Volume 27, Issue 8, October 2021
While most conservative evangelicals were resting comfortably in the Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead, as stated in the Nicene Creed (AD 381), a storm was brewing on the theological horizon of others. In just the last few years, a major war over the very nature of God has erupted with the potential of leaving in its wake much doctrinal and spiritual damage. For this reason, I want to discuss this debate, not necessarily with the hope of solving all the issues (after all, some of the greatest theological minds within Christianity are weighing in on this subject), but at least to bring some clarity to the discussion and perhaps to map a way forward.
With these aspirations in mind, I will prepare three articles on the subject. This first paper will lay the foundation by addressing the origin of the debate, as well as the role that complementarianism is playing, and documenting accusations that have highly elevated the stakes. The second article identifies several doctrinal issues that play dominant roles in the discussion. Finally, the third paper addresses a few more theological issues, especially the place that Scripture has, or perhaps does not have, in the discussions.
As with almost any theological or philosophical disagreement, which may seem to most people to have appeared out of nowhere, the recent “nature of God” debate has deep roots. If you follow the thread far enough, it will lead you back to definitions of the Godhead in the Nicene Creed. In the face of challenges by Arianism that neither Jesus, nor the Holy Spirit is fully God, Christian bishops convened in the city of Nicaea in AD 325 and settled the issue of the divine nature of the Son. However, they left a few items unresolved, especially the deity of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the Council of Constantinople assembled and prepared the final form of the Nicene Creed in 381. It reads in part:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son, He is worshipped and glorified…
God’s people have recognized the Nicene Creed as the orthodox definition of the Trinity since the late fourth century. When recent disagreements surfaced over the essence of the Godhead, it was not particularly surprising that accusations began to fly that some evangelicals were not standing in the tradition of Nicene. Let’s take a look.
At the heart of the modern dispute is what Scripture teaches regarding the nature of the second Person of the Trinity—the Son—and specifically the Son’s relationship to the Father eternally. All the participants in this battle are conservative evangelicals and, as such, all agree with the Nicene Creed that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. The divide swirls around the eternal interaction between the Father and the Son. In a nutshell, while all agree that during the incarnation the Son operated in submission to the Father and was obedient to Him, not all agree about their communication before and after the incarnation. The issue revolves around whether the submission and obedience of the Son to the Father took place in eternity past and whether it continues following the Son’s ascension to the Father. In other words, has the Son always been subservient to the Father or was His submission limited to the timeframe of His incarnation?
With these thoughts in mind, an intramural argument of recent vintage among mostly Calvinistic/Reformed theologians has arisen. On one side sits classical theism, which James Dolezal, assistant professor of theology in the School of Divinity at Cairn University, D. Glenn Butner, assistant professor of theology at Sterling College, and Liam Goligher, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, champion. On the other side sits theistic mutualism, also referred to as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) and Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), backed to various degrees by a variety of scholars including Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, John Frame, Al Plantinga, John Feinberg, Scott Oliphant, J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, and Cornelius Plantinga, among others. Dolezal, in his book All That Is in God, makes the case that classical theism has been the historic view of the church and has been taught by everyone from Augustine to the Puritans to John Gill. The theistic mutualists claim Calvin and Louis Berkhof in their corner. At risk, Dolezal believes, is the very nature and essence of God. The stakes could not be higher.
What ignited the current firestorm seems to be complementarian theology as expressed by men such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Both men are well-respected theologians (Grudem’s Systematic Theology is one of the most popular of the genre and Ware is a professor of theology at Southern Seminary and author of many books) and are leading proponents of complementarianism. Both have grounded their beliefs in the willing submission of women to their husbands and to male leadership in the church in the dynamic they see found in the Godhead. That is, they understand that the Son, while equal to the Father in every way and of the same essence, nevertheless has eternally submitted to the will of the Father. The logic is that if the Son of God can live in submission to the Father, and yet retain His deity and equality, then females can be submissive in marriage and to church leadership while maintaining their equality with males. Grudem and Ware see the EFS of the Son to the Father as a catalyst and model for their complementarian view of Christian women and, both men are key members of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as are Owen Strachan, and John Piper. The Council, while recognizing the equality of males and females, nevertheless advocates patriarchy model in the home and the church.
Intense debate concerning EFS surfaced after pastor-theologian Liam Goligher, of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, in a 2016 article on The Mortification of Spin blog accused those holding to eternal submission of constructing a new deity that verged on idolatry. Grudem and Ware fired back defending their position and thus began a contentious evangelical war centered on the Trinity.
While there are many particulars, which the next two articles will examine, in general, the debate centers on who is more Nicene. Of course, both sides lay claim to the Nicene Creed in their Trinitarian theology and, in truth, everyone on both sides affirms that there is one God existing in three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Trinity is eternal, equal, of the same essence, and is one, yet is distinct in Person –i.e. the orthodox declaration of the Creed. However, when we dig deeper, we find a difference exists in how the classicalists and the mutualists understand and explain the Creed.
