Over recent decades, a number of evangelical theologians have argued for a novel understanding of trinitarian relations, one driven by a desire to support a particular version of gender roles.[1] Whereas traditionally, Christian theologians have understood relations in the immanent Trinity as relations of origin or processions (i.e., the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father and the Son), several modern theologians describe such relations as authority and submission (i.e., the Son submits to the authority of the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to the authority of the Father and the Son).[2] Though this new understanding of eternal relations goes by different names,[3] a common designation has been ‘eternal functional submission’ (hereafter, EFS). These theologians also contend that relationships between men and women are to be patterned after such alleged functions in the inner life of God.[4]

Because of its problematic implications for the doctrine of God, the EFS proposal has encountered significant opposition. In terms of theology proper, I believe the case against EFS has been settled.[5] But EFS is also problematic for the doctrine of humanity. EFS totalizes authority and submission in men and women respectively, treating them as if each only applies to one gender, a totalization which has serious pastoral implications. The theology of EFS proposes a distorted vision not only of the immanent Trinity but also of humanity created in the image of God.

The structure of my argument will be twofold: first, in this article, I will discuss three important theological distinctions that EFS blurs, a blurring that sets the foundation for an incorrect totalization of authority and submission within the Triune God; second, in the next article, I will discuss how EFS distorts the image of God in humanity by totalizing authority and submission in men and women, including elaborating the negative ways in which EFS theology manifests itself practically.

EFS blurs three important theological distinctions.  The first is the distinction between what theologians call the archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God. This distinction is grounded upon the recognition that, though we may know God truly and sufficiently, our knowledge of him is ultimately inadequate, finite, and limited.[6] Even in Scripture, God’s verbal revelation to humanity, “all heavenly things [that is, concerning God] are portrayed to us in earthly shades and colors.”[7] Scripture speaks of God in ways that “continually confront us with God’s absolute transcendence over all creatures.”[8] The fact that we do not know God fully is not merely a result of human sin, though sin certainly plays a part in undermining our knowledge of God (Rom. 1:21, 28). Rather, our knowledge of God is one that is fitting to us as creatures. However, God’s knowledge of himself, and of all that he has made, is comprehensive and exhaustive. God’s knowledge is not simply greater than ours; it is in a whole different level. In classical language, God’s knowledge is archetypal. Our knowledge of him is ectypal or analogical; it is a copy of God’s knowledge, accommodated to our finitude as creatures. Keeping this distinction in mind prevents us from bringing God down to closer to our level in our attempts to comprehend him.

The second distinction also relates to our knowledge of God, our knowledge of him via his works ad intra and ad extra. Ad intra points to what is true about God considered in and by himself. Ad extra points to what is true of God outside of himself, that is, his works in creation. As Louis Berkoff explains:

There are certain personal attributes by which the three persons are distinguished. These are also called opera ad intra, because they are works within the Divine Being, which do not terminate on the creature. They are personal operations, which are not performed by the three persons jointly and which are incommunicable. Generation is an act of the Father only; filiation belongs to the Son exclusively; and procession can only be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. As opera ad intra these works are distinguished from the opera ad extra, or those actives and effects by which the Trinity is manifested outwardly. These are never works of one person exclusively, but always works of the Divine Being as a whole.[9]

Based on this ad intra/ad extra distinction, Berkoff also distinguishes the ontological Trinity from the economical Trinity.[10] While there is only one Triune God, this distinction does justice to the tension that exists between God’s revelation of himself and God’s being. Therefore, God’s works ad extra should not be thought of as having a one-to-one correspondence in God’s works ad intra.

The third distinction is that of ontology and function. To my knowledge, this is not a distinction that is made in classical theology, but it is made by those who advocate for EFS. They argue that the Father and the Son (and the Spirit, presumably) are one as it relates to their being or essence (that is, their ontology) but differ with one another as it relates to their role (that is, their function). Consider the following passage from Wayne Grudem:

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. They don’t differ in any attributes, but only in how they relate to each other. And that relationship is one of leadership and authority on the one hand and voluntary, willing, joyful submission to that authority on the other hand.”[11]

Grudem argues that in this formulation the unity of God in his being is preserved even though there are differences in their role or function for each person of the Trinity.

