A number of years ago theologians debated the nature of the trinity. Some held that the Son relates to the Father by submitting to him eternally, and the Father relates to the Son by eternally having authority over the Son.
Fair enough. Some Bible passages talk about the Son doing the will of the Father. But then why wouldn’t they? Jesus, the man Jesus Christ, always obeys the will of the Father according to his humanity since he came to live and die for our sake!
On the other hand, Christians also affirm the divinity of Christ, the Word of God. And so believers have understood Christ’s obedience to the Father according to his humanity, while confessing his equality according to his divinity. In the language of Paul in Philippians 2, Jesus took on the form of servant and became obedient to the point of death. Yet before becoming a servant, he enjoyed equality with God as a divine Person.
If equal, then the Father and Son share the same nature and thus the same power, activity, will and so on. After all, we confess that God is one.
However, in trying to work out how the one God is three persons, some evangelicals proposed that the Son eternally submits to the Father who eternally has authority over the Son. By these relations, the Father and Son might be eternally distinguished. And, some also claim, this relation of authority and submission explains why wives submit to husbands since marriage reflects the Trinity.
Three Problems Facing the Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission View
If it is not yet obvious, this argument creates three problems. First, it implies the Son’s will submits to the Father’s will. But that sounds like two discrete entities—two gods. God’s nature shares one will, not two. But even Bruce Ware, a proponent of eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS), in 2011 affirmed three wills in God. As of yet, I have not seen him retract or clearly deny this social trinitarian doctrine.
Secondly, the distinguishing relation of authority and submission defines the difference between Father and Son in terms of a greater-lesser hierarchy. But that sounds awfully similar to the arguments of Arius (256–336), Asterius (d. c. 341), and Eunomius (335–393). They tended to define the difference between Father and Son according to will. So Arius would argue that the Son is the product of the Father’s will. This group (called Arians and semi-Arians) still affirmed the divinity of Christ. They simply felt he could be divine even if in some sense he was less than the Father.
So one Arian confession read: “the Father is greater in honor and dignity and Godhead.” That is a problem. Yet Bruce Ware, a proponent of eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) 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.” The similarities here extend to defending the distinction of Father and Son through a greater-lesser hierarchy. Both groups, ERAS and the so-called Arians, affirm the divinity of Christ and the trinity. That’s not the point; it is what it means to say that Father is greater than the Son in the divine nature.
Third, the ERAS teaching ties itself neatly to male-female relations in marriage as an argument for wifely submission to husbands in imitation of the Father and Son’s relation of authority and submission. But to read our social relations back into God is disastrous.
We have bodies. Men and women are both persons with particular natures. But God is Simple, one, and bodiless. The analogy here might have some truth to it; but it cannot be simply said that the Infinite and Incorporeal One is as we are except by analogy. ERAS then often falls prey to social trinitarianism, the idea that the Trinity makes sense out of our society and social relations to one another.
Three Questions We Must Ask
So we have to ask: Does the Son submit to the Father eternally? How do the debates around the Trinity in and around 2016 affect how we think about the arguments? And does ERAS transgress the borders of Arianism?
Answer 1: the Son Does not Submit Eternally to the Father
According to his divinity, he is one with Father and Spirit. There is one God. So one will, one power, one nature, and so on. As Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395) writes, “If then there is one operation as well as one power, how can one assume a diversity of nature in those in whom we can find no difference of power and operation?” (Serm. 3, Lord’s Prayer, 53).
The Scriptural idiom when talking about the Word or the Divine Son emphasizes the unity of nature (e.g. John 1:1–3); reason shows that diversity of wills in the person of God or eternal relations of authority of submission create a division in the divine nature.
If the Father has authority and the Son submits from eternity, then their wills have a hierarchy; but God is one. Besides all this, these debates are partial repeats of the Arian debates of the fourth century.
Arius wanted to say that the Son is the product of God’s will from eternity—a sort of eternal generation according to will. The church recognized that led to a heretical belief—the inferiority of the Son to the superior Father. So the view was condemned.
