Jesus’ subservience to the Father

Before the domination of the early Christian sect commonly referred to as the “proto-orthodoxy” (which later became known as the orthodoxy), there were other Christian sects who were also vying for supremacy. Like the proto-orthodoxy, these other sects held an opinion about the nature of Jesus. For example, some sects held that Jesus was a god who only appeared as a man. Others insisted that he was a god but one that was subservient to the God (a.k.a. the Father). Much of what the Church Fathers wrote was intended as a defense of their own particular christology, and as a condemnation of the views held by the competing sects. The proto-orthodoxy view was not merely that Jesus was a god equal to the Father, but that Jesus and the Father are one and the same god.

Yet this seems at odds with various verses in the Bible, such as ones we find in John 5, which make a clear distinction between Jesus and the Father. John 5 quotes Jesus as saying:

(19) …the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
(20) For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.
(22) …the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son,
(26) For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
(27) And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.
(30) By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

How do you suppose the Church Fathers reconciles statements like these and others with their belief the Jesus and the Father are one and the same?


7 Responses to Jesus’ subservience to the Father

  1. Xela777 says:

    We all need to realize that some of us are to fanatical in our ideals, atheist and Christian alike, that sometimes we (both) spew nonsense out of our mouths in a vain attempt to seem “stronger”
    If you want to get right down to the core of the whole thing, the Son and the Father are two different entities. IN MY Christian opinion, that is. They are the same in that they are “married”(Cor. 11:3) , so to speak, just as we think one man and one woman are one. (Gen 2:24)
    This is why the Father is the more dominant of the two, and Jesus is always talking about how he’s submitting and stuff like that.
    That’s how I reconcile it.

  2. Demodocos says:

    “I should like to say that … the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer… It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. Practice gives the words their sense.”

    – The (non-Christian) philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

  3. The Atheist says:


    Welcome to the blog! I think your position, that Jesus is subservient to the Father, is a more rational position than that of main-stream Christianity – at least if one is to base one’s christology primarily from New-Testament sources.

    However it seems to be in conflict with the Hebrew-Bible sources that contend that there is one and only one God. I think this had a big influence on the evolution of the idea of Trinity, since if one is to accept Judaism as the foundation of Christianity, one must also accept Judaism’s claim of only one God.


    Glad to see you back! I’m not sure what you mean to say with your quote. Do you mean it as an observation about creeds, or do you mean it as an observation about the christology of the various Church Fathers? My question is about what the Church Fathers profess (vs. how adherents interpret the creeds) vs what we find in the Bible.

  4. Xela777 says:

    I suppose I didn’t explain well enough. Or elaborate.

    God is the only god. Jesus is “God” only because He is “married” to the Father. The Father gives Jesus all the power, as Jesus Himself testifies numerous times in the NT.
    We (Christians) are a monotheistic so-called “religion”, not polytheistic in any manner. Any worship we give to Jesus He credits to the Father, cause the Father is just freakin awesome all around. I wish the Bible explained more about Their relationship, but I guess I’ll have to wait.

  5. Demodocos says:

    In short, I was citing Wittgenstein as a way to locate the conversation of Trinity as one that can really only take place within a particular “language game,” i.e., the Christian life and practices. One cannot take the concept of trinity and make it comprehensible to an audience who is not interested in playing that game. It would be akin to me asking a physicist to prove that time is relative without using the “language game” of physics; or, attempting to make sense of Impressionism solely in terms of history. Similarly, there is much more to the “language game” of Christian theology than consistency with scripture and the church fathers (although those are indeed crucial elements). It is not simply consistency, but there is also a concept of development. This is not a concept that Christians anachronistically imposed upon the Hebrew bible in order to justify their “apparent” shift in theology, but is rather a concept that is articulated by many ancient and contemporary Jewish scholars. That being said, to say that Trinitarian theology is one that is developing (in a particular way) is not necessarily a convenient way to deal with a theology that is not explicitly laid out in the scriptures, or is uniformly articulated by the church mothers and fathers. These are but a few of the “rules” of our “language game” that are at play when we talk about Trinitarian theology as well as read the church mothers and fathers.

    Your observation that some of the patristics articulated this theology in the context of particular heresies is an important one, and it is also one that every church historian and theologian worth their salt is well aware. But that is only one particle in an atmosphere of conditions that guide the development of theology.

    With regards to “proto-Orthodoxy,” a modern category by the way, the “non-Orthodox” teachings that were dismissed as heretical where not dismissed as a sort of will-to-power of local bishops, but they were dismissed on the basis that they were not consistent with the language game that had been played for thousands of years. Development and change can happen, but only in a way that is consistent with how its character. Marcion, one of the major groups that were dismissed by “proto-Orthodoxy” made the claim that Christianity and Judaism were irreconcilable, and that Christian theology was a complete break and entirely distinct from the Jewish faith. He also taught that the “god of the Old Testament” was a lesser god who created the world, as well as evil. I do not have enough time to point all of the ways the Marcion heresy is utterly and completely absurd. Furthermore, nothing was stopping them from continuing their religion. The church at that time was being persecuted and thankfully had not yet resorted to threatening people to stay or be in the church (a practice we are trying to restore :-). The rejection was simply a group of churches saying, that is not who “we” are.

