Sent from the Father: A Case for Pre-Temporal Obedience


Given the generally perceived understanding of ‘subordination’ as it relates to the Trinity (i.e. that the Son and Spirit are somehow inferior in their nature to the Father) perhaps it is better to speak of the ‘obedience’ of the Son and Spirit to the Father (although even this terminology is seen as problematic to some).1  Nearly all parties are agreed (e.g. Unitarians, Egalitarians, Complementarians, etc.) that the Son was subordinate to the Father during his incarnation but there are those who argue that to reason this incarnational subordination back into eternity is to do violence to the Trinity.  The question I want to explore is: was the Son obedient to the Father prior to the incarnation?  If it can be shown that he was then there should be no problem affirming an eternal functional subordination within the Trinity no matter what camp you fall into. 


At this point I should also define the terms ‘functional’ and ‘subordination’ as I am using them because I realize that my usage might differ from someone else’s.  By ‘function’ I mean the purpose or action for which each person of the Trinity is fitted.  It is my contention that their purposes have been set from all eternity and realized in time so that the activity of the economic Trinity is coordinate with the order of the immanent Trinity.  The doctrine of perichoresis maintains that through their coinherence all three act as one.  Nevertheless, it was the Son alone who became incarnate, died, and was resurrected, because it was proper for him to do so and not the Father or Spirit. 


By ‘subordination’ I have in mind the eternal order of the Trinity, any idea of ontological inferiority such as expounded in Arian (or modern day Unitarian) thought is to be put far from your mind.  It is imperative to recognize the order (ταξις) in the Trinity because how God has revealed himself in history is an extension of how God relates within himself in eternity.  The Father begets, the Son is begotten (Jo. 1:14, 18), and the Spirit proceeds (Jo. 15:26).  These are eternal distinctions between the persons of the Trinity that cannot be reversed.  This eternal order is the basis for the understanding of the eternal ‘subordination’ of the Son and Spirit as seen in their being begotten of and proceeding from the Father.  According to this order it is entirely proper that the Father would have sent the Son and the Spirit (through the Son).  It is entirely proper that the Son and Spirit would express their love for the Father in obedience to his sending.  

My Thesis 

I will argue that this obedience is seen in the ‘sending-sent’ language of the NT, in particular the Fourth Gospel.  This language denotes an authority that the Father has over the Son and the Holy Spirit yet delegates to them for the purpose of accomplishing the redemption of his people.  This authority in no way equates to ontological inferiority, I stand in line with the creeds of orthodoxy that state that the persons of the Trinity are ὁμοούσιος (of the same substance). The eternal obedience of the Son and Spirit is derived from the eternal Trinitarian ταξις and is best described as a willing obedience.  The Father commands without demanding.  There is no coercion on the part of the Father, and the Son and Spirit do not obey begrudgingly.      

I will not be addressing the modern gender debate in this essay but will leave the question open for further reflection and discussion at the end.  It is my opinion that both egalitarians and complementarians overstate their case when arguing for the Trinity as the picture of male-female relations.  It is also my judgment that it is a gross mixing of metaphor to take Father-Son language and apply to it the male-female roles in home and ministry.  The husband-wife metaphor used of God-Israel/Christ-Church is much more appropriate for that particular debate. 

One Under Authority

Let’s begin by looking at the Synoptic Gospels.  In Matthew 8:5-13 // Luke 7:1-10 Jesus enters Caperneum and is approached by the centurion who seeks healing for his servant.  Jesus agrees to go and heal his servant but the centurion replies:

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it. (Matt. 8:9, cf. Lk. 7:6-8 )

As a man with authority the centurion sends and summons while his subordinates obey his commands.  The same is true of Jesus as one set under the authority of the Father.  But in being under the authority of the Father he is also dispatched with the authority of the Father to perform God’s work in the world.  Jesus stated that whoever receives him receives the one who sent him (Matt. 10:40, cf. Mark 9:37 // Lk. 9:48).  Conversely Jesus could say that whoever rejects him rejects the one who sent him (Lk. 10:16).

In his monograph The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Simon Gathercole examines Jesus’ “I have come” sayings in the Synoptic Gospels and builds a case for the preexistence of Christ from them.  In the seventh chapter he turns attention to the “sending” statements (Matt. 10:40; 15:24; Lk. 4:18, 43; 9:48; 10:16; Mk. 1:38; 9:37; et. al.) and argues that while in and of themselves they don’t prove preexistence, when read in conjunction with the “I have come” sayings they can and probably should be understood as evidence for such, given the high level of correspondence. 

