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Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate

June 10, 2016

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 McKnightDenny 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.

~ ~ ~

(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.

~ ~ ~

(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).

~ ~ ~

(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)

~ ~ ~

(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.

~ ~ ~

(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.

~ ~ ~

(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.

~ ~ ~

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.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Charles Twombly permalink
    June 10, 2016 5:48 pm

    Thanks, Darren. Happy to see the mention of John of Damascus.

  2. thomasgoodwin permalink
    June 11, 2016 7:04 am

    Very well done.
    Mark Jones

  3. June 11, 2016 8:43 am

    Comprehensive and clear. Thank you.

  4. PluniaZ permalink
    June 11, 2016 10:35 am

    Can you please tell me where the idea of an “economic” vs “ontological” Trinity originated? I don’t believe any of the Church Fathers wrote of such a distinction. I am concerned that even temporary functional subordination of the Son to the Father is being asserted, when the Fathers are unanimous that it is only in respect of his human nature that Christ is subject to the Father – a point which you quote Thomas on above.

  5. June 11, 2016 2:02 pm

    PluniaZ: I’m not sure who was the first to invoke this distinction, but at least by the time of the Cappadocians (fourth century) we can find references to the “economy” (oikonomia) as a way of specifying God’s ordered activity in the world. Certainly by Cyril of Alexandria (fifth century) this has matured into a full distinction between God-for-us (e.g. the incarnation) and God-in-Godself (e.g. the eternal life of the Logos). One example:

    [The title ‘Christ’] indicates quite clearly to those who hear it that he has undergone an incarnation, for it signifies wonderfully well that he has been anointed in being made man. If we were not considering this issue of the economy of the flesh, but rather were to direct our thoughts to the Only Begotten Word of God considered outside all the limitations of the self-emptying, then yes, it would indeed be entirely unfitting to name him Christ when he has not been anointed.

    (Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995], p. 66)

    For language of the “ontological” or “immanent” Trinity I imagine we’d have to press a bit farther into the Middle Ages.

    • PluniaZ permalink
      June 11, 2016 5:32 pm

      Thanks. I have also seeneed the Greek fathers refer to “economy” but never to an “economic Trinity.” I fear the idea of an economy of function in the Trinity is a modern innovation that is heretical since the Church Doctors are unanimous that any action taken by one Person of the Trinity is taken my all 3 Persons. There is one divine will and one divine operation.

    • June 13, 2016 12:05 am

      I think you’re instincts are right (though I wouldn’t think that we need to find a phrase so precise as “economic Trinity” to think that the fathers have the same idea up and running — oftentimes in the development of doctrine the precise nomenclature follows a long period of de facto use).

      Also note that the tradition has affirmed both the inseparable operations of the Trinity and the appropriation of acts properly to one person. For example, only the Son dies on the cross — but in a larger sense the crucifixion and the redemption it obtained is a Trinitarian undertaking. There’s a “both/and” that seeks to add some nuance to our confession.

  6. June 12, 2016 3:45 am

    Darren, you were going great until you charged Ware with reasoning upwards from the natural to the divine. Your quote of Ware in no way implies what you claim it does.

    But you point “a relation of origination does not entail submission” was super helpful.


    • June 17, 2016 2:21 am

      Hi Dr. Sumner, perhaps there’s a different quote from Ware where he does what you’re claiming (arguing from natural to divine) because I can’t see it in that quote.

      Besides that, I found this post and the follow-up post the most clarifying I’ve read on the matter. Thank you.

    • June 17, 2016 2:25 am

      Oops, sorry. I saw the reply from Dr. Sumner to this question (posted by Ted) too late.

    • June 17, 2016 11:41 am

      Apologies, Riaan — For any others reading, I did reply to Ted below.

  7. Jordan Barrett permalink
    June 12, 2016 9:22 pm

    A solid clarifying post. I’ll definitely be recommending this to people trying to understand the key points of the debate.
    I was pleasantly surprised to see your inclusion of divine simplicity, but after your caveat, I’m curious if you actually hold to anything like it. I do find it to be important (and often neglected) in this dialogue.

    • June 13, 2016 12:30 am

      Thanks, Jordan. My own views would be closer to Barth than to Aquinas — for starters I’d point you to the essay on Barth’s idea of obedience in the Trinity, which is in the Sanders & Crisp volume (but also online here). Divine simplicity isn’t in this essay overtly, but it does suggest some of the ways in which I think an actualistic ontology rewrites the rules. And in that respect, I’m not sure if the doctrine of divine simplicity ought to be rejected so much as it’s made largely irrelevant. But I’m still thinking through this one.

