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Suzanne McCarthy and the Son’s Submission to the Father

December 6, 2008

In a Denny Burk blog post, he discusses the Trinity Debate that recently took place at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  The topic was the eternal submission of the Son to the Father’s authority within the Godhead.  Burk summarizes the debate:

The debate concerned the nature of intra-Trinitarian relationships with a particular focus on the nature of the Son’s submission to the Father. On the one hand, Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem argued that the Son has always submitted to the Father (eternity past, present, and future). On the other hand, Tom McCall and Keith Yandell argued that Christ only submitted to the Father during his incarnation.

Of course, Burk takes the side of Grudem and Ware, in supporting the eternal submission of the Son to the Father’s authority.  While Burk’s post is solid, what is more compelling is the discussion it stirs within his comment section.  Suzanne McCarthy – a recognized egalitarian – chimed in several times for comment.  One question that she kept raising was this:

I would like to ask how you reconcile your understanding of this verse with the doctrinal statement of ETS,

God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

Since, in Greek “power” and “authority” are one and the same word, how can Christ be equal to God in power, but not in authority. If the Son is eternally in submission, he is not equal in power and glory.

This is sort of a perplexing argument since the Greek word for power is usually “dunamis” and authority is “exousia”.    The common way of expressing the power of Christ or God the Father is using the word “dunamis” , not “exousia”.  McCarthy also seems to ignore the semantic range of the word “exousia”.  It can be translated as “power”, but it can also be translated as “liberty” or “right”.  There is a wide range of words with different meanings and implications connected with “exousia”.  So, to express that there is a difference in authority but not in power between the Son and the Father is not unthinkable.  McCarthy argues the opposite.  She wonders how the Son can be “equal in power and glory, but unequal in authority, and how is this derived from the Scripture?”  A simple example would be Ephesians 1:19-22:

What is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet.

It is the Father’s authority that gave the Son his authority. This can also be seen in Philippians 2:9, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”  My only explanation for some refusing to see this in Scripture is the fear that since there is authority and submission within the Godhead, this implies and creates a pattern of authority and submission for the Christian family and local church – which of course it does.  

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 7:29 pm


    Thanks for taking this up. However, I do not ignore the differences between exousia and dynamis. I ask, rightly, if those who formulated the ETS doctrinal statement had the understanding that Christ was less than God in authority, but equal in power.

    Consider that the consistent practice of translating εξουσια as authority and δυναμις as power was not evident in the KJV or the RSV, I still claim that traditional translations of the Bible represent the two as near synonyms, as we see in your post in Eph. 2:21. far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named,

    Here is another comment of mine from that thread that you do not address in your post. In fact, you rather give the opposite impression. However, I did write,


    “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.” (John 17:2 KJV)

    “since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him.” (John 17:2 RSV)

    “since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:2 ESV)

    Here is my problem. I would think that when the ETS was set up, the translation referenced was either the KJV or RSV.

    So, when the ETS statement said Christ is “equal in power” the intent may have been equal in εξουσια.

    But my understanding is that some are saying that Christ may not be equal to God in authority.


    It is now clear to me that complementarians believe that Christ is equal in power but not in authority to God. I had not seen a clear presentation of this before. Can you refer me to an article in which this is clearly laid out?

    And how does this apply in the Christian family? Are wives and children equal to their husbands in power but not in authority?

  2. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 7:45 pm

    Excuse me,

    “And how does this apply in the Christian family? Are wives and children equal to their husbands and parents in power but not in authority?”

  3. jbstarke permalink*
    December 6, 2008 8:08 pm

    Suzanne, Thanks for responding. I’m sorry if it seems that I misrepresented you. I am weary of attributing to you an exegetical fallacy, but it still does seem that you ignore the entire range of the two words, and their theological significance. Does not the Father grant the Son his authority in Eph. 1 and Phil 2? Does that not give us insight into Paul’s use of the two words and their theological significance? I am assuming that there is room to budge on the issue in the ETS statement.

    I’m not sure if you have heard of Phil Gons. He has done some wonderful thinking on this subject. He is in the middle of doing his PhD on this very subject. Ben Phillips wrote this article:
    It doesn’t answer all the questions here, but its engaging. The problem with complementarian scholarship (from a complementarian)on this subject is that it is usually “in response”. There is certainly room to move forward on this subject, rather than just always in response. You may need to press us a little more, Suzanne, to get us to write on this specific question more clearly.
    The authority and submission in the Godhead is a pattern for those created in his image. The “power” theme maybe is a little more blurry when speaking about adults and children. But, certainly, my authority over my children doesn’t give them less dignity. I don’t think this authority-power talk is too different than the authority-essence question when talking about the Godhead.

