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You Need One to Count to the Trinity

Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) and Divine Simplicity

Western culture today parades its rebellion against nature and our Creator, against the goodness of bearing God’s image as men and women. Christians must defend the Bible’s teaching on God’s design for both sexes and how each complements the other. Many, however, do so by arguing that our roles and relationships as men and women are patterned after the Trinity itself,[1] specifically in the Father’s authority over the Son in an “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS).[2] While I agree with many EFS proponents on the biblical order for the home and the church, there is a tragic irony to their method. By implicitly dividing our simple God, they undermine the foundation of the very scriptural ethics that they endeavor to preserve.

The Simple Unity of God

Scripture emphatically cuts against humanity’s penchant for polytheism.[3] The basic confession of God’s people was the Shema, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). If our Lord is an exclusive, singular unity, He must therefore be a simple unity.[4] If the One who created all things is composed of any things (or parts) prior to Him, then it could not be said that He created all things (Gen 1:1; Rom 11:36). In the 17th century, Edward Leigh explained:

God is absolutely Simple, he is but one thing, and doth not consist of any parts… If he did consist of parts, there must be something before him, to put those parts together; and then he were not Eternal.[5]

God is absolutely Simple, he is but one thing, and doth not consist of any parts -Edward Leigh. Click To Tweet Divine simplicity is why Scripture not only describes qualities God has but uses substantives to say what He is, as in “You are good” (Ps 119:68) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8).[6] When God told Moses “I AM who I AM” (Exod 3:14-15), He revealed His peerless nature by His name, “Yahweh” (usually represented by “LORD” in English), something of a pun on “I AM.”[7] God’s essential name means He is “Being itself,”[8] “an Absolute Being, nothing but Himself,” so that “whatsoever you can say of God, is God.”[9] As the One who is (cf. Rev 4:8), God is exalted above any possibility of cause, change, chronology, or categorization.[10] Creatures are divided into individual beings who can be grouped with others who share their nature, as members of a common species. How can this be true of the Creator of all natures? How could He come to exist in a category that is prior to Him with peers who are like Him? “It is thus divine simplicity that undergirds monotheism and ensures that it does not just so happen that God is one, but it must be that God cannot but be one being because of what it means to be God.”[11] There is no one like our simple God (Isa 44:8).

When He spoke to us by His Son, the Lord revealed that He is a simple being who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. So, Paul could ascribe Israel’s Shema to the Father and the Son, who are “one” and who created “all things” (1 Cor 8:4-6; cf. Col 1:16; Jn 1:3). As the early church reflected on such texts, they understood that “[t]he generation of the Son and the breathing of the Spirit thus occur within the bounds of the divine simplicity.”[12] In other words, “The persons are not different things from that thing which is the divine essence.”[13] God simply is the Father begetting the Son and, with the Son, breathing forth the Spirit.[14] Divine simplicity, far from being inconsistent with the Trinity, is in fact its “lynchpin.”[15] How else could we be kept from thinking of the Father, Son, and Spirit as individual beings of a divine species like creatures?[16] Or even as a council of deities that we have just named “God”?[17] God is Triune, not in spite of His simplicity, but because of it. Swain put this plainly:

there was and is no need for the doctrine of the Trinity if God is not simple, for there were and are plenty of sophisticated and unsophisticated ways of conceiving how three persons may comprise one complex divine being or community.[18]

So, if we think about the Trinity in mathematical terms, we do not need to say “three” (as if the persons are individual beings of a divine species). We can always say the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. However, if we do not say that God is “one,” then we would be saying little more than polytheists say about their deities.[19] In order to count to the true and Triune God, the essential number is one.

The Divided Community of EFS

While EFS advocates undeniably affirm the exclusive unity of God, their modern revision of the Trinity endangers it. Theology requires, as Sinclair Ferguson has written, that we “point out the logical implications of presuppositions.”[20] EFS logically entails the division of our simple God in more than one way, ignoring Calvin’s warning not to “think God’s simple essence to be torn into three persons.”[21]

If the One who created all things is composed of any things (or parts) prior to Him, then it could not be said that He created all things. Click To TweetFirst, God’s indivisible unity means that whatever we say of God’s nature is equally true of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that includes His will and authority.[22] By His will and power, Scripture identifies God as God, “I am God, and there is no one like me… My purpose shall stand” (Isa 46:9-10). So, each Person exercises that divine will inseparably from the other two as God.[23] The Son sovereignly “chooses” inseparably from the Father’s “will” (Matt 11:26-27; cf. Jn 5:19-21), while the Holy Spirit works as “he wills” (1 Cor 12:11), which is inseparable from how “God [the Father]… chose” (v. 18; cf. v. 6).[24] Christians have “overwhelmingly affirmed a singular mind and will in God,”[25] for the “divine will is thus the being of God Himself.”[26] John of Damascus said that the Trinity is:

one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration.[27]

