saying that He is unequal or less than the Father, even as He eagerly obeys. Bradley Mason, mentioned above, addresses this passage by looking to Augustine, and notes that because of the Trinity’s inseparable operations “as true God [the Son]… sent Himself [as well]” and comments that “[t]ruly sending refers to unequal authority” (see comments here). Presumably, Mason would then have something similar to say about Luther’s “obey”. Why absolutely insist on this however? Because obedience is not really obedience and sending is not really sending unless the will of the sender is backed up with power and force? Where is the willingness to consider a submission based on love that I heard so much about in the 1980s and 1990s when “mutual submission” was being discussed regarding Ephesians 5:21?*

No, contrary to Mason’s take, I believe we should see the pre-incarnate Son of God as vigorously embracing His role in the order, being this “co-ordinate,” this point on the graph and not another point! In other words, we should see Him as glorying in His given position, His given and necessary role, His given “co-ordinate”. Hence, being “sub-ordinate”. Barrett, however, says that subordination means inferiority (114), and that “the minute someone projects authority and subordination into the inner life of God (imminent Trinity), the burden of proof is on them to explain how there is not now three wills in the Trinity (tritheism) rather than one will (simplicity)” (229). “Where there is one simple will,” he states, “ there can necessarily be no authority and submission” (229), also insisting that subordination “is appropriate in the economy of salvation” but not in the immanent Trinity.” In the passages from John 3:16 and 3:17 however, what do we see? We see actions pertaining to the economy of salvation, i.e. the Son’s taking on “the form of a servant” (which Barrett, following Augustine, takes to mean he lowers himself to become a man) that do in fact reach “back into eternity, even into the immanent Trinity” (239)! I think Luther, in spite of largely agreeing with critiques of EFS and ESS, might tell us here, “that will preach!” On the other hand, even as Basil says “[t]he Father is the initiating cause’; the Son ‘the operating cause’; the Spirit, ‘the perfecting cause’” (302), Barret is ever eager to avoid any hint of subordination and confidently asserts “the order… does not introduce time into the essence of God, as if there is a before and after for God. If it did then one person would be superior to another” (300). 

Barrett says that the word “order” “reflects who the triune God is in and of himself” (Calvin), and also “communicates how the persons are distinguished by their eternal relations of origin, all the while being coequal and coeternal” (300). Further, he says that when the word “subordination” is used by past theologians it “merely refers to the order within the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) due to the eternal relations of origin” and “suborder is not the same as subordination. Processions, not authority [or hierarchy] are in view”. “Past theologians,” he says, “never considered the Trinity in anything but Nicene categories” (256). I’m not saying I necessarily disagree here. At the same time, I think if we stop there regarding this point about order (and, I think, primacy), we are cutting off any hope of seeing where the ESS or EFS folks just might have a point! 

Part III

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”


So do the ESS or EFS folks have a point? 

I have every impression that the respected Lutheran theologian John Kleinig would think so. In his paper “The Subordination of the Exalted Son to the Father” he also speaks to the matter of eternal relations: “The Son… is ‘subordinate’ to the Father as the eternal source of his sonship and his divinity as Son… to speak of mutual dependence [for example]… does not do full justice to the asymmetrical order and character of the relation of the persons to each other” (2). Even though Barrett says himself that the Son was “appointed to be our Redeemer from eternity,” “it was established in the crown of heaven as the Father commissioned his Son” and this was “just as the Father intended from the beginning” (307) he still doesn’t see anything suggesting primacy here. Furthermore, he quotes Richard Muller saying this is a “pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement of the Father and Son” (306). Does this not sound like some kind of primacy, and hence some kind of eternal sub-ordination in the sense that I have been talking about it here? I do not understand how one can insist that it is not, even if this is not something the Son would ever choose differently, as this one will simply unfolds according to the Godhead’s very nature of love…

Barrett, however, does seem to give mixed messages here. For example, when critiquing EFS in footnote 92, he writes: 

“Submission is not merely an economic appropriation for [Eternal Functional Subordinationism]; it is intrinsic to the immanent identity of the Son. For the Reformed, the Son’s obedience in the covenant of redemption[, made between Him and the Father,] is optional, an economic deliberation that is not necessary for God to be triune. For EFS, the Son’s obedience in the covenant of redemption is necessary, an extension of the submission that defines him as a person within the immanent Trinity, necessary for the Son to be the Son and therefore necessary for the Trinity to be triune” (346).

