Is “Eternal Functional Submission” a Heresy?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Amazon.com: Books

Wayne Grudem has just released a second edition of his best-selling Systematic Theology. While many of us have read Grudem with benefit, assigned his textbook in classrooms, and recommended it to others, some of us have also expressed serious concerns about his treatment of doctrine of the Trinity. So, one of the big questions surrounding this new release was whether or not Grudem would qualify any of his previous teachings on the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father. Having read the relevant portions of the revised chapter on the Trinity, it is apparent that Grudem has made a couple noteworthy adjustments/clarifications: he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son and admits (in some sense) that there is one divine will (although it’s difficult to see how these admissions cohere with his broader understanding of the Trinity). But rather than retract any of his former writings on EFS, he actually doubles down. He still believes the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father, not just in terms of his incarnate mission, but in the eternal life of God himself, even speculating (with only a little caution) that this relationship of subordination in function is precisely what distinguishes the persons ad intra. Because Grudem interacts with Matt’s and my critique of his position, we plan to write a more thorough response to the revised chapter. But for now, I wanted to say a few words about an important question that gets raised in this debate: is EFS heretical?

For starters, we need to acknowledge just how serious this question is. Heresy (from the Greek word hairesis, “choice”) denotes not just an ignorant or inadvertent false belief, but a high-handed, intentional departure from the clear teaching of Scripture on a cardinal doctrine of the faith as it has been understood by a consensus of Christians down through the centuries. Each aspect of this definition is important. Heresy is a deliberate choice and not an accidental mistake. It violates Scripture not on a minor doctrinal dispute but on one of the “big ones”: the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. And it departs from the consensus of the faithful not just in one parochial corner of the church but across time and place and the various traditions that make up the whole body of Christ. This is why heresy has most often, and rightly, been measured against the ecumenical creeds and councils–not because these documents supplement some deficiency in Scripture but because they faithfully summarize proper Christian interpretation of Scripture.

Furthermore, this question of heresy is so earnest because the doctrine of the Trinity is so central and so non-negotiable for Christian orthodoxy. It is interesting to see what evangelicals get really animated about these days. Social theories and political positions often get more scrutiny than teachings on core Christian doctrines. Perspectives on secondary or even tertiary issues are sometimes elevated in importance above primary doctrines. For many it seems, you can fudge on the Trinity as long as you vote for the right candidate and hold the right position on women in ministry! But in truth, the doctrine of the Trinity dwarfs every other belief in the system of Christian thought. Get this one wrong and the foundations are shaken.

So does EFS fall into this category of heresy? To answer this question fairly, we have to give a charitable reading of the explicit affirmations of EFS proponents. They tell us that they affirm the Nicene Creed–now with more explicit statements about the eternal relations of origin (Grudem was previously critical or at best ambivalent about these crucial doctrines and their biblical basis). They affirm the homoousios, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father (and the Holy Spirit). They are careful to place any submission or obedience at the level of function rather than substance or essence (though this distinction is problematic when we are thinking about the immanent Trinity). So, at the very least we need to acknowledge that at some level EFS proponents are not trying to depart from historic Nicene orthodoxy. But at the same time, many of us find it difficult to square these affirmations with the notion that there is a hierarchy of authority in the inner life of the Trinity. If God is one in essence, power, and will, then the submission of one divine person to another in the inner life of God is a category error and a significant one at that. We believe that Grudem has misread, not just a few obscure theologians in church history, but the ecumenical creeds as well and, most importantly, Scripture itself.

At this point, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between formal heresy and material heterodox implications of a particular doctrinal position. I have recently been reading Thomas Joseph White’s erudite treatment of the doctrine of Christ, The Incarnate Lord. In his treatment of Karl Rahner’s doctrine of the incarnation, White is eager to acknowledge that Rahner “affirms unambiguously” the truth of the traditional Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ. White notes a number of places where Rahner does this explicitly. Still, in his treatment of Rahner’s idiosyncrasies, White comes to the conclusion that Rahner’s position, in point of fact, actually implies a kind of “subtle” Nestorianism, though Rahner himself doesn’t quite acknowledge those full implications. It seems to me that White’s respectful but frank critique of Rahner serves as a helpful model for how we might approach EFS. It is most welcome that EFS proponents like Grudem wish to affirm their Nicene bona fides, but a close examination of their position along with a close inspection of the historic doctrine of the Trinity as it has been received down through the centuries lead many of us to conclude that while not formally heretical, EFS is materially, if subtly and unintentionally, heterodox in some of its implications.

3 thoughts on “Is “Eternal Functional Submission” a Heresy?

  1. For anyone reading Luke’s post who is new to this debate background articles and posts are included in “The Trinity Debate Bibliography: The Complete List,” posted by Joshua R. Monroe (7 MAR 2018) to Books at a Glance at http://www.booksataglance.com/blog/trinity-debate-bibliography-complete-list/ [accessed 11 DEC 2020]. This takes the debate resource materials from 3 JUN 2016 to 16 JUN 2018. That list plus the 22 articles and posts since 16 JUN 2018 are included in my MS Word file updated today, “The 2016 Trinity Debate: A Bibliography: Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination? A bibliography of articles and posts in the current debate (began 3 JUN 2016) concerning the eternal subordination of God the Son to God the Father in relation to the complimentarian/egalitarian controversy.” The file is available in the “Public” folder of My Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/s/4kd5bkefg4n60ma/Is%20it%20Okay%20to%20Teach%20a%20Complementarianism%20Based%20on%20Eternal%20Subordination%20source%20list.docx?dl=0.

  2. This is the most important statement that highlights the fallacy of EFS: ‘ many of us find it difficult to square these affirmations with the notion that there is a hierarchy of authority in the inner life of the Trinity’. To believe a subordination was a reality before there was an economy for it to be functional in is ludicrous. What necessity is there for a subordination in a pre-universe, pre-creation era? Christ’s obedience, subordination etc… is operative in His incarnational era upon earth when such behavior was incumbent about His messianic-servant ministry mission.

  3. Pingback: Grudem and Eternal Generation: Did I Bury the Lede? | Biblical Reasoning

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