Errors are used to get us to think. We consider them not only that we might be on guard against them, but also that we might grow in our own understanding of the truth. God uses them to prod us to look more deeply into what the Scriptures say. This is just one of the many ways in which our Lord turns an evil to our profit.
In this article we consider the teaching that there is submission within the Trinity. The current form of this teaching has become known as “Eternal Functional Subordination,” abbreviated as EFS.
Those holding to EFS maintain that within the Trinity the second person (the Son) is submissive to the first (the Father). Along with this goes the teaching that the third person (the Holy Spirit) is submissive to both the first and the second. For now, to simplify matters a bit, we consider just the teaching regarding the submission of the Son.
EFS and the submissive wife
One influential author who holds to EFS is Dr. Wayne Grudem, distinguished research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona. Grudem served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible and is one of the co-founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), an organization that opposes same-sex marriage and has published articles and papers critical of “gender-neutral” Bible translations. He is the author of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrines, a popular dogmatics. Along with John Piper he edited Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, which was Christianity Today’s “book of the year” in 1992.
I mention this for two reasons. First, it serves to show that this position is held today by some who have a considerable amount of influence. Secondly, I intend to demonstrate how some holding to EFS make use of it to promote positions concerning male-female roles in society.
For example, the calling of the wife to submit to her husband is said to be related to the submission of the Son to the Father within the Trinity. Bruce Ware, who holds to EFS and was a contributor to the newer edition of Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, makes this connection:
And here, wives can benefit enormously from the doctrine of the Trinity in realizing that the submission required of them as wives is itself reflective of the very submission eternally given by the Son to his Father, and by the Spirit to the Father and the Son.1
One may wonder why they look within the Trinity to find an example of submission. It appears they want to find an example of someone who submits to another who is his equal. With the stress today on gender equality, they want to say that they agree that men and women are equal, but that equality does not rule out submission. One can be equal with and yet also submissive to another. Wives, they would say, are equal to their husbands and yet are called to submit to them.
So how are they going to root this theologically? If we look to Christ from the viewpoint of His human nature, He is indeed submissive to the Father, but He is not equal to Him. Jesus Himself said, “my Father is greater than I” (John 15:28). So those holding to EFS instead turn to the Trinity. They argue that within the triune God we find three persons who are all equal, and yet some of them are submissive to one or more of the others.2 But is there really submission within the Trinity?
One of the ancient errors regarding the Trinity is known as subordinationism. The term has been used to refer to the teaching that the second and third persons of the Trinity are subordinate to the first person, and that the Holy Spirit is subordinate to the Son.
Today there are differences of opinion as to what is meant by this term. Grudem distinguishes what he teaches from what he refers to as “the heresy of subordinationism”:
The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is subordinate to the Father in role or function.3
Grudem maintains that the Son is equal to the Father, though subordinate to Him. So, according to Grudem, his teaching is to be distinguished from subordinationism.
Leaving aside for the moment what is meant by subordinationism, there needs to be some discussion as to how those holding to EFS are using the term subordinate. By subordinate they mean more than that the Son is second in order to the first person. By subordinate they mean that the Son is submissive to the Father. So to bring out more clearly what their position is, I intend to use the word submissive rather than subordinate when referring to what they teach.
Biblical example of submission
There is no question that Christ according to His human nature is submissive to God. Yet those holding to EFS are not referring to Christ from the viewpoint of His human nature. They are speaking of the Son being eternally submissive within the Trinity. The quote from Ware referred to earlier demonstrates this, when he speaks of “the very submission eternally given by the Son to his Father.”4
Is this the example of submission that Scripture gives? Does Scripture say that wives are to submit to their husbands just as the eternal Son submits to the Father within the Trinity? Rather, God says that wives are called to be subject to their husbands “as the church is subject unto Christ” (Eph. 5:24).
Indeed, all of us are called to be submissive. We are to submit to those in authority over us, even as Christ according to the flesh is submissive to God. It is in this sense that Christ, the Servant of Jehovah, is an example for us.
The unity and sovereignty of God
To refer to the eternal Son within the Trinity as submissive amounts to saying that the will of the Father is different from the will of the Son. Yet the will of God belongs to His essence. If there is one divine essence, there is one divine will. There are three persons in God, but those three persons have one will.
Christ has two wills, because He has two natures. When Christ said, “not my will, but thine be done,” He was referring to His human will.
The triune God, however, has one will. Multiple wills would actually mean multiple gods, since the will belongs to the essence. The teaching that each of the divine persons has His own distinct will is contrary to what Scripture teaches concerning the oneness of God.
Furthermore, the true God is sovereign. He has all authority. Yet Ware says the Son does not have supreme authority:
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God, each equally God, each possessing fully the one undivided divine nature. Yet each Person of the Godhead is different in role and position in relation to each other. The Father is supreme in authority, the Son is under the Father, and the Spirit is under the Father and the Son. Yet there is also full harmony in their work, with no jealousy, bitterness, strife, or discord.5
If the second person of the Trinity does not have supreme authority, is He really the sovereign God?
Grudem, Ware, and others holding to EFS may say that God is one, that He is sovereign, and that the three persons are equal. Yet their teaching regarding EFS is not in harmony with that confession.
Those are just a few comments about the EFS position. So how do those holding to it attempt to prove what they say? What passages do they cite? Lord willing, we will consider a few of them next time.
1 Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 145. 2 Those promoting EFS are not the first to argue that their ideas regarding civil society are patterned after the Trinity. Some who desire to do away with all structures of authority and submission have referred to the Trinity as a society of three distinct “beings” who commune together without any of them being in authority over the others. Those holding to EFS differ in that they desire there to be structures of authority and submission in society. So they maintain that there is submission to authority within the Trinity. 3 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 288. 4 Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 145. 5 Ware, 131.