And John Owen said the same: “acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations.”[28]

Yet, EFS assumes the Father and Son each have their own wills in a tiered structure of authority. This attributes will to the persons rather than the simple divine nature.[29] However, anyone familiar with debates over the freedom and bondage of man’s will already know that will is a faculty of nature – that is why we argue that the unregenerate are not without wills, but they are bound to their fallen nature, apart from sovereign grace.[30] “There is no safe ‘functional’ subordination,” because it excludes the Son and Spirit from the greater will and power of the Father, functionally denying their equality as God.[31] Herman Witsius (1636-1708) correctly reasoned, “If any person were possessed of greater excellence and dignity than the Son or the Holy Spirit, neither of these persons could be the Most High God.”[32] This imperils other divine attributes as well. EFS entails a gap between the Father’s command and the Son’s obedience which negates eternality. If this were the case, then the Son would have need of learning the Father’s will, which requires He has some ignorance, denying omniscience.[33] How can any of this be true of the three who are one and, therefore, “the same in Deity, Dignity, Eternity, Operation, and Will”?[34] By reducing the unity of will in the Trinity to a cooperative agreement, like a successful divine team, EFS effectively denies simplicity and mimics the reasoning of Monarchians in the past.[35]

God is Triune, not in spite of His simplicity, but because of it. Click To TweetFurthermore, EFS does not avoid dividing divine unity by claiming that the Son’s submission to the Father is merely “functional.” This assumes that being and function are distinct things in God, which would mean God is composed of such categories and no longer simple.[36] For EFS to be true, we would have to account for how being and function came to be prior to God and how God came to be composed of them. Of course, this is to deny that all things have come from Him who is peerlessly beyond categories.

EFS blurs the distinction between the Creator and His creation that divine simplicity establishes in other ways as well.[37] It reads modern, human notions of “person” and personhood onto the Trinity,[38] neglecting the wisdom of Augustine:

Yet, when the question is asked, What three? Human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, three persons, not that it might be spoken, but that it might not be left unspoken.[39]

And it confuses the order (or taxis) of the Trinity, where the Father is named before the Son and the Spirit – which is decidedly “not a temporal or natural order,” but “a special situation that is called the order of origination”[40] – for a creaturely hierarchy.[41] This is not the simple divine unity revealed in Scripture and defended by the saints in the past, like Gregory of Nazianzus:

This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one.[42]

By reading a human structure of authority and submission back into the Father and Son, EFS raises the question of whether other human characteristics, like differences in age or wisdom should also be inferred by the names of Father and Son.[43] And if not, then why are authority and submission to be implied by the divine fatherhood and sonship?

It is divine simplicity that distinguishes God as our ineffable God and “makes the Trinity such a profound mystery.” [44] Christian worship and teaching does “not desire to lay hold of the Trinity but only to behold God as triune.”[45] Surely Fred Sanders is on the right track to suggest that “What passes between them [Father, Son, and Spirit] in their eternal life together is something high and exalted, something we probably do not have a name for.”[46]

EFS drifts away from divine simplicity toward a functional tritheism. Christians must work to remove EFS from our teaching and publications. Click To Tweet Finally, EFS has overlooked that the blueprint of biblical ethics is not the ineffable eternal relations of the Trinity, but the word of our Lord who is one. “The Scriptures ground ethics upon metaphysics, for God’s supreme authority to command our trust and obedience derives from his supreme being – who and what he is.”[47] There are no scriptural texts where our duty before God is rooted in the Son’s eternal obedience to the Father in God.[48] Scripture, however, regularly bases our moral obligations upon His simple unity as God. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is the rationale for the Great Commandment to “love the LORD your God” (v. 5) and to teach His laws to succeeding generations (vv. 6-7).[49] Divine unity is the “ontological basis” of worship and obedience.[50] This includes the command to love our neighbor, which is also rooted in the fact that He is Yahweh, the Lord who is (Lev 19:18). Jesus could teach that these commands unite the whole law (Matt 22:39) because they come from the only Lawgiver, who is a simple unity Himself. In fact, God’s law can be described as “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12), fulfilled by love (Rom 13:8, 10), because it is the word of the God who’s very being is holiness (Isa 6:3), righteousness (Jer 23:6), goodness (Ps 119:68), and love (1 Jn 4:8). As Charnock observed, God’s moral law is “the image of God’s holiness, a transcript of his righteousness, and the efflux of his goodness.”[51] God’s word is our singular authority for obedience, over our lives as men and women, because He is one, simply and entirely.


