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Trinitarians typically believe that the persons of the Trinity are coequal. How do they explain Jesus' statement that his Father was greater?

Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. (John 14:28, KJV)

A similar question was once asked here, but was closed for addressing too broad of an audience.

Jesus rejects equality with God - How does this statement reconcile with traditional teachings?

Note that this question is not directed at "natures." The question is about Jesus and His Father, and their relationship to each other.

I am directing this question specifically to the Trinitarian perspective.

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    This, again, is too broad an audience. 'Trinitarian' covers a wide spectrum of thinking which @Stephen Disraeli sums up well. But there would be a wide response to the question, on the detail.
    – Nigel J
    May 20, 2023 at 12:28
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    Does this answer your question? In Trinitarian theologies, which nature is subservient to the Father?
    – Anne
    May 23, 2023 at 11:36
  • @Anne My question is not about natures. My question is about Jesus and His Father, and their relationship to each other.
    – Biblasia
    May 23, 2023 at 13:16
  • If you go to that question and read the answers, you will see that there are many points to that effect, but that that text is also addressed re. their relationship and equality.
    – Anne
    May 23, 2023 at 14:43
  • That can be explained as economic trinity, the roles of the trinity as opposed to ontological nature. You should rather ask the same about how they are ontologically coequal when one person generates or begets another contingently?
    – Michael16
    Dec 19, 2023 at 8:34

7 Answers 7

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One of the classic statements is to be found in the words of the Athanasian Creed (which I'm finding in the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book);

"Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead:

And inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood."

In other words, the Son is BOTH God AND man, in combination. That is the doctrine of the incarnation.

So he may reasonably say as man "My Father is greater than I". "As touching his Manhood".

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    @Biblasia Is it fair to say that a human person who believes in Jesus Christ is (as to their humanity, once glorified) not one of the sons of God ? Are they only 'sons of God' in spirit ? Not as to their (glorified) humanity ?
    – Nigel J
    May 20, 2023 at 12:31
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    @Nigel Jesus is the only son of God by birth. We who receive Jesus are called sons of God, but are only so by adoption. That said, any son of God is just that--a son, not God Himself. If you have a son, is your son you?
    – Biblasia
    May 20, 2023 at 12:35
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    @Biblasia Sons are not created by their father. Sons are generated by the Father. (Through one Holy Spirit.) This is true of the Son of God and of the sons of God. Then, the Son (and the sons) are one with the Father (in one Holy Spirit). You can see how essential is trinitarian doctrine to understand these spiritualities.
    – Nigel J
    May 20, 2023 at 12:46
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    @NigelJ Your inability to simply provide that name is interesting for one who claims to have superior understanding of these "spiritualities" based on his acceptance of the Trinity dogma. The disciples, however, knew what name Jesus meant--and every record of the baptisms they performed shows this. Consider Acts 2:38; 8:12; 8:16; etc.
    – Biblasia
    May 20, 2023 at 22:07
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    @Biblasia Indeed. One name, through whom is known the Son, and - thence - the Father, through one Holy Spirit.
    – Nigel J
    May 20, 2023 at 22:16
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You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. (John 14:28 ESV)

Why was this statement necessary? It is possible some of the disciples thought Jesus could be greater than the Father. To prevent that misunderstanding, Jesus says the Father is greater than I.

At the time Jesus spoke the disciples had already heard Jesus say I am ---- many times. Without co-equality with the Father, an I am statement carries additional meaning:

  • I (not the Father) am the Bread of Life
  • I (not the Father) am the the Living Bread
  • I (not the Father) am the Light of the World
  • I (not the Father) am the Door
  • I (not the Father) am the Good Shepherd
  • I (not the Father) am the Resurrection and the Life
  • I (not the Father) am the Way the Truth and the Life

After hearing Jesus make His I am statements, especially the last two, the disciples might believe Jesus is greater than the Father. To prevent that misunderstanding, Jesus makes a statement which may be paraphrased:

The Father is not the Way. The Father is not the Truth. The Father is not the Life. I am. The Father is greater than I. Yet I and the Father are one.

After making this statement, Jesus immediately makes another I am claim which illustrates the paradox of co-equality with another who is greater:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. (John 15:1)

The vinedresser may be greater than the vine, but without a vine there can be no vinedresser. The vinedresser is "greater" yet it is the vine who makes the vinedresser, the vinedresser.

It is flawed reasoning to understand superiority of a vinedresser who lacks a vine. Likewise it is flawed reasoning to attempt to understand the superiority of the Father without the Son, because since there is a Son, there is a Father. Co-equality is not determined by who is greater; it is determined by their existence. Because they exist and may be called, Father, Son. Jesus is able to say I am because Father, Son, Spirit, are.