Gregory of Nyssa, aware of such debates, rightly concluded: “The characteristic of the creature is to serve” and “The creature’s property is to serve; and service is not kingship” (Ibid. 53). In this context, Gregory compares Divinity with humanity—humans serve God not vice versa.
If service to God belongs to the creature, then it follows that eternal servitude to the Father’s will places Christ on the creaturely side of the divide. That is similar to the debate between Athanasius and the Arians. Athanasius affirmed that Christ created the cosmos and so must be included in the definition of God and not in any way a creature. And for this reason, Athanasius argued that the Arian position—that Christ is the product of the Father’s will through whom the Father created—made Christ a creature.
The Arians of course claimed Christ was eternal and divine. Yet they also affirmed that the Son is the product of will, and so somehow distinct from the Father, somehow logically posterior to the Father. The Father is alone unbegotten, they argued, and so if the Son was one in nature with the Father, then he too would be unbegotten. So the Son, they believed, must be somehow apart from the Father’s unbegotten nature. He is a product of the Father’s will, a way to preserve the trinity without falling prey (they thought) to logical contradition.
At the end of the day, the Arians saw the Son and Father united according to a relation of will while Athanasius and the Pro-Nicene party saw the unity as one of essence or being. Hence, the ERAS distinction of the Father’s authority and the Son’s eternal submission marks a hybrid between the Nicene and Arian definitions because it affirms the unity being and distinction of will in Father and Son.
While the debates of the fourth century are different than today, some similarities exist. ERAS theologians affirm things that Arius denied and deny things Arius affirmed. We will all be in heaven together. But these ERAS arguments now need to be thought about after the 2016 debates.
Answer 2: 2016 Clarified the Debate So That We Should Now Avoid Any ERAS Language
For example, in the 300s, it was orthodox to say that the Father was like the Son in every way. In the late 300s and especially after the Council of Constantinople in 381, that phrasing came to belong to the so-called semi-Arian position.
I think 2016 functions in a similar way today. In 2016, a lot of pastors, theologians, and scholars worked through the issue. A lot of clarity came. I recently came across a professor of Church History who studied Patristics for his PhD and recognized that in 2009 he made comments about the Father’s authority in the inner-life of God. Given the recent debates, he now would never use such language because of its connection to ERAS. Even Thomas Aquinas used the term authority to speak of God’s inner-life to some degree.
But now that 2016 has come and passed, we can see things more clearly and might want to avoid the term “authority” given its association with ERAS. More accurately, we would now need to explain what we mean by authority to avoid the connotations with ERAS that did not exist before 2016. Especially now because it seems so clear that affirming ERAS puts one outside the bounds of classical trinitarianism.
Let me give an historical example of what I am talking about. Before 381, Christians could affirm that the Son is like (homoi) the Father in every way and mean something orthodox. After 381, one really could not say that anymore because “like” (homoi) got taken to signify the semi-Arian (so-called) view
The debates in and around 2016 act like that in North American circles. Anyone trained in the 1990s believed in some form of ERAS or another without much thought. It was published, talked about, but rarely worked out in detail.
After 2016, the debates are better understood. And the stakes are higher. So it’s reasonable to have higher standards now of what it means to affirm ERAS.
Answer 3: ERAS Is not Arian But Concludes Similar Things
EFAS is neither Arianism nor semi-Arianism. I genuinely like Bruce Ware, and we will enjoy heaven together and talk about theology there. That said, the ERAS position implies a similar conclusion that Arius and others implied.
Arius claimed Christ was divine but a product of the Father’s will. So the Son creates and is before all things. But being divine as a product of the Father’s will and being divine by inclusion in one essence of God are two different things. Arius and others like him used some of the right words but implied different conclusions through their arguments.
