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The Heart of the Matter for Eternal Subordination

July 7, 2016

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.

~ ~ ~

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:

  1. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share the one divine essence, and so in essence they are equal.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

~ ~ ~

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 intraextra 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.

~ ~ ~

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.

~ ~ ~

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.

~ ~ ~

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. BSMason permalink
    July 8, 2016 9:06 am

    Thank you for this. While I can only someday hope to reach your level acumen, I do have to disagree with your conclusion that ad intra vs. ad extra is the heart of the matter. These were not the terms of the debate in the 4th century, nor the terms of the resolution at. Subordination was rejected ad intra and ad extra, consistently.

    If we confess that the Godhead is one in nature and will and therefore His works and operations inseparable, there is no room for even an economical subordination outside of Christ in His flesh. Clearly this is the implication of, e.g., Gregory of Nyssa when he writes of the ad extra:

    “[E]very operation which extends from God to the Creation, and is named according to our variable conceptions of it, has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit. For this reason the name derived from the operation is not divided with regard to the number of those who fulfil it, because the action of each concerning anything is not separate and peculiar, but whatever comes to pass, in reference either to the acts of His providence for us, or to the government and constitution of the universe, comes to pass by the action of the Three…. Since then the Holy Trinity fulfils every operation in a manner similar to that of which I have spoken, not by separate action according to the number of the Persons, but so that there is one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit.” (On Not “Three Gods”)

    The orthodox formula for ad extra work and Economy is, “issuing from the Father as from a spring, brought into operation by the Son, and perfecting its grace by the power of the Spirit”. The distinctions among the persons in eternity have only to do with Cause and Origination according to the Pro-Nicene Fathers, not subordination, ad intra or ad extra. This is stated explicitly over and over. Even the sending of the Son does not imply economical subordination in eternity past. As Augustine rightly concludes,

    “Since, then, that the Son should appear in the flesh was wrought by both the Father and the Son, it is fitly said that He who appeared in that flesh was sent, and that He who did not appear in it, sent Him; because those things which are transacted outwardly before the bodily eyes have their existence from the inward structure (apparatu) of the spiritual nature, and on that account are fitly said to be sent. Further, that form of man which He took is the person of the Son, not also of the Father; on which account the invisible Father, together with the Son, who with the Father is invisible, is said to have sent the same Son by making Him visible. But if He became visible in such way as to cease to be invisible with the Father, that is, if the substance of the invisible Word were turned by a change and transition into a visible creature, then the Son would be so understood to be sent by the Father, that He would be found to be only sent; not also, with the Father, sending. But since He so took the form of a servant, as that the unchangeable form of God remained, it is clear that that which became apparent in the Son was done by the Father and the Son not being apparent; that is, that by the invisible Father, with the invisible Son, the same Son Himself was sent so as to be visible. Why, therefore, does He say, ‘Neither came I of myself?’ This, we may now say, is said according to the form of a servant, in the same way as it is said, ‘I judge no man.’” (One the Trinity, Bk. 2, Ch. 5)

    Subordination and submission to authority are redemptive categories only. Christ BECAME subject to the Father on our behalf. The Fathers rightly see the distinction laid down in Philippians 2 as a Canon for reading the Scriptures. All passages that speak of Christ’s “submission”, “obedience”, or being less than the Father are to be read “in His flesh”. This is easy to demonstrate from many Fathers (had I the room).