  8. June 12, 2016 11:53 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Ted. I think this crucial statement demonstrates the point (which is a bit more clear when you read Ware’s full post in context — at this stage he is emphasizing the nature of sonship): “As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father …” Or, to paraphrase: “Because he is a son, the Son of God is under the authority of his Father.” It’s the human relationship of fatherhood and sonship that suggests to Ware that it is appropriate to invoke a relationship of authority and submission here.

    (As others have wisely pointed out, even if we grant the natural theology that underlies this move, the analogy itself is highly problematic. It presumes a juvenile son, for starters: grown men must certainly continue to honor and respect their fathers, but they do not “submit” to their authority. And what of absent fathers? abusive fathers? What about when a father grows old and needs to be led and cared for by his children? At the very least, the human father-son relation is more complex than Ware’s predication seems to allow.)

    But my claim that Ware is using natural theology is proved more extensively by Ware’s book (referenced in the footnote). I’ll quote a bit more at length here:

    [E]ven more basic is the question why the eternal names for ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ would be exactly these names. One must come to terms with the fact that God specifically revealed himself to us with the names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ for the first and second Persons of the Trinity. Certainly these names carry connotations of authority and submission, as is confirmed by the Son’s uniform declaration that he, the Son, sought only to do the will of his Father. Unless one is prepared to say that these names apply only to the incarnational relationship of the first and second Persons of the Trinity, in which case we simply don’t know who these first and second Persons are eternally, we must admit that God’s self-revelation would indicate an identity of the Persons of Father and Son which also marks their respective roles. Authority and submission, then, seem clearly to be built into the eternal relationship of the Father and Son, by virtue of their being who they eternally are: God the Father, and God the Son.

    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pp. 82-83 (emphasis mine)

    This is only one of several arguments that Ware presents, but I find it telling that — even if we grant that “Father” and “Son” are divinely revealed names — he so readily allows human conceptions of this relation to creep in and materially influence his understanding of the immanent Trinity. Analogous language for God (“Father” and “Son”) is being treated as if it were univocal.

  9. June 12, 2016 11:58 pm

    As an addendum: In re-reading this portion of the book I also note that Ware doesn’t use language of the “immanent” and the “economic” at all. Rather his distinction is between “eternity” and time/incarnation, resulting in substantial slippage between the divine missions — particularly the sending of the Son — and God’s own inner life. When Ware describes the eternal sending of the Son by the Father, he seems to think that he is talking about the immanent Trinity. Traditionally, though, the divine missions signal for us the triune God’s orientation toward creatures, and are therefore economic (ST I q.43 a.2 — Thomas’ language here is “temporal”) — even if Ware narrates the Son’s mission as occurring in “eternity past.”

  10. jamesbradfordpate permalink
    June 13, 2016 11:35 pm

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Provides helpful context to what is at stake in the recent Trinitarian controversy.

  11. Ryan C. permalink
    June 15, 2016 8:28 am

    Dr. Sumner,

    Thank you for this very helpful set of observations.

    As I discuss this with people the question I keep running up against is, “prove to me that submission of the Son to the Father requires a division of the divine will.”

    It seems obvious to me that a will can’t be divided and that a division or separation would be necessary for submission a will, but I’m having trouble articulating this myself or finding anything (on the web, at least) that explains the concept of a will or a nature.

    You mention that your observations presume a “traditional metaphysic.” Does that go back to Aristotle? Could you point me towards anything I could read to get a better understanding of this?

    Best regards,

    • June 15, 2016 1:58 pm

      Hi, Ryan – In terms of the divine will and the will(s) of Christ I’d point you to Maximus the Confessor, who is the hero of this debate leading up to the orthodox affirmation of dyothelitism at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Demetrios Bathrellos’ book The Byzantine Christ, on Maximus, is very good. Andrew Louth also has a small book on Maximus (with some primary texts translated).

      But the idea of submission in the godhead requiring multiple wills is pretty straight-forward, I think. What is submission? Perhaps we might say, “Conforming one’s actions to the will of another.” This does not mean that the Son necessarily wills something different that he must surrender in order to submit; but this must be at least a possibility. If his submission to the will of the Father was the only possibility available to the Son, then he is not submissive but a prisoner. Just as we say that human will is only “free” if we have the ability to choose otherwise, so submission requires that the rejection of the other’s will is a real possibility.

      If there is only one will in God, then, it is not possible that the Son might have refused to “submit” to the Father (until, that is, we add his human will in the incarnation). We could call their relation something else (e.g. Subordination), but one divine will logically excludes the language of submission.

    • Ryan C. permalink
      June 16, 2016 7:40 am

      Thank you very much. Your articulation of the problem of submission and multiple wills was helpful. And I appreciate the direction to additional reading.

      I’m a graphic designer, not an academic, and this EFS controversy is definitely pushing me outside of my usual reading and thinking. But that’s a good thing.

