Trinity Debate: Ware-Grudem vs. McCall-Yandell

Trinity Debate: Ware-Grudem vs. McCall-Yandell

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

live-blogged by Andy Naselli

(Streaming video is available here.)

Live from the chapel on the campus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

Students, faculty, and guests are gathering for a much anticipated Trinity Debate on this question: “Do relations of authority and submission exist eternally among the Persons of the Godhead?”

1. Participants



2. Opening Statements (30 min. each)


Wayne Grudem:

I. Scripture indicates the authority of the Father and the submission of the Son to the Father’s authority from before the foundation of the world until the eternal state.

  • A. Authority and submission prior to creation (Eph 1:3-5; Rom 8:29; 2 Tim 1:9; Eph 1:9-11; 3:9-11)
  • B. Authority and submission indicated by the eternal names “Father” and “Son” (John 1:14; 17:24; Heb 9:14)
  • C. Authority and submission in the process of creation (John 1:1; Heb 1:1-2; 1 Cor 8:6)
  • D. Authority and submission prior to Christ’s earthly ministry (John 3:16-17; Gal 4:4; 1 John 4:9-10)
  • E. Authority and submission in Christ’s earthly ministry (John 6:38; 8:28-29; 15:9-10)
  • F. Authority and submission after Christ’s ascension into heaven
    • 1. In Christ’s ministry as Great High Priest (Heb 7:23-25; Rom 8:34)
    • 2. In his pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:32-33)
    • 3. In his receiving revelation from the Father and giving it to the church (Rev 1:1)
    • 4. In his sitting at God’s right hand—a position of authority second to that of the Father himself (Acts 2:32-33; Eph 1:20-22; Heb 1:3; Pss 110:1; 45:9; Rev 2:26; et al)
  • G. Authority and submission after the final judgment (1 Cor 15:26-28)
  • H. Conclusion: The consistent, uniform testimony of Scripture is that the Father, by virtue of being Father, eternally has authority to plan, initiate, command, and send, authority that the Son and Holy Spirit do not have. The Son, by virtue of being Son, eternally submits joyfully and with great delight to the authority of his Father. It is only in a sinful world deeply marred by hostility toward authority, and overly focused on status and power, that cannot see that submission to the authority of the Father is the great glory of the Son. Authority, and submission to authority, are a wonderful part of the great glory of the Father and the Son, and this will be their glory for all eternity. “Do Relations of Authority and Submission Exist Eternally among the Persons of the Godhead?” Absolutely, undeniably, gloriously, yes.

Bruce Ware:

II. Support for the authority of the Father and the submission of the Son from Church History

  1. Nicene Creed (325/ 381 A.D.)
  2. Chalcedonian Creed (451 A.D.)
  3. Athanasian Creed (4th–5th century AD)
  4. Thirty-nine Articles (Church of England, 1571)
  5. Westminster Confession of Faith (1643–46)
  6. Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742)
  7. Geoffrey Bromiley (1984)
  8. Novatian’s Treatise Concerning the Trinity
  9. Hilary of Poitiers
  10. Augustine, in De Trinitate
  11. Anselm (1033-1109)
  12. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274)
  13. John Calvin (1509–1564)
  14. Charles Hodge (1797-1878)
  15. Augustus H. Strong (1836–1921)
  16. B. B. Warfield (1851–1921)
  17. Louis Berkhof (1873–1957)
  18. Philip Schaff (1819–1893)
  19. J. N. D. Kelley
  20. Francis Hall
  21. A. M. Hills
  22. William Pope
  23. P. T. Forsyth
  24. Colin Gunton
  25. Gerald O’Collins
  26. John Frame
  27. J. Scott Horrell

III. Theological Implications from Scripture, as Supported from Historical Sources, regarding the authority of the Father and the submission of the Son

Everything in Scripture on this subject indicates the submission of the Son to the Father—in eternity past, in the incarnation, and in eternity future.

