Analytic Definitions of EFS

In light of the whole EFS debate raging on twitter right now – I thought I might add to the discussion some analytic definitions of EFS. Afterall, part of the appeal of analytic theology is the clarity and nuance it brings to what often seem to be muddled theological discussions. So lets put Eternal Functional Equality and Eternal Functional Subordination under the analytic chopping block!


We begin with definitions and distinctions between the two basic positions involved in this debate: 1) Eternal Functional Equality (hereafter EFE) and Eternal Functional Subordination (hereafter EFS). The distinction between these two positions can best be thought of in terms of three different questions concerning 1) nature, 2) duration, 3) application (Gons and Naselli, 2015) Once these questions are answered one clearly sees the distinctions between the two basic positions.

Eternal Functional Equality

One definition of EFE holds that “the Father and Son are completely equal in all contingent ways: all subordination is voluntary, arbitrary, and temporary.” (Gons and Naselli, 2015) However this definition contains elements which not all EFE proponents would hold. For instance, consider the part of the definition about the subordination being arbitrary. This implies that any person of the Trinity could hypothetically be subordinate in temporary ways. As an example consider the incarnation. The incarnation in both EFE and EFS would count as temporal subordination. Including “arbitrary” in the definition of EFE would imply that proponents of EFE would hold that the Father could have hypothetically been incarnate instead of the Son and therefore be temporarily subordinate. This is simply not a view that all proponents of EFE would hold to. Some proponents of EFE might want to say that temporal subordination is not arbitrary. For instance, some proponents of EFE might believe no other persons of the Trinity besides the Son and the Spirit could have be temporally subordinate. Thus we might want to get rid of the part about subordination being arbitrary. Now consider the part about subordination being voluntary. It is not clear what it would mean for one of the persons of the immanent trinity to voluntarily become subordinate. Its is not clear what this would mean because when speaking of the Trinity we speak of the Trinity having one will.  Although it is understandable that Gons and Naselli would include “voluntary” as a part of their definition, as to avoid a view that would imply that the Son (or any other person of the Trinity) would be forced into temporal subordination, it is unnecessary to their definition. We might also want to get rid of the part of the definition that includes the part about subordination being temporal. We can get rid of this because this is already implied in the part of the definition about being equal in all non-contingent ways. Even though we have removed many parts of Gons and Naselli’s definition, it is nonetheless a good starting point for defining EFE. The revised definition of EFE ends up something like this:

  • EFE: The Father and the Son are completely equal in all non-contingent ways: all subordination is economic.

Eternal Functional Subordination

[Note: Bruce Ware, one of the leading proponents of EFS prefers to call it “eternal relational authority submission” as this supposedly avoids the negative connotations that come with the word “subordination.” However for the sake of using language common to most theologians involved in this discussion I will continue to use the term EFS.]

Bruce Ware describes his position by saying “Faithfulness to Scripture requires affirming both the full equality,” up until this point all orthodox Christians would be in agreement. However, he goes on to add “and the eternal authority submission. Equality and distinction must be upheld for Trinitarianism to be true.” All orthodox Christians would agree with the final sentence, yet not all orthodox Christians would agree that the distinction comes through “eternal authority submission.” However we must keep in mind that this is just a preliminary description of this position, Ware gives more clarity regarding his definition of EFS:

This view holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully and eternally the one and undivided nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority (Ware, 2015)

There are several important parts in this definition: 1) equality in deity, 2) the Father being revealed as the highest authority, 3) the Son existing as an agent under authority, and 4) the Son eternally being under authority implementing the Father’s will. One possible way to make sense of these claims is to say that

2) Soft EFS: In this possible world it is everlastingly true that at times t-tn the son is incarnate and thus functionally and temporally subordinate. (McCall, 2010)

McCall calls this position “Soft EFS.” Under this position the Son is subordinate to the Father during the time of his incarnation and redemptive work, and this is true at all times. McCall notes that this is something that even proponents of EFE would not necessarily object to. He makes this claim by appealing to modal logic. He says that “the proposition the incarnate Son is functionally subordinate at times t–tn, if continently true, is always contingently true.” If it was true at t1 it would be true that it was true at t1 now and forever more. This is clearly not what Ware means, so this simply cannot be what EFS amounts to. We may want to give a thicker account of what EFS amounts to. Using McCall’s language Gons and Naselli give us a definition of a “hard” version of EFS. Thus defining “Hard EFS” as:

3) The Son is eternally and necessarily subordinate to the Father, not in terms of deity, but in his role in relationship to the Father. (Gons and Naselli, 2015)

This is helpful but it still leaves too many ambiguities as to what this position really entails. What do we mean by “eternally?” After all we saw in McCall’s definition that “eternally” might imply different sort of things. What do we mean by “necessarily?” What sort of necessity is McCall talking about? Is this de res or de dicto necessity? Given these ambiguities McCall’s definition is much more helpful:

4) Hard EFS: The Son is functionally subordinate to the Father in all time segments in all possible worlds; there are no time segments in any possible world in which the Son is not subordinate to the Father. (McCall, 2010)

One possible problem with this definition is that it implies that God is temporal. Nevertheless “time” language helps us clarify the fact that we are making a distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Nevertheless it is clearer than Gons and Naselli’s definition. It is clearer in that it allows us to answer our three questions. In regards to question one, we answer that it is necessary, i.e. it is true in all possible worlds. In regards to question two, it is eternal in the sense that it is not only for a segment of time. Regarding question three, it is purely economic. Now that we have our two definitions (propositions 1 and 4) hopefully discussions about what we mean by EFE and EFS won’t be as muddled.



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