    The true heart of the matter, to my lights, is that Grudem, Ware, et al, are trying to have their Semi-Arian cake and eat it to, for the sake of pulling off their complementarian analogy. The 4th century Arians by in large confessed the Son to be “begotten of the Father … before all ages…, God from God, Light from Light, by whom all things were made” and therefore not a creature. But their main commitment was to maintain the following:

    “And no one is ignorant, that it is catholic doctrine, that there are two persons of Father and Son, and that the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him, and that the Father has no beginning, and is invisible, and immortal, and impassible; but that the Son has been generated from the Father, God from God, light from light…” (Second Creed of Sirmium)

    This was the basis for their unwillingness to confess that the Son is homoousion with the Father. What both the 4th century Arians and the Nicene Orthodox understood clearly was that the Son cannot both be eternally subordinate to the Father and be of one substance, will, and operation with the Father. Thus, the end of all subordinationism came with Constantinople 381’s reaffirmation of the Nicene, “one substance”, and the subsequent Athanasian (really Augustinian) formula, “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”

    The heart of the matter is that the modern subordinationists want the impossible: eternal subordination (either ad intra or ad extra) and homoosia; a cake eating and having not possible in the minds of the Pro-Nicene Fathers, but more importantly, not taught in the scripture and a really a true blasphemy to the eternal and coequal Word of God.

    • BSMason permalink
      July 8, 2016 9:12 am

      Oops. Second sentence should read, “These were not the terms of the debate in the 4th century, nor the terms of the resolution at Constantinople”.

    • July 9, 2016 8:27 pm

      BSMason, thank you for the comment and the push-back. I do think it is appropriate to emphasize the immanent-economic distinction despite its relative distance from the fourth-century debates. I imagine that we wouldn’t have to look very far to find examples of pro-Nicene authors speaking about how the Son’s temporal submission to the Father is not at odds with his co-equality, and ERAS supporters today certainly support that. The contemporary debate has taken a rather different form, and so the Father-Son relation must be parsed more finely than it was in the fourth century in order to really cut to the heart of the ERAS argument.

      I agree with your statement that there is no room “for even an economical subordination” in God, at least insofar as the term ‘subordination’ seems to me to be more trouble than it is worth when it comes to the Godhead. (In my last few posts on the topic I’ve tried to be more careful in switching to the ERAS preferred term ‘submission’ rather than subordination — though in their use the distinction may be only slight.) I addressed this someone tangentially in my post last week on the pactum salutis doctrine. For starters, conceptually ‘subordination’ and ‘submission’ imply multiple wills in God, as though the Son is not just a distinct person but a separate subject who stands over-against the Father in a competitive sense. Thus the tradition tended instead toward the language of the Son’s “being sent” by the Father, rather than his being subordinate to — even in the economy. One divine willing and acting is actualized through the mission of the Son, and not through the Son’s labored consent to the Father.

      So my statements above that the Son “submits” the Father in being sent is intended somewhat as a concession to the ERAS framing of the matter, in order to try and make the point that while they cannot press submission into the immanent Trinity they do still have some conceptual room to speak of an “eternal” submission (their word) that precedes the incarnation. Locating election in eternity opens this window. Opponents might argue that that room is vanishingly thin — but the tradition does allow that it is there.

      I agree, per your Gregory quote, that “submission” language threatens to divide the continuous operation of the triune God. What we’re really talking about is the one divine Subject’s self-specification (or personal appropriation): as the Father God will send, as the Son God will be sent, and as the Spirit God will bring to completion — “one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit.” But it is appropriate to talk about the mission and work of the Son in eternity, as that which is determined in election to be executed in time. The divine determination that the Son will obey the Father in his incarnation is not less real prior to his birth in Bethlehem.

  2. July 12, 2016 12:52 am

    An article by Steven Boyer in Pro Ecclesia back in 2009 is instructive.

  3. BSMason permalink
    July 12, 2016 5:54 pm

    Thank you much for the response Dr. Sumner!

    I guess I really just don’t see the “room”, even as related to the pactum solutis. The Pro-Nicene Fathers often used arguments that would seem to apply directly to the pactum (had they the category). I imagine they would have said something like, If the Father proposed the plan, by what wisdom did He propose? By the Wisdom, His Son. By what word did He propose? By the Word, His Son. In short, by what will did He propose? By the will of the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is a pretty common argument form in their writings—and I agree with it, not because they argued thus, but because I believe it necessary to maintain the one will and operation of the Godhead. A direction in the motion of the will of God, expressed ad extra in terms of processions, does not imply or allow for an order of subordination, but only that of Origination and Cause. We must argue similarly for “sent” and “election” and the like.

