The last two weeks have witnessed the break out of a civil war between complementarian Trinitarians. One side affirms the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS), while the other side affirms only the economic subordination of the son (classical or non-EFS). Put more simply, one side argues that the Son has eternally submitted to the Father, while the other side asserts that the Son only submits to the Father in history.
I chronicle the beginning of the civil war here, providing context for the rest of this article in which I detail the on-going debate during June 11th to June 21st. During this period, the war intensifies. On June 13th Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes, reputable patristic scholars, weigh-in on the Trinitarian debate, assaulting the position of Ware and Grudem (EFS). The patristic hammer weakens the EFS side, but they counterattack on the 14th and 20th.
Although the battle rages on, the metaphor of the civil war becomes less and less appropriate during this period of the debate. Many non-EFS proponents lack the aggressive tone of Goligher and Trueman, causing the debate to become less like a civil war and more like an intramural debate. Another significant development involves Reformed persons, citing the covenant of redemption as another argument against EFS: How can Christ agree with God the Father to redeem humanity, if the eternal relationship is one of submission and authority? In this case, Christ redeems out of duty rather than a willing love.
Such developments provide welcome additions to debate, which I aim to chronicle now.
The Bellum Period (June 11-21)
On the 11th, Scot McKnight highlights the recent battles. This marks the ends of the inaugural battles of the antebellum period of the civil war and the start of the bellum period.
Mike Ovey reposts his June 10th article at Credomag on June 11th, defending his EFS position. Importantly, Ovey argues that different wills between the Son and Father do not entail a distinction of being; rather, the differing wills of the Father and Son relationally distinguishes them: “The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons.”
On June 11th, Mark Jones becomes more alarmed about EFS, and he highlights important issues surrounding the debate. Against Ovey, Jones asserts that EFS necessarily divides the will of God into two, whereas Scripture and tradition teach that God’s internal and external will are one: “Eternal submission necessarily posits two wills in God. Simplicity goes out of the window; and, furthermore, the oneness of God (una essentia) is compromised.”
On June 12th, Mike Bird provides a summary of the debate, at one point linking to a fascinating article by Darren O. Sumner, who writes on Karth Barth’s view of the eternal subordination of the Son. Sumner concludes: “To identify Barth’s version of divine subordination as “functional” and not “ontological” is a concession to the contemporary conversation, and it is worth reminding ourselves that Barth does not use these categories. Whatever term we use to describe Barth’s view, it is clear that he does not fall neatly under either one. Therefore, with respect to the debate currently taking place in evangelical circles, he cannot readily be appropriated by either side” (p. 19).
Owen Strachan, the president of CBMW, responds to Trueman and Goligher on June 13th, defending ERAS. He advocates the beauty of submission, the rightness of making complementarian connections, and warns that we should affirm Scripture as our authority, so as not to fall into a New-scholasticism.
The Patristic Hammer
On June 13, Mike Bird quotes at length patristic scholar, Michel R. Barnes‘ take on the debate. After Barnes reads posts by Ware and Trueman, he notes: “I now feel deeply misled by Ware.” He also corrects Trueman’s claim that Nicene Orthodoxy means being an homoousian, a development that arises in 357 as a term of debate: “Simply claiming the homoousion is not enough to make one a Nicene Trinitarian.”
Mike Bird also hosts Lewis Ayres’ response to Bruce Ware (and mentions Grudem). Ayres is a foremost patristic scholar and particular expert in Nicene Trinitarian theology. Ayres dismisses Grudem: “what Wayne Grudem says about eternal generation is just plain daft.” As for Ware, he spends more time thinking through Ware’s position. In the end, he rejects Ware’s position: “I think Bruce’s theology is just a bit too simplistic.” Instead, Ayres highlights the classical Trinitarian expressions of generation to explain the fullness and unity of the Trinity and underscores the frailty of the human mind when considering the Trinity.
Concerning Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres’ public disagreement with Ware and others, Mike Bird comments:
To be honest, I mean Bruce Ware and friends no ill, I think they are sincere, they’re trying their best to be faithful theologians and readers of Scripture, and wanting to pursue practical applications. But I just don’t know if it is possible to salvage the subordinationist argument for marital submission after Lewis Ayres and Michel R. Barnes have left nothing but debris in their wake. Let me add- and this was not at my behest or invitation – that when two of the biggest names in fourth century trinitarian theology graciously dismantle your theological argument for basing human relationships on a subordinationist trinitarianism, the game is over. Time to abandon the SS Subordinationism, man the life boats, look for a nice Nicene Island for refuge to land on, and find less complicated ways of arguing for complementarianism.
D. Glenn Butner summarizes his 2015 JETS article on the 13th of June. One of the more clarifying articles during the whole debate, Butner carefully articulates the conciliar and biblical background to the doctrine of the Trinity, showing why Christ has both a human and divine will and how assigning will to a property of personhood does not work (against Ware).
