Subordination and Equality of the Son of God to the Father

FULL ESSAY TITLE: What is conveyed in the fourth Gospel by presenting Jesus as the Son of God?  Is it possible to resolve the tension between equality with the Father and subordination to the Father?  (3000 words).

The main purpose of the Fourth Gospel is to proclaim that the Son of God was sent from heaven to earth to reveal the Father, and to save all those who put their trust in him (Jn 20:31).  In attempting to understand what the writer (John) of the Fourth Gospel is intending to convey by presenting Jesus as the Son of God, it is important to understand that Jesus is shown to be God but also sent by God.  This will be demonstrated by establishing that the Word, the Son, and Jesus are the same being and that they are divine; then consider the identification and equality of the Father and the Son; and the subordination of the Son to the Father.

The Word was God

Carson asks the question “But what is meant by ‘Word’?” and then discusses the various suggestions that have been proposed to answer this question.  After considering the suggestions of its background in Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, or Philo, he dismisses them all and shows that the background from which John draws his concept of the Word is the Old Testament, and concludes “In short, God’s ‘Word’ in the Old Testament is his powerful self-expression in creation, revelation, and salvation, and the personification of the ‘Word’ makes it suitable for John to apply as a title to God’s ultimate self-disclosure, the person of his own Son” (Carson 2006, 114-116).  Further on in his discussion, Carson says, “Because this Word, this divine self-expression, existed in the beginning, one might suppose that it was either with God, or nothing less than God himself.  John insists the Word was both”.

There are some who have supposed the former, i.e. the Word was only with God.  For example, the Watch Tower Society says “Since all created things had a beginning, there was a time when God was alone.  Countless ages ago, however, God became a Creator.  Who was this first creation?  The last book of the Bible identifies Jesus as ‘the beginning of the creation by God’ (Revelation 3:14)…..Therefore, he is called God’s ‘only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16).  The firstborn Son also bears the title ‘the Word’ (John 1:14). (Watch Tower official web site).

However, Carson makes it very clear what John intended.  After pointing out that the Greek preposition pros (commonly translated ‘to’ or ‘toward’) is used by John to indicate that the Word is a person with God, distinguishable from God, and in personal relationship with God, he says “More, the Word was God.  That is the translation demanded by the Greek structure, theos en ho logos…..the effect of ordering the words this way is to emphasise ‘God’, as if John were saying, ‘and the word was God! (Carson 2006, 116-117).

And Tasker says concerning the ‘Word was God’: “In the original, there is no definite article before God.  The significance of this is that the Word does not by Himself make up the entire Godhead; nevertheless the divinity that belongs to the rest of the Godhead belongs also to Him” (Tasker 1976, 45).

In the light of all this, it is not hard to see why John sets the opening verses of his gospel against the backdrop of the opening verses of Genesis.  The Word is nothing less than God; and John identifies him with the God of creation – not simply as a tool in the hand of God, but as having creative creation power in himself – as John says in 1:4, “in him was life”.

The Word and the Son

It is important to establish who the Word is because there is a clear connection with the Son of God; John identifies them as the same being.  The Fourth Gospel opens with the statement “the Word (logos) was God”, and ascribes to him eternal existence, power of creation, and of having life and light in himself, as has been shown.  By verse 14 we are told that “the Word became flesh”.  Carson (2006, 126-127) says “at this point the incarnation…..is articulated in the boldest way….Now, John tells us, God’s Word, his self-expression, has become flesh.  This is the supreme revelation….when ‘the Word became flesh’, God became man”.

This Word is identified as Jesus and “Son of God” (1:14-15; 29-34).  Thus, from this Gospel’s opening words, Jesus Christ is shown to be God, yet separate from God; God, but the Son of God.  The NRSV translates monogenes theos in verse 18 as “God the only Son”; NIV has “God the One and Only”.

monogenes theos

Whilst there are variant readings for verse 18, it is generally accepted monogenes theos (only begotten God) is the oldest and best.  Tenney (1981, 34) says “there can be no doubt this text also asserts the deity of Christ”.  Hendricksen (1954, 90) says, “Since the concept God implies eternity, it is evident that the expression the only begotten God must refer to Christ’s Trinitarian sonship.  All other types of sonship imply a beginning in time, irreconcilable with the idea of deity” (emphases his).

