June 22, 2016

The Complementarian Trinity Debate: A Summary Of Its Beginning

by Wyatt Graham

Over the last two weeks, Christian blogs have been ablaze with debates about the Trinity. These debates have centered on how the Son relates to the Father. One side argues that how the Son submits to the Father in history is the same way God the Father relates to the God the Son in eternity. The other side argues that the way the Son submits to the Father in history is not the way God the Son relates to the Father in eternity.

The first position goes by at least three names: eternal function subordination (EFS), eternal relational subordination (ERS), or eternal relational authority-submission (ERAS). More specifically, it argues that the way the Son differs from the Father by submitting, while the Father to the Son by exerting authority. This relationship is how these two members of Trinity differ in eternity.

For EFS proponents, the submission of the Son does not indicate any inferiority between two essentially. Actually, submission is an honorable role that does not require an ontological difference between the Father and Son. Further, this analogy between the Father and Son makes sense of human relations, relations between husband (authority) and wife (submission). 1 Corinthians 11:3 provides justification for this position: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

The other side represents the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed tradition of assigning no submission to the Son in eternity. I will call this position the non-EFS view (it could also be called the classical view).  The non-EFS position asserts that the Son submits to the Father in history, but the Son’s submission in history does not mean that this is how one can distinguish the Son from the Father in eternity. Instead, the Son proceeds from the Father on mission eternally, which expresses itself in temporal submission during that mission. The Son, then, differs from the Father because the Son eternally procedes from the Father.

For non-EFS persons, to say that the Son submits to the Father in eternity means that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Such a view goes beyond the scope of orthodox belief, since it makes the Son something less than the Father; but both are God. The non-EFS view also balks at EFS complementarians for doing theology by anthropology; that is, they accuse EFS complementarians of formulating a less-than-orthodox view of God in order to prove their view of male-female relationships. Non-EFS complementarians also affirm the complementary relationships between men and women but avoid using the language of eternal submission

In the following, I will recount how the debate unfolded during June 9th and 10th of this year, although I will provide some context of events preceding the civil war between EFS and non-EFS complementarians. In later post, I will also detail the on-going debate after June 10th.

The Antebellum Period

On May 8th, 2015, Fred Sanders reviews One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke. The work propounds the view that the Son relates to the Father by submission, or through eternal functional subordination. In the work, Ware prefers the title “eternal relational authority-submission.” Both essentially mean the same thing: the way the Son submits to the Father in history is also how he relates to the Father in eternity. Sanders reviews the work sympathetically.

On May 22nd, 2015 Steven Holmes writes an unsympathetic article reflecting on a new defense of Complementarianism, found in One God in Three Persons. Holmes rejects the work’s complementarian argument, based upon the doctrine of the Trinity.

A debate starts when Liam Goligher writes two posts on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog on June 3rd and 6th. In his second article, Goligher concludes: “To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving towards idolatry.”

Endorsing Goligher’s posts, Carl Trueman writes on June 7th that the complementarians who hold to the eternal subordination of the son wander outside the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy. He also criticizes what he calls the New-Calvinist endorsement of complementarian subordination.

On June 8th, Mike Bird prophesies of the coming civil war between complementarians who argue for an eternal subordinationist view of the Son, and those who follow the Nicene position that “rules out any hierarchical subordination.” One side (eternal subordinationist) relates the social relationship of the Trinity to gender roles, while the other (no eternal subordinationism) shies away from such connections.

The Civil War Begins (June 9–10)

On June 9th, Mike Bird‘s prophecy comes true as the cold war turns hot, and he affirms his concerns in the war: “I remain concerned of two things: (a) That the notion of authority and/or hierarchy is still being applied by proponents to the Trinity which potentially makes the God-head a Tri-archy rather than a Tri-unity, and I don’t think this can be squared with a Nicene theology; and (b) The whole debate is motivated by gender issues and not solely by a careful appropriation of biblical materials and their reception among the Nicene Fathers.”

On June 9th, Bruce Ware defends his position against Goligher and Trueman by affirming the orthodoxy of his position: “those who affirm the eternal authority of the Father and submission of the Son uniformly and adamantly affirm also the full deity of the Son, that the Son is homoousios with the Father, and that the Father and Son, along with the Spirit, each possesses the identically same one, undivided, and co-eternal divine nature.” Ware also denies that he and others are formulating a doctrine of the Trinity based on social relationships.