    I’m pretty sure we agree on all of this, but I believe we must give no quarter to their trappings. Even as we, “imagine that we wouldn’t have to look very far to find examples of pro-Nicene authors speaking about how the Son’s temporal submission to the Father is not at odds with his co-equality,” we would have to add that only in His manhood He is in temporal submission and according to such nature is less than the Father; but according to His Godhead He is co-equal. Until they make this distinction, I cannot see how they are not like the heretics (yes, only “like”) rebuked by Chrysostom in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3:

    “’But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.’ Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if “the man be the head of the woman,” and the head be of the same substance with the body, and “the head of Christ is God,” the Son is of the same substance with the Father. “Nay,” say they, “it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection.” What then are we to say to this? In the first place, when any thing lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said….”

    Always and everywhere the orthodox apply this “Canon” (as Augustine calls it). Augustine argues, more than once,

    “And it is on account of this one personality as consisting of two substances, the divine and the human, that He sometimes speaks in accordance with that wherein He is God, as when He says, “I and my Father are one;” and sometimes in accordance with His manhood, as in the words, “For the Father is greater than I”….

    And so Leo the Great,

    “…. And so the mystery of power united to weakness, in respect of the same human nature, allows the Son to be called inferior to the Father: but the Godhead, which is One in the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, excludes all notion of inequality. For the eternity of the Trinity has nothing temporal, nothing dissimilar in nature: Its will is one, Its substance identical, Its power equal, and yet there are not three Gods, but one God; because it is a true and inseparable unity, where there can be no diversity.”

    And we should conclude along with Ambrose,

    “But where there is a constant unity of will, there can be no weakness of temporal subjection. For if He were made subject through His nature, He would always remain in subjection; but since He is said to be made subject in time, that subjection must be part of an assumed office and not of an everlasting weakness… [S]o He became subject in us not for His own sake but for ours, being not in subjection in His eternal Nature, nor accursed in His eternal Nature. “For cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” Cursed He was, for He bore our curses; in subjection, also, for He took upon Him our subjection, but in the assumption of the form of a servant, not in the glory of God; so that whilst he makes Himself a partaker of our weakness in the flesh, He makes us partakers of the divine Nature in His power. But neither in one nor the other have we any natural fellowship with the heavenly Generation of Christ, nor is there any subjection of the Godhead in Christ. But as the Apostle has said that on Him through that flesh which is the pledge of our salvation, we sit in heavenly places, though certainly not sitting ourselves, so also He is said to be subject in us through the assumption of our nature.”

    I apologize that this seems to be a rancorous rambling of too many quotes, but I think it is ultimately paramount that they recognize that “subordination”, “subjection”, and “submission” are the very terms of OUR relation to God and that the Son took upon Himself OUR subjection, in order to redeem us. These are redemptive categories. And though He was “sent” in order to perform this, He Himself sent Himself; issuing from the Father as to Cause and Origination, but by Himself as the Wisdom, Word, and Power of God.

    • July 12, 2016 7:13 pm

      I think we are largely in agreement. It’s fair to say that the fathers knew little (nothing?) of an eternal subordination of any form, even economic — and certainly not “relational.” When they spoke of taxis in the Godhead it was always with that anti-Subordinationist caveat.

      So what I’m suggesting is admittedly somewhat more modern, and ecumenically oriented. If that is not ground you are willing to cede, that’s fine. But we should flesh out what it means for the Father and the Son to be personally distinguished in the divine missions and specifically in the eternal act of election — for the Father to send and the Son to be sent, etc.

