Thomas McCall’s Response to EFS and 15 Theses on Trinitarian Theology

August 10, 2016 — Leave a comment


Shortly before there was a sudden resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology, I had been reading Thomas McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. You know, just light beach reading.

The book covers a lot of ground in its 250 or so pages. The first section gives an overview chapter on recent discussions within philosophical theology, biblical foundations for monotheism, and some principles for doctrinal analysis. The second section tackles either a key theologian’s ideas, or a specific issue. The three theologians in question are Robert Jenson, Jurgen Moltmann, and John Zizioulas. The specific issue is Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS for short). Pretty timely right? Especially since this was published in 2010, and so written ever a year or more before that.

McCall brings a helpful analytic tool to the discussion that I’m not sure has been utilized in the recent online writings. He distinguishes between “soft” and “hard” EFS. The former is would be something along the lines of “The Son is functionally subordinate to the Father during the time of his incarnate and redemptive work, and this is true at all times” (176-177). McCall notes that unless you confuse temporal and logical modalities, there hardly anything controversial with this statement.

As for the latter, here McCall specifically highlights Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. Here the claim is more related to the interior divine life, how God is ad intra. In other words, it would be claim that regardless of the incarnation and redemptive work of Christ, the Son has always been functionally subordinate into eternity past.

From here, McCall raises some questions and poses a serious problem. The problem can be laid out in a serious of propositions (179-180):

  1. If Hard EFS is true, then the Son has the property being functionally subordinate in all time segments in all possible worlds.
  2. If the Son has this property in every possible world, then the Son has this property necessarily. Furthermore, the Son has this property with de re rather than de dicto necessity.
  3. If the Son has this property necessarily (de re), then the Son has it essentially
  4. If Hard EFS is true, then the Son has this property essentially while the Father does not
  5. If the Son has this property essentially and the Father does not, then the Son is of a different essence than the Father. Thus the Son is heteroousios rather than homoousios

He gives a sampling of possible responses, and then gets into a section that asks whether there is a biblical basis for hard EFS (which is what Grudem claims for instance). McCall suggests that there are not any passages that push one to have to accept hard EFS, but rather are consistent with a soft approach instead.

Certainly people aware of the debate are aware that it often ties into understandings about gender roles. However, if hard EFS is true, it does not actually support a complimentarian position. Rather, as McCall relays a point from Keith Yandell in a footnote (187n37), it strongly suggests that women are inferior to men. If you look back up at the list of propositions and substitute “women” for “Son” and “men” for “Father,” it’s rather obvious that’s how the argument would work.

It seems at the end of the day, it is more consistent with the tradition of theological reflection, and not inconsistent with Scripture to affirm a soft EFS and deny its hard counterpart. Also, in doing so, the affirmation would not have a strong connection to gender roles. Or, to anticipate one of McCall’s theses below, it is an aspect of Trinitarian doctrine that is now detached from a sociopolitcal agenda.

If you’re interested in this debate, and the topic in general, I’d encourage you to read this book. It might take a while to wade through, but it is worth the effort. To give you an idea what some of his conclusions are, I’ll just close with the 15 theses he lists in his own conclusion to the book. He breaks them into categories, and I’ve done the same.

Theses on Trinitarian Theological Method

  • Trinitarian theology should attend to important issues of theological prolegomena (220)
  • Trinitarian theologians should work to see the doctrine of the Trinity in the context of the broader biblical narrative (222)
  • Trinitarian theology should not conflate Trinitarian doctrine with sociopolitical agendas (224)
  • Trinitarian theologians should be clear about the place of “mystery” (227)
  • Trinitarian theology should be clear about its goals; I suggest that attempts to deal with the “threeness-oneness problem” should offer an account that is coherent (or at least not obviously incoherent), is compatible with the biblical portraits of the distinctness of the divine persons, is in accord with the scriptural account of monotheism, and is consistent with t he major creeds of Christendom (229)

Theses of the “Threeness-Oneness Problem” of the Trinity

  • Trinitarian theology should be committed to monotheism (233)
  • Trinitarian theology should insist on the full divinity of the distinct persons, and it should avoid whatever might compromise the full equality and divinity of the persons (236)
  • Trinitarian theology should insist on an understanding of persons that is consistent with the New Testament portrayal of the divine persons, that is, as distinct centers of consciousness and will who exist together, in loving relationships of mutual dependence (236)
  • Trinitarian theology should reject ST [Social Trinitarianism] theories that relay upon merely generic perichoretic unity, RT [Relative Trinitarianism] theories that leave open the door to either moralism or anti realism, and LT [Latin Trinitarianism] (241)
  • Trinitarian theology should adopt either the constitution view (CT) or a modified version of ST (243)

Theses on the God-World Relation

  • Trinitarian theologians can, and should – although perhaps not always for distinctly Trinitarian reasons – hold that creation is continent rather than necessary (246)
  • Trinitarian theologians should maintain that creation is the free expression of the holy love that is an essential attribute of the triune God (248)
  • Trinitarian theologians should affirm Jenson’s “Identification Thesis” but deny his “Identity Thesis” (250)
  • If properly nuanced, the doctrine of perichoresis can be a helpful category for understanding divine purposes for creation (and the God-world relation more generally) (250)
  • Trinitarian theologians should affirm that the providential and redemptive actions of the triune God should be understood in light of the triune identity and purposes for creation (251)


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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