Wayne Grudem responds to Liam Goligher on the same day, affirming the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. He corrects misrepresentations of his view and goes on the offensive, affirming that his view is Biblical and that Goligher and Trueman fail to account for the Biblical language of the Son’s submission.

Trueman, in turn, responds to Ware and Grudem also on the same day (June 9th). To Ware, Trueman writes: “The point at issue is that of the nature of the relations.  In his writings, Professor Ware explicitly rejects the Nicene notion of eternal generation while asserting that of eternal functional submission,” and, “In fact, rejection of eternal generation puts you definitively outside of Nicene Trinitarianism.” To Grudem, Trueman affirms “those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381,” 381 referring to Constantinople’s update to Nicea.

Denny Burk adds to that conversation on the 9th as well. He essentially reaffirms and defends Ware and Grudem’s position against Trueman Goligher. Following Grudem, Burk too highlights that Biblical testimony to the Son’s subordination, using 1 Corinthians 15:28. In essence, Burk challenges Goligher and Trueman to account for the Biblical testimony of the Son’s subordination.

Mark Thompson, siding with Ware and Grudem, defends EFS on the 9th against the charge of heresy: “My purpose in this post has simply been to begin to explain why I for one would demur from any judgment that eternal relational subordination necessarily involves ‘reinventing the doctrine of God’, departing from orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, heresy or even idolatry”

Jeff Waddington adds another point of discussion on the 9th. Waddington states that God’s covenant of redemption involves Son’s voluntary decision to save humankind, a position that EFS puts into jeopardy by asserting that the plan of salvation flows from the Son’s submission to the Father. He also commends debating in a godly manner, which presumably all contributors to this debate would desire to do.

By June 9th, the terms of the debate revolve around (1) eternal subordination as either necessitating an ontological hierarchy in the Trinity or not, (2) eternal subordination as being Biblically faithful or not, and (3) eternal subordination as being outside of Nicene orthodoxy or not.

Early on the 10th, Scot McKnight summarizes the previous day’s clashes: “The battle rumbles along: one side of the historic Reformed have announced that the complementarian–focused Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have a faulty theory of the Trinity, and they have come back to announce they are fully orthodox. The issue here is the eternal subordination of the Son. Which they use, though in these newest statements they are not speaking into that issue, to prop up the subordination of women to men. Their distinctive emphasis on eternal subordination of the Son is connected to their complementarianism. They’re now trying to minimize this but the facts are otherwise…”

In short, McKnight accuses EFS or ERAS of doing theology (doctrine of the Trinity) to prove a particular anthropology (male-female roles/relationship), which would probably be a fourth area of debate: (4) do proponents of EFS/ERAS structure their view of the Trinity based on their complementarian view of men and women?

On June 10th, Mike Ovey clarifies a fifth area of debate when he responds Goligher’s articles, asserting that the Son eternally submits to the Father and that the Son has a distinguishable personal will from the Father. The son’s will does not, however, differ from the Father’s essentially, according to Ovey, because this kind of will is tied to persons not to relations: “In this sense, where ‘will’ is being taken not at the level of nature but at the level of person, one has to say Father and Son have distinguishable wills because they are distinguishable persons.”

On the same day, Carl Trueman quotes Calvin (his guest poster) to marshall a further offensive against the EFS/ERAS complementarians. Mark Jones also on the 10th stating that Ware and Grudem’s position is unhelpful, while offering a perspective of why the Son become the mediator. For the latter point, Jones affirms that the Reformed orthodox view of the Trinity (not the EFS view of eternal submission) explains why the Son is mediator and not, say, the Holy Spirit.

Again on the 10th, Darren Sumner writes against the EFS view and for the non-EFS or classical position, asserting a theological critique that placing functional submission in eternity clashes with God’s simplicity. Methodologically, he also critiques Ware for deriving his eternal authority-submission relation from human relations (fathers and sons), thus doing theology by anthropology: “Ware takes a human cultural construct and, mistaking it for revelation, reads it upward into the life of God by means of an analogia entis.”


