Wednesday, November 5, 2008

John 14:28 and the three views of Athanasius, Augustine and Calvin


One of the preferred Biblical passages utilized Arius (and virtually all subsequent Arians) to support their doctrine of God is, “for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28b – ASV).

The Trinitarian response to this particular verse has a somewhat diverse history, exemplified by at least three differing interpretations. As the title of this thread suggests, I shall draw upon a trio of the greatest theologians Christendom has produced, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and John Calvin, to provide our three examples:


But since he has here expressly written it, and, as has been above shown, the Son is Offspring of the Father’s essence, and He is Framer, and other things are framed by Him. and He is the Radiance and Word and Image and Wisdom of the Father, and things originate stand and serve in their place below the Triad, therefore the Son is different in kind and different in essence from things originate, and on the contrary is proper to the Father’s especially it is that the Son too says not, ‘My Father is better than I ,’ lest we should conceive Him to he foreign to His Nature, but ‘greater,’ not indeed in greatness, nor in time, but because of His generation from the Father Himself, nay, in saying ‘greater ‘He again shows that He is proper to His essence. (Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1.58 – NPNF 2.4.340)


They say, for instance, that the Son is less than the Father, because it is written that the Lord Himself said, “My Father is greater than I.” But the truth shows that after the same sense the Son is less also than Himself; for how was He not made less also than Himself, who “emptied Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant?” For He did not so take the form of a servant as that He should lose the form of God, in which He was equal to the Father. If, then, the form of a servant was so taken that the form of God was not lost, since both in the form of a servant and in the form of God He Himself is the same only-begotten Son of God the Father, in the form of God equal to the Father, in the form of a servant the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; is there any one who cannot perceive that He Himself in the form of God is also greater than Himself, but yet likewise in the form of a servant less than Himself? And not, therefore, without cause the Scripture says both the one and the other, both that the Son is equal to the Father, and that the Father is greater than the Son. For there is no confusion when the former is understood as on account of the form of God, and the latter as on account of the form of a servant. And, in truth, this rule for clearing the question through all the sacred Scriptures is set forth in one chapter of an epistle of the Apostle Paul, where this distinction is commended to us plainly enough. For he says, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and was found in fashions as a man.” The Son of God, then, is equal to God the Father in nature, but less in “fashion.” For in the form of a servant which He took He is less than the Father; but in the form of God, in which also He was before He took the form of a servant, He is equal to the Father. In the form of God He is the Word, “by whom all things are made;” but in the form of a servant He was “made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.” In like manner, in the form of God He made man; in the form of a servant He was made man. For if the Father alone had made man without the Son, it would not have been written, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Therefore, because the form of God took the form of a servant, both is God and both is man; but both God, on account of God who takes; and both man, on account of man who is taken. For neither by that taking is the one of them turned and changed into the other: the Divinity is not changed into the creature, so as to cease to be Divinity; nor the creature into Divinity, so as to cease to be creature. (Augustine, On the Trinity, 1.7.14 – NPNF 1.3.24)


For the Father is greater than I. This passage has been tortured in various ways. The Aryans, in order to prove that Christ is some sort of inferior God, argued that he is less than the Father The orthodox Fathers, to remove all ground for such a calumny, said that this must have referred to his human nature; but as the Aryans wickedly abused this testimony, so the reply given by the Fathers to their objection was neither correct nor appropriate; for Christ does not now speak either of his human nature, or of his eternal Divinity, but, accommodating himself to our weakness, places himself between God and us; and, indeed, as it has not been granted to us to reach the height of God, Christ descended to us, that he might raise us to it. You ought to have rejoiced, he says, because I return to the Father; for this is the ultimate object at which you ought to aim. By these words he does not show in what respect he differs in himself from the Father, but why he descended to us; and that was that he might unite us to God; for until we have reached that point, we are, as it were, in the middle of the course. We too imagine to ourselves but a half-Christ, and a mutilated Christ, if he do not lead us to God.

There is a similar passage in the writings of Paul, where he says that Christ will deliver up the Kingdom to God his Father, that God may be all in all, (1 Corinthians 15:24.) Christ certainly reigns, not only in human nature, but as he is God manifested in the flesh. In what manner, therefore, will he lay aside the kingdom? It is, because the Divinity which is now beheld in Christ’s face alone, will then be openly visible in him. The only point of difference is, that Paul there describes the highest perfection of the Divine brightness, the rays of which began to shine from the time when Christ ascended to heaven. To make the matter more clear, we must use still greater plainness of speech. Christ does not here make a comparison between the Divinity of the Father and his own, nor between his own human nature and the Divine essence of the Father, but rather between his present state and the heavenly glory, to which he would soon afterwards be received; as if he had said, “You wish to detain me in the world, but it is better that I should ascend to heaven.” Let us therefore learn to behold Christ humbled in the flesh, so that he may conduct us to the fountain of a blessed immortality; for he was not appointed to be our guide, merely to raise us to the sphere of the moon or of the sun, but to make us one with God the Father. (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, p. 102 – trans. Pringle.)


