EFS/ESS – revisiting a recent Trinitarian controversy

Every so often, a little debate about the Trinity and specifically about the relationship of the Father to the Son rears its head again. You may have heard it referred to as either The Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS)  or “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS). The debate got particularly heated back in 2016, people started calling each other heretics and accusing the opposite side of modalism or Arianism respectively.  The result was that there wasn’t much listening and checking going on, both sides became further entrenched and as a result believed they had won, were vindicated and the others definitely were heretics.

The issue has come up again in recent months because it ties in to the question of how men and women should relate to one another in marriage and in church leadership.  Complementarians, especially those associated with the Biblical Manhood Movement have come under heavy fire in recent books for the association of their position with ESS.

I’ve written extensively on this before and you should be able to find most of the relevant articles here but I thought it was worth once again outlining what I understand the issues to be.  It’s worth repeating my opinion expressed in previous articles that

  • No we are not dealing with heretics either Modalists or Arians. Rather we are dealing with orthodox believers who are trying to get to grips with how best to talk about God.
  • There is a risk from both sides that clumsy language might if we are not careful lead to us pushing at one or other of the boundaries in terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

When we talk about the Trinity we are stating that:

“There is one God, who exists eternally in three distinct but equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[1]

It is important to note that we are not simply saying that God appears, or reveals himself as three persons but that God is both one nature and three persons. We therefore insist that there are three things we must not deny about God

  1. Oneness/Unity – that there is only one God without rivals and that therefore the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same nature/substance (contra Tritheism).
  2. Distinction – that there really are three distinct persons. It is not that God appears in three different forms (contra Modalism).
  3. Equality – that the three persons are equal.  There isn’t a hierarchy in the Godhead. This means that The Son and The Spirit are fully God and not created/lesser beings. (contra Arianism).

The early Creeds expressed these truths in this way

WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.”[2]

It is important to remember that these creeds and doctrinal statements are not infallible Scripture but have been recognised over many years as providing accurate summaries of what Scripture teaches.  This means that I’m concerned to get my position on the Trinity right not just to avoid falling foul of a Systematic Theology book or a 3rd century text but because I want to know and worship God as he has revealed himself to be in Scripture.[3] Reading the arguments made on both sides of the controversy I believe that those involved seek to stay within those boundaries.  Hence it is slander to accuse them of heresy (itself a very serious sin).

So, what was the debate really about? Well, the issue was that within those parameters of seeking to affirm the oneness/unity of God’s nature along with the distinction and equality of the persons, there was a question about what we do with how Scripture talks about Christ’s relationship to the Father.

You may have picked up on this already if you’ve looked up John 5. There, Jesus talks about doing what his Father shows him to do and (as he also does in Matthew 28) receiving authority from the Father. At Gethsemane, we find that Christ submits to the Father’s will “not my will be done but yours).  Notice that he does so whilst at the same time causing controversy because the religious leaders recognise that he is claiming equality with God.  Then if you flick or swipe on to 1 Corinthians 15:28 you will read these words:

28 Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.

We can observe two things here. First of all that Scripture raises questions for us, specifically and in particular the issue is “How can The Son be both and at the same time equal with the Father and also submissive and obedient to Him?” Secondly, we should realise quickly that this isn’t a problem for either of the aforementioned heresies.  The Arian is quite happy to say that Christ was not fully God, was created by the Father and therefore was a subordinate being.  Meanwhile the Modalist insists that The Son was only a mode or appearance therefore he didn’t really submit to God but rather gave the appearance of doing so.  Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects both explanations.

So, how does Christ submit to/obey the Father. Properly speaking, it is not in question that Christ does submit, the question is really about how.  Well, one option is to emphasise that we are talking about Christ and therefore we are referring specifically to his activity within incarnation and further that we may do well to talk about this submission in reference to his human nature, hence at Gethsemane, it was his human will that submitted to the divine will.

There are two immediate issues with this. The first is that risk over dividing Christ’s human nature from his divine nature so that rather than functioning as a whole person, we have a composite entity that draws from different parts of itself at different times.  Gethsemane becomes less about the Son entrusting himself to his loving father and more about an inner conflict between two natures. Secondly, the 1 Corinthians 15 text and indeed Paul’s description of Christ taking on the role of a servant in Philippians 2 clearly take us beyond what Christ says and does during the incarnation.

Furthermore, we risk creating the impression that the Trinitarian relations observed in creation do not represent the nature of who God is in Eternity. As with modalism, we are left with a puppet master God who hides in the shadows.  Alternatively, the Son, by beginning to submit in the incarnation in some way experiences a change in his nature.

This is why EFS proponents argue that how the Son relates to the Father in the incarnation must in some way reflect something of how He relates to the Father in eternity. Furthermore, contra Arianism, they insist that this act of obedience does not and cannot in anyway imply that the Son is somehow a lesser being than the Father. The point being that it is as The Son and not as a servant/slave that Christ obeys the Father. 

In my opinion, EFS proponents are right to remind us that

  1. There has to be some continuity between how we understand the Trinity in eternity (The imminent Trinity) and how we see the Trinity revealed in the incarnation (The Economic Trinity).
  2. That if we are made in God’s image and are to be one as the Father and Son are one that it is possible, carefully, to learn something from how the Son relates to the Father about how we should and can relate to each other.

However, it is important also to hear the concerns raised by others.  There are I think x primary concerns to consider:

  1. That as hard as we try, it is very difficult to distinguish our talk about persons and relations from our understanding of nature.
  2. That because of this, EFS language risks suggesting multiple wills within the divine nature. Multiple wills in effect means multiple natures and potential conflict within the God head.
  3. That language about submission and obedience suggests process and time. Such language therefore is unsuitable for describing what happens outside/before time in eternity.

I think that these are helpful challenges, just as EFS proponents are right to come back to their opponents and challenge them as to whether they have fully got a grasp on the distinction of persons, that God really is one God in three persons and does not merely appear in time as such. 

My concern then with EFS/ESS is that its proponents lack caution in their attempts to talk about the inner life of the Trinity and furthermore that the passive language of “subordination”  is at best clumsy and at least may lead to think in terms of the Son as a lesser and subordinate being even though this is clearly not what is intended.

Yet, others must also recognise that they need to do better at talking about the real distinction of persons.

For the record, I prefer to say that we see the Son submitting to the Father in relation to the incarnation and that without diminishing the oneness of nature and will within the Godhead, this does arise logically out of the distinction of persons. 

[1] FIEC Statement of Faith, Beliefs – FIEC

[2] Anglicans Online | The Nicene Creed 

[3] In other words, it is crucial that I am obedient to Deuteronomy 6:4, John 1:1, John 5:17-18 etc.

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