June 9th and 10th witnesses a rapid writing and speedy responses between EFS and non-EFS proponents. While the battle began during these two days, it certainly has not stopped. I plan to further detail the debate between EFS and non-EFS proponents, but the opening salvos of the civil war provide an helpful overview of the debate thus far. The battle revolves around at least five major questions:

  1. Does eternal subordination necessitate an ontological hierarchy in the Trinity or not?
  2. Does eternal subordination mean being Biblically faithful or not?
  3. Does eternal subordination mean being outside of Nicene orthodoxy or not?
  4. Do proponents of EFS/ERAS structure their view of the Trinity based on their complementarian view of men and women or not?
  5. Does the Son’s submission to the Father in eternity mean that the Son and Father have two wills, not one?

Wyatt Graham

Posts Twitter Facebook

Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham. Follow TGCCanada at @CanadaTgc.
  • AK Lone Dingo

    Nicely done, Sir! Thank you!

    M. Howard Kehr

  • Bennett B. Wethered

    Thank you for your overview. – I want to point out a typo, that initially confused me into thinking this debate has been raging for the past 13 months. In the first sentence after the section heading, “The Antebellum Period,” you refer to “May 8, 2015.” Don’t you mean 2016? – Let me/us know. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading! It’s actually 2015. So, the war has been cold, as it were, for a while.

    • johntjeff

      FYI: The 2015 sources mentioned and linked by Wyatt are being mentioned and linked in the articles and post in the debate since 3 JUN 2016.

  • Alex

    In my mind, this post sounded like the narration to a Ken Burns documentary.

  • Lyndon Unger

    Nicely done and helpful summary Wyatt. It’s interesting to me how it seems that a fair amount of this was not really an exegetical battle, but rather “doing theology about theology”.

    • Right. Although… Both sides use texts, but they are arguing about the best theological explanation of these texts. So how does the son do the will of the Father? Both agree that the Bible says things like that. But both sides disagree about how formulate theology on the basis of biblical texts.

  • Wyatt: interested in your take on the five catagories Sviegel uses at the bottom of this post here: http://www.retrochristianity.org/2016/06/16/some-thoughts-on-intra-trinitarian-relationships-in-the-earliest-church-fathers/
    Do you see a difference between the “incarnational” vs. “economic” submission?
    Thanks man

  • calebkolstad

    Very helpful- thanks

  • Jon45Solas

    Hey Wyatt. Just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to catalog the unfolding of the debate. I’ve been actively following the exchange, but it was becoming difficult to keep track of all the happenings.

    Now I can be happily lazy thanks to you. ;-p

  • Dan Phillips

    Very useful, thanks.

    I think one of the, to be blunt, stupidest arguments from anti-EFS folks is when they insinuate (or downright charge) that this understanding of Scripture was invented to “prop up” arguments for wifely submission, or exclusively-male pastorate.

    It has made me wonder: given some of the language from EFS opponents — how many of them reject the Biblical teaching regarding wifely submission and the pastorate?

    • Dan: Forgive me, but isn’t your question contradictory?

      That is, the classical side is dumb for insinuating that the EFS view is only to prop-up gender roles. So you respond by asking if they hold the classical view just to prop-up their gender roles?

      On both sides, I think this kind of ad hominem needs to be dropped – Strachan has been most vociferous on the EFS side; it’s a red herring. I know that Trueman, Haykin, and Jones all hold to biblical, complementarian views. They’re concerned that what Christians have confessed for 16 centuries (!) is being so easily dismissed.

      Both sides have presented enough conviction based on exegesis and theology for both sides to drop any insuation of secret, ulterior motives. It doesn’t help the discussion progress.

      Anyway, my 10 cents. Thanks, brother.

      • Dan Phillips

        In no way.

        I never would have wondered about the corollary (as I said) if it weren’t for their outright insinuation. It seemed (and seems) like the dumbest suggestion. The Scriptural case for wifely submission and male pastorate is exegetically airtight; why invent something relating to the Trinity to prop up an airtight case?

        And the “just to” language is yours and theirs, not mine.

        That said, I wondered, and I still wonder. It has no effect on my position regarding the issues above whether or not the Son eternally submitted to the Father. But egalitarians might find it grating.

