There is a crucial aspect of the debate over Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) / Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS) which I attempted to draw attention to in my first post on the topic, and then again last week, but which has — at least in some quarters — continued to fall by the wayside. As I’ve continued to read material old and new from all sides, I’ve become convinced that the entire matter finally hinges on this point. It is the innermost basis for the objectors’ case against EFS / ERAS; and dealing with this point properly and rigorously would empower proponents to disarm objections and establish the orthodoxy of their view.
That point is the elementary distinction in systematic theology between God’s inner being (ad intra, or the “immanent” or “ontological” Trinity) and God’s being for creatures (ad extra, or the “economic” Trinity).
Both Ware and Grudem (as well as a number of their supporters) have made public replies to their critics during the course of this most recent debate. They have pushed back on objections; suggested numerous figures from the history of the Christian tradition who also use language of eternal “subordination;” and sought to restate their intentions with clarity. What they have not done in these posts is to articulate EFS / ERAS with respect to God’s life ad intra and ad extra, the immanent and the economic Trinity. (Ware’s July 4 post mentions the distinction briefly, but only in the course of his explanation as to why he thinks John 5:26 does not provide sufficient exegetical support for the doctrine of eternal generation.)
This has only left EFS / ERAS claims half-hewn and opaque, and invited further critique by those who, to be honest, have not had much to work with other than the apparent implications of what Grudem, Ware, et al have actually said. That certainly has left plenty of room for legitimate criticism; but the whole enterprise has proved rather intractable in the absence of a common denominator. Well-known conceptual tools such as “ad intra” and “ad extra” will provide just such a basis, so that we no longer need to reason from extrapolation and implication. We must know what EFS / ERAS advocates are actually saying.
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Let me explain why I think this set of concepts is absolutely necessary for the conversation to make any further progress. First, some starting points I hope both sides would embrace as uncontroversial:
- God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share the one divine essence, and so in essence they are equal.
- With respect to the economy of salvation, the Son submits to God the Father. Many, many biblical passages demonstrate that the Father has authority and sends, and the Son submits to that authority and is sent.
- This submission entails the Son’s assumption of a human nature (including a human will, according to the conciliar tradition). But economic submission is not limited to the Son’s humanity, since the Son submits and is sent by the Father even before Mary’s conception. (The history of interpretation of Phil. 2:5-7 is interesting here. Is the subject of kenosis the eternal Son, or the incarnate Christ?)
In other words, there is no dispute that the Son submits to the Father in the economy, or in God’s life ad extra. The thing under dispute — the only thing under dispute — is whether this submission also obtains in the immanent Trinity, in God’s life ad intra. This is why specificity here is crucial. But it is crucially absent from most of what Ware, Grudem, and their supporters have written.
The result is that opponents have come to believe that this is precisely the claim that EFS / ERAS supporters are making — that subordination also obtains in the immanent Trinity. (As we will see below, their suspicions in this regard are entirely correct.) But the ERAS distinction between “equal in essence” but “subordinate in roles” is drawing the line in the wrong place: this is not the immanent-economic distinction at all, because they say that what is entailed by “roles” is not merely God’s economic activity but God’s own inner life. More on this in a moment.
It is at this point that the divine processions, and specifically the ancient doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, enters the conversation. And, from the other side of the argument, supporters here invoke the Bible’s language of “Father” and “Son” as essential to who God is: God does not just take on this relationship in the economy, but from eternity God is and always has been Father and Son. Of course these two sets of concepts are not opposed to one another. But the competitive ways in which they are being used illustrates the fact that the debate is lacking a common denominator.
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Until the proponents of EFS / ERAS are more explicit it is difficult to adjudicate precisely where they stand with respect to subordination and the immanent Trinity. Since they avoid this language my goal here is to seek out an answer to the question of whether proponents do, in fact, predicate subordination of the immanent Trinity. The immanent-economic and ad intra–extra apparatus is absent from Ware’s and Grudem’s recent posts, from those of Owen Strachan, and from the relevant portions of Ware’s 2005 book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It receives slight attention from Michael Ovey by way of direct response to Liam Goligher. (Strachan’s post does include one use of ad intra, indicating that he does indeed affirm that the Son submits to the Father in the inner life of the Trinity, though this is not fully explained.)
I have, however, found the language used in a relevant passage in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994). This, I think, is revealing:
This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Harper Collins, 1994), p. 251
At first blush it seems as though Grudem is predicating the subordinate relationship of Father and Son strictly in the economy: that relationship speaks to their respective “roles,” and not their shared essence. However, a bit further in this quotation he concludes that this “economic subordination” is necessary in order for there to be a distinction of persons at all; without it “we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.” If there is no subordination “in the economy,” according to Grudem, there is no eternal Trinity.
In short, then: When Grudem does make use of the classical immanent-economic distinction, he misuses it. Either (a) he does not believe that subordination is restricted to the economy; or (b) he makes the triune being of God contingent upon the economy; or (c) he holds that God is eternally, but not ontologically, triune (a form of Modalism).
As I read the statement above, at least one of these options must be true of Grudem’s theology. I think the reading he would favor is (a): though he uses the specifier “economic” here, he in fact means to reference the immanent Trinity — God in God’s inner being, without reference to creation or the drama of salvation. God is, and always has been, Father, Son, and Spirit.
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More explicit is this 2006 essay by Bruce Ware, which has been reproduced on the website for the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. [Thanks to Steven Wedgeworth for finding it.] An extended version is published in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (ed. Sanders and Issler).
Ware states his thesis in this way:
[W]hile Scripture clearly teaches, and the history of doctrine affirms, that the Father and Son are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully the identically same divine nature, yet the eternal and inner-trinitarian Father-Son relationship is marked, among other things, by an authority and submission structure in which the Father is eternally in authority over the Son and the Son eternally in submission to his Father.
