Further Reflection on the ‘Eternal Functional Subordinationist’ Debate

I am going to revisit the issue we addressed in the last post; in regard to the debate between those who affirm eternal functional subordination (EFS) in the Godhead, and those who do not (which would be the historic orthodox position). My last post was hitting on a particular point in regard to the problems associated with attempting to read God’s inner-life (in se) from a social analogy; i.e. using a hierarchical man/woman analogy to understand how the Father/Son relation works in the inner life of God. My last post was quickly conceived, and I had hoped to emphasize what I just Niceahighlighted (i.e. man/woman analogy)—which I think I did—and to alert folks to the fact that this debate is currently happening (at least in the theoblogosphere). It will be important (if you haven’t already) for you to read that first post of mine in order to engage better with this post; this post is going to jump right into the issues. We will have an introductory word, then the post will be broken into two sections: 1) Hermeneutics, 2) Dogmatics, Creed, and Tradition.

Warning: this post is going to be unusually long for a blog post; maybe 2000 or 3000 words. So instead of it taking you five minutes to read it might take you seven to eight minutes.


Josh Malone, PhD (University of Aberdeen), professor at Moody Bible Institute-Spokane jumped into the fray, and provided this summative overview of what is at stake and what is going on in this debate. He writes:

… A few people have asked for clarification on what the EFS folks (Grudem, Ware, etc…) are saying, why it’s been called sub-Nicene, and why that matters. Briefly, the Creed of Nicaea (325) says Jesus is “the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father (ek tas ousias tou patros).” The language used affirms the Son’s generation from the Father, though it does not specify the “eternity” of this act. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) develops that language further, stating the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds (pro pantōn tōn aiōnōn),” now explicating the eternity of this act. So it’s hard to deny the pro-Nicene formula simply states eternal generation as the ground for the claim that the Father-Son share the same nature (e.g. – homoousion), so both God, and that God has always been such. The EFS folks have long been critical about whether “eternal generation” itself is conceptually coherent and biblically accurate (see Grudem’s critique on the word monogenes in his ST). Rather than deny the creed itself, they have tended to argue that what the creed/tradition affirms is “equality” of essence and “difference” in person (which is more an abstraction of language developed by the Cappadocians in reality). Thus, they desire to reformulate personal distinction in the triune life along, purportedly, more biblical grounds – authority-submission. As they’ve done so (for more than a decade now), theologians have continued to question the coherence of this move: Can one materially deny the claims of the creed while claiming formal adherence? Further: Is there a clearer biblical argument for authority-submission over and against relations-of-origin (eternal generation, procession)? Finally: What does all this assume, and imply, about the relation between Creator/creation, Trinity/incarnation, and language about God. Whether one has the patience for the nuance of delving into the metaphysics of divine perfection, historically it’s pretty clear that what you say about the life of God matters for your doxology and practice. As some have noted, evangelicals have seemed far more concerned about soteriological agreement (we all can say: saved by grace thru faith in Christ) than theological agreement (we all think and speak about God in like manner). Historically, a fair case can be made that the latter has caused as many, perhaps more, problems in the church – and confusion in the doctrine of God more often than not is the root of confusion in soteriology.[1]


Note, Malone reinforces what we discussed in my prior post; i.e. he underscores the fact that a proper dogmatic order or taxis is very important for how we think about the God-world relation. Again, to reiterate, the EFS guys (Grudem, Ware, et al.) want to argue from say the occasionally given Epistles of the Apostle Paul (e.g. I Cor. 11)—as Malone also highlights i.e. the authority-submission nexus—and use “the Bible” and its revelatory capacity to read the Triune relation from an contextualized reading of certain passages in Scripture. I think what this points up pretty clearly is that this comes down to: 1) a theological methodology (prolegemonon), 2) a theory of revelation, 3) and an ontology of Scripture (which entails a hermeneutical theory), among other things. In other words, my gut, growing up as an evangelical (and still one, in a particular mode), is telling me that Grudem&co. are committed to a kind of naïve reading of Scripture that holds to the idea that Scripture itself can be read without prior theological commitments having any informing impact upon their exegetical conclusions. In other words, my guess (having read some of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, hearing him in person, and engaging with him in college classes) is that there is a kind of Enlightenment bifurcation between reading the Bible, and thinking confessionally or creedally (as the case may be). That Grudem&co. are committed to reading the Bible from a kind of nominalist/dualist viewpoint wherein history and providence are read away from each other rather than read towards each other. Matthew Levering captures it this way:

