Why Didn’t the Father Come to Save Us?

Many years ago, when I was just a teenager I remember being puzzled by the oft quoted John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….” Now everyone used this verse to demonstrate how much God loved us. But I got stuck thinking, “What kind of a Father is this that he sends his Son to suffer horribly and die!?”  My own Father wouldn’t send me in harm’s way, he’d go and face the threat and protect me. But God the Father sent his Son to do the hard and dirty work, to get slaughtered and die. Why? Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?

As I asked this question no one had a real answer. Even the priests looked at me like they didn’t understand my question. As the years went by I eventually connected the dots and found the answer. But recently I was reminded of my question as some one asked me, “Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?”

The answer really comes down to one word, a word we’re not so good at understanding in these modern times. The word is “obedience.”  The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, only the Son can do that. For it is not just the suffering of Christ per se that saves us, it is his obedience that saves us. Consider that it was Adam’s disobedience that destroyed our relationship with God. Hence it is Christ’s obedience that saves us. Scripture says, For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19). So plainly put, since obedience was the necessary remedy for our disobedience Jesus the Son had to come for he is able to obey the Father. It does not pertain,  nor is it really sensible,  to say that the Father could obey the Father. Hence God the Father sent his only Son. Scripture says of Jesus He became obedient” to the Father “unto death (Phil 2:8)

While we tend to speak today primarily of the suffering and death of Jesus as the cause of our salvation. But more specifically, his suffering and death are really the manifestation of the deeper cause of our salvation, which is the obedience of Christ. Isaiah 53:7  says of the Christ, He was offered because he willed it. St. Thomas Aquinas says, Now obedience is preferred to all sacrifices. according to 1 Samuel 15:22: “Obedience is better than sacrifices.” Therefore it was fitting that the sacrifice of Christ’s Passion and death should proceed from obedience….And so the Man-Christ secured the victory through being obedient to God, according to Proverbs 21:28: “An obedient man shall speak of victory.” (Summa, Tertia Pars, 47.2)

Over and over again Jesus spoke of his looming death as an act of love and obedience for the Father.  Christ received a command from the Father to suffer. For it is written (John 10:18): “I have power to lay down My life, and I have power to take it up again: this commandment have I received of My Father”–namely, of laying down His life and of resuming it again….He suffered [also] out of love of the Father, according to John 14:31: “That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father hath given Me this  commandment,  so I do. Arise, let us go hence”–namely, to the place of His Passion:….. He “paid….suffering Himself to be fastened to a tree on account of the apple which man had plucked from the tree against God’s command (Aquinas, Summa Tertia Pars 47. Reply Obj 1).

And why such terrible suffering? Here too some get stuck on thinking that God is blood thristy. We need not conclude this any more that we would conclude such a thing of a surgeon. The surgeon clearly makes use of radical proceedures, slicing open the body, sawing through bones, cutting out flesh and the like. But strong medicine is needed when the situation is grave. Rather than looking at the crucifixion and saying, God has a problem (i.e. he is blood-thirsty) we ought to see how desperate our problem is. Sin is a very serious condition and we should not make light of it. In order to resolve our problem, God had to resort to this.

But Jesus freely obeys his Father out of love for Him and for us. In his human will he obeyed the Father and so we are saved through the suffering that it entailed. St. Maximus the Confessor has a beautiful line: We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Where Adam disobeyed, Christ obeyed, and hence we are saved. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Father for sending your only Son.

62 Replies to “Why Didn’t the Father Come to Save Us?”

  1. In the first chapter of Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus talks about making things right. I never really understood why all this had to happen until I read that book. He puts it in terms that even children can understand. You break the cookie jar … there has to be a consequence. Ours sins are so terrible, Jesus had to die this horrible death. He pays the price for all of us for all time.

    You also explain it very well, in terms of obedience.

    We have a beautiful crucifix in our parish that our priest has carved (the Corpus) and I am always desolate when it is removed. I need to see Him up there when I pray, I wish the powers that be wouldn’t remove it during the “happier” seasons because many people don’t like to be reminded of His suffering. I just don’t understand it. I never want to forget it. Even when I’m happy. Esp. when I’m happy. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

    1. Thanks! I am puzzled as to the removal of the corpus however. The Church norm is that a crucifix be prominently displayed in the Sanctuary at all times of the year.

  2. It’s important to bear in mind that Christ’s passion did not occur while He was an infant. If the *only* thing He came to do was to suffer and die for us (as many people mistakenly believe), He could have done that when Herod was slaughtering the infants of Bethlehem. Since He is fully man as well as fully divine, it was important that He be an adult who freely chose to suffer — important both in its own right, and in how a sane adult might be expected to respond to it. Even in purely human terms, the pain of losing a son who is still a child is different from the pain of losing a son who is an adult and who gave his life in an act of heroism.