  1. The only confidence we have in knowing God is by his self-disclosure.
  2. The Son and Spirit each possesses eternally and fully the identically same divine nature as is possessed by the Father. Every attribute of deity possessed by the Father is possessed fully and equally by the Son and Spirit, since all three possess fully and eternally the undivided divine essence.
  3. For the Father truly to be the Father, he must be the eternal Father of the Son; for the Son truly to be the Son, he must be the eternal Son of the Father. If one were to dismiss the manifold Scriptural indicators we’ve considered here and posit instead an ultimately egalitarian structure of the immanent Trinity, one would not only have departed from every single indicator Scripture offers; in addition, one is left without any clear means of distinguishing the Father, Son, and Spirit from one another.

IV. Concluding Affirmations and Denial

  1. We affirm an “equality of identity” (and not merely an “equality of kind”) among the Persons of the Trinity—the strongest form of equality there is, in principle. Hence there exists a full and eternal equality among the three Persons each of whom possesses fully and eternally the identically same divine essence, i.e., the one, eternal, and undivided divine essence.
  2. We affirm the Nicea-Constantinople declaration that the Son is fully homoousios with the Father and hence is of the same nature as the Father; the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) are equally God and fully God, while there is one and only one God.
  3. We affirm the eternal, absolute, and non-reciprocal role relations among the three Persons of the Godhead, with the Father as supreme in role as highest in authority, the Son second and under the authority of the Father, and the Spirit third and under the authority of the Father and the Son. This is in no wise is a subordination of nature or essence. We affirm that some properties that are distinct to each Person are essential to their personal identities, and we also affirm, without conflict or contradiction, that all properties true of the divine essence are possessed fully and eternally by each of the three divine Persons without exception and without qualification.
  4. We deny altogether as entirely misleading and fallacious the assertion that the Son’s eternal submission to the Father (i.e., the Son’s eternal functional subordination to the Father) entails a denial of the complete and eternal essential equality of the Son and the Father. Eternal functional subordination is fully compatible with and in no way contradicts the fully equality of essence of the Trinitarian Persons and the homoousios of the Son with the Father. Therefore, we affirm that relations of authority and submission exist eternally among the essentially equal Persons of the Godhead.


Tom McCall:

I. Introduction

We are going to make two main arguments:

  1. There are no good reasons to hold to the position advocated by Drs. Grudem and Ware.
  2. There are very good reasons for orthodox Christians to reject their account.

What this debate is not about:

  1. biblical authority
  2. philosophical theology versus biblical theology (i.e., philosophy versus the Bible)

II. There are no good reasons to accept the view of Grudem and Ware.

  • A.  The “Indirect Biblical Argument”: Surely—barring theological anti-realism—the personal distinctions within the Trinity do not depend upon human recognition of them for their existence! It may be an interesting fact about us that we might not know much (or perhaps anything) about the personal distinctions other than by the revelation that we have, but such an admission says nothing about the nature of the Triune God.
  • B. The “Direct Biblical Argument”: Grudem and Ware argue that if 1 and 2 then 3. (See below.) They also argue that if 1 and 4 then 5. But this would mean that if 1 and 6 then 7!
  1. If one divine person sends another, then the divine person sent is eternally and necessarily subordinate to the divine person who sends.
  2. The Son is sent by the Father.
  3. Therefore, the Son is eternally and necessarily subordinate to the Father.
  4. The Spirit is sent by the Son (John 15:26).
  5. Therefore, the Spirit is eternally and necessarily subordinate to the Son.
  6. The Son is sent by the Spirit (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1).
  7. Therefore, the Son is eternally and necessarily subordinate to the Spirit.

The biggest problem with (1) is that it is assumed but not supported. Also, (5) contradicts (7).

Surely 1 Corinthians 15:28 underdetermines the issue.

Keith Yandel:

III. There are good reasons to reject the view of Grudem and Ware.

Grudem and Ware embrace “role subordinationism” (hereafter, RS), which may be defined as follows:

The Son is permanently subordinate to the Father and the Father is permanently authoritative over the Son. If God is eternal—having no temporal properties, being “outside of time”—then the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. If God is everlasting—without beginning or end, being forever “in time”—than the Son is everlastingly subordinate to the Father. What I say tonight will apply equally to either view of God and time.

