Personhood Exchanged: The Procession and Mission of the Son

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By Peter Johnson, University of Dallas

            The fundamental claim of Christianity is that, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Gal. 4:4), who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). However, when this claim becomes commonplace for Christians, it becomes easy to overlook the connections made between the eternal, changeless God and temporal, mutable creatures. One must ask how it is that the Father’s sending of the Son does not cause a change within God Himself. But while one must defend the immutability of God, one cannot deny that something utterly new has happened in the Incarnation, that mankind has been fundamentally changed. One must say that the economy, otherwise known as salvation history, actually brings about something new without changing God Himself. As theologians such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Hans Urs von Balthasar observe, the answer to this dilemma lies in seeing how the Son’s eternal personhood and procession from the Father grounds what happens temporally in the humanity of Jesus Christ, in the economy of salvation history (von Balthasar 201). The Son’s temporal mission and its elevation of mankind is made possible by the fact that the Son receives His personhood from the Father and gives it back to Him without any diminishment of the dignity of either person.

             In light of the Biblical evidence, it appears that both the Son’s eternal birth from the Father and His Incarnation are unified by the common end of revealing the Father. Jesus says in His trial before Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). Jesus here distinguishes His birth from His coming into the world, with the former referring to the Father’s act of begetting Him in eternity and the latter referring to the moment He was conceived in the womb of Mary. While the Incarnation belongs to time and space, both the Son’s eternal procession and his Incarnation are united by a common end—namely, “to testify to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). Eternally, the Son, as consubstantial with the Father, is “the refulgence of [the Father’s] glory” (Heb. 1:3); temporally, the Son’s human face makes the Father known (see Jn. 14:9). He seeks to love and reflect the Father both eternally and in His temporal humanity.

            In the Tradition, theologians elaborate on this and say that the Son’s mission is the temporal expression of His eternal procession. Maximus the Confessor writes that, “[i]n becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God, because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit” (103). Inasmuch as the Son is not other than His relations to the Father and Spirit, the Son manifests these relations which He is in His Incarnation. The Trinitarian interrelations become tangible in the Son’s humanity, such that the Son reveals the eternal inner-life of God. Aquinas would later say that the word “procession” may signify that “the Son … proceed[s] eternally as God” or also that the Son proceeds from the Father “temporally, by becoming man, according to his visible mission” (Ia, q.43, a.2 Resp.). The mission of the Son comes to light, then, as “the economic form” of His procession, the way it becomes known to human beings (von Balthasar 201).

            Augustine offers insight into what exactly is meant by an economic expression of an eternal procession, by associating the sending of the Son with the elevation of the human mind to the mysteries of the Trinity’s eternal processions. Augustine states that, “as to be born is for the Son to be from the Father, so to be sent is to know that the Son is from Him” (167). The sending of the Son involves a heightened knowledge of God. While, by reason alone, man only knows that God is one and simple, the mission of the Son brings to light the distinction of persons in God to the human mind. As a result, the sending of the Son means that the Son “has appeared in this world” or that “He is apprehended in time by the mind of each man” (166). Sending is here correlated to apprehension and appearance. When the Son appears to human beings, He brings them to knowledge of His own eternal procession. The change or novelty that happens in the mission lies on the side of man and entails the raising up of his mind to the distinction of persons within God Himself.

            This idea of elevation can be complemented by Aquinas’ view that mission involves a transformation in the creature, not in the creator. Mission, according to Aquinas, includes a “habitude of the one sent to the sender” and “to the end whereto he is sent” (Ia., q.43, a.1, Resp.). In the case of the Incarnation, the Son retains His eternal habitude to the Father who sends, but the telos of His being sent is what is new, because He takes up “a new way of existing in another;” He is present “in some way in which he was not there hitherto” (Ia., q.43, a.1, Resp.). The creature is changed in such a way that it possesses the divine person, whereas it did not possess Him before (Ia., q.43. a.2, Resp.). In the words of Roch Kerestzy, the newness of the mission lies in “the creation of a reality distinct from God, yet assumed by God the Son as his own reality: the humanity of Jesus” (414). The illumination of the mind of which Augustine speaks must be paired with the transformation of the human person as a result of the Son’s mission, since the Son takes up residence in His creation in a new way. The Son accomplishes the mission by dwelling in man and bridging the distinction between Himself and Creation, thereby transfiguring it (cf. von Balthasar 212).