        That said, as I’ve observed from the start of this skirmish, an anti-EFS complementarian (or for that matter patriarchalist) will have a hard time explaining how submission (A) does not insinuate that a wife is less human but (B) would insinuate that the Son is less divine.

        But that’s a pretty obvious point.

        Now that that’s dealt with, can anyone answer my question?

        • Andrew

          Dan, you offer strong opinions here but don’t give any arguments. I’ve never heard anyone claim that an anti-efs will have a hard time upholding both equal value and role differentiation. Can you offer any arguments to support this novel claim?

          • Dan Phillips

            Sure, sometime when I make an argument, I’ll do that.

            Now, a third time: can anyone answer my question?

          • I’ll bite. (Reluctantly.)

            The answer is zero (that I know of). Trueman, Pruitt, Reynolds, Byrd, me, Alsup, Anderson et al, all wholeheartedly, cheerfully agree with FS and how it’s reflected in marriage and church. We object to the E part, and how it’s being used to argue that submission is an inherent quality of femaleness to be taught from birth and applied throughout all spheres of life.

          • Dan Phillips

            Focusing solely on the answer to my question: thanks for a starter, taking that you have personal knowledge of the positions of all the folks you name, but not quite accepting the overgeneral “et al.”

            What about McKnight, Mr. “Prop up”? Anyone know?

      • Fibber MaGee

        Steve, I read a bit of what Truman had to say to get a sense of why he claims the EFS crowd has broken from the 4th century church. I’ll I found was general quotes from church fathers and councils that were not at odds with EFS. He was overly dramatic and claims the EFS road leads to idol worship and Arianism. MacArthur quote, “history is not a hermanutic”. Trueman seems like a pretty smart guy, but there was really no explanation, just accusations. I’m still trying to wade through all this and as yet all I’ve seen is an ontological position and no scripture as support. I find the philosophical dialogue interesting, but it isn’t worth a hill of beans without scripture. Could you point me in the right direction? Thanks.

    • Jason

      I’m also disappointed by this.

      It seems horribly underhanded to label a mandate of God found throughout all of scripture as “anthropology” just because it happens to be a mandate that deals with relationships that occur in culture, as though we could just be looking at some tradition of man.

      It’s much larger than submission of wives to their husbands as well. Submission of citizens to rulers, the church to elders, etc… are all examples of the submission/authority relationship God has explicitly stated is necessary for righteous living.

      Scripture isn’t afraid to see the Father/Son relationship as models of this either. The scriptures frequently site the relationship as the par excellence of authority and submission.

      I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the dismissive language (like calling it anthropology, and stating that it is being “propped up” as though it weren’t already standing on its own) used in this discussion, and how everyone’s troubled by the idea that the two topics here are related (though scripture is “to blame” for that “misunderstanding”).

  • Pingback: The Complementarian Trinity Debate: A Summary Of Its Beginning | A disciple's study()

  • Andrew

    It is not helpful to list out the points of contention, because the critiques are not simply isolated moments of failure but interrelate in a particular way. The theological core is in your #3. But you don’t mention the very heart of the debate, the specific core issue: Grudem/Ware reject the classical nicene doctrine of eternal generation. The issue is not whether one can define and say they affirm this doctrine. The point is that in efs this doctrine no longer has the same function – no longer plays the same role, no longer does the same conceptual work – that it has traditionally played in classical nicene trinitarianism. Grudem/Ware & co have proposed that “authority & subordination” language do the work that “eternal generation” has traditionally done. This is the heart of the debate: which vocabulary allows us to explain how there is “equality of essence” and yet “difference in person”. Logically speaking, you can’t ride on both sets of wheels. If you read carefully, you’ll see that Grudem agrees with pro-nicene folk on the claim that it is either “authority & submission” language or “eternal generation” language that allows us to explain equality & difference. (Pastor Jesse Johnson seems to think one can merely add “authority & submission”, having it do the same work that “eternal generation” has done, without either replacing the other – this would be a kind of third position between the pro-nicene and efs camps…though unfortunately, it is conceptually incoherent, which is why no one else has proposed it.) I assure you that if you focus long and hard on this core issue, you will be able to also see what precisely is at stake in the other points you list.