Preexistence is not what concerns us here so we will simply take it for granted that the Son preexisted his incarnation and move on to Gathercole’s observation in regards to “sending” language.  After examining some passages from various Jewish writings (Dan. 10:11-12; 4Ezra 7:2) Gathercoles notes:

[W]hen the language of “sending” is used, it is clearly to focus on the fact that the envoy stands under the authority of God. We noted above in chapter 4 that “coming” and “being sent” are not identical; the former focuses on much more on the action of the subject and the latter on the subordination of the one sent to the sender. In the case of the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, then, the accent will not be on Jesus’ own coming, but on the fact that his mission is the result of the action of the Father.2

So if Jesus’ being sent is from his preexistence into his temporal existence then we have a pre-temporal obedience of the Son to the Father.  Obedience prior to the incarnation should negate any argument that says Jesus only obeys the Father once incarnated.  It should also cause us to ask why a belief in a mere temporal obedience/subordination is deemed necessary by some.  What violation is there to the Trinitarian ταξις if the Son obeys the Father in eternity?  Why would we not expect to see God’s activity in history as reflective of his eternal intra-Trinitarian relationship? 

Sending-Sent Language in the Fourth Gospel

John’s Gospel is without a doubt the most pregnant with the “sending-sent” language in all of the NT.  It is also in the Fourth Gospel that we see the clearest affirmations that the sender is greater in some sense than the one sent.  It will not be possible to survey all of the sending statements in John’s Gospel so instead we will focus on a few important passages noting John’s usage of agency and his depiction of Jesus as unwaveringly obedient to the will of the Father. 

In his magisterial two-volume commentary on John, Craig Keener notes that:

John portrays Jesus as God’s agent, his authorized, reliable representative. Although John’s Christology is incarnational, it is also a “sending” Christology, the latter theme reflecting the divine love that originates the sending.3

John 5:1-47

In John 5 Jesus comes into Jerusalem and heals a man on the sabbath which brought persecution from his Jewish opponents (5:1-16).  They sought to kill him for healing on the sabbath but he explained that his Father is working so he is as well.  This brought a charge of blasphemy for making himself equal with God by claiming God as his Father (5:17-18).  Jesus explains that he can do nothing of himself and it is because the Father loves him and shows him all things that he’s able to perform the works of the Father, but those who do not honor the Son do not honor his Father who sent him (5:19-23). 

As in the synoptics, the Son is seen as the envoy of God.  He represents the Father so rejecting him is equivalent to rejecting the Father.  Jesus continues saying that the Father has given him power, life, and authority to resurrect and judge and that he can do nothing of himself but what he does do is proper because he seeks the will of the one who sent him (5:24-30).  It is the sender’s witness of the sent one (5:25-47) that establishes the validity of his works and Jesus points out the hypocrisy of his accusers in that they’d receive one who has come in his own name while rejecting he who has come in the name of the Father (5:43). 

All throughout this scene we are given witness to the Son’s dependence upon and obedience to the Father.  But this is not a mere temporal obedience, the pre-temporality is reflected in the Son’s being sent into the world (cf. Jo. 3:13, 17).  A few chapters later we are given an explicit affirmation of this very point when Jesus says: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” (Jo. 8:42, NRSV)  This is not to say that Jesus came against his will, but rather that his will is always in obedience to the Father’s.  It was the Father who sent the Son into the world.

As Allan Coppedge says in his recent volume on the Trinity:

Headship in the Trinity is not governed by God as King but by God as Father (of the Son). So the Father sends the Son and then the Spirit into the world as an expression of their threefold self-giving relationships to one another in love. The other-orientated love of the ontological Trinity expresses itself in the sending of the Son and the Spirit in the economic Trinity. So while there is a functional distinction within the economic activity of the Father sending the Son and the Spirit, this external act arises from an eternal, mutual self-giving within God.4

John 13:16

In this chapter we find Jesus at the height of his servitude.  Here he stands washing his disciples’ feet as an example of the selfless service that they should render toward one another and the world at large and in this midst of this act of humility he says:

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (Jo. 13:16, RSV)

Jesus acknowledges that as the sent one he is not greater than the one who sent him.  Yet a few verses later we still see that the envoy represents the sender in that whoever receives Jesus receives the one who sent him (vs. 20).  This sets the stage for Jesus’ most explicit claim of subordination in John 14:28.

John 14:6-28

Unitarians of all stripes have long used John 14:28 as a proof-text in proving that the Son is not God or at least not as much God as the Father, but they err in their understanding of Jesus’ statement here.  They understand Jesus to be making an ontological statement regarding his being.  He is not.  But as an aside, I believe that those who argue for a temporal/incarnational subordination only, also commit the same basic error of interpretation here.  Jesus’ statement is explained as him claiming that the Father is greater than him in his incarnate humanity, but in his eternal deity they are equal.  But even this is not the thrust of Jesus’ statement.

