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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.

  1. andrewlp
    February 17, 2010 at 1:26 am

    I like Barth and Balthasar’s insistence that Trinitarian theology needs to stay close to the scriptural account of the distinctness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, along with their argument that this revelation tells us not only something about how God appears but also about the way God is *in se.*

    And yet, I wonder whether an emphasis on obedience is in its own way still too abstract. The danger seems to be that the Son’s eternal and temporal relationship to the Father can be so strongly identified with this one trait that it becomes the key quality for Christian life as a whole, in whatever context–that is, obedience to the will of the Father, in some degree of abstraction from a consideration of the content of this will, comes to be the primary marker of Christian identity, while the question of content is deemphasized or subordinated. Barth and Balthasar will assert: the Son reveals divine love, but for them love means obedience to the will of the Father. This is who the Son is. But is not the life of the Son motivated *primarily* by love and only, at a moment of agony, by obedience?

    The emphasis on obedience may have the authority of certain statements in Scripture (especially John) and Tradition (especially Maximus and Ignatius) to back it up. But it also displays a certain affinity to Kant (which is probably not merely coincidental in a German intellectual culture).

    I suppose my gut reaction to these approaches is just that, although obedience is necessary in some crucial moments, it’s not the point. The answer to “cur Deus homo?” is not “obedientia.” It’s the love of humanity–and this is primarily what Christians should be imitating in Christ. Love, not submission, is the meaning of the Trinity.

  2. Todd Walatka
    February 17, 2010 at 8:25 am

    “Barth and Balthasar will assert: the Son reveals divine love, but for them love means obedience to the will of the Father.”

    I don’t think this is quite right. Love does not simply mean obedience as if what Jesus does is not integral to the revelation of God’s love. Jesus reveals the love of God for us but in the particularly mode of being of the Son (an obediental mode). The whole movitavation of God is love (For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…). Thus, we see the love of God in Jesus Christ but this is configured in a Trinitarian way: the Father who sends the Son; the Son who carries out the mission given to him; the Holy Spirit who medaites the Father’s will and brings us into the Son’s existence. All of this is one grand act of love through and through. What Barth and Balthasar claim is that we must be willing to let the obediential love of Jesus towards the Father to shape our understanding of the very life of God as love.

    “But is not the life of the Son motivated *primarily* by love and only, at a moment of agony, by obedience?”

    Yes, we must say that the primary motivation is love. This affirmation is absolutely central for Balthasar (recall his debate with Moltmann over the need to affirm that creation orignated out of pure love and not a sense of necessity). When Balthasar outlines the five essential components of any theology of the cross, he concludes that the entire act of God is motivated by love. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can move obedience to only the moment of agony. This is surely its clearest manifestation. But we also have the baptism and temptations and the passages of Jesus “being sent” (John, but also Phil. 2, Matt 10:41 and others).

    “I suppose my gut reaction to these approaches is just that, although obedience is necessary in some crucial moments, it’s not the point. The answer to “cur Deus homo?” is not “obedientia.” It’s the love of humanity–and this is primarily what Christians should be imitating in Christ. Love, not submission, is the meaning of the Trinity.”

    Cur Deus Homo? Simply love. But what does this love look like? It is free and kenotic. Jesus is lowly, humiliated, and obedient. Jesus enters into absolute solidarity with the lowly and the sinner “pro nobis” – out of love and for our salvation. Love, and not submission is the ultimate meaning of the Trinity. But Balthasar would argue that what we see revealed in Christ is that this love is essentially configured by self-gift, self-surrender, and thanksgiving.

  3. February 17, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for this. I worry about this emphasis, as for a lot of the patristics, this always butts up against ontological subordination. In class, I tend to use Augustine’s version more often, as this gets around the subordination problem, while opening up problems for the HS. So it goes.

  4. andrewlp
    February 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Todd, I think this helps to clarify things. It seems true that for both Barth and Balthasar, the Trinitarian economy of salvation as a whole is motivated by divine love for humanity. And I don’t think I expressed this fairly enough in my last comment.

    Your question: “But what does this love look like?” seems to be the crucial one. To rephrase my concern: regarding the Son’s mode of love in particular, I don’t think it looks primarily like obedience. This is not what sonship seems to mean for the evangelists. There is probably room in a new Adam Christology for emphasizing obedience, as a reversal of the old Adam’s sin. And that’s fine. But the gospel theme of the Father’s sending of the Son is intended to accentuate Jesus’ divine authority, and his proximity to the Father. The point is that Jesus’ love is from above, and not that it is essentially a matter of obedience. Jesus’ words and actions come from the Father. But what is Jesus’ motivation? With very few exceptions, the motivation seems to be love for the other and not obligation to a duty.

