“But He Who Sends is Greater Than He Who is Sent”: Augustine Answers Definitively

Augustine 2

But being proved wrong so far, men betake themselves to saying, that he who sends is greater than he who is sent: therefore the Father is greater than the Son, because the Son continually speaks of Himself as being sent by the Father; and the Father is also greater than the Holy Spirit, because Jesus has said of the Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name; and the Holy Spirit is less than both, because both the Father sends Him, as we have said, and the Son, when He says, But if I depart, I will send Him unto you. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, 2.5.7)

By this point in the treatise, Augustine has demonstrated the unity of the Divine nature and will, the trinity of Persons, the full divinity of each, the order of processions, the one inseparable order of working, the double account of the savior (the “canonical rule”), and is in process of answering objections to the full co-equality of the Persons.

In our day, the above objection is not so much cast in the language of greater/lesser, but in the language of authority/submission. That the Son is sent by the Father “proves” that the Son was in subordination to the Father in eternity (“functionally” or otherwise). On the face of it, the claim looks quite reasonable and even Biblical.  Clearly Christ says He is sent of the Father, and each together send the Spirit.  And we are familiar with passages such as the following:

Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John 13:16)

 For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Luke 7:8)

 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21)

In the first, the assumption of the passage is that Jesus is greater than the disciples as the sender, but He nevertheless washes their feet, and they should do likewise. The second makes plain that one with authority sends and one who is sent is under authority—at least in human relationships.  And in the last we see the order of authority descending from the Father, to the Son, to the Disciples via sending.  Here we have sender/sent fulfilling both the greater/lesser claim and authority/submission claim, in identical ways.

The table having been set, how does Augustine respond to this objection?

(Note: we will in this post focus on the sending of the Son and will in the next discuss the sending of the Holy Spirit with reference to the same objection.)

Whence & Whither?

Augustine begins his answer by asking, if the Son was sent, where did He come from and where did He go? Jesus says,

I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. (Jn. 16:28)

So His sending was a coming from the Father and a coming into the world. The Apostle John also writes of the Son:

 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. (1:12)

But immediately before this, we read:

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. (1:11)

So we see at the very beginning of John’s Gospel that the Son was sent to where He already was and His coming was to a place He had already been since the creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Jn. 1:1-3)

Further, He had always been the “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (1:9).  In fact, He “upholds all things by the power of His word” (Heb. 1:3) and “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:17).

He is true God after all.

“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. (Jer. 24:23)

So the Son had always been in the world, filling heaven and earth, and was indeed its creator and sustainer in whom all things consist.  Yet His sending is declared to be His coming from the Father and into the world.  So what possibly could be the nature of this sending?

The Nature of “Sent”

Given the apparent quandary of one coming to where one always already was, Augustine next seeks to answer in what way we are to understand this sending of the Father.  He first points to Galatians for the answer:

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born (γενόμενον) of a woman, born (γενόμενον) under the law. (4:4)

This is the way the Son was sent: He was born into the world of the Virgin. We see the same in Philippians:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming (γενόμενος) in the likeness of men. (2:5-7)

His coming was the γενόμενος in the likeness of men.

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:

“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.” (Heb. 10:5)

Augustine also points out that this sending was wrought by the Holy Spirit as well, for it is written:

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. (Lk. 1:34-35)

And the Son prophesies of His own future incarnation,

“Come near to Me, hear this:
I have not spoken in secret from the beginning;
From the time that it was, I was there.
And now the Lord God and His Spirit
Have sent Me.” (Is. 48:16)

He is sent of the Spirit having His flesh formed in the Womb of the Virgin by the Spirit. It should already be clear that the Father could not send without His Spirit; the Holy Spirit is God after all. (We will discuss this more fully in the next post.)

Augustine concludes this point: “in that He was born of God, He was in the world; but in that He was born of Mary, He was sent and came into the world”(2.5.8).

An Objection

Perhaps some one may wish to drive us to say, that the Son is sent also by Himself, because the conception and childbirth of Mary is the working of the Trinity, by whose act of creating all things are created. And how, he will go on to say, has the Father sent Him, if He sent Himself? (2.5.9)

If the above argument implies that all works of the Father are done with and through the Spirit and the Son, including the incarnation, and the sending is therefore also Triune, then why is the Father said to send the Son and not the Son Himself?