    The other reason, of course, is that He had other things to do: especially to preach and to found the Church. Neither of these are given the attention they deserve by most Protestant churches. The part about founding the Church is obvious, but as a convert from the Southern Baptists, I can tell you it is only a slight oversimplification to say that they see the “job” of Jesus on earth as His death and resurrection, but the “job” of Paul as his preaching. Therefore their sermons are more likely to be based on the letters of St. Paul than on the preaching of Jesus. It’s not so much an error that anyone would affirm as a bad habit, one of many that still affects me. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, remembers the 3rd Luminous Mystery.

  3. The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena has an execellent Treatise on Obedience. The Supreme and Eternal Father discusses the virtue of obedience as being the sweet key in which heaven is opened. Obedience is the key to unlock the light of faith. Faith is grounded in obedience. Obedience is destroyed by pride and self-love. Patience is the marrow of obedience. Love is the mother of patience and obedience. Grace is derived from obedience. Obedience is the doctorine of Christ. Obedience is to obey the precept of forgiveness. Queen Obedience is the yoke by which our love for God through Jesus Christ is demonstrated. Also we must love our neighbor as ourself. God tells Catherine worldly men have time to repent of their disobedience, but it is hard for them to do so, on account of their long habit of sin, therefor let no man put of his finding the key of obedience until his death. “Take, oh then the key of obedience with the light of faith; walk no longer in the darkness or cold, but observe obedience in the fire of love, so that you may taste eternal life together with the other observers of the law.” God bless you Msgr. Pope.

  4. Another excellent article! As I read, the words our Lord spoke came to me: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father…..The Father and I are one…..The words I speak are from the Father”! The same is true of the Holy Spirit…He speaks what hears! Somehow they are different but they completely agree in everything…which makes them One God. And, we have the same privilege, to be One as they are One!…”.when He appears we shall see Him as He is and we shall be like Him”! Halleleuia!!! Ken

  5. Spot on reflection. My law school professor used to mock us Christians for having a Father who sent his son to die instead of doing it Himself! I follow your reflections all the way from Kampala-Uganda. Keep up the good work–although your brother priests this part of the Lord’s vineyard seem to have no idea what blogs can do to spread the Faith

    1. Yes, please keep priest bloggers in prayer. It’s a little nerve-wracking to be “out there” where people often like to parse every word. But thanks be to God many are patient with us as we struggle to make our points!

  6. I want to thank you for your blog in general. I’ve been reading it for a few months now and I love it. It teaches important ideas without being too complicated to understand. Thank you for your service to the Church.


  7. Question: We know in heaven of the trinity. When Jesus was on Earth was he also still God the Father or was the trinity temporarily broken into parts or not formed yet UNTIL Jesus ascended? I don’t mean to sound blasphemous (and if I need to go to confession just for asking and thinking this let me know). But we always hear Jesus speaking of the Father like he is a separate being, yet we accept the mystery of the trinity. I ask not out denial of truth but clarity of that truth. If this is part of the mystery then I am content with letting faith suffice, it is a mystery after all. Excellent blog once again Father!

    1. I’ll let Msgr. Pope answer your question, but I’ll just add a little comment that may help.

      I highly recommend purchasing and reading this book: Aquinas: On Reasons For Our Faith (http://marymediatrix.com/bookshop?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=43&category_id=14).

      In the book, St. Thomas explains in a very clear way what the Trinity is, how there is a Trinity, what we mean when we say the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, how there is only one God, not three, etc. Jesus is distinct from God the Father only in terms of relations, but not in nature. Where one person of the Trinity is, all three necessarily must be present. Jesus “is” the Father in the sense that they share the same Divine Nature. So even when Jesus was on earth, He was also in Heaven at the same time; just like in the Eucharist, Jesus is really there, but He’s also really in Heaven, and really everywhere. Crazy, huh? While on earth, He was, in fact, everywhere yet also in one location. When we say God is everywhere, we mean the Trinity is everywhere.

      We cannot fully comprehend the depths of this mystery, how there are three persons yet one God, each distinct in terms of their relations to each other, yet one at the same time. We will understand only in Heaven. So you’re right. It’s part of the mystery. God bless you.

    2. Yes, Richard has provided a good link and also some good reflections here. Simply to answer your question most directly, the Trinity was never broken into parts. The Son, never left the Father’s side in coming to us.

      1. Just to add a few comments to what others have said:

        The “Trinity shield” may be helpful here — here’s an example of it: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English1.png

        Here’s some notes I’ve used before with students, though they’re “rough” at times, and don’t translate that well to a post like this, since they originally had lots of bullet points, sub-bullet points, etc.

        ***A. Intro ***

        God is triune; God is a Trinity. The Dogma/Doctrine/Mystery of the Trinity says that there are Three Persons in One God — or, One God in Three Persons.

        “WHAT God is” is One: One Divinity, One Divine Being (One Nature/Substance/Essence/”Ousia”)
        “WHO God is” is Three: Three Divine Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit

        *** B. Terms Used in Trinitarian Doctrine ***

        Substance: nature, essence, being; WHAT something or someone is. Not “substance” like material substance you can touch. Your substance/nature/essence is human (your humanity). God’s substance / nature / essence is divine (His divinity).

