The Bible presents the Son as subordinate to the Father. But this is inconsistent with the Trinity doctrine in which the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal with the Father.
The first defense of the Trinity doctrine is to say that the Son was only temporarily subordinate to the Father while He was on earth, but that He was equal with the Father before His incarnation and that He again is equal with the Father after He returned to heaven.
However, as this article will show, according to the Bible, the Son always was subordinate to the Father and will always be subordinate to the Father.
Therefore, the second defense of the Trinity doctrine is to say that the Son is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father but ontologically (in terms of substance and being) equal to the Father. This article quotes several authorities to show that this is truly an orthodox teaching.
This article then concludes by arguing that even eternal functional subordination does not protect the Trinity doctrine against the evidence from the Bible that the Son is subordinate to the Father.
The Main Enemy of the Trinity Doctrine
According to Kevin Giles, the three great trinitarian heresies are tritheism, modalism, and subordinationism.
- Tritheism is the risk that the Trinity may be understood as three Gods.
- Modalism is the risk that the Trinity may be understood as one Person.
These are regarded as two incorrect understandings of the Trinity doctrine. But Subordinationism is the main enemy of the Trinity doctrine for it challenges the very foundation of the Trinity doctrine. Ted Peters says that if anything, contemporary mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic trinitarian thinking is “antisubordinationist.”1Ted Peters, God as Trinity (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), p. 45
The Real Issue
One of the foundational principles of the Trinity doctrine is that Jesus is God. The word “God” is defined by dictionaries as “the supreme or ultimate reality.” Therefore, to say that Jesus is God is to say that He is “the supreme or ultimate reality,” meaning that He is equal to the Father.
But there is no word in the Greek of the New Testament that is equal to the word “God.” There are a few instances where the English translations of the New Testament refer to Jesus as “God.” But the word in the Greek is theos and may also be translated as “god.” In the thinking of the time, there were many “gods” of different levels. Paul, for example, wrote, “indeed there are many gods” (1 Cor 8:5). Jesus said that the Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3) to differentiate the Father from the other “gods” in Greek thinking. RPC Hanson, perhaps the foremost scholar on the Fourth Century Arian controversy, said, “There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” Therefore, to translate theos as “God” when it refers to Jesus is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof thereof.
So, to determine whether Jesus is “God,” we must determine whether He is subordinate to the Father or not. The title theos is really irrelevant to this discussion. For example, there are a number of instances where the Bible refers to the Father as Jesus’ God (e.g., Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; John 20:17; Eph 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12). Since the word theos has such a flexible meaning, these statements simply mean that the Son is subordinate to the Father.
Subordination in the Bible
Carl Henry stated:
“The biblical data put beyond doubt the subordination of the Son.”2Henry, God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. V. The God Who Stays (Waco, TX: Word, 1982) 207.
Jesus, as a child, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
Jesus said that He did not know when Judgment Day will be. He added, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mark 13:32; cf. Matt 24:36).
Jesus explicitly admitted, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed and submitted to his Father: “Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39).
Jesus described the Father as His “God” (John 20:17). Consistent with this, He also prayed to God (e.g., John 17:1). For instance, He asked the Father to give the Spirit to His disciples (John 14:16-17) and that His disciples might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24).
Everything that He did and said was given to Him by the Father (e.g., John 5:19, 30; 8:42; 14:10; 17:4).
The subordination of the Son to the Father is contrary to the Trinity doctrine in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are three co-equal Persons of the One God. One of the defenses of the Trinity doctrine against such subordination passages is to say that His subordination was temporary. It is argued that, because of sin and the desire to save, the Son temporarily submitted to the Father and became man. In other words, He was not always subordinate to the Father.
This article will now show that, in the Bible, the Son always was and always will be subordinate to the Father:
Subordinate before He came to Earth
There are several indications that the Son was subordinate to the Father before He came to this world:
The following shows that He did not become the Son when He became a human being; He was God’s “only begotten Son” before God sent Him to this world:
“When the fullness of the time came,
God sent forth His Son” (Gal 4:4).
“For God so loved the world,
that He gave His only begotten Son”
(John 3:16; cf. 3:18; 1:18; 1 John 4:9).
“God did not send the Son into the world
to judge the world …” (John 3:17).
Within a family, regardless of actual capability, sons are considered subordinate to fathers and expected to honor and respect them. God uses human relationships to explain divinity.
