Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Father is greater than I (John 14:28): The Patristic witness that is ignored by many contemporary Evangelicals

Over the weekend, I came upon an ongoing "civil war" (Dr. Michael Bird used the phrase "civil war" in one of his numerous posts on a number of issues germane to this thread - see his posts listed under THIS LINK)*, between a good number of contemporary Evangelical theologians (most of whom are also Calvinists). I first gained knowledge of this "civil war" via a blog post published by Dr. Mike Ovey, Principal of the Oak Hill College in London, England, under the title: "Should I Resign?" (LINK)

This "civil war" seems to have begun over the divide between the complementarian and egalitarian camps over gender roles. For reasons I don't fully understand, it was broadened to include the issue of 'the eternal subordination' of the Son to the Father. It is this latter issue that will be the focus of this thread—without further reference to the gender issue.

From what I have gathered, the main disagreement is over whether or not the Son of God is eternally subordinate to God the Father. Those who affirm, usually do so via the concept of 'functional subordination' and/or 'relational subordination'; while those who deny, relegate all talk of subordination of the Son to the Father in terms of the Incarnation.

Since I hold to the doctrine of the Monarchy of God the Father, I side with those who affirm that the Son of God is eternally subordinate to God the Father. But, with that said, a key element concerning this eternal subordination has been pretty much ignored in this contemporary debate: the issue of etiology—i.e. the causality of the Son from the Father. [IMO, the issue of etiological subordination within the Godhead is even more important than 'functional subordination' and 'relational subordination'.]

As with most issues concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, I think it is imperative that one examine closely what the Church Fathers had to say. In my studies of the Church Fathers, I have found that the interpretation of one verse in particular was quite significant in determining what a good number of the Church Fathers believed about the issue of the subordination of the Son of God to God Father: John 14:28. The selections I will be providing clearly show many CFs understood that the phrase, "the Father is greater than I", should not be relegated exclusively to the Son's incarnation; but rather, it also speaks to the Son's eternal causation from God the Father. Note the following:

Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria -

We have learnt that the Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, lacking only His "unbegotten." He is the exact and precisely similar image of His Father. For it is clear that the image fully contains everything by which the greater likeness exists, as the Lord taught us when He said, 'My Father is greater than I.' And in accordance with this we believe that the Son always existed of the Father ; for he is the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His Father's Person.' But let no one be led by the word 'always' to imagine that the Son is unbegotten, as is thought by some who have their intellects blinded : for to say that He was, that He has always been, and, that before all ages, is not to say that He is unbegotten...

Therefore His own individual dignity must be reserved to the Father as the Unbegotten One, no one being called the cause of His existence : to the Son likewise must be given the honour which befits Him, there being to Him a generation from the Father which has no beginning ; we must render Him worship, as we have already said, only piously and religiously ascribing to Him the 'was' and the 'ever,' and the 'before all ages ;' not however rejecting His divinity, but ascribing to Him a perfect likeness in all things to His Father, while at the same time we ascribe to the Father alone His own proper glory of 'the unbegotten,' even as the Saviour Himself says, 'My Father is greater than I.' (Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople, from Theodoret's, Ecclesiastical History, I.III - NPNF 3.39, 40.)

Athanasius -

But since he has here expressly written it, and, as has been above shewn, 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 essence and one in nature with it. And hence it is that the Son too 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", nay, in saying 'greater' He again shews that He is proper to His essence. (Against the Arians, I.58 - NPNF 4.340.)

Basil -

For since the Son's beginning/origin (ảρχή) is from the Father, according to this, the Father is greater, as cause (ἀίτιος) and beginning/origin (ảρχή). Therefore the Lord said, My Father is greater than I, clearly because He is Father. Indeed, what else does the word Father mean unless the cause (τὸ αἰτία) to be/exist [Latin: esse] (εἶναι) and beginning/origin (ἀρχὴ) of that which is begotten of Him? (Against Eunomius,  I.25 - translation mine.)

Greek text:

Ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἡ ἀρχὴ τῷ Υἱῷ, κατὰ τοῦτο μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ, ὡς αἴτιος καὶ ἀρχή. Διὸ καὶ ὁ Κύριος οὕτως εἶπεν· Ὁ Πατήρ μου μείζων μου ἐστὶ, καθὸ Πατὴρ δηλονότι. Τὸ δὲ, Πατὴρ, τί ἄλλο ση μαίνει ἢ οὐχὶ τὸ αἰτία εἶναι καὶ ἀρχὴ τοῦ ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεννηθέντος; (Migne, PG 29.568)

Gregory Nazianzen -

As your third point you count the Word Greater ; and as your fourth. To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument ? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature ; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause ; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man ? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater. (Orations, 30.7 - NPNF 7.312—see THIS THREAD for more detail.)

Hilary of Poitiers -

But perhaps some may suppose that He was destitute of that glory for which He prayed, and that His looking to be glorified by a Greater is evidence of want of power. Who, indeed, would deny that the Father is the greater; the Unbegotten greater than the Begotten, the Father than the Son, the Sender than the Sent, He that wills than He that obeys ? He Himself shall be His own witness :The Father is greater than I. It is a fact which we must recognise, but we must take heed lest with unskilled thinkers the majesty of the Father should obscure the glory of the Son. Such obscuration is forbidden by this same. (On the Trinity, III.12 - NPNF 9.65.)