Ware is clear throughout this essay that “inner-Trinitarian” means the immanent Trinity. Subordination is not restricted to the economy, but is who God is in the relation of the divine persons:
[W]hat distinguishes the Father from the Son and each of them from the Spirit is instead the particular roles each has within the Trinity — both immanent and economic — and the respective relationships that each has with the other divine Persons.
The body of the essay sets out to demonstrate this from (1) the names “Father” and “Son”; (2) what Scripture says about the Son’s submission in the incarnation; (3) what Scripture says about the Son’s submission in “eternity past” and in “eternity future”; (4) acknowledgement of all of this by the ancient tradition (citing Justin, Novatian, Hilary, and Augustine). Most of this materially is actually not objectionable, because Ware here is only demonstrating the undisputed case that the Son submits to the Father in the economy. Even his arguments and supporting texts for “eternal” submission pertain only to the economy (as I have argued elsewhere). That is because when theologians speak of the divine missions — of the Father sending and the Son being sent, and of the Son returning to the Father at the end of all things and being subjected to him (1 Cor. 15:28) — we are speaking exclusively of the economy of grace, the life of God ad extra.
Ware thus fails even to address, let alone to prove, his thesis that authority and submission are true of the “inner-Trinitarian” life, which I take to be the immanent Trinity.
But does Ware even wish to predicate submission of the immanent Trinity? A number of confusing statements in Ware’s July 4, 2016 piece suggest that he might not. This includes those things he believes pertain to God ad intra and which are strictly ad extra. Consider the following:
… authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser.
Here elsewhere Ware seems to equate the immanent Trinity with divine “ontology,” and ontology strictly with the nature (or one, shared essence) of God. Because authority and submission pertain to relations and not to nature, it would seem natural to conclude that Ware regards these as functions of the economy. That would be reassuring; except that, if he follows the tradition, he must affirm that the distinction of three persons in God is also ontological and not merely economic (which would be Modalism).
In other words: “ontology” is not reducible to the one divine nature; it also includes the distinction of divine persons (and, traditionally, their manner of relating viz. generation and spiration). Their manner of relating cannot be separated out from ontology, as if it were merely “functional.” If relations are basic to the persons, and the persons are basic to the Trinity, then ERAS is arguing (obliquely) that relations are basic to the Trinity.
The only other possibility for them, it seems to me, would be Modalism.
Thus it seems fair for critics to conclude that Ware does intend to locate authority and submission in the inner life of God: they are basic to who God is. It is conceivable that Ware has changed his mind on this point since 2006. But this seems unlikely, since the overt affirmation of immanent subordination in God in that essay coheres so well with the rest of the more vague language (e.g. “in God” and “eternal”) of ERAS supporters.
That leads me to one final observation and objection regarding the language in which the ERAS case has been expressed.
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The use of the term “eternity” and its cognates by EFS / ERAS proponents is particularly addling. In the absence of the language of “immanent” and ad intra, it seems that the adjective “eternal” has operated as a way to stress that the submission of the Son is basic to the divine life — and not something assumed or taken up at some point in time (e.g. creation, or the incarnation). In other words, many proponents appear to mean “the immanent Trinity” when they refer to these “eternal” relations of authority and submission. As we have seen, Ware’s 2006 piece addresses the incarnation, “eternity past,” and “eternity future” and believes that in so doing he has made a comprehensive case for the “inner-Trinitarian” relations.
Because the language of “eternity” is not inherently specific in this regard, however, it is not absolutely clear that this is what they mean. As I’ve explained elsewhere, it is possible for theologians to speak both of the Trinity ad intra and ad extra when speaking of eternity. The immanent relations of procession (the Son’s begottenness and the Spirit’s spiration) are “eternal.” But likewise God’s decision of election, as well as what Reformed theologians call the “covenant of redemption,” are also eternal (that is, they occur prior to the creation of all things, time included). Therefore using the term “eternity” does not designate that one’s referent is now the immanent Trinity.
Clarity, then, is called for. Proponents of eternal submission cannot claim that they are being misunderstood and misconstrued so long as they continue to use complex theological language in imprecise ways, and to avoid the theological grammar taught to every seminarian for generations. That leads me to my conclusion.
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Are EFS / ERAS supporters actually making the claims that their critics believe them to be making? That the subordination of the Son to the Father is true of the immanent Trinity (if in a relational, not essential sense)? There is a great deal of room to conclude that they are indeed. But it also seems plausible that at least some are not speaking of the immanent Trinity at all — but only articulating the dynamic of authority and submission in the life of God ad extra and not intending any such implications of subordination in the inner life of the Trinity. (That is my charitable reading, which Ware’s 2006 essay makes difficult to maintain.)
If this is just a misunderstanding, then it is their choice of language that has caused this confusion. They will write of God’s inner life, of the Trinity itself, etc., of eternal and necessary relations, all while (I suspect) actually still talking about the economic Trinity. They are incredulous at accusations of deviation from historic orthodoxy, though it is their own lack of care and precision that has brought all this about.
On the other hand, if Ware’s 2006 essay is actually the key to all of this — a rare moment when an advocate of eternal subordination confesses that this relation of authority and submission does indeed obtain in the immanent Trinity — then at least we can continue onward from that point of clarity, and have conversations about whether there is room for a relational subordination in the inner life of God within the confession of historic Christianity.
If this is what must be done for this discussion to go anywhere, then I call upon Professors Grudem and Ware (as well as other EFS / ERAS advocates) to please restate their teaching using these terms. If the concepts are understood and used properly, it will bring an end to all doubt, suspicion, and speculative extrapolation from teaching that heretofore has been, for the most part, only implied. This is the only way for clarity, and for peace in the church.
The question I consider here can be summed up this way: Can God agree with Himself? What would it mean for God to agree with God?