            Hans Urs von Balthasar builds on this notion of mission elevating the creature by arguing that the Son’s mission gives man true personhood. In von Balthasar’s take, human beings wrestle with the question of who they are, beyond what they learn from their inherited social conditions and the affirmations of their loved ones (204-205). An answer to this questioning is only given when God unveils the “purpose of [one’s] existence,” namely one’s mission (207). Only Christ can be called a true person, since in Him there is “an identity between the ‘I’ and the mission,” as seen in the Father’s affirmation of Him at his baptism and Transfiguration (207). Christ is His mission; He does not perceive His doing the will of the Father as something different from His personal selfhood. All who are to become persons, then, must become such by participation in Him who is His mission and who thus has full personhood (207). Von Balthasar says that Christ “opens up the ‘acting area’ to the characters who share his action … a personal and personalizing acting area” (249). Precisely because personhood is tied with one’s purpose or mission, and because Christ’s mission is not different from His “I,” the transformation of the creature that Aquinas mentions may imply a bestowal of authentic personhood to humanity, a new level of participation in God. This unity between Christ’s procession, selfhood, and mission allows Him to be the fountain of personhood for man.

            The sending of the Son, therefore, does not change Him, but instead implies that the Son raises man up to the Trinitarian life precisely by appearing in this new way. In other words, when the Son expresses His divine procession from the Father temporally and economically, it necessarily transforms man’s former way of being and of relating to God. All these effects—the elevation of the mind, the transformation of the creature, and the gift of personhood—stem from the procession of the Son, insofar as it is manifested in time, and this new manifestation does not and cannot leave man unaffected.

            But one must take this a step further. For although one may reasonably ascribe all newness of mission to the change in creatures, the primary content of the mission is the eternal procession. To conclude the discussion of mission by highlighting the changes in created human beings leaves out the fact that mission is the expression of procession. Pointing out mission’s effects on creatures is essential for understanding it, but mission’s primary end is to make known the eternal procession. What mission accomplishes has its basis, therefore, in the procession, and one should attempt to see, in light of these consequences of the mission, what the procession of the Son means and how it grounds what happens in the mission. The goal should be to see the procession in a clearer light from the vantage point of the mission. To put it differently, how do the “laws of the ‘economic’ Trinity arise from the ‘immanent’ Trinity” (von Balthasar 157)? In classical terms, how does theology (the study of God in himself) provide the foundation for the economy? Without wrestling with this question, one could fall into the error of relegating all that is meaningful in the mission to changes in the human condition.

            In some sense, if the Son’s mission necessarily has transformative effects on man, then one may posit that the Son’s very procession has an eye to the redemption of creation. As von Balthasar says, “all things could only be created with a view to their being perfected in the Second Adam—something that only truly comes to light in the being and consciousness of the Son as he carries out his mission of bringing everything to perfection” (257). One may understand this in terms of God’s simple act of understanding and will. Since God does not come up with alternative plans in response to unforeseen events as we do, He sees all history at once and creates with one purpose. Von Balthasar claims that, if indeed God “chose us in [Christ], before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3), He has willed our existence in light of His intention to gather the world in Christ. The redemption is not a backup plan, but rather says something about God’s original will. Because of this, and because God understands all things eternally and simultaneously, one may say that the procession of the Son already points to the transformation of creatures that results from His mission.

            Since the procession of the Son has the redemption of man in view, one comes to see how the divine persons can bestow personhood and divinity without any diminishment of their own dignity. The Son’s act of divinizing man shows how boundless the Son’s divinity is. While man’s self-gift has a limited range and horizon, the Son’s self-gift makes man a true person, as von Balthasar argues. The self-gift of a human being, no matter how lovingly given, can only reach so far (Kereszty 372-373). In contrast, the Word “was incarnate that we might be made god,” as Athanasius so famously said (107). Because the Son pours Himself out so completely and thereby elevates man, one may see how His divine selfhood suffers no harm from granting us adoption and participation in his own sonship (Kereszty 435). Due to the nature of this gift, one sees how the Son is glorified by our incorporation into His sonship. His filial dignity is not lessened by being given to man.

