Debating the Trinity

As you have probably noticed, a spirited trinitarian debate is currently taking place on the interwebs. Contributions have come ab intra and ab extra the Reformed complementarian camp (see what I did there?), and they mainly revolve around the question of the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) of the Son.

Here’s a quick summary of the issues, and what follows is my attempt at a bibliographical summary for my own records. If you see anything missing and/or unclear, please let me know.

Theologians speak of the Trinity in two ways: (1) the economic Trinity, which refers to trinitarian operations ad extra—toward the outside—in creation, providence, and redemption; and (2) the ontological, or immanent, Trinity, which refers to the Trinity in operations ad intra—toward the inside—within the inner life of the Trinity.

The nature and extent of the analogical relationship between the economic Trinity—how God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to creation, providence, and redemption—and the immanent Trinity—how God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another—is where this debate is centered. That is, if the Son is subordinate and submissive to the Father in redemption—something virtually everyone agrees on—what reality is this analogous to (if any) in the immanent Trinity?

EFS proponents argue that Christ is subordinate to the Father in redemption because the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father in the immanent Trinity. Those against EFS disagree that the Son can be subordinate or submissive in the immanent Trinity in any way.

From what I can tell, this debate so far has boiled down to the nature of the will of God. If the will of God cannot be conceptually untethered from the essence of God (as Mark Jones argues below), then we have to say there is only one will in God (because the three persons in the Godhead have the same essence). If this is true, it would be difficult to maintain the Son’s submission to the Father in the immanent Trinity, while in the economic Trinity the submission would be explained in terms of the Son’s human nature that he took on at the incarnation. However, if the will can be conceptually explained in terms of personality (as Mark Ovey argues below), then the Son can be said to submit to the Father without compromising divine simplicity or ontological equality.

I pray this discussion will lead to God receiving more glory as we behold the wonders of the Trinity.

Against Eternal Functional Subordination:

For Eternal Functional Subordination:

Willing to affirm Eternal Obedience of the Son

Third Party Participants:

For Further Reading:

Definitional Primer: 

  • Economic Trinity: refers to the Trinity in relation in creation, providence, and redemption
  • Ontological Trinity: refers God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relation to one another from eternity past
  • Immanent Trinity: another name for the ontological Trinity
  • Ad Intra/Extra: refers to the inward (ad intra) and outward (ad extra) operations of the Trinity. Ad Intra correlates to the ontological/immanent Trinity and ad extra to the economic Trinity.
  • Taxis: Greek for “order.” Often refers to the eternal generation of the Son from the Father and the eternal procession of the Spirit from both the Father and Son
  • Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS): God the Son submits to the Father from eternity past and in eternity future both ad extra, in creation, providence, and redemption, and ad intra, in the inner life of the Trinity. Everyone who espouses EFS affirms homoousis, the Father, Son, and Spirit having the same essence and nature.
  • Eternal Generation: a way to describe the taxis of the Trinity in terms of order of subsistence—the Son shares in the essence of the Father through generation, while the Spirit share in the essence of the Father and the Son through procession
  • Arianism: A heresy named after the 4th century heretic Arius that says the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, is a created being.
  • Subordinationism: to be distinguished from functional subordination. A heresy that holds the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father, having an inferior essence (related to Homoiousian below)
  • Homoiousian: Related to Subordinationism, Homoiousian describes the essence of the Son as compared to the Father as similar (homoi-) but not the same (homo-).

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