Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Trinity & Church X - John 17

Continued from Part IX

Consider the trinitarian ground of the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus for the unity of his church (John 17:11, 20-23). Jesus first makes a petition for unity in John 17:11:
I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.
Jesus will expand on what this oneness means in vss. 20-23, but here we should note that this is a prayer for his disciples who will remain in the world after he has departed, a prayer that looks forward to the situation immediately following his ascension into heaven. Jesus says to his Father, “I am coming to you,” but the disciples will remain “in the world.” It is this state of affairs—their remaining behind without him in the world—that Jesus addresses in his prayer for their oneness. Somehow they will be “protected” or “guarded” if the Father answers Jesus prayer and grants them to “be one as we are one.”

That Jesus is speaking about the immediate future and the “survival” of his disciples’ after his own exit is confirmed by what comes after this petition for oneness (vss. 12-19). It is their remaining “in the world” that is Jesus primary concern. Even though he himself is leaving the world, he wants their joy to be complete in the world (v. 13). The world hates them (v. 14), but Jesus prays to his Father not that they be taken out of the world, but “that you protect them from the evil one” (v. 15). They are being “sent into the world” just as Jesus himself was, which is why they must be “sanctified by the truth” (vss. 17-18).

These contextual features argue against a purely “eschatological” reading of Jesus petition for oneness here in v. 11 or in the expanded prayer of vss. 20-23. Jesus is not merely praying for the perfect unity that will be fully established in the Church only at the eschaton. Rather, he is requesting immediate help for his disciples when he shortly leaves them behind. Their survival “in the world” will be dependent in some sense on their experiencing the kind of oneness that exists between Father and Son.

These petitions, therefore, are directly applicable to the issue of ecclesiastical life and unity in the present age. And Jesus expands the prayer to include “those who will believe in me through their message” in 17:20-23. Once again, as we discovered from the context of 17:11, there is nothing here to suggest that Jesus is now praying for a unity that will only be experienced at the Last Day. This eschatological reading ignores the connections between 17:11-19 and the 20-26. It is the same “world,” the one in which Jesus will leave his disciples when he departs, that is now in view when Jesus twice asks that the oneness of the new community (disciples and other belivers) result in the “world believing” that the Father has sent the Son (vss. 21, 23).

Having seen that Jesus prays for the unity of the left-behind community, we are faced with exegetical questions regarding the meaning of this oneness. First, it is a oneness which has as its archetype the unity of Father and Son (“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” v. 21a). "Just as" Father and Son are one, so the community of believers are to be one. But what does the phrase “just as you are in me and I am in you” refer to? What kind of unity does Jesus reference here?

I would suggest that Jesus is not referring to the ontological perichoresis (or circumincessio) that trinitarian theology traditionally uses to describe the shared essence or substance of divinity, or even the mutual interpenetration of the three divine persons. I am not denying the accuracy of such metaphysical assertions. I believe that the metaphysical and/or personal perichoresis of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be defended from other passages and maybe even at a secondary level from these passages.

It seems to me, however, that in this passage, where Jesus prays that these human creatures would exhibit the same kind of oneness as the Father and Son enjoy, he cannot have metaphysical or even ontological hypostatic perichoresis in view. Strictly speaking the divine perichoresis is a unique mode of divine existence. Neither is Jesus speaking of the ontological relationship between God and man, as Augustine seems to think (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 55-111, translated by John W. Rettig, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 90 [Catholic University of America Press, 1994], p. 290). What is in view in Jesus’ prayer is something inter-personal, something that human creatures can emulate and image, not a metaphysical existence characteristic of the uncreated trinitarian mode of being. Moreover, the oneness that Jesus prays for is capable of maturation or completion (John 17:23), so it must admit of degrees. All of this suggests a oneness that is not fundamentally ontological.
Note: I am willing to grant what Volf claims—that the mutual giving and receiving of love spoken of in this passage and others “presupposes an already existing connection of some sort, however rudimentary” (Volf, After Our Likeness, p. 212). Such an ontological state of affairs may be presupposed in what Jesus prays for, but it does not help us explicate the meaning of the oneness for which he prays. Is there some sense in which God’s perichoretic mode of being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been structurally reproduced within the created existence of humanity? Is the ontology of created human existence such that we inevitably exist in some deep structural sense in perichoretic relation to one another and all “partake” of one common human “nature”? Maybe. I’m not affirming or denying such a philosophical construct. Colin Gunton makes a good argument that the transcendental ground of human sociality resides in God’s trinitarian sociality (The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, The Bampton Lectures, 1992 [Cambridge University Press, 1993], pp. 210-231). If, however, such a “trinitarian” anthropology is correct, it will have to be defended from other passages. I can find no evidence that John 17:11, 20-23 refers to, or assumes such a state of affairs. Jesus is praying for something that his left-behind community does not posses by virtue of their creation, but possibly something they have lost as post-lapsarian humanity. At any rate, he is praying that the Father grant to them something “extra,” that is the renewal of God’s intention in created human sociality.


