This book arrives as the latest entry in the debate, taking place in certain sectors of evangelicalism for the past two decades, over how the Trinity informs issues concerning gender relations. Broadly speaking, in this debate, if ‘egalitarians’ think the equality of the divine persons leads to the interchangeability of roles between women and men in the home and church, then ‘complementarians’ argue for a strict adherence to distinct roles and functions in the home and church on the basis of the divine persons’ equality of essence but distinction in authority and function. There are also other voices on the perimeter, arguing that these issues are unrelated and a failure to separate them has infelicitous consequences for the doctrine of the Trinity. This volume gives the reader eleven essays supporting the complementarian position, ten of which are devoted to arguing that Christ’s obedience ‘has a basis in the eternal Son of God’ (p. 11). Nevertheless, most of these essays argue that the Son’s temporal obedience is an extension of an eternal obedience or at least represents an eternal functional submission (EFS) of the Son to the Father. The volume’s polemical focus therefore begets some controversial claims. For the purposes of this review I focus critically on a common thread woven through several essays arguing for the EFS view.
The common thread in question concerns the status and function of ‘fatherhood’ and ‘sonship’ as the personal properties of the Father and Son, respectively. To keep matters as brief as possible, in classical trinitarian theology ‘personal properties’ designate that on account of which we distinguish the persons from one another. Whatever it is that makes them distinct from one another cannot be anything they have in common, like their deity or their ‘personhood’. Rather, as Augustine explains, what is unique to each person is what is meant by the names ‘Father’, ‘Son’, or ‘Holy Spirit’ (De trinitate VII.4.8). The Trinity is not three Fathers, nor three Sons, nor three Spirits, so that ‘whereby’ they are unique must be something that is designated by these names. ‘Properties’ just are ways of reflecting on the names of the divine persons in order to grasp why the Father is Father and not the Son or the Spirit, why the Son is Son and not the Father or the Spirit, and so forth. Thus we say the Father is distinct from the Son on account of his paternity (i.e., fatherhood), the Son is distinct from the Father on account of his filiation (i.e., sonship), and the Spirit is distinct from both because of his spiration (or ‘procession’). Since the three divine persons are one God, equal in all things, and distinct only in relation to one another, personal properties are the sole means of grasping what it is that makes them distinct. Consider John of Damascus, synthesizing Greek thought in the eighth century: the three persons are ‘one in all things except . . . the properties of fatherhood, and sonship, and procession only’ (De fide orthodoxa I.8). Now, that ‘only’ is important, because it voices a conviction that God is incomprehensible (note: not ‘unknowable’) in himself and so when we speak of the eternal distinctions between the persons we do so with humility. We do this not in order to detract from the distinctions between the persons, but in order not to say more than is warranted by Scripture. What little warrant there is in Scripture to speak of personal properties has traditionally been found in the personal names of Father, Son, and Spirit ‘as the abstract in the concrete’ (Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia, q. 32, a. 2, ad 1). The personal properties then inform us about the eternal relations. When we have chastened our concepts of ‘fatherhood’ and ‘sonship’, for example, from their creaturely associations with matter, space, and time (and thus from what we know of created fathers and sons) we confess that the Father is related to the Son by way of ‘eternal generation’, which simply states that the Son is eternally from the Father in a non-sequentially and non-hierarchically ordered relation. In this way, reflection on the personal properties helps us grasp the eternal order of the trinitarian relations (Father –> Son –> Holy Spirit) that is reflected in God’s acts towards us in salvation history: God the Father does all things through his Son and by his Holy Spirit.
