Swain, Scott and Michael Allen. “The Obedience of the Eternal Son,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 15, no. 2 (April 2013): 114-34.
Swain and Allen observe that in the last century numbers of theologians have argued that obedience is part of the Son’s proper work eternally in the external works of the Trinity. This observation includes not only evangelical theologians such as Grudem and Ware but also theologians such as Barth and von Balthasar.
Worryingly for Swain and Allen, “Affirming the obedience of the only-begotten Son has in many cases entailed significant revisions to classical trinitarian metaphysics” (115). They list as examples: “historicizing of the doctrine of God,” “metaphysics of trinitarian kenosis,” “replacing eternal generation with obedience as the Son’s distinguishing personal property,” and “social trinitarianism, which affirms three centers of self-consciousness and willing within the triune God.”
Swain and Allen wish to affirm “the claim that obedience constitutes the proper form of the Son’s divine work in the economy of salvation.” They wish to avoid adjusting “traditional trinitarian metaphysics” (116).
They therefore argue that rather than working from economy back to essence, one should work from essence toward economy: “mode of acting follows mode of being.” With this approach, “the Son’s obedience to the Father in the economy of salvation” is “the economic extension of his eternal generation.” It “constitutes the proper filial mode whereby he executes the Trinity’s undivided work of salvation” (117). The wording here seems significantly precise. The obedience of the Son is something economic, not essential. The work of salvation in which the Son is obedient to the Father is “the Trinity’s undivided work” (that is, there is single will in the Triune God). But the economy works out the way it does because it is grounded in an ontology in which the Father eternally generates the Son.
In the third section of their essay, Swain and Allen seek to ground their theology exegetically in John 1 and 5. Drawing on the exegesis of Thomas Aquinas, they argue that saying the Word is the one through whom the world is created is not an assertion that the Word is the instrument through which the Father created but is instead an assertion that “the Word performs the common trinitarian work of creation in a manner consistent with his distinctive mode of being” (122). This leads to the following thesis: “As the Son’s proper mode of being God consists in the pure relation wherein he receives his being from the Father, so the Son’s proper mode of acting as God consists in the pure relation wherein he receives his actions from the Father” (123-24).
The more significant passage for this argument seems to be John 5:19-30. Swain and Allen see two claims that emerge from this passage: “The first claim is that Jesus does nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. The second claim is that Jesus, in following his Father’s lead, does everything that his Father does” (124). Swain and Allen assert that the first claim implies that the Son is inferior to the Father and the second claim entails that he is equal with the Father. Not only are “these seemingly contradictory claims” made “within the same context,” but “John 5:19 insists that the former claim is the basis for the latter claim” (124). The theological conclusion drawn: “the obedience of the Son to the Father who sends him constitutes the Son’s opus proprium within the undivided opera Trinitatis ad extra” (126).
In part four of this essay Swain and Allen respond to three questions that their argument has raised. First, does the obedience of the eternal Son imply two wills in the Godhead? Second, does obedience suggest a lack of omnipotence? Third, “does not all this smack too much of a ‘substance ontology'” (131)? In answer to the first question, Swain and Allen assert that “the Son’s obedience to the Father in the work of salvation is not indicative of a second will alongside that of the Father but of the proper mode whereby Jesus shares the Father’s will as the only-begotten Son of the Father” (127). In answer to the second question they assert, “The eternal Son exists receptively as one whose self-existence (autotheos) and almightiness are granted to him by the Father” (128). They key exegetical support for these two answers is found in John 10:17-18. In answer to the third question, they appeal to John 1, which they say “distinguishes the being of the Word…(1:1-2, 18)…from the becoming that characterizes the economy of creation and redemption (1:3, 6, 10, 14, 17…)” (131).
The ultimate conclusion: “the external works of the Trinity are indivisible (opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt), though they are performed by all the persons in their own person-specific, ‘proper’ ways” (133).