Answer Part 1: Inseparable Operations

Augustine’s first response is to point out that this manner of speaking is quite normal in the Scripture; that which is accorded to the Father in one place is elsewhere accorded to the Son.  We have, e.g.,

[…]do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (Jn. 10:36)

But elsewhere,

As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself. (Jn. 17:18-19)

We also see,

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered (παρέδωκεν) Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Rom. 8:32)

But elsewhere,

…it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave (παραδόντος) Himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

So how can the Son be said to be sent of the Father when it is properly a work of the Trinity?  The same way the Son can be said to be sanctified and delivered by the Father, but also by Himself; viz., “Because the will of the Father and the Son is one, and their working is indivisible” (2.5.9). God is one, the Persons of the Trinity are homoousia, one in nature and therefore will.  And their working is by ordered but inseparable operations.  Augustine had proven this at length earlier in the treatise.  In the words of Gregory of Nyssa,

[…]the Holy Trinity fulfils every operation[…]not by separate action according to the number of the Persons, but so that there is one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit. (On Not Three Gods)

For example, in the Scripture, the Father is said to give life, the Son said to give life, and the Spirit said to give life, but it is never said there are three life givers, etc.  This is also expressed in doxological form in the Letter to the Romans:

For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:36)

Answer Part 2: The Manner of the Sending

Augustine continues: “Perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son” (2.5.9). The Father sent His Son either by a command, or a request, or a suggestion.  But whatever the means, it was by word.  The Father does all things by His Word. He creates by His Word, preserves by His Word, covenants by His Word, and so on.  What is this Word?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Jn. 1:1-3)

The Word of God is the eternal Son of God.  The Son is also the eternal Wisdom of God:

The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth. (Proverbs 8:22-23)


Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:24)

The Son, who is the Word and Wisdom of God, was eternally present with God and it was thus in eternity, apart from time, that the Son was determined to appear in time.  Further, it was by the Wisdom and Word of God in eternity, outside of time, that the Son was sent at the fullness of the time. The Son was sent by the Father and the Son outside of time; when the Son appeared in time, He was said to be sent.

Answer Part 3: Appearance in Time

Finally, the Son is said to be sent of the Father, even though His sending was an operation of the Son and Father in eternity, because it was the Son alone who appeared in time.  Augustine writes,

Since, then, that the Son should appear in the flesh was wrought by both the Father and the Son, it is fitly said that He who appeared in that flesh was sent, and that He who did not appear in it, sent Him; because those things which are transacted outwardly before the bodily eyes have their existence from the inward structure (apparatu) of the spiritual nature, and on that account are fitly said to be sent. (2.5.9)

It was the Son who appeared in the flesh, not the Father, so the Son is fitly said to be sent of the Father. It was the Person of the Son who was born of the Virgin, in time, and as such He was sent, not the Father.  True He was already in the world.  If fact He was also still in heaven with His Father even after He was sent:

No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. (Jn. 3:13)

As such He yet filled heaven and earth, was invisible with the Father, was always here, yet is said to be sent in the manner explained above.

And last, it must be noted, that the only way one could conclude that the Son was so sent of the Father that He was only sent, and not also sending, is if the Son was so sent that His substance left the Father, heaven, and eternity, and was combined in one nature with the substance of His human nature.  This is, of course, heresy.

Augustine, having concluded his response to the above objection, again reiterates:

[…]since He so took the form of a servant, as that the unchangeable form of God remained, it is clear that that which became apparent in the Son was done by the Father and the Son not being apparent; that is, that by the invisible Father, with the invisible Son, the same Son Himself was sent so as to be visible. (2.5.9)

Concluding Remark

We have shown that the Son was always in the world and yet His sending was a coming into the world; a coming to where He had always been.  This coming into the world was His being born of the Virgin, by operation of the whole Trinity. His sending was therefore also a sending by the whole Trinity and by birth in time He was “sent”. Nonetheless, we can rightly say He was “sent of the Father” due to the inseparable order of operations and that He alone took on human nature, the eternal invisible having been made visible in time.

As such, there is no eternal hierarchy implied by this sending, no order of authority or submission in eternity, no eternal subordination, nor any order of lesser and greater.  The Son in His flesh is the sent one of the Father—He Himself in eternity, along with the whole of the Trinity, also sending. It is according to the Son incarnate, appearing in time in the form of a servant, that submission, subordination, greater and lesser, are introduced (Jn. 14:28).