Jesus begins by making many statements concerning the perichoretic relationship between himself and the Father (vs. 6-11) which he then explains as extending to believers (vs. 20).  He mentions the works that he does in the Father’s name and the works that believers will do in his name (vs. 10-14).  The theme of agency is clearly attested in these passages.  This segues into a section in which Jesus speaks concerning keeping his commandments out of love for him and the Father (vs. 15-24) which will result in the dwelling of both persons with believers.  Then a message of comfort is given in stating that the Father will send the Spirit in the name of the Son (vs. 25-27). 

This leads into the verse in question in which Jesus says that the Father is greater than he is — but how one can discern anything by way of ontology here is beyond explanation.  The context doesn’t hint at the nature/substance of God in any sense — rather Jesus returns to the Father because it is the Father who has sent him (Jo. 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36-38; 6:29, 38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42, etc.) – the Father is greater than the Son as the one who sent him into the world.  It is the Father’s pretemporal commanding of the Son and the Son’s pretemporal obedience to the will of the Father that established this statement.5  


My original intention with this post was to provide a solid Biblical basis for my argument of pre-temporal obedience on the part of the Son and then examine this idea in light of later Patristic interpretations.  I had especially wanted to interact with Augustine’s De Trinitate 2.5.7-10; 4.19.25-20.30, but the deadline of the summit and obscene ammounts of procrastination seem to have ruined my chances of that.  It was also my goal to be able to offer a reading of the Creeds (N-C & Athanasian) that was consistent with the thesis I have set forth. 

What I was able to offer is a preliminary sketch of eternal subordination via the willing pre-temporal obedience of the Son from a select few passages of Scripture.  I hope to use this post as a jumping off point for a series in which I will address everything that I had hoped to but couldn’t in this particular post.


1 See Kevin Giles’ The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 16-17. 

2 Simon J. Gathercole. The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 179.

3 Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols., (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 1:315-316.

4 Allan Coppedge. The God Who Is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy, 2007), 136.  Cf. Kallistos Ware’s statement: “To speak in this way of God as Son and Father is at once to imply a movement of mutual love . . . It is to imply that from all eternity God himself,  as Son in filial obedience and love renders back to God the Father the being which the Father by paternal self-giving eternally generates in him.” The Orthodox Way, Rev. Ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1995), 32.

5 This is adapted from another post on this blog in which I was arguing against a Unitarian interpretation of John 14:28.

57 thoughts on “Sent from the Father: A Case for Pre-Temporal Obedience

  1. I’m not sure that I find your side comments about the gender debate regarding this issue very helpful considering the text in question for that is 1 Cor 11.

    Yes, I know that wasn’t your topic and even though 1 Cor 11 is a potentially very good passage for making your case regarding obedience, your probably didn’t have time to deal with it anyway.

    Anyway you wrote a good post, but I’m still letting it sink in. I’m trying to decide how much theological weight I would put on some of those verbs…I don’t know.

  2. I noted my problems with 1Cor. 11:3 on Peter Kirk’s blog like a week ago but in a nutshell, I don’t see enough corresponding points to see it as analogous of the Trinitarian relationship (especially given the absence of the Spirit in the passage which makes me wonder what corresponds to the Spirit in the marriage relationship).

    Mike Bird sent me an article that is going to be published in the Trinity Review (I wish I could have used it in the summit), and he sees more correspondance than I do but points out that there’s an analogy but no equivalence. In the end though he makes a very similar comment to my aside, in that there are better analogies for the male-female relationships.

    And thanks about saying this post was good. It’s really just glorified notes. Like I said, I hope to develop it into a series in the coming weeks/months. We’ll see what happens.

  3. no…not yet – i’ve got about 10 other books that i’m working on. Thankfully, i don’t have any reviews books right now, so there’s less obligation.

    for the record, i have not really studied 1 Cor 11 in depth.

  4. Your main argument here fails to convince me. We can agree that the Son obeyed the Father by allowing himself to be sent, and that logically that preceded the incarnation, implying that it is not only the incarnate Son who was obedient. But there is a huge logical leap when you argue from this single act of pre-incarnate obedience to subordination throughout all eternity.

  5. which is a “slightly” more directly way of saying it than my, “I’m trying to decide how much theological weight I would put on some of those verbs…I don’t know.”

    But yes, that is what I was thinking.

  6. Peter: It is no great surprise that you are unconvinced. I don’t think your militant egalitarianism would ever allow you to be convinced that the eternal Son has always been obedient to the eternal Father. BTW, I didn’t really see an argument in there, would you care to actually demonstrate why or how it is a “huge logical leap” to suppose eternal obedience from temporal and pre-temporal obedience?

