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Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). The Lord also admits that he does not know the time or the hour, only the Father does (Matt 24:36). Christ elsewhere says that he came “not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). In the garden, Jesus prays “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). 

These verses—and others like them—might jar us. After all, we believe in Christ’s divinity. But Jesus himself says he is less than the Father. How should we understand his words? 

Historically, some understood these verses to mean that the Father is naturally greater than the Son of God. In 357 a Council of pastors in Sirmium even concluded, “the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him.”

Yet something feels off here. Jesus says the Father is greater than he is, true. Yet we worship Christ as God, and God cannot be less than or greater than God. What is going on here? 

The solution to this problem is found in the Bible itself. What Christians have learned and what the Bible teaches is that Christ is less than the Father in his humanity but equal to God in his divinity. Since Christ is divine and human, certain Bible verses highlight his divinity and others his humanity. 

The Equality Verses

If the Bible only had verses that said the Father is greater than Jesus, then we might need to conclude that the Son relates to the Father as an inferior, a servant, or subordinate. But Scripture also has verses like: “he was in the form of God” and did “not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).[1]

John tells us that “the Word was God” (John 1:1). All things were created through the Word. He is the Creator. He is God. “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus (John 10:30). Yet John tells us this same Word “became flesh” (John 1:14). 

In passages like these, we learn that the Son of God and the Father are equal because both are God. If that is the case, how then is the Son inferior to the Father? 

The Inferiority Verses

The Bible answers that question. Christ becomes inferior to the Father when he becomes human, and only in his humanity is he inferior. Paul tells us that although Christ was in the form of God, he emptied himself “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:8). 

Because Christ took “the form of a servant,” he becomes obedient to the point of death. Paul explains, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:9).

In the form of God, Christ is equal to God. In the form of a servant, Christ is inferior to God. Christ took humanity, a created form to himself. The Uncreated God took on a created human nature. It is obvious that God is greater than any created nature. What a mystery! But it is what the Bible says. 

Christ is both God and man. As Word, he is equal to the Father; as man, he is less than the Father. 

A theological rule

Good Bible readers have then observed a biblical rule: the Son is equal to the Father according to his divinity and less than the Father according to his humanity.

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), for example, states in his book on the Trinity: “In the form of a servant which he took he is the Father’s inferior; in the form of God in which he existed even before he took this other he is the Father’s equal.” Elsewhere, he says “the Father is greater than is the form of the servant, whereas the Son is his equal in the form of God.”[2] 

Augustine said, ‘In the form of a servant which he took he is the Father’s inferior; in the form of God in which he existed even before he took this other he is the Father’s equal.’

The Athanasian Creed (c. AD 400s), an ancient confession of the triune God, states that Christ is “equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity.” This is true because “our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human.”

Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), a theologian instrumental in expressing Nicene Orthodoxy, also speaks of “allocating the more elevated, the more distinctly divine expressions of Scripture to the Godhead, the humbler and more human to the New Adam” (Or. 30.1). 

Elsewhere he says, “you must predicate the more sublime expressions of the Godhead” and “the lowlier ones of the compound, of him who because of you was emptied, became incarnate and (to use equally valid language) was ‘made man.’” (Or. 29.18). 

Put in more pointed language, “As Word he was neither obedient nor disobedient—the terms apply to amenable subordinates or inferiors who deserve punishment” (Or. 30.6). 

The divine Word cannot obey since God is one: one will, one power, one nature. The one God does not obey the one God. That’s a contradiction. As William Perkins, the father of Puritanism, says, “because as they are all one in nature, so are they all one in will.” Hence, “[T]he decree of the Father is the decree of the Son and the Holy Ghost.” But as man, Christ obeys the Father in all things for our sake. 

Conclusion

These orthodox Christians knew that we cannot affirm the language that the pastors in Sirmium used in 357: “the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father together with all things which the Father has subordinated to Him.” That way of putting things contradicts the Bible itself since it only provides half the picture. 

The confession of Sirmium might be true if no other Bible verses showed the equality of the Son with the Father. But there are plenty. 

Eventually, this council was called “The Blasphemy of Sirmium” because it implied that the Son’s human subordination represents how the divine Word always was. It implied that the Word, as God, always was subordinate to the Father. But that cannot be true. Christ’s submission or subordination to the Father occurs in his role of Mediator, not in God himself!  

“He knew he was the Father’s equal,” explains Ambrosiaster (fl. AD 366–384), “but rather than claim that equality he submitted himself.” The submission occurs in the plan of salvation that centers on Christ becoming human for our sake. The equality is eternally true because the divine Word of the Father is the one God of Israel.

In the language of Gregory of Nazianzus, we distinguish “what belongs to his nature and what to God’s plan of salvation” (Or. 29.18). If we do not, we will misunderstand what the Bible says. We could be in danger of transposing Christ’s human experience into God’s inner life, making the form of the servant into the form of God.

 


[1] A point that Gregory of Nazianzus makes in one of his Orations on the Son.

[2] See The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle, 2nd ed. (New York: New City Press, 1991), 77, 78.

 

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