Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Functional Subordinationism

With the current evangelical debate over the nature and structure of the Trinity, it appears the systematic theologians were the first to dive into the unfamiliar waters of Eternal Functional Subordinationism (e.g. Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware). “EFS” is the view that, though co-equal in power, deity, glory and attributes, the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Godhead is one of authority and submission – a “functional” hierarchy from eternity. In other words, though the Son and Father are equal ontologically, inside the structure of the Trinity the Son is eternally “subordinate” to the Father in function. Conversely, it appears that the historical theologians proved to be the more cautious evangelical party to dip their toe into the EFS pool, perhaps due to their knowledge of the past and the obvious lack of identical language regarding the Trinity in church history. However, this has not been a concrete rule among historical theologians. For example, whereas historians like Tom Nettles have supported EFS as a natural corollary to eternal generation of the Son, others such as Carl Trueman and Michael Haykin have rejected such an idea. Due to the importance of this crucial doctrine, Complementarian theologians should hardly be the loudest voices in the pool. Voices from the past should also be allowed to speak. Due to the amount of metaphysical and pastoral focus he placed upon the Trinity, Jonathan Edwards also provides a key source of wisdom on this important issue.

Edwards was unafraid to speak extrabiblically about the Trinity. In fact, in his “Miscellanies” (no. 94) Edwards famously wrote, “I am not afraid to say twenty things about the Trinity which the Scripture never said.” In her book The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (2002), Amy Plantinga Pauw observes, “Edwards’ Trinitarian writings are also unsettled in their curious vacillation between overweening confidence in the reasonableness of the Trinity and the pious humility concerning the doctrine’s mystery.” (51) Where many theologians (including Calvin) were unwilling to tread, Edwards walked boldly and humbly. Edwards inherited a long Puritan tradition of covenant theology that welcomed, in many ways, a social view of the Trinity along with a particularly Augustinian psychological model. Therefore, like his Protestant forbears, the Northampton theologian wrote at length about the “covenant of redemption.” This “pactum salutis” is an intra-Trinitarian agreement before the beginning of the ages by which the Father and Son consented to procure an elect people by the atoning work of the Son and the uniting work of His Spirit. Edwards saw this “covenant of redemption” detailed in texts like John 17.

However, Edwards was also unafraid to push beyond the traditional Puritan definition of the covenant of redemption. For Edwards, this covenant did not establish the Sonship of the Son in the immanent Trinity nor the economic “order of acting” within the Trinity. Instead, it constituted a third level of trinitarian relationship that determined which actions the economic Trinity would take ad extra in glorifying Himself. The covenant of redemption therefore represented a “new kind of subordination and a mutual obligation” between the Father and the Son that did not previously exist. It did not establish the respective personhoods or roles of the Father and Son in the triune hierarchy, but instead forged a new agreement. Hence the Son of God “puts himself under a new kind of subjection to the Father far below his economic station.” In short, Edwards believed that there was an economic Trinity that existed “prior to” the covenant of redemption. This economic hierarchy was not established “arbitrarily,” but stems from the “order of subsisting” within the eternal Godhead. This order is something that Edwards described as “in itself fit, suitable, and beautiful.” (H:78 79, 82)

Edwards’ view has been critiqued by several scholars, including Pauw and William J. Danaher Jr. In his The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards (2004), Danaher observes, “The tension between egalitarian and hierarchal aspects of order and harmony are not only evident in Edwards’s conception of God’s triune relations, but recur in his writings on human social arrangements.” (110) In other words, not even Edwards was able to escape the inevitably social parallels between Trinitarianism and sexual theology. According to Patricia Tracy, it seems that the pastor-theologian’s belief in social hierarchies heavily influenced his belief in and acceptance of divine hierarchy.

If we read Edwards carefully, particularly his Discourse On the Trinity and other sermons like “Heaven is a World of Love,” we find that not only was Edwards comfortable with a social model of the Trinity, he held to something closely approaching what we know today as “Eternal Functional Subordination.” So as not to commit anachronism and apply a modern debate to an 18th century context, we must first admit that Edwards’ Trinitarianism was, according to Amy Plantinga Pauw, an “eclectic synthesis” or a “cobbled mix” of both psychological and social models. Admittedly, Edwards was one of a kind in his thinking. However, his Trinitarian language is similar to the kind employed by theologians such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware for EFS. For example, Edwards was careful to acknowledge that the New Testament speaks of “a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature.” Simultaneously, Edwards also recognized that “there is dependence without inferiority,” navigating between the Scylla of Arianism and the Charybdis of Sabellianism. Danaher writes, “The question, then, is not whether there is subordination between the persons of the Trinity, but what kind. Although no ontological subordination exists in the Trinity, Edwards does acknowledge an economic subordination.” (74)

Edwards was clear that the “other persons’ acting under the Father does not arise from any natural subjection.” He continues, “it is in some respect established by mutual free agreement, whereby the persons of the Trinity, of their own will, have as it were formed themselves into a society, for carrying out the great design of glorifying the Deity and communicating its fullness.” (H:78) This is not a forceful, hegemonic authority; it is the pleasure of each Person of the Godhead. Again, this order transcends the covenant of redemption into an eternal functional subordination. As Edwards explains, “the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity” is agreeable to “the order of their subsisting.” (H:79) Danaher writes, “The hierarchy established in the economic Trinity, however, does not determine the content of the Trinity’s acting ad extra. The Father and Son establish an additional ‘covenant of redemption.’” (75)

Edwards interpreted texts like John 5:26 (“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself”) to mean that the Son was of no less Deity than the Father, yet, somehow, this aseity of the Son was from the Father, indicating a hierarchy of sorts within the immanent Trinity itself. Pauw provocatively calls this a “quasi-genetic order of subsistence.” (105) For this reason Edwards was comfortable calling the Father “the fountain of Deity” while also maintaining co-equality of divine Persons. Here Seng-Kong Tan identifies a development from the traditional Reformed concept of the immanent Trinity: “This notion of a necessary, communication of essence ad intra entails a modification of Calvin’s idea of autotheos. As all three divine persons are ‘numerically the same’ divine essence, they share equally in this one essential and esse. But the modes by which this essence is imparted and received and so ‘should be here or there’ allows the Son and Spirit to be considered as derived. In short, the Son is both derived and autotheos because he receives and so owns the one divine essence from the Father. Such a primordial self-communication in God implies no gradation of being in God but a dynamic, ordering of persons ad intra.” (“Trinitarian Action in the Incarnation”)

Jonathan Edwards called the Trinity a “blessed society” of divine Persons. This willingness to treat the Triune hierarchy as analogous to social human hierarchies serves to teach the modern church two valuable lessons in its examination of Eternal Functional Subordinationism. First, like the Complementarians and Egalitarians of our time, not even Edwards could escape the gravitational pull of his own social milieu when dealing with the Trinity. We cannot and should not wish the impossible; theology is never performed in a vacuum. Secondly, perhaps Edwards’ unique Trinitarianism can provide a much-needed lens to approach EFS. His personification of the Holy Spirit as love, coupled with his particularly social version of Puritan covenant theology, allowed him not only to pull together two models of Trinitarianism; he was also able to recognize a hierarchical Trinity without silently succumbing to neo-Arianism. Edwards’ Trinitarianism reminds us that while EFS may seem like uncharted territory for the church, there is in fact nothing new under the sun.


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