In ERAS, the Son eternally submits to the Father, which seems to create a hierarchy in God among his two (?) wills. But God has one will. So does this imply a gradation of sorts in God? The Father is the Authority and the Son is the Submitter? Does this mean the Son is distinguished by the Father according to will? Does that sound too similar to the Arian position rejected by the church in the fourth century?
And more than that: does ERAS threaten the reality of God’s one Power, one Will, one Nature? It sounds that way when one spells the matter out. It seems to divide the one Simple God. But “there is no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4).
I recognize that ERAS proponents affirm the divinity of the Son. But so did the Arians. Which is why affirming the divinity of Christ does not make such an affirmation orthodox or rational since we have to ask what “divinity” means.
We can affirm something with our mouths and yet still transgress the truth. For example, the Arians did not like Athanasius’s (and the later Pro-Nicene) position that creation belonged to the one God alone; and so Christ must be included in the definition of the one God since he created. In contrast, the Arians and semi-Arians wanted a gradation in divinity. So their affirmation of Christ’s divinity in reality meant that he was less than the Father.
So despite the Arian claim to be orthodox Christians, they proved themselves not to be. I have to wonder if ERAS may fall prey to a similar problem?
Illustrating a Possible Problem with ERAS’S Affirmation of Christ’s Deity
Let me illustrate the point. In 357, an Arian confession read:
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, an ERAS proponent has written a number of similar statements:
- “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 in these quotes sounds similar to the so-called Blasphemy of Sirmium, quoted above. In 2011, he even affirmed multiple wills in God. More than that, Ware argues that the Father chooses to work with the Son but does not have to do so—almost requiring two wills in God which differ!
So while ERAS proponents agree that no gradation exists between Father and Son formally, they nonetheless imply eternal differences in which Father is greater than the Son and that there are distinct wills in the one God. And this creates the whole logical problem of how we should categorize ERAS.
ERAS is obviously not Arian or Semi-Arian in any exact way. But we have to admit that both arguments (Arianism and ERAS) minimally imply similar conclusions about the difference between Father and Son. If that is the case, I am much more cautious about this position than I would otherwise be.
Before 2016, most of us used sloppy language here. That’s forgivable. (I wrote a paper in seminary arguing for passibility!) Theology is not a club to beat up our enemies but an arm to put around a shoulder. It’s meant to draw us to worship God in truth and to taste and see that the Lord is Good.
I know that since the 2016 debates both Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have begun to think on these issues more closely. One or both of them affirm eternal generation, the traditional way to distinguish Father from Son.
We are all working out our thoughts. Due to the shift in 2016, we would be wrong to write someone off on these matters based on past statements. Yet the debates in and around 2016 provided the church with clearer thinking on these matters
It is now impossible to ignore the stakes. We know the questions and problems. So after 2016, I think we can have more confidence and push back with more strength against our brothers and sisters who affirm ERAS. What’s at stake here is God. And as Derek Rishmawy recently said:
“I know this may sound very Presbyterian, but the 1st and best reason for getting the Trinity right is to rightly worship and adore him, because we are to have no other gods before the Lord, and idolatry is a sin.”
More could be said
ERAS runs into many more problems than I noted here. The view reads Christ’s human obedience back into his divine life, which confuses divine and human natures. You can read more about this here. It has no obvious view of archetypal and ecyptal theology. It has a strong nominalist streak. It cannot distinguish the Holy Spirit from Son and Father. And probably much more.
At the end of the day, I will enjoy heaven with ERAS proponents. But I believe they damage worship of the triune God by their views.
And it is not just the conclusion: it’s the whole package of how and why they conclude what they do. I won’t be able to do it justice here, but the culture of theology that Nicaea gave us provides a life-giving approach to Scripture and worship that gets lost in these debates.
ERAS is wrong. Don’t affirm it. It’s not Arianism, but it makes at least one similar conclusion to Arianism. Minimally, this makes affirming ERAS undesirable. Maximally, we should reject the view because eternal generation and classical trinitarianism do a better job of distinguishing Father and Son (and Spirit) according to the idiom of Scripture and reason.