Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Response to Derrick Brite on the issue of EFS

Reformation 21 has posted an article by Derrick Brite, which is a response to Owen Strachan in his most recent defence of ERAS on his Substack and on his podcast. Initially, I was skeptical over his claim that he wants to "to open the door for Christian debate and dialogue," given my history of (non-) interaction with anti-EFS warriors. However, Brite responded to my skepticism with a tweet that seem to geniunely want dialogue, so I would like to respond and hope for the best.

First of all, while I am responding to Brite's article, I claim solidarity with EFS, not identity. I am not responding due to any full-throated embrace of everything related to EFS. My view, which has been mentioned over and over on my blog, has been that I embraced the view that the Son in eternity past submitted to the Father, as exemplified in the Pactum Salutis. This is the eternal submission that I have always held to, thus "Eternal Submission" "of the Son." Since the persons are immutable, I reject the view that the Spirit could ever be incarnate, or the Father could ever be sent by the Son on Pentecost. That is not an issue of a deficit in the persons, as if the Father does not have the power to be incarnate (He could IF He wanted to), but the persons immutably do what the persons would do. The Son submits to the Father because He voluntarily yet immutably does so, in all possible worlds. For the Son to not submit to the Father is for God to be not God; an impossibility.

With that out of the way, I will now engage Brite's article. Firstly, I am glad that he admits that Strachan is not an Arian. As I have been saying over and over, EFS is not Arianism or Semi-Arianism, and saying it is such is a violation of the ninth commandment. Stating that it logically leads to Arianism is a different argument, one that we can disagree over and debate on.

Brite's main argument is to look at Strachan's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:28, asserting that Strachan's exegesis of the verse is in error. He then asserts that Strachan's exegeis, which is to read it as teaching "ontological authority and submission," "does do violence to the Son," "takes away the mediatorial glory that is due to the Son for a particular economic role he has undertaken," and "takes away the ontological equality of glory that he has with the Father." Thus, EFS (or ERAS) "collapses the immanent with the economic." He then asks what EFS proponents' views of the divine processions and of reciprocity are, stating that a "more robust doctrine of these two subjects would safeguard against such grave error."

How should we respond to this? I will go back to the Bible verse later. But for me, the first thing that stood out immediately was the argument that EFS/ ERAS is all about ontological authority and submission. That of course is not true. All EFS proponents reject ontological authority and submission, seeing authority and sumission as functional, not ontological. But perhaps Brite has in mind phrases such as the authorty and submission being more than just ad extra or that it pertains to the inner life of God. In a sense, such confusion over what EFS actually teaches is understandable. But here is where we need to understand one simple thing: Most EFS proponents (especially on the Baptist side) are biblicists. Biblicists focus on what they think is the "plain meaning of the text," and thus one negative aspect of biblicism is its failure to be rigorously systematic and to define its terms properly and consistently. While not excusing biblicism, what we must do is to always respect authorial intent. In other words, we must allow the authors to define how they use their terms, regardless of whether the terms have been historically or confessionally used in that manner. We MUST evaluate not by reading our own meanings into their words, but to understand what they mean and then translate ("contextualize") what they say with the concepts that we use. In other words, I see biblicism as producing its own theological language, one in which translation is necessary. Just like it requires translation to understand Aristotle and Thomas, for their thoughts are otherwise alien to the modern mind.

EFS rejects ontological authority and submission. At the same time, they think of ad extra as being limited to God's works in the world, and thus they do not believe that authority and submission happens only in the realm of creation. That is what some of them mean when they are discontent with limiting it to God ad extra. As a Reformed Christian, I do not limit the term ad extra to only the works of God, but to anything that is outside the being of God. But wait, isn't there just God and Creation? Surely there is not something that is not God and not Creation, is there?

This is where I will part ways with most EFS proponents, and this is also where perhaps my views are not typical. But before going into my view, I will say that from my perspective, it is very likely that EFS proponents get a glimpse of something true, but fail to understand it fully. This might be a reason why they just use the phrase "functional" without explicitly saying how does that reconcile with the biblical doctrine of God. I do see the problem if one starts with a mere bifurcation between God ad intra and the works of God ad extra, seeking to pigeon-hole everything concerning God into these two boxes, and then, looking at EFS, thinks that it must be predicated of God ad intra, therefore leading to ontological authority and submission. My point is that one must think more broadly, and realize that limiting ourselves to these two boxes are part of the problem.

