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.
Joseph Hamrick says
Hello, I just heard of this controversy from my wife, who listens to Theology Gals and was confused when they kept using acronymns (I thought I had escaped acronymns after I left the military), and I had a question.
I agree with your assessment. However, i’ve always had a difficult time interpreting 1 Corinthians 15:28: “28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
I know, having discussed with someone who holds to the Jehovah’s Witness heresy, it has been twisted to negate Christ’s deity, but the language used in that verse has always given me trouble.
Do you know of a good resource and/or commentary for that passage?
Don’t let these people answer such a question. Study to shew thyself approved. Ask through prayer for guidance. I am not there in this but I have learned you will be swayed if you go to someone who has made a decision and you have no idea how they came to it. This guy could be a Jesuit out to destroy the Protestant movement. This is a Catholic doctrine that really Protestant were debating along with so much heresy that was invented by the beast of Rome. So I for one am dubious at this point but seek to tread carefully. God said don’t try to understand him. So we have that issue, that we simply can’t. How can we understand God who has always been? This trinity matter is going to be a hard one but we know there is a hierarchy and this man is creating a bit of a smoke screen to say people to his way of thinking. There is a heck of a lot more than 1 Corinthians 11:3 but you’re going to have to do it with a bible in your hand, possibly a concordance a huge amount of prayer and your own brain switched on. Remember we are in the days of greatest deception and Jesus himself warned us to SEE TO IT we are not deceived
William Robinson says
How does the passage referring to Christ sitting at God’s right hand and interceding for us there fit into the non-EFS position?
It fits in this way: God forever united to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. So Christ rose bodily to the right of God where we intercedes for according to his one human-divine life.
But his role of intercessor seems specially suited to his humanity. Paul explains, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).
Christ intercedes for us in ways most appropriate to his humanity, and so his human will.
Frances Engle says
This definition leaves me a slightly unsettled: “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.”
I followed the EFS debate as it was being engaged. Having never heard of it or the doctrine of eternal generation, I did my best to research and understand. After reading your article today – and your thought provoking definition – I decided I needed a refresher and read Kevin Giles response to Wayne Grudem’s support of EFS, a 2012 piece by Keith Johnson at TGC, and comments by Denny Burk with links to a series by Lee Irons (which I will have to muster the energy to tackle). None of that makes me an expert; it has, however, made me a bit better informed. And I am still not sure about your explanation of eternal generation.
How does your definition square with this: “This doctrine teaches that the Father eternally communicates the divine essence to the Son without division or change so that the Son shares an equality of nature with the Father (sharing all the attributes of deity) yet is also eternally distinct from the Father” (Keith Johnson, TGC, 2012). The language of eternal communication was the common thread in my reading. Your language of the Son’s generation having happened in eternity past is throwing me. It sounds like, in eternity past, the Father literally generated the Son (which doesn’t agree with the biblically sound arguments for Trinitarian doctrine and against EFS in the rest of your post).
This is most likely a misunderstanding on my part (the strain on my brain is palpable). Your clarification and assistance are much appreciated.
Great question. Now, the doctrine of eternal generation uses a tonne of different metaphors. The key text is John 5:26, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” So the Father gave the Son life in himself. But this giving has to be eternal since the Logos is eternal (John 1:1; 17:5).
On this basis, you can say the Father eternally communicated life to the Son, eternally begat the Son, or what have you. Other images include the name Image—so the Son is the image of God (Col 1:15), meaning that God is the actor whose reflection is the Son.
So what I defined above means the same thing as Keith Johnson’s definition. I just used different language that connects to the name Eternal Generation (generate means to beget). So the Son is called the Only Begotten Son of God in John’s Gospel.
If you want to go further down the research train :), then I wrote a couple of other articles on the topic that might help:
First, for TGC Canada, I wrote this: https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/detrinitate/eternal-generation-god-will-always-share-goodness/
Second, for this website, I wrote this: http://wyattgraham.com/how-names-of-god-reveal-the-nature-of-god/
Frances Engle says
I read the additional articles you suggested, and they were helpful. I will have to marinate in all of this, continue to mine the scripture’s treasure of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ, and do lots of thinking. But the work of studying biblical doctrine is only soul-satisfying and worth it if the effort is transformed into a time of fellowship with our Lord. And, to that end, He has always been gracious.
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my query. Your encouragement and wisdom are very much appreciated.