  • Mike Yonce

    First I want to thank Jesse, Mike, and Wyatt for bringing some calmness, balance, and a birds-eye view to the issue at hand. And also, backing up a bit and asking some questions from a 30,000 foot view, and I am trying to word these carefully:
    1) Is there anything inherit in the eternal Holy Trinity that determined each of their roles in creation and the plan of redemption? I think it is safe to say they didn’t draw straws.
    2) Is there anything inherit in the eternal Holy Trinity that helped determine the created order of roles in marriage and the roles of men and women in the church? After all, we ARE created in the image of God.
    3) Obviously a lot of weight and respect is given to the early church fathers, creeds, etc. in regard to such important issues as the doctrine of the Trinity, and rightfully so. But are they the final word? Or is it possible for the Holy Spirit to further illumine His people, and give greater understanding of the Word concerning the subject at hand, or any other?
    One thing is for certain, we need to take our shoes off for we are treading on Holy Ground. But I am confident that much good will ultimately come out of the examination and discussion of such a worthy topic. We will be edified and God will be glorified. Blessings

  • Don Bryant

    Thanks. Trinitarian debates make my head hurt. Fourth century debates on the Trinity still confuse me 37 years after seminary.

    • Worth it though. To know God is eternal life.

  • Michael Bird

    Excellent summary, I particularly liked the line: “Mike Bird’s prophecy comes true” which means I don’t get stoned as a false prophet.

    • I’m glad that we don’t have to stone you.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    At first glance, I was struck by how esoteric and remote a subject this appeared to be and why anyone thought they, as creatures of the material world, could truly apprehend and evaluate the eternal nature of the Godhead, or how their conclusions might inform their walk with the Lord on a daily basis.

    But with this article, my puzzlement has given way to fear that–in an extremely short period of time–serious theologians have suddenly drawn out the long knives and gone to war with one another, chosing sides over yet another question or practice. And this time, it’s a question that evidently never occurred to anyone in the 2,000+ years since our Lord was walking among us. If it did, I never heard of it; I guess I need to get out more.

    “Civil war”? One rushing to defend or prosecute the other over “complementarianism”? Orthodoxy itself is at stake? Or is it just possible that, instead of refining the faith for the glory of God, this is fast becoming a case of the enemy distracting some of you with a battle of words over a question that is not only beyond our earthly assignment, but one that is ultimately above our pay grade anyhow?

    I truly hope Cripplegate isn’t going to become a place where the unsaved (or the milk drinkers, for that matter), if they happen to stumble upon it, are turned off because it appears christians are just segregating themselves into smaller and smaller camps, arguing over any differences they can find. Can’t we just let God’s nature be whatever it is, and just be about the task at hand until He comes?

    A month ago, I had no reason to suspect that any of the seasoned and respected authors, whose names have been mentioned, should be put on some kind of spiritual watch list. But now, in a matter of weeks, I’m made to wonder if so-and-so is a false teacher, or his critics are.

    Delete this post if you like, Mr. Moderator. But count me as among those who are not sanguine over what this “debate” may yield.

  • Asael Hernandez Lugo

    I had heard about this debate, but it was not clear to me. Thank you, Sir, for your help!

  • johntjeff

    I compiled a source list of this ongoing debate in a MS Word file (.docx format). The title of the file is taken from Liam Goligher’s initial post (on 3 JUN), “Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?” The file is a bibliography of articles and posts in the current debate listed in chronological order current to the best of my knowledge as of yesterday (22 JUN 2016). It may be accessed in the Public folder of My Dropbox at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/13946111/Is%20it%20Okay%20to%20Teach%20a%20Complementarianism%20Based%20on%20Eternal%20Subordination%20source%20list.docx. If anyone needs this file in another format please let me know.

  • Pingback: In Theological Controversy, What Do You Spew?()

  • Pingback: Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within Reformed Tradition()

  • Pingback: Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within Reformed Tradition -()

  • Pingback: Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within Reformed Tradition | TLG Christian News()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical…()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | SFO()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | Meek Voices()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | AboNewsCast()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | APG Editorial()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | Castwb()

  • Pingback: Egalitarians Argue for Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity at Evangelical… | Unilty()