Thursday, 13 July 2017

Blog reader question: "the Father is greater than I" - Jesus Christ

Something of a milestone has been reached in the last month - actual interaction on the blog! Some of the questions and comments in the sections underneath each post are really interesting and thought-provoking for me, so thanks, I really do genuinely appreciate the interaction, even if I do wish there was even more. Hopefully that'll come. The best theology is done together.

I put quite a lot of thought into my last post on the hermeneutic circle - indeed, it was probably by far the longest post, I think, that I have ever done on this blog at around 1600 words. But the length fortunately didn't seem to throw off Jonathan B., a French reader in London. Here's his question:

You seem to fault the authors of 2nd Sirmium for their interpretation of "the Father is greater than I", but for what reason exactly? According to you, is it false to say that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate? (let's forget about 4th-century ontology and just stick to the terms greater/subordinate in their 1st-century sense)

Don't you think these legitimate concerns about protecting the religious 'centricity' should not go as far as to prevent us from using plain scriptural vocabulary/notions?

Excellent questions.

First on the impression that I may have left about finding fault in the 2nd Sirmium Creed's insistence that the Son is inferior in greatness to the Father. Not my intention, I am not judging it. I mentioned in my last post that in 2014 I went through a deconstruction process in my faith, which eventually led to the opening of this blog in the Autumn of that year. That was and remains part of my reconstruction process, albeit to a new and more nuanced understanding. On that journey of deconstruction then reconstruction, I won't hide that there have been points where I seriously doubted the ultimate truth behind the biblical worldview we're all so studiously pondering. I associate these times of doubt not with any knock-down atheist arguments, but with the fact that my previous Christian worldview was profoundly called into question, that I myself (without any assistance from anyone else) have dug up and continue to dig up some rather curious paradoxes in my Christian faith, which have nothing or little to do with the Trinity, and also an illness, which can leave me mentally quite drained. The combination of all these factors has led me at various times to not just prefer but need to take the pressure away from my own personal faith, and examine more closely what they believed, by which I in 2015 I meant the first-century (as opposed to the late fourth-century) Christians. That was my 2015 move. My 2016-17 move is to integrate subsequent reflections as helpful hermeneutic interpretations of what preceded them, thus helping us better understand "plain" and "less plain" first century texts (which, let us remember, are not the origin of that Christian hermeneutic circle).

My personal journey, I believe, is not irrelevant (that is obvious anyway if you read Ricoeur - same is true for everyone). My own worldview has been so seriously shaken and deep views changed so quickly that while I don't claim to be neutral, I don't think I can be much more shaken up than I already have been. I have changed my mind several times on some important issues. I have areas of disagreement with everyone I read (including some of my favourite authors like Tuggy, Wright, Hurtado, Crossan and Holmes). My process has led me to be skeptical about a lot of things, including my own opinions. And that is why at this time of my life, I am not asking myself whether I believe that in all his might and glory Jesus Christ might actually be a bit inferior (according to my ideas of what inferiority and superiority might be) to God the Father. What I want to know is historically what these questions you are asking, Jonathan, might have meant then, in the late first century and in light of the decades preceding it. I can't shortcut that, not anymore. It's personally too precarious.

So for the question:  is it false to say that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate?  - I really don't care much what I think about that at this time, although I am delighted that verse is there. What interests me from a first-century perspective is to ask why on Earth would John have Jesus say this? What were his hermeneutic concerns? If you really want a direct point of view on something from me: I don't think Jesus necessarily mouthed those words, the Father is greater than I, in 30 AD. Probably not, in fact. From what I see elsewhere about other interpretations, recollections and reconstructions of the life of Jesus, his custom was as a faithful Jew to regularly attend his local synagogue, spend lots of time in prayer with God (whom he called both "Father" and "God"), do all his miraculous work via the Holy Spirit and in fact be in a symbolic-yet-real and exemplary sense the "son" of Yahweh that Israel had refused - none of the major emphases of Jesus' historic life point to any need to clarify any such ideas of equivalence. 

Yet, I don't see John's gospel as a fictional account! In fact, I am kind of wondering if his is the most direct record we have from any of the Twelve even if it were written so late. I suspect that John, in line with his emphatic conclusion in John 20:31, recalled along with his community, the sense of extraordinary divine empowerment and legitimacy of Jesus' messiahship and sonship. I wrote a short post on this two years ago, entitled "Seeing the Father in Jesus", which includes some example verses to this effect. Jesus' messiahship is frankly not a question that many Christians care much about, and this is perhaps also a reflection of how Christological developments unfolded slowly away from Judaism. However, what did not diminish was the status of the texts themselves as canon formation became an increasing concern. And so we have the first-century concern of establishing Jesus' messiahship along with some radical redefinitions of what that fulfillment meant and did not mean. 

So with this controversial statement, which during my rejection period of the Trinity stood as a glaring proof against the validity of the fourth-century emergence of the tri-personal God, it is not as simple to assert: the Bible said it "plainly". If we adopt the critical historical route, which I most certainly want to do, and want to integrate hermeneutics as fully active in the first-century, which I also most certainly want to do, then I have to realise that John's book was, along with the other gospels, a deeply theological and christological work rooted in real-world events and locations, intended to shape and protect (or "preserve") the Johannine community's faith. As a result, I conclude that it is distinctly possible that "Father-eclipsing" was a likely phenomenon as early as the first century in some circles. Amazing, huh?! To answer the question more fully, however, I confess I'd like to know more (perhaps more than is publicly known) about the location in which this gospel was composed, the relationship of the community with its Jewish roots and a good number of other things besides.