  1. Grudem and Ware hold RS (i.e., the Son is permanently subordinate to the Father).
  2. If RS is true, it is either necessarily true (could not possibly be false) or it is non-necessarily true (it is true, but under some possible condition it would be false).
    Metaphysical Doctrine One (MD1): The Trinitarian persons are distinct from one another only in virtue of there being relations of subordination and authority that hold among them.
  3. MD1 is an important part of the reason given for accepting RS and MD1 is a metaphysical claim that is not the correct exegesis of any biblical passage.
  4. MD1 is an important part of the reason offered for accepting RS, and MD1 is a metaphysical claim, and thus a philosophical claim, so an important part the defense of RS is a philosophical defense.
    Metaphysical Doctrine Two (MD2): The Trinitarian persons are distinct from one another only in virtue of relations that hold among them.
  5. Even if the Trinitarian Persons are distinct from one another only in virtue of relations that hold between them, it does not follow that those relations include subordination and authority.
  6. RS proposes an account of what it is in the Trinity that is the basis for the distinction between the Persons, but in the way in which it does this (by reference topresuppositional relations), it simply assumes that which it is allegedly explains. If RS is non-necessarily true, then there are more versions of RS than first met the eye. Here are four:
    • RS1: The Father is permanently subordinate to the Son.
    • RS2: The Father is permanently subordinate to the Holy Spirit.
    • RS3: The Father and the Son are permanently subordinate to the Holy Spirit.
    • RS4: The Son is permanently subordinate to the Holy Spirit.
  7. At least one proponent of RS claims that the authority-subordination relations that hold between two Trinitarian persons are not necessary after all.
  8. If the authority-subordination relation of the Son and the Holy Spirit is reversed by, and so dependent on, the fact of the Son being incarnate, why can’t—indeed, why isn’t—the subordination of the Son to the Father dependent on the Son being incarnate?
  9. If RS is presented as a non-necessary truth, each of these other versions of RS (RS1-RS4), which are possibly obtaining conditions, could hold.
  10. If the Trinitarian Persons all equally meet the necessary and sufficient conditions for being God, then any subordination or authoritarian relations among them that is not freely chosen for some temporary purpose is arbitrary in the light of their being equally God. This point in fact applies to the view that RS is a necessary truth as well as to the view that RS is a non-necessary truth.
  11. If RS is offered as a necessary truth, then it strictly entails that the Father has an essential property that the Son lacks, and the Son has an essential property that the Father lacks; the same holds of course for the Father and the Holy Spirit and the Son and the Holy Spirit; hence, if RS is presented as a necessary truth, then the three Trinitarian Persons do not have the same nature.
  12. If the Trinitarian Persons do not have the same nature, then we no longer have simply RS; RS, viewed as a necessary truth, entails ontological subordinationism, and all four of us agree that ontological subordinationism is false.
  13. The ontological subordinationists saw something that the RSs have ignored; they saw that orderings or ranking, holding within a Trinity of beings that all have the divine nature, that were not adopted for particularly freely chosen purposes. and did not hold separately from those purposes, were simply arbitrary—justified by, and following from, nothing in the nature of the Persons; they were unwilling to ascribe this arbitrary condition to God; they saw the choice as being between subordinationism and lack of Trinitarian ranking; they made the wrong choice, but they saw the right alternative. Role Subordination is an attempt to build a house on a part of the philosophical and theological landscape that simply is not there to be built upon.

Conclusion: There are two possible versions of RS. Taken as a necessary truth, it is flatly contradictory. It claims both that ontological subordinationism is false and then entails that ontological subordinationism is true. Taken as a non-necessary truth, it ascribes an arbitrary relation to the Persons of the Trinity and entails that other versons of role subordinationism are logically possible (and, for all we know, hold true relative to conditions of which we know nothing). So the doctrine is either self-contradictory or metaphysically perfectly arbitrary.

3. Rebuttals (10 min. each)

[Note from Naselli: I’m afraid I’m not keeping up quickly enough here. See the audio/visual for more.]


Wayne Grudem:

  1. Incarnational events (Jesus was tired, submitted to his parents, etc.) do not necessarily demonstrate eternal truths about his deity.
  2. Grudem’s Systematicc Theology mentions subordination, not subordinationism. (Grudem acknowledged an typo in his ST that implied that Jesus is part of creation.)
  3. “Do we presuppose these relations? No, we find them in Scripture.

