Over the last two weeks, Christian blogs have been ablaze with debates about the Trinity. These debates have centered on how the Son relates to the Father. One side argues that how the Son submits to the Father in history is the same way God the Father relates to the God the Son in eternity. The other side argues that the way the Son submits to the Father in history is not the way God the Son relates to the Father in eternity.
The first position goes by at least three names: eternal function subordination (EFS), eternal relational subordination (ERS), or eternal relational authority-submission (ERAS). More specifically, it argues that the way the Son differs from the Father by submitting, while the Father to the Son by exerting authority. This relationship is how these two members of Trinity differ in eternity.
For EFS proponents, the submission of the Son does not indicate any inferiority between two essentially. Actually, submission is an honorable role that does not require an ontological difference between the Father and Son. Further, this analogy between the Father and Son makes sense of human relations, relations between husband (authority) and wife (submission). 1 Corinthians 11:3 provides justification for this position: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
The other side represents the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed tradition of assigning no submission to the Son in eternity. I will call this position the non-EFS view (it could also be called the classical view). The non-EFS position asserts that the Son submits to the Father in history, but the Son’s submission in history does not mean that this is how one can distinguish the Son from the Father in eternity. Instead, the Son proceeds from the Father on mission eternally, which expresses itself in temporal submission during that mission. The Son, then, differs from the Father because the Son eternally procedes from the Father.
For non-EFS persons, to say that the Son submits to the Father in eternity means that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Such a view goes beyond the scope of orthodox belief, since it makes the Son something less than the Father; but both are God. The non-EFS view also balks at EFS complementarians for doing theology by anthropology; that is, they accuse EFS complementarians of formulating a less-than-orthodox view of God in order to prove their view of male-female relationships. Non-EFS complementarians also affirm the complementary relationships between men and women but avoid using the language of eternal submission
In the following, I will recount how the debate unfolded during June 9th and 10th of this year, although I will provide some context of events preceding the civil war between EFS and non-EFS complementarians. In later post, I will also detail the on-going debate after June 10th.
The Antebellum Period
On May 8th, 2015, Fred Sanders reviews One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke. The work propounds the view that the Son relates to the Father by submission, or through eternal functional subordination. In the work, Ware prefers the title “eternal relational authority-submission.” Both essentially mean the same thing: the way the Son submits to the Father in history is also how he relates to the Father in eternity. Sanders reviews the work sympathetically.
On May 22nd, 2015 Steven Holmes writes an unsympathetic article reflecting on a new defense of Complementarianism, found in One God in Three Persons. Holmes rejects the work’s complementarian argument, based upon the doctrine of the Trinity.
May 31st, 2015: Alistair Roberts interacts with the ideas of One God in Three Persons , Steven Holmes’ review of it, concluding: “However, the principal questions that I see here concern the way that we should relate our accounts of gender and society with our doctrines of the Trinity.”
A new debate starts in 2016 when Liam Goligher writes two posts on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog on June 3rd and 6th. In his second article, Goligher concludes: “To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry.”
Endorsing Goligher’s posts, Carl Trueman writes on June 7th that the complementarians who hold to the eternal subordination of the son wander outside the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy. He also criticizes what he calls the New-Calvinist endorsement of complementarian subordination.
On June 8th, Mike Bird prophesies of the coming civil war between complementarians who argue for an eternal subordinationist view of the Son, and those who follow the Nicene position that “rules out any hierarchical subordination.” One side (eternal subordinationist) relates the social relationship of the Trinity to gender roles, while the other (no eternal subordinationism) shies away from such connections.
The Civil War Begins (June 9–10)
On June 9th, Mike Bird‘s prophecy comes true as the cold war turns hot, and he affirms his concerns in the war: “I remain concerned of two things: (a) That the notion of authority and/or hierarchy is still being applied by proponents to the Trinity which potentially makes the God-head a Tri-archy rather than a Tri-unity, and I don’t think this can be squared with a Nicene theology; and (b) The whole debate is motivated by gender issues and not solely by a careful appropriation of biblical materials and their reception among the Nicene Fathers.”
On June 9th, Bruce Ware defends his position against Goligher and Trueman by affirming the orthodoxy of his position: “those who affirm the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son uniformly and adamantly affirm also the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature.” Ware also denies that he and others are formulating a doctrine of the Trinity based on social relationships.
Wayne Grudem responds to Liam Goligher on the same day, affirming the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. He corrects misrepresentations of his view and goes on the offensive, affirming that his view is Biblical and that Goligher and Trueman fail to account for the Biblical language of the Son’s submission.