When we read Scripture, we read of God in His inner counsel, we seee God engaging and commmunicating with His creation. In prayer, God hears us and responds to us. All of these seem to indicate a God that is more than the god of the philosophers; a God that is more than just pure act. And yet also, God is most certainly pure act, and one gets all the classical attributes of God from Scripture, not just in philosophy. How should we resolve this tension? One way to do so is deism. Anther way to do so is to call all interactions anthropomorphisms or anthropopathisms. There are of course other ways, but one way that is most promising, which I currently hold to, is to appropriate the Eastern Orthodox category of the divine energies, and use it in our doctrine of God. This category can be used in many ways, but in this particular case, to show how EFS makes perfect sense.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, there are three things: the divine being, the divine energies, and the divine works. The divine being is of course God ad intra, the divine works is normally understood in the West as God ad extra. But what are the divine energies? Briefly speaking, the divine energies are the outward manifestations of the Godhead. Just like the Sun and its rays, the Sun exists as the divine being exists, but the Sun necessarily sends forth its rays, just as the divine energies eternally proceed from the divine being. The category of the divine energies is more fully developed by the Eastern Orthodox father Greogory Palamas, an opponent of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. In the Triads, Palamas states that God's foreknowledge, will, providence, contemplation of Himself among others are part of the energies of God (Triads, III.ii.6). God's foreknowledge is contingent, based upon the possible world that God chooses to actualize. God's will is whatever God wants it to be, and anything He wills is not necessary but contingent. God's contemplation of Himself is logically posterior to Himself, because He has to exist in order to contemplate Himself. As it can be seen, the energies are "dynamic" in a way that God's being is not. God as pure act cannot change, but God's will can change in the sense that there is nothing He decides to do that is absolutely necessary. Just as the sun with its rays, the energies of God proceed out of the being of God, seen in its multiplicity and contingency.

If we believe God is truly personal, then we should expect dynamism within the Godhead, not in their being, but in their relations to each other. Thus, the Father delights in the Son, and this delight is of the divine energies. There is a true "inner life" of the Godhead from eternity. The persons of the Godhead are not an abstract concept, but of true persons loving and delighting in each other, yet without three centers of consiousness.

EFS makes sense here because the submission in the Pactum Salutis is eternal, yet contingent. It is contingent in that God can choose not to do so, but yet necessary insofar as God has ordained the Son to be the Savior of the World. In other words, the eternal submission of the Son is contingent upon the divine will, yet necessary in light of the Covenant of God. EFS therefore is not ontological and not strictly economic, belonging to God in His energies.

Brite therefore errs in his understanding of EFS. On the biblicist side, he could at best say that they are inconsistent, but one should never say that EFS is all about ontological authority and submission. One can of course argue that a biblicist version of EFS is contradictory since it denies ontological authority and submission yet it logically implies such. However, if one holds to the divine energies, then there is no issue with the claim that EFS is purely "functional." And since I have introduced the concept of the divine energies, it should go without saying that I do agree with most of classical theism on the other matters as it pertains to God's being. I hold to inseparable operations as well, and do not see it as in any way contradictory of EFS.

Finally, we return to 1 Corinthians 15:28. Here, I have no problems with both exegetes. I agree with Strachan's simply exegesis, and with Brite's redemptive historical exegesis. The thing is they are not mutually exclusive. When we read Scripture, we cannot say that just because the text has one meaning does not mean that it does not have a fuller meaning when read either systematically, doctrinally, or redemptive-historically. That is why I left the biblical text at the end, because I do not believe one interpretation necessarily excludes the other.

In conclusion, I do not agree with Brite that EFS is in heterodox in any way. There may be unorthodox versions of EFS, but then they are unorthodox versions of just about anything, including classical theism (e.g. deism). EFS teaches something true about God, which is that the Son submits to the Father from all eternity, for our salvation.

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