    Just out of curiosity, how many acts of pre-temporal obedience would it take to convince you, since one is not enough? And your aversion to see an eternal obedience on the part of the Son raised some questions in my mind as to your Christology. For instance, do you believe that the Son has been the Son of the Father from all eternity? If not, do you hold some sort of adoptionist Christology where the Son became the Son at the incarnation or some other point in time? If you do hold that the Son is eternally the Son of the Father then what violence do you see in an eternal obedience?

    Also, on what basis do you assert anything other than an eternal obedience? So far all I can see is that you allow your militant egalitarianism to skew your picture of the Trinity. I haven’t really seen you offer anything in support of your position.

    Mike: Could you elaborate on your doubts please?

  7. hmmm, that might require more thinking than I was actually prepared to do…I’ll try to explain though later this evening.

  8. Just a couple observations:

    1) I’m not sure that the fact that the centurion describes sending of his soldiers in terms of authority necessitates that the Father’s sending of the Son implies authority. The fact that authority is linked with sending once does not suggest that it always is – particularly unless there isn’t a place where authority is directly linked with sending with reference to the Son. Its a matter of maximal redundancy – i.e. the meaning that adds the least to the context of a passage is most likely to be the correct meaning. Your best better for such an understanding would have been John 13.16, but I’m not sure if authority is necessarily Jesus’ point, particularly in light of statements like that of John 10.30.

    2) – I’m too tired to think anymore…I’ll try for a two tomorrow (if there is one…).

  9. Mike: Thanks for the comments. I’ll probably end up doing a full post on this point in the series I want to build off this post, but real quick, when we work back from the Hebrew Scriptures and go through the intertestamental literature to the NT we will find that when one (either God or man) sends an envoy (either man or angel), it denotes the authority of the sender.

    I don’t really see any difference in meaning from the Father sending his Son to the centurion sending soldiers. But an aspect of that passage I didn’t explore in any detail was that the centurion as one standing under authority knew what it was to have authority delegated to him to command others. The Son as the envoy par excellence of the Father stands under the authority of the Father and therefore can command sickness and evil spirits to leave. But along with Gathercole I have to affirm that when “sending” language is used it denotes the authority of the sender and the subordination of the one sent.

    Concerning John 10:30 I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If we look back to vs. 18 Jesus explains how he has the power to lay down his life and take it up again because he has received the charge from his Father. In vs. 25 Jesus explains that the works he does he does in the Father’s name (i.e., authority). And once we get to vs. 29 Jesus clearly asserts that the Father is ‘greater than all’. I understand that this verse is not without its textual problems but I believe that the context demands this reading because of what is being spoken about, namely no one being able to snatch the sheep from Jesus because the Father has given them to him. The he makes the statement that the Father and him are one in the context of saving God’s people. Scroll down to vs. 36-37 and he again says that it is the Father who consecrated and sent him into the world and that it is the works of the Father that he does that bear witness to his ministry and authority.

    I look forward to your other thoughts (if there are any). :)

  10. Good post Nick.

    I think more work needs to be done in proving eternal subordination over temporal subordination, engaging in that Jesus was ushered in through the Spirit.

    If the Spirit of God moves us to prayerful intercession, like He did Jesus; could it be that the Spirit of God moves / moved God to intercede, therefore pointing to an eternal mutual submissiveness?

  11. Nick, is it really not obvious to you that there is a fallacy in jumping from “this happened once” to “this must happen for all eternity”? This is I think a rather extreme case of the fallacy of hasty generalisation. If you still don’t see the problem, follow my link to Wikipedia. You are of course compounding this with the ad hominem fallacy by bringing in the irrelevant issue that I am an egalitatian, and making baseless accusations that I am an adoptionist when I am not.

  12. Peter: This is not a hasty generalisation. The only picture we have in Scripture is of the Son’s temporal and pre-temporal obedience (which continues in eternity) to the Father. I again ask you, on what basis (other than your militant egalitarianism) do you assert anything other than an eternal obedience? Are you of the opinion that the economic Trinity reveals nothing about the immanent Trinity? And if it reveals something, anything at all, what is it?

    Secondly, I didn’t accuse you of anything, I said that your position raises some questions in my mind. You say that you are not an adoptionist, good, so then can you explain what your aversion is to seeing the eternal obedience on the part of the eternal Son to the eternal Father?

    And can you honestly say that your egalitarianism is irrelevant here?

  13. Nick is there a view of the trinity where Jesus is only seen as the son after his incarnation and that in regards to his pre-incarnation existence he is not the son (in the way we think of son) but son is just metaphorical language that helps us understand the relationship?

    Would it still be adoptionism if Christ was pre-existent (but still God) and became the actual son of God at his incarnation (because of being born through the Spirit and Mary) instead of his baptism?

