The Obedience of the Son
We find various images for the Triunity of God throughout the Tradition. Many are biblical and liturgical (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and other are not (root, tree, fruit). Each image tries to make sense of how we can affirm threeness and oneness at the same time, generally emphasizing the three (lover, loved, love) or the one (memory, understanding, will). One dominant modern image for the Trinity is a communion of persons, with an emphasis on the positivity of otherness and the inherently social character of a “person.” But on what grounds do we construct such images, especially ones which go beyond a general attempt to bring together “three” and “one”? In particular, how are we to conceive of the relations between the three persons? At the most formal level, the Trinitarian relations are known only through the economy of salvation. Philosophical reflection may be integral to Trinitarian theology, but the ultimate foundation is God’s self-communication in creation, covenant, and Jesus Christ.
I would like to explore one way of moving beyond this formal level; a provocative way taken by (later) Barth and Balthasar. Both argue that the ultimate ground for Trinitarian theology is the concrete relationship between Jesus and the Father as it is depicted in the New Testament. Both further claim that the fundamental characteristic of this relationship is obedience. Balthasar again and again says that the New Testament (particularly John but not exclusively) depicts Jesus as the one who is sent by the Father and who does the Father’s will. This shows us who he is. Bringing together Maximus the Confessor and Ignatius of Loyola, the Son’s very “mode of being” is this receptivity to the will of the Father and the mission given to him. Barth is particularly insistent that we must see Jesus’ obedience as revelatory of the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son: to ascribe the obedience of the Son exclusively to his “mode of appearance” in the economy would be a form of modalism. Barth and Balthasar push this point quite far. Barth will go so far as describe this as a relationship of “superiority” and a “subordination,” while at the same time affirming the equality of Father and Son. Balthasar uses the Son’s obedience as the jumping off point for his (sometimes quite imaginative) descriptions of the inner relations of the Trinity as mutual self-giving and self-surrender. And although Balthasar will be much more comfortable using human analogies and images to understand the Trinity, both of their theologies are ultimately grounded in the affirmation that God is truly revealed in the concrete existence of Jesus Christ.