Bruce Ware:

  1. The entirety of biblical revelation from God about himself as Father, Son, and Spirit is what motivates Ware’s claim. One wonders what motivates their claim.
  2. All of God’s revealed truth has come in the economy of revelation, yet theologicans have inferred some truths about God that are thought to be necessary about God as God (e.g., God’s holiness). God is eternally what he declares himself to be.
  3. The magnitude of the charge of ontological subordination (i.e., the Arian heresy!) here is matched only by the magnitude of the oversight in making the charge. McCall and Yandell’s view, on the other hand, resembles modalism.


Tom McCall:

  1. Calling the McCall-Yandell view modalism is, if not a cheap shot, a moderately priced one.
  2. re arguments from Scripture: It is simply not the case that only the Father is authoritative over creation (cf. Heb 1:10). Even if successful, the argument does not move us to their conclusion.
  3. re arguments from tradition: McCall contests Ware’s use of Aquinas.

Keith Yandell:

  1. I’ve never been accused of being a modalist because I’m not one.
  2. If a relation changes, it is not a necessary relation.
  3. Can there be two perfectly resembling things that are nevertheless qualitatively the same?
  4. Calvin’s interpretation of 1 Cor 15:24

4. Follow-up (5 min. each)


Wayne Grudem: 

  1. If God is not what he reveals himself to be in the Bible, then how can we know anything about God? McCall-Yandell are saying that God reveals himself as Father and Son but that he does not necessarily have to be that.
  2. Thanks for saying that we are not Arians. As far as modalism, we don’t want to accuse you of that if that is not what you hold. But please tell us a difference between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
  3. What does all of Scripture say? Massive support for our position from Scripture and tradition are significant arguments.

Bruce Ware:

  1. Yandell misunderstood Ware’s book on the Trinity. For better context, see p. 95 of Ware’s book.
  2. Aquinas argues that it would not be fitting for the Father or Spirit to take on flesh.


Tom McCall:

  1. Both Calvin and Aquinas take the other view.
  2. We affirm what Scripture teaches about God: the Son is subordinate and equally and fully divine. But we look for another way to understand this subordination, and Grudem-Ware have not addressed this.
  3. Consider Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus gave up authority. (Servant contrasts with authority.) Jesus became a servant via incarnation. Jesus acquired something that was not present before. Cf. Hebrews 5:8 (Jesus learned obedience).
  4. If there are ways of reading subordination passages that call into question the divinity passages, then we need to look for another way to understand the subordination passages.

Keith Yandell:

  1. I don’t quibble with Dr. Ware with what he intended to say, but it is a contradiction to say that (1) Jesus was subordinate to the Spirit during the incarnation and (2) the Spirit is eternally subordinate to the Son.
  2. There is no reason that an omnipotent God cannot create any number of things that perfectly resemble each other. Re the Trinity, their properties are distinct because they necessarily belong to what they belong to, and the existence of each depends on the existence of the other.

5. Final Comments (5 min. each)


Wayne Grudem:  

  1. Repeat question: What about the entire testimony of Scripture? Does this tell us nothing about God? God did not have to be this way if we postulate some other kind of God. How can we know anything about God for sure outside of Scripture?
  2. Necessary subordination does not imply that the Son is an inferior being. The Father and Son have eternal differences.
  3. What properties distinguish Father, Son, and Spirit? Specify them. If you deny Father, Son, and Spirit, then you have Person A, Person A, and Person A.

Bruce Ware: 

  1. Re Yandell’s quotation of Ware, the context of what Ware said does not support Yandell’s conclusion.
  2. Ware does not understand the basis of the charge against Grudem-Ware. Why does an eternal function require an ontological difference? E.g., a janitor under the authority of a President: both are ontologically equal as human beings. The equality in the Trinity is a full equality of identify; you can’t get stronger than that. We don’t wish to diminish the equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit. But there is an eternal role difference between the Father and the Son; the Father is the Father eternally, and the Son is the Son eternally (and this involves authority and submission).


