This is the final of a miniseries from Andrew Moody & Mark Baddeley responding to the current debate on trinitarian relations. See part 1, part 2part 3 and part 4.

In this final post, I’m going to give a brief introduction to how the obedience of the Son functions in Athanasius’ thought. As we’ll see, Athanasius does envisage some analogy between this and human relationships — but he understands it in light of eternal begetting, and the unity of the Godhead.

The Father Always Gives in and Through the Son

Athanasius sees eternal begetting as the model for how the Father and Son act.

… since He is God’s Word and own Wisdom, and being His Radiance…therefore it is impossible, if the Father bestows grace, that He should not give it in the Son, for the Son is in the Father as the radiance in the light. For, not as if in need, but as a Father in His own Wisdom hath God rounded the earth, and made all things in the Word which is from Him, and in the Son confirms the Holy Laver. For where the Father is, there is the Son, and where the light, there the radiance; and as what the Father worketh, He worketh through the Son, and the Lord Himself says, ‘What I see the Father do, that do I also;’ …And again as when the sun shines, one might say that the radiance illuminates, for the light is one and indivisible, nor can be detached….
(Against the Arians 2.18.41)

Athanasius’ language allows for no qualifications. It is ‘impossible’ for the Father to give grace except by giving it in the Son. This is not due to a lack in the Father, but simply because he acts always as Father and so therefore always works ‘in the Word which is from Him.’ Begetting, like the sun and its radiance, means that the Son’s actions flow out of the Father, even as the Son is from Father in his own person. John 5:19 – ‘What I see the Father do, that do I also,’ – is true beyond the incarnation. The Father always gives through the Son, and the Son always does what he sees the Father do. The unity of the Godhead is thus upheld by grasping the implications of the eternal begetting of the Son, not by conceiving a unity apart from that relationship.

For if there were no unity, nor the Word the own Offspring of the Father’s Essence, as the radiance of the light, but the Son were divided in nature from the Father, it were sufficient that the Father alone should give, since none of originate things is a partner with his Maker in His givings; but, as it is, such a mode of giving shews the oneness of the Father and the Son. No one, for instance, would pray to receive from God and the Angels, or from any other creature, nor would any one say, ‘May God and the Angel give thee; ‘but from Father and the Son, because of Their oneness and the oneness of Their giving. For through the Son is given what is given; and there is nothing but the Father operates it through the Son; for thus is grace secure to him who receives it. (Against the Arians 3.25.12)

It is precisely because the Son is begotten from the Father that the works of the Father and the Son are one and not two. The Father only operates through the Son and it is always through the Son that the Father gives what he gives. Thus, it is that Athanasius can link ‘Their oneness and the oneness of Their giving.’ The begetting of the Son by the Father is the ground of the Father operating always through the Son. Thus, for Athanasius there is a fundamental coherence of person and work, act and being, so that the indivisibility of the Son and Father is seen as much in the operations of God as in the relationships of origin. They are one, and they act as one, both as a consequence of the eternal begetting.

In this context, Athanasius regularly uses language that suggests that the Son does the Father’s will, ‘All places the light hath given me to enlighten, and I do not enlighten from myself, but as the light wills….’[1]

The Role of the Obedience of the Son

Comments like this are not uncommon in Athanasius. Moreover, if he had problems with using ‘doing the Father’s will’ type language to describe the eternal relationship of Father and Son, it is highly unlikely that he would use it without very careful qualification, or without making it clear that it referred only to the incarnation. His opponents – those arguing for the Son’s fundamental inequality to the Father – would often highlight the Son’s obedience as evidence for their case. And yet, to my knowledge, there are no examples of Athanasius arguing that the Son’s obedience to the Father is due to his incarnation in order to safeguard the Son’s equality to the Father. Instead, he regularly takes ‘subordinationist’ type Scriptures and explains them in light of the eternal relationship.

