Answering Four Common Laymen Responses to the ESS/EFS/ERAS Debate

Brad Mason, author of guest post “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers,” has written a new article and graciously allowed me to post it here. Brad is a lay member of the RCUS and a cabinet maker by trade. He’s married and has four children. In this article, Brad answers four common responses he’s heard to the ESS/EFS/ERAS debate. I’m grateful for his continued interaction with this important discussion. (All Scripture references from the ESV translation.)

 

Four Common Laymen Responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS Critics Answered
By Brad Mason

As the layman class, of which I am a member, begins to come to terms with the possibility that their Sunday School teacher may have led them astray by teaching that the Son of God has been subordinate to the Father for all eternity, recurring questions and rejoinders are nevertheless heard in small groups and church foyers across the reformed-ish world. They may have already come to terms with, for example, the multiple wills objection[1] and have become thoroughly convinced of the historical novelty of ESS/EFS/ERAS[2], even rightly concluding that the Council of Nicea and Athanasian Creed roundly contradict the teaching. But, being students of the Scripture, submitting admirably to its authority, and seeking peace within the Church of God and charity towards those who may err, I have in my experience heard the following responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS critics over and over, and have read very little direct response to these rejoinders at the popular, accessible level:

  1. “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”
  2. “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”
  3. “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”
  4. “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

(Probably the other most common response would be, “But there must be some reason the Son came and submitted to the Father, and not the Father to the Son”, etc., but this has, in my opinion at least, been succinctly dealt with elsewhere at the popular level by Mark Jones.[3])

I have attempted below to deal with each of these four objections/questions in hopes that my fellow laymen in the Church might find certitude as well as a clear conscience in taking a stand against ESS/EFS/ERAS.  Of course, these answers are not exhaustive and are possibly not as persuasive as I would hope, but I pray that they may nevertheless be to the glory and honor of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, giving Him the honor He rightly deserves.

  • “But the Father sent the Son.  This is a clear indication that the Father has greater authority than the Son.”

This argument does indeed seem plausible on its face, for did not Christ say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16)? We see from the context of this passage that Christ is making the point that He is greater than His disciples, they being the sent ones and He the sender.  And this is perfectly in line with John 14:28, when Christ, having been sent, speaks of His coming return to the Father, “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I”.  We ought to thus conclude that the Father is greater than the Son in all eternity, which clearly includes having greater authority than the Son, by virtue of being the sender and not the sent; and He even looked forward to returning to the greater, the Father.  It would seem this is unassailable Biblical reasoning.

But right away it needs to be noted that this argument proves too much.  Not even the most ardent ESS/EFS/ERAS defenders are willing to say that being sent proves the Son in eternity to be less than the Father and the Father greater than the Son.  They, fortunately, do intend to stay within the language of the Athanasian Creed, “And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.”  ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents are rather arguing for an eternal functional relation of roles among the Godhead (we will discuss this claim below).  

Nevertheless, if the Bible is true, and it teaches us the sender is greater than the sent and therefore has greater authority, then why was this line to the contrary included in the great Creed of the Fathers?  How can both be true, that the Father sends the Son yet is not greater than the Son?

The answer universally[4] given by the Pro-Nicene Fathers themselves was that all passages that speak of the Father as greater than the Son are to be understood as a relation between the Father and the Son in His flesh—Christ, the God-Man.  For as the Athanasian Creed also says of the Son, He is “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.”  This includes even His having been sent.  Gregory Nanzianzus, for example, after proving from the Scripture the full equality of the Father and the Son, says the following to the subordinationists of his day:

But in opposition to all these, do you reckon up for me the expressions which make for your ignorant arrogance, such as My God and your God, or greater, or created, or made, or sanctified; Add, if you like, Servant (Philippians 2:7) and Obedient (Philippians 2:8) and Gave (John 1:12) and Learnt, (Hebrews 5:8) and was commanded, was sent, can do nothing of Himself, either say, or judge, or give, or will. […]To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate— yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature.[5]

This is the principle expressed in the Athanasian Creed.  The Fathers saw clearly in their struggle with the Arians that all passages implying a greater and a lesser in the Godhead, including sending and sent, are to be accorded to Christ in His flesh, His human nature, not to that in which He is one with the Father, viz., His eternal Nature.

