Some Questions re: “The Obedience of the Eternal Son”: Part 2, Clarifications and Justifications


What Should Be Clear

Though I did intend in the first post of this series to disagree with Swain and Allen’s essay, “The Obedience of the Eternal Son,” I certainly did not want to misrepresent it. I think I have stated clearly that neither Scott Swain nor Michael Allen held to the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son (EFS), nor was their essay intended to support it. It would make no sense in the context of their piece to argue that they did. The point of their essay was to show a path such that one could affirm the obedience of the eternal Son of God without succumbing to such ahistorical revisions of Trinitarian doctrine and metaphysics as found in EFS. They refer specifically the specter of identifying “obedience as the Son’s distinguishing personal property (usually identified as the Son’s ‘role’ in the Trinity),” pointing to Grudem and Ware in the footnote (p. 74).  Further, an eternal “functional” obedience would fare no better on these terms since the constant assumption throughout the piece is that one cannot divide the Being and acts of the Son of God.

Further, I think I was also clear that Swain and Allen are neither themselves Barthians, nor have they adopted Barth’s challenge as defined in my previous post. I also noted that they reject Barth’s solution to his own challenge as well. This is the whole impetus of my piece. If I believed they had adopted Barth’s whole program I would simply call them liberals and go hang out with my Vantillian friends. (That was a joke.) But really, the whole purpose of my first post was to question Barth’s “thesis” as a proper motivation for Swain and Allen’s project. That is, why adopt 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” if the motivation is unnecessary, being on Barth’s errant terms? If one adopts Barth’s understanding of what is required for the Son to truthfully reveal God, then what is proposed in Swain and Allen’s piece will not do. If on the other hand, one rejects Barth’s challenge, then the motivation for the piece seems to evaporate. It also seems to me that Sawin and Allen’s work in section II, explaining that God both reveals His being and His acts in the Scripture, and that each informs the other, is perfectly sufficient to begin exploring the meaning of the maxim “modus agenda sequitur modus essendi” with reference to the Son’s temporal obedience.

What Has Been Questioned

In fact, I think I only made two actual representations of their essay in the whole first post. One would be my claim that their project was indeed motivated by Barth’s thesis that obedience constitutes “the Son’s distinctive manner qua Son of executing God’s undivided saving will” (p. 74). Second, I argued that the essay rejects the “Double Account” of Athanasius as an adequate explanation for obedience language attributed to the Son in the New Testament. The first representation is quite straightforward to defend and is certainly no misrepresentation. Swain and Allen state that the thesis of the obedience of the eternal Son “originates with Karl Barth, who gives it penetrating exposition in Church Dogmatics IV/1 §59.1, and it enjoys wide acceptance, both among those who are self‐consciously indebted to Barth’s theological program and among those who are not” (p. 74). They go on to ask that we “Note well:”

[W]e do not wish to challenge the claim that obedience constitutes the proper form of the Son’s divine work in the economy of salvation. 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. (p. 76)

The second representation noted above, viz., rejection of the Double Account explanation, is a bit thornier (please see previous article for more on the Double Account). It is here that both Dr. Swain and Dr. Allen fear I have misrepresented. They have (through private communication) made clear to me that they do not reject the Double Account as such, but are merely attempting to show that the obedience displayed in the incarnation reflects the proper being and relation between the Father and Son in eternity, the relation of unbegotten to begotten. Thus, the obedience of the Son did not properly begin until the incarnation; that is, there is no pretemporal obedience of the Son. Nevertheless, the temporal obedience of the Son reflects His procession from the Father and His filial dependence in time and eternity. Accordingly, they suggest that “obedience” be taken more figuratively when applied to the eternal relation between Father and Son in their essay.

This is all in close accord with Thomas Joseph White’s paper, “Intra-Trinitarian Obedience and Nicene-Chalcedonian Christology” (Nova et Vetera, English Edition,Vol. 6, No. 2 [2008]: 377–402), a piece that Swain and Allen appear to be extensively interacting with throughout their article. Just like Swain and Allen have recently communicated, White endorses a position that

…predicates “obedience” to the pre-incarnate Word uniquely in a figurative or metaphorical sense, as denoting improperly what is in fact the transcendent divine receptivity proper to eternal generation. (p. 379)

(Though, interestingly, he never does so in his own essay.) Likewise, White also posits the following:

God’s actions of obedient subordination to the Father’s will transpire historically in the incarnate Son, and can only occur because of his human agency. Yet these human actions are always and everywhere theandric: They manifest and conceal his filial relation to the Father, and the presence in Jesus of a divine will received from the Father. (p. 400)

White is in fact very clear that there is no pretemporal obedience of the Son and that obedience is only properly according to the Son as incarnate in time, though His temporal obedience manifests His eternal relation of filial receptivity to the Father. And I am happy to understand that Drs. Swain and Allen agree.

