Some Scattered Thoughts on the EFS/ERAS Debate

I’ve been doing my best to keep up with the recent goings on about the subject of the Son’s subordination to the Father but I have to admit that even my best has left me woefully behind in all that has been said on the subject in recent weeks (those interested will do well to consult Seumas Macdonald’s collation of posts on the subject). I miss the days of working from home and being able to engage in fruitful theological dialogue. But I digress. I want to share some scattered thoughts on it all with the hope that I’ll have something substantial to say about the subject at some point (although I couldn’t imagine when that might be).

First, a few observations:

It seems like the label heresy is getting thrown around pretty easily. I’m actually okay with this. I know that it’s a serious charge but this is serious subject matter and if certain folk think other folk are far afield enough then why not charge them with heresy? It doesn’t mean the charge will stick but I see no problem with putting it out there.

There has been a repeated call for Christian charity and an irenic tone as these debates continue. I would also urge Christian charity but some issues require polemic. Again, if certain people feel that others are far enough off the mark (or perhaps not so far but simply unwilling to listen to reason) then polemic might be more appropriate.

The issue of eternal generation seems to be at the forefront of this debate. From all I’ve read it seems as though Grudem is not a proponent (although not necessarily opposed) and yet many on his side seem to think this is one of the foundational concepts for EFS/ERAS.

The repudiation of EFS/ERAS from across the interdisciplinary spectrum is a sight to behold. Theologians, biblical scholars, and patristic scholars alike seem to think that EFS/ERAS is bad theology, unbiblical, and unfaithful to the tradition of the church.

Now for my personal position:

Some years back I put together something I called the Trinity Blogging Summit (I apologize for the name but I was never all that creative) where various bloggers contributed posts/papers on various topics concerning the Trinity. For the first annual TBS in 2008 I wrote a paper called “Sent from the Father: A Case for Pre-Temporal Obedience.” In that paper I took a look at the sending/sent language/theme in the Gospels and concluded that the Son qua Son obeys the Father out of love and that if this loving obedience could take place before the incarnation then it does no violence to the doctrine of the Trinity from a biblical perspective to suggest that it can be done from all eternity.

Now please keep in mind that my concern has never been with authority and submission structures in the church, the home, or anywhere else. I do not see the Trinity as a model to be followed by created beings. The problem as I see it, and have seen it since at least 2008, is that people on both sides of the debate want to co-opt the eternal relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and use them as the basis for their preferred model of marital relationships or the ordination of ministers. And this cuts both ways. Kevin Giles has been as guilty of this as Bruce Ware, although it seems that in recent years Giles has backed off a bit while Ware has gotten more resolute.

I am of the opinion that it does little to no good to look to the church fathers for an answer to this debate because it is a debate that they weren’t having and had never occurred to them. I am also of the opinion that whatever we say about the immanent Trinity that has not been revealed to us in Scripture is speculation. Some speculation is more reasonable than others but at the end of the day it’s all guesswork.

And that brings me to something I noted in my scathing review of Millard Erickson’s book on the subject: “The fact is that the only picture we have of the Father-Son relationship in Scripture is one of the Son doing the will of the Father out of love for the Father but never of the Father doing the will of the Son or the Spirit.  The Father sends the Son and the Father and Son send the Spirit yet this is never reversed.” So my question is why? Why does the economy take such shape? And why would we propose that the economy is not reflective of–without being identical to–the immanent Trinity?

We all recognize that there is an order within the Trinity. Most in this debate affirm that the Father alone is unbegotten/ungenerate, that the Son is begotten by an eternal generation, and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and many say the Son as well) by an eternal procession. Most would agree that these are asymmetrical and irreversible relations. Most agree that while Father, Son, and Spirit all share equally the divine being, possess one divine will, and act as one God, that they each have unique personal properties that distinguish them from one another.

I’m of the opinion that any talk of subordination or obedience or submission in the immanent Trinity is talk of personal properties. If an asymmetrical and irreversible order of “origin” (I use the term loosely for lack of a better one) does no harm to an orthodox doctrine of God then I can’t see why a corollary order of loving filial obedience would either.

And now a word about the recent discussion that took place on the Christ the Center podcast.

The panelists, who all were opposed to EFS/ERAS made much of the pactum salutis and kept stressing a single divine will and distinct personal wills within God at the same time. The idea of the pactum salutis has the Father calling the shots, so to speak, and the Son and Spirit obeying them, with the understanding that this could have been otherwise. They say that there is no ontological ground for the Son obeying the Father and that he does so freely, not necessarily.

But that’s similar to something I said back in 2008 when I made my initial argument for my understanding of EFS. I said, “The eternal obedience of the Son and Spirit is derived from the eternal Trinitarian ταξις and is best described as a willing obedience.  The Father commands without demanding.  There is no coercion on the part of the Father, and the Son and Spirit do not obey begrudgingly.” The point being that from all eternity the Son and Spirit freely act in obedience to the Father as Son and Spirit of the Father. This is the outworking of the single divine will. Is this speculative? Of course! But I think it’s a speculation that accords with divine revelation.

The thing that concerned me about the recent Christ the Center podcast wasn’t so much the pactum salutis as it was the stressing of distinct wills (and consciousnesses) within the Trinity. They were sure to maintain that these were personal wills (and consciousnesses) and that there was only one divine will but I still struggled to see how this doesn’t devolve into some form of social trinitarianism. Likewise, does the incarnate Son then have three wills? A divine will, an eternal personal will, and an incarnate human will? That seems to be the logical conclusion from the insistence on a single divine will and three personal wills within the Trinity (although admittedly Camden Busey says he believes the Son to have “one human will according to his human nature and one triune will according to his divine nature”).

So anyway, these are just some random thoughts on the debate. I recently read an older review of Kevin Giles’ book on eternal generation that mentions me and my review of the same book. After some link following I saw that the author, James Cassidey, had referred to me as a non-Arian subordinationist. I’ve been called worse, but I think it important to note that I view myself as someone who prefers to constrain his speculation as much as possible to what the biblical text says about God. Of course I do go beyond it but I try to do so in a way that doesn’t end up saying the opposite of what has been revealed.

And for those interested, here are some links to reviews I’ve done of books related to this issue:

The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology

Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance

Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology

Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate

Women, Men, and the Trinity: What Does It Mean to Be Equal?

As well as my running commentary on the back and forth between Michael Bird/Robert Shillaker and Keving Giles.



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