On the 13th, Fred Sanders lists 18 theses on the Father and Son, as a way to wade into the debate, though he does not clearly take a position. Andrew Wilson writes a quick guide to the debate. Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup on the 13th push back against EFS, specifically of the CBMW flavour. Notably, Anderson and Alsup are not the first women to enter into the (e.g., here and here).
EFS Strikes Back
On June 14, Mike Ovey defends himself against Mike Bird’s accusation that EFS proponents are homoian and outside the bounds of Nicea: “The root of the problem is that some Complementarians are willing to ditch Nicene christology for Homoian christology if it will give them a bigger stick to use to keep women out of the pulpit! (Mike Bird).” Ovey denies both accusations and challenges his opponents: “The issue for those denying eternal submission is how they know either explicitly from the Scriptures or by good and necessary consequence that this and similar passages do not reveal the eternal relations.”
June 14th: Liam Goligher takes Ovey and the rest to task by reaffirming the Biblical argument for non-eternal subordination and highlighting how the EFS group rejects eternal generation, the one will of God, and (implicitly) divine simplicity.
June 15: Andrew Moody (and Mark Baddeley?) commends the doctrine of eternal generation. On the same day, Matt Emerson asks, What makes a doctrine Biblical? His goal is to provide Protestant evangelicals a theological method to formulate and articulate doctrine.
On the 15th of June, Mark Jones writes 12 propositions relevant to the debate and interacts with Fred Sanders. He concludes with this question: “How can the Son eternally submit to the Father if the simplicity of God is true, which means therefore that God has one essence and one will which is identical with his essence?”
On June 16th, Matthew Barrett (an EFS proponent) relates the Trinitarian debate to the covenant a redemption, a point particularly important for Reformed persons. Yet he surprisingly argues that the covenant of redemption, eternal as it is, suggests the Son’s eternal subordination. If the sons obeys the eternal covenant in history, he has obeyed it in eternity, suggesting a kind of EFS. Resourcing John Owen, Barrett also explains how eternal obedience allows for a unified will in God in relation to the covenant of redemption: ‘there is a new habitude of will in the Father and Son towards each other that is not in them essentially. I call it new, as being in God freely, not naturally.’ (emphasis mine; quote from Mark Jones’s article, though he does not want to use “obedience” language as I do.).”
Still on the 16th, Caleb Lindgren overviews the complementarian civil war on the Trinity, providing an entryway into the debate for newcomers. Michael Svigel supplies a taxis of different views on Christ’s subordination, defining 5 distinct positions. If someone would want to see how different people understand subordination, Svigel’s post is a good starting point.
Fred Sanders writes on the Trinity and gender on the 17th, reviewing his contributions to Trinitarian theology over the years and staying out of the debate directly, though he states: “In the course of these years I have become more deeply convinced that the doctrine of eternal generation is the key to understanding the Trinity biblically –precisely biblically, and not only traditionally– and less inclined to search for alternatives or even supplements.”
Scott Harrower on June 17th shows why the Trinitarian debate is important, describing “the tragic story of 17th century Anglicanism where there was a gradual decline from Nicene orthodoxy to Arianism to Unitarianism” (Mike Bird’s words). Harrower concludes with a harrowing question: “So ask yourself: ‘What kind of theological culture do I want to commend to future Christians with respect to the divinity of Christ?’ I know I want commend God the Son ‘true God from true God… of one being with the Father,’ and nothing short of that.”
June 20th: Andrew Moody and Mark Baddeley write part 2 of their discussion on the current Trinitarian debate. Trying to keep their head above the debate, Moody and Baddeley claim an aesthetic prejudice for their formulation of Trinitarian theology. In their post, they highlights issues surrounding the will of the Trinity, during which he brings up, again, the covenant of redemption (CoR). CoR begins to become another ground of contention this week because CoR is a jewel in the crown of Reformed Trinitarian theology.
On June 20th, Wayne Grudem defends his position (EFS) by challenging Goligher and Trueman to account for a series of Biblical verses and by listing 18 (or 19 including himself) theologians who teach the eternal subordination of the Son. He responds to the notion that EFS is a novel (I presume) and non-orthodox position, but Grudem believes otherwise: “…the accusations of unorthodoxy stated by Goligher and Trueman still seem to me to be unjustified, intemperate, and unprecedented in the history of the church.
Owen Stachan on June 20th endorses Grudem’s prior post with no uncertain terms: “[Goligher’s] bold claims regarding evangelical history now appear malnourished, for Grudem’s piece is the equivalent of theological nitroglycerine.” He further concludes: “While the witness of the theologians cited in Grudem’s post in no way proves the doctrine (this Scripture alone can do), we can know with certainty that ERAS is the very opposite of a “novel” perspective.”
