The Battle for God – Part 2

Volume 27, Issue 9, December 2021

In part one of this series, the origin of the debate between classical theists and theistic mutualists concerning the nature of God was introduced. The essence of the discussion centers on whether or not the Son has eternally submitted to the will of the Father or just submitted during the time of His incarnation. Complicating matters is the fact that complementarians support their views partially on the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), also termed Eternal Functional Submission (EFS). While neither side denies the orthodox statements found in the Nicene Creed (381), the classicalists accuse the mutualists of misunderstanding the creed and falling short of its intent. A few even charge mutualists with the heresies of subordinationism and even Arianism. If the supporters of EFS are correct then the classicalists lament we have misunderstood God since the beginning of the church age. If the mutualists are wrong, then they have constructed a new deity. For most Christians, this high-level wrangling about detailed terms and esoteric theology seems overblown. What does it really matter if the Son has always submitted to the Father’s will or did so only during His incarnation? The classicalists say it matters a great deal and affects many doctrines. In this paper, and the next, we will examine seven such doctrines and try to sort out the differences found between the two groups.


While not the most important issue in this discussion, nevertheless, much of the emotional fervor is largely wrapped around the role of men and women in the church and in the home. Kevin DeYoung, a complementarian himself, writes the following:

The truest form of biblical complementarity calls on men to protect women, honor women, speak kindly and thoughtfully to women, and to find every appropriate way to learn from them and include them in life and ministry—in the home and in the church…It may sound archaic, if not fundamentally sinister, but God’s design for the home is a thoughtful, intelligent, gentle, submissive wife and a loving, godly, self-sacrificing, leading husband.[1]

While DeYoung does not believe that EFS is necessary for the complementarity position,[2] others, such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, perceive the relationships within the Trinity as a model for patriarchy (a term often used synonymously with complementarism, but because of its more pejorative connotations is mostly used by those who oppose it). Aimee Bryd, in her book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, claims that those involved with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have employed “an unorthodox teaching of the Trinity, the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), in order to promote subordination of women to men.”[3] Beth Allison Barr, in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, goes further and deems EFS heresy. While she misunderstands the theological argument, nevertheless, she claims, “This was a heresy so serious that the fourth-century church father Athanasius refused to recognize those who supported it as Christian.”[4] Mark Woods, of Christian Today, concludes his article on the subject by stating, “If people really feel they must be complementarians, they would be wise not to ground their views on such a very contentious re-interpretation of the Trinity.”[5]

Personally, I agree with Kevin DeYoung in that I do not believe that complementarianism depends on EFS and, given the emotional firestorm which accompanies egalitarian/complementarian issues at this point in the contemporary church, it is best not to link the two.  I believe that biblical patriarchy is clearly found throughout the Scriptures and does not need EFS to authenticate it.  The two, in my mind, are separate issues and best left to their own merits.

The Will(s) of God

One of the strongest arguments the classicalists use against EFS is that it creates the potential of more than one will within the Godhead.  D. Glenn Butner lays out the differences in his book, The Son Who Learned Obedience. “In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills,”[6] he reasons. And if they possess distinct wills, the members of the Trinity are not inseparable and thus not one in essence.  The EFS teachers respond by saying that submission is on the level of personhood and relation, not on the level of nature or essence.[7] EFS argues that while the Son always submits, He must choose to do so while Butner fires back that eternal submission is unnecessary because the Trinity has one indivisible will. Mike Moody, in an unpublished (as far as I know) article, believes that “orthodox teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity insists that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit have one will and one authority.”[8] Moody points to the Cappadocian Church Fathers who “insist that in the New Testament, the Son’s servanthood and obedience is limited to the incarnation…[and] what the Father wills and what the Son wills are always one.”[9]

The EFS proponents teach that “the Father and Son, though equal in nature and essence, were distinct in role and function, so that the Son was eternally obedient and submissive to the Father.”[10] By this definition, EFS leaders escape accusations of subordinationism and Arianism because they do not see the Son as inferior in essence to the Father.  He is fully God and equal in all ways to the Father. But they do believe that eternal submission is a function within the Trinity that defines the relationships within the Godhead. Eternal submission would not frame the Son as inferior to the Father any more than eternal generation of the Son would. Still, the idea that the various members of the Trinity each have distinct wills is problematic. If all three members are co-equal and co-eternal and of the same essence, in what sense could they have different ideas or separate wills? Such a position leaves a lot of questions dangling.  I believe the issue of separate wills is one of the strongest defenses of the classical position.

Eternal or Incarnational?

Closely tied to the previous discussion is that of the incarnation.  All agree that during the incarnation Jesus submitted to the will of the Father.  The classicalists would localize the Son’s submission to His time on earth and deny that He submitted prior to, or after His incarnation.  The mutualists disagree and believe that Christ’s earthly submission was an extension, or better, continuation of His eternal submission. As Butner (a classicalist) explains it, the EFS position is that the Son’s obedience is a “reflection of what is necessarily and eternally true in God, not a contingent result of the incarnation.”[11] In other words, when the Father sent the Son to earth; and the Son willingly came and eventually died on the cross in obedience to the Father, this action was not anything unique within the Godhead.  Yes, the coming of the Son and His taking human nature upon Himself was unprecedented, but the Son’s submission to the will of the Father was not peculiar. He has always submitted to the Father’s will and always will.  The classicalists disagree.


Immutability means that “God is unchangeable and thus unchanging… He is never inconsistent or growing or developing.”[12] The doctrine of immutability is extremely important to our understanding of the Godhead.  If God changes, then we never know from moment to moment what God is like and how we relate to Him. Even His promises are suspect since He can change His mind about His past affirmations and warnings and therefore, our security is compromised.  Thus, when the immutability of God is seemingly being challenged, Christians are concerned, and rightly so.

