“My Father is greater than I”

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, when he took the form of a servant and humbled himself even to taste death on our behalf, it was indisputably a step down. We have explored a lot of passages which ascribe divinity to Jesus, and there are plenty more to come. His Lordship, his participation in the divine Names,  his activity in creation and his being the image of God, sharing God’s glory and encompassing all God’s fullness testify to Jesus Christ being the incarnate Son of the Father, God with us. Yet Scripture also clearly shows us that the Son of God is distinct from the Father, both in personhood and in role. In fact while on earth he was clearly in a position of dependence on the Father, a position which theologians refer to as “subordination.” Are these aspects contradictory?

Christadelphians and other non-trinitarians see the subordination of the Son to the Father as evidence that Jesus Christ is inferior in being to the Father and therefore not God. This misinterpretation contradicts the weighty testimony to the divinity of Christ. What they seem to misunderstand is that the doctrine of the Trinity fully embraces the distinctiveness of the Persons of Father and Son, and also the willing subordination of the Son to the Father in his role as Saviour and Redeemer of humanity. Perhaps they think that the passages regarding the Son’s subordination had never been considered before! Perhaps they had been overlooked or disregarded, and so would come as such a surprise when pointed out that they would utterly demolish the doctrine of the Godhead as understood consistently through the history of the church…? As Paul would say, By no means!
As Athanasius testified in the fourth century,

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.” (On the Incarnation)

This is the clear testimony of Scripture, as the writer to the Hebrews explains:
“For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:16–18) and, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

To take on a human mind and human flesh, with all its weaknesses and limitations, vulnerabilities to manifold sufferings and susceptibility to temptation was indeed a step down from the glory which the Son had shared with the Father from all eternity (John 17:5). Nevertheless, he did not see that privilege as something to be clung to and exploited, but rather he humbled himself and came to serve (Phil 2:5–8; Mark 10:45). Theologian Millard Erickson likens the self-imposed limitations of Christ to the world’s fastest sprinter participating in a three-legged race, or the world’s greatest boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back; “In each of these cases, ability is not in essence diminished, but the conditions imposed on its exercise limit actual performance.” (Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, p 670-71). Erickson makes the important point that God did not elevate a mere human to divinity; the deification of humanity is an idea from Greek philosophy, not from the Old or New Testaments. But for God to take on humanity, for the greater to condescend to the lesser, is not impossible, for he IS God, after all, and he chose to do this out of his love for fallen humanity, for we could not do it ourselves (Rom 8:3).

Another important underpinning principle to understand when discussing the subordination of the Son to the Father is that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to the created world in different ways; they have different functions or roles revealed in God’s dealings with creation. God the Father planned redemption and sent his Son into the world (John 5:37, 43; 7:29; 8:42; Gal 4:4). The Son obeyed the Father and accomplished this redemption (John 4:34; 8:19, 55; 17:4; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8; 10:5–7). After Jesus rose and ascended into heaven, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; compare John 15:26 and 16:7), to regenerate (John 3:5-8), sanctify (Rom 8:13–17, 15:16; 1 Pet 1:2) and empower (Acts 1:8, 1 Cor 12:7–11) believers.

In carrying out these roles, the Father and Son relate to each other exactly the way in which we would expect a father and son to do, in an ideal family (which of course is modelled on the image of God, not vice versa). The Father directs the Son and has authority over him; the Son responds to and obeys the Father. The Father and Son love each other in a sharing relationship. In a human family, a son’s submission to his father does not make the son any less a person, or an inferior being. It is his role which is one of submission, out of respect for the father’s position in the family. Likewise, in the antitype of the human family, the Son’s submission to the Father does not make him a lesser being in the ultimate sense, even though as Father he is “greater” (John 14:28). Just as, being Lord (Adonai /YHWH) the Christ is greater than his human father David (Psa 110:1; Matt 22:41–45). As a child, Jesus submitted to his human parents, even though he was their Lord (Luke 2:51).

In John’s gospel, Jesus explains in detail this Father-Son relationship which he has. The Jews to whom he spoke viewed him as a mere regular human being, the natural son of Joseph and Mary (Mark 6:3), and therefore rejected Jesus’ claims about this Father-Son relationship, reading into it a clear claim on Jesus’ part to be divine. This seems odd, if the thrust of his argument were to prove his inferiority of being. In reality, what the continual reiteration of the Father-Son relationship does demonstrate, is Jesus’ unique relationship with his Father. In reading these passages in John, far from getting the impression that Jesus is downgrading his role, we begin to see how closely associated he is with the God of the universe. They are inseparable! This is how Jesus himself described his relationship with the Father:
He was sent by God and speaks the words of God (John 3:34)
He works with God (John 5:17)
He does whatever the Father does, inseparably (John 5:19, 20)
He is to be honoured as the Father is honoured (John 5:23)
He alone has seen the Father (John 6:46)
He knows the Father, because he came from the Father (John 7:29; 8:19, 55; 10:15)
He is in the Father and the Father is in him (John 10:38; 14:10)
He is one with the Father (John 10:30)