The ongoing debate over the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son to the Father (also called ESS, “Eternal Subordination of the Son,” or more benignly ERAS, “Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission”) has opened up a number of related avenues for continued discussion. The conversation has stirred up questions of the will, wills, and willing in the Trinity; the relationship between God’s life ad intra and God’s activity ad extra; just what the ancient doctrine of eternal generation is, and why it has historically been regarded as crucial; questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and what adherence to the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople entails; and more.
In this post I’d like to pursue a topic of special concern to those of us in the Reformed tradition: the doctrine of the pactum salutis, the eternal covenant of redemption, an eternal agreement (“pact,” contract, or covenant) between God the Father and the Son by which the triune God determined to enter into the world and redeem sinners. According to the divine missions the Father sends and the Son is sent. The Father commands the Son to take on flesh and make atonement for sin, and the Son willingly obeys.
All of this, according to the Reformed scholastics, occurred in eternity and provides the basis for the temporal covenant of grace. A classical statement comes from the Dutch theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), summarized here by W. J. Van Asselt:
The council of peace involves the triune God and has its own oeconomia — an economy with specific legal relationships. To formulate it more precisely: the concilium pacis or pactum salutis describes a relationship among the three Trinitarian persons in a negotiated agreement (negotium) in which these persons act as legal parties who are mutually obligated to each other. The Father functions both as the Lawgiver who requires that righteousness be rendered and that sin be punished in the person of the Son, and as the all-wise Sovereign, who appoints his Son as sponsor in order to reveal his mercy in his dealing with his creatures.
W. J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius: (1603-1669) (Brill, 2001), p. 230
John Owen (1616-1683), a contemporary of Cocceius, structures this Trinitarian covenant this way (as summarized by John Fesko):
Regarding the pactum salutis (or covenant of redemption), Owen explains that there are five characteristics: (1) the Father and the Son mutually agree to the common goal of the salvation of the elect; (2) the Father as principal of the covenant requires the Son to accomplish all that is necessary to secure the redemption of the elect — to do the Father’s will; (3) the Father promises to reward Christ for accomplishing his will; (4) the Son accepts the work given to him by the Father; and (5) the Father agrees to accept the Son’s work upon its completion.
John Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), p. 288; citing Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, 12.500-07
For the purposes of the discussions over EFS what is important is the pactum‘s description of the ways in which the Father and the Son relate to one another — not only that one sends and the other is sent, but that here the divine counsel is depicted as a plurality of acting agents. “Legal parties” and “negotiated agreement” are the key terms in Van Asselt’s quotation above: within the Trinity there is an exchange, a compact that is formed by two parties following some negotiation and agreed upon by both, each with his respective role to play in the subsequent economy of salvation.
While I am by no means an expert on this era I think it is right to say that, for the Reformed scholastics (and their successors today), this pactum is by no means a mere metaphor for explaining the inter-Trinitarian relations. It is not that the tradition imagined a fitting narrative to illustrate a divine mystery by way of legal-covenantal language. No, the eternal agreement of these two “legal parties” is, I think, intended to be taken literally: the Father and the Son covenant with one another to accomplish the redemption of sinners.
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Two aspects of this doctrine immediately give pause.
First, it is not clear that the scholastics have articulated a vision of the Trinitarian “persons” (hypostases) and the realization of their actions that is entirely in keeping with the ancient doctrine. What is a “person?” Boethius’ famous definition, so often quoted throughout the Middle Ages, is that a person is “an individual subsistence of a rational nature.” In God that nature is one, and it subsists in three distinct but essentially and perichoretically united persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Reformed pactum poses a sort of over-againstness of the persons, identifying them as discrete subjects, each with his own agency. They are distinct “legal parties” that can have dealings with each other just as, say, a man and his banker might. On some accounts the Father and the Son have discrete minds (or consciousnesses), and thus are able to enter into an agreement in a way that would be impossible if the Trinitarian persons were in fact subsistences of a single subject.
It’s not clear that the Reformed view here deviates from classical Trinitarianism. But it does seem as though it is operating with an implicit notion of person that has advanced upon the medieval way of conceiving personhood (and, in particular, divine personhood) by positing multiple consciousnesses in God (prior to the incarnation of the Son). It is on this basis that God can have interchange with God.
Second, and related to this, there is a more overt deviation from the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s declaration regarding the will of Christ. This, too, is perhaps only implicit. The Council determined as orthodoxy the teaching that Christ has two wills — one divine and one human — because the faculty of the will goes with a nature, not with a person. Because God has one nature (or essence), then, God has one will. And because they share the one divine essence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same will — not that they always agree on a course of action as three distinct agents, but that they possess one and the same faculty of willing.
The picture of the pactum seems to strain this nearly to the breaking point. It does so by positing agreement between two parties, Father and Son, suggesting at least the theoretical possibility that they might not have agreed. They might not have entered into such a mutual compact, because while they share the same intentions they do not share the same faculty of will.
Again, I’m not convinced that this is entirely fatal to the doctrine of the pactum salutis. But the way in which a negotiated “agreement” appears to run against the grain of “one divine will” should give pause.
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A number of potential solutions might be suggested here. (a) One would simply be to reduce the pactum narrative to a mere illustration, a Sunday School lesson meant to give some insight into the different parts that the Father, Son, and Spirit play in the work of redemption (akin to those bad analogies still used to try and illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity). The pactum is an imaginative extrapolation on the Son’s “sent-ness,” but shouldn’t be taken literally.
(b) Another is to press on to a full argument for three centers of consciousness in God. Rather than a single Subject who subsists in three ways, God is a plurality of subjects who each has his own mind, thought world, and intention. (“Subjectivity” here is a modern term that we may use to probe the character of oneness and threeness in the doctrine of the Trinity.) Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) was one who affirmed this view (along with three divine wills, Systematic Theology I, p. 326ff) — which of course entails its own set of problems.