        Person: WHO someone is; refers to distinctions among the 3 members of Trinity. “Person” here doesn’t mean what we normally mean when we talk about human persons/people. Also: There are NOT three separate minds or wills in God; there is only one divine mind and will.

        *** C. The Doctrine of the Trinity ***

        1. There is only one God. The Trinity is one God – each Person of the Trinity IS the one God (not parts of God). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all “one in being” with each other; the same divine substance / nature /essence / being; the same divinity

        2. The 3 Persons are “Distinct” from Each Other. The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father; etc. (So, only God the Son has become human in Christ – only God the Son suffered and died on the Cross.)
        (But they are all “IN” each other: the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, etc. This is called Perichoresis / Circumincession — though those words mean much more than just that.)
        Also: all 3 act together. E.g., all three share in creating the world, not just the Father. They love us with same love, know us with same knowledge.

        3. The Flow of the Trinity (Divine Processions)

        In context of Trinity, “proceed” means “come from” or “flow from.”
        Two types of procession: generation (begetting, giving birth) and spiration (breathing):

        a) Procession of God the Son: Son “proceeds” from the Father, by “generation” (being begotten, born)
        b) Procession of God the Holy Spirit: Spirit “proceeds” from both Father and Son, by “spiration” (being breathed)

        With Trinity, “generating / begetting” (giving birth to) and “spirating” (breathing) are analogies; doesn’t mean giving birth or breathing the same way we do.

        Again: As the Son proceeds from the Father in being begotten, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son in being “spirated,” breathed.

        So: God is an overflowing fountain of love / light / life. A love that doesn’t hold itself back selfishly, but gives itself away. The doctrine of the Trinity is all about how God in Himself is by nature an outward- rather than inward-moving Love, a self-diffusive Love:

        — The Father generates (gives birth to) the Son by giving Himself away in Love – i.e., the Father pours Himself out in love, pours out His Love/Divinity, and that “outpouring” is the Son. The Son is the “outpouring” of the Father – the “outpouring love/divinity” of the Father.

        — The Father and Son “spirate” (breathe) the Holy Spirit by pouring out their Love/Divinity to each other. The Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and the Son overflowing and focused outward.

        — I.e., the Father overflows lovingly into, in, and as the Son, and the Father and Son overflow lovingly into, in, and as the Spirit.

        Some other ways of looking at it: God the Son is called the “Word” of God the Father, i.e., the expression of the Father. (If the Father is like a star, the Son is like the light shining from the star. If the Father is like the “Thought,” the Son is the “Word,” the expression of the Thought.) Now, when God the Son enters the world and becomes human as Jesus Christ, that means the Father is “speaking” and revealing His Word to us. Christ is the Word of God made human, the Word of God “made flesh” – i.e., Christ is the Father’s revelation to us.

        Another way to look at things: God the Father’s Love = God the Son. Father’s Love for us = God the Son made human (Christ). The Trinity creates the world so the Father can give the world His Love, i.e., so He can give us Christ (the Son made human), in the Spirit.

        4. The Divine Relations

        a) God the Father:
        begets/generates/gives birth to Son
        spirates/breathes the Holy Spirit

        b) God the Son:
        is begotten/generated/born from Father
        spirates/breathes the Holy Spirit

        c) God the Holy Spirit:
        is spirated/breathed by the Father
        is spirated/breathed by the Son

        5. Procession vs. Creation

        – Son and Spirit proceed/flow eternally from Father (outside of time); never a time when Son and Spirit didn’t exist

        – God the Son exists in eternity; existed “before” He became human (took on humanity) as Jesus Christ.

        – Son is “begotten, not made or created” / Spirit is “spirated, not made or created.” This means Son and Spirit are God, not creatures of God (creature = being created by God out of nothing). Humans and all things in universe are created by God in time out of nothing, but Son and Spirit come “out of” God the Father eternally, not out of nothing. Son is begotten from the Father’s own “substance” (being, essence, nature); Spirit is spirated/breathed from Father & Son’s substance – so they are all one substance (one being, one nature, one essence) – and yet they are three distinct “Persons”

        From the Nicene Creed: “…The only Son of God: eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made; one in being with the Father.”

  8. God didn’t have to let Jesus die, HE could have snapped his fingers and made it better.
    He sent Jesus as an example for how to live our lives, but I am always bothered by the fact
    that once it was done.
    Why didn’t the world change too? Why didn’t the world end?
    The world was saved and all the people from the previous ages got to go to Heaven so
    why did God want this world to continue at all?
    Why wasn’t Satan chained up? why did more sin have to be committed?
    Why didn’t He say okay its done now we can do something else?
    God only knows the answers to those questions.

  9. Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?

    It seems to me that the premise of the question (or maybe a related question) is — Why is there a Son?
    (And how are they, or why do we call them, “Father” and “Son”?)