I think Augustine explains the relation of sender and sent among the Godhead best in his On the Trinity.  In Book 2 Ch. 5, after discussing the notion that sending proves superiority to the sent, he writes the following:

[…]perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son. He commanded that He should come, and He, complying with the commandment, came. Did He then request, or did He only suggest? But whichever of these it was, certainly it was done by a word, and the Word of God is the Son of God Himself. Wherefore, since the Father sent Him by a word, His being sent was the work of both the Father and His Word; therefore the same Son was sent by the Father and the Son, because the Son Himself is the Word of the Father. For who would embrace so impious an opinion as to think the Father to have uttered a word in time, in order that the eternal Son might thereby be sent and might appear in the flesh in the fullness of time? But assuredly it was in that Word of God itself which was in the beginning with God and was God, namely, in the wisdom itself of God, apart from time, at what time that wisdom must needs appear in the flesh. Therefore, since without any commencement of time, the Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, it was in the Word itself without any time, at what time the Word was to be made flesh and dwell among us. And when this fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, that is, made in time, that the Incarnate Word might appear to men; while it was in that Word Himself, apart from time, at what time this was to be done; for the order of times is in the eternal wisdom of God without time. Since, then, that the Son should appear in the flesh was wrought by both the Father and the Son, it is fitly said that He who appeared in that flesh was sent, and that He who did not appear in it, sent Him; because those things which are transacted outwardly before the bodily eyes have their existence from the inward structure (apparatu) of the spiritual nature, and on that account are fitly said to be sent. Further, that form of man which He took is the person of the Son, not also of the Father; on which account the invisible Father, together with the Son, who with the Father is invisible, is said to have sent the same Son by making Him visible. But if He became visible in such way as to cease to be invisible with the Father, that is, if the substance of the invisible Word were turned by a change and transition into a visible creature, then the Son would be so understood to be sent by the Father, that He would be found to be only sent; not also, with the Father, sending. But since He so took the form of a servant, as that the unchangeable form of God remained, it is clear that that which became apparent in the Son was done by the Father and the Son not being apparent; that is, that by the invisible Father, with the invisible Son, the same Son Himself was sent so as to be visible. Why, therefore, does He say, Neither came I of myself? This, we may now say, is said according to the form of a servant, in the same way as it is said, I judge no man.[6]

Christ, as He Himself said, was indeed less than the Father, had less authority than the Father, was even servant of the Father. But not in eternity; not as the Son of God in all eternity, not as He is one in nature with the Father, but rather according to His human nature.  It is the Sent-One that says in His flesh, “the Father is greater than I” and says, “the Father who sent me…”.  The Son was always in the world, was the Creator, was always the giver of life and light of all men (John 1), long before He came unto His own, and was and is in fact the upholder of the entire universe (Heb. 1:3).  He is the very Word, Wisdom, and Power of God (1 Cor. 1:24) in all eternity.  His coming was His appearing to men in His flesh in time; His prior “sending”, not in time, was by the one will of the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Only in His kenosis is He the Sent-One of the Father, appearing among men as man, the great Servant of the Father and Redeemer of His enfleshed brethren.

  • “But the Son is not said to be ontologically subordinate, but only in a functional relation of subordination in role.”

Proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS are indeed aware of and openly opposed to the Arian teaching of an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, that is, a subordination and hierarchy within the very nature, essence, or being of God, for such a position clearly contradicts the Nicene Creed, dividing the one Nature and Will of God, calling into question the co-equality of the Persons. Rather, they locate this subordination and hierarchy of authority within relations of function or role amongst the persons of the Godhead.  This, they claim, distinguishes their position from the Arian heresy and shields them from their critics.  As Bruce Ware puts it,

[…]the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons.[7]

Or as Wayne Grudem states it,

The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function[…].[8]

But it seems clear to me (and others) that the words “function” and “role” are being used illicitly and beyond their normal meanings, to grant a veneer of plausibility to their unorthodox claims.  To begin with, “function” already implies ontology, or properties of being, nature, or essence.  Bruce Ware is absolutely correct when he states that, “function always and only follows essence. Put differently, what something can do is an expression of what it is”[9].  That is part of the very definition of “function”!  And the use of “role” fares no better when squared with the body of ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching, for a role is by definition not a necessary relation, nor an eternally fixed relation; a role could have been otherwise and can always become otherwise.  If one is in an eternal, necessary, counterfactual-excluding relation, then one is simply not in a relation of role.

