To those for whom ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) or EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) or ERAS (Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission) or (is that all of them?) does not ring a bell, the following may not be all that interesting. Though debated off and on for at least the last 20 years or so, the popular claim that the Son of God is equal to the Father yet subject to His authority in all eternity, has over the Summer of 2016 come under intense scrutiny; and rightly so. Confessionally Reformed Christians and scholars from many quarters have demonstrated this teaching to plainly run afoul of Nicene Orthodoxy with the potential to shipwreck some of the very pillars of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.
So I was (momentarily) delighted when Ligionier Ministries updated their Statement on Christology to include an addition to “Affirmations and Denials” Article 2 (in bold below):
We affirm that in the unity of the Godhead the eternally begotten Son is consubstantial (homoousios), coequal, and coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
We deny that the Son is merely like God (homoiousios) or that He was simply adopted by the Father as His Son. We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity.
My delight quickly evaporated, however, when my very next thought was, “So does Wayne Grudem!”, the popularizer-in-chief of ESS/EFS/ERAS. He and most all proponents of the teaching also deny that the subordination or submission to authority is according to the Trinity as ontologically conceived. They point out consistently that such a position would constitute classic, literal, Arianism—to which we must agree.
The problem is that the Trinity economically conceived (as opposed to ontologically) has been defined any number of ways historically, from simply introducing three-ness into the Monarchia (Tertullian and Hippolytus) to always and only meaning Christ in His flesh (Martyr, Origen, and the Pro-Nicenes). Currently the most common definition would be something in the middle like, “the Father, Son, and Spirit as revealed in their ordered works toward creation and in redemption”, i.e., the ad extra functionings of the Persons.
Unfortunately, there is no end to the definitional liberality of those who would tamper with the Trinity, and so we have an even more curious definition of “economic” used by ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents. Look, for example, at how Grudem defines “economic” in his Systematic Theology, Ch. 14:
The “economy of the Trinity” means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and (as we shall see in the next section) to each other for all eternity.
This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” (See section D.1, above, where economy was explained to refer to different activities or roles.) Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, […]there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.
For Grudem, the economy is the category within which are included the internal relations of the three Persons (ad intra relations) and therefore is also the locus of subordination! This is what allows ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents to say things like, “Within the being of God, you have both equality and authority” and that authority and submission have “always existed in the eternal nature of God Himself”, and yet still adamantly agree with the Ligonier Statement that there is no subordination in the ontological Trinity (quotes from Biblical Foundations For Manhood And Womanhood, pp. 51-52).
Simply stating, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” does not rule out an eternal relation of submission of the Son to the authority of Father; it all depends on how one defines the distinction, or where the distinction is understood to lie. In fact, I intend to show later in a forthcoming post that even the common modern definition of “economic” does not rule out subordination. But my present task is really quite different—I suppose I ought to get to it sooner than later. After some email back and forth expressing my concerns, the lovely folks at Ligonier Ministries sent me this:
DEC 22, 2016 | 03:18PM EST
Here is the official position of Dr. Sproul and Ligonier on the Eternal Subordination of the Son debate:
Dr. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries deny the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the idea that the Father eternally has greater authority than the Son. The Bible clearly teaches the deity of Christ (e.g. John 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8–9; 2 Pet. 1:1), and there are no degrees of deity. All of the attributes of God belong equally to all three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why we confess the Nicene Creed, declaring that the Son is homoousios (i.e. same nature, same substance) with the Father. To use the language of the Athanasian Creed, the Father, Son, and Spirit are “co-equal with each other.” The fifth ecumenical council in AD 553, elaborated on the implications of the homoousios doctrine, explaining that the Father, Son, and Spirit “have one nature or substance” and that they have “one power and authority.” There can no more be levels of authority within the one divine being than there can be levels of deity. The biblical doctrine taught in the early creeds is taught in our Reformed confessions as well. The Westminster Confession declares that the Son is “equal with the Father” (8.2). The Holy Spirit is also equal (WLC Q. 11). The Belgic Confession concurs, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “equal from eternity” (Article 8). All of this is what it means to confess, along with Scripture, the true deity of Christ and of the Spirit.
My delight has thoroughly returned.
The moral of this happy-ending story is that the ontological/economic distinction is probably of little value for framing this ongoing debate. Further, I don’t think that much of anyone in this debate (even the good guys!) have been using the distinction in the historical Nicene sense. To these points I will, Lord willing, return in my next post (or two).