Don’t Crash the Trinity: The Form of God and Form of a Servant

There I was, flying through the air on my bike. Gloriously free.

But there was a problem. The force applied to my handlebars during the jump had caused them to come all the way out of the tube casing. I was now, mid air, holding my handlebars far above my head, and on my way back toward the ground.

Earlier that day I had notices the bolt connecting my bars to the frame was loose, but I didn’t think much about it. The scars on my elbows (to this day) wish I had taken a wrench and tightened that bolt. An earlier oversight became a great disaster.

As it is in life so it is in theology.

Can we find a wrench to help us hold together the seemingly contradictory statements about the Son in Scripture? That he is both equal to and subordinate to the Father?

The “two-nature” rule of exegesis is such a wrench keeping together the witness of Scripture so that we don’t crash our exegesis into heretical ruin.

This Matters Because…

This matters for two reasons.  First, because as teachers and preachers of Scripture, we need to accurately interpret and understand what the Bible claims about God. And second, as we seek to live into the reality of who God is and how he has created us, we need to accurately understand how people have been created in God’s image.

For example, as some claim, if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then we should not be scandalized if a wife is subordinate to the husband in the family, and women are subordinate to men in church leadership (and I would say there are racial/racist implications also).  So, these ideas have consequence! Misinterpreting the Trinity has clear sexist and racist implications. Click To Tweet

Following my first post on the “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission,” in which we showed that it is unbiblical and illogical to speak of the Son being subordinate to the Father, we must talk about the problems raised in Scripture and how to answer them.

Contradiction? The Word Was; The Word Became

The testimony of John states that the Word was with God in the beginning (in eternity) (1.1). But John also says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (in history) (1.14).

This is the mystery of the Incarnation, that the Son who was, and is, and forever will be, also becomes something, a human.

This does not sound so controversial. But when we think about it things can become confusing. The Son seems equal in likeness and eternity with the Father, but then why is the Son sent and not the Father? Is this because the Son is less than the Father? These are the type of questions Augustine was puzzling through while writing his On the Trinity (see 1.9).

And what about these statements from Scripture (On the Trinity, 1.22)?

  • All things were made by him (John 1:3) and Born/made of a woman; born under the law (Gal. 4:4)
  • He and the Father are one (John 10:30) and He came to do the will of the one who sent him (John 6:38)
  • He is true God and life eternal (1 John 5:20) and He became obedient to death (Phil 2:8)

How do we affirm the truth of Scripture with such “contradictions,” and many more like them? More importantly, how can we affirm the eternal equality of the Son when he so often seems inferior, subordinate, and submissive? How do we affirm the truth of Scripture with such 'contradictions?' Click To Tweet

Statements like these cause people to become careless and say that the Son is less than the Father in all eternity, coming to this conclusion by transferring “what is said of Christ Jesus as man to that substance of his which was everlasting before the incarnation and is everlasting still” (On the Trinity, 1.14).

These words of Augustine still apply today as theologians like Bruce Ware, in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, often transfer the meaning of the Son’s work for our salvation into the realm of God’s eternal life, concluding that the Son is “eternally subordination” to the Father, or that their exists an “Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission” in which the Son submits to the authority of the Father (I previously showed how that logic undoes itself).

So what is to be done with statements like the above? We must read the entirety of Scripture, but the entirety of Scripture makes contradictory statement of the Son.

The Form of God; The Form of a Slave

Augustine offers a rule of exegesis based on Philippians 2 to help us understand these conflicting passages. In Philippians 2 affirms both that Jesus as “in the form of God” (v.6) and yet took on the “form of a slave” (v. 7) and was born a human being.

Those passages in Scripture that indicate the equality of the Son with the Father, or affirm the divinity of the Son are passages that speak of the Son in the “form of God” (his divine nature). Those passages that indicate the inferiority or submission of the Son to the Father are speaking of the Son in his full humanity, in the “form of a servant.”

We must not be in such a hurry to either prove or assume the divinity of Jesus that we forget to take into account his full humanity. Too often we move from the “divine” Son in the Incarnation to the “divine” Son in all eternity, and forget that Scripture often speak of the Son in his full humanity.

And so it is not without reason that Scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant without any confusion (Augustine, On the Trinity, 1.14).

So all those passages that seem to indicate the inferiority of the Son before the Father (that the Son does the will of Father, the Son submits to the Father, the Son hands over authority to the Father), we must remember that these are speaking of the humanity of the Son, a humanity that in virtue of being human IS inferior and subordination to God, and should be submissive and obedient to God (although I would qualify that substantially, but that would be for another post).

Likewise, all those verses that seem to suggest the superiority of the Father over the Son need to be understood as referring to the Father in relation to the Incarnate Son, not the eternal Father-Son relationship.

This goes for the oft quoted 1 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Cor. 15:24.

1 Cor. 11:3, “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

1 Cor. 15:24, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.”

These two passages are always brought up by supporters of the eternal subordination of the Son. But we need to read 1 Cor. 11: 3 as plainly speaking of the Son in his humanity. In his human work as Messiah (which is what “Christ” means) then the Son has God as his head, just like everyone else. But as the Messiah, through whom God works salvation he is set apart (“Anointed” which is what “Messiah” means). So, whatever you make of this verse in regard to who is the head of who and what that might mean, we CANNOT take it to mean that in eternity past the Son is subordinate to the Father. And 1 Cor. 15:24 speaks of the completion of the Son’s ministry as Messiah/Christ to bring about a kingdom of all the saved and bring them before the Father as children of God. At that time the Son will no longer service as the mediator of salvation for all will be in the presence of the Trinity, within the divine life.

In summary, the “2-natures rule” of exegesis is not a way of “thinking instead of or beyond Scripture,” but is just thinking with Scripture as a short hand for understanding the entire witness of the Bible.

This rule is the wrench that tightens together the bicycle frame of Scripture so we don’t crash into heresy.

But the Son was SENT

Now some might say, yes, the “2-natures rule” is well and good and helps us understand the Bible and all that is said in it, but at the end of the day the Son is sent and the Father does the sending. And doesn’t this tell us something of their eternal relationship, suggesting that the Son obeys the Father in being sent?

Well, yes and no. But that will have to wait for another post where we think through the implications of the sending language as it is especially found in John’s Gospel.