In keeping with Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity includes the concept of equality of being and subordination in role; it is an integral part of how the Trinity is understood. The doctrine not only encompasses the subordination of the Son to the Father, the idea is essential and intrinsic to a correct articulation of the doctrine. To speak of Jesus’ submission to his Father, doing his Father’s will, receiving his authority from the Father, etc., is to speak in the language of Scripture, describing how the Son came to do what he had to do. He came to bear our sins in his body, to bear the punishment that was due and to defeat sin in the very flesh in which it normally reigned, to fulfil what humankind was originally intended to be (Heb 2:2–11; 10:5–12). For this he had to step down into our shoes, and taste death for everyone. Jesus Christ was not an autonomous individual, who by some specified adoption or anointing was enabled to accomplish works by which he could be exalted to deity. When the Son took on flesh and became the man Jesus Christ, the perfect fusion of divinity and humanity, he came from God, from the glory he had shared, and humbled himself. Having accomplished all he had been given to do, being obedient even to death, he was raised and exalted to his rightful position on the throne of God (John 17:4–5; Phil 2:6–11; Heb 10:12; 12:1; Rev 7:17).

Although the reign (kingdom) of Christ has been inaugurated (Matt 12:28), we do not see it fully consummated; that is yet to come. We do not yet see all things put under his feet, but we see Jesus (Heb 2:5–9) who suffered, died and has risen and now mediates for us. But we know that ultimately, God will dwell with humankind, that has always been his purpose and will occur eternally in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:3, 22–24, 22:5). When Christ completes the work of consummating the Kingdom, bringing everything into subjection and abolishing death, he will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father. This will be the culmination of Christ putting everything (except God) under his feet and God putting everything under Christ. There is no dichotomy here between God and Christ. It is not as if God was not reigning up to this point, or that there was nothing subject to him until this time, but it is a change in the character of God’s reign, in that everything that opposes him has been put down and the work of Christ as mediator is at an end. Nevertheless, at the very end, the Son himself, in his completed role as servant, mediator and priest is made subject to “him who put all things in subjection under him;” which must be God the Father. The purpose and outcome of this willing subjection is “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:22–28).

Salvation is all of God; he took the initiative in sending his Son to do what we could not do for ourselves, the fullness of God in the one who humbled himself, taking up the cross before the crown, as Paul describes in Colossians 1:16–23:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…”

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6 thoughts on ““My Father is greater than I”

  1. Great post Ruth. I have a few comments about the perspective you adopt here. It is a common one amongst Evangelicals nowadays, but there’s a different approach in the eastern fathers which I think is more accurate. It appears from a number of things in your post – correct me if I misunderstand – that you hold to a functional subordination of the Son to the Father; or a subordination in “role” only, and you take this to be “the” doctrine of the Trinity. For example, you write, “In keeping with Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity includes the concept of equality of being and subordination in role”. What I would suggest is that while this is a common Evangelical view now, it is not the view of Athanasius or the Cappadocians, or the Nicene Creed. What all the ancients well understood, but moderns (especially after Kant) have forgotten, is that what a thing does (its function or role), and what a thing is (its ontological reality), are integrally related and bound up together. You can’t have a difference in function or role without some ontological difference in which it is grounded. The Father acts as a father because he is a father, and the Son acts as a son because he is a son. You can see this by looking at how Athanasius and the Cappadocians interpreted John 14:28, which is the focus of your post. They do not interpret it as you do, relating it to Jesus’ voluntary humiliation in the incarnation. Rather, they all relate it to the fact that Jesus, as the Son, eternally takes his origin from the Father. You explain this verse in terms of the economic trinity, but they explain it in terms of the immanent trinity. Here is what Athanasius says (“Oration Against the Arians”):

    The Son says not, “My Father is better than I,” lest we should conceive
    him to be foreign to his nature, but “greater,” not indeed in greatness nor
    in time, but because of his generation from the Father himself. (Athanasius,
    Orations against the Arians 1.58)

    Similarly, Basil (“Against Eunomius”) writes:

    Since the Son’s origin is from the Father, in this respect the Father
    is greater, as cause and origin. Wherefore also the Lord said thus, “My
    Father is greater than I,” clearly inasmuch as He is Father. Yea, what else
    does the word Father signify unless the being cause and origin of that
    which is begotten of Him?

    This gives a much better explanation of the verse in question, I think. To say that Jesus is less than the Father because of his taking on of human nature, makes the verse become trivial. As Gregory of Nazianzus (“Oration”), wrote:

    Superior greatness belongs to the cause, equality to the nature…. To say
    that [the Father] is greater than [the Son] conceived as man is certainly
    true, but no great thing to say. For what marvel is it if God is greater than
    man?

