The Son Who Learned Obedience, a Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son
by D. Glenn Butner, Jr. (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018) 224 + x pp., paper $28.00
The Son Who Learned Obedience is exactly what the subtitle claims—a heavy, intense, thorough and robust defense against the theological position held by many complementarians known formally as the Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) of the Son to the Father within the Godhead. Intense debate concerning EFS surfaced after Liam Goligher, in 2016, accused those holding to eternal submission of constructing a new deity that verged on idolatry (p. 1). Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, two key supporters of EFS, fired back defending their position and thus began a contentious evangelical war centered on the Trinity. Throughout the book, Glenn Butner attempts to moderate extreme attacks from both camps, affirming, for instance, that EFS does not teach Arianism (p. 4), and all those who oppose EFS are not evangelical feminists (pp. 156-159), although complementarians apparently have much to learn from evangelicals who accept feminists’ concepts (p. 159).
EFS teaches 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” (p. 2). Butner frames his argument around the issue of the single divine will of God (p. 4), that is, God has only one will as opposed to each member of the Godhead having separate wills. More, the author believes that EFS is incompatible with other essential doctrines such as Christology, the atonement and divine attributes (p. 5). The question under debate is: “Do the Father and Son possess a single will and action or diverse wills and actions” (p. 17). Resolving the issue, however, is highly complex and that is largely because, as the author admits repeatedly, “We cannot appeal to exegesis or biblical theology to resolve the debate on eternal submission” (p. 6). We must instead turn to second-order reflections found in systematic theology, which draw on reason, tradition, experience, and “philosophy to provide conceptual clarity concerning who God must be or what God must have done” (pp. 8, 9).
“The situation Christians actually face is that the Bible does not explicitly explore the subject of eternal submission” (p. 9; cf. pp. 12, 55, 62-63, 91, 161). The discussion therefore relies less on direct exegesis of Scripture and more on second-order (once removed from Scripture) reasoning and reflection. In essence, the debate swirls around the ancient creedal pronouncements, in particular the Nicene Creed as finalized at Constantinople in 381 (pp. 18, 28).
The Creed had three marks embraced by pro-Nicene theologians. EFS adherents accept the first two but reject the third (p. 36). 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 (p. 30).
While Butner admits that the Creed does not explicitly develop the doctrine of inseparable operations (p. 46, footnote 146), and that the New Testament does not fully reference the theology (p. 38), yet the author believes it is a clear second-order reflection, and is the matter over which the EFS divide takes place (p. 39). This is the case for, “In order for the Son to submit willingly to the will of the Father, the two must possess distinct wills” (p. 43). EFS promoters, such as Grudem, do not see a problem maintaining distinction in wills for it is obvious that some Divine activities are done separately. Thus, the Father sends and the Son obeys and dies on the cross (p. 45). But so concerned is Butner that he submits an excursus challenging the three basic objections to the doctrine of inseparable operations (pp. 49-54), claiming:
- It is not modalism—although there are some actions the Father takes in time that He does not do in eternity (p. 51).
- It is not a denial that the Son was incarnated, rather than the Father (pp. 54-57). Yet, even during the incarnation the works of the divine nature are indivisible (p. 56).
- It is not a rejection of the pactum salutis or the Covenant of Redemption (pp. 57-61). However, if the Covenant is in agreement with EFS, it too must be rejected, Butner insists (p. 59), although he believes it is more defendable than EFS (p. 61).
At the theological heart of the discussion is the doctrine of “dyothelitism” first established at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), and finalized at the Third Council of Constantinople in AD 681. These councils affirmed that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and that, in one person, He possessed two natures—human and divine (p. 67). EFS, by contrast, sees the Son’s obedience as a “reflection of what is necessarily and eternally true in God, not a contingent result of the incarnation” (p. 73). The author understands that many EFS theologians affirm dyothelite Christology, but he cannot see how the positions are compatible (p. 85). The EFS adherents respond by saying that submission is on the level of personhood and relation, not on the level of nature or essence (p. 89). That is, EFS does not affect the essence of the Godhead, rather submission of the Son to the Father is an eternal, standing relationship. In other words, the Godhead has eternally functioned with the Spirit and Son in submission to the Father, and such functioning does not affect divine essence of the members.
“Those who affirm EFS, the Son has submitted to the Father from eternity, and the submission of Jesus Christ following the incarnation is only a continuation of what has been eternally true,” according to Bruce Ware (p. 93). But Butler believes this view has created enormous problems for the doctrine of salvation. He therefore launches into a valuable overview of the major atonement theories (pp. 97-107). Butner is supportive of penal substitution (pp. 102-103) but believes “EFS threatens to unravel the entirety of the theological system putting dyothelite Christology at risk” (P. 107). EFS argues that while the Son always submits, He must choose to do so, while Butner argues that eternal submission is unnecessary because the Trinity has one indivisible will.
In by far the weakest portion of the book Butner charges the EFS view of having dangerous ethical implications because it can allow for negative impact on women, and EFS adherents (pp. 114-121) are not willing to learn from evangelical feminists (pp. 156-159). While Butner does not place himself in the evangelical feminists category, he also does not clarify his understanding and application of Ephesians five and the role of wives in relationship to their husbands (p. 119).
Butner discusses in detail numerous other doctrines he believes support his position against EFS:
- Doctrine of analogy (pp. 125-129), addressing how language plays into our understanding of the divine nature.
- Eternal generation and spiration (pp. 129-135) that is also admittedly a second-order reflection, which is virtually impossible to explain (p. 133), and Ware deems as speculation (p. 148).
- Simplicity (pp. 136-140), which is another second-order reflection, not affirmed in the Bible (p. 137), but if true would be incompatible with multiple wills within the Trinity (p. 137).
- Omnipotence (pp. 140-142).
- Immutability (pp. 142-143).
- Eternality (pp. 143-144).
- Omniscience (pp. 145-146).
Finally turning to the exegesis of Scripture, Butner references First Corinthians 15:28, which he deems the strongest text that EFS has to offer. He ultimately rejects the EFS interpretation and claims the verse is speaking of Christ’s reign as the Second Adam, which will be terminated at the beginning of the eternal state (pp. 162-172). The author also analyzes the “sending” passages (pp. 179-185) and First Corinthians 11:3 (pp. 185-189), declaring the meaning of “head” uncertain (p. 186). In the end, Butner admits that Scripture alone cannot solve this debate and that he intends only “to show that some passages of the Bible could be compatible with eternal submission, but that none of these passages indisputably teach this doctrine” (p. 162). His ultimate argument is that EFS opposes, in his opinion, pro-Nicene thought (p. 194).
In summarizing his position Butner writes:
The claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father is not explicitly taught in the Bible, and its acceptance offers an inferior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition, and provides little conceptual clarity (p. 196).
Whether one agrees with Butner or EFS, the author has done an excellent job explaining and analyzing the EFS debate. For a thorough understanding of the issues I highly recommend The Son Who Learned Obedience.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel