Saturday, June 11, 2011

Revealing and being

Anti-Trinitarians cite some Johannine verses to disprove the Trinity. For instance:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3).

There are several things wrong with citing this verse to undermine the Trinity:

i) In this verse, “God” is used as a proper noun, not a common noun. It functions as a synonym for the “Father.”

ii) If this verse were contrasting the Father and the Son, it would hardly be followed by a verse like 17:5 (“And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed”).

iii) This verse doesn’t set up a contrast between the Father and the Son. Rather, it stands in contrast to passages like the following:

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (Jn 5:44).
So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and him you do not know” (Jn 7:28).

Jesus’ Jewish opponents prided themselves on following the “one true God.” But the point of Jn 17:3 is that you can’t have the sender unless you have the sent. If you reject the sent, you reject the sender, for the sent comes in the name of the sender.

So the contrast in Jn 17:3 is not between the Father and the Son, but between those who have both, and those who have neither.

It’s the same point John makes elsewhere when he says:

No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also (1 Jn 2:23).

Another anti-Trinitarian prooftext is:

You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I will come to you.” If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28).

One way of understanding this is to take to mean that the Father is intrinsically greater than the Son. However, a problem with that interpretation is that it violates the Johannine principle of transitive revelation. In the prologue we read this programmatic statement:

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (Jn 1:18).

This necessitates the essential symmetry between who does the revealing and what he reveals: like reveals like. (We have the same principle in 6:46.) 

And this stands in contrast to 1:17. Unlike the prophets, Jesus is what he says. God reveals God.

(Incidentally, the same logic extends to the revelatory role of the Holy Spirit in John.)

If, however, the Son were intrinsically inferior to the Father, then what’s inferior can’t fully reveal what’s superior. Like a bad imitation.

If the Father were inherently greater than the Son, then it wouldn’t be the case that seeing the Son is equivalent to seeing the Father (14:9), for in that event, Father and Son would be essentially unlike. If the Son is less than the Father, then whatever he reveals will be something less than the Father. His self-revelation will fall short of revealing the Father. 

An alternative interpretation is that the Father is greater than the Son insofar as he exercises greater authority within the economy of salvation.

On this view, he doesn’t exercise greater authority because he’s greater; rather, he’s greater because he exercises greater authority. To “send” another is (or can be) an act of authority.

Given the Trinitarian division of labor in the plan of redemption, the Father is greater than the Son. He takes on a greater role: the role of the sender.

But this doesn’t imply that he’s greater outside that particular assignment. In the economy of salvation, each divine party has a role to play. In theory that could be self-assigned, or one party could assign a role to another party.

Conversely, the entire arrangement could be by mutual consent. Within the arrangement, one party takes the initiative (e.g. “sending”), but that doesn’t mean one party takes the initiative in making the arrangement. 

To take a comparison, in NT ecclesiology an elder has authority appropriate to his office. But he’s not self-appointed. Given the office, he has authority–but his incumbency not a given. Rather, that's a result of a prior arrangement. 

The sent must return to the sender to complete the redemptive arc, where the inward upward motion complements the outward downward motion. So the Son goes forth, then comes back, to signify his successful mission. 


  1. Wow,

    Some really good meat there Steve.

    I love it when you do that stuff. It's not as funny as your usual stuff but...
    what God glorifying stuff, Steve!

    Now, you did something similar in a recent post, Steve- by indicating a certain word was "quantitative" rather than "qualitative".

    And BDAG indicates- that this seems to be the case with that word "greater"(μείζων)in the John 14:28 verse that you cite here as well.

    A contrast with the qualitative sense of this word (μέγεθος) in Eph. 1:19.

    A contrast that his saints (v.18) have no problems with.

    Oh, but those aints...

  2. Awesome explaination. I think there has to be some
    Providential humor that I read this after reading through Calvin's defense of Trinitarian theology in the institutes, this afternoon

  3. On John 17:3, your argument fails to convince.

    i. "only true god" - yes, that phrase refers to the same thing as "Father" in v.1. The term "god" here, though, is quantified over. Compare: addressing the King as "King" (proper noun) vs. saying "you are the only true king" (common noun). Don't be fooled by the English capital "G". But really, this common vs. proper nouns distinction is irrelevant. Read it your way - "that they may know you, the Father, and Jesus" - there are two objects of knowledge here - eternal life consists in knowing *them*.

    ii. non sequitur

    iii. red herring - it needn't be contrasting them, but only assuming them two - and it plainly does. There's the one god, and the one whom that one god sent. In other words, the Father isn't the Son.