Son of God

So John makes it very clear from the opening words of his gospel that the Son of God, the Word become flesh, is very God.  Understanding the identity of the Son is vital.  John said that it was for this very reason that he wrote his gospel – he wanted to identify him so that we can believe in him – and that in believing we might have life.  Buckland (1914, 453) says “To promote belief in him as the Son of God is declared to be the purpose of the author.  And Jesus said that the Son is to be honoured just as the Father is honoured (5:23)”.

Tragically, however, the Watch Tower Society has a different understanding.  They say “John said that he had written his gospel so that readers might come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ the Son of God’ – not that he was God (John 20:31)”.  (Watch Tower Society official web site; italics theirs).  Therefore, they have missed the point of what John intends his readers to understand i.e. that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is the Word made flesh, the self-expression of God – “the Word was God” (John 1:1).  And in missing the point, they are caught up in error so serious that they cannot have the salvation that is offered in him because they have nobody to take their place on the cross; the Christ of the Watch Tower Society is neither God nor Man but a unique being who is therefore not qualified to suffer in the place of humanity.  Even if it was allowed that by virtue of his birth as a human being in their theological system that he could be the “new Adam”, federal head of the saved of humanity, the fact that he was a created being means (a) he couldn’t suffer to the extent necessary to appease the wrath of God and thus make atonement for sin, and (b) even more importantly, it would not be God who was bearing the cost of the atonement.

Father and Son

Not only does John want us to understand that the Son of God is God; he wants us to understand the nature of the relationship the Son has with the Father.  Burke (1985, 1033) says “At the heart of Jesus’ identity in John is his stated divine sonship.  In John 10:36 he admitted saying, ‘I am the Son of God’.  Frequently he referred to God as ‘my Father’ (e.g. 5:17; 6:40; 8:54; 10:18; 15:15).  Such assertions as ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30) and ‘the Father is in me and I am in the Father’ (vs. 38) show that Jesus conceived of his divine sonship as unique and unparalleled”.

Further, Carson demonstrates how “the son of” something or someone has a wide range of meanings; how Nathanael (1:43-51) would have understood it to mean “Messiah” linking sonship and Davidic royalty; and then culminates his discussion by showing that the term indicates the unique relationship with the Father.  He says “….but readers of John’s Gospel will quickly learn that the categories ‘Son’ and ‘Son of God’ are used to depict the unique relation of oneness and intimacy between Jesus and his Father.  Jesus’ sonship to God, however functionally described, involved a metaphysical, not merely a messianic relationship (….5:16-30; 10:33)” (Carson 2006, 161-162).

Once we understand that Jesus is divine and yet not the totality of the divine being, we are better able to consider his relationship to the Father without falling into the error of Unitarianism.

Identification and Equality of Father and Son

When Jesus said that God was his Father, even the Pharisees understood this as a claim to deity (John 5:17-18).  They were agreed that God doesn’t break the Sabbath, whether he works or not.  Carson points out, when Jesus made his claim (5:17), that “For this self-defence to be valid, the same factors that apply to God must apply to Jesus: either he is above the law given to mere mortals, or, if he operates within the law, it is because the entire universe is his….Jesus insists that whatever factors justify God’s continuous work from creation on also justify his” (Carson 2006, 247-248).

In John 5:21, Jesus claims the same power as God, to give life to whomever he wishes, wording which implies sovereign activity and choice.  Harrison (1990, 1083) points out that raising the dead is “as much a creative act as the original impartation of life”.  In 5:22 he has authority to judge.  These divine attributes will be exercised particularly at the end of time (Jn 5:26-29).

In John 10:30, Jesus says he and the Father are one.  Harrison (1990, 1096) says that the claim is that they are one in essence: “the word one is not masculine – one person – but neuter, oneness of being”.  This is why the Jews wanted to kill him (v. 33).  Jesus pointed put that the works he was doing were those of the Father (vv. 32, 37-38).