If, then, the Father is greater through His authority to give, is the Son less through the confession of receiving? The Giver is greater : but the Receiver is not less, for to Him it is given to be one with the Giver. If it is not given to Jesus to be confessed in the glory of God the Father, He is less than the Father. But if it is given Him to be in that glory, in which the Father is, we see in the prerogative of giving, that the Giver is greater, and in the confession of the gift, that the Two are One. The Father is, therefore, greater than the Son: for manifestly He is greater, Who makes another to be all that He Himself is, Who imparts to the Son by the mystery of the birth the image of His own unbegotten nature, Who begets Him from Himself into His own form, and restores Him again from the form of a servant to the form of God, Whose work it is that Christ, born God according to the Spirit in the glory of the Father, but now Jesus Christ dead in the flesh, should be once more God in the glory of the Father. When, therefore, Christ says that He is going to the Father, He reveals the reason why they should rejoice if they loved Him, because the Father is greater than He. (On the Trinity, IX.54 - NPNF 9.174.)

I have chosen the above Church Fathers for two very important reasons: first, all of them wrote in Greek, for Greek was their mother tongue; and second, all of them wrote their above reflections on John 14:28 with Arianism in mind. If there ever was a period in the history of Christianity for one to limit John 14:28 to the incarnation of the Son of God it was the period from Arius through that of the Homoians and Anhomoians (i.e. Neo-Arians); and yet, their exegesis of the Biblical text compelled them to refrain from doing so.

In addition to the above CFs, I would like to add John of Damascus—the Church Father I recently introduced to readers of AF (LINK)—who wrote the following concerning John 14:28:

So then, whenever we hear it said that the Father is the origin of the Son and greater than the Son, let us understand it to mean in respect of causation. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I, Chapter 8 - NPNF vol. 9, page 9, second section.)

In ending, I think that when one considers John 14:28 and its relationship to the subordination of the Son of God to God the Father, one should seriously keep in mind the reflections from the Church Fathers quoted above.

Grace and peace,


*UPDATE (06-15-16): Because the post where Dr. Bird used the phrase, "civil war", has already moved to page 2 of the link I provided above, I thought it wise to provide a DIRECT LINK to it.


Jan Sichula said...

Hello David,

thank you for your informative article and all your work whenever you are publishing relevant patristic citations on your blog usually accompanied with useful insights and comments. Now this post of yours is a strong witness that presently popular evangelical position that I would term “incarnational subordination” is a fairly modern development quite removed from mainstream Patristic theology in the period after Nicene council. Also, I would add several observations:

• The reason how can debate on gender roles spill over to issues of Trinity and subordination of Son to Father consists in the claim of one stream of complementarians that relationship of husband and wife including submission of wife to her husband is pattered in a certain analogical way after relation of the God The Father and Son of God. In my understanding, this claim is the starting point for all of the debate that has again and again resurged over last few decades.

• The “Monarchy of the Father” seems to be largely anathema in mainstream reformed theology with only exception being Dr. Samuel Waldron who has publish a series of articles on his blog where is even speaks in terms of One God being the Father himself in a certain sense.

• Even the “eternal generation” itself is hotly debated in some circles and being rejected by one stream of contemporary reformed and evangelical theologians.

Have a nice day.

To God alone be the glory.

David Waltz said...

Hi Jan,

Thanks much for your kind words, and cogent insights. I especially appreciated your thoughts on the probably cause of why, "debate on gender roles spill over to issues of Trinity and subordination of Son to Father".

As for Dr. Sam Waldron, I first became aware of his writings on the Trinity back in October, 2011 (see THIS POST), via his contributions on the Midwest Center for Theological Studies blog. (In 2014, MCTS was changed to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary.)

Since 2011, 7 more posts were added to his series, so on Sept. 8, 2015, I published a new thread which included all 18: LINK.

As for the issue of 'eternal generation', have you read my somewhat extensive post (HERE) on this important issue?

Grace and peace,


Nick said...


I'm not sure if you're following the Pan-Orthodox Council going on now, but here is the official website if you're interested. In the document on Relations to Other Christian bodies, the Council makes use of the phrase (at least as translated in English) "Triune God," and even makes statements such as:

"The Orthodox Church-members believe that participation in the WCC must be grounded in the principle article of its Constitution, which affords membership only to those Churches and Confessions that recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior—according to the Scriptures—and confess the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed."

Note that it says "Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," which is obviously using "God" to refer to all the Persons and not just the Father.


Nick said...

I'm sure other examples can be found. I'm eagerly reading the documents on the official site which have attained "unanimous approval" (aside from the 'missing' EO members).

David Waltz said...

Hi Nick,

So good to hear from you again! Thanks much for the link, for I was not aware of this ongoing "Holy and Great Council" of the Orthodox Church.

You wrote:

==Note that it says "Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," which is obviously using "God" to refer to all the Persons and not just the Father.==

Since I fully accept both the original Nicene and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds—and, of course, the Biblical witness—I believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each "God".

Getting back to the Orthodox Church, have you seen THIS THREAD posted yesterday at Eclectic Orthodoxy?

Grace and peace,