Tag Archives: trinitarian

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.


Jonathan Edwards, Sex, and the Trinity (New Paper)

Teens getting pregnant, bundling, and boys chasing around girls making fun of their periods – no its not your local jr. high – its Puritan Pastor Jonathan Edwards’s church. If you want to know what “youth” ministry was like in Jonathan Edwards day take a look at my latest journal article:  Bad Books and the Glorious Trinity: Jonathan Edwards on the Sexual Holiness of the Church

You can now read it for free over at the McMaster Divnity College’s Journal of Theology and Ministry website. Print copies of the article will be available through Wpif & Stock Publishers soon.



Sanctified by Grace – The Triune God

Sanctified by Grace (Eilers and Strobel) is an attempt to do theology in a way that involves more than the comprehension of Christian truth, rather it is an attempt to do theology in a way that helps bring about Christian faithfulness.

In their preface to the book Eilers and Strobel write that the normal Christian life is 9780567383433intimately and inescapably theological and that the work of Christian Dogmatics can and should participate in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit who forms Christians in the likeness of Christ.

Having said that they notice that there is often a divide between doctrine and theology on the one side and spirituality and ministry on the other. In this book they hope to help tear down that false dichotomy. In my own opinion the doctrine that they start with fits this theme very well. If there is a doctrine that many Christians see as useless, though true, is the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus inviting Fred Sanders to write a chapter on this topic which gives itself over so easily to this false divide is a great move.

In this chapter Sanders sets our spiritual growth in the middle of a Trinitarian truth, specifically Trinitarian adoption. He argues that believers are adopted into the life between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eternal begetting of the son stands behind the temporal mission of the Son to save humanity. The Spiration of the Spirit stands behind the Spirit’s work in uniting us to the Father and Son. Thus, the Christian life itself can only be understood in light of the Trinity.

For me the highlight of this chapter included his discussion of how eternal processions give rise to temporal missions. The relationship between these two is often tricky and convoluted. Most theologians intuitively know there is a link, but that link is hard to pin down. Sanders does a good job of explaining the connection without being dogmatic about the “link” between the two.

Another highlight was his discussion of adoption. Sanders does a fine job navigating between the view that our sonship is merely metaphorical and the opposite view that we become totally immersed in the life of God (erasing the creator/creature distinction). Rather by advocating a soteriology of Trinitarian adoption, he is able to maintain our intimacy but distinction from God.

Overall Sanders does a great job of showing how the doctrine of the Christian life is shaped by Trinitarian though, specifically the eternal processions of the Triune God. He succeeds in showing that the Christian life is filial by essence.


Reordering the Trinity

If you were to ask a systematic theologian “Is the Trinity in the Bible?” there would be various answers that she could give you. If she says “yes” she will have to nuance her answer quite a bit – the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, the words we use to describe the Trinity never appear in the Bible, etc. If she says “no” she will have to tell you why she isn’t actually a heretic, but she will likely be able to show the scriptural basis for Trinitarianism.

Fred Sanders says that,

One of the chief obligations laid upon Trinitarian theology in our times is that it render the doctrine of the Trinity with unprecedented clarity as a biblical doctrine, or, to speak more precisely, as a doctrine that is in the Bible.

In order to do this, in the past, some theologians resorted to a41aka-4obzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ proof text approach to this doctrine. Show that Jesus is divine, show the Holy Spirit is divine, throw it all together into a bowl and bam! Trinity. Yet these sort of hermeneutical moves no longer are very persuasive in the eyes of many. Thankfully people like Wesley Hill have taken a different approach for showing how the Trinity is indeed Biblical. But the proof text approach is not completely gone. Rodrick Durst’s new book, Reordering the Trinity, is one of those “proof text” type of Trinity books. But lets just call it a concordance approach. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What is innovative about Durst’s book is not the fact that he lays out 75 (yes seventy-five) occurrences of the Trinity in the New Testament. What is innovative about this book is that Durst show that in these 75 occurrences there are 6 different patterns.

  1. Father, Son, Holy Spirit
  2. Father, Holy Spirit, Son
  3. Son, Father, Holy Spirit
  4. Son, Holy Spirit, Father
  5. Holy Spirit, Son, Father
  6. Holy Spirit, Father Son

He then goes on to give percentages for how many times each of these combinations occur. (Father, Son, Spirit takes the lead with 28 occurrences and Spirit, Son, Father comes in last with only 8 occurrences.) What is most interesting about this book is that he shows that each of the 6 patterns have different thematic significance!

  1. Father, Son, Holy Spirit – Missional
  2. Father, Holy Spirit, Son – Formational
  3. Son, Father, Holy Spirit – Christological
  4. Son, Holy Spirit, Father – Regenerative
  5. Holy Spirit, Son, Father – Ecclesial
  6. Holy Spirit, Father, Son – Sanctifying

What’s really groundbreaking about this is that it leaves us with various options for thinking through and praying through different ways when we are focusing on different things. For instance if we are focusing on praying about sanctification we may start with the Spirit, move on to the Father, and end with the Son. Or if we are praying about mission we may begin by asking the Father to be glorified as we go out and proclaim the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, etc.

