What Is the Trinity Debate About?

What Is the Trinity Debate About?

In 2016 a number of online articles debated the question of how the Son relates to the Father. These articles followed from previously published works which argued that the Son eternally submits to the Father. And now a number of subsequent books on the Trinity debate have reached the presses.

For all the bad that appears during debates like these, the theological benefit through blogging, publishing, and conversations has outweighed the negatives. Many Christians today have re-engaged the Trinity and re-enflamed their love for God through their newly found knowledge.

Yet some people have recently heard about the debate, having not tracked it and perhaps not having read the authors who participated. For that reason, it seems worthwhile to lay out the issues simply to help those who have recently heard about the Trinity debate.

Trinity Debate: Eternal Functional Submission (EFS)

A number of Evangelical theologians explained how the Son relates to the Father in this way. First, they observed how Christ always obeyed the Father in his earthly life. Then they considered key passages like 1 Corinthians 11:3.

Primarily on this biblical basis, they proposed that the Son eternally functionally submits to the Father. To safeguard the unity of God, they explained that just as husbands are the heads of wives and wives submit to husbands yet remain equal, so also the Son submits to the Father as his head while remaining equally divine.

So this view appears to check the box of being both biblical and orthodox (God’s unity remains). But others felt that EFS supplanted the traditional understanding of how the Son relates to the Father and could not sustain traditional orthodoxy.

Trinity Debate: Five Problems with EFS

After some reflection, Christians recognized a number of problems with the EFS view. First, it supplanted the traditional theological words to describe how the Father and Son relate, namely, eternal generation. 

Eternal generation means that the Son was born of God. As the Son, he is the Son of the Father who begat him. But since both the Son and Father are divine and therefore eternal, then this begetting or generation had to have happened in eternity past. Hence, the doctrine took the name eternal generation.

Eternal generation and the related concepts described how the Son relates to the Father, as the one Begotten from the Begetter. This relationship protected the Trinity from falling into tri-theism (three gods) or undifferentiated monotheism (no tri-unity).

To add that the Son eternally submits to the Father complicates what Christian theology worked hard to clarify, namely, that the Father and Son are one God distinguished by their relations of origin: the Father begets and the Son is begotten from all time.

Second, the reason why Trinitarian theology works is because God is simple. Simplicity means that all that is in God is God; he has no parts. So when we confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, we do so in a simple way. God does not have three parts to him. He has three subsisting persons whose unity is guaranteed because God is simple.

To add the notion of submission to God’s eternal relations makes simplicity difficult to maintain. For if God is simple, then he has one simple essence. And the properties of will, power, and intellect belong to God’s simple nature. Three subsisting persons subsist in this one nature according to simplicity.

The relationships like begetting or spiration for the Spirit say only enough to distinguish one person from another person in God. But to say that the Son always submits to the Father implies more than one will in God.

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WyattGraham@churchleaders.com'
Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He enjoys his family and writing. You'll generally find him hiding away somewhere with his nose in a book. Twitter: @wagraham; Instagram: wyattagraham. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.