Mike Ovey on the Eternal Functional Subordination controversy

If you in any way follow the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your notice that an awful lot of electronic ink has been metaphorically spilt on issues pertaining to the trinity of late. Although a raft of things have been up for discussion, an awful lots of focus has landed on the issues of Eternal Functional Subornation (EFS) and Eternal Generation (EGen). The furore was kicked off by Carl Trueman and Liam Golligher at the Mortification of Spin blog back in June (see here and here). Particularly in their sights were the doctors Grudem and Ware, but others have since been pulled into the fray.

Much back and forth ensued, with accusations of heresy, heterodoxy and unsuitability for academic posts in evangelical institutions – with counter-claims that those who bandy around such terms are at least unkind and, most likely, in unrepentant sin on the issue – being levelled at the key players. A division appears to have opened up (at least within American evangelicalism) between Presbyterians on the one hand, who reject EFS and uphold EGen, and Baptists on the other, who often uphold EFS and differ on the issue of EGen. Outside the USA, things have not quite so neatly delineated along denominational lines.

Of course, this discussion was not really kicked off in the blogosphere, it has been trundling on in the academy for some time. Jürgen Moltmann and Kevin Giles have sought to stand against proponents of EFS, particularly those who also subscribe to complementarianism (the argument being that EFS advocates are ‘tinkering with God’ in order to uphold a culturally derived view of male/female relations). Although Dr Mike Ovey has also found himself on the wrong side of Trueman and Golligher’s electronic ire (see here and here), and has acquitted himself electronically, his latest book Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility was written principally to address the concerns circling in the academy, primarily those posited by Moltmann and Giles.

With his usual clarity of thought and straightforward writing style, Ovey assesses the central claims of those who wish to label EFS subscribers as heterodox and heretical. He offers helpful sections on the historical, biblical and theological questions. That is, was EFS supported or rejected in church history, is EFS supported or rejected in the biblical data and does EFS uphold or undermine vital matters of theology? Ovey begins by considering the issue of Divine Monarchy and the defence of it by Tertullian. This paves the way for his particular focus on Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine of Hippo to show that EFS is, far from being either novel or anti-Nicene, was the very basis upon which Divine Monarchy was defended. His case is bolstered by considering the Cappodocian Fathers and, despite some of their different emphases, the fact that they uphold the Divine Monarchy and the Son as a true son. Ovey helpfully places various councils in their historical context to explain the problems before each of them and the nature of the carefully constructed language used to refute the issue at hand without falling foul of any antithetical heresy (usually the poles between Arianism and Sabellianism).

Biblically, Ovey focuses in on John. Following Hilary of Poitiers (#1&2) and Karl Rahner (#3), Ovey notes: (1) it is for God to disclose the nature of the trinitarian relations, not for us to speculate as to what we hope they might be; (2) Arianism and Sabellianism both deny the true sonship of the Son in a bid to defend monotheism; and (3) the economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity, that is the trinity revealed to us in salvation history does not contradict and does reveal the trinity in eternity and vice versa. With these comments firmly stated, Ovey surveys the centrality of sonship in John within an asymmetrical and co-relational relationship.

Ovey considers the dyothelite controversy – particular as stated at Chalcedon following the arguments of Maximus the Confessor – and how the two wills of Jesus the Son fit with EFS compared with more egalitarian models of the intra-trinitarian relations. Naturally, this discussion centres on Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer and the emphasis on ‘not my will, but thine’. Ovey considers how both Moltmann and Giles fail to fully account for the text, focusing discussion on the unity of the person of the Son, the genuineness of his humanity and the nature of his obedience.

Theologically, Ovey offers helpful insights on how EFS speaks directly to issues of power relations and authority. Specifically, he explains how EFS best accounts for the biblical imperatives for us to develop humility. He notes the difficulties associated with denying eternal humility, suggesting such a denial would mean there is a good virtue God demands from us which is not essential to his own character. Ovey convincingly argues that true, humble, other-personed love finds its root in the eternal relations of the three persons of the Godhead. He notes egalitarian models of the intra-trinitarian relations entirely undercut such virtues.

Ovey offers a helpful overview of the issues relating to EFS and EGen. He defends both as entirely consistent with Nicene orthodoxy, showing that such positions are neither novel nor heterodox. He skillfully develops his argument, showing that history, biblical data and theological considerations do support EFS. He also helpfully outlines the problems associated with rejecting EFS in favour of other models.

I am by no means an expert on trinitarian theology but, with the exception of a few sections that required perseverance and re-reading, found the material helpful, stimulating and relatively easy to follow. Whilst I did pick up the book leaning toward some form of EFS, Ovey provides a helpful, reasonable and ultimately convincing case for the eternal functional subordination of the Son. Though I was never convinced that those shouting heterodox and calling for the heads of EFS advocates were legitimate to do so, Ovey offers a compelling case for why they really ought to repent of what appears to be the sin of schism.