God has many sons, but Christ is God’s only “begotten” Son (e.g., John 1:18; 3:16). What that exactly means, we do not know, but since God uses human relationships to explain divinity, it implies that Jesus was not created but came forth from the being of the Father. This implies that the Father is the Ultimate Source of all things and that Jesus always was ontologically subordinate to the Father. As Tertullian stated:
“The Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
(For a further discussion, see Only Begotten.)
Sent by God
In John’s gospel, Jesus says perhaps forty times that the Father “sent” Him (John 4:34; 5:30; 8:42) and “gave Him what to do and what to say” (John 12:49; cf. John 5:36; 6:38; 8:26, 28, 38, 40; 10:32; 14:24, 31; 15:10, 15; 17:4, 8, 14). For example, Jesus said:
“I came down from heaven,
not to do mine own will,
but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38).
“I proceeded forth and have come from God,
for I have not even come on My own initiative,
but He sent Me” (John 8:42).
“My teaching is not Mine,
but His who sent Me” (John 7:16).
Paul confirmed this:
“But when the fullness of time came,
God sent forth his Son, born of a woman”
(Galatians 4:4; cf. Rom 8:3)
Since He was sent before He became a human being, He was subordinate to the Father before His incarnation. (Note: This article assumes pre-existence, which is discussed in another article.)
Jesus claimed so often that He was sent by the Father to give the Jews an appreciation of Him and His mission (e.g., John 11:42). But the Jews did not believe Him. Today, many Christians still do not believe Him, but for the opposite reason, for they do not believe that He always was subordinate to the Father.
God is the eternal origin of all things but He created all things “through” the Son:
“All things came into being through Him,
and apart from Him nothing came into being
that has come into being” (John 1:3).
“The world was made through Him“(John 1:10).
“God …in these last days has spoken to us in His Son …
through whom also He made the world” (Heb 1:1-2).
“All things have been created through Him
and for Him” (Col 1:16).
“For us there is but one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and we exist for Him;
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
by (Gr. dia = through) whom are all things,
and we exist through Him” (1 Cor 8:6).
In Revelation 4, in which Jesus is absent, God alone is identified as the Creator (Rev 4:11). Jesus only enters God’s throne room in chapter 5 (Rev 5:6).
The word “through” in these verses identifies God as the Creator and assigns a subordinate role to the Son. It means that Jesus is not an independent Creator but is God’s Means of creation: All creative power and wisdom are from the Father but through His Son. For further discussion, see, God created all things through His Son.
God not only created all things through His Son; the Son also upholds all things “by the word of His (God’s) power” (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17). [Hebrew 1:2-3 uses the word “His” four times to consistently refer to “God” (Heb 1:1).]
These facts imply an extremely close relationship between the Son and “all things,” which is understood to refer to the entire universe (Col 1:16). It is proposed, therefore, that, by ‘begetting’ (giving ‘birth‘ to) Jesus, as His “only begotten Son,” God brought all things into being, which is similar to the Logos-Christology of pre-Nicene times. (See, The Apologists)
“Before the foundation of the world” “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … chose us in Him” (Eph 1:3-4; cf. 1 Pet 1:1-2; Rev 13:8; 17:8). This indicates that, although the Son already existed “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:5, 24), He did not take part in choosing us. That God “chose us” before we even existed implies foreknowledge, but this foreknowledge is limited to the Father.
Subordinate to God after His ascension
There are also several indications that the Son today still is subordinate to the Father:
At the right hand of God
Jesus ascended to heaven and took His seat “at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2; cf. Acts 2:30; Acts 2:33; 7:55; Rom. 8:34; Mark 14:62; 16:19). This is the place of honor over the entire universe but is still subject to the ultimate Ruler.
Jesus’ God and Head
The risen Son is said to be “head over all things” (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10). However, decades after Christ ascended to heaven, Paul refers to the Father as Jesus’ God (Eph 1:16-17; cf. Eph 1:3-4) and as “the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3). The Book of Revelation, received about 60 years after His ascension, also refers to the Father as Jesus’ God (Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12). This, therefore, describes the relationship between the Father and the Son today and for all eternity. In contrast, Peter referred to Jesus as God’s “servant” (Acts 3:13; cf. 26).
Statements such as that “God is the head of Christ” and that the Father is His God refer to Him as a Person; not only to one of His two natures as in the theory of the hypostatic union, as adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.
Other indications that Jesus still is subordinate to the Father, include:
Jesus said, “To sit on My right and on My left,
this is not Mine to give, but it is for those
for whom it has been prepared by My Father” (Matt 20:23).