    Of course, God is Love, and love is relationship, love requires an other, hence the Trinity, where the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the love that proceeds from the Father and the Son is a Person as well, a loving communion of three persons in one divine nature. And, of course, this understanding, the knowledge that God is a Trinity, would never have come about if Jesus had not Himself revealed the existence of this Son-Father relationship.

    Whether we called them Father and Son, or Person 1 and Person 2, someone needed to do it, if anyone was going to come to save us. If the Father had come, we might as well ask, why didn’t the Son come? And the answer for many might end up being that He is a lazy good-for-nothing just lying around heaven not doing much of anything.

    Given that God is Love, God is relationship, and the whole purpose of this Creation Project of God’s is relationship, reason suggests that it had to be the Son because it had to be an act of love. Love is an act of self-giving, it is service, it is obedience, doing what those you love want or need doing.

    And why such terrible suffering?

    Because God is not only Love, God is Truth. And the truth is that sin exists. Sin exists and it has evil effects, sin causes horrific suffering. The effect of sin is made manifest in Christ’s flesh. God takes that horror, caused by man, upon Himself. Had God instead simply waved His divine hand, that would have been a lie. To simply pretend that the sin did not happen, that sin does not have horrific consequences, would have been wholly contrary to truth. And it would have been contrary to that aspect of truth which is justice.

    The sin happened, the window was broken. You can forgive throwing the ball through the window, but you cannot simply act as if there is not a gaping hole in the glass. To pretend like the window is not still broken, even after forgiveness, is to allow the rain and snow to come in. The truth is that the window is broken, justice requires a return to the status quo — an unbroken window. Thus, truth is, and justice demands, that someone needs to fix it.

    Jesus volunteered for the job. Jesus takes the reality of sin, the truth of evil and the horrific consequences of sin, upon Himself so that we do not have to take it upon ourselves. As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his papacy, in Jesus on the Cross, love and truth coincide. If Jesus doesn’t take this terrible suffering upon Himself, we have to, as a matter of truth and justice, take it upon ourselves.

  10. Correction —

    The statement by Pope Benedict was actually made while he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, during the “dictatorship of relativism” homily before the conclave, where he also explained:
    Christ’s mercy is not a grace that comes cheap, nor does it imply the trivialization of evil. Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in His Body and in His Soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of His suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favour converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ. This is the vengeance of God: He Himself suffers for us, in the person of His Son.

  11. Dear Father,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful post on ‘Obedience’. The Trinitarian relationship is best brought out by the quality of love and obedience. The father-son relationship also gives each of us, God’s own people, the confidence that our Heavenly Father loves as just as much and also wants us to be like a child unto Him through our entire lives. We walk in complete obedience, holding his hand.

    1. Thanks for reading. THe obedience of course pertains especially to the human will of Christ. He is a Son who obeys his Father, whereas Adam was a son who disobeyed. Again as Maximus so beautifully says, we are saved by the human decision of a divine person.

  12. Thank you very much Father – this is absolutely wonderful.

    I had added some phrases to my personal recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet a few months ago – ie: “For the sake of his obedience and humility, until his most sorrowful passion and death, have mercy on us, the whole world and the holy souls in purgatory” for the small beads and I had wondered if I had been right to do so.

    I guess I have my answer now.

    I am from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I follow your blog through a daily digest of links sent to me by New Advent.

  13. “In the first chapter of Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus talks about making things right.”

    That is really a brilliant book and it is not as well known as it should be.

  14. A number of years ago I went through the Charismatic movement’s Life in the Spirit seminars, where at the end of the course we were baptized in the Holy Spirit. But I never at that point received the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t until years later when I renounced other religions that I received a true conversion. So an act of obedience was a major factor in my spiritual growth.

  15. Sooner of later this question occurs to all people of faith…as well as serving as a stumbling block for those of
    little or no faith. It is interesting that Monseigner has chosen to answer the question with the concept of obedience…it is a good response and one worth pondering. For myself I find the most convincing answer in the idea of a Trinitarian God….we are perhaps bothered by this seemingly awful answer to the problem of
    salvation of mankind when we think of God as one…but He is really not one but three Divine Persons in
    One Divine Nature…no easy concept! But if you think about it that way then it follows that when God so
    loved the world that He sent His only Son…He was truly sending Himself!! to die for us. I know that is an
    awful oversimplification of the Trinity but I think it is theologically correct. It certainly is not correct to think
    that God killed His Son to save us..that is not what He did. He who stayed Abraham’s knife and saved his
    son Isaac surely would not be into infanticide of His only Son… but to lay down HIs Own Life in the name of
    Jesus in order to save the World would be proper to He who is Love and Life! Is this not what Jesus said
    was the greatest act of charity there is that a man would lay down his life for his brother? What greater
    life could there be than the Author of Life itself. But we know God is Infinite..Eternal…but in His form as
    the Son..He could die because being the Author of Life He could restore that Life. Well, maybe I am
    getting too far out…but it helps me to deal with the initial question here…hope it might shed some light
    for others who struggle with this to come to some sort of satisfying answer. The really short answer I
    quess is that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts…and His mind is so
    far above ours as to be inpenetrable. Some day we will know but for now we see through a glass darkly.