Again, in John 14:9-14, Jesus claims that he and the Father are one, and the works prove it; and to see the Son is to see the Father (v.9).  He also claims to be able to answer prayer (vv. 13-14), a prerogative of God.

Jesus aware of his relationship

John lets us know that Jesus was aware of his divinity.  In John 3:13 for example, Jesus told Nicodemus that he had “descended from heaven”.  In Jn 2:19 he said he would raise his own body from death; likewise, in 10:17-18.  In 4:26 there can be no doubt that when Jesus said he was the Messiah, he was fully aware of the significance of that claim, and that, in the light of prophecies such as Isaiah 9:6 and 40:3, he was claiming deity.

Guthrie concludes: “It is not possible from the many references to sonship in John’s Gospel to come to any other conclusion than that Jesus regarded himself as divine.  It is particularly important to note that it is also in this Gospel that Jesus is portrayed most clearly in his human nature with its attendant weaknesses.  Nowhere in the teaching of Jesus did he explain how God could become man, but he assumed this as a fact.  He taught with the authority of God” (Guthrie 1989, 1155).

The Son as “sent”

It is clear from verses such as John 3:34, 4:34, 5:23, 6:38-39, and many others, that Jesus was sent from heaven by God.  This is at the heart of what the Fourth Gospel is communicating.  Morris says “The closeness of the relationship between the Father and the Son is brought out in…..the concept that the Father sent the Son” (Morris 1989, 1194).  In Jn 3:17, Jesus says that he was sent “in order that the world might be saved through him”; that he should lose nothing, but raise it up (6:38-40); and his coming was also to reveal the Father (1:18) – “no human has ever seen the essence of deity.  God is invisible, not because he is unreal but because physical eyes are incapable of detecting him” (Tenney 1981, 34); and throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly says that he was sent by the Father.  Cowan (2006, 117) says “In this way, the Evangelist presents the Son as being sent on a mission initiated by the Father…..Therefore, he is accountable to him for all he does.  As the ‘sent Son’, Jesus seeks the will and glory of the one who sent him, not his own”.  Smalley (1998, 245) says that Jesus proved his sonship by accomplishing what he was sent to do – “He is ‘sent’ by God as revealer; and in truly prophetic fashion, Jesus comes to the world in God’s name and as his representative”.

Subordination of the Son to the Father

Cowan (2006, 122) points out that other people in the Fourth Gospel who were sent, such as John the Baptist (1:6, 33), those sent by the Pharisees to question John the Baptist (1:19-24), and the officers sent to arrest Jesus (7:32), were all subordinate to their senders, so it seems only natural to see Jesus’ relationship to his sender in the same way.

Nothing Jesus does is on his own initiative; he does what the Father does (5:19); speaks what the Father tells him to (8:28); and what he has seen (8:38).  Even the people he came to save were given him by the Father (6:39).  Cowan (2006, 123) points out that Jesus was dependent on the Father to give people to him (6:37, 39) because of their moral inability to come; and then says “Not only is the Son dependent on his Father, but he also demonstrates total obedience; to do the Father’s will is his food (4:34); it is an expression of his love for the Father (14:31); and he abides in the Father’s love by keeping his Father’s commandments (15:10)……Then, when his work on the cross is done, his last words…..are, ‘It is accomplished!’ (19:30), signifying the completion of his mission which he has carried out in perfect obedience to the Father” (Cowan 2006, 126).  However, it is important to point out that this doesn’t imply that Jesus had no will; rather, his will was fully in harmony with the Father’s will (10:18); therefore, the cross was not something that was outside the Father’s control but was part of his plan (Cowan 2006, 129-130).

Tension between subordination and equality of Son to Father

We have seen how Jesus is divine and therefore equal with God, in his essence and functionality; and also that he is subordinate to the Father, submitting his will to the Father’s.  How is the tension between Jesus’ equality with the Father, and his subordination to the Father, resolved?  Commenting on John 14:28, Carson (2006, 507) says “It cannot be right to depreciate the truth of one strand by appeal to the other”.

