Over the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting the controversy around the Eternal Functional Subordination debate. In this article, I want to sum up and share my own position and conclusion on the topic. I will then follow this up by asking the question “Can we make any application from the relations within the Trinity to our lives and relationships?”
The EFS controversy is concerned with those Scriptures that talk about The Son submitting to the Father. Whilst it is possibly to see that some texts refer specifically to the relationship of Christ with regards to his human nature to the Father. However, that is not always the case. Some theologians including Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and Mike Ovey have argued that this reflects an order in the Trinity so that the Son is equal in nature with the Father but eternally subordinate in terms of his role, this is a function of the persons, not the nature/essence of God.
It has been argued by others, most stridently by Kevin Giles, that this approach crosses the boundary and does deny the equality of the persons and therefore risks falling into a form of subordinationism similar to the Arian heresy. Grudem and Ware particularly are accused of being out of line with Nicene theology. Having once again reviewed the arguments, I do not believe that the proponents of EFS are going against Nicene theology or committing heresy. Indeed, within the context of orthodoxy they are asking legitimate questions and asking us to think more carefully about the Doctrine. It is possible to welcome this without agreeing with all their conclusions.
It is my view that we cannot read texts such as John 5 and Matthew 26 without concluding that they give us at least a glimpse into the Trinitarian life. Whilst those passages focus on The Son’s relationship to the Father within the incarnation, they are not merely about his human nature but about the relationship of the integrated person of The Son (including human and divine nature) to the Father. Therefore, we cannot disassociate his eternal existence from his human existence.
Having said that, I think that some of the language used by EFS proponents has been profoundly unhelpful. Describing the relationship as about Eternal Subordination is unhelpful because of the association that language has with Arianism and other errors. It suggests a passive and involuntary relationship which does not fit with the Son’s equal nature to his Father. Furthermore, I would suggest that passive language like this becomes extremely unhelpful when applied across to human relationships. Additionally, the transactional language of submission, of giving and receiving instruction breaks down when attempting to describe a relationship which is eternal and therefore not subject to process or time.
We also need to recognise that because God is infinite and holy it is impossible to use human language to define him. God is love but we are not to confuse his love with human love. The Son is begotten of the Father but we are not to think of that in terms of sexual relationships, pregnancy and birth. We can however use language analogically. This means that we can use human language to describe God’s character and actions. God does love and whilst it is not exactly equivalent to human love it is not completely unlike it (or better – our love may be a poor imitation of his but it is an imitation all the same).
I find it helpful to see the incarnation functioning like a slowing down of the Divine relationship between Father and Son. We are allowed something of a glimpse into that relationship. From the perspective of finite, time based human experience, the best language to describe what we have seen is the language of submission and obedience. This is okay providing we limit it to describing what we see in the incarnation and realise that this is an imperfect and inadequate way of describing the eternal relationship between Father and Son.
Therefore, we can say that the Son does submit to the Father in relation to the incarnation and that this is fitting to their eternal relationship. When talking about the eternal relationship, we do best to stick to the more cautious language of Eternal Generation.
That the Son is equal to the Father in nature and that he has willingly submitted to his Father concerning the events of the incarnation does mean that there are positive lessons which we can learn about how we should relate to one another.