“Wayne Grudem is a heretic, I know so cos my dad is an elder and he says so!”
I’m paraphrasing a little but not by much. The conversation was not with a youngster but with someone claiming to lead a ministry. It was a brief twitter conversation. Readers here will hopefully be up to date with the recent controversies over something called Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) or Eternal Sonship Subordination (ESS).
EFS/EFS is an attempt to describe how the Economic Trinity reveals the Immanent Trinity. In other words, we know what God is like as the Triune God and how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to each other because there isn’t a hidden, secret nature to God different to how he reveals himself. Therefore over time, Christians have genuinely wrestled with the language that describes Jesus submitting to the Father. Some have preferred to talk about this as being an act with regards to his human nature though that isn’t completely satisfactory and leaves problems with Philippians 2 where it is the Son in eternity who submits and takes on the nature of a servant, to the Gethsemane scene where the Son submits to his Father’s Will, not human Jesus to divine Jesus and 1 Corinthians 15 where the Son in eternity submits to the Father at the consummation.
EFS proposes that there is something eternal that the Son does, that yes he does submit to the Father. They argue that the Son is equal in nature but that he is subordinate or that he submits In terms of function/role or that submission is a function of relationship between the persons not of the essence of God. In saying this, they are trying to protect against three dangers. They do not want to deny the unity of the Godhead and have three rival Gods, they don’t want to deny the equality of the persons by making one of them greater in essence than the others and they also don’t want to fall into the modalist trap of denying the real distinction of persons.
Now, the reality of this debate is that it is a debate within the boundaries of orthodox, creedal, Biblical, Trinitarian Christianity. Opponents of EFS are concerned to safeguard the Trinity from tinkering and tampering but so too are the proponents. However, at times this has been forgotten and suspicions have flared up leading to accusations of heresey.
For the EFS opponents the accusation of choice is that they are arguing for subordination and therefore are Arian. The reality of course is that people like Grudem, Ovey etc are not Arians by any stretch of the imagination or in any shape or form at risk of falling into that trap. You just have to read what they say carefully and spend time with such people, listen to their prayer life, observe then in practice and realise that they are full blooded Trinitarians. Indeed, for many years, whilst people quibbled from a reformed side on Grudem’s view of the gifts, his Trinitarianism was not problem to most until two things happened. First of all, some hard-line egalitarians believe they saw and opportunity to put complementarians under sustained fire which made other complementarians jumpy and secondly, Grudem’s (unwise) decision to support Donald Trump made him easy pickings.
On the other hand, EFS proponents have been quick to see their opponents as pushing towards modalism. Their reason for this is that their arguments have sought to restrict “personhood” language about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to tight technical language associated with classical theism and also to close down the possibility of learning things from how the Father and Son relate for how we should relate to each other. Again, it is obvious from reading such people that they are not modalists and this is confirmed when you hear them preach and pray, They are full blooded Trinitarians who recognise the distinction of the persons. I’d be tempted to say that they also are well capable when it suits them of learning and applying those lessons from how the Farther and Son relate to how we relate. After all, they all have read and believed John 17!
For what it is worth, I’ve found both sides of this debate failing to cover themselves with glory. I think they both have a tendency to be clumsy in their language that leads to misunderstandings. I think there are better ways of explaining the Trinity out there. But this was not and is not a fellowship breaking matter.
A few days back I urged that we dial back the hyperbole when debating and discussing between brothers and sisters. Once again, I would repeat that appeal. There are real wolves abroad at the moment. Those wolves hate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are looking to devour the sheep. Let’s turn our attention on guarding against them and stop tearing lumps out of each other.
If you don’t want to wade into the technical debate at this stage, John Stevens helpfully shows us how to evaluate arguments here using his legal mind. I agree with John, my own background has involved training to evaluate arguments and my assessment is the same that there isn’t a case to answer here.
If you want to dig in a bit more, here are my articles on the subject EFS – Faithroots