The Semi-Arianism of ESS Arguments


Proponents of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) are indeed aware of and openly opposed to the Semi-Arian teaching of an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, that is, a subordination and hierarchy within the very nature, essence, or being of God; for such a position clearly contradicts the Nicene Creed, dividing the one Nature and Will of God, calling into question the co-equality of the Persons. Rather, they locate this subordination and hierarchy of authority within relations of function or role amongst the persons of the Godhead. This, they claim, distinguishes their position from the Arian heresy and shields them from their critics. As Bruce Ware puts it,

[…]the Father’s authority over the Son does not indicate he is superior to the Son because 1) the Father and the Son each possesses the identically same nature and hence they are absolutely co-eternal and co-equal in nature, and 2) authority and submission describe merely the manner by which these persons relate to one another, not what is true of the nature of the Father or the Son. In other words, authority and submission are functional and hypostatic, not essential (i.e., of the divine essence) or ontological categories, and hence they cannot rightly be invoked as a basis of declaring one’s ontology (nature) greater and the other’s lesser. Ontologically, the Father and Son are fully equal, but as persons, they function in an eternal Father-Son relationship, in which the Father always acts in a way that befits who he is as Father, and Son always acts in a way that befits who he is as Son. Their Father-Son manner of relating (functioning) is seen (in part) in the authority of the Father and submission of the Son, as is evidenced by the vast array of the biblical self-revelation of the Trinitarian persons.[1]

Or as Wayne Grudem states it,

The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function[…].[2]

But it seems clear to me (and others) that the words “function” and “role” are being used illicitly and beyond their normal meanings, in order to grant a veneer of plausibility to their unorthodox claims. To begin with, “function” already implies ontology, or properties of being, nature, or essence. Bruce Ware is absolutely correct when he states that, “function always and only follows essence. Put differently, what something can do is an expression of what it is”[3]. That is part of the very definition of “function”! And the use of “role” fares no better when squared with the body of ESS/EFS/ERAS teaching, for a role is by definition not a necessary relation, nor an eternally fixed relation; a role could have been otherwise and can always become otherwise. If one is in an eternal, necessary, counterfactual-excluding relation, then one is simply not in a relation of role.[4]

But in the end, regardless of the terms used, ESS is indeed about ontology and ontological subordination. “Ontology” is the study of fundamental being, nature, essence; it has to do with what makes something what it is, including what it must be to be what it is and what it cannot be and still be what it is. This is not the whole of the discipline of ontology, but it is essential to the meaning of “ontological”. When we speak ontologically of God, we are speaking of His very being, nature, and essence—those things which are fundamental to who He is and without which He is not who He is. Despite the reliance on “function” and “role” throughout the ESS literature, a simple ordering of the logic of their arguments quickly peels away the veneer of plausibility:

(1) God is ontologically Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or He is not who He is:

[…]if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity (cf. also John 17:5, 24). Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging (see chapter 11 above). Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is. (Grudem[5])

(2) There are no distinctions amongst the persons of the Godhead except in relations:

[…]it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person. (Grudem[6])

There is no difference in attributes at all. The only difference between them is the way they relate to each other and to the creation. (Grudem[7])

(3) In eternity, the fundamental relational distinction between the Persons of the Trinity is their internal relations of subordination.

The heresy of subordinationism, which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should be clearly distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function: without this truth, we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not eternally be Father and Son. (Grudem[8])

Authority and submission between the Father and the Son, and between both Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity. (Grudem[9])

[…]support will be offered for the church’s long-standing commitment to the Trinitarian persons’ full equality of essence and differentiation of persons, the latter of which includes and entails the eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to both Father and Son. (Ware[10])

(4) Or, that the Father is “Father” and the Son “Son” entails that, and is entailed by, the submission of the latter to the former and the authority of the former over the latter:

[…]what does it mean that the Father is the eternal Father of the Son, and that the Son is the eternal Son of the Father? Is not the Father-Son relationship within the immanent Trinity indicative of some eternal relationship of authority within the Trinity itself? (Ware[11])

Clearly, a central part of the notion of “Father” is that of fatherly authority. (Ware[12])

Authority belongs to the Father not because he is wiser or because He is a more skillful leader, but just because he is the Father. (Grudem[13])

The names “Father” and “Son” represent an eternal difference in the roles of the Father and the Son. The Father has a leadership and authority role that the Son does not have, and the Son submits to the Father’s leadership in a way that the Father does not submit to the Son. (Grudem[14])

(5) Therefore God is not Father, Son, and Holy Ghost unless there is an order of subordination within the Godhead:

If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination[…]then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed. (Grudem[15])

And by (1) we must conclude that God is not who He is without an eternal order of subordination! That, my friends, is an ontological statement—an ontological subordination—and it absolutely contradicts the Nicene formula. If (a) God is ontologically triune, (b) the triunity of God is defined by the relational distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit, and (c) father-ness and son-ness necessarily imply authority and submission, then we must conclude that the supposed relation of subordination is necessarily definitive of the very being, nature, and essence of God. The subordination of the Son to the Father would be no more a functional role than is His eternity, omnipotence, or immutability.