Ross Bassingthwaighte says
Thank you, Wyatt, for a thoughtful and cogent summation of the debate. For Frances, Joseph, and others that may want to dig further into this discussion, I would recommend the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals website at reformation.org and read the blogs on eternal submission, particularly the excellent summaries by Alistair Roberts. Those blog submissions helped me immensely.
Frances Engle says
Thank you much, Ross. I believe the website you are directing us to is reformation21.org; and there is, indeed, much offered about this subject.
Joe Horn says
I confess to being more than a little confused by the level of heat some of these discussions have generated. And I think that we may be engaged in more than a little theological hair-splitting. For instance, I think it’s easily possible to affirm both eternal generation and eternal functional submission and I don’t think you have to work backwards from 1 Corinthians 11:3, which seems almost wholly irrelevant to the discussion to me. I am not convinced in my own mind that the two are fundamentally incompatible, but perhaps that’s a shortfall in my own theological understanding? I’d love to read your take on 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, and especially v. 28, which seems to outright teach that Jesus will be eternally subject to the Father.
C. Boyd Murrah, Jr. says
Does the so-called “Covenant of Redemption” comport well with the principal arguments that the blog post argues from, since this “covenant” is usually described as a “negotiation” between the Father and the Son?
Mark Kreitzer says
Five Solutions to Problems with ERAS/EFS: ERFL
Thesis: “Everlasting Relationships of Following-and-Leading” (ERFL) within the imma-nent Trinity are biblical, securely based on five biblical and logical grounds. I am establishing them in a series of articles but summarize without much documentation though see several sources in the bibliography
First, the foundational presupposition of the anti-ERAS/EFS position is certainly false. That axiom, borrowed from Neoplatonic influenced philosophy, is “true unity cannot always exist with real everlasting [role] diversity within the immanent Trinity.” Throughout Scripture the warp and woof of the Trinitarian presupposition is woven and cannot be denied without first using it to try to deny it. The Godhead is truly one and really three at the same time and has always been so. The one is equally ultimate with the three. Prioritizing the One tends to modalism, prioritizing the three tends to tritheism.
Furthermore, the first corollary of the anti-presupposition is also false. This corollary is, “equality of persons” and “true diversity of everlasting role” are not compatible. A second corollary is also certainly false, i.e., “being an always-follower is incompatible with everlasting equality of persons.” A third corollary, i.e., “the immanent Three could have exchanged economic roles if the three has decided otherwise” is also certainly false. Scripture reveals that Father-God is always the Leader (planner, creator, provider, and revealer); the Word is always the instrument of God’s plan, creation, providence, and revelation; the Spirit is always their executor. Their roles cannot be ex-changed yet the Three have always ever-moved in perfect coordination and complementarity in per-fect interpersonal love, power, and perichoretic unity. For example, the Father raises Jesus from the dead – Acts 2:24; Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 4:14; the Spirit raises him – Rom 8:11; 1 Pet 3:18; the Son raises himself – Jn 2:19, 10:18 does not contradict what the first proposition claims.
Second, and most importantly, Scripture mandates the ERFL. For example, John 1, 5, 6, and 17 are incomprehensible without their teaching on the equal ultimacy of true unity and real role diversity within the single Godhead. This also applies, for example, to the baptismal accounts as well. Hence, Christ’s incarnational relationships with the “living Father” (Jn 6:57) and Spirit must be interpreted without the distorting Neoplatonic glasses of the DDS to be comprehensible and to see the scriptural reality as it actually is.
Scripture reveals patri-leadership as existing before the creation, proceeding into creation with the active-and-necessary involvement of the Word-Son (see e.g., Heb 1:2, 10), continuing up through the Word’s ascension (Heb 1:2-3; Col 1:16-17), and enduring up until at least the time when the YHWH-Messiah, the Son, hands over the whole conquered and reconciled universe to his Father, who will then become all in all (2 Cor 15:28). Before and after that beginning and end-ing, we have no data except logical deduction as far as I can discern. Since Scripture alone reveals the nature of the Triune God, it is logical that the revealed relationships existed before the Pactum Salutis (in the divine time-strand before the creation) and after the End in a time strand to be deter-mined by the Father. Did the “living Father” do all this by himself without consultation? No, be-cause the three never operate separately as well shall presently see.
