A Theological Debate

There is presently raging within American Evangelicalism a debate on the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. This debate is called the “Eternal Functional Subordination” (or EFS) controversy. On one side of this debate are Wayne Grudem (Phoenix Seminary) and Bruce Ware (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), while on the other side are Carl Trueman (Westminster Theological Seminary) and Liam Goligher (senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) with their colleagues, Aimee Byrd and Todd Pruitt, blogging on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ blog, “The Mortification of Spin.”1

The EFS view is this: within the Godhead, the Father is supreme, and the Son is functionally and eternally, although not ontologically, subordinate to the Father. Let us try to unpack those deep theological concepts!

The Bible teaches that the Mediator, the man Christ Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, was subordinate to or subject to His Father. In the incarnation, the Son willingly submitted to the Father. Jesus declared that He came to do the will of His Father. Paul teaches that Jesus “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). All orthodox believers agree on that point.

However, the advocates of EFS read back into the being of God what the Son became in the incarnation—the Son was eternally subordinate to the Father. Even before the incarnation, and even before the creation of the world, the Son was subordinate to the Father. The Son was always subordinate to the Father!

However, this subordination is not a subordination of being (the word “ontological” refers to the being of something). The Son, insist Grudem and Ware, is ontologically equal to the Father and the Spirit. The Son is, to use the term employed in the Nicene Creed, homoousion—of the same essence as the Father. Instead of an ontological subordination, Grudem and Ware teach a functional subordination—an eternal functional subordination—of the Son to the Father. “Functional” refers to the different roles or works of the divine Persons.

Therefore, while there is “no difference in nature between the Father and the Son, there is a difference between their roles in the Trinity.”2 The difference between the roles is not that the Father generates the Son, that the Son is begotten of the Father, and that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, which truths the EFS advocates affirm. Rather, the difference is one of authority or supremacy. Grudem writes, “God the Father has eternally had a role of leadership, initiation, and primary authority among the members of the Trinity, and the Son has eternally been subject to the Father’s authority.”3 “The Father had authority over the Son and the Son submitted to that authority before the world was made.” Ware writes (and if anything his statements are even more troubling than Grudem’s):

…Though the Father is supreme, he often provides and works through his Son and Spirit to accomplish his work and fulfill his will. I am amazed when I consider here the humility of the Father. For, though the Father is supreme, though he has in the Trinitarian order the place of highest authority, the place of highest honor, yet he chooses to do his work in many cases through the Son and through the Spirit rather than unilaterally.4

God the Father receives the ultimate and supreme glory, for the Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption in his humiliation, and the Father exalted the Son to his place over all creation; in all these things, the Father alone stands supreme over all—including supreme over his very Son. All praise of the Son ultimately and rightly redounds to the glory of the Father. It is the Father, then who is supreme in the Godhead—in the triune relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and supreme over all of the very creation over which the Son reigns as its Lord.5

While Scripture praises the humility of the Son in humbling Himself in the human nature to suffer and die, Ware writes of the “humility of the Father” in using the Son as an agent in creation and redemption and the Spirit in sanctification!

Theological Error

The EFS error—or heresy—is based on the view that since human sons are under the authority of their human fathers (true), the Son of God is under the authority of His divine and eternal Father (false). In addition, EFS is used in support of the complementarianism promoted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical group that promotes the view that, while men and women are by nature equal, women are functionally subordinate to men.6 Grudem, for example, presents the Son’s submission to the Father as “the role-model for a woman’s submission to her husband.”7 (Of course, the pattern for a woman’s submission to her husband is not the Son’s eternal, functional submission or subordination to the Father, but the church’s submission to Christ! “Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” [Eph. 5:24]). In an appeal to I Corinthians 11:3, Grudem writes in his Systematic Theology:

Just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to God the Father, and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood.8

“What about the Holy Spirit?” you might ask. Says Grudem:

And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity.9

So the Son is eternally, functionally—but not ontologically— subordinate and submissive to the Father, which is analogous to the husband-wife relationship; and the Holy Spirit is eternally, functionally—but not ontologically—subordinate and submissive to the Father and Son, which is analogous to the parent-child relationship! Grudem’s Systematic Theology is very influential among and widely read by evangelicals. It is even the textbook in many evangelical seminaries. The seriousness of his error cannot be underestimated. Todd Pruitt at “The Mortification of Spin” writes, “This goes far beyond reasonable speculation. In an effort to be charitable I want to call it exotic. But that will not do. It is worse than exotic. It may well be blasphemous.”10

Indeed, some of the orthodox fathers faced scoffing heretics who, in their opposition to the equality of the Son with the Father, asked sneeringly whether the Holy Spirit were the grandson of the Father. Now Bruce essentially affirms that the Spirit functions as the son of the Father and the Son!