What’s great about this book is that Durst has this devotional aspect in mind when he is writing. He even includes an appendix for incorporating this Trinitarian Ordering into your own prayer life.

Overall I found this book to be very stimulating for my personal devotional life. It opened up to me the mind blowing idea, or to put it a better way it gave me a theological basis, for prayer that is focused on different persons of the Trinity. So, if you take this book as a series of proof texts that the Trinity is Biblical you will be disappointed. But if you read it as a sort of concordance showing how Trinitarian ordering makes a difference in your own walk with God then you have stumbled upon an amazing resource.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.


The Task of Trinitarian Theology

Many books on the doctrine of the Trinity begin by decrying the state of Trinitarian theology. Many of these authors believe that the ever so important doctrine of the Trinity has been pushed off to the margins, with many Christians living as functional Unitarians, primarily because the doctrine seems so impractical. In an effort to make it “practical” many Social Trinitarians have begun to show how its practical for our social relationships. Some evangelicals have sought to show how its practical for our understanding of gender roles. These may or may not be good “practical” implications (my money is on the fact that they are not good), but I think that there is a better way to show how “practical” this doctrine is. Fred Sanders hints at this in his essay “What Trinitarian Theology is For: Placing the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Theology and Life.” (Advancing Trinitarian Theology)

In this short essay he lays our 5 things that this particular doctrine functions within systematic theology (i.e. shows how its practical for doing theology).

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us summarize the biblical story.
  2. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us articulate the content of divine self-revelation by specifying what has been revealed.
  3. The doctrine of the Trinity orders doctrinal discourse.
  4. The doctrine of the trinity identifies God by the gospel.
  5. The doctrine of the Trinity informs and norms soteriology.

These are all very helpful points. But I especially like what Sanders has to say about points #2 and #4.

Under his discussion of point two he has a fantastic diagram with options for an answer to the question: What do the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit signify about the eternal life of God? The diagram lays out 7 options along a maximal and minimal position.

Under point #4 he says something I though was absolutely fascinating:

The doctrine of the Trinity serves to identify God by the gospel, or to specify the identity of the God of Christian faith. It does so primarily by insisting that God is the author of two central interventions into the course of human history, the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. These two actions, considered not in isolation but as culminating events, mark God as a particular God. The God who sent a Son and a Holy Spirit, because he always already had a Son and a Holy Spirit to send, must be essentially different form a God who could not and did not self-communicate in this way. (39)

Anyway… Fred Sanders is coming in to our Trinity Seminar tomorrow morning and I really look forward to hearing what he has to say.


7 Theologians Share Their “Must Read” Books of 2014

At the end of the year tons and tons of “Best Of…” lists make their way out onto the internet. Its almost as though it’s a Noah’s Ark of lists – the lists have been sitting restlessly on a “boat” waiting for the day when the flood waters clear and they can make their way out onto dry land. Okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but that is how I feel – at least about my own list.



So in the Holiday Spirit of “Best Of…” lists I asked several of my favorite Twitter Theologians a very simple question: “What is the theology book published in 2014 that I must read before the year is over?” I got some great recommendations – here are a few that I found interesting…

Note: These are not books that these theologians necessarily endorse, they are simply must read books of 2014. This might mean that they are really good books that they love or books that they completely disagree about but consider to be “game changers” in some sense. Either way – these are simply important books of 2014.

Michael Bird (@mbird12)

“Simon Chan, Grassroot Asian Theology. Or Moorhead on Princeton Seminary.”

Lincoln Harvey (@lincolnharvey)

“I have high hopes for Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders’ Advancing Trinitarian Theology, which I’ve ordered (but not read.) McFarland’s From Nothing is a good survey of doctrine creation. Sexton (ed) Two Views on Trinity shows Trinitarian debate today.”

Steve Holmes (@SteveRHolmes)

“[Franticly tries to remember what came out this year…] Depends on field a bit. In Ch history, @ThomasSKidd on Whitefield is important; in ethics @robertjsong on sexuality will define a few debates. In systematics – For Baptists, Freeman’s Contesting Catholicity; for others probably Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self.”

Matt Jenson (@MattJenson)

“It was published in 2013, but I *read* it in 2014: Sarah Coakley’s “God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’””

Andy Rowell (@AndyRowell)

“I read @ajay on BCP [Book of Common Prayer], Marsh on Bonhoeefer, @DrStephenLong on Barth/Balthasaar, and McGrath on Brunner. I plan on reading new books by mentors Richard Hays, Douglass Campbell, and Curtis Freeman, and also newest by Andy Root.”

Kyle Strobel (@KyleStrobel)

“I think Sanctified Grace is worth it and would be challenging in the right kind of ways.”

Scott R. Swain (@ScottRSwain)

“Hard q.

Leiden Synopsis is the most significant pub of 2014 IMO [In my opinion]. Fred Sanders’s Advancing Trinitarian Theo [is] great too. Many others as well.”

So there you have it! I can vouch for some of their recommendations as well – Crisp and Sander’s Advancing Trinitarian theology is great (I haven’t read the book, but I watched all the plenary lectures for LATC 2014 – the source of these essays). Also, Coakley’s book was a real game-changer for me.