Fundamentally, then, clear Scripture must always be authoritative above every tradition, es-pecially that of DDS (Doctrine of Divine Simplicity) – the backbone and foundational presupposi-tion of the Egalitarian Trinity view. Hence, we do not need to double-down on that tradition to maintain purity of doctrine if and when significant doubts about that or any other traditional dogma arise based on clear scriptural and logical grounds (WCF 1.6). Certainly, we do need to interact with tradition, but also, we must interrelate with devastating Scriptural and logical critiques of it from all quarters. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and [cross-]examines him” (Prv 18:17 ESV). For example, with respect to the DDS and because of the devas-tating biblical and logical fortress-breaking salvos against it, there is no way to put the underlying Pandora-spirit back into its box. This is certainly contrary to what some recent protagonists of this Neoplatonic simplicity syncretism may want to cajole and perhaps beguile us into thinking.
Third, ERFL clearly then rejects “eternal atemporal generation of the Son” as inco-herent. ERFL replaces it with a Scripture-derived perspective that treats the “only-begotten” lan-guage as metaphorical, specifically as a simile to describe the everlasting Father – Son relationship. To take this position is essential for Muslim evangelism as I see it. For example, notice John’s ex-plicit use of simile in John 1:14: “indeed we saw his glory, glory like/as an only-begotten one alongside of the Father” [καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ Πατρός]. John does not use realistic language of the Father – Son relationship as the Qur’an accuses Chris-tians of doing.
Only by seeing their relationship as metaphorical can the Scripture terms monogenēs (μονογενēς, only-begotten) and prōtotokos (πρωτότοκος, first-born) become understandable. The classic Neoplatonic syncretism with its eternal begottenness doctrine, however, must degenerate into incoherency (“mystery”) and ultimately apophatic silence.
Eternal generation and the related concepts do not protect from tri-theism (e.g., the three high gods of LDS-Mormonism) or undifferentiated monotheism (monadic anti-trinitarianism of Orthodox Judaism and Islam following Maimonides and Avicenna, for example). Last, declaring that the Father begets and the Son is begotten from eternity cannot explain how an atemporal causal principle can be coherent without a time strand (divine metaphysical time), while smuggling in a subtle Arian-like presupposition.
Fourth, biblical Trinitarian theology does not actual work with the neoplatonic syn-cretism of the DDS (doctrine of divine simplicity) without resorting to “mystery,” that is incomprehensibility and incoherency. Biblical doctrine is antithetical to Neoplatonism and Brahmanism, by Paul’s own statements (1 Cor 1:20-21, 3:18-21). Certainly, the Father’s single Being shared by the Godhead does not have three dissoluble “parts” but is three persons unified in a perichoretic-interpenetrating unity within the Father’s single being. God is not simple. The three-dimensional universe is perhaps the best illustration (Eph 3:14-19). The properties of conscious-ness, emotion and intellection belong to each person’s distinctiveness but decision-making belongs to the whole Godhead led by the Father. This seems to be much more in line with a biblical true teaching on inseparable operations. DDS destroys the equal ultimacy of the unity and diversity within the single divine Being.
ERFL based as it is on Scripture must be reintegrated into all the other three loci of theolo-gy when using the Pauline three-fold systematizing as the basis for theology (Eph 4:1-7): One Fa-ther, One Lord, and One Spirit.
Fifth, some Christians may find the language of leadership and following within the immanent Trinity unsatisfactory when speaking of God but this is irrelevant if contradicto-ry to Scripture.
Perhaps some traditional forms of theology have affirmed no eternal or everlasting asym-metrical relationship in God of leadership and following though, for example, Anglican Mike Ov-ey, Baptists Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and Sam Waldron beg to differ. It may cut “against the grain of trinitarian theology” because the classic Neoplatonic syncretism (DDS) attempts to show how the Father, Son, and Spirit are one-simple God without any internal differentiation. The simple God teaching ultimately results logically in a quaternity not a Tri-unity (Trinity): A generic God, and also a chimeric Father and Son and Spirit in that generic divinity. Certainly and correctly does the tradition verbally and explicitly reject such a quaternity because it must ground something in Scripture, yet it is a logical conclusion of the DDS if pushed to the logical extreme.
Traditionally, some Arian theologians used subordinationist language to indicate that the Son was somehow less than the Father. Yet, no EFS or ERAS advocate would make the claim that since the Son and Spirit have always followed the Father, they do not possess equal value, im-portance, and glory as he does. Sure, the language of eternal submission “feels worrisome,” hence Dr. Ware has proffered the ERAS acronym. I have the ERFL modification because Scripture, however, rejects atemporality, DDS, eternal-atemporal generation of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. Last the statement, “when the next generation no longer has the background and sensibility that traditional trinitarian theology has embedded into Christianity … then how easy will it be to fall into theological ditches?” seems ultimately unreflective and is certainly untrue. A syncretistic tradi-tion cannot protect us, only the Father’s Word and Spirit can.
