In 2016 a number of online articles debated the question of how the Son relates to the Father. These articles followed from previously published works which argued that the Son eternally submits to the Father. And now a number of subsequent books on the topic have reached the presses.
For all the bad that appears during debates like these, the theological benefit through blogging, publishing, and conversations has outweighed the negatives. Many Christians today have re-engaged the Trinity and re-enflamed their love for God through their newly found knowledge.
Yet some people have recently heard about the debate, having not tracked it and perhaps not having read the authors who participated. For that reason, it seems worthwhile to lay out the issues simply to help those who have recently heard about the discussion.
Eternal Functional Submission (EFS)
A number of Evangelical theologians explained how the Son relates to the Father in this way. First, they observed how Christ always obeyed the Father in his earthly life. Then they considered key passages like 1 Corinthians 11:3.
Primarily on this biblical basis, they proposed that the Son eternally functionally submits to the Father. To safeguard the unity of God, they explained that just as husbands are the heads of wives and wives submit to husbands yet remain equal, so also the Son submits to the Father as his head while remaining equally divine.
So this view appears to check the box of being both biblical and orthodox (God’s unity remains). But others felt that EFS supplanted the traditional understanding of how the Son relates to the Father and could not sustain traditional orthodoxy.
Five Problems with EFS
After some reflection, Christians recognized a number of problems with the EFS view. First, it supplanted the traditional theological words to describe how the Father and Son relate, namely, eternal generation.
Eternal generation means that the Son was born of God. As the Son, he is the Son of the Father who begat him. But since both the Son and Father are divine and therefore eternal, then this begetting or generation had to have happened in eternity past. Hence, the doctrine took the name eternal generation.
Eternal generation and the related concepts described how the Son relates to the Father, as the one Begotten from the Begetter. This relationship protected the Trinity from falling into tri-theism (three gods) or undifferentiated monotheism (no tri-unity).
To add that the Son eternally submits to the Father complicates what Christian theology worked hard to clarify, namely, that the Father and Son are one God distinguished by their relations of origin: the Father begets and the Son is begotten from all time.
Second, the reason why Trinitarian theology works is because God is simple. Simplicity means that all that is in God is God; he has no parts. So when we confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, we do so in a simple way. God does not have three parts to him. He has three subsisting persons whose unity is guaranteed because God is simple.
To add the notion of submission to God’s eternal relations makes simplicity difficult to maintain. For if God is simple, then he has one simple essence. And the properties of will, power, and intellect belong to God’s simple nature. Three subsisting persons subsist in this one nature according to simplicity.
The relationships like begetting or spiration for the Spirit say only enough to distinguish one person from another person in God. But to say that the Son always submits to the Father implies more than one will in God.
But if God has more than one will, how can he be one God and how can he be simple? Two wills imply two beings. And two wills in a simple being would just be one will—or how can two faculties of desire exist within a simple nature in which will is God’s essence?
Besides, in Scripture God works according to his will—not to a multiplicity of wills. So while EFS does not directly teach multiple wills in God, its position does not fit easily into the doctrine of simplicity. And the doctrine of simplicity needs to be in place for Trinitarian theology to work.
So EFS disrupts a system of theology—and not just any system but the base system from which all other theology comes (i.e., the doctrine of God). It does not integrate well into traditional systems of theology.
Third, no Scriptural passage requires EFS. Even the most challenging biblical passages like Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done,” makes sense according to the evangel story of Christ’s incarnation.
Christ, the Logos, assumed a human nature. And that human nature has the property of a human will. So in Christ, both a divine and a human will exist. At the garden, as Maximos the Confessor so famously articulated, Christ handed over his human will to the Father on our behalf, as our substitute.
Fourth, Christians have found the language of submission or its related cousin, subordination, entirely unsatisfactory when speaking of God. Language like this tends to soften the resolve of trinitarian affirmations.
And no traditional form of Christian theology has affirmed eternal submission in God. It cuts against the grain of trinitarian theology since this theology aims to show how the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God.
Traditionally, Christians have used language like subordination to indicate (wrongly) that the Son was somehow less than the Father. While no EFS advocate would make this claim, the language of eternal submission feels worrisome.
When the next generation no longer has the background and sensibility that traditional trinitarian theology has embedded into Christianity (but the new EFS version of these things), then how easy will it be to fall into theological ditches?
Fifth, some versions of EFS start with a husband-wife relationship and work up to Trinitarian theology. The key text here is 1 Corinthians 11:3. But theology begins with God, and we work down to humanity. This argument reverses the order of theology by making the human analogue to God to the defining feature of God’s relationship in himself.
Certainly, we can begin with observations in creation. But we have to move back up to God via analogical relationships. We have a mind and are created in God’s image. So we can understand that God too has a mind. But we must then affirm that God is infinite and eternal. So his mind must differ by degree despite relating similarly to us.
Is EFS still Popular?
While many Christian leaders have left EFS behind, its theology remains. Wayne Grudem whose influential Systematic Theology has sold hundreds of thousands of copies teaches EFS. For this reason, every student and teacher who uses Grudem’s textbook may still teach EFS.
It should be noted that both Grudem and Ware recently affirmed eternal generation. So their personal views may continue to change. But their published views by definition cannot.
This reality means that many young students and Christian workers will believe in EFS. It will be up to Christian leaders to show why EFS does not hit the mark.
And for those like me who reject EFS, we need to show kindness and patience with those who disagree with us. Everyone lives within a social context. And not everyone has had the opportunity or time to think through these issues.
Besides, EFS proponents affirm God’s unity even though their position threatens this doctrine. Meaning, their position may be wrong; but they affirm the right things. So we need to conclude that this debate is an internal one among friends.