The Scandalous Gospel of the Humble God: Trinitarian Relations in One Accord

Through the gospel God reveals an almost infinite number of things about Himself, humanity, and this world in which we find ourselves found of Him. But one of the most staggering things revealed through the gospel is the humility of God.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the Apocalypse of the Lowly Lord; the eternal Son of God, Creator, Sustainer, and King of all creation, who humbled Himself for our sake, and through impoverishment made us rich. The Four Evangelists recount the surprising record of the Blessed Condescension. They provide for us the history of God in Servant Form. In their portraits startling images of the Incarnate God emerge–God laid among livestock in a cave, God reposing in the wilderness with neither hearth nor home, God girded with a towel like a common house slave, God on trial in a kangaroo court, God executed on a Roman gibbet. Such language would be blasphemous if it had not been hallowed by God’s own breath. Still, speaking of God in such a manner is still quite scandalous. And not just down at the local synagogue…

When God says that we must humble ourselves and become as little children in order to inherit the kingdom of God it is helpful to remember that He is not asking us to do anything that He was unwilling to do Himself.

Thus it is in a spirit of humility that we approach the subject of sovereignty and submission within the interior life of the Holy Trinity. As the debates have raged on regarding ESS/EFF it is possible that we have lost humility somewhere along the way. I don’t just mean that haughtiness has been too prevalent among the disputants, (though that has been true in some quarters) rather I mean that God’s own humility has received precious little consideration.

This is one place where I think Barth’s has been particularly helpful. Not wanting to get dragged into the constant war zone that is Barth Studies, I will simply mention in passing that Barth (rightly, to my mind) regarded humility as one of the divine perfections. I think that such a notion can help to move the conversation along as it pertains to the language of sovereignty, submission, and subordination in trinitarian theology. It may be that humility allows these apparently contradictory concepts to gloriously coalesce within the life of God.

If we hold that there is a relationship of reciprocity within the life of God (and we do because we are orthodox Christians) then we admit of an eternal relationship of humble giving and receiving. Such interpenetration requires the distinctions between each Person to be what they are in order for each Person to be what he is. In this sense we can say that the “relations of origin” work both ways. These relations constitute each Person as the Person He is, and so mutual relations constitute the Trinity as Trinity. A Sonless Father is as impossible as a Fatherless Son. Only thus is the Father eternally Father, as opposed to a faceless Watchamakalit who becomes Father. The personal identity of the Father is as eternally “dependent” on the Son’s sonship as the Son is eternally “dependent” on the Father’s begetting.

We don’t have to debate as to whether or not any Person of the Trinity has glory “in himself” to assert that every Person in the Trinity both gives and receives glory perichoretically. It is in this narrow sense that we can speak of “subordination” within the Trinity ad intra. But this subordination isn’t technically a subordination of Son to Father, or of Spirit to Father and Son; rather, it is a mutual “submission,” the divine reception of glory and love between each Person in the Godhead. Thus triune humility is as much a divine perfection as is sovereignty or immutability. When we witness the ministry of the Logos en sarkos—kenosis, humiliation, unity with creaturely existence, and ultimately his suffering and death—what we see, from first to last, is divine activity. Such activity is entirely fitting for the God who is glorified in his gracious condescension. God does all of this in supreme continuity with who he already is as God. This is the true mystery of the deity of Christ—not that there is in Christ a suspension of deity, but that it is as Jesus of Nazareth that God is what he is as God.  To paraphrase N.T. Wright, “To say that the crucified Jesus is God is to make a remarkable statement about Jesus. It is also to make an astonishing statement about God.”

As an aside, I would suggest that thinking this way poses for us far fewer problems when we move from ad intra to ad extra relations within the Trinity. I think that we must be careful in placing too much distance between eternity and economy. To dig a chasm where God has built a bridge is to lose the identity of God in the gulf. Does the incarnation and history of Jesus of Nazareth reveal God as he actually is? Or is the economic Trinity so radically different from the immanent Trinity that we cannot draw any firm ontological conclusions from the economy? If we are to be able to say that we can know anything at all about the Triune God then we have to answer that first question with a resounding Yes and Amen. The alternative would lead us into absolute skepticism; we would have to confess agnosticism concerning the whole enterprise.  If the Son’s entry into flesh distorts the true relationship between Father and Son, then how can we see the Father in Jesus? If the history of Jesus doesn’t unfold the life of the Trinity, where can we find it? If God created the world to manifest His glory, why would we conclude that the creation cannot manifest His glory after all? No theologically conscientious Christian would appreciate such implications.

So yet us follow the Pauline injunction to be “imitators of God” by eschewing pride and clothing ourselves with humility; anchoring our trinitarian theology to a firm belief in the veracity and efficiency of sacred revelation.

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