So in short: I don't fault Sirmium, I simply am grateful that we have such an explicit, succinct and clear presentation of the paradox that was perceived to threaten a stable and sustainable Trinity. I also think deeper engagement with the hermeneutic circle prevents us from access to "plain scriptural vocabulary/notions", as plain as some might appear to us.

Thanks Jonathan for your question.


  1. Hi John,

    Thanks a lot for this long answer, I'm greatly honoured.

    Now I understand where you are coming from.
    I guess our trajectories and concerns are slightly different (while related).

    I too am trying to understand what it meant in the 1st century while ignoring 4th century and modern ideas, but only as a way to form an opinion of what we could say positively 'now'. Although I'm fully aware of all the hermeneutical issues you are tackling, I'm not shying away from doing theology per se. As Christians, I don't think we have the luxury of just not having a positive opinion on such a central subject. Granted we could never extirpate ourselves entirely from our own hermeneutical circle — but we at least must try, we don't have any other choice.

    Maybe I wasn't clear (excuse my bad English) but by 'plain' I simply meant using biblical terminology taken straight from the Greek text. I am not saying that the meaning of these terms is 'obvious' and not fraught with peril... but surely, we should be able to quote the NT in a confession, whatever our position is.

    So regarding Sirmium, I would never take it as a 'reference' and shortcut 1st century thought, but what I cannot do is say 'this affirmation is incorrect' when all they do is use the scriptural terminology of 'greatness'. I agree that their intentions and interpretations of what it actually meant could have been completely wrong-headed, but I would consider this as a distinct issue.

    As for the possibility of a "Father-eclipsing" phenomenon in the 1st century, that's interesting but how could we know for certain? Couldn't it be that John simply received from the Holy Spirit additional revelations regarding the status of Jesus? (it sounds quite conservative, I know)

    Talking of my own experience, the re-evaluation of this question did not create in me the same kind of doubts and turmoils you went through. There's probably a couple of reasons for this. First, even as a full-blown Trinitarian, I've always held to the 'Monarchy of the Father' without even knowing it, which was already a long way towards my current position. Second, I've never held to a fundamentalist view of Scriptures. I more or less always believed that John is presenting to us a theological interpretation of the Jesus-event with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the use of 'charismatic exegesis', as Hurtado puts it. Next, it seemed clear to me that, contrary to what is constantly asserted by well-intentioned Trinitarians, this is NOT part of what a Christian ought to believe to be considered 'in', this is simply indefensible biblically and historically. Even if 4-5th century Trinitarianism were 100% correct, it would only be a post-biblical model used to make sense of the NT, not a binding biblical teaching.

    Jonathan B.

    1. It's funny - some of your wording (perfect English by the way!) reminds me a lot of my conversations with Barney Aspray quite recently, with me insisting that while I recognise my subjectivity is always there I have to extirpate myself as much as possible from it. But not only is that impossible, but it isn't the point of hermeneutics either. What it does do for first-century-focussed people like us *is* turn the lights back on to 2nd, 3rd, 4th century Christianities, and see how *they* might have been interpreting their predecessors. I believe this historical work is also theology and gives us something mighty to say positively: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have been central to the Jesus movement from the normative first century groups onward. So *that* is what I try to practice. I try to pray that way. I critique worship that way, and have a strong desire to see worship redevelopped and worship leaders trained to be more focussed on the Trinity, I want to see Christian social-action projects understood within this framework. Embracing the Triune Hub has a very positive outworking, and doesn't exclude Triune-God advocates, it sees it as an important branch or expression of it in a later time, but that served to confirm the prior centrality of the Three.

      Direct revelation from God via the HS about Jesus being inferior to the Father? I'm sorry, I certainly don't deny HS involvement - in fact I believe it is greater than that, shaping the canonisation process too; I just don't see the HS inspiration process working like that independently of human and theological (and hermeneutic) concerns in the rest of the Bible texts. No writer wrote against their will, au contraire!

      Thanks for the interaction :)

  2. Thanks for your answer and for the kind words!

    Regarding the last point, I meant the opposite – i.e. the revelation about Jesus being higher in status (compared to the Synoptics). I assumed that by "Father-eclipsing" phenomenon you meant that the Father was slowly eclipsing the Son, but apparently you meant the opposite! (sorry for the misunderstanding). Anyway, this was just a random thought, I actually agree with you entirely on the HS inspiration process.

    I hear what you're saying about the impossibility to extirpate ourselves from this hermeneutic circle, but in my mind this is going a bit too far. Without falling into a naive fundamentalist view of the perspicuity of scripture, I don't think it's completely absurd to believe we can scrutinize the revelation and affirm at least 'something' about identities, logical priority, pre-eminence, etc. We can refrain from going into philosophical speculations, and we can even make a point of explicitly denying any ontological deductions people could make. But perhaps I'm too naive myself then!

    As for the 'Triune Hub', I absolutely love the idea and I think it's spot on, still, I don't see how it could work in practical terms. The positive outworking you describe doesn't seem to be enough. Saying that F-S-S should be central to our devotional life is sufficient for folks like you and me, but it doesn't address obvious questions people are wired to have... issues of identity, of status, etc. At some point we have to be able to give straight answers in apologetic context (and even with other Christians...).

    Sorry it sounds slightly negative, I actually enjoy your writings immensely!

    Jonathan B.

    1. Very glad you are enjoying it so much Jonathan - very motivating for me also to hear you say so. Thank you.


Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.