Some Questions re: Swain and Allen’s “The Obedience of the Eternal Son”: Part 1, Barth’s Challenge

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I must note at the outset: Swain and Allen explicitly reject ESS, EFS, and ERAS as presented by Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. Further, nothing below is meant to suggest that they have in fact adopted the Barthian program or are themselves “Barthians.” And I also must include the obligatory (and accurate), “I am no expert on Barth, but…”. I am far from it.

I have been mulling over Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen’s article “The Obedience of the Eternal Son” for quite some time now, having had mixed feelings. Plus, I don’t really see myself well positioned to critique such better lights as these. (In fact, if you haven’t read Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation by Swain and Allen, I would suggest clicking out of this article and ordering now.) Nevertheless, as proponents of Eternal Subordination of the Son seem to be finally adopting the doctrine of Eternal Generation, and are now beginning to use the doctrine as the basis for ascribing obedience to the Son in eternity, I’ve decided to at least ask few questions over the next couple of posts.

The article begins,

One of the most interesting dogmatic theses to emerge from the twentieth century is the claim that the Son’s obedience to the Father in accomplishing the work of salvation is not merely a consequence of the humble existence he assumed in the incarnation but rather constitutes his opus proprium within the opera Trinitatis ad extra, the Son’s distinctive manner qua Son of executing God’s undivided saving will. (Christology, Ancient and Modern, p. 74, or HERE)

Translation: obedience to the Father is not just the proper work of the Son as incarnate, but is the Son’s proper form of working as Son in the unified work of the Trinity toward creation and redemption; that is, obedience is the Son’s proper mode of acting from eternity. Swain and Allen attribute this development to Karl Barth (specifically Church Dogmatics IV.1) and state that “it enjoys wide acceptance, both among those who are self-consciously indebted to Barth’s theological program and among those who are not” (p.75).

But the point of their piece is not to argue for the obedience of the eternal Son—this is assumed throughout—but, rather, to square it with traditional Trinitarian metaphysics, without having to adopt social trinitarianism, affirm multiple wills within the Godhead, posit obedience as the Son’s “distinguishing personal property,” or the like. Ultimately, Swain and Allen argue that resources are available within the existing Patristic and Reformed tradition to account for this Barthian move without parting with Classical Trinitarian constraints; in particular, the claim that “the obedience of the Son is the economic extension of his eternal generation” (p. 77) can do much of the work. That the Son obeys the Father in His redemptive work (or Mission) is simply an extension of His dependent origination (or Procession) from the Father. As the Son is not of Himself but “of the Father,” so “the Son’s distinctive modus essendi as the Father’s only begotten determines his distinctive modus agendi as the Father’s obedient emissary” (p. 81).

While we will discuss Swain and Allen’s proposal proper in more detail in coming posts, what I would like to question here is the motivation for rejecting the traditional Patristic and Reformed solution to the Biblical use of obedience language re: the Son, in favor of the Barthian move. This rejection of the tradition appears to me to be both unnecessary and un-accomplishable on Barth’s terms—the very terms that apparently motivated the turn.

The Traditional View of the Son’s Obedience

The tradition prior to Barth has been quite clear on the obedience of the Son, and all like language: “What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29.18). Just as to be sent, to be born, to hunger and thirst, to tire, to suffer, and to die are only properly accorded in the Scripture to the Son in His flesh, so with the language obedience, submission, and subjection. As Swain and Allen quote from Gregory of Nazianzus,

For in His character of the Word He was neither obedient nor disobedient. For such expressions belong to servants, and inferiors, and the one applies to the better sort of them, while the other belongs to those who deserve punishment. But, in the character of the Form of a Servant, He condescends to His fellow servants, nay, to His servants, and takes upon Him a strange form[…]. (Oration 30.6)

This is the Double Account of Athanasius:

Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this,—it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom ; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God, and was made man. (Discourses Against the Arians, 3.26.29)

And this is the Canonical Rule of Augustine:

