The ERAS/EFS Controversy

For those who are involved in the Christian blogging community, there has been a battle raging in the past week or so regarding the EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) or ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission) positions. These positions are views of the relationship between the Father and particularly the Son, although the Father-Spirit relationship is implicitly involved as well. I guess it is time that I suit up and enter the fight.

The argument, forwarded primarily by members of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is a reactive argument in large part. Egalitarians (those who argue that men and women are equal in terms of roles in the Church and Home) argue that to say that a woman is to be submissive to her husband at home, or to male elders at Church, in light of her gender, is to posit an ontological subordination of female to male. The response by the well meaning CBMW folks is to say that there is a subordination of roles in the Trinity, particularly the Son to the Father, that does not entail an ontological subordination.

I’ve been asked to provide a brief explanation of why this view is problematic. The debate has raged, and has at times been quite technical. As such, I’m happy to provide lay person’s explanation for just one of the obvious reasons this is a problem.

Before we can get into it, a little bit of Trinitarian basics.

There are two terms you need to understand in relation to the Trinity. The first is Ousia. Ousia is translated into English as Essence. Broadly speaking, ousia refers to the fundamental reality which makes something what it is. The second term is HypostasisHypostasis gets translated into English as Person. Generally, hypostasis refers to an individual concrete thing.

Now, it is important to understand how these terms work in relation to the Trinity. The Trinity is a community of three hypostases or persons who are fully God. To be fully God is to be a hypostasis that bears the entirety of the divine ousia. Now, if we stop there, we arrive at a theological error called tritheism. The reason for this is because without something to fundamentally unify these three hypostases we have three Gods. To solve this problem, the church rightly understood that the solution to this quandary was that the three hypostases were unified because they shared a single ousia.

This is a fundamental difference between God and creatures. In creatures, each hypostasis has its own ousia. So if you have two humans, you have two hypostases who have two ousiai. This is vitally important to understand.

Let’s get back to the debate. Owen Strachan recently published an article titled the Glorious Godhead and Proto-Arian Bulls. In it, he makes the point that 1 Corinthians 11:3 demonstrates the submission of the Son to the Father in a way that has “no temporal limits”

See 1 Cor. 11:3—“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” We note that this statement attaches no temporal limit to this relationship. It is entirely natural to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 and come away assuming that it maps the Father-Son relationship in all stages (while recognizing that the full display of this dynamic came when the Son took on flesh).

It is clear that Strachan understands whatever the relationship between Christ, here stated that “the head of Christ is God,” is an eternal relationship. But is that the case? I would argue no. The fundamental mistake of CBMW’s position is made here, and all of their other errors flow from it. Lets take a look at what 1 Corinthians 11:3 has to say.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (ESV)

There are three relations presented in this text. Man-Christ, Wife-Husband, and Christ-God. The argument unfolds that each relation is analogous to the others. The analogy falls apart if any one relationship is too dissimilar to the others. The easiest for us to understand is the Wife-Husband. Consider our above discussion of hypostases and ousia. The wife and husband each have their own ousiai. Consider the next more complicated relationship, Man-Christ. Again, it is clear in this case that we are talking about a relationship between two hypostases that have two completely separate ousia. As stated, if the relations here are too dissimilar, the analogy falls apart. So that leaves us with the final relationship to consider, Christ-God.

Now, Christ relates to the Father in two distinct ways. First he relates to him as God (ie according to divinity). This relationship is an eternal, unchanging, and natural fellowship. It exists because of the single ousia which the Father, Son, and Spirit share. The second way that Christ relates to the Father is as man (ie according to humanity). This is a relationship that changes and grows over time. It came into existence at a point in time, and it is a relationship which exists because Christ and the Father have separate ousiai according to Christ’s humanity. So that leaves us with the question, which of these two relationships is 1 Corinthians 11:3 referring to.