      Cutting off absolutely all avenues for speaking of the Son’s eternal “submission” (if we’ll allow for that word for just a moment) does seem at least potentially problematic. In my most recent post I mentioned the diversity of interpretation with respect to the active agent of Phil. 2:5-11. Is it the incarnate Christ who humbles himself and becomes obedient unto death? Or is it the pre-incarnate Logos? It would seem that the incarnate Lord is already humbled (in his already having taken on the “form of a servant,” v. 7). If there’s room enough here to speak of the Logos as the subject of this passage, then Paul is suggesting an orientation of “obedience” (to the Father, I think) that is prior to the incarnation.

      The framework I am suggesting allows for this, while still specifying it as economic and not pressing submission language back into the immanent Trinity.

      Of course we’d have to unpack all of that in conversation with the witness of the tradition. But passages such as Phil. 2 do, for my money, at least create the space to talk about the Son’s eternal obedience to the Father. (Karl Barth prefers this language of “obedience” over “subordination” or “submission,” though he has an atypical theological ontology undergirding it — effectively suggesting that the Son obeys the Father by virtue of his humanity, and that this humanity is his eternally. That may be a way to bring our positions into closer alignment.)

  4. July 20, 2016 1:41 am

    Is it the case that Grudem and Ware are seeking additional means to distinguish the persons, that the early fathers never envisaged? Is this not the significance of the language of the relations of origin, and that apart from these relations, there is nothing else that distinguishes the persons? Grudem, especially, seems to be saying that it is the authority and submission which distinguishes the persons, rather than the more biblical language of begotten and proceeding.

    • July 20, 2016 10:37 am

      I think that is partially right, Michael. They are attempting a distinction that the fathers did not seem to directly envision (or, when they did, they more carefully excluded from it an immanent subordination of the divine persons). But more than this, Ware and Grudem are taking up the terms and categories of ancient trinitarian theology and either misunderstanding it or misusing it by making additions and substitutions (i.e. natural father-son relations, ‘begetting’ including submission) that not only were never there in the ancient church, but in fact so alter the concepts that they no longer mean the same thing.

      One cannot simply redefine “begotten” according to one’s own reading of the Bible, and one’s own natural theology, and then call himself “Nicene” for using the same word. And where Ware and Grudem are coming up short is in demonstrating that their use of these concepts is sufficiently equivalent to that of the ancient church.

  5. BSMason permalink
    July 27, 2016 4:04 pm

    Hello again Dr. Sumner. I was thinking over the potential “foot-hold” you referred to in one of your replies to me and then while rereading Warfield’s “Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”, I think I understand what you may be referring to. I’ve pulled out the relevant paragraphs:

    In the first paragraph he argues that sonship, begotten, and “Spirit” imply no subordination, but exactly the opposite. In the second paragraph he acknowledges that there is undoubtedly a “subordination” in the works and operations of God, i.e., from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit. He rejects the notion that this order of working is necessitated by the nature of the Persons (“subsistences”) but is rather by voluntary covenant. He then introduces the Son as incarnate as possible explanation of person-subordination language.

    I think these two paragraphs are fertile ground for discussion and may contain the foot-hold you speak of. And the “vanishingly thin” portion would be that while Grudem et al want to have true coequality, they also want subordination among the Persons that is not just temporal. They attempt to do this by saying the Persons are not in a relation of authority and submission ontologically, but rather in “role” and “function”. This may seem to be in line with the subordination of “modes of operation” that Warfield discusses in the second paragraph. But when they, unlike him, ground these modes of operation in eternity upon fatherhood/sonship and begetting/begotten, they are necessarily defining the Persons as to who they are in themselves, not just what they have agreed to do or voluntary roles. Using the 1960’s sociological language of “role” and “function” does not sidestep the fact that these are of necessity ontological statements. If roles are eternal and necessitated by order of origination and sonship/fatherhood, then the Persons of the Trinity must relate according to authority and submission by the very distinctions and defining properties of their Persons, for it could not be otherwise. It is no “role” or “function”. Grudem et al cannot claim that their use of “roles” or “functions” equate to anything other than necessary “modes of subsistence” of the Persons, i.e., ontological subordination.

