Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate

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.

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. 


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 asBruce 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 TruemanLiam GoligherScot 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 sentinto 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)

Read More