From the human vantage point, co-equality is explained in chapter 14. The Father is greater than Jesus, but without Jesus there is no resurrection or life. For mankind, if Jesus is not the resurrection and the life, the Father's superiority is meaningless. That is, man's ability to eventually be in the presence of the Father will result from that which only Jesus is, the resurrection and the life.

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    All of the "I AM" statements must be understood just as Jesus told us to understand them...that they are not Jesus' words, but those of the Father. Jesus is not saying "I AM"--the Father is saying this, through Jesus. "For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak." (John 12:49). "Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works." (John 14:10)
    – Biblasia
    May 26, 2023 at 3:14
  • @Biblasia Really? I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51) Jesus, not the Father came down from heaven. It is His flesh, not the Father's given for the life of the world...unless He is co-equal with the Father. May 28, 2023 at 22:07
  • Either you believe Jesus or you don't. I am not the one who said he spoke the Father's words.
    – Biblasia
    May 28, 2023 at 23:04
  • @Biblasia I believe. And if you did, you would understand John 6:51 and other I am passages clearly explain the equality of Father and Son. Also if you apply your understanding to John 8:58, that must be a statement of deity. According to your treatment, Jesus is stating the Father was before Abraham…obviously the truth which the Jews understood correctly. But, according to you, their mistake was in thinking Jesus was speaking of Himself when in fact I am meant the Father. May 28, 2023 at 23:31
  • RevelationLad, that the "I AM" could not have meant the son of man is quite clear from the fact that Jesus was not yet born in the time of Abraham, nor had yet the human body which he possessed been prepared for him, as we are told it was in Hebrews 10:5.
    – Biblasia
    May 28, 2023 at 23:51
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3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Each member of the Trinity lives by this credo. The Father glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. Each of them glorifies the Holy Spirit.

Consider how Jesus glorified both the Father and the Spirit. You cite John's gospel where Jesus calls the Father greater. Consider Matthew 12, where Jesus calls it an unforgivable sin to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. He makes no such extreme declaration regarding the Father. According to that measure, the Holy Spirit is greater than the Father!

In their eyes, each member of the Trinity views the others as greater in some way. That is a testimony to the strength of their love.

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  • Interesting perspective. Do you actually ascribe to the Holy Spirit, Father, and Son as being each of descending rank, respectively? How do you see the Holy Spirit as being different or separate from the Father per John 4:21-24?
    – Biblasia
    May 23, 2023 at 15:31
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    Romans 8:38-39 says: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." With infinite love, there is no separation. Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit are not separate, but they are distinct persons as per the Trinity. I do not ascribe any rank to the three, as each ranks the others higher. They do not implement the Ord trait. (Rust language reference) May 24, 2023 at 13:52
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Jesus is equal to the Father and Spirit in essence (Homoousion), but He differs in role.

I and my Father are one. (John 10:30 KJB)

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (John 13:16 KJB)

Jesus's role is to be "The servant" we see this concept all throughout his ministry. The following scripture sums it up well.

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. 9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [emphasis mine] (Philippians 2:5–11 KJB)

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We have a situation at John chapter 5 where the Jews confronted Jesus saying at vs16, "And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath." What Jesus did was heal a man at verses 11-13.

Jesus replies at vs17, "My Father is working until now, and I My self am working." Vs18, "For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, MAKING HIMSELF EQUAL WITH GOD."

So does this statement mean the Son is inferior to the Father? No, because Philippians 2:6 points out that in His preincarnate existence Jesus "though it not robbery to be EQUAL with God."

In the incarnation Jesus deliberately subordinated himself. He who had been (past tense) "in the form of God" took upon himself the "form of a servant" and the "likeness of men." This voluntary humbling did not affect His essential deity.

The Son is eternally generated, in eternity, outside of time, and the Son was begotten in the FULLNESS of time in and for the sake of creation. In effect that which God is and is "doing" in his transcendence above and outside nature, he also did at a moment in time when the Son was begotten and born of a virgin.

Jesus also claimed equality with His Father at John 10:30 when He stated, "I and the Father are one." This "one" means Jesus is claiming to be one in nature/essence with the Father. The Jews answered Jesus and said at vs33, "For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out God."

The real issue with the question the poster ask is, how do reconcile this "apparent" or "seemingly" contradiction which I addressed.