In summation, we have Athanasius teaching that the Father is greater than the Son because of, “His generation from the Father Himself, nay, in saying ‘greater ‘He again shows that He is proper to His essence.” With Augustine, Father is greater than Son as pertaining to His incarnation, His “form as a servant” (i.e. humanity). And according to Calvin, the passage is not addressing either the Son’s divinity, or His humanity, but rather, His office/role as Mediator and Savior.

I shall let my readers judge for themselves which interpretation is the correct one (or, perhaps, supply yet another interpretation).


Grace and peace,

David

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

Texas Tech and Penn State? I am for old Joe Pa. Iowa this week. Fifty-six years he's been coaching there. I saw him on 60 Minutes years ago leading the team in the Our Father. Good man I think.

Anyway, I tend toward St. Athanasius. In the context, we have to ask what why Jesus is going to the Father. "I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I". Which fits best?

God is the fount of divinity and while being equal in essence, sons are inferior in relation to fathers. This was something startlingly simple that anyone with little theological acumen could grasp. No one holds that children are made of an inferior substance, yet for that reason we cannot permit children to be disobedient to parents. It is an inferiority of relationship.

(A problem with this view could be that some subordinationists would take this further and urge that there is essential inferiority because of the immaturity of children and attach it to the incarnate Christ. I do not admit this to be the case but will assume that no one here is interested in that path.)

---This point could be corroborated in v.31, where Jesus emphasizes his role as a son to obey, "so that the world may know that I love the Father."

Do we think that when Jesus says after the Incarnation, that the Father is greater, He is giving an eternal truth, or is it only contingent on His humanity. Does He only obey the Father as a servant because of His Sacred Humanity? I suggest that the "Father is greater" is a non-contingent eternal truth and that before the Incarnation, even while it was not robbery to be equal, the the Father was greater.

That said, I believe St. Augustine's position is an acceptable school of thought which I could not condemn. I admit that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the way Catholics dismiss apparent problems rather too blithely with this solution. However, there is no question that the distinction between "the form of a servant" and not thinking it robbery to be equal" are two of the most important keys to Biblical understanding.

I didn't really understand Calvin. You liked it?

Filter Boy

PS: I can look later but I think St. Hilary followed Athanasius' position too.

David Waltz said...

Hi Filter Boy,

Thanks for responding; you wrote:

>>Anyway, I tend toward St. Athanasius. In the context, we have to ask what why Jesus is going to the Father. "I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I". Which fits best?

God is the fount of divinity and while being equal in essence, sons are inferior in relation to fathers. This was something startlingly simple that anyone with little theological acumen could grasp. No one holds that children are made of an inferior substance, yet for that reason we cannot permit children to be disobedient to parents. It is an inferiority of relationship.>>

Me: Exactly. I would add that the Bible is quite clear that the Son owes His existence to the father (e.g. John 1:18; 5:26; Heb. 1:3, etc.); that fact demonstrates (IMHO) a clear case of subordinationism.

>>(A problem with this view could be that some subordinationists would take this further and urge that there is essential inferiority because of the immaturity of children and attach it to the incarnate Christ. I do not admit this to be the case but will assume that no one here is interested in that path.)>>

Me: To which I would say that if an infinite, perfect, God begets a Son in His very image, how could there be any taint of “immaturity”?

>>Do we think that when Jesus says after the Incarnation, that the Father is greater, He is giving an eternal truth, or is it only contingent on His humanity. Does He only obey the Father as a servant because of His Sacred Humanity? I suggest that the "Father is greater" is a non-contingent eternal truth and that before the Incarnation, even while it was not robbery to be equal, the the Father was greater.>>

Me: Yet again, I agree. Certainly the Son throughout all eternity obeys the Father who gave Him life—before His incarnation, during His incarnation, after His resurrection to glory—the Father/Son relationship is an eternal one.

>>That said, I believe St. Augustine's position is an acceptable school of thought which I could not condemn. I admit that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the way Catholics dismiss apparent problems rather too blithely with this solution. However, there is no question that the distinction between "the form of a servant" and not thinking it robbery to be equal" are two of the most important keys to Biblical understanding.>>

Me: IMHO, Augustine’s take is a bit too Nestorian. I think Athanasius’ view is a better fit for one who holds to a Chalcedonian Christology. (What do you think?)

>>I didn't really understand Calvin. You liked it?>>
Me: I think there is a lot truth to what Calvin said; however, I would argue that the Son’s role as Mediator and Savior is directly related to His eternal relationship to the Father as His only-begotten Son.


Grace and peace,

David

Ryan said...

Just wanted to thank you for posting this article. I am writing a short paper on John 14:28 for my systematic class, and I found your discussion immensely helpful!

Blessings,
Ryan

David Waltz said...

Hi Ryan,

It is so good to hear that my little thread has been useful to you.


God bless,

David