(c) Still another (seen, for example, in Francis Turretin [1623-1687], Institutes 12.2) is to articulate the eternal pact as an undivided work of the whole Trinity, with each divine person undertaking “his own proper and peculiar mode of operation here, agreeable to this saving economy (1 Pet. 1:2)” (Turretin, 12.2.7; cf. Owen, Death of Death I.3). This places any notions of multiple wills, of negotiation, and of agreement strictly in the economy (cf. 12.2.13). Placing the maxim opera ad extra sunt indivisa front and center, it recasts the divine pactum such that the Father and Son are not legal parties who reach an agreement but the one God who is self-appropriating the various elements of the covenant and its execution.
This, I think, is probably the only way forward; but it does call into question whether this even qualifies any longer as the pactum salutis doctrine, which seems to trade on the notion of a negotiated settlement between two parties.
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The key to the problem as I’ve tried to diagnose it, then, is how we will answer the question “What is a person?” In God is a person a discrete subject, an “I,” with his own center of consciousness? Or is a divine person an instantiation of the single Subject who is the one God, who enjoys one center of consciousness in the Godhead — though in a different way with respect to the Son and the Spirit? (And what might this “different way” entail?)
Karl Barth chooses the latter, arguing for God’s (tri-personal) single subjectivity. He seems to have the majority of the tradition behind him, even with support to be found among the Reformed scholastics (cf. the language of modus subsistendi and τρόπος ὐπάρξεως). This goes a long way in explaining Barth’s criticism of Cocceius and the pactum salutis doctrine:
The conception of this inter-trinitarian pact as a contract between the persons of the Father and the Son is also open to criticism. Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two divine subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another? This is mythology, for which there is no place in a right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as the doctrine of the three modes of being of the one God, which is how it was understood and presented in Reformed orthodoxy itself. God is one God. If He is thought of as the supreme and finally the only subject, He is the one subject. And if, in relation to that which He obviously does amongst us, we speak of His eternal resolves or decrees, even if we describe them as a contract, then we do not regard the divine persons of the Father and the Son as partners in this contract, but the one God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as the one partner, and the reality of man as distinct from God as the other.
When the covenant of grace was based on a pact between two divine persons, a wider dualism was introduced into the Godhead — again in defiance of the Gospel as the revelation of the Father by the Son and of the Son by the Father, which took place in Jesus Christ. The result was an uncertainty which necessarily relativised the unconditional validity of the covenant of grace, making it doubtful whether in the revelation of this covenant we really had to do with the one will of the one God. If in God there are not merely different and fundamentally contradictory qualities, but also different subjects, who are indeed united in this matter, but had first of all to come to an agreement, how can the will of God seen in the history of the covenant of grace be known to be binding and unequivocal, the first and final Word of God? The way is then opened up on this side too for considering the possibility of some other form of His will. The question is necessarily and seriously raised of a will of God the Father which originally and basically is different from the will of God the Son.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 65 (emphasis mine). For Barth’s full critique of this aspect of Cocceius’ federal theology, see CD IV/1, pp. 64-66.
The relation with which we have to do when we think of the basis, the ground and starting point, of redemption is not that of an agreement between the Father and the Son, Barth says, but that of the union of God and humanity. This seems right to me. The basis of redemption is not an inter-Trinitarian pact but God’s free election of grace, that eternal work of God internum ad extra by which God determines to be God for us, and to make us God’s people. The content of this decision — that decision of the one Subject in his unified will — is that as Father God will send, as Son God will go, and as Spirit God will complete this work in the perfection of divine unity.
Those who have been following the current discussions over eternal submission may conclude that Barth is working through the same problem of willing and obedience in a somewhat modalistic way. How does the Son obey the Father eternally, if they are one Subject with one will? This is a larger topic which requires that, if we are going to hear Barth’s contribution to it, we reorient ourselves a bit into his way of thinking about the Trinity. For further reading I’ll point you to CD Volume I/1, and to my essay on obedience in Barth’s Trinitarian theology in Advancing Trinitarian Theology (Zondervan, 2014). But in this immediate passage on Cocceius, Barth does offer one important insight that we ought to attend to:
[In God’s free election of grace] even in His eternity before all time and the foundation of the world, He is no longer alone by Himself, He does not rest content with Himself, He will not restrict Himself to the wealth of His perfections and His own inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this free act of the election of grace there is already present, and presumed, and assumed into unity with His own existence as God, the existence of the man whom He intends and loves from the very first and in whom He intends and loves all other men, of the man in whom He wills to bind Himself with all other men and all other man with Himself. In this free act of the election of grace the Son of the Father is no longer just the eternal Logos, but as such, as very God from all eternity He is also the very God and very man He will become in time. In the divine act of predestination there pre-exists the Jesus Christ who as the Son of the eternal Father and the child of the Virgin Mary will become and be the Mediator of the covenant between God and man, the One who accomplishes the act of atonement.
He in whom the covenant of grace is fulfilled and revealed in history is also its eternal basis. He who in Scripture is attested to be very God and very man is also the eternal testamentum, the eternal sponsio, the eternal pactum, between God and man. This is the point which Coccejus and the Federal theology before and after Coccejus missed. (CD IV/1, p. 66, emphasis mine)
Thus there is a basis for a distinction of wills between the eternal Father and the eternal Son, for a relationship of command and obedience, because (and only because) Barth is convicted that the eternal Son is already Jesus Christ — the God-human. Jesus Christ in his very person is the covenant, the pactum, not only the redeemer in time but also in eternity the very basis for redemption. But that is a topic for another time.
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The point to focus on for the topic at hand is Barth’s conclusion that the pactum salutis doctrine is “mythology.” It is a narrative which, in seeking to explain the eternal covenant of grace and the modes of personal appropriation in the Trinity, instead manages to pile on at least implications (if not material content) that deviated from the ancient, medieval, and Reformation tradition and muddied the waters of Trinitarian theology for the next four centuries.