Grudem, Ware, and any who make the above quoted arguments, are indeed arguing for an ontological subordination, whether they would like to acknowledge it or not. Though we ought never impute the implications of a position to those who consciously and overtly reject such implications, we nevertheless can and should conclude that the logic of ESS arguments does indeed imply Semi-Arianism.

[1] “Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”

[2] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.C.2.b (

[3] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 76

[4] See Kevin Giles, “The Genesis Of Confusion: How ‘Complementarians’ Have Corrupted Communication

[5] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.B.6

[6] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[7] ibid., Ch. 14.D.3

[8] ibid., Ch. 14.C.2.b

[9] Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, p. 52

[10] ibid., pp. 234-235

[11] ibid., p. 242

[12] ibid., p. 245

[13] ibid., p. 51

[14]“Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father”

[15] Systematic Theology, Ch. 14.D.3

8 thoughts on “The Semi-Arianism of ESS Arguments

  1. Chris Nelson June 21, 2017 / 7:22 am

    Thank you and God bless. We should actively rebuke Mr. Grudem for his ESS heresy, as well as his Neo Montanist heresy and his Systematic should be pulled from all serious Christian institutions. This is a serious matter and we will undoubtedly see Arianism prominent in the next generation of evangelicalism if history is any predictor as well as evangelical indifference.


  2. Chris Stewart July 25, 2017 / 8:51 am

    Good read thank you


  3. Jay R. Walker August 5, 2017 / 1:28 pm

    Just because Ware and Grudem misuse and misapply the nomenclature for function and role doesn’t mean that they must fit into your usage, Brad. For instance, you claim that function is necessarily ontological, but did not provide any actual proof for that claim. I can hammer nails with my wife’s heals, but just because her shoes are functioning as a hammer doesn’t make them one. Similarly, the entire notion of the act and function of submission among equals is to deny ones rights and ontological claims in fulfillment of the collective will.

    I fully agree with continuing to push a corrective to Ware’s and Grudem’s unhelpful formulations. The trouble is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which I see happening quite a bit here (note: this may be partially why you misunderstood Ligonier’s position on functional submission).
    Thanks for listening.


    • Brad Mason September 21, 2017 / 9:34 am

      Hello Jay! Hope all is well.

      I actually just quoted Bruce Ware saying that function always follows essence. My arguments in no way depend on this as a premise.

      Further, Ligonier does not by any means hold to functional submission. Sproul and Ligonier reject it outright and I did not misunderstand their statement to begin with; I just thought it was left a little too wide open, given the many understanding of “economy”, to accomplish their goal. THey have since clarified.

      Thank you again for commenting!


  4. Kirby L. Wallace May 24, 2018 / 10:33 pm

    “To begin with, “function” already implies ontology, or properties of being, nature, or essence.”

    No. it does not. As far as I am able to ascertain on my admittedly brief study on the matter, ESS addresses distinction of ROLES, and that only. To say that my function is somehow a matter of my nature is to suggest that I am a software developer because it is my “essence of being” to do so. It is not.

    That within the Trinity, there are distinctions of ROLES, divided among the three persons.

    I really think the debate would be easier if we could drop the word “subordination” in favour of “distinction”.

    “Subordination” inescapably is tied to “obedience”. But…

    There is no obedience in the Godhead. All three are of one – literally one – mind. Therefore, there is no “obedience”, and no “submission” even possible.

    Each does naturally what the other do, and think, and ARE, at all times. It is only when there is NOT one mind that obedience and submission come into play. Husbands and wives may be, and often are, of different minds, leading to the need for obedience and submission.

    But such does not exist in the Trinity. Submission and obedience can only happen when there is a difference of mind (ie, what the Bible calls the “heart”). There is no way to have “authority over” someone who does not in any way disagree with you. What would that even mean?

    So, in ESS, Subordination does not mean, and is not in any way related to “obedience” or “submission”. I personally do not even know why the word “Subordination” was adopted.

    “Eternal Distinction of the Son” would have been more appropriate, as what the doctrine of ESS really teaches is a difference in ROLES. WHO does WHAT in the Godhead.

    Initiation and direction? The Father. Creation, and Judgement? The Son. Comfort and Aid to the Saints in creation? The Spirit.

    In Genesis, the Bible says “Let US create man in OUR own image.” And all involved were of complete like mind. There was no “Uhm, wait a sec….” that lead to submission and obedience.

    When the Bible says “Let US….” it means that all three of them said, together, “Let US…”.

    The doctrine is correct in essence, but (IMO) wrong in the nomenclature.


    • Trent July 23, 2018 / 8:25 am

      You need to look up definitions. Functions entail essence. A function is immutable. And it’s being claimed the Son is eternally subordinate but the Father is not. As a result, the Son is in an inferior position because he must do something that is not accorded to the Father.


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