The Heart of the Matter for Eternal Subordination
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.