EFS theology blurs all three aforementioned distinctions, even the one suggested by EFS theologians themselves. First, the ontology/function distinction: EFS proponents claim that there is no ontological subordination within the Trinity but only a functional subordination or submission. Functional subordination, they claim, does not touch on God’s being. Affirming ontological subordination would be tantamount to saying that the Father is God in a way that is superior to the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that the Son and the Holy Spirit are God in an inferior way — which would be a thoroughly unorthodox affirmation. But the ontological/functional distinction falls apart when the idea of an eternal function is introduced. If a function is eternal, then it never began, and it will never end. If we are predicating about God, whatever is eternal about him is part and parcel of his eternal being.

Consider the passage by Grudem quoted above. He asserts that the functions of authority and submission are “the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.” This reveals a glaring inconsistency in the EFS position. It is impossible to affirm that something is eternally functional in God without at the same time affirming that such thing is also eternally ontological in him. In this way, EFS theology totalizes authority and submission beginning with the very divine essence, making it the fundamental difference between the persons in the Godhead.

Second, the ad intra/ad extra distinction: modern theologians affirm EFS for at least two exegetical reasons: A) They see all the references in which Scripture speaks of an action of the Father relative to the Son under the light of authority and submission. Note, for example, the following words by Grudem:

Scripture frequently speaks of the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity, a relationship in which the Father “gave” His only Son (John 3:16) and “sent” the Son into the world (John 3:17, 34; 4:34; 8:42; Gal. 4:4; etc.), a relationship in which the Father “predestined” us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2) and “chose us” in the Son “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). The Son is obedient to the commands of the Father (John 12:49) and says that He comes to do “the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34; 6:38).

The actions of giving the Son, sending the Son, predestining in the Son, and choosing in the Son performed by the Father indeed might suggest an exercise of authority over the Son, but that is not necessarily the case, especially since Scripture also speaks of the Son giving his own life (John 10:18), coming into the world (John 12:46), choosing his disciples (John 15:16).  B) EFS theologians read the obedience of the Son incarnate back to his preincarnate state. Such an exegetical move opens the door for serious Christological and Trinitarian problems, as some have already pointed out.[12] However, EFS theologians read a one-to-one correspondence between what the Father and the Son do “in heaven” and what they do “on earth.” Another EFS proponent, Bruce Ware, goes as far as to say, “As the Son of the Father, Jesus lives always under the authority of his Father—in all times past and now and in all times future.”[13]

Third, the archetypal/ectypal distinction also suffers under EFS theology. EFS proponents insist that human relationships are to be modeled after the (alleged) authority lines existing within God himself. As he develops his argument for how the equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity, Grudem writes: “This point may sound obscure, but it is at the heart of the controversy [between so-called ‘egalitarians’ and so-called ‘complementarians’] . . . Much more is at stake even than how we live in our marriages. Here we are talking about the nature of God Himself.”[14]

While it might be valid, to some extent, to draw lessons and practical applications for everyday life from the fact that the persons of the Trinity are equal in divinity yet distinct in their relations, to find such a close correlation between the immanent Trinity and humanity is theologically (and practically) dangerous.[15] Some degree of analogy between the two might be warranted. As Berkoff suggests, “In view of the fact that man was created in the image of God, it is but natural to assume that, if there are some traces of the trinitarian life in the creature, the clearest of these will be found in man.”[16] But as Berkoff himself goes on to point out, all creaturely analogies for the Trinity are ultimately wanting. While various human relationships may give glimpses of the nature and relations within God, there is simply no perfect earthly correlative for the Trinity.[17]

For EFS proponents, human gender roles are of such an importance that they touch on the very nature of God. This is perhaps the greatest problem with EFS theology: that in drawing so close an analogy they begin to elevate human relationships — whether husband and wife, parents and children, or masters and servants — and thereby to (presumably unintentionally) demote the Triune God. They begin to form our conception of the Creator through our conception of the creature. When we project human relationships on the essence of God, we begin to conform the archetype to the ectype.