Jesus received the visions contained in the book of Revelation from God (Rev 1:1).
Future Eternity (1 Corinthians 15)
1 Corinthians 15 describes the future condition after sin and the consequences of sin have been eradicated. It says that, in that future ideal state, after God’s people have been raised from death, and death itself and all of Satan’s forces have been destroyed (1 Cor 15:24), then Christ “hands over the kingdom to the God and Father” (1 Cor 15:24) and:
“Then the Son Himself also will be subjected
to the One who subjected all things to Him,
so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
In other words, in that perfect future state, after all traces of sin have been removed, the Son will be subordinate to God the Father for all eternity. Any possibility of the submission of the Son to the Father being a temporary or less-than-ideal state of affairs seems out of the question here. (Right Reason)
Some commentators counter that “God” in the phrase “God may be all in all” refers to the Trinity. But, with this interpretation, verse 28 states that the Son will be subjected to Himself as well as to the Father and to the Spirit, so that all three may be “all in all.” This is an extremely awkward interpretation. The sentences before us just don’t read that way. In addition, verse 24 identifies “God,” to whom Christ would hand over the kingdom, specifically as the Father (1 Cor 15:24).
Who is Christ?
The current series of articles attempts to determine and describe who Jesus really is:
Some people claim that He was merely a man, namely the ultimate example of a person who is completely filled with the Holy Spirit. In this view, Jesus did not exist before He was born as a human being. Listen, for example, to Dr. Tuggy’s podcast 189. Dr. Tuggy relies on what he calls “common sense;” irrespective of what the Bible says.
Contrary to what Tuggy teaches, one of the articles in this series provides evidence that Jesus did exist before He was born. In fact. God created all things through His Son and still maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:2-3)
First Created Being
Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the NAMB website, teach that Jesus Christ was the first created being of Jehovah God and that, through the agency of the His Son, Jehovah created all other things in the universe.
However, the article – Only Begotten – proposes that Jesus was not created but came forth from the being of the Father. Furthermore, His Son had “equality with God” before He was born as a human being (Phil 2:6) and He has ”life in Himself” (John 5:26). These things indicate that He is more than a created being.
In the Trinity doctrine, the Son is God; co-equal and co-eternal with the Almighty Father. However, another article in this series shows that the Bible maintains a distinction between God and Jesus, which means that Jesus is not God. Furthermore, the very purpose of the current article is to show that Jesus is not co-equal with the Father but subordinate to Him.
The question, then, if none of the options above are correct, who is Jesus really?
(1) His God
The Father is His God (John 20:17). Therefore, He also prayed to the Father (Mark 14:32).
(2) As a Human Being
With respect to His existence on this earth as a human being, Jesus received everything He has from the Father. God gave Jesus:
- The Holy Spirit (John 1:32-34),
- His teachings (John 7:16),
- His works (John 5:36),
- His disciples (John 6:37-39), and
- Authority to take up His life again after He died (John 10:18).
Because He only had what God gave Him, Jesus said that He “can do nothing of Himself” (John 5:19) and He did not know all things. For example, He said that He did not know the hour or the day of His second coming; “but the Father alone” (Matt 24:36).
(3) His eternal existence
God also gave Jesus everything He has with respect to His eternal existence. God gave Jesus:
- “All the fullness of Deity” to dwells in Him (Col 2:9; cf. 1:19).
- To have “life in Himself” (John 5:26),
- The authority to give life to the dead (John 17:1-2),
- “Authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27),
- Authority over and ownership of the entire universe (Matt 28:18; Luke 10:22), and
- That “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:22-23). He receives this honor because God exalted Him above all other beings (Phil 2:9-10).
(4) Before His incarnation
This article argues that He was subordinate to the Father before His birth as a human being, as evidenced by the fact that God had begotten Him (gave birth to Him) (John 3:16), created all things “through” Him (Col 1:16), sent Jesus into the world (John 8:42), and gave Him what to do and to say (John 12:49).
(5) After His ascension
Also, after His ascension and exaltation, He remained subordinate to God. For example, Jesus said that He is going to His Father who is “greater than” Himself (John 14:28). He took His seat at the right hand of God (Heb 12:2), which is the place of honor over the entire universe, but still subject to the ultimate Ruler. Consistently, many years after His ascension, Paul described the Father as “the Head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3), did Jesus receive the visions contained in the book of Revelation from God (Rev 1:1), and did He refer to God as His God (Rev 3:2, 12).