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities.[2]

My guess is that Grudem&co. are reading from “a comparative textology” rather than from what Levering calls participatory knowledge. In other words, the low-church evangelicalism which Grudem&co. inhabits, and the scriptura de nuda tradition that often is present in that type of tradition, provides a prohibitory view of the role of tradition in the interpretive process and reception of Holy Scripture. So Grudem&co., my guess would be, are resistant to the idea of a participatory approach to Scripture which has a robust view of tradition towards the interpretation of Scripture because it believes that God in Christ has always been providentially present in the teaching and explication of his truth and reality found in Scripture. This providential care would be found in the history of interpretation, which would certainly include the important ecumenical settlement and council of Nicea-Constantinople (381) which Malone mentions. These councils gave us the grammar of the Trinity, and even the category of eternal generation within the Divine Monarxia (Godhead). Grudem&co. want to challenge, or at least reify what the historic church has held (in regard to eternal ontological generation) by their interpretation of Scripture.

The problem here isn’t that they want to innovate and potentially re-work the tradition, the problem is that they want to move beyond, even jettison the tradition through their exegesis of particular passages of Scripture; and they want to do so based upon their desire to maintain a hard complementarianism in regard to gender relations, which itself is informing their exegetical conclusions. So they want their commitment to a theological position (i.e. complementarianism) to be conflated with God’s inner-life in order to give their theological position more heft; i.e. if gender relations can be tied into the very ‘essence’ of God’s inner-life, then who can argue with them (I think they think)? There is a lot of irony going on here; notice, Grudem&co. want to mitigate the role of tradition in their exegesis of Scripture, yet they are deeply committed to a theological tradition (i.e. complementarianism) which they are allowing to not only inform the way they are interpreting Scripture, but then by analogical extrapolation, using that interpretive conclusion to fundamentally inform and transform their understanding of God. They are so radically committed to their interpretive tradition (complementarianism) that they are willing to, in this latter day (relative to church history), jettison (de facto) the historic orthodox understanding of the church provided orientation by some ecumenical councils of the patristic church.

Dogmatics, Creeds, and Tradition

Darren Sumner, PhD (Aberdeen), professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, Northwest has responded to this “Trinity” kerfuffle as well. Sumner touches upon many salient points, including the hermeneutical issue; but the largest part of Darren’s critique gets into a theological critique with appeal to the history of interpretation (things Malone, in a summative form, touches upon as well). If you read Sumner’s excellent piece the dogmatic/creedal issues are covered quite well; it will make anything I write almost redundant (in an asymmetrical way, since the quality of what Darren has written exceeds what I will offer here). That said, you all (right now), need to head over to Darren’s post Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate, and then once you do, head right back over here.

As Sumner quotes Bruce Ware:

As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.[3]

What we see here is as clear of an affirmation of the problem that I think we can find in the so called EFS position. With the background information we already have it is clear from even this small quote what Ware is after. He clearly wants to use his reading of the eternal Father/Son relation in order to support his view of the man/woman-husband/wife relation. The irony of course (as we noted previously, and as Sumner helpfully highlights as well) is that before Ware ever got to the Father/Son relation he got there first from his understanding of the man/woman relation; i.e. that the woman (like the Son) is subordinate and under the authority of the husband (like the Father). Sumner is certainly right to point out that Ware is engaging in natural theology (as we pointed out in our first post as well), and even to the point of engaging in what Barth called anti-Christ, the analogia entis (i.e. reasoning from the ‘being’ of humanity, reasoning from social conventions, and reading that inference into the eternal relations and inner-life of God’s being).