If Barth is right in this judgment, then the doctrine can provide no comfortable solution for contemporary Reformed reflection upon the assertions of Eternal Functional Subordination. The story of God the Father and God the Son negotiating a mutually acceptable arrangement for the accomplishment of redemption requires unacceptable alterations to the doctrine of God. It also seems to play into the hands of EFS / ERAS supporters by allowing for multiple minds — one authoritative, one equal but submissive — in God.
I’ve continued to watch with some interest as the online conversation unfolds around the issue of the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” of God the Son (EFS), which some of its advocates also call the Trinity’s “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS). (For those just catching up: Bring the Books has a good index of important posts, and Think Theology runs down 10 of the driving theological questions at issue.)
In my own entry from last week I offered a number of critiques about the EFS project — not so much to attack and deride it as heretical as to expose the structural flaws and historical naivete and to suggest further recourse for its proponents to improve their case (for example, giving up on the idea that EFS is not a novum but self-evidently Nicene).
As I’ve read some responses to that post and other entries into the conversation this week, it seems to me that the discussion could benefit from further clarity at a number of points. Here I’d like to focus on the difference between what theologians call the “immanent Trinity” (God in God’s own inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the “economic Trinity” (God with respect to creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting toward the world). Note that these are not “two Trinities,” but rather a conceptual distinction that regards our reflecting upon the nature of God. Some disputants continue either to ignore this distinction, or to refer to it obliquely and incorrectly. This lack of clarity hinders the discussion from producing much fruit, because the immanent/economic distinction in fact is absolutely crucial to the debate, both on the side of EFS advocates and as the grounds for those who oppose them.
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Let me take a stab at a typology here. There are three ways in which one might argue that God the Son has a relation of subordination or submission to the Father:
(Type A) The incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, submits to his Father. The New Testament is filled with statements that bear out this relation. Jesus says that he did not come to do his own work but that of the Father who sent him (John 4:34, 6:38). He prays in the garden “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The NT authors praise Jesus for his obedience and lift up his humility as a virtue to be emulated. Ad infinitum.
In fact the vast majority of the Bible’s statements regarding the Son’s relationship to the Father fall under this heading. But we are not talking here about the immanent Trinity. This is the sphere of the “economy” of grace, i.e. God’s outward activity in movement toward creatures, in fellowship with them, and for their benefit.
And so none of this is pertinent to the EFS / ERAS debate. All Christians acknowledge the plain sense of Scripture that the Son submits to the Father in the economy. The Christian tradition has generally invoked the language of reduplication — the Son submits “according to his humanity” — in order to be precise about how it is that this economic obedience has no bearing on the Son’s essential co-equality with the Father (Nicaea’s consubstantiality).
(Type B) Even before and apart from the incarnation, the Son submits to the Father in the secret fellowship of the divine counsel. We might think of this as how Father and Son relate to one another in heavenly places, as the triune God witnesses sin and the Fall and the Son submits to the Father’s command to go into the world and make atonement. The language of “eternity past” and “eternity future” has been invoked here (e.g. by Ware) — language which I think is unhelpful, betraying a muddled and overly linear idea of eternity with respect to created time. But here, too, the Bible appears replete with supporting statements. Mark and Luke state that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55), and Paul says that at the end of all things even the Son Himself will be subjected to God (1 Cor. 15:28). And we would grant that the divine counsel of election (which includes the pactum salutis in Reformed circles) is indeed an eternal event, in that election occurs before creation as the first of God’s works ad extra.
Once again, however — and this is key — we are not yet talking about the immanent Trinity. If we are talking about God’s activity ad extra, even God’s decision-making with respect to creation, the Father’s sending and the Son’s being sent, we have once again planted ourselves in the sphere of the economy.
(Type C) In and from all eternity the Son has a relation of subordination to the Father, it is suggested, because He is “from” the Father. This alone is the controverted point.
Needless to say, when theology speaks about the inner life of God the discipline has reached its most speculative. It is exceedingly difficult to apply the revelation of Scripture to the doctrine of God here in a calm and unclouded way, since the authors of Scripture are usually so preoccupied with the economy of grace. (Owen Strachan illustrates this difficulty by suggesting that 1 Cor. 11:3 attaches “no temporal limit” to Paul’s statement that God is the “head” of Christ, implying that it is an eternal relation. T. L. Arsenal picks this apart nicely.) John’s prologue (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) and Jesus’ statement “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30) are examples of those exceedingly rare statements which seem to pertain immanently to the divine life.
Here, and only here, are we actually dealing with the immanent Trinity — God in God’s inward self-existence as Father, Son, and Spirit, God’s life ad intra, considered without respect to creation. This is the sphere of the divine processions, the Father’s begetting the Son and, with the Son, spirating the Holy Spirit. This is the realm of their perichoretic unity. With respect to the debate over the Son’s subordination and submission, then, this is the only type that matters. This is where the Father-Son relation is its most basic and unqualified. All else pertains to the divine missions and the economy.
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Types A and B refer to the economic Trinity; only Type C refers to the immanent (or “ontological” Trinity), and so it is here that EFS / ERAS supporters run afoul of compromising the integrity and simplicity of God.
As I stated last week, the use of the adjective “eternal” by EFS / ERAS supporters tends to locate their claims in Type C — although it may also be that they have Type B in mind instead. One can speak of certain of God’s economic activities as taking place in eternity (notably the event of election, cf. Eph. 1:4-5). The problem, however, is that supporters do not distinguish between Types B and C … nor do they seem to want to do so. Can the EFS / ERAS position sustain this distinction between God’s eternal being (immanent) and God’s eternal activity with respect to creation (economic)? Would they allow for an ontological equality which in fact excludes submission or subordination in the inner life of God, even while permitting this in an economic sense from all eternity?
Adhering to these clear distinctions between immanent and economic might allow them to have their cake and eat it, too — to affirm the Son’s willing submission to the Father before the incarnation, during the incarnation, and still now in His heavenly session, but without pressing this relation back into the inner life of God (which, it seems to me, finally cannot escape the charge of Subordinationism).