Proponents of ERAS or EFS would advocate for the former. The reason for this is not for systematic or exegetical reasons, but because it supports their desire to advocate complementarianism. However, the obvious reading of the text is that the way that Christ relates to his Father is analogous to the way that a man relates to Christ, or a woman to her husband. That is to say, it is a relationship between two persons with two ousiai. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not referring to the divine natural relationship which Christ has with his Father, but to the adopted relationship he has according to his humanity.

This is where the CBMW position strays into Tritheism. The position entails that the eternal fellowship between the Father and Son was a relationship between two hypostases who have two distinct ousiai.

This leads to another critique of the CBMW position regarding submission. Briefly, classical Trinitarianism affirms that within the Trinity there is a single shared will which is a function of the single shared ousia. Submission, at its fundamental level, is the restoration of unity by one party forfeiting their own will in favor of another’s. It is a position which starts with a disunity of will. If the Father and Son share a single will, then any concept which has as a fundamental component disunity of will is simply incoherent when applied to the Father and Son. Since, as I have demonstrated above, the CBMW position is already advocating an unwitting form of Tritheism in which the Son and Father have separate ousiai, then it should not be surprising to us that they have no problem applying a concept in which multiple wills are required.

Now, I know I said that was going to be the layperson’s version… and honestly that is as simple as I can make it. Let me give you the sound bite reason to reject CBMW’s position on this.

If the Father and Son share the divine nature in the same way that a man and his wife share human nature… you’re already a tritheist. Don’t be a tritheist.

11 thoughts on “The ERAS/EFS Controversy

  1. I have a problem with the word “share.” When three human beings share something we are given the idea that they all partake of something partially – all three have a part of the whole. This does not work in the Trinity. They all have the same, identical, and complete, divine essence! Jesus is God, as the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God – all three members have aseity. Calvin had a problem with the wording of Nicene but he never disagreed with it in essence (no pun intended!).

    1. Yes, there is a difficulty in describing something that has no created analog. We do not know how to describe a state of affairs when three persons fully, completely, perfectly, and indivisibly possess a single nature.

      I think there are good reasons to use the word share, but that is a subject for a different time.

  2. Seems like there’s a problem here, though- if “headship of Christ is God” is referring to the relation between Christ as man and God the Father, then it is the relation of an inferior to a superior, in nature. It’s not just the relation of two ousiai, as you say, but also a relationship of headship that’s being described. So if the headship the Father has over Christ refers to His humanity, and therefore is a relation of superiority, then is not that saying the same thing about the headship of the husband over the wife?

    And also, are you saying that Christ as a man and God the Father started with a disunity of will, since that is what is implied by “submission”?

    1. It is almost as if the passage isn’t supposed to be saying anything about ontological superiority/equality at all!

      That actually proves the point more, that this is an economic submission. But it cannot be an economic submission ad intra, because that entails an ontological one. This is another leg of the augment opposing EFE/ERAS.

  3. All of this terminology has my head spinning (and I always feel that language falls short when describing things which, as you put it, “don’t have a created analog,” anyway), but I’m wondering if perhaps the term “Christ” might actually be a clarifier here.

    I haven’t gone back to study it and see if this would hold up, but just looking over your post I got to wondering whether “Christ” might be a more specific term than “the Son,” or even “Jesus,” actually indicating that in-the-flesh role and, therefore, limiting the scope of what is stated in the passage.

    I’m not sure if I communicated that well or not; hopefully you understood what I’m after. If so, do you have any thoughts on that?

    1. That is a good thought, and the word Christ is generally understood to be a reference to the incarnate Logos, rather than the preincarnate.

      However, Paul does use it on occasion to refer to the Son before the incarnation, so I don’t think it seals the case here.

      1. BTW, you have me blocked on Facebook for some reason, and I’m not sure why.

        There have been lots of discussions that I’ve been involved in on this subject in the Pub.

    1. I think that there are heretical entailments to what Grudem et all are saying, that they don’t recognize.

      And praise God for their inconsistency, because if recognized and not rejected, they would surely be outside the camp.

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