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The Apologists Bible Commentary
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|28||You heard that I said to you, ĎI go away, and I will come to you.í If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.|
|Commentary||Perhaps more than any other, this verse has been quoted by
non-Trinitarians as proof that Jesus could not be true God. In the
view of those denying the Trinity, if the Father is "greater"
than Jesus, Jesus must be teaching that He is ontologically inferior to
the Father. A careful consideration of this verse in context,
however, reveals that such a view in untenable.
As Jesus approaches the Cross, He begins to speak more plainly about leaving His disciples and returning to His Father. When the disciples display a self-centered - though natural - response, Jesus reproves them: "If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father." But why should they rejoice when Jesus goes to His Father? Is it because Jesus will be happier there? Or because He will be past His suffering on the Cross? These would be answers we might give a loved one who, upon hearing that we had a terminal illness, cried out, "But what will I do without you?" What we would certainly not say in such a circumstance is: "Rejoice for me that I'm going to God, because God is a superior being than I am." Such a remark would provide little comfort (since obviously God is superior to any created being) and instead would bespeak an intolerable hubris - as though we were so wonderful that our loved ones would actually confuse us for God Himself!. If Jesus' disciples understood Him to be a mere man, or a lesser divinity of some sort, as non-Trinitarians tell us, reprimanding them in this way would would seem almost a non-sequitor. "We know God is a greater being than you are, Master," the disciples could reasonably respond, "but why should we rejoice in such an obvious truth?"
The word translated "greater" (meizon) does not mean greater in the sense of a higher type of being, but rather greater in the sense of position or authority. This is the meaning cited by modern Greek lexicons, and is exampled by dozens of Biblical and extra-Biblical sources (see Grammatical Analysis, below). Jesus repeats the phrase, "A servant is not greater than his Master," twice in this same discourse (John 13:16; 15:20). The same Greek word (meizon) occurs in each of these verses. No one would suggest that a servant is a lesser being than his Master. A Master is "greater" than a servant because he occupies a position of greater status, dignity, and authority. If we let these other examples guide us, Jesus is saying that the Father is "greater" because the Father's position in Heaven is one of greater dignity and authority than the Son occupies on earth. This meaning, then, makes clear why the disciples should rejoice. The Son is returning to the right hand of the Father, to the glory He had with the Father before His existence on earth (John 17:5). He had voluntarily humbled Himself in coming to earth (Philippians 2:6), taking the form of a servant (doulos, the same word Jesus uses in John 13:16 and 15:20). Now Jesus was returning to the Father to regain His former glory, where He could accomplish all the wonderful things promised to the disciples in His final discourse. If the disciples had considered the import of Jesus' words, they would have realized the exaltation that awaited the Son, and would have rejoiced.
Thus, there is little contextual or lexical support for the idea that Jesus is teaching His ontological inferiority to the Father in this verse. He is speaking in the highest terms of the positional greatness of the Father - a position to which Jesus is soon to return, there to be an even greater blessing to the disciples and an assurance of their own paths to Heaven.
pathr meizwn mou estin
hOTI hO PAT R MEIZ‘N MOU ESTIN
for the Father is greater than I.
Grimm-Thayer, alone among modern lexicons, defines MEIZ‘N in such a way as to suggest ontology may be in view: "is used of those who surpass others ... in nature and power, as God: Jn. 10:29, 14:28; Heb. 6:13; 1 Jn. 4:4; add, Jn. 4:12; 8:53" (emphasis added). The question arises whether "nature" in this definition is meant to signify nature of being, as it is used in Trinitarian formulas, or whether it may have a lesser sense - in which case, Grimm-Thayer could then be taken to be in agreement with the other lexicons.
We would first note that in none of the verses cited by Grimm-Thayer does MEIZ‘N require the meaning "greater in nature;" on each occasion, the meaning "greater in power, authority, or character" yields a perfectly acceptable interpretation. We may also recall that Thayer translated the Grimm Greek-Latin lexicon into English. The word Thayer translated as "nature" is the Latin natura.
