The Son with amnesia?

In an earlier post, I talked about the challenges and the importance of talking about the Doctrine of God. I mentioned the controversy around the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Eternal Functional Subordination debate. Over the next few posts, I want to talk in a little more detail about this.  My personal view is that there is more room for reconciliation between its opponents and its proponents than has been presumed because I think they are trying to talk about slightly different things.

To understand the issue we need to go to Scripture as it really starts with an exegetical issue as people have spent time wrestling with things Jesus says about his relationship to the Father in John’s gospel. Here is Jesus speaking in John 5.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father[e] does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”[1]

In these verses, we see a son who is in some way dependent on his Father.  He cannot do anything of his own accord, but rather what his Father shows him to do.  The Son also has authority to do things such as judge and to raise the dead which the Father gives to him.

Arians looked at passages like this and said “look, the Son is subordinate to the Father. This means that he cannot be fully God but is a creature, made by God and dependent upon him, even if very powerful.”  This is the original use of “Subordinationism.” WE know from John 1:1 that this is completely unacceptable. The Son (Word) was with God and the Son (Word) was God. 

So how do we handle passages like this.  Well, what quite a few people have done is to say “This is purely referring to Jesus in his incarnation.”  The Son in eternity has the ability and authority to judge and to give life. Here on earth, the Son with regards to his human nature is dependent upon the Father.

However, that is itself problematic.  You see, first of all, this begins to sound like the Son has amnesia. The human bit of him has caused the divine bit of him to forget everything he knew in eternity before the incarnation.  Some people have taught that this happened. That the son emptied himself of all his divine qualities, powers and memories when he came to earth. This is known as kenosis theory and is generally rejected by orthodox theologians.  We prefer to talk not about God the Son changing and diminishing himself in some way by losing something of his divine nature but of him taking a human nature to himself. He remains fully God during the incarnation.   So, the idea that he in some way needs to be shown again what he already knew in eternity is problematic.

Secondly, we sometimes talk about the Immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity. The Economic Trinity refers to what we see of God’s work here in time and space. This is God revealed to us. The Immanent Trinity describes the eternal, inner workings of the Trinity, the relationships between the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. We have to be careful with this. We could end up with the idea that there is a Trinity which is known to us but is very different to the true Trinity. God them becomes someone that we cannot really know. The true God is seen putting on a mask and taking part in a play which is very different to the life he really enjoys.

So, again, we want to insist that the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity. If we want to know God then we need to allow him to reveal who he is to us. The big deal about The Son coming in terms of revelation is that he reveals the Father. We now know why we can call God “Father.”

This means that when Jesus talks about his relationship to his Father in John’s gospel. We cannot assume that he is simply talking about his earthly experience.  There are eternal implications to what he says. It doesn’t mean that we have an exhaustive revelation of the Son’s relationship to the Father but we do have a true one.


[1] John 5:19-24.

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