    1. Thanks Adele. You are right that it is hard to state everything precisely right when we struggle with the inner life of the Trinity and also the external acts of the Trinity. At one level you are right, every external Act of the Trinity is a work of the whole Trinity, even though we attribute it to one or another person of the Trinity. But on the Other hand we want to avoid errors like patripassionism wherein some claimed the Father suffered on the cross. It’s hard in a brief blog, or a comment on that blog to make all the distinctions and utter all the qualifiers necessary.

  16. The nature of creation is God the Father. Manifesting expressions of Love, and in being such, He was well aware of what the higher complexities ( sentient and spiritual beings ) were capable of falling into, and what was required in the fulfillment of His manifest Will / Wisdom. That He would send Himself into creation as Christ, the manifested Son of His loving nature, is an inherent truth of His saving, forgiving nature for His exponential creation. Manifest love is a long process from inception of creation to mankind and salvation so you have to break a few eggs to make an omlet. The Holy Trinity is less a mystery than the lesson to be learned from the Artist of this masterpiece. This lesson is “our daily bread”, given by the Father, through Himself as Christ the Son, to awaken His manifested creation, to it’s delusional nature. This passion enlivens in it, through the teachings and life of Christ, the glorified Will of the Creator, to manikind. As Christ, demonstrating obedient love to the Will of The Father of creation, to mankind, which suffers from the sin of it’s evil delusion , the way and the life. Funny how evil is the mirror image of the word live. Narcicis stared into the water and fell in love with the reflection of his mirror image only to fall in and drowned. That we are so weak and deluded because of blind ignorance and desire to satisfy our sentient delusional pleasures was understood by the Father creator and by giving His life by way of the Christ God, Son of man, was He able to accept the sin of mankind, His creation, and awaken it to His Truth. It was this lesson we should repeat often through the day as given by God as Christ in his instructions from the Lord’s Prayer. God as Christ Son, enlivenes and fulfills his Will, through His sacrifice at the hands of His creation and brings us from delusion, sin and evil into our true nature with God the Holy Spirit. Through the sacrements we receive the grace of salvation and the eternal light of redemption. At least that’s how I see it. I could be wrong but God’s not. So God the father did give Himself in sacrifice for our sins as a result of this very long explanation. Someone could verify this with a mathematical explaination but most of us couldn’t understand it nor would it have the same effect as God’s way.

    1. Hmm….I am not sure I follow a few points here Robert but I have often found that other readers understand what you are saying exactly. Please accept that the deficit is mine and thanks for your comments.

      1. I come to understand much from your wisdom which is in no way a deficit on your part. Enlightenment works on the matrix level and God the Holy Spirit uses the pigments of his creation to fulfill His objective quite often without our being aware Who is making things revealed in our minds and hearts.It’s like harmonics with fundamental octave, overtones, partial tones on chromatic and diatonic scales. By no means am I musically educated, I have been a novice who plays guitar by ear but I still experience the joy and richness of it when I play guitar by myself or with others more knowlegeable and proficient than I. Keep on plucking. .

  17. Msgr. Pope,

    I am a bit confused by a few comments in your article…perhaps I have not understood them properly.

    You say that the Father could not come to redeem us because the Father could not obey the Father, whereas the Son does obey the Father.
    Are you implying that, as God, from eternity, the Son is obedient to the Father? The Catholic tradition seems to be quite clear that Jesus obeyed the Father AS MAN, prayed to the Father AS MAN, was less than the Father AS MAN. (Incidentally, in his humanity Jesus is subjected to his divinity, SO AS MAN HE OBEYED HIMSELF AS GOD, the Eternal Word — i.e. his human will was always in perfect accord with and submission to his divine will).
    In other words, as God, the Son is no more capable of obedience than the Father is. It is only in assuming our nature and suffering that Christ “learned obedience”.

    The Father could have assumed a human nature (this is a matter of Faith — all that the Son can do, so can the Father do). Had the Father assumed a human nature, he could have suffered. Had the Father suffered, he could have learned obedience.

    The argument must be made from fittingness. It is more fitting that the Son should become incarnate, it is more fitting that the Son should learn obedience, and it is more fitting that the Son should suffer and die on the Cross. But THERE IS NO BOND OF NECESSITY.

    Either the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit (or all three) could have become incarnate. There could have been many incarnations. (This is the doctrine of St. Thomas, see ST III, q.3, a.5-8).

    The following line from your post is at least ambiguous, but most probably simply incorrect: “The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, only the Son can do that.”
    …The Son is no more capable of obedience AS GOD than the Father is. Or do you think that the Eternal Word is eternally subject to the Eternal Father?

    I would like to see a follow up post offering further explanation of these very difficult points.

