The Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28).
i) This is a popular anti-Trinitarian prooftext. According to unitarians, this means the Father is God, and Jesus is not.
According to Nicene subordinationists, this means that even though Jesus is still God, Jesus is eternally and ontologically subordinate to Father.
A basic problem with this approach is that it isolates the statement from its surrounding context. “...for the Father is greater than I” isn’t even a complete sentence. And it’s just a small part of a very extended discourse. In order to gauge the force of this statement, we need to compare it with other statements in this discourse.
ii) Jn 14:28 comes on the heels of Jesus saying:
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (v10a).
The mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son involves a symmetrical relationship. While it’s understandable how the greater could include the lesser, it’s less understandable how the lesser could include the greater. To play on the spatial metaphor, you can put something smaller in something bigger, but not vice versa.
If, on the other hand, the Father and the Son are coequals, then it’s more understandable how each could contain the other.
Of course, it’s possible for the preposition (“in”) to carry different connotations, depending on who or what is referred to. But here identical language is used for both parties, in mirror symmetry.
iii) There’s an obvious parallel between 14:12 and 14:28:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father (v12).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 (v28).
Both involve comparative greatness, and in both, the comparative greatness is indexed to the Son returning to the Father.
Given the proximity and similarity of these verses, where v28 rounds out v12, forming a kind of inclusio, we’d expect there to be an analogy between the greatness of the Father and the greatness of the works. But it doesn’t make much sense to say the works are ontologically greater. What would that even mean?
Commentators puzzle over the precise identity of the “greater works” since Jesus doesn’t specify what they are. However, they seem to have reference to answered prayers, where v12 leads into v13.
Jesus may have in mind something like this:
35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor (Jn 4:35-38).
There’s only so much Jesus could do at a particular time and place. Ministering in Palestine for three years.
Collectively speaking, generations of Christians can do “greater works.” The expansion of the Gospel has a global impact. That’s a major force in shaping the course of world history.
iv) It’s also striking that Jesus says:
13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it (Jn 14:13-14).
On a unitarian or Nicene subordinationist reading of 14:28, that’s not what we’d expect him to say. Rather, we’d expect him to say:
Whatever you ask in the Father’s name, he will do it, for the Father is greater than all.
But Jesus instead invites the disciples to address their prayers to him. And he tells them that he will answer their prayers.
v) Likewise, in 16:7, Jesus says:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
But if the sender is greater than the sent, does that mean the Son is greater than the Spirit? To my knowledge, that’s not how Nicene subordinationists argue.
vi) Now, a unitarian or Nicene subordinationist might object that elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, the Father sends the Spirit. Prayer is addressed to the Father. The Father answers prayer.
That’s true. I’m not suggesting that these are exclusive to Jesus. But that very alternation is problematic for unitarianism and Nicene subordination.
How do we harmonize statements which indicate the Son’s equality with the Father with statements which indicate the Son’s inequality with the Father? I don’t think that’s difficult.
For instance, someone with greater ability can perform a job requiring less ability, but someone with less ability can’t perform a job requiring greater ability. It’s easy to see how equals can assume unequal roles. How a superior can accept a self-demotion.
Indeed, this is the case throughout Bible history. Because we can’t come up to God’s level, God comes down to our level. This is also the case in the Fourth Gospel. The earthly ministry of Christ is clearly a comedown from his natural status. That’s how it’s portrayed. A greater temporarily assuming a lesser standing.
vii) I think 14:28 involves the same principle as 17:4-5:
4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
The Father is “greater” in the sense that the heavenly realm is greater than the earthly realm. By returning to heaven, Jesus is leaving behind the limitations of his earthly ministry. He can do more from heaven, for that mode of existence isn’t subject to our spacetime limitations. Of course, his earthly ministry lays the groundwork for his heavenly ministry. The ascended Son can empower the disciples to do greater works because heaven affords a greater field of action.
In 14:28, I think the “Father” functions as a metonymy or synecdoche for God’s exclusive domain, in contrast to the world. A greater place.
That identification accounts for the emphasis on changing places (heaven>earth, earth>heaven), with the attendant abilities.
This is similar to how the Gospels alternate between “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven,” where “heaven” is a synonym for “God,” and vice versa.