    One of the things I wonder about a lot his how much of the trinitarian language and categories are tied up with the prevalent philosophy of the day (when the trinity was being formulated and hammered out) and since we’ve abandoned some of those other ways of looking at God whether we need to also do that here. It seems like sometimes we have our feet both inside and outside of the early church, abandoning some of their views while holding onto others when there really is no good reason to hold on other than tradition.

    I have some other thoughts more questions really) but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    Bryan L

  14. Bryan: Off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone who held such a view. But I think an argument can be made that Father-Son language is always metaphorical when used in reference to God (even though quite a few of the Fathers would argue otherwise).

    And yes, I think that would be a variation of adoptionism (but I’m not sure if we’ve ever actually seen it in practice, I’ll have to look into it). Bishop Alexander’s big thing was that the Father must have always been Father because to be the eternal Father he of necessity must have always had an eternal Son.

    There’s no doubt that much of the language and categories of Trinitarian theology are bound up in the philosophical language of the day, but there always came a reinterpretation of the language and categories. And the thing about the early church and the early fathers is that they weren’t monolithic. They often contradicted one another and sometimes even themselves so at some point or another we’re going to be forced to depart from them. And in the end I believe that tradition as far as it agrees/comports with Scripture is as good a reason as any to hold onto certain views.

    And if you have more question, ask away. If you’re holding back because you don’t want to flood the comments the just send an email, I’ll answer as best as I can.

  15. Nick, perhaps this is what the economic Trinity reveals about the immanent Trinity:

    We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature.

    Basil as quoted on my blog.

    I accept that I became interested in this issue because of the way that eternal functional subordination is used by some to justify complementarianism. That does not imply that my egalitarianism is militant or that I allow it to skew my picture of the Trinity.

  16. Thanks Nick,

    I think one of the questions or thoughts that then comes to mind is whether we are to afraid to take positions or routs concerning the trinity because it would be similar in name or concept to another version of the trinity that was condemned or thought to be heretical or just wrong.

    For instance you did mention that the idea that the son is pre-existent and God yet becomes the son once he is incarnated (but not at the baptism) would possibly be a form of adoptionism. Normally that kind of judgment would scare people away (sort of guilt by association or poisoning the well) yet I don’t see why it should. Maybe it makes best sense of the data and it is still different enough from traditional adoptionism that just sees Jesus as a mere human adopted by God.

    Similarly some people are afraid to use the term subordinationism even though their view maybe somewhat similar to subordinationism with some minor or major differences. Maybe the data does best fit seeing Jesus as subordinate to the Father for all eternity.

    I don’t know that’s just some thoughts. I just hate the context of theology where we have to stay away from questioning or pursuing certain routs to see where they take us because we’re afraid of being considered heretic according to some church standard from like 1500 years ago. Maybe in the end after looking down that path we will see it is wrong, but at the same time I don’t believe any real advances in theology can be made unless some are willing to journey down those paths and ask those questions and challenge the traditional views.


    Bryan L

  17. Bryan: Asking questions is definitely important but I think a fear of heresy is a healthy fear to have. And I say hold only to those standards that are first and foremost Biblical, which I happen to believe the ecumenical creeds to be.

  18. Oh yeah. I’m not saying abandon them. But I am saying don’t be afraid to question things like the doctrine of the Trinity that aren’t specifically spelled out in the Bible but that we do believe are found in the Bible. We can’t be afraid to question the churches formulation of it.

    Let me know if you come across some of the views I was wondering about. If not maybe I’ll make it up myself and publish on it and become a famous Biblical scholar and theologian! : )

    Bryan L

  19. 1 Cor. 15: 24-28 tell us of a time when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him,”

    I am a firm complementarian but see no need to base the belief in the economic Trinity – I have learned a lot from Craig Keener’s treatment of both John 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

    I wrote posts on both, here is the link to my thoughts on 1 Cor. 15 and my quotes of Keener.

  20. Ellen: I can respect that, I don’t see a need for either side to appeal to the Trinity in order to support their positions. Thanks for the link, I’ll give the posts a read when I have some time.

  21. Okay here’s my other thought:

    As you said, The only picture we have in Scripture is of the Son’s temporal and pre-temporal obedience (which continues in eternity) to the Father.

    My questions:

    (2) [picking up from #1 long ago…] What about the verbs makes them “pre-temporal” instances of obedience? I don’t think its clear whether the sending was before the incarnation or at the incarnation. If the latter, then this is not “pre-temporal.”

    (3) If this is the only picture we have of Christ’s obedience and assuming on the basis of what I just said in #2 that its not pre-temporal obedience, then simply put, I don’t think we can make any claims about Christ being subordinate because what happens in the the temporal existence by no means necessitates eternal subordination.

    Okay, what do you think?