At this point the battle turns ugly. Grudem believes that those who deny EFS are doing so because their so-called classical theism better supports evangelical feminism. In addition, their position cannot be proven from Scripture, something which the classical theists affirm. Their unique views, both sides agree, hang on second-order (i.e., theological) arguments, not biblical proof-texting. The mutual theist adherents claim EFS draws directly from Scripture rather than a theological system.
On the other side, not only do some classicalists accuse Grudem and Ware of being out of step with Nicaea, but they also claim that the EFS position was actually condemned centuries ago by the church as subordinationism (which taught the heresy that the Son was not equal to the Father). Some go so far as to accuse advocates of EFS of Arianism, stating that they view the Father as superior to the Son. Not only does Ware deny this accusation, but he also clarifies his position in his book, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
There is only one God, eternally existing and fully expressed in three Persons, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit…. Each Person is equal in essence as each possesses fully the identically same, eternal divine nature, yet each is also an eternal and distinct personal expression of the one undivided divine nature.
But some accuse Ware of self-contradiction when a few pages further he writes,
It is the Father, then, who is supreme in the Godhead—in the triune relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and supreme over all the very creation over which the Son reigns as Lord… The Father is supreme over all, and in particular, he is supreme within the Godhead as the highest in authority and the one deserving of ultimate praise.
It is at this point that the mutual and the classical theists part company. To view the Father as supreme, not ontologically but functionally, strikes some as heretical. Butner expresses his objection by claiming there are three marks embraced by pro-Nicene theologians, two of which EFS supporters accept while rejecting the third.
The marks are:
- Clear vision of the person and nature distinction…that whatever is predicated on the divine nature is predicated on the three persons equally and understood to be one.
- Clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being.
- Clear expression of the doctrine that the persons work inseparably.
It is important to note that while Butner admits that the Creed does not explicitly develop the doctrine of inseparable operations (the third mark) and that the New Testament does not fully reference the theology, he believes it is a clear second-order reflection and is the matter over which the EFS divide takes place. The reason this inseparability has to be, Butner argues is, “In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills.” We will return to the subject of distinct wills in the next article, but the logic is that if there is more than one will in the Godhead then the simplicity of God is denied. That is, God becomes divided, for now the members of the Trinity have separate wills, resulting in the superiority of the Father over the Son (and Spirit). This would mean the Son has been put in a role of inferiority requiring submission and subordination.
It is here, at the point at which the mutual theists view the Son as distinct from the Father in authority and respect, that some accuse them of Arianism. They view EFS as giving supreme glory to one member of the Godhead and a lesser degree of glory to the others. Christian Today quotes Goligher as saying,
It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity – a deity in whom there are degrees of power, differences of will, and diversity of thought. Because, mark this, to have an eternally subordinate Son intrinsic to the Godhead creates the potential of three minds, wills and powers. What they have done is to take the passages referring to the economic Trinity and collapse them into the ontological Trinity.
Goligher gets more direct when he says: “To speculate, suggest, or say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy and to have moved or be moving toward idolatry.” Australian theologian Mike Bird does not believe Grudem and Ware are Arians, but they might be semi-Arians, or at least non-Nicenes. The motivation for EFS, Bird concludes, has to be the support of complementarianism: “The root of the problem is that some Complementarians are willing to ditch Nicene Christology for Homoian Christology if it will give them a bigger stick to use to keep women out of the pulpit.” Theistic mutualist Michael Ovey, denies Bird’s accusations, saying that he (and others) is not motivated by complementarianism, and has not ditched Nicene Christology. Instead “both that the Son eternally submits to his Father (as a son at the level of Person) while being one and the same nature (at the different level of substance/nature)”, would define the EFS view.
This “battle for God” takes place in deep theological waters, and the stakes are high. Doctrinally, the very nature of God is on the table. Pragmatically, with strong accusations flying in every direction, we are in danger of further fracturing of evangelical unity already stretched to the breaking point because of other pressing concerns such as social justice and Critical Race Theory. As Mike Bird warns, there may well be a “miniature civil war” on the horizon.
The next two articles will flesh out specifics in this battle for God.
 James E. Dolezal, All That is in God, Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).
 D. Glenn Butner, Jr, The Son Who Learned Obedience, A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), p. 1.
 Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, a New Path to Liberalism (Wheaton: Crossway 2006), pp. 116-117.
 Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway 2005), p. 43.
 Ibid., pp. 50-51.
 Butner, p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 46, n. 146.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Mark Woods, “Complementarianism and the Trinity: Is Wayne Grudem a Dangerous Heretic” (Christianity Today: June 28, 2016).