If the Trinity has one will, should we really be saying the Son’s obedience is “optional”? Would it not be better if we said that since it is the one will of the Triune God to redeem man, that the Son desires and wills and does nothing else than what His Father desires? In other words, we certainly can say that the Son did not need to save man – but only because we first say that the Triune God, the Godhead – even the Father Himself! – did not need to save man. Also, I understand that Barrett believes that what Fesko said of Barth’s Trinitarian view – “Christ’s mission ends up defining the Trinity rather than revealing it” (345) – is equally true of the EFS or ESS view. While I think that is likely the case, I am left wondering about the assumptions of men like Barret as well. How would the Godhead have communicated a simultaneous equality and subordination had he wanted to do so (and, per above, I believe He has in John 3:16 and 17)? After all, Barrett himself wants to communicate that he simultaneously believes in earthly equality and subordination (affirming his belief in the book about male headship)!  

Nevertheless, we should also point out the following here: those who would argue against any notion of subordination seem to be insisting on defining subordination in a wholly temporal fashion instead of recognizing that this would need to be understood in a way consistent with the Eternal nature of the Godhead. That said, even in an earthly sense any definition of subordination should not necessarily need to involve the reconciliation of two opposing wills (with one accepting overrule by the other). This would be to insist on understanding everything only according to the law, where not only matters of fatherhood (from which wisdom flows and which begets honor and love), but matters of kingship and judgeship (which insists on jurisdiction, that the law be followed, and that power be used in the service of enforcement) play a role. While these terms ultimately all describe the One True God (in the Godhead’s entirety as well) the nuances in distinction are critical. Recognizing that there is action born primarily of love and action taken primarily in light of power (and corresponding threat) is critical to proper understanding.

In line with matters regarding what it means to honor a father, Barrett recognizes that “mere compliance is not enough” (283) – we must go deeper. Obedience in a biblical sense is ultimately about adopting the will of another for the sake of an internal unity while mere compliance involves a will bending and distorting to the other’s for the sake of some external unity. Surely we must be able to see that subordination, subordination understood in a truly biblical sense, could also conceivably go hand-in-hand with an innate desire for the primary person – who is indeed distinct in some fashion! – to be the one who initiates and determines… As a friend put it to me “[t]he reality of sin makes us much more familiar with compliance than obedience, but that’s not exactly an issue in the Godhead.”

This is exactly right. While it is important that we human creatures confess “the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty” there are also three Persons who do not have any sin problems and are in no need of such confessions or exhortations. We, for example, need to be told not only that it is enough for earthly servants to become like their masters (Matt 10:25), but even admonished to not seek our own glory (John 8:50, 54) and to rather consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). The Triune God, on the other hand, simply is this way. For the Father, this can be seen as He delights in His Son. For the Son, this can be seen as He embraces the fullness of love and harmony which originates from the Father. And the Spirit can be seen to exult in and proclaim this blessed eternal relationality that always bears good fruit!

Perhaps it might also be helpful to consider the matter in the following way. Eastern Orthodox Christians, in discussing how they view the papacy, emphasize the difference between there being a primary of jurisdiction – which they do not believe the Pope has – and a primacy of honor, which they do attribute to the Roman See. As best I understand matters, they are saying that the Pope may well have the position he does through a kind of “divine right” (as opposed to a merely human right and arrangement), but that he is also to be understood as the “first among equals”. Both the “first” and “equals” are important here, along with the fact that they are saying that – ideally, at least – one would honor this primary one and his direction. All this speaks to how we could conceivably speak of there being authority and submission within one divine essence and will.  All of this should not be controversial, but simply can go along with how “specific acts of God, acts that are attributed to the entire Godhead, can also be appropriated to specific persons” (310), as “each person possesses… a distinct mode of action” (Giles Emery, 309) and all this, of course, is “consistent with each persons’ eternal relation of origin (311), that is paternity, filiation, and spiration. 