This results in a diminishing of God, for he is no longer “high” and “exalted” (Isa. 33:5), transcendent, beyond our comprehension; rather, he is made like us. The Triune God has graciously revealed himself to us. Yet he is, and will continue to be for all eternity, a mystery to us, “not merely in the Biblical sense that it is a truth, which was formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature.”[18]  In short, whatever its motivations, EFS ought not be adopted as belief.

[1] I will refrain from using the term ‘complementarianism’ here for two—complementary! —reasons: first, not all who call themselves complementarian adhere to these novel trinitarian formulations; and second, I will mainly focus on three authors, namely, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Bruce Ware. While these men are influential figures in many complementarian circles, their views do not necessarily represent all complementarians.

[2] Wayne Grudem goes so far as to argue that “without this truth [the Son’s eternal submission to the Father in role and function], 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.” Systematic Theology, 244:27.

[3] E.g., eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS) and eternal submission of the Son (ESS).

[4] One exception is Craig Keener, who believes eternal functional subordination to be orthodox, and yet he does not see it as grounds gender roles. See “Is Subordination within the Trinity Really a Heresy? A Study of John 15:18 in Context.”

[5] See Dolezal, James E., All That Is in God, 130-134; Butner Jr., D. Glenn, “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will.”

[6] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Volume Two), 107.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 110-111.

[9] Berkoff, Louis. Systematic Theology, 89, emphasis original.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 51, emphasis added.

[12] Kyle Claunch writes: “Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and others insist that the Son of God eternally submits to the inherent authority of the Father, so that the authority-submission structure is a major fact in establishing the eternal distinctions between the persons. For these theologians, the submission of the Son to the Father in the economic state of incarnation is a reflection of the submission of the Son to the Father in the eternal preincarnate state. One often overlooked feature of such a proposal is that this understanding of the eternal relationship between Father and Son seems to entail a commitment to three distinct wills in the immanent Trinity. In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills. This way of understanding the immanent Trinity does run counter to the pro-Nicene tradition, as well as the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Reformed traditions that grew from it. According to traditional Trinitarian theology, the will is predicated of the one undivided divine essence so that there is only one divine will in the immanent Trinity. By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others . . . are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence.” One God in Three Persons, 88.”

[13] Ware, Bruce. Big Truths for Young Hearts, 55, emphasis added.

[14] Grudem, ed. Biblical Foundations, 48.

[15] Note how Grudem speaks of the husband-wife relationship: “Just as the Father and Son are equal in deity and are equal in all their attributes, but different in role, so husband and wife are equal in personhood and value, but are different in the roles that God has given them. Just as God the Son is eternally subject to the authority of God the Father, so God has planned that wives would be subject to the authority of their own husbands.” Biblical Foundations, 18.

[16] Berkoff, Systematic Theology, 90.

[17] Kevin Giles provides a good example: “The impossibility of making God’s triune life a model or prescription for social life on earth is illustrated by reference to the husband-wife relationship. Correlation seems impossible. Trinitarian relations are threefold, the husband-wife relationship is twofold; the Father-Son relationship is analogically described in male-male terms, the husband-wife relationship is a male-female relationship; and the divine Father-Son relationship does not allow for offspring, while the earthly male-female relationship does.” “The Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity,” 21.

[18] Berkoff, Systematic Theology, 89.

Timo is the Pastor of Community at Capital Presbyterian Reston, part of the Capital Pres Family of churches in Northern Virginia. He holds a BA from Catholic University of Chile, and an MA from Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC. He has worked as a translator, editor, and seminary administrative staff, and has served as pastoral assistant/intern at various churches in the DC metro area. Timo lives in Herndon, VA, with his wife Kaitlin and their kids.

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