Scott Swain on the Errors of Eternal Functional Subordinationism (EFS)
In the remaining section of this chapter, we will consider three serious cases of mistaken identity regarding the second person of the Trinity: modalism, subordinationism, and eternal functional subordinationism. The first two errors are classical Trinitarian heresies that were refuted by the church in the third and fourth centuries but have reappeared in various forms throughout the history of the church. The third error, of more recent provenance, does not exhibit the same degree of error or impiety as the first two. Nevertheless, it is a serious error that Christians should roundly reject because it inaccurately represents biblical teaching on the Trinity and therefore fails to provide a solid foundation for faith in the Trinity. . .
The third error, eternal functional subordinationism (hereafter EFS)—also known as eternal relations of authority and submission (hereafter ERAS)—is of more recent vintage. Its major proponents include conservative evangelical Protestants such as Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and Owen Strachan. Though EFS affirms the eternal distinction of the persons of the Trinity, and though it affirms their full deity, both affirmations are compromised by the significant revisions it makes to classical Christian teaching on the Trinity. Rather than distinguishing the persons of the Trinity by means of relations of origin (i.e., paternity, filiation, and spiration), ERAS distinguishes the persons by means of relations of authority and submission.4 The personal property of the Father lies in his eternal authority over the Son and the Spirit. The personal property of the Son lies in his eternal submission to the Father and his eternal authority over the Spirit. The personal property of the Spirit lies in his eternal submission to the Father and the Son.
This revision to classical Christian teaching regarding the personal properties of the Trinity brings with it further revisions to classical Christian teaching regarding the nature of God. Rather than recognizing divine authority and divine willing as common properties of the three persons, ERAS treats these attributes as personal properties, dividing them among the three persons. The Father has an authority in relation to the Son that the Son lacks, and so forth. Moreover, ERAS seems to affirm that each person possesses his own distinct will, with the Father commanding the Son, the Son obeying the Father, the Father and the Son commanding the Spirit, and the Spirit obeying the Father and the Son. In turning common properties into personal properties, ERAS thus effectively denies divine simplicity as well.
[EFS] is a serious error that Christians should roundly reject because it inaccurately represents biblical teaching on the Trinity and therefore fails to provide a solid foundation for faith in the Trinity.
ERAS has been the source of not a little controversy among Reformed and evangelical Christians in recent years, and not without reason. Although a spectrum of views falls under the heading of ERAS, reflecting varying degrees of error and impiety, many of its most basic tenets are quite problematic, and its most extreme expression exhibits a number of grave theological errors.5
Classical Christian teaching on the Trinity set important boundary lines in distinguishing the divine persons by means of relations of origin and in preserving their divine oneness by means of divine simplicity. Because these boundary lines accord with the canons of biblical reasoning, they cannot be transgressed without serious consequences. Despite ERAS’s laudable commitment to biblical authority, a less laudable commitment to biblicism as a theological method has led to a removal of ancient landmarks that should not be removed. While its affirmation of eternally distinct, fully divine persons retains an orthodox facade, its revision of personal properties and its division of God’s simple being manifest profound structural instabilities.
In one way or another, then, each of the above approaches fails to honor the Son just as it honors the Father (John 5:23). Modalism denies the Son’s personal dignity. Subordinationism denies the Son’s true deity. Eternal functional subordinationism, though superficially affirming the Son’s divine personhood and divine oneness with the Father, threatens to undermine both affirmations through its revision of personal properties and its division of God’s simple being.
4 Though relations of origin have not played a significant role in the development of ERAS teaching on the Trinity over the past several decades, recently both Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have publicly affirmed their commitment to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This affirmation has not entailed the rejection of eternal relations of authority and submission, however. Ware’s most recent summary of his views on the doctrine of the Trinity may be found in Bruce A. Ware, “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” in Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, ed. Keith S. Whitfield (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017).
5 Bruce Ware’s book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005) is a mixture of legitimate theological summary, questionable or odd expressions, and serious error. Particularly disastrous, in my judgment, is the manner in which the book spells out the relations of authority and submission, both within the Trinity and outside the Trinity in God’s external works. For example, in speaking of relations internal to the Trinity, the Father is described as “supreme over” all things, including the Son and the Spirit (pp. 46ff.). “The Father stands above the Son” (p. 49), “has supremacy over the Son” (p. 50), receives “the ultimate glory” (p. 50) over the Son, whose glory is “penultimate” in relation to the Father (p. 154). The Father is “supreme within the Godhead as the highest authority and the one deserving of ultimate praise” (p. 51). In speaking of the Trinity in its external works, the book denies the doctrine of inseparable operations and suggests that the Father exercises sovereignty over against the Son and the Spirit in determining whether or not he will act with and through them in his external works. Moreover, it suggests that, when the Father does choose to work through the Son and the Spirit, it is an act of grace and humility (pp. 57–58). I cannot find a charitable way of reading these statements as anything but significant transgressions of traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy. To its credit, Crossway no longer publishes the book.
Scott R. Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction, 82, 85-87.