      1. Msgr. Pope,

        I don’t think you are seeing the objection…
        You have stated that the Son is somehow, antecedenty MORE CAPABLE of obedience than the Father…this is simply not the case. The Son is obedient only AS MAN. The Father could have been obedient AS MAN. The Holy Spirit could have been obedient AS MAN. But, according to the divine plan, the Son alone became man and learned obedience as man through suffering in his humanity.

        Indeed, we are “saved by the human decision of a divine person”. In fact, this divine person is the Son. It could have been the Father, or the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was not the Father or the Spirit, but the Son. Still, to say that it could have only been the Son is a serious error in Trinitarian theology.

        So, to put the question very plainly…
        Are you holding that the Son alone could have become incarnate?
        Do you maintain that the Son, precisely as eternally begotten, is obedient to the Father?
        Are you claiming, as it seems from your article, that there is something in the Son AS GOD which makes him more capable of becoming man and learning obedience?

        If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then I think we have a serious problem in Trinitarian theology…

        If, on the other hand, you mean only to say that it is MORE FITTING that the Word should become incarnate, I competely agree. So do all the great Doctors of the Church.
        However, if the argument is from FITTINGNESS, why write “The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, ONLY THE SON CAN DO THAT.”

        Msgr., with due respect, and as a fellow theologian and priest, I must say that you seem to have fallen into the same problem which trapped St. Anselm so long ago. You have bound the Trinity with a bond of necessity, when it is only a bond of fittingness.

      2. I accept your point that the word fitting is a better descriptor here and that “had” is too strong.

        I am not sure however why it bothers you that I say that the Father cannot obey the Father. Again perhaps “cannot” is stronger than necessary but my point is that we do not speak of people as obeying themselves. And so the Son was fittingly sent to assume a humanity wherein, having been sent, he could obey his Father in his human will. But obedience presupposes being sent, having a “missio” Thomas, in the Summa (Pars Prima 43.4) argues that it would not be fitting for the Father to be sent “for mission means procession from another, and in God it means procession according to origin…..Hence as the Father is not from another, it is no way fitting for Him to be sent; this can only belong to the Son and the Holy Ghost to Whom it belongs to be from another.” Now Thomas of course was more careful with his language than I and so rather than using “cannot” or “had” he says “in no way fitting” but that is a little stronger than merely “fitting” too. At any rate, I want to be clear that I accept that the word fitting is better here and more careful, as we ought to be in delicate matters like the Trinity.

        Now I also want to say that I am arguing paradigmatically here and I think that is perhaps where there is some disconnect between you and I. Adam’s disobedience was that of a son to a Father. Now I know that the whole Trinity was sinned against but paradigmatically we have a son disobeying a Father. Hence, using the paradigm it would be strange (unfitting) for the Father to come since we do not speak of a person (in this case the Father), obeying Himself or “sending himself.” Rather the paradigm calls for a Son, to whom it pertains to be sent, obeying a Father to whom it pertains to send. Hence it was fitting, (to use the better word your suggest) for the Son to take on a human nature and will and thus be able to obey his Father, in terms of his humanity.

        Now this of course may open a whole discussion on the two natures and one person of Christ. But in the end remember this blog is not a blog for theologians who parse every word and ponder every possible iota. Rather it is for the average beleiver. By my reading of the comments above it would seem that that most all of them get the fact, at least implicitly, that I am speaking paradigmatically here and were not trouble in the way you were between concerns and distinctions of the one Divine will and the human will. Scripture itself does not use lots of words to distinguish these either but speaks more simply of Christ as being obedient. I do not say your distinctions are inappropriate and certainly not wrong, however, the audience and concerns for the level of detail is a factor when I write.

        In the end however I accept your proposal that the word fitting is better. I will allow some time to pass so that our discussion here will make sense to others and then go and change the text since I like your suggestion. Not quite as sure about removing cannot, but perhaps a less absolute word is also good there too. Perhaps instead of cannot I could use “it does not pertain to the Father to obey the Father.”

      3. Msgr.,
        First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and for your willingness to engage in this discussion with me.

        Also, to make it clear to any who may read my comments on this post, I would like to state that I in no way intend to discredit your work or to question your Orthodoxy. Throughout my time in seminary (I am a young Catholic priest), your work as a pastor was a great inspiration to me. So please do not think that this “son” is rising up to take away from a so great “father”!

        Still, I have to say that this issue of the eternal relation of the Father and the Son is a problem of great confusion to many lay people and priests. In my seminary, there was often problems of subordinationist tendencies…as though the Son worshiped the Father from eternity, or was subject to the Father from eternity…

        It is the tendency towards subordonationism that leads some to think that only the Son could become incarnate…the Father is just too great, too exalted, too powerful, to become man; but the Son is already thought to be lesser, and suborndinated and, thus, it is fitting that he become man.
        Of course, I know that you do not think this, but some of the language could very easily be interpreted this way — and it is a problem that is so wide spread, that I think we need to work against it whenever it crops up.

        The relation of the human and divine natures in the single person of Christ is also a great point of confusion today, but I think your article is in fact very good on this point!
        Thank you for all the good work you are doing!