Keith Yandell:

  1. Yandell repeated his argument: (1) If Son is subordinate in all possible worlds, then the Son is necessarily subordinate; (2) if the Son is necessarily subordinate, then the Son is essentially subordinate; (3) if the Son is essentially subordinate but the Father is not, then the Son and Father are not homoousios. Thus, RS entails ontological subordinationism.
  2. How can the members of the Trinity be different? The answer to the question is philosophically re basic identity among different items.
  3. We accept Scriptural authority, and we’re not trying to replace theology with philosophy. They are the ones who brought the philosophy—not me.
  4. Yandell quoted B. B. Warfield, “The Necessity of Systematic Theology.”
  5. The Father says, “Thou art my Son. This day have I begotten you.” That sounds like a reference to Bethlehem to me. Scriptural talk about begetting is about Bethlehem; the Son was begotten when Jesus was conceived and born.

6. Questions from the Audience (15 minutes)

  1. Question to Yandell from Phil Gons: “If the Son is necessarily the Son and the Father is necessarily not the Son, then the Son is essentially the Son and the Father is essentially not the Son. Thus the Son is essentially different from the Father. You must deny homoousion on the basis of your own premises.” Yandell’s reply: “Why?” Ware spoke up from his chair something like, “We could explain this to you.”
  2. Question to McCall-Yandell: Please respond to Grudem-Ware’s exegesis. McCall’s response: Grudem-Ware quoted too many Scripture texts to respond to them. There is not necessarily a ranked hierarchy. We all agree that there are three categories and that two of them (earthly ministry and “eternity future”) are not at issue here. This leaves only the category of “eternity past,” and McCall pointed out that he has responded to representative passages (such as the “sentness” of the Son argument). Ware suggested that we often don’t pay enough attention to the pronouns; we tend to think generically of God.
  3. Question to Grudem-Ware: Please address function and appropriation. (There’s not a text that says that God is necessarily holy, but what do we conclude?)
  4. Question to McCall re Calvin on autotheos: Calvin affirms eternal regeneration. The Son’s divinity as such is not derived. He is God in himself.
  5. Question to Grudem: What non-Scriptural tool was most helpful to resolve the Scriptural deadlock re Arianism? I don’t think that there was an exegetical impasse re Arianism. Historically, the church misunderstood the begetting language, but the church never denied that there was a difference in relationship. McCall-Yandell have given us nothing to define the differences.
  6. Question to Ware re eternality and necessity: Could God be different than God is in any essential way that God is? No, what is eternal is likewise necessary. I’m still waiting to hear from Grudem-Yandell what distinguishes Father from the Son and why this is not modalism.
  7. Yandell response to Ware: Grudem-Ware have not followed or understood anything of what Yandell has said about metaphysics (esp. re the discernability of identicals). Each is his own bearer of properties. You can have perfectly resembling distinct various properties.
  8. Question to Grudem re how the submission of the Son to the Father will be played out eschatologically: The Son is going to be our great High Priest eternally. The Son sits at the right hand of the Father. We don’t know what all the eternal function differences will be. We don’t know what Scripture doesn’t tell us about.
  9. Question to Ware-Grudem re subordination being functional not ontological but that the function is necessary: [Grudem] It is not ontological because all three persons share the one undivided essence; there is one being of God. But in that being, there are dinstictions of properties. They relate to each other as expressed in the terms Father and Son. So No, there is no difference in being; there is a difference in relationship, and that relationship is eternal because they have been Father, Son, and Spirit eternally. [Ware] The Son does not use his power to do anything that he chooses to do; he uses his power to fulfill the will of the Father. He is under the authority of the Father in the use of all of the attributes that are common to the Father and the Son.
  10. McCall: In their view, the Son is omnipotent, and the Father is the one with authority.
  11. Yandell: The difference between the positions that we take on this issue and the positions taken on the positions in the world that I live in (he teaches at UWM) are enormous.

.Please do pass on word of this media to others.  The Center makes all of its content free in order to share our theological harvest with others.  This lecture, delivered for the Center’s Scripture & Ministry series, is highly stimulating and suitable for pastors, seminarians, scholars and laypeople of all backgrounds.   Do use it in the life of your church or school, and do come back to our site for more of this sort of excellent resource.

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