As we conclude, I want to deal with one last thing that Barrett speaks about. Take this paragraph:

“Paul, Andrew, and James are three persons, and they all have the same human nature. We might say they all possess the nature we call humanity. But can we say they are one human? We cannot. Paul, Andrew, and James all participate in what they call humanity, but they are not a single human being. They are, rather, three separate individuals, three separate beings. They are not only distinct but independent. They may have much in common, but three they remain, not one. The illustration buckles: what we call human nature can be divided. Never can it be a single human essence and at the same time three humans. ‘The common humanity of the three human persons does not indicate as it must in God, a numerical unity of essence, only a generic unity.’ And a generic unity will not do when we are speaking of the triune God” (144).

He goes on to say that “Paul, Andrew, and James can exist without one another; they do not need one another, nor is their identity dependent on one another…” but I think this underlies how many points he is missing above. 

First of all, human beings actually do need one another, do depend on each other for both their creation and sustenance, and even if one particular human being does not help us directly, this point is not diluted. We can see this clearly in that if our three individuals were husband, wife, and child, that is, not only sharing the same nature but the same flesh and blood, then the interdependency of human creatures becomes just as obvious as any “individuality”. And as a friend puts it “since we’re all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, those relationships are only where it’s most obvious, not the only place it’s real. The very fact that we can all fall in one man and rise in one Man also testifies to that deeper unity.” 

Second, even though I do not have the references before me, I am aware that at least one of the Cappadocian church fathers – men who Barrett seems to be very keen to follow in other respects, did analogize about the persons who are “humanity” to the Persons who are Divinity. In other words, in some sense they do share a human nature in a similar fashion to how the three persons of the Godhead share a divine nature. We can say they share one human nature or one humanity, just as the three persons of the Godhead share one divine nature or one divinity (and so I have, I confess, often pondered what might be wrong, if anything, with the phrase “Tri-Personal Being,” which I heard a friend once [helpfully?] use to describe the Trinity…). So what is significant here is that what it means to be divine and what it means to be man are two fundamentally different things, and this is because man is a creature while God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal and immutable. This means, for example, that it is possible for man to not share one will, even if God would indeed have this be the case!: the will of all men – as one body united in Christ! – should indeed always be in full accordance with God’s desires, purposes, and goals!

Finally, there are two more things that I think need to be brought up as well. While I think we can all see how the equality of the three persons of the Trinity could potentially be popular among those who are more culturally progressive, I do not see how the sub-ordination of the Son could ever be. In like fashion, again, if someone is absolutely against any kind of “subordination” (is “suborder” OK? Why?) in the Trinity because of concerns about equality and is also pro-male headship – as Barrett says he is – I don’t understand how such a person escapes the charge of implying women are of some sort of an inferior nature. That might seem like a brutal thing to say, and probably doesn’t seem very conciliatory either, but the logic of it all and the direction this discussion seems to be moving does weigh on me. That was confirmed for me further when the online friend I quoted to begin this article also said to me: “I think you are correct to be honest. I don’t know how a pro-male headship person who is against ESS can escape the charge a woman’s nature is inferior which is why I tend to support women’s ordination.” Even persons like Bradly Mason, who argue that male headship is only temporal due to the Fall, will need to face those deeply angered and irritated by their insistence on such a temporary arrangement. 

But order, a “numbering”, a primacy — if not a hierarchy — appears to be rather fundamental. Because of Love, and Love which honors, and Love which glories in and glorifies all of this. 



*Thomas Winger’s Ephesians commentary discusses “the oxymoron of ‘mutual submission’” (669, see also 639-646).

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Posted by on June 10, 2022 in Uncategorized


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