Sixth, some versions of EFS may start with a husband-wife relationship and work up to Trinitarian theology. However, this is exactly opposite of what Scripture teaches is the correct process. Humans, created in the image of God reflect him. Thus true analogical language, that is metaphors and similes with a univocal core can and must be used to understand the imma-nent Trinity. Though note that I do not believe that true analogy vis a vis the Thomist analogy of equivocation does not include a comprehensive univocal one-to-one correspondence.
Certainly one of key text here is 1 Corinthians 11:3, but also notice 1 Corinthians 2:22-23; Colossians 3:3; and see 1 Corinthians 8:6. So biblical theology does indeed begin with God, and works down to humanity. However, the Father, the one true God by the Lord’s own words (Jn 17:3), designed the human marriage and ecclesial head-body language to be revelatory analogies of the intra-Trinitarian, perichoretic inter-relationship in the Godhead (Eph 5:20ff; Jn 17). The origi-nal creational design-norm (husband’s loving leadership, wife’s respect, counsel and following) does indeed reflect some concrete aspects of the relationship between the Father with the Son and Spirit.
How then does the ERFL work out in marriage and the Christ-following community? This is what I call “libertarian complementarianism.” It is directly opposed to top-down hierarchical complementarianism, which I believe is an egregious error in orthopraxy. These same principles apply to Christ’s ecclesial communities and to a certain lesser extent to civil government that has no direct mandate for male-female relationships. In summary, God the Father in mandatory consulta-tion with the Word and Spirit mandates freedom within boundaries for family and ecclesia.
Therefore, we can understand some exact things about the immanent Trinity via created analogical relationships but never comprehensive truth about the Godhead because of the Creator-creature distinction. That distinction is not an infinite ontological gap as in the Neoplatonic DDS, but an unbridgeable gap between God (the Father), his Word and Spirit who share his unbounded divine Being and all that is not-God, that is the visible and invisible creation as Paul reminds us.
Pastor Rob says
I can’t begin to wrap my head around what humans have done to the pure and simple word of God – wow! This is the best advice you’re ever going to hear and if you follow through with it, your eyes will be opened like never before. In one night or weekend, you can have a much better understanding of God and the entire gospel than you ever imagined. You’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of every theology school graduate – if you do it properly. It sounds easy, but it’s a little tougher than you might think.
Here it is: Completely forget everything you know, or think you know, about God and just read the Bible like a book. Don’t overcomplicate it. It is not difficult to understand in the least. Our loving Father didn’t leave us with a Bible that only brilliant minds can comprehend. Anyone who truly understands God should know that that’s the last thing He would have done. While I don’t agree that God is “simple” by any stretch, I do know that His gospel message is simple, meant for all, and that He’s choosing the simple things of the world to show the wise to be fools. The long post above with all the big words and advanced, unbiblical ideas and theories is exactly the kind of talk that has no place in God’s church. Plato, Socrates, and the boys can sit around and talk that malarkey, but I choose the simple truths of the teachings of Paul and the other Bible writers. Where did people get the insane idea that God wanted them to go WAY beyond the scriptures with their speculations and to create new doctrines and teachings that the Bible never laid out? We all know that Paul instructed us to NOT do exactly that! So why do it? Not one good thing has ever come from it. All of the “beyond what is written” speculations have only fractured Christianity, caused schisms, and even many Christian-on-Christian murders! Do you think God’s Holy Spirit was directing this church activity, or does it sound more like an evil, deceiving spirit at work?
Is God’s Word not sufficient? Is more needed? Did our heavenly Father forget to add Advanced Christology, or any of the other oft-speculated topics at the end of Revelation?
Back to the assignment: Pick any one of the gospels to read, then go to Acts and read from there to the end of Revelation. The hardest (and MOST important) part will be disregarding current beliefs and leanings, with the intent of reading God’s word with fresh eyes as if it’s all brand new to you. Personally, I had to do this exercise several times to get to the pure understanding that I now have, but it is hands-down the most valuable thing I’ve ever done in my life! I can’t possibly recommend it enough. If every Christian did this, it would change Christianity as we know it (with it’s 4,000 or so denominations). There really is only one way to understand God’s Word – the correct way. And it’s not hard to do. I hope you will take the time and put in the effort. It will be worth it. May God bless all those hungry for His truth!