Covenant and Ontology: An EFS Rejoinder

I recently published an article of Ref21 where I challenged Dr. Owen Strachan’s views on EFS/ERAS and especially his use of 1 Corinthians 15:28 in defense of his position. I knew that writing such an article would evoke various responses from people in both camps. Doctrinal debates get heated, and often the 9th commandment is left at the door. That is why I attempted to write in a way that was both respectful and direct. I also wanted to make it clear that my intention for writing on this subject was to open the door for further dialogue and debate. Unfortunately, the first negative response I received was one who questioned whether or not my stated aim was genuine or “just for theater.” Ah, Twitter.

However, that response came from someone who desired actual conversation and who has apparently had less than productive encounters with objectors to EFS/ERAS. That’s unfortunate, and I can understand why it would cause one to question the sincerity of my request. In the end, after I assured him that I earnestly sought a discussion, Mr. Daniel Chew kindly wrote a response to my article, which Dr. Strachan himself has commended.

I’d now like to offer a rejoinder to Mr. Chew. There’s quite a bit to interact with in the post, and I cannot address everything in one article. Therefore, I’ll focus on a couple of things that I believe are most important in this discussion: the issues of the Pactum Salutis and ontology.

First, in his article Chew fails to recognize the serious implications of his own belief. He begins by affirming his belief of the eternal submission of the Son based on his view of the Pactum Salutis. This raises a question: What does Christ submit? Does the Son submit his will? Is that will then separate from the Father and the Spirit’s will? Submission necessarily involves more than one will. We see this in the incarnation, as Christ submits his human will to the Father’s divine will (Luke 22:42). To teach that the Son submits his will to the Father in eternity strikes at the heart of the doctrine of divine simplicity, because will is a natural property. Perhaps this is why the doctrine of simplicity has fallen on hard times in some circles in recent years. It is difficult to see how those who affirm EFS can consistently guard against tritheism.

One may ask then, doesn’t a pactum or covenant require distinct wills in order for a plan of redemption to be reached? No. In fact, I believe the idea of a covenant requiring distinct wills would be news to many Reformed theologians of the past and present. Submission is not a necessary ingredient for covenant. Rather,

“…the idea of a covenant can be explained in terms of agreement, and it is easy to explain agreement in the Godhead. The single divine will is expressed in a threefold fashion, each person willing the same object: the redemption of the church.”[1]

Herman Witsius, who has taught so clearly on this subject, observes that

“By undertaking to perform this obedience, in the human nature, in its proper time, the Son, as God, did no more subject himself to the Father, than the Father with respect to the Son, to the owing that reward of debt, which he promised him a right to claim.”[2]

If Witsius is right, would EFS proponents be ready to affirm the Father’s submission to the Son, since the Father “owes a debt” to the Son?

One can see why with so many issues, I have chosen to use the language of ontological submission. This is because it is unavoidable. Chew makes the claim that, “EFS rejects ontological authority and submission.” Others have taken issue with me using the language of ontological authority and submission in reference to Strachan’s (and others) views.

I’m glad Chew and others do not affirm ontological subordination. However, this is precisely what is being taught, whether particular theologians realize it or not. Which is one reason I felt it necessary to address here.

For eternal submission theologians, the Son’s submission is definitional to the nature of God. Even in Chew’s own modified view of EFS he states: “For the Son to not submit to the Father is for God to be not God; an impossibility.” This is striking for a number of reasons, but especially in light of his defense that EFS theologians reject ontological authority and submission. Note what Strachan himself says in his book The Grand Design:

“The Father is the Father because He sends the Son. The Son is the Son because He submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send Him. There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission.”[3]

In other words, a definitional aspect of the being of God is the relationship of authority and submission. It’s who He is. If the Son doesn’t eternally submit, then there is no Holy Trinity. No God. That makes submission a necessary attribute of the Son. Otherwise, he would not be the Son. If the attribute is necessary, how is it not essential and therefore ontological? Kevin Giles points out this issue very helpfully:

“If the Son is eternally submissive to the Father, always bound to obey him, because this is what indelibly and eternally distinguishes him from the Father, then he is a subordinate. Subordination in authority defines who he is, his being/nature; submission describes how he functions. The latter follows from the former. His being prescribes his eternal submissive ‘role.’”[4]

Bruce Ware pushes this further by stating that “The Father is supreme over all (creation), and in particular, he is supreme within the Godhead as the highest in authority and the one deserving of ultimate praise.”[5] This is not merely a statement about “functional” subordination either, as Ware readily affirms that “The Father has ontological primacy as the Father who eternally begets his Son.”[6]

You can’t make the claim that EFS/ERAS isn’t about ontological subordination while continuing to make statements of ontological disparity. Statements that place the Son as inferior (which is what this language and theology does) are dangerous. This is precisely why it has been argued that this view, if not Arian itself, certainly leads to Arianism. Therefore, we must reject this view and “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).

Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Related Links

Podcast: "Unmanipulated Trinity"

"Is the Son Eternally Begotten?" by Ben Franks

"The Eternal Subordination of the Son Debate," a series by Alastair Roberts

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw [ Paperback  | eBook ]

The Holy Trinity (Revised and Expanded) by Robert Letham


[1] D. Glenn Butner Jr., The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case against the Eternal Submission of the Son (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), 60.

[2] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 151.

[3] Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 67. Kindle.

[4] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 230.

[5] Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 67

[6] Bruce Ware, “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons” in Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, ed. Keith S. Whitfield (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2019), 36).