And yet as JND Kelly points out, the early church never understood the relation of Father/Son to be an absolute relation of subordination (meaning ontological submission) between the Son and the Father, instead there was always an eternal co-equality between all the persons of the Godhead. Kelly writes with reference to Athanasius’ Nicene faith:

Let us examine first his [Athansius’] conception of divine Sonship. God, he holds, can never be without His Word, any more than the light can cease to shine or the river source to flow. Hence the Son must exist eternally alongside the Father. The explanation of this is that His generation is an eternal process; ‘just as Father is always good by nature, so He is by nature always generative’…. ‘It is entirely correct’, he writes, ‘to call Him the Father’s eternal offspring. For the Father’s being was never incomplete, needing an essential feature to be added to it; nor is the Son’s generation like a man’s from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God’s offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfection of their nature, to beget in time; but God’s offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect. Like Irenaeus, Athanasius regards the Son’s generation as mysterious; but he interprets  it as implying that, so far from being a creature, He must, like a human offspring, be derived from and share His Father’s nature. Not that we should press the analogy of human generation so far as not to conclude that the Son is, as it were, a portion of divine substance separated out of the Father; this is impossible, the divine nature being immaterial and without parts…. We should also reject the suggestion that the Son is not, like the Father, agennetos, if the connotation put upon this ambiguous term is ‘eternally existing’ or ‘increate’, although He is of course not agennetos if the word retains its etymological sense of ‘ingenerate’.[4]

All of this to note that Athanasius as representative of the Nicene-tradition would reject the idea of an eternal-functional-subordination in the inner life of God; that the Nicene tradition instead held to an eternal generation of the Son of the Father, the Son being of the same substance (consubstantial) of the Father, which itself is ingenerate (i.e. the ousia or being of God). As Kelly notes in regard to Athanasius, the Nicene tradition would reject the utilization of social analogies for attempting to understand the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Furthermore as Kelly writes, “… ‘The Son’, he argues, ‘is of course other than the Father as offspring, but as God He is one and the same; He and the Father are one in the intimate union of Their nature and the identity of Their Godhead…. Thus they are one, and Their Godhead is one, so that whatever is predicated of the Son is predicated of the Father’.”[5]


It should be clear, I think, that Ware, Grudem, and others do not have precedence in the history to argue their position. We can see that their approach comes from a certain hermeneutical direction (for some more than others more than likely), and a certain way of engaging with the tradition of the church.

It is more than an innovation to argue that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father; at least if the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) are going to have any type of normative force for the church catholic. It is interesting that this move by the EFS’rs is driven so sharply by apparent social conventions and motivations. Maybe more than interesting it is ironic that evangelical theologians would want to take 20th and 21st century cultural traditions (within and from a certain mode of evangelical sub-culture), and deploy those as normative and informative of how they read Scripture and then God from that reading. Typically, for Christians who have a high view of God’s providence (and my guess is that Grudem, Ware, et al. would say they do), it is usually the Christian way to work from the other direction; especially evangelicals. Instead of using modern conventions and traditions to come to exegetical conclusions (complementarianism), etc., most evangelicals would want to work from the catholic (universal) tradition of the church and engage with Scripture from a ‘participatory’ (i.e. Levering) approach.

We’ll see how this all unfolds.


[1] Josh Malone, “On the Eternal Functional Subordination Debate,” accessed on Facebook, 06-11-2016.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 23.

[3] Bruce Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father,” cited by Darren Sumner, accessed online 06-12-16.

[4] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 243-44.

[5] Ibid., 245.

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9 Responses to Further Reflection on the ‘Eternal Functional Subordinationist’ Debate

  1. cal says:

    An interesting thing is that the normativity of Nicaea and Constantinople is being slung, but this debate would, in a sense, would benefit if one was forced to think in terms of Constantinople III where Christ has two-wills, which are located in the Nature and not the Person. This would shake up the debate in good ways.

    In addition, this debate tends to skip over the whole issue of economic/immanent Trinity, which would clarify the terms of discussion. I don’t think it’s fair to say Grudem et al. are applying social patterns upwards, but, like most of us many times, find what they are looking for by trying to justify through God. That’s always a danger of theology, I suppose (hence why we always need Feurbach to whip us).

    Also, I’m guessing you don’t look favorably upon the ‘vestigia trinitatis’ tradition favorably?

    And I think it’s ‘de scriptura nuda’, otherwise it sounds Italian.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    I’ve seen nuda scriptura used variety of ways syntactically.

    Why don’t you think they are motivated by their complementarianism, Cal? That’s at the very heart of this. I don’t agree with you at all!

    I also don’t think the debate skips over the economic/immanent, but is at its very heart (didn’t you read Darren’s post?)–if it were being addressed properly. How would Constantinople III shake things up in a helpful way?