[W]e hold most firmly, concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, what may be called the canonical rule, as it is both disseminated through the Scriptures, and has been demonstrated by learned and Catholic handlers of the same Scriptures, namely, that the Son of God is both understood to be equal to the Father according to the form of God in which He is, and less than the Father according to the form of a servant which He took; in which form He was found to be not only less than the Father, but also less than the Holy Spirit; and not only so, but less even than Himself — not than Himself who was, but than Himself who is; because, by taking the form of a servant, He did not lose the form of God, as the testimonies of the Scriptures taught us[…]. (On the Trinity, 2.1.2)

As such, the rule and canon of reading the Scripture aright is to accord all attributions of lowliness, humility, and subjection to the Son as incarnate, and all that is lofty and sovereign to the Son according to His divine nature, equal with the Father and the Spirit. Thus, it is unacceptable to speak of the eternal Son simpliciter as obedient, for according to His deity was not, and never will be, subject to obedience.

To put an even finer point on it, for the sake of Barth’s critique, the Fathers and Reformers held with John of Damascus that “the things said […] that refer to the period before the union will be applicable to Him even after the union: but those that refer to the period after the union will not be applicable at all before the union” (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.18). This is precisely what Barth rejects.

(Quick note: Augustine does offer a third class of passages in addition to the Double Account; we will thoroughly review these in the next post when we consider Swain and Allen’s proposal proper. I am here only intending to question the motivation for the proposal.)

The Barthian Challenge

Karl Barth categorically rejected this way of speaking of the eternal Son, viz., parsing the descriptions of Jesus Christ according to His two natures. To begin with, Barth believed that God cannot be known by any other means than His own self-revelation. Only God can reveal Himself, and man could not know Him otherwise. Next, God has revealed Himself in the God-Man Jesus Christ and in no other way. Christ is the sole revealer of God, and He has done this in His incarnation, life of servanthood, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Now what is most important for our purposes is that the God-Man Jesus Christ cannot be different as revealer in time than He is as the Word in eternity. “We have to say that, as Christ is in revelation, so He is antecedently in Himself” (Church Dogmatics, G. W. Bromiley [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975], 4.1, p. 428). And Jesus Christ is both true and complete God and true and complete Man. As such, He must also antecedently have been both true God and true Man. If Jesus Christ truly revealed the hidden God, then we cannot say with John of Damascus that “the things said […] that refer to the period after the union will not be applicable at all before the union,” or Jesus Christ is not the revealer in time of the true and unchanging God of eternity.

This requires first that Jesus Christ as man must also be the true God. “Thus He is antecedently in Himself light of light, very God of very God, the begotten of God, and not His creature. We have to take revelation with such utter seriousness that in it as God’s act we must directly see God’s being too” (1.1, p. 428). And He must not only be divine, but truly unsubordinated God.

If He reveals God, then irrespective of His creaturehood He himself has to be God. And since this is a case of either/or, He has to be full and true God without reduction or limitation, without more or less. Any such restriction would not merely weaken His deity; it would deny it. To confess Him as the revelation of His Father is to confess Him as essentially equal in deity with this Father of His. (1.1, p. 406)

If revelation is to be taken seriously as God’s presence, if there is to be a valid belief in revelation, then in no sense can Christ and the Spirit be subordinate hypostases. (1.1, p. 353)

Hence, the Son of God cannot be subordinate God if He is to truly reveal the eternal God in time.

Further, contrary to the Fathers, there can be no addition to the Revealer by His incarnation, or again, He does not accurately reveal God. The clothing of the Word with flesh cannot mean a change in the unchangeable God or the unchangeable God has not been revealed as He truly is. “Incarnation of the Word means neither wholly nor in part any changing of the Word into something else, but the becoming flesh of the Word that remains the Word” (1.2, p. 38). But more than this, the Revealer must therefore also be the God-Man in eternity, not just in time.

This can all become quite confusing at this point, but the key to understanding this move is that Barth distinguishes between God’s time, fallen time, and redemptive time. God’s time is outside of our time, is not linear, and is more accurately considered “simultaneity.” God’s time is what we mean by eternity; it is “supertemporal.” It is not our time and it is wholly hidden from us. Yes, the Son of God entered time at a specific time and became man, a form and temporality alien to his divine nature. “His taking [human] form […] means something new in God, a self-distinction of God from himself, a being of God in a mode of being that is different from though not subordinate to His first and hidden mode of being as God” (1.1, p. 316).

