Over the course of my life, I’ve observed a wide spectrum of the evangelical world, and even some fringe groups, and even cults. While I’ve never been in a cult, I have been in churches that proved to be on the fringe. In those cases, I managed to get out “while the gettin’ was good”, before the implosion went down.
But here’s the thing: one of the telltale signs of a movement that is in danger of going off the reservation–or has already moved off the reservation–is abandonment of the fundamental understanding of the Trinity.
I realize that the Trinity is difficult–arguably impossible–to comprehend from the standpoint of our temporal, finite frame of reference. So being confounded by the complexity of it is understandable. On the other hand, if you’re going to be a minister or a teacher, you need to have a good understanding of Trinitarian theology, and that includes an appreciation for the amount of thought that the Early Church fathers put into articulating a Biblical understanding of the nature and character of God, one which culminated in the Nicene Creed.
The point I’m making here: when someone comes up with a novel articulation of the Trinity, you need to be very wary.
So, in 2016, when Dee Parsons alerted me to some high-flying complementarian leaders who were promoting the doctrine of Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS, also known as Eternal Functional Subordination, or EFS*), I was immediately very skeptical of this doctrine.
Why was I skeptical?
- In almost 1,600 years post-Nicea, which includes Medieval scholars, schisms, Reformation scholars, many Councils, and post-Reformation scholarship, the most iconic theologians never articulated such an understanding of the Trinity, and in fact they specifically rejected any premise of eternal subordination of the Son.
- Particular leaders within the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) were advancing ESS in order to provide theological support for their complementarian model for gender relations. While I identify as a patriarch–I believe that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, and that 1 Timothy 2 generally precludes women from eldership in the Church–I have a serious problem when people create God in their own image in order to justify their position. And that is exactly what the ESS proponents at CBMW were doing.
In the years since, I’ve kept the ESS debate on my radar. Also, during that time, I started reading some of the Nicene and Post-Nicene theologians, just to see what their takes were. What was really poignant: many of the arguments that the Arians made at the time–and the responses of the Nicene crowd–sounded eerily similar to the ESS debate today.
In more recent years, the ESS debate has heated up, with Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, Denny Burk, and Owen Strachan–of the CBMW–advancing the case for ESS. Ware and Burk are professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Burk is at Boyce Bible College, which is part of SBTS), and Strachan was a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (he left MBTS this past Spring to take on a position at a different seminary).
I also noticed some pastors in local churches advancing ESS. I warned one of them–whom I know–to RUN from ESS, and gave him a mach 5 version of why it is a very bad doctrine. Five years from now, he will either be thanking me or wishing he’d listened to me.
One of the reasons that ESS has taken hold in evangelical circles is that, at the ground level, Baptists and evangelicals don’t really understand the Trinity. Ministers barely get it, if at all. And most laypersons are totally clueless. Fact is, if I started talking about ESS to the average guy in my church experiences, they would look at me like a deer in the headlights. That has left a Church situation that is very susceptible to neo-Trinitarian heresy.
Enter Matthew Barrett, a theology professor at MBTS.
Barrett, who was once a student of Bruce Ware during his student days at SBTS, began to pick up on some of the neo-Trinitarian ideas coming from Ware and his camp. As a theology professor, he did his homework.
The fruit of that labor–Simply Trinity–is both an excellent primer on Trinitarian theology, and a theological and exegetical case against ESS.
In ST, Barrett does an excellent job highlighting some key concepts that form the bedrock for understanding the Trinity:
- (a) eternal relations of origin;
- (b) eternal generation;
- (c) the difference between the immanant Trinity (the ontological nature and character of God) and economic Trinity (the expression of the Trinity toward the created order, especially in the economy of salvation); and
- (d) simplicity: the premise that God is not made of parts, that God is one divine essence.
Throughout the book, Barrett brings the discussion back to these fundamental concepts. A very key point, that Barrett brings home, is the historical understanding that the only distinguishing characteristic among the members of the Trinity are their eternal relations of origin: The Father is eternally unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit is eternally spirated; i.e., eternally proceeds from the Father and Son. (As Barrett says it: “These relations alone distinguish the persons, identifying each person’s personal property.”)
There was never a time when the Father was not; there was never a time when the Son or Holy Spirit were not. Each is all God, but they are not separate “Gods”: you do not get “more” by adding them up, and–even if you could subtract (and you can’t, because God is indivisible: He is one)–you would not get “less” God.
Barrett also describes how the evangelical world became susceptible to “Trinity Drift”; a dynamic in which the evangelical world subtly began slowly embracing novel ideas about the Trinity, allowing a fertile ground from which ESS would emerge.
One of the most damaging factors in Trinity Drift was the rise of a social understanding of the Trinity, also known as Social Trinity: that the Godhead is a society of persons. This became the theological basis for the egalitarian movement, as well as all variations of Liberation Theology, including sexual liberation. (I can affirm what Barrett says, because I have gone toe-to-toe with sexual liberationists and socialists for whom the Social Trinity of Liberation Theology is a foundational truth.)
From there, Barrett issues a severe indictment against EFS/ESS:
- EFS is a variation of Social Trinity, the difference being that the EFSers cast Godhead as a heirarchical social Trinity whereas Liberation Theologians cast the Godhead as a society of equals.
