Why Does Jesus Say That the Father Is Greater Than He If the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?

A common question arising around the time of Trinity Sunday is rooted in this passage from John’s Gospel:

If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28).

This is somewhat puzzling because we are taught that each Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity fully possesses the nature of God and is equally to be adored and glorified. What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, “the Father is greater than I”?

The most common (and correct) answer is that in this passage Jesus was speaking in reference to His human nature, in which He is inferior to the Father; in His divine nature He is equal to the Father. Many of the Church Fathers spoke in this way. For example,

    • St Augustine said, Let us acknowledge then the twofold substance of Christ, the divine, which is equal to the Father, and the human, which is inferior. But Christ is both together, not two, but one Christ: else the Godhead is a quaternity, not a Trinity. Wherefore He says, If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father; for human nature should exult at being thus taken up by the Only Begotten Word, and made immortal in heaven; at earth being raised to heaven, and dust sitting incorruptible at the right hand of the Father. Who, that loves Christ, will not rejoice at this, seeing, as he doth, his own nature immortal in Christ, and hoping that He Himself will be so by Christ (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at John 14:28).
    • Didymus the Blind said, When he says “greater” he indicates that his divinity can be equaled to the Father, since he is of the same substance as him, but the Father is greater because the Son accepted a body…The Son’s nature is understood to be less than that of the Father inasmuch as the Son became man (Fragments on John at 14).
    • Hilary of Poitiers said, By the birth of the Son the Father is constituted greater … in that the Son, born of the Father, after assuming an earthly body, is taken back to the glory of the Father (On the Trinity, 9:56).
    • Theodoret of Cyr had Jesus speak, saying, Sometimes therefore I, [Jesus] say that I am equal to the Father, and at other times say that the Father is greater than I. I am not contradicting myself, but I am showing that I am God and a human being … If you want to know how the Father is greater than I, I was talking from the flesh, not from the person of the Divinity (Dialogue 1:56).

Thus, the first answer is clear: As God, Jesus is equal to the Father, but as Man, He is inferior to the Father.

In a qualified way, however, it is also possible to speak of a particular greatness of the Father even within the Trinity. While all three persons of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Source in the Deity). So, although the members of the Trinity are all equal in dignity, there are processions in the Trinity. The Father is the Principium, the Son eternally proceeds from Him and is eternally begotten by Him (Jn 8:42); the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principal (Jn 15:26).

Thus, even from the perspective of His divinity it is possible for Jesus to say, “I delight that the Father is the eternal principal of my being. Even though I have no origin in time, I do eternally proceed from Him.”

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.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks poetically of the Trinity in the familiar hymn “Tantum Ergo”:

Genitori, Genitoque … Procedenti ab utroque … compar sit laudautio.
(To the One Who Begets, and to the Begotten One, and to the One who proceeds from them both, be equal praise.)

So, although the Persons of the Trinity are equal, the processions within the Trinity do have an order. The Father is “greater” in the very qualified sense that He is the Principium Deitatis, the Principal of the Deity, but is co-eternal and equal in dignity to the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Devotionally, Jesus may also be speaking of the Father as greater in the sense 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,” Jesus 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). As God, we share one will; as human, my human will and His will are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

5 Replies to “Why Does Jesus Say That the Father Is Greater Than He If the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?”

  1. Somewhere, I’m sure you have covered this before but why is the Orthodox church so adamant in their insistence that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone?
    The fastest way to get an Orthodox theologian fired up is say one word: Filioque

  2. Jesus says that they should rejoice BECAUSE the Father is greater than Jesus. This seems to lead to at least three questions.

    First, what does this excess of greatness in the Father consist of?

    Second, why should Jesus going to the Father cause them to rejoice?

    Third, if, in answer to the second question, it is proposed that “nearness to excess greatness should cause them to rejoice”, is this because it is always good to be near what is greater than oneself? Or is it because Jesus is near to the Father, and something about nearness to the Father in particular is cause for rejoicing? Or is it some other reason? Or is it for more than one reason?

    It seems that Jesus’ going to the Father brings some benefit that would not otherwise occur were Jesus not going to the Father–else, they should not rejoice for Jesus going there. What is that benefit? Is it that Jesus and the Father will send the Holy Spirit? Is it the glorification of Jesus? Is it some other thing? Is it some good to Jesus, or to us? Both? Is it several things?

    We can speculate, perhaps profitably, about the answers to these questions. But the questions, and their potential profit, would seem to depend fundamentally upon taking at face value Jesus’ assertion that the Father is greater than Jesus, and that this difference in greatness is something about which there should be cause for rejoicing when Jesus goes to the Father. The equality of the members of the Trinity, typically explained by reference to equality of substance, cannot be allowed to obscure the teaching of Jesus that the Father is greater than Jesus. Rather, the two teachings must be explained so as to complement each other.

    It is sometimes proposed that the hypostatic union of Man and God in Jesus makes Jesus somehow “less” than the Father as follows: 1. Jesus is both God and Man by nature. 2. Man’s nature is less than God’s nature. 3. The combination of an inferior nature with a superior one in Jesus makes Jesus less great than God.

    This logic seems to be questionable from the standpoint of the consideration that Jesus’ divine nature would, one would think, ennoble man; but man’s nature would not be able to cause any detriment to the greatness of God’s nature, which is unchangeable and eternal. Thus, the hypostatic union would only ennoble Man, but it would not denigrate God.

    One may perhaps grant this and still say that while the hypostatic union does not denigrate God’s nature, yet, it still makes the PERSON of Jesus less than God in the sense that what is purely God is greater than what is both Man and God. In other words, the denigration pertains to the PERSON of Jesus in comparison to the Father, and not as to the divine NATURE of Jesus in comparison to the nature of the Father.

    Still, it feels strange to consider the hypostatic union as being the basis upon which one judges Jesus to be LESS great than the Father, when the union is itself an act of surpassing greatness and merit that only brings MORE glory to God.

    Can Jesus, by His hypostatic union, become less than God and thus less than the Father, but nevertheless bring greater glory than ever to God by that union, and also cause rejoicing when Jesus goes to the Father?

    Perhaps. However, if it is simply the fact of the admixture of Man with God which makes the Person of Jesus less great than the Father, then, Jesus would also be less great than the Holy Spirit, which, like the Father, is also not hypostatically unified with Man.

    But it has never been suggested or taught that the Spirit is greater than Jesus, so far as I am aware. Therefore, it seems to me that the union of God and Man in Jesus is not a proper basis for understanding the correct sense of Jesus’ statement that the Father is greater than Jesus.

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