He is even happy to use obedience language himself:

God gives the command thus: ‘Let us make man,’ and ‘let the green herb come forth.’ By which God is proved to be speaking about them to some one at hand: it follows then that some one was with Him to Whom He spoke when He made all things. Who then could it be, save His Word? For to whom could God be said to speak, except His Word? Or who was with Him when He made all created existence, except His Wisdom, which says: ‘When He was making the heaven and the earth I was present with Him?’ But in the mention of heaven and earth, all created things in heaven and earth are included as well. But being present with Him as His Wisdom and His Word, looking at the Father He fashioned the Universe, and organised it and gave it order; and, as He is the power of the Father, He gave all things strength to be, as the Saviour says: ‘What things soever I see the Father doing, I also do in like manner.’ (Against the Gentiles, 46)

Here Athanasius interprets God’s speech in Genesis 1 of ‘let us create’ in light of Jn 5:19. He thus is quite explicit that God is giving a command to the Word, is using ‘the imperative mood,’ ‘giving a command.’ Athanasius sees this language as referring to the normal conditions of the relationship between God and his Word – not simply the incarnation. This is a picture of the eternal relationship of Father and Son, and Athanasius is willing to say that the Father commands the Son.

Athanasius the Radical Complementarian

There is even one location where Athanasius comes very close to touching on the issues involved in the contemporary debate, even down to drawing a link between gender relationships and the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. Discussing scriptural terms which seem to indicate the Son’s inequality, Athanasius contends that it is the underlying ontology that is important:

[F]athers often call the sons born of them their servants, yet without denying the genuineness of their nature; and often they affectionately call their own servants children, yet without putting out of sight their purchase of them originally; for they use the one appellation from their authority as being fathers, but in the other they speak from affection. Thus Sara called Abraham lord, though not a servant but a wife; … Bathsheba, although mother, called her son servant [1Ki 1:20, c.f. 26] … while David heard it, he recognised the [unity of] ‘nature,’ and while they spoke it, they forgot not the ‘genuineness,’ praying that he might be made his father’s heir, to whom they gave the name of servant; for to David he was son by nature. 

As then, when we read this, we interpret it fairly, without accounting Solomon a servant because we hear him so called, but a son natural and genuine, so also, if, concerning the Saviour, who is confessed to be in truth the Son, and to be the Word by nature, the saints say, ‘Who was faithful to Him that made Him,’ or if He say of Himself, ‘The Lord created me,’ and, ‘I am Thy servant and the Son of Thine handmaid,’ and the like, let not any on this account deny that He is proper to the Father and from Him; but, as in the case of Solomon and David, let them have a right idea of the Father and the Son….For as Solomon, though a son, is called a servant, so, to repeat what was said above, although parents call the sons springing from themselves ‘made’ and ‘created’ and ‘becoming,’ for all this they do not deny their nature.
(Against the Arians 2.14.3-4)

Again, this passage shows us that Athanasius considers realities more important than words. The Son is essentially/naturally God’s Son, and so words such as ‘begetting’ must be interpreted in light of (and without contradicting) that. Fathers can call their sons ‘servants’ and masters can call their servants ‘sons’. Neither attribution is incorrect. Affectionately calling a servant ‘son’ does not magically transform the servant into a natural child. Calling a natural son ‘servant’ doesn’t stop him being a son.

Yet, significantly, in light of the modern debate, Athanasius seems to view authority as concomitant with fatherhood. This is this point of contact that enables the analogous overlap of ‘servant’ and ‘son’ terminology. Sons and servants are both under the authority of the father/master – and, when he is a good father, both are the objects of his affection.

Athanasius applies the same logic to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah calls Abraham ‘lord’, though she is a wife and not a servant. Yet, for Athanasius, wives and servants are both in analogous relationship to the husband/master. Both are under the husband’s/master’s authority but in very different ways – one as a wife, the other as a servant. Wives and husbands, sons and fathers, can all be referred to in ways that highlight the authority of the husband and father because this quality is integral to the relationships behind that terminology.

Passages like this should caution us from saying too quickly that there are no implications for our social relationships from the Trinity. Athanasius reminds us that there are analogous connections that allow us to speak of divine and human reality with the same words – without eradicating the vast difference. While some naively imagine that God is like us, and others protest that there is nothing in the Trinity that can be compared with human relationships, Athanasius shows us a third way. There are points of analogy, and these should inform our thinking.

