Evangelical Christians recently have endeavoured to understand how Christ’s life of obedience to God relates to theology. Has Christ, as God the Son, always submitted to the Father? Or did Christ obey according to his human nature to save the world?
Some argued the former, stating that the Son always functionally submitted to the Father in eternity while always retaining their equality in essence. The argument sometimes bases this relation in human marriage: like wives submit to husbands but remain equal in worth, so the Son eternally submits to the Father but remains equal to God.
Others held to the traditional understanding that the Son submitted to the Father in order to accomplish salvation; in God, no eternal submission exists between Son and Father.
Nowadays, most Christian leaders affirm the traditional view. But it is worth asking the question, How did this disagreement come about? Numerous reasons might be given. But one piece of the puzzle has to do with overlooking key theological tools that the Church has developed to help it know God in Scripture.
If we look back to the past, we discover theological resources that will contribute to our understanding of how Christ’s mission relates God’s essence. While only part of the puzzle, these five theological concepts, rooted in Reformed and early Christianity, help clarify how the Son relates to the Father.
Gregory of Nazianzus stated that to start theology we have to admit that we cannot name God. Now, he did not mean we cannot give names to God! The Bible names God. His point was that we cannot define God fully, perfectly. He is so unlike us that we cannot fully understand him in his infinity.
This common theological principle confesses that God’s infinity and depth are beyond all description.
So when it comes to doing theology (i.e., knowing God), we have to confess that God himself goes beyond our ability to fully describe. But God knows himself. In fact, his eternally subsistent Wisdom knows its own depths—he fully and completely knows himself.
This kind of theology, God’s own knowledge of himself, may be called archetypal theology. We cannot know God as he knows himself. But thanks be to God, he loves to illumine all people with his luminous goodness.
Ectypal theology refers to the kind of theology that we can understand. God accommodates his archetypal knowledge of himself to human speech and signs so that we can understand it.
And most prominently, God assumed a human nature in Christ in which God’s subsisting knowledge exists side-by-side our subsisting knowledge in one person: Christ (John 1:1, 14, 18).
In Christ’s union of divinity and humanity, we see how ectypal theology works (on this, see Franciscus Junius). In him, God communicates himself to creatures like us. The person of Christ with his two subsisting natures enables us to do theology with the deepest and truest knowledge of God (John 1:18).
Yet Christ according to his divinity nevertheless knows himself archetypically. But as creatures, we know God in Christ and through the Spirit according to ectypal theology—by seeing Christ in Scripture and experiencing him by the Spirit.
Since we cannot know God as he knows himself (archetypal theology), we have to admit that univocal knowledge of God is impossible. Univocal statements refer to exact knowledge about something.
When we say God is infinite, we cannot understand the infinity of God because we are finite. So we cannot make univocal statements.
To illustrate the point further, Scripture says God has two hands. But since he is Spirit and since these two hands signal a metaphor, we do not have exact knowledge of God but metaphorical knowledge of God.
But God knows himself truly. For God understands fully what it means to be spirit or infinite. He has archetypal theology. He knows himself perfectly through his subsisting Wisdom. We don’t.
So already we might suppose that Christ’s obedience in history certainly cannot give us univocal knowledge of God’s archetypal theology, the self-knowledge of his essence.
As Junius explains, this knowledge of God cannot be explained. Speaking of archetypal theology, he writes, “we should not seek to trace it out but rather stand in awe” (A Treatise on True Theology, Loc. 2823).
Equivocal statements mean we say one thing but another thing is true. For example, we might say a proposition like “God is good” but this statement does not have to mean anything like what we assume it means. It could mean that “God is bad.”
But God has spoken truly, and Scripture seems to assume that we can know true things about God. Besides, God united to humanity in Christ. And he has explained God to us through his humanity.
So we do not need to throw up our hands and say, “we cannot know anything about God in eternity on the basis of Jesus’ obedient life.” While we cannot make univocal statements about God, we do not have to fall into the trap of equivocation, of saying nothing true.
If we want to say something true about God, we have to say it about him according to ectypal theology. And we cannot say things exactly as they are, that is, univocally; yet this does not mean we cannot say anything true, that is, equivocally. So we are left with analogical knowledge.
Analogical knowledge means that we can say true things about God by analogy. For example, we have minds and we are created in the image of God. So when Scripture speaks of God thinking, he must too have a mind. But we do not say that they are exactly alike univocally nor nothing alike equivocally. We say there is a connection by analogy.
In John’s Gospel, he uses the analogies of Logos and mind (John 1). In the beginning, was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and was God. How? Well, John uses human language to speak of the divine, and the analogy he uses is this: as we think and have thoughts (Logos), we can discern how these thoughts are us but not exactly us. In God, we can understand his personal properties in analogous ways to our lived experience.
The Logos of God relates to God by being the reason of God. This analogy does not perfectly describe an infinite and simple being. But it might just be the closest analogy that we can use—it is after all authored by the Holy Spirit whose purpose is to make the Father known by making the Son known.
How Do These Concepts Help?
While these five concepts won’t answer every question or resolve all problems, they give us theological tools to frame how we see Christ act in Scripture and how we can infer true things about God’s nature.
When we read Scripture, we see Christ revealing God in ways appropriate to creatures. He especially shows the disciples who God is through the senses (e.g., 1 John 1:1). But knowledge of him moves through the senses via the renewal of the inner man by the operation of the Spirit (John 20:22).
So when Christ says, “I have come down from heaven … to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), we need to understand his words according to ectypal theology. These words teach us theology as the outflow of God’s self-knowledge. The Logos according to his humanity does the will of God, but the Logos and God are one and so must possess one will.
His simplicity entails that he has one will and three subsisting persons in himself. He knows how this works. We stand in awe. But he has accommodated his language sufficiently to provide analogous truths about himself.
By analogical reasoning, we can work backwards to God’s being. If God sent the Son and the Son does his will, this must say something true about God. God is not arbitrary. The names Father and Son provide by way of analogous reasoning conceptual clarity.
Father’s beget sons. The Father begat the Son. And he must have done this in eternity since God has no beginning and the Father and Son are both one God. So their relationship is one of Sire and Sireling, of Begetter and begotten.
So what statements of obedience mean via ectypal theology and analogous reasoning is that God fittingly sent the Son on mission in the world because the Son is the begotten of the Father, the thought of the mind. His analogous distinctions bespeak mission and sending.
So eternal generation explains the incarnation, and his being sent in the incarnation explains Christ’s obedience to the Father. As Irenaeus noted, the Son acts as the hand of the Father. As a mind thinks or a hand does, so the Father as principle sends the Son to enact the one act of God.
The inseparable operation of the one God occurs according to a pattern based on personal properties of God. And since God incarnated, then he not only has the one will of God but also a human will with which we can submit to God while also acting according to the one divine will.
So it seems entirely unlikely that Jesus’ obedience means that Jesus always submitted even in eternity past. This reading of evidence comes somewhat too close to univocal reasoning.
It also seems to say too much about the nature of God since God by nature is simple and so has one will. One person cannot use his will on another person in God. While we cannot understand how this works as God can (archetypically), we stand in awe and confess what we can know of God.