One final word on the immanent/economic distinction in traditional systematic theology: Karl Rahner’s famous “rule” states that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa. This was proposed in order to cut off a number of unsavory ideas, including the notion that God as God truly is remains hidden from us. No, when we see God acting in the world we really do know God as God is! The economy, and particularly the Christ event, provide a true revelation.
That said, the tradition has wisely maintained that it is reckless to read aspects of the economy backward into the immanent divine life willy-nilly. To observe something in human history (e.g. Jesus submitting to his Father) and then rush to apply that to the Trinity (e.g. the Son has an eternal relation of submission to the Father) is at best out of order, and at worst idolatry. This would lead to my previous critique on EFS methodology as embracing a thinly-veiled natural theology.
The Theology Internets this week are buzzing with a new breakout of an issue that isn’t really new at all: arguments for so-called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) in the life of the Trinity, advocated by people such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and vocally opposed by theologians across the spectrum as dangerously speculative at best, and outright heretical at worst. (Participants in the conversation this week include Carl Trueman, Liam Goligher, Scot McKnight, Denny Burk, Ware, Grudem, and many others.) There are many, many threads to pull here — related to Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), the eternal generation of the Son, social models of the Trinity, interpretations of 1 Cor. 11:3, gender relations and so-called “complementarianism,” etc.
The claim under debate is essentially this: There is within the life of God (and not strictly in the economy) an eternal relationship, or structure, of authority and submission. The Son shares the essence of God the Father and so is not ontologically subordinate to the Father, but the Son is functionally so.
It’s interesting to see this debate taking place in the fast-moving and very public blogosphere, and also to see it involve a number of the principals of the EFS case. In the past I’ve written a little bit about the tragic invocation of Karl Barth on this topic (with some specific observations about Ware’s methodology, which I’ll summarize below). But rather than leaping into the deep end of this debate, or attempting to write something approaching anywhere close to comprehensive here, I’ll simply register a handful of observations that I hope make some contribution to clarity. (My apologies for the length of this piece — it is not for the faint of heart.)
They pertain primarily to the history of Christian doctrine, and to the methods by which theologians studiously pursue their inquiry into the life of God.
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(1) As proponents of EFS suggest, there is a great deal of historical precedent for the notion of an “order” or taxis within the life of the Trinity. It is a mistake, however, to understand such analysis in terms of the subordination of the Son to the Father, or the authority of the Father over the Son. In the absence of the key distinction between “ontological” and “functional” subordination (to which I will return below) the fathers of the church would recognize such an interpretation of taxis as Subordinationist (that is, as the heresy condemned by the church).
What, then, is the language of “order” and taxis doing? Historically it speaks not to hierarchy, rank, or authority-submission structures, but to the divine processions. The Son is begotten by the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son). The Father is unbegotten, having life in Himself and proceeding from none other. These are the relations of generation and procession; these alone distinguish the persons from one another in the inner life of God, and these are what the orthodox tradition mean when it refers to “ordering” in the Trinity. The Son is from the Father.
Thomas Aquinas says that there is an “order” in God, and this is an “order according to origin, without priority” (Summa Theologica I q.42 a.3). That leads me to my next point.
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(2) Extending this line a bit further: a relation of origination does not entail submission, or difference in rank or authority. The Son’s being the one who is “begotten” does not, for the orthodox tradition, entail any form of subordination to the one who “begot” Him. These descriptors of how Father, Son, and Spirit are related to one another, and how the latter two proceed from the Father, are simply expressions of their (eternal) relations. But these relations, Thomas continues, are persons who together subsist in the one divine nature; therefore the order that exists in the Trinity cannot entail the priority (we might say “authority”) of one person over another:
Neither on the part of the nature, nor on the part the relations, can one person be prior to another, not even in the order of nature and reason. (Ibid)
John of Damascus also says:
All the qualities the Father has are the Son’s, save that the Father is unbegotten, and this exception involves no difference in essence nor dignity, but only a different mode of coming into existence. (Expositio Fidei I.8, emphasis mine)
The Father has no “superiority” in any way, John continues, “save causation.”
With respect to the economy, then, the fathers concluded that it is fitting that the Son is the one to be sent into the world to take on flesh, while the Father is the one who sends. Here the divine missions reflect, or correspond to, the Trinitarian relations. But the temporal obedience of the Son to the Father is not the result of a hierarchy innate to the Trinity, but of his free, self-giving obedience (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).
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(3) In the economy there is plenty of space to speak of the Son’s submission to the Father (according to the Son’s humanity). The New Testament is full of this — e.g. John 5:19, Luke 22:42. In the economy this is fully the result of the Son’s free self-submission, which the NT calls “obedience” (Heb. 5:7-8).
While this is not much of a point of dispute in the EFS debate, it is worth stating before we continue further. What is at issue is the claim that this submission is present in the immanent Trinity, as well. But Thomas clarifies:
Christ is subject to the Father not simply [in Himself] but in His human nature, even if this qualification is not added; and yet it is better to add this qualification in order to avoid the error of Arius, who held the Son to be less than the Father. (ST III q.20 a.1)
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(4) An historical critique: It is coherent to claim that the Son’s subordination to the Father is strictly “functional,” while maintaining their ontological equality and identity of essence. This requires some working out, and it is certainly an innovation to press this beyond the economy and into the inner life of God. For this argument to be successful it need not secure itself in the creedal tradition (acknowledging that it is new); but it does bear the burden of demonstrating full sympathy and coherence with the creeds, lest the proponents of EFS declare a willingness to abandon historic Christian orthodoxy.
I certainly don’t think that is what they want to do. What Grudem, Ware, et al have done thus far is to maintain that EFS is not an innovation but instead a fairly straight-forward reading of Nicene orthodoxy with respect to the dynamic of authority and submission. (I detect even a hint of surprise that anyone — but perhaps the most militant anti-complementarians — would find this reading of the tradition to be heterodox.) But the historians among us are clear on this point of consistency with the Nicene position: it just isn’t there. The only path forward is to do the historical work to prove the historians wrong (which I believe cannot be done) or to acknowledge that EFS is an innovation. The best case that could be made is for its continuity with the fathers.
