Khaled Anatolios Says No to Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS)

One wonders if Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) advocates like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have spent any time reading the authorities on the development of Trinitarian grammar in the 4th and 5th centuries. Books like Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology or Khaled Anatolios’ Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and jesusbaptismMeaning of Trinitarian Doctrine? I mean even a cursory glance at just some of the pages in these books should throw much pause into Grudem’s, Ware’s, et al.’s commitment to EFS (the idea that the Son is eternally obedient and in submission to the distinct will of the Father, as if the wills could be distinct to begin with). Notice, for example, what Anatolios writes just as he is starting his book (and he is not responding to EFS, or this debate whatsoever, he is just doing the work of an ecclesial and historical theologian) out:

… One can hold that the eternal Trinity is the subject of the economy of salvation without holding that the features of the “economic Trinity” are exactly those of the eternal Trinity. In fact, the development of Nicene orthodoxy hinges on the insistence that, at least in one crucial respect, the “form” or appearance of the economic Trinity does not correspond to that of the immanent Trinity. A strict and unqualified conflation of the economic Trinity with the immanent Trinity would entail that the subordination of the incarnate Son to the Father reflects the same order of subordination in the immanent Trinity. But a large part of the logic of Nicene theology consists precisely in overcoming this inference.[1]

This is exactly what the EFS crowd is doing; i.e. reading the economic Trinity directly back into the relations of the immanent or ontological Trinity. But Anatolios, an authority in this field (as is Ayres et al.), just said that it is this very thing that ‘the logic of Nicene theology’ is seeking to overcome. If Grudem, Ware, et al. read things like this what do they do? Do they just sit there and shrug their shoulders and go “hmm, Anatolios and the other guys (Ayres et al.) don’t really know what they’re talking about!” I mean if I stop and think about this whole EFS thing which has the evangelical and parts of the Reformed world embroiled (particularly because at this year’s national ETS meeting the topic of discussion is going to be the doctrine of the Trinity and this very locus) it is totally silly. Not silly in the sense that it isn’t causing damage to people’s perspectives about God (and the attendant fall out that produces for spirituality), it is, but silly when the historical and doctrinal issues are laid out in perspective. Grudem, Ware, et al. don’t even have an argument to make (from all kinds of different directions)!

The real problem, as I see it, now, is that it’s too late, Grudem, Ware, et al. have dug their heels in and they’re going to fight (as will those who follow them). This will be a cultural-political battle rather than a real life theological disputation. Indeed, that’s how it has already played out online. I’ve seen like almost no actual material theological engagement around this; only commentary about how we’re going to have a “civil war,” and others lamenting the fact that nobody is really talking about the real life theological issues (which makes those posts very ironic). Indeed, there have been some posts (which I won’t index now) that have gotten into the nuts and bolts of it all (like Darren Sumner’s good posts on the issue). But as far as I can see this so called debate, like most anything else in much of the evangelical world, is coming down to a battle of personalities rather than theological disputation.

My hope and prayer is that by time ETS rolls around folks like Grudem, Ware, and those who are defending them (like Mohler, even though he supposedly disagrees with them) will take their time to re-fresh and re-read Anatolios, Ayres, Michael Barnes, Donald Fairbairn, and other pertinent resources, and come to their theological senses.

[1] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.

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4 comments

  1. Bobby, so true about the cultural-political battle and little actual theological engagement (with some exceptions, e.g. Sumner). This is one thing that I don’t miss about American evangelicalism, namely the ‘I am of Paul’ ‘I am of Peter’ kinds of debates that go on. We have our own issues in Italy, but this tends to not be one of them.

    Interestingly I was just listening to Bruce McCormack’s Kantzer lecture series in which he deals with this very debate as a case study on the status of evangelical thinking on the doctrine of God. He mounts the very critique that you do in this post, namely that the EFS proponents, and in particular Bruce Ware, seem astonishingly ignorant about the pro-Nicene theology with which they purport to be in continuity. McCormack cites as cursory proof the fact that in Ware’s book on the Trinity he makes a number of simple factual errors regarding the actual history of the Nicene council. I’m not an expert in the field, but I know enough to be completely perplexed as to how theologians of the supposed caliber of Ware and Grudem (at least in terms of the status that they are accorded by American evangelicals) can continue to hold on to EFS in light of patristic scholarship that is readily available and well known.

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  2. That is a great lecture series, Jonathan, I’ve listened to it myself. And it does amaze me, kind of, that Grudem, Ware, et al don’t seem to be aware of the basic history, even tho they appeal to it, ostensibly. Not too long ago I was at the regional ETS meeting held at my alma mater’s campus, I was with some former profs from undergrad and mentioned Kevin Vanhoozer to them, as if they would know his caliber as an evangelical theologian; they barely knew who he was. This illustrates for me how insular evangelical “scholarship” can become; how isolationist it can be when you get comfy at your institution and publishing etc isn’t really all that important.

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