But the above is not only not stated in “The Obedience of the Eternal Son,” but the essay seems to suggest the opposite throughout. While Swain and Allen may not personally hold the position, the essay in question does suggest a pretemporal obedience of the Son (or at least pre-incarnate obedience), suggests that “obedience” is not just applicable to the Son in His form as a servant (forma servi), and that “obedience” is not being used figuratively when it occurs in reference to the eternal Son.

In the very introductory section of the essay (while describing its motivation) they write:

Such revisions [Barth’s, Kenotic Theory, EFS, etc.] seem inevitable in view of the history of trinitarian doctrine, where the Son’s obedience is most commonly attributed to the forma servi that he assumed in the economy, as opposed to the forma Dei that he eternally shares with the Father or the personal modus essendi whereby he is and acts “from the Father.” Thus Gregory of Nazianzus states: “in his character of the Word he was neither obedient nor disobedient… . 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.” Similarly Augustine: “in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him.” If obedience can only qualify as a human attribute within the metaphysical complex of pro-Nicene trinitarianism, as a form that is “strange” in relation to the forma Dei, then the apostolic witness to the Second Person’s obedient saving embassy seemingly demands that dogmatics develop a more thoroughly evangelized metaphysic than that on offer in the tradition. (p. 75)

It would seem that one of the very premises of the essay is that if the Double Account (the parsing of Biblical ascriptions according to natures) is the only way to account for the Son’s obedience, then some major revisions to traditional metaphysics are necessary to maintain along with Barth an eternal obedience of the Son. Of course, they have no intention to send “the classical Catholic and Reformed trinitatian tradition packing” (p. 76). But they do wish to show how one can maintain that “obedience constitutes the proper form of the Son’s divine work in the economy of salvation” as “the Father’s obedient emissary,” as well as maintain traditional Trinitarian metaphysics (p. 76, 81). This looks as though this is done in practice by sending the Double Account explanation packing; and not just that of Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine as quoted above, but also the Reformers who followed the same “canonical rule.”

As an example of the latter, Swain and Allen consider John 5:30: “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” They write,

Some interpreters take our text’s description of the Son’s manner of working as solely indicative of his humble mediatorial state. John Calvin provides a rather forthright example of this interpretive stance. He regards both the Arian and the orthodox exegesis of John 5:19–30 as misguided. According to Calvin, the Arians were wrong to conclude that this text revealed the Son’s inferiority to the Father, while the orthodox fathers were wrong to conclude that this text revealed the Son’s distinctive personhood as one who is simultaneously “from the Father” and yet “not deprived of intrinsic power to act.” Indeed, the Genevan reformer considers a properly trinitarian exegesis of this passage as “harsh and far-fetched.” In his judgment, the proper subject matter of John 5:19–30 is the Son of God only “so far as he is manifested in the flesh.” (p. 85)

But, Swain and Allen argue that Calvin’s interpretation is “too modest.” They instead conclude (after argument) the following:

The fact that the Son does not pursue his own initiative but that of the Father who sends him is not merely a consequence of the human form he assumed in the incarnation. The fact that the Son does not do his own will but the will of the Father who sent him is a consequence of his distinctive modus agendi, which follows from his distinctive modus essendi. More briefly stated: “‘to send’ implies authority, and ‘to be sent’ implies subordination to authority [subauctoritatis] in the order of eternal production in the Godhead” [Bonaventure]. In this sense, the obedience of the Son to the Father who sends him constitutes the Son’s opus proprium within the undivided opera Trinitatis ad extra. (p. 87)

It is hard to see how all of this could be an affirmation of the Double Account explanation, that obedience is only properly accorded to the Son incarnate—that is, according to His forma servi. It also makes it hard to see how the essay can agree with White that there is no pretemporal obedience of the Son, let alone pre-incarnate obedience. We read, e.g., that

[T]he manner in which the Son works in obedience to his Father’s commission is not simply indicative of the state in which he assumed the forma servi but of his own proper filial relation to the Father, which precedes his assumption of the forma servi. (p. 86)

It is also hard to see how “obedience” can be intended “figuratively” and “improperly,” especially when we read the following:

There is a noncompetitive relationship between [the Son’s] powerful will and his submission to the paternal will. Karl Barth will say of the incarnate Son: “This man wills only to be obedient—obedient to the will of the Father, which is to be done on earth for the redemption of man as it is done in heaven.” (p. 92)

But, by far the most curious aspect of the piece, given Drs. Swain and Allen’s communicated agreement with White’s position, is that two of the three objections answered in “The Obedience of the Eternal Son” are posed by White himself. Not only that, but these quoted objections were in White’s essay objections to Barth’s claim of the “pretemporal obedience of the Son.” White builds his case against pretemporal obedience from Athanasius. He writes,

