Maximus the Confessor’s Response to the EFS in the Trinity

Is the Son, eternally, in obedient submission to the Father in the inner-life (in se) of God? That’s the question that continues to drive the so called debate surrounding what is termed by some as the Eternal Functional Subordinationism (EFS) of the Son to the Father in the Trinity. In this article (it could get lengthy for a blog post) we will take a look at how D. Glenn Butner Jr. addresses maximusthis issue in a 2015 essay he contributed to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) entitled: Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will. In his essay, Butner uses Maximus the Confessor’s Christological dyothelitism to take the EFS position of Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al. to its logical conclusion (reductio ad absurdum). Don’t get scared away by the language I just shared, that’s what this article is for; I am going to attempt to distill, in accessible ways, the main critique that Butner is offering. After I do that I will offer some of my own concluding thoughts.

Butner opens his paper this way:

The doctrine of eternal functional subordination (hereafter EFS) has been growing in support in evangelical circles in recent years. EFS claims that the Father and the Son are eternally distinguished by an “authority-submission structure” such that the Son eternally submits to the Father and the Father eternally has authority over the Son. This structure is the pattern for all created male-female relationships. Advocates of EFS are confident in their theology. We are told that “if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another,” such that, if we reject EFS, “we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.” Those who reject EFS are said to be “condemning all orthodox Christology from the Nicene Creed onward” because the Nicene Creed affirms that the Son is eternally begotten. This paper will suggest against such claims that EFS is completely contrary to classical Christology, but it will do so using a different argument than the standard one presented by opponents of EFS.[1]

Butner’s Argument Stated

The fundamental problem, according to many of its opponents, is that EFS attributes one property to the Father and a different and distinct property to the Son. By virtue of these divergent properties, the Father and Son purportedly have a different essence. Thus, ontological subordination and Arianism are purportedly entailed by EFS, even if its supporters explicitly reject both of these ancient heresies. Though the conclusion that EFS entails a rejection of homoousianism ultimately holds true, I do not find the standard argument against EFS compelling. This is because if one cannot apply a unique word to each hypostasis—at the very least the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit”—then there is no way to distinguish the persons.

The problem with EFS is not Arianism, but the fact that it entails tritheism. Advocates of EFS are correctly using classical trinitarian metaphysics but incorrectly replacing terms like “unbegotten” and “begotten” with the ideas “authority” and “submission.” If a critic of EFS does not want to preclude the notion of personal properties, he or she must turn to a different argument to reject EFS. Furthermore, Arius sought to make Christ the preeminent creature of the Father by affirming what might be called monotheistic homoiousianism, a stance insisting that only the ousia of the Father was divine, and that the Son was created with a different, non-divine ousia at some point in time. EFS is more in the line of what might be called polytheistic homoiousianism, whereby the Father and the Son have distinct natures, but each is still eternally divine. This problem is only clear when the metaphysics of dyothelite Christology are applied to the trinitarianism promoted by EFS. Many advocates of EFS affirm dyothelitism, the belief that Jesus Christ has both a human will and a divine will. Because Chalcedonian Christology insists that Jesus has two natures but only one hypostasis, dyothelitism as a development of Chalcedonian Christology necessitates the recognition that a will must be a property of nature in order for there to be two wills in Christ. To posit such terms as “obedience” and “submission” that imply a distinction of wills between the Father and the Son while affirming dyothelite Christology entails a distinction of natures between the Father and Son (and Spirit) resulting in tritheism. This “dyothelite problem” leads me to conclude that EFS must be strongly opposed by evangelical systematicians in order to avoid the risk of tritheism.[2]

Butner, in brief, is arguing, using dyothelitism, that if a will is a property of a nature, and if the Son is eternally ‘obedient’ and ‘submissive’ to the will of the Father, which presupposes a distinction between the will of the Father and the will of the Son, then the Son’s nature (ousia) must be distinct and different than the Father’s nature (ousia). If this is so, then there are at least two distinct natures (and thus wills) within the Divine Monarchia (Godhead); and by extrapolation there are three distinct natures/wills in the Godhead given the Holy Spirit’s submissive status relative to the Father and the Son.