  12. June 17, 2016 6:26 am

    Hi Darren,

    You’re such a gifted thinker and writer, I’d hate to see your excellent assessment of the important issues here get dismissed by projecting a methodology to Ware that isn’t explicit in his writings.

    The methodology you claim to see, that Ware argues from the creation up to the Creator, is not sustained in the quote that begins with “[E]ven more basic is the question why the eternal names for ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ would be exactly these names…”

    It may imply that is he is wrongly arguing from creature to creator, but is not explicit.

    Ware could just as easily say that the terms father and son, applied to humans, was done so the creature could, even after the fall, reflect the imago dei, or even a pre-temporal authority-submission.

    In other words, your excellent essay is marred by a over-realized reading of your opponent. 😉

    Love in Christ,

    • June 17, 2016 11:47 am

      I do appreciate the point, Ted. I think my reading of Ware is on point, but I’ll happily be corrected by him if it is not. Till then, perhaps we wait for him to be a bit more explicit in how he is filling out the terms “father” and “son.”

      I suspect that he hasn’t said more (that I have seen in what I’ve read, that is) because he takes “father,” “son,” and the father-son relation as self-evident. If so, that in and of itself proves my point, I think. Nowhere does Ware appear to say that we know what this relation is because the Trinity displays it in its truest form, so that we can learn to be “fathers” and “sons” by looking at God. That would be a fine claim. But the movement I detect is just the reverse.

      As I think I alluded to earlier, there’s also a subtle difference between us in how we understand the nature of revelation and God’s appropriation of human language. Maybe I’ll try to get a post together on Sallie McFague’s challenging contribution here.

  13. JBW permalink
    June 19, 2016 5:00 am

    This is so esoteric a subject that I find it difficult to understand how anyone thinks they, as a mere mortal, can evaluate–with anything approaching significance–the nature of the Godhead in the first place. Whatever is true about it is undoubtedly beyond our meager means to ascertain, and meanwhile there are terrestrial matters we have been assigned to tackle.

    May I kindly suggest that you are debating things above your (and my) pay grade. Christ is Lord, the only mediator between God and man, and we take up our crosses daily. Never did He delve into this question while He was here, didn’t leave us any instructions on the subject, but did tell us to be about other things while awaiting His return. Perhaps we should do that?

  14. PistisElpisAgapeCharisEleos permalink
    July 1, 2016 5:55 pm

    I’ve been following this debacle on many venues. The first thing to address before anything else is the impetus of socio-political motivations relative to any Complementarian/Egalitarian argument. The minutiae of Theology Proper is too sacred to be driven by such Incarnational motivations from cultural and societal constructs. And theologically, there is ONE consideration that has missed for two millennia which would utterly prohibit any degree of encroachment by Semi-Arianism upon the Holy Trinity; and that omission is still extant. Further, this whole challenge of orthodoxy is being conducted according to modern English-based concepts, even amongst those who have linguistic and exegetical acumen. This should be a heavily lexicography-driven conversation with explicitly defined and employed Greek terms for English clarification. So far, I’ve seen a completely anecdotal approach, with much reliance on modern “isms” that make this an innovation and renovation that should not be happening in this manner. The framing OF the discussion is even more vital than the discussion. Unless someone addresses the extensive details of the original Greek terms and their appropriate translation and interpretation for usage, this is a futile endeavor that will continually devolve and divide with no real resolution in this splintered sectarian church age. A reboot with clearly expressed definitions of hypostasis, ousia, physis, prosopon, and many others is the only was to even attempt a valid dialectic about this topic. There’s way too much latitude of false autonomy and anthropocentrism that’s already permeated and corrupted this “debate”. This is not solely a scholastic endeavor, either. It’s more grieving than anything.

  15. PistisElpisAgapeCharisEleos permalink
    July 1, 2016 6:05 pm

    I would further offer that this discussion has been devoid of understanding and application of epistemological functionality being a central fixture. The will is the “stretching forth in tension” of the mind toward object as subject. Thus “intension/s”, as though extending a cord or string out to its limit in tautness. And again, this needs to be a lexicography-driven endeavor that SHOULD be a collective pursuit of truth rather than a debate. When do the Greek exegetes get to wrest this from the hands of those who can only approach this from low-context and derivative English?

  16. November 19, 2019 11:37 am

    Here is a quote from the article: “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.” Could someone explain what is meant by begotten and unbegotten?

  17. David W. Hegg permalink
    December 8, 2022 4:38 pm

    Darren, could you please interact with 1 For. 11:3 where the context seems to be clear that Paul is talking about authority. In what way is God the Father the “authority” over God the Son? Given aseity, and the sharing of one set of attributes with each demonstrating them perfectly, is Paul here speaking in terms of what was necessary for the Incarnational mission? Thanks!

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