  22. Mike: The Son was sent into the world (Jo. 3:17; 10:36) and came down from heaven (Jo. 3:13), yet existed alongside the Father from all eternity (Jo. 1:1; 17:5). The incarnation was his coming into the world, it’s when he became flesh (Jo. 1:14). I can’t see that sending him at the incarnation makes any sense since the world was his destination.

    And as an aside, I think once you get around to Gathercole’s book you’ll see how persuasive this argument really is when we view the Synoptic ‘sent’ sayings in light of the ‘I have come’ sayings.

    But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the obedience is only temporal with respect to the sending. We still see nothing other than obedience on the part of the Son to the Father while incarnate, and we also see this obedience continued for all eternity (1Cor. 15:24-28 — note also the way in which the glorified Son continues to call the Father ‘my God’ in Rev. 3:12). So if we never see anything other then the Son’s obedience to the Father at all times, on what grounds do we assert that there was any difference in eternity past?

    Also worth considering is this, if the Son can be functionally subordinate (as I have defined the term) while incarnate, yet not ontologically inferior, then what violence would there be of this same relationship prior to the incarnation?

  23. Nick,

    If I’m not mistaking didn’t Jesus also “send” the disciples “into” the world? If it does in fact say that the disciples were sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world, do they mean the same thing?

    “So if we never see anything other then the Son’s obedience to the Father at all times, on what grounds do we assert that there was any difference in eternity past?”

    I don’t think Philippians 2 speaks of the Son’s obedience to the Father until the incarnation. Before that he did not see his equality with God as something to be exploited or taken advantage of and instead willfully, under no compulsion emptied himself. And then in the incarnation it speaks of his obedience.

    Bryan L

  24. Bryan: I don’t believe that the context in John 17:18 is the same as 3:17 or 10:36, plus we know that the disciples were not preexistent whereas the Son was.

    And Philippians 2:5ff. isn’t addressing anything about the eternal relationship between the Father and Son as far as I can tell. It’s definitely a passage about the incarnation, but I wouldn’t read anything back into eternity from it.

    I think it’s also worth noting that the equality we see would be one of identity (or ontology). Paul said that Jesus was ‘existing (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God’ so that even with the addition of the ‘form of a servant’ he never stopped possessing the ‘form of God.’

  25. But John 17:18 says that just as Jesus was sent into the world so he has sent the disciples into the world, all in the same breath. Are you arguing that Jesus had something different in mind when he speaks about himself being sent into the world in 17:18 and that he’s not speaking of his pre-existence now?

    If nothing else maybe it tells us that the sending into the world language doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus’ pre-existence.

    “but I wouldn’t read anything back into eternity from it.”

    Why not? It talks about Jesus before the incarnation as being in the form of and equal to God before his incarnation. How does this not speak of the eternal relationship with the Father before the incarnation? What qualifies as speaking of the eternal relationship of the son and the father since this is one of the primary Christological texts in the NT?

    Bryan L

  26. Bryan: I have no problem with the equation of Jesus and the disciples in John 17:18, it’s the being sent into the world in this verse that I don’t equate with 3:17 and 10:36.

    In John 17 the disciples were given to Jesus out of the world (17:6) and he sends them back into the world to minister. In John 3:17 being sent into the world follows Jesus’ statement that he descended from heaven (vs. 13). The context is completely different.

    Upon looking at 10:36 again, I see it having more correspondance with 17:18 than 3:17 has, for sure, but again I think the context is different. Jesus is defending his claim to be one with the Father in saving the sheep. In other words preexistence isn’t the focus here but we have prior knowledge of his preexistence so seeing it in the phrase ‘sent into the world’ isn’t so far fetched. But I don’t think that all sending language denotes preexistence (e.g. Jo. 1:6), but from that I don’t think we could reasonbly argue that none of it does.

    Regarding Phil. 2, Paul says that Jesus presently exists in the form of God (ὑπάρχων is a present, active, participle). This is the foundation of the the equality. So even in his humiliated state he shares the same essential (or ontological) equality. Paul’s point isn’t to spell out the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son here. It’s a call to imitate Christ in humility.

    I don’t understand the last question. What does this being a primary Christological text have to do with the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son?

  27. “Paul’s point isn’t to spell out the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son here. It’s a call to imitate Christ in humility.”

    Point or not the passage still tells us about Christ’s pre-incarnation and post resurrection state, both which are in direct relation to the father.

    My point about the last question is that this passage that tells us quite a bit about Christ’s divinity, his pre-existence and his relationship with the father (being in the form of an equal to the father) and for it to be dismissed as not telling us anything about the eternal relationship between the Father and Son makes me then wonder what passages you see as doing that?

    What passages qualify as telling us about the eternal relationship between the father and the son?

    Regarding “So even in his humiliated state he shares the same essential (or ontological) equality.”