One can see immediately a logical connection between the three ideas: the Logos is the wisdom of God; the Logos possesses the plenitude of the divine nature, power, and will of God; and the Logos became flesh to save us by uniting us with him in his divine nature, power, and will. It follows that any attempt to attribute obedience to the Logos in his personal relation to the Father will undermine the second affirmation. Yet, the denial or questioning of the second principle will in turn undermine the intelligibility of the first, and the logical necessity of the third. (p. 391)

Both of White’s objections have to do with the second principle above; “I would like to suggest that the doctrine of divine obedience in God contradicts the second principle established by Athanasius” (p. 391). The first objection quoted by Swain and Allen is the multiple wills objection. White writes, “Taken literally, then, the language of divine obedience excludes an identity of will between the Father and the Son” (p. 394). The second objection considered is that obedience undermines the unified and equal power of God: “One can therefore plausibly suggest that either we must rethink the claim to eternal obedience in the Son, or else qualify in important ways any affirmation of his omnipotence” (p. 395). Both of these objections are intended for Barth’s insistence on the pretemporal obedience of the Son, yet curiously both of these objections are taken by Swain and Allen to be challenges to their own proposal in “The Obedience of the Eternal Son.”

What is the Intention

Just as in the first post, I have not yet even considered Swain and Allen’s proposal proper. But I felt it necessary here to demonstrate that I have good textual reason to have represented the essay as I have. There are at least questions that ought to be answered and clarifications to be made. I would, in particular, love to see Swain and Allen’s essay coordinated in print with Thomas Joseph White’s work, if they are indeed in substantial agreement. I don’t see much difference between what we have considered from White above and that of his latest work on the same subject. For example, we read in White’s 2017 The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology that “the obedience of God the Son in the human nature reveals the essence of his temporal mission, the truth that he is sent from the Father” (p. 306). This is in strict compliance with his earlier formulation, e.g., “the obedience of God the Son in human nature reveals something of his relation to the Father in his divine nature” (“Intra-Trinitarian Obedience,” p. 306). Obedience is always predicated to the human nature of Christ, just as in the Double Account of Athanasius.

Now all this is not just nitpicking. Scott Swain and Michael Allen are truly two of my favorite theologians, whom I hold in highest esteem. Any serious student of Reformed theology should own many of their volumes (e.g., HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE). And not only are they grade A theologians, but they have also shown themselves kind enough to interact with a worm such as I. So, I hope and pray that no one will take these questions as anything other than an attempt at intramural conversation—a conversation wherein I am perfectly willing to succumb to their wisdom.

As stated before, the real reason for writing this series is for clarity contra EFS proponents (and the like). Following the 2016 summer’s Trinity debate, the most important EFS proponents made major pivots in their presentation of subordination. The most notable shift was Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware’s adoption of the doctrine of Eternal Generation. This was good to hear, but it quickly became clear that the doctrine had been adopted only to be put in service of eternal subordination. Both Grudem and Ware in their 2016 ETS lectures on subordination made clear that their modified position was that the eternal generation of the Son, according to His procession in eternity, is the basis for the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father. Because of eternal generation, the Father is eternally Father, and the Son eternally Son. Being that the Father is Father, He is the eternal initiator, planner, chooser, leader, and commander of the Son. The Son, by virtue of His eternal generation from the Father, accordingly offers personal obedience to the Father in eternity.

Ware goes as far as to use much of the same language as Swain and Allen, e.g., that the human obedience of the Son is the extension and expression of His eternal relation to the Father. He even uses some Barthian language, viz., that the Son accurately reveals the Trinity in time because He is in His incarnation as He is in eternity, obedient. And last, Grudem and Ware answer the multiple wills objections in similar fashion to Swain and Allen’s article, explaining that God only has one will, but each person of the Trinity shares this one will in a different way—the Father as begetter, the Son as begotten, and the Holy Spirit as proceeding.

It is my prognosis that the most important proponents of EFS will soon publish, and may now be working on, essays that are nearly indistinguishable from “The Obedience of the Eternal Son.” This is, of course, not Swain and Allen’s fault. But it does seem to me that their article is in need of further clarification and distinctions. I hope in the next post to begin considering their proposal proper.

[On to Part 3]

3 thoughts on “Some Questions re: “The Obedience of the Eternal Son”: Part 2, Clarifications and Justifications

  1. cmark88 December 21, 2019 / 8:38 am

    Where are you at now with this Brad? I’m still uncomfortable with Swain and Allen’s language. I think the distinctions St Thomas makes are important. The more I’ve researched things, the more I’ve realized how destructive Barth and his contemporaries have muddied the hard-fought waters of Trinitarian doctrine.


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