But in the end, regardless of the terms used, ESS/EFS/ERAS is indeed about ontology and ontological subordination.  “Ontology” is the study of fundamental being, nature, essence; it has to do with what makes something what it is, including what it must be to be what it is and what it cannot be and still be what it is.  This is not the whole of the discipline of ontology, but it is essential to the meaning of “ontological.”  When we speak ontologically of God, we are speaking of His very being, nature, and essence—those things which are fundamental to who He is and without which He is not who He is.  Despite the reliance on “function” and “role” throughout the ESS/EFS/ERAS literature, a simple ordering of the logic of their arguments quickly peels away the veneer of plausibility:

(1)  God is ontologically Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or He is not who He is:

“[…]if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity (cf. also John 17:5, 24). Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging (see chapter 11 above). Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is.” (Grudem[10])

(2) There are no distinctions amongst the persons of the Godhead except in relations:

“[…]it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person.” (Grudem[11])

“There is no difference in attributes at all. The only difference between them is the way they relate to each other and to the creation.” (Grudem[12])

(3) In eternity, the fundamental relational distinction between the Persons of the Trinity is their internal relations of subordination.

“The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function: without this truth, we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son.” (Grudem[13])

“Authority and submission between the Father and the Son, and between both Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.” (Grudem[14])

“[…]support will be offered for the church’s long-standing commitment to the Trinitarian persons’ full equality of essence and differentiation of persons, the latter of which includes and entails the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to both Father and Son.” (Ware[15])

(4) Or, that the Father is “Father” and the Son “Son” entails that, and is entailed by, the submission of the latter to the former and the authority of the former over the latter:

“[…]what does it mean that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, and that the Son is the eternal Son of the Father? Is not the Father-Son relationship within the immanent Trinity indicative of some eternal relationship of authority within the Trinity itself?” (Ware[16])

“Clearly, a central part of the notion of “Father” is that of fatherly authority.” (Ware[17])

“Authority belongs to the Father not because he is wiser or because He is a more skillful leader, but just because he is the Father.” (Grudem[18])

“The names “Father” and “Son” represent an eternal difference in the roles of the Father and the Son. The Father has a leadership and authority role that the Son does not have, and the Son submits to the Father’s leadership in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son.” (Grudem[19])

(5) Therefore God is not Father, Son, and Holy Ghost unless there is an order of subordination within the Godhead:

“If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination[…]then 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 example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.” (Grudem[20])

And by (1) we must conclude that God is not who He is without an eternal order of subordination!  That, my friends, is an ontological statement—an ontological subordination—and it absolutely contradicts the Nicene formula.  If the claims of, and arguments for ESS/EFS/ERAS are to be accepted, we must admit that the subordination of the Son to the Father is no more a functional role than is His eternity, omnipotence, or immutability, for it would be ontologically definitive of His being, nature, and essence.

  • “But is this really a Gospel issue, worthy of causing division within the Church?”

The doctrine of the Trinity is rightly understood by laymen to be a profound mystery; certainly, we cannot comprehend the doctrine fully within our human minds any more than we can comprehend God Himself in His fullness.  So, many conclude, we cannot get bogged down in such minutiae as this, mostly lying beyond our ken anyhow, but must rather stick to core and understandable Gospel truths, such as the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But what, I ask in response, is the import and profundity revealed in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is it not that the GOD, Jehovah Himself, became man and thus in His full Godhead and full humanity, has reconciled fallen and corrupt man to the true, perfect, and eternal God; that full and complete God with all majesty and authority has met together with true humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ? Is not the Gospel itself sapped of its inaccessible majesty and glory if the death and resurrection of our Lord were really the death and resurrection of humanity united with an eternally subordinate God, an eternally submissive God, a lower ranking person within the Godhead; in short, a sort of Jehovah Jr.?

