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Published Date: February 8, 2009

Published Date: February 8, 2009

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ESS – A New Doctrine

This post written by Curtis Freeman is reproduced with the kind permission of Wade Burleson from his blogsite, a valuable resource for egalitarians.

Getting a Trinitarian conversation going among Baptists is more important than one might first expect given that most Baptists these days are, and for some time have been, functionally Unitarians. For example, in The Baptist Hymnal (1991) out of 666 hymns only 20 are Trinitarian (a ratio of 1:33), but 268 of these 666 hymns are Christological (a ratio of 1:2.5). Baptist worship in the South clearly tilts toward Unitarianism of the Second Person (i.e., a faith in Jesus alone to the near exclusion of the Father and the Spirit), just as on occasions in the past it has leaned in the direction of Unitarianism of the First Person (i.e. a faith in the Father alone with a subordinate role for the Son and the Spirit). To put the matter pointedly, most Baptists are Unitarians that simply have not yet gotten around to denying the Trinity. Non-Trinitarian faith is not necessarily anti-Trinitarian, yet it is reason for concern nonetheless.

All this may seem counter intuitive, but it’s true. I often tell incoming students at Duke that they will hear the Trinity invoked more in the first week than in their entire life in Baptist churches. They later surprisingly tell me that they thought I was exaggerating at first, but after a week they came to see that I may have underplayed the way in which our community draws from the life of the Trinity in prayer, worship, study, and living. It has thus become one of my life goals to help the wider Baptist family retrieve a faith and practice grounded in the life of the Triune God in whom we live, and move, and have our very being. To the end that your conversation (on Wade Burleson’s blogsite) has served to raise that awareness I am grateful.

However, like you, I am concerned about embracing a Trinitarian doctrine that is not well grounded or tested. For several years now this new doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) has been surfacing among Baptists and other evangelicals. As I’ve read some of the replies on your blog and other blogs criticizing you, I’ve encountered the very odd claim that ESS is the historic doctrine of orthodoxy. A simple fact check of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity will reveal that ESS is not a historic doctrine at all, but a very new one. Nor is it part of the received wisdom of the Christian tradition, but in fact is a matter of contemporary speculation. Doctrines do change, and sometimes innovations are received as wisdom. But ESS has yet to be tested and proved by any but a very small and unrepresentative group. The doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t belong to Baptists or Evangelicals. It is the faith shared by all Christians. And until ESS has been tested by the whole Church, it seems prudent to wait.

One of the major concerns about ESS is the supposed distinction between functional and ontological subordination. While it is true that the incarnate Son in his earthly life was submissive to the Father, the suggestion that this subordination extends to his eternal exalted state is worrisome. As Kevin Giles has argued, very persuasively I think, this appears to be a new iteration of Arianism. To be fair to the proponents of ESS, they are not Arians in one important respect: they believe in the Son’s eternal generation (the aspect or Origen’s thought appropriated in the Creed of the Council of Nicaea, “eternally begotten of the Father”), but they also believe in his eternal subordination (the aspect of Origen’s thought not appropriated by the Nicene defenders of homoousios). I suppose that makes them only semi-Arians. [Thanks to my friend and colleague Steve Harmon for this qualification.] The burden of proof, however, is on those proposing this new doctrine of ESS to show that it is not a new form of an old heresy. I’ve yet to be convinced. Until this is worked out it seems wise to wait until this new doctrine of ESS has been thoroughly examined and tested.

Beyond the question of the orthodoxy of ESS, which is still very much in question, I am suspicious of the not so subtle political agenda of ESS which is attracted to Trinitarian theology, not as an account of the life in which we live and move and have our being, but as an argument that underwrites complementarian views. I am just as suspicious of those who use Trinitarian doctrine to support the complementarian social agenda as those who engage in social Trinitarian speculations to underwrite feminist convictions. Miroslav Volf, one of our best Free Church theologians on the Trinity, has called for caution in the use of such speculative Trinitarian theology which can easily be co-opted by ideologies of the right and the left. His cautionary word seems wise regarding ESS. I am suspicious that the real energy behind this new ESS doctrine is really a thinly veiled attempt to elevate complementarianism to de fide orthodoxy, so that complementarian gender relations are set forth as the only acceptable model for Christians and that egalitarianism is heresy equivalent to denying the Trinity. This utilitarian use of Trinitarian doctrine is (in my opinion) based on dubious scholarship and bad theology.

I share the goal of helping our wider Baptist family retrieve the wisdom of the vast storehouse of orthodoxy. As bad as functional Unitarianism is, however, the possible embrace of a semi-Arianism masquerading as orthodoxy used for political ends may be even worse.

Yours in a common faith,


Curtis W. Freeman
Research Professor of Theology
Director of the Baptist House of Studies
Duke Divinity School
Box 90966
Durham, NC 27708-0966