In our confused generation, churches must disciple tempted Christians and declare to suspicious communities what the Bible teaches about the divine design for each sex. We, however, can only herald its truth, goodness, and beauty if we can explain that it is designed by the God who is goodness, truth, and beauty Himself. That He is because He is simple. In the 19th century, Herman Bavinck reflected:

When the confession of the one true God weakens and is denied, and the unity sought in pantheism eventually satisfies neither the intellect nor the heart, the unity of the world and of humankind, of religion, morality, and truth can no longer be maintained. Nature and history fall apart in fragments, and along with consciously or unconsciously fostered polytheistic tendencies, every form of superstition and idolatry makes a comeback. Modernity offers abundant proof for this state of affairs, and for that reason the confession of the oneness of God is of even greater significance today than it was in earlier times.”[52]

God’s indivisible unity means that whatever we say of God’s nature is equally true of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that includes His will and authority. Click To Tweet Now, in the twenty-first century, we watch as our culture can no longer maintain morality and truth, promoting irrational behavior contrary to nature. So, the oneness of God is of no less significance today. Whatever the just intentions of its advocates, EFS drifts away from divine simplicity toward a functional tritheism. So, Christians must work to remove EFS from our teaching and publications. We must quit exporting it overseas through marriage training curricula to our brothers and sisters whose near background often includes polytheistic patterns of thinking. We must help the church anchor itself in this sea of rebellion against our created natures upon the simple nature of God. Resting upon our Rock, we pray that He unites our hearts to fear His indivisible name (Ps 86:11), as men and women made in His image.


[1] This move follows in the steps of the broader theological project of social trinitarianism. On this, see Stephen Holmes, “Three Versus One? Some Problems of Social Trinitarianism,” Journal of Reformed Theology 3 (2009), pp. 77-89; Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity (Baker, 2021), pp. 67-93.

[2] EFS has also been labeled Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS) and the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS), D. Glenn Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics (Baker, 2022), p. 114. Its main proponents include Bruce Ware, Grudem, and Owen Strachan. For an overview and citations of their publications, see Barrett, Simply Trinity, pp. 213-59 and D. Glenn Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience (Pickwick, 2018), pp. 13-48.

[3] As Holmes provocatively put it: “The totality of the biblical witness concerning God, it seems to me, consists of a sustained and pointed witness to the oneness of God in the face of repeated temptations to polytheisms, supplemented by a brief coda or appendix suggesting that this One God is in fact triune. I realize, of course, that describing the New Testament as ‘a brief coda or appendix’ to the scriptures is rather polemical, but perhaps it makes the point. The claim that social trinitarianism is biblical is by no means obvious; rather, it depends on a very particular hermeneutic that privileges the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels, in ways that at least demand explanation and defence.” Holmes, “Three Versus One?,” pp. 86-87.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 2008), 2:173-76

[5] Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity (1646), 1:166-67.

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:173.

[7] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer (Lexham, 2019), p. 23).

[8] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer (1839; reprint, Reformation Heritage, 2010), pp. 188.

[9] Jeremiah Burroughs, An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea (1643), p. 522

[10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:176; Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction (Crossway, 2020), pp. 55-56.

[11] James Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism (Reformed Heritage Books, 2017), p. 116.

[12] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy (Oxford, 2006), p. 281.

[13] Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience, pp. 132.

[14] Stephen Holmes, “Classical Trinitarianism and Eternal Functional Subordination: Some Historical and Dogmatic Reflections,” in Bird and Harrower, eds., Trinity Without Hierarchy (Kregel, 2019), p. 270.

[15] Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics, p. 114.

[16] Dolezal, All That Is in God, p. 106; Swain, The Trinity, p. 60.

[17] So Dolezal argues: “The Bible’s various claims to God’s exclusivity, if understood in isolation from the implications of divine simplicity, do not appear sufficient in themselves to prove monotheism beyond the shadow of a doubt. This is because without the requirements of simplicity, it is possible, even if improbable, that the passages recording God’s declarations of His singular exclusivity are merely the statements of a corporate entity comprised of really distinct beings. There is biblical precedent for corporate entities comprised of really distinct beings making claims to exclusivity and even deploying first-person singular pronouns to do so. Babylon, for instance, idolatrously misappropriates the divine name, saying, ‘I am, and there is no one else besides me’ (Isa. 47:8, 10; cf. Zeph. 2:15). All That Is in God, p. 115, n. 21.

