Friday, September 6, 2019

The Son Who Learned Obedience [Review]

While many evangelicals are aware of the internicene debates over whether or not the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally functionally subordinate hereafter EFSS) to the Father, it seems not many have delved more deeply into the matter than what they have read online between the feuding parties. D. Glen Butner’s book on the matter takes the reader beyond the dialectical proof-texting of Scripture and historical theologians so common in the debate, and addresses some more pressing concerns that the doctrine of EFSS raises. The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Subordination of the Son aims to, and in this writer’s opinion does, present an argument against the EFSS doctrine that self-consciously elaborates on some of the more nuanced doctrines presupposed and entailed by it. Rather than miring down his readers in abstruse details, Butner skillfully selects the more prominent facts relevant to his argument, explains them, and draws his conclusion.

The book is scholarly, accessible, and irenic in its tone. Butner is not seeking to anathematize those who hold to EFSS; he wants to respectfully and carefully engage with their best arguments, and he succeeds at it. A needed explanation of the complexity of the issue at hand is given by Butner before he delves into EFSS, its proponents, and his argument against it. He reminds his readers that “systematic theology differs from biblical theology in the tools it deploys to make sense of the Bible.”1 Whether or not the Son of God is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father is a question that all sides of the debate will have to answer by means of “second-order reflection on the Bible.” Butner —
The issue of eternal submission is a question of how best to make sense of the broad testimony of Scripture, a question of which terminology provides conceptual clarity for Scripture's broad testimony, and a question of whether the terminology considered is compatible with faith seeking understanding through reason and tradition. When theologians who speak of eternal obedience or submission offer a trinitarian theology, they are offering a second-order reflection on the Bible, an attempt to clarify the broad pattern of the Bible by offering terminology informed by reason and tradition that yields conceptual clarity. My contention is that the terminology of eternal submission is not the best way to make sense of the big picture of the Bible because it creates a number of conceptual problems with other parts of that biblical story, thereby failing to be coherent and consequently suffering from a number of insurmountable doctrinal problems. The case against eternal submission is therefore a systematic case, a dispute about the best second-order system of language to be used when speaking of the Trinity.2
With this set in place, Butner presents his theological case against the doctrine of EFSS. There are three core doctrines of the faith that are, he argues, contradicted by EFSS, namely —
1. The doctrine of divine inseparable operations. 
2. Dyotheletism/ the doctrine of the two wills in Christ that correspond to his human and divine natures. 
3. The satisfaction aspect of Christ’s atoning work.
Common to these three doctrines is an underlying dependence upon the orthodox, biblical profession that there is only one divine will in God. Because God has a single will, the idea of eternal submission (which implies a distinction between the will of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit, i.e. tritheletism) is impossible. This is given further emphasis in Butner’s clear teaching on the Chalcedonian Christology, in which (a.)the will was identified as a property of a being’s nature, and (b.)the two natures in Christ are explicitly defined. Because the divine nature is one, and will is a property of the nature of a being, then it follows necessarily that any submission to the Father exhibited by Christ in his earthly ministry is being performed by Christ according to his human nature, proper to which there is a corresponding human will. The task of redeeming God’s elect was taken on by Christ freely, moreover, and this could not be the case if EFSS obtains. For, as Butner explains —
Anselm’s satisfaction theory draws on the broad canonical depiction of Christ paying our debt, and explains this payment in terms of the Son offering a voluntary and nonobligatory payment to the Father on behalf of humanity, dying a death to the honor of God when he had already lived a life of perfect obedience and so need not die. [Butner demonstrates that] Reformed accounts of penal substitutionary atonement incorporate Anselm’s basic account of satisfaction. This theology of satisfaction causes tremendous problems for the doctrine of eternal obedience. [For if] will is a personal property [as opposed to a property of one’s nature], it is difficult to see how the divine person of Christ could offer a human obedience to the Father. If the Son was eternally commanded to carry out his mediatorial office, then he was obligated to do so — God’s commands are morally binding. However, if the Son offered an obligatory payment for his own sake, he did not offer a voluntary payment above what was required for our sakes. The logic of satisfaction falls apart given eternal submission.3
Butner makes a compelling case, essentially demonstrating that if EFSS is true then the doctrine of the divine inseparable operations must be rejected or drastically revised, dylotheletism must be rejected, satisfaction theory must be rejected, and so must penal substitutionary atonement.

Additionally, Butner argues against EFSS proponents’ imprecise and undefined terminology regarding how God, of whom we must speak analogically (in the Aquinian sense) lest we blur the distinction between Creator and creation. If terms like obedience and submission meaning anything within the context of the ontological Trinity, that meaning must be understood as similar to but not identical with or contrary to the meanings they retain in creature to creature discourse. This is classified by Butner as imprecise theological language that fails to adequately deal with the doctrines mentioned above.

Butner’s case is strong, and is only further strengthened by his overview of the key texts used by EFSS proponents, in which he demonstrates that although some of the key texts could be interpreted in a manner consistent with EFSS, they are better addressed by the non-EFSS/traditional understanding of the eternal relationship that obtains between the First and Second persons of the Godhead, in which there is no hierarchy. Butner’s book addresses all of the key points related to the EFSS doctrine and its opponents, providing proponents of EFSS with a challenging but loving rebuttal to their strongest arguments in defense of EFSS, and giving the non-EFSS proponents a more solid defense of their position. The reader is lead to the data and the arguments, and is given the opportunity to think carefully about this very nuanced theological matter.

It is a great resource for both parties.

1 The Son Who Learned Obedience, 7.
2 ibid., 9.
3 ibid., 11.

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