Definition of meizon in Grimm's Lexicon Graeco-Latinum in Libros Novi Testamenti'
citing John 14:28: "meizones dic. qui alios superant vel natura et poteste, ut deus"
It is unlikely that Grimm intended natura to mean "greater in ontological nature." Natura is defined by Lewis & Short as "natural constitution, property, disposition, inclination, temper, or character." Had Grimm intended an ontological meaning, he would probably have used somewhat stronger language, as he does elsewhere when speaking of the Divine Nature (1). To be absolutely clear, he could have used essentia, the Latin term for "nature of being, essence" used commonly in the historic Trinitarian creeds when speaking of the Divine Nature shared by Father and Son (2).
Moulton and Milligan list dozens of extra-Biblical Koine texts, all of which support the "greater in rank or position" definition of MEIZ‘N. For example, "MEIZ‘N is used in the sense of 'senior' in ostracon receipts...(A.D. 128 [and] A.D. 147).... The word is applied to one in authority, an official...(A.D. 270-275).... 'Occupying a position of highest ... rank and honour' - of a Roman Senator...(c. A.D. 150)." Not one example of ontological greatness is provided.
Thus, the lexical evidence is quite substantial that the meaning "greater in rank or position" is the correct meaning of MEIZ‘N.
|Other Views Considered||
The Watchtower and its defenders - notably Greg Stafford - have offered several arguments in favor of their view that Jesus is ontologically inferior to the Father.
objection: The Bible's position is clear. Not only is Almighty God, Jehovah, a personality separate from Jesus but He is at all times his superior. Jesus is always presented as separate and lesser, a humble servant of God. This is why the Bible plainly says that "the head of the Christ is God" in the same way that "the head of every man is Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:3) And this is why Jesus himself said: "The Father is greater than I." - John 14:28, RS Catholic edition (SYBT, p. 20).
Response: We should first emphasize that Trinitarians agree that the Father is "a personality separate from Jesus" and that He is "at all time his superior." The difference is that by "superior" Trinitarians mean "superior in rank or position," while the Watchtower means "superior in terms of essential being." As we have seen in the Commentary and Grammatical Analysis, above, the contextual and lexical evidence points strongly to the meaning "superior in rank and position." Regarding 1 Corinthians 11:3, we note that if the Watchtower views God the Father as ontologically superior to Christ "in the same way" that Christ is ontologically superior to every man, it must also accept that "in the same way" a husband is ontologically superior to his wife. Once again we see that context argues for a positional superiority - for according to Paul, God's plan is one of order. The order is in terms of authority, not essential being. The husband is "head" of his wife in terms of spiritual authority, just as God the Father is "head" of Christ in the same manner.
objection: Ron Rhodes attempts to discredit this statement's power by stating that Jesus was simply referring to his "human nature." Indeed, he refers to the Athanasian Creed which says that Christ is "equal to the Father as touching his Godhood and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood." If this were the case (that Christ was simply referring to his human nature in John 14:28) then what was the point of him telling this to his disciples? In other words, was it not rather obvious that Jehovah, the God of heaven, was greater than a man? (Stafford, p. 192).
Response: Rhodes does not exactly say that Jesus was "simply referring to 'his human nature.'" He says the following: "Jesus is not speaking about His nature or His essential being (Christ had earlier said, 'I and the Father are one' in this regard [John 10:30]), but rather about His lowly position in the incarnation" (Rhodes, p. 146). Rhodes says that Jesus is not referring to essential nature, but rather to "His lowly position." While the incarnation includes the Son's human nature, it also includes laying aside His divine prerogatives and assuming the role or position of a "slave" (Philippians 2:6). The distinction Rhodes draws is precisely the same as the one presented in the Commentary and Grammatical Analysis, above. The contextual and lexical evidence strongly supports Rhodes' argument.