    I think there is a danger in the modern view of what might be called “functional Nestorianism”. That is, if we attribute certain of Jesus’ words or deeds to his status as man, and others to his divine status, then we separate the person into two, a human person and a divine person, which alternately make their appearance, so to speak – sometimes Jesus acts as one, sometimes as the other. But a more Biblical view is to say that everything that Jesus did expresses fully both his divine and his human nature. When he says “the Father is greater than I”, he uses the word “I”, which is a personal pronoun; it refers to his person, not to one or other of his natures. The statement is equally an expression of both natures, because it is a statement of his person. I suppose if you believe in a strong version of the kenotic theory, you could avoid this functional Nestorianism (i.e. you could say that this statement did express his divine nature, but in self-emptied form). But Millard Erickson, for instance, whom you quote, emphatically rejected kenotic theory. On Erickson’s view, as you have quoted, Jesus’ divine attributes were somehow limited in expression due to his humanity, like the boxer with one hand tied behind his back. I leave it to Erickson to try to render that idea coherent (which I doubt is possible), but consider this: to use his boxer analogy, does the statement “the Father is greater than I” refer to the boxer only when he has one hand tied behind his back, or does it refer to the boxer at all times as he is in himself? If it is the former, you have functional Nestorianism (or kenotic theory); if the other, then you have to discard the idea that the statement is in any way bound specifically to the incarnation (this is the view of Athanasius and the Cappadocians).

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    1. Thanks for your detailed comment, Albert. I am happy to stick with the evangelical understanding, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this blog is not written for theologians, but for Christadelphians and those engaging with them. The finer nuances of patristic theology are outside its scope. Also, the opinions of the fathers are likely to hold zero weight with Christadelphian readers. Secondly, the fathers were students of and commentators on scripture, as are we all. I don’t think we are obliged to take everything they say as absolutely the way things are, much as I respect their theological insights. The “eternal begetting” of the Son is not a scriptural doctrine, in so many words; it is one attempt to make sense of the relationships within the Trinity. His Sonship and willing submission to the Father are clearly expressed in Scripture, and I don’t think the fathers’ understanding of “eternal begetting” (whatever that is actually supposed to mean) is necessarily the only way in which the Son’s relationship to the Father is to be understood. Nor do I think that an understanding of John 14:28 that extends beyond the incarnation is a “trivial” understanding. We also need to be wary of applying ancient labels such as “functional Nestorianism” to current discussion. Particularly since it is not completely certain what Nestorianism actually comprised, given that what we do know of it we largely learn from its opponents who would be likely to draw such negative conclusions and implications. This side of his Kingdom, we might have to just be content with acknowledging that just as God is one and yet three, the Son is human and divine as a unity, without getting too adamant about exactly how that works. Still less can we speculate on the life of God before the incarnation, beyond what the Bible says. If the Son is God, then he cannot be less than deity, so in what sense can he be “less” than the Father? The simplest explanation is the scriptural one; he was made lower than the angels for the suffering of death (Heb 2:7-9).

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  2. Thanks Ruth. Actually, while the view you describe is common amongst Evangelicals, I don’t think it’s fair to call it “the Evangelical view”, since their are certainly many Evangelicals who do believe in the eternal generation of the Son. The view you and many others hold is actually derived from Calvin, and his innovation of the “triple autotheos”, which was not accepted by any other branch of institutional Christianity. I do think the eternal generation of the Son is both scriptural and theologically important, but I’ll leave that aside to avoid side-tracking this blog. I would say, though that I don’t think Nestorianism, functional or otherwise, is merely a historical relic. What Nestorius himself thought is not really the issue; the point is that the term “Nestorianism” denotes a real (and common) theological error. I also think that separating the economic and the immanent Trinity is theologically dangerous, as well as exegetically contrived – a fact which contemporary anti-Trinitarian movements either recognize and exploit (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses), or else simply take to its logical conclusion (Oneness Pentecostals). Karl Rahner was right to say that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice-versa.

    Regarding Christadelphians, I have known a couple of them and I understand they would have no regard for the church fathers. I myself don’t like to call them fathers, I do so only in a historical sense (as that is how they are commonly known), not because I consider them fathers in a spiritual sense (in obedience to Jesus’ command in Mt. 23:8). But in this case their interpretation is, in my opinion, much more accurate than the one you take. In dealing with anti-Trinitarians of any stripe – whether Muslim or “Christian”, it is to this explanation that I myself would turn immediately when confronted with John 14:28. The only real reason for quoting the fathers here at all, in fact, is because without this many modern Evangelicals will think that this kind of interpretation is heretical (try reading what Athanasius or Basil said in a Bible study nowadays without telling people who said it, and see the reaction you get). Which shows how far from Nicene Trinitarianism many modern Evangelicals are, regrettably. If the Nicene view were clearly and explicitly taught, anti-Trinitarian movements would have much less of a leg to stand on.

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