Trinitarian Orthodoxy

Grudem and Ware are reading into the idea of “Son of God” more than is warranted in Scripture. The Sonship of the second Person does not imply subordination to the first Person. Donald MacLeod writes,

Whatever was the case in the “ancient world,” the Jews did not conceive of sonship as implying subordination. This becomes clear in John 5:18, where Jesus calling God his Father is immediately taken to mean that he is making himself equal with God…. But the drawing of such inferences is itself a dangerous thing. If we interpret Jesus’ sonship in terms of its human analogy, we cannot stop at mere subordination. We have to go on to infer, first of all, that the Father exists before the Son and, secondly, that the Father generates or gives being to the Son. Both of these inferences were drawn by the Arians, but neither of them is tolerable.11

When the Bible teaches us that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, it refers to the fact that He is the only begotten Son. To beget is the activity of a father in which he brings forth one who (1) is of the same essence or being as himself—a human father begets a human son, and the divine Father begets the divine Son; (2) is a distinct person from himself—a human father is not the same person as his human son, and the divine Father is not the same Person as His divine Son; and (3) is generated in an act of love—a human father loves (or should love) his human son; and the Father dearly loves and delights in His Son. Of course, the begetting of the Father is unlike the human activity in that it is eternal, unchangeable, spiritual, and essential to the being of God. Writes David Engelsma, “The begetting of the essence of the Son from the essence of the Father does not imply the subordination of the Son to the Father, but the full equality of essence, or being.”12 In the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine catechism course, we teach our covenant youth, “What is the distinct personal property of each of these divine persons? Of the Father that He generates the Son; of the Son that He is generated by the Father; of the Holy Spirit that He proceeds from both the Father and the Son” (Lesson 6, “The Holy Trinity,” Q&A 14). The EFS version would have to read, “Of the Father that He has primacy over the Son and the Holy Spirit; of the Son that He is subordinate to the Father (as a wife is subordinate to her husband); of the Holy Spirit that He is subordinate to both the Father and the Son (as children are subordinate to their parents)”!

Speculation about the Trinity has serious consequences.

Let us be warned against the heterodoxy of Grudem and Ware.

Let us be careful how we teach and understand this precious doctrine.

1 Adam Parker has collected many of the blog posts pertinent to this debate in one place, http://www.bringthebooks.org/2016/06/trinity-controversy-omnibus.html.

2 Caleb Lindgren, “Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War” (Christianity Today, June 16, 2016), http://www.bringthebooks.org/2016/06/trinity-controversy-omnibus.html.

3 Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (eds.), The New Evangelical Subordinationism? (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 223-261; http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Biblical-evidence-for-the-eternal-submission-of-the-Son-to-the-Father.pdf.

4 Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationship, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 55; cited by Todd Pruitt in “Let’s All Be Nicene” on “The Mortification of Spin,” http://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/1517/lets-all-be-nicene.

5 Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 50.

6 The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, http://cbmw.org.

7 Donald MacLeod, “Subordinationism (out of the blue!),” http://www.donaldmacleod.org.uk/dm/subordinationism-out-of-the-blue.

8 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 257; cited by Rachel Evans in “Eternal Subordination of the Son and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology” on the Aquila Report,” http://theaquilareport.com/eternal-subordination-of-the-son-and-wayne-grudems-systematic-theology.

9 Grudem, 257.

10 Todd Pruitt, “A Mythological Godhead,” “The Mortification of Spin (July 9, 2016), http://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/1517/a-mythological-godhead.

11 MacLeod, “Subordinationism.” While MacLeod’s comments are generally helpful here, he is mistaken on one point. He rightly points out that the Father is not before the Son (they are coeternal), but it is a mistake to deny that the Father generates or gives being to the Son. The orthodox position is that the Son is begotten, but not made or created.

12 David J. Engelsma, The Reformed Faith of John Calvin: the Institutes in Summary (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2009), 84.