If we carefully attend to how the truth of God as Triune has been revealed in the pages of Scripture, we can plainly see that the Gospel is itself the revelation of the Trinity and that Trinity contains the truth of the Gospel.  As T.F. Torrance opens his THE Christian Doctrine of God,

THE Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation, in accordance with its proclamation in the Gospel and its actualisation through the Holy Spirit in the apostolic foundation of the Church. It is in the Lord Jesus, the very Word and Mind of God incarnate in our humanity, that the eternal God ‘defines’ and identifies himself for us as he really is.[21]

It is in the redemptive history, recorded in the narratives of the Scripture, especially the Gospel records and the Book of Acts, that we see the Triunity of the One God displayed.  B.B. Warfield fleshes this notion out well in the article, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”[22].  He first discusses how God in the Old Testament is carefully and relentlessly revealed as the One and only God—true unity.  Though God is eternally three in one, He nevertheless taught His people to take up the confession, “the Lord our God is one Lord” as the inviolable representation of His being. There were indeed indications of His personal distinctions throughout the Old Testament revelation, but more as furniture in a dark room, dimly seen, and not fully comprehended or revealed until the lights are turned on.

The New Testament letters, on the other hand, seem to assume throughout not only the oneness of God but that the Father is God, the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God, though we find no discourse or chapters and verse where this Trinity in Unity is spelled out discursively or philosophically.  It rather easily flows from the lips and pens of the New Testament authors with no apologies nor sense that the reader should be surprised by the truths; it is a revelation presupposed at the basis of their discourse.

So where and when was this great doctrine of the Triunity of God revealed?  In the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, and in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, promised by the Son and given at Pentecost.

We cannot speak of the doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, if we study exactness of speech, as revealed in the New Testament, any more than we can speak of it as revealed in the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written before its revelation; the New Testament after it. The revelation itself was made not in word but in deed. It was made in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. The relation of the two Testaments to this revelation is in the one case that of preparation for it, and in the other that of product of it. The revelation itself is embodied just in Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is as much as to say that the revelation of the Trinity was incidental to, and the inevitable effect of, the accomplishment of redemption. It was in the coming of the Son of God in the likeness of sinful flesh to offer Himself a sacrifice for sin; and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, that the Trinity of Persons in the Unity of the Godhead was once for all revealed to men. Those who knew God the Father, who loved them and gave His own Son to die for them; and the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved them and delivered Himself up an offering and sacrifice for them; and the Spirit of Grace, who loved them and dwelt within them a power not themselves, making for righteousness, knew the Triune God and could not think or speak of God otherwise than as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity, in other words, is simply the modification wrought in the conception of the one only God by His complete revelation of Himself in the redemptive process. It necessarily waited, therefore, upon the completion of the redemptive process for its revelation, and its revelation, as necessarily, lay complete in the redemptive process.[23]

God has revealed Himself as Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity in His great redemptive work in time and in space!  It was the actualization of the Love of God in History, the Gospel itself, that God reveals Himself as He truly is and always was, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Gospel is the revelation of the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the revelation of this Triunity is coextensive with the Gospel.

This fact having been admitted, who is this God we meet with in Jesus Christ?  The eternally subordinate and submissive One?  Blasphemous! No, He is the true God indeed, that the saints of old had always known and worshipped, though the full revelation awaited His coming in the flesh.  That is, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ it is Jehovah Himself that is united in perfect personal union with the Human Nature of His fleshy creatures. This is the grandeur of the Gospel message.  When we read of Christ’s full divinity in the New Testament, we are not confronted with a subordinate person of the Godhead or one of lower rank. On the contrary, we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM’” (John 8:58). He is, in fact, the I Am that I Am who called Abraham and He who came to and saved the people of Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh.  He is the God characterized uniquely by His aseity, dependent on nothing and no one, having the source and continuance of His Being in His own Being.  Throughout the New Testament, ascriptions given to God alone in the Old Testament are quoted over and over and applied to Christ.