On this same verse, Morris says “’The Father is greater than I’ presents difficulties to those who (hold) a trinitarian faith.  The reference, however, is not to Christ’s essential Being, but rather to His incarnate state.  The incarnation involved the acceptance of a certain subordination…..The saying must be understood in the light of ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30).  John is not asserting, as the Arians maintained, that Jesus was a created being.  He is talking about the departure of the human Jesus from this earth to be with the Father” (Morris 1971, 658-659).

Barrett (1967, 77-78) discusses the issues raised in John 14:28, and points out that the passages which speak of the “inferiority” of the Son to the Father (5:19; 7:16; 10:29; 14:28) cannot simply be explained away as having reference only to the humanity of Christ, because it was the eternal Son, not merely the incarnate Jesus, who was sent by the Father.  Jesus reveals the Father; the object of his mission is to bring people to God.  Because Jesus reveals the Father, the Father is greater than he; yet since to see Jesus is to see the Father (14:29), he is one with the Father (10:30) and equal to him (5:18); the Word shares the divine nature yet the incarnation abated his power and authority.

So John depicts Jesus, the Son, as equal to God in his essential nature, but shows him as the Son who has subordinated himself to the Father.  Cowan says “Given the Fourth Gospel’s emphasis on such elements as the deity, pre-existence, and sovereignty of Jesus, combined with statements such as, ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30), one perhaps sympathizes with a reticence to understand this same Jesus as functionally subordinate to God.  However, one need not, indeed must not, choose between the two, if evidence for both exists within the text” (Cowan 2006, 135).

Conclusion                                                                                                                     

The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as the Son of God, the Word who was with God and the Word who was God, as being sent by the Father to reveal him to the world.  He was subordinate to the Father and did nothing unless it was from his Father; yet he was equal with the Father in divinity, power, and glory.  Although he said that the Father was greater than himself, he also said “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).  Then two strands run throughout the Fourth Gospel and John held them in tension, affirming both as true.  To emphasise one at the expense of the other is to lose balance and fall into error.  The Father is greater than the Son in his incarnate state but not in the Son’s essential being.

References

Author not acknowledged, 1914, ‘Son of God’, in The Universal Bible Dictionary, ed. A.R. Buckland and A.L. Williams, Religious Tract Society. London, 453

Barrett, C.K. 1967, The Gospel According to St. John, S.P.C.K., London

Burke, G.T. 1985, ‘Son of God: In the N.T.’, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W.A. Elwell, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Hants, U.K.

Carson, D.A. 2006, The Gospel According to John, Apollos, Leicester, England

Cowan, C. 2006, ‘The Father and the Son in the Fourth Gospel’ in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Lynchburg, Virginia, vol. 49, no. 1, 115-135

Guthrie, D. 1989, ‘Jesus Christ: Life and Teaching of’, in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, ed. W.A. Elwell, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1155

Harrison, E.F. 1990, ‘The Gospel According to John’, in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. C.F. Pfeiffer and E.F. Harrison, Moody, Chicago, Illinois, 1096

Hendriksen, W. 1982, The Gospel of John, NTC, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, Scotland

Morris, L. 1989, ‘John the Apostle: Life and Writings of’, in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, ed. W.A. Elwell, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1194

Morris, L. 1971, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Smalley, S. 1998, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, Paternoster, Carlisle, Cumbria

Tasker, R.V.G 1976, The Gospel According to St. John, TNTC, IVP, Leicester, U.K.

Tenney, M.C. 1981, The Gospel of John, EBC, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, copyright 2007 (cited 13 Aug 2007), ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, Beliefs and Activities – From Our Magazines,

http://www.watchtower.org/e/200509/article_02.htm

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, copyright 2007 (cited 12 Aug 2007), ‘Who is the Only True God?’, Beliefs and Activities – From Our Magazines,

http://www.watchtower.org/e/200504/article_02.htm

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”

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