In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God. This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: ”Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).
Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar). All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244). We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus. According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death. With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: ”Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183). Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).
This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244). Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209). Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.
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.