  4. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 8:50 pm


    I have posted on <a href=””this topic here. I am interested in the history of theology as it relates to the translation of the Bible.

    If those who formulated the ETS statement intended to say that Christ was equal to God in exousia, then complementarians who sign this statement, clearly do not hold to the same theological position as the founders of ETS. Signatories of this statement do not agree with the original intent of the statement.

    I am asking which theologians have discussed how Christ is equal in power but not in authority and how these two words differ in the scripture.

    I see what you are saying about power and essence being similar.

    However, I do think it is crucial for complementarians to explain how they can argue that although men and women are equal in essence and power, women are less than men in authority, and then demonstrate that this is due to actual differences in God’s design of the genders.

    That is, how is the fact that women are less than men in authority related to the design of women, if women are equal to men in power?

  5. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 8:51 pm

    I have posted here.

  6. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 8:52 pm

    Clearly I am not getting my tag right. Here,

  7. jbstarke permalink*
    December 6, 2008 9:09 pm

    Hey Suzanne, I do think the difference of authority, but not in essence is demonstrated not only in Scripture, but also in that we were created in the image of God, who also relates to himself (intra-Trinitarian – Father, Son, Spirit)in the structure of authority and submission. I do want to stress that the relationship structure of authority and submission is in the home and the Church. So, I do not want to stretch these implications past these two arenas. I think that would be saying something the Bible is not saying.

  8. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 9:24 pm


    My main question is about whether those who formulated the ETS statement believed that Christ was in an eternal authority -submission relationship with the Father. Since power and authority have been treated as near synonyms in Bible translation until 1973, this seems difficult to demonstrate.

    It seems to me these are crucial issues, if complementarians wish to claim continuity with traditional theology.

    (Naturally I don’t understand how women can be designed for submission if they are in essence the same as men. However, this is not my question here.) I am trying to figure out how Denny Burk, who has argued eloquently that Christ is not equal to God, can sign the ETS statement. That is my question.

    Denny Burk writes,

    First, this verse affirms that Christ has ontological equality with the Father with respect to his deity. That’s what “existing in the form of God” means. Second, the verse affirms that in his pre-incarnate state Christ did not try to obtain (or “grasp for”) another kind of equality which he did not have in his pre-existent state.

    But the ETS statement appears to contradict this, if, in fact, there was no clear understanding in 1949, that Christ was equal in power, but unequal in authority. I do not think this can be proven using the Bible translations available at that time.

  9. Sue permalink
    December 6, 2008 9:31 pm

    Curiously, there seems to be considerable confusion concerning this issue. I found this quote in the post linked to above, “The Power of Submission”,

    By definition, submission is the act of putting another in power. The one in submission has given their power to someone else. Where is the power in that?

    This poster, who appears to be complementarian, is using power and authority in a synomymous sense. I would think that this absolutely crucial aspect of the trinity would deserve extensive treatment, but instead theologians often digress into gender arguments.

  10. Sue permalink
    December 7, 2008 11:13 pm


    I do think there is much more to be done by complemnentarians. Perhaps you are not aware that in Latin the word potestas translates εξουσια. So when Augustine writes that there is no inequality between Christ and God in power (potestas) or substance, Augustine means that Christ is equal to God in authority.

    (See Father, Son and Holy Spirit page 80)

    This is not purely a matter of Greek and the ESV. This is a matter of trying to understand that in Latin, (potestas) German (Macht) and French (pouvoir) and up until very recently, power and authority were treated as the same concept.

    Ware cannot cite Augustine in English without conceding that what Augustine said was that Christ was not unequal to God in authority.

    The concern is that young people today are not always aware of the sharp discontinuity that exists between Ware’s theology and historic Christianity.

    I wish you well with your studies in this regard and hope that you will include Latin, French and German in your repertoire of theological lgs.

    • jbstarke permalink*
      December 9, 2008 4:27 pm

      Hey Susan, I’m not not yet willing to assume that Ware is wrong on his use of Augustine’s “power”. Yet, even if he was, the context of much of Augustine’s work on the Trinity is on the very subject of this same relationship between the Father and Son. I have not yet looked at it to quote it, but I am under the impression that authority and submission is a common interpretation of Augustine. I haven’t heard anyone argue different (though I am certainly not an Augustine scholar).

  11. December 7, 2008 11:30 pm

    These comments are very scattered but I would like you to refer to my two posts,

    I am deeply concerned that this is not better understood. It also explains that when I wrote,

    Since, in Greek “power” and “authority” are one and the same word,

    I meant εξουσια.

