Why Does Jesus Call the Father Greater If We Teach That the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?

blog5-23-2016Many of you know that I write the Question and Answer column for Our Sunday Visitor. Given the celebration of Trinity Sunday this past Sunday, I thought I might reproduce here on the blog a question/answer regarding the Trinity. It is a fairly common question; perhaps you have it, too. Remember that my answers in the column are required to be brief.

We read in a recent Sunday Gospel (May 1, 2016) that Jesus says that the Father is greater than He (Jn 14:28). Since we are all taught that each Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity fully possesses the nature of God, equally to be adored and glorified, what did Jesus mean by such a statement?” – Dick Smith, Carrolton, TX.

Theologically, Jesus means that the Father is the eternal source in the Trinity. All three persons of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine. But the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Source in the Deity).

Hence, Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity. He is eternally begotten of the Father. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I delight that the Father is the eternal principle or source of my being, even though I have no origin in time.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father; He’s crazy about Him. He is always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He says (in effect), “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

So although the members of the Trinity are all equal in dignity, there are processions in the Trinity, such that the Father is the source, the Son eternally proceeds from Him (Jn 8:42), and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principal (Jn 15:26).

St Thomas speaks poetically of the Trinity as follows:

Genitori, Genitoque … Procedenti ab utroque … compar sit laudautio

(To the One Who Begets, and to the Begotton One, and to the One who proceeds from them both, be equal praise.)

The Athanasian Creed says the following regarding these processions:

The Father is made by none, neither created nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone, neither made nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, not made, nor created, nor begotten, but he proceeds from them.

So although equal, processions do have an order. The Father is “greater” (as source), but is equal in dignity to Son and Holy Spirit.

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6 Replies to “Why Does Jesus Call the Father Greater If We Teach That the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?”

  1. This is a mystery within the mystery of The Holy TRINITY. Thanks for approaching it, yet I believe there is still more into the mystery that the Sacred Scriptures says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” which I believe includes the revelation of what truly is The Holy TRINITY. It must be overwhelming, awesome, and infinitely profound and I guess that revelation alone will infinitely lift us up into a greatest of love and union with GOD. YHWH ELOHIM

  2. Monsignor Pope, I love the writings and things you do to strengthen our faith. How beautiful today was and how blessed I feel to have taken the time to open and settle down to read and think and then hear the magnificent “Holy, Holy, Holy” so beautifully done. I know God loves this to and is surely blessing you beyond imagination. Thank you for the time you spend with those of us who need these lessons and strengthening of faith.
    I do so hope we are related!
    Blessings and peace Monsignor

  3. Monsignor, thank you for this writing: it does help: I do have a question I have often wondered about. I remember reading, a long time ago, about the split with the Eastern Orthodox and that it stemmed from differences about the way the Trinity is perceived, or explained: that it had to do with – ok I just went to WikiWand and read up on it: something about how to them, the Spirit proceeds from the Father only, not the Son: all of that: although Everything about The Holy Trinity is hard to comprehend, almost equally so to me is how this caused the split: is this so, is this what caused the original division ? What occurred for this difference in theology to happen in the first place ?
    Perhaps you have already addressed a lot about the Eastern, Orthodox, Latin/Roman differences and I have not been reading your blog long enough to pick up on it: do you know a good, easy(ish) book for me to read that would explain some of this – ? With all the terrible divisions in the world, my hope is that more could unite us than divide us, at this point, and I fail to understand so much !

    1. You likely refer to the filioque controversy. The Nicene Creed was amended to say that the Holy Sprit proceeds from the Father AND the Son. The offended the East not so much because they do not believe this but more that a significant Change was made without the Eastern Bishops present.

  4. Myself, I find St. Augustine’s answer to this question both more satisfying and more comprehensive, from Book I of On the Holy Trinity:

    “Chapter 7.— In What Manner the Son is Less Than the Father, and Than Himself.

    14. In these and like testimonies of the divine Scriptures, by free use of which, as I have said, our predecessors exploded such sophistries or errors of the heretics, the unity and equality of the Trinity are intimated to our faith. But because, on account of the incarnation of the Word of God for the working out of our salvation, that the man Christ Jesus might be the Mediator between God and men, many things are so said in the sacred books as to signify, or even most expressly declare, the Father to be greater than the Son; men have erred through a want of careful examination or consideration of the whole tenor of the Scriptures, and have endeavored to transfer those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation, and is eternal. They say, for instance, that the Son is less than the Father, because it is written that the Lord Himself said, “My Father is greater than I.” But the truth shows that after the same sense the Son is less also than Himself; for how was He not made less also than Himself, who “emptied Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant?” For He did not so take the form of a servant as that He should lose the form of God, in which He was equal to the Father. If, then, the form of a servant was so taken that the form of God was not lost, since both in the form of a servant and in the form of God He Himself is the same only-begotten Son of God the Father, in the form of God equal to the Father, in the form of a servant the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; is there any one who cannot perceive that He Himself in the form of God is also greater than Himself, but yet likewise in the form of a servant less than Himself? And not, therefore, without cause the Scripture says both the one and the other, both that the Son is equal to the Father, and that the Father is greater than the Son. For there is no confusion when the former is understood as on account of the form of God, and the latter as on account of the form of a servant. And, in truth, this rule for clearing the question through all the sacred Scriptures is set forth in one chapter of an epistle of the Apostle Paul, where this distinction is commended to us plainly enough. For he says, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and was found in fashion as a man.” The Son of God, then, is equal to God the Father in nature, but less in “fashion.” For in the form of a servant which He took He is less than the Father; but in the form of God, in which also He was before He took the form of a servant, He is equal to the Father. In the form of God He is the Word, “by whom all things are made;” but in the form of a servant He was “made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.” In like manner, in the form of God He made man; in the form of a servant He was made man. For if the Father alone had made man without the Son, it would not have been written, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Therefore, because the form of God took the form of a servant, both is God and both is man; but both God, on account of God who takes; and both man, on account of man who is taken. For neither by that taking is the one of them turned and changed into the other: the Divinity is not changed into the creature, so as to cease to be Divinity; nor the creature into Divinity, so as to cease to be creature.”

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