According to Richard Muller, using the “incarnation as the basis to claim that God takes on new attributes over the course of time…” alters the doctrine of God.[13]  The mutualists believe that God can sovereignly choose to change not His essence, but His accidents (those features of Himself that are not essential to his being) in order to relate to creation.  Bruce Ware, for example, teaches that, while God cannot ontologically change, He has nevertheless chosen to change relationally in regards to time and space at the point of creation. In Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, Four Views, Ware presents what he calls a modified Calvinistic doctrine of God.  There he works out his understanding that at the point of creation God entered into space and time, thus “God became both omnipresent and omnitemporal while remaining, in himself and apart from creation, fully nonspatial and timelessly eternal…[In doing so] God did not change in any respect who he eternally is apart from creation.  He adds, as it were, only the qualities of his being also immanently related to his creation… In a manner not dissimilar to the doctrine of the incarnation” (emphasis mine).[14]

Scott Oliphint expands on this concept in his book, The Battle Belongs to the Lord.  Oliphint believes that God added certain attributes at the moment of creation.  For example, “God was not merciful prior to creation.”[15] His rationale for the idea that God added the attribute of mercy at creation is that prior to creation, mercy was unnecessary as there was no one who needed mercy. Classicalist would respond by saying God did possess the attribute of mercy, but it lay dormant until such time as it was needed.

Allowing for the possibility that God can change, not ontologically but relationally, opens up not only serious theological debate but serious concern as well.  The incarnation is the starting point, and all agree that God the Son took on human form and became the perfect God/man.  He was not human in eternity past, so obviously there was a change.  But that is different from saying the Son added new attributes to His Being.  The mutualists advocate for this relational change in God; the classicalists deny it.


At the root of the classical theologians’ concern is the largely ignored doctrine of simplicity.  Although seldom mentioned by many modern theologians, James Dolezal positions it as the lynchpin to our understanding about God, which is why he devotes an entire chapter in his book to simplicity and references it throughout.  A simple God means that He is without parts.  Therefore, “His act of existence is not what He has, but what He is” and “if all that is in God is God, then each of His attributes is identical with His essence.”[16] In other words, there is no distinction between God’s essence and His attributes.  Dolezal believes that every current heresy begins by being wrong about simplicity.[17]  His concerns run deep:

Without simplicity, God is open to the acquisition of being in addition to His essence and thus is not immutable.  Without simplicity, it is not clear why God could not experience temporal change and thus fail to be timelessly eternal.  Without simplicity, it is impossible that God be in every way infinite as there must be parts in Him, and parts by definition must be finite.  Moreover, that which is built of parts cannot be infinite since the finite cannot aggregately yield the infinite.[18]

Dolezal believes the mutual theists, for any number of reasons, have rejected or misunderstood simplicity, and thus are in error about God.  They have disregarded simplicity by trying to distinguish between attributes that belong to His essence and those He acquires through relation with His creatures.[19]   Others deny divine simplicity by claiming that it is not a biblical doctrine at all.[20] Still others distort it.[21]

Glenn Butner admits that “the Bible itself does not affirm simplicity, but simplicity is a reasonable inference from the Bible.”[22] The reasonable inference that Butner is referring to is that God cannot be parted out into different attributes.  The attributes of God are simply who He is. Yet, most EFS supporters would agree that God is simple.  Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, clearly explains simplicity in a way in which classicalists would agree:

God is not divided into parts yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times.  This attribute of God has…been called God’s simplicity, using simple in the less common sense of “not complex” or “not composed of parts”…When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute is completely true of God and is true of all of God’s character.[23]

Even though theologians such as Dolezal get quite excited over the issue of simplicity, there appears to be little difference between his views and those of mutualists like Grudem.  The area of concern actually seems to be over separate wills.  If the Father has a will, and the Son has a will, and the Spirit has yet another will, in what sense are they One and simple? The classicalists see EFS promoters as inconsistent at this point—proclaiming simplicity of essence but denying simplicity of function.


In the final paper on this debate, I will examine two more differences between the two camps: the superiority of the Father and inseparable operations.  Then we will conclude with a discussion of the distinct approaches that the two groups take in determining their theological positions. It is here that the divide comes to a head, and I hope to draw an equitable conclusion.

[1] Kevin DeYoung, Men and Women in the Church, a Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), pp. 17, 64.

[2] Kevin DeYoung, p. 52, “We should not use the Trinity ‘as our model’ for the marriage relationship, both because it is not necessary for complementarianism to be true and because the metaphysical inner workings of the ineffable Trinity do not readily allow for easy lifestyle application.”

[3] Aimee Bryd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 100.

[4] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, (Grand Rapids, BrazoPress, 2021), p. 191.

[5] Mark Woods, “Complementarianism and the Trinity: Is Wayne Grudem a Dangerous Heretic” (Christian Today: June 28, 2016).

[6] D. Glenn Butner, Jr, The Son Who Learned Obedience, a Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018) p. 43.

[7] Ibid., p. 89.

[8] Mike Moody, “Glorious Father and Sort of Glorious Son?”, p. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] D. Glenn Butner, p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 73.

[12] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1999), p. 43.

[13] James E. Dolezal, All That is in God, Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), p. x.

[14] Bruce A. Ware (Ed), Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, Four Views (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), p. 89.

[15] K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord, the Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith (New Jersey: P&P Publishing), p. 114.

[16] James Dolezal, pp. 41-42.

[17] Ibid., p. 40.

[18] Ibid., p. 136.

[19] Ibid., pp. 61-67.

[20] Ibid., pp. 67-71.

[21] Ibid., pp. 71-78.

[22] D. Glenn Butner, p. 137.

[23] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 178-179.


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