John Owen and the Question of the Eternal Submission of the Son within the Ontological Trinity -- By: Benedict Bird

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:2 (Fall 2018)
Article: John Owen and the Question of the Eternal Submission of the Son within the Ontological Trinity
Author: Benedict Bird


John Owen and the Question of the Eternal Submission of the Son within the Ontological Trinity

Benedict Bird

Benedict Bird is currently a PhD student at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, England.

Scripture plainly attests to the subordination of the Son of God to his Father. But throughout church history it has been recognized that some expressions of that subordination border on, or fall into heresy. The glory properly due to the Son is at stake. The essential question is whether the subordination is ontological (within God’s being) or purely economic (relating to what he decrees and does concerning things that are outside of himself). If we wish to argue—as we ought—that the subordination only occurs in the economy, there is a difficulty to be addressed. How are we to understand the scriptural expressions of subordination that refer to the Son’s submission in eternity as well as in time? If the Son is in some sense eternally submissive to the Father, not only temporally in his incarnation, how can we maintain that the subordination is purely economic? This article examines Bruce Ware’s response to these questions, explaining why his answers unavoidably imply ontological subordination while simultaneously denying that inference. It then brings to bear the teaching of John Owen upon the matter. With characteristic precision Owen locates the eternal aspect of the Son’s subordination in the covenant of redemption, in the divine economy. It is this eternal ad extra locus that many contemporary writers have overlooked. An important contribution of Owen’s teaching is that the order of operations in the divine economy follows and truly reflects the order of subsistence in the ontology; and the order of subsistence follows and truly reflects the Son’s eternal generation. Owen thereby upholds the ontological equality of the divine persons and hence the glory of the Son; and he teaches how far it is legitimate to go, in “reading back into the ontological order” the submission of the Son to the Father that we see in the economical order.

I. Introduction

Location, location, location. Where are we to locate the submission of the Son of God within the loci of our Trinitarian theological system? In this article I will argue that three putative locations must be considered, and

that Scripture teaches in which of these we should place the Son’s submission. I will suggest that the writing of John Owen helps us to avoid a misplacement that has serious theological implications.

In recent years, the question of intra-Trinitarian relations, and within that the submission of the Son to the Father, has been the ...

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