    The Son’s love certainly involves freedom and kenosis, self-gift, self-surrender, and thanksgiving. But it’s essence seems to be this: living, and if need be dying, for the other. Jesus heals, restores sight, feeds, exorcises, sets free, brings back to life, forgives, and suffers humiliation and torture for our sake. To speak of all of this as obedience seems in some ways beside the point. Of course, in some sense it is obedience. And it’s certainly not disobedience! My only point is that this isn’t even really the conversation that the gospels are having. Jesus loves in all these ways with divine authority behind him. He loves as one empowered by God. And I think this is what Christians are called to imitate in their role as sons and daughters in Christ.

    Obedience, when recommended as the core of Christian life, too easily gets abstracted from the concrete forms of divinely authorized self-giving love which are really the point of the Son’s mission.

    • Todd Walatka
      February 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm

      I clearly emphasized obedience and not love in my original post (I didn’t mention love in the 2nd paragraph!) so your critiques are quite helpful and broaden the conversation. I was trying to draw out one particular challenge made by Barth and Balthasar (although perhaps not clearly enough): How would we concretely characterize Jesus vis-à-vis the Father? We see in Jesus a person of profound faith (Heb. 12:2), trust and obedience – and, of course, all of this illustrates Jesus’ love for the Father. Balthasar and Barth then challenge us to see “mode of being” of Jesus towards the Father as revelatory of the eternal relationship of the Father and Son. This is the principle point I was making.

      However, in another sense, we could say that the “mode of being” of Jesus is mercy. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who responds with mercy to those in need. Or we could say that Jesus’ “mode of being” is self-surrendering, forgiving love. We could expand such a list. Each of these is true and in both Jesus reveals the love of God for us. In his poverty, humiliation, passion, and death, Jesus shows us the extent to which God goes for our sake. And these are not secondary to obedience with the Son’s mission; the revelation of God’s love and the redemption of humanity is the very purpose of the kenosis of the Son (in the terms of the Theo-Drama, we would never want to down play the dramatic, reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ by focusing on his obedience). But it should still be noted that “mercy” and “love” are not particular to Son in comparison with the Father. They are essential to the mission of the Son but not particular to the Son within the Trinity.

  5. andrewlp
    February 17, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    All that being said, I don’t mean to suggest that doing the will of the Father isn’t important! It’s the most important thing. But that’s because of what this will includes (concrete, self-giving love), not because obedience itself (in abstraction) is what life is all about.

    • Cass
      February 17, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      Andrew, I wonder if it would help at all to see obedience as a matter not merely of submitting, but equally of listening. The etymology supports this.
      The one who listens to the Father is able to submit to His will, but is also able to know and love the Father for Himself, for His own goodness and loveliness. The one who listens to and knows the Father and responds in with an act of love and acceptance also becomes like the Father, images that goodness and loveliness forth for others to see.
      One instance of obedience in the gospel I didn’t notice mentioned above is Jesus at the Samaritan well, saying, “I have food to eat whereof you know not, to do the Father’s will is my food.” What if that were a listening obedience? What if that listening (in a spirit of willing submission) was a way filling oneself with the Father’s own being?
      What if that were to be “the primary marker of Christian identity”?
      Seems to end at nearly the same place that you end, but also enables obedience to remain at the fore.

      • Cass
        February 17, 2010 at 3:20 pm

        It also happens to work nicely with “This is my well-beloved son. Listen to Him.”

  6. andrewlp
    February 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Thanks Todd. Yeah, I see your point: if the question is, “who is the Son viz. the Father?” then the answer may look different than if the question is simply, “who is the Son?”

    Cass, I’m familiar with the etymology of obedience as listening, which to our modern ears may make it seem more welcome, but I still think I’d like to emphasize something other than obedience when thinking about what sonship means.

    • Todd Walatka
      February 18, 2010 at 7:43 pm


      As I have thought more about this, I think that there is something very right about Barth and Balthasar provocation. If we are serious about Jesus as the revelation of God, then central aspects of Jesus’ relation to the Father should be seen as revelatory of the relationship between Father and Son. Nevertheless, I think you are right in your critique. Love has to always be first and foremost. It terms of the mission of the Son, obedience for the sake of obedience simply cannot be primary. The Son condescends out of love of humanity and in order to draw us back to God even including the humiliation of the cross. If love is not the first and last word in our understanding of the the Incarnation and the Cross, then an emphasis on obedience can have major problems. It can lead to a sense of the Father-Son relationship as one of pure power and submission rather than mutual love. Balthasar emphasizes the latter a great deal in his account of Trinity but when we get to the cross, he emphasis shifts strongly towards pure (even senseless?) obedience. Here we perhaps have a loss of balance even if obedience is so strongly emphasized in the Garden within the passion stories.

  1. March 1, 2010 at 6:57 am

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