This is important to keep in mind because several of the essays in this volume argue for the EFS position, either from Scripture or from the tradition, by conflating the personal properties of the Father and Son with ‘authority’ and ‘submission’, respectively. Two illustrations suffice to establish the point. First, Wayne Grudem conflates these concepts when he accuses a man who defends the Son’s eternal generation from the Father of modalism (p. 19). This accusation is curious, but I think what drives it is a conflation of ‘authority over the Son’ with ‘fatherhood’ and ‘submission to the Father’ with ‘sonship’. Thus Grudem thinks that if one fails to confess the Father’s eternal authority over the Son and the Son’s eternal submission to the Father, one simply fails to distinguish between the persons at all. John Starke provides a less extreme example, arguing that Augustine’s doctrine of eternal generation implies an order of ‘noncompetitive initiating authority and receptive obedience between the Father and Son’ (p. 164). Here again we see the conflation in question: confusing ‘begetter’ (paternity) with ‘initiating authority’ and ‘begotten’ (sonship) with ‘receptive obedience’. This is unconvincing as a reading of Augustine, but Starke insists upon EFS’s traditional pedigree by invoking Calvin, Owen, and Aquinas as well. Do any of these supply EFS with traditional moorings?
The short answer is ‘no’, but space permits only one example. Starke’s appeal to John Owen seems strongest, since Owen describes the Father’s relation to the Son with the language of ‘authority’. However, Starke misses that Owen’s use of this language is strictly covenantal. Within the terms of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), which is completely resolved into the essential operation of the divine will, the Son may be ‘sent’ and may be submissive to the Father. This is very different from the claims of EFS. In his commentary on Hebrews, Owen says that the founding of the pactum salutis ‘introduceth an inequality and subordination in the covenanters as to the common ends of the covenant, however on other accounts they may be equal’ (Works of John Owen, 19:83, italics added). The Son’s subordination to the Father is not absolutely necessary to him as the eternal Son, but is rather a function of his person within the terms of the covenant, which might not have been. Thus Owen thinks Jesus’ statement, ‘the Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28), refers not to the eternal Son’s deity, but to the Son’s role as Mediator of the covenant. This connection to the pactum salutis is clear in light of the exegetical signposts Owen leaves in the very passages in Christologia from which Starke quotes (see, for example, the appeal to Ps 40:8 in Works of John Owen, 1:213; cf. ibid., 19:84). Owen teaches that the Son is not submissive to the Father qua eternal Son, but only as the Mediator of the covenant, a ‘role’ which is wholly contingent and might not have been. These refinements may be easy to miss, but only by overlooking them can one misinterpret Owen as tradent of EFS.
The point of highlighting the differences between classical trinitarian theology and EFS is to underscore the novelty of the EFS position historically. This novelty is inescapable even where it is supposed that paternity/sonship are not identical, but merely compatible with authority/submission (cf. Robert Letham’s contribution). This still represents a departure from the tradition’s caution before God’s incomprehensibility. Thus Bruce Ware argues for more than the tradition’s three personal properties, suggesting that ‘submission to the Father’ is a constitutive personal property of the Son alongside ‘sonship’ (pp. 242–5). This is not heresy, but it’s certainly untraditional and is in fact a significant innovation. Now in itself, novelty doesn’t make a position wrong, nor should we shun doctrinal development. But any position that represents a departure from or innovation to a traditional doctrine has the burden of proof on its shoulders.
It is important to emphasize all of this because there are hints that the main proponents of EFS equate their doctrine with faithfulness to Scripture tout court. Thus Ware: ‘Faithfulness to Scripture requires affirming both the full equality of essence of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and the eternal authority-submission relationship distinctions among those persons’ (p. 248). Surely even Ware will admit such claims are excessive, for some of his fellow contributors disagree. Likewise, Grudem believes certain biblical evidence supports EFS so transparently that he accuses those who ignore his proof-texts with ‘implicitly’ rejecting Scripture’s authority (p. 45). It’s hard to take such rhetorical gestures seriously, for the distance between EFS and the tradition just means that the purported biblical evidence has always been read differently and therefore is not the clear support he claims it is. If proponents of EFS will not relinquish their position, one can at least hope they will defend it more softly.
Focusing on criticism can unfortunately obscure important areas of agreement as well as helpful development. Notably there are some welcome developments in this volume: Kyle Claunch argues for a complementarian position from the Trinity’s economic works, but not immanent being, and Starke advocates for EFS without sacrificing the Son’s eternal generation or the inseparable operations of the Trinity. Perhaps if complementarians encourage such instincts, they will find better trinitarian and complementarian theology alike.