Athanasius’ Rejection of the Father Commanding the Son

So where does that leave us? Is this simply a subtle way to show that Athanasius really hasn’t grasped the importance of the one will in the Godhead after all? No, it’s more complicated than that. Let’s return one last time to the weird world of patristic thought:

…God said, as Moses relates, ‘Let there be light,’… And He spoke, not that, as in the case of men, some under-worker might hear, and learning the will of Him who spoke might go away and do it; for this is what is proper to creatures, but it is unseemly so to think or speak of the Word. For the Word of God is Framer and Maker, and He is the Father’s Will. Hence it is that divine Scripture says not that one heard and answered, as to the manner or nature of the things which He wished made; but God only said, ‘Let it become,’ and he adds, ‘And it became;’ for what He thought good and counselled, that forthwith the Word began to do and to finish. For when God commands others, whether the Angels, or converses with Moses, or commands Abraham, then the hearer answers…For each of these has the Mediator Word, and the Wisdom of God which makes known the will of the Father. But when that Word Himself works and creates, then there is no questioning and answer, for the Father is in Him and the Word in the Father; but it suffices to will, and the work is done. (Against the Arians 2.18.31)

With this quote we see how resistant Athanasius’ thought is to all attempts—egalitarian or otherwise—to ground human relationships of equality and authority in the relationships between the Son and the Father. The Trinity could never be Athanasius’ social project. The Son is the Word and Will of the Father because he is the true, begotten, Son of the Father. He does not obey a will of the Father external to him – he himself is the will of the Father. This relationship of the two persons is unique to the Godhead and so cannot be a model for human-divine relationships, nor human-human relationships. There is no ‘question and answer’ between the Father and the Son, nor does the Father speak to the Son – else the Father would have a word prior to his Word. At this point, egalitarian and hierarchical appeals to the Trinity as a social model founder on Athanasius’ ‘eternally begotten of the Father’.

Yet, there is still a clear order to the relationships of operation that reflects the relationships of origin. The Son is the Will of the Father, not the Father the Will of the Son, or the Son the Will of the Godhead. It is the Word who mediates the Father’s will. Consequently, there is a clear move from Father to Son in the order of how the Godhead works. It is the Father who thought what was good and counselled, and it is the Word that ‘forthwith’ does it. There is a clear asymmetry and order with the works beginning with the Father’s will and being accomplished by the Word.


The point of all this isn’t to argue that obedience language is highly important or common in Athanasius. But when he does use it, it is consistent with how he understands the connections between the operations of the Godhead, specifically, the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father. Athanasius does see analogies between the Father’s authority over his Son and a husband’s authority over his wife, just as he sees analogies between the Father’s begetting of the Son, and human procreation as well as a fountain and a river, a light and its radiance, and a root and a tree. He is willing to speak of the Father commanding the Son and to see that as describing things beyond the incarnation.

The Trinity cannot be our social project. God is too different. And yet, if we begin with the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, rather than abstract and monistic views of the unity of the Godhead or relationships of obedience and authority patterned on master-subordinate relationships, then the theology of the Nicene Creed does point us in a particular direction.

Then we see the Father and Son as truly Father and Son. We also see how their personal natures line up with their operations in creation and redemption. We see how the Father’s actions are characterised by his love for the Son; how the Son always acts in line with the Father’s will. Obedience and authority language can be suitable analogies to describe this relationship, but these must be understood as pointing to the transmission of will from the Father to the Son. And the obedience of the man Jesus, while a genuinely human obedience, also functions as a signpost to a reality that is eternal—the Son’s ordered equality with the Father.

Photo: Charles R. Peterson, flickr

[1] For thus the blessing was secure, because of the Son’s indivisibility from the Father, and for that the grace given by Them is one and the same. For though the Father gives it, through the Son is the gift; and though the Son be said to vouchsafe it, it is the Father who supplies it through and in the Son; for ‘I thank my God,’ says the Apostle writing to the Corinthians, ‘always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given yon in Christ Jesus.’ And this one may see in the instance of light and radiance; for what the light enlightens, that the radiance irradiates; and what the radiance irradiates, from the light is its enlightenment. So also when the Son is beheld, so is the Father, for He is the Father’s radiance; and thus the Father and the Son are one. (Against the Arians 3.27.36)