Saturday, July 2, 2016

Where Angels Fear to Tread

You may not be aware, but in the last month there has been an ongoing, intramural debate among evangelicals regarding the Trinity – more specifically, the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son.  On one side of the debate are those who advocate the doctrine of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) of the Son.  This view proposes that the Son is eternally subordinate in function or order with respect to the Father, while sharing fully, without any diminution, in the essence or substance of the Father.  This is not to be confused with the ancient heresy of subordinationism, which teaches that the Son is subordinate in being or nature to God the Father. 

On the other side of the debate are those who not only oppose this view - arguing that the Son’s subordination to the Father was entirely confined to his earthly career - but condemn it as dangerously outside the mainstream of orthodox (Nicene) Christianity.  It’s important to keep in mind that not all who reject EFS judge it as unorthodox.

To make matters more complicated, bound up in this brouhaha is the thorny question of gender roles.  How? Many proponents of EFS have used the doctrine as an analogy for gender roles in the church and family, illustrating the complementarian thesis that equality of being or dignity is not incompatible with subordination of role or function.

Now I have been slow to venture into this discussion.  For one, I’m just an everyday, run-of-the-mill pastor.  Two, I’m busy – as most of us are.  Three, to be honest, in matters regarding the Trinity, I am nervous.  As Augustine wrote, “nowhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious” than in the study of the Trinity.  And only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. 

However, having given some time to read and reflect on the issues, I have decided (perhaps foolishly) to tread upon holy ground.  There’s a lot involved in this debate.  But my concern is threefold. 

My first concern is as a preacher.  Can I speak of the Son’s submission or subordination to the Father, not merely in the course of his earthly “humiliation,” but also in his heavenly exaltation and session?  The notion of an eternal, functional subordination of the Son has long been articulated by some of our most revered theologians,[1] enshrined in many of our standard textbooks,[2] and of course echoed in endless podcasts.  Are we no longer permitted to speak this way?  According to some of the louder voices in this debate, the answer is a surprising and resounding, “No!”

My second concern is doctrinal.  I am not primarily concerned about gender roles here, but about our theology of the Trinity.[3]  I acknowledge that the doctrine of EFS is to some degree speculative in attributing an authority/submission frame within the Godhead, particularly as it pertains to the relation between the Father and Son antecedent to the incarnation.  However, it seems plain that this articulation regarding the divine order (or taxis) within the Trinity is fully consonant with historic orthodoxy. Certainly it has been standard within the evangelical tradition for some time.  One wonders with John Stephens why all the friendly fire has been discharged now.  What has provoked this sudden outburst within the ranks?  What is the newly perceived danger?  The only danger I see, as Al Mohler writes, “is that this kind of controversy confuses the church about the real danger of heresy. 

My third concern is pastoral. With many of the opponents of EFS in this debate, I am leery of so-called Social Trinitarianism, in which theological speculations regarding the “interior life” of the Triune God are employed to justify various social and political ideologies - ranging from radically egalitarian to adamantly hierarchal - all in the name of historic, Trinitarian orthodoxy.[4]  For this reason, I am eager to avoid facile analogies drawn between gender and the Trinity.  However, I am equally leery of the opposite danger, which would construe the economic Trinity as so mysterious, so esoteric (especially for us hoi paloi),[5] as to render it irrelevant to our own understanding of what it means to be human – whether in Adam or in Christ.[6]  As a pastor, I must be able to confidently, even if very carefully, bring what the Son has revealed about the Father, Himself and the Holy Spirit to bear on men, women, children, families, and leadership in the local church. 

In light of these concerns, I want to offer a brief re-statement of EFS that has taken some of the critiques and confusions in consideration, and ask whether all of us who claim Nicene orthodoxy – as every Christian should – can affirm it. 

First, let’s all agree that “eternal subordination,” whether qualified by “functional” or not, is confusing.  We need to excise “subordination” from our talk of the relations within the Trinity.  Eternal Submission of the Son?  Or, more generally, Relational Order of the Persons? 

Secondly, in opposition to Bruce Ware, I do not think the rejection of eternal generation is either necessary or advisable.  I see EFS as supplementing our understanding of eternal generation, not supplanting it.[7]  Fred Sanders gives this explanation of eternal generation:

The Sender-Sent relation [between Father and Son] enacts and reveals an eternal relation of fromness.  The Father sent the Son in the fullness of time, by grace, because the Father is the source of the Son in eternity, by nature. This eternal relation of fromness has traditionally been called eternal generation. It can also be called filiation (“sonning”), especially because it needs to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit’s own relation of origin which is revealed in his own sending.

