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 few 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 Hypostasis. Hypostasis 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. Let’s 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 anyone 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.