For centuries, Christians have confessed that God exists as a tri-unity distinguished by the personal names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each name of a person in God expressed some implied relationship: so the Father begets the Son and the Son is begotten.
These relational properties (often called relations of origin) maintained the unity of the simple God, while distinguishing persons in God according to their biblical names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But recently, some evangelicals have attempted to reconceive of the Trinity by introducing notions of authority and submission into the inner-life of God. The basic idea goes like this: Jesus obeyed the Father during his earthly life. And this obedience implies an eternal relationship in which the Son of God always obeyed the Father. So authority and submission explain how persons in God relate to one another.
The Response to EFS
Many have found this position untenable. In Trinity Without Hierarchy, a multi-author volume intended to rebut the idea of eternal functional subordination (EFS), Michael Bird, for example, maintains that EFS resembles homoianism (2019: 10). Homoianism exists under the rubric of Arianism. It reads Christ’s earthly mission into God’s eternal being, speaks of subordination and hierarchy, and attributes lesser glory to Christ (2019: 10).
Bird has a point. But I would be quick to mention that proponents of EFS without fail affirm the co-equality of persons in God. No proponent of EFS has explicitly affirmed that the Son essentially is less than the Father.
A Justified Response?
And yet the language of EFS overlaps with the language of Arians who did affirm that the Son is less than the Father. Consider for example the text of the Creed of Sirmium (357), so described as “The Blasphemy of Sirmium”:
And to none can it be a question that the Father is greater. For no one can doubt that the Father is greater in honor and dignity and Godhead, and in the very name of Father, the Son Himself testifying, ‘The Father that sent me is greater than I’ (John 10:29, 14:28) And no one is ignorant, that it is catholic doctrine, that there are two persons of Father and Son, and that the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him.
Bruce Ware has written:
“The Father is supreme over all, and in particular, he is supreme within the Godhead as the highest in authority and the one deserving ultimate praise” (2005: 51).
“The ultimate glory is extended to God the Father” (2005: 50; speaking of Phil 2:11).
“The Father is supreme in the Trinity” and yet “the Father chooses not to work in such a way that the Son and Spirit are sidelined (2005: 56).
“Marvel at the Father’s retention of ultimate supremacy and highest glory even as he shares his work, and his glory, with the Son and with others” (2005: 65).
“The Son stands in a relationship of eternal submission under the authority of his Father” (2015: 70).
Ware would likely be more circumspect today. And my point here is not to subordinate Ware’s theology under Arianism! Not at all!
But I do want to explain why Bird and others see something offputting in the EFS project.
Strong And Soft Responses
Stephen Holmes finds it more than “offputting.” In fact, he avers: “To deny eternal generation is certainly to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and, given that ‘eternally begotten of the father’ is a confession of the Nicene Creed, is in grave danger of departing from what can meaningfully be called Christianity” (2019: 268).
And in a footnote, he describes Ware and Wayne Grudem’s 2016 affirmation of eternal generation with these words: “all heaven rejoices when a sinner repents” (2019: 268). By implication, Holmes at minimum saw the denial of eternal generation and affirmation of eternal functional subordination as sinful.
Others take a friendlier tack. For example, Graham Cole describes EFS with its implications for male-female relationships this way: “Although this is not my view and I find it highly problematical, it falls within the bounds of Christian faithfulness” (2019: 281).
I concur. Since EFS affirm the co-equality of the triune Persons in God, they do not fall outside the bounds of Christian faithfulness.
Granted, the language of eternal submission seems to transgress the traditional boundaries of orthodoxy when it supplants eternal generation with eternal relations of authority and submission. Still, EFS theologians do not advance this argument to conclude that the Son has a created nature.
And this key distinction should make us wary of raising the heresy flag, quick to listen, and patient in our thinking.
Going Backward to Go Forward
Where do we go from here? The authors of Trinity Without Hierarchy in various ways point the way: they return to Scripture and the theological giants of the past to give us the theological resources to make sense of God (as much as finite creatures can when considering the infinite God).
While each essay in Trinity Without Hierarchy makes a contribution, the edited volume contains some advanced and some introductory essays which makes the book difficult to rate or recommend.
For example, Ian Paul writes a detailed but accessible chapter on the trinitarian theology of Revelation (85–107). While not easy, church leaders who regularly read books will understand the chapter.
Other essays may require a theological background such as Tyler Wittman’s brilliant essay on Thomas Aquinas and the Trinity (141–164). Without a theological background, it may take a few reads to learn the theological language. So readers who do the hard work of study can understand such essays, yet it will take effort.
Who should read this book? Anyone who wants to gift a theological culture of Godward meditation on the infinite depths of God to the next generation. It will stimulate your mind, warm your heart, and open your eyes to the beauty of the triune God.
But know that it will take work to read and absorb. And it might even take a few re-reads.
Disclaimer: the publisher provided me a review copy of the book.