Grudem on Calvin and the EFS

In the middle of this year, there was some debate going on among the reformed circle concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. To provide an extremely brief background to this debate, we have to revisit very quickly how the doctrine of the Trinity came to be. Historically, the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father was officially rejected in the 4th century. Evangelicals today therefore define one major aspect of orthodoxy as affirming the equality of the Son and the Father. The Son is not said to be of similar (homoiousios) substance with the Father but of the same (homoousios) substance with the Father. However, the church fathers were equally faithful in maintaining that the Christian God was monotheistic and that there was no plurality of gods. To them (as to us) God is a single substance consisting of 3 persons. As a result, all three persons share in that divine nature, will and power. The persons of the Trinity cannot be understood to be working separately for they are one being possessing a single will. We cannot therefore speak of three wills within the Godhead. The early church understood this and wrote quite extensively on this matter. For instance, just to name a few, Ambrose in his comparison of man and God says “how much more are the Father and the Son one in Divinity, with Whom there is no difference either of substance or of will!”[1] Similarly, Augustine makes the comment that“the will of the Father and the Son is one, and their working indivisible.[2]

With that, we now turn to the ongoing debate mentioned at the start. The main gist of the debate surrounds some theologians from the reformed camp who hold not to an ontological subordination of the Son, but to a functional subordination that takes places from all eternity even prior to the incarnation (eternal functional subordination). Obviously this has caused some comments from people who think otherwise and in fact feel that such a position is a stray away from the historical orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. They argue that it is not possible to have an attribute of functional subordination without having a subordination or differentiation of essence. Wayne Grudem, a proponent of the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), has in his defence come up with a list of 13 evangelicals who support the EFS while maintaining the equality of the Son to the Father.  (

Among the 13 evangelicals, I noticed that he cited Richard Muller’s explanation of Calvin. Out of curiosity, I decided to check out the exact quotation for myself and…I think I found something quite different. Here’s Grudem’s citation of Muller:

“Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons . . . But he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence”

And here’s Muller’s exact citation in full:

Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons—but in order only, as indicated by the generation of the Son from the Father and by the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son, but he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence. There is, after all, only one divinity, one divine essence, that belongs indivisibly and fully to each of the persons”[3]

After reading Muller’s full citation, I actually find Grudem’s use of Muller very misleading. Grudem is trying to use Muller to justify his position that Calvin believed in a subordination (in this case the EFS) within the Trinity while affirming the equality of essence. However, Muller’s citation of Calvin actually says nothing of a functional subordination but only speaks of a subordination in terms of logical ordering due to the eternal generation of the Son. In other words, within the Godhead there is an order of priority in that the Father begets the Son and the Son is begotten. This order of priority speaks only of the relation of order and nothing else. Here is Muller explaining it himself:

“Calvin insisted that the subordination of the Son and the Spirit was a matter of order, not of essence, and that the subordination referred only to the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit[4]

Muller then ends off the section on the aseity of the Son by saying that “Calvin’s view, like that of many of the later Reformed, follows out the line of the Western, Augustinian, trinitarian model, as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council, rather than the Greek model.”[5]

If what Muller says is right, then I don’t see how Calvin could have held to the EFS seeing that the Augustinian model never understood eternal generation to be functionally subordinate. For Grudem’s point to stand,it seems that he must show how eternal generation equates to a functional subordination. Grudem’s citation of Calvin’s commentary is also misleading to me because the issue here is not of Christ’s earthly subordination to the Father but of Christ’s eternal subordination to the Father prior to the incarnation. It seems then that Calvin may not actually be considered as one of the evangelicals who affirms the EFS as Grudem would like to think….What say you?


[1] Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 204.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 41.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 80.

[4]Ibid., 324.

[5]Ibid., 326.

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