Matt Emerson adds that the early church spoke of the order, taxis, and modes and subsistence as a way to relate persons, using language like generation and spiration: There is no sense in which these terms historically meant subordination related to authority or submission ad intra.” Hence, when Grudem cites pre-twentieth century theologians who hold to EFS, it seems unlikely that all these theologians meant subordination in such a way as it relates to authority-submission in God’s being (ad intra).
Mark Jones critiques Grudem’s writing on historical theology earlier that same day (June 20th). Jones strongly challenges Grudem’s use of historical sources and dismisses Strachan endorsement of Grudem’s post as immature. While one can lament the tone of Jones’ post (snarky), he adds to the discussion by poking holes into Grudem’s historical argument, which aims to justify the historical orthodoxy of EFS. He finishes by challenging EFS proponents to account for God’s simplicity and single will (“Submission only works with two wills”).
Liam Goligher responds on June 20th to Ware and Grudem, both of which affirm the homoousia of God, and counters: “It is impossible to affirm the homoousian without affirming eternal generation.” Concerning the creeds, Goligher notes,”More time is spent expressing this specific shape of personal differentiation among equals then expressing same substance.” Against Ware and Grudem who read Trinitarian roles into eternity, Goligher writes: “The very talk of roles and functions inside God’s one being is anachronistic; it is to read from the economy back into the ontology or into the immanent.” He underscores the importance of the covenant of redemption, locating the subordination of Christ in the work of his redemption and mediation, not in the being of God.
Mark Thompson answers the “theological question of whether this doctrine inevitably involves a drift into the subordinationist heresy associated with Arius.” Thompson answers in the negative, showing that EFS does not necessitate the heresy of Arius (making Christ inferior in being to God the Father). One significant exegetical argument involves Paul’s use of Son in 1 Cor 15:28, which leads Thompson to see the Son’s final act of submission as indicative of eternal relations between Father and Son: “There is something about the final act of the eschaton, all put under the feet of Christ and then brought to the Father by the Son, that is indicative of their eternal relationship as Father and Son.”
On June 21st Mike Bird updates readers of recent developments in of the debate, asking of Goligher: “Why does eternal generation make eternal functional subordination redundant? If the economic relationships do not express immanent relationships, at least in some way, then has there really been a revelation about God ad intra?”
One can expect further discussion surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son, but I expect the blitzkrieg of posts from either side will slow down and both sides will (have to) learn to live together. I’m hopeful that further dialogue between two two sides will bring consensus.
At this stage, the EFS group requires more precise language to describe their Trinitarian model, since the classical or non-EFS group can draw draw on about two millennia worth of biblical and theological reflection on the Trinity. This arms the non-EFS side with a huge arsenal of dogmatic description, while the EFS side is still inventing their weapons of theological debate.
The EFS group must develop these dogmatic tools soon, since, as challengers of the classical view of the Trinity, the onus is on them to biblically and dogmatically justify the EFS position. If they do so, it will only happen when they can prove their position from Scripture, using adequate theological language to describe the text. The Bible is the final arbiter of truth in such matters, as the Spirit guides Christians through Scripture into a mature knowledge of the truth, of God.
In my last post, I identify five areas of disagreement in the complementarian Trinity debate:
- 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?
To this list of five, I add two more:
- Does the covenant of redemption require only an economical subordination of the Son or not?
- Does it make sense to assign will to personhood or not?
Noel Washer says
What was snarky about Jones’s post in response to Grudem? Can you give an example? And you didn’t find any tone issues with Strachan?
Maybe I should take the snarky part out. And Strachan’s post was oddly triumphalistic. My desire for this debate is charity from both sides. I don’t want to be the tone police, but still…
Thanks for reading!
Andrew Smith says
Thanks for the summaries. I was following this and read many of the posts you mentioned throughout the summer, though apparently I missed quite a few.
Andrew Smith says
Error on text of my ‘website’ in previous comment…
Nigel Tomes says
I came late to this debate, but thanks for your chronology. For what it’s worth the Chinese preacher-teacher Watchman Nee taught a version of EFS which appears in his English publications — “Spiritual Authority” (CFP, 1972) & “Authority & Submission’ (LSM, 1988). For e.g W. Nee writes: “In the beginning was the Word [Jn. 1:1]…With God in the beginning there was a glory…The Father and the Son are equal, equipotent, coexisting, and existing simultaneously. But there is a difference in person between the Father and the Son. It is not a distinction in intrinsic nature but in arrangement in the Godhead…In the Godhead the Lord voluntarily chose to be the Son, submitting Himself to the authority of the Father… The Son’s position was a voluntary choice of our Lord. In the Godhead there is full harmony. In the Godhead there is equality, yet it is happily arranged that the Father should be the Head and that the Son should submit. The Father became the representation of authority, and the Son became the representation of submission.” [W. Nee, Authority and Submission, Ch. 5, (LSM 1988) pp. 39-40]
Thanks for pointing me to this quote. I know only a little of Watchman Nee, but I understand that he is quite influential.