    If we take the sub-ordination of the “modes of operation” and ground them in the nature of the Persons and make them eternal, then we are not talking about roles or functions, but about ontologically defining characteristics of Persons. And if we define the Persons according the order of their operations, then they can no longer be considered coequal. The Son is no longer equal in authority to the Father. The Father is no longer omnipotent as He cannot create, reveal Himself, or redeem without the Son (unless there’s another eternity where His nature is different wherein He could do it Himself). The Father and the Son are wholly impotent in their very nature to effect anything without the Spirit and therefore dependent upon His will. And many other such substance and attribute dividing absurdities.

    Is this close to what you had in mind?

    (I would add though, that I, and I think Pro-Nicene Fathers, would not use “subordination” with reference to works and operations. There seems to be an equivocation in Warfield on “subordination”. With respect to persons, where it is denied, the application makes grammatical sense. Thus it makes sense to say that Christ in His flesh is subordinated to the Father as per the mission. But the works of persons, if we want to stay close, are more properly considered “sub-ordered” or just ordered, like ordinals. It makes no sense to impute a relation of authority and submission or obedience to works and operations or ways of working. And we also don’t want to inadvertently imply that the works and operations of God are separable; rather they are sub-ordered, differentiated, and display a direction of motion within the one will of God.)

  6. Jonah Sanders permalink
    July 25, 2021 2:23 pm

    Hi Darren,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for taking so much time to be very precise in definition.

    I am a very new Christian. I grew up a mormon and had a very distorted and non-biblical view of God. Luckily some years after leaving the mormon church God reached me through the words of the Holy Bible.

    Growing up mormon I gained a very twisted understanding of the trinity, which I actually thought was combined with modalism until recently.

    Naturally, the first question I wanted to knock out upon becoming Christian was “Who is God and what has he revealed about himself”?

    It’s been an awesome and eye-opening time. I slowly and gradually began to learn about the doctrine of the trinity and embrace it. I learned what the terms ontological and economic (in a trinitarian context) meant. I also learned about the concept of what I first heard coined as “functional subordination”, though maybe it is more commonly referred to as “economic subordination”. I really embraced the idea because reading the Bible there’s the passages about Jesus doing the will of The Father and being sent of the Father, and so on. I learned that the three persons of the trinity are all ontologically equal, yet also take different roles in regards to the economy of redemption.

    Today is the first time I am hearing about the EFS/ERAS movement. I know your article deals a little more with the lack of non-specificity concerning submission/subordination in an eternal ontological sense, but I was hoping you could help answer a couple questions for me.

    1. What exactly is the EFS/ERAS movement? Who are the major players in it? Wayne Grudem seems to be the foremost, or at least one of them right? What are they trying to accomplish theologically?

    2. Obviously 95ish % percent of mainstream Christianity embraces the doctrine of the trinity. Is the idea of functional/economic subordination pretty mainstream within trinitarian Christianity, or is it more fringe?

    3. I of course believe in the ultimate authority of the Holy Bible as the only inspired writings/scripture of God. It has, however, been helpful for me to go through the major Christian creedal statements as helpful writings that affirm what we believe. I really like the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed (381 Revised Version) and [mostly] the Athanasian creed.

    4. How do you feel about the Athanasian Creed? I agree completely with all the statements of belief regarding the three persons of the trinity being co-eternal, co-existent, and co-equal, all working together in perfect unity as one divine being. The only part that I am a little hesitant on is the inclusion of anathemas – I feel like the scriptures are pretty clear that by having Faith in Jesus Christ one can be saved (sorry I know this is really rudimentary talk here, I am still studying the differing ideas of justification and so on). Is it really biblical to say that salvation will be withheld from somebody who may not embrace the more theological clarifications (again, that I really like) extrapolated from scriptural truth?

    Hopefully that isn’t too much to ask but I am just trying to find good reputable answers on some of these tougher subjects and really respect you through my exposure to what you’ve written in this article.

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