  18. The Father could have assumed a human nature

    Could the Father have assumed a human nature without be born of woman? Sure, He could. But would He then really be “man”? Would He really be one of us, like us in ALL ways except sin? Clearly not.

    But if the Father had assumed a human nature in the usual say, by being born of woman, so as to have the divine literally merge with humanity, would that not necessarily make Him a “Son”?

    1. Bender,
      I think you are a bit confused about what makes the Son to be the Son. He is not Son because he was born of Mary, he is Son because he was born of the Eternal Father.
      There is no reason why the Father (or the Holy Spirit) could not have become incarnate and been born of a woman. He would still be the Father, because he is the Father of the Son.

      On the other hand, I am a bit perplexed by your insistance that one must be “born of woman” in order to really be “man”…I guess Adam and Eve weren’t really human? I guess that babies created in a test tube aren’t really human? Please clarify your statement in this regard…

      1. I’m not confused. Of course Jesus is Son to God the Father. But He is also son to Mary. And anyone who would have been born to Mary would have been a “son.” She would not have given birth to a “father,” now would she?

        But if Mary could give birth to a father, rather than a son, if Mary’s father, er son, er son who is her father, or is it father who is her son? came instead, would that make Mary the Grandmother of God?

        And, yes, one MUST be born of woman in order to actually be in the line of same humanity who has lived on this earth since the beginning. If the Father had simply materialized in human form, He would indeed be human, but He would not be part of this human family. He would be something separate.

        No, I can’t clarify, because I don’t know what in the heck you are talking about.

      2. Bender (in response to you comments below – Aug 12 at 10:43pm),

        Please do not become overly hostile! I do not mean to attack you personally in any of my comments…

        If the Father (instead of the Son) had become incarnate and been born of woman (say of the Blessed Virgin Mary), that would not make make the Grandmother of God, she would have been the Mother of God the Father (rather than the Mother of God the Son) – I’m not sure what is confusing you here…
        This is entirely possible, though it certainly would not have been fitting.

        And no, being the “Mother of the Father” would not make her the “Grandmother of God” any more than being the “Mother of the Son” makes her the “Spouse of the Father”…what is so difficult to understand here? Can you really not see the difference between Divine Generation and Human Generation?

        Again, this insistence on being “born” in order to be truly human is very troubling…
        I’m sorry that you “don’t know what in the heck [I am] talking about.”
        Perhaps I can explain more clearly: You said that unless one is “BORN of a woman” they are not truly human. I said that there are many humans who are not BORN of a woman — here are several examples: Adam and Eve, children who die before birth, children created in a test tube…
        Do you mean to say that unless one is CONCEIVED in the normal manner, then he is not human — but then, what about Christ? Do you mean to say that unless one is PRESENT IN THE WOMB of a woman, then he is not human — what about test tube babies?

        Perhaps what you are trying to say is that a person can only be part of OUR human race if they are in some sense descended from Adam. This, at least, is my opinion (and that of St. Thomas). Any of the three persons could have assumed a human nature in many different ways…for example, the Son could have made a body for himself from the rib of a man and then given that body a human soul — in this case he would not be BORN of woman, but would certainly have been human.

        My only point is this: you are falling into the trap of many silly theologians who claim that Christ had to be BORN IN THE NORMAL way in order to be human (denying the virginity of Mary). They say that he had to be like us IN ALL THINGS BUT SIN — this leads them to think he was born just like all of us…then they think he was conceived just like all of us…
        Your own reasoning will lead down this path.

  19. Are you implying that, as God, from eternity, the Son is obedient to the Father?

    Maybe we should not get overly hung-up on the word “obedience”?

    God is Truth, He cannot act contrary to Himself. If one person of the Trinty “wants” something, the Others cannot say “no.” They cannot frustrate His divine will. God always says “yes” to Himself. When He acts, it is the entirety of the Trinity that acts, e.g. from the Father, by the Son, through the Holy Spirit, etc.

    Each “obeys” the Others in His divinity. While the Son “obeys” the Father, does not the Father always give and do what the Son asks of Him? And is that not simply obedience by another name? When the Holy Spirit is “sent” and the Holy Spirit then “goes,” is He not “obeying”? Whatever word you want to use, He is fulfilling the will of God.

    1. Bender,
      We cannot say that each peroson of the Trinity “‘obeys’ the Others in His divinity”. There is only one divine will, there is only one principle of action, there is only one nature…though there are three persons. All three act with one single will and none are subjected to the others in any respect.

      In any case, even if you want to use the word “obey” is a very loose sense (as I think you are intending), doesn’t that make Msgr. Pope’s argument even weaker? If the Father ‘obeys’ the Son, then the Father could certainly have become incarnate and “learned obedience through what he suffered.” If the Spirit ‘obeys’ the Father and the Son, then he too could have also “learned obedience” as a man.