- EFS is reflecting of a proof-texting, eisegetical approach to the Scriptures that conflates the immanant Trinity with the economic Trinity.
- By injecting a heirarchy in the Trinity, EFSers are flirting with multiple heresies that the Church has spent no small amount of time fighting.
The book is not something for easy reading; most theology books are not. Still, Barrett provides an excellent explication of Trinitarian fundamentals, with very solid exegesis of Scripture and well-researched highlights of key Trinitarian scholars from the Nicene era to today.
One of the most important points to ponder here is something that evangelicals have with tradition: to what extent do we value traditions of Church fathers of prior eras?
Unlike Catholics–who sometimes equate Tradition on the same level as Scripture–modern evangelicals tend to take a low view of Tradition. As a result, modern evangelicals are not high on the theological takes of scholars of prior eras, with perhaps some exceptions for Luther, Calvin, and a few key Reformation-era theolgians such as John Knox.
The problem is, this mindset has contributed to substantial ignorance of past theological battles, and the issues that led to them. This has led us to the mess we are in today. While none of the Fathers were infallable, I would suggest that, where key doctrines have stood the test of time, we must give those very strong weight. Because, as Solomon pointed out, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Against this, Barrett provides a glimpse into history: using a Back to the Future style–he invokes the DeLorean–he takes the reader back in time to different eras, highlighting key scholars and their takes on the Trinity.
Where he proves exceptionally strong, however, is his exegesis of “aha” texts for ESS. His takedown of Ware is as thorough as it is brutal. The ESS/EFS model represents a manipulation of the Trinity, a case of theologians creating God in their image in order to advance their gender-relations model.
The conservative who subscribes to ESS will (rightfully) disagree with the liberal Liberation theologian who promotes socialism and sexual liberation. The problem is that while the two will disagree strenuously on the ends, they are in agreement on the means: each has molded the Trinity for their own purposes.
This is an ominous trend, as the ESS/EFS crowd, by embracing this model–which is the product of sloppy hermeneutics if not eisegesis–has left an otherwise conservative sector wide open to the threat of liberalism. This is because, if you embrace liberal frameworks, you undermine the foundations for conservatism, even as you outwardly affirm those.
One of my biggest areas of frustration with the neo-Calvinist movement–which is the sector that espouses ESS/EFS–is their stunning level of hubris in this matter.
If you’re going to advance a novel take on the Trinity, you’re going to need a very strong exegetical case. You have the burden of proof of showing that your claim of wisdom on this stands up to the Nicene fathers. You have the burden of proof to show why your exegesis justifies a paradigm that is mostly absent from the theological discourse of the last 1,600 years of a Church that has been patriarchal. (In other words, even a historically-patriarchal Church has not arrived at a consensus anything close to ESS in her two millennia of existence. So if you’re going to promote it, the bar is very, very high.)
Having studied the Scriptures, I see no case for eternal subordination of any member of the Trinity. While, in the economy of salvation, Jesus humbled Himself and gave up the glories of the eternal frame of reference to enter time and space as a man–living in submission as we all are subject (only without sin), dying for our sins, and coming back from the dead–what we see in Scriptures, from an eternal frame of reference, is an immanant Trinity that prsents the Three Persons as co-equal, not subordinate, with their distinctives solely in their eternal relations of origin.
This is the point that Barrett drives home thoughout Simply Trinity.
As a conservative, I see the Christian faith as a conservative one: we are committed to conserving the teachings of Jesus, going to great lengths in archaeology and scholarship to ensure that the Biblical text is solid, that we get meanings right, that we present God as revealed in Scripture. We also go to great lengths to ensure that we conserve foundational fundamentals: the Bible is not fake news, miracle accounts did happen; Jesus is God; Jesus was conceived/born of a virgin, Jesus did die for our sins, Jesus did come back from the dead; Jesus will come back again.
There is nothing conservative about ESS/EFS: it is a modern spin on an old-school heresy. It is the product of eisegesis, ironically coming from a crowd that exalts itself as committed to exegesis. The Trinity of ESS/EFS is man-made.
Barrett provides a call to the troops to return to home base, and embrace the Biblical, unmanipulated Trinity. And in the process, like Alexander in his rebuttal to Arius, Barrett–in his rebuttal of Grudem and Ware–provides a robust, Biblical explication of the Gospel.
I give it five stars.
*ESS/EFS is a doctrine that presents Jesus as eternally subordinate to the Father. In classical and historical understandints of the Trinity, Jesus is understood has being subordinate only in the economy of salvation whereas, in EFS/ESS, Jesus is subordinate to the Father not just in the economy of salvation, but also through all eternity. This is in conflict with Genesis, John, Colossians, and Revelation, which present a Jesus who is Creator and co-equal with the Father and Holy Spirit, with their eternal relations of origin being the only distinguishing factor. In my debate with a complementarian leader who insisted that EFS is not heretical, he insisted that EFS is not the same as ESS, which he believes is heretical. I disagree with him: EFS is an attempt at walking back ESS to make it seem more orthodox. But Barrett does a good job pointing out that this, itself has problems.