Now I think we can all agree that “authority” and “obedience” are not what constitutes the Father as Father and the Son as Son. Having said that, it isn’t clear that the divine order among the Persons – the primacy of the Father as “the fountainhead of the whole divinity” (Calvin), the “fromness” of the Son, and procession of the Spirit from the Father and Son - has no implications for a relative authority/subordination within the economic Trinity.[8]  In fact, it is conceptually difficult to preclude the notion.  As Sanders elsewhere writes: 

There is, in the relations of origin of the triune God, an irreversible taxis to which the obedience of the incarnate Christ corresponds in human form. It’s an eternal procession that reaches its strangely logical final conclusion in the sending of the Son. As for his submission to the Father, I don’t know what they call it in the happy land of the Trinity, but when it lives among us it is rightly named obedience.

Thirdly, we can all affirm that the sending of the Son - and the authority/submission structure played out within His earthly career for our redemption - though indicative of the order within the Godhead (only the Son could be sent by the Father, and not vice-versa) implies no inferiority in the Son. But going further, we acknowledge that any notion of “obedience” within the economic Trinity must be qualified by the full equality and inseparable operation of the divine Persons as One God. St. Augustine expresses this well:

What we are saying may perhaps be easier to sort out if we put the question this way, crude though it is: in what manner did God send his son? Did he tell him to come, giving him an order he complied with by coming, or did he ask him to, or did he merely suggest it? Well, whichever way it was done, it was certainly done by word. But God’s word is his son. So when the Father sent him by word, what happened was that he was sent by the Father and his Word. Hence it is by the Father and the Son that the Son was sent, because the Son is the Father’s Word (De trin. ii.9, 103).

In other words, when we speak of the Son’s obedience to the Father’s authority in “going,” or of Christ’s submitting Himself, together with all things, to God at the end of the age (1Cor.15:28), we speak analogically.  Our language of authority/submission between the Father and Son may be understood literally, but not univocally. 

Fourthly, and finally, if we are permitted to speak of the Son’s temporary subordination as revealing something about the “happy land of the Trinity” (Sanders elsewhere refers to this “something” as “the imminent Trinitarian analogate”), then may we not describe it (analogically) as the eternal submission/subordination of the Son? Yes, we confess that we here encounter the ineffable realities of the incomprehensible - and face the inevitable limitations of language. But it seems entirely appropriate to attribute, as an aspect of the unutterable divine order or taxis, a distinction among the Persons that we can only comprehend as entailing an authority / submission structure.  

Or must we remain silent regarding the order within the Godhead, beyond the mere enumerating of the Persons?  Has not God given us words in Scripture to understand and articulate the relation between the Father and the Son?  Words like “obedience” and “submission”?  Let us not then be overly timid as theologians and preachers – more timid than the Scriptures themselves regarding our God-talk.  We may (carefully but boldly) speak of “subordination” of roles or relational order within the Godhead without succumbing to subordinationationism-confessing the fully deity and glory of the Son and the Spirit, together with the Father.

I began this post with an Augustine quote, but I didn’t finish it: “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”  God has revealed Himself as Trinity, and this discovery is the most profitable of all. 

Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, glory to the Spirit, glory to the Three in One!




