Eternal Submission in the Trinity? A Quick Guide to the Debate image

Eternal Submission in the Trinity? A Quick Guide to the Debate

There has been a fascinating, heated, often illuminating and occasionally exasperating debate this week about the Trinity. Dozens of posts have been written, arguing back and forth, by those who believe that the Son eternally submits to the Father (Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, Denny Burk, Mark Thompson, Mike Ovey), and those who don't, and believe the idea represents a movement away from Christian orthodoxy (Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman, Darren Sumner, Mark Jones, Scot McKnight). Retracing all the posts would take weeks, and in any case you can read them for yourselves. But several readers have asked me to explain what on earth is going on, in simple-ish terms—so that's what I'm going to try and do here.

There are ten main issues in the discussion, and they need to be disentangled from one another. (Liam Goligher’s original posts, which started the debate, involved most of these, so it might seem that they are all connected—but there are plenty of people, including me, who land on different sides of the aisle on the ten questions.) They are as follows:

1. Is the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (EFS) taught in Scripture? The Bible indicates that the Son submits to the Father while he is incarnate (John 5:19 and so on), and that he continues to into the future (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). But does it also teach that he has done so from eternity past? Is that what the language of the Father “sending” the Son (frequently in John), and being the “head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3), suggest? If you’re wondering why it matters, you’ll see in a minute.

2. Is the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son novel? That is: was it articulated, or even entertained, in the ancient church, or by the Reformers? Some have suggested the idea has only appeared in the last generation or so, as an extra argument for complementarians in the debate about the roles of men and women. Is it?

3. Is the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son heterodox, or even heretical? The debate began with a claim that EFS is not just wrong, but that it involves “reinventing God”, producing a different deity to the God of Nicene orthodoxy. This might sound outlandish to some readers, given that all sides affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and distinguish carefully between ontological subordination (which is heresy), and relational or functional subordination. But the charge, whether or not it is true, results from a combination of the next three issues.

4. Is there a separation of the divine will? Here’s the point many critics of EFS are making: for the Son to submit to the Father’s authority, there must be a distinction between the will of the Father and the will of the Son (otherwise submission would make no sense). Which is fine, as long as we’re talking about Christ after the incarnation, since Christ has two wills. But if we’re talking about Christ before the incarnation, then we’re saying the eternal God has two wills—and that is a denial of divine simplicity.

5. Does the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son imply that Christ only had one will? This is the flipside of the previous point. Take the Gethsemane prayer: was Jesus saying “not the will of the Son, but the will of the Father,” or “not my human will, but your (and in fact my) divine will”? If the former, as some EFS advocates have argued, does that lead to the conclusion that Christ had just one will? Historically the church has regarded this belief (monothelitism) as unorthodox.

6. Does the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son involve denying the Eternal Generation of the Son (EG)? Some EFS advocates deny Eternal Generation, and some (I would say most, but I can’t be certain) affirm it. But critics of EFS have seen this as another strike against it. As Liam Goligher tweeted recently: “The Trinity, minus eternal generation of the Son, inseparable operations and one divine will, plus eternal subordination, equals what?” (The answer he’s anticipating, rightly or wrongly, is presumably “Arianism.”) EFS advocates have argued that, since many of them do not even hold this position, it shouldn’t be bundled in to the debate.

7. If the answer to 4, 5 and 6 is “yes,” then should those advocating it resign from their posts? With hindsight, it is a bit unfortunate that the debate began with this challenge, both because it bundled together EFS and EG, and because it focused the first round of discussion on whether a theological position was worthy of resignation, rather than whether or not it was true. Having said that, if it hadn’t been stated this strongly, we might not all be talking about it.

8. Is the language of the eternal “subordination” of the Son helpful? This, it seems, is one question on which consensus appears to be emerging: no, it isn’t. When this round of the debate started a few days ago, much hinged on that word—which, owing to the heresy of subordinationism, was always going to be problematic—yet here I am, writing six days later, and I haven’t used the word until now, because people on all sides seem to concede that it is unhelpful. A week is a long time in theology.

9. Should Trinitarian relations be used in the debate about the roles of men and women? You’ll notice that, until now, the roles of men and women has barely even been mentioned, and I think the Trinitarian focus of the debate, not to mention the number of complementarians who have opposed EFS, gives the lie to the slightly cynical charge that the current debate is entirely about sex roles. Nevertheless, this question still lurks under the surface: should the Trinity be used in this discussion at all? Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 imply it should? Does the history of confusion imply it shouldn’t? And so on.

10. Is the analogy between eternal Trinitarian relations and sex roles unhelpful to women? If maleness and femaleness are not ultimately roles but essences—which, given my recent comments on transgender, I would be among the first to argue they are—then does a Trinitarian analogy based on roles/functions actually work? Does the essentialness of biological sex lead to the implication that all women are subordinate to all men? The insights of Aimee Byrd, Hannah Anderson, Rachael Starke and others have been very helpful to me here.

As you can see, the issues are diverse, ranging across biblical studies, systematics, Trinitarian theology, church history, Christology, sex roles, and contemporary church life. And as you can hopefully see, the way these issues have been bundled together is less a function of their essential nature, and more a function of the roles they play in the discussions between these particular individuals. (See what I did there?) Although it might look like a discussion about one issue, it is actually a discussion about lots of issues; so as Gregory Nazianzen might say, when you think of the one, think of the ten.

If you’re not sure about the answers, I’m sorry; that wasn’t the point of this post, though I obviously have my views on that (if you’re curious: no, sort of, no, no, sometimes, not necessarily, no, no, yes, probably). But if you’re clearer on the issues themselves, then my work here is done. For the best reflections on this discussion I’ve come across, both written (not coincidentally, I suspect) before this recent online debate started, check out Fred Sanders (especially the final paragraph) and Alastair Roberts. And if the whole thing is making you see the Trinity more as a debating football and less as a source of joy, then go read Mike Reeves, pray through John 17, and sing Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. You’ll be glad you did.

← Prev article
Next article →