Appealing to Maximus the Confessor to Differentiate Evangelical Calvinism from Federal Theology: And Riposting at Michael Allen’s New Book Sanctification

I just started reading Michael Allen’s new book Sanctification, he refers to us and our Evangelical Calvinism book[s]; and as corollary seeks, in a way, to refute Thomas Torrance’s critique of Federal theology, of which Allen is a proponent. In a footnote he refers to an essay/chapter that Kevin Vanhoozer wrote in critique of our understanding of salvation; an essay I have responded to more than once here at the blog. What is continuing to be unaddressed or unidentified by any of our interlocutors (whether that be Roger Olson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, Michael Allen et al.) is the radical role that an Eastern emphasis plays in the funding of our mode. This is a basic point of departure and impasse, particularly in regard to the way we think of a God-world relation as that is mediated in the Logos ensarkos, the Word made flesh In-carnation. In the days to come expect more interaction with Allen’s book, as I read it further, until then I simply wanted to offer a quote from Maximus the Confessor, since I’m currently reading him, which might serve instructive for us in regard to understanding just what is at stake, indeed at impasse between the type of Calvinism we are proposing versus the Federal/Westminster type that Allen&co. are articulating.

In this quote Maximus is referring to what it means to be human coram Deo (before God), and how that implicates not only what it means to be human for humanity, but what that means for re-conciliation with God and salvation itself. Maximus writes:

I do not think further testimony is required for someone who lives a devout life and accepts the revelation of the truth as it has been believed by Christians. One clearly learns it from the following expressions. We are his members and his body, and the fullness of Christ of God who fills all things in every way according to the plan hidden in God the Father before the ages. And we are being recapitulated in him through his Son our Lord the Christ of God.

[1097B] The mystery hidden from the ages (Col 1:26) and from the nations is now revealed through the true and perfect incarnation of the Son and God. For he united our nature to himself in a single hypostasis, without division and without confusion, and joined us to himself as a kind of first fruits. This holy flesh with its intellectual and rational soul came from us and is ours. He deemed us worthy to be one and the same with himself according to his humanity. For we were predestined before the ages (cf Eph 1:11-12) to be in him as members of his body. He adapted us to himself and knitted us together in the Spirit as a soul to a body and brought us to the measure of spiritual maturity derived from his fullness. For this we were created; this was God’s good purpose for us before the ages. [1097C] But this renewal did not come about through the normal course of things, it was only realized when a wholly new way of being human appeared. God had made us like himself, and allowed us to participate in the very things that are most characteristic of his goodness. Before the ages he had intended that man’s end was to live in him, and to reach this blessed end he bestowed on us the good gift of our natural powers. But by misusing our natural powers we willingly rejected the way God had provided and we became estranged from God. For this reason another way was introduced, more marvelous and more befitting of God than the first, and as different from the former as what is above nature is different from what is according to nature. [1097D] And this, as we all believe, is the mystery of the mystical sojourn of God with men. For if, says the divine apostle, the first covenant had been blameless, there would have been no occasion for a second (Heb 8:7). It is clear to all that the mystery accomplished in Christ at the end of age (Heb 9:26) shows indisputably that the sin of our forefather Adam at the beginning of the age has run its course.[1]

We see Maximus reference the Irenean concept of recapitulation, and he ties that into an Athanasian sense of how the Incarnation and the humanity assumed by God in Christ therein, recreates what it means for a human to be human. What we see operative in the mix is what has been called a doctrine of the Primacy of Jesus Christ. Myk Habets describes this type of theology

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .[2]

Not to be anachronistic, Myk is describing this doctrine (the primacy of Christ) as he develops thinking on what has come to be called the Scotist thesis; which entails exactly what Myk describes. What is important for our purposes is how we can see this theme, or this doctrine functioning within an Eastern theologian’s theology as we do in Maximus’s. This is an important frame to grasp, it gets us into a doctrine of creation and its teleology. The reason this is an important frame is because it says something about who God is, and what his aim has been for humanity and creation from the get go. According to Maximus (John Duns Scotus and I’d argue, the Apostle Paul), God’s preoccupation was with human being so sharing in his being that even in his original creation, and prior to it, logically and chronologically, that this realization was always intended to come to fruition in and through the Incarnation; i.e. creation was purposed with a pregnant inchoate sense, a sense to only be realized at the coming of God become human in the theanthropos God-man, Jesus Christ. A disruption occurred (i.e. the ‘Fall’), and God, because of who he is as a wise and living God, had the gracious capaciousness to accommodate to the human need, in light of the lapse, and not only overcome death through resurrection, but in the process bring humanity to where God had always intended it to come (he “elevated” it). He brought humanity into the inner sanctum of his holy life of eternal koinonia that has co-inhered for eternity immemorial as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Maximus sees this as the terminus of what it means to be human; and yet it is a terminus not realized by individual humans (more commonly “the elect) in abstracto from Christ’s humanity, but precisely from his humanity as humanity.

If you’re following the logic—I’m trying to 😉 —in this emphasis of things, what comes prior to creation (and thus the ‘Fall’ and sin/redemption) is God’s graciousness to create to begin with. The frame of creation, and thus the original relation that was set up as the condition of that relation, was not a covenant of works (as we get in Federal theology), but the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, creation was always a mediated reality between God and humanity, and a mediation that was grounded in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So to speak of salvation, which first requires creation and creatures, the Christian disciple will always speak of this most primal relationship of Christ as mediator and primary of contingent reality itself.

I will have to leave things dangling here for the moment. But hopefully, once again, you’re seeing how Evangelical Calvinism is basically different and thus departs in quite fundamental ways from Federal theology. Without recognizing this, which thus far the interlocutors I’ve mentioned of Evangelical Calvinism haven’t allowed to tint their responses to our responses relative to the way we critique classical Covenant or Federal theology, folks like Allen et al. aren’t really engaging with the actual ramifications of the Evangelical Calvinist critique.

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Ambiguum7 (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 70-1.

[2] Myk Habets, On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ ©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x.


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]