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(5) A theological critique: If the idea of the Son’s “functional” subordination to the Father is at least potentially coherent (only needing some better historical work to show how it can also remain orthodox), pressing this “functional” subordination into eternity seems to be incoherent. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is the doctrine of divine simplicity (see Aquinas, ST I q.3): God is not made up of parts nor does God “have” attributes that are not identical with God’s nature (let alone the three persons having attributes different from one another). According to the medievals God simply is each of God’s attributes — love, mercy, justice, etc.
If this is the case, in the immanent Trinity the Son cannot have an attribute of subordination (or “submissiveness,” if you like), while the Father has the different attribute of superiority (or “authority”). Consider that same quotation from John of Damascus again: “All the qualities the Father has are the Son’s, save that the Father is unbegotten.” The only difference between the divine persons is in their relations of origin, and the authority-submission architecture does not simply interpret these relations — it complicates it, adding certain personal characteristics that are derived from the divine relations (e.g. what we think “sonship” entails). Divine simplicity does not permit this in eternity (that is, in the inner life of God), but only in the economy.
In God’s eternal repose God simply is. God enjoys the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit in their mutual love and self-giving. To speak of God’s life in eternity is not to speak of God’s activities (or “functions”) but necessarily to speak of the divine being itself. Thus there is a crucial consequence for adding the qualifier “eternal” to the EFS position: “eternal” means that you are already talking about divine ontology, and so the important adjective “functional” is unwound and we are left with mere Subordinationism. Logically — if one grants the traditional metaphysics of the ancient and medieval churches — we can have either “eternal subordination” or “functional subordination,” but “eternal functional subordination” is a contradiction in terms.
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(6) A methodological critique: Where does this idea of an “authority-submission structure” within the Trinity come from? Ware, for one, is clear about the path of his logic:
As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.
(Source, emphasis in original. See further Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance [Crossway, 2005].)
It is the Bible’s identification of these two divine persons as “Father” and “Son” that Ware takes as his starting point for reasoning through the nature of their relationship. Human fathers have authority over sons; in a right and godly relationship human sons submit to the authority of their fathers.
From the fact that they are revealed in terms of the father-son relation, Ware extrapolates that God the Father and God the Son have a relationship which corresponds to this human relationship. By using these names Scripture suggests that they relate as human fathers and sons properly do; the language is implicitly revelatory in this way. For some readers this may seem a perfectly fine way of reasoning. For now I’ll table the full demolition (which ought to make reference to Sallie McFague’s work on language and predication) and just mark it with a label: natural theology. The EFS mode of reasoning is what Barth decried as human projection misidentified with divine revelation. Ware takes a human cultural construct and, mistaking it for revelation, reads it upward into the life of God by means of an analogia entis.
When he in turn derives from this divine relation a proscription for human gender relations, the circle is complete and the exercise in natural theology is made infinitely more egregious. Ware first reads the authority-submission structure from creaturely existence into the life of God; then he reads it back out again from God to human creatures — only now switching from the parent-child relation to male-female relations. The procedure is entirely self-referential, a theological systole and diastole: Ware has derived from his doctrine of God exactly what he put into it.
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Coda and Caveat. This turned out longer than I meant it to be, but let me conclude with a significant caveat. All of the analysis above presumes a traditional metaphysic for speaking of God’s essence, persons, and relations. I presuppose all of this for the sake of discussion because, to a person, it is presupposed by all participants in the debate that I have read so far.
There are, however, other ways of thinking through the nature of God and God’s triune identity. One example is found in the work of Karl Barth, which I explore a bit in an essay published in Advancing Trinitarian Theology. The short of it is that when Barth speaks of God the Son’s obedience to the Father even in the inner life of God, Barth means something completely different by it.
In the act of confession, says theologian John Webster, “the church binds itself to the gospel” (119). Our confessional documents and creeds are intimately tied to this act, he says, but it would be a mistake to confuse these formal products of the church’s confession for the act of confession itself. Thus “the creed is a good servant but a bad master: it assists, but cannot replace, the act of confession” (120). To hold to one’s confession as “an achieved formula” risks quenching the Holy Spirit, who is living and active in the churches, and going one’s own way.
The essay is “Confession and Confessions,” published in the really excellent 2001 volume Nicene Christianity (ed. Christopher R. Seitz). Here Webster models the sort of approach to theological inquiry that he was so good at, and in fact which marked all of his work: where lesser theologians might take a given topic and jump straight into the doctrine, its history, its biblical basis, and its functioning in the contemporary church (all good questions to pursue, mind you!) John tarries, pondering the topic on a more fundamental level and lingering on its relationship to the triune God and God’s gracious communion with God’s creatures.
So here, for example, instead of leaping to “What do we confess?” and “How do we confess?” and “What does confession do for our churches?” Webster has begun with the question: What is the act of confession in the economy of God’s self-giving?
This act can be expanded in three directions, Webster says:
(1) The act of confession originates in revelation (121). Confessing is of course a human act, but it is one which takes its start (and therefore its content and its direction) from a prior act of God. This act is “God’s communicative self-presence, the gracious and saving self-communication of God the Lord.” And it is generative not only of the church’s confession, but of its very life. And because this self-communicating of God is a movement, and because it is on-going, it is “a gift that cannot be converted into a possession” – as if Christians might now hear and take up and objectify the One whom it confesses.
(2) The act of confession is a responsive, not a spontaneous, act (122). It is the church’s obedience to God the Lord, who has graciously addressed it and summoned it to listen and to speak. This act therefore must be rooted in God’s triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, born not from the church’s creative speech about God but from the Father, the Son, and the Spirit’s dealings with creatures. In this sense confessions are not even reducible to human speech that is uttered in response to grace; God makes the church’s confession and gives it as a gift, and the church trusts God to accomplish and bring to completion its own act of confessing.