[18] Scott Swain, “Divine Trinity” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, Allen and Swain, eds. (Baker, 2016), pp. 102-3.

[19] Philip Cary, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction (Lexham, 2023), pp. 214-15.

[20] The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016), p. 155, n. 1. This observation was cited by Mike Riccardi, “Pursuing Unity on Triunity,” March 8, 2023, at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA.

[21] John Calvin, Institutes, I.13.2; cited by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2019), 1:897.

[22] “All that is said of the eternal life of God is said of the single ousia save only that which refers to the relations of origin.” Holmes, “Classical Trinitarianism and Eternal Functional Subordination,” p. 267. See also Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics, pp. 97-99.

[23] Steven Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism (Baker, 2022), pp. 67-68.

[24] Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, 1:987.

[25] Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics, p. 114.

[26] Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (1950; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2007), p. 81.

[27] An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, I.VIII, in Schaff & Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 9b, p. 6.

[28] The Holy Spirit, in Works (Banner of Truth), 3:93.

[29] Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics, p. 114; Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience, pp. 139-40.

[30] I owe this insight to Mike Riccardi, “Pursuing Unity on Triunity,” March 8, 2023, at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA.

[31] Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, p. 126.

[32] Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (1823; reprint, Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), p. 49.

[33] Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, p. 126; Dolezal, All That Is in God, p. 131, n. 60.

[34] James Ussher, A Body of Divinity (1702), pp. 135-36.

[35] Matthew Emerson, “The Role of Proverbs 8,” in Sanders & Swain, eds., Retrieving Eternal Generation (Zondervan, 2017), p. 65, n. 66.

[36] Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience, pp. 138-39.

[37] Divine simplicity is “utterly without analogy in the creature.” Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 2003), 3:277.

[38] See John Owen, “A divine person is nothing but the divine essence, upon the account of an especial property, subsisting in an especial manner,” in Communion with the Triune God, in Works (Banner of Truth), 2:407. On the use of “person” and “subsistence,” see Samuel Renihan, Deity & Decree (2020), pp. 83-86.

[39] On the Trinity, V.9

[40] William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism (Reformation Heritage, 2008), p. 47.

[41] See Holmes, “Classical Trinitarianism and Eternal Functional Subordination,” pp. 268-70. On the use of “subordination” in theology, take note of Scott Swain’s careful distinction in Trinity and the Bible (Lexham, 2021), p. 35, n. 15: From a linguistic perspective, relations of origin (i.e., eternal generation, eternal procession) gloss the personal names (i.e., Son of God, Spirit of God). From a metaphysical perspective, relations of origin distinguish the persons without dividing the essence—indeed, they are the only way of distinguishing the persons without dividing the essence. Grasping this point helps us appreciate where uses of terms such as “subordination” are appropriate or inappropriate in Trinitarian theology. When the term “subordination” is used, as it traditionally has been used, to refer to relations of origin (or to their temporal expressions in mission), then the term is licit. When the term “subordination” is used, as it more recently has been used, as an alternative to relations of origin in order to distinguish the persons by relations of authority and submission, then the term is illicit. Whereas the former usage preserves what is common to the three (being, authority, glory, operation, etc.), the latter compromises what is common to the three, turning, for example, “authority” into a personal property of the Father rather than a common property of the three. In theological grammar, it is not the “lexicon” alone (i.e., terminology) that determines whether a theological viewpoint is licit, but also the “syntax” (i.e., ruled usage of terminology)

[42] Orations, 40.41, in Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 7:375.

[43] Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, p. 126.

[44] Dolezal, All That Is in God, p. 123.

[45] Thomas Oden, The Living God (Prince Press, 1998), p. 217.

[46] “Trinity in Gender Debates,” The Scriptorium Daily, http://www [Accessed March 23, 2024].

[47] Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, 1:557.

[48] Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, p. 255.

[49] “The confession of the Lord’s unique oneness leads to the demand that Israel recognize him as such by obedience to all that that implies.” Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy (Broadman & Holman, 1994), p. 163.

[50] Dolezal, All That Is in God, p. 112.

[51] Cited by Terry Johnson, The Identity and Attributes of God (Reformation Heritage, 2019), p. 153.

[52] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:173

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Steve Meister

Steve Meister serves as pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA, where he focuses on preaching, theological instruction, as well as the church’s ministry internship and leadership training. He also serves on the board of the Bible Translation Fellowship.

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