  3. cal says:

    -Latin, syntactically, requires practically no order in the words for the meaning to make sense. It’s more to do with proper form, though the meaning of the phrase remains.

    -There’s a question of order. Grudem and his cohort would say that they are only reading Scripture and seeing what God has revealed and trying to put it into place. Yes, as per my comment on Feurbach, they might, in fact, not being doing that. But it’s graciousness to assume they are not merely trying to make God like their social design (in their minds they’re doing the opposite). You (we) ought to give them the benefit of the doubt, and challenge them on that. Besides the problem of whether Scripture and/or the catholic tradition holds eternal submission as orthodoxy is whether one can/ought to base social constructs on the life of God. If you disagree, and they are intentionally saying that this social unit is the form of God’s inner life, that’d be more helpful to quote.

    -I don’t see many people addressing the issue of immanent/economic in any of this discussion. Grudem never brings it up (as far as I know), nor do most of his critics. This wasn’t aimed at your or Darren (I didn’t read his post), but just a thought. But of course this slows down the course of the debate considerably, since it is more complicated than a yes/no issue over complementarianism or even the Son’s subordination. You misread me, I wasn’t saying that this debate doesn’t pertain to that issue, but rarely do people tackle that as a fundamental issue of grand importance in all of these debates.

    -Constantinople III would introduce both a) the question of Nature b) the Son possessing two-wills. It seems this debate usually confuses persons and natures in unhelpful ways. If we agree to the terms of Constantinople III then we see how, in the New Testament, Christ can both submit Himself to the Father and retain His full divinity, rooted not necessarily His divine person as Son, but in His hypostatic natures of both God and Man. If Christ only has 1 will, it’s hard not to conclude either a) He truly is subordinate to the Father, from everlasting or b) Christ is disingenuous in His faithful waiting upon the Father. Also, asking the question about natures, it requires us to think through the question of what ‘is’ Human nature and how exactly do men and women participate in it. The Greek Fathers had very interesting answers to these questions, which ought to engage the debate of today, rather than be neglected.

    My post was constructive and with comments. It was not accusatory or polemic.


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Yes, I understand language syntax I know koine Greek and Spanish; so I’m not sure I even understand the relevance of that comment.

    I’m not speaking about Grudem or the trad he inhabits abstractly though, Cal. I *know* his approach, I’ve heard speak at a regional ETS meeting on gender issues, and this is a central aspect of the complementarian herm.

    I had asked folks to read Darren’s post as well, it helps mine make sense. If you had read Darren’s post it could have made your comments sound much more constructive. You presumed things in your comment that made it sound less constructive.

    I just don’t agree with you, Cal! They are reading this through the analogy of head/submission taken straight from a prima facie reading of Scripture. It is about that, the debate that is happening. And it is clear from the Fathers that they affirmed eternal generation but not eternal functional subordination (i.e. they did not read the economy back into the immanent or ontic nature of God). That is cut and dry. Darren’s post fleshes that out very clearly.

    Well there is also mystery. I’m not convinced we can’t hold the “wills” question in dialectical tension. But as a major part of my post got at I think this revolves around hermeneutical theory and a theory of revelation; and I think nuda scriptura or solo scriptura plays a big role in this particularly for Grudem.

    Am I committed to Scripture alone? Yes. But I think nuda scriptura rejects the idea that tradition has a role in the interpretive process. I’m all for reforming even the trad by the grammar of scripture, etc. but then the way I think of scripture finds its ontology, rule, and reality in Christ. This impacts the way I approach scripture and appropriation of tradition; but I don’t think Grudem et al have this as operative on their prolegomena.

    Cal, I guess I don’t really understand your point about the significance of complementarianism; that’s what this whole thing is about! If you don’t think so, this is where we really disagree.


  5. Nathanael says:

    As a matter of fact, someone has published a paper leveling the criticism that Ware and Grudem’s doctrine is inconsistent with diothelitism:



  6. Nathanael says:

    Mark Jones also touches on the issue in his most recent response:



  7. Pingback: Why The Eternal Generation of the Son is Important: Thesis 1: “The Holy Trinity is the Absolute Ground and Grammar of All Epistemology, Theology, and Worship.” | The Evangelical Calvinist

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    I saw those from Jones, Nathanael. Thanks.


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