Mr. Stafford's rhetorical question, "was it not rather obvious that Jehovah, the God of heaven, was greater than a man?" is rather odd, considering that Mr. Stafford (adhering to Watchtower theology) believes that Jesus was a mere man when on earth. Since Mr. Stafford would say that not only does Jesus have a human nature, but that this nature is Jesus' only nature, we may well ask him the question he poses to us: "If...Christ was simply referring to his human nature...then what was the point of him telling this to his disciples?" Mr. Stafford, perhaps, sees this verse as including Jesus' pre-human existence, but just as he points out that nowhere in the context does Jesus limit His words to His human nature, he must also recognize that nowhere in this context is Christ's pre-existence in view, either. And even if it were, the question still remains, what was the point of Jesus telling His disciples that the pre-existent Son was ontologically inferior to the Father? Was it not rather obvious that Jehovah, the God of heaven, was greater than a god, a created being?
objection: Was it not rather obvious that Jehovah, the God of heaven, was greater than a man? This is undoubtedly one reason why individuals such as Irenaeus, Justin, and Origen applied John 14:28 to the Logos (the pre-human Jesus), and not to the "Christ of history" (IBID, p. 192).
Response: Again, Rhodes is not arguing solely on the basis of Christ's human nature, but also (and primarily) that His position is inferior to the Father's. I would also point out that while I have argued - as has Rhodes - that Christ is speaking specifically about His inferior position while on earth, the orthodox understanding of the Trinity acknowledges an eternal relationship of Father and Son in the Godhead in which the Father is always superior to the Son in terms of rank, position, and authority. Thus, even if we understand Christ to be speaking of Himself as the "eternal Logos" in this verse, saying that the Father is greater than He is does not detract from the Trinity in any way.
Mr. Stafford's source for what Irenaeus, Justin, and Origen wrote is Phillip Schaff's History of Christianity. Schaff does not provide references for his comments about these early church fathers. If my computer search of Irenaeus is correct, his only reference to John 14:28 is in Against Heresies (II.28.8). But in this passage, Irenaeus is speaking specifically about the knowledge that the Father alone possesses, and says immediately after quoting John 14:28: "Therefore the Lord teaches that the Father is greater in knowledge than the Son." Thus, while Irenaeus is applying the Son's words to the eternal Logos, he is not necessarily using them to advocate the ontological superiority of the Father. Regardless of his use of John 14:28, the Christology of Irenaeus is essentially orthodox (cf., Against Heresies, II.30.9; IV.20.4; Book III.21.1; etc.). Schaff concludes: "All this plainly shows that Irenaeus is much nearer the Nicene dogma of the substantial identity of the Son with the Father than Justin and the Alexandrians (Schaff, p. 554).
It is true that Justin Martyr and Origen do teach an extreme subordination of the Son to the Father, yet both also are quite clear that the Father and the Son share the same nature (cf., Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho 128; and Origen, Commentary on John 2:2:16; 2:10:76; 19:2:6). This is no doubt why Schaff states: "[Justin] is therefore neither Arian nor Athanasian; but his whole theological tendency is towards the orthodox system, and had he lived later, he would have subscribed the Nicene Creed. The same may be said of Tertullian and Origin" (IBID, p. 550).
Thus, whether the fathers associated John 14:28 with the "eternal Logos," or with the "Christ of history," they did not understand this verse to teach an ontological inferiority of the Son. Instead, they understood that while the Son may be subordinated in terms of role or position, He nevertheless shared the same ontological nature with His Father. Only the Arians of the 4th Century put John 14:28 into service as a proof-text for Christ as a lesser divine being or mere man (cf., Eusebius of Caesarea, Letter to Euphration, 2.5; Eunomius, quoted by Gregory Nazianzus, Theological Orations III[XXXIX].18; Palladius, in a debate with Ambrose, Acts of Council 360.40; etc.; John 14:28 is "much used by the Arians from the beginning" [Hanson, p. 103]).