But according to eternity, “this man Jesus Christ was taken up into the will of God and made a new object of the divine decree, distinct from God” (2.2, p. 162). And this is by His own choice. The Son of God is both the Sovereign Elector in eternity and the Elected Man: “He is not only the Elected, He is also Himself the Elector,” and that for all eternity (2.2, p. 105). In eternity, the Son of God is also the Son of Man, though this was “actualized” in time. Jesus Christ “is the pre-existent Dues pro nobis” (4.1, p. 53) and “was in the beginning with God” (2.2, p. 104). What was always true of the Son simply becomes “concrete reality and actuality” (4.1, p. 53).

God in His Son is Himself the person of man. God knows and confirms and blesses Him as His Son. God creates Him for His own Word. God vouchsafes to grant Him a part in His own suffering for man’s frailty and sin and for the discord and judgment, which inevitably result from them. God justifies Him, raises Him from the dead, and gives Him a part in His own glory. All that man can and will do is to pray, to follow and to obey. The honor of the Son of Man adopted to union with the Son of God can and will consist only in promoting the honor of His heavenly Father. (2.2, p. 177)

Herein lies the obedience of the eternal Son of God—He is eternally the Electing Son of God and the Elected Son of Man. Further, man is to be distinguished from God in that he is called to obedience, and ultimately finds his true identity in “the real man Jesus Christ” (3.1, p. 179). And the Son’s obedience is just in this, that He “let His being, Himself, be prescribed and dictated and determined by an alien human being” (3.1, p. 214).

So what does Jesus Christ ultimately reveal about the Triune God? That “in His majesty He is humble” (4.1, p. 159) as God “elects and determines Himself for humiliation” (4.2, p. 84). And the Son does not just reveal Himself to be such, but reveals this of the one God as such:

The mystery reveals to us that for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high, to be near as it is to be far, to be little as to be great, to be abroad as to be at home. (4.1, p.192)

[T]here is in God Himself an above and below, a prius and posterius, a superiority and subordination.” (4.1, pp. 200-201)

God “is both the One obeyed and Another who obeys” (4.1, p.201). “His Godhead embraces both height and depth, both sovereignty and humility, both lordship and service” (4.2, p. 84).

To conclude with Barth, the temporal work of the God-Man Jesus Christ accurately reveals the one God in three persons (Barth: “modes”) as He truly is, eternally Lord and Servant, both the Sovereign and Subordinate, all by virtue of being both the Electing God and Elected Man in all eternity.

Two Questions

So, I ask first: how can Barth’s break with the tradition, positing (in Swain and Allen’s words) that “the Son’s obedience to the Father […] constitutes his opus proprium within the opera Trinitatis ad extra” motivate a rejection of the traditional Patristic and Reformed explanation of the Son’s obedience? It is the very taking up of obedient man into eternity to be “God for us” that constitutes the obedience of the eternal Son for Barth.

The one true God being Himself the subject of the act of atonement in such a way that His presence and action as the Reconciler of the world coincide and are indeed identical with the existence of the humiliated and lowly and obedient man Jesus of Nazareth. He acts as the Reconciler in that — as the true God identical with this man—he humbles Himself and becomes lowly and obedient. He becomes and is this without being in contradiction to His divine nature […] but in contradiction to all human ideas about the divine nature. (4.1, p. 199)

The challenge that Barth posed to theologians was to show how Jesus Christ in time could truly reveal the immutable God of eternity without change, distortion, addition, or diminution. His answer was that what the incarnate Jesus Christ was in time He was antecedently in all eternity, the God-Man. We may wish to adopt the challenge posed by Barth, to show how the Son can be perfect Revealer in time; but unless we are willing to adopt his highly speculative Christology, I don’t see how his offered solution ought to compel us to reevaluate the tradition. It ought rather cause us to reevaluate Barth’s doctrine of revelation. If we want to do some ressourcement in response to Barth’s speculative theology, a better path would be to explore how the eternal unsubordinated Son can reveal God by becoming subordinate man—by becoming what He previously was not (Phil. 2:5-11).

