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“Ask a Priest: Is God the Father Supreme in the Trinity?”
Q: I was praying from my Liturgy of the Hours, and in Philippians 2:6-12 it is written that “though he was in the form of God,” Jesus “did deem equality with God something to be grasped.” We are taught, regarding the Trinity, that all three divine Persons are equal — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So there seems to be a contradiction. Rationally, one would assume that the Father is supreme. In addition, Jesus in his obedience to the Father is an example for all of us Catholics. However, aren’t we obedient to our “superior,” our God? And if Jesus is the way to God the Father, it seems that there is an apparent hierarchical relationship. I believe that all Three Persons are equal, or more specifically, one, so how do I connect the “circle”? Thank you and God bless your work. -J.D.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Questions about the Trinity are often among the trickiest in theology. Let me attempt a brief answer to your questions.
First, it would be good to see the footnote to Philippians 2:6 in the New American Bible. It says, “[2.6] Either a reference to Christ’s preexistence and those aspects of divinity that he was willing to give up in order to serve in human form, or to what the man Jesus refused to grasp at to attain divinity. Many see an allusion to the Genesis story: unlike Adam, Jesus, though … in the form of God (Gn 1:26–27), did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam in Gn 3:5-6.”
In other words, Jesus by taking on human form was willing to lower himself, to become one of us. That he was and remains God at every moment is part of the mystery of the Incarnation. Yet his very willingness to take on human nature was an act of loving abasement.
Now, it might be good to clarify that notion of equality of the Three Persons of the Trinity. Yes, each is equal in the sense that each is God. Equal doesn’t mean identical, however.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit are, in theological terms, subsistent relations. There is an opposition, so to speak, among them. The Father is Father to the Son, the Son is Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. There is a real distinction between the Three Persons, though they are all the same substance.
Is the Father supreme among them? We might say that he is a kind of “first among equals.” The Father is unbegotten, “the principle not from a principle” (see St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, I, q.33, a.4). To the Father alone is attributed the property of innascibility.
Now, Jesus’ obedience to his Father isn’t a sign of inferiority but rather a sign of the fullness of his Sonship. As the perfect Son he shows perfect love to his Father – and what better way than through perfect obedience?
Obedience, moreover, doesn’t necessarily connote a superior-subordinate relationship. Think of a husband who is quick to fulfill his wife’s wishes, or vice versa. Both are equal in dignity, and we wouldn’t think of an obedient spouse necessarily being “under the other’s thumb.” Rather, obedience can be one of the highest expressions of love between spouses. Or think of a parent who is up late at night with a sick baby. The parent, in a sense, is obedient to the needs of the little one. Yet we would likely see this as an act of love, not subordination.
As for the hierarchical relationships: Hierarchy can be understood to mean a sacred rule or sacred order. Hierarchy can be thought of as a way of understanding (in some small way) how the Trinity “is put together.”
All Three Persons are coeternal; there was no temporal beginning for them, no time when the Father was alone. Yet we can speak of an ontological beginning or source of the Trinity – and this is the where the notion of the Father being “a principle not from a principle” can help. The Father generates the Son (not the other way around); nor is it the Father who proceeds from the Holy Spirit.
I will admit that such a brief answer really can’t do justice to your questions. For in-depth reading you might look at Bertrand de Margerie, SJ, The Christian Trinity in History. The International Catholic University course on the Trinity has a lecture dedicated to the divine Persons as subsistent relations.
I hope some of this helps. God bless.