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  • Jesus never said he was God. He never even said he was the Son of God. The latter is especially interesting, because certainly he was the Son of God. But Jesus consistently called himself "the son of man." The demons called him the "Son of God." So did some among the Jews--as your quotes demonstrate. If Jesus' oneness with the Father makes him equal to God, then Jesus was praying for all of us to be equal with God in John 17. There is no contradiction among these verses for one who has interpreted them correctly. Apparent contradictions makes apparent one's misunderstanding.
    – Biblasia
    May 24, 2023 at 13:48
  • @Biblasia Really? John 10:36, "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?" And here's an oldie but a goody at Matthew 26:63, the trial of Jesus, "But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, "I adjure You (that is swear to me) by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ/Messiah, THE SON OF GOD." At Luke 22:70 Jesus states, "Yes, I am. At Matthew 26:65 the high priest tore his robes saying, "He has blasphemed!" Why is it blasphemy for Jesus to claim He is the Son of God Biblasia?
    – Mr. Bond
    May 24, 2023 at 14:05
  • Yes, the Jews claimed that Jesus called himself the son of God. Jesus quotes them and calls them out for their reaction to it because it was common within their culture for people to think of themselves as children of God. Consider Paul's statement: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." (Romans 8:14). If the Pharisees considered themselves to be sons of God, how could they legitimately accuse Jesus of wrongdoing for claiming the same thing, if indeed he had? Jesus acknowledges being the son of God, when questioned, but never asserts it on his own.
    – Biblasia
    May 24, 2023 at 14:14
  • @Biblasia Instead of making excuses did Jesus Himself state/claim/ASSERT He is the Son of God at John 10:36 and at His trial? Why in the world are you denying what He clearly stated? In fact, Jesus Christ often referred to Himself as the "Son of God" and as the "Son of Man," do you know why?
    – Mr. Bond
    May 24, 2023 at 14:21
  • You appear to define "often" rather loosely. The Bible records Jesus' own use of the expression "son of God" just four times, the only one of which that comes close to a first-person claim being that of John 10:36. No wonder you have chosen that as your reference point. But notice that Jesus is quoting the Jews in his use of the expression there. The other times Jesus speaks it are in the third-person context, e.g. "because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:18). One is a prophecy of the future (John 5:25); and the last is a question (John 9:35).
    – Biblasia
    May 24, 2023 at 14:42
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John 14:28 is only rightly understood through sameness of nature.

The familiar adjective μεγας (megas) means great or large

The superlative of μεγας (megas) means greatest.

From this comes the plural masculine noun μεγιστανες (magistanes), which denotes men of high social rank and from which we get our English word Mister.

The comparative of μεγας (megas), namely the adjective μειζων (meizon), our word in question, means greater. Greater in rank.

It is not appropriate to ask this word to disregard the difference between nature and relationship. See Luke 7:28, Luke 22:26-27, and John 13:16 for examples of this comparative adjective in action. Rather than excluding a concept of nature it is sameness of nature that allows for a comparative difference in rank.

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God doesn't talk much about equality in the Bible, and despite being in Trinitarian churches all my life (the first half various Protestant, the second half Catholic), I have never before today heard of a belief that the parts of God were equal. Here's Jesus's take on equality, beyond what you quoted above. This is from Philippians 2:5-7.

...Christ Jesus, 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant...

Is He God? Sure: you can find lots of support, starting with "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Is He equal to God the Father? He makes it clear: no. In our fallen state, we humans need it at least in our politics, but He makes it clear He isn't interested.

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  • As a side note, applying equality to the Trinity seems very modern. We're very interested in equality these days, and should be. But we come after some significant new interest in political equality the ancients had never seen. I think they'd say to this idea, "Where did that come from?"
    – Maverick
    May 22, 2023 at 2:13
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    You mention being Catholic; off-hand at least 3 ancient/medieval Catholic sources discuss equality in God. Augustine's de Trinitate (4th Century), Aquinas' Treatise on the Trinity (within the Summa; 13th Century) and the Athanasian Creed (5th century, based upon quotes from Augustine).
    – eques
    May 22, 2023 at 18:58
  • @eques Thank you for providing references to the origin of the "equality" concept within Trinitarian belief. That is helpful.
    – Biblasia
    May 22, 2023 at 21:59
  • @Biblasia Where did I say "origin"? I asserted it was not modern, but that's not the same as origin. As I said elsewhere, you would do well to read some of those so you actually know what you are debating against instead of saying nonsense and showing actual ignorance about trinitarian doctrine.
    – eques
    May 23, 2023 at 17:17
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    @eques I am happy to remain ignorant of something that is not founded on Scripture. If, however, one has a scriptural support for the dogma, I would be interested to hear it. The question pertains to a passage of scripture. Answering the question by side-stepping scriptures in order to give preference to extra-biblical sources may indicate the true origin of the doctrine, but will not give credence to it.
    – Biblasia
    May 23, 2023 at 20:32

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