And thus we see the grandeur of the Gospel Message in the nearly impossible-to-comprehend condescension of the true God taking up the Servant role, taking upon Himself flesh and humbling Himself in obedience.  The Apostle Paul, calling Christians to likewise give up their rights and natural estates, writes the following:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is the profound greatness and revealed mystery of the Gospel, that one equal with God, one with God, and Himself the true God, voluntarily condescended, taking on the form of a servant through corruptible flesh, and became obedient, though it was not and is not His natural estate.  The Gospel message is not and cannot be that an eternally subordinate and submissive being became subordinate and submissive.  When God and man meet together in the Lord Jesus Christ, by union through the Holy Ghost, man meets with Him of Whom it was said in Psalm 45:6 (Heb. 1:8), “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom”, and He of Whom it was said,

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:11-13)

We must, to uphold the truth and majesty of the Gospel itself, confess with clarity that the mission of Christ was to become submissive—a role contrary to and not a simple corollary of His eternal Nature.  In a word, submission was the mission, not the cause of the mission.

  • “But can’t we all just get back to loving each other and fostering unity?”

Indeed, we can and we must. But surely it is agreed that our Doctrine of God is the very heart of our Christian ethics, and therefore the truth or falsity of the ESS/EFS/ERAS position, impinging as it does on the ontological Nature of God and the very Gospel message itself, must have a bearing on our calling to love each other and foster unity.  And it most certainly does, for the example of Christ looms large in the Biblical authors’ framing of Christian ethics throughout the New Testament.  I will briefly explore just two of the many ramifications of this below.

First, take for example the Philippians passage noted above (in its wider context):

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

The clear point of this passage is that just as Christ, who was true God, with all the glory and majesty of God rightfully His, nevertheless gave it all up on behalf of His people, even to the point of obedience to a cursed and shameful death, so in like manner must we not regard our own supposed natural estates, looking to our own interests, but have the same mind of Christ, condescending to each other and treating others as more important than ourselves.  But what becomes of this call to Christ-likeness in unified love and lowliness of mind when we collapse the intended vast disparity between Christ in His eternal Majesty and Christ in His voluntary Servant form by claiming that Christ was always subordinate, submissive, and obedient?  Is the intended reading of the passage really, “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus, who having always and eternally been a subordinate Person of God by nature, nevertheless set aside this natural estate of obedience and submission in order to become obedient and submissive”? Would we not, with ESS/EFS/ERAS assumptions, empty Paul’s argument of its intended power? This passage and others like it are at the heart of Christian ethics and are the principle and exemplar upon which we as Christians build our unity in love.  We see a similar argument in Romans:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Rom. 15:1-3)

Again, the strong have to take up the burden of the weak, just as Christ, the infinitely strong, sought nevertheless not to please Himself but serve others.  Also, we see, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

To be clear, the principle of Christ-likeness in fostering love and unity among the people of God is powerfully enjoined upon us by the example of the One who is eternal God with all Power and Authority, submitting to no one, subject of no one, nevertheless breaching time and eternity to become submissive and obedient, contrary to His eternal Nature and rightful claim, all out of His infinite, condescending, love for His Creation.  We must do likewise.  ESS/EFS/ERAS renders this teaching impotent.

Next, and with the most notable ramifications, ESS/EFS/ERAS turns the principle of Christian rule and authority on its head.  1 Corinthians 11:3 has become one of the supposed foundational proof texts for the subordination of the Son to the Father, and from it is born, in their theology, an analogy of human authority and submission, specifically between husband and wife.  We have, e.g., from Grudem,

[…]in the relationship between man and woman in marriage we see also a picture of the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Paul says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Here, just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to that of God the Father and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood. And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity.[24]

Leaving aside the tortured interpretation and utter ahistorical nature of this reading of 1 Corinthians 11[25], we see that Grudem and nearly all ESS/EFS/ERAS proponents see in the passage an analogy: just as the Father and the Son are co-equal, yet the Son is eternally subordinate, so husband and wife are co-equal, yet the latter is subordinate to the former. Rather than unravel the whole of Grudem’s misreading here, for our present purposes I wish only to point out that there is, in fact, no analogy present in this passage! Paul does not say “as,” “just as,” “so as,” “in like manner,” or anything similar, even though Grudem attempts to supply them.  Further, if the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading were accepted, it would prove much more than they intend, for the passage runs that God is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man the head of woman. If man being the head of woman is analogous to God being the Head of Christ, then the middle term, Christ is the head of man, is also part of the analogy. Thus, if the purpose of the passage were to teach that just as Father/Son are co-equal, then man/woman are co-equal, then we must also conclude that the middle term shows that God and man are co-equal—an absurd and unacceptable conclusion.