            The expansive horizon of this gift of sonship points to the transcendent, gift-like character of the divine processions. If the Son can share His divinity with human beings, this is due to the Son’s reception of divinity from the Father. The Son’s bestowal of divinity on human beings is limited, inasmuch as human beings must receive this by grace and not by nature. In contrast, the Son receives the whole divinity from the Father and wholly communicates it back to Him in the Spirit. The Trinitarian relations point to the way “each Divine Person receives the Other fully and totally into himself, affirms the Other in his otherness while giving to him (each in his own way) the fullness of divinity that he has” (Kereszty 373). The dynamics of self-gift in the Trinity are such that each can give Himself wholly without lessening or increasing the divinity in any respect. To say that the Son is from the Father and yet united with him in one substance is to state in a clarified formula this intersubjectivity[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]  in the Trinity. The Son’s divinization of humanity in His mission is, therefore, rooted in this eternal exchange of divinity.

            Aware of this, one may return to data of the Son’s mission to find its more specific implications on man’s knowledge of the Son’s generation, both from the side of the Father and from the side of the Son. Von Balthasar observes that “[w]e begin to discern the meaning of ‘fatherhood’ in the eternal realm when we consider the Son’s task, which is to reveal this Father’s love …. [S]uch ‘fatherhood’ can only mean the giving away of everything the Father is” (518). Based on the Son’s continual dialogue with the Father in the Incarnation and most especially on the Cross, Jesus reveals that the Father holds nothing back in giving His Son to the world (Kereszty 412). This event in history points in turn to the Father’s complete, eternal bestowal of divinity on the Son, so as to make Him consubstantial with Him. Consubstantiality aims at this self-emptying character of eternal generation.

            The Son, in turn, reveals His eternal act of offering His divinity back to the Father by His obedience in the temporal mission. For while the Father has given Himself away by sending his Son, the Son also “gives himself up in love for the many and for each individual,” thereby doing the Father’s will (von Balthasar 519). The Son relinquishes His own will and gives Himself to the Father by doing His will. His loving reception of divinity is the necessary counterpart to the Father’s complete surrendering of that divinity, insofar as, in the economy[6] [7] [8] , the Father chooses to express His love for the world by the Son’s obedience and voluntary suffering. The Son’s obedience in the humanity of Jesus harkens back to the Son’s eternal gratitude and love for the Father. The procession of the Son, therefore, as seen from the side of Son, can be described, to some extent, as a transcendently grateful acceptance of all that the Father is, and it is on this basis that the Son acts obediently towards the Father in the economy.

            Consequently, the transcendent giving and receiving of divinity between the Father and Son ground the workings and effects of the Son’s mission. This is what the Son’s mission expresses temporally and economically. All that the Son does in the economy and all that happens to man as a result of it is given a metaphysical backdrop and intelligibility by the interrelation between the Father and Son (Kereszty 373). The ability of the Son to transform and elevate the human person arises from His reception of divinity and the Father’s complete self-giving. In this way, one may fruitfully learn of the Trinitarian relations from the economy, as the events of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection serve to express the eternal mystery of the Son’s generation.

Works Cited

Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Translated by John Behr, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: Volume I-Part I. Translated by the Fathers of the English                         Dominican Province, Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Augustine. The Trinity. In The Fathers of the Church. Translated by Stephen McKenna, Catholic                         University of America Press, 1963.

Kereszty, Roch A. Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology. 3rd ed., Society of St. Paul, 2011.

Maximus the Confessor.  “Commentary on the Our Father.” Maximus the Confessor: Selected                              Writings. Translated by George C. Berthold, Paulist, 1985, 99-126.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. Vol. III: Dramatis                                                Personae: The Person in Christ. Translated by Graham Harrison, Ignatius, 1992.

New American Bible, Revised Edition, edited by Carolyn Osiek, Anselm Academic, 2015.