Subordination in the Pactum? (And the irony of ESS)


John Owen and Thomas Goodwin were two men I studied quite a bit for my MA and PhD theses. Both of the dissertations focused on the pactum salutis. I’ve tried for 13 years to come to grips with all of the doctrines that are connected to this doctrine and, being honest, I’m still learning. I say this because I want to recognize at the beginning that we’re dealing with difficult concepts.

The will of God is a natural property, which means that his will is identical with his essence. “The Father, Son, and Spirit have not Distinct wills. They are One God, and God’s Will is One” (Owen). Christ possesses two wills because he has two natures. Owen then asks: “How then can it be said that the Will of the Father and the Will of the Son did concur distinctly in the making of this Covenant[?]”

His answer is rather impressive, as he brings together the Oneness and Threeness of God in a way that doesn’t lead to heresy. In their essential actings towards one another they act reciprocally, namely, in love, blessedness, etc. There is mutual love.

But they subsist distinctly. As a result, they “Act distinctly in those Works which are of External Operation.” Now here is the key:

“The will of God as to the peculiar Actings of the Father in this matter, is the Will of the Father; And the Will of God, with regard unto the peculiar Actings of the Son, is the Will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry Wills, but by the distinct Application of the same Will unto its distinct Acts, in the Persons of the Father and the Son.”

That is to say, the personal distinction in the one will of God occurs at the level of “distinct acts,” not “distinct wills.”

We can speak of distinct acts within the one will because the will is proper to the nature of God, not his personhood. There is essence-appropriate language and persons-appropriate language. The language of will belongs to “essence-appropriate” language.

The will of God has three subsistences, but there remains (and only can remain) one will in God.

Owen is also careful to point out that in this covenant of redemption there is a “new Habitude or Relation, which is not Natural or Necessary.” In almost every single post I have been loudly trumpeting the distinction between God’s necessary will (with reciprocal actings towards one another in love) and God’s free will, which is freely taken on by God.

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In other words, the Father is “subject” to the Son because of what He promises to do for Him.—@Mark_Jones_PCA

In the pactum we are not to somehow think of God as now having three distinct wills. That is error. A very bad error. We are to think of God, in his one essential and undivided will (which is synonymous with his essence), as freely determining that the Son would become man according to the fittingness of relation between the three persons (or befitting the eternal taxis of persons).

Nowhere do we need to posit “submission” or “subordination.” There simply (pardon the pun) is no need to do so. It creates confusion because people then start to think there might be two wills in God when you speak of the Son “submitting” in terms of ad intra necessary or free relations.

A final thought regarding Owen: when we speak of God’s free will to redeem, Reformed divines often used the language of accommodation in ways where, on a cursory reading, they might appear to be advancing a type of social trinitarianism. Quotes can be dangerous if they aren’t carefully considered within the wider corpus of one’s writings, especially Owen’s.

So we must understand that we can argue the Son has a will and the Father has a will, but it is the same will. We cannot speak of three wills. Why? Again, because the will of God is identical to his essence. In historical Reformed Orthodox language (but not limited to that tradition), to posit three wills is necessarily to posit three essences.

In conclusion, seriously consider this quote from Witsius, who was no slouch when it came to the doctrine of the covenant:

“The Son, as precisely God, neither was, nor could be subject to any law, to any superior; that being contrary to the nature of God-head, which we now suppose the Son to have common with the Father.  ‘He thought it no robbery to be equal with God’.   No subjection, nothing but the high super-eminence can be conceived of the Deity.  In this respect he is King of kings and Lord of lords.  […] Nor is it any objection against this, that the Son, from eternity, undertook for men, and thereby came under a certain peculiar relation to those that were to be saved.  For, as that engagement was nothing but the most glorious act of the divine will of the Son, doing what none but God could do, it implies therefore no manner of subjection: it only imports, that there should be a time, when that divine person, on assuming flesh, would appear in the form of a servant.  And by undertaking to perform this obedience, in the human nature, in the proper time, the Son, as God, did no more subject himself to the Father, than the Father with respect to the Son, to the owing that reward of debt, which he promised him a right to claim.  All these things are to be conceived of in a manner becoming of God.” (Economy, II.iii.6-7).

These are great points made by Witsius, and I think he shows the utter folly of speaking in language of subordination with regards to the Son in his relationship to the Father. If you read him, we can actually speak of “subjection” as much with regards to the Father as we can with regards to the Son. So Witsius would reject “obedience” (or submission) language in the pactum if used exclusively of the Son.

Now for the irony: if ESS complementarians want to use the language of “subjection” or “submission” in terms of the Son’s relation to the Father, are they also prepared to use “subjection” or “submission” in terms of the Father’s relation to the Son? Is a man “submissive” or “subject” to his wife because of what he promises to do for her? Be careful what you ask for from the Trinity.

Mark Jones

Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver Church (PCA) since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He lectures at various seminaries around the world and is currently writing a book titled, "God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God" (Crossway, 2017) and "Faith, Hope, and Love" (Crossway, 2017).

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