– END OF SUMMARY –
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4) was and is a cornerstone of Judaism, in contrast to the polytheism of the nations. In this verse and elsewhere in the Scriptures, “LORD” in all capitals actually translates God’s name, Yahweh. So, what this verse (the shema) actually says is that Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one.
The New Testament never uses the name, Yahweh. It uses the Greek word theos instead. The New Testament several times repeats the principle that Yahweh is one, but it does it by referring to “one theos,” “only theos” or “true theos.” The important point is that such phrases always refer to the Father alone. Notice how the following quotes contrast the “one God” to Jesus Christ, who is often referred to as Lord. For example:
In prayer, Jesus said: “This is eternal life,
that they may know You, the only true God,
and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3; cf. 5:44).
Paul wrote that the believers in Thessalonica have turned from idols “to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:9-10).
To Timothy, Paul described the Father as “the … only Sovereign … who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:15-16) and as “eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Tim 1:17). The Being in both these quotes is “invisible” and, therefore, refers to the Father alone.
Jude closed his letter by giving glory “to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Jude 1:25).
The following are more examples, but verses begin with the phrase “there is,” indicating that these verses define God:
“There is … one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all who is over all” (Eph 4:4-6).
“There is one God,
and one Mediator also between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).
“There is but one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and we exist for Him;
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor 8:6).
There are many texts in the Bible that mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but since these “there is”- verses explicitly define God, they must be regarded as very important for our understanding of the divine.
1 John 5:20
It is sometimes claimed that 1 John 5:20-21 refers to the Son as “true God, but read these verses carefully:
20(a) And we know that the Son of God has come,
(b) and has given us understanding
(c) so that we may know Him who is true (Father);
(d) and we are in Him who is true (Father),
in His Son Jesus Christ.
(e) This is the true God and eternal life.
21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.
20(d) identifies “Him who is true” as the Father. Therefore, “the true God” in part (e) is the Father. The purpose of these verses is to contrast the true God, who is the Father, with the idols in verse 21.
The Father is God.
These references to the Father as the “one theos,” “true theos” or “only theos” is part of the overall trend of the New Testament to refer to the Father alone as theos, indicating the subordination of the Son to the Father. For example, at the beginning of any of the New Testament letters, one will find statements such as:
“Grace to you and peace
from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7).
Is Jesus called God?
In a handful of instances, the New Testament does refer to Jesus as theos. However. the word has a wide range of meanings. It may be translated as “God” or as “god,” but sometimes even exalted people are described as theos (See theos). The renowned scholar R.P.C. Hanson stated:
“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link)
If we understand that theos has a wide range of meanings and basically means an immortal being with supernatural powers, then it is quite appropriate for Jesus to be called theos. For a discussion of the Bible passages that refer to Him as theos, see Does the New Testament refer to Jesus as God?
In English, the title “God” refers to the Almighty; the Ultimate Reality. In the Trinity doctrine, the Son is equal to the Father. The translation of theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” therefore, is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof thereof.
Received everything from the Father.
The Holy Spirit
God gave Jesus the Holy Spirit at His baptism (John 1:32-34).
God gave Jesus His followers (John 17:6; cf. 6:37-39; 6:44, 65; 10:29; 17:1-2). Jesus also said:
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
Similarly, in the parable of the true vine (John 15) the Father is the One who works: “My Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). It is the Father who cuts away branches that do not bear fruit and prunes other branches “so that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2; cf. 17:2, 9, 24; 10:29).
The Father gave Jesus to take up His life.
“I have authority to lay it (My life) down,
and I have authority to take it up again.
This commandment I received from My Father.”
As discussed above, Paul wrote that the Father “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim 6:15-16). This means that the Son receives His immortality from the Father. The Father received life from no one, for He is the eternally self-existent Source of life.
God redeems through Christ.
Sometimes, we think of Jesus as the Redeemer, and that is true, but, as shown in the discussion of the letter to the Colossians, Jesus is the Means of redemption, while the Father is the driver of redemption. For example:
“… thanks to the Father …
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness,
and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”
“It was the Father’s good pleasure …
through Him (Jesus)
to reconcile all things to Himself” (Col 1:19-20).
“When He comes into the world, He says,
‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me …
behold, I have come … to do your will, o God.’” (Heb 10:5–7).