Trueman, in turn, responds to Ware and Grudem also on the same day (June 9th). To Ware, Trueman writes: “The point at issue is that of the nature of the relations. In his writings, Professor Ware explicitly rejects the Nicene notion of eternal generation while asserting that of eternal functional submission,” and, “In fact, rejection of eternal generation puts you definitively outside of Nicene Trinitarianism.” To Grudem, Trueman affirms “those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381,” 381 referring to Constantinople’s update to Nicea.
Denny Burk adds to that conversation on the 9th as well. He essentially reaffirms and defends Ware and Grudem’s position against Trueman Goligher. Following Grudem, Burk too highlights that Biblical testimony to the Son’s subordination, using 1 Corinthians 15:28. In essence, Burk challenges Goligher and Trueman to account for the Biblical testimony of the Son’s subordination.
Mark Thompson, siding with Ware and Grudem, defends EFS on the 9th against the charge of heresy: “My purpose in this post has simply been to begin to explain why I for one would demur from any judgment that eternal relational subordination necessarily involves ‘reinventing the doctrine of God’, departing from orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, heresy or even idolatry”
Jeff Waddington adds another point of discussion on the 9th. Waddington states that God’s covenant of redemption involves Son’s voluntary decision to save humankind, a position that EFS puts into jeopardy by asserting that the plan of salvation flows from the Son’s submission to the Father. He also commends debating in a godly manner, which presumably all contributors to this debate would desire to do.
By June 9th, the terms of the debate revolve around (1) eternal subordination as either necessitating an ontological hierarchy in the Trinity or not, (2) eternal subordination as being Biblically faithful or not, and (3) eternal subordination as being outside of Nicene orthodoxy or not.
Early on the 10th, Scot McKnight summarizes the previous day’s clashes: “The battle rumbles along: one side of the historic Reformed have announced that the complementarian–focused Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have a faulty theory of the Trinity, and they have come back to announce they are fully orthodox. The issue here is the eternal subordination of the Son. Which they use, though in these newest statements they are not speaking into that issue, to prop up the subordination of women to men. Their distinctive emphasis on eternal subordination of the Son is connected to their complementarianism. They’re now trying to minimize this but the facts are otherwise…”
In short, McKnight accuses EFS or ERAS of doing theology (doctrine of the Trinity) to prove a particular anthropology (male-female roles/relationship), which would probably be a fourth area of debate: (4) do proponents of EFS/ERAS structure their view of the Trinity based on their complementarian view of men and women?
On June 10th, Mike Ovey clarifies a fifth area of debate when he responds Goligher’s articles, asserting that the Son eternally submits to the Father and that the Son has a distinguishable personal will from the Father. The son’s will does not, however, differ from the Father’s essentially, according to Ovey, because this kind of will is tied to persons not to relations: “In this sense, where ‘will’ is being taken not at the level of nature but at the level of person, one has to say Father and Son have distinguishable wills because they are distinguishable persons.”
On the same day, Carl Trueman quotes Calvin (his guest poster) to marshall a further offensive against the EFS/ERAS complementarians. Mark Jones also on the 10th stating that Ware and Grudem’s position is unhelpful, while offering a perspective of why the Son become the mediator. For the latter point, Jones affirms that the Reformed orthodox view of the Trinity (not the EFS view of eternal submission) explains why the Son is mediator and not, say, the Holy Spirit.
Again the 10th, Darren Sumner writes against the EFS view and for the non-EFS or classical position, asserting a theological critique that placing functional submission in eternity clashes with God’s simplicity. Methodologically, he also critiques Ware for deriving his eternal authority-submission relation from human relations (fathers and sons), thus doing theology by anthropology: “Ware takes a human cultural construct and, mistaking it for revelation, reads it upward into the life of God by means of an analogia entis.”
June 9th and 10th witnesses a rapid writing and speedy responses between EFS and non-EFS proponents. While the battle began during these two days, it certainly has not stopped. I plan to further detail the debate between EFS and non-EFS proponents, but the opening salvos of the civil war provide an helpful overview of the debate thus far. The battle revolves around at least five major questions:
- Does eternal subordination necessitate an ontological hierarchy in the Trinity or not?
- Does eternal subordination mean being Biblically faithful or not?
- Does eternal subordination mean being outside of Nicene orthodoxy or not?
- Do proponents of EFS/ERAS structure their view of the Trinity based on their complementarian view of men and women or not?
- Does the Son’s submission to the Father in eternity mean that the Son and Father have two wills, not one?