[1] E.g., Robert Letham (2004): "The Son's submission to the Father is compatible with his full and unabbreviated deity. Therefore, we may rightly say that the Son submits in eternity to the Father, without in any way breaking his indissoluble oneness with the Father or the Holy Spirit, and without in any way jeopardizing his equality. Being God, he serves the Father. Being God, the Father loves the Son and shares his glory with him (John 17:1-4, 22-24). The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402.
J. I. Packer (1973): "Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other....It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son's part, and find all His joy in doing His Father's will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven." Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.
Carl F. H. Henry (1982): "The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son's subordination to the Father, and the Spirit's subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations," God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.
Louis Berkhof (1938): "The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship....Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity." Systematic Theology, 88-89.
A. H. Strong (1907): "...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation...The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman's soul is worth as much as man's; see 1 Cor 11:3." Systematic Theology, 342.
Charles Hodge (1871-1873): "The Nicene doctrine includes...the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority....The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ....The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit...and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal." Systematic Theology, 460-462.
Jonathan Edwards (1740): "1. That there is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another, in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affair of man's redemption. So that the Father in that affair acts as Head of the Trinity, and Son under him, and the Holy Spirit under them both. … 4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another, and so must be conceived of as in some respect established by mutual free agreement...yet this agreement establishing this economy is not to be looked upon as merely arbitrary...But there is a natural decency or fitness in that order and economy that is established. 'Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting: that as the Father is first in the order of subsisting, so he should be first in the order of acting...therefore the persons of the Trinity all consent to this order, and establish it by agreement, as they all naturally delight in what is in itself fit, suitable and beautiful. Therefore, 5. This order [or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption... 6. That the economy of the persons of the Trinity, establishing that order of their acting that is agreeable to the order of their subsisting, is entirely diverse from the covenant of redemption, and prior to it, not only appears from the nature of things, but appears evidently from the Scripture...," 1062. "Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption," from Jonathan Edwards [1740], The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (WJE Online Vol. 20), Ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw.
[2] E.g., Geoffrey W. Bromiley’s article, "Eternal Generation," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), reads: "Eternal generation....is the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. "Generation" makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). "Eternal" reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued ....Nor does his subordination imply inferiority....the phrase....corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being....It finds creedal expression in the phrases 'begotten of his Father before all worlds'" (Nicene) and "begotten before the worlds" (Athanasian),” 368 (italics mine).  Similarly, Harold O. J. Brown, in his exhaustive study of Christian heresy and orthodoxy, writes: "Nicaea clearly affirmed that the distinction between the Father and the Son is not ontological or substantial, inasmuch as both are God. It did not clearly specify wherein that distinctiveness does lie. Inasmuch as it is not ontological, it must be relational, as the language of the Bible continues to assert even when we have stripped "begetting" of its ontological implications. At this point, in order to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, the language was allowed to carry its economic implications; that is to say, the Persons of the Trinity were seen to differ in the relationship of commissioner and commissioned, the one sending and the one sent (John 3:16, 14:16). Here, finally, the distinction was allowed to rest; the Son, under (sub) the orders of the Father is clearly subordinate in the relationship, although not by nature; the same holds true for the Holy Spirit," Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 133 (italics mine). See also the systematic theological works of Robert Reymond, John Frame, Norman Geisler, and Wayne Grudem.
[3] I agree with Craig Keener (an egalitarian advocate of EFS) that there is no necessary connection between EFS and complementarianism.  I would argue that the temporary submission of the Son to the Father is sufficient to grant the complementarian thesis regarding equality of essence and subordination of role.
[4] Stephen Holmes’ comments mocking this modern development are amusing and, it seems to me, spot on: “…we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine. We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian’s Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God’s relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God’s ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality. We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival’; future historians might want to ask us why.”
[5] Fred Sanders cautiously draws a comparison of this debate to the English Reformation, citing C.S. Lewis’ words that such theologically refined concepts are “fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure.”  But I am left to wonder where this lands the crucial, ever day theologizing of the church, and just who these “saintly disputants” with “boundless leisure” are. 
[6] As Alastair Roberts writes in his excellent post on the debate, “I believe that God did create male and female in a manner that reflects his Triune life, more particularly as that life is revealed within the economic Trinity.”
[7] On this note, Wayne Grudem writes, “But just what is meant by "eternal generation"? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words "paternity" and "filiation" provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean "existing as a father" and "existing as a son," which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with "eternal generation" until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean).”  But the only response to this can be: Good luck!  As Augustine argues in De Trinitate, the eternal generation of the Son is incomprehensible.  Hence, we can really only speak univocally about what EG is not – it is not corporeal, it is not temporal, it is not derivative.  Though the Father is the source and origin of deity, the fount of the Godhead, as the Cappadocian fathers referred to it, the Son’s being is neither dependent nor contingent.  Augustine writes that the Father "begot [the son] in such a way that the life which the Father gave the son by begetting him is co-eternal with the life of the Father who gave it..." (De trin. XV. 47, 432).  I understand this to imply Calvin's doctrine of autotheotes or "self-deity" of the Son. But Grudem, perhaps despite himself, seems in line with the basic significance of EG when he concludes: “If "eternal generation" simply means "an eternal Father-Son relationship," then I am happy to affirm it.”
[8] Robert Culver writes, "The distinctive property of the Son is filiation, from Latin filius, hence being a son.  This indicates a precedence of the Father to the Son in their eternal relation," Systematic Theology (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 121.  Robert Reymond writes, "We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will." A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 336.

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