“The only God our Savior,
through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Jude 1:25;
cf. John 3:16);
Received Divine Attributes
There are a number of indications in die Bible of Jesus’ divinity, such as that all the fullness of Deity dwells in Him, that He created all things, and that He is the Judge of the living and the dead, but the Bible also indicates that He received His divinity from the Father:
Authority to judge.
“God” is the judge (e.g., 1 Sam 2:10; Psa 50:6; Eccl 12:14; Gen 18:25; Joel 3:12). But, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the Judge of the world (Matt 25:31-46, John 5:27, 9:39; Acts 10:42; Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; and 2 Tim 4:1). For example, Jesus said:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory …
All the nations will be gathered before Him;
and He will separate them from one another,
as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”
We may want to use this as proof of His deity, but Jesus received this authority from the Father:
“The Father … has given all judgment to the Son,
so that all will honor the Son
even as they honor the Father.
He who does not honor the Son
does not honor the Father who sent Him”
“The Father … gave Him authority to execute judgment,
because He is the Son of Man” (John 5:27).
Authority to raise the dead
Jesus is able to give life to the dead. For example:
“Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life,
even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes”
He said, “My sheep hear My voice …
and I give eternal life to them,
and they will never perish”
(John 10:27-28; cf. 5:28-29; 6:40, 44; 11:25-26).
God gave Jesus the authority to raise the dead:
”Just as the Father has life in Himself,
even so He gave to the Son also
to have life in Himself” (John 5:26).
Jesus prayer, “Father …
You gave Him authority over all flesh,
that to all whom You have given Him,
He may give eternal life” (John 17:1-2).
All authority and all things.
Jesus claimed that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). The phrase “has been given” implies that God gave Him this authority. Jesus confirmed this when He said:
“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father”
(Luke 10:22, cf. Matt 11:27)
“The Father loves the Son
and has given all things into His hand”
(John 3:35; cf. 13:3).
“The Father … has given all judgment to the Son,
so that all will honor the Son
even as they honor the Father”
(John 5:22-23; cf. 17:24).
The words “so that” mean that Jesus will be honored equally with the Father because the Father “has given all judgment to the Son.” Jesus, therefore, receives glory because it is the Father’s will.
We see this also in Philippians 2 which says that every knee will bow to Jesus because “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:9-10; cf. Heb 1:6). Furthermore, every knee will bow to Jesus “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).
That every knee will bow to Jesus is worship, for the word that is sometimes translated as “worship” (proskuneó) simply means “to do reverence to” (Strong’s Greek: 4352) and is often translated as “bow down” (Matt 8:1-2; 9:18-19; 15:25; 20:20; Mark 5:2, 6; 15:19 – NASB). For further discussion, see Jesus is worshiped. Does that mean that He is God?
The following quote, similar to Philippians 2, also refers to Jesus receiving “the name which is above every name,” but this quote associates that event with His enthronement to God’s right hand, which is mentioned very often in the New Testament, (e.g., Acts 5:31):
“The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory …
seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,
and every name that is named” (Eph 1:17, 20-21)
This explains the glory which Jesus had “with” the Father “before the world was” (John 17:5). That He received glory and honor “with” the Father implies that Jesus does not receive glory and honor independent from the Father. This we also see in Revelation 5, where God and Jesus are worshiped together (Rev 5:13).
A separate article discusses “worship” in the New Testament. Ancient Greek had fewer words than modern English. Consequently, words had a broader range of meanings. Similar to the word theos, the Greek word proskuneó can mean “worship” but it can also simply mean to show respect.
Fullness of deity
“All the fullness of Deity dwells in Christ in bodily form” (Col 2:9).
This is often taken as evidence that Jesus is God. However, firstly, even believers are to “be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). “There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (RPC Hanson).
Secondly, the Father gave Jesus this fullness:
“It was the Father’s good pleasure
for all the fullness to dwell in him” (Col 1:19).
Eternal subordination implies essential (ontological) subordination.
The Father, therefore, is not only greater than Jesus because Jesus “emptied Himself” when He became a human being (Phil 2:5), but the Father always was greater than His Son and always will be. The trinitarian teaching, that Jesus is co-equal to God, is not Biblical.
- Is Jesus God? – List of all articles
- The historical development of the Trinity doctrine – List of Articles
- All articles – List of all article series on this website
- 1Ted Peters, God as Trinity (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), p. 45
- 2Henry, God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. V. The God Who Stays (Waco, TX: Word, 1982) 207.