But Paul does give an analogy of the husband and wife relationship elsewhere in his writings,

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:22-33)

Here, when Paul does actually give an analogy of the husband-wife relationship, he is explicit with “as to,” “even as,” “so also,” “as,” and the like.  But most important to our point here, we must note that when an analogy is given it is between husband and wife and Christ and His Church.  And how is this headship of Christ characterized in Ephesians 5?  In self-sacrificial love and service, as to the care of one’s very own body.  This is tremendously important, for in ESS/EFS/ERAS readings of 1 Corinthians 11, we have the exact opposite!  If we allow an analogy in 1 Corinthians 11:3, we see that the suffering Servant role of Christ toward God is the role of the wife to her husband.  That is, on their fallacious reading, the wife’s coequality is realized in her self-sacrificial servant role under the headship of her husband.  On the contrary, in Ephesians 5 we see the husband bearing the self-sacrificial role of loving service on behalf of his wife.  In the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading of 1 Corinthians 11, headship implies rule over the self-sacrificing servant wife; in Ephesians 5, where an actual and explicit analogy is present, headship implies self-sacrificing service on behalf of the wife.

The principle of rule and authority that ought to govern all relationships within the Church is found in the following:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

In seeking to put 1 Corinthians 11 in service of ESS/EFS/ERAS claims, contrary to the near entire history of interpretation of the passage, proponents have turned Biblical headship on its head.  This should not simply be seen as collateral damage, but itself an impediment “to getting back to loving each other and fostering unity.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] E.g., Glenn Butner, “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will” (http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-1/JETS_58-1_131-49_Butner.pdf); Mark Jones, “Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!” (https://newcitytimes.com/news/story/eternal-subordination-of-wills-nein)

[2] See Brad Mason, “Surprised by Orthodoxy: Responding to the Eternal Subordination of the Son Using the Pro-Nicene Fathers” (https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/surprised-by-orthodoxy-responding-to-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-using-the-pro-nicene-fathers/)

[3] “Why did the Son become incarnate? Because he submitted?” (http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/1517/why-did-the-son-become-incarnate-because-he-submitted#.WA6bH-grKhc)

[4] See “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, the entirety of section 5.

[5] Oration 29.18 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310229.htm)

[6] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130102.htm

[7] “Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/07/04/knowing-the-self-revealed-god-who-is-father-son-and-holy-spirit/)

[8] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.C.2.b (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/trinity-wayne-grudem)

[9] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 76 (http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Biblical-Foundations-for-Manhood-and-Womanhood.pdf)

[10] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.B.6

[11] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[12] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[13] ibid., Ch. 14.C.2.b

[14] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 51

[15] ibid., pp. 234-235

[16] ibid., p. 242

[17] ibid., p. 245

[18] ibid., p. 51

[19] “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” (http://www.waynegrudem.com/biblical-evidence-for-the-eternal-submission-of-the-son-to-the-father-2012/)

[20] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.D.3

[21] Introduction

[22] https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_trinity.html

[23] ibid.

[24] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.E

[25] see for example Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Calvin on 1 Cor. 11:3 in, “Surprised by Orthodoxy”, 5.a., 5.e., 5.g., and 5.n (linked above), as well as John Gill here: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/1_corinthians/11.htm

16 thoughts on “Answering Four Common Laymen Responses to the ESS/EFS/ERAS Debate

  1. roscuro says:

    Well said. I appreciate all the careful thought that went into this post. I share the writer’s concern that the ESS/ERAS/EFS teaching diminishes the glory of the Gospel. In this time when we remember the Incarnation, to say that God the Son always submits to God the Father is to say the God the Son was under obligation to come to earth. That has never been the interpretation which the historical Church has put upon Christ’s Incarnation. The Church has always marveled at God owed humanity nothing, yet freely chose to become one of us.