      As you say “Whatever word you want to use, He is fulfilling the will of God.” The Father and the Holy Spirit are just as capable in this regard as is the Son. But, in the mysteries of the divine plan, it was in fact the Son who came to save us — it is fitting, it is not necessary.

      Now, I personally don’t like the language of “divine obedience” (even in the loose sense in which you are using it), but speaking in this way would certainly rule out the principle claim of Msgr.’s article above…

      1. There is no “maybe” about it.

        Let’s not get overly hung-up on the word “obedience.”

      2. Bender,
        The whole article is on “obedience”…I think we better be pretty clear about what the word means.

  20. I have always been uncomfortable with the line between faith and knowledge. One requires trust and the other seeks some sort of control. In that vein, I’m going to take a line out of context:
    I like Reginald’s line “There is no bond of necessity” because it serves as a reminder that God can do whatever God wills. Fides quaerens intellectum aside, sometimes our desire (need?) to have the dots connected can be a dangerous thing. To say “God HAD to send his Son to die” or “Jesus HAD to suffer (because it wouldn’t make sense to me otherwise)…” can be a dangerous exercise of telling God who God needs to be. Whether the Father willed that Jesus suffer to satisfy some Divine algebra is known only to God. What is clear from the Gospels is that Jesus was obedient to the Father’s will that he persist in nonviolent love of enemy even in the face of torture and death, and even in the face of fear. To me this is the most overwhelming message of obedience, because it beckons for discipleship. While it can be imitated, it can’t be comprehended.

    1. Daniel,

      I think you are right on!
      All this talk of necessity (what “HAD to be”, and what “ONLY the Son could do”) really only destracts us from the true mystery.

      Reflections on the incarnation and death of Christ would do well to stay clear of impossing necessity upon the Almighty. Instead, we should only give thanks for the most marvelous work which God has done — and what great mercy he shows in that he could have done it in many other ways, but he chose this particular way which is most beautiful, fitting and suited to our needs!

    2. Well, OK Daniel we can all fall into the trap you describe. But in my own defense I used a strongly Scriptural approach to the soteriological meaning of obedience. I wasn’t just speculating without a framework.

    3. God can do whatever God wills

      Can God do something contrary to Himself if He wills it? Is that what is meant by all-powerful?
      Allah is said to be that powerful, Allah is said to be so powerful that he can say two opposite things and they are both right. But is that the Christian understanding of God?

      No. God is Truth. He cannot be Untruth. He cannot do Untruth. He cannot make what is untrue true, He cannot make what is evil good, just as He cannot make what is good evil. God cannot be not-God.

      In the work of salvation, God HAD to do it in a manner consistent with Truth, including the truth of sin and the real-life effects of sin. He could not defeat suffering and death by running away from them, only by grabbing a hold of them and transforming them.

      1. Bender,

        God cannot contradict himself. So, considering that the Father did in fact will to send the Son to save us, he could not have done something different than he willed.

        HOWEVER, the whole point here is that the Father did not have to will to send the Son…he could have left us to perish, he could have saved us another way…

        You have succumb entirely to St. Anselm’s old problem…binding God to our salvation. God could have done it many ways. He has instead saved us in this most fitting and beautiful of ways.

        God could not make 2+2=5, but Christ could have been born one year earlier or later…can you see the difference?
        God cannot make evil to be good, but Christ could have made John the first pope…

        Christ did not have to die on the Cross. But, once the Trinity willed to save humanity in this way, it can be said that the “Messiah must suffer and die”, since the will of God must be fulfilled.

        It’s called antecedent and consequent necessity…it can be a bit confusing if you don’t have a background in philosophy.

      2. Bender,
        I disagree heartily. If God does it, it IS truth. If God makes it, it IS good. We are bound by God’s truth, God is not obliged to follow our rules or attempts at logic. God Gods, and we are way out of line to suggest God can or can’t do something–the first Commandment is clear here.

  21. While the article on obedience is logical and appealing, I think many academics (and laymen) still ignore or do not comprehend in their eagerness to find explanations the true sense of the Trinity. Maybe this understanding can only be given as a special blessing to a few chosen ones. In countless scriptures of blessed believers we find the explanation that Jesus is the manlike appearance of GOD so that the uneducated and searching people can experience human-like behavior, teacher and leader with regular needs and sorrows, life and death and all the stages in between.
    Trinity is a supreme and holy unity that is indivisible.

    1. Yes, I think you understate when you say that we cannot comprehend the “true sense of the Trinity” ! Alas I wonder who the chosen one would be? I suppose even the Saints in heaven are something new of God at every moment! In the end I think you are saying what I said somewhere above, I aim this blog somewhere in the average middle. This blog is not meant to discuss the minutia of Theological distinctions possible. As I stated to Reginald above, I am speaking here in the realm of paradigm and did not intend a long discussion on divine and human willing and processions and missions of the Blessed Trinity. I think and hope most people got something helpful from it though.

  22. Thank you! I have had this question for quite a long time, and I’m pleased to finally receive a good answer! May God bless you.

Comments are closed.