    I don’t know how satisfying that answer is, but there you go. If you are interested in reading how the early fathers reconciled these verses you can read one of them through the link below. While I find them satisfying, I do not see how they can be comprehensible to people who are not interested in playing the language game of Christian theology.

    Augustine of Hippo

  6. The Atheist says:

    Hi Xela777,

    The Father gives Jesus all the power, as Jesus Himself testifies numerous times in the NT.

    That is my point exactly. However, my understanding is that this is not the mainstream christian belief. Seeing Jesus in any manor other than The Father’s equal is contrary to the foundational christian creeds. The Nicene Creed of 325, for example, says that Jesus is “of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” That is quite different from your view that “God is the only god” – unless of course by “God”, you mean not only Jesus but also the Father in which case I refer you again to the verses in John 5.

  7. The Atheist says:

    Hi Demo,

    I agree that various disciplines like science, philosophy, religion, and others have developed a nomenclature (or “the language game” if you like) as a way to more concisely express meaning within the disciplines. However, the terms of these nomenclatures are ultimately defined in common terms to enable those who are new to the discipline to begin “playing the game.”

    To explore your analogy of the nomenclature of physics (that is, asking the physicist to explain relativity of time), the physicist begins by defining the nomenclature of physics in common terms. You and I, along with those who went on to become physicists, learned the most basic of these terms in elementary school (or primary). Then more complex terms can be defined using the simpler one until all of the nomenclature of physics has been defined and the foundation of the definition is common language.

    Looking now at the nomenclature of Christianity, the affirmation that The Father and Jesus are a single being, neither one greater than the other, appears to be a use of common terms. If you disagree, then where do we find the common descriptions of these terms?

    When you said that “…but is rather a concept that is articulated by many ancient…Jewish scholars,” which concepts were you referring to?

    …to say that Trinitarian theology is one that is developing (in a particular way)…

    I haven’t been commenting on the continuing development of the concept of Trinity. My question is about the inception of this concept. The first explicit statements that I can find of the notion of Trinity is in the writings of the Church Fathers (and their contemporaries), and their notion seems at odds with the discourse about Jesus’ relationship to the Father that I find in the scriptures (which the Fathers apparently accept as authoritative).

    These are but a few of the “rules” of our “language game” that are at play when we talk about Trinitarian theology as well as read the church mothers and fathers.

    Do you have a theory of what the Fathers believed about the relationship between Jesus and the Father that is different than what the creeds describe?

    But that is only one particle in an atmosphere of conditions that guide the development of theology.

    While I agree that I have singled out a single aspect of christian theology, I propose that it is not merely a “particle” but it is one of the foundational elements of the theology.

    “proto-Orthodoxy,” a modern category by the way…

    Possibly, I wasn’t clear enough about how important this modern term is to our understanding of early Christianity. The term is used to underscore the fact that the group which was later known as the Orthodoxy was originally just one of the various camps, each of which held a unique christology; and the Proto-Orthodoxy had no special status among them. The single most important thing that earned this group the name of “Orthodoxy” is that their particular variation of christology became the predominant one. Politics and personal opinion was as much at play as any other factors in elevating the Proto-Orthodoxy into this position of dominance. So I also use the term, Proto-Orthodoxy, to underscore the fact that before the Orthodoxy became known as the Orthodoxy, they were just one of the many groups that did not enjoy any special authority to define orthodox thought.

    Regarding Marcion, I understand how divergent his views were from the majority of christologies that were extant. And it comes as no surprise to me that his views were soundly defeated. However, a discussion of Marcion’s outlying views may be tangential to the original question which is how the Church Fathers could reconcile the belief about Jesus’ status with respect to the Father in light of the scripture they accepted as authoritative.

    Your theory seems to be (if I read you correctly) that claims of Jesus’ equality to the Father were not to be understood in common terms, but rather as specific terms that were part of their nomenclature. Could you unpack some of the terms? In more “common language”, what did the Fathers claim about Jesus and his relationship to the Father?

    Nice reference link, by the way. Thanks for posting it!

    Are you siting St. Augustine as an example of reading scripture while playing “the language game”? If so, do you feel that the earlier Fathers “played the game” to this same extent? By the same “extent”, I mean that St. Augustine says that we should simply accept what we cannot yet understand (why? because the teachings as authoritative. why are they authoritative?) and that words were uttered and events took place in scripture were for our benefit so that we could read about them later. Were the earlier Father’s playing these games when describing Jesus’ relationship to the Father, or did they really believe as stated in common terms that Jesus is not subservient to the Father?

    By the way, if by “playing the language game”, you mean to conflate St. Augustine’s treatise with the use of specialized nomenclatures (as in your example of the physicist and the relativity of time), then it might be a bit of an equivocation. I can certainly see why you would say that St. Augustine’s style of discourse (rationalizations?) can be thought of as a “language game”. I suppose that special nomenclature could also be termed a “language game” of sorts, though personally I find the term a bit strained in this case. However, despite the use the term “language game” to refer to both St. Augustine’s rationalizations and the use of specialized nomenclature, rationalization and specialized nomenclature remain very different things. Calling them both “language games” does not legitimate the use of rationalization by putting it on the same par with the use of nomenclature.

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