    It made me wonder something. Theologians believe that Christ had/has 2 natures right? They believe the divine nature is equal to God (right?), but what about the human nature? Do they also believe his human nature was/is equal to God? I’m kind of leaning towards saying it isn’t but I don’t know what the correct philosophical or theological answer would be on that.

    Lastly, in regards to the sending language, my only point is that I don’t know if it can carry the theological weight you want to put on it, especially since Jesus explicitly compares his being sent to the disciples being sent so that it is the same type of sending. If nothing else I would be a bit cautious about assuming that 3:17 describes a pre-incarnation functional subordination. Maybe it does but because of the other ways the sending language is used it would just cause me to be a bit more cautious.

    Oh yeah I forgot one last question. Does functional subordination begin with the incarnation or creation? What I mean is, for those who traditionally see Christ as only being temporarily subordinate to the father, do they see that subordination as taking place at the incarnation or at the beginning of creation (or even salvation history)? Thanks. Sorry so long.

    Bryan L

  28. Bryan: Philippians 2:5-8 tells us about the Son’s nature(s), not his relationship to the Father in eternity. The equality is one of nature.

    Passages that explicitly tell us about the eternal relationship between Father and Son in my estimation would be John 1:1ff.; 17:5 (off the top of my head, I’ll give it some more thought and add another comment later).

    Concerning the human nature I can’t think of anyone who has ever argued that it was equal to the divine nature (or God). Maybe someone has, but I have no knowledge of it.

    The main thrust of the sending language for my view is that it denotes the authority of the sender and the obedience of the sent. Remember, I said in the post that we’ll take preexistence for granted. I wouldn’t use the sending language in and of itself to prove preexistence, although I think it’s a helpful building block.

    That final question is a good one. I don’t know for sure off hand, but if I had to guess without pulling out some books I think I’d lean toward the incarnation because that’s when the Son enters time-space. To my mind it would be hard to argue for the Son’s temporal subordination before he actually entered time.

  29. Maybe I’m confused then at exactly what you mean by ‘speaking about the sons relationship to the father’. For instance John 17:5 which you listed says “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

    All we can see from that verse is that Jesus had glory before the world existed. I think we can tell that much by Phil 2:5ff since it says Jesus is in the very form of and equal to God, therefore I would assume that he also had the same glory, power, wisdom, knowledge, etc. as God. So what is significant about John 17:5 that makes us consider it but not Phil 2:5ff?

    Now John 1:1ff definitely tells us a lot about Jesus and his eternal relationship to the father. But what from there do you see that shows he is eternally submitted to the father? What do you see in John 1:1ff that is significant in telling us about Jesus’ relationship to the father?

    Let me know if you think of any other passages because I think it would be odd to build our whole theology of the eternal relationship of Jesus and the Father out of one section of scripture and from only one author.

    Concerning the 2 natures of Jesus question I had, would you say then that theologians believe Jesus was both equal to God and not equal to God at the same time? Like he was walking around with a divine nature that was equal to God and his human nature that was not equal to God?

    Your last answer made me realize the mistake in my question. Thanks. Let me rephrase it. If the Father and Jesus exist outside of time, do any theologians believe that when they act within time that Jesus is functionally subordinate to the father, but outside of time he is not? Or that before the creation of the world (and time) Jesus is not functionally subordinate to the Father but once they decide to act within time and specifically within salvation history, only then does the son become functionally subordinate? Does that make sense? Thanks again!

    Bryan L

  30. Bryan: OK, Philippians 2:6-8 tells us something about the Son (in particular, something about his natures), not something about the Son with the Father (in eternity). John 1:1-18; 17:5 tell us something about the Son with the Father, namely that he has existed alongside him from all eternity in intimate fellowship (this is what is implied by John’s use of πρὸς τὸν θεόν in John 1:1b), and that they shared the same glory (17:5).

    And you didn’t ask me about a passage that shows eternal submission, you asked about passages that qualify as teaching about the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son because I said Philippians 2:5ff. does not. I build my case for eternal subordination from various lines of data, not simply (a) single (or explicit) passage(s).

    The Son’s pre-temporal obedience, his eternal generation, the operations ad extra as revealing the relationships ad intra all factor in. Like I said in the post, the activity of the economic Trinity is coordinate with the order of the immanent Trinity in my view. It’s proper for the Father to send the Son and the Spirit because the Father as Father has authority. The Father begets and spirates yet is not begotten nor proceeding, so on and so forth. These are the kinds of things that factor in.

    Regarding the question, it would depend on how you’re defining ‘functionally subordinate.’ If you define like I have in the post then I’d say most ancient and quite a few modern theologians believe that the Son and Spirit are subordinate to the Father in creation/salvation. The order of the Trinity recognizes that creation and salvation come from the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. All three persons are active participants but there is an order to the operations. Does that make sense? If not then I’m not so sure I have an answer.