(3) The act of confession is an episode in the conflict between God and sin that is at the center of the drama of salvation (122). It does not stand apart from the drama of salvation. The encounter between God and creatures is not just any encounter, but one in which God is confronting sin – sin, which is in part “the refusal to confess.” And so the church’s confession of God is, more precisely, confession of the God who saves; and confession is itself an act of repentance. It is rebellion against the disorder of the world, a joining in with God’s radical overturning of evil.
Perhaps most significant in Webster’s theological account of confession is the conviction that confession is the mode in which the church exists, rather than the production of documents and doctrinal codes. The church “does not convert the drama of redemption into a set of propositions to be policed” (130). And so our creeds are binding, in a sense; but theologically we must acknowledge that this authority comes neither from the creed as an artifact nor from the church and its power to bind and loose, but from the God who is the object of its testimony. The authority of the creed is not self-standing, separable from its own submission to the Word of God. The creed “has the authority of the herald, not the magistrate” (130).
In sum, says Webster, “creeds bind because, and only because, the gospel binds.” Any other sort of untethered propositionalism merely mistakes the structures of human reasoning – even if it be biblical reasoning – for the genuine article of God’s activity in the world.
Confession is finally a spiritual act, an act of worship, the result of God’s having “invaded and annexed” human life. To remain a living act of confessing the church’s confession should be characterized by “astonished and chastened hearing of the Word and by grateful and afflicted witness” (121). That is a tightly-packed and deeply beautiful statement, and a charge to our churches today: its confession of Jesus Christ and his gospel is born out of gratitude (Calvin), witnessing to the act of God on its behalf (Barth), but in so doing ever remaining astonished, chastened in its speech and afflicted out of its self-comfort. To confess the gospel is to be drawn – forced – outside of one’s self.
There is no self-confidence here. There is no self-righteousness. There is only joyful bewilderment, a public acknowledgement of the miracle that God has had mercy on me, a sinner.
While John’s new essay volumes The Domain of the Word and God Without Measure are grabbing attention from theologians (and rightly so), another new volume of Prof. Webster’s work has recently arrived that you might not know about: last year Lexham Press published Confronted By Grace: Meditations of a Theologian. This is a collection of 26 sermons from his career, most during the time he served as canon of Christ Church cathedral in Oxford.
On the day that I learned of his passing I found myself holed up reading these sermons, searching for some source of comfort. John’s words of course pointed me to God and no one else as the source of our comfort. As he said in the sermon titled “He Who Comforts:”
In this matter of true human comfort, we enter a sphere in which God alone is competent. No mere human being can announce comfort of this kind; no one can take it upon himself or herself to declare what Isaiah declares. God alone may do this, because God alone is savior, and therefore comforter. With this announcement we’re placed in the middle of God’s work of salvation. We listen to an announcement that the human situation has been entirely changed – not modified or gingered up or temporarily cheered, but re-made, re-created. Salvation and its comfort are in the hands of God alone; all we may do in comforting is, as Isaiah does, testify to the miracle of God’s mercy. (p. 42)
God is the source of all our comfort, the one who provides relief and vindication, and who on the basis of this relief and vindication gives us the command, “Comfort, comfort my people …” (Isaiah 40:1).
As those who weep and mourn you and I are drawn by our frailty into God’s presence. As those who are afflicted we seek comfort, and this seeking brings us inexorably to the true Comforter. In God’s presence, John says in another sermon (this one on Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?”), we are sustained. God is the one who attends to us in our affliction, who will lift up your head:
God does not sleep through the misery of the world; God will shade us in the heats of the day; God will watch us as we journey; God will keep us. It’s simple enough. But to get to those affirmations, we have to climb over a lot of rubble inside ourselves. We have to learn what is extraordinarily hard for us to learn: not to listen to our fears; not to be tossed around by whatever comes across our path; not to give credence to the lies that God has fallen asleep or just given up protecting us.
Those things take a lifetime to learn for most of us, because learning them involves overcoming some of our most basic drives and desires and foolishness. But it’s only as we learn those things that we begin to live with a measure of Christian composure. Christian composure is a very particular thing, however. It’s an equanimity that is given to us, which we don’t make up from our own resources. It’s given to us as we make our confession of the lordship of God, as we learn how to praise God, how to trust the gospel, how to see all things int he light of God’s mercy, how to keep our hearts by God’s promises. (p. 147)
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Psalm 121:5-8, NRSV
By now most readers of this blog will be aware of the sudden passing of Prof. John Webster on May 25, 2016. John was a mentor and a friend to all four of us who contribute to Out of Bounds (all of us having been supervised by him during our doctoral studies in Aberdeen), and so far we have chosen to deal with our grief privately.
What we would like to do here on the blog in the weeks and months to come, though, is to share John’s work and his theological insights with you. Some readers may be intimately familiar with his oeuvre; others may have come across his work from time to time; and still others may be brand new to his theological project – one that unfortunately must remain unfinished. John had a dozen or so books published (including three brand new essay collections on God and God’s Word) and countless essays, stretching from Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth to the doctrine of Scripture, ecclesiology, the idea of sanctification, and most especially the doctrine of the Triune God as the fountainhead of all theological thought.
Watch for an on-going series of posts in this blog’s future, and please share in the comments about how John’s work has impacted you. One idea for the future is for us to host an online reading group through one of John’s books. If that is of interest to you please post below. (In the meantime the folks at Mere Orthodoxy are currently talking about a group read-through of Holiness [Eerdmans, 2003].)
Together we continue to engage John’s ideas, to give them a wide hearing, to give thanks for his decades of ministering the gospel, and to remember together that it is only by the grace of God that each of us has the privilege of being a working theologian on the earth for still one more day.
Continue: Posts About John Webster