In one last concluding remark, Augustine sums up the tenor of his argument by tersely dismissing one final objection:

Why, therefore, does He say, “Neither came I of myself”? This, we may now say, is said according to the form of a servant, in the same way as it is said, “I judge no man.”


7 thoughts on ““But He Who Sends is Greater Than He Who is Sent”: Augustine Answers Definitively

  1. Amy Mantravadi May 10, 2017 / 11:53 am

    Another good work of Augustine’s to consider regarding this issue is “On the Creed”. He says the following with regard to the Son…

    “Here too, when thou believest that He is the Only, believe Him Almighty: for it is not to be thought that God the Father does what He will, and God the Son does not what He will. One Will of Father and Son, because one Nature. For it is impossible for the will of the Son to be any whit parted from the Father’s will. God and God; both one God: Almighty and Almighty; both One Almighty….The Father doeth what He will, and what He will doeth the Son. Do not imagine an Almighty Father and a not Almighty Son: it is error, blot it out within you, let it not cleave in your memory, let it not be drunk into your faith, and if haply any of you shall have drunk it in, let him vomit it up. Almighty is the Father, Almighty the Son. If Almighty begat not Almighty, He begat not very Son”

    He goes on and says many things like that.


    • Brad Mason May 11, 2017 / 3:27 pm

      Amen! Interesting to read the Athanasian Creed in light of this, when it discusses “almighty.” Since the AC is really more of an Augustinian Creed, his words on that should be taken into account. Thank you!


  2. Barbara Roberts May 11, 2017 / 3:32 am


    Thank you Brad!

    Would that Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware would listen. But I fear they have blocked ears.


    • Brad Mason May 11, 2017 / 3:03 pm

      They definitely seem to have. Jacob Denhollander showed me some text from Ware on Augustine. It was simply unbelievable:


  3. Jofre Santos Jr August 26, 2018 / 8:43 pm

    Well, I have to discord. I say that I “have” to discord, because we can’t take a verse and build a complete theology out of it.
    In special something complex like the Trinity.
    Moreover, who said Augustine is infallible? Some people is very quick in agree with others and they should be more critical for their own sake.
    What are the consequences of each interpretation?
    1- Trinity has no hierarchy
    2- There are hierarchy in the Trinity.
    Answer: Salvation!
    I will not put my eternal life on the Augustine hands and without checking with the Holy Scriptures his points. Not just on his hands but on anyone hands. That is my personal debate with God and He will give me the correct interpretation. For that I will recommend you to read the Bible and ask God to answer you. But seems to me you are sold to an answer and is not willing to humble yourself to his answer.
    Here I have some questions for you to digest.
    If God the father is in essence the same as Jesus, with same authority, knowledge and power as you are preaching to these audience.
    How can it be that Jesus do not know the day of his second coming?
    All authority was giving to Jesus and it is on his hands currently, no question about that. But yet, He will return it to the Father after the end. He will live with us.
    Why should Jesus return the authority to the Father if they are the same? No need for that, He can be with us and the authority that is natural to Him.
    So, if you thinking your life depends on this certainty. Please think twice before it is too late. Also think on the responsibility of preaching false information and dragging others to Hell.
    Jesus is the begotten son of God, thus he is like God and he is God.
    Your parents are humans, thus you are like a human and you are a human, you are begotten from your parents.
    God knows everything, as such can Jesus knows what the Father is willing? Yes, only He can fully understand the Father.
    Jesus himself didn’t want to usurp the position of the Father why would you believe He would be appreciative of you doing it?
    We are limited in our understanding and mental capacity to understand the concept of Spirit. God is Spirit.
    Before all things existed, nothing exist. Not even this reality we live on now, or dimension if you like.
    Jesus had it as a clean canvas to make His master piece. Jesus made all things, according with the common knowledge of the Trinity. But Jesus is the only one who is not Spirit He is and was the same.
    Every one who ask for the Holy Spirit God the father will give it (see Luke 11:13).
    I rather read the Bible and ask God for the Holy Spirit understanding, than go after man’s understanding. If I am wrong it will be on my own head, my blood.
    God bless you.


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