    There are two Greek words, but εξουσια is translated into English by both “power” and “authority” and that is what I was referring to. When Augustine wrote potestas he meant εξουσια, (authority) but Ware interpreted this as “power” something different from authority.

  12. December 10, 2008 1:48 am

    Scot McKnight argued differently on Denny Burk’s blog two years ago.

    I would be interested in whether Ware knew that Augustine was using the only Latin word for “authority” in that citation, and whether he realized that Augustine is explicitly arguing that Christ is equal to God in authority.

    I would also be interested in any quote from church fathers which explicitly says that the Son is subordinate or that the Father had authority over the Son. Augustine is explicit in denying this. Read McKnight’s comments carefully on the post I cite here.

    I do not believe that the authority submission framework is traditionally used within the Godhead. Perhaps you could provide quotes from the church fathers or reformers which demonstrate that it was a traditionally held belief.

    It is important to know that many people do not regard Ware’s paradigm as orthodox.

  13. December 10, 2008 1:55 am


    I keep mulling over how Ware put together his ideas because they are so novel. What puzzles me now is this.

    The theme in Augustine is that the Father sends and the Son is sent. This a very strong theme. This theme also occurs in an article in the ESVSB.

    But, in human relationships, husband and wife, and parent and child, – in what sense is the wife sent to the husband so undertake the work of the couple, and it what sense is the child sent by the parent to undertake the task of the parent?

    The “work” of Christ is, in fact, his death on the cross, so when I read that the husband imitates the sending Father and the wife imitates the sent Son, I feel a little antsy about my physical safety.

  14. December 10, 2008 1:56 am

    “in what sense is the wife sent by the husband”

    Typo alert. 🙂

  15. December 10, 2008 2:56 am


    I want to react to your post on gender blog today,

    Countering this view, Bruce Ware gives the example of the president of a company and a janitor. No one would assume that the authority the president has over the janitor has anything do with the janitor’s inferiority as a person. The value of each person does not depend on their position, much less their pay grade. The dignity of the person is characterized by being created in the image of God, not in the level of authority they posses.

    CEO and janitor are the same in value before God, but they differ in their skillset and no doubt, in their naturally suitability for leadership. Is Ware saying that women are of equal worth to God, but differ from men in their suitability for leadership? It appears that Ware thinks women are not capable of leadership of a company or nation, or providing for a family.

    • jbstarke permalink*
      December 10, 2008 3:27 am

      I think you may have missed the point of the quote. I have a third part to this series of blog posts on the Trinity debate tomorrow. I hope you’ll read it. Also, I am working on a historical outlook of the relationship of authority and submission within the Godhead. I do think there is a considerable amount evidence that it is within the mainstream of orthodoxy to hold this view. Actually, I think it is outside of the historical mainstream orthodoxy to not hold this view.
      I also think you are missing the point of the parallel when you ask the question how is the wife sent and all that.

  16. December 10, 2008 5:41 am


    You write,

    “I think you may have missed the point of the quote.”

    My sense is that Ware is saying that Christ is not equal to God in authority, but Augustine says that he is equal in authority. I would be happy for you to explain otherwise, but I would have to be carefully shown how this is not an obvious conclusion.

    Clearly Augustine says that Christ is equal in authority, and I believe mainstream Christianity is with A on this.

    I also think you are missing the point of the parallel when you ask the question how is the wife sent and all that.

    I certainly hope that I am missing the point of the parallel with the wife being sent. 🙂

    This point only communicates vague ideas like

    – the husband stays home and the wife goes forth, or

    – the husband gives orders and the wife follows orders

    I know that complementarians do not intend to teach anything quite this harsh, but this the general impression that is given. I have not seen anyone explain this well.

    If God and Christ are equal in power/authority and glory, then so are husband and wife. And there is no sense in which the husband sends and the wife is sent.

    I would like to comment on other points in your posts, but this is enough for now. I will read your post tomorrow.

  17. December 12, 2008 1:44 am


    In your post you write,

    This is sort of a perplexing argument since the Greek word for power is usually “dunamis” and authority is “exousia”. The common way of expressing the power of Christ or God the Father is using the word “dunamis” , not “exousia”.

    I would like you to put an addendum in your post noting that it was only in 1973 that exousia was normally translated by “authority” rather than “power.”

  18. Sue permalink
    January 28, 2009 5:56 am

    I have been doing more reseach and found that exousia was always translated as potestas in Latin and that was always tranlated into English as “power.” This means that in all creeds “power” does translate exousia.

  19. jbstarke permalink*
    January 28, 2009 4:38 pm

    Hey Susan. Thanks for the response. I’m not exactly sure if this translation issue has any real bearing on the argument. Biblical texts still seem to support an authority/submission within the Godhead.


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