See Were Early Christians Trinitarians? for more detailed information on the teachings of the early church fathers.
objection: Rhodes also tries to weaken the force of the Greek word translated "greater" (meizon).... Rhodes gives meizon the meaning of "greater in regards to position," while he states that kreitton would mean "better in terms of nature." With the understanding Rhodes gives to the meaning of these two Greek words in mind, let us now consider the definitions offered in the Grimm-Thayer lexicon. We read on page 395 that meizon "is used of those who surpass others - either in nature and power, as God" (emphasis added). John 14:28 is then cited as an example of this definition.... So, then, according to the above lexicons Jesus, at John 14:28, affirmed that the Father was greater "in nature and power." Of course, entries in lexicons do not prove anything, except that other scholars recognize this as a legitimate meaning for meizon, while Rhodes gives the impression that such a meaning is not acceptable at all....Rhodes, following Martin's lead, has stripped meizon of any notion of a difference in nature and added the concept of a difference in nature to kreitton, when the reverse is likely true, all in order to protect his theology!" (IBID, pp. 192-194).
Response: Mr. Stafford is presenting a rather limited consideration of the lexical evidence available. As demonstrated in the Grammatical Analysis, above, the lexical evidence favors Rhodes' argument regarding meizon. Mr. Stafford suggests that the entry in Grimm-Thayer demonstrates that other scholars hold a view similar to his own, while Rhodes denies such a meaning is even possible. Actually, Rhodes does not deny such a meaning is possible, he simply maintains that meizon means "greater in rank or position" - a view for which for which there is ample evidence.
Despite the wealth of contrary evidence, Mr. Stafford bases his view of John 14:28 on Grimm-Thayer alone. But it is not at all clear that Grimm intended to offer a view congenial to Mr. Stafford's. As we have seen, Mr. Stafford may be reading more into Thayer's translation of natura than Grimm intended. Thayer, of course, may have believed that meizon connoted "greater in essence or nature of being," since he was no doubt aware how "nature" would be understood by his readers, and he seems to have had Unitarian leanings. But if his exemplar did not intend this meaning, it further isolates Thayer's definition from the other major lexical works. Thayer may also have simply rendered natura into English with the most reasonable translation, without regard to the theological implications apologists such as Mr. Stafford would derive from it.
As the preponderance of lexical evidence suggests, Rhodes has not "stripped meizon of any notion of a difference in nature." Rhodes is on very solid ground, here: Meizon means greater in rank or position, not essential nature. True, Mr. Stafford has Grimm-Thayer to support his view to a very limited extent, but since he consults BAGD with respect to kreitton in this very discussion, and since he lists Louw & Nida in his Bibliography, one can only conclude that Mr. Stafford is stacking the deck - offering his readers only the one small piece of evidence which supports his view and remaining silent about the substantial evidence that refutes it. To paraphrase Mr. Stafford: It is he, not Ron Rhodes, who has added the concept of difference in nature to meizon, when the reverse is likely true, all in order to protect his theology!
1. See, for example, theiotes (natura divina); alethinos (verum naturam et indolem); fusis (sanctitus divinae naturae propria). He is even clearer with theotes (deitas, status, quo aliquis est deus). Thayer's additional comments make the distinction between "essence" and "quality" obvious.
2. The common Trinitarian formula in the western Church was: "Una Subtantia (or Essentia), Tres Personae." Hilary specifically equates essentia and substantia (Liber de Synodis). Ambrose may have used natura in a theological sense, but with Augusine (De Trinitas, VII, 6) and Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, 39:3), the term essentia had become the preferred term defining the essential nature of God. Indeed, Augustine came to prefer it even to substantia. Thus, had Grimm wanted to ensure that his readers would understand meizon to mean greater in an ontological sense, he could have written vel essentia et potestate instead of vel natura et potestate.
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