Principium Unitatis said...

Hello Jeff,

Thank you for your article. I agree with your reasoning concerning the present-day (and not merely eschatological) application of this passage. But your argument that the unity Christ refers to there is not ontological is based not only on the premise that that unity is unique ("a unique mode of divine existence"), but also (seemingly) on the premise that humans cannot ontologically participate in that which God has uniquely. But that latter premise seems tenuous.

For example, God has Being uniquely, for no other being can be an uncaused being. All other beings are caused beings. So God has a unique mode of divine existence with respect to Being. And yet "in Him we live and move and have our being" (cf. Rom 11:36, where St. Paul says that we have our being *from* Him, and *through* Him, and *to* Him). We have our being in Him, by a kind of participation in His unique Being (without, of course, God being a *part* of us, or we being a *part* of Him, contra pantheism). As Aquinas says in one place, "And therefore, when something receives in particular fashion that which belongs to another in universal (or total) fashion, the former is said to participate in the latter." But we receive from God finite/contingent being, whereas Being belongs to God in universal/absolute/total fashion. He is the "I AM". So according to that definition of 'participate', on account of our having our being from God and in God, we can rightly be said to participate in the divine Being in that respect, even though the divine Being is a "unique mode of divine existence". And this participation is ontological.

Similarly, God has the divine nature uniquely, since He alone is divine. And yet St. Peter tells us that we are partakers/sharers [koinwnoi] of the divine nature [theias physews](2 Peter 1:4).

Similarly, God has goodness uniquely, for all perfections have their source in Him. And yet creation is said by God to be good. (Gen 1:31) So creation participates in (derivatively) that which God has uniquely.

Similarly, contra Nestorianism, since Christ's human nature is ontologically united to the divine Logos (and thus to the divine nature), it follows that in the hypostatic union human nature ontologically participates in that ontological unity of the Trinity. And insofar as we are joined to Christ (united with Christ) ontologically, we can then, through Christ, ontologically participate in the unity of the Trinity. If you think humans cannot have what is a "unique mode of divine existence", then I'm wondering how you avoid Nestorianism regarding the hypostatic union. If Jesus had "that unique mode of divine existence", then why can't we also, through union with Jesus participate in "that unique mode of divine existence"? But if Jesus can't have "that unique mode of divine existence", then how do you avoid Nestorianism?

It seems to me that we [humans] cannot be truly one with each other unless we are one with God, joined to the Second Adam. So it seems to me that there is something to be said for St. Augustine's interpretation. The oneness that Christ prays (in John 17) we would have should not be abstracted from the fact that human flesh and blood, a human soul, a human intellect, and a human will, were (and still are) praying that prayer. It seems to me that the oneness that Christ prays we Christians would have with each other is derived through the conjunction of the hypostatic union and our union with Christ through baptism from the perfect ontological oneness of Christ with the Father. When we are joined to Christ, we are incorporated into "one Body" (Eph 4:5). But a body is not merely mentally or logically one; a body is ontologically one. And that ontological unity is derived from Christ's ontological unity with the Father. That is why St. Paul finishes the seven unities (Eph 4:4-6) with "one God and Father of all", because the unity of God (Eph 4:6) is ultimately the source of the unity of the body (Eph 4:4).

I'm also not sure why you think ontological relations cannot develop or be matters of degree. That assumption would need some kind of support.

Thanks again for your article; I enjoy your blog. I'm sorry for the length of my comments here.

Peace in Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Fascinating comments and questions, Bryan. Thanks for taking the time to write it out. Give me a little bit of time to think through your thoughtful response.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

It didn't take the address, which id Kata Rogeron, at

Jeff Meyers said...


I guess the basic answer to your questions is that I'm working with a pretty strong Creator/crature distinction. I don't deny any of the statements you've made in your comment. But I'm probably going to understand them a bit differently. I think. Maybe I'm wrong.

I'm concerned about the notion that we created beings can be ontologically smudged into God's being. Now, if you use "being" in certain sense to include his relational "life," then we are being conformed to his "being" by degrees. But if we distinguish (but not separate) God's unique uncreated being from his "economic" relations, then we can say that we as creatures do participate in his life and "being."