  2. NJ says:

    “If we allow an analogy in 1 Corinthians 11:3, we see that the suffering Servant role of Christ toward God is the role of the wife to her husband. That is, on their fallacious reading, the wife’s coequality is realized in her self-sacrificial servant role under the headship of her husband. On the contrary, in Ephesians 5 we see the husband bearing the self-sacrificial role of loving service on behalf of his wife. In the ESS/EFS/ERAS analogical reading of 1 Corinthians 11, headship implies rule over the self-sacrificing servant wife; in Ephesians 5, where an actual and explicit analogy is present, headship implies self-sacrificing service on behalf of the wife.”

    Fantastic. Brad is right; and practically speaking, this is what it all boils down to. If patriarchalism is females in the self-sacrificial servant role, then males hold the role of ruling master over them. We have seen this repeatedly in the neopatriarchy movement (and not just with spouses), but it also explains a lot of what has been chronicled at the Cry For Justice blog.

    Isn’t it amazing how one’s doctrine of God ends up affecting so much downstream of it?

    • BS Mason says:

      So true! Really makes one long for the New Heaven and Earth where all perversion and oppression will be laid waste and wiped away by the perfect knowledge of and presence of our Lord:

      “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

  3. The Reformed Seminarian says:

    Brad – great post. As I was reading through Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, I came across a powerful argument in his section on the Trinity. In classic, question/answer format, Vos quotes Augustine to demonstrate the folly of supposing that among the Persons of the Trinity, “one is afore or after another.”

    // 25. What comment did Augustine make regarding the personal existence of the Father? He said that the Father has His personal existence precisely in generating the Son and spirating the Holy Spirit, and that thus in a certain sense the personal existence of the Father is determined by the Son and the Spirit. //

    In other words, just as the “necessariness” of God as “Father” necessitates the Son’s (eternal) generation – so also the “necessariness” of God as “Son” necessitates the Father’s (eternal) act of begetting. The Father and the Son, in this sense, are co-determinative.

    • BS Mason says:

      First of all, I am jealous that you have Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics. Second, yes, awesome point. Further, if we wanted to play the EFS’ers game, with their categories, wouldn’t we have to say that the Father is limited in a tremendous number of ways since He is dependent on the Son to create, to reveal Himself, to save, etc? Blasphemous! But with their categories, ontology, and axioms, I think we would have to land there.

  4. Laurette says:

    Thank you for this! I wonder if I am correct in seeing a similarity in the authority of the Father over the Son and the authority of human fathers over human sons: both are “temporary” and “earthly”. All fathers and sons are co-equal to each other before God – it is only during their earthly existence that certain men have fatherly authority over other men. In heaven, no doubt, the roles of authority and submission between people will not exist. Similarly, the authority of the Father over the Son was temporal and only existed during Jesus’ earthly life. In heaven, again, the roles of authority and submission between the persons of the Trinity ceases to exist.

    The only eternal authority and submission properly exists between Creator and creature, and it is ontological.

    • The Reformed Seminarian says:

      For the most part, I can agree with that. I would only add that since the Incarnation, the Lord Jesus Christ will forever be both God and Man. And thus, he will forever be “equal to the Father according to His Godhead, and Inferior to the Father according to his manhood.” This is why 1 Cor. 15:24 says that in the end of all things, Jesus will “deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father.” Verse 28 adds, “and then shall the Son also himself be subject unto Him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”

      • BS Mason says:

        John Gill, whom I make a habit of not referencing, is nevertheless very good on this:

        ‘[…]“then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him”; which must be interpreted and understood with great care and caution; not in the Sabellian sense, of refunding of the characters of the Son, and so of the Father unto God; when they suppose these characters, which they imagine to be merely nominal, bare names, will be no more, and God shall be all; but as the Father will always remain a father, so the Son will remain a son; for, as the Son of the Highest, he will reign over his people for ever, and he the Son, as a priest, is consecrated for ever, more: nor in the Eutychian sense, of the change of the human mature into the divine, in which they fancy it will be swallowed up, and God will be all; but Christ will always continue as a man; he went up to heaven as such, and he will return as a man, and be visible to all in the human nature, and in that be the object of the wonderful vision of the saints to all eternity: nor in the Arian sense, according to the divine nature, as if he was in that inferior to the Father, when he is equal with him, has all the perfections he has, and the whole fulness of the Godhead dwelling in him; it is much better and safer to understand it as it commonly is of him, as man; though in this sense, he was always subject to his Father, ever since he was incarnate, whereas this seems to respect something peculiar at this time. […]it is best, therefore to understand it of the Son’s giving up the account of his mediatorial kingdom and concerns to his Father; when it will appear that he has in the whole of his conduct and administration been subject to him; that he has in all things acted in his name, done all by his power, and to his honour and glory; and now having accomplished all he undertook and was intrusted with, gives in his account, delivers up his charge, and resigns his office; all which will be plain proofs of his subjection: when I say he will resign or lay aside his office as Mediator, my meaning is not that he will cease to be God-man and Mediator; but that he will cease to administer that office as under God, in the manner he now does;[…]he will also reign for ever over and among his saints, but his kingdom will not be a vicarious one, or administered as it now is; nor be only in his hands as Mediator, but with God, Father, Son, and Spirit: “that God may be all in all”; for by God is not meant the Father personally, but God essentially considered, Father, Son, and Spirit, who are the one true and living God.’

        I suggest reading this whole portion in his commentary on 1 Cor. 15:28; I’ve had to do a lot of chopping so not too long. Also the whole of section 11 in https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/surprised-by-orthodoxy-responding-to-the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-using-the-pro-nicene-fathers/ . Provided you have the time as a seminary student!

    • BS Mason says:

      Hmmm, it may be that I have to think more about this. Two things come to mind quickly:

      1. I’m inclined to hold to Athanasius’ principle: “let every corporeal reference be banished on this subject; and transcending every imagination of sense, let us, with pure understanding and with mind alone, apprehend the genuine relation of son to father, and the Word’s proper relation towards God, and the unvarying likeness of the radiance towards the light: for as the words ‘Offspring’ and ‘Son’ bear, and are meant to bear, no human sense, but one suitable to God” (Defense of the Nicene Tradition, 5.24)

      2. I wouldn’t want to imply that the Second Person of the Trinity is only “Son” while in His flesh.

      But something about what you say rings true. Maybe it is simply that you are saying that authority and submission are temporary in both cases, which would then apply to boss/employee, governor/citizen, etc. But I’m not sure there is an actual analogy.

      I tend to think of it more as, Adam was God’s fleshy son who was supposed to live in perfect loving submission to the Father, but did not. Israel was God’s fleshy son who was supposed to live in perfect loving submission to the Father, but did not. The last Adam and true Israel, Jesus, is also God’s fleshy Son who came to live in perfect loving submission to the Father, and did. God sent His Eternal Son via incarnation, of Whom it was fitting that He should become Son of Man being eternal Son of God, that by union with Him, we should become sons of God by His perfect loving submission to the Father. Thus, there is a sense in which, as Fred Sanders says, “the only image of the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” We learn of God’s Trinitarian nature by how He has revealed Himself in His redemptive historical acts and words.

  5. NJ says:

    Laurette said:

    “All fathers and sons are co-equal to each other before God – it is only during their earthly existence that certain men have fatherly authority over other men.”

    As somebody once put it, the Son of God is not an eternal child.

  6. Barbara Roberts says:

    Brad this is excellent.

    I especially liked the following part; I haven’t head anyone put this argument before:

    “Is the intended reading of [Philippians 2:1-8] really, “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus, who having always and eternally been a subordinate Person of God by nature, nevertheless set aside this natural estate of obedience and submission in order to become obedient and submissive”? ”

    You’ve pinpointed that brilliantly. I am amazed that you are not a pastor or a seminary professor. You run rings round Grudem and Ware. I imagine them standing in the middle of the field scratching their heads. while you kick goal after goal. And they are scratching their heads because they’re unable to comprehend what you say, their minds are so fixed on error (ESS).

    • BS Mason says:

      Wow, thank you so much! I think the problem with Ware and Grudem is not lack of intelligence, but rather that is very hard to defend the indefensible. Thank you again!

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