  31. “And you didn’t ask me about a passage that shows eternal submission, you asked about passages that qualify as teaching about the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son”

    Sorry. I thought the subordination thing had to do with their relationship and when you were speaking about their relationship you were speaking about how they interact, and who does what and who submits to who. My bad.

    I think I get what you are saying but I’m also getting a bit more confused and more questions are coming to mind so I’ll just leave it at that for now. Thanks.

    Bryan L

  32. Nick,

    If the “I have come” passages imply that Christ was pre-existent, what do you then make of the Psalmist (Psalm 40:7) saying “I have come to do your will.” Does this also imply that the Psalmist is pre-existent? Just curious, friend.

  33. Troy: I’d take that in its regular connotation. Simon Gathercole argues in his book for an “I have come + purpose” formula as that which points to preexistence. And what’s more is that these “statements of purpose” are summaries of Jesus’ mission as a whole.

  34. Sounds fair, and guess what? I went to the public library and checked out Simon Gathercole’s “The Pre-existent Son. Thanks to you, my friend; thanks to you.

    As for “Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity” by Paul Barnett, I put it back on the shelf [for now that is]. I most likely will own it one day. And as for Dunn’s “Jesus Remembered: Christianity and the making,” I don’t think I’ll have time to read it all before August 15. That’s when I will be moving into my housing apartment at Lee University (I was notified in an email from the housing department that I have already been assigned a spot in the hall, but I have yet to get a letter of acceptance). In the meantime, working overtime seems to be what I should do, so reading time is cut short. Gathercole’s book has some of my attention though.

  35. Troy:

    I don’t know if you knew this or not but Gathercole gave 3 lectures on the topic of the pre-existent son at SBTS.

    Here’s the link.

    You can also listen to Dunn give 3 lectures on Jesus here:

    Click on the “Hayward Lectures Online” link.
    These lectures were turned into a book called “A New Perspective on Jesus”


  36. Interesting paper Nick. I understand what you are saying in that we can extrapolate the eternal subordination of the Son from the pre-temporal obedience of the Son by being sent by the Father. I have not exactly read about the Trinity in great depth, but from by brief study of the Scriptures, it does seem (at least to me) that the activity of the economic Trinity is synchronized with the order of the immanent Trinity.

  37. Diglot: That’s my finding as well. In fact, in last week’s Bible study I taught on the deity of Christ as seen in the deeds he performs (taking my cues from Bowman & Komoszewski’s Putting Jesus in His Place) and it was explained that we know who God is by what God does. This is built into the first commandment when God says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” He identifies himself according to what he’s done for Israel. Likewise, we can speak of an “immanent” Trinity because we’ve seen the actions of the “economic” Trinity. There’s always going to be a bit of speculation with regard to the immanent Trinity because we can only know as much as God has revealed about himself; but seeing as how he’s revealed himself through his economic activities that has to be our starting point for understanding him. This isn’t to conflate the economic and immanent Trinity in the way that certain theologians (e.g., Karl Rahner and those who have followed him) have, but it is to say that one is a proper starting point for talking about the other.

  38. Nick: For someone who does not own any books that are specifically on the Trinity, what would be the top few that you would recommend?

  39. Nick: I’ve been thinking about shooting you an e-mail on this topic for some time, but kept meaning to check through your blog first to see if you’d covered it in any detail here. Sure enough, today I found it!

    I gotta tell you, I very much agree with your position and the way you make your case. I’ve never been able to completely reconcile the “temporal/incarnational subordination only” viewpoint with the texts themselves in a way that didn’t sound like special pleading. The interpretation that is offered along those lines of John 14:28 in particular has always seemed a good bit strained to my ears.

    So, thanks for this! Good stuff!

  40. Tom: Glad to be of service! I’m gearing up to review Kevin Giles’ The Eternal Generation of the Son and one of the most frustrating things is reading him say things like “the economy reflects what is true in eternity” (p. 74) and then go on to talk about how it’s impossible for the Son to have been in any way subordinate to the Father from all eternity. Huh? What?!!

  41. Nick: Huh-boy. Having just read your “Giles vs. Bird & Shillaker” series, that sounds like same old “glaring inconsistency” from him.

  42. Tom: Yup. And he continues to say that the Arians believed Jesus to have been “created in time” and yet “eternally subordinate.” Please explain how he can be a creature AND eternal.

  43. Nick: I’d almost think that’s the kind of thing the editors would address with him before publishing it, but I know I’m asking for too much there. At any rate, if his arguments were that powerful he wouldn’t need to paint those who disagree as Arian wannabes, so I guess it speaks for itself.

  44. Tom: You’d hope, but sadly it seems like the editors aren’t reading carefully or just don’t care. And you’re certainly correct about the ad hominem.

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