What I'm trying to avoid is any hint of some impersonal "ontological" smearing of Creator and creature.

Yes, the man Christ Jesus is not glorified and "hidden in God" as Paul says in Colossians 3. But he retains his created nature as man. He's not become some kind of third substance, neither God nor man, but some mixture of both.

But I may have totally missed your real concern. If so, in the voice of Ron Weasley, "Sorry."

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks for the reply. Let me then just focus on the Nestorian point, because that was really my main point. Here's the dilemma I was trying to pose. Either the hypostatic union is ontological or not. If the hypostatic union is ontological, then human nature can participate ontologically in the ontological unity of the Trinity. But if the hypostatic union is not ontological, then how is that not Nestorianism?

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Bryan: Yes, I see what you mean. BTW, I meant that man Christ Jesus is NOW glorified and "hidden in God." That one letter makes a lot of difference.

Okay, I've always been partial to Cyril of Alexandria's christology. The eternal Son lived our life as a man. The Son also died as a man. That makes the union pretty tight and you might say "ontological." Of course, Cyril's been accused of Eutychian tendencies. I just don't see it. As long as we don't say that Christ's human nature was somehow transformed into "uncreated" or some blend of created and uncreated being, we have to say something pretty strong.

So, no, I have no problem with the use of the word "ontological" to describe the union as long as certain qualifications are made.

Also, the distinction between relational and ontological is a bit contrived at points. God's triune interpersonal relations are constituent of his ontology. Otherwise, we get some weird layers in the divine being.

I guess what I'm saying is that the terms ontological and economic/relational have to be defined and qualified. When some people say the hypostatic union was ontological I might disagree. But others can use the term and I would concur.

Principium Unitatis said...


I agree with you about St. Cyril. According to the Nestorian position, as you know, there are two persons in a deep relation. But they are still two distinct beings: the Logos and Jesus. That is not an ontological unity, but merely a relational unity. As you know, St. Cyril's position (and the one coming out of the Council at Ephesus in 431), on the other hand, affirmed *one* Person, not two persons. That is an *ontological* unity of human nature and the divine, as opposed to mere relational unity. That's why the term 'Theotokos' was important. That baby born of Mary is God, not "is in close relation to" God.

So, if Christ's human nature is ontologically one with the divine nature (without confusion), then it seems ad hoc to say that our human nature cannot be ontologically one with the divine nature, through ontological union with Christ.

Our ontological participation in the union of Christ with the Father through our ontological union with Christ seems to be just what Jesus is saying in John 17:23 "I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity." That's ontological language. Likewise in verse 21, "even as Thou, Father art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us." Jesus seems to be teaching that our ontological union with Christ allows us to participate in Christ's ontological union with the Father.

The concern I have about your [mere] relational interpretation of John 17 (especially in your most recent article in this series) is that it seems to me that a tritheist could agree with it all. In other words, the substantial unity of God doesn't seem to be having any ecclesiological implications. (If I've misunderstood you, then I apologize! But that is my impression after skimming the latest article.) The very first line in the Creed is "We believe in one God...", and that forms the foundation for all else. So if we apply the doctrine of the Trinity but leave out the foundation, then we are left with the sort of social trinitarianism that is indistinguishable from three gods who love each other. (That's a slight straw man, but my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek.) :-)

Moreover, it implies that the various Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are perfected in unity so long as they love each other. In my opinion, that mistakenly 'lowers the bar', so to speak, for what it means to be "perfected in unity".

I'll try to write something up on my own blog about "perfected in unity", and I'll let you know when I do. Thanks Jeff for discussing this with me.

Peace in Christ,

- Bryan

Anonymous said...


I just read I-X on "Trinity and Church." It is not difficult for me to assimilate the idea of "Imago Dei" as communal into my previously existing notions. However, it is exceedingly difficult to shed all my ideas, connections or applications of the image of God to individuals. Maybe you are not suggesting that it is exclusively social...I'm not sure.

Are you asking me to abandon yet ANOTHER wall of my theological framework? You'd think I would be used to it by now....;-) Help. LORI

Jeff Meyers said...

Lori: no, not at all. But every individual human's person is so only in relation to other persons, divine and human. The social dimension of the image is indelible. We begin our lives in the womb of our mothers and our personhood is constituted in relation to our mother (and God, of course).

What's being contested is the idea that the image of God consists in some distinct packet of qualities possessed by an individual. So for example, if the "new man" is created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness, it needs to be appreciated that these are both relational/behavioral postures that one has in relation to others. That's clumsily stated, but if you think about it, everything we "possess" as individuals we receive from others or exercise in relationship to others.

Don't know if that helps much.