Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate
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.