Defining Terms

Arianism. Heresy that teaches ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’ The belief that the Son of God was a creation of God (a sub-god then). “As with many of the classical heresies, Arianism emerged from the struggle to reach a consensus on the Trinity. It is named after Arius, whose main concern was that it did not seem fitting that God should have a son. His solution, which became known as Arianism, was to propose that the Son (Jesus) was somewhere between God and man.”

‘Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.’”

Tri-theism. The belief that within the Christian Godhead the Father is a distinct God, the Son is a distinct God, and the Holy Spirit is a distinct God (so three distinct divinities). This belief fits into polytheism rather than monotheism. Although, as Butner defines it it could fit into what he calls polytheistic homoiousianism; i.e. “whereby the Father and the Son have distinct natures, but each is still eternally divine.”

Homoousios. “Is a Greek term that means “of the same substance”. It was used against Arianism to define the relationship of Jesus and God the Father. They were of the same substance, or in other words, were of the same being.”

Homoiousios. “Used by Eusebius of Caesarea, homoiousios means “of a similar substance”. This is in contrast to the Nicene affirmation that Jesus and God the Father are homoousios, “of the same substance.” Christians at that time believed that even if they were of similar substance, the result was a Jesus who was not identical with the redemptive God of the Old Testament. Furthermore, if he had a similar divine substance, an immediate problem arises with the doctrine of monotheism. Thus, at the Council of Nicea the church affirmed that Jesus and the Father were of the same substance.”

Dyothelitism. “(from Greek δυοθελητισμός “doctrine of two wills”) is a particular teaching about how the divine and human relate in the person of Jesus, known as a Christological doctrine. Specifically, Dyothelitism teaches that Jesus Christ had two natures and two wills.”

Monothelitism. “(from Greek μονοθελητισμός “doctrine of one will”) is a particular teaching about how the divine and human relate in the person of Jesus, known as a Christological doctrine, that formally emerged in Armenia and Syria in 629.[1] Specifically, monothelitism is the view that Jesus Christ has two natures but only one will. This is contrary to the Christology that Jesus Christ has two wills (human and divine) corresponding to his two natures (dyothelitism). Monothelitism is a development of the miaphysite or monophysite position in the Christological debates. Formulated in 638, it enjoyed considerable popularity, even garnering patriarchal support, before being rejected and denounced as heretical in 681 at the Third Council of Constantinople.”


If Butner is correct in appealing to Maximus the Confessor’s teaching on dyothelitism; and if Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al. affirm dyothelitism; and if the Son’s “eternal” submission to the Father entails a distinction of wills; and if wills (simpliciter) are properties of natures; then the Son’s nature is distinct from the Father’s nature (and the Holy Spirit follows in suit by extrapolation). The conclusion, then, is that those who are arguing for EFS (like Grudem, Ware, et al.) are indeed affirming tritheism, as Butner argues, and are not in line with classical orthodox Christology nor, as a consequence in line with orthodox doctrine of theology proper. This conclusion seems inescapable to me, and is one that Ware, Grudem, and others are burdened with explaining how Butner’s conclusion is unsound and/or even invalid.


[1] D. Glenn Butner Jr., “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 58/1 (2015): 131.

[2] Ibid., 132. [emboldening mine]

2 thoughts on “Maximus the Confessor’s Response to the EFS in the Trinity

  1. Glad to see you worked up the chutzpah to post this! Good job.

    As a corollary of this, I’m wondering if a similar critique could be made of covenant of redemption in federal Calvinism. At least on the face of it, it seems to necessitate that the Father and the Son both possess distinct wills. Since a covenant requires two distinct subjects with correspondingly distinct wills (it makes no sense to speak of a covenant made by a single subject or single will with itself), this would, along the lines of Butner’s argument, seem to make proponents of federal Calvinism tritheists as well (although they would undoubtedly deny this). Thoughts?

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