Second, if we do feel Biblically obliged to accept the challenge posed by Barth’s view of revelation, what is offered in Swain and Allen’s article does not meet the challenge. It does not go nearly far enough. The Fathers and Reformers accorded the sending, the birth, the hunger, the thirst, the tiring, the learning, the weeping, the suffering, the death, and the obedience of the Son of God to His human nature. Karl Barth rejected this tradition as it did not meet the challenge of revelation (by his estimation). His solution was to associate what is accorded to the human nature of Christ with the Son of God in eternity, as the Electing God and the Elected Man.

So, if Swain and Allen are also going to reject the Double Account and Canonical Rule of the Fathers as unsuitable to the Barthian challenge, and also reject Barth’s own speculative Christological answer to his own challenge, then they must as well explain by their proposal how all that is accorded to the God-Man can be accorded to the eternal Son. They have argued that the “obedience of the Son is the economic extension of his eternal generation.” But how about the rest of His humble estate as man? Is the natural virgin birth, the hunger, the thirst, the tiring, the learning, the weeping, the suffering, the death, and all the rest that goes into being true and complete man also just “the economic extension of his eternal generation?” For this is what is needed to meet the Barthian challenge re: revelation; viz., a Triune God who is high and humble, Sovereign and Subject, Lord and Servant.

It simply is not enough to limit the maxim “modus agendi sequitur modus essendi” to only the “obedience” of the Son of God and not also to all that He is as the Son of Man. And again, if this challenge is rejected—if the terms set for revelation by Barth are not obligatory—then the motivation for the project is rejected as well.

Just my thoughts. I am, of course, open to correction from these brilliant and godly men. On to Part 2

6 thoughts on “Some Questions re: Swain and Allen’s “The Obedience of the Eternal Son”: Part 1, Barth’s Challenge

  1. Angela Werner January 4, 2018 / 2:45 pm

    “God creates Him for His own Word.”??? I nearly fell off my chair! “God in His Son is Himself the person of man.”??? And then the article goes on: “Further, man is to be distinguished from God in that he is called to obedience and ultimately finds his true identity in ‘the real man'” If He was created and if man is distinguished from God by obedience, was Christ, the obedient Servant, therefore less than true God? If He was characterized by this obedience, which is not an attribute of God, from eternity and not just in His incarnation, is He less than God the Father is God? It seems to simple me that such rationalization goes beyond the revealed Word, into theological territory of the unknowable because God, in his wisdom, has chosen not to reveal it. Should we not rather be content with what God does clearly reveal? It see to me that is what the Church has done in the ecumenical creeds. They were written to state the clear revelation found in Scripture against the false doctrine taught by those who promoted their rationalist theories above the wisdom of God, much like the academic challenges that want to revise doctrine in our own day.


    • Brad Mason January 4, 2018 / 3:11 pm

      Yes, I agree. This is why I question why Barth should motivate any revisions to the tradition.

      Thank you again for reading!


  2. Sam January 5, 2018 / 7:15 am

    I don’t recall the article “assuming” the obedience of the eternal Son. Could you substantiate that? I don’t think either Swain or Allen would affirm that the eternal Son is obedient without heavy qualification. I took the article as more an exploration of whether it could be orthodox to say that the Son’s obedience in his temporal mission has an eternal analogue in his relation to his Father.


    • Brad Mason January 5, 2018 / 9:34 am

      Hello Sam,

      Thank you for reading and interacting!

      Swain and Allen write,

      “Note well: we do not wish to challenge the claim that obedience constitutes the proper form of the Son’s divine work in the economy of salvation.10 We wish to challenge what is perceived to be the necessary implication of this claim, i.e., that affirming the obedience of the eternal Son requires a revision of traditional trinitarian metaphysics in the classical Catholic and Reformed tradition.”

      So throughout the paper it is clear that they take obedience as the proper mode of the Son’s work in the Trinity ad extra as a datum, motivated initially by Barth. Their aim in the piece is not to argue for this, or against it, but merely to show that such a claim does not require us to depart from classical Trinitarian metaphysics.


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